War or Peace? The Command to Wage War

July 26, 2022

It is hard to reconcile the clash between the ideal of peace and the stark reality of war. While we yearn for global and internal peace, we are all too often confronted with the moral complexities of armed conflict. What does the Bible have to say about war?

When God took the Jews out of Egypt, he specifically avoided the land of the Philistines in order to avoid conflict (Exodus 14:17-18). It seems ironic, therefore, that He commanded them to wage war against the inhabitants of Canaan when it came time to inherit the Promised Land. Why did He issue this command?

Just as God brought the Jews out of Egypt without having them lift a sword, He could have brought them into the land without a battle. But as the Children of Israel prepared to enter the promised land, it became clear that this would not be a tranquil or meditative process. Even before God commanded them to wage war against the inhabitants of the land, the Jews were commanded to exact revenge against the Midianites for seducing the Israelites to sin (Numbers 31). They were commanded to wipe out the nation of Amalek, anywhere and at any time. And the Jews were later commanded to fight the seven nations in the land.

Is this the spiritual ideal they left Egypt for? Was non-stop war their future?

Isaiah (4:2) describes a very different future, a vision of nations “beating swords into plowshares” and a world in which “they shall never again know war.”

If pacifism will be the Messianic ideal, why command us to wage war?

One perspective views war as an unfortunate necessity thrust upon us by circumstance. While God could have easily brought us into the land without war, the nations of Canaan chose, with their own free will, to engage in battle over the land. In fact, before turning to war, Joshua gave the nations of Canaan a choice: leave Canaan, live together in peace, or fight for the land. Unfortunately, almost all of the Canaanites chose to fight.

In the Torah’s terms, however, all is not fair in war. Even when we are locked in a horrific struggle for survival, there are rules and limitations. Precisely because we are servants of God we must follow these rules even when fighting for our lives and for our land. Even when the Canaanites chose war over peace, the Jewish people were still instructed to engage in warfare with compassion and mercy. Today, as well, Israel shows tremendous restraint when dealing with our enemies, and regrets the loss of life. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said, “It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers” than to forgive them for killing our soldiers.

War, while far from ideal, is allowed in order to survive in the world as it is now. The Torah teaches us how to cope with this flawed reality. If, however, everyone were to put down their weapons and refuse to fight, war would cease to exist and the post-messianic peaceful utopia would begin. In the meantime, if war is waged, necessity demands that it be waged morally yet effectively, achieving absolute victory.

Another reason to wage war is to uproot evil from the world. This is the reason for the eternal war against the Amalekites and the command for revenge against the Midianites, and this is why we have to find terrorism and antisemitism today. They are evil, and if you don’t destroy evil, evil will eventually destroy you. As Rabbi Elie Mischel said, “Those who are kind to evil and cruelty are being cruel to the kind.” It is for this reason that Israel must go all out and rid the world of Hamas once and for all. 

There is also another perspective on war. Though it is an unfortunate reality in today’s world, it also serves a purpose. The existence of war, like everything in the Bible, is for our own good. While we wish we didn’t have to fight them, the possibility of war guides our actions, forcing us to choose a path away from conflict and struggle; the path of good. It forces us to choose to heal and mend rather than destroy. With the possibility of war, Man is confronted with his own destructive capability. And through the power of choice, Man can also realize his ability to heal, nurture, create, and build. As this aspect grows in Man, the final redemption and the era of peace come closer. 

While war is far from an ideal state, it may be a temporary necessity in the current world, either as a response to attack or to uproot evil. However, it also holds the potential to push humanity toward a more peaceful and redemptive future if approached with the intention of transforming and healing rather than perpetuating conflict. A war is only really won if we become different people as a result. And when that happens, it brings us closer to the peaceful time of the Messianic era, may it come speedily in our days!

 

Eliyahu Berkowitz

Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz is a senior reporter for Israel365News. He made Aliyah in 1991 and served in the IDF as a combat medic. Berkowitz studied Jewish law and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He has worked as a freelance writer and his books, The Hope Merchant and Dolphins on the Moon, are available on Amazon.

Eliyahu Berkowitz

Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz is a senior reporter for Israel365News. He made Aliyah in 1991 and served in the IDF as a combat medic. Berkowitz studied Jewish law and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He has worked as a freelance writer and his books, The Hope Merchant and Dolphins on the Moon, are available on Amazon.

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