With the things we don’t understand about God, and with the things the world shudders at about God, keep in mind that we don’t always need to defend him. God is perfectly suited to defend himself. We ought to arm ourselves with as much knowledge as we can through study, but at the end of the day, God is infinite—in being, in wisdom and in power. And we are not. So let God be God, and lean into his loving but just character!
Going Deep // Focus: Numbers 31:1-2,7,13-18
The Lord said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites.” …Israel fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. …Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.
What are we to do with the concept of holy war in the Bible? How are we to handle when the Lord unleashes vengeance upon a nation? It is beyond our modern sensibilities that what we have come to understand as a New Testament God of love would order the annihilation of an entire people in the Old Testament. And annihilation is too clean of a word: men, women and children were put to death—by the sword—among other “atrocities.”
Many have set forth scholarly and reasonable explanations for the concept of holy war, so I will allow you to explore those on your own should you desire to gain greater knowledge. I would simply say here, as I have often said in this journey through the Pentateuch, that context is everything. Keep in mind the progressive nature of what God is doing here: he is forming a people for himself. They have been called out from among the pagan nation, are being purged of the ungodly and brutal influences of those nations they have been among, and are now being fashioned into a nation themselves that is to be uniquely God’s and set apart in holiness for his sacred purposes. So God starts with where they are—a people without form and function—and be begins to give them both. Some of the laws and regulations that we read about are to be observed forever, some are for that time and place only, and some are for an indeterminate but definite period of time. Some of those Divine decrees won’t be needed once they are established in their Promised Land and a great many of them will go away entirely when the promised Messiah comes to establish the reign of God in the hearts of his people.
And that is precisely where the student of the Bible has to distinguish between the rigid letter of the law and the eternal principles of God.
Now what about this idea of holy war—which wouldn’t you agree after reading this account—is hell? At this point, it will be helpful to consider the following article from the NIV Student Bible. While it doesn’t soften the tragedy of holy war, it does supply some of the contextual reasons for it:
The Old Testament makes clear that the Canaanites were not being uprooted on a sudden whim. God had promised the land to the Israelites over 400 years before Joshua. He had called one man, Abraham, to found a nation of chosen people. He repeated those promises often (see Genesis 12:1–3; 15:5–18; 17:2–8; 26:3,23–24; 28:13–14) and finally called the Israelites out of Egypt to take over the promised land. Almost from the beginning Canaan was a vital part of God’s plan. Israel’s inheritance, however, meant kicking out the Canaanites. How could innocent people simply be pushed aside, or killed? In answer to this question, the Bible makes clear that the Canaanites were not “innocent.” Through their long history of sin, they had forfeited their right to the land. Four hundred years before Joshua, God had told Abraham that his descendants would not occupy the land until the sin of its inhabitants had “reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:16). Later, just days before the onset of Joshua’s campaign, Moses stated, “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you” (Deuteronomy 9:5). Historians have uncovered plenty of evidence of this wickedness. Canaanite temples featured prostitutes, orgies and human sacrifice. Relics and plaques of exaggerated sex organs hint at the immorality that characterized Canaan. Canaanite gods, such as Baal and his wife Anath, delighted in butchery and sadism. Archaeologists have found great numbers of jars containing the tiny bones of children sacrificed to Baal. Families seeking good luck in a new home practiced “foundation sacrifice.” They would kill one of their children and seal the body in the mortar of the wall. In many ways, Canaan had become like Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible records that God has patience with decadent societies for a time, but judgment inevitably follows. For Sodom and Gomorrah it took the form of fire and brimstone. For Canaan it came through Joshua’s conquering armies. Later, God let his own chosen people be ravaged by invaders as punishment for their sins. The judgment pronounced on Canaan seems severe, but no more severe than what was later inflicted on Israel itself.
Keep in mind with the things we don’t understand about God, with the things the world shudders at, that we don’t always need to defend God. He is perfectly suited to defend himself. We ought to arm ourselves with as much knowledge as we can through study, but at the end of the day, God is infinite—in being, in wisdom and in power. And we are not.
Let God be God, and lean into his loving but just character. In the final analysis, God will be—and already is for that matter—justified in all his ways.