I had someone ask me about these stories the other week, and I answered that the point is not the killing of another nation, but loyalty to God. She listened politely, but said that these parts of the bible still bothered her. I had to admit that my answer did sound a bit weak and pat, though I believe it was true.
A few days ago, I saw something in the bible that I had not noticed before. Nay, four things! Taking into account that we are reading a story from another time and place when tribal warfare was common and life was much more brutal, there are a few things that stand out in stark contrast to this primitive setting. First, in this particular story in Deuteronomy 20, before any attack was made on a city, they were to attempt a peaceful settlement with their enemies (v. 10). War was a last resort, not the only mode of operation. Secondly, they were to take care with how they used the natural resources: not chopping down trees at will, but preserving those that were necessary for food (v.19,20). Thirdly, those soldiers who had a new home, new crops, a new wife, or were afraid and disheartened were excused from battle (v.5-9). In the midst of this brutality, we find several indications of the desire for peace, a responsible use of resources, and some hints at kindness and gentleness that should not be dismissed.
However, the main thing that stood out to me as I read this chapter was verse 18: If you allow them [the inhabitants of these other cities] to live, they will persuade you to worship their disgusting gods, and you will be unfaithful to the LORD. I believe that part of our problem (yes, let's take ownership of our lack of understanding) in coming to terms with these brutal biblical war stories is that in our 21st century worldview we have a heightened responsibility for humanity and our earth and a very low sense of responsibility towards God. When push comes to shove, we believe it is more important to save the earth and be tolerant to our fellow human beings than to be faithful to God. It is called humanism.
It is interesting that we are easily offended by stories of mass killing (and I am in no way negating this horror), but are not much moved by how offensive our unfaithfulness (infidelity or dare I call it adultery?) is to God. We are just like the tribal people of Deuteronomy, easily swayed by the values of the society around us and too often guilty of disproportionate disgust. The strong language in these stories reveals that God knew all too well what fickle people he was dealing with and what kind of destructive unfaithfulness humanity was (and still is) capable of. Ask yourself honestly: are we capable of living in a society that operates with a value system that largely disregards God and not be affected by it? Very difficult, indeed.
Perhaps the fact that these war stories bother us reveals more about how little we value fidelity to God than about how advanced we have become in our attitudes. God have mercy on us.
This is a photo of a building in downtown Montreal. I love this city, but I love God more.