Troublesome Topic: Why So Much War?

Lesson 1 of 2

The real question in most people’s minds is too long to put in the title, but it goes something like this: “Doesn’t all the war and killing in the Old Testament show that the God of the Bible is a violent, cruel god?” Or possibly something like this: “I want to believe all the Bible, but the war and killing in the Old Testament turn me off.”

In answer to those questions I will take you to something God told Abram in Genesis chapter 15. God told him that his descendants would inhabit this land, but first they would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years. We are not told if Abram found encouragement in those words or not. Probably not. 400 years is a very long time. Then God said they would come back and inhabit the land Abram had travelled to and settled in. God followed that with the rationale for the reason so much time would pass before they could return, “for the evil and guilt of the Amorites is not yet complete at this time (Gen 15:16).”God was not going to act harshly against the people living there until the accumulation of their evil actions merited it. Then He would bring his chosen people to that place and make them victorious over those living there. Those military actions would be punishment for wickedness.

But God did not always fight on the side of the Israelites. At various times God used the raiding bands from neighboring nations to give His people a spiritual wake up call. At other times He used the full armies of enemy nations to punish His chosen people because of their sins. The ultimate punishment on His own people for their idolatry came in the form of captivity to Assyria for the northern tribes, and captivity in Babylon for the southern tribes. The northern tribes never returned and were basically amalgamated into the populations among which the Assyrians dispersed them. The southern tribes returned after 70 years. It has been an interesting observation made by many people that, ever since their return from Babylon, the Jews have had no interest in idolatry.

The point here is that God sometimes used Israel to punish other nations that deserved it, and he sometimes used other nations to punish Israel. The spiritual dynamic in the various warfare narratives is consistent enough that we can say with confidence that God never punished nations that did not deserve punishment. The flip side is also true: God did not withhold punishment when it was warranted, even for His own people. A third principle is also evident in the Bible: God is extremely patient and longsuffering before sending punishment.

Since He is the God of creation, He has the moral right to punish and reward, and He can choose to do so in any fashion He thinks best. 

When God did not tell the Israelites to kill everyone, they were in the wrong if they did so. If God told them to kill everyone, it was to protect them from idolatrous influences, and they were in the wrong if they did not do so.

This brings us to the topic of Holy Wars.

Many religions have what they call “holy wars,” but I think the ones we find in the Old Testament were a bit different.

The Israelites were supposed to go to war only at God’s command and for His purposes. For that reason, all Israel’s wars should have been holy wars, not man’s wars. The reality is that some Israelite kings did not follow God and waged war for their own reasons. Those who did this reaped God’s wrath. But if the king was a righteous man, God would direct him, and we usually read of his trust in God and of the subsequent victory. David was in the habit of consulting God before going to war, even when it seemed obvious, like the time the wives and children of David and his fighting men had been taken captive while they were away. Despite how obvious the answer seemed, David consulted the Lord who gave him the promise of a positive outcome, and that is what happened. There are also many accounts of a prophet confronting an evil king and telling him not to go to war, because God was not with him and he would lose. I can say with confidence that, for the nation of Israel under the Former Covenant, God was always involved in granting victory or defeat to Israel; they were His wars, not the king’s wars. This is different than pagan kings deciding to go to war, claiming it was for their gods and therefore calling it a holy war.

Here is a snapshot of a typical situation in all the nations in the Ancient Near East (we now call it the Middle East). A certain king wants to go to war, but he wants to be confident that his god of war will give him the victory. So he summons the High Priest of his god of war, who sacrifices a sheep, cuts open the liver and proceeds to “read” the liver. The High Priest studies it for several long minutes and finally says to the king, “Oh King, do not go to war at this time. If you do, you will suffer a crushing defeat.” So the king waits. But since he really wants to go to war, he calls for the High Priest the next day, and once again the High Priest “reads” a sheep liver. This time he says, “Oh King, do not go to war. Wait, because, if you go to war now, there will be too much loss of life. It is too risky. You will suffer a mild defeat rather than enjoying a great victory. Do not go to war at this time.” On the third day the verdict is, “Oh King, I can see the battle but I cannot see who wins. I fear that neither side can claim victory. Therefore do not go to war at this time.” On the fourth day a sheep liver is read and again on the 5th day. At some point the High Priest will give the king the permission he wants because he knows the king wants to go to war and he knows that if he resists the king for too long his job will be occupied by someone else and his body will occupy a grave. So on day number ____, the High priest reads the liver and says, “Oh King, go to war for you will be victorious! You will crush your enemies, and you will receive glory and praise from your people.” So the king goes to war and it is recorded and the annals of the king as a holy war because he sought the blessing of his god of war.

My understanding of “holy wars” in other religions is that they decided to go to war and it was called a holy war because they ascribed the purpose to their gods when in reality the purpose was their own. The kings of Israel that tried to follow God did not go to war at all unless God said, “Go.” I am convinced that the difference is that the God of the Bible is the one true God, Creator of all that is, while the gods of other religions are nothing more than the figments of men’s imaginations.

The Israelite soldiers treated all their wars as holy wars, they did not analyze the motivation of their leaders. Therefore all the men who fought in them had to be “clean;” no “unclean (isolated)” man could go to war. When David was on the run from Saul, he stopped to see if the priest Ahimelech could give him some food.

1 Samuel 21:5


The priest responded by saying to DAVID, “I assure you there is no common bread on hand, but there is consecrated bread, if the young men have kept themselves from women.”


The priest answer the question of THE ONE WHO IS LOVED by saying, “I don’t have any bread on hand I can give you, except maybe this bread that has been consecrated for the tabernacle and should only be eaten by priests. But I suppose I can give it to you on one condition, that the young men with you have not had sex with any woman recently.”

1 Samuel 21:6


DAVID responded to the priest by saying, “Certainly, women have been kept from us, as has been the case from the beginning until now when I go out, and the ‘equipment’

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of the young men is holy even on common journeys, how much more today has their ‘equipment’ been kept holy.”


THE ONE WHO IS LOVED answered the priest in this way, “I assure you that we have been kept away from all women, just as we have always done when we go out on missions; I can also assure you that, for common missions, the body parts of the young men are set apart for God’s tasks, not personal pleasure; on this mission more than usual their body parts have been kept holy.”

In other words, David followed the Law.

We have already covered the fact that sexual intercourse between man and wife made them become “unclean” or “isolated for a good reason” till evening. That meant that on days when a man had sex with his wife (a day was from sundown one day till sundown the next day), he could not be called to battle. Sometimes the men were with the army, camping in the open and not at home with their families. But there were other times when they were doing their normal routine at home and the ram’s horn was blown to call them to come and fight. In those cases, if a man and wife had been intimate any time that day, which included the previous night, and the ram’s horn sounded a battle cry, he stayed put and did not go. That is the degree to which they tried to follow the Law in every aspect of life. They did these things in order to please God whom they trusted for military victory.

IN SUMMARY: The God of the Bible is the one true God, Creator and ruler of all things. He can punish and he can reward. However, we know from the Bible that He is a just God who always rewards justly. When we read of wars and battles in the Old Testament, we can be confident that God was involved to punish sin and reward righteousness. Yes, there is considerable killing in the Old Testament, but at least the wars of righteous kings are consistently presented as judgment by a righteous God upon wicked people deserving punishment. The kings who were making no effort to follow God went to war whenever they pleased and for their own benefits, but we can be confident God punished them for such actions. God punishment was preceded by opportunities to repent.

What Did This Teach?

This taught them that God is gracious and merciful but when He does punish it is warranted. It also taught them to be careful to do things God’s way and not do our own thing, or the results may not be what they desired.

The next lesson in all three series on Covenants is called Why Did God Allow Slavery?



The word I have rendered as “equipment” has the idea of “something prepared or finished,” but it can also mean “article, vessel, tool, apparatus, implement of any kind, instrument, furniture, jewelry.” Since the question asked by the priest had to do with abstaining from sexual intercourse, the “equipment” in mind had nothing to do with armor or weapons; context demands that it refer to the body parts involved in sexual intercourse.