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What the Bible says about Why did God Command Israel to Go to War
(From Forerunner Commentary)

Exodus 20:16

A question that frequently arises regards the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13, KJV). Yet, a short time later, God commands Israel to kill the inhabitants of Canaan, including children. That God would both prohibit and command violence appears to be incongruous. Such an apparent contradiction provokes the conclusion that Old Testament instructions are untrustworthy and that the God of those times was unpredictable.

The truth, though, is that the God who gave these commands is the same One who died for the sins of mankind (cf. I Corinthians 10:1-4). The problem is not with God, but with man's understanding of His nature and intentions.

Notice that this same apparent contradiction is also found in the New Testament. On the one hand, Jesus teaches that murder begins in the heart—that harboring malice or enmity breaks the spirit of the law (Matthew 5:21-22). On the other hand, when Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate, He says plainly that if His Kingdom were a worldly one, His servants would fight (John 18:36). They would go to war on His behalf!

It was Israel's responsibility to marshal an army to subjugate the people of the land. This is seen in Numbers 1, which takes place while Israel is still at Sinai about one year later. Numbers 1 records God telling Moses to take a census and determine the number of men who were able to go to war. Fourteen times in that one chapter God repeats the instruction to number the men who were able to “go to war”—even though He had just recently confirmed His promise to fight on their behalf. God would be driving out the inhabitants, but He was also preparing the Israelites to engage the enemy. Clearly, it was still God's intent that Israel do its part within the fight.

In God's view—the only view that matters—the land belonged to Israel. The Canaanites and others were essentially squatters. Because of their right of possession, Israel had the authority—and actually, the duty—to enforce God's laws within the realm that now belonged to them.

Israel was the “governing authority” of the land God gave to them. He intended that the leadership of Israel be a “terror to evil works” (including those of the inhabitants of the land), and He fully intended that Israel “bear the sword” (c.f. Romans 13:1-4). God requires that the civil authority “execute wrath” on those practicing evil—which certainly applied to the pagan peoples of the Promised Land.

In every place and circumstance where God gives Israel the duty to destroy the people of the land, He also mentions the idolatry of the peoples, along with demonism, sorcery, witchcraft, and child sacrifice. God was greatly concerned about the influence these things would have on His people, so He was particular in admonishing them to carry out the penalty of His law thoroughly.

David C. Grabbe
Why Did God Command Israel to Go to War?

Exodus 23:22-24

God fully intended for Israel to go to war and drive out the inhabitants of the Promised Land. God spoke this on the heels of giving the Ten Commandments and the terms of the covenant. These instructions, then, were spoken on the same occasion that God said, “Thou shalt not kill,” or to be more precise, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, NKJV).

At first glance at Exodus 23, it may appear that God would do all of the work: “I will cut them off”; “I will send My fear before you”; “I will cause confusion”; “I will send hornets”; “I will drive them out.” However, verse 31 also shows that God fully intended that Israel play a part: “I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you.” God is not directing the Israelites to escort a friendly populace gently out of their territory. The literal translation says that Israel should cast them out. Strength of arms would be required.

God did not promise to change their nature; these carnal people would fiercely resist and defend their land and their religion. Israel would have a fight on their hands—which God fully intended. He would be leading the fight against the inhabitants, which is why Israel would prevail. However, they were still responsible for cleansing the land of the Canaanites and other peoples.

Exodus 23:22 (“if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak”) shows that God's promises are conditional, but it is important to understand exactly what the conditions were. If Israel were obedient, God would be an enemy to their enemies. The implication is not that if Israel disobeyed they would have to go to war, but rather that, if Israel disobeyed, they would have a much harder time when they did go to war. But whether or not they were faithful, Israel was still responsible for removing the paganism and pagans from the land.

Verse 33 stipulates that the inhabitants shall not dwell in the land. This was not conditional on Israel's obedience—this was God's edict to His people so they would understand their responsibility. But if the Israelites were faithful, they would have God on their side, blessing their efforts. It is the same way with us: God gives us responsibilities, and if we are faithful to Him, He supplies the help we need to carry them out.

It was Israel's responsibility, then, to marshal an army to subjugate the people of the land. This is seen in Numbers 1, which takes place while Israel is still at Sinai about one year later. In between Exodus 23 and Numbers 1, the Israelites had transgressed with the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-35). Yet, even after their unfaithfulness, God still says twice that He would drive out the inhabitants (Exodus 33:2; 34:11).

Therefore, Israel's unfaithfulness did not nullify God's promise. Instead, Numbers 1 records God telling Moses to take a census and determine the number of men who were able to go to war. Fourteen times in that one chapter God repeats the instruction to number the men who were able to “go to war”—even though He had just recently confirmed His promise to fight on their behalf! God would be driving out the inhabitants, but He was also preparing the Israelites to engage the enemy. Clearly, it was still God's intent that Israel do its part within the fight.

David C. Grabbe
Why Did God Command Israel to Go to War?

Numbers 13:30

After the census (Numbers 1), Israel, organized into armies, traveled the rest of the distance to the border of the Promised Land. Scouts spied out the land, and the majority gave a negative report. However, Caleb's response was positive: “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).

Both Caleb and Joshua knew that with God on their side, they would be victorious in the battle. These righteous men understood God's intent for the clearing of the land to be a cooperative effort between God and Israel. Both parties would fight, and God's side would prevail. Of course, it did not turn out that way. Israel refused to follow God's lead in going to war, and as a consequence they had to wander for 38 years.

David C. Grabbe
Why Did God Command Israel to Go to War?

Deuteronomy 13:6-11

If someone tried to draw another person away from God and entice him to serve other gods, the penalty was death. Whole cities could be destroyed for this (verses 12-18). The same principle is at work with the Canaanites, just on a much larger scale. Being stronger and more numerous than Israel (Numbers 13:31; Deuteronomy 9:1; 20:1), it required an entire army to enforce God's law against idolatry rather than just a local judge or magistrate. Every able-bodied, non-Levite above the age of 20 had to participate in carrying out God's justice in the land He had given them.

This action was not at all synonymous with a man murdering another because of the evil intent of his heart. It is about God executing wrath on evildoers, commissioning Israel to be the governing authority to carry out His justice. This is not to say that Israel was above reproach—far from it. Israel was simply the tool God used to carry out His law.

God did not tell Israel to wage war on the idolaters beyond their borders. He did not tell them to take the army back to Egypt and “finish the job” or to march on Babylon or Assyria and wipe them out, even though those nations were great idolaters, too. Rather, He told them to carry out His law within the borders that He had set. Due to the size of the job, an army was required. God's command to Israel to go to war was to enforce God's law, not because there is any variableness in Him!

David C. Grabbe
Why Did God Command Israel to Go to War?

Revelation 19:11-15

When God gave Israel the Land of Promise, He required them to be avengers to execute wrath on wicked peoples. He commanded that they enforce His law within their new domain. When Christ returns as “King of kings,” He will do exactly the same thing.

The peoples of the world at His return will be doing the same things that the Canaanites were doing when God gave it to Israel (Revelation 9:20). The peoples of the land did not repent, just as the survivors of God's plagues will not repent. Had there been repentance, there would have been no need to execute wrath on evildoers. God is a God of great mercy and compassion, but with the hardhearted and rebellious, He is a God of justice.

David C. Grabbe
Why Did God Command Israel to Go to War?


 




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