A Biblical Theology of Holy War, Pt 4: The Abrahamic Promise

Renovating an old, dilapidated house can be tricky. Sometimes you can fix things by ripping out some old wood and replacing it, or shoring up the foundation, or replacing some plumbing, or putting on a new roof. Sometimes you can fix an uneven floor by replacing some joists. Sometimes you can repair rotted windows without having to rip out studs or plywood. Sometimes the termite problem is not so severe, so that they can be dealt with with chemicals. Sometimes drainage issues around the house can be remedied with moving some earth around.

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But sometimes the problems are so bad that you need to bulldoze the whole thing and start over.

And that’s what God needed to do to prepare a new home for his chosen people, Israel, when he initiated the “holy war” to secure their future. In this post, we look at how the OT holy war to take possession of the land of Canaan fulfills the promise God made to Abraham.

Recap and Outline

This is the fourth post in an ongoing series about the cherem war of the OT, as it is established as part of the Mosaic Covenant in Exod 23 (and Deut 7). The outline of the series is as follows:

  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?
  2. Covenant Setting: How the institution of the Mosaic Covenant defines Holy War.
  3. Holy War and the Crushing Seed (Adamic Covenant): How the holy war began
  4. Holy War and the Promise (Abrahamic Covenant) (this post)
  5. Holy War and the Nation (Mosaic Covenant)
  6. Holy War and the Covenant-Maker
  7. Holy War and Christ
  8. Conclusions

In the prior post, I introduced how the holy war is part of the temporal outworking (in historical time) of the “seed conflict” that God declared would take place between the redeemed seed of Eve and the cursed seed of Satan (Gen 3:15). In other words, the holy war as a manifestation of the “seed conflict” carries out the covenant of grace that God established with Adam.

In this post, we will take the next step to see how holy war, which is part of the covenant instituted with Moses, also carries forward the covenant administration God made with Abraham.

I will outline three specific ways the OT holy war—perhaps surprisingly—directly fulfills important aspects of the Abrahamic promise.

(a) The “Immanuel Principle”: God fights for his people

First, in the declaration of “holy war” in Exodus 23 we see an overwhelming emphasis on God’s presence with his people and his fighting their battle. In particular, we see in Exod 23:22–31 the following features:

  • God will make the enemies of Israel his own enemies (“I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries”). One thinks of how your dad has your back if someone is messing with you: your enemies become his enemies.
  • God promises to be with his people in battle. He declares he will  send his angel (v23), his “terror” (v27), and his “hornets” (v28; a very difficult word to translate) before the Israelites to lead them in the fight. He promises to be directly present with his people through these intermediaries. Moreover, as this war plays out in the book of Joshua, we see how the most visible manifestation of his presence—the ark of the covenant—takes on a central role in the war procession.
  • God promises to be the one who secures victory, not Israel. He declares that “I will drive them out before you” (v30). It is HIS battle.

The net effect is a clear recollection of what is often called the “Immanuel principle” of the covenant of grace: that Yahweh will be our God, and we will be his people. This promise was central to the covenant God made with Abraham, as we seen in Gen 17:7: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

The Immanuel principle is reiterated again and again throughout the OT, as in Gen 12:1–3; Gen 17:8; Exod 6:7; Exod 29:45; Lev 26:11–12; Deut 7:6; Deut 14:2; Deut 27:9; Deut 29:13; Jer 7:22–23; and numerous others.

The Immanuel principle highlights a particular aspect of God’s saving work, namely, his electing purpose in declaring them to be his people in the first place. Notably, this idea of the election of Israel, which is implied in the Exodus 23 account, takes center stage in the second version of the holy war legislation in Deut 7:6–8:

6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.

Notice the logic: God declares that his people are holy … that he has chosen them to be his special possession out of all the peoples of the earth … and that their impending victory in the holy war (which the passage goes on to describe) is completely unmerited: it is NOT because of any special thing about Israel, but solely because God loved them and swore (to Abraham) that he would be their God, and they would be his people.

The holy war, in other words, is a direct result of God’s electing of Israel to be the holy, redeemed “seed” through which he would accomplish his purposes. We may dislike that logic and the violence it entails—as modern logic may entail—but it is there in the text nonetheless. Fundamentally, God commanded holy war because he had declared to Abraham that he would be their God, and they would be his holy, special, covenant people. God commanded holy war because he had elected Israel as the “seed of the woman,” not the Canaanites, who were the “seed of the serpent.”[1]

(b) Fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant’s 3 core promises

Second, the holy war not only fulfills the overarching Immanuel principle which is central to the Abrahamic as well as all other stages of the covenant of grace, but it also fulfills (at least temporally) the three specific promises that God made to Abraham: seed, land, and blessing to the nations.

  • “To make you the father of many nations.” One key aspect of God’s promise to Abraham is that he would bless his “seed” (same word used in Gen 3:15) in Gen 15:4-5 and make him the father of many nations (Gen 17:4). God emphatically declares that the children of Abraham are the elect, righteous seed that are part of the greater seed conflict. In contrast, the Canaanites represent the wicked seed that exists in constant conflict with God’s chosen seed; they are a recapitulation of the evil Cainites (Gen 4:16–24), the cursed descendants of Ham (“’Cursed be Canaan,’” Gen 9:25) who would war against the children of Shem,[2] and the people from whom Abraham emphatically forbid Isaac to find a wife (Gen 24:3). The Canaanites are, in other words, the enemy of the seed of the Abrahamic covenant, those who would curse Abraham and be cursed by God (Gen 12:3).
  • “To your offspring I will give this land.” A second key aspect of the Abrahamic covenant is, of course, God’s promise that he would give the land itself to Abraham. This aspect often gets overlooked, particularly among those who tend to separate the Abrahamic covenant (as a more spiritual “promise”-covenant that is faith-based) and the Mosaic covenant (as the more earth-bound “law”-covenant that deals with land, rules, ceremonies, etc.); I’ve dealt with this misconception in my long Moses series. It is quite clear, however, that central to the Abrahamic stage of the covenant is the land promise expressed in Gen 12:7 and Gen 15:18-20. Thus, when God commands Israel to force the Canaanites off “your land” (Exod 23:33a)—and when he himself declares he will do it—he is simply making good on his promise to Abraham. The idea that Canaan belongs to Israel via the covenant is reiterated in numerous places such as Lev 14:34 and Num 13:2.
  • “Through you many nations will be blessed.” Finally, God promises Abraham in Gen 18:18 that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.” We see in, say, Romans 4 and Galatians 2–3 how this principle plays out when the people of God expands beyond believing Israel to include elect Gentiles. But this principle was also in effect, albeit in an unexpected way, in the holy war. Even through the conquest, bloody and violent though it was, God was executing his purposes for Israel to be a blessing to all nations, including those who, at the time of the conquest, were of the seed of the serpent. By first driving out the evil nations and causing them to “turn their backs” to Israel (Exod 23:27), God was preparing the way for a future time when Israel’s mission would be to attract the wicked to repent and come to worship at the Mountain of the Lord in the promised land once again (e.g., Mic 4:1–5). In other words, sometimes you have to burn the whole thing down to salvage it. The very same Canaanites who were forced out of the land to make a sacred space for God’s chosen, holy people Israel to develop into a nation through whom the promise Seed—Jesus Christ—would come … these same Canaanites become the very Gentile branch that is later grafted into the people of God. God’s ways are mysterious in this sense, but they are there nonetheless. The holy war prepared a way for Abraham to be a blessing to many nations who would later repent and return to Zion, metaphorically speaking.

In sum, the holy war is a means by which God advanced and temporally fulfilled his multi-faceted covenant promises to Abraham.

(c) Faith as the driving force

This may seem like the odd-man out of this list of three, since at first glance the OT holy war seems as far from the NT understanding of “faith” as possible. That would be a misconception. The holy war declaration in Exod 23 and Deut 7 is laced through with elements of faith, and indeed when we get to the book of Joshua, faith is the prevailing posture commanded upon the Israelites. For instance:

  • Exod 23:21–25: The obedience of faith. God commands Israel to pay close attention, to obey him, to worship him alone.
  • Deut 7:17–18: Reliance on God. God commands Israel to trust in his faithfulness and not in their own strength, calling them to remember and rest in his redemptive work for them in the past (=exodus).
  • Deut 7:21: Trusting in his presence. God commands them to trust in the fact that the almighty God, Yahweh himself, is “in your midst.” He is their object of faith.

In other words, the holy war is an ultimate litmus test for Israel’s faith: will they place their absolute trust in Yahweh, or will they run away after other gods and put their faith in them instead (Deut 29:18)? The circumstances of the holy war forced the Israelites—who stood between the Abrahamic promise and a future fulfillment—to place their trust in God against all odds, against more powerful nations, and against a seemingly impossible task.

Summary

To summarize, the very design of holy war – the promise of Yaweh’s presence with the elect seed, the fact that the seed inherits covenant promises through conflict with the wicked seed, and the operative principle of faith – clearly positions the Canaanite conquest in the redemptive stream flowing through Abraham’s promised seed.

It is no wonder, then, that the stipulations themselves follow on a declaration of God’s faithfulness in delivering Israel from Egypt (Exod 20:2), which he promised Abraham (Gen 15:13–14), and continually make reference to the fact that God is “keeping the oath he swore to [their] fathers,” the patriarchs (Deut 7:8; cf. Deut 1:8; 6:18–19).

Connecting to the pew

I will be brief because this post is already overly long. As I looked further into this issue, I continually kept coming back to the fact that we simply do not always understand God’s purposes or his means. On one level, it is easy to get our heads around the Abrahamic covenant because it is so foundational to the NT and resonates with important themes of grace, faith, and so forth. And that is all very true. But when we see how the events of the OT unfold to actually bring that promise to fruition—and particularly how the “seed conflict” plays out from Adam to Abraham and beyond—we come to realize that things may be more complex than we like.

Election, faith, land, seed, blessing—those all seem warm and fuzzy if you ignore sin and curse and opposition and Satan from the equation. But when you take a broader, biblical-theological view, you begin to see the intricacies of just how God is working this all out. The stunning reality that the bloody holy war actually enacts (at least in part) the great faith-promise to Abraham—and, as we’ll see in a later post, anticipates the coming of the Seed (Jesus) in his final victory—should make us humble ourselves before the inexhaustible wisdom of a God who we cannot fathom. All we can do is rest in what he has revealed and discipline our minds to that.

We should, then, do the same in our own lives. We know, for instance, that God loves us and promises to care for us. Yet sometimes in space-time-reality, that does not seem to be the case. However, we must remember that God is often working out those very promises through circumstances that seem, from a limited human perspective, to be contrary to the promises. So we trust in his presence. He is fighting our battles.

 

___________________________

[1] “Israel’s policy of war lay in her election and holiness, two important religious themes which are related directly to the covenant”; Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976), 179.

[2] Gen 10:15 shows how five of the seven tribes tie directly back to Ham: “Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth, and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites dispersed” (emphasis added).

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