Old Testament, Militarism, and Idolatry

This post is by Preston Sprinkle.

While it’s true that the Old Testament sanctions violence and warfare in some cases, it condemns militarism. Again, militarism is:

[T]he belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests.

Most Evangelicals who endorse militarism will turn to the Old Testament to prove that God sanctions military might. “It is a good thing,” writes Wayne Grudem in reference to Israel in the Old Testament, “when a government has enough military power to defeat the enemies who bring its armies to attack” (Politics, p. 388). Such a view, though ubiquitously held by Evangelicals, ignores what the Old Testament actually says about militarism. In fact, the Old Testament—with all its blood and guts, swords and spears—actually condemns militarism as defined by the New Oxford American dictionary above. Here’s how it goes.

Is militarism contrary to the Bible’s teachings?

First, while Israel had a very intricate economic system, there was no room to financially support a standing army. Not one ounce of Israel’s taxes went to fund a professional military, even though (or because) such taxation was common among other ANE nations. This was exactly the way God wanted it to be. Excess money should be used for religious purposes, or, primarily, for poverty relief. Not to fund and unnecessary and potentially dangerous (see below) standing army.

Second, and related, God did not allow Israel to have a professional, standing army—a body of soldiers who were trained, highly skilled, and armed to the teeth. If you look at the two passages that speak directly to Israel’s military policy (Deut. 17 and 20), you will see that Israel’s “military” (if we can even call it that), was by volunteer only. If anyone had recently been married, bought a home, or was simply afraid to go to war, they were automatically exempt from fighting. Furthermore, Deut. 17 and other passages forbid Israel from stockpiling superior weapons, such as war horses, chariots, and a large trained infantry. All of these are condemned in the Old Testament.

The intentional weakness of Israel’s army is put on bold display in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. This passage lays out God’s desire for the king of Israel and it deliberately strips the would-be king of all military might. Namely, the king would not be allowed to build a professional army (“he must not acquire many horses for himself”) nor can he make military alliances with other nations (Deut. 17:16-17). Depriving the king of all military strength would help ensure his faith in God rather than in military power, and would testify to the nations that Israel marches to the beat of a different military drum. They have a God in the heavens who guides and protects, who defends and delivers. They don’t need to supplement (or supplant) God with a human army. And when they did actually fight, God wanted them to remain a rag-tag group of weekend warriors, so that when they won (if they had faith in God) it would be clear to them and everyone else that victory belongs to Israel’s God, not Israel’s military.

This is why in several instances Israel was commanded to hamstring their enemies’ horses and burn their chariots (Josh 11:6, 9). Horses and chariots were the ancient version of tanks. They were superior weapons. The army with the most horses and chariots was bound to win the war. So when Joshua (and others) hamstrung horses and burned chariots, he destroyed their potential usefulness by Israel for further battles. It’s like killing an enemy with a knife and not taking his gun. And the reason is clear: “Superior weaponry was rejected, in order to demonstrate trust in Yahweh as warrior” (Lind, Warrior, 84).

Israel didn’t always reject building a professional army, however. Both David and Solomon beefed up their military might—including horses, chariots, and a massive infantry. And some people think that this justifies a modern stockpiling of military weapons, or waging “just wars” against other nations. But such use of Scripture ignores one very important point: David and Solomon are rebuked for beefing up their military might. Such is the sad ending of David’s life, when he’s criticized for having a standing army (cf. 2 Sam 24) and far being a man of bloodshed (1 Chron. 28).

Throughout the Old Testament, MILITARISM was seen as fundamentally NOT trusting in God. And the prophets have a well-known term for this: idolatry (Isa 22; Ps. 147:10-11; cf. Ps. 33:16-22; 44:4-8).

The Bible consistently—and quite graphically—considers militarism as something the nations pursue but something God’s people should never due. God’s people should never be seduced into trusting in military might to achieve anything. And such warfare “like the nations” is tantamount to spiritual prostitution, according to the prophets. Ezekiel considers military alliances as “playing the whore with the Egyptians” (16:26) and “prostitut[ing] yourself with the Assyrians” (16:28 NLT). “Shock and Awe” displays of military power are worthy of inhabitants of Hell (or the “netherworld,” Ezek. 32:23-32). Isaiah considers military might to be mere “flesh” and character traits of evildoers and workers of iniquity (Isa. 31:2-3; Amos 1-2). Waging war like the surrounding nations—bigger, stronger, more powerful, more fearsome—is equivalent to prostituting yourself out to sex-hungry lovers, while paying your clients for their addictive services. Crude language, I know, but that’s just what the Bible says about such infatuation with military prowess.

I’ve only scratched the surface, and I’ll fill in the details more thoroughly in my new book on violence and warfare in the Bible (titled: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence). But for now, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we applied Israel’s military policy to today. It’s common for Bible believing military personnel to use the Old Testament to support a certain warfare policy. But what would happen if they went all the way and took God as His full word? America’s military, for example, would be by volunteer only and would not be funded by taxation. America would not stock pile superior weapons—no tanks, drones, F-22s, and of course no nuclear weapons—and it would make sure its victories were determined by God’s miraculous intervention, not by military might. Rather than outnumbering our enemy, we would deliberately fight out manned and under gunned—perhaps we could use muskets, or maybe just a few swords. There would be no training, no boot camp, no preparation, other than fasting, praying, and singing worship songs (2 Chron 20). If America really was the “new Israel,” God’s holy nation (as some believe; I don’t) or the nearest equivalent, then we need to take our queue from God and his inspired manual for military tactics. But as it stands, many Christians will be content to cut and paste selected verses that align with America’s worldview to give our military some religious backing. Some call this bad hermeneutics, others call it syncretism. The Israelite prophets called it idolatry.

But that’s the Old Testament. The New Testament actually praises military might in Romans 13, doesn’t it? Stay tuned for the next (and last) post. I’ll offer some thoughts on Romans 13.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    So good … And when does your book on this come out?

  • Mick Porter

    Excellent post! Sounds like Preston’s book will be very worthwhile.

  • Rick Dykema

    “But as it stands, many Christians will be content to cut and paste selected verses that align with America’s worldview to give our military some religious backing. Some call this bad hermeneutics, others call it syncretism. The Israelite prophets called it idolatry.”

    There is so much value in these short sentences!

  • Sam

    Agreed. Well said and well research. However, I can’t help but wonder if your (surely correct) survey of military issues in the OT provides a helpful model for any other nations. You seem to simply assume that what applies to the nation of Israel applies to all other nations. I don’t, and this seems like a glaring mistake. It is the exact same mistake that other make when assuming the OT is militaristic, and quote endless passages in favor of American elitism and militarism. The mistake is in the correspondence between “theocratic” Israel (whatever that means) and nations which cannot claim any direct divine intervention and involvement in their formation. What is that difference? This is going beyond the definition of Israel and America. There is an assumed hermeneutic here that seems to me incorrect. If you could clarify…

    And I’m looking forward to the book too.

  • Michael Teston

    “But as it stands, many Christians will be content to cut and paste selected verses that align with America’s worldview to give our military some religious backing. Some call this bad hermeneutics, others call it syncretism. The Israelite prophets called it idolatry.”

    There is so much value in these short sentences!

    Scot & Rick nailed this.

    The dirty secret is . . . militarism is bankrupting the USofA. Period. At a recent college Football game (another form of power and violence that impresses the imagination of young persons) two USAF Fighter’s flew over at the end of the National Anthem. The young men beyond me were literally coming unglued with excitement. The noise and power of the machinery was something that went to their core, “Go USA” was their response over and over again. They were overwhelmed. As a former airman, I get it. Make no mistake, that kind of “power” is absolutely addicting and stimulating. Human being’s are easily addicted to such power. Unfortunately human beings are destroyed by such power.

  • mason

    as you say…there is only one problem..America is not Israel. America is a nation…i think we have a tendency to confuse the two. Governments have the right to brandish the sword (Romans 13) in order to keep justice. i guess another question is “should followers of Jesus be involved in government or the military?” the centurion was not condemned in Acts nor in the Gospels..never told to leave his job..only to follow Jesus…with a lot of CHristians in government jobs there is a need for a discussion on that as well..

  • Joe Canner

    mason #5: Brandishing the sword in order to keep justice (i.e., a police force) is quite different from maintaining an army and stockpiling weapons to defend the country against its enemies (real and imagined).

  • Jerry

    I second Mason (#6)–we are not Israel. We were probably closer to that “dream” in our founding years with a largely volunteer force. Today we are more like Rome. Our government since WWII has largely taken a Realist perspective to international relations. In this we are in line with most of history–think Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Clausewitz, etc. This doesn’t make it right or without sin–but it describes how it is in our world. I appreciate Preston’s idealistic vision but won’t hold my breath. In the meantime, there are probably some practical things we can do moderate our militarism and it begins with fiscal restraint.

  • Norman

    Sam and Mason are taking this dialogue the right direction. Israel failed as a Heavenly government on earth and it was removed and now the government rest on High in the Heavenlies. That was part of the purpose of the OT demonstration to illustrate to the faithful that ultimately their highest allegiance to a Nation State no matter how theocratic it was designed would not work.

    I’m afraid the author is usurping a context that was designed for a different purpose than perhaps his intent.

    And Yes Joe #7 over stockpiling and running roughshod over peoples is not in the best interest of America either. However we tried the pacifist route somewhat before WWII but then Pearl Harbor and the Huns showed up and we had to adapt. Perhaps we over adapted is our problem and it needs correcting.

  • Dave

    Thanks for this post. I am definitely opposed to militarism, especially to the extent it has taken hold in the US, and not just in Christian circles. I agree with the comment that it is one of the MANY things bankrupting our country.

    I do have a question about this, though: “Excess money should be used for religious purposes, or, primarily, for poverty relief.”

    As one who is active in working in poverty elimination efforts, I am for poverty relief, but wonder about this statement. He makes the argument that people take OT verses out of context to make a case for militarism (i.e., the government control of funding and build-up of a standing army for defending nat’l interests). So, my question is, and this is an honest question, not snarky: Are we also taking OT verse out of context when we apply them to modern poverty relief (i.e., the government control of funding and build-up of programs for what seem to be political gains/interests)? Are the OT verses that support helping those in poverty able to be applied to money taken by taxation (with its implicit and often explicit threat of force) in a modern context?

  • Phillip

    I agree that the OT Law and narratives often move toward reduction of Israel’s military might, mostly, I think, to teach Israel to trust the LORD, who will fight for them. However, I think the readings of David and Solomon are off, and the author says more than he can in attempt to support his claim. While it is possible that 2 Sam 24 is a critique of David for wanting to build up the military, that is not at all certain. The text does not really say what the problem is with the census, other than the LORD incited (or Satan in 1 Chron) David to do it. In the story of David under blessing (2 Sam 1-10), David has a standing army under Joab, the Kerethites and Pelethites (a personal bodyguard or mercenary soliders), and establishes garrisons in other lands. All of this is viewed as affirmation that God is with David. And Solomon is nowhere in 1 Kings critiqued for his chariots and horses (unless one reads an implicit critique). They are seen as part if his glorious reign because of God’s blessing him and his kingdom. One can read Deut 17 as a critique of Solomon (as many do), but that is not clear. And the things prohibited in the Deut law of the king represent what any king might pursue. My only point here is that the author seems to press texts into service of his point that do not clearly support it, which is what he says others do who claim the OT supports militarism.

  • http://gracerhythmsunforced.blogspot.com/ josenmiami

    excellent post, I could not agree more! U.S. interventionism, especially in the 1950s (Iran and Guatemala) have had unfortunate and unintended consequences that have led to serious international problems. He who “lives by the sword dies by the sword.” If we as a nation had taken a less militaristic route after 9-11, we could have spent a trillion dollars on border security and we would have maintained the good will and support of most of the nations on earth. Just sayin ….

  • Percival

    I was with Sprinkle on his first post, but I have some reservations about this one. I think this is a case of over-egging the pudding – trying to improve on something and you end up ruining it.
    1) The definition of militarism. I don’t think it reaches the level of idolatry by maintaining a strong military and being ready to use it, as the author defines it. Militarism becomes idolatry when it becomes glorified and/or is a tool for subjegation of the weak.
    2) Having a standing professional army and stock-piling weapons was not the root problem. The root problem was lack of trust in YHWH to protect them and their desire to be like the conquering nations around them. As others have pointed out, the US is not Israel and is not held to a covenant with God has the national King.
    3) Just because an institution was not supposed to exist in the OT, we are not supposed to have it now? Really? No police, banks, fire departments, universities, companies, stock markets, etc.?
    4) Not having a standing army is one way to limit the oppressive power of a government and to reduce the temptation to invade neighbors; however, a professional army is one way of controlling the lawlessness of armies and of protecting civilians from their looting, raping, and generally being out of control.

    I’m beginning to suspect that Sprinkle’s agenda is more about pacifism than the idolatry of militarism.

  • SamB

    Dave in 10: I think reading about the jubilee sabbaths might help. I guess you may already be aware of these but would like to understand how this should be understand in a modern context? It seems from the Biblical witness that God is not adverse to taxes to redistribute income for justice sake. Sometimes friends tell me that God loves a cheerful giver. I agree that he does. But I am reminded he commands us to care for the poor and to stand with the marginalized and oppressed over and over in the Bible. He commands us but doesn’t force us. So we are free to obey or not. But I think Bonhoeffer makes a lot of sense when he says we can’t be disciples of Jesus at the point that we choose in our freedom to not obey. At that point, we are not following Christ. If enough of us choose to not obey Jesus on a point, then there is a much feebler witness to Jesus’ prescense in our neighborhoods. This is a disaster. I am very convicted personally about Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. And I understand why Bonhoeffer only considered himself a Christian after being “converted” by those teachings.

  • Paul

    Sam, Mason, & Norman,

    I don’t think the author is taking Israel out of context & applying it to the US today. I read the author of the post as saying the following: using the OT for Christian support of militarism is problematic because the OT doesn’t support militarism for Israel. I think the author would agree that Israel is not the same as the US & should not be used to support militarism. I think he could pose the hermeneutical argument as a reason why (theocracy vs democracy), but in this post Sprinkle seems to be focusing more on the issue of consistency…the OT doesn’t support militarism for anyone (especially Israel). As a result, Christians who support militarism should not use the OT to support their arguments. Hermeneutics would only back this conclusion up from another angle.

    This is how I read the post anyway.

  • Jeremy

    It seems that the “we’re not Israel” arguments are kinda missing the point. The problem HERE isn’t a conflation of the US and Israel, but the “Christian nation” narrative that many evangelicals espouse. If militarism is contra all biblical examples of a nation devoted to YHWH, then we have a problem….then again, all of those folks I know only seem to be using it as a prop for their “personal freedoms” and hyper-capitalistic worldview.

  • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

    So many good thoughts to respond to here. I’ll do my best, but certainly can’t answer all the question and pushbacks.

    Jeff (#1), Aug 2013

    Sam (#4), no, I don’t believe it does. It’s unique to the theocratic nation of Israel. The stuff on Israel’s military will have implicit bearing on the kingdom of God in the NT. The kingdom is not a theocratic nation-state, of course, but, like Israel of old, is to embody God’s rule on earth. Much more to say on this, but perhaps my comments below will draw it out.

    Most other comments (e.g. 6-10) catch most of what I said, but let me make something clear. My main point was to push back on the way the church views America while using the OT, not to argue for some political tract for how America should go about its wars and police action. The last couple paragraphs were trying to follow the line of thought of those that blur the distinction between the kingdom of God and kingdom of Obama.

    So, for instance, Dave said: “I do have a question about this, though: ‘Excess money should be used for religious purposes, or, primarily, for poverty relief.’” And then “Are we also taking OT verse out of context when we apply them to modern poverty relief (i.e., the government control of funding and build-up of programs for what seem to be political gains/interests)?”

    This is a very good question and I appreciate the genuineness and “unsnarkiness” of the question (others take note). The quick answer is no. Not at all. I don’t think we can or should apply Israel’s mandates to any nation today. They were a theocracy and Argentina or America are not. What I would say is that there are principles both in Israel’s warfare policy and economic system that have implications (not direct application) for the people of God (i.e. new Israel) today. Israel’s radical economics (not specific economic system) should be reflected in the church today (and it was: Acts 2, 4; 2 Cor 8-9; et al.). Perhaps my post wasn’t clear on this.

    Phillip (#11). Very good counterpoints. For what it’s worth, I have a large section dealing with David and Solomon. I would want to distinguish between the “is” and the “ought”–what happened vs. what God wanted to happen. As you probably know, biblical narrators (esp. in DtrH) often reveal what happened without making explicit judgment about whether or not it was good. So with king Solomon, read against the backdrop of Deut 17, Salomon’s stockpiling of horses, chariots, and a large military force was a departure from, not tantamount to, God’s ideal. As for David, here’s a piece of what I said, albeit in rough draft form!

    “But something happens later on. Power breeds violence, which breeds more violence and more power. As David continues to wage war against his enemies, he slowly—like Saul—drifts into a “David-centered” warrior king. In his later battles with the Philistines, instead of God striking down David’s enemies (2 Sam. 5:24), it’s now “David” who “defeated the Philistines and subdued them” (8:1). In fact, 2 Samuel 8 summarizes David’s wars and is much more “David-centered” than God-centered. God is only mentioned two times in the chapter. By now David has built a professional army including a few chariots (8:4, 16), and uses excessive violence toward his own ancestors in battle (2 Sam. 8:2). David has become less concerned with defending the Land and more concerned with extending his kingdom to make a name for himself (2 Sam. 8:13-14). And in 2 Samuel 10, another summary of David’s wars, God’s involvement is left out completely; the wars are no longer sanctioned by God. By 2 Samuel 11-12, David is now waging wars just like the nations—besieging a city outside the land, boasting in his kingly might, and possibly even torturing its inhabitants (2 Sam. 12:26-31). The king who once acknowledged that “the LORD saves not with sword and spear” (1 Sam. 17:47) will turn to sword and spear, instead of to God, for his military strength. Like Saul before him, David becomes a warrior-king like the nations.

    Using David’s military exploits to sanction modern “just wars” is a haphazard use of the Bible. Just because it happened—David torturing his enemies—doesn’t mean it ought to happen. Professional army, wars unrelated to the land, and king-centered warfare—all of these, as we have seen, do not reflect God’s warfare policy for Israel. God’s critical assessment of David’s military prowess is therefore fitting: “You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth” (1 Chron. 22:8; 28:3).

    Percival (#13), sorry I lost you, my friend. For what’s it’s worth, I don’t think I’m trying to push an “agenda.” (I read Yoder and Haurwas for the first time 2 months ago. I was please to see Yoder, at least, agree with me on many points :) ) But yes, I would be a qualified “pacifist” (though I don’t like the term and won’t use it in my book, since it’s not a distinctively Christian identity). To your points:

    1) I’m fine with modifying my definition of militarism. I just nicked it from the web out of convenience. If you have a better definition, I’d love to hear it. Heck, I may end up using it! In any case, it seems that the OT does condemn militarism as idolatrous. I’m not sure (or maybe I’m just not convinced of) where the disagreement is on this point.

    2) I agree with this. Did my post sound like I didn’t? I would put myself among the list of those “others” who “have pointed out, the US is not Israel and is not held to a covenant with God has the national King.”

    3) Also misses the point. In short, when Evangelicals support the militarism of the US, they depart from what the OT says about militarism. Saying this doesn’t mean that I don’t think America should have banks and fire-departments.

    4) “a professional army is one way of controlling the lawlessness of armies and of protecting civilians from their looting, raping, and generally being out of control.” If this is true, then why didn’t Israel have one? In any case, again, I wasn’t saying that nations shouldn’t have a police force. The OT doesn’t give some absolute political vision for all nations. I didn’t think I was saying this.

    Honestly, I’m slightly confused at how you took my post to be arguing for these things, but, as always, perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. For future, I’ll try to improve my rhetoric to avoid such misunderstanding. So thanks for the comments.

  • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

    Paul (#15), this is exactly what I was trying to say. Thank you, brother, for the substitutionary clarification ;)

  • http://drawntotorah.wordpress.com Jon Phillips

    I absolutely agree that America is not Israel. And Israel is still Israel. I’m looking forward to your post on what the N.T. says. That would be a more appropriate model I think, considering what God what God desires from the Nations (Gentiles), ie. peace, love your enemy, etc. Non-violence is ideal but there are times when self-defense is necessary. (Of course, politicians can define self-defense with broad strokes and big defense budgets, too!)

  • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

    BTW, for my more negative reading of Solomon, here’s a good commentary who argues for it:

    http://www.amazon.com/1-Kings-Iain-W-Provan/dp/156563053X/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1352822673&sr=8-3-fkmr0&keywords=commentary+1+and+2+kings+v+philips+long

    Also, check out Danny Hays’ article:

    “Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or to Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28.2 (December 2003): 149-74.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been reading 1 Kings 1-11 this way long before I was a (cough, cough) quasi-pacifist. It just seems so darn clear from the text, esp. 1 Kings 3:1-3. I’d have to go back and check, but It’d be interesting to see how the Chronicler whitewashes Solomon and see whether or not he (Chronicler) includes Salomon’s military might. If he doesn’t, then I think my point would be strengthened…

  • http://parablemania.ektopos.com/ Jeremy Pierce

    It strikes me that, if it’s an error to assume the U.S. is like Israel in arguing for right-leaning political views, then it’s also an error to assume the U.S. is like Israel in arguing for left-leaning political views, which is what this post basically does. The reason Israel, as God’s chosen people, was forbidding from behaving the way a nation that isn’t God’s chosen people should pursue justice is because God had set them aside to demonstrate something different. But it’s clear in the NT (see esp. Rom 13) that God endorses the use of the sword for the pursuit of justice, and this is specifically in talking about governments that are not God’s chosen people (indeed, those persecuting Christians). So there’s no justification for applying the ban on horses and such to the United States. I’m no fan of how easily Grudem finds support for political views in the pages of scripture, but this is the exact same error.

  • Percival

    Jeremy & Paul,
    You are right that he is not saying that we need to apply Israel’s context to the US today. He stated that explicitly. At the same time, he is also trying to say that the Bible speaks to the US context, and specifically to Christians.

    “THE BIBLE CONSISTENTLY—and quite graphically—considers militarism as something the nations pursue but something GOD’S PEOPLE should never due(do?). GOD’S PEOPLE should never be seduced into trusting in military might to achieve ANYTHING. ”
    And,
    “Excess money should be used for religious purposes, or, primarily, for poverty relief. Not to fund and unnecessary and potentially dangerous (see below) standing army.”
    And,
    “But what would happen if they went all the way and TOOK GOD AT HIS FULL WORD? America’s military, for example, would be by volunteer only and would not be funded by taxation. America would not stock pile superior weapons …”

    It seems he wants his argument from scripture to nullify the “christian” argument for a strong US military (which it does), but he also wants it to argue for the opposite view (which it does not). He is implying that if we (who is “we”?) take God at His full word, we will work to reduce US military spending in favor of social programs, and that the military can serve no good purpose. This is strongly implied in his argument and I suspect the coming posts will make it explicit. We may just have to wait and see, though.

    Jeremy #16,
    Do we have to go there? Is the problem really that many Christians firmly believe in freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc? Hyper-capitalism? What is that, and how is it relevant? One idol at a time, please.

  • CGC

    Hi Jeremy,
    I hope Preston responds to you but you seem to be mixing apples and oranges here and simply putting Preston in a certain camp to suggest he is doing what everybody else is doing which I don’t see at all!

  • Paul

    Percival,

    The original post says: “Most Evangelicals who endorse militarism will turn to the Old Testament to prove that God sanctions military might”

    I think you and I are reading the original post differently and are coming to very different conclusions as a result. I see the post as exploring what the OT says about government & what would happen IF Christians desired to use the OT as our support for how American government should operate (consistently use the entire OT text and not simply a few verses/stories). Therefore I see the post as giving good evidence as to why Christians should not look to the OT as support for militarism in America today.

  • Patrick

    Jeremy,

    Congratulations on seeing the “middle term”. Good thinking, IMO.

  • Percival

    Preston,
    I posted my comment #22 before I was able to read your gracious reply in #17.

    I may have argued more against what you seemed to imply rather than what you explicitly stated. On one hand, your view is that looking at ancient Israel militarism for support of American militarism is not an argument that should be used (which I agree with), but you also seemed to imply that it is an argument that cuts both ways and the Biblical case is that military is useless or should be much smaller.

    As for the definition of militarism that you quoted, it does not address idolatry. It is political.

    [T]he belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests.

    “Defending national interests” is a loaded phrase. Some people see oil fields. Some people see democracy. Some people see human rights. Some see preventing genocide and the spread of totalitarianism.

    My suggestion was as follows:
    “Militarism becomes idolatry when it becomes glorified and/or is a tool for subjegation of the weak.”

  • Percival

    Having two Jeremy’s here is confusing. One of you needs to change your name. :-)

  • Jeremy B.

    No kidding. I have no idea who’s responding to who post-21. Anyway, wasn’t trying to “go there” per se. More pointing to the narrative I live around, which is strongly conservative, strongly Republican and thoroughly enmeshed with this idea that we are a “Christian” nation and any departure from the party line will result in God’s judgement. This neglects the fact that most of the OT is exclusively speaking to Israel and glosses over a whole bunch of other problems with their ideology.

    Anyway, didn’t mean to over-expand the conversation. It’s just that my Facebook newsfeed is chock full of terribly interpreted, somewhat passive-aggressive applied scripture verses at the moment. I love my friends and family, but my patience and self-control is being sorely tested at the moment! heh

  • Bill

    Not sure we have complete agreement on the definition of militarism. Having a strong and dependable military to defend yourself is not idolatrous in and of itself. If it becomes a nation’s driving force to have a strong military at the cost of practically everything else, then you have an idol.

    I am still not convinced that American Evangelicals embrace the US miitary to this extent. Some do I think; but not as a whole group. We have a great military but it doesn’t follow that it is an idol to evangelicals. Some of us may like our military and its ability to defend our borders, trade routes and our citizens overseas and our allies. It doesn’t follow that it is an idol.

    The king in the OT was denied the ability to command his own army. Fine. The army in the OT was designed to defend Israel’s borders and territory not take an imperialistic approach to territorial control and influence.

  • Jeremy B.

    Not sure, Bill. Anecdotal, of course, but my experience is that many of my Right-leaning friends are absolutely positive that any lowering in US military strength will result in horrible things and advocate the use of military action on just about everything (LOTS of calls for war over the Benghazi incident). They are also convinced that Iraq was justified if only because it meant “they” were too busy fighting over there to attack us here. We are thoroughly militaristic to the point that we often believe the rest of the West gets to be doves only because we are the “sentries at the gate” willing to employ violence to resolve the world’s problems.

    Again, this is my experience growing up in the South and now in everyone’s favorite desert state, Arizona.

  • http://mikesnow.org Michael Snow

    Dr. Sprinkle [he certainly cannot be a Baptist with that name!] has an excellent series, Christians and Violence, here: http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2012/05/14/christians-violence-part-1/ and another series there on the OT ‘herem”(ban). No doubt excellence will mark his piece on Romans “13.” This outline helps with the context of that ‘chapter’: http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/romans-13-in-context/

  • Percival

    Jeremy B. #28,
    I hear you brother. I got defriended on Facebook because I questioned someone’s post that said we should all go out and “Vote Pro-God tomorrow!”
    Sheesh!

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Thank you for posting here, Preston. I look forward to engaging your book more deeply once it’s published!

    You made a couple of remarks about David that had me wondering if you’d investigated the “clean hands” metaphor in the OT. If you recall, David wasn’t permitted to build God’s temple because his hands weren’t clean, and in the psalms and other history/prophetic books, “clean” specifically meant not bloody (with the blood of other humans, in battles). Your work helps further clarify God’s response to him!

    Jeremy Pierce #21, I disagree w/ your reading of Romans 13 per Glen Stassen’s Kingdom Ethics, in which he referenced German theological studies of this particular passage since it had been so thoroughly misappropriated during the Nazi years. Somewhere, I have the article reference, I think – if you read German!

  • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

    Jeremy (the one in #21),

    Thanks for the response. I’m not sure if you have followed my clarification in my comment #17 (and in several other comments), but let me again clarify. Here’s your points:

    “if it’s an error to assume the U.S. is like Israel in arguing for right-leaning political views, then it’s also an error to assume the U.S. is like Israel in arguing for left-leaning political views, which is what this post basically does.”

    I certainly didn’t intend to say that, and I don’t think my post can be taken to say that. All I was saying, as many have rightly concluded, is that you can’t go to the OT to use statements about Israel in defense of US militarism. In fact, the opposition is true. The OT condemns militarism. That was my basic point. To say that I’m using the OT to argue for some left-leaning political views (which is funny since I’ve never voted for anyone other than Republicans, but that’s beside the point) is bewildering. The OT condemns militarism. Period. Let’s close in prayer.

    “it’s clear in the NT (see esp. Rom 13) that God endorses the use of the sword for the pursuit of justice,”

    I’d question the word “endorse” here, any more than God endorsed Assyria or Babylone when He used them to punish Israel (722, 586 B.C.). But I’ll talk about that in the next post.

    “So there’s no justification for applying the ban on horses and such to the United States. I’m no fan of how easily Grudem finds support for political views in the pages of scripture, but this is the exact same error.”

    “Exact same error?” Again, I’d encourage you to go back and read the post. I’m more than willing to change stuff for the sake of clarity. I really mean that. And I certainly will. But I’m pretty sure you missed the point I was making.

    Percival (# 26),

    Thanks for the helpful ways of refining “militarism.” I may adjust my definition for future use.

    I will say, though, that my argument doesn’t need “idolatry” in the meaning of militarism. I’m only wanting to point out that militarism (even given my original definition) is condemned as a source of idolatry in the OT. We may be speaking past each other, I don’t know.

    Bill (#29),

    Thanks for the feedback. In response to your statement: “Having a strong and dependable military to defend yourself is not idolatrous in and of itself. If it becomes a nation’s driving force to have a strong military at the cost of practically everything else, then you have an idol.”

    Hmmmm…I guess it depends on what criteria you are using to determine this. According to the OT, having a strong and dependable military was banned from the beginning. Heck, having any professional military was banned. So I’m pretty sure Moses would disagree with you. And, according to the OT, God didn’t say: you can have a military but just don’t let it lead to idolatry, and if it doesn’t lead to idolatry, then it’s ok. He banned the whole project from the beginning and went on to identify militarism (as distinct from a mere military) as the fruit of an idolatrous heart.

    But again–and I need to make this clear–I’m not therefore saying that Iceland, Iran, or America shouldn’t have a military to defend itself against invaders. I’m only saying that the OT can’t be used to garner divine support for having a strong military. It’s a narrow point I’m making, to be sure. But one that’s rarely made.

    Michael (#31), good to hear from you! Ya, I’m actually not a Baptist, though I am baptistic albeit Reformed. Thanks for the links to my previous posts. I might have changed a few things between the time I wrote them and now, but ya, they lay out a few extra points.

    Ann F-R (# 33) thanks for your kind words. I wonder if my next post will agree with Glen’s take. I sure hope so :)

  • Jeremy B.

    Just as a small suggestion! I wouldn’t fiddle with the definition of militarism too much. Some of the posts here seem to be attempted to win by definition. It means what it means and if that makes us uncomfortable, so much the better!

  • Norman

    For me the discussion is not a question about the right of Nations to properly have standing armies to defend themselves as that seems self-evident as a practical and coherent observation of history.

    The question about whether one can use the OT to defend such ideas appears to be at stake in the posters presentation; and as has been presented earlier it depends upon context of the intent of the scriptures and what they are presenting in the big picture which is up for debate whether the pacifist agrees or not. It’s easy to present biblical discussions by taking scriptures literally and applying them contextually in a manner that can fit a physical paradigm but to do so is to overlook the broad historical expanse of OT and NT critical analysis. The church has taken missteps in this arena for hundreds of years and it’s an old mistake that still lives on.

    I also think those who attempt to rationalize away a clear understanding of how Paul viewed the purpose and intent of Government and their use of the sword in Rom 13 possibly get a little too cute with their spin as they attempt to discredit contradictory positions to an extreme pacifist ideology. I don’t have a problem with pacifism per se and thus having a Christian influence upon the violent nature of Governments gone amok but I do have a problem with overly simplistic ideology that only works in Ivory Towers of thought.

    We can have this discussion about the purity of living a pacifist ideology until the cows come home but the first Gentile encounter Jesus had was with a truly faithful Roman Centurion that Christ held up as an example that Israel’s leaders weren’t meeting and this was before Christ was lifted up. Next we have the first Gentile converts via Peter and it again happens to be a Roman Centurion whose faith, kindness and generosity was famous among the Jews and there is no commentary that either one of them were used to make examples of by quitting their profession as military men. Attempting to assume they had to change doesn’t measure up when there are no overt supporting suppositions indicating the need for them to do so.

    As I stated before the government of righteousness moved away from the physical National model as ineptly portrayed by Israel as an example to all Nations. Now the Government of faith is found above where Christ rules unencumbered by the strictures of mortal imperfections. That Government was no threat to Rome as Christ told Pilate as it was not about physical governments. That Government indeed does not require standing armies and never will. So defending that Government indeed depends upon it being upheld by God without our need to fight crusader wars. If you follow the language carefully and recognize the symbolism in the OT it becomes clear that in Christ coming Kingdom there is indeed a turning of swords into plowshares . Overly literalizing these concepts though does not seem biblical or rational.

    I thought I would throw out a movie quote with a few word changes just for fun from “A few Good Men”. We pick up the caricature of Colonel Jessep speaking the frustration of his ideology against his perceived pacifist antagonist. There is tension it seems from both directions and thus the debate between the Pacifist and the so called militarist is a needed one and will always need to have a living tension mediating the extremism of both sides.

    Col. Jessep: Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You Pacifist.? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You Pacifist weep , and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That death, while tragic, probably saves lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. ….

    On by the way I recommend a two part Focus on the Family interview this week (Nov 12) titled “Evangelism on the Battlefield (Part 1 of 2)” with Army Captain Chris Plekenpol who formerly was also a leader of 100 men in Iraq and now is a pastor.


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