It can be very hard to comprehend how gentle, kind people who love God, can pick up a sword and wipe out opposing nations. This is one of the issues I see people battle with in studying the life of King David. While we are introduced to him in 1 Samuel as a brave young warrior, a mighty man of valour, this image seems to harshly contradict the Psalms and our understanding of him as a God-fearing, righteous ruler. This article will look at why and how David had to act as he did.
As I write this, we live in an age of religious and ethnic tolerance and those values have been perpetuated with the spread of Christianity throughout the world. It is morally imperative that we don’t put people to the sword just because we don’t believe in the same god. So why did David do it and how should we interpret his behaviour?
In David’s time, God’s kingdom of Isra’el did not live in safety. There were constant threats of invasion, being taken as slaves, robbery, rape and murder. God raised up a man after His own heart, David, to lead the people to safety and ensure that they followed Him, the one true God. [Ref. 1 Kings 11:34, 2 Samuel 5:12 and Judges 2:2-3]
For Isra’el to be safe, the surrounding nations had to be bought under control. This was predominantly due to their polytheistic lifestyles, which continually poisoned the spiritual lives of the people of Isra’el. The references which repeatedly advise, implore and demand that the Israelites resist and get rid of these gods are many and include, from Deuteronomy alone: 7:16 and 25-26; 12:2-7 and 29-32; 20:17-18; 28:13-14; 29:16-21. This is not an exhaustive list. Following other gods would lead the people to destruction and the Lord did not want that to happen. Why?
Yahweh is known as a jealous God, but He is so for protective reasons. This is a point in history where religious tolerance just doesn’t apply and if there were religions carrying out these practices today, tolerance would not apply now either. Throughout every culture, if you study standards of morality, there are some practices which are intolerable, regardless of nation, year, race or religious creed. These include murder, prostitution and harming others. Sadly, these neighbouring religions demanded obedience to rituals which involved all those elements.
Here are the worst offenders:
– Ba’al: a fertility and war god, who demanded self-mutilation, ecstatic shamanistic like dances, ritual sex (which in cults that exist now, is often abusive and non-consentual, which may have been the case then also,) and child sacrifice.
– Asherah: the poles for this goddess are frequently mentioned in the books of Kings. She was considered the consort to Yahweh as Isra’el later dived into a spiritual abyss. Prostitution was a part of her worship.
– Ashtoreth or Astarte: she was an agricultural and fertility goddess who had a close association with Ba’el and again, ritual prostitution was involved in obeying and appeasing her.
– Molech: he was represented as an ox or calf, and he required the sacrifice of live, young children by burning and ritual sex practices.
– Chemosh: he was a war god who delighted in human sacrifice.
Realise that the people conceded to these demands, as they were terrified of the consequences of disobeying their god/goddess.
Would you like people who followed these practices living next to you and having any influence on your children? My guess is that you said no.
In Deuteronomy 31, God told Moses before he died, that Isra’el would eventually break the covenant they had made to obey God and worship Him alone. Moses was given warnings and a song to teach the people, in order to make them realise that God knew what was about to happen: but God wasn’t going to see it happen without a fight.
The warnings are dire and repeated and they needed to be. Psychologists have carried out studies to find out why people don’t meet their goals, and what they need to accomplish tasks to improve their quality of life. The research has found that if you show people the probable pitfalls and their chance of failure, rather than simply pumping them up with “you can do it, you will win” messages, people are more likely to achieve what they want as their outlook is more realistic. If you know you can fail, you don’t slacken off.
Thus the Lord told and told and told Isra’el, and David went to great lengths to ensure the physical and spiritual safety of the nature. After David died, his son Solomon began the path to total spiritual destruction and the exile of Isra’el, by marrying women from these dangerous nations, who worshipped these forbidden gods. In succeeding generations, first born children were sacrificed, the sexual immorality in Isra’el was overwhelming and the city of Jerusalem was so corrupt, the Spirit of God left the temple. [Ref. Ezekiel 10]
But still, even knowing this would happen, the Lord tried repeatedly to save His people. It is an act of a loving God which is incredibly precious and beyond price.
So now that you know why it happened, how can a good man kill to get a job like that done? This applies not only to David, but all the entire army of Isra’el.
When people are seen as a threat, fear kicks in and this motivation will enable people to do what they would otherwise consider unthinkable. When a threat is that close, people kill to survive. Consider Leviticus 6, where the Lord points out the punishment for disobedience. The people knew that they could lose everything. (Please see the footnote below.)
There are two other dynamics which will turn a sweet guy into a killer. As a crowd loses it’s individuality in a mass of faces, it becomes easy to dispatch or enslave them. They are not known by name, fame, or family ties and therefore, the guilt that murder and violence causes is significantly reduced for each soldier. It would be diminished even further, as the army acted under the orders of King David and General Joab, son of Zeruiah, David’s sister. If a figure of authority orders an act of violence or immorality, then research has found that people are far more likely to carry it out and they don’t fret about repercussions as much. It is the commander who will get the moral blame, not them. This is termed moral disengagement.
The last point which would affected the behaviour of David and his army is the old rule of ‘an eye for an eye.’ [Ref. Deuteronomy 19:21] In the Old Testament there was no known final judgement of the sinner and the saint. It was believed that for whatever you did wrong, you had to be punished for in life, not the afterlife; therefore rough vengeance was enacted through acts of war like this. It was the standard for the people at that point in history, and this law was common throughout all the ancient world, even up until the successful dominion of Babylon. Through the laws that God handed down through Moses, this was ratified as legally correct behaviour. God had said in Deuteronomy 9:4 “Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you.” This verse implies that if David was successful in defeating those nations, it was because God had judged them as wicked and He enabled their defeat. God was acting on His own laws.
If you would like to read more to further understand David’s actions as a ruler and the intricacies of power in the ancient world, you are welcome to read these articles.
– Was King David a Megalomaniac?
– Does Absolute Power Absolutely Corrupt?
– Law and Disorder in the Life of King David
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