What Are Some Possible Ways to Understand “Divine War” in the Old Testament?

By Daniel DeWitt

We believe God used men to write exactly what he wanted without error, as Peter said, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophets own interpretation … instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

So, as Christians we approach this issue with trust in God and not as skeptics.

Second, we need to recognize that God has the authority to do what He pleases. There is no higher court of appeal. And as the highest authority, God is not violating some law that exists apart from himself. He is the source of the moral law.

Third, we need to remember that Jesus taught more about hell than about heaven. The idea that God is grumpy in the Old Testament and then meek and mild in the New Testament is clearly false. It was Jesus who said, “Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Fourth, we believe God is going to save people from every nation. So, whatever is happening with divine war passages in the Old Testament, the aim is not to completely remove all other people groups from the face of the earth or from God’s redemptive plan for eternity.

God told Abraham he would be a blessing to all the nations, and the picture in the New Testament is that God will redeem a people from all the nations. Now that we have stated some core commitment as Bible believing Christians, I want to offer four points I think are helpful in thinking through the Old Testament passages about divine war.

  1. As mentioned in the last post, the emphasis in the Old Testament passages about Israel obtaining the Promised Land, is that God will drive out the nations before them. We can’t emphasize the commands for divine war over the multiple passages in which God promises he will drive out, not annihilate, the other nations.Here are a couple of examples:

    “I will send [panic] in front of you, and they will drive out the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hethites away from you.” (Ex. 23:29)“Do not defile yourselves by any of these practices, for the nations I am driving out before you have defiled themselves by all these things.” (Lev. 18:24)

    In other places the nation of Israel is commanded to drive out the people themselves:

    “You must drive out all the inhabitants of the land ….” (Num. 33:52)

  2. Careful scholarship is needed in working through these issues. Many Bible scholars point out that the language of “total annihilation,” (i.e. kill every living thing) was commonly used in the nation of Israel’s region of the world, the Ancient Near East, as a way to describe sweeping victory, not the literal killing of every person and destruction of all things. For example, there are extra-biblical accounts where Egypt is said to have completely destroyed Israel in 1230 BC. This kind of language was used to describe a decisive victory and not that everything and every person was destroyed. We know Israel was not wiped out.
  3. However you interpret the passages where the Israelites are commanded to kill every living thing, these commands are limited to specific locations. And these locations, according to Richard Hess, an Old Testament scholar, are military centers and not civilian populations. In other words, even if the language to kill everything was not a rhetorical device to simply describe victory, if it was more than that, these commands still are limited to military centers. If you woke up tomorrow and learned that the U.S. had bombed a terrorist training camp, you would have a very different response than if you learned the U.S. bombed a highly populated civilian center. Understanding the context of the divine war commands can shed light on what was really going on on the ground.
  4. This was for a limited time and a specific purpose. This is something God commanded, and was not a license for ongoing holy wars as some skeptics assume. Divine war in the Old Testament is the action of a God who is slow to judgment.We see the love and patience of God in these military conquests. The Bible says that God waited more than four centuries before telling the Israelites to invade Canaan, waiting, the Bible says, for their sin to reach “full measure” (Gen. 15:16).

The picture we get from reading the Bible here is of a patient God who gave ample opportunity for repentance. Israel’s move into the Promised Land took place over a long period, as God was driving the nations out and as Israel won decisive military battles. God prepared a land, to establish his people, through whom the Messiah would be born to offer salvation to all the nations.

We need to deal with questions raised by friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers. If we are to love them, we must take their questions seriously. But let’s not get so distracted that we fail to point others to the holy and loving God who freely offers forgiveness to all through faith in Jesus, who fully paid for our sins and rebellion on the cross.

The great scandal of the Bible isn’t divine war in the Old Testament, but that “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

Published July 31, 2019

Daniel DeWitt

Daniel DeWitt (Ph.D., Southern Seminary) is the director of the Center for Biblical Apologetics & Public Christianity at Cedarville University. He is the author of multiple books and posts regularly at his blog, Theolatte.com.