In the Hebrew Bible war almost always refers to armed struggle between nations; in the New Testament the word more often refers to spiritual or cosmic conflict against evil.
It is important to recognize that Israel was both a nation and a people of Yahweh its God. As a nation, it lived among other nations and was subject to the struggles—military, economic, social, and political—that are common to all nations. As a people of God, the Israelites were constantly being reminded that they were to put their trust in the Lord (cf. Ps. 20.7).
Since God had chosen them to be his “treasured possession” (Deut. 14.2) and had entered into covenant with them (Exod. 19.5–6), he fought their battles and drove out the enemy before them (Deut. 9.4–6). Yahweh is called a warrior (Exod. 15.3), and the expression “the Lord of hosts” (1 Sam. 17.45; Isa. 1.24; “God of hosts,” Amos 5.27) is sometimes interpreted to mean that he leads an army or wages a war; another interpretation conveys the idea of heavenly hosts, either the sun, moon, and stars (Deut. 4.19) or the heavenly beings (1 Kings 22.19). For theological or sentimental reasons, this concept is repulsive to many moderns. Yet, according to treaties from the ancient Near East, the ruler who made such a covenant with a people was obligated to protect and defend them. On another line of reasoning, the only way Yahweh could preserve the identity of this small nation against the more powerful nations surrounding them was by fighting their battles for them.
Particularly objectionable to many are the wars in which the Israelites were commanded by Yahweh to exterminate (or “devote”; see Ban) a people, “men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Josh. 6.21) with the sword; this command is explained in Deuteronomy 20.16–18 as a safeguard against idolatry. It must also be noted that Yahweh punished his people similarly for their transgressions against him. Accordingly, Amos grouped the rebellions of Judah and Israel with those of other nations (Amos 1.3–2.16).
War, both in Israel and in the ancient Near East, was in some respects a religious act. God was to be consulted before going to war (1 Kings 22.5). Perhaps this was the reason for God's anger when David held a census, the method of mustering an army for war (2 Sam. 24.2–9), without first seeking God's will. The leader was possessed of “the spirit of the Lord” (Judg. 6.34), and when the spirit departed, the leader was powerless before the enemy (16.20). Sacrifice was offered before the conflict began (1 Sam. 7.8–10). War was “sanctified” (Hebr. qiddaš; NRSV “prepare”). The camp was a holy place where God himself was present (Deut. 20.4; 23.14), therefore there was to be nothing unclean (e.g., a nocturnal emission or human excrement; Deut. 23.10, 13). The warrior refrained from sexual intercourse (1 Sam. 21.4–5), which is why Uriah refused to comply with David's devious request (2 Sam. 11.6–12). The priest gave counsel and encouragement (Deut. 20.2), and those who could not devote themselves fully to the conflict were sent back home (vv. 5–8). Terms of peace were to be offered, but if rejected, then the Israelite army was to carry out the Lord's judgment (vv. 10–14; cf. 20.19–21.9).
After the return from exile, Israel was no longer an independent nation—although there was a tolerated independence resulting from the wars of the Maccabees for about a century. The idea of war became more eschatological: it represented freedom from the oppressor. Two ways to this freedom were envisaged; the one was by the Messiah, the son of David, who would lead the armies to victory (Pss. Sol. 17.23–27); the other was by divine intervention, a heavenly “son of man” and his angels (Dan. 7.13; Enoch 37–71). The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha furnish many and varied details of this hope for deliverance.
A remarkable picture is drawn in the War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness (the “War Scroll,” 1QM), one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this document, dating from the first century BCE, there are detailed plans for the final battle, including the location of the tribes in the camp, the standards, and many other points. The son‐of‐man concept is apparently not found in the Qumran documents, but the final battle is suddenly ended by the appearance of the archangel Michael (1QM 17.6).
In the New Testament.
Contrary to a widely held view, the position of the New Testament is not total pacifism: that was the product of church fathers, principally Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian. According to Matthew, Jesus stated that “wars and rumors of wars” are part of the present world order (Matt. 24.6–7) and said bluntly that he had not come to “bring peace to the earth, but a sword” (Matt. 10.34). According to Luke (3.14), John the Baptist did not forbid the soldiers to participate in war. When Jesus' disciples were about to face the hostile world, he advised them to sell their robes to buy a sword (Luke 22.35–36, 38). Paul recognized that the governing authorities maintain order with the sword and urged his readers to be subject to such authorities (Rom. 13.1–7).
At the same time, Jesus is not reported to have commanded his followers to use warfare as a means of conquest (contrary to the method of the emperor Constantine). He apparently rejected the implication that he lead a messianic war (John 6.15; Acts 1.6); he rebuked the disciple who used the sword against those who had come to arrest him (Matt. 26.51–53); he pointedly told Pilate that, if his kingdom “were from this world,” his soldiers would be fighting to defend him (John 18.36).
Like ancient Israel, the church is composed of the people of God and is under attack from enemy forces. Unlike Israel, the church is not one of the nations of the world; rather it is transnational, composed of peoples from all nations. Its warfare was not against “enemies of blood and flesh” but rather against demonic forces intent on destroying God's redemptive work (Eph. 6.12); hence its defense must be spiritual (vv. 11–17). The author of 1 Peter urged his readers to “abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul”; yet at the same time they were told to submit “for the Lord's sake” to “every human institution,” whether emperor or governor (1 Pet. 2.11–14).
According to the apocalyptic view of the book of Daniel, the kingdoms of this world—each more terrible than the preceding—would be defeated by the action of God himself (Dan. 2.36–45). The book of Revelation likewise proclaims that the final triumph will be brought about by One who is called Faithful and True, who comes with the armies of heaven to smite the nations (Rev. 19.11–15). At last the dreams of the prophets of old will come true: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2.4; Mic. 4.3).
William Sanford LaSor