And there came an angel of the LORD, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained to Joash the Abiezrite…
What shall we say as to the moral character of this transaction? We must not let our affection or veneration for old traditions blind us to the difficulty of the question. But common sense has suggested to me one or two considerations. First of all, our judgment is apt to be prejudiced here, because men in our time, we English people in particular, have come to think rather falsely about war. A profounder apprehension of the lovely Christlike spirit of our religion, coupled with a good many less worthy influences, such as the peaceableness and security of our sea-girt life in these isles, have all combined to give us a great horror of war; not because of the sin and iniquity of it, but because it means wounds and bloodshed, and robbery of our property and death. Now indubitably every rational man will say that, were our world free from selfishness and sin, war could not exist in it. Therefore it has its roots in iniquity. Nevertheless, like many other things that are evils in themselves, war may be used, under God's providential government of the world, to cure worse evils, acting remedially like the surgeon's knife, and bringing renewed life to the nation and the individual. In the second place, I wish to add another consideration. I venture to say that all of us, in our historical judgment and in our ethical and religious teaching, probably have fallen into error, in that we overvalue mere physical human life. If anything is manifest in this world, it is that the material life counts for very little in God's sight; that the material life is mere scaffolding, the machinery by which or the platform on which the mental, moral, and ethical life is to be built up. Over and over again, in the pathological history of our human race, we find that God has sacrificed millions of lives to compel men to be pure and dignified in their bodily and moral habits. Apply this to war. Though it be a scourge and an exterminator, it has nevertheless a wonderful potential force in it to produce bravery, courage, ability of every description. War may thus be used to elevate the moral and mental worth of our race. I fear it is our tendency in the present day to make too much of physical comfort and physical life. On that account we recoil unduly when God has wrought out benefit for our race as a whole through terrible trial, affliction, discipline, suffering, and self-sacrifice; as, for example, by wars in which cruel despotisms, tyrannous, inferior, and sanguinary races have succumbed before superior moral or mental worth. I am afraid, too, we do not deal out fair measure to our predecessors. We are ready to censure these Hebrews for the cruel treatment they often meted out to prisoners of war. We are apt to say that the men who did such things could not, along with such a low moral character, have possessed a lofty, pure revelation of God or a knowledge of His character. But that is too hasty a judgment. Similarly we take a socialist book, describing life in the last generation, or in the present generation, in our England; we read the history of the horrors that produced the Factory Acts — how the wealthy capitalist lived in luxury, and grudged a diminution of his income that would have made the condition of workshops and the hours of labour such as would have averted the premature death of their operatives, of men, women, and children, until Parliament stepped in. We say those men who occupied the position of capitalists were fiends. But they were nothing of the kind; some of them were even eminent Christians. But Christianity had got into cursed blindness and ignorance on these points, and they belonged to their day and generation. At present, are we so very far above them? Is it not the fact that constantly you have great outbreaks of small-pox or scarlet fever spreading death in a hundred households which are due solely to carelessly scamped work? Have we not the horrors of the East End, and the City, and so on? But are we therefore all bad men? Not so. We are Christians in process of growing. These are evils we are only waking up to discover, the sins we have inherited, the Canaanites we have to destroy. If we apply the same measure to the Hebrews, we see that there was a real progress, a real working for good in a society that, in certain moral aspects, was low and degraded. Then again, as a matter of fact, the God that made our world has made this law, that wherever sin of a certain type and degree has come in, the retribution of moral obliquity and degradation has come in also, in the shape of annihilation at the hands of a superior race. That seems a cruel, hard thing; but nevertheless so it is. Moreover, to make it more mysterious, the conquering race is not always a superior race in the perfect sense. But we have not that complication here, for all old history testifies that the most blighting curse of false religion and the vilest sensuality of our world in these days lay in the religion of those Canaanites. Even classic, pagan writers say that blank atheism would have been better than that. Wherever Phoenicians established their colonies and their places of worship they introduced nameless vices and uncleannesses, and dignified them with the name of religion. And where these things were introduced they spread, so much so that the end of the great Roman empire was hastened, its old martial strength was rooted out, by the corruption that came in a direct line from that old Canaanitish religion. To justify what was done, therefore, we do not need to say that the conquerors were perfect and immaculate. All we need to be able to say is, that it was a deserved retribution, and that it was better for our world that Canaan should pass into the hands of the Hebrew nation, which has done the grandest moral and religious work for the world.
(Prof. G. A. Smith.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And there came an angel of the LORD, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained unto Joash the Abiezrite: and his son Gideon threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites.
WEB: The angel of Yahweh came, and sat under the oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained to Joash the Abiezrite: and his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites.