A Biblical Theology of Holy War, Pt 6: The Covenant Maker

Since the Vietnam and Korean wars in the U.S. (though the roots were there before, no doubt), there has been a tendency in the U.S. among some groups to voice a strongly critical opinion regarding U.S. military troops. They are often seen less as brave freedom-defenders and more as villains for fighting various wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, and others. Note, for instance, the critical backlash against American Sniper and the charge that  the deceased Chris Kyle is not a patriotic American soldier but an Islamophobic, Arab-hating, blood-thirsty criminal.

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In response, there has been an equally strong counter-reaction that has lauded American soldiers (the yellow ribbon magnets, etc.), zealously defended Chris Kyle, and treated all soldiers as heroes.

While the public ostracizing of returning troops may not be as strong now as it was with Vietnam, the anti-soldier attitude is still present.

This state of affairs is interesting in that it ignores a key feature of warfare: the soldiers themselves do not pick which battles to fight. Their leaders do. Yes, the soldiers pull the triggers and make decisions in the field and so forth—and they are responsible for their actions—but in principle the war is the leader’s war. Any blame for whether a war is just or unjust falls primarily on the one who wages it, not the ones who are sent.

While my goal here is not to get into the modern war question, this analogy does bring us to an important aspect of the OT cherem.


We are nearing the end of a series I began about 7 years ago (or so it seems!) on the “holy war” that Israel waged against Canaan in the OT.

I have been arguing from the beginning that the OT holy war against Canaan is an instance in the historical unfolding of a primordial battle between the “seed of the woman” and the “seed of the serpent.” This seed conflict, in turn, pushes forward the covenantal outworking of God’s redemptive plan.

The outline, if you recall, 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): God fights for his people
  5. Holy War and the Nation (Mosaic Covenant): God creates a sacred space for his sacred people to worship
  6. Holy War and the Covenant-Maker — This post
  7. Holy War and Christ
  8. Conclusions

In this post, I will wrap up the OT discussion by fleshing out a few macro considerations we need to keep in mind regarding the OT holy war, which highlight a key truth: the cherem was Yahweh’s war. It was, in modern scholarly parlance, Yahweh-War.

Holy War, Covenant, and the Covenant-Maker

I have argued previously that central to the development of the Covenant of Grace in the OT is the fact that it drives forward the promise made in Genesis 3:15, that God would send a redeemer to crush the serpent, though in the meantime there would be an ongoing battle between the righteous and wicked “seed” in humanity. The conquest of Canaan is a temporal instance of this battle, and the fact that this war is declared at the end of the covenant documentation at Sinai indicates its relationship to the covenant itself.

I have, thus, labored to show how the cherem war fulfills—temporally, at least—various aspects of these stages in the covenant. What I have not made as clear yet, however, is the role of Yahweh as the covenant-maker.

Behind the declaration of the war on Canaan in Exodus 23 and elsewhere is the fact that God is the sovereign king or suzerain who declares the covenant and the war that is part of it. It is not, ultimately, Israel’s war. It is Yahweh’s. This changes the equation considerably. Any moral questions about the war—was it “genocide,” was it just, etc.—must be taken to Yahweh himself and not blamed on Israel.

I will develop this somewhat briefly through four observations:

(1) Yahweh declares the war

Yahweh is the one in Genesis 3:15 who declares that “I will put” enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. It is not a random conflict, but one ordained from the very beginning and sovereignly administered by God to his own righteous ends.

In the same way, Yahweh is the one who declares war on Canaan. It is not Moses.  In the summary/recap of the covenant legislation where the cherem is instituted, Moses records Yahweh as saying the following: “And he said, ‘Behold, I am making a covenant. … Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. ‘” (Exod 34:10-11).

The entire war arises out of God’s sovereign command. This makes sense, for Israel lacked a human king at this point, as Yahweh was their king. Only kings can declare war, not troops. Not even Moses. Yahweh as king declares the holy war.

(2) Yahweh enlists the troops

Second, as Yahweh is the one who declares the war, he also conscripts Israel into his service as his vassal-army to fight it: “obey his [Yahweh’s] voice … utterly overthrow them … serve the LORD your God … I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. ” (Exod 23:22, 24, 25, 31). Moreover, he declares that Israel’s enemies are really his enemies: “I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exod 23:22).

God had begun building the army during the exodus event itself when he brought an enlarged nation out of Egypt. The army becomes more formalized during the wilderness wandering (note the censuses in Num 1 and 26). By the time they reach Jericho, the men of Israel are consecrated to Yahweh as his army.

As Kline puts it, God’s exercise of his right to conscript his vassals, the nation of Israel, into his military service is what one would expect of a suzerain in covenant with a vassal: “the requirement to render military assistance to the suzerain … is heavily stressed in ancient treaties, and it assumes a place of considerable prominence in Yahweh’s covenant with Israel.”[1]

In other words, Israel as vassal is not fighting its own independent battle against the Canaanites, but is serving its suzerain-king in fighting his battle, playing out the enmity that he put between them and his enemies.

(3) Yahweh wins the battle

Though God is implementing Holy War through the Israelite army, the various narratives and the war declaration itself witness to the fact that in all cases it is Yahweh who gives victory or defeat. Moses indicates this with the heavy repetition of “I” in Exodus 23 and God’s mentioning his angel, terror, and hornets as the efficient causes of bringing the Israelites into battle (v. 23), guarding them (v. 20), confusing the enemy (v. 27), driving out the enemy (v. 28), and ultimately destroying them (Deut 7:20). Moses emphasizes how God vindicates this promise when he describes God’s hand in the victories at Arad (Num 21:3), Bashan (Num 21:34), Midian (Num 31:2ff.), Sihon (Deut 2:33), Og (Deut 3:3), Jericho (Josh 6:1ff), Ai (Josh 8:1), Gibeon (Josh 10:10), and the Southern and Northern Canaanite lands (e.g., Josh 10:29–11:23), as well as the defeats of Amalek (Num 14:42–43) and Ai (Josh 7:1).

Reenactment of how the Israelites underestimated Ai. Actually, I just wanted a Lego picture.
Helpful historical reenactment of how the Israelites underestimated Ai. 

Moses writes again and again that “the Lord fought for Israel … [and] gave it also and its king into the hand of Israel” (e.g., Josh 10:14, 30). Yahweh even picks the fight on occasion, “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed” (Josh 11:20).

Holy War, then, is profoundly God’s war, not simply because he commands it or achieves his covenant purposes through it, but because he is controlling it end-to-end, from instigating the battle to determining the outcome.

This is not altogether surprising, for in each prior stage of the conflict between the seeds, God has supernaturally effected results, from the flood to the exodus. It is clearly God who resolves the enmity.

(4) Yahweh executes the punishment

Finally, the practice of cherem itself (the “ban”), arguably the most controversial element of Holy War to the modern conscience, is a consummation of God’s victory in war, as he pours out harsh judgment on the conquered.

In one sense, cherem involves the destruction of the property and people of the conquered group. E.g., God commands the Israelites to “utterly overthrow [the Canaanites] and break their pillars in pieces” (Exod 23:24), and, moreover, to set apart the various plunder as “devoted to destruction” (Deut 7:26). Joshua and the army “captured the city … devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Josh 6:20–21). The “ban” shows how the defeated city was impure before God and could not remain in his presence.

In another sense, cherem also involves setting apart certain holy things to Yahweh (e.g., Josh 7:1). In some cases not everything was destroyed, but some was kept to bring back to the tabernacle to use in worship. Again, this may not seem fair, but as suzerain-king, Yahweh deserves the spoils of war.

That is to say, cherem is thoroughly theocentric, a dedication of the outcome of war from the vassal to the suzerain: “God won the victory, so he was due the spoils.”[2]


We may not always like this, but the OT accounts of the holy war make it quite clear that Yahweh is the chief causative factor in the judgment on Canaan. He declares the war; he constitutes the army; he gives victory or defeat; and he pours out judgment and receives the spoils. He does so through the ordained actions of his people, but in the great mystery of providence, the Covenant-Maker Himself is sovereign over the war.

(Side note: In view of this, it is interesting how the OT never blames the Israelites for the holy war, unlike modern critics who think the war is unjust. In fact, the Israelites are only ever blamed for failing to wage the war according to God’s explicit commands. Some skeptics may see this as entirely obvious—why would the Israelites indicate their own culpability for genocide if they saw it through patriotic lenses?—but this criticism is invalid precisely because the Israelite writers do express their guilt elsewhere. They are not whitewashing the story.)

In the next post, we will turn to the issues of “intrusion ethics” and the New Testament.

Connecting to the pew

This is an incredibly hard doctrine: how can God be both exhaustively in control of all the circumstances surrounding the “holy war” against the Canaanites—while at the same time never contract any of the moral stain or guilt that modern observers want to impute to him? It is much easier to blame the Israelites for committing genocide, and that’s where most critics go. But if we let the OT speak for itself, we realize that God is mysteriously in control of the entire historical event, that he used it to accomplish his purposes, and that he did not sin in doing so. It is okay to feel some heartburn about this, because from our limited perspectives it is incredibly difficult to hold this together.

But that is partly the point: we do not stand over God as his moral judge, but he stands over us. What is required is not complaining to God about his moral logic, but seeking to receive and be corrected by God’s self-revelation of his own moral logic.

This only becomes truly clear when the ultimate stage of the “seed conflict,” the final consummation of the holy war, is poured out on Jesus himself. We’ll turn to that next time.


1. Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 50.

2. Tremper Longman III, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity.” Pages 159-187 in Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Edited by Stanley Gundry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 163, 172.


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