Old Testament, Militarism, and Idolatry

Old Testament, Militarism, and Idolatry November 13, 2012

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.


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