Chapter 3: Israel: Warlike People

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War
by Albert C. Winn

Chapter 3: Israel: Warlike People

Prepare war,

stir up the warriors.

Let all the soldiers draw near,

let them come up.

Beat your plowshares into swords,

and your pruning hooks into spears;

let the weakling say, "I am a warrior.

(Joel 3:9-10)

They shall beat their swords into


and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against


neither shall they learn war any


(Micah 4.3)


The Hebrew Bible, on which Jesus was nurtured, is full of wars; the blood of battle oozes from its pages. And the people of Israel celebrated war with their finest literary efforts, glorying in victory, lamenting in defeat. We need to start with an honest appraisal of these two facts.

Wars, Wars, and More Wars

The annals of almost all peoples are records of wars. It is only in recent years that historians have begun to write social and economic histories; before that histories were primarily records of defeats and victories in battle. God’s chosen people were no exception. The annals of ancient Israel are studded with accounts of war after war after war.

A Setting for Constant Warfare

How odd of God to choose Palestine as the place where the name and habitation of Yahweh were to be put? All we know of geopolitics would predict that Palestine would be a center of constant warfare. It occupies the narrowest part of the Fertile Crescent, a narrow land bridge with the Great Sea to the west and the desert to the east. Across that bridge marched the armies of successive powers of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley to confront the power of the Nile Valley, and the power of the Nile Valley to confront the powers of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Later it was Persia and Macedonia and Rome. It is a focus of conflict at the present day.

Only rarely have the peoples that occupy the land bridge been united. Most of the time they have been at war among themselves. The litany of their ancient names rings in the minds of Sunday school children and all who have studied or read the Bible: Moab and Ammon and Edom and Amalek and the Philistines and the Arameans or Syrians. They were easy pawns in the hands of the great powers who knew how to set them against each other, how to divide and conquer. But often their wars were not externally fomented. They knew how to do it all by themselves. This, too, is true at the present day.

The people of God were part of the picture, warring with neighboring tribes and kingdoms, even as doom peered over the horizon from E~pt or Assyria; also warring among themselves in tribal rivalries and in the north-south division of Israel and Judah.

A Survey of Israel’s Wars

It may be worth our time to make quick survey of the principal wars in which Israel was involved. To mention every skirmish or palace coup would stretch the account beyond all reasonable bounds.

In the Pentateuch

Israel’s national history began in a warlike event. The Hebrew slaves, fleeing Egypt, were pursued by Pharaoh’s army. They were delivered when the army was drowned in the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15).

En route to Sinai, they were attacked by Amalek and fought in self-defense (Ex. 17:8-16).

In an attempt to take Canaan from the south, in disobedience to Moses, they were defeated by the Amalekites and the Canaanites (Numbers 14).

As they prepared to enter Canaan, they moved up the east bank of Jordan and seized the territories of Sihon, king of the Amorites (Num. 21:21-31; Deut. 2:26-37), and Og, king of Bashan (Num. 21:33-35; Deut. 3:1-7). In the same campaign, Numbers mentions wars with the king of Arad (Num. 21:1-3) and the five kings of Midian (31:1-12).

In Joshua

The book of Joshua records the "conquest of Canaan" through a series of wars, often bloody and genocidal. First there was a strike through the center at Jericho and Ai (Joshua 6-8). Next a confederation of kings in the southern half of Canaan was defeated (ch. 10). Then a similar confederation in the north was defeated (ch. 11). Joshua 12 lists thirty-one kings defeated by Joshua.1

In Judges

The period of the Judges was a period of intermittent warfare. The book of Judges pictures a time when Israel was a loose confederation of tribes, scattered about in Canaan, oppressed by the Canaanite city-states and by other tribal groups who swept in from the desert or from the seacoast. Israel had no standing army, but from time to time there was a rallying of tribes (not often all of them) under a charismatic leader (a "judge") to throw off the oppressor’s yoke. In this pattern there were wars with Aram Naharaim (Judg. 3:7-11), Moab (vs. 12-30), Hazor (a Canaanite city) (chs. 4; 5), Midian (6:1-7:21), Ammon (10:6-11:33), and the Philistines (3:31; chs. 13-16). Not all the wars recorded were wars of liberation or defense. In addition to the aggressive warfare of the (partial) conquest (1:1-26), there was the attack by the tribe of Dan on the unsuspecting city of Laish (ch. 18). There was also fratricidal warfare among the tribes: Abimelech against Shechem and Thebez (ch. 9); Gilead against Ephraim (ch. 12); the other tribes against Benjamin (chs. 19-21).

The Era of Samuel

The era of Samuel, the last of the judges, was marked by periodic warfare with the Philistines. Israel was disastrously defeated and the ark of the covenant was captured (1 Samuel 4). Later, the tables were turned as a repentant Israel. aided by the Lord’s thunder, drove the Philistines out of Israelite territory (ch. 7).

The Philistine pressure eventually led Israel to make a major change in its military policy: they demanded a king. Kings in the ancient Near East were first and foremost military leaders. "We are determined to have a king over us," they said. "so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles" (1 Sam. 8:19-20). It seems clear that two very different accounts of the inauguration of the kingdom are intertwined in 1 Samuel. However they may be unraveled, the fact remains that there was indeed a transition from the tribal league with its occasional rallies of Israelite peasantry to fight for their freedom to a monarchy with a standing army, career military commanders, up-to-date armaments, the capacity to take and hold new territory.

The Era of Saul

Saul, the first king, started out like a judge. He rallied the peasantry in charismatic fashion to go to the rescue of Jabesh-gilead against Nahash, king of the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11). After the victory, however, some who had rallied were not sent home; they were retained as a standing army (13:2). This army continued to be augmented from time to time by the traditional rally of the peasantry (14:20-23). Saul, we are told, led Israel in wars against Moab. the Ammonites, Edom, Zobah, the Philistines, and the Amalekites (14:47-48). The struggle with the Philistines was continuous. It was the setting for the familiar story of David and Goliath (ch. 17). In the end. Saul died in battle against the Philistines (ch. 31).

The Era of David and Solomon

David was Israel’s most successful warrior. He was credited with many victories in Saul’s ongoing struggle with the Philistines (1 Sam. 18:12-16, 27, SO). Eventually Saul’s jealousy forced him to lead the life of an outlaw, with his own private army (22:2). He even deserted to the Philistines to save his skin. When the Philistines launched the attack in which Saul died, David was at war with the Amalekites, to avenge their sack of Ziklag, the city which the Philistines had given him, and to rescue his wives and others who had been taken captive (chs. 29-30).

David became king only after long warfare between Judab, which supported him, and the northern tribes, which supported the house of Saul (2 Samuel 2-4). With his private army he took Jerusalem and made it his capital (5:6-10). Once established as king, he was able to augment his private army with thousands of Israelite soldiers, under the command of seasoned and able generals. During his reign he decisively defeated the Philistines (5:17-25; 8:1) and the Arameans (8:5-6; 10:6-19), putting garrisons among them and exacting tribute. He defeated the neighboring tribes: Edom (8:12), Moab (v. 2), the Ammonites (10:1-14; 11:1; 12:26-31), and Amalek (8:12).

David’s wars were not all wars of conquest. There was the sad civil war in which his own son Absalom usurped the throne and was finally defeated and killed (2 Sam. 13-18); and yet another civil war when Sheba the son of Bichri rebelled and divided the kingdom, the northern tribes against Judah, once again (ch. 20).

There is no record of war during the reign of Solomon, but Solomon completed "the conquest of Canaan" by enslaving the descendants of the Canaanites (1 Kings 9:20). He modernized the army with great numbers of horses and chariots (vs. 19,22).

The Era of the Divided Kingdom

After Solomon’s death, the kingdom divided again, north and south, with Solomon’s son Rehoboam king over Judah in the south and Jeroboam, an official of Solomon’s bureaucracy who had rebelled and fled to Egypt, as king over Israel in the north. Rehoboam prepared for a major war to try to reclaim the north, but was dissuaded by the prophet Shemaiah (1 Kings 12:21-24). Nevertheless there were continual border battles between the two kingdoms in Rehoboam’s time (14:30) and in the reign of his son Abijam (15:6) and his grandson Asa. Asa established a dangerous precedent by calling on the Arameans to help him against the king of Israel (vs. 16-21). In Israel there was bloody coup after bloody coup. During this period of simmering civil war there were outside wars as well. Judah suffered the first incursion of a major power when Shishak, king of Egypt, invaded and exacted tribute (14:25-26). Israel renewed the wars with the Philistines (16:15-16).

The Arameans (Syrians) now emerged as a great threat, and Ahab. king of Israel, fought many battles against them (1 Kings 20:1-30). After a period of truce. Ahab persuaded Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, to join forces with him to retake Ramoth-gilead from the Arameans. In the ensuing battle, Ahab was killed (22:1-4, 29-37). War with Aram continued intermittently through the reigns of many Israelite kings (2 Kings 6-7; 8:28; 10:32-33; 12:17-18; 13:3. 22-25). There is also the record of a campaign against Moab. undertaken jointly by Israel, Judah, and Edom (3:4-27). Also an unsuccessful campaign against Edom was undertaken by Joram, king of Israel (8:20-24), and a successful one by Amaziah of Judah (14:7).

The Aramean threat had ended the strife between Israel and Judah, but it was renewed by Amaziah of Judah, who was defeated by Jehoash of Israel (2 Kings 14:8-14).

Jeroboam II, son of Jehoash of Israel, was a mighty warrior. He recaptured for Israel all its lost territory and ended the Aramean threat for the time being by capturing Damascus (2 Kings 14:25, 28).

The Assyrian Campaigns

After another series of palace coups, Menahem came to the throne in Israel. He launched a raid on Tiphsah (2 Kings 15:16). During his reign. Assyria, the great power in the Tigris Valley, invaded Israel and was bought off by heavy tribute (vs. 19-20). Two kings later, in the reign of Pekah, the Assyrians were back and carried many people captive (v. 29). Pekah formed an anti-Assyrian alliance with Aram and besieged Judah to compel Ahaz of Judah to join. The response of Ahaz was to call for Assyrian help. The Assyrians promptly came and destroyed Aram (15:37; 16:5-9; cf. Isaiah 7). The end of the Northern Kingdom came rapidly. Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea. The Assyrians came again and made Hoshea a vassal. Hoshea sought help from Egypt. The Assyrians came again and after a three-year siege took Samaria, the Israelite capital, and carried the people away (2 Kings 17).

Judah, under its king Hezekiah, remained alone, exposed to the Assyrian threat. He undertook war against the Philistines (2 Kings 18:8). but he was soon under attack by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, who captured all his fortified cities, exacted tribute, and threatened to sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple (ch. 18). Encouraged by Isaiah the prophet, Hezekiah laid the situation before the LORD in prayer. Disaster (possibly a plague) befell the Assyrian army and Sennacherib withdrew (ch 19; cf. Isaiah 37).2

The record in 2 Kings is silent concerning wars under Manasseh and Arnon, who seem to have paid tribute to Assyria. The next king, Josiah, the great reformer, attacked Pharaoh Neco of Egypt as the Egyptian army was on its way to a decisive battle on the Euphrates.3 Josiah was killed and brought back dead to Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:29-30).

The Babylonian Campaigns

Babylon was now the power in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and the kings of Judah soon became Babylonian vassals. We read of raids on Judah by bands of Chaldeans, Arameans, Moabites, and Ammonites (2 Kings 24:2). The Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem when tribute was not paid, taking the young king Jehoiachin, the city’s treasures, and the cream of the population away to Babylon (vs. 10-17). The last king, Zedekiah, again rebelled; another siege followed; and Jerusalem was taken and leveled, the temple destroyed, the walls broken down (2 Kings 25:1-12; cf. Jeremiah 52).

This list could be expanded by adding wars mentioned in Chronicles and others alluded to by the prophets. Of course we could go into the wars of the Maccabees and others in the intertestamental period. But enough is enough. It is evident from this long and tedious record that warfare was a way of life for the ancient people of God. There seem to have been no conscientious objectors among them. The fighting of some wars and the failure to fight others may have been questioned as instances of disobedience to God, but the institution of warfare as such was not questioned.4

War was brutal and cruel in the ancient Near East. The record states without compunction that Israel engaged in the mutilation of prisoners (Judg. 1:6-7); the execution of prisoners (1 Sam. 15:32-S3); the mutilation of dead bodies (2 Sam. 4:12); the ripping up of pregnant women (2 Kings 15:16); the slaughter of all males in a country (I Kings 11:15-16). There was no attempt to protect civilian population: Israel engaged in the ban, or herein, in which every inhabitant of a conquered city was killed: men, women, the old, little children (Josh. 8:25-26; 1 Sam. 15:3). We would call it genocide.

Truly the blood of battle oozes from the pages of the Old Testament.

The War Poetry of Israel

The people of God not only engaged in war after war after war, they celebrated those wars in song. A major portion of Israel’s literary output is war poetry. In volume and in literary quality, the Old Testament is one of the world’s great collections of the poetry of war.

Ancient Poems

The oldest poems of the Hebrew people are war poems. The Song of Deborah is a prime example. Its literary excellence can easily be appreciated by comparing the poetry of Judges 5 with the prose account of Judges 4.

Later poems, like David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:19-27), have been greatly admired.

The Prophets

War poetry reached its zenith in the prophets. It is in the poetry of the prophets that we catch the sights, sounds, smells of battle itself. Almost every prophetic book contains poetic descriptions of war. We shall cite here only two outstanding examples.


Nahum’s bitter book is devoted to a description of the fall of Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, in the most graphic terms. He describes the attacking army’s red shields and crimson uniforms, the flashing chariot wheels, the prancing chargers (Nahum 2:3). He mocks the panic of the defenders (2:10-11; 3:11-13). He exults over Israel’s ancient enemy in words like these:

Ah! City of bloodshed,

utterly deceitful, full of booty –

no end to plunder!

The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,

galloping horse and bounding chariot!

Horsemen charging,

flashing sword and glittering spear,

piles of dead,

heaps of corpses,

dead bodies without end --

they stumble over the bodies!

(Nahum 3:1-3)


Perhaps the greatest of the war poets was Jeremiah. He offers a series of snapshots, as it were -- unforgettable word pictures that stamp an indelible image on the reader’s mind.

The Sights and Sounds of Battle. The first great descriptions of warfare occur in Jeremiah 4-6. The passage opens with a strident alarm sounded on the trumpet (4:5), and the din of battle deafens us throughout: the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war, disaster overtaking disaster (vs. 19-20). As the trembling people sweep into the fortified cities, we get glimpses of the enemy and his armaments: a cloud of dust on the horizon, horses swifter than eagles, chariots like the whirlwind (v. 16). The noise of his approach is deafening; it strikes terror to the heart of whole cities; towns are deserted as the people go into thickets and climb to rocky crags for refuge (v. 29). Plunder and pillage: the enemy eats his fill of the harvest and destroys the rest; flocks are eaten, driven off, and destroyed (5:17). Then to the walled cities he goes, hewing down trees, casting up siege ramps, destroying palaces by night (6:5-6).

Once again, in the oracles against the nations (chs. 46-61) we find vivid descriptions of battle. The battle of Carchemish (46:3-12) is a masterpiece. Graphic details abound in the oracles against the Philistines (ch. 47), Moab (48:40-46), and Babylon (50:11-16; 51:27-33).

The Dreadful Aftermath. War is not all battle: the sound of the trumpet, the neighing of steeds, the clash of armor. There is that moment of awful stillness when the battle has swept on. And it is not the warriors alone who bear the brunt. The suffering of noncombatants is not a recent invention. Jeremiah himself was a noncombatant, and it is natural that many of his most vivid pictures of the horrors of war concern, not the battlefield, but the people within the walls and the survivors who look on the utter desolation that war has left.

War means suffering for children and youth, for the wife with the husband, nor are the aged spared (Jer. 6:11). Men see their wives and their fields taken by others (6:12; 8:10). War means death. Almost continually we see Jeremiah standing amid a multitude of corpses:

If I go out into the field,

look -- those killed by the sword!

And if I enter the city,

look -- those sick with famine!

(Jer. 14:18)

"Death has come up into our windows,

it has entered our palaces,

to cut off the children from the streets

and the young men from the squares."

Speak! Thus says the Lord:

"Human corpses shall fall

like dung upon the open field,

like sheaves behind the reaper,

and no one shall gather them."

(Jer. 9:21-22)

The end of it all is desolation. Cities are left waste and without inhabitant -- how often that phrase is on Jeremiah’s lips! Jackals howl amid the ruins (9:11; 10:22). As the lonely nomad passes the desolate and blackened tell, he hisses with astonishment (18:16; 50:13; 51:37).

The defeated nation is like a fallen tent, collapsing suddenly when the stakes are removed (Jer. 4:20; 10:20); like a thoroughly gleaned vineyard (6:9); like winnowed chaff (15:7).

All in all, war is most comparable to a cosmic upheaval. It has the qualities of an eclipse and an earthquake:

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;

and to the heavens, and they had no light.

I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,

and all the hills moved to and fro.

I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,

and all the birds of the air had fled.

I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,

and all its Cities were laid in ruins

before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

(Jer. 4:23-26)

The similarity between that poem and modern descriptions of the aftermath of a nuclear shoot-out5 is eerie!

This is but a sample of the war poetry of the prophets. There is war poetry in the Psalms as well. We shall see more of both in chapters 4 and 7. By then we may be ready to agree with those who hold that, from a literary standpoint, the war poetry of the Bible can hold its own with Homer’s Iliad or Milton’s war in heaven in Paradise Lost.

There are important distinctions to be made within the body of war poetry. The Song of Deborah comes "from below"; it is the voice of an oppressed peasantry protesting the overweening power of the Canaanite city-states. Nahum speaks for the Guatemalas and Nicaraguas of his day, the small states constantly oppressed and periodically attacked by the great powers. Jeremiah sings of war as an implement of God’s inexorable justice, punishing Judah, its neighbors, and the great powers for their sins.

Our main point, however, is neither literary appreciation nor rhetorical distinctions. It is the honest admission of enormous ambiguity. The people from whom Jesus came were continually at war and able to describe it with great genius. They never seemed to question it. What is more, they saw their God as deeply involved in it.




1. The vexed question as to the historicity of the "conquest" will be discussed in chapter 4.

2. The problem of the historicity of Sennacherib’s "defeat" will be discussed in chapter 4, note 3.

3. The Egyptian army was on its way, possibly to Carchemish, to assist the declining power of Assyria (Nineveh had already fallen) against the rising power of Babylon. See John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), p. 303. Jeremiah, however, dates the battle of Carchemish later, in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim (Jer. 46:2).

4. T. R. Hobbs in A Time for War (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1989) half-humorously criticizes the title of a book by his fellow Canadian Peter C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978). War may be a problem to us, he says, but it was never a problem to the ancient Israelites. It was taken for granted as a part of life (see. 17).

5. For example, Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).