Did God really command the Israelite leaders and kings to attack other nations in the Old Testament?

Small group: 12/06/22 “Tough Questions that Deserve Thoughtful Answers” by Spencer Danley

The Command of War in the Old Testament

There are numerous examples in the Old Testament where God commands the leaders/kings of Israel, whether it be directly or through the prophets, to wage war on enemy nations. The primary reason in the text for this is to punish them. The most cited example of this trend tends to be Israel’s conquest of Canaan, but there are examples all over the Old Testament. The sampling below highlights such instances from various biblical books, leaders/kings, time periods, and historical situations. Each quotation comes from the NRSVUE edition, and the key features of each have been placed in italics.

God tells Moses to attack the Canaanites

Deuteronomy 7:1-2 (circa 8th-7th Century BCE): “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

God tells Moses to attack the Anakites

Deuteronomy 9:3 (circa 8th-7th Century BCE): Know, then, today that the Lord your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you, so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.

God tells Saul to attack the Amalekites

1 Samuel 15:1-3 (circa 7th-6th Century BCE): Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

God tells David to attack the Philistines

1 Chronicles 14:10-11a (circa 4th Century BCE): David inquired of God, “Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?” The Lord said to him, “Go up, and I will give them into your hand.” So they went up to Baal-perazim, and David defeated them there. David said, “God has burst forth against my enemies by my hand, like a bursting flood.”

Modern readers are immediately confronted with various moral questions surrounding God’s commands to wipe out other nations. Many are left wondering how we can integrate the idea of an all-loving God amidst harsh texts such as these. For many, it has even been a stumbling block for the Christian faith. But, what many in the church don’t know is that these commands by Israel’s God are not the only ones of this kind from the Ancient Near East. A few examples from the ancient world outside the Old Testament are seen below. Again, the key features are italicized.

The Command of War in Ancient Near Eastern Sources

Dagan and Itur-mer tell Zimri-Lik (King of Babylonian Mari) to attack the Yaminites

Mari Inscription (18th Century BCE):When Yaminites rebelled against my lord (Zimri-Lim), my lord wrote to you to send an army contingent, but you did not send an army contingent [t]o my lord. However, my lord at the command of Dagan and Itur-Mer inflicted a defeat upon his enemies and he turned their cities to heaps of ruin.

Shamash and Marduk allow Hammurabi (King of Amorite Babylon) to attack Larsa

Hammurabi Letter (18th Century BCE): Now, the Larsaite has harassed my land with repeated attacks. Since (the time) in which the great gods [pulled] the claw of the Elamite from [that] land and [showed] much kindness to the Larsaite, and (since) he did [not repay their] favor, I now [urged] Šamaš [and] Marduk, and they answered me with “yes.” I would not have risen to this offensive without (consulting) a god.

Chemosh tells Mesha (King of Moab) to attack Israel

Mesha Inscription (9th Century BCE): I am Mesha, son of Chemosh-gad, king of Moab, the Dibonite […] And Chemosh said to me, Go take Nebo against Israel, and I went in the night and I fought against it from the break of day till noon, and I took it: and I killed in all seven thousand men…women and maidens.

Hadad helps Hazael (King of the Arameans) attack Israel

Tel Dan Stele (9th Century BCE): And Hadad went in front of me, [and] I departed from [the] seven […-]s of my kingdom, and I slew [seve]nty kin[gs], who harnessed thou[sands of cha-]riots and thousands of horsemen.

After a short examination of extra-biblical examples from the Ancient Near East, it becomes clear that the notion of a nation’s god insisting on the king to go to war with another nation was a common trope; so much so that it was ubiquitous in the ancient world. Understanding that this is the case, how are we to understand the biblical examples of God commanding his people to enter battle? While this question may be easy to answer for a non-believer, for a Christian, it remains central to the way that we see the Old Testament as history and scripture. Although the proper response should be one of reservation, it seems that an honest conclusion is that ancient peoples in and around the Levant simply spoke of their gods in this manner. If a ruler of a particular nation wanted to increase his kingdom, and he knew that the average resident worshiped a specific deity, it would be in his best interest to claim that the same patron god supported him in his military endeavors. More specifically, it would unite his kingdom in fighting for his desired goal. It could additionally be the case that the king worshiped that god himself. If there is enough reason to doubt these claims from the other nations, what specific reason is there to demand the biblical claims are historically accurate?

Additional Considerations

A commonly held belief among Christians is that ancient Israel always remained distinct and did not borrow or share beliefs, concepts, or practices with other nations. A deeper look into this shows that this conception of the Israelite people is very likely false. Ancient Israel shared many beliefs with other nations, and held most similar beliefs with those who were in closest proximity. One such example is the Genesis flood story compared to the many Mesopotamian flood narratives, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh. While each containing their own distinctive features, both describe a deity’s decision to send a flood upon humanity, a specific man being given authority to build a boat to save his family while the rest of humanity is destroyed, the boat finally ending its course on a mountain, birds being used to determine if the flood had subsided, and finally, a sacrifice made to the deity.

“If a man has stolen a child, he shall be put to death.” “If a man has ravished another’s betrothed wife, who is a virgin, while still living in her father’s house, and has been caught in the act, that man shall be put to death; the woman shall go free.” “If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye […] If a man knocks out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.” Where do these sound like they originate from?  The Mosaic Law, you might add! While they surely have their Old Testament counter parts (Exod 21:16, Deut 22:25-26, and 19:21, respectively), each of these quotations come from the Code of Hammurabi (14, 130, and 196/200, respectively), a Babylonian legal text from the 18th Century BCE. You may be thinking that this was clearly an example of ancient Babylon copying from Israel’s God–given law. But, even the most conservative dating methods place the birth of Moses 250-300 years after the Code of Hammurabi. So, if one of these legal texts copied the other, which seems likely given the similarity, the copier had to have been the Mosaic Law. If this was the case, it would be further evidence that Israel was integrated within its religio-historical context, using literary material from other nations. Additionally, it would prove that on occasion, the Israelite people “put words in the mouth” of the God of Israel by claiming that God was the sole origin of the Mosaic Law. In this way, they potentially could have also claimed that the God of Israel was behind the commands to attack enemy nations when in reality, it originated from the king and his officials.

Constructive Conclusions

The conclusion that the commands to invade other nations, which are found in the Old Testament, do not go back historically to the God of Israel is not an argument against the Judeo-Christian faiths. But, how does a community of faith, such as this small group, continue to value the Old Testament as scripture, and ultimately, honor God amidst doubt regarding certain historical questions of the ancient text? A few ways forward are in view: Firstly, and most importantly, the differing views, exaggerations, and even blatant lies from the Israelite authors does not eliminate the God behind the text. While it certainly puts into question things on the periphery, it does not provide reasonable evidence to question the existence of the God of Israel. Do the embellished accounts of Julius Caesar imply the Emperor never existed? No. Do the legendary narratives of Alexander the Great show he never walked the earth? Certainly not. Any author should be expected to have biases, perspectives, and opinions that cloud the historical figure revealed in the text. As Christians, we also believe that the loving God of Israel has been made known through the life and teaching of our Lord, Jesus Christ. While our judgment is often clouded, it is our commitment to Jesus that, by definition, makes us Christians.

Secondly, the human aspect of scripture does not cease it from being scripture. Conversely, historical research such as this helps us better understand what scripture is. It helps us appreciate the different sorts of literature contained within it, whether it be narrative, poetry, apocalypticism, or wisdom. The Old Testament isn’t solely an informative text; it is not a history book. Instead, scripture primarily is a persuasive text; it argues for us to believe and act in a particular fashion. While coming from the New Testament, perhaps the best explanation of this comes from the Gospel of John itself, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). Understanding the text as persuasive literature reorients us to the author’s original intent, rather than being consumed in every historical detail. This rids us of the unenviable and impossible task of carving out the historical kernel of truth in every bible story. That concept would have been foreign to any of the biblical authors and would, in the end, greatly hinder us from grasping the theological truths that the authors were actually concerned with getting across.

Ultimately, how you decide to incorporate the historical data into your personal faith convictions is up to you. I hope that I have shown succinctly the extra-biblical evidence of gods calling on kings to attack enemy nations in comparison to the biblical text. And although it may have challenged some of your preconceived notions regarding the Old Testament, I hope that you are able to grapple with a new way forward that is academically honest, yet faith-driven. In some ways, you who are now knowledgeable of these topics may find it even easier to worship the Lord, as instead of worshiping the text, you worship the God to which the text testifies.

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