A Biblical Theology of OT Holy War, Pt 1: The Problem(s)

“Joshua fought the Battle of Jericho…Jericho…Jericho.”

“Joshua fought the Battle of Jericho…and the walls came tumbling down.”

This song features prominently in our kids’ Veggie Tales album on our old school iPod mini. There is also an entertaining Veggie Tales video in which the soldiers of Jericho exchange quips with the Israelites as they walk in silly circles around the city.

Screen shot 2014-10-18 at 8.56.36 PM
Oh, those silly soldiers of Jericho. Joking around right before they are totally annihilated.

I find this kind of thing somewhat puzzling. Making light of the battle of Jericho is like hanging a nice, happy picture of Noah’s ark on the wall of a kid’s bedroom. “Look at all those happy animals and Noah’s family floating on that water, at the bottom of which are hundreds of thousands of dead bodies!”

The Bible does not make light of these things. Neither do non-believers as well as many, many sincere Christians who read the texts of destruction and death in the OT and have serious ethical and theological challenges. Rightly so. In fact, I once told a friend of mine who was facing such struggles, “Look, if you read the narratives of the holy war in the OT, in which entire cities were completely destroyed, and don’t have at least some sort of heartburn, then something’s wrong.”

In recent years the specific topic of the Israelite “holy war” against the Canaanites as part of their conquest of the land has become a hugely important apologetic and theological issue. In fact, one of the primary problems former Westminster Theological Seminary professor Peter Enns repeatedly voices, most recently in his book The Bible Tells Me So (excellent review here), is this very issue: the so-called genocide of the OT makes God out to be an evil, maniacal, bloodthirsty, angry tribal deity that is not worthy of our worship (or, per Enns, requires serious reconstruction according to modern sensibilities). But he’s not the only one with complaints.

So what do we make of the “holy war” in the OT? How should we respond to it as Christians in this era of history? How should we think about it in light of the Islamic jihad?

Introducing a new blog series

Over the next several blog posts, I aim to make some sort of contribution to the large and heated discussion about the conquest and “holy war.” I cannot solve all the problems, of course, but I hope to offer what I would consider a biblical-theological perspective that helps see the holy war in light of the overarching purposes of God.

Most treatments by evangelical scholars in recent years have focused almost exclusively on the ethics of the “holy war.” In the various works by Paul Copan, Tremper Longman, and Stanley Gundry (among many), the main approach has been to demonstrate how God—whom the Bible reveals to be holy, righteous, good, and loving—can possibly be ethically justified in commanding the slaughter of allegedly innocent women and children in the Canaanite lands and elsewhere. How can a loving God command such a thing? There have been many excellent lines of argument that appeal to (a) how God defines ethics, not us, (b) how anyone who even expresses moral outrage at such events must be appealing to some higher authority to even tell them such warfare is wrong (and, thus, must ultimately get that authoritative “norm” from God), and (c) how all mankind is under sin and condemnation, so that there is no such thing as an “innocent” Canaanite (or American, or whomever). Those arguments need not be repeated here.

I aim to complement this ethical focus by highlighting an aspect of the OT “holy war” that far to frequently overlooked: its role in the covenant of grace.

Yes, you read that right. Consistent across nearly everything I’ve read on the subject is a tendency to neglect the fact that the very first instance of God’s command for Israel to engage in cherem (Hebrew חרם, for the destruction of the people and property of the target group, often called “the ban” in older English translations; I’ll mainly use “holy war” here) comes in Exodus 23:20–33. It is a key part of the covenant legislation that God reveals to Moses at Sinai, which began with the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and includes the cherem in ch. 23. This is immensely significant, and I aim to unpack all the implications of the fact that “holy war” was instituted by God as part of his covenant dealings with mankind.


I will approach this task in a few steps:

  1. The Problems: What are the most common complaints or issues raised about the OT holy war, and how have they often been dealt with? (this post)
  2. Covenant Setting: How the institution of the Mosaic Covenant defines Holy War.
  3. Holy War and the Crushing Seed: The macro framework—rooted in the first administration of the covenant with Adam in Genesis 3—that I will use in discussing this topic.
  4. Holy War and the Promise: How the OT holy war relates to the Abrahamic Covenant.
  5. Holy War and the Nation: How it, likewise, relates to the Mosaic and Davidic Covenants.
  6. Holy War and the Covenant-Maker: What does holy war tell us about the God who commanded it as part of the covenant of grace?
  7. Holy War and Christ: How should we understand the OT holy war in light of the eschatological fulfillment of the covenant in Christ?
  8. Conclusions

Long series…yes…but hopefully worthwhile and helpful. Let’s begin with part 1.

The Problems

The biblical record of Israel’s God-sanctioned conquest of Canaan is a profound emotional and moral stumbling block for modern minds. Within Christian circles, the numerous detailed commands of God pertaining to the total destruction of the Canaanite nations seem to be a horrific and self-contradictory license for genocide: in view of a God of love, “what could possibly be ‘just’ about the wanton and indiscriminate slaughter of ‘women and children, the aged and decrepit’?”[1]

Among non-Christians, the OT “ethnic cleansing” is a point of leverage for despising, mocking, and denying Yahweh as a cosmic bully of “maniacal jealousy … bloodthirsty massacres … [and] xenophobic relish.”[2] This is one of the most common polemics launched against Christians—regardless of whether you are conservative or liberal or other—by popular atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc.), skeptics (such as Thom Stark), secularists, and, increasingly, self-proclaimed “progressive” Christians such as Enns, Rachel Held Evans, Brian McLaren, and many many more.

As the accounts of Holy War occupy a significant portion of Genesis-Joshua, the Christian is forced to deal with the questions raised by the Conquest that are absolutely central to the faith:

  • Did God really command this activity? (or is the Bible error?)
  • Did the events really happen? (or, again, is the Bible in error?)
  • If either of the above is true, then is God truly good and loving?
  • How can God morally justify the conquest in light of other commandments that prohibit murder? Does God contradict himself here?
  • What makes the conquest different than the Crusades, Hitler, Stalin, Rwanda, or other instances of genocide?

These issues are massive in importance. As mentioned above, my hope is to begin to provide a biblical-theological framework for understanding the OT holy war that comes alongside other arguments that have addressed several of the ethical sides of the question. But first, let us look at a few types of responses to these problems that have been offered over the years.

(Problematic) Solutions to the Problems

Various attempts to deal with the implications of what some consider “genocide” in Canaan fall along three broad categories, each of which faces serious problems.

(a) De-historicizing

First, a number of biblical critics have attempted to resolve the Holy War dilemma by declaring the events in the pertinent OT books unhistorical or mythical.

  • Some maintain that the conquest was crafted by the original biblical authors, or perhaps imported into scripture via the later “Deuteronomic” editor or other redactors, who desired merely to created these stories as common Ancient Near Eastern myths to explain how the ancient tribes came together as one nation (the so-called “amphictyony” theory), much like Greco-Roman epic writers or philosophers created their mythology of the battles of the gods to explain the rise of their nation.[3]
  • Some postulate that perhaps God was speaking of spiritual warfare but Moses and Joshua misunderstood it as literal.[4]
  • Some historians claim that, regardless of what Exod 23 (and Deut 7) commanded, the Holy War was never actually carried out in history. In fact, a wide range of scholars doubt the exodus and conquest accounts of the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua altogether and claim that essentially none of it is historically accurate.[5]

All three of these approaches question the fundamental integrity of the biblical narratives and, thus, undermine (usually intentionally) the inspiration and inerrancy of the OT.

(b) Theological Fragmentation

Secondly, a more common approach is to argue along theological lines that the conquest of Canaan is incompatible with what we know about God throughout the Bible, and, thus, could not have happened or have been commanded by God.

This approach is driven entirely by a desire—which seems admirable on the surface—to uphold a view of God as all-loving, merciful, and kind to sinners. Such a God, the argument goes, could not have commanded such a travesties against men and women, since God loves all mankind.

The net effect is either that the entirety of the biblical narratives are called into question because of the seemingly “unloving” things that God commands or does, or a sharp theological wedge is driven between the OT God (who is mean and nasty) and the NT God (who is loving and kind): as one scholar summarizes it, “The God portrayed in the Old Testament was full of fury against sinners, but the God incarnate in Jesus is not.”[6]

There are a TON of problems with this view, and I’ll just briefly mention two: (a) love and kindness are definitely central attributes of God that are affirmed all over Scripture … but they are not the only attributes mentioned (he is also a jealous and just and wrathful God); (b) Jesus himself, along with all the NT writers, never even remotely suggested that the God of the OT was in some sense different than they understood him in the new era, or that he changed, or that he even needed to change.

(c) Ethical Reframing

A final category of solutions focuses on how the OT holy war violates (modern) ethical codes.

  • Some argue that it is impossible, on any moral code, for God to have a “morally sufficient” reason to annihilate the Canaanites, especially women and children.[7] In other words, everyone in the modern day implicitly knows that such an event is evil. Hence, if the Israelites did this, or if they wrote the narratives that command it or describe it, then they must be simply reflecting an earlier, pre-modern time in which the ethics were not as enlightened as they are today. So we must see them simply as ancient backwards people doing what ancient backwards people, and, thus, we should write them off altogether as irrelevant to us today.
  • Others ignore the historical issues altogether and simply say that, even if God commanded it, and even if Israel did it, such acts of violence can be used to justify later acts of violence (such as, say, the westward conquest of American settlers over the Native Americans).[8] Thus, we have to throw them all out and focus only on the good parts of the Bible that fit with our current cultural sensibilities.

The chief flaw of this approach, among many, is this: how do”we” all apparently know that such an activity (or any activity) is morally wrong? Who says? Is it really true that such a moral precept is universal? How can we prove that? We have to appeal to something to tell us that it is wrong … but if that “something” is not the unchanging word of God, what is it? National laws (which can and often have been rewritten)? Ethical codes among pagan philosophers (who were stuck in the same worldview that this argument condemns as outdated)? Ourselves? (but then who decides who is right?)

Proposing a Better Solution

In short, all three of these solutions to the problem offered mostly by critics of the Bible have tremendous problems. I believe many better solutions have been offered, especially along the ethical lines, such as Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, and Longman/Reid God is a Warrior.

I will focus on a different line of reasoning that attempts to understand the conquest theologically as it relates to who God is and how he is bringing to fulfillment his promise to redeem his people through the covenant of grace.  In so doing I will approach the OT holy war as historical fact and as something commanded by God, who is unchanging from the OT to the NT, and who is a God of love. So I will turn to that task in the next post.

Connecting to the pew

I will mention just briefly one key thought at the outset. It is easy as Christians, when challenged on the topic of the conquest or something similarly difficult, to take the easy way out and give an all-too-tidy answer. “Well, the Canaanites deserved it.” Or, “That was a different time, when war was common. That’s just what they did. It’s different now.” Or, “Jesus makes all that work out in the end.” Or, “It was God’s will … who are we to complain.”

Some of those responses have a measure of truth, but they are easily misunderstood as glib, arrogant, uninformed, or unloving.

We should not pretend that the OT holy war is easy to stomach. It shouldn’t be. It is truly hard for a LOT of people to get their heads around—it should probably be hard for all of us! So it takes some serious and careful thinking, bringing to bear all of Scripture, to understand what exactly God was doing. Much is riding on this issue apologetically and theologically, ranging from our understanding of God himself, Jesus, biblical morality, OT historicity, and the trustworthiness of the Bible. So let us avoid treating it lightly.


[1] C. S. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” in Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (ed. Stanley Gundry; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 17.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: First Mariner Books, 2008), 279-280. See also Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics,” Philosophia Christi 10 (2008), for further analysis of the views of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others. See also Jeph Holloway, “The Ethical Dilemma of Holy War,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 41 (1998), 46-47.

[3] See discussion in Jones, “Holy War,” 643ff. The “amphictyony” theory postulates that a loose coalition of tribes sharing a single religious shrine engaged in warfare. However, even the proponents of the documentary hypothesis later called this into question. See also Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid, God is a Warrior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 21ff.

[4] Cowles, “Radical,” 40-41.

[5] Gwilym H. Jones, “’Holy War’ or ‘Yahweh War’?”, Vetus Testamentum 25.3 (1975), 655.

[6] Cowles, “Radical,” 28.

[7] Wesley Morriston, “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009) 25.

[8] Cowles, “Radical,” 16. See also Randal Rauser, “’Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive’: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009), 37-38.


7 thoughts on “A Biblical Theology of OT Holy War, Pt 1: The Problem(s)”

  1. Thank you for this. I will be looking forward to subsequent posts. As a side note on your introduction, it is interesting that Phil Vischer repented of the approach he had taken in VeggieTales: “I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, ‘Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,’ or ‘Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!’ But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.”
    “We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have.”

    Keep up the good work!

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