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The theology and ethics of war: an intro. Deuteronomy 20
The rules of engagement: The theology and ethics of war- an introductoin
Deuteronomy 20

For the last few weeks we have been studying the Book of Deuteronomy together.

-It was written by Moses in the last month of his life
-It concerns how the Israelites were to live and conduct themselves in the land God was giving them
-A big emphasis of the book is this: We are to be a people of the Word. God's Word tells us how to live and how to please Him. "What does the Bible say?" is to be a common refrain on our lips and in our hearts
-A big theme of Deuteronomy is this: Love God. Love Him by obeying Him from your heart

This past week Deuteronomy 20 caught my attention.

-Because of the powerful and encouraging principles within it for you and I today
-Because it's a passage the enemies of the Gospel use of against Christians
-Because of its relevance as it regards an uncomfortable subject: War and the rules that ought to govern it.

Despite my enjoyment of the occasional First Person Shooter when it comes to video games, I'm not a big fan of war. Wars are usually fought because of greed, unforgiveness, bitterness, resentment, and hate. War leaves people maimed and dead, economies ruined, damage to the environment, and emotional and psychological scars that last for a lifetime.

While most wars are a complete "waste", every once in a while, a war or some form of military action can be classified as "Just" or "Righteous". The ultimate determinant of this is of course God.

Please turn with me now to Deuteronomy 20. In this passage Moses lays down some rules as it regards the Israelites and the wars they were about to fight and in the future, engage in. READ TEXT


1. As Christians and students of the Bible we need to be comfortable with truths that seem contradictory but are actually complementary and make sense in the big picture

i.e Jesus as Prince of Peace and the talk of war or even our support of certain ones
i.e God's sovereignty and free will

The Bible is complex and full of big ideas and truths. All to often people approach it in a reductionist and overly simplistic fashion

2. Christians, Jews, and the Bible in general are unjustly criticized as it regards God's command to wipe out the nations inhabiting the Promised Land v.16-18

A number of times in Bible the Israelites are told to completely wipe out the inhabitants of the Promised Land (man/woman/child). Some have labeled this "genocide" and wondered how could a "God of love" order such a thing.

A few things

a. God is loving (seen in the cross of Christ and His daily care), but He's also holy and perfectly just.

The Amorites were under God's wrath for the fact that for more than 400 years they did as they pleased-- engaging in scorcery, witchcraft, child sacrifice, and all manner of wickedness. (there sins are spoken of often in the Bible and in Genesis 15:16 God said to Abram 'In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure"

The time for judgment had come. The time for repentance had passed (400 plus years)

b. Israelites used by God as agents of His wrath and judgment (later God used Assyria and Babylon against Israel for her sins)

c. Another reason for their removal: Their corrupting influence. v.18

-They would teach the Israelites there ways and lead them astray from God.
-Unfortunately this happened. The Israelites did not follow through on God's command (partial obedience only)

****When we allow and let evil influences in our lives that's exactly what happens to us-- we become ensnared and corrupted. Hence it's so important in becoming a follower of Christ to set aside that which entangles.*** We are to be separate from the world-- in it, but not of it!

d. The Israelites did not commit "Genocide"

The term "Genocide" was coined in 1944 by a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin. He used the word to describe the Nazi policies of the systemic murder of the Jews. The term also specifically refers to violent crimes against groups with the intent to destroy the entire group.

Ironic that a term invented by a Jew used against Jews of the Bible

The Bible does not classify the extermination of the Amorites as a "crime". While the people of our world might see it as such, God called it justice and rightful punishment for crimes committed against Him (though many years had been given for repentance to occurs)***

e. FYI: The enemies Israel fought were not weaker foes, they were not "patsies" and "pushovers"- the were bigger, stronger, more numerous, heavily armed, and "bad to the bone"

The only reason the Israelites experienced the successes they did was because of God and His mighty power working on their behalf. (In Joshua 12:9ff we are told of how under Joshua's leadership 31 kings were conquered and destroyed)

2. We are to be peacemakers NOT warmongers

We are not to "hanker" for conflict and bloodshed. The horrors of war are not to be something we wish to enter into.

Every reasonable avenue for peace should be explored (many nations employ "soft power"-- economic sanctions etc)

As the Scriptures say "Blessed are the peacemakers." Matthew 5:9 and further: We are to pray for the Peace of Jerusalem Psalm 122:6

Side note: Some Christian denominations are pacifists (i.e Brethren in Christ). I respect that.

3. Sometimes war is necessary and just

-Peace at all cost is not an option
-Whether it be for self defense or the overthrow of a tyrant and oppressor
-War necessary for the Israelites (defended selves from attacks in wilderness under Moses). Conquest of Canaan. Attacks from Egyptians and others in the years beyond that.

i.e Defeat of Hitler
i.e The Israelites waging war against the Canaanites (told to by God)

4. If a war is to be fought, there are rules to be followed

Long before the Geneva convention and its rules for engagement (dating to the 1864) we have Deuteronomy 20.

Some basic rules (the exception clause being the nations of the Promised Land)

a. Offer peace to the city you march against v.10. If they accept don't kill the men or the inhabitants- instead, subject them, collect tribute, etc. Paths to peace always ought to be on the minds of our leaders (the only real exception is with despots and tyrannts who will never be appeased)
b. If a city refuses the peace offer, only kill the men (those able to fight and thus those responsible for the war)
c. Treat those who victorious over respectfully and properly (see Deut. 21:10-14 about marrying a captive woman)
d. Don't destroy the trees. v.19-20. Too many armies destroy the environment in their wars. The Israelites were not to do this. We are to take care of the world* (of the water, trees, animals, and birds)
e. Not everyone had to sign up and fight the war-- a number of exception clauses are given v.5-9

Note: These exception clauses given refer to future wars - not the conquest of the land

Point: Armies should - normatively and in principle- have an option for soldiers to opt out of the army or a conflict***

5. Battles and wars are not won because of the size of an army. The Battle belongs to the Lord

Psalm 3:16-19 says; "No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.

A few moments ago I noted that Moses lists a number of exception clauses for future wars of the Israelites

These generous exemptions sometimes resulted in the Israelites going into battle with a very small army.***

i.e Judges 7 READ -- Gideon and the 300 men

The reason: That God might show His awesome power on their behalf. That no mistake might ever be made as it regards for whom credit was due

Application for us: Nothing is too hard for God. There is no problem too big for Him, no obstacle to large. -- - This also remind me of Jesus' words as it relates to following Him "Apart from me you can do nothing"


"Fear defeats more people than any other thing in the world" Ralph Waldo Emerson

Note the repeated calls in Deuteronomy 20 to not be afraid (v.3,8-- which allowed for all those afraid to go home lest they discourage the rest of the group)

The Israelites were not to fear because God was going to go with them (condition was their faithfulness to Him)

-Fear of man/woman is a crippler
-Fear is infectious (it spreads to others quite easily)
-Satan uses fear to keep from obeying God (fear of persecution. fear of rejection. fear of carrying the message of Christ. Fear of responses to our doing what is right in God's sight)
-We are not fear people (such is a snare-- Proverbs 29:25)

There is one whom we should fear and that's God. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says; ""Don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

Image of soldier Fits Christians. Jesus our commanding officer (2 Tim. 2:3-4)

We involved in a spiritual war/conflict/ battle. Ephesians 6:10-18

We are not to let fear stop us from doing what God has commanded us to do***

As the followers of Christ, we go in the name of Christ and as ones indwelt by the Spirit of God. We are not to fear man. We are not to cave in when people tell us that we can't talk about Jesus or call out sin. We have a mission from God-- to rescue the perishing, to warn of the judgment to come, to live a holy life, to teach and model Christ, to point people to Jesus and call people to faith in Him. We must not back down. We must not give in to fear -- for God is with us and He will supply all we need as we trust in Him.


Apart from Christ, there is enmity between us and God. In essence we at war with Him.

The call is to lay down our arms and agenda, to quit our rebellion and be reconciled to God.

How: By confessing our sinfulness and rebellion. By putting our faith in Christ-- who, on the cross, took the punishment we deserve for our sins

As I John 1:9 says; "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us of our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness." The result: Peace with God (Romans 5:1)


The Bible does not glamorize war. It happens-- sometimes for very good reason.

We are to be peacemakers. We are to seek it, pray for, work for it, example it

The Bible lays out the ethics and rational for war-- its there for us to consider and our voice is needed in this confused land and culture--- on every subject no matter how unpopular the truth gets to be

While this text is used against us-- there are good answers to the rocks and mud that our opponents like to throw

Even in war: God needs to be front and center-- (note the role of the priests). Without God's favor wars will be lost

As fear paralyzes a soldier, so fear paralyzes Christians who give in to it. We must give in to fear. We must not let fear keep us from obeying God. Let's us be bold in our service of Christ, trusting the outcome to God and His perfect will.

If you are not a follower of Christ- Seek peace with God. Be reconciled to Him--- until you are, you are at war with God.

Firm foundation