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War

The Hebrew word for war (milḥamâ) appears more than 300 times in the Old Testament. The parallel Greek term (polemos) occurs only 16 times in the New Testament, but it is a crucial part of the Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation. Thus, war is a major subject throughout the Bible. It is at the center of many of the narratives in the Old Testament, and it occupies much attention in both testaments as a concern in regard to human political conflict and as a figurative expression of the spiritual struggle against forces of evil. One of the great challenges in interpreting the Bible, however, is to determine when accounts of war should be read as literal presentations of martial conflict between two human parties and when the description of war is intended as an emblem of the struggle for spiritual and religious purity. The problem is complicated by the apparent approval of war in some cases as divinely sanctioned action that was intricately connected to the spiritual lives of those who carried it out (Deut 7:1–11).

War may be defined narrowly as “the attempt by one nation to impose its will on another by force” (Yadin, 1963, p. 1). The Bible contains many examples of this state-versus-state conflict (2 Kgs 3:4–27; 17:5–23; 18:1319:37; cf. Isa 36–37), but it also is replete with accounts of coercive action by smaller parties that would nonetheless be counted as war: Israel’s patriarchs against other groups in Canaan (Gen 14), warlords fighting in mercenary roles (Judg 11:1–33; 1 Sam 27), Israel in intertribal conflict (Judg 21:8–12), and Israel as a confederation of tribes defending themselves in the wilderness (Exod 17:8–16) or capturing the city states of Canaan (Josh 6). Thus, warfare in the societies that produced the Bible is perhaps best plotted on a scale with state-sponsored war led by career military figures to accomplish political goals on one end of the spectrum and war waged by smaller groups to settle feuds, seek revenge, or capture resources on the other (Niditch, 1993, pp. 16–17).

Nature of Warfare in the Biblical World.

Wars in the Bible included battles in the open field and assaults on fortified cities. Both types of conflict were important, but the latter are most closely associated with state-sponsored warfare.

Weapons and soldiers.

The Bible as well as sources outside the Bible give evidence of implements soldiers used in warfare. There are also ample data for understanding how soldiers protected themselves in battle.

Protection and weapons in hand-to-hand combat.

Soldiers preparing for battle in the closest contexts wore armor and helmets (1 Sam 17:5–6, 38; cf. Eph 6:11–17). Armor consisted of a solid breastplate and scales to cover other areas (1 Sam 22:34) or a coat of mail (1 Sam 17:5, 38; Yadin, 1963, Vol. 1, p. 15). A shield might be used in place of armor to reduce the weight on the body (see Yadin, 1963, Vol. 2, p. 293). The most common weapons in such settings were the axe, mace, sword, and spear (1 Sam 17:7, 39).

Longer-range weapons.

The use of weapons that could reach the enemy from longer range was important for both open-field conflict and attacks on and defense of cities. The bow was perhaps the most important weapon in this regard since some bows had an effective range of 300 meters or more (Yadin, 1963, Vol. 1, p. 7). The sling also could fire missiles at great distances. Slings were simple to construct, and ammunition could be simply collected, not produced. Finally, the javelin (as opposed to the spear) could be launched into an enemy line or into a fortification much like an arrow, although with less distance.

Mobility.

The quick movement of forces in battle was facilitated by two primary tools: the chariot and the horse. Chariots provided both speed to move and a platform from which to fire on an enemy. They required a driver, who controlled the vehicle, and a soldier (usually a bowman), who fired; but they offered great accuracy with quick movement. The horse allowed a soldier to operate alone, but the dual role of using the weapon and controlling the animal reduced effectiveness.

Siege warfare.

Attacks on fortified cities required a distinct set of strategies and actions. When a city was shut up, the assaulting army might attack directly and immediately. With artillery fire as cover (from bowmen, slingers, and javelin throwers), soldiers tried to approach and breach the city wall by scaling it, undermining it, or creating an opening in it. A primary weapon in this effort was the battering ram. A simple version was simply a fortified shelter for soldiers who hit and chipped away at the wall with a pole from inside. More complex battering rams were machines on wheels the army hoisted up a ramp constructed for the purpose. Soldiers inside the machine would then hammer the wall with a large ram that moved as a swing. This technique was commonly used by the Assyrians and Babylonians, as their artwork illustrates (see Yadin, 1963, Vol. 2, pp. 314–315). Perhaps the most famous use of siege ramp and battering ram was in the Roman capture of Masada ca. 73 C.E.

Defensive structures.

Residents of cities typically constructed fortifications to prevent an enemy from breaching the city walls and thus entering and capturing the settlement. Walls were built of stone, but they could also be covered with metal to enhance their strength. Thus, when God promises Jeremiah he will be a “wall of bronze,” the reference is to his ability to withstand attack from hostile opponents (Jer 15:20). In some cities a second wall was constructed parallel to the first, and the space between the two was portioned for storage or living quarters. This so-called casemate structure is represented in the description of Rahab’s house in Joshua 2:15: “her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself.” Another strategy for enhancing the defenses of city walls was to partition the city with a set of inner walls so that invaders who breached the outer wall encountered yet another wall in the inner fortress.

The most vulnerable part of a city’s defensive system was the city gates. Invaders could breach the wall most easily where there was already an opening, so the gate was fortified in ways the rest of the wall was not. Remains at Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo reveal gates with three chambers through which invaders had to pass in order to enter the city (see Yadin, 1963, Vol. 2, pp. 370–379).

In addition to enhancing the strength of walls, efforts were made to prevent invaders from approaching the wall in the first place. Cities were built on hills or elevated areas, which made approach more difficult. In addition to this natural defensive feature, it was common to alter hillsides beneath portions of city walls that might be targets of attack. The hill was made steep, covered with clay, and then packed so that the approach to the wall was slick and footing was difficult. The history of warfare in the biblical world is characterized by such efforts to improve fortifications, matched by the development of war techniques and implements.

The Ethics of War.

Numerous Old Testament passages speak either directly or indirectly about standards of conduct in war. An example of indirect discussion of this issue is the series of oracles in Amos 1:32:6. Amos’s larger purpose is to indict Israel for its economic injustice, but he does so by drawing a parallel between Israel’s mistreatment of the poor and Israel’s neighbors’ atrocities in battle. The collection of oracles seems to assume internationally recognized standards by which nations could be judged in their conduct of war (Barton, 2003, pp. 77–129). The breaches of standards Amos highlights include breaking treaties (Amos 1:11), taking whole populations into exile (Amos 1:6, 9; exile typically included only the most powerful and influential citizens), mistreating the bodies of dead enemies (Amos 2:1), and abusing vulnerable members of conquered peoples (i.e., “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead”; Amos 1:13).

Deuteronomy 20 and 21 discuss directly certain practices of war, presumably to guide the Israelites as they engaged their enemies in battle. For example, the Israelites are ordered to offer terms of peace to any town they approach. They could attack the town only if the residents refused the terms of peace (Deut 20:10). When the Israelites besieged a city, they were not allowed to cut down fruit trees as part of the siege. They were only to fell non-fruit-bearing trees to use them for siege works (Deut 20:13–14). These chapters also regulate how the Israelites were to treat women captured in battle: if an Israelite man found desirable a woman from a conquered people, he could take her as his wife only after allowing her a period of mourning for her dead family members (21:12–13; cf. Judg 5:30). But under no circumstances was the man to treat her as a slave. If he was displeased with her as a wife, he was required to set her free (21:14).

It is impossible to know how such laws were applied or even to what extent they were real laws. It is generally acknowledged that Deuteronomy is unique in literature of this period and in the region of western Asia in its inclusion of written regulations for war. In the case of the regulation against destruction of fruit trees, however, the law seems to stand against the command of Elisha in 2 Kings 3 to destroy fruit trees as part of a battle strategy and thus may represent an internal debate about proper behavior in war. What is certain is that the Deuteronomic law speaks against the Assyrian practice of ecocide in conducting wars (Wright, 2008, p. 456). As Jacob Wright argues, this seems to reflect the unique concern of Deuteronomy’s authors both to restrain the violence of war and to codify that restraint (2008, p. 458).

Holy War and the Ban.

War in the Bible is sometimes associated directly with the actions of God, and God officially sponsors warfare by his people. This type of conflict is sometimes called “holy war.”

The concept of holy war.

The expression “holy war” refers to the practice of war for God’s purposes or with God’s help, and it carries the assumption that God is unambiguously on the side of one party in the conflict. Some scholars have argued that holy war was a central feature of Israel’s earliest religious experience (see von Rad, 1991, pp. 41–51). Reference to “the Book of the Wars of the LORD” may give evidence that this was so (Num 21:14). According to this understanding of Israel’s history, the Israelites (primarily in the time depicted in Judges) were united by a loose confederation in a tribal league. They came together under leaders like Othniel (Judg 3:7–11), Deborah (Judg 4—5), and Gideon (Judg 6:118:35) to fend off enemies, with God fighting for them (see the summary of this reconstruction in Bright, 1981, pp. 162–173). Scholars now generally question this view of Israel’s formative period and the place of holy war in it (see the incomplete list of tribes in Judg 5:15–18 and the charge that some tribes did not participate).

What is clear, however, is that such divinely sponsored war is presented in numerous passages that depict the early period of Israel’s history. Perhaps the key feature of such warfare is expressed in Moses’s words to the Israelites in Exodus 14:14: “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” In the so-called holy war God went before the army and did the fighting. The main role of humans was to trust in God and to be faithful to divine instruction (Josh 1:1–9). Soldiers purified themselves as if to perform the duties of a priest (Josh 3:5). After the account of the Exodus and wilderness period, God’s presence in such conflicts was symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant that went before the army (Josh 6:6; 1 Sam 4:1B–11). The clearest example of an extended conflict that follows this pattern is the story of Israel’s conquest of Canaan (Josh 1—12; Judg 1:13:6). Although the narrative describes the Israelites as part of the fight, God fights and defeats the enemy. So at Jericho, without any human effort to breach the walls of the city, “the wall fell down flat” (Josh 6:20). In a subsequent battle the LORD threw hailstones upon the enemy so that “there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword” (Josh 10:11).

The ban.

A particularly disturbing feature of Israelite war practice is the ban, which entailed the ritual annihilation of the enemy as a way of giving thanks to God for victory in battle. The Hebrew verb ḥāram means “to devote to destruction,” and the noun that derives from it (ḥerem) is used to denote persons or objects as “devoted things” (that is, set apart for destruction). The practice is known outside the Bible on a victory stela erected by King Mesha of Moab. Mesha declared that his god Chemosh gave him victory, and he devoted his enemy to destruction in return. Numbers 21:1–3 says the Israelites enacted the ban in the same way in their battle with the king of Arad.

The greatest ethical challenge of the ban is due to the fact that the ban appears as a requirement for the Israelites during the conquest of Canaan. Whereas Numbers 21:1–3 presents the Israelites initiating the practice of the ban, as part of a vow to receive God’s help, Moses orders the practice of the ban at all times in the conquest. In Deuteronomy 7:2 Moses gives the Israelites strict instructions about how to treat the people in the land of Canaan: “when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” There are questions, however, as to the historical reality behind this command and whether or not it was actually implemented in Israel’s occupation of Canaan.

War as Allegory of Spiritual Life.

Many early Jewish and Christian interpreters argued that Moses’s order to kill the Canaanites is not to be read literally. Perhaps most famously, Origen asserted that the entire account of Israel’s conquest of Canaan was a figurative account of the battle with temptations, part of the Christian’s effort not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2; Origen, Hom. Josh. 26–33). For Origen the order to put the residents of the land under the ban was a figurative way of saying that the Christian must purge the self of all that would hinder pure devotion to God. Thus Origen said, “within us are the Canaanites; within us are the Perizzites; here (within) are the Jebusites” (Origen, Hom. Josh. 34; see also Hoffman, 1999, p. 197).

Although many modern scholars reject Origen’s interpretation as an attempt to countermand the clear message of the text, there is good reason to affirm his interpretation, at least in the case of Deuteronomy 7:1–11. Immediately following Moses’s command to put the residents of the land under the ban, Deuteronomy 7:3–5 explains what ḥerem means in two stipulations, neither of which involves taking life. The first stipulation is a statement against intermarriage (vv. 3–4). Marrying those living in the land would lead to religious unfaithfulness. The second stipulation is to destroy the sacred objects of the residents of Canaan: “break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire” (v. 5). Thus, the only things “devoted to destruction” are the religious objects associated with the worship of foreign deities.

Adding to the notion that the ban is figurative, many scholars conclude that Deuteronomy and the conquest account in Joshua were composed largely during the reign of Josiah in the late seventh century B.C.E. The main feature of Josiah’s reign was a set of religious reforms meant to purify and standardize Judah’s religious practices (2 Kgs 23). His orders centered precisely on the destruction of sacred objects and sanctuaries associated with heterodox religious practices.

Josiah was dealing not with Canaanites in the land but with his own people who often practiced the worship of their God with elements of the worship of Baʿal and other deities. Hence, Origen’s allegory really does capture the meaning of the text, a meaning that points away from violence and bloodshed.

God’s Relationship with War.

In addition to God’s sponsorship of war, God is sometimes depicted acting directly as a warrior. This type of portrait of God is typical of ancient Near Eastern religions. Most significant, however, are the ways the biblical God appears differently in relation to war compared to other deities.

Creation by word instead of combat.

The Bible’s picture of God in relation to war is complex. The Bible opens with a remarkable picture of God not engaging in conflict. Genesis 1:12:4A shows God ordering the disordered elements not only with words but also with invitations: “Let the earth put forth vegetation” (1:11) and “let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (1:20; see also 1:9, 14, 24). This portrait of God creating stands in sharp contrast to the account in the Babylonian creation epic in which Marduk, the chief Babylonian deity, created by doing battle with the chaos monster Tiamat. Since Genesis 1:12:4A and the Babylonian account present a near identical order of events and since the biblical author was likely an exile in Babylon, it seems likely that the first creation story was intended as a reaction to the story of Marduk’s creation by combat.

God as warrior.

But many passages describe and depict God as a warrior. The first occurrence of the idea is in the so-called Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1–18 (v. 3). The warrior label is communicated in three words woodenly translated, “the LORD is a man of war” (author’s translation). The warring activity of God appears in this song as it does typically in other texts as well. God makes war in two ways. First, God expressed power directly in action against Pharaoh and his forces. For instance, verse 1B declares “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea”. Again in verse 4A the passage declares, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea”. Second, the song shows God using the nonhuman world as an instrument in divine warfare. Statements to this effect punctuate the poem: “The floods covered them” (v. 5A); “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea” (v. 8); “You blew with your wind, the sea covered them” (v. 10A); “You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them” (v. 12).

After the end of the poem, a summary statement reiterates the point: “When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground” (v. 19). Thus, in this concluding account of God’s defeat of Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s immediate foe is the nonhuman world itself. The power of God is displayed mainly in his ability to direct the elements against the Egyptian king. For other examples of God acting similarly to a warrior, see Psalms 29 and 68.

God’s reign and the end of warfare.

Despite the prominence of God acting as a warrior in the Old Testament, there are also many passages that present God’s ultimate goal as to end war and conflict. Images of the peaceable kingdom in Isaiah 11:1–9 provide one example. The final stanza of Psalm 46 speaks about how God intends to end human violence (vv. 8–11). This section seems to address the nations directly with a series of imperatives: “Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth” (v. 8). The “desolations” mentioned here may at first seem to point to God’s destructive actions as the divine warrior. A close reading of the verses that follow, however, seems to say just the opposite. Reference to the desolations of God leads directly to statements about God bringing peace to the world. Hence, the word “desolations” (šammôt) was perhaps intended to be sarcastic. It is the nations who bring desolation through their wars, and God brings all of that to naught. In other words, the reference to desolation is, in essence, an indictment of the nations’ attempts to control each other by violent means. This becomes clear in verses 9 and 10. Verse 9 declares, “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” This verse draws on the image of the ruler in the ancient Near East for whom warfare is crucial for protecting the people and for securing the land; God’s works entail bringing war to an end. Unlike the picture such kings painted of themselves, however, God does not just bring peace for his own people by defeating other people. Rather, God establishes peace as the norm in all the earth.

Verse 10 continues and clarifies this message with an order to the nations to cease fighting. Traditionally rendered “be still,” the first expression in the verse is better translated “stop” or “let it go” (harpû). The word literally means “let drop.” In some passages the word refers to the hands that hold weapons of war (2 Sam 24:16 = 1 Chr 21:15). In the context of Psalm 46 this imperative seems to order the nations to cease their dependence on warfare and destruction. James L. Mays sums up the message of this verse: “Cease your warring! Stop your attacks! Leave off your vain attempts to subject history to your power. There is but one power exalted over the earth and nations. Only one is God—the one whose work is the destruction of weapons and whose help is the refuge of those who recognize that he is God” (1994, p. 184).

Spiritual Warfare and the Battle with Evil.

In the New Testament the battle with evil is sometimes depicted as a war between God’s forces and the forces of evil. This is presented most dramatically in the apocalyptic material in which warfare occurs in the heavens between divine and demonic forces. Revelation 12:7 contains perhaps the most direct statement: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.” When the dragon was thrown to earth, Revelation 12:17 says, “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (cf. Rev 13:7). In this case war is not human activity but something reserved for God in God’s efforts to secure the world under divine rule. Ephesians 6:10–20 does say humans have a role in such warfare but are simply to abide in God’s protection, that is, to “put on the whole armor of God” (v. 11). Although this passage uses the language of battle (“our struggle [palē, lit. “wrestling” or “battle”] is not with flesh and blood”), the Christian is to “be strong in the LORD” (v. 10). Furthermore, the elements of armor to be put on are characterized as “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (v. 15). Hence, the human is called simply to trust God and wait for God’s acts of salvation. The command cannot be construed as a call to fight against earthly expressions of evil. To the contrary, the battle is purely spiritual and is waged by God alone.

[See also APOCALYPTICISM; EXILE AND DISLOCATION; FOREIGNER; HISTORICAL NARRATIVES (JOSHUA—2 KINGS); ISRAEL AND ISRAELITES; PERSECUTION; and SALVATION HISTORY.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Barton, John. Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Bright, John. A History of Israel. 3d ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981.
  • Craigie, Peter C. The Problem of War in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1978.
  • Creach, Jerome F. D. Joshua. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Creach, Jerome F. D. Violence in Scripture. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2013.
  • Hoffman, Yair. “Deuteronomistic Conception of the Herem.” Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 111 (1999): 196–210.
  • Lind, Millard C. Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel. Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald, 1980.
  • Lohfink, Norbert. “חָרַם ḥāram.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, translated by David E. Green, Vol. 5, pp. 180–199. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986.
  • Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1994.
  • Miller, Patrick D. The Divine Warrior in Early Israel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  • Niditch, Susan. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Rad, Gerhard von. Holy War in Ancient Israel. Translated and edited by Marva J. Dawn. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991.
  • Stern, Philip D. The Biblical Ḥerem: A Window on Israel’s Religious Experience. Brown Judaica Series 211. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
  • Walzer, Michael. In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Wright, Jacob L. “Warfare and Wanton Destruction: A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 20:19–20 in Relation to Ancient Siegecraft.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, no. 3 (2008): 423–458.
  • Yadin, Yigael. Warfare in Ancient Israel in the Light of Archaeological Study. 2 vols. Translated by M. Pearlman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Jerome F. D. Creach

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