Peace & violence in Islam & Christianity

At a recent debate organised by the Islamic Propagation Centre (Lenasia, 27 June 2009), the Muslim speaker suggested that God’s instructions to Israel to ‘utterly destroy’ the inhabitants of Canaan and to ‘kill everything that breathes’ is no less violent than anything the Koran is so often accused of propagating. At the same debate someone asked the Christian speaker why Jesus had failed to stone the adulterous woman and thereby to uphold the Law of Moses (alluding to the events of John 8).

How does the fate of an adulteress link up with Israel’s mandate to destroy the other nations in Canaan? Is the Bible more violent than the Koran? Does God take sides in the conflict between Arabs and Jews?

Let’s start with God’s instruction to the Israelites as they entered the Land:

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labour and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it … This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.’ (Deut. 20:10-18)

This is indeed what the Bible says, with obvious parallels to Islam, yet there is also a fundamental difference.

The Jews have their reason for being in God’s promise to Abraham, found in Genesis 12:2-3: ‘I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing … all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’

Whatever blessing would come to Israel was clearly intended for all nations. Abraham’s blessing was firstly ‘to’ the Jews and then also ‘through’ the Jews. Initially this came through the Law of Moses. By living under the Law, Israel would demonstrate God’s righteousness and holiness and so serve as a light to the pagan world:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)

Those who saw the righteousness of God in Israel would make peace and so be saved. Those who resisted God’s holy requirements would be conquered and destroyed. Salvation was always preferred, for God takes ‘no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11).

Why and how would Israel judge?

It is here that the parallel between the historical conquests of Israel and the teachings of Islam come to an end.

The Bible contains important information which must be read alongside God’s instruction to Israel to utterly destroy the inhabitants of the Land which Israel was entering to possess.

  • YHVH explained that it was not until the sinfulness of those people would reach its limit, that He would use Israel to condemn them. For this reason Abraham’s descendents had to wait four hundred years before they could enter the land. We see this at Genesis 15:13-16: “Then the LORD said to [Abraham], ‘… your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years … In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

So we see that God did not displace the people of Canaan unjustly – out of favouritism – not even for the sake of honouring His promise to give the land to Israel. It was only once these people were beyond hope, that the Israelites could bring God’s judgment upon them.

  • The lesson that God taught Israel from the outset was that it could only condemn the inhabitants of Canaan, and occupy the Land in their place, if it kept itself perfectly pure and remained in absolute obedience to His word. If at any time the Israelites became guilty of the same sins for which the Canaanites were destroyed off the Land, they too would be defeated and condemned. This warning is found in Deuteronomy 18:9-13:

“When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God.”

Israel would be kept pure and ‘blameless’ by condemning the sinners among her own people. Only then could she act as God’s righteous judge against the pagans! For this reason, every sinner in Israel had to be ‘cut off from among his people: “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled … And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. Everyone who does any of these detestable things – such persons must be cut off from their people” (Leviticus 18:24-29).

This principle, namely that Israel had to ensure its own righteousness before it could judge others, was clearly establshed when Israel entered the Land under Joshua. On crossing the Jordan River, as Joshua approached Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. ‘Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as Commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” (Joshua 5:13-14).

God does not take the side of one group or nation against another, but rather upholds His Word and His righteousness. Soon after Joshua’s meeting with the angel, the Israelites were led to a miraculous victory over the city of Jericho – its walls collapsed without weapons or combat after they marched around it for seven days. Then to acknowledge that the victory was His, God commanded them not to take any of the loot, but to consecrate all the riches of that city as a memorial to Him (Joshua 6:18-19).

Soon after the conquest of Jericho, the Israelites suffered a humiliating defeat at the town of Ai. It was then revealed that Achan of the tribe of Judah had taken some of the consecrated things, and because of this one sin, Israel could not prevail over its enemies. Only after Achan was stoned to death by the community of Israel, was the town of Ai delivered into their hands (Joshua 7:25 -8:1).

This pattern continues through-out the time of the Judges and in Israel’s later history. Every time Israel fell into disobedience, their enemies prevailed over them (see Judges 2:10-15, for a further example). Only if the Jews were perfectly righteous could they stand as an agent of God in the judgment of nations. So, for this reason, “Purge the evil from among you.”

This brings us to the woman caught in adultery, whom the Pharisees took to Jesus for his verdict:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:3-10).

The Law of Moses imposed the death penalty on adulterers (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:22) which was executed by way of stoning in the case of a betrothed woman.1 The ‘trap’ the Pharisees set for Jesus arose from the fact that he was known as a friend of ‘publicans and sinners’. Would Jesus break the Law to save the sinner, or would he condemn the sinner to uphold the Law?

Jesus turns the trap against them. As King Solomon taught in his wisdom, ‘whoever digs a pit will fall into it’ (Proverbs 26:27). Only if Israel is righteous may it execute judgment against other nations! This principle was well established. Jesus’ simply applies the same principle at the level of the individual, to the woman’s accusers: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Thus, ‘purge the evil from among you,’ by all means, but let the process begin with yourself. And once you have made yourself righteous you may execute judgment against a fellow Israelite!’

As Jesus calls for a righteous judge to come forward to cast the first stone, those men who had come as witnesses against the woman, turned away as witnesses against themselves – each one testifying by his departure that he too was a sinner worthy of judgment and condemnation. Those who came with the intention that Jesus should be forced to either condemn the Law or to condemn the woman, were now put in the same predicament – and ultimately forced to condemn themselves.

Earlier, Jesus taught:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5).

Paul taught the same to the church at Rome:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things (Romans 2:1).

In this way every accusing tongue is silenced, and every pointing finger turned back upon itself. He who judges another is in fact judging himself.

This is the unique peace of Christianity – not achieved as Islam proposes, i.e. through an universal submission maintained by force and fear – but rather by exposing every man before a holy God, bringing every conscience to a knowledge of his own culpability before the Judge, and forcing each of us to the conclusion, “I dare not condemn another”.

When he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned (John 16:8-11).

Jesus’ challenge to the Muslim – as it was to the Jew – is not whether sin deserves punishment, whether those who reject God should live or die, but whether your conscience permits you, dear Muslim, to act as God’s judge against another?

Why, then, did Jesus himself not uphold the Law?

‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ Jesus was without sin and he also taught that not a ‘jot or title’ would disappear from the Law until all was accomplished (Mat. 5:18). Surely he was thus compelled to enforce the Law against this woman?

The surprising answer is that he did in fact uphold the Law, for the Law requires:

On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deut. 17:6-7)

The Law of Moses required the eye witnesses to cast the first stone. If these refused, no-one else could condemn the accused. For this reason Jesus could say: ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Then neither do I condemn you … Go now and leave your life of sin.’

The message that Jesus had hoped for Israel to understand is contained in John 3:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. (verses 16-19)

By the time of Jesus, Israel had become thoroughly corrupt. The Jews had largely abandoned the Word of God for the teachings of the Rabbis, and their obedience to the Law was highly compromised. Jesus accused the Pharisees with the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men’ (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9).

For that nation to be restored to the level of purity and obedience that prevailed when Joshua entered the Land, every last person would probably have to be stoned. There was in fact a common saying among the Jews: “if all adulterers were punished with stoning, according to the Law [of Moses], the stones would run out; but they [the adulterers] would not run out”.2

The Talmud records that the Rabbis proceeded to do exactly what they hoped to condemn Jesus for doing, namely to cease from imposing the death penalty as required by Moses:

“Forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin abandoned [their place in the Temple courts]” (Avodah Zarah 8b). Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac explains: “when the Sanhedrin saw that murders were so prevalent that they could not be properly dealt with judicially, they said, ‘Rather let us be exiled from place to place than pronounce them guilty …”. 3


1. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, folio 51.2.
2. Apud Castell. Lex. Polyglott, col. 2180.
3. Quoted from Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, Treatise on Mamzerut, p.25. Approved by the CJLS on 8 March 2000 – with thanks to Michael Korn.