Many people, when they read of all the wars that ancient Israel, God’s people were involved in, have a very hard time reconciling that with a God of love. The Bible does record many wars and much killing but have we correctly understood God’s role in that history?
This study will demonstrate from Scripture that indeed God’s actions have been misunderstood. With careful investigation Israel’s violent past can be seen to be another (though less obvious) case of Divine accommodation. Let’s look at what the Bible says about it.
When the Israelites left Egypt they did not have weapons of war nor were they trained or in any way prepared for conflict. It was not God’s intent that they should even see war.
“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:” (Exo 13:17)
God did not want them to be exposed to the horrors of war, much less participate in it. While they were numerous, Israel was not an army – they had women and children, flocks and herds, they had no military training (except for Moses) and no weapons.
However, it seems that the Israelites, seeing the dead Egyptian soldiers, acquired weapons from them.
“Thus the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore.” (Exo 14:30)
In taking these weapons, Israel made a decision that they would use weapons in their own defense rather than waiting on God Who had promised to defend them. We see evidence a short time later that they had swords:
“And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.” (Exo 32:27)
What happened there at the golden calf incident shortly before they reached Mount Sinai is another topic dealt with elsewhere. Here we are dealing with the Issue of Israel displacing other nations in the Promised Land by force of arms. The point is that by this time, shortly after crossing the Red Sea, they had swords.
What God Had Promised to Do
Since God said He did not what them to see war, He must have had another plan. Indeed He did – a plan that involved the forces of nature.
“I will send my fear before thee, and will destroy all the people to whom thou shalt come, and I will make all thine enemies turn their backs unto thee. 28 And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee. 29 I will not drive them out from before thee in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee. 30 By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land.” (Ex. 23:27-30)
“Turn their backs unto thee” (verse 27) sounds like they are fleeing – fleeing ahead of (“from before thee”) Israel. What does “before thee” mean? It could be:
- Before you have to fight them
- Before you even encounter them
- Before you reach groups of Canaanites
God was going to “destroy” those people – the nations named in verse 23 – by driving them out, by dispossessing them from the land so that they would no longer constitute nations. The words used and the other verses describing what He proposed to do cannot be used to prove that God would actually, personally kill them.
The “destroy” of verse 27 is most commonly translated as “discomfit” which would be more like to confuse or trouble them. There are quite a number of verses that speak of God’s promise to drive out the people of Canaan before Israel:
“And I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite:” (Exo 33:2)
“Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.” (Exo 34:11)
“For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thy God thrice in the year.” (Exo 34:24)
“To drive out nations from before thee greater and mightier than thou art, to bring thee in, to give thee their land for an inheritance, as it is this day.” (Deut 4:38)
“Moreover the LORD thy God will send the hornet among them, until they that are left, and hide themselves from thee, be destroyed.” (Deut 7:20)
“Send” is from the Hebrew word “shalach” which is often used in the permissive rather than the causative sense.
“Then will the LORD drive out all these nations from before you, and ye shall possess greater nations and mightier than yourselves.” (Deut 11:23)
“And Joshua said, Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Hivites, and the Perizzites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Jebusites.” (Josh 3:10)
“All the inhabitants of the hill country from Lebanon unto Misrephothmaim, and all the Sidonians, them will I drive out from before the children of Israel: only divide thou it by lot unto the Israelites for an inheritance, as I have commanded thee.” (Josh 13:6)
Notice, in the verses above, that God said He would “drive out” – not kill – the people of the land.
Drive Out With Fear
In some cases, the report of God’s mighty deeds on behalf of His people would have smitten the Canaanites with fear and they would have fled or surrendered without fighting.
“The people shall hear, and be afraid: sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Palestina. Then the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away. Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of thine arm they shall be as still as a stone; till thy people pass over, O LORD, till the people pass over, which thou hast purchased.” (Exo 15:14–16)
“I will send my fear before thee, and will destroy all the people to whom thou shalt come, and I will make all thine enemies turn their backs unto thee.” (Exo 23:27)
“And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.” (Num. 22:3)
“This day will I begin to put the dread of thee and the fear of thee upon the nations that are under the whole heaven, who shall hear report of thee, and shall tremble, and be in anguish because of thee.” (Deut. 2:25)
“There shall no man be able to stand before you: for the LORD your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land that ye shall tread upon, as he hath said unto you.” (Deut 11:25)
“And all people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the LORD; and they shall be afraid of thee.” (Deut. 28:10)
“And she [Rahab] said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. 10 For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.” (Josh 2:9–11)
“And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, which were on the side of Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, which were by the sea, heard that the LORD had dried up the waters of Jordan from before the children of Israel, until we were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel.” (Josh 5:1)
It is clear from the statements above that God did not intend that they should have to fight for the land at all.
I Will Give You this Land
In fact, He said many times that He would give the land to Israel:
“And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.” (Gen 12:7)
“For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” (Gen 13:15)
“And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” (Gen 17:8)
And there are many other similar verses. Also, consider this:
“And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not, And houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full;” (Deut 6:10-11)
God was going to give them:
- houses they didn’t have to build
- goods they didn’t have to procure
- wells they didn’t have to dig and
- vineyards and olive trees they didn’t have to plant
If He was going to give them all that without their having to work for it, why would He have them do the hardest and most dangerous work – to fight for the land itself? That scenario does not make sense.
Israel’s Chooses the Military Option
Despite all of God’s assurance that He would “fight” for them, they still did not trust His word. Israel’s lack of trust in God to bring them into the Promised Land was displayed on its very borders.
“Behold, the LORD thy God hath set the land before thee: go up and possess it, as the LORD God of thy fathers hath said unto thee; fear not, neither be discouraged. And ye came near unto me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by what way we must go up, and into what cities we shall come. And the saying pleased me [Moses] well: and I took twelve men of you, one of a tribe:” (Deut 1:21-23)
The suggestion to send spies came from the people not from God. It pleased Moses but there is no indication that it pleased God. They did not inquire of God. His command was simply to “go up and possess it” not to check it out to see if it was worth the trouble. Sending the spies was not an act of trust in God. Had they followed His plan He doubtless would have done His part and driven the Canaanites out from before them as He said so many times that He would do.
But doesn’t the account in Numbers seem like God is commanding the search?
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a ruler among them.” (Num 13:1-2)
This was another example of God accommodating their free will choice. The next verse says:
“And Moses by the commandment of the LORD sent them from the wilderness of Paran: all those men were heads of the children of Israel.” (Num 13:3)
However, this was a permissive command rather than an express command. In other words, it was like God saying “Ok, if that is how you want to do it, go ahead.” He could have added “But you will regret it.” The word “sent” is from the Hebrew word “shalach” which, as noted earlier, is often used in the permissive sense.
After the spies were named, some directions were given to them by Moses including:
“And see the land … whether it be good or bad …” (Num 13:18-19)
See if the land is good or bad! Would God direct them to do that when He had already promised them … the Promised Land! In fact, when God told Moses about it at the burning bush He referred to it as “a good land.”
“And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” (Exo 3:8)
This whole affair showed a lack of trust in God even, in this case, on the part of Moses. Later, Moses, relating the result of the mission of the spies, made the following statements to the people:
“Notwithstanding ye would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the LORD your God:” (Deut 1:26)
“Yet in this thing ye did not believe the LORD your God,” (Deut 1:32)
One has to wonder if even Moses totally believed the Lord. Moses continued:
“Then ye answered and said unto me, We have sinned against the LORD, we will go up and fight, according to all that the LORD our God commanded us. And when ye had girded on every man his weapons of war, ye were ready to go up into the hill.” (Deut 1:41)
They were now wanting to “go up and fight” even saying “according to all that the LORD our God commanded us” when He commanded no such thing. God’s response was:
“And the LORD said unto me, Say unto them, Go not up, neither fight; for I am not among you; lest ye be smitten before your enemies.” (Deut 1:42)
OK, Do it Your Way
Since Israel rejected God’s plan to occupy the land, He allowed (accommodated) them to use their own method. He still wanted them to have the Promised Land but now it became up to Israel to drive out the Canaanites. Compare the following verses to those in the section above under the heading “What God Proposed to Do.”
“Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their pictures, and destroy all their molten images, and quite pluck down all their high places:” (Num 33:52)
“But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.” (Num 33:55)
“Yet the children of Manasseh could not drive out the inhabitants of those cities; but the Canaanites would dwell in that land.” (Josh 17:12)
“But the mountain shall be thine; for it is a wood, and thou shalt cut it down: and the outgoings of it shall be thine: for thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots, and though they be strong.” (Josh 17:18)
“Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.” (Josh 23:13)
“And the LORD was with Judah; and he [Judah] drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” (Judg 1:19)
“And the children of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwell with the children of Benjamin in Jerusalem unto this day.” (Judg 1:21)
The following verses in Judges chapter 1 list other tribes of Israel and who they did not drive out. They did not have very good success doing it their way.
“I also will not henceforth drive out any from before them of the nations which Joshua left when he died:” (Judg 2:21)
God Helped in War
While it was now not primarily God’s responsibility to drive out the peoples before them, God gave advice concerning their warfare. So God did not approve of or sanction their taking up weapons or using warfare but He accommodated their choice and worked with them to help achieve the desired result.
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Fear him [Og, another king of the Amorites] not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon. So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.” (Num 21:34-35)
“Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to fight at Jahaz. And the LORD our God delivered him before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people.” (Deut 2:32-33)
“And ye went over Jordan, and came unto Jericho: and the men of Jericho fought against you, the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I delivered them into your hand.” (Josh 24:11)
The three passages above are examples of God delivering one group of people (who by their sins have rejected Him) into the power of another. God handing over, delivering into the hand of enemies, withdrawing His protection etc are all forms of God leaving the sinner in the well-established pattern of which there are over 70 examples at https://characterofgod.org/2016/02/wrath-of-god/
The following passage is a good one to show that God “destroys” by releasing/delivering those ripe for destruction into the hands of other agencies who then do the actual destroying.
“But the LORD thy God shall deliver them unto thee, and shall destroy them with a mighty destruction, until they be destroyed. And he shall deliver their kings into thine hand, and thou shalt destroy their name from under heaven: there shall no man be able to stand before thee, until thou have destroyed them.” (Deut 7:23-24)
Confusion as a Weapon
At times, Israel’s enemies became confused, and turned on one another:
“And when they began to sing and to praise, the LORD set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir, which were come against Judah; and they were smitten. For the children of Ammon and Moab stood up against the inhabitants of mount Seir, utterly to slay and destroy them: and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, every one helped to destroy another. And when Judah came toward the watch tower in the wilderness, they looked unto the multitude, and, behold, they were dead bodies fallen to the earth, and none escaped.” (2 Chron 20:22–24)
The KJV marginal reading for “they were smitten” in verse 22 is “they smote one another.”
“And ye went over Jordan, and came unto Jericho: and the men of Jericho fought against you, the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I delivered them into your hand. And I sent the hornet before you, which drave them out from before you, even the two kings of the Amorites; but not with thy sword, nor with thy bow.” (Josh 24:11-12)
“And the three hundred blew the trumpets, and the LORD set every man’s sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host: and the host fled to Bethshittah in Zererath, and to the border of Abelmeholah, unto Tabbath.” (Jud 7:22)
“And Saul and all the people that were with him assembled themselves, and they came to the battle: and, behold, every man’s sword was against his fellow, and there was a very great discomfiture.” (1 Sam 14:20)
Discomfiture can mean “tumult” or “confusion.”
“And when David enquired of the LORD, he said, Thou shalt not go up; but fetch a compass behind them, and come upon them over against the mulberry trees. And let it be, when thou hearest the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees, that then thou shalt bestir thyself: for then shall the LORD go out before thee, to smite the host of the Philistines.” (2 Sam 5:23-24)
A very good illustration of this whole process of God honoring free will and yet helping them to do it their way is given in this illustration. It also helps to show how God’s actions have been so misunderstood.
Israel’s Wars and Jesus’ Teachings
God’s actions in the Old Testament must be consistent with what Jesus lived and taught (as the ultimate revelation of the character of both Himself and of His Father) – “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30) etc.
“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matt 26:52)
Does that apply in our day? Well, it is stated as a principle; the principle of consequences. And it needn’t literally mean “a sword;” It could have been a spear or an arrow. In our day, it could be a firearm etc. It could be stated more generally like this:
“But Jesus quickly intervened, saying, “Stop! Put your sword away. Everyone who uses weapons on others will be destroyed by the use of weapons.” (Matt 26:52, The Remedy)
This is much like another principle:
“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly …” (Pro 18:24)
If a man is going to be unfriendly to everyone the probable consequence is that he will not have friends. Likewise, if a man lives violently there is a higher probability that he will meet a violent end.
God had promised to give the land of Canaan to Israel without their having to fight for it. The Israelites did not believe His promises and decided to do it their own way. God accommodated their wish; not insisting on His own way. The result was great difficulty in occupying the land and much more bloodshed. However, God, being a gentleman, does not impose His ways or presence where it is not desired. He is constantly accommodating our needs, our limitations, our level of understanding and even our wishes.