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Holy War in Joshua: Texts of Terror?

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"Jesus and the apostles clearly teach that this old covenant is 'obsolete' (Heb. 8:6, 13). That is why we are living in the new covenant era."

Addressing over a thousand Israeli school children, University of Tel Aviv professor George Tamarin told a story of "General Lin." Using religion as a pretext for "ethnic cleansing," the general, who presided over the Chinese kingdom three millennia ago, ordered a massacre of men, women, and children throughout China. When asked for their response, only 7 percent of the children listening to Professor Tamarin agreed that the general's actions were morally acceptable, while 75 percent disapproved of such violence.

The story, however, was in fact taken from the book of Joshua, with only the names and nation changed. But then when asked about Joshua's campaigns, astonishingly, the results were reversed: 66 percent "totally approved" of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land while 26 percent disapproved. Tamarin was sacked from his chair at Tel Aviv. (1)

This approach points up the tension over the different ways that the Old Testament's "holy war" campaigns are to be understood. The interpretation of the book of Joshua is especially key.

The Spectrum of Interpretations

One approach is to say that these "texts of terror" are simply ideologies wrapping themselves in religious myths, the invocation of God for a nation's own aggressive ambitions. This jibes with our modern experience. Crusaders cleaved the skulls of "infidels" with the cry, "Christus est Dominus" (Christ is Lord). After all, the followers of Mohammed were occupying the "holy land" where Jesus once walked. Christendom's kings fancied themselves David, driving out the Canaanites from God's land. Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade with the rousing speech, "If you must have war, bathe in the blood of the infidels." From there you have the pattern for the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the conquistadors of Latin America, British colonialism, the "Manifest Destiny" of the United States and South Africa, the slave trade, and a host of other tragic chapters in Western history.

At the other end of the spectrum are those today who invoke these texts as somehow still in effect, as if any nation could enter into covenant with God and engage in holy war. If not a "Christian nation" like the United States, at least Israel still enjoys this "most favored nation" status with God. The land is holy, and therefore holy war is entirely justified when the sovereignty of its borders is in jeopardy.

Many professing Christians today stumble over these texts. How can we reconcile the God who commands the extermination of men, women, children, and even pets and possessions with the God we know in the face of Jesus Christ?

One answer is to say that these "texts of terror" are somehow useful, but only if allegorized. They are later interpretations by exiled Jews of an imagined past, designed to generate an internal "jihad"—the conquest of the dark forces within each individual soul. Only in that exegesis can these texts be "redeemed" as empowering the moral earnestness to drive out the demons within. For example, Baylor University's Philip Jenkins argues this case in his book, Laying Down the Sword (HarperOne, 2012).

Another response among professing Christians is simply to conclude that the God of the Old Testament who commanded the holy wars of Joshua is different from the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Nazarene scholar C. S. Cowles argues this view in his essay, "The Case for Radical Discontinuity" in Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003). The extreme interpretations seem to be the most popular, especially as part of the ongoing culture wars in the United States, and they have enormous political as well as religious implications.

My purpose here is briefly to explain why both views—(1) rejecting the "holy war" God of the Old Testament or (2) invoking these texts as timeless truths even for our own day—reflect a serious misunderstanding of biblical interpretation at the most fundamental level. I want to argue my case under two theses. First, the God of "holy war" is the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. Second, these texts of holy war are neither to be allegorized nor invoked as normative for new covenant believers, much less modern nation-states.

Thesis 1: The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament

How do we reconcile the God we meet in Jesus Christ with the God who commands the destruction of men, women, and children—and all of their possessions? One option is simply to conclude that we can't. Either God never commanded these holy wars in the first place, or we can only conclude that they contradict the revelation of God in Christ. Jenkins, known especially for his book The Next Christendom, argues in Laying Down the Sword that the events reported in Joshua and elsewhere never really happened. Later writers, living in Babylon, imagined these scenarios as a way of calling the exiles to subdue their inner demons. In other words, these "texts of terror" are allegories for personal conquest of spiritual ills. My friend Roger Olson reviewed his colleague's book in 2012. (2) Olson's main critique is that Jenkins is not Christocentric enough:

Better in that regard, in my opinion, is the chapter "The Case for Radical Discontinuity" by Nazarene scholar C. S. Cowles in Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003). There Cowles asks "Can we image [sic] the God revealed fully and finally in Jesus ordering the killing of children and infants? At any time? In any place? For any reason?" (pg. 31). His implied answer is "no." Of course, he goes on to argue for continuity between the Old Testament and the New and Jesus, but he emphasizes discontinuity without endorsing Marcionism.

I've read Cowles's essay, and I think Olson is being too kind to his fellow Arminian by saying that he presses the ancient view yet "without endorsing Marcionism." The fact that Cowles has to say that he doesn't exactly side with the heretic who identified the God of the Old Testament with the demonic Creator-God of the Jews suggests special pleading. In point of fact, Cowles does verge on—if not explicitly follow—the hermeneutical assumptions of Marcion.

There is indeed discontinuity between old and new covenants, but Marcion and Cowles are dead wrong in their stark opposition between Yahweh and Jesus. I understand Olson's sympathy for Cowles at this point. His critique of Calvinism has always been philosophical—particularly centered on theodicy (the problem of evil). He wants an answer and is distressed at the Calvinist recourse to "mystery." The bottom line is that he cannot believe in a God who would decree things that seem to contradict human concepts of justice. This is clear even in his (more judicious) critique of the God of the Old Testament. Olson suggests that the God revealed in Jesus Christ simply could not have countenanced the slaughter of apparently innocent people in Canaan. Olson writes:

I am not going to declare unequivocally about the historicity of those texts; I will bracket them out and say "I just don't know what to make of them" and "I cannot picture Jesus, who is the God I worship and adore, commanding those things." And "I look forward to finding out from God himself, from Jesus himself, what I am supposed to think about those texts." For now, all I can say is, they do not speak God's voice to me. I do not understand them. They are dark and obscure and frightening. I run to Jesus. That was Luther's approach, too, but he held onto a "hidden God" behind Jesus who commanded the slaughter of the innocents and who uses the devil to carry out his commands ("The devil is God's devil!"). I do not believe in a "hidden God" behind Jesus. With Barth I affirm that Jesus is God for us and all we need when contemplating the character of God.

On one level, Olson's instincts are right: The only true God is the one revealed in Jesus Christ. On another level, he is wrong—and the logic that leads to Rob Bell's Love Wins lurks behind his own argument. In other words, it's a misunderstanding of Jesus Christ that leads to such a false choice.

It was John the Baptist—the one who announced Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29)—who added that "the ax is already laid to the root of the tree," with the ethnic descendants of Abraham and Joshua consigned to the flames of God's wrath if they do not "bear fruit"—namely, trust in Christ as the Messiah (Luke 3:7-9; Matt. 3:12-13). The old covenant law is clear: God is not Israel's mascot. The land is not Israel's, but God's. "You are but tenants in my land," Yahweh declares (Lev. 25:23). A number of Jesus' parables can only be understood against this backdrop.

No nation would write this story. If it is unfaithful, it too will be driven from God's land like the nations whom God has driven out from before his people. He is not the ideological cipher for their "ethnic cleansing." A "mixed multitude" left Egypt and it's all about fidelity to the God of the covenant. Anyone who joins himself to Israel by circumcision is part of the theocracy, while unfaithful Israelites are executed (like Achan), and eventually Israel records its own expulsion from the land for violating the terms of the covenant. It has nothing to do with "ethnic cleansing" or genocide, but with the fact that child-sacrificing, violent warriors, and unjust oppressors are squatters on God's land. It is time for the serpent to be driven from God's garden. The tragedy is not the holy wars, but Israel's half-hearted and incomplete fulfillment of this command. Like Adam, they failed to drive out the serpent. Like Adam, they allowed the serpent to seduce the people to serve other gods who are not gods: "Like Adam, they broke my covenant" (Hos. 6:7).

The law of Israel is a sword of holy war drawn first toward the people of Israel themselves (Josh. 5:2-9), then even toward Joshua (vv. 13-15). No one is safe once occupying God's holy land. Everything is devoted to salvation or destruction. It's a foreshadowing of the Last Judgment.

And this is the main point I want to make briefly concerning this first thesis: "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). The pagan occupiers of God's land deserved death. In fact, God waited patiently all of these centuries between Abraham's day and the conquest before the thorough housecleaning (Gen. 15:16). We need not rehearse the heinous sins—idolatry, child sacrifice, cruel violence, and injustice. All we need to know is that if we were occupying that land, we too would deserve death. To judge God's command as unrighteous is to reveal an inability to accept the seriousness of God's holiness and our sin.

Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. He announced a universal "holy war," where the sheep and goats will be separated (Matt. 25). The enemies of God will be arrayed against the Lord and against his Messiah on the last day, but when the Son appears in glory they will cry for the rocks to fall on them and crush them rather than face "the wrath of the Lamb" (Rev. 6:14-17). Anyone who has trouble with the very targeted and limited "holy wars" under Joshua will have greater trouble with Jesus Christ. He will come again "to judge the living and the dead"—Gentiles and Jews, men, women and children. There will be no mercy in that day as Jesus comes with his saints in the war to end all wars.

The book of Joshua is a preview of coming attractions. It was a mercifully limited campaign compared with the universal judgment of Jesus Christ, the greater Joshua. And yet, we must not skip over the glaring fact of history: "That in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19). The Great King received his own sword into his side, bore our guilt, and his body is the holy land where the wicked are justified, sanctified, and glorified forever through faith alone.

Thesis 2: No Modern Nation—Including Israel (Much less the U. S.) Can Engage in Holy War

This does not mean we can invoke the old covenant holy wars as a literal basis for modern nation-states, including Israel. Not even the church can use the temporal sword to defend the gospel. There are no nations in covenant with God: whether Israel, Britain, or the United States. "Christendom" is a serious error of biblical interpretation. No nation will ever again be identified with God's saving purposes in history. The church is not geopolitical. It has no military. It appeals to rulers as persecuted witnesses to Christ, not as victorious rulers of the earthly cities.

No nation is in covenant with God today, not even the modern nation of Israel. Even Orthodox Jews emphasize that the modern state of Israel is not the revival of the old covenant theocracy. Not until there is a revived cult in Jerusalem, with a rebuilt temple and its sacrificial system, and the total exclusion of non-Jews, will there be a revived theocracy. However, Jesus and the apostles clearly teach that this old covenant is "obsolete" (Heb. 8:6, 13). That is why we are living in the new covenant era. In this time between the times—that is, the intermission between the two advents of Christ, first coming in humility and salvation, and the second time in judgment and final deliverance—the Spirit unites to Christ people from every nation to the true Israel, Jesus Christ. All who are "in Christ" are alive, united into one new person, whether Jew or Gentile; all who are "in Adam" are dead, whether Jew or Gentile.

This means, of course, that there can be no "replay" of Israel's holy wars. These Old Testament events were types and shadowing pictures of yet further events to come:

(a) The spiritual warfare of the gospel conquering the unbelief and spiritual blindness that covers the world for Jews and Gentiles alike, and
(b) The final conquest of Jesus Christ with his saints at his return. Christ has driven out the serpent from the garden and crushed his head. In the new creation there will be "nothing that defiles" in its precincts (Rev. 21:27).

But for now, "God sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike" (Matt. 5:44-45). In this sermon, which intentionally contrasts with Moses' delivery of the law on the plains of Moab, Jesus announces that we are living in an era of common grace. All lands are common and therefore all wars are common. This distinction is the basis for "just war theory," as Augustine especially articulated it. There is no holy war, because there is no holy land. Despite the brochures that centuries of Christendom and dispensationalist evangelicals have made so popular, the land of Israel is not "the Holy Land," but common land. Whatever arguments may be made for the integrity of an Israeli state today, they have nothing do with biblical law or prophecy. However precious God's purposes remain for the Jewish people (which should be affirmed based on Romans 9-11), Israel is a common nation. There is nothing in the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 that fulfills biblical prophecy. The new covenant anticipated by the prophets was always a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham of a worldwide family united to the Father by faith in his Seed—Jesus Christ.

Now we are living in a productive period of the kingdom's expansion, not through God's direct intervention through a particular nation, but by the conquest of the nations through the preaching of the gospel. It is "the day of salvation," not of judgment. But there is a day of judgment, the Day of the Lord, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.

Bringing it All Together

Here is the bottom line when trying to find some equivalence between Islam's "holy wars" today and the Bible's concept. First, the former has no sense of history or a distinction in covenants. Particularly, there is no distinction between the way in which the covenant of grace is administered differently in old and new covenants. Therefore, "holy war" is invoked today as in every era, according to Islam.

Jesus very clearly announced "regime change" from the covenant mediated by Moses to the one that he mediates as Abraham's greater seed (see esp. Matt. 5). So when Muslims practice holy war or jihad, they are consistent with their normative texts. When Christians do so, as they have, they are ignoring Jesus. The God of the Old and New Testaments is the same; it is the transition from promise (type) to fulfillment (reality) that changes.

The everlasting promise, secured by Christ's obedience and mediation, remains secure for all transgressors who trust in Christ. This is the point of Paul's contrast in Galatians 3-4 between "two covenants"—the law and the promise, and the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem. It is also a familiar contrast throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews (e.g., Heb. 11:16; 12:18-24). With Christ as the faithful servant and mediator, the new covenant "is enacted on better promises" (Heb. 8:6).

There are distinctions without antitheses. The distinction is not between the God of the Old Testament who commanded Joshua's holy wars and the God of the New Testament known in Jesus Christ.

How Do We Respond?

The conquest recounted in Joshua has been invoked by Christian empires and nations and, in reaction, criticized as incompatible with the God we meet in Jesus Christ. How do we respond?

First, since according to God's righteous standard all people are sentenced to death (Gen. 2:17 with Rom. 1:18-3:20), the real wonder is that God commanded such a limited holy war. Second, Yahweh holds Israel to the same standard (with the same threats) by which he destroyed the pagan cities (Lev. 18:28; Deut. 13:5; 17:7; Josh. 7:11-12; Mal. 4:6). Third, exclusively under the old covenant was the church also a geopolitical nation. With Yahweh as the direct head of state, his ordinary providence and common grace may be suspended by extraordinary miracles; holy war is Yahweh's to wage, not Israel's or the church's to invoke at will (for example, see Gen. 49:5-8 and 1 Chron. 22:8).

In fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of a worldwide family in Christ, the new covenant church is distinct from all geopolitical states. God's common grace encompasses believers and unbelievers alike (Matt. 5:43-48), and Jesus affirms Caesar's political authority even over Judea (Mark 12:17; cf. Rom. 13:1-7). In this phase of his kingdom, Christ conquers the earth (not just Canaan) in saving grace by his Word and Spirit (Eph. 6:12-17).

Like the twelve spies Joshua sent into Jericho, the twelve apostles were sent to preach the gospel of Christ's kingdom. Yet Jesus rebuked James and John for wanting to execute holy war on a Samaritan village that rejected the message (Luke 9:51-56). Jesus similarly instructs the seventy-two to fulfill their mission by preaching, not by force (Luke 10-12), giving them "authority to tread on serpents." However, it is Satan and his demonic hosts—the real enemy behind the earthly enemies—whose heads are finally crushed (Luke 10:17-20; cf. Rom. 16:20). Jesus promises, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18b, emphasis added).

Yet when Christ returns, it will be to judge the whole earth, together with his saints as his army (1 Cor. 6:2). Anyone who has trouble with Joshua will have even greater qualms about Jesus Christ, since he promises to bring global judgment: the war to end all wars (Matt. 3:11-12; 24:27-25:46; Rev. 17:1-20:15).

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Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Holy War?" Jan./Feb. 2014 Vol. 23 No. 1 Page number(s): 34-41

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