The Torah On Violence & Warfare

AS THE STATE OF ISRAEL FIGHTS TO DEFEND ITS LAND, PEOPLE AND RELIGION, it becomes natural to talk about the Torah—what does this revelation from God to Moses say about violence and warfare? This is the most important question to ask in times of terror where the enemy is at the gates and wishes to destroy as much of Israel as possible.

When we understand the Torah, we realise that unlike pacifist religious texts, this ancient collection of sacred writings does not teach an absolutely non-violent response to violations of human life and dignity especially when the victim is the nation of Israel.

Before explaining the rules of violence/warfare according to God’s revelation in the Torah, there is an important disclaimer that needs to be mentioned: I do not encourage, promote, and incite breaking the rules of international law, whether pertaining to criminal code of justice or warfare and neither has the state of Israel broken any of those laws as far as I know.

However, this essay is not about my personal opinions, preferences, or delusions but what the revelation of God to Moses teaches regarding war and violence.

Firstly, it is important to note that the Torah prescribes the death penalty for certain crimes including murder, kidnapping, bearing false witness, rape, and idolatry. Clearly, this is evidence that there are strict standards of conduct that God demands, and that violations have severe consequences.

Exodus 21:12

“Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death.”

Exodus 21:16

“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession”.

Deuteronomy 19:16–19

“If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you.”

Deuteronomy 22:25-27

“But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her.”

Leviticus 20:2

“Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him.”

All of this is a form of divine revenge, and righteous retaliation is at the heart of the Torah. There is no shame in pointing out that the God of Israel takes revenge from evildoers through His direct attacks such as on Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19: 1-29 using His creational will. But He also demands from His people to take revenge on His behalf through His legislation, i.e., the laws of the Torah, and applying the punishments for serious criminals like killers, kidnappers, terrorists, rapists etc.

According to the Torah, revenge is justice; hence, the concept of “eye for an eye” עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, ʿayīn taḥaṯ ʿayīn in Exodus 21:23–27.

Secondly, when it comes to warfare, there are clear rules for destroying specific national entities with total ruthlessness. This is not something that is comfortable for most people, including myself to consider or understand, but the holiest scriptures in Judaism, and Christianity clearly teaches it. And in fact, one rabbi wrote that it is human nature to be revolted by the prescriptions of genocidal violence against Amalek and the Canaanites.

For instance: Deuteronomy 25:17-18

“Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.”

Also note 1 Samuel 15:1-3

Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so, listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites, and totally destroy[a] all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels, and donkeys.’”

There is also the famous passage in Numbers 31: 1-17 where God orders Moses to take vengeance and destroy all the Midianites—verses 17 and 18 are as follows:

Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man,  but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

Two things to note:

Firstly, sages can argue that the divine wisdom in issuing the above edicts is not fully understandable without access to the knowledge that only God has, therefore, because we are not omniscient these accounts seem unreasonable to us.

However, God in His essence is just and merciful, and that therefore these prescriptions certainly are not in violation of God’s nature.

Secondly, biblical scholars, especially those who might incline towards documentary hypothesis, could easily argue that these accounts especially the commands to commit great slaughter, are simply fictitious, and have no basis in empirical evidence. And that no such events have occurred.

In any case, the topic of our study is restricted to what the Torah says about violence and warfare explicitly.

In conclusion, a brief study of the Torah clearly leads to the understanding that the revelation of God to Moses was not intended to be a pacifist contract between God and Israel, but rather a covenant that had strict rules in place—some of which if violated required violence. Furthermore, God in the Torah has permitted warfare and ordained slaughter or massacre as a method of achieving specific goals or removing evil and establishing justice.

About the Author
Zalghi Khan is a former investment banker, who is currently training to become an accountant. He is the author of ten books, and specializes in economics, finance, and geopolitical issues. For him it is important to provide convincing answers to pressing questions, especially as it relates to global economic matters.