How should Christians interpret Old Testament commands for Israel to engage in divinely-sanctioned holy war?
Asking about how we as Christians should interpret Old Testament passages describing God’s command for Israel to engage in holy war is a very important question. In general, I can say that there are two types of commands in Scripture. There are general commands, which are for all people living in any time and place, such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” etc. This type of command is repeated several times in the Old Testament and also repeated and mentioned in the New Testament. But the other type of command is specifically designed for certain people in a certain period of time. The passages in the Old Testament that talk about holy war are the other type of command. These commands are specific to a certain people to accomplish a specific goal in the history of redemption. The commands to launch wars against other peoples in the Old Testament were particular to Israel and were related to a certain period when God was leading the people, through Joshua, to conquer and settle in the land. These commands are not for all people whenever and wherever they are, because they aren’t mentioned anymore in either the Old or New Testament. There isn’t any other place where God commands his followers to launch this type of war against unbelievers. This doesn’t happen again in the Bible. Also, it’s important to know that Israel in the Old Testament was a kingdom under the direct authority and sovereignty of God. Israel was implementing God’s commands as his representative on earth. Through this role, Israel was executing God’s direct mission to launch a holy war against the Canaanites. So, such a mission was specific to the kingdom of Israel under God’s sovereignty during a specific period in the history of redemption.
We have to keep in mind that God alone has the right to give and take life. He also has the right to use secondary causes to accomplish his purposes and execute his justice. Concerning these wars, God used Israel as a tool in his hand to accomplish his will towards these pagan peoples. These wars were condemnation against them and their behavior for worshiping other gods. So, through it, God was revealing his judgment against them… As I said, such commands were not repeated again to Israel. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob didn’t possess the land by launching wars against its inhabitants. And after returning back from the exile, Israel restored the land without waging a holy war like the one that took place during Joshua’s time. Such wars and commands are not to be repeated. They were specific to a certain period in history in the book of Joshua. And it’s crucial to interpret the text within the historical context in which these events took place.