‘Divine War’ in the Old Testament


‘Divine War’ in the Old Testament

Utterly Destroyed


I have touched on this subject, differently, several times before. Divine war is a confusing subject. How can a God of love command His people to kill others? How can this be seen as ‘divine’ while it more or less looks like genocide.

First things First

Before we discuss the topic we will have to talk a little about what we, Christians, ought to believe.

Inerrancy of the Bible

Let’s go to 2 Peter 1:20:21

knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

We have to stand on these words. God’s word, the Bible, is without error! That leaves us no room to doubt the historicity and the accuracy of the stories in the Bible. True enough, there are things being said by for example Jesus that need to be taken as metaphors. When He says in John 6:35 “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry”, He didn’t actually mean that He came straight out of the oven that morning. However, as soon as we are reading historical accounts we can be sure that they happened. Therefore, we have to approach this issue with trust in God and not as un-believers.

God is Unchangeable

‘For I am the LORD, I change not’ Malachi 3:6

Some propose that the God of the Old Testament is much more irritable than the God of the New Testament. But this doesn’t hold because when we look at Jesus, we do not see a sweet guy, who is pleasing everyone around Him.

Did you know that the Lord Jesus actually said more about hell than He did about heaven? Jesus taught us to fear God!

Matthew 10:28

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

I know, ‘fear’ can also be taken as respect but let’s take a closer look at that word.

The Hebrew language most commonly used word for fear are ‘Yirah’ and ‘Yare’, and these have the following meaning:

  1. Fear
  2. Fright
  3. To be afraid
  4. Awe
  5. To inspire reverence

The Greek words that are being used are mostly ‘phobos’ and ‘phobeo’, which both come from the verb ‘phebomai’. These words can mean the following:

  1. To be afraid or anxious
  2. To be afraid of someone
  3. To revere
  4. To have respect
  5. To have respectful obedience

So, in summary we can say that Jesus meant a kind of fearful awe. The New Testament God is the same as the Old Testament God. The message in the New Testament breaths the same holiness as that of the Old Testament, with the only difference of finally knowing how God is going to save us.

God Does not Want Anyone to Perish

2 Peter 3:9

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

The divine war passages in the Old Testament do not mean that God’s goal is to completely destroy all other people groups except from the Israelites. The Lord wants to save everybody!

God is the Boss!

God is the one who determined the moral law. He can do whatever He wants but He will never contradict His own being. For us that means that, even we think to know better, there is no other authority to go to. God is the higherst authority and we will have to deal with that.

Even if God is, as some have proclaimed, the most unpleasant character in all of fiction… Even if that where true (which is ridiculous), you just have to deal with it. There is no other God besides Him. Where would you like to go to avoid Him?

Psalm 139:7-8

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

God’s Promise to the World

Anyway, I hope we’ve got that sorted out. Now let’s look at the Old Testament narrative. We know that God actually told Abraham he would be a blessing to all the nations. And we see clearly that God is keeping this promise when He sends His Son to redeem the whole world. So, again, God is not a God who only wants to save a few lucky sinners.

Driving out the Inhabitants

The stress in the Old Testament passages about Israel receiving the Promised Land, is that God will drive out the nations before them. These passages cannot account for the idea of genocide because God is in a sense chasing the inhabitants away. He is not destroying them.

Exodus 23:28

And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee.

Leviticus 18:24

Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you

And in other places, Israel was commanded to drive out the people themselves:

Numbers 33:52

then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you […]

Utterly Destroyed!

Theologians can be very disagreeing with each other but they mostly agree on the idea that the ancient people used phrases like ‘utterly destroyed,’ to explain that they had achieved absolute victory. “Go! And kill every living thing,” was commonly used in the Ancient Near East regions like Israel. It was the way kings and rulers wanted their victories written down. It meant that they had irrefutable victory over the others.

The Israelites were commanded to destroy all the enemies. They did! So they said. But later we see that they were still being harassed by the same people they supposedly utterly destroyed a few years before.

Kill Every Living Thing

But what to do with the commands where the Israelites have to kill every living thing in the city? These commands are restricted to specific locations. These locations were military centres. These locations were not your average city populated by innocent civilians. What does that mean? Well, even if (and I say ‘even if’) the words ‘kill every living thing’ would have been a literal killing of everything that was breathing, the command was only directed to the soldiers in these fortified centres.

Daniel DeWitt said:i

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.

The actions are not ongoing laws. It was the Israelites not permitted to treat strangers like this.

Leviticus 19:33-34

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

The Goal of the Conquest

This war was for a set time and a particular goal. Actually, it demonstrates the fact that God is slow to anger and judgement. God waited more than four centuries before He commanded the Israelites to invade Canaan.

Genesis 15:16

But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.

It is clear that God wanted the Canaanites to repent and He gave them more than 400 years to do so. It is not that the Canaanites didn’t know about the God of Israel. When the spies talked to Rahab the prostitute of Jericho, she said:

Joshua 2:9-11

[…] and she 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. 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. And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.

Still, the Canaanites decided to persevere in their wickedness. And trust me, they did horrible things. I will not go into these things, you can look it up for yourself. Let’s put it this way. If people today would do these things, many countries might decide to reinstate the death penalty per direct.

The Saviour

It is remarkable to see how things unfolded in Israel. God gave a lot of time for the people to repent because He will not send people away who live good and godly lives.

We see that it took a long time before the Israelites finally moved in the promised land. God chased the Canaanites out and Israel fought hard battles, which where mostly aimed at military strongholds.

God the Father didn’t only care about His people of Israel, He cares for His whole creation. For this, He prepared the stage in which He could send His Son, Jesus, to become the Saviour of the world.

It is okay to try to answer the hard questions our friends have. This might have been one of their questions. They might have listened to famous atheists and sceptics who boastfully claim that the God of the Bible is a wicked God. They might have ended up believing that nonsense. Don’t be embarrassed to point to Jesus Christ, who comes forth out of this history with Israel.

In reality, if you consider all the stories in the Bible, it isn’t so much the killing that is weird. No, the most strange thing in the Bible is the fact that God became flesh and

2 Corinthians 5:21

[…] made him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

The End

Anyway! Do let me know your thoughts in the comments of the video below. Remember! I am mostly active on my Odysee channel. You’ll find a link to that channel in the description of this video.

I very much appreciate your prayers and support! Please take a look in the description of this video to find out how you can help me. Also, I’ll place a link there to both the Dutch and English transcripts of this video. And finally, you’ll find the links to the other videos I’ve made about this topic… All, in the same description. Isn’t that convenient?

God bless you, thank you for watching, and we see each other in the next video!


i Daniel DeWitt, What Are Some Possible Ways to Understand "Divine War" in the Old Testament? , [internet] <https://www.namb.net/apologetics/resource/what-are-some-possible-ways-to-understand-divine-war-in-the-old-testament/> North American Mission Board, 31-07-2019, accessed 13-08-2022.

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