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War Crimes and Genocide in the Old Testament

Enjoying Christmas Movies and Cookies to the Glory of God The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

What does the Bible say about the rules of war? Or can we say there are any rules for war in the Bible when God not only permits but commands the total annihilation of certain of Israel’s enemies?

An anonymous reader of my works published at On The Rocks Blog contacted me back in January to ask these and related questions. A Chinese university student in America, he came to faith in Christ about 2-years ago after having been a Democrat and Progressive up to that point. Now he is grappling with thorny problems like what the Bible has to say about war-time atrocities – for instance, the Rape of Nanking in World War II by Imperial Japan.

Honored though I am that Mr. Pseudonymous Chinese University student contacted me – “Internet Man,” as he calls me – to answer these questions, I nevertheless have procrastinated until now to even begin to answer with more than a pledge that I would answer. 

When God Makes War

Let us begin by recognizing that “All is fair in love and war” cannot be true. As surely as there is a God in heaven who rules and reigns over the affairs of men, there must also be a standard of righteousness in the waging of war. And operating outside of this standard should not cease to be called wickedness just because “war is hell.”

Take a closer look at the way war is waged in the Old Testament. Is God guilty of “War Crimes,” and ancient Israel complicit with him? When taking certain cities occupied by certain people groups of the inhabitants of Canaan, God commanded that no creature be left alive – not men, women, or children, and not even the livestock. 

Elsewhere, God commands that when other cities are made war against besides those singled out for complete destruction, the cities are to be given an opportunity to surrender. If they surrender, they are to be taken peacefully. But if the men of those cities insist on fighting, all of the men are to be killed and all the women and children taken as slaves. 

However we might feel about this, this way of war does not comport with modern international legal codes. And if a nation today were to conduct war in this way, we would say that nation’s government and military was guilty of war crimes and “crimes against humanity.” 

Context is King

We have to take a step back – intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually – and consider the specific context which Israel operated within as God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. 

Furthermore, we need to recognize that God not only establishes the standard of what is good and right. He is the standard. And consistently – in war or any other sphere of human activity – we are in very real spiritual and moral danger if we try to impose on God our own standard of righteousness, particularly when we then say that God has been weighed, measured, and found wanting. We are not more righteous than God. And if we think otherwise, we are the ones in error.

In short, this is a complicated business. But there are a great many threads that need to be pulled on and followed if we are going to understand some things which are a mixture of clarity and mystery. So let us begin to do that if we have not yet.

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