Nonviolence and the Christian: the Old Testament

I remember the first time I had a conversation with a dyed-in-the-wool Christian pacifist. I was on an immersive backpacking trip with classmates the month before I entered my freshman year at Gordon College. Our guide, a student at Gordon, and one of the freshmen on the trip were both Mennonite and were staunchly pacifist. I had never really heard a strong argument for pacifism and was intrigued by their position.

My dad came of age during the Vietnam War and shared stories with me as a kid of his opposition to the war, an opposition that he came to see as well-intentioned, but naïve. My natural response to war was similar: war is bad, but inevitable, and if our country can intervene for the betterment of those involved, we ought to do so.

My freshman ears were intrigued by the argument, but ultimately unmoved. I would encounter Just War Theory in a philosophy class and that would become my anchor point for processing the use of violence.

When a friend urged me to pick up Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, my interest was piqued but I didn’t expect much to come of reading Sprinkle’s book. But, in a way that rarely happens at this stage of my life, I’ve found my perspective on nonviolence has changed pretty significantly over the past months as I’ve read and processed the book.

Over the course of these posts, we are going to examine a biblical perspective on violence. This is a difficult topic and from the start I want you to hear my voice as one who is still working these things out. Our church doesn’t have a stance on these matters, and our Senior Pastor, Greg LaVine and I have discussed this difficult topic and are on different sides of the matter.

No matter what side of the matter you land on, we all agree that all violence is heartbreaking and we long for peace that only God can bring.

There are countervailing opinions about whether or not violence is escalating or de-escalating. But whether you are of the opinion that violence is waning or that violence is increasing, everyone agrees that we have a significant problem with violence, but as a nation and as a global community.

As evangelicals, our politics and our Christianity are, in many ways, enmeshed. We are patriotic, pro-family, pro-life, and pro-military. But to what level have we allowed our politics to inform our theology and not vice versa?

“Scripture protests militaristic zeal,” Sprinkle asserts. Even if you grant that statement reflects the ministry of Jesus, you might have an internal reaction against how that statement squares with the rest of Scripture. God, after all, told Israel to make war on its enemies, did he not?

What is the biblical perspective on violence: from the personal exercise of violence to the national exercise of violence? The Bible opens with the Garden of Eden, where we see that God’s intention is for humanity to experience shalom: true and whole peace.

It was God’s intention that Israel be unlike any other nation. Where every other nation was controlled by a king and a few elite nobles, all Israelite families were entitled to own land (except the house of Aaron, because of their priestly call). Similarly, where every other country with any power had a standing army, Israel not only did not have a standing army, it was forbidden to have a standing army.[i] God was Israel’s army. “God doesn’t need a human army to protect His land. He is quite capable of defending the land Himself, as He demonstrates time and time again.” When an army was called together, anyone who didn’t want to serve in the army did not have to, and the army’s objectives were severely limited (they only went to war if God called them to do so, the city rejected peace, and once in war, noncombatants were not to be killed and even fruit trees were not to be destroyed).

When Israel won (because of God’s intervention), they were told to hamstring the horses that were captured (rendering them useless for war) and burn their chariots.[ii] In fact, the number of times Israel’s army actually fights in the Old Testament is much less than one might suspect. Consider the Red Sea where God destroyed the Egyptian army, or Jericho where God brought down the walls or Gideon’s army’s “battle” against the Midianites where God turned them against each other, or when the angel of the Lord destroyed the Assyrian army encamped outside of Israel under Hezekiah’s reign.[iii]

Or consider the lesser known event when God defeated Ammon and Moab without Israel even engaging in battle. Jehoshapat, frightened as the invading armies near, “asked the Lord what to do.” God spoke through a Jahaziel, who said,

“So here’s what you must do. Tomorrow the enemy armies will march through the desert around the town of Jeruel. March down and meet them at the town of Ziz as they come up the valley. You won’t even have to fight. Just take your positions and watch the Lord rescue you from your enemy. Don’t be afraid. Just do as you’re told. And as you march out tomorrow, the Lord will be there with you.”[iv]

Jehoshaphat turns his army into a praise troop, and as Israel sings, her enemies are destroyed.

As soon as they began singing, the Lord confused the enemy camp, so that the Ammonite and Moabite troops attacked and completely destroyed those from Edom. Then they turned against each other and fought until the entire camp was wiped out![v]

 Beyond God’s intervention is his strong rebuke that to depend on military might is idolatry. Ezekiel blasts Israel for “playing the whore”[vi] in trusting in military alliances and that exercising brute military force is a characteristic of those destined for hell.[vii] The Psalmist reminds us that “The king is not saved by his great army, a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.”[viii]

But what do we make of God calling Israel to commit genocide against the Canaanites? Does not God show his true colors in commanding this violence? First, Sprinkle insists, “The Canaanites were not innocent peasants.” In fact, they were “a particularly wicked people.” God warned the Canaanites that he would bring judgment against them as far back as Genesis 15, when we learn that God would grant the Canaanites 430 years before God would give the Israelites the land. In other words, God treated the Canaanites just like he treated the Israelites: he called them to repentance and warned them if they did not repent then judgment would come. And just like judgment would come against the Israelites through the Assyrians and Babylonians, judgment came against the Canaanites through the Israelites.

Further, the Israelites did not commit genocide against the Canaanites when they inhabited the land. Sprinkle carefully walks through the text and concludes that the killing was targeted and bloodshed was minimized.

Most importantly, it is clear that Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites is a one-time event, ordained by God and not to be repeated.

All of this is particularly shocking in light of the nations around Israel. Even a glimpse at descriptions of war written by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Assyrians makes a reader blush. Where the nations boasted in their military might and delighted in the taste of blood, Israel looked to God as protector and toward the peace he brought.

The picture of God and violence in the Old Testament, then, is not of a God who calls his people to militarism, but rather a God who calls his people to trust him in the midst of violent threats.

I don’t believe the case has been fully made at this point that God calls us to pacifism, but at this point I hope some of the caricatures of God and violence in the Old Testament have been erased. And the texts certainly should make us pause when we think about military might as an idol God takes very seriously

Next week we will consider nonviolence in light of Jesus.


Read Part 2

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

[i] See Deuteronomy 20

[ii] See Joshua 11:6,9, and 2 Samuel 8:4

[iii] 1 Chronicles 32:20-23, 2 Kings 19:32-37

[iv] 2 Chronicles 20:16-17

[v] 2 Chronicles 20:22-23

[vi] Ezekiel 16:28

[vii] Ezekiel 32:23-32

[viii] Psalm 33:16-17

For more on the Nonviolence and the Christian series, see:

Part 1: Nonviolence and the Christian: the Old Testament

Part 2: Nonviolence and the Christian: Jesus’ Ministry

Part 3: Nonviolence and the Christian: Self-Defense

Part 4: Nonviolence and the Christian: But What About the Swords?

Part 5: Nonviolence and the Christian: the Military