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“From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” (James 4:1). 

There are important lessons we can take away from a few of the incidents in Israel’s history in the area of internal strife and wars, of which they had a few. We are going to zero in on three principles, one from each of the above topics. This is not intended to be exhaustive, there are many ways to start, avoid and end a civil war, but these points should prove useful.

“Wars” are easy to start, sometimes hard to avoid, and always difficult to end. Not just wars between the nations, but even the little wars we all get into. James said they come from within us and it is doubtful he was intending his remarks for just the heads of governments and the big wars we see going on around us. His audience was not Caesar. There are lessons here for us in our family, ecclesial and business lives.

How to start a civil war and how to avoid a civil war

Josh 22 gives us a good example of how to start a civil war. It is an easy chapter to read, and in it we will see an excellent example of how to start a civil war and how to avoid a civil war.

The chapter relates an incident that occurred shortly after the Israelites had entered the Promised Land. Just before crossing the Jordan (Num 32) the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh had asked and received permission to take their inheritance in land on the eastside of the Jordan River. They had agreed to send all their fighting men across the Jordan with the rest of their brethren, and help them conquer the land and secure their inheritance. With that understanding Moses gave them permission to settle on the land on the east side of the river. Now the time had come for the men to return to their lands and build up their homes. They had lived up to their agreement and discharged all their responsibilities. Joshua recites how they had honorably kept their word and so “Joshua blessed them, and sent them away; and they went unto their tents” (Josh 22:6).

So now we have a few of the tribes on the east side of the river and most of them on the west bank. Very soon the tribes on the west bank heard a report to the effect that the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh were building a huge altar on their eastern side if the river. Their reaction was swift and deadly serious: “And when the children of Israel heard of it, they gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up to war against them” (Josh 22:12). They were concerned both for the two and one half tribes on the eastern bank and for their own welfare because setting up a false idol would bring the swift and terrible judgments of God down upon all their heads. All the tribes were worked up and ready for war. They had their weapons ready to hand from all their battles conquering the inhabitants in the land God had given them. Their goodbyes would have been said to their loved ones and in the heat of the moment war was a step away.

Fortunately they decided to send a selected group of brethren to first confront the eastern tribes and tell them to cease construction of the false idol.They made it clear that if they did not desist they would be bringing themselves and the entire nation curses and judgments, the same kind that God brought on Israel when they sinned with the Moabitish women in Peor, and 24,000 died in the plague. They also cited Achan’s sin which not only cost the lives of Achan and his family, but also some of the soldiers. These were those who went up against the men of Ai, and were killed in the initial battle before it was known that Achan had taken some of the forbidden spoils of the battle at Jericho. Many innocent people suffered because of someone else’s decisions to act sinfully. The sum of the message was: cease constructing the idolatrous altar or we will be at war. Our people are gathered and ready to fight. Feelings were running high and the confrontation was deadly serious.

Then the representatives of the two and one half tribes answered their brethren and it turned out that the whole matter was just a complete misunderstanding. Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh were not building and altar to an idol. In fact it was not an altar for sacrifices of any kind.

“ Therefore we [ the two and one half tribes] said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt offering , nor for sacrifice: but that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the Lord before Him with our burnt offerings and sacrifices, and with our peace offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come, Ye have no part in the Lord” (Josh 22:26-27). 

They were building a memorial so that in time to come it would serve as a reminder that the tribes on the east bank and the tribes on the west bank were all under the same covenant with God, the same Law of Moses and the same religion. The relief felt by all parties must have been tremendous. The explanation “…pleased the children of Israel; and the children of Israel blessed God, and did not intend to go up against them in battle, to destroy the land…”. The crisis was resolved.

How do you start a civil war? 

Or in this case, how do you almost start a civil war? One way we can start a war or an argument is by jumping to conclusions. Sometimes we are too quick to take decisions. In some situations we are pre-disposed to think evil of someone and so we assume the worst. Sometimes we make statements that, in the light of the facts are clearly out of line but having gone out on a limb we will try to justify our mistake rather than disown it and cut the limb out from under us. Our rationale might sound like: “I may be wrong in this instance but there were many times in the past when you have done that same kind of thing”.

How do you avoid a civil war? 

One way to prevent some of the “wars” we get into is to follow the example we just read about. The events described in Josh 22 provide a rare example of the very real threat of a war being avoided by not taking action without first making direct inquiry into all the circumstances. It is one thing to jump to conclusions. It can be disastrous when we jump into action without verifying for ourselves the relevant information leading to our conclusion. Someone accuses one of our children of something and most of us have a knee jerk reaction to rise to their defense. “Knee jerk” may be an apt description of these kinds of reactions at several levels. Some parents have a knee jerk reaction in the other direction. One woman who grew up in large family still remembered how their father would accept a neighbor’s accusation as given and punish accordingly. It did not seem fair to her because sometimes (although probably rarely) the child was innocent. But her father would react based on just the accusation and that memory stayed with her.

How we react to incidents that come up in our families, ecclesias and work environment is critical in avoiding strife in our own lives and inflicting or exacerbating strife and tension on those around us. Compromise is normally eschewed in religious controversy, where there is a built in tendency to elevate every issue to a “first principle” status. However, compromise resolved one of the first divisive issues to come up in the first early ecclesia, and with the express approval of God. No doubt those who felt: “…That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5), they believed that the salvation of those Gentiles was at stake. After prayerful deliberation the decision was taken. The decision was a compromise. Most of the Law of Moses would not be required, including circumcision. But they would be asked to obey some of the laws. This decision was communicated to the brethren in writing and in person. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meat offered to idols, and from blood,, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well” (Acts 15:28-29). Nothing more is said about this matter in Acts so it appears that the decision was accepted. (Although admittedly, much of the content in Paul’s later epistles indicate the controversy continued in one form or another.) However the principle illustrated, that compromise had been used to resolve divisive issues by our forefathers, and in this case with the approval of God. Would that we had the open and direct involvement of the Holy Spirit in our ecclesial issues today but we do not. Bro. Roberts notes this lack in “The Ecclesial Guide” Section 14 in the context of explaining why we need to take the responsibility for making decisions needful for the running of our ecclesias.

We have little to no control over the actions of others, and therefore minimal ability to prevent potentially upsetting incidents from occurring. But we can control our own reactions. It takes discipline. We will have to give account for our reactions in the not too distant future. Do we react to difficulties in positive ways carefully considered and designed to bring about profitable results, or do we react without due consideration, with little to no thought about whether or not our reactions will bring a benefit to all affected. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will see God.”

How to end a civil war

Wars are easily started but hard to end. From time to time in our lives we all will find ourselves in an argument about something. They can start without warning and in some cases we will be unwilling participants. There is an example in 2Sam 2 of a civil war being ended in a unique way that may give us some guidance for our own lives.

The time is after the Philistine’s defeat of Israel and the slaying of Saul and three of his sons including Jonathan. David inquires of the Lord and God tells him it is now time for him to go up to Judah. It is David’s time. The promise and prophecies are now to come to pass and David will be king.

But not everyone agrees. There are still some of Saul’s men who survived the battle with the Philistines and they are not willing to give up their place and station in the kingdom. Abner, the captain of Saul’s host, rallied behind Ishbosheth, one of Saul’s surviving sons, and set him up as a king. A civil war ensued and for two years Israel had two kings. The final battle that ended the war is recorded in 2Sam 2. Abner, the captain of Saul’s (now Ishbosheth’s) host with his army meets with Joab, the captain of David’s host at the pool of Gibeon. “Then Abner said to Joab, ‘Let’s have some of the young men get up and fight hand to hand in front of us.’ ‘All right, let them do it,’ Joab said.” (NIV) The 24 men fought and each one killed his brother. They were all dead and the battle began. The battle was sore and Abner’s men were losing badly. Abner killed Joab’s brother Asahel in vs 23 but for the most part they were losing badly. At the end of the day the scattered remnants of Abner’s men gathered themselves together and stood on the top of a hill.

“Abner called out to Joab ‘Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realize that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?’ Joab answered’ As surely as God lives, if you had not spoken, the men would have continued pursuing them until morning.’ So Joab blew the trumpet, and all the troops came to a halt; they no longer pursued Israel, nor did they fight anymore” (2Sam 2:26-28 NIV)

Here is an example of one very good way to end a civil war. Just stop fighting. At that particular point in time the same reasons that existed at the start of the conflict continued to exist. Abner’s armies were rebels against God’s anointed king. The death penalty was as justified in the afternoon as it was in the morning. Joab had lost men including his own brother Asahel. Joab had the enemy where they wanted them and were now in position to end the rebellion and the rebels once and for all.

There can come a point in a war, an argument, a controversy, when we need to take stock of where we are and decide whether or not to continue fighting. If we have not gained a complete victory, if we have not won all our points, are we at the point where we have adequate assurance that the majority of the reason we went to war have been sufficiently dealt with that we should end the war? That we should just stop fighting?

No doubt some of the men on both sides wanted to continue the conflict. They had suffered hurt, insults, wounds and the deaths of fellow soldiers that they would have liked to avenge completely. We can find ourselves in situations where we still feel we are deserved an apology. Or there are still issues we would like to see clarified more to our satisfaction. But must we continue a conflict until every last issue is resolved to our complete satisfaction?

Actual war is life and death and here and now. One does not have the luxury of time. Unlike our more domestic conflicts that we can allow to drag on interminably, the need for decisions is urgent. Joab heard Abner and considered his question. What good would be accomplished by continuing the battle? The decision to end the battle then and there may appear arbitrary in the sense that most of the reasons that justified the war in the first place continued to be valid. Abner’s host was still a bunch of rebels and their rebellion had cost everyone dearly. I did not read where Abner said he was sorry, did you? Abner and company were not taken prisoner. Joab and company did not get to march Abner’s remnant through the streets of Jerusalem in a victory parade. It looks like each army turned around and went home. They just stopped fighting.

It was a good decision. For Joab’s army the battle was at the point of diminishing returns. More fighting (more arguing in our typical situations) would be bound to cause more casualties. (More hard feelings etc.) It must have taken a lot for Abner to initiate the end of the war. It can take courage to stand up against continuing a dispute. No one likes to give up, especially if they feel they are in the right. And while some issues may be worth fighting over to the bitter end, most are not.

We may need to ask ourselves: Is it time to quit this argument? Have we gained the objective? Will continuing the strife produce more good than harm? If our position is in the ascendancy should we unilaterally declare peace even though there are still come issues unresolved? In other words, is this conflict at the point of diminishing returns: i.e. from this point forward the conflict will do more harm than good?

There is an old Yiddish proverb that speaks to this subject. “The worst peace is better than the best war”. It probably does not apply to every possible situation but it is very good general advice.


What is one way to start a civil war? Jump to conclusions.

What is one way to avoid a civil war? Don’t jump to conclusion.

What is one way to end a civil war? Stop fighting.

Says easy, does hard. These principles won’t solve all problems but they can solve some. They have worked in the past and can work today.

Ken Sommerville (Simi Hills, CA)

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