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HOLY WAR: Islamic State & Israel in the Old Testament

What’s the difference between Islamic State and Israel in the Old Testament? Andrew Shead, Head of Old Testament at Moore Theological College, Sydney on reading the Joshua story closely.

Most people, Christians and non-believers alike, are horrified by the atrocities of the Islamic State. But for some Christians the current violence also raises uncomfortable comparisons with the Old Testament. How does this “holy war” perpetrated in the name of Islam differ from what God told Israel to do under Joshua? I’d like to point to three aspects of the biblical accounts that can help us.

What does the Bible actually say?

First, we need to make sure we don’t misrepresent what the Bible actually says. Here are Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy 7:1-6:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

At first glance this sounds irretrievably brutal: “destroy them totally … show them no mercy.”

And yet there are odd contradictions. If Moses is commanding genocide, why tell Israel not to make a treaty? And why tell them not to intermarry? Notice, too, that the specific violence Moses commands is against Canaanite religion rather than Canaanite people.

We find similarly puzzling details in Joshua, where we read that he “left no survivors; he totally destroyed all who breathed” (Josh 10:40 and elsewhere) – but then find the narrator matter-of-factly assuming the continued presence of Canaanite peoples (Josh 13:1), so that Joshua must warn them not to adopt pagan religions or intermarry (Josh 23:12-13).

Stepping back from Joshua, we find verbs of expulsion used more often than verbs of killing to describe the conquest (Lev 18:24-28; Num 33:51-56; 2 Kgs 16:3), and many Canaanites were neither killed nor expelled (2 Sam 24:7; 1 Kgs 9:15-23). What’s more, Mosaic ethics include distinguishing combatants from non-combatants and not punishing innocent children for parental sins (Exod 22:24; Deut 24:16).

It would seem that there is some sort of rhetoric going on that is peculiar to Joshua’s conquest account. Peculiar, but not unique; war accounts that have survived from Israel’s neighbours use exactly the same rhetoric. For example, the Moabite king Mesha recorded a victory by optimistically writing that “Israel has utterly perished for always.”

The same sort of hyperbole features in inscriptions from Egypt, Assyria and the Hittites. Specifically, we see language of “all”, “young and old”, “men and women”, used in obvious hyperbole. This is not a practice we feel comfortable with in historical documents today, but conventions were different then.

Perhaps our modern equivalent is the sporting commentator: “The All Blacks annihilated the opposition today. They literally blew them away!” Three thousand years ago, war was sport (2 Sam 11:1).

How did Israel justify what they actually did?

Getting an accurate picture of what Israel did is crucial, but it doesn’t let them off the hook. After all, Israel, like Islamic State (IS), cleared a space in which to live by forcibly displacing those who disagreed with their religion. They may have done it more humanely than IS, but they did it nevertheless. Our second task is to listen to the Bible’s explanation of these actions.

The Bible is consistently clear that the Canaanites were guilty of criminal atrocities far beyond anything Israel did in expelling them, and that it was only after granting many generations of opportunity to stop these abuses that God used Israel to judge them (Gen 15:16). At the same time, the Israelites were warned not to feel morally superior, but to be aware that the capacity for similar atrocities lay within each of them. Would that we of the “developed world” could learn to curb our self-righteousness!

After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you … Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. (Deut 9:4, 6)

Syrian Kurds Battle IS To Retain Control Of KobaniHave we any evidence that this “demonising” of the Canaanites is not simply Israelite propaganda? The answer to this is clear in numerous texts and images from Israel’s contemporaries that describe torture, bloodbaths, reprisals and massacres in graphic and gleeful detail. And the ultimate justification for all this butchery came from their religion. Here is a description of what it took for the Canaanite goddess Anath to be “satisfied”:

The blood was so deep that she waded in it up to her knees – nay, up to her neck. Under her feet were human heads, above her human hands flew like locusts. In her sensuous delight she decorated herself with suspended heads while she attached hands to her girdle. (from Archaeology and the History of Israel, 1968)

By contrast, Joshua and his army targeted political leaders and enemy combatants (archaeology suggests Jericho and Ai were military strongholds virtually empty of civilians), and the symbolic execution of five captured leaders is described in Joshua 10:25-27 with remarkable restraint. Canaanites who respected Israel’s God – such as Rahab and her family (Josh 6:25) – could live freely among the Israelites.

Once settled in the land, Israel’s uniqueness continued: they were forbidden from further wars of conquest (Deut 2:4-9); all divinely sanctioned battles after Joshua were defensive; there was no standing army; fighters were not paid; participation was strictly voluntary; kings had no authority to declare war.

What sort of God did Israel actually serve?
The basis of this unique behaviour was Israel’s unique God: “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod 34:6). One expression of this love is his commitment to justice, his determination to bring wholeness to all creation. This cannot happen if humans usurp the creator’s rule, which we do by putting other gods in his place.

Israel was not commanded to clear a space in the world of idols simply for its own benefit, but for the ultimate benefit of all nations (Gen 12:3; Deut 4:5-8; Isa 2:2-4; Ps 87:4-6). Nothing shows this more strikingly than the fact that when Israel themselves turned away from God to pagan practices, God mercifully warned them and gave them ample time to mend their ways, before finally expelling them from the land just as he had done to the Canaanites before them, using another nation – Babylon – as his instrument. God is no respecter of persons. His wrath against all evil behaviour is not in spite of his love, but because of it.

For those interested in digging deeper I recommend Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God:

For a specific, relatively short, and strategic period, God sought to establish Israel in the land with a view to fulfilling this long-term (indeed, cosmic) plan of redemption. God would simultaneously punish a wicked people ripe for judgment. Not doing so would have erased humankind’s only hope for redemption. (p. 191)

What actually lives in the Christian closet?

Joshua may be innocent of IS’s crimes, but tragically the Church is not. Unlike later generations of Israelites, none of whom took Joshua as a precedent for holy war, the Christian closet is haunted by skeletons of crusaders, American colonists, and others who have used Joshua as a pretext to commit atrocities.

As Australians engaged in a “war against terror” we have placed ourselves in ambiguous moral territory and the moral thoughtlessness of our national debate has already damaged the fabric of our society. Those who bring a Christian voice to the conversation must be especially careful not to cast us in the role of God’s warriors fighting the evil forces of IS in the name of Christianity. God uses governments to restrain evil, but not as instruments of his rule.

The kingdom Joshua fought to make space for was the one finally established by Jesus, whose words in John 18:36 ring out far beyond their original context: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight.”