Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The War Crimes/Heroics of Israel (Num. 31-32)

SEAN - Israel's actions in the Old Testament seem to fly in the face of war ethics. Not even the women or children are spared. Is this alright? Apparently yes. In Numbers 31-32 we've got a military invasion based just on Yahweh's vengeance (31.3), complete with killing all of Midian's men (31.7), burning all of their cities (31.10), and taking the spoils of war (31.11) - the women and children were spared at first but killed later on (31.14-18).

Based on's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.

I Wrestle With Israel's War Ethics

I'm not a pacifist, but I don't like the idea of killing civilians. My blood boils when I read about Islamic suicide bombers murdering regular people; I shrink back from photos of children hit by military fire in the Middle East; I cheered when Israel spared the women and children in (31.9) and was saddened when most of them were killed later on (31.17). Although the tribes of Gad and Reuben ended up claiming the area for themselves in the end (32.1-32) the war wasn't even for land. It was just about revenge. I have to step outside of my pro-Israel bias for a minute (I'm an Evangelical Christian Jew) and admit that if Lebanon or Iran behaved this way there would be no end to my anger. All that is to admit that I wrestle deeply with this passage and I understand the moral problems they create. It's very difficult.

God Does Not Owe Us An Explanation
With all of that said, though, I have to back up Israel's actions and cheer them on for their recorded victory over Midian. I learned a long time ago that when I disagree with God and the Bible, I am in the wrong, not Him. Ultimately God has the right to judge the earth - He can do it however He wants: through earthquakes, floods, and famine, or through His chosen people Israel. Without God in the picture everything is a pure mess and a moral disaster, but with God Israel just becomes the obedient hands and feet of Midian's divine Judge. God doesn't need to explain His commands to us.

Which Ethics Should We Follow?
This brings up an interesting point. When push comes to shove, who do we let define our moral compass? Our culture might be enlightened but it is still separated from the knowledge of God.
Our consciences are also scarred by sin - so that's of no real use either. We need something outside of ourselves and our culture to define right and wrong for us, and that something is the Bible. When God's commands seem too harsh, we follow them; when they seem weak and fluffy and wishy-washy, we still follow them. God defines right and wrong. We either use His standard -despite our misgivings- or we have no standard at all. If not God's standards, then whose?

Other comments and observations can be found in the comments section! Join in!


  1. Most just war theory/war ethics has been postulated in the last century. Do you think that the nature of war changes in light of the new testament? If so, why and what changes seem to have taken place? Did God change or the nature of our relationship with Him in the face of the sacrifice of Christ? Why or why not?

  2. Hey Anon,

    Let's make this a little less theoretical. I'll make this into two questions: (1) Has the nature of war changed for Christians in general? That's a little easier to answer. (2) Has the nature of war changed for ethnic Israel? That's a little tougher.

    (1) Yes it has. Christians who go to war might end up unknowingly killing other Christians. Things get tricky since we don't just represent one nation anymore - but for an ethical/just war, I think a Christian could still participate. The nature of war would have to rely on the principles of Just War Theory though.

    (2) No it hasn't. Israel has something unique going on - Israel is still "elect," and even The Gospel is "to the Jew first" and Israelis are "the natural branches" (from the tree metaphor in Romans 11 - in contrast, non-Israelis are merely "grafted on branches" through the Gospel to a tree from which they don't naturally belong). I would argue that ethnic Israel still functions in basically the same way that it did in the Old Testament. Disobedient and stubborn, yes, but still the arm of God's judgment towards the nations.


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