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Does the Old Testament Justify “Just War”?

Since the time of Augustine, Christians have consistently appealed to the violent strand of the Old Testament to justify waging wars when they believed their cause was “just.” (This is Augustine’s famous “just war” theory.)

Two things may be said about this.

First, the appeal to the OT to justify Christians fighting in “just” wars (if there are such things) is illegitimate for the simple reason that the OT knows nothing of a “just war” policy. The wars that Yahweh had the Israelites engage in were not fought on the basis of justice. They were fought simply because the Israelites perceived that Yahweh told the Israelites to fight them. They were holy wars, not just wars.

Moreover, a major motif of the Old Testament’s holy war tradition is that the Israelites were to completely trust Yahweh to fight their battles. They were forbidden to take any practical and pragmatic issues into consideration when they went into battle. They were commanded to place no trust in their own military might or wisdom. (This is why David got into so much trouble for counting his soldiers before going into battle). Indeed, the Israelites often didn’t have to raise a sword to win their battles. The walls of Jericho came tumbling down, for example, simply because the Israelites obeyed Yahweh and marched around the city seven times.

On top of this, because the Israelites’ battles were holy wars – not wars fought out of a national interest or for a “just” cause — the Israelites were forbidden to benefit from them (except in cases where Yahweh specifically gave them permission to do so). From all the towns of Canaan, for example, the Israelites were forbidden to keep any spoils. To the contrary, everything and everyone had to be “utterly destroyed” (herem).

If any Christian leader is going to appeal to the OT to legitimize their nation’s warfare, they must commit to fighting the way the Israelites were commanded to fight. They must be certain that Yahweh himself has told them to enter into this war and must do so without any consideration of whether or not it meets someone’s criteria of a “just war.” They must refuse to take any practical or pragmatic issues into consideration and must place no trust in their military might or wisdom. And they must refuse to benefit in any way from their victory.

I submit that, since the time of Joshua, no nation has ever entered into war on this basis. (One could perhaps argue that contemporary Islamic extremists fight on this basis, but they aren’t a “nation”). This fact clearly reveals the disingenuousness of appealing to the OT to justify national or personal violence.

Second, appealing to the Old Testament’s motif of divine violence to justify Christians engaging in violence for any reason is illegitimate because disciples of Jesus are commanded to base their lifestyle on the example and teachings of Jesus, not the Old Testament. In the first epistle of John we read: “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (I Jn 2:6).

Jesus chose to love, serve and die for his enemies rather than engage in “justified” violence against them. He chose to be killed rather than to kill. Followers of Jesus are called to mimic this attitude and behavior towards their enemies (1 Pet 2:18-23; 3:15-16; Heb. 12:2-3). Nowhere in the New Testament is this example or these teachings about non-violence ever qualified.

Jesus himself seems quite aware that the attitude towards enemies he commands his followers to embrace is very different from some aspects of the OT. For example, in the OT God twice rained down fire from heaven in judgment on various individuals and groups. Yet, when John and James wanted to do this same thing in the New Testament, Jesus rebuked them (Lk 9:52-55).

Along similar lines, Jesus sometimes contrasted his teachings with various teachings of the OT and various traditions that arose out of those teachings. For example, the OT permitted one to retaliate against an offender, taking “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt. 5:38). But Jesus expressly forbids his disciples to act on this principle. His disciples were rather to express self-sacrificial love towards their enemies (Mt. 5:39-44). Clearly, the way of the Kingdom Jesus was establishing was very different from the way of Yahweh in the violent strands of the OT.

My point is that, regardless of whether or not we can adequately explain the apparent contradiction between the violent strand of the OT with Jesus’ radical example and teachings about loving our enemies, this shouldn’t qualify our commitment to follow Jesus’ example and obey his teachings in the least. Our call is to mimic the crucified savior, not the “warrior” portrait of Yahweh we sometimes find in the OT (Ex. 15:3).

Image by da.bo via Flickr.

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