Old Testament Foundations for Peacemaking in the Nuclear Era

by Bruce C. Birch

Dr. Birch is professor of Old Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 4, 1985, pp. 1115-1119. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


For theological resources regarding nuclear disaster we must turn to the prophets of exile, Ezekial and Deutero-Isaiah, reaffirming with them God’s creation and redemption as universal in scope, and thus repudiating nationalism. Instead, servanthood is an especially hopeful path to shalom.

The Old Testament caricature undoubtedly results from the lack of a critical and nuanced understanding of the scriptural witness. If our concern is peacemaking -- particularly the special urgency given that task by the nuclear threat -- then we shall have to come to grips with those portions of the biblical witness in which the community of faith has been forced to deal with the violence and pain of conflict between peoples. In the Old Testament we can learn much about God’s grace in the midst of wars and rumors of wars, but, equally important, we can also be confronted by the nature of our own human sinfulness and the limits of trust in human power for our security.

Many discussions of the Old Testament foundations for peacemaking have narrowed too quickly to the accounts of Israel’s wars, without attention to the wider context of the Old Testament understanding of the world, and people’s relationship to God in the world. It is the Hebrew concept of shalom that will aid us most in identifying this wider context.

"Shalom" is, of course, the Hebrew word most often translated as peace. Its basic meaning is wholeness -- a state of harmony among God, humanity and all of creation.

A full understanding of shalom begins with creation. Shalom is God’s intention for creation from the beginning. All elements of creation are interrelated. Each element participates in the whole of creation, and if any element is denied wholeness and well-being (shalom), all are thereby diminished. This relational character of creation is rooted in all creatures’ common origin in a God who not only created all that is but who continues to be active in the world, seeking our shalom.

Several aspects of the shalom of creation are particularly important for the issues involved in nuclear-age peacemaking.

1. The Hebrews, along with most of their contemporaries, saw the world as constantly poised between the possibilities of order and chaos. The point of Israel’s creation understanding was not that God had brought something out of nothing, but that in the face of chaos, with its power to destroy and render meaningless, God the Creator had brought order. The character of that order was the harmony and wholeness of shalom. God has brought chaos under control, and in so doing has given us the gift of whole life.

Any biblically based seeking after peace must begin with the notion that peace, understood as shalom, is far broader than the absence of war. Biblical scholar Paul Hanson writes, "Perhaps the best way to begin to understand shalom is to recognize that it describes the realm where chaos is not allowed to enter, and where life can be fostered free from the fear of all which diminishes and destroys" ("War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible," Interpretation, vol. 38 [1984], p. 347). Since all that would bring order out of chaos originates in God’s creation, peace as shalom can never be regarded as solely a human product.

2. In the Old Testament the opposite of shalom is not war but chaos. Thus, concern for peace must place our opposition to war alongside an equal concern for every enemy of well-being and wholeness: injustice, oppression, exploitation, disease, famine. But within this broad concern for the things that bring chaos and destroy shalom, war certainly has a special place. War is that form of chaos which results from the violent attack of one group of people on another.

Although the Old Testament arose in a violent world and knew of many wars in its own history, it is not incidental that it begins with Genesis 1 - 11. In those early chapters of Genesis it is clear that although plants and animals are created in great variety, we are to regard humanity as a unity. All are created in the image of God and bear witness in the world to God’s creative sovereignty. The divisions of humanity and the hostile actions that witness those divisions are clearly understood to be the result of sinful and self-centered choices antagonistic to the shalom of God’s creation.

These divisions grow greater and greater through the stories of Cain and Abel, Lamech, the Flood, the Table of Nations and the Tower of Babel until, with the calling of Abraham, the story begins to tell us of God’s intervention of grace. If we take this prologue to the whole Old Testament seriously, then we must understand with the Hebrew writers that all war is sinful, since it necessarily witnesses to and gives violent expression to humanity’s division.

In such a world of sinful, broken unity, any participation in war is a compromise of what God intended and risks serving chaos rather than shalom. But since God involved the divine self in that broken world, our most faithful response is to seek to discern that divine involvement and to pattern our participation in the world after its witness of grace to us.

If war in general is to be seen as sinful because it risks the triumph of chaos over shalom, then nuclear war must be the ultimate sin -- representing the absolute triumph of chaos and the end of all possibility for wholeness and well-being. Nuclear war’s total devastation could have no biblical justification consistent with the command to seek shalom. To trust our security to the threat of nuclear war is to base our ultimate hope on chaos as a greater power than God’s created possibility of shalom.

3. Recent studies have stressed that shalom was seen by ancient Israel not as a far-off ideal but as the natural human state. Humanity was essentially peaceable. As W. Sibley Towner of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia has stated, "Far from being an extraordinary ideal, shalom is the norm which is to be contrasted to the extraordinary out-of-orderness of warfare, disease, and the like" ("Tribulations and Peace: The Fate of Shalom in Jewish Apocalyptic," Horizons in Biblical Theology, vol. 6 [1984]. p. 18). Peace comes naturally to human beings unless we are divided or corrupted by injustice and exploitation -- which in our history have often erupted into the violence of war. As biblical people we are to work out of the assumptions of peace as the basis for trust, not out of the assumptions of war as the foundation for never-ending mistrust.

Israel’s call to be a covenant community is the call to be a community possessed of an alternative consciousness and pattern of life in the world. Shalom is the word used in covenantal contexts to describe the goal of Israel’s mission as God’s people. Shalom is what results when God’s justice, compassion and righteousness, seen clearly in God’s deliverance of Israel from the Egyptian oppressor, is echoed by Israel’s justice, compassion and righteousness lived out as its vocation in the world. The prophets Deutero-Isaiah and Ezekiel actually term this relationship with Yahweh a "covenant of peace" (Isa. 54:10; Ezek. 37:26). In effect, the vocation of faithful community is as witness to the possibilities of shalom in the world and to the source of such shalom possibilities in God.

The character of the faithful community and of its life in the world is determined by its experience of and response to God’s character. Israel’s covenant God is characterized by freedom, vulnerability and fidelity.

The fortunes of Yahweh, unlike those of the gods of other ancient Near Eastern religions, do not rise and fall with the fortunes of kings. This God is properly understood as not tied to the fate of any nation or group -- precisely because this God is both Creator of all things and sovereign over all history. This God is free to manifest divine power where the world sees only powerlessness -- as with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. It is from divine freedom that the gifts of grace come, not from claims of obligation or ownership laid on God. Even to those who have known God’s grace, God warns, "I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful" (Exod. 33:19; cf. also Amos 9:7), and even perfect righteousness creates no special obligation on God’s part (cf. Job). Such a God may appear as grace active in the most surprising places, and is in no way limited to institutionally approved, socially acceptable or religiously orthodox manifestations (cf. Deutero-Isaiah’s understanding of Cyrus as God’s messiah [45:1] -- and, of course, Jesus himself).

God is not only free from but free for, choosing freely to become vulnerable to the world’s pain and suffering. God says to Moses. "I know [experience] their suffering" (Exod. 3:7). Thus, the God of covenant is especially present in the midst of human need and especially caring of the poor, the oppressed and the hurting. The quality of God frequently used to describe this divinely chosen vulnerability is compassion (rehem), a word derived from the Hebrew word for womb or uterus. God’s compassion is a metaphor of the womb, expressive of the tender oneness yet separateness shared between a mother and the child she is carrying.

God’s fidelity is expressed in a refrain from Psalm 136, "For God’s steadfast love endures forever." God’s commitment is to the covenant of shalom without reservation or limits. Steadfast love (hesed) is made present in the world by justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsadeqah), exercised in their full integrity without compromise, with no loyalty to any authority save the vocation of bringing shalom into a broken world.

Israel, the community of covenant faith, is explicitly called by God to reflect these same qualities in its life. It is to be "in the world but not of the world," free from all claims to ultimate loyalty except the vocation of witness to God’s shalom. It is not a freedom to manifest an aloof disregard for the world; it is a freedom to enable a constant and consistent predisposition on the part of the faithful for identifying with the world’s need -- special care for the victims of injustice, oppression, poverty, war, hunger, disease and loss. Faithfulness in this task of being vulnerable to the world’s suffering comes from the pursuit of justice and righteousness by the community in its own life, in its treatment of the stranger and the sojourner and in its relationship to the nations.

Central to Israel’s story is the witness to God’s defeat of Pharaoh and the Egyptians in order to bring about the liberation of the Hebrew slaves. In the Exodus tradition it becomes clear that God’s presence in history entails an implacable opposition to oppression and injustice -- forces that work toward chaos and against God’s shalom. Such evil brings suffering on the powerless, and God’s judgment is committed to vanquishing that evil. Thus, against such forces of chaos "Yahweh is a man of war" (Exod. 15:3). Israel, however, must recognize that although such judgment is within God’s power, it is not appropriate to Israel’s own human power. In the face of Pharoah’s armies Israel is told, "The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still" (Exod. 14:14).

In Israel’s earliest traditions Yahweh is frequently portrayed as a warrior -- an image that has been deeply troubling to many thoughtful Christians opposed to war. But it is possible that we have not fully understood the meaning of this God imagery. Interestingly, two pacifist biblical scholars, Millard C. Lind (Mennonite) and Vernard Eller (Church of the Brethren), have argued independently -- Lind in Yahweh Is a Warrior (Herald, 1980) and Eller in War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation (Herald, 1981) -- that Israel’s eventual entanglement in war and war’s devastation resulted from failure to trust enough in this early tradition of Yahweh as warrior. In a world where other nations constructed the machinery of war in an attempt to achieve their own security, it was Israel’s trust in Yahweh as warrior that freed the community of faith from taking part in arms races and saber-rattling.

All of Israel’s earliest traditions point to a concern to de-emphasize human participation in war. God as warrior could be trusted to oppose those forces that destroy shalom and bring chaos, but human warriors could not. Hence, early Israel had no professional military and no standing army. When war’s violence was forced upon Israel, war became a sacral, not a sacred, matter -- meaning that the decisive power and guidance was seen as divine. Even in defensive emergencies the Hebrew people were assiduously to seek God’s guidance as the key rather than to rely on human power and agency as central. This stance sometimes led to strategies deemed unrealistic, even foolish, by the ancient world’s power standards (e.g., Gideon’s lamps and horns).

In one of the most misunderstood verses in the Bible, Yahweh declares, "Vengeance is mine" (Deut. 32:35). This verse is not a witness to a divinity bent on doing violence. Rather, addressed to the people of God, it means that vengeance is not to be theirs. As for God, while it is certain that God’s judgment will be felt by evil in the world, this same God declared in the establishment of covenant, "I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (Exod. 33:19), and promised through Abraham a blessing to "all the families of the earth" (Gen. 12:3). Vengeance in human hands issues only in violence, but, left to God, it judges evil and chaotic forces so that shalom may be restored to all.

Complex historical and literary issues are involved here, but a consensus exists for viewing the genocidal violence recounted in many of the stories in Joshua and Judges as the product of a royal period in which kings were attempting to justify their own nationalistic ideologies by appeal to divine favor. The prophets, who served as spokesmen for normative covenant faith in this period, had only contempt for such notions of God and God’s people.

In fact, the ominous turning point in the story of Israel’s experience with war came when its elders asked the prophet Samuel to provide a king like that of other nations. "Give us a king to govern us . . that we might be like all the nations and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight all our battles" (I Sam. 8:6, 20). What followed in the history of royally ruled Israel might be said to be the secularization of war. Standing armies and professional militia were established. Kings built fortresses and chariot forces. The machinery of war was constructed in the name of state security, but before long the armies were being used to expand the frontiers and to enforce national policy on weaker neighbors.

Ironically, most Christians feel more comfortable with this secularized concept of war. The move away from reliance on Yahweh as warrior toward state military institutions is often seen today as a step toward more civilized behavior, but in the biblical view it was clearly a move toward chaos and away from shalom.

The dismal record of Israel’s kings and the violent role that war played in their nationalistic ideologies can only briefly be suggested here. The covenant model of community was replaced by a royal model based on oppressive power in support of an economics of privilege. War became an instrument of state policy designed to quell dissent on the part of the oppressed, to expand territory imperialistically, or to maintain sources of privileged wealth. Even by the account of Israel’s own historians, only three kings in Israel or Judah measured up to covenantal standards. Most tellingly, the radically free God of covenant, the divine warrior who opposes chaotic evil wherever it appears, was replaced by a domesticated god who was little more than a nationalistic yes-man. It is small wonder that the prophets who preserved the traditions of a covenant God felt compelled to announce that the chaotic evil and violence which Yahweh opposes in the world were now to be found in Israel itself.

In their indictment of war as waged in the time of the monarchy, the prophets charged that Israel had abandoned trust in Yahweh for the sake of trust in its own powers, and had abandoned Yahweh’s goal of shalom for all in favor of the pursuit of prosperity and power for a few. Such misplaced trust and lost vocation were, in the prophets’ view, no security at all. Under the kings, Israel, in the belief that it could create its own security, was in reality flirting with chaos. War to secure power and territory risked war as the instrument of Israel’s own destruction. "You have plowed iniquity, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your chariots and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people. . ." (Hos. 10:13-14). "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord" (Isa. 31:1).

Such an assessment of the prophets may at first glance seem idealistic, but actually it is exceedingly realistic in the nuclear age. Reliance on nuclear armaments without reliance on the vision of shalom and the One who gives it is to accept an apparent immediate security while bringing ultimate chaos closer to hand. Israel ultimately brought chaos upon itself in the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem and in the Babylonian exile. In the nuclear age a repeat of that mistake may mean the end of all human life on the planet.

To use a nonbiblical image from a well-known children’s story, exile times may be those in which we learn that the emperor has no clothes. In the story the people participate in the illusion, fearful of losing the security represented by belief in the rulers’ wisdom. They, however, risked only embarrassment; in a time of potential exile in a nuclear age, we risk far more. It seems increasingly evident that the security promised by nuclear deterrence is illusory. Someone has to be willing to declare that the emperor has no clothes and to act in light of that fact before the illusion collapses in a nuclear conflagration. To warn of exile, to judge human illusions, and to call for hopeful return to trust in God’s shalom was the prophetic task in the Old Testament.

In the midst of exile dangers, we must, as the church, live in the hope that a way out of the nuclear stalemate is possible. For resources we would turn to the great prophets of the exile, Ezekial and Deutero-Isaiah. They reaffirm God’s creation and redemption as universal in scope. They repudiate nationalism and see God working on the broadest scale in human history. Deutero-Isaiah, in particular, holds up servanthood as an especially hopeful path to shalom.

It is also from the prophets that we receive the great gift of the visionary images of shalom toward which God is moving us: swords into plowshares, peaceable kingdoms, joy and peace such that the trees clap their hands, new covenants written on the heart. For those who trust in the "chariots" of our time, such visions constitute idealistic romanticism. But as expressions of the shalom for which we were created and to which we are to witness, these visions are what people of faith live out even when the world refuses such visions.

We live in a nuclear age. Some of us prefer not to face this reality. We want to "carry big sticks," fight and win righteous wars, or return to an earlier age of heroes (Rambo style?). But in our world the sticks we brandish are nuclear, and the wars fought with them can have no winners. Jeremiah had a word for us. He advised the exiles in Babylon to "seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where you are, for in its welfare [shalom] you will find your welfare [shalom]" (Jer. 29:7). We cannot act in our world out of wishful nostalgia for a world we would like to have. We must seek the shalom of the nuclear world we do have.