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Yahweh as the Warrior in the Conquest of the Promised Land and the theological

implications for the establishment of the Modern State of Israel

David Chong Wui Howe

The global community was rudely shocked by the stark reality of jihad on 11th September

2001 when hijacked planes crashed into iconic buildings that symbolize American economic and

military power. In response to the specter of religiously-inspired violence, the subsequent ‘war on

terror’ would loom large over the early years of the 21st century. At the center of this worldwide

unrest is the long-standing Palestine-Israeli conflict that continues to be a source of its political

and religious impetus. Orthodox Jews honor Jerusalem as the city of peace that once housed the

temple of Yahweh. Christians make pilgrimage to the Promised Land where Jesus Christ once

lived, was crucified and resurrected. Muslims treasure the city as the third holiest site in Islamic

history. With the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1949, many adherents from these

three major faiths have staked a claim in supporting or opposing it in the name of God or Allah.

However, the idea of ‘holy war’ is not unique to Islam. In the book of Joshua, a scriptural

text embraced by both Jews and Christians, we would find the concept of Yahweh as a warrior

waging battle against Canaanite deities and nations through His covenant people Israel in the

conquest of the Promised Land. In some military campaigns, the Israelites were divinely decreed

to utterly destroy an entire population of men, women and children (Joshua 6:18-19). This raises

difficult moral dilemma for sensitive believers as well as concerns that such warfare narratives

may be used to justify violence and genocide today. In this paper I would attempt to answer three

questions: “What is Old Testament teaching and justification for ‘Yahweh war’ in the conquest of

Canaan? How should Christians perceive the continuity and discontinuity of these Old Testament

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concepts in light of New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ? Finally, what are the resulting

theological implications for how we understand the establishment of the modern state of Israel?”

What Is ‘Yahweh War’? Can It Be Morally Justified?

The vocal atheist Richard Dawkins described Joshua's military conquest as "morally

indistinguishable from Hitler's invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds

and the Marsh Arabs.”1 How could the God of love command genocide or ethnic cleansing,

which the Geneva Convention condemned as a crime against humanity? Let us begin with a

survey of Old Testament description of ‘Yahweh war’ and its moral justifications. Sometimes the

biblical records depict Yahweh as a warrior who fought alone on behalf of his people. In the

liberation of Israel from Egyptian slavery, Yahweh defeated Pharaoh’s armies without human

assistance as recounted in the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21) and the Song of the Sea (Exodus

15:1-18). At other times, the picture of Yahweh as warrior leading Israel’s army into battle is also

a common biblical motif as seen in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1-31). The battles fought by

earthly armies were understood as a struggle at the cosmic level between the deities worshipped

by the combatant nations as well.

Instructions pertaining to ‘ordinary’ wartime conduct against cities far away are different

from that of Yahweh war against the Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 20:1-20). In his seminal

work Holy War in Ancient Israel, Gerhard von Rad delineated thirteen features found in Yahweh

wars such as the rallying trumpet call (Judges 3:27), naming the army as “people of Yahweh”

(Judges 5:11), consecration of combatants (Joshua 3:5), offering of sacrifices (Judges 20:23), an

oracle that Yahweh had delivered their enemies into Israel’s hands (Joshua 2:24), Yahweh as

their leader (Deuteronomy 20:4), “fear not” formula (Deuteronomy 20:3), enemies’ loss of

1
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), page 248.

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courage (Joshua 2:9), a battle cry (Joshua 6:5), usage of the term ‘Yahweh war” (Joshua 10:14),

the intervention of Yahweh (Joshua 10:10-11), the herem concept of total destruction or

consecration of spoils and enemy men, women and children to Yahweh (Joshua 6:18-19) and the

dismissal of troops to their respective tents (2 Samuel 20:1).2 The term herem denotes both

destruction of life and devotion of spoils to Yahweh.3 Inflammable spoils were to be burned and

noncombustible metals were to be deposited in the treasury of His sanctuary (Joshua 6:24). Such

wartime practices were not unique to Israel but were probably paralleled in other Ancient Near

East nations such as Assyria and Moab.4 It is significant to note that only Yahweh has the

prerogative to authorize and initiate such wars. No other human could do so. Furthermore, we

should note possible hyperbolic language in Joshua 10:40 which claimed that Joshua “utterly

destroyed all who breathed". For later in the same text, we would read of warnings against

intermarriage, which presuppose the survival of some Canaanite inhabitants, as it would open the

door for syncretism and idolatry. (Joshua 23:12-13)

These battles took place in the context of the establishment of the nation of Israel as they

reclaim the land promised to their forefathers from numerically superior foes within fortified

cities. Peter Craigie pointed out that “the state is a form of human organization through which

God worked in the times of ancient Israel, and war was a form of human activity inseparably

linked to the existence of the state”.5 The herem was strictly limited in scope to the Canaanites

only. It was never universally applied on the basis of ethnic superiority as in modern day ‘ethnic

cleansing’. For example, there were surprising legal provisions made to care for non-Israelite

2
Gerhard von Rad, Holy War in Ancient Israel, ed. and trans. Marva J. Dawn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1991), pages 41-51
3
Chris Wright provides an alternative explanation of the term as “an absolute and irrevocable renouncing
of things or persons, a refusal to take any gain or profit from them”. Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy,
New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, Mass. Hendrikson: Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1996),
page 109
4
Daniel Gard, Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, Counterpoints, edited by
Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), page 116 – 117
5
Peter C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), page 74.

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strangers and aliens since the Israelites themselves were once aliens in Egypt as recorded in Deut.

10:18–19. Without partiality, Yahweh would even fight against His own people if they became

idolatrous and sinful as well (Deuteronomy 28:25). Tragically Israel’s persistent disobedience led

to its own population being wiped out by enemy states and only a remnant survived in exile

during Babylonian captivity. So being the ‘chosen people’ does not insulate them from God’s

holy judgment.

Even in the midst of divine judgment on the Canaanites, the opportunity of mercy was

extended to individuals like Rahab and her family or communities like the Gibeonites (Joshua

2:9-11, Joshua 11:19) when they made peace with Israel. Their response was contrasted with the

stubborn resistance of the Canaanite kings (5:1, 11:1-5). This implies that the other tribes would

have survived too had they chosen not to wage war with Yahweh and His people. Israel’s action

was depicted as a response to Canaanite aggression and in defense of their allies, the Gibeonites.6

The offer of salvation was not withdrawn even in the approaching divine judgment. The Lord’s

patience with the Canaanites is evident in not dispossessing them in the time of Abraham until

‘the sin of the Amorites’ has reached its maximum threshold (Genesis 15:16). Joshua 11:19-20

interprets their rebellion as Yahweh’s judicial hardening of the Canaanites hearts. It was not

because of Israel’s moral superiority that the Lord helped them to take possession of the land but

it is on account of the great wickedness of these nations (Deuteronomy 9:4). The rebellious

condition of the Canaanites left no alternative but destruction.7 Therefore, Yahweh wars cannot

be separated from its ethical context of executing judgment and protecting the fledgling nation of

Israel from being led stray by idolatrous practices (Joshua 24:19). Breaking the Decalogue by

worshipping other gods was tantamount to a breach of covenant with Yahweh, an act of national

6
Jerome F. D. Creach, Joshua, Interpretation: A BibleCommentary for Teaching and Preaching,
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), page 17
7
Richard S. Hess, Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity press, 1996),
page 218

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treason. If we fail to recognize God’s holiness and power as compatible with His compassion and

mercy, it would be tempting to embrace the Marcionite error of rejecting significant portions of

the Old Testament as divinely inspired. Ultimately, God has the prerogative to give and take

away lives of sinners.

How Should We Understand ‘Yahweh War’ In Light of Christ?

As Christians, we also need to interpret the entire Bible through the prism of Jesus Christ. In

Him we see the fullness of God incarnate revealed in bodily form. (Colossians 2:9) When some

zealous disciples tried to resist His arrest, Jesus commanded them to put back their swords,

saying, “For all who live by the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my

Father and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew

26:52-54) Instead of grabbing power by force, the Son of God chose to lay down His own life as

a servant to give life to others. In light of His teachings on non-violence, forgiving our enemies

and turning the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, we could understand that

these Old Testament legislations do not constitute the climax of God’s ideals. Rather they served

as stepping stones that lead us progressively higher until it culminates in Christ’s coming. As

Tom Wright aptly put it, "the Torah is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside-not

because it was a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose

had now been accomplished."8

From this vantage point, the multiracial covenant community called the church is not a

political entity so it should never claim divine sanction to execute the herem. Paul Copan explains

that national Israel’s theocratic status was “unique, short-lived, and unrepeatable, and her political

role and identity as God's people in redemptive history came to a dramatic end in AD 70. An

8
N. T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), page 181.

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interethnic (Jewish-Gentile) community in Christ has emerged as the true Israel (cp. Rom. 2:28-9;

1 Pet. 2:9)”.9 It does not mean that the church has replaced or superseded Israel, but rather it is

grafted into the one people of God (Romans 11:11-36). Therefore, no theological justification

exists for any follower of Christ to invoke holy war in the name of God as tragically happened

during the Crusades. 10 Jesus explicitly told Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If

My kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting" (John 18:36). On the

relationship of Christians with war in general, those who subscribe to an Anabaptist, Mennonite

or Amish tradition would advocate pacifism and reject the use of violence of any kind. The

majority of Christians today, however, seem to accept that war may be justified under certain

criteria like self-defense against invaders, proportional use of force, distinguishing combatants

from civilians and so on.11 As citizens of two cities (the earthly and the heavenly ones), Christians

may ‘bear the sword’ in an armed force in recognition of state authorities as taught in Romans

13.12 Regardless of one’s position on this matter, every legitimate peace making effort should be

expended to avoid the horrible consequences of war. Obedience to the state is not absolute

because our human rulers are accountable to a higher Lawgiver. If the state acts and speaks as if it

is god, demanding our ultimate loyalty, then it has become an idol and Christians have the

responsibility and freedom to disobey unjust laws or military policies.

The God of love and justice who commanded the total destruction of the Canaanites is also

the One who laid down His life for the forgiveness of sins. We cannot create a dichotomy that

pits the portrait of God found in the Old Testament against that of the New Testament. Yahweh

the Warrior has become incarnate as the Crucified God who disarmed the principalities and

9
Paul Copan, Is Yahweh A Moral Monster? The New Atheists And Old Testament Ethics, Philosophia
Christi, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2008, page 36.
10
Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World (New York: Anchor, 2001).
11
For a brief overview of traditional positions, see Os Guinness, The Dust of Death: A Critique of the
Establishment and the Counter-Culture – and a Proposal for a Third Way, pages 167-168
12
Eugene H. Merrill, Show Them No Mercy, page 92

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powers through His own sacrificial death for sinful humanity. Yet there is an eschatological

continuity of ‘Yahweh war’ when Christ finally returns as the righteous Judge who will

completely destroy and punish all who persist in sin and rebellion.13 In Revelation 19:11-21,

Jesus was also depicted as the Lord of Lords and King of Kings who will finally destroy the

rebellious followers of Satan. Again, the prerogative over life and death belongs to the Creator.

Since vengeance belongs to the Lord alone, followers of Jesus should refuse to employ violence

to perpetuate a vicious cycle of destruction. For Christians, it would be a gross abuse of Scripture

to claim the practice of herem to warfare today.

What Are Theological Implications For Understanding Modern Israel?

The modern state of Israel was established on 15th May 1948. With the departure of the last

British forces, Arab and Jewish forces stepped into the resulting void and fought for control over

Palestine. In accordance with the 1947 UN Partition Plan, it was recommended that two

provisional states, one Jewish and one Arab, to be created and that the City of Jerusalem be

placed as corpus separatum under an international administration by the United Nation. However

the Palestinians had objections with how the land was divided and the way the plan was forced

upon them without consultation. They were soundly beaten by the more organized Jews. As a

result, Israel gained control over more land and the West Bank was annexed by Jordan. In June

1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike that defeated the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian

armies. The aftermath of the war was Israel taking control over the entire West Bank, Sinai, the

Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Defying UN Security Council resolutions, Israel refused to

13
Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), page 158.
Kline suggests that the judgment on the Canaanites is an invasion of eschatological ethics into the era of
common grace, anticipating the cosmic judgment when God will finally bring about justice over all the
earth.

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withdraw its forces from occupied territories.14 The present realities are such that if Israel creates

a single democratic state, it will cease to be a Jewish state when the Palestinian Arab population

becomes the majority. The other options would be the creation of a Palestinian state (the two-state

solution) or making life unbearable for the Palestinians so that many will leave the country. 15

How should we interpret these events in the Middle East? Many evangelical Christians who

subscribe to dispensational theology view physical Israel as the continuing people of God distinct

from the church. According to Charles Ryrie, “the basic premise of Dispensationalism is two

purposes of God expressed in the formation of two peoples who maintain their distinction

throughout eternity”.16 The establishment of modern state of Israel is understood as the

fulfillment of a literalistic reading of Old Testament prophecies like in Ezekiel 4:3-6.17 For

example, an article published by the Malaysian National Evangelical Christian Fellowship

claimed, “Aliyah (Hebrew word for go up, ascend) is the Jewish expression used for the act of

returning or making immigration to the land of Israel… This re-gathering of the Jews from all the

nations of the world (the most recent being the Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel because of

the current recession in Russia) is surely under the hand of God. Jeremiah 16:14-15 says: 'The

Lord who lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north (RUSSIA?) and

from all the lands where He has driven them. For I will bring them back into the lands which I

gave their fathers. Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the end

of the earth . . . a great throng shall return.”18 The exegetical problem with such ‘prewritten

history’ is the neglect to understand that in its original context, the ‘land of the north’ refers to

14
For an accessible treatment of the historical issues, see Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land? The
Continuing Crisis Over Israel and Palestine, (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2002)
15
Colin Chapman, Israel and Palestine: Where is God in the conflict? Encounters Mission Ezine, Issue 5:
April 2005, page 5
16
Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), pages 44-45
17
Grant Jeffrey, Armageddon - Appointment with Destiny, (Toronto.: Frontier Research Publications, 1988)
18
Christopher Choo, Israel: The Spiritual Time Clock, Watchmen’s Forum 1, ed. E. Ng, S. C. Loh, & K. K.
Wong, (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: NECF Malaysia, 1999), pages 91- 92

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Babylon rather than Russia. Jeremiah’s promise of restoration was already fulfilled when Cyrus

king of Persia allowed the exiles to return (2 Chron.36:21-22).19 Popularized by apocalyptic

literature by Hal Lindsey, Tim Lahaye and many others, much shifting speculations about

contemporary events, wars or political developments have been offered as confirmation of

biblical predictions that proved the imminence of the end of the world.

Dispensationalism often gets translated into political action deeply supportive of Zionism

such as ‘facilitating Jewish emigration; supporting the settlement program; lobbying for

international recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; funding the rebuilding of the

temple; and opposing the peace process; exacerbating relations with the Arab world and

hastening Armageddon’.20 Solidarity tours to Israel organized by some evangelical leaders may

even include meetings with Israeli government officials and visits to military installations. One

may recall former US President Bill Clinton’s former pastor who claimed that there is a promise

in Scriptures that God will punish those who will not stand alongside modern Israel. Such an

uncritical support for modern Israel results in a significant number of Christians being part of the

obstacle rather than solution to lasting peace in the Middle East. Sometimes, criticisms against

Israel’s policies and actions are inaccurately described as anti-Semitism. Today, this position is

very popular in evangelical circles especially in America.

For a biblically grounded position, Christians do not need to be forced into a false dilemma

of choosing between Christian Zionism and replacement theology (the notion that the church has

superseded Israel within God’s purposes). A nuanced ‘third way’ for evangelicals may be found

in covenant theology. Covenantalists affirm that “God has only one people ever had one people

19
I am grateful to Mr. Low Chai Hok’s insights in his unpublished article named “Modern Israel and the
Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecies”, page 15-16
20
Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester: Inter-varsity Press, 2004),
pages 206-207

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throughout history – those who share the faith of Abraham, whether Jews or Gentiles – and one

means of atonement, the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ in our place”. 21 The Jewish people are

loved by God and have played a unique role in history leading to the birth of the Messiah. But

they are not by default the people of God due to their ethnicity but by faith in Christ alone.

According to Romans 11, all Jews will one day come to recognize Jesus as their Messiah and be

part of the church as the renewed and restored Israel that comprises of all nations. Based on our

survey of how Christians view Yahweh war in light of Christ, we need to realize that modern

Israel is a secular state that cannot be identified with the ancient theocratic nation of the Old

Testament. As Christians we should not turn a blind eye to the plight of Palestinians (some of

whom are followers of Jesus too) or condone the injustices carried out in modern Israel. At the

same time, we should equally denounce acts of terrorism and anti-Semitism (noting that the

Palestinians are also descendants of Shem) no matter where they come from.

How should Christians make sense of Old Testament prophecies regarding the restored Israel

and their return to the land? Do they predict the establishment of modern Israel in the 20th

century? Ezekiel 37:15-28 is a representative text that speaks of the Lord bringing the Jewish

exiles back to their land as a nation. “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all

have one shepherd… They will live in the land I gave my servant Jacob, the land where your

fathers lived… and David my servant will be their prince for ever. I will make a covenant of

peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant” (Ezekiel 37:24-26). Colin Chapman argued

that some of the promises here have found their fulfillment when the Jewish exiles returned from

Babylon to Jerusalem beginning in 537 BC.22 Furthermore, he explored how these prophecies

were fulfilled in various ways in the coming of Christ. For example, we find in the New

Testament that Jesus is ‘the good shepherd’ who brings together ‘one flock’ from the scattered

21
Stephen Sizer, ibid., pages 261 – 263
22
Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land?, page 320 – 322

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children of God (John 10:11, 14, 16, 51-52). By His death, the new covenant was instituted

(Hebrews 13:20) with the church as ‘a holy nation’ (1 Peter 3:9). The inauguration of His eternal

Kingdom (Luke 1:31-33) has fulfilled the typology of the kingly rule of David. If Old Testament

prophecies such as this find their fulfillment in the past, in Christ or in the eschaton, then it

appears that we need to be extremely cautious of ascribing them as prediction of modern Israel.

However, our understanding of OT prophecies cannot be detached from a larger

hermeneutical discussion. Dispensationalists claim to be consistent in adopting a literal

interpretation of Scripture instead of ‘spiritualizing’ these promises away. In response, Vern

Poythress pointed out that Israel’s social and political structures possess symbolic or typological

significance that points forward to their eschatological fulfillment.23 Therefore, we need to

compare the Old Testament to the New Testament teachings in its larger canonical context.

Poythress wrote, “Such comparison, though it should not undermine or contradict grammatical-

historical interpretation, goes beyond its bounds. It takes account of information not available in

the original historical and cultural context… True, grammatical-historical interpretation exercises

a vital role in bringing controls and refinements to our understanding particular texts. But we

must also undertake to relate those texts forward to further revelation which they anticipate and

prepare for.”

Even if we accept the dispensational view that modern state of Israel is a literal fulfillment

of Old Testament prophecies, there is no compelling reason to suppose that the means of its

fulfillment is ethically approved by God. The defeat of Judah and accompanying destruction of its

temple was foretold by prophet Jeremiah. Surprisingly, a ruthless and pagan Babylonian empire

was permitted to be the agent fulfilling this prediction. The book of Habakkuk wrestled with

23
Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, (Chestnut Hill: Westminster Theological Seminary,
1986)

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precisely the justice of God in ordaining a wicked nation to be an instrument of judgment against

His people. It shows that God may sometimes allow the actions of wicked persons which He

morally detest in order to accomplish His own purpose (i.e. the discipline of disobedient Israel).

In the same way, a dispensationalist may believe that modern Israel is a fulfillment of biblical

prophecy without condoning every action taken by its leaders in accomplishing it. He may take a

more nuanced view that blessing and standing together with Israel entails the responsibility to

also criticize its unjust treatment of Palestinian citizens.

Concluding Remarks

In these dangerous and desperate times, the church has a crucial peacemaking role in an

increasingly pluralistic world. In reviewing Old Testament practice of Yahweh war in the

conquest of Canaan, we conclude that it is restricted to a unique, limited period in salvation

history for the ancient theocracy of Israel. Therefore it could not provide any warrant for the

modern state of Israel or any other earthly governments today to claim divine command to wage

holy war. As followers of Christ, we are not called to bear the sword but to carry the cross

(Matthew 26:52-54). Therefore, the church needs to contribute to finding an equitable resolution

for the seemingly intractable Palestinian-Israelis conflict. A good model would be Musalaha, a

non-profit organization that promotes reconciliation among Palestinian and Israeli Christian

believers, and then beyond to interfaith communities based on biblical principles.

The journey may begin with letting go of an exclusive Zionist or Islamist claim on

Jerusalem, and work for an open city of peace with shared sovereignty that people regardless of

creeds could come together and learn from each other. We need to challenge both sides equally to

negotiate on the basis of international law. Although it is not an ideal solution, it appears that the

two-state solution is the only viable option for lasting peace in the region. Both Israel and

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Palestine have the right to exist within secure and internationally recognized borders. Although

the road will be long and painful, we need to work towards peace based on mutual recognition

that God’s name would not be blasphemed by continuing wanton bloodshed committed for

political and religious reasons.

Bibliography

1. Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? Stephen Sizer, Inter-varsity Press, 2004

2. Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary, Christopher Wright, Paternoster,

1996

3. Dispensationalism, Charles Ryrie, Moody Press, 1995

4. Holy War in Ancient Israel, Gerhard von Rad, edited and translated by Marva J. Dawn,

Eerdmans, 1991

5. Is Yahweh A Moral Monster? The New Atheists And Old Testament Ethics, Paul Copan,

Philosophia Christi, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2008

6. Israel and Palestine:Where is God in the conflict? Colin Chapman, Encounters Mission

Ezine, Issue 5: April 2005

7. Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary, Richard S. Hess, Inter-Varsity Press, 1996

8. Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, Counterpoints, edited

by Stanley N. Gundry, Zondervan, 2003

9. The Problem of War in the Old Testament, Peter C. Craigie, Eerdmans, 1978

10. The Structure of Biblical Authority, Meredith Kline, Wipf and Stock, 1997

11. Whose Holy City? Jerusalem and the Future of Peace in the Middle East, Colin

Chapman, Baker Books, 2005

12. Whose Promised Land? The Continuing Crisis Over Israel and Palestine, Colin

Chapman, Lion Publishing, 2002

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