In a recent speech, Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the words of Ecclesiastes, "There's a time for war" as justification for Israel's military operation in Gaza. But is this an appropriate use of scripture? It's complicated, says Rev Mark Woods

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"The Bible says there is a time for peace and a time for war. This is a time for war," announced Israel's Prime Minister at a recent press conference

How should Christians respond to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza? What does the Bible say?

These are two questions that are often treated as though they’re almost the same. We look to the Bible for guidance, particularly in the big things, and surely it must say something about this.

Well, yes and no. Our opening questions are actually quite different, and if we go to the Bible for simple answers about such things we won’t find them.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, recently quoted Ecclesiastes 3:8, “There is a time for war and a time for peace”. Now, he said, is a time for war. But Jesus quoted Leviticus 19:18 and said, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and he also said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). All of these sayings are biblical.

So when Christians – especially Christians who do not live in the region – go to the Bible for guidance about praying for Israel and Gaza, a knowledge of scripture texts alone is not enough. We need to go equipped with all the tools we need to understand what’s happening there. There are, I think, three in particular; and there are also three things that should shape how we pray.

First, we need to feel, not just think. A Christian response to this conflict – which has a long history – isn’t about totting up rights and wrongs in columns.

When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, it committed appalling acts of terror. Nearly 1,400 Israelis were killed, most of them civilians murdered in their homes or in the open. Around 240 people were taken as hostages, ranging in age from 9 months to 85 years. These murderous acts were carried out with sadistic enthusiasm. Whole families were killed. According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken: ”The father’s eye gouged out in front of his kids, the mother’s breast cut off, the girl’s foot amputated, the boy’s fingers cut off before they were executed, and then their executioners sat down and had a meal.” Children were tied up and burned alive. Outside Israel, antisemitic mobs are turning on Jews. If we don’t feel fury about this, our moral compass has gone seriously wrong.

This happened on 7 October. Since then, Israel has rained missiles on Gaza. The number of casualites is disputed, due to the Gazan health ministry being run by Hamas. But even if the 11,000 figure is inflated, its clear many thousands of innocents, including many women and children have lost their lives. Whole families have perished at once. Food and water are running out; the treatable sick are dying, women are giving birth untended, nowhere is safe. We are appalled by this, too.

So we can imagine two statements, one Israeli, one Palestinian.

“If innocent people must die so Hamas can be defeated, we’re sorry but it has to be done.”

“When you kill thousands of innocent people, you lose the moral high ground and you make the survivors hate you.”

Both of these are driven by an intense moral conviction. They are felt in the heart. If we want to say anything meaningful, those of us at a distance from the conflict should at least begin to feel the anger, fear and grief of Israelis and Palestinians alike. And this is a biblical response: the God of the Bible is not an ice-cold rationalist, but passionately loves and hates.

Second, we need to know our history and current affairs. We need to know about the long history of antisemitism, culminating – though not concluding – in the Holocaust, for which Christians bear such a heavy responsibility. We need to know about the struggle for survival of the State of Israel, against the visceral hatred of neighbours who could not tolerate its existence. We need to know about the years of terrorism, rocket attacks, the cost – mental and economic – of living on a war footing every day, surrounded by enemies.

And we need to know about the Nakba, the displacement and forced dispossession of Palestinians after the 1948 war; of the long occupation of the West Bank by Israel, and the limitations on ordinary life imposed on Palestinians by the occupiers; the Palestinian homes bulldozed, the murders and violent attacks by settlers, the land and resources taken from those who regard it as theirs.

We need to know about the failures of diplomacy on both sides – on the Israeli, driven partly by an ideological claim to the whole of the biblical territory, and partly by justifiable fears for their security; on the Palestinian, partly by a deep sense of injustice at what they’ve suffered, and partly by an ideological resistance to the existence of Israel at all.

One of the remarkable features of the Bible is how so often it tells the story of the other, or the outsider; it gives a voice to the voiceless, and makes us see through different eyes.

Each side has its own story. We do not betray either side by listening to the story of the other.

Third, we need to know that Christians before us have thought about war, too. It’s not as though this is new; there’s always been a tension between the ethical demands of a loving God and the harsh reality of life in a fallen world. We have wrestled with this from the days of the earliest Church theologians. Tertullian argued for various reasons that military service was incompatible with Christian faith; Augustine pointed to John the Baptist’s words in Luke 3:14, when he commanded soldiers to stop oppressing people and to be content with their pay – but not to stop being soldiers.

And not just whether wars should be fought, but how they should be fought has been a theme from the beginning, too. Ambrose recognised that military action to support a just peace was sometimes necessary, but he fearlessly denounced the Emperor Theodosius for his acts of atrocity at Thessalonica. Augustine also said, "Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack you may lead them back to the advantages of peace…"

In the medieval period Thomas Aquinas developed a ‘just war theory’ which is still the basis of thinking morally about war today; a war must have a just cause, be declared by a proper authority, and be fought for a good reason. Later theologians added more conditions: it should be a last resort, it should protect civilians as far as possible, and the good achieved by victory should be greater than the evil that led to the war.

Partly because of the increase in battlefield reporting facilitated by the communications revolution, the actual conduct of war today comes under greater moral scrutiny than ever before. For instance, the wholesale destruction of German cities during the Second World War, largely unquestioned at the time, would be regarded as wholly unacceptable today in the West.

We can see this grappling with moral issues in the pages of the Bible itself, for instance in the book of Job, or when Ezekiel critiques the idea of intergenerational sin (chapter 18). We do not stop learning; the Bible always has more to reveal.

These are some of the tools we bring with us to a consideration of what the Bible might say about Israel and Gaza – and to the wider question of how Israeli Jews and Palestinians are to live together in future. And while it should be obvious that there are no proof-text answers, the Bible is profoundly relevant. Here are three things it tells us with absolute clarity, and which should inform our prayers for peace.

First, no human being is worth more or less than another because of where they were born or the language they speak. Each of us is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); Malachi 2:10 says, "Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us?" (NIV). Isaiah’s vision of the end times is of "a feast of rich food for all peoples" (25:6), not just for God’s chosen people; the gospel is for everyone, with Jews and Gentiles called into a new trans-national community. Israeli and Palestinian lives are not worth more or less than each other. When the ‘enemy’ is dehumanised, you can do anything to them. We should pray that the combatants remember their shared humanity.

Second, Christians resign vengeance into God’s hands. There’s a dark desire for revenge against those who have harmed us; the kind of desire that gives us the most terrible verse in all of the Psalms: ‘Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks’ (137.9). ‘Your’ should be stressed when reading this; the psalmist is seeking payback. But Paul in Romans 12.19 reminds us of Deuteronomy’s words, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord; and he adds, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ We should pray that the desire for revenge is restrained and that good prevails.

Third, we believe the words of Jesus who said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Matthew 5.9, NIV). He never said, ‘Blessed are the warmakers’; war may be necessary sometimes, but it’s never ‘right’; it’s only ever ‘less wrong’. So we should pray that God will strengthen the hands of his peacemaking children, that he will restrain those who do evil, and that whatever comes out of this conflict will be better than what there was before.

Christians are always called to defend the weak and fatherless, or unprotected (Psalm 82.3–4). At present those are the Israeli hostages; but they are also the civilians of Gaza.

And once we’ve done our homework and read our Bibles, we can ask the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ with some hope of a genuinely Christian answer.