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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

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Conflicts between nations occur for a variety of reasons, but always they are evidence of sin in the world. Some nations go to war because they are aggressive, others because they have to defend themselves against aggression. But in neither case do nations have unlimited right to do as they like. This applies even when nations are God’s instrument to carry out his judgment on the wicked (Isaiah 10:5-14; Habakkuk 2:12-13; Habakkuk 2:16-17).

Instructions for Israel

According to God’s plan for Israel, the conquest of Canaan was not merely for political or material gain, but had a moral and religious purpose. God had given the Canaanites time to repent but they had consistently refused. Finally, their sin reached the extent where God could postpone judgment no longer (Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 9:5). The destruction of the Canaanites along with their idols, and at times their animals and possessions, was also of significance in God’s purposes for Israel. It helped to protect Israel from the corrupt religion, moral filth and physical disease that characterized life throughout Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; Deuteronomy 7:16; Deuteronomy 7:25-26; Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

This policy of total destruction applied only to Israel’s conquest of Canaan. The Israelites were not to destroy non-Canaanite cities unless the people refused Israel’s terms of peace. They attacked only when all else failed. Even then they were to attack only the soldiers, not the women and children (Deuteronomy 20:10-15; cf. Judges 11:12-28), and they were not to destroy the natural environment (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). They were to treat prisoners of war well, and if they took any of the captive women as wives, they had to treat them with consideration and respect (Deuteronomy 21:10-14; cf. 2 Kings 6:21-22).

Not all Israelite men were required to fight for their country. Those excused from military service included any who had recently committed themselves to some undertaking that could be ruined if they suddenly abandoned it (Deuteronomy 20:1-7). If any went out to battle but then became afraid, they were to be sent home (Deuteronomy 20:8; cf. Judges 7:3).

Israel’s leaders usually consulted priests or prophets before going to war, to ensure they were acting with God’s approval (1 Samuel 30:7-8; 2 Kings 3:11). They could be confident of victory if God was on their side (Joshua 23:10; 2 Chronicles 20:15; Psalms 68:1). They could celebrate their triumphs with victory songs (Exodus 15:1-3; Judges 5:1-5; Psalms 18:1-6), but they were not to delight in war, and neither were their enemies (Psalms 68:30). God gained no pleasure from bloodshed, even when it resulted in victory (1 Chronicles 22:8; Psalms 11:5). He preferred to work for peace (Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 4:3-4; Zechariah 9:9-10).

The Old Testament record

In the early days of their settlement in Canaan, the Israelites enjoyed a fairly peaceful existence and saw no need for a regular army. Later, when hostile neighbours began to invade Israel’s territory, a local leader would arise to assemble a fighting force and drive out the enemy (Judges 3:1-3; Judges 5:14-15; Judges 6:33-35; Judges 7:24; Judges 10:18; see JUDGES, BOOK OF).

With the appointment of Saul as Israel’s first king, a regular army was established (1 Samuel 11:6-8; 1 Samuel 13:2; 1 Samuel 17:2). At that time most of Israel’s fighting was done by foot soldiers who used swords, spears, and bows and arrows (1 Samuel 31:1-4; 2 Samuel 2:23; see ARMOUR; WEAPONS). Armies set up their bases in well protected camps (1 Samuel 17:20; 1 Samuel 25:13), and usually went to war in spring or summer, when weather conditions were favourable (2 Samuel 11:1; 2 Kings 13:20).

David improved Israel’s army till it was the strongest among the nations of the region (2 Samuel 8). As he seized the chariot forces of conquered enemies, Israel’s army began to use chariots. The next king, Solomon, enlarged Israel’s chariot force considerably (2 Samuel 8:4; 2 Samuel 15:1; 1 Kings 4:26; 1 Kings 9:22; 1 Kings 10:26; cf. 1 Kings 22:35; see CHARIOT). A later king, Uzziah, further modernized the army by providing it with better armour and weapons, including special equipment for use against besieging armies (2 Chronicles 26:14-15).

Siege was a common part of warfare, and was often considered essential if an aggressor failed to take a city in a surprise attack or head-on assault. The more powerful armies had huge pieces of siege equipment, some of which were designed to shoot over the city walls, others to break down the walls. The attackers usually heaped earth against the walls to enable them to get closer to the top, where the walls were thinner and easier to break through (2 Kings 6:24; 2 Kings 25:1; Ezekiel 4:2). Meanwhile, people inside the city slowly starved to death or died of disease (2 Kings 25:2-3; Jeremiah 32:24; Lamentations 2:10-12; Lamentations 2:19-21; Lamentations 4:4-9). The victorious siege often ended with senseless butchery, rape, plunder and destruction (2 Kings 25:4-17; Psalms 74:4-8; Psalms 79:1-3; Lamentations 5:11-12; Nahum 2:5-9; Nahum 3:1-3).

Christians and war

As long as there is sin in the world there will be war (Matthew 24:6; James 4:1), and governments will be forced to protect their people from aggression. The Old Testament record seems to support the view that this use of force by a government is within the authority given it by God. That authority allows it to punish wrongdoers and preserve the well-being of its citizens (Romans 13:4; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-14; see GOVERNMENT).

Christians, however, should never try to expand or defend the kingdom of God through war (Matthew 26:52-54; John 18:36). God alone has the right to impose his kingdom by force, and he will exercise that right when Jesus Christ returns and finally destroys all enemies (Revelation 16; Revelation 17:14; Revelation 19:11-21; see KINGDOM OF GOD).

In the meantime, Christians live in a world where they are members of God’s kingdom and at the same time members of earthly nations (see NATION). God’s kingdom is of a different kind from the ‘kingdoms’ of the world, and Christians must not apply the legal procedures of civil government to their personal behaviour. Civil law requires legal retaliation for wrongdoing, and therefore imposes a punishment to suit the offence. Christian morality requires believers to forgive those who do them wrong (Matthew 5:38-42; cf. Romans 12:17-21 with Romans 13:1-6).

War is one of those cases where Christians at times see tension between these two responsibilities. In the New Testament, as in the Old, believers seem to have had no objection to engaging in military service themselves or accepting the protection that those in military service provided for them (Luke 3:14; Luke 7:2-9; Acts 10:1-4; Acts 23:17-35; Hebrews 11:33-34). But in the century immediately following the apostolic era, most Christians were strongly pacifist. They believed all war to be wrong and they refused to participate in military service.

Throughout the history of the church, sincere Christians have held a variety of views ranging from total pacifism to total commitment to military service. Some Christians, while not believing all involvement in war to be wrong, believe it to be wrong for Christians to take part in war. Others, still condemning war, consider that when the state of affairs becomes so bad that the ideal is no longer possible, they may be forced to accept the lesser of two wrongs (cf. Matthew 19:8). While refusing to initiate aggression themselves, they consider that to resist an evil attacker is not as bad as allowing the evil to triumph unhindered. They do not enjoy such action, but at the same time they do not believe they should leave the protection of the defenceless entirely to non-Christians (cf. Isaiah 1:17).

Even if Christians believe it is right for them to take part in war, they must not accept the decisions of their government without question. Governments can make decisions that are so unjust or immoral that Christians may feel they must disobey them if they are to remain obedient to God. God alone can demand absolute obedience (cf. Daniel 3:17-18; Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29). Whatever the circumstances, Christians must, like their God, work to achieve justice and peace (cf. Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Matthew 5:6; Matthew 5:9; see JUSTICE; PEACE).

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'War'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​w/war.html. 2004.
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