Warfare in the Old Testament

Previously: Greek poetry 

The first description in the Bible of how God’s chosen people (the ancient Israelites) treat defeated enemies comes in Numbers 31, when Moses is still leading them around in the desert. Specifically, they go to war with the Midianites, defeat them, and take the Midianite women and children hostage. Moses is upset by this. He thinks they let too many Midianites live. So he gives this command:

Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. (All quotations from the NRSV)

Deuteronomy gives us much more detail about how God’s chosen people make war in the form of a series of speeches supposedly given by Moses before the Israelites reached the promised land. Moses recounts how the Israelites took all the towns of King Sihon, leaving no survivors, and went on to take sixty towns in the kingdom of Og, again leaving no survivors. How the Israelites found so many towns to destroy while wandering in the wilderness is unclear (Deuteronomy 2:26-3:7).

Then Moses gives the Israelites some instructions for how to invade the Promised Land. There is a list of nations which they are to “utterly destroy” and “show no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). When they go to fight against a far off town, they are told to give the people a chance to surrender and become slaves first, and if the town refuses the Israelites are to kill all the men but may “take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town.” But when warring against other peoples living in the Promised Land, “you must not let anything that breathes remain alive” (Deuteronomy 20:10-18).

In case there was any doubt about the fate of women enslaved in wars against far away towns, Deuteronomy also says what to do if you want to marry a beautiful prisoner. She gets a month to mourn her parents (who you probably killed in the war), but finding out whether she wants to marry you is not part of the procedure (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

After Deuteronomy is Joshua, which tells in repetitious detail how Joshua went about carrying out Moses’ commands. Apparently, though, he wasn’t thorough enough, because in the time of King Saul, God had to order him to totally exterminate the Amalekites, including their livestock. Saul did a pretty good job of killing Amalekites, but he disobeyed God by keeping the Amalekite king Agag alive, along with some Amalekite livestock. This led to God rejecting Saul in favor of David. To drive this point home, the prophet Samuel cut Agag to pieces right in front of Saul.

In short, in the Old Testament God approves of, in fact commands, an approach to warfare that’s at least as awful as what’s portrayed in the Iliad and the Odyssey. And it is worth emphasizing that the fact that the Bible approves of rape is just as clear as the fact that Homer does. It’s impossible to miss–unless of course you’re theologically committed to missing it.

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  • MNb

    What’s more – this is exactly what we would expect if the Bible were man made some 2500 years ago. The stories are a pretty accurate description of actual warfare back then. I refer to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.
    Biblical literalists face a nice choice – either go back to the ethics of the Bronze Age or admit that there isn’t something called objective morals. Whenever you meet Jehovah’s Witnesses – they are pacifists – don’t forget to confront them with this choice. The results are amusing.

  • hf

    Wrote “show now mercy” when you mean the opposite.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Thanks. Fix’d!

  • Harry

    What is the problem here exactly?

    So God instructed people to carry out a brutal invasion – what is the problem with that?

    Your revulsion at such acts of brutality tells us nothing other than it revolts you, so what?

    Can God be or do wrong?

    If you answer “yes” then that implies God exists and you dissaprove of his morals, because how can something that doesn’t exist do wrong? If God does exist and you dissaprove of God’s morals then how can a created being gain the moral high-ground over that which did the creating?


    • YaronD

      “How can something that doesn’t exist do wrong?” , so I take it you don’t think fictional characters are capable of acting in ways which are wrong? It’s not wrong as long as nobody real does it? No book or movie villain ever does anything wrong or morally corrupt, and anyone who claims they’re “bad” or “evil” or “wrong” is mistaken?
      That’s… a pretty ridiculous claim to make. When you decide on your moral codes, and what is and isn’t acceptable for you, then you can judge any other behavior by it, regardless of whether the one performing the behaviour, or the acts themselves, are fictional or not.
      Hannibal Lecter can do no wrong?

      “how can a created being gain the moral high-ground over that which did the creating?” , so if for example I’ll discover that my father, or my mother, are serial killers, child rapists, or something of the sort, I have no grounds for disapproval because they created me? I have to be completely fine with that behavior, and shouldn’t have any objections to it?
      No children who live with abusive parents should ever even consider complaining, because the parents made them and so the children can never object to the parents’ morals?
      Or, heck, let’s take the analogy to a more accurate place, and say people some day manage to create real AIs. Would those new sentient beings, that were created by people, really couldn’t and shouldn’t have any issues with any moral failings of humanity?
      That one is also a pretty ridiculous claim. Whatever morals you hold apply regardless of whether the one doing the behaviour you judge is, or isn’t, the one who created you. Good behaviour is good even if it’s done by someone who didn’t create you, or even someone you don’t like. And bad behaviour is bad even if it’s done by someone who did create you, or someone you are otherwise greatly indebted to. If you think genocide, rape, slavery, murder, and robbery, are wrong, then whoever does them does wrong.