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The Old Testament, The Qur’an, and Violence: Part 2

It cannot be denied that the Old Testament has on occasion provided divine sanction for violence and war. However, this sanction was neither open-ended nor unconditional.1

The Old Testament and War

Though God sanctioned the elimination of entire villages during the original occupation of the Promised Land (e.g. God’s directive in Deuteronomy 20:16; the city of Ai in Joshua 8:24-28), this was not the normal Old Testament ethic. Indeed, the ground of just war theory, with its regard for innocents, was laid in the Old Testament as follows:

1. The OT emphatically condemns murder, the intentional killing of innocents. For example, in the Noahic Covenant, God says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). And the Sixth Commandment (Exod. 20:13) says, “You shall not murder.” Also, Proverbs 6:16-17 says that God hates “hands that shed innocent blood.”

2. At best, war was secondary, not primary, and warriors were relegated to a supporting position in God’s economy, unlike the case with the Qur’an’s Medinan chapters. God forbade David to build the temple in Jerusalem, saying, “You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood” (1 Chron. 28:3).

3. God sent the flood in part in response to violence: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Violence, per se, was not glorified. The tone of this verse contrasts starkly with the ”sword verse” in the Qur’an (9:5).2

4. The Messiah was foretold to be a non-violent man: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:9). In contrast, Muhammad participated in twenty-seven battles, actually fighting in nine of them.3

5. Not only did the Bible forbid the murder of innocents; it made provision for their protection, as with the cities of refuge (cf. Deut. 19:7-10).

6. Even when directing the special occupation of the holy land, God stipulated that outside that precisely designated strip of land, women and children would be spared; that would be the general rule for warfare (Deut. 20:14).

7. God forbade a “scorched earth” policy by insisting that his people not cut down fruit trees in the conduct of war (Deut. 20:19-20).

8. God’s ideal is a peaceable kingdom, where the peoples “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa. 2:4).

9. Zechariah 4:6 pointed the way to the ideal expansion of the family of God: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” God’s kingdom would be built by anointed persuasion, not bloodshed (a very different message from Qur’an 9:5).

10. The rationale for the “cleansing” of the holy land included not just different belief, but horrendously, murderously different belief: “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” (Deut. 18:9-12 NIV).

In our postmodern age there are subtle pressures to draw equivalences at every turn, including in matters of faith. Therefore it is easy to declare that the Bible and the Qur’an are equally violent. However, such a claim does not stand up to scrutiny. Clearly the Qur’an records divine sanction for an increasing turn towards violent methods. In contrast, progressive revelation in the Old Testament records that God provided less and less sanction for warfare down the ages, culminating in the life and message of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.


See also Kairos Journal Insight by Dr. Mark Durie, "Violence in the Bible -- How Should We Respond?" and Kairos Journal article, "The Qur’an, The Old Testament, and Violence" -- Part 1.


Though 9:5 does not speak explicitly of the sword as the instrument of killing, it is commonly called “the sword verse,” as in David van Biema, “A Kinder, Gentler Koran,” Time, August 13, 2002,,9171,1101020819-335965,00.html (accessed February 20, 2008). This is analogous to calling 1 Peter 3:19 “the descent passage” even though the word “descent” does not appear in the verse.


Robert Spencer, The Truth about Muhammad (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2006), 175-176.