Chapter 5: Yahweh: Giver of Shalom

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

Chapter 5: Yahweh: Giver of Shalom

The Warrior God is also the God of peace who gives peace to the people of God. This chapter deals with Yahweh as the giver of shalom -- the Hebrew word that has a range of meanings that go far beyond those we usually associate with the English word "peace."


The Meaning of Shalom

The Absence of War

In several passages shalom is an antonym for war and means "the absence of war," as it does so often in customary English usage. Thus we find it in the familiar list of antonyms in Ecclesiastes (3:8):

a time to love, and a time to hate

a time for war, and a time for shalom

The same contrast is found in Psalm 120:6-7:

Too long have I had my dwelling

among those who hate shalom.

I am for shalom;

but when I speak,

they are for war.

And the same contrast is found in biblical narratives. David condemned Joab for killing Abner and Amasa, "retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war," literally "he shed bloods of war in shalom" (1 Kings 2:5). David may not build the temple, for he is a man of war; Solomon shall build it, for he is a man of shalom (1 Chron. 22:8-9). Ben-hadad, king of Aram, issued orders that said: "If they have come out for shalom, take them alive; and if they have come out for war, take them alive" (1 Kings 20:18).

Shalom simply means the absence of war in the statements that "there was shalom between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite" (Judg. 4:17), or that "there was shalom also between Israel and the Amorites" (1 Sam. 7:14), or that Solomon "had shalom on all sides" (1 Kings 4:24). Such peace was often the result of a formal peace treaty or "covenant of shalom" as between Isaac and Abimelech (Gen. 26:26-31) or Joshua and the Gibeonites (Josh. 9:15) or the other tribes and Benjamin (Judg. 21:13) or David and Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:42) or Solomon and Hiram (1 Kings 5:12).

There are often anxious questions as to whether someone is coming with peaceful or with warlike intent. The men of Bethlehem ask, when Samuel suddenly visits them, "Do you come peaceably?" literally, "Shalom do you come?" To which Samuel replies, "Peaceably," literally, "Shalom" (1 Sam. 16:4-5). Bathsheba asks Adonijah, "Is your coming shalom?" To which he replies "Shalom" (1 Kings 2:13). As Jehu moves toward the palace of King Joram, he is asked repeatedly, "Is it shalom?" (2 Kings 9:17-19, 22, 31). In that case it was not peace, but a bloody coup.

The Fullness of Well-being

But shalom is not merely an emptiness, an absence of war or internal strife.2 It is a fullness, a promise of general well-being. It is in this positive fullness, which goes far beyond the mere negation of war, that shalom possesses a richness not usually found in our English word "peace." A simple way to explore the cluster of meaning that surrounds shalom is to examine the various translations for it offered in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

"To be all right." When the wealthy woman of Shunem came to see the prophet Elisha on a day which was neither new moon nor Sabbath, he sensed something might be wrong. So he sent his servant Gehazi to ask: "Do you have shalom? Does your husband have shalom? Does the child have shalom?" The NRSV translates, "Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is the child all right?" To which she replies, "Shalom. It is all right" (2 Kings 4:26). To have shalom is to be all right. It is to have health when disease is possible, safety when danger is possible, enough when deprivation is possible, life when death is possible. Of course the Shunammite was not telling the truth, because the child was dead. The prophet discerned it was not shalom because she was in bitter distress. The same translation is found in 2 Kings 4:23; 5:21-22; 9:11.

"To be well." Frequently the noun shalom is translated by various verbal expressions centering on well-being or being well, Jacob sent Joseph "to see the shalom of his brothers and the shalom of the flock." The translation is: "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock" (Gen. 37:14). In a similar situation, when Jesse sent David to the battlefield to see his brothers "for shalom," the translation is, "See how your brothers fare" (1 Sam. 17:18). In like fashion, Mordecai would walk around in front of the court of the harem "to know the shalom of Esther," which is translated "to learn how Esther was" (Esth. 2:11). In an extraordinary juxtaposition of war and peace, David asked Uriah "for the shalom of Joab and for the shalom of the people, and for the shalom of the war" The translation is, "David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going" (2 Sam. 11:7). Later, Joab asked after the shalom of a rival commander, Amasa. The translation is, "Is it well with you, my brother?" A treacherous question, for he seized him by his beard as if to kiss him and stabbed him in his belly (2 Sam. 20:9-10).

In the notion of well-being, there are undertones of health. When Joseph’s brothers came a second time to Egypt for grain, Joseph inquired about their shalom and said, "Does your father have shalom, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?" They replied, "Your servant, our father has shalom; he is still alive." The translation is, "He inquired about their welfare, and said, ‘Is your father well . . . ?’ They said, ‘Your servant, our father is well’" (Gen. 43:27-28), Jacob made a similar inquiry about Laban (29:6). At other times, the undertone is one of safety. David anxiously inquired of the runners who brought word of the battle, "Does the young man Absalom have shalom?" The translation is, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" (2 Sam, 18:28-29, 32).

"Shalom to you" often functions as a greeting when people meet (Judg. 19:20; 1 Sam. 25:5-6; 1 Chron, 12:18). The implication is, "All is well; you have nothing to fear." Thus when Joseph says "Shalom to you" to his brothers, the NRSV translates "Rest assured" (Gen. 43:23), Similarly, "Go in shalom" or "Go to or for shalom" is a traditional parting formula (Gen. 44:17; Ex. 4:18; Judg. 18:6; 1 Sam. 1:17; 25:35; 29:7; 2 Sam. 15:9. 27; 2 Kings 5:19). There is a real question whether these formulas were ever routine, like "how are you?" or "goodbye" in modern English. There seems to have been in all these cases an assurance of safety, a wish for health, a genuine concern for the other person’s well-being.

In the biblical stories there are predictions, true or false, that individuals or the whole people will have shalom. David says to Jonathan, "If Saul says, ‘Good!’ it will be well with your servant" (1 Sam. 20:7). Jeremiah says, "Ah, Lord GOD, how utterly you have deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you,’ even while the sword is at the throat!" (Jer. 4:10). And he says concerning the false prophets, "They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, ‘No calamity shall come upon you’" (23:17). In each case it is shalom that is being translated.

"Welfare, weal." Sometimes the noun shalom is translated more literally by an English noun "welfare." We have already seen Joseph inquiring about the "welfare" (shalom) of his brothers in Gen. 43:27. Similarly Moses and Jethro ask after each other’s welfare in Ex. 18:7. And the psalmist sings:

Let those who desire my vindication

shout for joy and be glad,

and say evermore,

"Great is the LORD

who delights in the welfare of his servant."

(Ps. 35:27)

Welfare is not confined to the well-being of individuals; cities and nations and generations are in view. In an important passage, Jeremiah urges the exiles in Babylon to seek the "welfare" (shalom) of the city to which they have been exiled, "for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jer. 29:7). See Deuteronomy 23:6; Esther 10:3; Proverbs 3:2; Isaiah 38:17; Jeremiah 15:5; 29:11; 38:4 for other places where shalom is translated "welfare." In the familiar and difficult word of the LORD in Isaiah 45:7, "I make weal and create woe," the word "weal" translates shalom.

"To be safe, safety." We have already seen that safety is often an important undertone in the more general idea of well-being. To return from battle in shalom is to return "safe." After the slaughter of the five kings, "all the people returned safe to Joshua in the camp" (Josh. 10:21). Mephibosheth professes to have been concerned above all else that the king (David) should return home in safety (2 Sam. 19:14), or safely (v. 30). In 1 Kings 22:27-28 = 2 Chronicles 18:26-27, before going into battle, Ahab orders the prophet Micaiah put in prison on bread and water "until I come in peace." Micaiah replies, "If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me." Here the translation "peace" has been chosen, but the idea of a safe return from battle is clear. Ahab died in the battle, but Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, returned in safety (shalom) to his house in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 19:1). Jeremiah predicts that Nebuchadnezzar will ravage Egypt and that he will depart from there safely (43:12), and the Prophet of the Exile says of Cyrus that he pursues the nations and passes on safely (Isa. 41:3).

Shalom also describes safety from individual enemies. Jonathan goes to great effort to determine whether David will be safe (in shalom) from Saul (1 Sam. 20:13,21).

In the great poetic debate in Job, Eliphaz includes safety from wild animals as part of shalom. "If you accept the Almighty’s discipline," he says,

You shall be in league with the stones of the field,

and the Wild animals shall be at peace with you.

You shall know that your tent is safe (shalom).

(Job 5:23-24)

Not so, replies Job. Look rather at the wicked:

Their houses are safe (shalom) from fear,

and no rod of God is upon them.

(Job 21:9)

Compare Deut. 29:19, where the wicked think in their hearts "We are safe (shalom shall be to me) even though we go our own stubborn ways.

"Health." As we have already seen, in the inquiries whether things are "all right" or whether it is "well" with this person or that, a concern for health is evident. Clearly, shalom could often be translated as "health" but that translation occurs only sparingly in the NRSV.

There is no soundness in my flesh

because of your indignation;

There is no health (shalom) in my bones

because of my sin.

(Ps. 38:3)

Most important, we find this in the description of the Suffering Servant in Isa. 53:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole, [the punishment of our shalom]

and by his bruises we are healed.

(Isa. 53:5)

The "healths" of each of us are dependent on his punishment, our healing on his bruises.

"Prosperity." Shalom involves not only safety in the face of danger, health in the face of sickness or death, but material prosperity in the face of possible famine and deprivation. This translation is demanded in the following example of poetic parallelism:

I will extend prosperity (shalom) to her like a river,

and the wealth of nations like an over flowing stream.

(Isa. 66:12)

The shalom which the wicked enjoy often takes the form of material prosperity.

Terrifying sounds are in their ears;

in prosperity (shalom) the destroyer will come upon them.

(Job 15:21)

For I was envious of the arrogant;

I saw the prosperity (shalom) of the wicked.

(Ps. 73:3)

Prosperity is associated with abundant crops and therefore roots in the land.

But the meek shall inherit the land,

and delight themselves in abundant prosperity(shalom).

(Ps. 37:11; see also 72:3)

Prosperity depends on obedience to the Torah:

O that you had paid attention to my commandments!

Then your prosperity (shalom) would have been

like a river,

and your success like the waves of the sea.

(Isa. 48:18)

There are other gracious predictions that promise prosperity (shalom) to the people of God: Isaiah 54:13; Jeremiah 33:6,9; Haggai 2:9.

"Friendship." Shalom is the basis of trust and friendship. Thus David says to the Benjaminites, "If you have come to me in friendship (shalom), to help me, then my heart will be knit to you" (1 Chron. 12:17). The expression "man of my shalom" is translated "bosom friend" (Ps. 41:9), "close friend" (Jer. 20:10), "trusted friend" (Jer. 38:22), "confederate" (Obad. 1:7). On occasion the context demands that the simple word shalom be translated "friend" (Ps. 55:20) or "ally" (Ps. 69:22). Sadly, most of these passages have to do with betrayal by friends, which constitutes a terrible breach of shalom.

"Integrity." In being "all right" (shalom) there is surely an underlying concept of wholeness, of "having it all together." We are not surprised, then, to find the translation "integrity" used in a remarkable oracle addressed to the priests by the prophet Malachi:

Know, then, that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the LORD of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and well-being (shalom), which I gave him; this called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity (shalom) and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. (Mal. 2:4-6)

Other Translations. It is obvious that to inquire after someone shalom was a conventional way to greet that person. So the NRSV sometimes translates "to ask after the shalom of" as simply "to greet" (Judg. 18:15; 1 Sam. 10:4; 17:22; 25:5; 30:21; 2 Sam. 8:10; 1 Chron. 18:10). In one case it goes so far as to translate "to come [to inquire] for the shalom of as "to visit" (2 Kings 10:13). Elsewhere speaking shalom becomes "a favorable answer" (Gen. 41:16) or "friendly words" (Jer. 9:8), and returning in shalom from battle goes beyond safety to become "victory" (Judg. 8:9). There are also adverbial translations like "peaceably" (Gen. 37:4) and "wholly" (Jer. 13:19).

"Peace." The majority of the occurrences of shalom are translated "peace," as one would expect. Examination of the immediate context has helped us understand other translations, but will not be of particular help here. It will be more helpful to examine shalom = peace in the broader context of the Hebrew scriptures as a whole. At this point the help of Old Testament scholars, who have a comprehensive grasp of that broader context, will prove invaluable.

Walter Brueggemann, in his collection of addresses entitled Living Toward a Vision, begins by attacking our individualistic "habits of the heart," typified by the familiar chorus, "I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart." No, says Brueggemann, shalom is not for isolated, insulated individuals. "Shalom comes only to the inclusive, embracing community that excludes none."3 He goes on to point out three dimensions of shalom. In its cosmic dimensions shalom is "orderly fruitfulness." In its political dimensions, it is "equitable justice." In its personal dimensions, it is "generous caring."4 To the have-nots, the slaves in Egypt, or the poor of the land when the kings ruled, or the exiles in Babylon, shalom means "freedom, liberation." There must be radical change before things will be all right and going well for them, before they can enjoy welfare, safety, prosperity, friendship, health, and personal integrity. To the haves, on the other hand, shalom means "order, stability." There must be proper management of the existing welfare, safety, prosperity and soon, so they can continue to enjoy and celebrate what they have. To the have-nots, shalom is salvation; to the haves, shalom is blessing. And shalom = peace must embrace both.5

Paul D. Hanson, in an amazingly compact essay on "War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible," starts with the struggle between order and chaos. Shalom is the order established by God in the act of creation. How are we to live in that order? Israel tales the exodus, its founding event, as the clue. There Yahweh is revealed as righteous, compassionate, and majestic. So Israel must live in what Hanson calls "a triangle" of righteousness, compassion, and worship. This is to live in a shalom that corresponds to the divinely established order. When the community lives in the triangle, God’s shalom emanates into all creation. When they repudiate the covenant of shalom, the whole world falls into chaos. "If one were to choose a single word to describe the reality for which God created the world, and in which he seeks to sustain the community of those who respond to his initiating grace . . . , that word would be "shalom."’6

We are far from exhausting the meaning of shalom, but already we can discern at least the following:

1. Shalom is very clearly a broader and more positive word than our English "peace."

2. Shalom is a focal, central concept in the Hebrew scriptures.

3. Shalom is earthy, material. Shalom is something you can see. It is almost never an invisible, inward, psychological, or "spiritual" state —"peace of mind, peace of heart."7

4. Israel, though a warlike people, did not devalue shalom as a boring interlude between wars, as many other warlike peoples have done. Shalom is valued, desired, longed for.

Yahweh as Giver of Shalom

The Gift of Shalom

In passage after passage it is emphasized that Yahweh is the creator, the source, the giver of this marvelous thing called shalom.

Thus we read in Job:

Dominion and fear are with God;

he makes shalom in his high heaven.

(Job 25:2)

Individuals receive shalom from Yahweh:

I will both lie down and sleep in shalom;

for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.

(Ps. 4:8)

Those of steadfast mind you keep [in] shalom

[in] shalom—because they trust in you.

(Isa. 26:3)

The nation receives shalom in the same way:

He grants shalom within your borders;

he fills you with the finest of wheat.

(Ps. 147:14)

Prayers for Shalom

Since Yahweh is the giver of peace, prayer is made to Yahweh for the gift of shalom:

Pray for the shalom of Jerusalem:

"May they prosper who love you.

Shalom be within your walls,

and security within your towers,"

For the sake of my relatives and friends

I will say, "Shalom be within you."

(Ps. 122:6-B)

The prayer for shalom in its shortest form is "Shalom be upon Israel!" (Pss. 125:5; 128:6).

The Blessing of Shalom

Closely related to the prayer for peace is the blessing of peace. Hear the priestly blessing of Israel, so frequently incorporated into Christian worship:

The LORD bless you and keep you;

the LORD make his face to shine upon you,

and be gracious to you;

the LORD lift up his countenance upon you,

and give you shalom.

(Num. 6:24-26)8

The threefold repetition of "the LORD" = Yahweh leaves no doubt who the giver of shalom is. A briefer, but similar benediction is found in Psalm 29:

May the LORD give strength to his people!

May the LORD bless his people with shalom!

(Ps. 29:11)

In Psalm 85 it is Yahweh himself who speaks the blessing of peace:

Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,

for he will speak shalom to his people,

to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their


(Ps. 85:8)

The Promise of Shalom

Promises abound that the prayers for peace will be answered, the blessings of peace bestowed.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;

righteousness and shalom will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,

and righteousness will look down from the sky.

The LORD will give what is good,

and our land will yield its increase,

(Ps. 85:10-12)

O Lord, you will ordain shalom for us,

For indeed, all that we have done, you have done for us.

(Isa. 26:12)

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,

and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.

The effect of righteousness will be shalom,

and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

My people will abide in a habitation of shalom,

in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.

(Isa. 32:16-18)

Shalom, shalom, to the far and the near,

says the Lord;

and I will heal them.

(Isa. 57:19)

I will appoint Shalom as your overseer

and Righteousness as your taskmaster.

Violence shall no more be heard in your land,

devastation or destruction within your borders;

you shall call your walls Salvation,

and your gates Praise.

(Isa. 60:17-18)

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your shalom and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

(Jer. 29-11)

The Covenant of Shalom

Yahweh does not give shalom by whim. Yahweh is pledged, covenanted to bestow shalom on the people of Yahweh.

For the mountains may depart

and the hills be removed,

but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,

and my covenant of shalom shall not be removed,

says the LORD, who has compassion on you.

(Isa. 54:10)

I will make a covenant of shalom with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore.

(Ezek. 37:26)

See also Numbers 25:12; Ezekiel 34:25; Malachi 2:5.

Yahweh Is Shalom

Clearly, shalom is not something that human beings can create or give to themselves. They can receive it and obediently maintain it, but shalom is created and given by Yahweh. Yahweh makes shalom, Yahweh alone makes us lie down in safety, Yahweh keeps us in shalom, Yahweh grants shalom. Yahweh gives shalom, Yahweh blesses with shalom, Yahweh speaks shalom, Yahweh ordains shalom Yahweh appoints shalom, Yahweh plans shalom, Yahweh covenants shalom.

Perhaps the best summary of the material adduced thus far is found in a primitive story about Gideon (Judg. 6:1-24). The angel of the LORD (who is somehow the LORD himself; vs. 14, 16) appears to Gideon and he is frightened for his life, crying: "‘Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.’ But the LORD said to him, ‘Shalom be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.’ Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD, and called it, "Yahweh is shalom" (vs. 22-24). Here in the midst of a warlike story is the astounding affirmation: "Yahweh is shalom." The creator, bestower, covenantor of shalom is himself Shalom. This is the counterbalance to the equally primitive statement, "Yahweh is a warrior" (Ex. 15:3). The basic ambiguity of the biblical picture of God could hardly be expressed more vividly.

How Yahweh Gives Shalom

If shalom is the focal, central concept in Hebrew scripture that we have said it is, and if Yahweh is the giver of shalom, then we would expect that giving to take place in the most focal, central actions of God. Let us see if that is not the case.


Whatever theological orthodoxy may have to say about creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), the Hebrew scriptures see it as bringing order out of chaos.

1. In certain passages, chaos is symbolized as a sea dragon with whom the Creator is engaged in a life-or-death struggle. This is a bold borrowing from surrounding Canaanite mythology. See Psalms 74:13-17; 89:9-11; Isaiah 51:9-10.

2. The sea itself is a symbol of chaos. When the Creator sets bounds to the sea, chaos is limited and order is established. See Job 28:8-11; Psalm 24:1-2; Proverbs 8:29; Jeremiah 5:22.

3. In the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1, the primeval chaos is ordered by the orderly, spoken commands of God: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’. . ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’. . . ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’. . ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation.’. . ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky.’.. . ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.’. ., ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind.’.. ‘Let us make humankind’ "(Gen. 1 :1-3, 6,9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26).

According to Hanson, the true antonym of shalom is chaos; war is an antonym because it is the quintessence of chaos. Shalom "describes the realm where chaos is not allowed to enter, and where life can be fostered free from fear of all which diminishes and destroys."9 Thus, in creation, God is already at work giving peace.


To the have-nots, we remember, shalom means liberation, deliverance, salvation. The slaves in Egypt were have-nots, and the exodus, their deliverance from bondage, was a shalom-action. The Hebrew poets have not missed the connection between God’s victory over chaos in creation and the dividing of the sea in exodus.

Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,

who pierced the dragon?

Was it not you who dried up the sea,

the waters of the great deep;

who made the depths of the sea a way

for the redeemed to cross over?

(Isa. 51:9-10)

Again and again the liberation from Egypt is described as Yahweh’s act, Yahweh’s gift:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

(Ex. 19:4)

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

(Ex. 20:2-3)

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.

(Lev. 26:13)

See also Num. 15:41; Deut. 8:14; 13:5, 10; 20:1.

The language of shalom is not used in connection with the liberation of the slaves from Egypt, but it is clearly used in connection with the liberation of the exiles from Babylon.

Comfort, comfort my people,

says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and cry to her

that her warfare is ended,

that her iniquity is pardoned,

that she has received from the LORD’S hand

double for all her sins.

(Isa. 40:1-2, Rsv)

The exile is here described as "warfare" (saba’). The end of the exile is therefore peace, shalom. This is true if the "warfare" is simply understood as a term of military service, and therefore a hard and difficult time (NRsv). It is even more true if the allusion is to Yahweh’s antagonistic warfare against Yahweh’s own people, which is now coming to its end: Yahweh is announcing peace at last.

How beautiful upon the mountains

are the feet of the messenger who announces shalom,

who brings good news,

who announces salvation,

who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."

Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,

together they sing for joy;

for in plain sight they see

the return of the LORD to Zion.

(Isa. 52:7-8)

Here "the return of the LORD to Zion," which the context makes clear is the return of the exiles from Babylon, is simply called shalom.

For you shall go out in joy,

and be led back in shalom;

the mountains and the hills before you

shall burst into song,

and all the trees of the field

shall clap their hands.

(Isa. 55:12)

The LORD gives shalom by liberating the oppressed.

Fruitful Land

Liberation from bondage has no great meaning unless there is some place to go, and it is a temporary blessing unless there is posterity to enjoy it in that place.

Walter Brueggemann asserts that "land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith." The symbolic meaning of land, he says, is "wholeness of joy and well-being characterized by social coherence and personal ease in prosperity, security, and freedom."10 This is virtually identical with the cluster of meanings we have seen gathered around the idea of shalom. The connection between land and shalom is a very close one.

God the Covenant Maker promised land and family to marginal, landless, childless people (Genesis 12, 15, 17). God the Provider brought them through the howling wilderness (Exodus; Numbers). God the Warrior conquered their foes and gave them the land (Joshua). God the Peace Giver makes them dwell in families in the land in shalom.

The land which Yahweh gives is not empty, barren land like the wilderness. It is fruitful land. Israel never tires of describing it as a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8, 17; 15:5; 33:3; Lev. 20:24; Num. 14:8; Deut. 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3). For fuller descriptions of the land’s fruitfulness, see Deut. 8:7-10; 11:10-12; Ps. 65:9-13.

Yahweh is a fertility deity, as both Walter Harrelson and Walter Brueggemann agree11 The idealized pictures and the future promises of the shalom that Yahweh gives are frequently agricultural in nature: threshing overtaking vintage and vintage overtaking sowing (Lev. 26:5); Israel flourishing like a garden (Hos. 14:7); mountains dripping sweet wine (Amos 9:13); showers of blessing (Ezek. 34:26); splendid vegetation (v. 29). "For there shall be a sowing of siwlom; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the sides shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things" (Zech. 8:12).


Yahweh gives peace in creation, by setting limits on the sea and all other forms of chaos. But that is not enough. Yahweh gives peace in liberation, by setting free marginalized, oppressed, powerless people. But that is not enough. Yahweh gives peace by providing liberated people a place: a fruitful land. But that is not enough, for within that land people will marginalize and oppress each other and there will be no peace. So Yahweh gives peace in Torah, instruction, direction, laws, statutes, commandments, for right living in the fruitful land.

Great shalom have those who love your Torah;

nothing can make them stumble.

(Ps. 119:165)

My child, do not forget my Torah,

but let your heart keep my commandments;

for length of days and years of life

and abundant shalom they will give you.

(Prov. 3:1-2)

O that you had paid attention to my commandments!

Then your shalom would have been like a river,

and your success like the waves of the sea.

(Isa. 48:18)

All your children shall be taught by the LORD,

and great shall be the shalom of your children.

(Isa. 54:13)

A great portion of the Torah has to do with the right distribution and the right use of the land. Walter Brueggemann writes that "Torah consists in guidelines for land management. . . . It is . . . interested in care for the land, so that it is never forgotten from whence came the land and to whom it is entrusted and by whom. . . The link between Torah and land is essential."12 The following are some of the salient provisions of the Torah regarding the distribution and use of the land:

1.You are to remember that the land is a gift. It was promised to your ancestors as a gift:

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, "I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever." (Ex. 32:13)

See also Genesis 12:7; 13:15, 17; 15:7, 18; 17:8; 24:7; 26:3; 28:4, 13; 35:12; 48:4; 50:24; Exodus 6:4; 32:13; 33:1; Numbers 14:23; Deuteronomy 6:18, 23; 8:1; 9:5; 10:11; 19:8; 26:15; 34:4.

The land was delivered into your hands by the monergistic warfare of Yahweh:

And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today. (Deut. 4:37-38)

See also Exodus 3:8; 6:8; 12:25; Leviticus 14:34; 20:22, 24; 23:10; 25:2, 38; Numbers 27:12; 32:7, 9; Deuteronomy 1:21; 4:1; 5:31; 6:18-19; 9:3-4; 11:31; 12:1, 10,29; 15:4,7; 16:20; 17:14; 18:9; 19:1, 3, 14; 25:19; 26:1,2,8-9; 27:2; 28:8; 32:49,52.

Never forget this.

When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you -- a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant -- and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deut. 6:10-12)

2. You are to treat the land with great respect. For example, Just as you are to enjoy your sabbaths, so the land is to enjoy its sabbaths.

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Lev. 25:2-4; cf. Ex.23:10-11)

It is good agricultural policy for fields to lie fallow from time to time. but more than that is at stake here. As Brueggemann puts it, "Land has its own rights over against us and even its own existence. It is in covenant with us but not totally at our disposal."13 Its ultimate owner is God

3. Land is not to be permanently alienated from the families to whom Yahweh gave it:

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. (Lev. 25:23-24)

This is why the distribution of the land, the free, gifted distribution to the tribes, is so painstakingly recorded (Joshua 13-19; 21). This is why the lines of family descent are so faithfully preserved (1 Chronicles 1-9). This is why the preservation of the tribes is so important. Even in the lawless times of the Judges, the threat that Benjamin might die out was a calamity. "They lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. They said, ‘0 LORD, the God of Israel, why has it come to pass that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?’" (Judg. 21:2-3). Extraordinary measures were taken to secure wives for the Benjaminites (vs. 4-24). This is why the brother of a deceased man must marry his widow, to raise up descendants for him (Deut. 25:5-10).

People become marginalized and oppressed when they lose their inherited family land. This can happen if the land is sold, or if people go into debt or even sell themselves into slavery. Very quickly the society can be polarized into haves and have-nots and shalom can be lost. The Tomb proposed several interesting pieces of legislation to avoid this.

There shall be a sabbath of debts: every seventh year, all debts within the community are to be forgiven (Deut.15:1-11) There shall be a sabbath of slavery: every seventh year slaves are to be set free (Ex. 21:1-11; Deut.15:12-18). There shall be a year of jubilee (Lev. 25:8-17). Every fiftieth year (after seven sevens) all land shall be returned to the families that originally owned it. This means that the land itself is not what is really sold: only the number of crops until the next year of jubilee. Whether these laws were ever universally enforced, or whether indeed the year of jubilee was ever practiced at all are matters of debate among scholars. However, the intent of the legislation was clear enough. There was to be no permanent underclass in Israel. There was to be a time limit on the rich growing richer and the poor growing poorer. Poetically stated, every family was to sit under its own vine and under its own fig tree, with none to make them afraid (Micah 4:4; cf. 2 Kings 18:31). This would be shalom: everyone with a stake in the commonwealth and access to the means of production.

4. Those who are landless still have rights in the land. The Tomb makes special provisions for the poor in general and for the alien or sojourner, the widow, and the orphan in particular:

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left forthe alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore lam commanding you to do this. (Deut. 24:19-22; cf. Lev. 19:9-10)

What grows during the fallow year (Ex. 23:11), what is not reaped in the corners of the field (Lev. 19:9), and what the landed owner is forbidden to glean (see above) is not charity; it is the patrimony of the poor.

The Torah is Yahweh’s final provision for the peace of the chosen people. Above and beyond the land laws it breathes a concern for the powerless poor. You are not to be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your needy neighbor (Deut. 15:7). Aliens, widows, and orphans are not to be oppressed in any way (Ex. 22:21-23; 23:9; Deut. 24:17; 27:19). Aliens, widows, and orphans shall share in the tithe of your produce (Deut. 26:12-13). No interest shall be charged to the poor (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:36; Deut. 23:19). Garments taken in pledge must be restored before the sun goes down (Ex. 22:26-27; Deut. 24:12-13). Millstones may not be taken in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge (Deut. 24:6). The justice due the poor shall not be perverted in lawsuits (Ex. 23:6). The Sabbath rest is specially for slaves and aliens (Ex. 23:12; Deut. 5:12-15). Wages shall be paid the day they are earned (Lev.19:13; Deut. 24:14-15). Indeed, if a fellow Israelite becomes poor and cannot maintain himself, you shall maintain him (Lev. 25:35).

Ruth as a Picture of Shalom

A society so ordered will have shalom: rest, security, health, wholeness, well-being, prosperity. As we have seen, the historical record shows a very imperfect internal peace for Israel, broken by revenge, and royal oppression, and continual coups. We are fortunate to have the book of Ruth, a book that records no wars and depicts the life of the village of Bethlehem, where the Torah is honored. Set in the period of the Judges, it was written after the times it describes.14 It may be an idealized picture, but it portrays in concrete, down-to-earth terms the shalom which Yahweh, the giver of shalom, intends for the people of God.

Two widows, landless, marginalized, powerless people, come to Bethlehem. Naomi is a former resident, who went as a refugee to Moab and lost there her husband and two sons. Ruth is an alien, Naomi’s daughter-in-law. Ruth goes to glean in the field of Boaz, claiming the patrimony of the poor, which is her right as an alien and a widow. Labor-management relations are good there. Boaz says to the reapers, "The LORD be with you." They reply, "The LORD bless you." Boaz, who turns out to be close kin to Naomi’s deceased husband, is kind to Ruth and she gleans there for the whole harvest. On Naomi’s advice, Ruth offers herself to Boaz as wife. Boaz challenges the one kinsman who is closer than he to redeem Naomi’s husband’s land, to keep it in the family. When the kinsman learns that with the field he will acquire the duty to marry Ruth and keep the family line going, he surrenders his rights to Boaz. Boaz marries Ruth. Then the village shows its nature as a shalom community. The people rejoice with Boaz, the middle-aged bachelor who has found the happiness of marriage and the prospect of children. Ruth bears a son and the women rejoice with Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him" (Ruth 4:14-15). So the family line was preserved, a line from which came David the king and Jesus the Christ. In this story of sorrow and joy we see the face of shalom.15




1. For an excellent introduction to the breadth of the meaning of shalom, see Donald E. Gowan, Shalom A Study of the Biblical Concept of Peace (1984), available from the Kerygma Program, 300 Mt. Lebanon Boulevard, Suite 205, Pittsburgh, PA 15234.

2. As Gowan points out, the more usual Hebrew expression for the absence of wars "rest," as in Josh. 23:1. Shalom. p.10.

3. Walter Brueggemann, Living Toward a Vision Biblical Reflections on Shalom, rev. ed. (New York: United Church Press, 1982), p. 16.

4. Ibid., pp. 17-20.

5. Ibid., pp. 27-36.

6. Paul D. Hanson, "War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible," Interpretation 38(1984): 341.

7. This is a point which Gerhard von Rad makes with great emphasis in his article "Shalom in the Old Testament," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964-1976), 2:402-406. A survey of all the occurrences of shalom bears him out. The one possible exception, which he also noted, is Lamentations 3:17.

8. For a full discussion of this blessing, which is older than the P document in which it is found, see Patrick D. Miller, Jr., "The Blessing of God," Interpretation 29(1975): 240-251.

9. Hanson, "War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible," p. 347.

10. Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp.3, 2.

11. Ibid., p. 51. Walter Harrelson, From Fertility Cult to Worship (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1969), pp. 12-13.

12. Brueggemann, The Land, pp. 60-61.

13. Ibid., p. 64.

14. See Ruth 4:7. It has been fashionable to make Ruth a postexilic writing, reacting to the chauvinism of Ezra and Nehemiah. However, Edward F. Campbell in Ruth, Anchor Bible, vol. 7 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1975). argues for an early ninth-century date.

15. Ruth is a beautifully written, multivalent story. Recent discussions emphasize Ruth’s risk-taking initiative and self-assertion in the heavily patriarchal society of Bethlehem. This is an important reading of the story. See, for example, Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), ch. 6; Johanna W. H. Bos, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986); Danna Nolan Fewell and David Miller Gunn, Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990). But the relation of the Ruth stoly to the shalom legislation of Leviticus and Deuteronomy should not be overlooked. Only in a setting where the poor and the alien have a right to the produce of the fields and where laws regarding land and family’ were designed to prevent the rise of a pertnanent underclass could Ruth’s initiative have been exercised with any effect at all.