One of today’s dilemmas disputes, dialectically, the complex reality of the Bible and the secular way of looking at the “terror of history”: Is God a source of morality superior to humanism, or not?
The failure of civilised human beings in the aftermath of the two world wars has seriously called into question their ability to evolve morally, in accordance with humanistic and rationalist guidelines. Since the 1960s, as a reaction to the genocides brought about by the two conflagrations, various fields of knowledge have corroborated their interests in a quasi-phenomenon called the “religious turn”.
Along with the revival of interest in the Bible, various angles of approaching biblical material appeared: literary, philosophical, anthropological, historical, sociological, phenomenological, political, ethno-psychological, etc. The post-war historical context inevitably focused on a controversial topic: the violence of the wars waged by God’s chosen people, ancient Israel. The approach has led to contradictory reactions regarding the ability of the Bible or its God to produce spiritually and morally renewed people, in the context of war and its implications.
Atheist humanism and the ethics of war
In postmodernism, the tendency to reread the Bible from the perspective of emerging fields has been challenged by the vocal humanist-atheist movement. Against the sad background of the consequences of the two world conflagrations and the ever-expanding Islamic extremism, some atheists seek to discover connections between the Bible and the Quran. Moreover, they wonder what differentiates the wars of Yahweh from the Jewish tradition, from the extremist, fanatical acts of current terrorism: How could God order the killing of those who believe differently from a particular people?
This type of question arises from a humanistic philosophical perspective, which views mankind as supreme. Humanism involves a devotion to the pursuit of truth and morality through human means, to achieve personal fulfilment. Focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism tends to reject the validity of transcendental justifications such as faith, the supernatural, or divine revelation. In humanistic morality, the individual subordinates any value to personal perception of what is right or wrong, thus becoming the measure of morality itself.
In a broad sense, humanism asserts the freedom of people to manifest their personality, creating a context conducive to liberalism (in the sense of liberal thinking): rules, boundaries, and constraints are set aside and the rights of the individual are promoted. Paradoxically, this tendency sometimes causes the freedom of a minority group to restrict the freedom of a majority group or an individual who does not possess the power of resistance.
We see more and more how the freedom to smoke, for example, restricts the freedom of others to breathe clean air, how the freedom of gay marriage conditions the education of children, or how people’s freedom to express themselves aggressively conditions the freedom of expression or the right to life of others. Often, the freedom of the individual exceeds the boundaries of the freedom of their neighbour.
From the perspective of humanistic morality, the act of God taking the lives of people by various means, including war, is abusive and extremist, because the immediate welfare of mankind prevails. This reality forces us to ask a legitimate question: Does God have the right to put on the “gear” of a warrior and fight against people? The answer involves understanding what the “gear” of a warrior represents, how the fight unfolds, and the motive behind it.
Yahweh, “The Warrior” and genocide
Genocide is a term coined in 1944 by Polish jurist Rafael Lemkin to name the deliberate extermination of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious community (or group)—an act that constitutes a crime against humanity. The Bible mentions acts of genocide or armed violence, such as the extermination of the Antediluvians, the Canaanites, the Assyrians, and so on.
These facts lead to a structural question: What is the difference between these biblical wars and genocide, as we know it, from the Crusades of the beginning of the second millennium: the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Holocaust from the Second World War, Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia of the ’80s, the genocide in Srebenica, Bosnia of 1995, and so on? Understanding God’s attribute as a “warrior” helps us.
The role of “warrior” is one of the many attributes of Yahweh and cannot be dissociated from that of “King” or “Emperor.” Therefore, the warrior behaviour in the Bible signals divine intervention in restoring and preserving the righteousness of His kingdom. Although the context of war is a sinful one, God’s holiness and love meet this problem of sin through justice and righteousness.
Thus, Yahweh’s role as the divine “Warrior,” along with that of “King” and “Judge,” gives a positive character to the concept of “the wars of Yahweh,” in that it suggests an end to the apparent cycle of sin. Once God’s judgement is established in history through the execution of a sentence, we are witnessing, in fact, God’s defence of His kingdom and its inhabitants. In this way, the divine attributes of “Warrior”, “King” and “Judge” constitute a guarantor of the earthly kingdom and its citizens.
Through the “Book of the Wars of the Lord”(Numbers 21:14), The Bible makes a direct reference to the chronicle of Yahweh’s interventions in favour of the people of Israel. Following the covenant with Abraham, Yahweh communicates His plans for His people: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14). Thus, we see how God promised to bear the battles of His people Himself.
In these wars, the role of the Israelites was to have faith, manifested by obedience and trust. The 10 plagues of Egypt, the separation of the Red Sea, the conquest of Jericho, and the hornet (Exodus 23: 27-30) are indications of a battle in which God protects mankind. In addition to the interventions of nature or the power of animals, in order to protect the people from violence and shield them from the conceit that comes with the laurels of victory, Yahweh also uses the power of pagan peoples in court wars.
With the transition from theocracy to monarchy, we witnessed a sad phenomenon in the economy of the wars of Yahweh. Saul’s sin initiated the secularisation of biblical warfare by desecrating God’s “Warrior” status, and the emphasis moved to the role of the Israelite king’s army. From this moment on, we can observe how, once humans enter the battle equation, God decides to be a part of it in an attempt to maintain the balance of the cosmic conflict, by defending the truth and diminishing the damage. Although He does not provoke and does not encourage them, but on the contrary, He condemns them, Yahweh has not been neutral in armed conflicts.
The wars of Yahweh, “The Judge”
The broad context of the cosmic conflict has God at the forefront, who is attacked by the Devil. In order to resolve the tension of divine government, it was necessary to reveal the consequences of the decisions made by those who could be placed under one government or another. In this context, “the wars of Yahweh” express the historical execution of the sentences of those whose spiritual and moral recovery was impossible. We are talking about individuals or collective entities that are irrevocably corrupt because of their association with the spirit of Satan, which is manifested by hatred, immorality, armed violence, and so on.
The moment when submission to the Devil reaches the stage of merging human personality with the Devil’s intentions can be called a state in which freedom, as the ability to choose the good, is permanently altered. By repeated obedience to the Devil, people become insensitive to God’s saving intentions and thus lose their freedom. People’s identification with the attributes of violence, hatred, and pride changes the status of the human condition in the cosmic conflict: from the object, they become the subject. And by fully identifying in values with the Devil and renouncing genuine freedom, the individual becomes God’s direct opponent.
Therefore, we can understand that the biblical statements about how God intervened in history by judging and doing justice were intended to protect the truth and limit evil. Genuine freedom is possible only in the protective framework created by God. Influences, temptations, and manipulative factors external to the individual are limited by Yahweh’s intervention. Through His role as Sovereign, God offers each individual the opportunity to manifest moral freedom.
In such a context—in which people can no longer be saved and their influence obstructs the freedom of their neighbour—we find God intervening in history through the execution of divine judgement. The “judge” becomes a “warrior.” Deuteronomy 18 describes several possible causes of extermination among ancient peoples: witchcraft, necromancy, spiritism, child sacrifice, divination, and magic. These are complemented by those mentioned in Leviticus 18: zoophilia, incest, and homosexuality. Such practices posed the danger of influencing the Israelites, so God tells them, “Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you” (Exodus 23:33).
The impartiality and mercy of “The Warrior”
In the divine covenant with the people of Israel, we are witnessing times when humans can be excluded; still, even outside the covenant, that is, from a different people, humans can be integrated, taking into account their limits. The wars of Yahweh did not have a political or nationalist connotation. They protected, limited, and anticipated eschatological judgement. God’s decision to eradicate, punish, or execute a sentence is the same for all peoples. God manifested Himself as a “Warrior” to both the Canaanites and other ancient peoples of the Near East, and grace was manifested toward them as well.
Rahab, Achan, or the inhabitants of Sukkot, and Meroza are some examples that describe the individual’s freedom to place himself on either side of the cosmic conflict. The Israelites were not spared such treatment either, and Acan’s history bears witness to God’s impartiality regarding the sentence of total destruction. Moreover, because of their disobedience, the chosen people came to experience Yahweh’s warrior attitude in a distorted way, by fighting within the kingdom.
In some cases, Yahweh postpones the execution of his sentence (Genesis 15: 14,16), giving the Canaanites and the pagan peoples judged throughout history the opportunity to leave their territory and avoid being annihilated. Allowing exceptions for those who want to be saved shows how God’s actions reveal His mercy and love.
In war, nothing can be holy
Throughout Christian history, the combination of the concept of cosmic conflict between God and the Devil and the Old Testament wars, which have the endorsement and authority of Yahweh, has led many theologians to search for demarcation criteria, to divide the concept of war into “holy” and “immoral.” If wars of conquest and those driven by ambition and pride are “immoral,” those of religious interest and moral motivation are considered “holy.”
The dynamics of this concept require careful analysis, all the more so as the controversy is one with concrete relevance in postmodern society, and the term has become a theological construction to justify the mistakes of the church. In this way, it can be invoked as an excuse to use immoral means in order to achieve so-called moral goals. That is why we believe that the Old Testament text that describes the wars of Yahweh requires a philosophical approach, rather than a political or religious one.
The prescriptive approach, by which people justify their actions to the point that acts of terrorism are blamed on God’s wars, is wrong. We have to admit that there are wars initiated by Yahweh, sometimes by human means, which are never “holy” and prescriptive, that is, they are not recommended to be applied by people in the same way. Understanding the wars of Yahweh involves a descriptive approach, not a prescriptive one, that is, a correct understanding of the intentions we mentioned earlier.
War is always evil: “Anyone who has killed someone or touched someone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days” (Numbers 31:19). David was deprived of the privilege of building the house of the Lord precisely because he was a man of war. This perspective of God indicates the harmful, corruptible, and unjustifiable nature of war.
The enactment of Herem took place under theocratic control and was limited to a certain period of history—the conquest—and to a well-defined geographical area—ancient Canaan—by direct revelation, and had a precise purpose. Because of their disobedience, the Israelites were rejected by God and their leadership shifted from a theocratic system to a monarchical one. After the shift is produced, we can no longer speak of “the wars of Yahweh.” Maybe just about the feeble, sad imitations created by humans in an attempt to extrapolate the original meanings of Yahweh’s holy war.
In God, justice and love join forces
As a social phenomenon, war has been and is an ever-present state of affairs, regardless of the historical period chosen as a reference. Unfortunately, it seems that since the beginning of sin and as long as it exists, war will not end. Undoubtedly, in the case of the wars of Yahweh and the defensive wars of the time of the judges, we can observe reconciling and pacifist intentions. Limiting violence shows, in fact, God’s ultimate purpose described in the messianic promise of peace: the violence will cease to manifest (Isaiah 2:3, 4).
God does not want the sinner to die (Ezra 33:11). Humanity’s salvation represents both purpose and means. The context of the cosmic conflict demonstrates God’s saving love and voluntary death in favour of sinful people and reveals His loving and conciliatory character: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The death of Jesus Christ reveals the nature of God’s character and, implicitly, of His attributes as a “Warrior”—in God, justice and love join forces.
Ștefăniţă Poenariu (34 years old) is a pastor, with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theology and sociology. He is an education PhD student at the Montemorelos University (Mexico) and president of the association that coordinates the Transylvania International School.