Who Has the Right to Declare War


Copyright June 2015 by Philip E. Friesen


There is one ethical issue where most Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem to agree fully. That is a belief in the Divine sanction of just war. Details vary somewhat, but the principle is the same. In all three systems, war is justified in a just cause, but there must be some legitimate authority to authorize the execution of this imperative.

It is the matter of legitimate authority I intend to address, and Moses will be our principal authority in this paper, as Moses is important to all three faiths. I maintain that Moses speaks clearly on the issue of legitimate authority, and that until now Moses has not been adequately consulted.

Establishing the Government

When Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai, Pharaoh was out of the picture, and normally Moses, as leader of the revolution, would have become king. But Moses was only God’s messenger, not king. The messenger prepared the way for the new king’s arrival, and when the new king came to address the people, the new king was God. God spoke from the mountain and said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”   From this point on YHWH would be both God and king. No other human king was appointed.

Government has always concerned itself primarily with two activities, defense and economy. When government persistently failed in either of these two areas, it would be displaced by a coup d’état, revolution, or invasion from a more powerful foreign authority. Foreign authority normally involved either surrender to a vassal treaty involving economic concessions and a mutual defense arrangement[1] or complete ethnic cleansing. In the conquest of Canaan the vassal treaty was not going to be an option. The occupants of Canaan were to be evicted from the property by orders of the land owner who was God.

The speech spoken by the new King on Mt. Sinai was the announcement of a vassal covenant. God said, “Observe these principles and I will be your God.” Implied is the idea that God is all you will need.  “Ignore these principles and I will not bless your economy (since I control the weather) nor take responsibility for your defense.” The Ten Words are not a prescription for the eternal life of souls who want to go to heaven, but rather a national charter for the vassal relationship of the nation with its ruler.  Warfare would be conducted at his command. What we have then, is the description of the kind of legitimate government under which warfare may take place justly, because only the author of life is qualified to take life.[2] God would not burden any fallible human with that responsibility, not even Moses.

In Exodus 19, Moses brings a message from the LORD to prepare the people for the new Divine King’s arrival. “You shall be a kingdom of priests,” Moses tells them. Priests serve as intermediaries between God and humanity. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob normally offered their own sacrifices without the help of a priest, but on occasion they served as priests for others, and one time Abraham did receive a priestly blessing from Melchizedek. Moses’ application of Genesis 12:1-3 required that the patriarch’s descendants would live under God’s protection (defense) and provision (economy) while serving as God’s priests. God’s goodness to Israel would attract other nations to desire a covenant with Israel’s God for themselves. Goodness rather than raw power would elevate Israel above all the nations.

This understanding of the goodness of God was not compatible with having a permanently armed state living in distrust and fear of powerful neighbors. God is still more powerful than any neighbor. The kingship regulations that appear in Deuteronomy 17 reflect this truth. Scholars who accept the Documentary Hypothesis consider this passage to have been written near the end of the monarchy, but if that is true, it still reflects the spirit of Moses’ social vision and the accumulated wisdom of a nation that had experienced the disasters of the monarchy.

The conquest of Canaan was to be planned and executed by God. According to Exodus 23:28, God would send hornets ahead to drive out the enemy. It is likely that Israel’s approach to Canaan shortly after the news of Pharaoh’s defeat following the ten plagues would have made the local inhabitants uneasy, and a properly timed hornet infestation could have set off a panic that would empty out the cities and allow Israel to simply walk in. National unbelief at Kadesh Barnea, however, prevented Israel from advancing, and the moment of opportunity was past. Instead of entering the land Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness until in God’s time, another opportunity was ripe.

According to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, a human king was to live under certain restrictions that respected his vassal relationship with God and reflected his dependence upon God as follows: (1) The king was not to engage in the weapons trade or stockpile weapons, specifically not to buy horses from the regional arms dealers, which were the Egyptians and the Hittites, (2) The king was not to collect a harem of foreign princesses to distract him from his duties. This would prevent him from subjugating other kings to a vassal relationship with him whereby he would be responsible for their national security. (3) The king was not to collect taxes for his personal benefit. This prevented him from living above the standard of his contemporaries or from employing a professional army. (4) The king was to give his attention to the study of God’s law so as to judge justly among his people. God would be the real king, and God doesn’t buy weapons, form marriage alliances, or have any need to collect taxes.

The political structure established at Sinai makes just war possible, because God is the legitimate authority who wages war. To use the Old Testament for justification of war apart from this underlying political structure is to guarantee unjust war.

What God ordains will not always appear practical or workable to human thinking. The amazing history of Judges reveals God’s heart and God’s character as fully trustworthy and able to save to the extent of our trust in him. This is not only a matter of personal faith, but lies at the heart of social policy for a people of God.


Applying Legitimate Force

The following accounts, mostly from Judges, provide practical evidence for understanding how God provided national defense with Moses teaching as the operational norm. The stories speak for themselves, and reveal the triumph of weakness over strength in God’s economy.

Amalek: The Glory Belongs to God

Shortly after leaving Egypt, Israel confronted the hostility of the Amalekites who considered Israel’s presence a provocation and, no doubt, an opportunity for plunder. Moses sent Joshua to lead the motley, untrained, and poorly armed Israelites to confront Amalek in Exodus 17. Then Moses went to the top of a hill to pray. When Moses held up his arms in prayer, the Israelites advanced. When his arms became weary and sagged, Israel retreated. The lesson was clear. Weapons and training made no difference, because God was the decisive factor. A nation of faith will be one in which God is inevitably the decisive factor in its national defense, and the glory of any human actors will be like that of the moon reflecting the sun.  They will have nothing to brag about, and no one will build a shrine in their memory.


Ehud, Deborah and Barak: Weakness Defeats Strength

Under the theocracy of Joshua and Judges, God was the strategist, and human agency simply obeyed orders, orders that often appeared suicidal, but turned out to be genius. Among these stories we find Ehud, who under pretext of bringing the annual tribute to the king of Edom, assassinated the king and slipped away.[3]   The text does not tell us whether he left the annual tribute with the dead king or took it along as he left. Then we have Deborah, a prophetess, and a timid commander named Barak who led an army of untrained peasants to challenge the horses and chariots of Jabin, king of Canaan. According to the victory poem (Judges 5), a flash flood covered the valley and immobilized Jabin’s army as it crossed the river, giving  Barak and his army the advantage and sending the enemy running on foot to get away (Judges 4).   The classic example, however, is the story of Gideon. This episode is the longest story in Judges and includes revealing theological commentary about kingship as well.

Gideon: No King But Yahweh

During Gideon’s time, for a period of 7 years national security became a matter of sheer survival when Midian and Amalek took advantage of Israel’s unsecured borders and began raiding the countryside. After a time of desperate prayer, a prophet stood up and announced that the problem with security was ultimately the loss of God’s protection. Israel had forgotten God and had begun to assimilate with the Amorites, actually worshipping the Amorite gods. Clearly these Amorite gods lacked interest in the welfare of Israel.

The prophet offered no solution, just an analysis. The solution came when an angel visited Gideon with instructions to raise an army and start the fight. But first Gideon would have to destroy the pagan shrine in his village. After purifying the village of the idol, Gideon sent out the call to arms, and over 30,000 volunteers showed up.

Gideon must have been uncomfortable to be in charge of so many people, but the discomfort was from God. Such a large army gave too much security of an earthly nature. A victory with this army would make Gideon into a hero, and God would be nothing more than a cheerleader (Judges 7:2).

Gideon thinned his ranks by offering a discharge to anyone who wanted to change his mind and leave, and 2/3 of the army went home. Still with 10,000 men left, Gideon’s discomfort remained. Then the Lord gave him another idea. A test was devised at the brook side where the men took a drink. Those who got on their knees to drink were sent home, and those who cupped their hands and lapped like a dog remained, a manageable troop of 300.

The story that follows is unique in history. A troop of actors put on a convincing dramatic performance that frightened an armed camp into panic. When the 10,000 men were sent home, Gideon had collected all the trumpets the volunteers had brought. A trumpet was the means for signaling a charge or retreat during battle, and 300 trumpets made for an effective performance. In the dead of night the sleeping army of Midian awoke to the sound of 300 trumpets coming from three directions, saw the flashing of 300 lanterns and went into panic, killing each other in the darkness as they fled. News of the rout spread throughout the hillsides, and the volunteers who had gone home again came from all sides to join the chase.[4]

Following this victory the people acclaimed Gideon to be king, but Gideon refused to accept. According to Moses, God alone was king. Gideon, however, was not able to withstand the temptation to elevate himself above the people, even without the title of king. He enriched himself, made a cultic ephod for divination at his home, and married many wives so that he fathered 70 sons, one of whom (Abimelech)  tried to make himself king in the following generation, leading Israel into civil war. Abimelech’s attempt to rule came to nothing. At that time Israel had no use for a king.

Throughout Joshua and Judges, Israel’s defense was to be from God alone. In this way the surrounding nations would hold God in respect for his own sake, and not because God had an army to defend his interests. A powerful human king with an army would be like the moon eclipsing the sun, and the glory of God would not be seen. A nation with an army has by that fact disqualified itself from being a nation of priests who make God known to others.

Of course, times change and cultures change, and after 400 years without a king, Israel was changing. The book of Judges continues after Gideon to describe a period of social and spiritual decline in which confidence in God, in the religious system, and the leaders was in sharp decline.

Samson:  Spiritual Entropy and the End of an Era

The last judge God used to save Israel from its enemies was Samson. At a time when Israel was subservient to the Philistines, God chose Samson and gave him super-human strength that cowed his enemies at the mere sight of seeing him swing a weapon their way (Judges 15). But Samson’s strength went to his head, and soon he went womanizing in Philistine territory, a fitting way to insult the enemies further and have a little fun besides. Then one day his girlfriend cut his hair when he was sleeping. Long hair had been the sign of his Nazirite vow as a servant of God. With his hair gone his strength immediately dissipated, as the sign of God’s presence was now gone.

Without the symbol of his relationship to God, Samson was quickly subdued, imprisoned, and his eyes put out, but despite Samson’s misadventures and bad example, God still used him. The Philistines threw a celebration party to give thanks to their god, Dagon, for their victory over Samson. When the party was going strong, Samson was brought in for further public humiliation and torment. Samson had noticed his hair had started to grow back, and his confidence was returning. There in the Temple of Dagon, Samson prayed for strength once more, put his arms around the main structural pillar of the temple, and collapsed the entire building upon himself, killing himself and all the party goers. Dagon lost, Yahweh won. That was language the Philistines could understand.

The lesson for the Philistines was repeated a generation later during the time of Samuel. The Philistines attacked and defeated Israel in battle, taking the Ark of the Covenant as a trophy of victory to be displayed in Dagon’s rebuilt temple. On the following morning the Philistines awoke to find Dagon lying on his face and broken before the Ark.  While Israel’s pride of independence and self-sufficiency was broken, God’s dignity was never compromised. Israel could not defeat the Philistines in battle, but Yahweh could handle Dagon without a problem.

Following Samson, Israel, although temporarily free of Philistine control, continued its own spiritual decline and idolatrous practice.  Religious ritual continued, but trust in the institution of worship was fading, as mutual trust among the people also declined (1 Samuel 2 & 8). This set the stage for a watershed change in Israel’s relationship with God. Moses’ kingship restrictions would soon be a thing of the past.

David: The Man After God’s Own Heart

The political structure Moses set up had its problems. Israel persistently found itself in a position of weakness next to all its enemies. Periods of invasion and foreign oppression came and went, but each period of difficulty led to a period of covenant renewal followed by Divine intervention until the end of what we might call the No-King dynasty. The Davidic kingdom involved a new political order altogether, one that conformed to the necessities of living in a violent world. Any threat of violence would be promptly met with violence, led by human agency in the person of a king.

The story of David begins with the prophet, Samuel. During Samuel’s time, Israel again faced a national security dilemma. The Philistines were again causing trouble on the southwest and the Ammonites threatened on the east. The elders of Israel asked the prophet, Samuel, as God’s representative, to choose a king who would raise an army for national defense. The solution would be to have a king like other nations. When Samuel went to prayer God told Samuel, “Do not take this personally; it is not you, the prophet, whom they reject, but me. Just give them what they want, but warn them of the consequences. They will all eventually be slaves to their king.”  They would soon have new Pharaohs to serve.

The first king was Saul. He represented the new order while Samuel represented the old, a sure recipe for conflict. Samuel expected the king to obey the prophet as God’s representative, but Saul had his own ideas. Saul was a somewhat insecure individual who was overly concerned to please the people, and this got him in trouble with Samuel (1 Samuel 13-15). One day Samuel decided to anoint another king instead of Saul, of course after first consulting with God. David was chosen, and the story of God’s choice is found in 1 Samuel 16. In the end it was not war with foreign enemies that brought Israel to disaster, but civil war between Saul’s party and David’s that tore the country apart.

David was called the man after God’s own heart, and God blessed him. David set the pattern upon which the Messianic kingdom of Jesus was designed. His example inspired Israel’s hopes for the peaceable kingdom envisioned by Isaiah and the hopes for Messianic justice found in all the prophetic writings. However, Moses’ restrictions on kingship were set aside in the new system. The people asked for a king as in other nations, and to be like other nations was the new king’s job description. Israel would be respected for its own ability to retaliate.

With a king as in other nations, Israel depended upon its king and his army for protection, and the importance of God in the process was demoted in favor of the king and his army.[5]  Under David’s leadership and God’s blessing, Israel became a powerful nation of warriors for two generations until the time of David’s grandson, Rehoboam.   By then the Israelites had had enough of taxes and conscription for the king’s projects, and a revolt split the country between north and south. Israel lost its status as the military/economic powerhouse for the region. Before the monarchy, the common worship of Yahweh provided the essential adhesive for national unity, but after Solomon, David’s successor could not hold things together. Israel had tasted freedom in the past and longed for it again. No merely human government could give them what only God can give.

David’s story is one of profound contradictions. He was a man of faith committed to God’s way, but he was commissioned to lead a people of unbelief. God’s way for the king would be to abide by Moses’ restrictions on power and focus on leading a priestly nation, but the job description for a king “as in other nations” led to the opposite kind of policies.  David was best known and loved for his success as the warrior savior of his people.

If Israel was made to be a nation of priests and a light to the nations as the prophets envisioned, then Israel is God’s showcase to all nations for understanding God’s ways.  We will observe the relationship between God and Israel from this point on for lessons that would apply to any nation or people who might claim to have a relationship with God.


David: Faith Tested By Trouble

David was a child when Samuel came to anoint him king (1 Samuel 16).  One day David’s father sent him with some gifts for his brothers who now served in Saul’s army. The army was in a stalemate facing the Philistines across a ravine. Suddenly a giant named Goliath appeared on the Philistine side shouting insults against Israel and Israel’s God, followed by a challenge to single combat. This had been a daily occurrence for some time, but Saul could find no one to take the challenge and was not prepared to do so himself. With Samuel always criticizing him, Saul’s self-confidence had continued to deteriorate.

David heard the challenge. He saw that the current king was impotent to respond, and in the confidence of one chosen by God and approved by the prophet, David knew his time to act had come. Alone and armed only with the tools of his trade he confronted the enemy. With one flick of his shepherd’s slingshot, he felled the giant and rescued Israel. Upon seeing their hero defeated, the Philistines ran with Saul’s army in hot pursuit. This is the pattern of faith Moses taught and displayed. Here is the Messianic model. Like Jesus, David confronted the enemy alone, knowing he had been called by God for this task and therefore could not fail (1 Samuel 17).

David’s undaunted faith is clearly what made him the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), but he had to fit the role defined by a nation of unbelief. After killing Goliath, David was suddenly on the charts as the most popular folk hero to date.  However, Saul, the people pleaser, needed to be popular, and David was clearly a threat to his office. There is a second character trait about David that reveals his qualification for office, and that is his principled respect for the office of “God’s Anointed.”

Among David’s admirers was the princess Michal, and with her in the picture, Saul saw an opportunity. He proposed to marry her to David with a bride price of 100 dead Philistines’ foreskins. Brash young David would surely get himself killed if he took up the challenge. Flush with popularity and brimming with youthful confidence, David promptly took the bait and soon was shoulder deep in the killing business. In short order David brought not 100, but 200 Philistine foreskins to King Saul. Killing Philistines was getting to be fun. They would panic at the sight of him. The marriage took place, and David was made a commander in Saul’s army (1 Samuel 18).

Saul seethed with anger and fear. One day Saul tried to kill David with a spear, but David nimbly leaped aside and escaped. Saul’s second attempt to kill David was thwarted by David’s wife, Michal, who helped him get out of the house (1 Samuel 19) and flee. After David was gone, Saul forced her to marry someone else (1 Samuel 25:44), and from that time on, David began to live the life of a fugitive outlaw. Soon the disaffected members of society gathered to David, and a kind of opposition-party-in-exile emerged from the circumstances.

Saul organized a search-and-destroy unit from his army to go after David (1 Samuel 24). The search party passed by a cave where David and his men were hiding. Saul went into the cave to relieve himself, and David’s men said, “Now, David, get him. God has given your enemy into your hand.” But David refused. “I can never touch the Lord’s anointed,” he insisted. Then David quietly stepped behind Saul, cut a piece of Saul’s robe, and returned to his men. After Saul left the cave, David emerged holding the piece of cloth and shouted after him, “Does this belong to you?” Saul’s conscience struck him hard. He apologized to David, and called off the search. David’s respect for God’s anointing together with his faith is, no doubt, his greatest qualification for the office.

David was the man after God’s own heart, but he could not be the king after God’s own heart. David was hamstrung by the unbelief of his community. The king who lives by faith requires a people who also live by faith. This second piece was missing, and this along with David’s own human weakness, set him up for failure.

When it became clear that reconciliation with Saul would be impossible, David began forging alliances with prominent people behind Saul’s back, each alliance sealed with a marriage to someone’s daughter. Whether it was the political advantages or the women who most attracted David, we don’t know, but the political effects were real. Even one farsighted foreign ruler, King Talmai of Geshur, made a pact with David by marriage to one of his daughters. Politics in Israel was becoming like politics anywhere. David’s first six sons were from six different women.

Later Saul was killed in battle against the Philistines, followed by civil war between the house of David and the house of Saul. After hostilities were over and surrender made to David,  David’s top general, Joab, took personal vengeance for the death of a brother in battle by treacherously killing Saul’s commander, Abner (2 Samuel 3). As king, David should have executed Joab for that murder, but Joab was David’s cousin. Personal loyalty, clan loyalty, and political necessity made justice impossible. David understood political necessity in the world’s system. When David died, the murder of Abner was still on his conscience as an injustice that he, as king, had failed to rectify (1 Kings 2:4-6). Justice in David’s realm was not the same as God’s justice. It was humanly flawed.

The sad and sordid details of David’s family are told at length in 2 Samuel and the story includes rape and murder among his own children. David’s many wives took his heart astray as Moses predicted; and this led progressively to the disgraceful affair when he murdered Uriah the Hittite and took Uriah’s wife (2 Samuel 11). Conflict among the princes of the palace led ultimately to civil war during David’s lifetime (2 Samuel 3, &15-19), and after his death, brother killed brother in order to stabilize the authority of the office (1 Kings 1-2). The honest, transparent manner in which the sordid details of David’s life have been recorded certainly reflects the pen of a prophet rather than the writing of royal propagandists, as in other mid Eastern nations of the time. God was still in charge of keeping the record straight.

National security demanded the political system David built. It was only common sense. The kingship as in other nations dragged on for about 300 years until foreign invasion, first by Assyria and then by Babylon, put an end to the monarchy. Deuteronomy 17 provides an explanation for the failure of the system. Being king cost David his domestic tranquility, and the price of having such a king was the liberty and peace of the nation.  Yet God’s purpose of making Israel a nation of priests shining as light to the nations did not fail.

“Though the mills of God turn slowly, they grind exceedingly small,” wrote Longfellow.[6] In captivity after 596 BC, the nation of priests Moses described began to emerge, and Abraham’s promise of a blessing for all nations began to take shape. Scattered in defeat across the world, Israel shone as the light to the nations Isaiah described, and by the time of Jesus six hundred years later, the entire region knew all about those irritating, stubborn Jews with their One and Only God, his Sabbath rules, and their strange traditions. Like it or not, Israel became a weed in the devil’s garden that could not be eradicated.

What kept Jews alive and distinct as a people? It was the shared memory of David, Moses, and Abraham, the memories of God’s promise and historic deliverance, and the memory of God’s righteous judgments. At last Israel had become a people of faith, purged of idolatry, but not yet able to lay aside the desire to dominate others.

David initiated the building of a house for God, but God told him, “No, David. You will not build a house for me. I will build a house for you” (2 Samuel 7). It was to be a house not made with human hands, but fashioned by God (Acts 7:48). It would be a house for a nation of priests and not of warriors, living by God’s provision and under God’s protection alone, and not tied to the political necessities that govern other nations.


Our original question had to do with the proper authority for conducting warfare. According to Moses, the only proper authority would be God himself. But God also did authorize David to rule. The authorization was given in the context of unbelief. The next essay will explore theologically this necessity in the light of Jesus teachings and example.


[1] The vassal treaty arrangement as described was not all that different from the treaties of Russia and the United States with each of their client states during the Cold War, and is still not all that different from American foreign policy today.


[2] Discussion of just war generally assumes the legitimacy of whatever government happens to be in place, without consideration of whether the government in place is actually capable of recognizing a just cause outside its own self-interest. If one loves the neighbor as oneself (according to Moses), then the justice of the neighbor’s cause must be considered equally with one’s own interests. No secular human government is capable of such objectivity.


[3] According to the Bible History Daily (http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/archaeology-today/biblical-archaeology), Ehud’s escape was down the toilet to a lower level of the palace.

[4] This conflict with the Midianites et al was mentioned in Seti I’s inscription at Karnak.

[5] In the ancient world images were made both of gods and kings, and both were accorded worship. The western world has quit worshipping the gods, but one can still make a sacred pilgrimage to the statues of political/military heroes. Every American school child is told that a visit to Mt. Rushmore and to the Lincoln and Washington memorials will be an awesome, even sacred experience.

[6] Quoting the German translator of Sextus Empiricus, Friederick von Logau.   

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