So-called “holy war” is all around us these days. Terrorists like ISIS believe they are waging a divine battle against the West. Some American patriots respond that God is on our side, not theirs. And often, ancient texts on conquest shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam provide a kind of grounding for this idea.
Can we use the Bible this way?
No, we can’t. And regardless of what you might hear in the media or at your local coffee shop, these wars today are not holy.
Let’s take a quick look at three ways Israel’s encounter with Canaan in the Old Testament—the paradigm for biblical holy war—is radically different from our modern conflicts today.
Weak vs. Strong
We tend to think of holy war as the strong using God to justify their conquest of the weak, but the Old Testament flips this picture on its head: God arises on behalf of the weak when the tyranny of the strong has raged for far too long.
Israel is a nation of slaves. Canaan and Egypt are the dominant imperial powerhouses of the ancient world, while Israel is the radical underdog, the last and least of the nations, a rag-tag crew who have had the boot of empire on their neck for centuries. God’s wilderness wanderers find themselves outgunned and outmanned, standing in the shadow of the ancient world’s superpowers.
And it isn’t like there was a stockpile of AK-47s waiting for them in the desert after they left Egypt.
Canaan has the most advanced weapons of the day: Their chariots can easily take out Israel’s foot soldiers; their horses can easily knock down Israel’s ground-fighters; their swords and spears can do long-range damage well before Israel’s sticks and stones come close. Canaan is a land of giants feasting off “the land of milk and honey” with high-tech steel armor to protect their bodies from any incoming blows.
Israel is a comparative nation of runts, marching in like ants under elephants’ feet, wearing the same ratty clothes they’ve wandered through the desert in for the last four decades.
Ancient Israel is storming Fort Knox with a water pistol. She’s like a lone kindergartner taking on the high school senior class with a Wiffle bat.
It is here that she learns to sing,
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (Psalm 20:7)
In light of the above, we need to get past this tendency to identify the West with ancient Israel as the people of God. We are not the weak and powerless underdog going up outgunned and outmanned against a mighty empire in the “land of giants”—we are the powerhouse today.
But are the terrorists the chosen underdogs in this battle scenario? Are they the weak like Israel going up against us as the strong? No, that doesn’t work either. Let’s consider why for a moment.
Israel’s strategies are ridiculous. If God doesn’t show up, they’re not really strategies at all. Take Jericho, for example, the gateway fortress into Canaan: heavily defended, surrounded by high walls, protected by a river and armed to the teeth.
So what brilliant military strategy is Israel going to use to take down Jericho? Fly planes into its walls? Use billions of dollars in oil money to equip guerrilla insurgents? Joshua waits for instructions and is finally told—wait for it—to march around its walls for seven days and blow trumpets.
Seriously? Can you imagine the Allied Forces of World War II storming the beaches of Normandy with—not guns—but musical instruments? Or Canadians and Mexicans marching along the US border with guitars and drums as an act of war?
This is not a battle strategy; it’s a recipe for disaster.
Unless God is the one leading the charge. These ridiculous battle strategies are not the exception but the norm, designed to highlight that God is the one really doing the fighting.
God is a warrior who is big enough to fight his own battles, without billions of dollars from international oil money. Who uses a visibly vulnerable, identifiable people rather than a scattered network of cowards taking potshots at civilians from the shadows. Who calls His people to stand defenseless on the open battlefield rather than crouch in the hidden darkness of caves.
What is the modern implication here? It’s that terrorists are not holy warriors, either.
Terrorists don’t need divine intervention; they are deceived into believing they are divine intervention.
The terrorist motto is “We will fight for God,” but ancient Israel flips this motto on its head, saying instead, “God will fight for us … if God doesn’t, we don’t stand a chance.”
“Not Because Of Your Greatness”
My final observation is that nations tend to justify their wars by the greatness of their civilization. “Victors write the history books,” the classic saying goes, meaning the winners always tend to depict themselves as strong, heroic, noble and brave.
But ancient Israel moves once again in the opposite direction. She constantly depicts herself as weak, fearful, idolatrous, unbelieving, dishonest and disobedient. Her history books remind her, it is not because of your greatness. (Deuteronomy 7:7; 9:4-6)
The Old Testament reads as if Israel hired a reporter to meticulously track all of her mistakes, weaknesses and shortcomings. Her history books are written almost as an “anti-ideology”: a glorying in the fact that things worked out in spite of how screwed up she was.
In modern struggles, this confronts both the Western powers and the terrorists in the tendency to use the greatness of their civilization to claim God in their corner of the fight ring. Politicians and pundits frequently point to our democratic ideals, our individualistic understanding of freedom, our Coca-Cola, computers and compact cars, to say, “Of course, God is on our side.”
Terrorists reactively point to our corruption, our debauchery, our history of exploitive meddling in Middle Eastern affairs and their vision of a civilization under their distorted understanding of divine law, to say, “Of course, God is on our side.”
Ancient Israel confronts us both, revealing once again: These wars today aren’t holy.
So if you want to fight a real holy war, here’s what you do:
Throw away your armor.
Burn your tactical training books.
Find the cheapest, most ineffective weapons you can.
Visit a drug rehab center to find military leaders with “issues.”
Hire a reporter to meticulously track all your flaws and failures.
Boast to your enemies about how backward your civilization is.
Go find the biggest, baddest superpower who will surely kick your tail.
Pick a fight.
Walk onto the middle of the battlefield.
Pray that God shows up.
I doubt any of us are going to sign up for a war like that—the West or terrorists—so let’s stop calling our wars holy. They may or may not be just, but a war is not truly holy unless God is the one actually doing the fighting.