This Journal is sponsored by the Assn. for Christian Conferences, Teaching and Service.

ISSN: 2354-8315 (Online)



Saint Augustine
Just War in the 21st Century - The Old Testament and War
PDF Print E-mail
Article Index
Just War in the 21st Century
Old Testament and War
Jesus and the New Testament
The Just War: Augustine
The Just War: Aquinas
War in the 21st Century
All Pages

The Old Testament and War
War is one of the most ancient of all human activities, with depictions of battle being found in sources as diverse as early cave paintings, stone carvings and the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. To that list can be added the Old Testament: the books that Jesus would have studied in scroll form throughout his life. He would have been very familiar with the history of Israel, built as it was on many occasions at the point of a sword. Such was the emphasis on the great battles and warrior kings of Israelite/Jewish history that the long-awaited Messiah was expected by many Jews of Jesus' day to be some kind of freedom-fighter who would use force to set them free from the yoke of Roman domination.

Many of the wars recorded in the Old Testament, even those commanded by God, do not always provide the modern Christian, or anyone else, with the most helpful inspiration for service in the armed forces. Take, as an example, Joshua and the battle for Jericho. After the death of Moses, God commanded Joshua to take the Israelites across the Jordan River to the land that God was going to give them: ‘territory [that] will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the great sea on the West’.1 The battle of Jericho is recalled in a song that was originally a Negro Spiritual sung by enslaved black Christians; a song that is still sung by children in Sunday school and regular school assemblies as a way of recalling the suffering caused by slavery, as well as the ancient battle. The song includes the words:
Up to the walls of Jericho
He marched with spear in hand;
Go blow them ram horns, Joshua cried
'Cause the battle is in my hands.

Then the lamb ram sheep horns began to blow,
The trumpets began to sound;
Old Joshua shouted glory
And the walls came tumblin' down.

Contrast this romanticised taking of Jericho with a few blasts of ram horn and trumpet with the events recorded in the book of Joshua:

About forty thousand armed for battle crossed over [the river Jordan] before the Lord to the plains of Jericho for war ... Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.” ... so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword everything living in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.2
No matter how strong an attachment Christians today may have to their spiritual forebears at Jericho, the actions of Joshua’s army would now be described as genocide or ethnic cleansing: exactly the kind of activity that UK and NATO forces opposed in Kosovo in 1999. Even more mystifying, the mass killing of the people of Jericho – whilst following God’s instructions – happened after God had provided Moses with the Ten Commandments: including, ‘Thou shalt not kill’.3 The meaning of this seemingly obvious commandment, sometimes translated as ‘You shall not murder’4, clearly did not extend to killing in the course of battle authorised by God. Yet if any army conducted an attack like Joshua’s on Jericho today, its Commanding Officer would be probably be regarded as insane and those involved would – should – find themselves liable for prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

As well as capturing numerous examples of this kind of battle5 the Old Testament also points to a future that is less bloody and more optimistic – though we may have to wait a while before it arrives. Isaiah writes: ‘In the last days ... Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more’.6 The difficulty for the Christian today is that these last days marked by peace and tranquillity appear no closer today than they would have appeared to the Israelites more than two thousand years ago. For the non-Christian who does not recognise either the authority of the Bible or the God that it represents, these words read as little more than wishful thinking.

A more accurate description of the circumstances in which we live, a description that would be recognised by most people regardless of their views on faith or religion, can be found in the poetic words of Ecclesiastes: ‘There is a time for everything ... a time to kill and a time to heal ... a time for war and a time for peace’.7 These can be read as simple statements of fact, unlike the prophetic words of Isaiah that require a dimension of personal faith or belief if they are to hold meaning in the present: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’.8 The promised Messiah would be a Prince of Peace whose function would be to usher in God’s kingdom on earth: at which point nations would stop taking up arms against other nations.

Christians therefore find themselves in a far-from-perfect in-between place, believing that the kingdom of God has been promised in the Old Testament and subsequently inaugurated on Earth by Jesus. However, the perpetual peace that has been promised will not be finalised until some unspecified point in the future: the last days. In this in-between place in which we live, tyrants still inflict suffering on the innocent; nation still makes war on nation; and numerous groups resort to indiscriminate violence as a means of influencing the political process and furthering aims that can be driven by ideology, religion, or social and economic marginalisation. What then are the implications for, and responsibilities of, the person who would take up arms in defence of his or her country or the vulnerable citizens of the world? To begin to address some of the issues raised by this question let us turn to the New Testament and the words of Jesus himself.

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 February 2011 14:46