The Problem of War in the Old Testament

18 October 2008

Peter Craigie confronts the reality of God’s involvement in warfare, particularly as revealed in the Old Testament, in his brief book The Problem of War in the Old Testament. He does not attempt to soften the blow of some of the harsher passages found in Scripture, but rather attempts to develop a theology of warfare that helps us understand the record of the Old Testament.

Craigie identifies three problems created by the war material in the Old Testament, including;

  1. The Problem of God: the theological problem of reconciling God as Warrior with a God of love.
  2. The Problem of Revelation: understanding why all of this war material was recorded in Scripture.
  3. The Problem of Ethics: reconciling the ethics of the Bible.

Craigie argues that the primary affirmation concerning God found in the Old Testament is that, despite His transcendence, the living experience of the immanent God is to be found within the fabric of human history. God works through history, and thus He works through sinful humans. This entails that God’s activity in the world must be associated with sinfulness. As the ultimate sovereign of human history, God will necessarily have some kind of relationship to war.

The existence and survival of states in the ancient world, Craigie points out, depended upon military might. Even treaties for peace between nations required the presence of military might to reinforce the contract. Even if Israel chose to never engage in proactive war, the nation would inevitably face war initiated from neighboring states and enemies.

Craigie challenges the so-called “Just War Theory,” which was advocated by the Church Fathers Ambrose and Augustine and which finds many contemporary proponents. According to this theory, war must be governed according to certain rules. Craigie contends that, to the contrary, real war is not a game played by rules. If war is to be waged at all, it must be done thoroughly. Rather than romanticize warfare or gloss over the horrors, the Old Testament realistically pictures warfare as it really is- brutal, inhumane, and tragic.

The Problem of God can start to be answered when we realize that God is a warrior because men wage wars. Since God works through men, He is intimately and inevitably involved in history. The Problem of Revelation can be addressed when we interpret the Old Testament as a whole- not just the conquest narratives, but also the defeat narratives. Craigie identifies two themes emerging from this broad material; 1.) man and the state are alike, and 2.) God’s purpose for the redemption of all mankind was to be realized through the Kingdom. While the Old Kingdom of the OT was established by the use of violence, the New Kingdom ushered in by Jesus Christ is established by the receipt of violence, when God the Warrior became the Crucified God.

When dealing with the Problem of Ethics, Craigie advocates a ‘dual-citizenship model. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God, where there is no violence, but they are also citizens of the state, where violence is a necessity. Real problems arise when we mix or confuse the two citizenships.

Peter Craigie’s attempt to address the warfare material of the Old Testament is bold and realistic. However, his analysis is rather brief and many of his points could benefit from more justification. Craigie also seems to overlook the fact that, regardless of the truth of Just War Theory, there are certain warfare behaviors that a loving and righteous God should never support or command. For example, it would presumably be wrong for God to advocate that enemies be killed in tortuous ways rather than quickly in order to inspire fear in enemies. Such brutality may be advantageous from a purely warfare perspective, but very troubling from an ethical standpoint.

Nevertheless, for those troubled by the problem of war in the Old Testament, Craigie’s analysis should prove helpful. I think his point about the inevitability of warfare, especially in the ancient world, is particularly important. It may be rather naive to suppose that Israel could have survived as a nation without engaging in conquest warfare. Nevertheless, the Biblical testimony also reveals that these conquest wars were used as a form of judgment against the nations conquered. Even though he does not answer all of the tough questions about war in the Old Testament, Craigie’s work serves as important foundational material that may help us develop a more credible perspective on this issue.

  1. I found this article interesting, however the book sounds like it leaves a lot of things out. In my studies of the Old Testament, which includes more than most Christian I believes, I’ve found (and not by my own thoughts, but by more intelligent men than me) God’s reasoning of warfare and more so, total destruction of races in the OT. Of course the reasoning for me, is acceptable, but for many, it is not because of their lack of belief in certain things, such as a spiritual world.
    However, God whole intent throughout the OT was in preparing the way for Christ in the NT, thus, any race that had the total annihilation of the Jewish race as their focus, must have been destroyed, if not, the Messiah would not have come out of Israel, as God had planned from the foundation of creation. But why exactly did the entire race have to be destroyed? In studying I have found one theory, which provides the Hebrew language scriptures as evidence, which says that fallen angels actually mated with the “daughters of man” and thus creating a race that was not clean and was not right. All the races that God commanded to be destroyed were descendants of these unions (includes Goliath and the Gaths), some might have heard of this theory. While it is in dispute, it does make sense. And of course if you don’t even believe in angels and demons and their interactions with humanity, nothing makes sense really. Okay, that’s my thoughts.


    Krist    Nov 15, 05:12 AM    #
  2. But why exactly did the entire race have to be destroyed? In studying I have found one theory, which provides the Hebrew language scriptures as evidence, which says that fallen angels actually mated with the “daughters of man” and thus creating a race that was not clean and was not right. All the races that God commanded to be destroyed were descendants of these unions (includes Goliath and the Gaths), some might have heard of this theory. While it is in dispute, it does make sense. And of course if you don’t even believe in angels and demons and their interactions with humanity, nothing makes sense really. Okay, that’s my thoughts.


    Krist    Nov 15, 05:17 AM    #
  3. We can no longer afford to follow a violent book such as the bible. It is the reason we have so much war in the world – following this false information put out to control people.


    Mariah    Nov 13, 01:02 PM    #
  4. Ive been a christian for 13 years. My battles with the old testament are increasing more and more. Your example, and please correct me if im wrong, its to say that the Old testament describes the preservation of Israel through violent means in order to prepare the way for the Jewish lineage of Christ. Just one issue, it seems that there was blood shed of how many thousands, possible millions, in order to fulfill old testament prophecy of the coming messiah? I dont understand the reasoning with a loving God who created the world, man sinned, God “chased” after man for thousands of years where he assisted in the slaughter or how many people for what exactly? It took how many thousand yeard (six i believe) to send Jesus to omit the previous covenant and establish a new one (although i hear God doesnt change).. Then i hear suppositions on races being formed through the mating of demons and women to form a deadly race (which by the way God ALLOWED) to then have them murdered? something he forsaw happening? I dont get it. The many times i hear christians use the word “makes sense” when referring to scriptured proves one thing. Christianity is completely subjective to a mans interpretation of scriptured which presents a problem, not with man, for God created rational beings, but with scripture itself. Help me understand because my faith hangs in the air and im about to let go, not of Christ, for him I LOVE, just religion.


    Maria Staats    Mar 30, 08:33 AM    #
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