Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War by Albert C. Winn
Dr. Winn is Pastor Emeritus, North Decatur Presbyterian Church, Decatur, Georgia, and President Emeritus, Louisville Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of A Christian Primer: The Prayer, the Creed, the Commandments. Published by Westminster/John Knox Press Louisville, Kentucky © 1993. Published by Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. Copyright 1993 by Albert Curry Winn. Used by permission of the author.
Chapter 4: Yahweh: Warrior God
We began chapter 3 by saying that the annals of almost all peoples are records of wars. We must move on to say that in the annals of almost all peoples, the wars have a religious dimension, the gods are involved. Again, the people of God are no exception. We read in Numbers 21:14 of a lost document: "The Book of the Wars of Yahweh." That title could fit large parts of the Old Testament! Israel’s God is deeply involved in many of the wars recorded. Yahweh is involved as Israel’s ally, and Yahweh is involved as Israel’s enemy: Yahweh is a warrior.
Yahweh: Israel’s Ally
Yahweh’s participation in Israel’s battles is pictured in a bewildering variety of stories and poems. One approach is to develop a sort of continuum of the various levels of Yahweh’s involvement, ranging from what we might call monergistic wars in which Yahweh fights alone, through synergistic wars in which Yahweh and Israel cooperate in fighting, to secular wars in which Israel fights alone.
Yahweh Fights Alone
Sometimes the Hebrew scriptures show Yahweh as doing all the fighting, while Israel does not fight at all. We will look first at several accounts of monergistic warfare in the primary history (Genesis through 2 Kings), then at scattered assertions of monergism, and finally at the piety of the Psalms.
Monergistic Warfare in the Primary History
1. In Israel’s battle with Egypt at the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15), Israel does not fight; Yahweh wins the victory. Miriam’s song (Ex. 15:21) says it all:
Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
In the expanded Song of the Sea (Ex. 15:1-18), Yahweh’s right hand shattered the enemy, Yahweh’s majesty overthrew the adversaries, Yahweh’s fury consumed them, the blast of Yahweh’s nostrils piled up the waters.
The prose account in Exodus 14, admittedly later, only makes explicit what is implicit in the poem. Though Israel went up out of the land of Egypt "prepared for battle" (Ex. 13:18), they soon found themselves hopelessly trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the sea. Moses said to them, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still" (Ex. 14:13-14). One aspect of Yahweh’s fighting, which we shall encounter again and again, was the confusion and panic that spread through the army of Israel’s enemy. "At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic" (v. 24). Another aspect was a nature miracle, in which Israel passed through the sea dry-shod, while the pursuing Egyptians were drowned. By these means Yahweh alone won the battle, unaided by Israel.
In two of the Elisha stories in 2 Kings, there is similar monergism. In the first, the king if Aram is at war with Israel and Elisha foils his plans. He sends out a great army to capture Elisha, but the cosmic army of Yahweh, the horses and chariots of fire, protect the prophet. Afterward, Yahweh strikes the Syrian army with blindness. They are captured, spared, and the Syrian raids cease (2 Kings 6:8-23). In the second, Samaria is besieged by Ben-hadad of Aram. The famine is severe. But the LORD sends confusion on the enemy. They hear the sound of a great army and flee in panic. Israel is delivered without fighting (6:24-7:20).1
Next to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the most striking instance of monergistic warfare is the deliverance of Jerusalem from Sennacherib’s army in the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-19; cf. Isaiah 36-37). Tiny Judah is under attack by a great world power: Assyria. The other small kingdoms of the Fertile Crescent have already fallen. Hezekiah, terrified by the threats of Sennacherib, turns to Isaiah the prophet for help. Isaiah replies with a word of assurance, "Fear not!" Yahweh himself will "put a spirit" in Sennacherib. Does this mean that a member of the divine council will be dispatched to handle the matter? (Compare I Kings 22:19-23.) Sennacherib will hear a "rumor." Is this another instance of the "confusion" by which Yahweh routs the enemies of Israel? In any event, Hezekiah spreads the written threats of the Assyrians before the LORD in the temple with fervent prayer, Isaiah utters a defiant oracle of victory, a great disaster befalls the Assyrian army, Sennacherib returns to Nineveh, and Jerusalem is saved.
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
There is a notorious historical problem surrounding the defeat of Sennacherib.3 Our point here is simply that this tradition, historical or not, was an article of Israel’s faith. Israel believed that Yahweh on occasion fought for them unaided and alone (cf. Hos. 1:7).
In using the term "monergism" to describe these stories, we do not imply that Israel does nothing. Israel must believe. It takes great faith to "keep still" in a situation of grave danger. Moreover, the role of the prophet is significant. The prophet Moses was very active in the confrontations with Pharaoh which led up to the victory at the Red Sea and in the miracle of the parting of the waters. Elisha likewise played an active part in the victories over Aram, and Isaiah played a critical role in the defeat of Sennacherib. By monergism we simply mean that Israel did not wage war.
Assertions of Monergism
Monergism as an article of faith occurs many places in the Old Testament. We find it in the basic creed of Israelite faith:
The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 26:8-9)
Compare Deuteronomy 6:21-23; Exodus 19:4; Leviticus 26:13; Exodus 20:2.
We find it in the liturgy for the renewal of the covenant in Joshua 24:2-13, especially in verse 12: "I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow."
We find it all through the prophets. See, for example, Amos 2:9-10; Isaiah 51:10. We find it in the prayer of Ezra (Neh. 9:6-25, esp. vs. 11,22-24). But most of all we find it in the Psalms.
The Piety of the Psalter
In the late Jewish piety attested by the Psalms, monergism has become the dominant understanding of how Yahweh is involved in the wars of the nation.
1. The monergistic victories of Yahweh cited above are celebrated in song. The victory at the Red Sea:
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry;
See also Psalms 66:6; 77:16-20; 78:13,53; 114:3; 136:13-15.
The monergistic defense of Elisha against the armies of Aram (2 Kings 8:23) may be reflected in these lines:
The angel of the LORD encamps
The monergistic victory of Yahweh over Sennacherib seems to be reflected in Psalms 76 and 48. Whether it refers to the Sennacherib incident or not, Psalm 46 is a strongly monergistic text. God defends the city (v.5) God brings wars to an end, stripping the enemy of all his weapons (v. 9). "Be still, and know that I am God!" (v. 10) is not primarily a call for silence in a worship service. It is an echo of Moses’ words at the Red Sea: "The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still" (Ex. 14:14). Israel will win the battle without human fighting because "the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge" (Ps. 46:7, 11). That is, the Commander of the heavenly army is with us; the God of Jacob, who enabled Jacob, unarmed, to face Esau with four hundred men (Genesis 33), is our refuge.
2. More striking is the way that victories which the primary history records as synergistic are sung about as monergistic. In Psalms 135:10-12 and 136:17-22 there is no mention of any human cooperation in the victories over Sihon, king of the Amorites, or Og, king of Bashan.
Again, Joshua gets no credit for the conquest of Canaan. It is Yahweh alone who has conquered Canaan and given it to Israel:
You with your own hand drove out the nations,
See also Psalms 47:3-4; 80:8-9; 105:44; 111:6, and the explicit reference to the kingdoms of Canaan in Psalm 135:11.
The wars of the Judges are mentioned only once, in Psalm 83.9-11, and here again they are reinterpreted as wars fought by Yahweh alone.
3. There is a repeated emphasis in the Psalms that Israel does nothing to win the victories:
A king is not saved by his great army;
For not in my bow do I trust,
O grant us help against the foe,
See also Psalms 124; 127:1.
More general statements of God’s monergistic warfare for the nation are found in Psalms 2; 9:5-6, 15-16; 10:16; 28:8; 59:6; 79:8-10; 81:14; 98:1-3. One of the most striking is the LORD’S command to an Israelite ruler to sit still while Yahweh makes the ruler’s enemies a stool for his feet (Ps. 110:1).
4. Psalms not only sing of Yahweh’s monergistic warfare in behalf of the nation; they sing even more frequently of Yahweh’s monergistic warfare in behalf of individuals against their personal enemies. Alert readers of the Psalms are aware that "enemies" are mentioned in the vast majority of the psalms, including the beloved Twenty-third Psalm, where the word can easily be missed.
The psalmists express confidence that the LORD will deal with their enemies:
The LORD Is my light and my salvation;
Note the same monergistic sit still, wait.
The psalmists cry out for deliverance:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
The psalmists even pray for vengeance, for terrible punishments to overtake their enemies. The imprecatory psalms, such as Psalms 58, 69, and 109, call upon God to execute punishments that far exceed the "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" of the Mosaic law (Lev. 24:20).4 But, as Walter Brueggemann has made clear, the psalmists do not propose to wreak this terrible vengeance themselves. By bringing their anger to speech and submitting it to the LORD, they obtain the relief that otherwise only vengeful action would bring.5 Even these terrible psalms are monergistic: God alone is to do the punishing, without human assistance.
Once one becomes alert to affirmations of confidence, cries for help, and prayers for vengeance as expressions of monergism, it almost seems that the entire Psalter is devoted to Yahweh’s monergistic warfare on the psalmists’ behalf. See Psalms 3, 4, 5,6, 7,9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14=53,17,22,23,25,27,28,31,34,35,36,37,40,52, 54,55,56,57,58,59,62,64,69,70,71,86,91,92,94,109,118,129, 137, 140, 143.6
But the Psalter is ambiguous, like the rest of scripture. There are psalms that reflect other understandings of Yahweh’s involvement in Israel’s warfare. We shall see that as we proceed with our continuum.
Yahweh and Israel Cooperate in Fighting
When we return to the primary history, we find many accounts of wars in which there was cooperation between Yahweh and the armies of Israel. We may call this synergism. There are many levels of synergistic warfare, ranging from those where the heavy emphasis is on Yahweh’s action to those where the heavy emphasis is on fighting by Israel.
Yahweh Wins; Israel Pursues
Closest to the idea of monergism are stories where the victory itself is won by the power of Yahweh and the role of Israel is to pursue and plunder the already defeated foe.
1. The sack of Jericho is such a story. Before Israel has crossed the Jordan, Yahweh has already put fear and confusion into the minds and hearts of the inhabitants of Jericho (Joshua 2). Suddenly Israel is across the river and has Jericho under siege. Joshua has a vision which assures him that the divine army will fight along with the armies of Israel (5;13-15). Yahweh orders a ceremonial march around the city for seven days. On the seventh day, the people give a great shout, and the walls fall flat. Without a blow the formidable defenses of Jericho are destroyed and victory is assured. Only then does Israel fight, slaughtering all the inhabitants except Rahab and her family, "devoting" the city to Yahweh (ch. 6).
2. The ancient Song of Deborah (Judg. 5) is an even better example. The participation (and nonparticipation) of the various tribes is a prominent theme (vs. 9-18),7 but the primary fighting was between Yahweh and the Canaanite kings. Yahweh marches from the south, from Edom and Sinai (vs. 4-5). Yahweh fights, with the divine army, of which the stars are a part,8 against the kings and their general, Sisera. The heavy rain produces a flash flood that sweeps the enemy away (vs. 19-21). The echoes of the Song of the Sea are evident. Although the triumph of Yahweh is identified with the triumph of his peasantry in Israel (v. lib, c), all that is actually described at this point is the march of the peasantry down to the gates (vs. IId, 13). The only human action that is specifically described is that of Jael, a Kenite woman, who kills Sisera (vs. 24-27). The prose account of the same battle (Judges 4) is later. It does not mention the flood, but rather the panic into which Sisera and his army fell when they viewed the approach of Barak with ten thousand warriors, coming down from Mount Tabor. Sisera’s army was defeated before a blow was struck. Indeed it was Yahweh alone who defeated it, throwing the army into a panic similar to the panics described in the stories we have already reviewed. Israel’s role was then to pursue the army and annihilate it (v. 16).
3. The story of Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites (Judges 6-8) is similar. Gideon’s army is reduced to a handful, to show that the victory will be Yahweh’s. "The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me"’ (7:2). Instructed to spy on the Midianites, Gideon discovers that Yahweh has already made them afraid of him (vs. 9-15). In the middle of the night, Gideon’s warriors break jars, revealing torches, and sound trumpets. Without a blow being struck, the Midianites fall into confusion, begin to kill each other, and flee. Only after the victory is Israel called out to fight, to hold the fords of the Jordan, to pursue and slaughter the enemy.
4. Another such story is found in 1 Samuel 7. The Philistines are thrown into confusion by the LORD’s thunder, routed without a blow’s being struck. Then Israel pursues the Philistines and strikes them down.9
5. It is possible that David’s defeat of the Philistines in 2 Samuel 5:22-25 belongs here. Is the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees the sound of God’s army, the divine host? Does the LORD "strike down the army of the Philistines" by the "divine confusion"? David’s striking them down from Geba to Gezer would seem to be the pursuit of a fleeing foe.
One psalm seems to share the stance of these stories. It is the Song of David (Psalm 182 Samuel 22). The victory over all David’s enemies is clearly Yahweh’s victory:
The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
The coming of Yahweh to David’s aid is described in mythic, cosmic language that reminds one of the Song of Deborah (vs. 7-15). At one point the language seems monergistic;
He delivered me from my strong enemy,
But then, with Yahweh’s help, David begins to fight. He crushes a troop, leaps over a wall (v. 29), bends the bow (v. 3.4), pursues his enemies (v. 37), strikes them down (v. 38), beats them like dust and casts them out like mire in the streets (v. 42).
Israel Wins with Yahweh’s Aid
Next on our continuum we may place stories where the battle is clearly fought by Israel, but is won only because of Yahweh’s aid.
1. Israel’s victory over Amalek in the wilderness, where Israel prevailed only as long as Moses held up the staff of God in his hand (Ex. 17:8-13), is an example.
2. Joshua’s victory over the kings of the south at Gibeon, where the LORD aided by throwing the enemy into panic, showering them with hailstones, and prolonging the light of day (Josh. 10:1-15), also belongs here.
3. The victory over the Philistines, which was started by Jonathan’s daring attack, attended only by his armor bearer, is such a story. Yahweh came to his aid through the divine panic and an earthquake. Israel then rallied and the defeat was a great one (1 Sam. 14:1-23).
4. David’s victory over Goliath (1 Samuel 17) is hard to classify. The record does not ascribe any particular deed of Yahweh’s as aiding David; but David insists that it is only through such aid that he wins the victory (vs. 37, 46).10 Indeed, David’s rhetoric belongs in the tradition of monergism: "The LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD’S and he will give you into our hand" (1 Sam. 17:47; cf. Josh. 24:12).
5. The victory over Mesha, the king of Moab, when the LORD provided water for Israel and its allies, and the Moabites, thinking the water was blood, rushed in to seize the spoil, only to be ambushed (2 Kings 3:4-27), is also to be included.
Many of the royal psalms describe just this kind of synergism. The king fights and Yahweh assists in the fighting:
Now I know that the LORD will help his anointed;
See also Psalms 21; 72; 89:23; 110; 118; 144.
Yahweh Directs the Strategy
Next we may place stories where Yahweh directs the strategy of Israel’s armies through the priestly oracle: the ephod or the Urim and Thummim. These include Judah’s victory over Adoni-bezek (Judg. 1:1-7); the other tribes’ battles against Benjamin (Judges 20); David’s victory and escape at Keilah (1 Sam. 23:1-13); David’s victory over the Amalekites who had raided Ziklag (1 Samuel 30); and David’s victory over the Philistines at Baal-perazim (2 Sam. 5:17-21).
Yahweh Responds to Vows
In a few stories, Yahweh grants victory in response to a vow: the victory over the king of Arad (Num. 21:1’-3) and Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites (Judges 11).
Yahweh Raises Up Leaders
Somewhere on the continuum belong wars where the function ascribed to Yahweh was to "raise up" the leader of the battle, or where the ruach-Yahweh (spirit of the LORD) inspired such a leader. Examples are Othniel (Judg. 3:9), Ehud (v. 15), Gideon (6:34), Jephthah (11:29), Samson (chs. 13-16 passim), and Saul (1 Sam. 11:6).
Yahweh Commands; Israel Obeys
Next we come to stories where Yahweh merely issues the orders to fight and Israel obeys. These include the defeat of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan (Deut. 2:26-3:7); the sack of Ai (Josh. 8:1-29); the destruction of the southern cities by Joshua as the LORD God of Israel commanded" (Josh. 10:16-43; see v. 40); the defeat of the northern league (Josh. 11:1-15)11 Saul’s war against Amalek (1 Samuel 15), Ahab’s wars against Ben-hadad (1 Kings 20:13-30a).
One Psalm may reflect this kind of synergism:
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
In connection with wars which Yahweh orders, we must pause to consider the ban, or herem, the custom of destroying cities utterly, leaving no one alive: man, woman, or child. This was a cultic acknowledgment that the real victor was Yahweh and therefore the human warriors were not entitled to take any spoils. The conquered cities were "whole burnt offerings" to Yahweh. This custom was followed by other nations in the Fertile Crescent for similar religious reasons.
Did Israel actually practice this custom which seems so barbaric to us? Some scholars have argued that they did not. There is serious question as to the historicity of "the conquest of Canaan" in Joshua. Clearly, the accounts in Joshua of a clean sweep of the Canaanites are exaggerated. Judges 1:1-3:6 gives a different picture, stating flatly that the inhabitants of the land were not driven out or destroyed; they remained to become adversaries and a snare to Israel. We continue for centuries to meet the descendants of "utterly destroyed" peoples.
There are varying views as to "what really happened": (1) The Hebrews infiltrated from time to time, settling in the hills, and leaving the plains to the Canaanites. There were doubtless skirmishes or even battles, but not the bloody conquest that Joshua describes. This is the view of Albrecht Alt, Martin Noth, and Gerhard von Rad.12 (2) There was indeed a violent conquest, though not exactly as Joshua describes it. This is the view of W.F. Albright and John Bright.13 (3) The "conquest" was really an uprising of the oppressed underclass in the Canaanite territory. This is the view of George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald.14
This does not solve the problem. The herein does not rest on Joshua alone. Numbers says it was practiced east of Jordan (21:3, 34-35; ch. 31). Deuteronomy legislates it (7:1-2; 13:12-18; 20:10-18).15 Judges records a savage herein against Benjamin, carried out by the other tribes of Israel (20:37). 1 Samuel states that David practiced it (27:9). There is plenty of archaeological evidence that cities in the area were repeatedly sacked and burned. Even if it could be proven that Israel never actually practiced the herem, the problem would still remain that Israel boasts of it in its sacred books. The more serious problem is that Israel taught that its God, Yahweh, commanded the herem and punished those who did not obediently carry it out. The defeat of Israel at Ai resulted because the herem of Jericho was not perfectly carried out (Joshua 7). Saul was rejected from being king because he did not perfectly carry out the herem of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). Ahab was rebuked for sparing the life of Ben-hadad, who should have been "devoted" (1 Kings 20:30b-43).
The book of Deuteronomy seeks to give a rationale for the herem. If the Canaanites had not been annihilated, they would have corrupted the pure religion of Israel with their idolatries (Deut. 2:3-6; 20:18). But Israelites were expert at idolatry before they entered Canaan (remember the golden calf in Ex. 32). And they were continually plagued with it (the herem didn’t work).
How could the merciful God found elsewhere in the Old Testament, as well as in the New, command the herem? There is no explanation or justification. We are simply here at the extreme edge of the enormous ambiguity of scripture.
Israel Fights Alone
We began our continuum with monergistic wars in which Yahweh does everything and Israel does nothing. We end it with wars in which Israel does everything and Yahweh does nothing. These are secular wars, wars to which no religious meaning is ascribed. Most of the civil wars within Israel fall here: the wars of Abimelech (Judges 9); the war between Ephraim and Gilead (Judges 12); the wars between David and the house of Saul (2 Samuel 2-4); Absalom’s revolt (2 Samuel 13-18); Sheba’s revolt (2 Samuel 20); the border wars between Israel and Judah (1 Kings 14:30; 15:6-7, 16-22, 32; 2 Kings 14:8-14). Certain aggressive expeditions are also treated in this way: the tribe of Dan against Laish (Judges 18); David’s raids on Geshur (1 Sam. 27:8-12); the capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites (2 Sam. 5:6-10); Josiah’s attack on Pharaoh Neco (2 Kings 23:29-30).
Interestingly enough, the wars that were most important from a political and military standpoint had no overt religious dimension and consequently received scant attention him the biblical writers. The territorial wars of David which greatly enlarged Israel’s borders and made it a kingdom like other kingdoms in the Fertile Crescent receive little more than a bare mention in 2 Sam. 8:1-13. Some elaboration occurs in 2 Sam.10 (war with the Arameans) and 12:26-31 (war with the Ammonites) -- all secular wars.16 Likewise the wars of Jeroboam II which regained the lost territory of the Northern Kingdom are barely mentioned (2 Kings 14:25-28).
The "Holy War" Discussion
Recently there has been a considerable body of Old Testament studies regarding "holy war." If we are to face squarely the ambiguity of the Bible, we must deal seriously with this scholarship and with its analysis of Yahweh’s involvement in warfare as Israel’s ally.
Von Rad’s Thesis
It was Gerhard von Rad who placed the matter of holy war at the center of Old Testament discussion with his slender volume Holy War in Ancient Israel.17 Von Rad maintained that holy war was a religious institution in ancient Israel, as integral to the worship of Yahweh as the sacrificial system or the law. From the accounts of warfare that we have listed above he gathered together the following traits and characteristics of this religious institution:
1.There was no standing army in holy war. A spirit-filled leader sounded the trumpet (Judg. 3:27; 6:34; 1 Sam. 13:3) or sent out dismembered flesh (Judg. 19:29-30; 1 Sam. 11:7) to rally troops for battle. When the battle was over the troops were dismissed with the cry: "To your tents, 0 Israel!" (2 Sam. 20:1; I Kings 12:16).
2.There was no draft. The army was composed of willing volunteers (Judg. 5:2, 9; cf. Deut. 20:5-9).
3.The army was ritually holy. The people "sanctified" themselves (Josh. 3:5). The soldiers were ascetics, refraining from sexual intercourse (1 Sam. 21:4-6; 2 Sam. 11:11). Vows were undertaken (Num. 21:2; Judg. 11:29-32; 1 Sam. 14:24). Ritual cleanliness was to be practiced in the camp (Deut. 23:9-14). Sacrifices were offered before battle (1 Sam. 7:8-10; 13:9, 12). If there was defeat, there was ceremonial mourning (Judg. 20:23, 26; 1 Sam. 11:4; 30:4). Even the weapons were holy (2 Sam. 1:21).
4.The army was Yahweh’s army. The assembled troops were called "the people of Yahweh" (Judg. 5:11, 13; 20:2). The wars were called Yahweh’s wars (Num. 21:14; 1 Sam. 18:17; 25:28). The troops marched into battle "before Yahweh" (Num. 32:20, 21, 27, 29, 32; Josh. 4:13), as though Yahweh were on the reviewing stand. Yahweh, in turn, went before the troops, leading the way, the traditional role of a king in the Near East (Deut. 20:4; Josh. 3:11; Judg. 4:14; 2 Sam. 5:24). Yahweh fought for Israel (Ex. 14:14; Deut. 1:30; Josh. 10:14, 42; 11:6; 23:10; Judg. 20:35; 1 Sam. 14:23, 39). Yahweh directed Israel’s strategy and tactics through the priestly ephod and the Urim and Thummim (Judg. 20:23,27-28; 1 Sam. 23:2, 4, 6, 9-12; 30:7-8; 2 Sam. 5:19, 23-25). The enemies of Israel were Yahweh’s enemies (Judg. 5:31; 1 Sam. 30:26).
5. The victory was Yahweh’s victory. Again and again it was said: "Yahweh has given [the various enemies] into our hands" (Josh. 2:24; 6:2, 16; 8:1, 18; 10:8, 19; Judg. 3:28; 4:7, 14; 7:9, 15; 18:10; 20:26; 1 Sam. 14:12; 17:46; 23:4; 24:5; 26:8; 1 Kings 20:28). Thus, the numbers of troops do not matter (Judg. 7:2; 1 Sam. 14:6), and to number the army is wrong (2 Sam. 24:1-10). To the victor belong the spoils, and thus the spoils of battle were to be "devoted" or sacrificed to Yahweh. This is the logic of the herein, or ban (Num. 21:2; Deut. 2:34; 3:6; 7:1-2; 20:16; Josh. 6:21; 8:26; 10:28-40; 11:11; 1 Sam.15).
6. Israel’s faith was essential. Israel is told repeatedly: "Do not be afraid" (Ex. 14:13; Deut. 20:3; Josh. 8:1; 10:8, 25; 11:6; Judg. 7:3; 1 Sam. 23:16). Conversely, Yahweh’s most essential activity was to strike fear into the heart of Israel’s enemies (Ex. 15:14-16; 23:27-28; Deut. 2:25; 11:25; Josh. 2:9, 24; 5:1; 10:2; 24:12; 1 Sam. 4:7-8). Yahweh’s great weapon was the divine terror (Ex. 23:27; Deut. 7:23; Josh. 10:10; Judg. 4:15; 7:22; 1 Sam. 5:11; 7:10; 14:15).
Von Rad admits that the idealized holy war described above never happened. That is, the records never relate all of the above characteristics in describing a particular war; nor is there consistency regarding particular characteristics, such as the herem, or ban. Yet the basic design of holy war colors every account.18
In thus clearly defining the sacral institution of holy war, von Rad admits to two basic assumptions which seem to me to be imposed on the data rather than derived from the data. One is that holy war was always defensive. This rules out any genuine instances of holy war during the conquest of Canaan. Indeed, the basic idea of a conquest is called in question. The other assumption is that holy war was always a cooperative venture between Israel and Yahweh; Yahweh never fought alone for Israel. The word "synergism," which we have used above, is von Rad’s. This rules out the story of the Red Sea or any similar stories.
One result of these two assumptions is that the actual historical situation of holy war is the time of the Judges, the period of the Tribal League. With the shift to the monarchy, it was rather quickly replaced by typical Near Eastern warfare, fought by kings through a professional army, enhanced by drafted troops. There was an attempt to revive holy war in the time of Josiah, which explains the heavy emphasis on it in the book of Deuteronomy. With the death of Josiah, holy war came to an end, but the holy war ideal continued to occupy and stimulate Israel for centuries.
In order to explain away any records of what we have called monergistic warfare, von Rad develops his theory that such records have been colored by "the post-Solomonic Enlightenment." In the time following Solomon, Israel was exposed to foreign influences, particularly Near Eastern "wisdom." A school of writers arose who turned the ancient stories of holy war into novellas. We owe the Red Sea story in its present form to them, as well as the narratives of the conquest of Canaan, particularly the story of the fall of Jericho. Their hand is evident in the stories of Gideon, and of David and Goliath.
Isaiah, the prophet in whom the ideas of holy war were strongest, took these novellas at face value and advocated leaving the defense of Jerusalem totally in God’s hands (Isa. 7:4; 30:15-16; 31:1-5).19
In accord with his basic assumption that such monergistic warfare never occurred, von Rad discounts the account in Isaiah 36-37=2 Kings 18:17-19:37. The true history, he maintains, is the account in 2 Kings 18:14-16, verses omitted in Isaiah. Isaiah had firmly believed and stoutly maintained that if Judah would have faith, sit still, entrust its defense to Yahweh alone, they would be saved. But Judah did not do so. Instead, Hezekiah bought off the invader with the temple treasures. Judah was devastated. Only the city of Jerusalem was spared, "like a shelter in a cucumber field". (Isa. 1:8). Israel’s greatest prophet died a failure, unheeded to the end, bitter (Isaiah 22) but compassionate (Isaiah 1).20
Critiques of von Rad
Various aspects of von Rad’s thesis have been attacked. Rudolph Smend maintained that the Tribal League was a cultic league, not a military or political one.21 The very name von Rad coined, "holy war," is not scriptural. It would be better to speak of "wars of Yahweh" or "Yahweh wars."22 The wars, as recorded, were so diverse that it is questionable whether the kind of pattern or design that von Rad discerns ever existed even in the minds of biblical writers, much less in the actual events.23 In particular, von Rad’s insistence that holy war was always defensive cannot be supported.24
An important critique of von Rad’s thesis is advanced by Millard Lind in his book Yahweh Is a Warrior. Lind accepts holy war as a cultic institution that deeply influenced Israel’s life and history, but he does not agree that synergism is its typical form.25
Lind starts with the view that Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea, to which von Rad assigns a very late date,26 is very ancient.27 Here there is no synergism. The battle for Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, the foundational event of the nation’s existence, was won by Yahweh alone.
Lind maintains that in the Red Sea event we discover the true paradigm of holy war. The accounts of synergistic warfare represent a falling away from the ideal. In many of them the true shape of holy war can still be discerned.28 This stands on its head von Rad’s contention that the synergistic accounts portray the true holy war and the accounts where Yahweh alone fights are pious corruptions.
Yahweh: Israel’s Enemy
In our continuum we have been analyzing the various ways in which Yahweh is said to have fought for and with the chosen people. But Yahweh also fought against them! This is not a unique understanding that belongs only to Israel,29 but Israel emphasizes it more largely and systematically than any other people.
Yahweh’s Passive Enmity Against Israel
Yahweh may fight against Israel passively, simply by not accompanying them into battle. In the familiar story of the twelve spies sent out to survey the Promised Land, the people of Israel believed the ten fearful spies and refused to go up and take the land, and Yahweh condemned them to forty years of wilderness wandering. The next day, against the orders of Moses, the people decided to go up anyway. Yahweh did not go with them and they were badly defeated (Numbers 13-14).
When Israel did not observe the herem against Jericho, but Achan took some of the devoted things and hid them in his tent, Yahweh did not go with them against Ai, the next city, and they were defeated (Joshua 7).
Because of the sins of Eli and his sons, Yahweh did not go with Israel to battle against the Philistines. Even taking the ark of the covenant into the field did not guarantee the LORD’s presence. So Israel was defeated and the ark captured (1 Samuel 4).
Saul, rejected as king of Israel, could get no answer from Yahweh by dreams, by Urim, or by prophets (1 Sam. 28:6). Despite warnings from Samuel through a medium, he went into battle against the Philistines, unaccompanied by Yahweh. Israel was defeated and Saul and his sons were killed (ch. 31).
Despite the warnings of Micaiah, Ahab listened to his own court prophets and went to war against Ramoth-gilead. Yahweh was not with him and he was killed in battle and Israel was scattered in defeat (1 Kings 22).
Yahweh’s Active Warfare Against Israel
Not only did Yahweh fight against Israel passively by not going with them, Yahweh fought against Israel actively, using their enemies as instruments. The incursions of the great empires were brought about by Yahweh in order to punish the people for their sins. This was constantly predicted by the prophets, and we shall consider those predictions at length in chapter 7. After the predictions came true and Israel fell to Assyria and Judah fell to Babylon, the historians and poets spoke eloquently of the antagonistic warfare of Yahweh.
In 2 Kings 17 the removal of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, by the armies of Assyria is said to be Yahweh’s punishment upon them for their idolatry. When they would not listen to the warnings of the prophets, but worshiped all the host of heaven, served Baal, and made their sons and daughters pass through fire, "the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah" (v. 18).
In 2 Chronicles 36 the exile of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, is attributed to the antagonistic warfare of Yahweh. When they kept mocking his messengers, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, "the wrath of the LORD against his people became so great that there was no remedy" (v. 16). It was the LORD who brought against them the king of Chaldeans, to slaughter the people, take away the treasures, burn the temple, break down the walls of Jerusalem (vs. 17-19).
Once again, this theme is reflected in the piety of the Psalter. There are plaintive laments of Yahweh’s passive enmity:
Yet you have rejected us and abased us,
See also Psalms 60:10 108:11; 74; 77.
In other psalms, Yahweh actively fights against the people. In an eloquent passage in Psalm 78:56-64, the psalmist declares:
He gave his people to the sword,
In Psalm 106:40-46 we read:
He gave them into the hand of the nations,
See also Psalms 80:12; 89:38-45.
Some of the clearest statements regarding Yahweh’s antagonistic warfare against Israel are found in the collection of poems known as the book of Lamentations. Chapter 2:2-5 is an excerpt that represents the tone of the whole. It ends thus:
The Lord has become like an enemy;
Individuals, as well as the nation, suffer from Yahweh’s antagonistic warfare. They suffer from God’s absence and neglect (Psalms 42-43) and from God’s active attack:
For your arrows have sunk into me,
Remove your stroke from me;
Your wrath has swept over me;
You have lifted me up
He bent his bow and set me
A Cease-Fire in Yahweh’s War
Now comes an unexpected turn of events. God declares a cease-fire in his warfare against the people:
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
God raises up another strange and warlike nation, a great world power, to be God’s instrument. The purpose this time is not to punish Israel, but to redeem them, to set them free, to restore them to their land.
Cyrus, king of Persia, is the LORD’s anointed (Messiah!), raised up for this purpose. The LORD will grasp his right hand, subdue nations before him, open doors, level mountains. He will build the LORD’s city and set the LORD’S people free (Isa. 45:1-4, 13; see also 41:2,25; 43:14).
So it happened. In a series of military campaigns, Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon and released the Jewish exiles to return and rebuild Jerusalem. They never lifted a hand or a sword. It was like their release from Egypt long before. The prophet sees the connection and speaks of the LORD
who says to the deep, "Be dry --
The imagery of the exodus runs all through this magnificent poem. We have come full circle. We have returned to the monergistic warfare with which Israel’s story began.
Even if we follow Lind and decide that monergism is the true understanding of Yahweh’s involvement in Israel’s warfare, we still face serious problems. When Yahweh fights as Israel’s ally, there are still human victims who suffer and die. The dead Egyptians still wash up on the shore. Sennacherib’s army is decimated, and "the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail.30 Cyrus moves to free the Jewish exiles by a path marked by the death and destruction of thousands. And when Yahweh fights against the chosen people, the siege of Jerusalem can be so horrible that women eat their own offspring, the children they have borne (Lam. 2:20). The debate over monergism and synergism may have some bearing over whether Israel should fight, but there is no disguising the belief that Yahweh fights, that Yahweh is a warrior.
Yahweh Is a Warrior
Israel never sought to disguise the belief that Yahweh is a warrior. Israel celebrated it. The Song of the Sea exults:
The LORD is a warrior;
The liturgy of Psalm 24 declares:
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle.
See also Isaiah 42:13; Zephaniah 3:17.
This brings us to the affirmation that the Divine Warrior has a divine army. Patrick D. Miller, Jr., in The Divine Warrior in Early Israel31 compares divine warfare in Israel with divine warfare in the literature of Syria-Palestine. As there was a divine assembly in the Canaanite religions, so there was a divine assembly in the religion of Israel. Psalm 82:1 says, "God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment." The members of the council, here called "gods," are elsewhere called "sons of God" (Job 1:6), "servants" (Job 4:18), "ministers" (Pss. 103:21; 104:4), "spirits" (1 Kings 22:21), and so on. In the Canaanite religions, the divine assembly was clearly polytheistic, made up of many rival gods and their retinues. In Israel, the members of the assembly are subordinate to God, under the name of El or Yahweh.
While the divine assembly had judicial functions, its primary function was a military one. Thus the "host" or "army" of Yahweh is another name for the divine council (1 Kings 22:19; Ps. 103:20-21). The cosmic army of Yahweh is on the march in the most ancient poems of the Old Testament:
The LORD came from Sinai,
See also Judg. 5:4-5 and Ps. 68:7-8, 17.32
The cosmic army also figures in poems of the royal period (1 Sam. 22:7-16 = Ps. 18:6-15; Hab. 3:3-15). In these poems we see Yahweh marching to battle at the head of an army, not the troops of Israel, but the hosts of heaven. It is true that the familiar name for God. "LORD of hosts" "Yahweh of armies," later came to be associated with the armies of Israel, but it initially pictured God as commander of a cosmic army.
This point is pressed home in unforgettable fashion in the story where the great army of the Arameans comes by night to surround the prophet Elisha in Dothan. Elisha’s servant rises early, sees the army, and panics. "Do not be afraid," says the prophet, "for there are more with us than there are with them." He prays that the servant’s eyes may be opened. Yahweh opens the servant’s eyes and he sees the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire around Elisha. The cosmic hosts of the LORD are there to defend the prophet (2 Kings 6:15-17).
The most striking difference from the Canaanite parallels is that the Canaanite deities lead their armies against each other or against cosmic forces. While some conflict with cosmic forces is predicated of Yahweh,33 the principal emphasis is that Yahweh leads Yahweh’s hosts to do battle against the earthly enemies of Israel,
The weapons of the Divine Warrior are described in Habakkuk 3:
You brandished your naked bow,
A similar description is found in the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:39-43).
The Armor of Yahweh
Even the armor of the Divine Warrior is described in a familiar and moving passage:
The LORD saw it, and it displeased him
The Ambiguity of the Divine Warrior
The portrait of God the Warrior in a certain way sums up all the diverse materials of this long chapter. Scholars like G. Ernest Wright do not find this portrait offensive. In The Old Testament and Theology,34 Wright maintains that the Old Testament understands God in three primary ways: as creator, as Lord, and as warrior. The Old Testament understanding of God is historical and political, not metaphysical. Human history and politics are continuously marked by conflict; and if God is involved in that history and politics as creator and Lord, God is also involved as protagonist, as combatant, as warrior. In exercising the divine sovereignty, in working out the divine purposes in history, God had to engage in real conflict in a real world. For example, God had to remove the Canaanites to make a place for the covenant people Israel.
Wright admits that there are problems here. We must say that God uses war for God’s purposes without in any way sanctioning the human participants. We must say that Israel’s wars of conquest become no mandate for wars by God’s people today. Language about the Warrior Lord means that there is a force in the universe set against the forces of evil. "Now if one thinks this type of language is too strong, let him only remember that God the Warrior is simply the reverse side of God the Lover or of God the Redeemer. . . [Love] is power in action in a sinful world."35
I cannot deal with the portrait of God as warrior so easily. I can see positive value in the fact that the biblical God is not the Unmoved Mover of Greek philosophy, that God is an involved God, working God’s purpose out in a real world filled with real people. But that does not eliminate the negativity. War in any form is cruel, barbarous, deadly. Are we to say that with God the end justifies the means, when we know it does not work that way among human beings? What is ascribed to God here does mystify and offend us. In the herein God orders conduct that is clearly condemned by the proponents of the just war theory, let alone by those who believe that Jesus taught nonviolence. The main problem is not that the people of God were warriors, but that the Old Testament affirms that God is a warrior. Here is where the ambiguity of scripture reaches a point of agony, for the same Old Testament affirms that the same God is also the author and giver of peace.
1. It is difficult to determine the historical kernel, if any, in these stories. In them, the king of Israel is not named. With them should be compared a similar story in 2 Chronicles 20, which bears many marks of the Chronicler’s invention. Historical or not, these stories preserve the ancient exodus faith, that the LORD can deliver the people without their fighting at all. Note particularly 2 Chronicles 20:17, "This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, 0 Judah and Jerusalem."
2. From "The Destruction of Sennacherib" by Lord Byron. The entire poem reveals a genuine understanding of what we have called monergistic war.
3. After Hezekiah bought off the invader with the temple treasures (2 Kings 18:14-16), did Sennacherib return on the same expedition and besiege Jerusalem? Or were there two expeditions, one in 701 BCE., and another sometime after 690? Or is the whole account of Sennacherib’s defeat a fiction? Brevard Childs in Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis (Naperville, Ill.: Alec R. Allenson, 1967) has surveyed the Assyrian annals and made a form-critical analysis of all the relevant biblical passages. He concludes that the historical problem has no easy or conclusive solution.
4. Psalm 109 is so vengeful that the translators of the NRSV have added They say" in verse 6 in order to remove the terrible words that follow from the psalmist’s lips and place them on the lips of the enemy, but there is no basis in the original for "They say."
5. Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), pp. 81-88.
6. These psalms in general fall into Brueggemann’s classification, "psalms of disorientation," though some he would classify as "psalms of new orientation" (ibid.).
7. To this might be added the curse on Meroz in Judges 5:23. Lind, however, holds that Meroz was no part of Israel; its inhabitants were non-Israelites who lived among and were friendly with the Israelites. See Millard C. Lind. Yahweh is a Warrior (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1980). pp. 71-72.
8. See Patrick D. Miller, Jr., The Divine Warrior in Early Israel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973). pp. 67, 98.
9. Lind argues convincingly that this is an ancient story, predating the work of the Deuteronomic historian. Yahweh Is a Warrior, pp. 96-97.
10. As Walter Brueggemann puts it. Yahweh and Yahweh alone equalizes the struggle between lightly armed David and heavily armed Goliath. See David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 34.
11. Brueggemann would say that what was issued in this case was not a command, but a permit, a legitimization of the desire of the oppressed for freedom from oppression. Horses and chariots axe the instruments of oppression and marginalized Israel is authorized to hamstring the horses and bum the chariots (Josh. 11:6). See Revelation and Violence: A Study in Contextualization (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1986).
12. Albrecht Alt, "Erwägungen über die Landnahme der Israeliten in Palestina," 1939. in Klelne Schnften sur Geschichte des Volkes Israel, vol. 1 (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1953), pp. 126-175; Martin Noth, The History of Israel. 2nd ed., revised E. T. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), pp. 73ff.; Gerhard von Rad Der heilige Krieg im alten Israel (Zurich: Zwingli Verlag, 1951), pp. 16ff.; see note 17 for English edition.
13. John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), pp. 117-120.
14. See George E. Mendenhall, "The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine," The Biblical Archaeologist 25(1962), and Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979).
15. For a helpful discussion of how "the Deuteronomic Ideology" made the herein a standard element of the conquest, turned a human vow into a divine command, and assigned a new purpose to the herein (to avoid syncretism), see Patrick D. Miller, Jr.’s commentary Deuteronomy in the Interpretation series (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1990), p 41.
16. A similar set of secular wars is ascribed to Saul in 1 Sam. 14:47-48. The stories in 1 Sam. 15; 17; 18:30; 19:8 elaborate on the brief summary.
17. Von Rad, Der heilige Krieg Im alten Israel (1951). This seminal piece was finally published in English in 1991: 11o1y War In Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). The English version has a splendid introduction by Ben C. Ollenburger and a fine bibliography.
18. Ibid., p.29 (German); p.52 (English).
19. Ibid., pp. 56-62 (German); pp. 100-108 (English).
20. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965). pp. 155-169.
21. Rudolf Smend, Yahweh War and Tribal Confederation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970).
22. The various scholars who agree with Smend on this point are reviewed by Peter C. Craigie in The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 49.
23. This devastating critique was delivered by Norman Gottwald in "War, Holy" in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Supplementary Volume, ed. Keith Crim et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), pp. 942-944. See also Fritz Stolz, Jahwehs und lsraels Krieg (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1972), and esp. G. H. Jones, "Holy War or Jahwehs War?" Vetus Testamentum 25(1975): 642-658.
24. Miller, The Divine Warrior in Early Israel, p.2.
25. Millard C. Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior (Scottdale. Pa.: Herald Press, 1980).
26. Von Rad groups it with Pss. 105 and 135 in his Holy War in Ancient Israel. p.82. n. 136 (German)~ p. 131, a. 5 (English).
27. This is supported by David Noel Freedman and Frank M. Cross, Jr., in several articles. See, for example, their joint article "The Song of Miriam," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14(1955): 237-250; also Cross, "The Song of the Sea and Canaanite Myth" in his Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973). Interestingly, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., embraces an early date for this poem, even though he persists in agreeing with von Rad that holy war was always synergistic. The Divine Warrior in Early Israel, pp. 113-117,156.
28. This thesis is set forth in a very clear and simple form in a book for children written by one of Lind’s disciples: Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1987).
29. See Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior, pp. 110-111.
30. Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib."
31. Miller, The Divine Warrior in Ancient Israel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973).
32. By careful reconstruction and exegesis, Miller finds references to the cosmic army in additional verses in these ancient songs. I have cited those where the references maybe easily recognized by English readers.
33, Miller sees this in Ps, 68:22; Hab. 3:8-15; and elsewhere.
34. G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament and Theology, the Sprunt Lectures for 1968 (New York: Harper& Row, 1969).
35. Ibid., pp. 130-131.