God, War & Conquest in the Old Testament

This blog is a survey of material found in 1 Chronicles chapters 18-21. To place this material in its proper context, let’s review the nature of the content found in 1st & 2nd Chronicles.

The material in Samuel/Kings is much of the same as what we find in Chronicles. The two sets of materials were written however, to people living in two distinct time periods. Samuel & Kings was written for the exhilic community that is, those who were taken into Babylonian captivity. In contrast, the Chronicles were written for those of the restored community. Chronicles was written for the people of the postexilic period, that is, after the return of the exiles from Babylon in 536 B.C. They returned to Jerusalem to find the temple destroyed and their city in ruins. It would never return to its original splendor, even though they would rebuild it. God’s people wondered if God’s covenants were still in effect. They wondered if they were still God’s people. They wondered if God’s throne was still to be among them.

The retelling of the accounts as found in 1 Chronicles 18-21 is designed to remind Israel that God had worked mighty things among them. They were reminded that the throne of David was established by God and not by David himself. They are hearing the story of David and his conquests retold to remind them of the rule of God.

Chapter 18 recounts the battles of David with the Philistines and their principal cities. Among these conquests is the village of Gath. This is the home town of Goliath by the way (1 Sam. 17:4). Gath would have been well aware that this King David had once slain their own champion warrior with a sling and a stone. In chapter 20:6 there is a record of still another conquest in Gath in which David’s warriors slew the brother of Goliath and another giant who had 6 fingers on each hand and 6 toes on each foot.

The text tells us that “the Lord gave David victory everywhere he went”….1 Chronicles 18:6 This is a very important verse to keep in focus.

David’s conquests include the Moabites, 18: 2; Hadadezer, king of Zobah 18:3 the Aramaens of Damascus, 18:5; and the Edomites, 18:12. Many more conquests and battles are mentioned in these chapters but the thing to keep in mind is that David is carrying out these conquest in the name of God and for His purposes. Texts like these prompt us to ponder over questions about the nature of God.

The Question of God and the Bloody Conquests of the Old Testament

One of the thorny issues of scripture is the subject of the bloody battles and conquests of the Old Testament. How can the just and loving and forgiving God of the New Testament be reconciled with the God of war in the Old Testament? Let’s examine a few of the approaches to this question.

1 – Marcionism and the Heresy of Dual Gods

In the second century a view emerged that there is a God of the Old Testament and a different one in the New Testament. Marcion was a chief proponent of this view. Marcion’s views were considered heresy because he sought to deny the Old Testament as having a place in the Christian Bible. The troubling Old Testament texts about battles, conquests and such would thus become disengaged from New Testament teaching. For more on Marcion see the following web page http://www.christianorigins.com/marcion.html

2- Human Life Means Little to God

Another approach to the question is that God sees things from an eternal point of view. When God instructs Israel to annihilate their enemies as accounted in the book of Joshua, it leads us to think that God places little value on human life. It is true that compared with eternal life, human existence is temporary and fleeting, But God does not treat with disrespect human life.

3- By Annihilating Evil and Idolatrous Societies, God Protects His People And Makes A Way for the Salvation of the World

It has been observed that God’s plan for redeeming all of humankind would require that He establish his people as a chosen nation. Further, God would bring forth his Son to emerge from among his people. From the Jewish nation a Messiah/Savior would come who would provide salvation to all nations. In order for God to see His plan carried out, He would have to preserve the lineage of Abraham and David. This required that God eliminate the sinful, pagan practices of the barbaric nations from the midst of His people.

These barbaric nations, by the way, if left to their own ways, would kill and destroy others as well as those of their own number. Cultic human sacrifices was commonly reported among the Canaanite peoples. Infant genocide was a common feature of their religious practices. They were their own worst enemy. When Israel wiped out these societies, they were at once eliminating pagan influences into their own faith but they also saving them from their own self-destructive lifestyles.

It is helpful to keep in mind that even as God sanctions the annihilation of these pagan societies, this does not say that God subjected these people to eternal punishment. God is merciful, just and loving. These nations may very well have been ushered from a dismal hopeless existence in their physical lives to a spiritual realm free of the fatalistic tendencies of their own making. In other words, they may indeed be now enjoying the heavenly existence to which we all aspire to receive at the end of our physical lives. And like them, we will get there by grace and mercy….not our own deserving acts. (Ephesians 2:8-9) If God can give to us eternal life as a gift of His grace, why can He not have given it to them on the same basis? So was it annihilation or rescue?

So where does this leave us today? Does God still sanction some kind of holy military conquest? I don’t think so.

At the appearance of Messiah Jesus, God began a different kind of conquest. He seeks to conquer and occupy our hearts. Physical territory no longer means anything to God. Those purposes were long-since served. There is the question of whether Christians should go to war and whether use of force should be taken on by Christians. I’ll let that question be one for another time. For this discussion I have simply sought to establish some plausible responses to the question of God, war and conquest as reported in the Old Testament.

War and bloodshed was a part of God’s plan for establishing peace and salvation for all people. God’s scope was broader than just a plan for Israel. God’s plan was to unite all of creation under the heading of His Son. The irony is that God’s intervening act to end the war and bloodshed was to be in the form of more bloodshed.

The difference this time is that blood was not shed on a battlefield…..but on a cross.

About Gary Cleveland

An old chunk of coal waiting to become a diamond some day. I spend the bulk of my time focused on spiritual development. I teach, preach and stand by the hurting and wounded. I believe our heavenly Father offers us daily opportunities to discover who we are and what we can yet become. I serve as a bringer of good news in and around the city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
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