God as Judge

The Why of Violence in the Old Testament

The stories of war and violence carry a prominent role in the books of Joshua and Judges.  Hackett comments that, “There is hardly a single narrative that is not concerned with violence of some sort:  battles, as well as individual killings; kidnappings; threats; even human sacrifice; and the list goes on.”[1]  As one reads the graphic details of these accounts, one has to question how a loving God can let these apparent atrocities happen.  Many people do not have a problem with these bloody details because they “spiritualize” the war and tend to describe it as “victory of those totally committed to God.”[2]  However, this practice is morally irresponsible to the text, and we have to understand the text for what it says.[3]  So, an astute reader should ask some questions when coming to the text such as:  Is there a reason that God can let and sometimes even sanction these things to happen?  And, what is God’s role in all of this?

            The issue becomes clearer when one realizes that when Israel engaged in war, it was not done hastily or haphazardly, but they engaged in warfare because God was using Israel to judge the other nations for their wickedness.  God spoke to Israel in Deuteronomy 9:5 and said, “It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you…”[4]  The author of Deuteronomy is careful to point out that God gives moral reasons for driving out and exterminating the nations.[5]  Because God is the creator of the universe, He is the foundation of these moral laws and that “whatever qualifies as ‘divine’ punishment must be understood as punishment that is appropriate and/or required by the ultimate standards of conduct and justice.”[6]  Amos 1:3 declares, “Thus says the Lord, “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment, because they threshed Gilead with implementsof sharp iron.”[7]  This verse tells us that God will punish Syria not because of specific religious reasons, but because they broke commonly accepted norms of justice.[8]  Other nations had this idea of divine punishment also.  Surrounding nations thought that if they were to do something morally wrong such as break an agreement they would get punished by one of their gods.  Mursilis was a Hittite king (1340-1310 B.C.) who was stricken by a national plague for 20 years.  He asked the Storm-god if the plague was because his father, who ruled before him (1375-1340 B.C.), broke an agreement that was made with the Egyptians.[9]  He thought that the gods were punishing him for something that his father had done wrong.[10]

The inverse is also true.  Not only does God punish those who do wicked but, He will also bless Israel when she is obedient.  This concept is outlined in Deuteronomy 28:1-68.  Moses told all the people, just before they were to enter the promise land, that God would bless them if they obeyed His commands, and He would curse them if they were not faithful to their covenant.  This type of “treaty” with a god was common in surrounding nations.  “Both the suzerain-vassal treaties and the Mosaic covenant contain cursings and blessing.  Curses are invoked on the vassals should they break the covenant (Deuteronomy 27:15-26; 28:15-65), and blessings (28:1-14) should the vassals remain loyal.”[11]  Benedict points out that this concept is also seen in the Davidic monarchy.[12]  In 1 Samuel 26:23-24 David says, “The LORD rewards every man for his righteousness and faithfulness.”  Because David would not harm Saul, God blessed David and handed Saul over to him.

In the Old Testament Yahweh is depicted as a judge, and as He acts out that role He relies on universal standards of justice to make His rulings.[13]  “It is not right because Yahweh says it, Yahweh says it because it is true and right.”[14]  “Israel saw God as the one who judged her disputes with neighboring states and tribes.”[15]  Because Israel was the people of God, God expected them to follow this moral code along with other religious rules as outlined in the Mosaic Law.[16]  This was the guiding light that God gave Joshua to follow (Joshua 1:7) as he was about to enter the Promised Land.[17]  It says, “Be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go.”

God is a just and merciful Judge

            Since God is the judge, He will uphold moral justice and punish anyone who breaks those moral laws, even Israel.[18]  Israel forced God to inflict punishment on them because the threat of punishment was usually ineffective.  It was only when God punished Israel that the people were humbled and would admit their guilt and want to change.[19]    Judges is a great example of the Israelites being unfaithful to God and serving other gods.  God became angry with Israel and would let them be defeated in armed conflict because they were breaking their covenant with God (Judges 2:2-3, 10-15, 20-23; 3:7-8, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 13:1).[20]  When this happened Israel would recognize the error of their ways, repent, and cry out to God for help (Judges 3:9, 15; 6:7).   Amos 3:1-3, 9-13 shows that God called the surrounding nations to come and watch Him punish Israel for the bad deeds that they had done.[21]  Many of the troubles that Israel had were caused from Israel worshiping the Canaanite gods, which God abhorred (cf. 1 Kings 11:1-13).[22]

            God punished Israel even when they were coming out of Egypt.[23]  When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments the people made a calf of gold and worshipped it.  Exodus 32:33-35 says, “The LORD replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.  Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.’  And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.”  Isaiah 10:5-13 tells us that God used Assyria to punish Israel for the wickedness that they had done. [24]  Isaiah then goes on to say that God then will punish Assyria for their pride and arrogance.  It is interesting to note that that although God uses wicked nations to punish a nation that is not as wicked, in the end the wicked nation will be judged and punished also.  Hauser notices that sometimes God would even use some of the tribes of Israel to punish other tribes if they were sinning against God.[25]  Judges 20-21 show how all of Israel gathered together to fight the Benjamites because of the sin of Gibeah, and verse 18 says that God even sanctioned this war and told Judah that they should be the first tribe to go up against Benjamin.[26]  The culmination of judgment on Judah happened when they were conquered by the Babylonians and taken off into exile in 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25).  One of the purposes of the Israelite conquest had been to judge and punish the people living in the Promised Land.  Since the Israelites, like their predecessors, had begun to do evil they to would lose possession of the land.[27]

            As God judges the nations it is interesting to note that He does not always pour out his full wrath upon a nation; His judgment is mixed with mercy.[28]  Since God is sovereign, He can judge international and domestic affairs as He sees fit.[29]  A prime example of this is found in the story of Jonah.  Jonah went to preach to the wicked Ninevites and told them they were going to be destroyed.  When they heard this, they turned from their wicked ways and were sorrowful.  God saw that the Ninevites were repentant, so He relented from destroying them (Jonah 3:3-9).  The idea of a merciful God was absent from many nations surrounding Israel.  In the Hittites’ (14-13B.C.) literature there is no mention of mercy from their gods, only punishment.  One such section of their literature reads:  If “anyone arouses the anger of a god, does the god take revenge on him alone?  Does he not take revenge on his wife, his children, his descendants, his kin, his slaves, and slave-girls, his cattle (and) sheep together with his crop and will utterly destroy him?”[30]  Even in the first century the idea of collective punishment was still practiced.  Philo Judeaus (c. 30 B. C. – 45 A. D.) who says it is justifiable to kill tyrants’ relatives along with the tyrant so that would be a lesson calling others “to live a wiser life.”[31]

War as a trial

            So, as one looks at Israel waging war on the nations more closely one can begin to see that Israel acts on God’s behalf to punish these nations for their wickedness.[32]  This judgement can be seen as an analogy of war as a type of trial.  A legal model of war is sensible because war functions the same way many legal institutions do, in that both function to resolve disputes, and both operate by imposing laws.  A judicial idea of war existed with other nations also in the Near East besides Israel.[33]  Mesopotamia was one such nation where the kings petitioned their gods to judge their cases of war.  One such statement is made from the epic of Tukulti-Ninurta as he appealed to Shemosh:

When we meet in battle, let the … judge/win the case between us

We shall meet on this day, in the manner of a just man (who) takes

[the spoil]

of an evildoer

Peace will not be made without conflict,

So come to me on the battlefield of the servants, (and) let us settle the case together

In the festival of battles, may the oath breaker not rise up, (but) let them throw his corpse   down.[34]

[sic]

Many times it is because of sinful human activity that God gets involved “to carry out his purposes of redemption and judgment.”[35]

            A good example of war being used as a trial is demonstrated in Judges 11 with the case of Jephthah.  The Ammonites are trying to wage war with Israel and assert that the land the Israelites are occupying is their land.  Jephthah then defends their claim to the land by justifying the means (i.e. war) which Israel came into possession of the disputed property.  Jephthah claims that when the Israelites arrived outside of Gilead, they were attacked by the Amorites.  Israel then defended themselves and successfully displaced the Amorites from Gilead.  Jephthah then declared that they had held this land for 300 years undisputed, which proves their rightful claim to the land.  “This is precisely the sort of information needed to prove legal ‘title’ to the disputed property.”[36]  Because Ammon has no legal claim to the land, Jephthah appeals to God as Judge to rule between the two nations.  Judges 11:27, “I therefore have not sinned against you, and you do me wrong by making war on me. The Lord, the Judge, decide this day between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon.”

            Another instance of a legal defense is in 2 Chronicles 20:6-12.  Jehoshaphat appeals to God to defend Judah against the Moabites, Ammonites, and the Meunites.  Jehoshaphat argues that these nations have made unsolicited attacks on Judah and he pleas to God for help to defend them.  Jehoshaphat argues that this unwarranted invasion violates Judah’s right to possess the land God gave her.[37]  Jehoshaphat hopes that if he appeals to God’s sense of justice, that God will rule in favor of Jehoshaphat and God will help him out to repel the attacks and to defeat their enemies.

            Joel 3:9-10, 12 is another example of how war was used as a trial. It says, “Proclaim this among the nations:  Prepare a war; rouse the mighty men!  Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up!  Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; let the nations be aroused come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat, there I will sit to judge.”  War was not just an armed conflict, but it was the means by which God acted as judge.  The nations were called to the valley to be judged.  They were already prepared for war, and so the battle itself was the trial.[38]

God as a Merciful Judge

            There are instances in the Old Testament that refer to God not punishing Israel or another nation when they were displeasing to God.[39]  One reason could be highlighted in Genesis 18:16 when God speaks to Abram and tells him that his descendants will come back to this place but not now because “sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”  It seems that God wants to make it clear as to why the other nations are being driven out as outlined in Deuteronomy 9:5.  He wants there to be ample cause for Israel to destroy the other nations. 

Israel was not the only nation that fought holy wars on behalf of their God.  A Moabite stone from the eighth century tells the same story of the battle between Israel and Moab in 2 Kings.  “And Chemosh [the national god of Moab] said to me, ‘Go take Nebo against Israel.’  And I went by night and fought against it from the break of day till noon; and I slew all:  seven thousand men, boys, women, and [girls] and female slaves, for I had consecrated it to Chemosh.”[40]  1 Kings 20 tells us that the Aramites viewed war as a battle between the gods of opposing nations, verse 23 says, “Meanwhile, the officials of the king of Aram advised him, ‘Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they’”[41]

Because the nations held this view, God had to limit His original plan.  He could not punish Israel by letting other nations destroy them because He must spare Israel so the enemy can not claim credit for her total destruction.[42]  Isaiah 48:11 makes it clear that God would withhold punishment of Israel because He did not want His name to be defamed.  It says, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.  How can I let myself be defamed?  I will not yield my glory to another.”  In Leviticus 17:1-26:46 there are various laws that God is giving Israel to follow.  In the midst of these laws He makes it clear that He does not want anyone to sacrifice their child to Molech because that would desecrate His name (18:21; 20:3).  Exodus 32 shows an example of when Moses was able to change God’s mind by appealing to His honor.  Right after Moses had received instruction from God on Mt. Sinai he came down and found out that Israel had made a golden calf.  God wanted to destroy the Israelites and start a new race beginning with Moses.  Moses pleaded with God and told Him that if He was to destroy the Israelites then the Egyptians would look down on God because they would think that He brought them out of Egypt so He could kill them.  The second way Moses appeals to God’s honor is that he reminds God of the covenant He made to Abraham that He would make the nations great and they would inherit the Promised Land.  Moses implies that by wiping out Israel He would be breaking His covenant and in return be dishonoring His name.

Another action that we can see God perform in relation to His name is bringing Israel back from exile.  He uses other nations to do this.  Isaiah 45:1 says that God used Cyrus king of Persia to do his bidding and God calls Cyrus his “anointed.”  Verse 13 tells us why God lifted up Cyrus and gave him power, even though they were a wicked nation.  It says, “He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free…”[43]  The purpose of Him wanting the exiles to go free is stated in verse 6.  It says, “So all the world from east to west will know there is no other God.”  Although the Israelites do not deserve to be rescued form bondage, God does it because it brings honor to His name.

            As one can see, God could let Israel make war with other nations because those nations were acting against the moral standards that God had put in place.  There are many factors that are involved when Israel made war with other nations, including but not limited to Israel relationship with God and well as the moral standards of the other nation.  As one studies the idea of war one can see that it was not as ruthless and sinful as one might think.  War was not haphazard and Israel was in conformity to the cultural expectations and at times God was very merciful and lenient on Israel and the other nations.


[1] Jo Ann Hackett, “Violence and Women’s Lives in the Book of Judges,” Interpretation 58 (2004):  356.

[2] Peter C Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing, 1978), 10-11.  cf. Terrace E. Fretheim, “‘I was Only a Little Angry’ Divine Violence in the Prophets,” Interpretation 58 (2004):  366.

[3] Richard G Bowman and Richard W. Swanson, “Samson and the Son of God or Dead Heroes and Dead Goats:  Ethical Readings of Narrative Violence in Judges and Matthew,” Semeia 77 (1992):  60.

[4] Cf. Deuteronomy 18:9-13

[5] Michael Walzer, “The Idea of Holy War in Ancient Israel,” Journal of Religious Ethics 20 (1992):  215.

[6] J. Brenton Stearns, “Divine Punishment and Reconciliation,” Journal of Religious Ethics 9 (1981): 121.

[7] This is not the only city that Amos mentions in his book.  He goes through a list of them and mentions things they did that were morally wrong that they are going to be punished for.  cf. (1:6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1)

[8] John A. Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible (Press Macon, Georgia:  Mercer University, 1998), 143-144.

[9] Joze Krasovec, “Is there a Doctrine of ‘Collective Retribution’ in the Hebrew Bible?”  Hebrew Union College Annual 65 (1991):  38. cf.  Sa-Moon Kang, Diving War in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East (New York:  Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1989), 13.

[10] Krasovec tweaks this idea of divine retribution by saying that punishment can also come from God allowing peoples’ actions to produce their appropriate fruits, which could be considered a punishment or reward (38).  Benedict furthers this idea when he says that God will fight for Israel unless Israel has been displeasing to God and then God would withdraw from battle which would necessitate defeat.  Marion J.  Benedict, The God of the Old Testament in Relation to War (New York City:  Bureau of Publications, 1927), (17).

[11] Carl J. Laney, “The Role of the Prophets in God’s Case Against Israel,” Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981):  317.

[12] Benedict, 16.

[13] Exodus 21-23 is a good list of moral rules that is listed right after the 10 Commandments.  These commands are not religious in nature; they are merely norms of moral behavior that everyone should follow.

[14] Wood, 140.

[15] Robert M. Good, “The Just War in Ancient Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104 (1985):  388.  cf.  Millard C. Lind, Yahweh is a Warrior:  The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Kitchener, Ontario:  Herald Press, 1980), 47-87.  God as Judge will be looked at in more detail later on in the paper.

[16] Cf. Benedict, 19.

[17] Marvin E. Tate, “War and Peacemaking in the Old Testament,” Review and Expositor 79 (1982):  590.  Hess in his commentary notes that this was the same theme that was given for Moses to follow when he was the leader of Israel.  Richard S. Hess, Joshua, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 6 (Leicester, England:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 74.

[18] Wood, 16.

[19] Krasovec, 60-61.

[20] T. R. Hobbs, “War,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2000), 1356.  cf. Bowman, Swanson, 61.

[22] Walzer, 223.

[23]Charles Sherlock, The God Who Fights:  The War Tradition in Holy Scriptures (Edinburgh:  Rutherford House, 1996), 27.

[24] Cf. Tate, 554, 555.

[25] Alan J. Hauser, “Unity and Diversity in Early Israel before Samuel,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22 (1979):  293.

[26] Joshua 22 is a lesser example of this.  There is no mention of God being present in the dispute.  However, this is a good example of the tribes willing to go to war with their fellow Israelites if any of the tribes were being unfaithful.

[27] Cragie, 77.

[28] Krasovec, 43.  Cf. H. N. Whitten, “God’s Unintentional Judgment,” Brethren Life and Thought 3 (1958).  This short article says that God’s love can be a type of judgment.  Since God shows us so much mercy, we see how far we fall short which hurts us.

[29] Lynn Jost, “Warfare in the Old Testament:  An Argument for Peacemaking in the New Millenium,” Direction 27 (1998): 180.   Sherwin believes that because God is just, the punishment would have to fit the crime.  This idea seems to limit God and what He can do.  Because He is sovereign He can act as He sees fit.  Byron L. Sherwin, “Portrait of God as a Young Artist:  The Flood Revisited,” Judaism 23 (2001):  471.

[30] Krasovec, 44.  This is an idea of communal judgment, where the sin of one mandates the punishment of the community or nation.  This idea was not totally foreign to the Hebrews.  The story of Achan being stoned with his family would be one example (Joshua 7:23-26).  It is important to note that God only used communal judgment when necessary and appropriate.  Krasovec said that individual retribution was the norm and collective retribution was used in special circumstances (cf. Jeremiah 31:29-30, Ezekiel 18:1-32) (80-81).

[31] Krasovec, 75.

[32] Rad does not buy into the conquest model and sees the war of Israel as purely defensive. Cf.  Gerhard von Rad, Holy War in Ancient Israel translated by Marva J. Dawn (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing, 1991); 65.

[33] Robert M. Good, “The Just War in Ancient Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104 (1985):  387.

[34] Kang, 14, 50.  Kang’s book deals with how the different cultures looked at war.  All of them saw their god as an active participant and would act as a judge between the opposing nations.

[35] Tate, 592.

[36] Good, 395.

[37] Tate, 590. cf. Good, 393.

[38] Good, 391.

[39] One reason for this is because God is sovereign and as such he can do what He chooses, and as talked about above the moral code is not rigid. 

[40] Walzer, 216.

[41] Cf.  David A. Glatt-Gilad, “Yahweh’s Honor at Stake:  A Divine Conundrum,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 98 (2002):  64.  He notes that this was the case for all of the nations in the ancient Near East.

[42] Ibid, 70.

[43] To see other verses that show God using nations for His purposes cf. Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6; 43:10.

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