More Like Prayer 3

Just war is the game nations play but John Howard Yoder argued it was not a game Christians were to play. Inevitably, as we’ve already seen in this series, someone asks about the wars of Israel in the Old Testament and, to strengthen the argument, connect God to the justification of war.

John Howard Yoder’s last book, published posthumously on the basis of his lectures in Warsaw (Poland), Nonviolence – a Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures , devotes a lecture to “From the Wars of Joshua to Jewish Pacifism.”

Here are the points he makes in this chp:

Two approaches: (1) In the age of Moses and Joshua, war was morally obligatory; Jesus tells us it was wrong. There are significant problems here. There’s a plot in the Bible, to be sure, but it’s not OT vs. NT, Jesus vs. Moses. (2) Some Jesus’ teachings were for the church alone or only for face-to-face relations. He finds both of these arguments “legalistic.”

So he examines the holy wars.

1. YHWH is a warrior.
2. The gods of the ANE religions were warriors.
3. YHWH alone was the warrior in the Red Sea, Jericho, Gideon and Jehoshaphat. The Israelites didn’t fight in these battles.
4. The essence of the Israelite response was to trust YHWH, not themselves and not in their military strategies.
5. Israel had to remain faithful to the covenant.
6. Holy wars ended with David, and the nature of war changed with David. It was connected now to the warriors in Israel.
(But this pattern changes within the pages of the Old Testament — seen in the ambivalence about their being a king and in the lack of political sovereignty under Ezra and Nehemiah. See below.)

But what about today? Do these apply to today?

First, he says, those battles were unique and they were commanded by God, and we’d need prophets to reveal holy wars for today. And, second, Jesus’ listeners knew of mighty deeds by God that led to victory, so his peace plan was not something unusual and utopian and unrealistic.

He then examines, and he’s known for this argument, how Judaism became peaceful within the pages of the Old Testament and developed a pacifistic stance by its end and then on into rabbinic Judaism. He contends that among Jews more than among Christians we find the pattern and practice of Jesus’ own teachings! Few doubt the pacificist ways of Judaism.

Ezra and Nehemiah established a nation without “political sovereignty” (79). Jeremiah showed how to live among the nations peacefully and seeking the welfare of the city wherein they existed. Rabbinic communities were non violent. Why?

1. Blood is sacred.
2. The Messiah is not yet come, but when Messiah comes it will be peace. So be peaceful now.
3. They learned from the Zealot experience not to go that way.
4. How God directs the Gentile world can be trusted but not always known.
5. Suffering has a place in the divine economy.

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  • Good series! Hopefully related to this is the thought that no nation can be a nation of God, or a Theocracy today, or in our lingo, a Christian nation.

    Maybe rabbinic Judaism has embraced a pacifism, but the state and nation of Israel most certainly has not. But in this present age and time it seems obligatory to at least have the means to defend one’s citizens from invading nations. (Romans 13) A most dangerous entity on earth might be a nation or political party or any entity which calls itself Christian or imagines itself Theocratic. Exception being para-church organizations (I work for one) and of course, churches.

    The church is the reality of the people of God today, certainly not meant to live on this world’s terms. To live in the world, while not of it, in and through Jesus. Walking in his way, following him. Which means carrying one’s cross, and never a sword.

  • This is a good series! I’m a pacifist and dont’ involve myself in civil politics, either. I pay my taxes because I believe that’s all a Christian is suppose to do with the government (give unto Caesar…). I would go further than Yoder and say that because God slowly reveal God’s self to the world, the Israelites misunderstood God’s character. So because the other nations god’s told them to fight, I guess ours does too. Doesn’t this sound similar to the “god tells us to be wealthy.” gospel? You hear in the scriptures what you want to hear. Of course, to accept this view I have, to have to have a historical critical view of Scriptures and not an inerrant view.

    @Ted, there are some that would argue even with Romans 13. They would look at the scriptures and say that we are to follow a government who only meets the description, and that there is NO government that does. The only who which does is God’s kingdom. We also have to put it to light that Paul was civilly disobedient and was thrown into jail a few times 🙂

  • DRT

    Does this reconcile with the current Jewish state?

  • Diane

    Again, hi Ted. And Amber, I agree with your comments. I believe the witness of Jesus and the early apostles is that we put down our carnal weapons. Period.

  • Travis Greene

    Does he address the possible non-historicity (or at least idealized history) of Joshua and Judges? Archaeological evidence does not support a Joshua-style utter conquest of Canaan, and Judges itself undercuts Joshua’s narrative in many ways. I don’t think that eliminates the moral question, but it does complicate it. And of course many will object to this line of questioning at all based on views of Scripture.

  • I agree with you on this and also that Yoder didn’t go far enough. He makes it clear about nations, Christians and wargames. But, God is strangely absent. Does God play wargames? I think Yoder is still trapped in a biblicist hermeneutic which won’t allow him to say what his peaceable logic demands: that the text itself is prey to our tribalism and beligerance.

  • JohnM

    I haven’t read Yoder, at what point did he believe Judaism became peaceful, and what did he make of Israel’s subsequent wars? Usually nations that discover pacifism have learned it form their conquerors.

  • Travis Greene


    “Usually nations that discover pacifism have learned it form their conquerors.”

    How so? Examples?

  • JohnM


    Japan, Germany for example. No, not entirely pacifist as they have armed forces, but both are mighty, and officially, reluctant to use them. If fact I believe the Japanese call theirs a “Self Defense Force”. Why don’t we adopt that concept by the way? Maybe the Jews after 70A.D. up until modern times. Somewhere I read someone posited that certain Christian traditions embraced pacifism only after coming out on the losing end of religious wars. Sorry about the “somewhere I read”, should do better than that and I’d try to find it now, but I running late.

  • Travis Greene


    Okay, that makes more sense. I’d call that “learning pacifism from being conquered”, not learning from the conquerors. And anyway it’s a more pragmatic kind of non-militarism that comes from seeing what war has gotten you, rather than a principled stance of nonviolence.

    It is true that churches born under persecution (Anabaptists, etc.) ended up as peace churches, and churches born under state protection (Luther, Calvin) end up just war churches. The counter-example is of course Roman Catholicism, but as an Anabaptist-minded Christian I’d argue that the early church *was* pacifistic and the move from the margins to the center of the empire drastically changed the character of the church.

    But I don’t think it’s the case (and I’m not saying this is what you’re implying) that people/churches/nations end up choosing pacifism as a kind of sour grapes after losing wars. I think it’s that those people often have a more true experience of what war actually is. I suspect a lot of Americans’ pro-war stance comes from the fact that we haven’t had a war on our soil in anything close to living memory.

  • Ben Steel

    Amber, are you saying that the Israelites and Joshua misunderstood God’s character in taking Jericho? How else do you read the Jericho story or other stories in that book other than the Israelites being faithful (or in the case of Achan not being fully faithful) God’s command to “take the city?” Doesn’t the end of chapter 6 at least question the validity of your comment when the author states that YHWH was with Joshua, after he had just done that military offense? Also, I would also counter that they were trying to be like other nations because they waged war unlike their neighbors. God told them to march around and not give out any war cry. This does not seem like any simplistic copy-cat like action that your statement seems to imply.

  • Mark Z.

    How else do you read the Jericho story or other stories in that book other than the Israelites being faithful (or in the case of Achan not being fully faithful) God’s command to “take the city?”

    How else do you read the September 11 attacks, other than Osama bin Laden being faithful to God’s command to kill Americans?

  • Ben Steel

    Well since I take the Old and New Testament Scriptures as the Word of God, I do have to wrestle with the what the Bible actually says, but I don’t have to wrestle with bin Laden’s words because they aren’t the Word of God, nor do they continue in the hermeneutical trajectory that the Bible teaches.

    Am I missing something here? Is it not this simple?

  • Mark Z.

    I don’t have to wrestle with bin Laden’s words because they aren’t the Word of God, nor do they continue in the hermeneutical trajectory that the Bible teaches.

    At the time Joshua supposedly received “God’s word”, it wasn’t in the Bible either. Therefore, he was wrong to conclude that it was God’s word.

  • David Johnson

    Regarding Romans 13:

    Why is it that Romans 13 is always deployed in an argument supporting warfare? Do we really see our wars as nothing but the natural course of events when our governments serve as “an agent of wrath to punish the evildoer”? Is that the only purpose our wars ever serve?

    Or is the statement “he does not bear the sword in vain” relate less to warfare than it relates to a nation’s responsibility to establish justice WITHIN its borders by the enforcement of laws? I notice that when Paul tells Christians to take no revenge in chp. 12, he tells them to “leave room for the wrath of God”—and goes on to tell those Christians to obey the law because “he does not bear the sword in vain” and “is an agent of wrath, to punish the evildoer”.

    It seems pretty clear to me that the usage of Romans 13 in support of Christian militarism is poor hermeneutics at best.