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 6: The Prophets: Champions of Shalom
The shalom that God gives through creation, liberation, land, and Torah is always under threat. What happens to the precarious shalom of the little village of Bethlehem when the Torah is disregarded, when every individual is a law to himself or herself, doing whatever is right in his or her own eyes (Judg. 21:25)? What happens when there is no organized defense and Moab or Midian or Ammon sweeps in from the desert to confiscate the crops of the fruitful land? What happens when the Philistines settle the seacoast and subject Israel to seemingly permanent domination with their weapons of iron?
Israel’s solution was to demand a king who would meld the loose confederation of tribes into a strong central state, who would defend them from their enemies (1 Sam. 8:19-20), who would study and enforce the Torah (Deut. 17:14-20). The king would be responsible for managing and perpetuating the shalom which God had given them.
The danger was that the king would imitate the kings of neighboring kingdoms and become the enemy of shalom. He would draft their sons as soldiers and armament manufacturers. He would draft their daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He would take their land, tax their produce, make them slaves (1 Sam. 8:10-14).
So Yahweh, the giver of shalom, did one more thing. Yahweh raised up the prophets to counterbalance the kings. It is true that the prophets at times cooperated with the kings. Nathan the prophet delivered the oracle regarding Yahweh’s covenant with David (2 Sam. 7:1-17) and was a leader in the movement to secure the throne to Solomon as David’s successor (1 Kings 1). Elisha was a supporter of several of the kings of Israel (2 Kings 3, 5-7, 13). Isaiah counseled Hezekiah (Isa. 37). Jeremiah praised Josiah (Jer. 22:15-16). Nevertheless, the prophets remained the primary representatives of the continuing kingship or imperium of Yahweh. It was the kingship of Yahweh that had constituted Israel, and Israel would survive only as that imperium continued, overarching and overruling the power of human kings.1 So when the prophets said, "Thus says the LORD," they were representing the ancient, original, final, and legitimate authority in Israel. One of the concerns of that authority was to defend shalom against the efforts of the kings and the nobles and the wealthy to undermine it.
The Defense of Shalom
Two dramatic stories show the earlier prophets in their role as defenders of shalom. In the first, King David, after the manner of eastern monarchs, has taken to bed Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. When she finds she is pregnant, David sends for Uriah to come home from the wars and to "cover up" what has been done. When Uriah does not cooperate, he is sent back to the front, bearing his own death warrant, a letter from David to Joab instructing him to make sure Uriah is killed in battle. Although a soldier in David’s army, Uriah was an alien. But the Torah says that aliens are not to be oppressed or defrauded, and the king, like everyone else, is subject to the Torah. Shalom has been breached, so Yahweh sends Nathan the prophet to confront David the king. By a skillful parable Nathan enables David to see what he has done and predicts that this breach of shalom will haunt David’s house for generations to come (2 Samuel 11-12).
In the second story, King Ahab covets the vineyard of Naboth. He offers to trade land for it, or to pay cash, but Naboth refuses, because he understands that shalom depends on each family’s keeping its own inheritance. Ahab is terribly upset. His wife Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, does not understand this way of doing things. Kings take what they want. She "frames" Naboth and has him stoned to death and tells Ahab to go and take possession of the vineyard he wanted so badly, but there in the vineyard stands Elijah the prophet, the champion of shalom. He predicts the doom of Ahab’s house, a doom Ahab does not live to see because he repents abjectly (1 Kings 21).
Preaching Against Injustices
The great prophets of the eighth century BC.E. inveigh against the injustices2 that erode Israel’s shalom Hosea weeps that there as "no faithfulness or loyalty, no knowledge of God in the land" (Hos. 4:1).
Amos condemns those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, selling them into slavery for small debts, lying beside the altars on garments taken in pledge and not returned before night (Amos 2:6-S). The rich grow richer, with their winter houses and summer houses, their houses of hewn stone and even of ivory (3:15; 4:11), their luxurious life-style (6:1-6). The poor grow poorer, unable to get justice in the courts (5:12), cheated by false weights and measures (8:4-6).
Micah pronounces woe upon those who covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; who oppress householder and house and rob families of their inheritance (Micah 2:2). He describes them as cannibals, tearing the skin off the people, eating their flesh, breaking their bones, chopping them up like meat in a kettle (3:2-3).
The LORD enters into judgment
He pronounces woe upon those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room (5:8); and upon those who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of Yahweh’s people of their right, who make widows their spoil and orphans their prey (10:1-2). Shalom can be established only by a return to Torah:
Cease to do evil,
A century later Jeremiah identifies the enemies of shalom:
For scoundrels are found among my people;
He also calls for a return to Torah as the basis for dwelling peacefully in the land:
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jer. 7:5-7)
In the Persian period, Zechariah reviews how Israel lost shalom by not heeding the words of the prophets who preceded him:
The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the Torah and the words that the LORD of hosts sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the LORD of hosts, lust as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the LORD of hosts, and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land was left desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate. (Zech. 7:8-14)
Criticizing False Prophets
One of the problems that the prophets faced was the multitude of false prophets who supported the kings in whatever they wanted to do.3 We meet them in the story of the prophet Micah: Ahab had four hundred prophets who encouraged his military adventures (1 Kings 22:6-12). Micah speaks of prophets who lead the people astray, crying "Shalom" when they have something to eat and declaring war against those who put nothing into their mouths (Micah 3:5; cf. v. 11). Isaiah speaks of the prophets who teach lies (Isa. 9:15). Zephaniah calls the prophets "reckless, faithless persons" (Zeph. 3:4).
It is Jeremiah who deals most extensively with this phenomenon. Jeremiah 23:9-40 is a long denunciation of the false prophets. Chapter 28 is the detailed account of Jeremiah’s controversy with the false prophet Hananiah. The tragedy of false prophecy is summarized succinctly:
An appalling arid horrible thing
The nub of the controversy is that false prophets prophesy a false shalom.
Then I said: "Ah, Lord GOD! Here are the prophets saying to them ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you true shalom in this place.’ " And the LORD said to me: The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds. (Jer. 14:13-14; cf. 5:12-13; 27:1-15; 29:8-9)
The most familiar saying about false shalom is found twice in Jeremiah:
For from the least to the greatest of them,
See also Ezekiel 13:10, 16, where the prophet says that to say shalom when there is no shalom is like attempting to strengthen a wall by merely whitewashing it!
The false prophets were quick to promise shalom or announce its arrival, a cheap shalom, based on the favoritism of Yahweh. This was to give the imperium. the final authority in Israel, to the kings, and to make Yahweh their lackey. The message of the true prophets was frequently "no shalom" because there was no justice. The God who gives shalom can and will take it away if justice is lacking.
Thus says the LORD: Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament, or bemoan them; for I have taken away my shalom from this people, says the LORD, my steadfast love and mercy. (Jer. 16:5)
Upon all the bare heights in the desert
"There is no shalom," says the LORD, "for the wicked."
(Isa. 48:22; see 57:21)
To say that Yahweh will punish those who breach shalom, to say that the Giver of shalom is also the Withdrawer of shalom, to speak of "the sword of the LORD," is to reiterate the ancient faith of Israel that Yahweh is a warrior. But the prophets give that faith an unexpected twist. Because Israel has rejected the shalom Yahweh gives, because they have neglected the justice and loyalty and humility that are fundamental to shalom. Yahweh will war against his own people! It is the prophets who emphasize Yahweh’s antagonistic warfare against Israel and who describe it with unparalleled vividness. We shall devote a major portion of chapter 7 to those predictions.
The Critique of War
In the primary history, as we saw in chapter 3, the wars of Israel are simply recorded in all their brutality and disregard of the humanity of enemies; but in the prophets a critique emerges. Amos makes it clear that Yahweh is against the atrocities of warfare. He lists the destruction of crops (Amos 1:3), the exile of people from their lands (v. 6), the breaking of treaties (v. 9), the lack of pity (v. U), the maintenance of perpetual feuds (v. 11), ripping up women with child (v. 13), dishonoring the dead (2:1). For such atrocities, committed in wars among the small states of the land bridge, Yahweh is bringing upon them the punishment of Assyria.
Against Trust in Weapons
The prophets go further. To trust in military might to defend and save Israel is not to trust in God. It is idolatry, imposing in one’s own weaponry trust of which God alone is worthy. Hosea condemns Israel for trusting in their own power and the multitude of their warriors (Hos. 10:13-14). Isaiah indicts Israel for multiplying armaments and multiplying idols in the same breath:
Their land is filled with horses,
Micah relates the disarming of Israel to the destruction of idols. When Yahweh destroys their horses and chariots, he will also destroy images and pillars and they will no longer bow down to the work of their hands (Micah 5:10-13).
And Isaiah once again:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
As to reliance on allies, the prophetic critique is merciless. Hosea sings:
When Ephraim saw his sickness,
(Hos. 5:13; see also 6:11;8:9; 12:1)
When Hezekiah tried to defend Judah against Assyria through an alliance with Egypt, Isaiah spoke for Yahweh:
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
The Egyptians are human, and not God,
(Isa. 31:1, 3;cf. 30:1-3)
And so it proved. When Sennacherib threatened Jerusalem, the Egyptians marched out and then, like "The noble Duke of York and his ten thousand men," they marched right back again. It was the hand of Yahweh, not the Egyptian armies, that saved Jerusalem (Isaiah 36-37).
Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. A century later, in Jeremiah’s time, there was strong trust in Egypt to save Judah from the armies of Babylon, and Jeremiah had to repeat Isaiah’s warning:
How lightly you gad about,
(Jer. 2:36; cf. 2:18; 37:7-8)
The Greater of Two Evils
It is in Jeremiah that the prophetic critique of war reaches an astounding extreme. He see Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon as the instrument of Yahweh’s antagonistic warfare, Yahweh’s punishment for Judah’s sins. Therefore he counsels the kings not to fight, and not to trust Yahweh to deliver them, but to surrender. Jeremiah dramatized this advice by wearing a wooden yoke, such as oxen wear. He wore it when envoys of the petty kingdoms of the land bridge were in Jerusalem, consulting with King Zedekiah about how to throw off the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar. To them he said, "If any nation will not serve this king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, then I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, says the LORD, until I have completed its destruction by his hand. . . . But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, says the LORD, to till it and live there" (Jer. 27:8, 11). Even after he had been imprisoned, Jeremiah persisted in this advice, saying to Zedekiah, "Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel, If you will only surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon. then this city shall be handed over to the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you yourself shall not escape from their hand" (38:17-18). During the siege itself, Jeremiah said to the people. "Thus says the LORD: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war" (21:8-9). War is not always the lesser of two evils. In this case it would be the greater of two evils.
It would seem that the prophetic critique of war could go no further, but it does. In the great prophecy of the exile (Isaiah 40-55) we meet one who conquers, not by dishing out punishment, but by enduring it. Vernard Eller has coined a phrase for this: "reverse fighting."4 The "reverse fighter" is the servant of the LORD. Nebuchadnezzar, the instrument of Yahweh’s antagonistic warfare, the punisher of Judah’s sins, had been called the servant of the LORD (Jer. 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). This servant, however, is no warrior. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench (Isa. 42:3). He gives his back to those who strike him and his cheeks to those who pull Out his beard, not hiding his face from insult and spitting (50:6). He knows contempt and rejection, suffering and infirmity, wounds and bruises, oppression and injustice. In all this he does no violence, makes no complaint (53:3-9). Yet he wins the victory! The "reverse fighter" is honored in the sight of the LORD; God becomes his strength (49:5). Kings stand up in his presence; princes prostrate themselves (v. 7). He prospers, is exalted and lifted up, startles many nations; kings shut their mouths because of him (52:13-15). Yahweh allots him a portion with the great; he divides the spoil with the strong (53:12). This is the "warfare" to which Israel, as Yahweh’s servant (41:8-9; 43:10; 44:1-2,21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3) is ultimately called.
The Extension of Shalom
Yahweh, the giver of shalom, gives shalom to Israel. That seems to have been the basic understanding of the Hebrew people.5 They justified war as necessary to establish secure borders within which shalom could be nurtured and practiced, but the prophets dare to suggest an extension of shalom beyond the borders.
To the Nations
The nations, the Gentiles, the goyim, are going to seek Yahweh and Yahweh’s Torah and shalom.
Many nations shall come and say:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
There are many prophetic passages that make this point: Isaiah 45:22-23; 55:5; 56:6-8; Zech. 2:11; 8:20-23.
It is worth noting here that some of the psalmists heard the prophets on this point. There are notable invitations to the nations to join Israel in the praise of Yahweh:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
See also Psalms 47, 66, 96, 97, 100, 117, 138, 148.
To the Enemy
More striking than the prophecies of a general extension of shalom are the predictions that shalom will be extended to Israel’s worst and bitterest enemies. War seems to require that we dehumanize our enemies. They must be outsiders, aliens, some lesser breed without the law. If they are human beings just like ourselves, who could ever press the red button? So Israel kept the war spirit going by characterizing its enemies as godless heathen.
The prophets taught otherwise. In the book of Amos we find these words. "Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (Amos 9:7). Your traditional enemies each had their exodus, tool I guide their history as well, whether they know it or not.
And in Isaiah, we find this extraordinary passage:
On that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border….
On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage."
Egypt my people? We thought Israel was Yahweh’s people, and Egypt was the devil’s people. Assyria the work of my hands? We thought Israel was the work of Yahweh’s hands and Assyria was the work of the devil. One might as well say, "Blessed be communist China, Yahweh’s people, and ruthless Iraq, the work of Yahweh’s hands, and my own country, Yahweh’s heritage."
Then there is Jonah. In the primary history, he is mentioned as a 100 percent Israelite patriot, a prophet who predicted and encouraged the military campaigns by which Jeroboam II recovered much of the lost territory of the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 14:25). The book of Jonah is the story of how Yahweh sent Jonah to preach in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Of all Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians were the most ruthless and cruel. The bitter book of Nahum calls for vengeance on Nineveh and exults in its downfall. Jonah obviously felt the same way. He tried to take his evangelistic campaign to Spain instead, but, as even children know from the familiar story of the whale, he wound up in Nineveh after all. Looking over the size of the place, he called for Yahweh’s most massive destructive power and hunkered down in his bomb shelter to see the results. But Nineveh repented and nothing happened. Only a worm destroyed his bomb shelter-a flimsy affair anyway, consisting mainly of the leaves of a castor bean plant. Jonah was mad enough to die. Yahweh advises Jonah to think it over. He is concerned deeply for a bush he didn’t even plant. And should Yahweh not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand innocent children too young to know their right hand from their left, and also many animals (Jonah 4:11)? So Nineveh gets included in the survival principles and the caring principles that had marked the shalom of Bethlehem, and the war is over. The enemy has become a neighbor.
The prophets share in the biblical ambiguity regarding war and peace. They place a high value on shalom and rush to the defense of the Torah principles on which it rests. Yahweh is the Giver of shalom. Yet they know that Yahweh can also be the Withdrawer of shalom. There are times when the true prophetic word is not "shalom, shalom," but "no shalom." They are severe critics of war, its atrocities, its trust in weapons, its reliance on alliances. Yet earlier prophets aided and abetted kings in their wars and later prophets predicted that Yahweh would use war to punish rebellious Israel and to assert moral authority over all nations, the great powers as well as the people of God. It is to those predictions that we turn in the next chapter.
1. See George E. Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).
2. The connection between shalom and justice is reflected in the word itself. The verbal form of the same root, especially in the piel, means "to restore a lost thing, to repay a debt, to make reparation, to reward good with good or evil with evil." Related nouns shillem and shillum mean "requital, recompense, retribution."
3. See David Peterson, ed. Prophecy in Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), pp. 8-10.
4. See Vernard Eller, War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1981), ch. 4.
5. Even though the promise to Abraham, often forgotten, moves in a different direction: "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3).