Draft No Man Against His Will
People like to claim that the Old Testament exalts military action above other occupations. But God’s rules for military service in ancient Israel (Deut. 20) prove this claim false. In verse 8, God instructed, “Let the [fearful and fainthearted] go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart.”
The morality is simple: If a man doesn’t have the heart to fight, don’t make him fight. And there is the rationality, as well: Why force men into military service against their conscience? An unwilling soldier makes an untrustworthy soldier.
That wasn’t the only stipulation against forcing someone to fight. In earlier verses, God established other exemptions.
- If you had built a building and hadn’t dedicated it yet (v. 5)
- If you had planted a vineyard and hadn’t eaten of it yet (v.6)
- If you had a fiancee and hadn’t consummated your marriage (v. 7)
These exemptions note, “Lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate [the building],” “lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of [the vineyard];” “lest he die in the battle, and another man take [his fiancee].”
God did not want a man to risk death if he had not enjoyed the work of his hands, or eaten of the fruit of his labor, or made good his betrothal.
Put another way: God exalts marriage and procreation, agriculture, and enterprise more than death in war. It makes sense: civilization is higher than destruction. And do not Christians object to Islam upon the basis that it asks men to kill themselves in war?
Indeed, it is more demanding, more challenging, to create and raise children; to cultivate seed and soil, toiling against the thorns and weeds; to construct and devise buildings out of stone or wood—than it is to destroy, or be destroyed.
Total Annihilation: The “Rule of Ten”
After Adam sinned, the earth was corrupt, and filled with violence (Gen. 6:5–13). Eventually, only eight persons in the entire world were not violent or corrupt: Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their wives. God did not destroy the world until there were only fewer than ten righteous persons, and He saved the righteous ones.
I call this the “rule of ten”—annihilation is not justified until there are fewer than ten righteous persons, and the annihilation cannot harm the righteous ones.
The rule of ten crops up again, and more explicitly, in Genesis.
God is omniscient and omnipresent—He knows everything, and is everywhere. But in Genesis 18:20–21, God explained that He was going to Sodom and Gomorrah to double-check (or triple-check, since He is triune?) the seriousness of their violence.
Abraham’s nephew Lot lived in Sodom, and Abraham did not want Lot to be destroyed with the sodomites. He inquired:
“Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? [...] That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee: Shall not all the Judge of the earth do right?” (v. 23b & 25)
In the following conversation, Abraham starts with 50 righteous, and increments down to only 10 righteous. God assures Abraham, “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.”
God Himself will not destroy a group of wicked people for the sake of only ten righteous among them.
The ghost of this principle—not killing the righteous with the wicked—appears in the notion of “war crimes,” such as when military men kill non-combatants or those unarmed. Let us note God punished Gentiles for such violence, such as in Amos 1:13:
Thus saith the LORD; for three transgressions of the children of Ammon, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have ripped up the women with child of Gilead, that they might enlarge their border.
I wonder: before the throne of God, what grounds will any man find for justifying the wholesale annihilation of cities?
Ezekiel 14 references this “rule of ten” when God is explaining His plan to destroy Israel for her rebellion. He emphasized three times in verses 14, 16, and 18, that even if Noah, Daniel, and Job had been in Israel, they would deliver only their own souls.
Rule of Ten—Doubled
In Numbers 14:22 & 23, God announces:
“All these men which have seen My glory and My miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted Me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to My voice; 23 Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked Me see it.”
“[A]nd have tempted Me now these ten times.” The Israelites had repeatedly been unfaithful and disobedient—as detailed below:
- Questioning God at the Red Sea (Ex. 14:10–12)
- Despairing at Marah when the water was bitter (Ex. 15:22–24)
- Murmurming in the Desert of Sin, “Would to God we had died [...] in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 16:3–4)
- Disobeying simple instructions not to keep manna overnight (Ex. 16:19–20)
- Breaking the command not to gather manna on the seventh day (Ex. 16:27–30)
- Complaining for water, “Wherefore…thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children…with thirst?” (Ex. 17:1–4)
- Making and worshipping a golden calf “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:1–20)
- Complaining again at Taberah (Num. 11:1–3)
- Lusting for meat, “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely… there is nothing at all, beside this manna…” (Num. 17:4–33)
- Rejecting God’s intructions for the Promised Land—“Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.” And in fact, they were going to stone Joshua and Caleb (Num. 14:1–10)
In the tenth rebellion of Israel, there were fewer than ten righteous adults: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb were the only ones willing to obey the Lord.
According to the morality Abraham mentioned—“That be far from Thee…to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee,” God did not punish the children of the Israelites.
“Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against Me, 30 Doubtless ye shall not come into the land.“ (Num. 14:29 & 30a)
Humanitarian Intervention: It’s Private
Genesis 14 relates a series of conflicts among the kings in Abram’s region (God had not yet changed his name to Abraham). Four kings, Amraphel, Arioch, Chedorlaomer, and Tidal, made war with five other kings—Bera, Birsha, Shinab, Shemeber, and Zoar. For twelve years, these five were forced to serve Chedorlaomer. The thirteenth year, they rebelled.
In the ensuing struggle, Chedorlaomer, Tidal, Amraphel, and Arioch captured the goods and the food of Sodom and Gomorrah, and took prisoners of war—among them Lot, Abram’s nephew, and Lot’s belongings.
One person escaped and told Abram. When Abram heard that his nephew was a prisoner, he went to the closest U.S. Army base and whimpered like a wimp for tax-funded aid from across the Atlantic.
Not quite. Abram “armed his trained servants,…three hundred and eighteen,” and pursued the force that had captured his nephew and household.
Abram’s clever maneuvering led to a quick victory for him, and he brought back not only Lot, but also “all the goods, and the women also, and the people.” (v. 16)
The king of Sodom went out to meet Abram, and made a conniving offer: “Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.” (v. 21)
Abram responded with integrity:
“I have lift up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth; That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich: 24 Save only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men which went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their portion.”
This account kills two birds with one stone: not only does it display the efficacy of a private militia, but it illustrates another Biblical foreign policy principle. Do not pad your own pockets from victory in war.
Aggressive, Show-Off Warfare: Folly and Shame
In II Chronicles 25, king Amaziah of Judah was pretty proud of himself for winning a battle against the Edomites.
So proud, in fact, that he brought idols from a nearby tribe and set them up to be his gods—bowing down to them and burning incense to them.
This ingratitude and pride kindled the Lord’s anger, because it had been He who had given the victory. He sent a prophet to the king to reproach him, and when Amaziah repudiated the warning of the Lord, the prophet responded (v. 16c),
I know that God hath determined to destroy thee, because thou hast done this, and hast not hearkened unto my counsel.
What happened next? Amaziah “took advice,” and sent to the king of Israel, daring him to come and fight: “Let us see one another in the face.”
Joash, the king of Israel, warned Amaziah:
Thou sayest, Lo, thou hast smitten the Edomites; and thine heart lifteth thee up to boast: abide now at home; why shouldest thou meddle to thine hurt, that thou shouldest fall, even thou, and Judah with thee?
Amaziah would not hear;—truly, a rebuke enters more into a wise man than a hundred stripes into a fool. Thus, the kings “saw one another in the face,” and “Judah was put to the worse, and they fled every man to his tent.” Joash, in victory, took all the gold and silver, and the treasures of the king’s house, and hostages, and returned back to his kingdom.
That wasn’t the only humiliation for Amaziah after he turned away from God; the end of the chapter tells us that “they made a conspiracy against him,” which he fled. But the conspirators pursued, and he was killed.
Similar shame befell a later king of Judah, King Josiah, when he meddled in warfare (II Chronicles 35:20–24). “Necho king of Egypt came up to fight against Charchemish by Euphrates: and Josiah went out against him.”
The king of Egypt sent ambassadors with this message:
What have I to do with thee, thou king of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war: for God commanded me to make haste: forbear thee from meddling with God, Who is with me, that He destroy thee not.
Josiah would not turn away, “but disguised himself, that he might fight with him,” and came to fight. The archers shot at king Josiah, and he was “sore wounded,” and his servants brought him to Jerusalem, and he died.
Kindness to Prisoners of War
Both the Old and New Testaments instruct the believer to give his enemy food and water.
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: 22 For thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head, and the LORD shall reward thee. Proverbs 25:21-22
Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Romans 12:20
We see this put into practice with prisoners of war in II Kings 6. The king of Syria was trying to attack the Israelites, and the prophet Elisha, having revelation from God, warned the Israelites ahead of time (vv. 9-10). The king of Syria asked his servants who was betraying him, and one explained that the prophet in Israel was the informant.
A great host was promptly sent to capture Elisha. Elisha, untroubled, asked God to smite the men with blindness, which He did, and Elisha told them they were in the wrong place, and led them to Samaria, before the king of Israel.
When the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha: “My father, shall I smite them? shall I smite them?”
“Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master.”
And the king “prepared great provision for them: and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away.”
God punished other militaries for being cruel to prisoners of war. For example, Amos 1:6:
Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they carried away captive the whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom.
Separation of Power: You Don’t Get Spiritual And Militarial Power
Spiritual power was off-limits kings or military men. Again, this makes sense: A man who wielded “horizontal” power—man between man—could not wield “vertical” power—power between man and God.
Consider King David, for example. He wanted to build a temple for God. But he could not. I Chronicles 22:7b-8 give the explanation to his son Solomon:
My son, as for me, it was in my mind to build an house unto the name of the LORD my God: But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, Thou hast shed blood abundantly, and hast made great wars: thou shalt not build an house unto My name, because thou hast shed much blood upon the earth in My sight.
King David was righteous, and accepted the scope of power God would allow him on earth.
Like King David, King Uzziah was a man of war.
But unlike David, he ignored the boundaries God had set (II Chronicles 26).
He “warred against the Philistines,” and won (II Chron. 26:6–7). He “strengthened himself exceedingly,” (v. 8), and had a host of fighting men, that “went out to war by bands” (v. 11).
And he made in Jersualem “engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal. And his name spread far abroad; for he was marvellously helped, till he was strong.”
His heart was “lifted up to his destruction.” He went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense (v. 16). Azariah the priest, with eighty other priests, withstood the king, saying,
It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed...
Uzziah was angry, and in that moment, God struck him with leprosy.
He remained a leper unto the day of his death, and was cut off from the house of the LORD (v. 21).
What Happens If We Don’t Keep This Foreign Policy?
Habakkuk wrote extensively on this in chapter 2, beginning at verse 5:
Because he transgresseth by wine, he is a proud man, neither keepeth at home, who enlargeth his desire as hell, and is as death, and cannot be satisfied, but gathereth unto him all nations, and heapeth unto him all people:
6 Shall not all these take up a parable against him, and a taunting proverb against him, and say, Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his! [...]
8 Because thou hast spoiled many nations, all the remnant of the people shall spoil thee; because of men’s blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein. [...]
12 Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity!
Isaiah 33:1 issues a similar warning: “Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou was not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! when thou shalt cease to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou shalt make an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee.”
And the ruinous fall of many an empire testifies to this everlasting truth.