God of War: The View from the Battlefield

Anthony Weber —  July 24, 2012 — 12 Comments

“God is a moral monster with no objection to the massacre of women and children” – or so the charge goes. But is this really the case? My previous post noted that language in the war texts is predominantly hyperbolic language of dispossession, not annihilation. However, even this reading does not excuse unwarranted brutality and destruction among those who were involved in the battles.  In this post, I want to cover what happened to those who remained behind.

If historians are correct, approximately 70% to  90% of the population in Canaan lived away from the cities.  As I noted earlier, God’s plan was to displace people ahead of time.  Many ran away in response to the foreshadowing, so the civilians were largely gone from the land by the time the Israelites arrived. Those who did battle with the Israelites were the hardcore defenders of cowardice, oppression of others, perverse sexual temple fertility rituals, and the torturous sacrifice of children. It was in the cities or on the battlefield that they made their stand.

We read that when the Israelite spies returned from Jericho, they  said to Joshua, “Surely the Lord. has given all the land into our hands, and all the inhabitants of the land, moreover, have melted away before us.” (Joshua 2:24). “All” is certainly hyperbole (they still fought a battle at Jericho) but the general tenor is unmistakable. As  historians have noted:

 “We have strong archaeological evidence that the targeted Canaanite cities, such as Jericho and Ai, were not population centers with women and children but military forts or garrisons… “all” who were killed therein were warriors – Rahab and her family being an exception. The same applies throughout the book of Joshua.… This is further suggested by the fact that the Amalekites were not all annihilated: within the very same book (1 Samuel 27:8; 30:1) we encounter an abundance of Amalekites. The command allows, and hopes for, exceptions (e.g., Rahab and her relatives).”

We  know all of the people in the groups were not killed since they ‘lived to fight/raid again’ in David’s time (I Samuel 27,30) and even in Hezekiah’s time (200-300 years later, 1 Chronicles 4:43).
 Joshua himself refers to “these [nations] which remain among you” (Josh. 23:12–13; cp. Josh. 15:63; 16:10; 17:13; Judges. 2:10–13).  This included Caananites. While Joshua does speak of Israel’s utterly destroying groups,  these “annihilated” peoples reappear later in the story; after Judah destroyed Jerusalem, its occupants lived there ‘to this day’ (Judges. 1:8, 21).  David had Hittites in his army (2 Sam 23:39) and was friendly with a Jebusite (2 Sam 24:18-24).

The Old Testament does not record that God was unhappy with the fact the the race of people continued.  One would expect that if the Israelites disobeyed a command that specific, God would call them on it.  He does not.  The Bible highlights people like Joshua, who obeyed all Moses’ commands (Joshua 9:24) while leaving plenty of survivors. The Old Testament law in Exodus and Leviticus clearly delineates how the Israelites are to treat immigrants with justice and mercy, even those from the surrounding Canaanite nations.

It’s important that we understand who was involved in the battles, because it helps to contextualize another aspect of this warfare – the principle of “lex talionis.”  This “eye for an eye” principle in the Old Testament (a similar principle is found in the Code of Hammurabi) was meant to limit punishment for crimes, not encourage revenge.  If someone took an eye, the victim could demand an eye – but not more. The Israelites could and often did settle for less – but that’s a topic for another time.

Not everyone in the ANE was like this. John Wood, writing for Baylor University, notes some characteristics of other kings that contrast remarkably with the record in the Old Testament of Israelite behavior during war :

  •  Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal claimed that he draped the skin of his dead enemies over the city walls and “cut off their heads…I burnt their adolescent boys and girls.”
  • The Assyrian king Sennacherib recorded how he surpassed his predecessors in cruelty. “I cut [the enemy war- riors’] throats like lambs,” he bragged. “With the bodies of their warriors I filled the plain like grass. Their testicles I cutoff, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers.”
  • Carvings in Assyrian palaces demonstrates kings ripping the tongues out of enemy warriors, cutting off hands and feet, decapitating them, and staking their heads for target practice.

This sounds like hyperbolic war text, but the tone shows that the limitations of equal retribution were not embraced by all nations at that time. In God’s judgment of the Amalekites, we see “lex talionis” at work on the battlefield as the Israelites purposefully engaged the cultural leaders and defenders, not the civilians:

  • The Amalekites drove out cultures them in previous invasions; they were driven out.
  • They caused whole cities to be abandoned; they were forced to abandon their cities.
  • They won their battles on military strength; they were defeated by a military strength.
  • They destroyed urban centers of other cultures; their urban centers were destroyed.
  • They were unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate (Numbers 21.21); God did not allow Israel to negotiate with them.


Reading the texts in this context, we see the following:

Is it possible that God can hold the attributes of mercy and justice  simultaneously? Could they even exist apart from each other? In the conclusion of this series, we will look more closely at these attributes of God.


Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.

12 responses to God of War: The View from the Battlefield

  1. I’m not sure what to make of the phrase “hardcore defenders of cowardice”, and you probably know as well as I do that the Israelites did plenty of oppressing (involuntary servitude of conquered peoples, vassal states who gave tribute to the Israelites, etc) so that doesn’t really count if you’re comparing peoples in moral terms. That leaves ”
    perverse sexual temple fertility rituals, and the torturous sacrifice of children”. To the extent that the fertility rituals were consensual, I don’t see them as particularly deserving of destruction; “I think that’s gross” doesn’t strike me as a justification for going to war with someone. If they were non-consensual, I agree that it was a problem, just as I’m with you in condemning the torturous sacrifice of children.

    But! You are here again forgetting that the person condemning all this bad stuff is an omnipotent deity! If he didn’t want people engaging in “perverse sexual temple fertility rituals”, he could have made them impotent whenever they tried; they’d probably get the picture quickly enough. If he frowns on child sacrifice, he could just prevent it from working: any fire built to burn a child would go out, any stone thrown at a child would crumble to dust, any knife used on a child would blunt or rust away.  Alternatively, every time a child was sacrificed the temple might burn down, or all the priests might get hemorrhoids, or the idols might speak up and tell them not to sacrifice children. After that happened a few times, I’d be surprised if they did it any more. If you actually think about it, there are an enormous number of ways for an actual god to get his desires across – none of which involve anyone invading or killing anyone, and none of which run the risk of being mistaken for people making up commandments to justify doing whatever they want to do. It’s puzzling that after the exodus from Egypt, YHWH always tells his people to do his dirty work for him. Sure, he says he helps them out a bit in the battles, but it sure looks like the guys with the swords are doing most of the work. Funny, huh? Why do you think that is?

    • Why do I think that is?   
            Because the guys doing the work of fighting are under the influence of what they think is an all powerful “person.”  (God is SPIRIT)  (not a “person”)  We all tend to misread that Spirit from time to time….lol….
           The guys with the swords are listening to themselves and their own desires.  They believe in a god who does not exist. They believe  in  themselves and they know without a doubt that they are the ones thinking correctly. 
            They have yet to learn that the ONE god of the Universe does not desire war.  They are still in the infancy stage of human evolution, spiritually speaking.  We are not too far ahead of them ourselves….lol.

    • I suspect we need a whole new article to discuss the questions of why God (if he exists, of course) does not intervene more in the world to stop evil.   I think I will save my energy for that new discussion :) 

  2. That list of atrocities committed by ANE warlords has some pretty bad stuff on it, but you left some things off.

    – There was that time that one of YHWH’s favorite people wanted to get married, so he went and killed 200 Philistines just so he could cut off their foreskins and give them to his future father-in-law as a bride-price. (1 Samuel 18 for the whole strange story)
    – There was a guy who bragged that he had killed heaps and heaps of men with the jawbone of an ass; that was a little while after he’d set 300 foxes on fire and put them in the cornfields of his enemies. Nice guy! (1 Judges 15)
    – There was a guy who persuaded his enemy’s guards to assassinate all 70 of his enemy’s  sons and send him their heads in baskets, which he piled up outside his gates. (2 Kings 10)

    This sounds like hyperbolic war text, but it shows that … well, it shows that in many ways the Israelites were not noticeably different from those they “displaced”. Of course, those accounts are given in a rather dry, historical tone, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the perpetrators of those acts did a little bragging after they got done.

    I’d be very curious to see a summation of the claimed death tolls of the various kings and cultures of the ANE, and to see whether the Israelites claimed to have killed more or fewer people than the neighboring cultures. Have you ever seen that information anywhere?

    • Steve, I think your main point was that even if the language is “war text” hyperbole rather than dry history, the braggadocio of the accounts sounds a lot like the account I mentioned from other kings (did I read you correctly?).  Let’s assume they are war texts; what do we do with the bragging?
           I’m not sure that these stories were recorded to brag.  For whatever reason, Israelite historians recorded the good with the bad.  The Old Testament records a lot of events that were not admirable, and we are not meant to read them as God giving a big “thumbs up” to the events.     Saul orders David to get 200 foreskins – not because God told him to, but because he thought it would get David killed.  David did it- not because God told him to, but because he wanted to marry Saul’s daughter.  I’ve never heard that story presented in an admirable light. It’s a story that reveals the worst in human nature , not the best.   Jehu gets a mixed review at the end of 2 Kings 10. One popular commentator summarized 2 Kings 10 this way: “For barbarity and hypocrisy Jehu has few parallels; and the cowardliness and baseness of the nobles of Samaria have seldom been equalled. Ahab’s bloody house must be cut off; but did God ever design that it should be done by these means?”       Samson was always taught to me as an example of what NOT to do if God makes you strong in a particular area.   I’m not sure about the death tolls….I searched online for quite a while and found nothing. Let me know if you find anything!

      • I agree that it doesn’t appear that YHWH directly approved of the actions of David, Jehu, and Samson at their most violent and bloodthirsty. On the other hand, as you’ve pointed out, it was normal in the ANE to draw an inference directly from your success to the conclusion that your god (YHWH in this case) approved of your actions. It would have been quite reasonable (at the time) for the people to see the successes of these warlords and to assume that YHWH approved of their actions. I believe that tendency actually forms a part of your argument in a previous post, in which you say that the Caananites should have run away, because it should have been obvious to them that YHWH was on the side of the Israelites as they conquered their way into Caanan. 

        In addition, it’s quite apparent in many places in the OT that YHWH is capable of showing his displeasure with the actions of the Israelites and their leaders when he disapproves. That displeasure shows up in the form of plagues, losses in battle, snakes, people turning white, fire from heaven, and so on. One of those things even happen to David – but, notably, not for taking foreskins, but for taking a census. YHWH seems to have funny priorities.

        So it’s hard for me to see how YHWH can avoid some blame for these guys, if we’re going to be evaluating his actions from an ANE perspective. That’s how they saw things back then, right? If you win, your god must love you; if you lose, not so much. If good things happen to you, it’s because your god is pleased; if bad things happen, he is angry. So what must the people have thought of the god of David, Samson, and Jehu?

        • I admit, I did not expect to use “foreskin” so many times in this thread. Well, in any thread, really.  Every day is full of surprises :)
              With all three of the men mentioned, the Bible records bad actions they did in direct contradiction to God’s command, and bad actions they did unrelated to and specific plan or command of God  (the foreskin episode, for example).  God’s displeasure falls directly, clearly and specifically upon them during their lives when they deliberately disobey him (Saul when he brought home livestock as plunder; David when he took the census; Jehu as his  Kingdom began to crumble because of his idolatry). 
                When David, Jehu, and Saul deliberately contradicted God, they did get punished – the prophets often explained it, and the Old Testament records why.  In some cases (like Jehu) the OT even makes a distinction – God blessed him because of X, and did not bless him because of Y.    
               Obviously, there were plenty of times in their lives when God did not command a particular thing and they lived life like the rest of us do, making decisions both good and bad (collecting foreskins is, uh, bad).  I assume that their system of law and sacrifice dealt with them at that level (the Bible is silent on these situations – I am extrapolating from the broader story arc of the OT).      
              And if anyone from Guinness World Records is reading this, I used “foreskin” three times in 4 paragraphs. 

  3. The real problem with the charge that The God of the Bible is a monster is the false presumption by unbelievers that they have the moral authority to make such a judgment. The only reason anyone can make any kind of moral judgment at all is because we have been made in the image of The One True God as rational, moral beings. But no one has the right to turn their God-given moral sense against The One Who gave it. The truth is that God can justly kill anyone He wants, anytime He wants (including you and me, although believers will not suffer eternal punishment).

    Christians should not “apologize” for this or try to rationalize it away. We must turn this accusation against the accusers. As it says in Romans 9 (quoting Isaiah): “Who are you to judge God?!” Rather, we are being Biblical when we say to unbelievers: “Why don’t you embrace God’s offer of mercy before He ends the life He gave you in this world and sends you to Hell?”

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