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 8: Promises of Peace
The prophets, we said, saw God’s future actions as truly decisive for the life or death of Israel. The predictions of war were designed to lead God’s people to repentance. And the promises of peace were designed to lead them to faith, steadfastness, faithfulness.
Promises are closer to the heart of God’s reality than threats. God’s name, Yahweh, was revealed in the context of a promise of deliverance, not a threat of destruction (Exodus 3). Unlike the gods of surrounding nations, Yahweh does not appear mainly to create a sacred place, a cultic center, where human culture is protected by becoming close to unchanging divine reality. Yahweh appears to make promises: to Noah (Genesis 8-9); to Abraham (12, 13, 15, 17, 18,22); to Isaac (26); to Jacob (28,35).1
When we recall what was promised in the Genesis stories -- the holding back of chaos, land, posterity -- the possibility emerges that shalom, which embraces all that and more, may be the quintessential promise, the epitome of all Yahweh’s promises.
There are many promises of shalom in the Hebrew Bible, too many for us to examine them all. We have already looked at a number of them in chapters 5 and 6, because it was only in terms of promised shalom that we could define what it is or explain how God gives it or examine how the prophets championed it. In this chapter we shall focus on a further sample of these promises.
Promises of Fertility and Stability
In defining shalom, we said that those who have land yearn for shalom in terms of continued fertility and stability. There are many promises that answer this longing and greatly enrich our understanding of what peace is.
In the Torah
At the close of the Holiness Code, a powerful sermon (Lev. 26:3-45) contains a promise of fertility and stability and calls it shalom;2
If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains In their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land. And I will grant shalom in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land. (Lev. 26:3-6)
The agricultural aspects of shalom are emphasized, but there are also promises of freedom from fear, freedom from dangerous animals, and freedom from war. The biblical ambiguity is close at hand, for in 26:7-8 it is promised that Israel will put its enemies to flight in war. The longer part of the sermon (vs. 14-45) is a prediction of what will happen if they do not obey the Torah: terror, disease, defeat in war, failure of crops, attack by wild animals, devastation, landlessness.
In Deuteronomy, the promise of peace takes the form of a series of blessings:3
If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God:
Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.
Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.
Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. (Deut. 28:1-6)
Once again the language is mainly agricultural. The biblical ambiguity is evident: the next verse promises defeat of the enemy in war. The long list of curses for disobedience (vs. 15-68) reverses all the blessings and predicts terrible military defeat, loathsome diseases, agricultural disaster, and finally return to slavery in Egypt.
These promises in the Torah are conditional. In a striking way these promises connect fertility in the field with obedience to the commandments of God. In modern parlance this is to link ecology and ethics.4
In the Prophets
We turn to an oracle (Hos. 2:18-2.3) embedded in the story of Hosea’s unfaithful wife, whose children Hosea named Not-pitied and Not-my-people. Israel is Yahweh’s unfaithful wife, yet Yahweh promises to remarry her, to be reconciled to her children, and to give her shalom.
I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. (Hos. 2:18)
The familiar themes are here: peace with the animals, the abolition of war. In the verses that follow we meet agricultural fruitfulness; "the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil" (v. 22), and personal reconciliation: the wife is rewed forever (vs. 19-20); Lo-ammi is pitied and Lo-ruhamah becomes God’s people (v. 23). For further promises of agricultural fruitfulness, see Hos. 14:4-7 and Joel 2:21-27.
In Isa. 29:17-21 we find a promise that begins with these words:
Shall not Lebanon in a very little while
In the following verses it is promised that the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the meek and the needy will obtain joy; but the tyrants who deny them justice will be no more. Beginning with the agricultural note, this vision of peace goes on to include healing and justice -- all parts of shalom. We are again in the presence of a linkage between ecology and ethics.
Promises of a Righteous Ruler
The kings of Israel and Judah did not do too well as managers and preservers of shalom, but hope sprang eternal that in the future there would be a king who would fulfill Israel’s yearning and expectation. Many of the visions centered around a righteous ruler who would actually bring peace to Israel.5 When new kings came to the throne, the psalmists expressed this hope in coronation odes. Psalm 72 is the most explicit:
Give the king your justice, 0 God,
Here is the familiar combination of agricultural fruitfulness and civic justice in accordance with the Torah. In what follows we see power over all enemies, the prayerful support of all his people, repeated emphasis on concern for the needy, the weak, those who have no helper, and once again "abundance of grain in the land" (v. 16).
In Isaiah, more than in any other prophet, the dream of peace centered around a righteous ruler who would break the rod of Israel’s oppressors and reign in peace:
For a child has been born for us,
The biblical ambiguity haunts this promise, for the immediately preceding verses mention the breaking of the rod of Israel’s oppressor, the boots of tramping warriors, the garments rolled in blood. David, although a warlike king, is named in this dream of peace. We shall see this again and again.6
Another familiar promise in Isaiah 11:1-9 is a case in point. It speaks of a shoot from the stump of Jesse (David’s father), a branch from his roots.7 Endowed with the spirit of the Lord, he shall rule in equity -- so far a picture of shalom. But then "he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lip she shall kill the wicked." This warlike note is followed by an extraordinarily peaceful vision:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
At last there will be a king who listens to Torah and rules by its principles, and great peace will be the result. We have already met the idea that shalom will involve a truce between the wild animals and humankind. Here the truce will hold even among the animals, between predators and prey. For other visions of the prince of shalom in Isaiah, see 32:1-8 and 33:17 22.8
In Micah also there is a promise of peace that centers around a just ruler:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
This oracle, so familiar to us from the story of the Magi in Matthew 2, contains some difficulties. If the lines I have bracketed are allowed to stand, they might indicate that this promise belongs in the time of the exile, long after Micah; but the bracketed lines are such an obvious interruption to the flow of the poem that they must belong elsewhere. The final line, literally "this one shall be shalom," is very strong, reminding us of Gideon’s altar, "Yahweh is shalom."
Micah is even clearer than Isaiah 11 that Yahweh will reject the current line of David. Yahweh will go back to Bethlehem and start over.9 The differences between the vision of Micah, who speaks for the peasants who live on the land, and that of Isaiah, who speaks for the sophisticated citizens of Jerusalem, are noteworthy, but both look for peace through a righteous ruler whom God will raise up.
Promises of Return
When Jerusalem was burned and the people were carried captive and Israel became a nation of have-nots, the yearning for shalom was a yearning for liberation and return.10
There is one remarkable promise of return in the Torah (Deut. 30:1-10). In the prophets it becomes a constant hope and dream. Such a dream of return has been attached to the prophecy of Amos:
On that day I will raise up
Return, rebuilding, agricultural abundance, security are all parts of this vision of peace from the place of exile (cf. Zeph. 3:14-20).
The prophecy of Jeremiah, coming from the last days of Judah, is an almost uninterrupted prediction that the people will lose their land and go into captivity. But these predictions are punctuated by dreams of return. See Jeremiah 16:14-15; 23:7-8; 24:4-7; 29:10-14. The hope of return reaches a climax in chs. 30-33, the Book of Consolation. These chapters contain striking visions of shalom.
In Jeremiah 30 the theme is announced, "The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will restore the fortunes of my people. Israel and Judah, says the LORD, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it" (v. 3). They will no longer serve foreigners, but a king of the line of David will rule over them (vs. 8-9,21). When they return they will have shalom "quiet and ease, and no one shall make them afraid" (v. 10). Their captors will be punished (vs. 11, 16). Their health will be restored (v. 17). The city will be rebuilt (v. 18), a place of thanksgiving and merrymaking (v. 19).
The whole of Jeremiah 31 can be read as a vision of shalom The people will be brought back to their land (vs. 7-11, 16-17, 21). There will be rebuilding (vs. 4, 38-39), dancing (vs. 4, 13), singing (v. 12), planting (vs. 5, 27-28), abundance (vs. 5, 12), a new covenant (vs. 31-34) which will be irrevocable (vs. 35-37). Compare 33:19-26.
The hope for a righteous ruler persisted, even after the land was lost. That is a central theme of Jeremiah 33. After repeating promises of healing, prosperity, security, rebuilding, cleansing, forgiveness, and celebration -- "the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing" (v. 11) -- the prophet declares this promise of Yahweh:
In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jer. 33:15)
As a result. Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety, a shorthand description of shalom (v. 16). The covenant with David will be irrevocable (vs. 19-26). Compare 31:35-37.
Isaiah 35 is a notable vision of the return of Israel to Zion. The desert shall rejoice and blossom (vs. 1-2). It shall be abundantly watered (vs. 6-7). Across it shall be a highway for the returning exiles (vs. 8-10). Wild beasts will not harm them (v. 9). The weak, feeble, and fearful will be strengthened and reassured (vs. 3-4). The deaf, blind, lame, and speechless shall be healed (vs. 5-6). There will be singing, joy, and gladness (v. 10).
Isaiah 40-55 is punctuated by visions of the return. God’s warfare against his people is ended and a highway is being prepared across the desert (40:1-5; 49:11). Like a shepherd, God is leading his flock back to Zion (40:9-11; 49:9-10). God will assuage the thirst of the poor and needy travelers by providing abundant water in the wilderness (41:17-20; 43:19-20; 44:3; 49:10). God will make a way through the sea, as at the time of the exodus (43:2, 16-17). God will make a way even through fire (43:2). God will send to Babylon and break down all the bars (43:14; 52:11-12). Yahweh’s sons and daughters will be gathered from east and west and north and south, from the end of the earth (435-7, 49 12). The return is an occasion for joy and singing (52:8-9. 55:12) The return is shalom (52:7; 55:12).
Ezekiel likewise has visions of the return and of a life of peace when Israel is resettled in the land. The Lord God will be their shepherd, bringing the lost and scattered flock of Judah back to its own land, feeding them, healing them, giving them rest, establishing justice (Ezek. 34:11-16).
In a slightly different vein, a king of David’s line will be their shepherd and Yahweh will be their God. Yahweh will make with them a covenant of shalom, which will include the banishment of wild animals, abundant showers, splendid vegetation. They will live in safety and none shall make them afraid (Ezek. 34:23-31).
More than any other prophet, Ezekiel stresses the inward renewal that is part of shalom.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25-27)
Liberation, return, safety, healing, cleansing, new hearts, justice, freedom from hunger, freedom from depredations by wild animals, rule by David -- the whole picture of shalom is here. The vision comes again and again in Ezek. 36:8-12,33-38; 37:24-28; 39:25-29.
Where did the prophets get the materials for their dreams of a future return? From the past action of God, from the exodus. Ezekiel 20:33-44 uses exodus rhetoric: a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (vs. 33-34). It speaks of face-to-face judgment in the wilderness (vs. 35-36); of the bond of the covenant (v.37); of rebels who will not be permitted to enter the land (v. 38). There are echoes of the golden calf (v. 39) and the great offering for the tabernacle (v. 40). Isaiah 35 and 40-55 are filled with such memories as water in the wilderness (35:6; 41:17-18; 43:19-20; 48:21; 49:10; 55:1) and passing through the Red Sea (43:2, 16-17; 44:17; 50:2; 51:10).
The return was obviously a disappointment. The soaring dreams of the exiles were not realized. Rebuilding the temple was difficult, and when it was finally accomplished, it hardly resembled the former glory. The hopes that Zerubbabel would be the promised righteous ruler of the line of David came to naught. In a struggle for power in the tiny restoration community, the Zadokite priests came out on top and disenfranchised the disciples of the great prophet who wrote Isaiah 40-55.11 Histoiy held no hope for the disenfranchised. They were in an apocalyptic situation. Yet they continued to envision an intervention by God which would bring shalom.
One of the most notable visions of shalom is the vision of the new Jerusalem in Isaiah 65:17-25. The poetry is so beautiful that I quote it at length:
For I am about to create new heavens
There are several interesting developments here. The picture of agricultural plenty in blessed fields, with which we have become familiar, gives way to a focus on the city.12 The city is the new Jerusalem, the center of new heavens and a new earth. Infant mortality is zero. Longevity is the rule. It is a very stable city; people do not lose their property. The ideal which the Torah sought to protect is a reality. God is never distant, always available. The vision ends with peace among the animals, quoting Isaiah 11.13
Zechariah 8, stemming also from the distress of Jerusalem in postexilic times, is a series of promises of peace. We cite the most notable one, where the city is again the focus:
Thus says the LORD: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts shall be called the holy mountain. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. (Zech. 8:3-5)
Zechariah 9 is a poetic oracle of judgment on the enemies of postexilic Jerusalem and of Judah’s rescue from them by the monergistic action of Yahweh. It takes the form of a Divine Warrior Hymn (note the language of vs. 13-14),14 but it is interrupted by this vision of peace:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Whatever its origin, this insertion into Zechariab 9 is an extraordinary vision of peace. The ancient hope that a king would arise as the manager and guarantor of peace is revived, but this king differs from the king in Isaiah 9, 11, 32, or 33; in Micah 5 or Jeremiah 30 or Ezekiel 34 or 37. The name of David, so frequently mentioned in the earlier visions, is not mentioned in connection with this king. In the earlier visions, though the king is just and rules by Torah, he maintains peace by the exercise of royal power. This king is humble and lowly, and it is through that humility and lowliness that he is triumphant and victorious. The extent of his dominion exceeds that of Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 4:24). but he does not have Solomon s horses and chariots. He has intentionally disarmed.
A Promise of Universal Peace
The foregoing is enough to demonstrate that the familiar swords into plowshares vision is not the only vision of peace in the Hebrew scriptures. Nevertheless, it has a unique place. The visions we have cited mainly promise peace to Israel. There is a hint in Zechariah 9 that the peace may be shared with other nations, but the swords into plowshares vision is clearly a vision of worldwide peace, of the abolition of war.
This vision is found in both Isa. 2:2-4 and Micah 4:1-A. These two prophets were roughly contemporaries. We shall probably never know whether one copied the other, or whether both copied a vision older than either, or whether a later hand inserted a later vision in both. We shall cite the version of Micah, which has a final verse that is lacking in Isaiah:
In days to come
In this passage, actions of Yahweh and actions of the world’s peoples alternate. The first action of Yahweh is the exaltation of the Temple Mount. Physically speaking, Mount Zion is far from the highest mountain in the world. This may be a trace of apocalyptic, or it may simply be a prophetic figure for the exaltation of Zion in spiritual importance.
Now the peoples and nations of the world act. They come streaming to Zion, not bringing tribute or bringing back captives, as in so many prophetic oracles, but seeking instruction. Torah, from Yahweh, the God of Jacob.
Yahweh’s second action is to judge and arbitrate between the nations. This does not seem to be "the final judgment," but a settling of the conflicting interests and disputes that lead to war. On the basis of Torah, these can be resolved.
The peoples and nations act again. The weapons of war are converted into the instruments of peace. The practice of war is abolished and the study of war comes to an end. Is war an ineradicable part of human nature, as some recent anthropologists maintain? Or is it a learned activity, as our passage suggests? Do we "have to be taught to hate"? And can war be unlearned?
The resultant picture is breathtaking. Not in Israel alone, but in all nations, the shalom envisioned in the Torah becomes a reality. People sit under their own vines and fig trees.16 No one loses land or houses or crops by the military invasion of enemy nations, or by the draft and taxation demanded by their own nation for its military defense. Every family possesses a stake in the commonwealth and access to the means of production. The familiar agricultural description of shalom makes this vision earthy, material, far removed from "pie in the sky by and by." And the terrible fear, dread, and insecurity in which so many of earth’s people live and die, is gone. "No one shall make them afraid."
Is this promise of universal peace a deliberate refutation of Joel’s call to universal war, "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears" (Joel 3:10)? Or was Joel intentionally refuting this as an unrealistic dream? We have no way of knowing, but we could not find a better illustration of the ambiguity that marks the Hebrew Bible. Not only in its litanies of worship, not only in its understanding of the nature and character of God, but in its vision of the future, the Old Testament is ambiguous. Its pages, over which Jesus pored as a boy, drip with the blood of battle, but also with the sweet wine of peace.
1. This is a fundamental point in Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope (New York: Harper & Row. 1975). See pp. 42-43,95-106, 124-133.
2. Biblical scholars date this sermon as early as the reign of Hezekiah or as late as the time of Ezekiel.
3. Deuteronomy, of course, is dated during the reign of Josiah, but there is evidence that a litany of blessings and curses was a part of Israel’s liturgy before the monarchy. See Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8:30-35.
4. See Rosemary Radford Ruether’s incisive essay "The Biblical Vision of the Ecological Crisis" in Teaching and Preaching Stewardship, ed. Norden C. Murphy (New York: Commission on Stewardship of the National Council of Churches, 1985), pp. 202-209.
5. Compare Donald E. Gowan, Eschatology in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), pp. 32-37.
6. For the strange hold of David on the imagination of Israel, see Walter Brueggemann, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).
7. Von Bad interprets this line to signify a rejection of the current line of David, a call to start over with another royal line. See his Old Testament Theology, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row. 1965), pp. 169-175.
8. Some critics attribute Isaiah 32:1-8 to the writers of wisdom literature and see 33:17-22 as postexilic, as late as the time of the Maccabees. I see nothing that prohibits locating these passages in the time of Isaiah, when Israel was on its land.
9. Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2, pp. 169-175, sees the Micah prophecy as a strong counterstatement to the royal psalms.
10. Compare Gowan, Eschatology in the Old Testament. pp. 24-27.
11. I follow here the reconstruction of Paul D. Hanson in The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).
12. Isaiah 4:2-6, which may also belong to the postexilic community in Jerusalem, makes a similar move from field to city. See also Isaiah 33:17-24; Ezekiel 48:35.
13. The one new note is the serpent, eating dust. It could be part of the peaceful picture: the serpent no longer bites other animals. As NRSV translates it, it seems an interruption in the peaceful picture, a gibe aimed at enemies for whom the serpent is an apt symbol. Paul Hanson, in his reconstruction of the struggle in the restoration community in Jerusalem between the dominant Zadokite priests and the followers of Second Isaiah, who were the authors of Isaiah 56-66, calls attention to the remarkable series of contrasts in Isaiah 65:13-15. "My servants" are the oppressed prophetic party and "you" are the Zadokite priests. It is my surmise that the serpent in v. 25 of the same chapter is another reference to the Zadokite priests, who will not share the idyllic peace of the new heavens, the new earth, the new Jerusalem.
14. Hanson in The Dawn of Apocalyptic, pp. 299-316, finds Zechariah 9 comparable to Exodus 15 and Judges 5, to many of the royal psalms, and to similar hymns in Second Isaiah.
15. Hanson, ibid., does not regard Zechariah 9:9-10 as an interruption, but makes nothing of the king’s humility, nor of his disarming, not of enemies, but of his own people -- of Judah and Ephraim, who in v. 13 are the two instruments of war in the Divine Warrior’s hands. I cannot see vs. 9-10 as in any way applicable to the Divine Warrior of the rest of the poem.
16. In 1 Kings 4:20-28 there is an exuberant description of peace in the time of Solomon. There was "peace on all sides," and "Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees." Walter Brueggemann makes the adventurous proposal that this is a piece of irony on the part of the historian. Actually, Solomon’s military bureaucracy did not fulfill the dream of all sitting under their own vines and under their own fig trees (Micah 4:4). It was rather a nightmare in which the peasantry were drafted away from vines and fig trees into the army or taxed out of the possession of their small farms in order to support the Solomonic magnificence. See his article "Vine and Fig Tree: A Case Study in Imagination and Criticism," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43(1981): 188-204.