A Militant God
Then Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.” The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns. Numbers 21:2-3
There is a militant face of God that appears in the Old Testament where God seemingly participates in the destruction of an enemy. Sometimes God participates as the destroyer, where other times God empowers the army of one nation to overthrow another. In the passage from Numbers 21 above, God is asked to “give this people into our hands,” which means to wipe them out. Because the Israelites defeated the Canaanites in this particular battle, God received credit for the carnage. Stories like these turn some people, particularly those with a pacifistic bent, away from the Old Testament.
I, too, find the thought that God might actually take sides in a physical battle troubling. (I am also bothered by people who pray for their team’s victory in a sporting event.) My concern centers around two issues. First, I believe all people are created in the image of God and are loved by God as such. Second, the image of a militant God is inconsistent with the uncompromisingly non-violent persona of God embodied as Jesus the Christ in the New Testament.
While I realize the Bible was written from the perspective of the Israelites, I find the idea that God’s support or displeasure was revealed in the outcome of a war difficult to accept. Especially considering that in addition to the normal carnage of warfare, the women and children of the defeated group were often killed or enslaved. This is not to mention the plundering of everything of value. It seems that “winning” was not sufficient, but that total annihilation was somehow justified. When the Israelites were defeated in battle, the biblical authors attributed it to God’s “punishment” for their insolence. What troubles me is the implication that God would somehow participate in the annihilation of a human life God created and called good. I understand that our human sin separates us from God, but I believe God reaches out to us in our sin to pull us back, rather than brutally snuffing the life out of the sinner.
The Old Testament portrayals of God leading a nation into battle is, to me, contrary to the life of Jesus the Christ, God’s embodiment in human form. Jesus’ life was a model of non-violence. In his final human act on earth, he submitted to the violent and deadly actions of his captors. He allowed himself to be falsely accused, humiliated, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Surely, if there was a time for God to intervene in a violent way on behalf of innocent life, that would have been it. Instead of portraying a militant face of God, however, Jesus manifested a vulnerable, submissive face. He held up a mirror for humanity to view its own cruelty and inhumanity. Perhaps God was waiting for one of us to intervene…
Fortunately, I believe there are other ways to interpret the violence recorded in the Bible. We can read biblical stories literally and as historical documents, and we can also understand them allegorically. Perhaps the battles documented in the Bible represent the battles that go on inside of us. I know I am forever trying to “defeat” or “annihilate” something in myself that is detrimental to my life and the lives around me. I, like many of us, worship the idols of wealth, power, and possession, covet what belongs to my neighbor, and attempt to establish God in my own image instead of allowing God’s image to shape me. It is a constant combat to overcome my human frailties, and that is a battle I could see God taking sides in. By the way, I am all for praying before a sporting event, as long as the prayer is for the participants to show respect to their opponent and to act in ways that honor their status as children of God.
God does not seek destruction as much as the transformation of a curse into a blessing. That is a militant face of God I can rally behind.
Note: this is the seventeenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.