War in Monotheistic Religions – Judaism

Jan 11 - War in Monotheistic religions

By Laila Brence

Throughout history, many wars have been waged with religion being their stated cause and peace as their desired outcome. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the historically and theologically related monotheistic religions, are all dedicated to love and benevolence and yet, all three, at some points of history have developed concepts of war. Let us delve

into the history of Judaism in search of the origins of war in this religion, as defined by Karen Armstrong, a renowned writer of modern religion.

In her attempt to identify the origins of war in Judaism, Armstrong looks back at the very beginnings of Judaism – the time of Prophet Ibrahim (as). In about 1850 B.C.E., he left his home in Ur of the Chaldees to set out on a journey to the land of Canaan, the modern Israel. Allah (swt) commanded Ibrahim (as) to enter into a special covenant with Him, in return for what He would bless him – his descendants would become a great people and would be given the land of Canaan.

Among the first words that Allah (swt) spoke to Ibrahim (as) were: “To your descendants I will give this land.” (Genesis, 12:7) Armstrong maintains that this revelation has served as the basis for numerous wars fought by the Jews in order to make this promise come true. Also today many Jews see this Promised Land as essential to the integrity of Judaism.

In about 1700 B.C.E., the descendants of Ibrahim (as) migrated to Egypt. By 1250, their position there deteriorated to such an extent that they became slaves. At that point, Allah (swt) intervened and commanded prophet Musa (as) to save his people. Through a series of miracles granted by Allah (swt), Musa (as) forced the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and then led them towards the Promised Land of Canaan. However, instead of going directly to Canaan, the Jews lived for forty years as nomads in the Sinai Peninsula. In these forty years, they learned to depend on Allah (swt) for all their needs, including their daily provision of food. But, most importantly, during this time, on Mount Sinai, Allah (swt) gave to Musa (as) the Ten Commandments, which became the basis of the Torah.

One of the Ten Commandments given to Musa (as) was: “Thou shalt not kill.” However, points out Armstrong, as Jews got ready to enter the Promised Land, Allah (swt) told them that they would have to engage in a ruthless war of extermination. Although Jews believed that the land of Canaan was theirs, it was not empty – there were other people living there, who had made it their home. Canaanites were in the way of the divine plan; they were enemies of the new Jewish self. Thus, according to Armstrong, the normal human rights the Jews were commanded to observe did not apply to the Canaanites, who had become the enemies of Allah (swt). Canaanites had to be exterminated. “I shall exterminate these,” Allah (swt) told his people, “they must not live in your country.” (Exodus, 23:23, 33)

Since the order of conquest came directly from Allah (swt), we can assume that this was the first holy war ever fought. In Jewish holy war, says Armstrong, there was no peaceful coexistence, mutual respect or peace treaties – their enemies were to be fought to death. When Jews had to establish themselves in the Promised Land, the ordinary morality did not apply.

Since Musa (as) died before reaching the Promised Land, it was Joshua (or Yoosha (as)), who in about 1200 B.C.E., led the Israelites into Canaan and established them there by means of a long and ruthless military campaign. He acted according to Allah’s (swt) command (Deuteronomy, 7:1-6) – the conquered areas were put under a ban, which meant total destruction and extermination:

“When Israel finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open ground and where they had followed them into the wilderness, and when all to a man had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and slaughtered all its people. The number of those that fell that day, men and women together, was twelve thousand, all people of Ai. (…) Then Joshua burned Ai, making it a ruin for evermore, a desolate place even to this day.” (Joshua, 8:24, 25, 28)

This holy war for conquering the Promised Land continued for two hundred years, until the time of King David (Dawood (as)). His conquest of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem (around 1000 B.C.E.) departed from the practice of his predecessors – he did not massacre the Jebusites. According to Armstrong, it seemed that he wanted to make them his personal followers, since their survival totally depended on him. It was King David, who made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom and the centre of Judaism. As history would evolve, Jerusalem would gain special significance for Christians and Muslims.

Since the time of early history of Judaism, rabbis, the Jewish religious teachers, have defined three types of permissible wars:

1)       Obligatory wars: these are commanded by Allah (swt). This category includes such wars as the biblical conquest of the Canaanites.

2)       Defensive wars: if Jewish people are attacked, it is obligatory upon them to defend themselves. This category includes also pre-emptive strikes, which means attacking the enemy who is about to attack you.

3)       Optional wars: these are undertaken for a good reason in cases when no other form of negotiation is possible.

Distinct rules of warfare have also been developed. According to Jewish tradition, before declaring a war or starting a battle, attempts have to be made for negotiating peace. Non-combatants are not to be killed intentionally and should be given the chance to leave the area, before the battle starts. However, if non-combatants intentionally stay in the area of war, then they lose the previously-mentioned protection and can be killed.

Today, Jews often find themselves in a tight situation regarding the ethics of warfare. They are required to find the balance between the need to wage a war and the obligation to value the human life. Since the modern political situation is very complicated, there is a great debate today among the Jews, as to how apply the warfare principles defined in Torah to the current situations.