“I simply cannot take seriously a God who commands the slaughter of babies and entire civilian populations!” This outburst of a Harvard undergraduate describes the feeling of many thoughtful people, as they read passages like 1 Samuel 15:2–3:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘… Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ ”
For some, the solution is straightforward: The Bible is simply 034consigned to the category of primitive, violent literature, without value for the morally sensitive modern individual.
For others, the matter remains more complex: That the Bible provides the foundation for important religious beliefs and moral values cannot be denied, and thus the juxtaposition of lofty ideals and crude accounts of divinely ordered slaughter leads to perplexity. Can biblical scholars be of any help?
“Solutions” are not lacking. But they cause some perplexity in their own right. According to some, the Bible admonishes the righteous nation today to be sure that God is at its side in its preparations to destroy godless adversaries. This “solution” has led to an aggressive defense of nuclear strategy. According to others, God the warrior leading the faithful into conflict is to be understood in spiritual terms as a call to personal piety, the opposite face of which is social and political apathy.
Then there are biblical scholars who attempt to give Yahweh’s wars distinctive status, somehow insulated from the offensiveness associated with wars fought by the gods of Assyria, Canaan and Egypt. For example, Gerhard von Rad, the great German exegete, insists on the defensive nature of Israel’s wars.1 Millard Lind, on the other hand, finds in Israel’s earliest accounts of war the model of the miraculous war in which the deity fights without human participation.2 035Von Rad’s position, unfortunately, is based on an unacceptably late dating of texts like the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15) that we will discuss below. (Von Rad dates this to the period of the monarchy, at which time memory of Israel’s early history had grown dim.) Lind’s position raises its own questions: Does ascription of violence to the deity avoid the moral offensiveness—or heighten it? Doesn’t the image of God to which a people subscribes reflect that people’s own system of values?
Dogmatic assertions like von Rad’s and Lind’s leave many sensitive readers unsatisfied. The best service that biblical scholars can render is to engage in careful historical investigation that attentively explores lines of continuity with early Israel’s neighboring cultures as well as distinctive developments within Israelite culture.
In the case of war, early Israel drew deeply on the language, symbolism and concepts of her neighbors, but nevertheless formulated a notion of war that differed fundamentally from that of her neighbors. Indeed, it differed so fundamentally that Israel’s conception of war effected a politico-religious revolution that challenged both the prevailing mythology and the social and political structures that arose out of that mythology. Moreover, early Israel’s revolutionary adaptation of war mythology even promises to contribute to our own reflections on the perplexing questions of war and peace, if understood in the full light of critical, historical scholarship. We shall examine Israel’s earliest account of war to see how a new understanding emerged out of the old idioms.
Israel’s relationship to her cultural environment was characterized by both continuity and change. Thus, we must understand war in the early Yahwistica community of Israel in light of the neighboring cultures to which those composing that Israelite community were related. What were the major cultural sources of early Yahwism?
There is no basis for doubting that sound historical memory underlies Israel’s cult tradition that some members of her community had experienced bondage in Egypt and had escaped under circumstances they interpreted as divinely ordained and directed. In Egypt, these Hebrews learned well the nature of a monolithic society ordered hierarchically on the basis of a divine king and of descending orders of participation in divinity. The Egyptian hierarchical society reached from divine Pharaoh down to the lowest human class the foreign slaves. This was a social order that devoted enormous energy to securing stability. All threats of change, whether from internal revolt or outside attack, were suppressed with the awesome force associated with the wrath of the Egyptian god Horus.b As the Pharaoh was divine, the social system over which he presided was divinely ordained—and unchanging. Within this ancient, monolithic system, there was no alternative for slaves but to remain slaves forever.
The oppression of foreign slaves was exacerbated during the reign of Ramesses II, who is generally regarded as the “Pharaoh of the exodus.” No Egyptian ruler left such clear signs 036of megalomania as did Ramesses II—“the Great,” as he is called. He filled the country with gigantic statues of himself, conducted ambitious and expensive military campaigns, embarked on extravagant building projects, and enveloped his court with unprecedented luxury. The priests of the land participated in this increase of power and wealth, with a third of the land coming under their ownership, and with temple slaves constituting 20 percent of the total population. The picture of increasingly onerous forced labor presented in the first chapter of Exodusc seems to fit what we know of the reign of Ramesses II.
The Hebrew slaves in Egypt were likely aware of regions and peoples beyond the land of the Nile. Egyptian border reports, coupled with accounts of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt in the 18th century B.C., indicate that over the course of the second millennium B.C. listless, homeless foreigners often crossed Egypt’s borders in search of a home (compare the biblical story of Joseph).3 Amenophis II (late 15th century B.C.) reports the capture of ‘apiru slaves in Syro-Palestine, whom the Egyptians brought back to Egypt. During the Amarna period (mid-14th century B.C.), the ‘apiru threatened Egyptian hegemony in the Canaanite area by rebelling against Pharaoh’s vassal kings. In one of the Amarna letters,d Abdu-Heba of Jerusalem gives Pharaoh Akhenaten this vivid account of the situation:
“I have become like a ship in the midst of the sea! The arm of the mighty king conquers the land of Naharaim and the land of Cush, but now the ‘Apiru capture the cities of the king …. Behold Zimreda, the townsmen of Lachish have smitten him, slaves who had become ‘Apiru.”4
During this same period, Pharaoh sent to the Damascus region for
The etymological and linguistic debate over the bearing of the terms ‘apiru/
A further assumption seems likely; namely, that cultural contacts existed between ‘apiru elements residing in Canaan and those living in Egypt, including those to whom biblical tradition gives the name “Hebrews.” This means that already during the Egyptian sojourn, we must reckon with Canaanite culture as a source of influence on the world view of the early Hebrews. When the early Hebrews thought of life’s perennial struggle between order and chaos, fertility and sterility, fresh water and saline water, they likely thought in the first instance of the Baal conflict myth indigenous to Canaan, but widely known, as well, in the Nile Delta region in the Late Bronze Age.8 According to this conflict myth, the Warrior God Baal defeated Yamm, “Prince Sea,” by applying the awesome weapons of the storm.
Given this view of the world the early Hebrews, as they contemplated the possibility of breaking out of their bondage and misery, would have 037thought of their situation in terms of divine conflict. The god that looked after their welfare would have to defeat, through a display of superior power, the god of the nation that held them in bondage. This thought, however, must have struck most of the slaves as an absurdity! The power of the divine Pharaoh was displayed all around them, and extended from the source of the Nile to the Euphrates. Were not Pharaoh and his gods clearly supreme among the divine powers in heaven? What god would be interested in saving slaves, the powerless and forgotten of the world? Even if there were such a god, with such an unworthy clientele and the clear absence of a power base, how could that god possibly compete with Horus/Harmachis?
There was another source of tradition, however, that suggested to some of the early Hebrews that there might be a divine Champion who could fight effectively on their behalf. Ancestral traditions telling of Abram and Sarai and their offspring had developed among Amorite migrants who, over the course of the second millennium B.C., had entered both Mesopotamia and Canaan from regions to the northwest. These traditions spoke of a deity variously named “ ’El Shaddai” (Genesis 17:1, Genesis 28:3, Genesis 35:11, Genesis 48:3), “ ’El ‘Elyon” (Genesis 14:18, Genesis 14:19, Genesis 14:20, Genesis 14:22), “ ’El ‘Olam” (Genesis 21:33), “ ’El Roi” (Genesis 16:13), “ ’El Bethel” (Genesis 35:7) or simply “ ’El” (Genesis 33:20). This god related to the homeless Amorites and even entered into covenant with them, offering protection, progeny and eventual possession of a homeland. It is my suspicion that the early Hebrews in Egypt, as well as their kin in Canaan, kept alive their hopes of escaping bondage and overthrowing tyranny by telling stories to each other about such divine promises to Abram and Sarai and their progeny.
The earliest traditions preserved in the Hebrew Bible do not name the god of the liberated slaves “’El,” however, but “Yahweh.” A piece of the puzzle seems missing. How did these early Hebrews come to call their god “Yahweh”? The answer to this question may lie in the religious traditions of clans living in the wilderness to the east of ancient Egypt. The Exodus narrative 038describes how Moses, after having fled from Egypt for fear of reprisals for his slaying of an Egyptian taskmaster, sojourned within the territory of Jethro, a Midianite priest associated by tradition with the Kenites (see Judges 1:16, Judges 4:11). In Exodus 18:11, Jethro declares that “Yahweh is greater than all gods”; Jethro then proceeds to instruct Moses in the ways of effectively ruling his people. It seems plausible that Moses here came into contact with some of his distant relatives living outside of Egypt and learned from them to name the god of his ancestors “Yahweh.”
Thus, we may picture four sources of cultural influence bearing on the Hebrew slaves in Egypt: (1) Egyptian religion and society; (2) Canaanite religion; (3) the slaves’ own ancestral tradition relating to the patriarchs; and (4) their acquaintance with the divine epithet “Yahweh” through contact with a related group in the area to the east of Egypt.
But these sources do not yet fully explain the phenomenon of early Yahwism, and the revolutionary alternative it introduced into the spectrum of ancient religions. These four sources of cultural influence could not produce a revolutionary new faith were it not for a significant catalyst, an experience proving that the God of the Hebrew slaves, the God named “Yahweh,” did in fact possess both the will and the might to save them from the power and the pretensions of the lofty god Pharaoh.
This catalyst is reflected in an experience described in a hymn known as the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15; see The Song of Miriam, below),e which was sung after Pharaoh and his warriors were drowned in the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds).9 The scenario underlying this hymn is strikingly similar to that of the common Near Eastern conflict myth:
(1) The Divine Warrior (in this case Yahweh) engages in conflict with the adversary.
(2) The Divine Warrior, using the storm as a weapon, defeats the adversary.
(3) The incomparable strength of the Divine Warrior is celebrated.
(4) The Divine Warrior secures those he has delivered in the place of his temple abode.
(5) The perpetuity of his reign is celebrated.
(6) Yahweh, using the same implements of war employed by Baal in his defeat of Yamm (Sea) in Canaanite mythology, vanquishes the enemy by casting him into yam (sea).
What are the ancient Hebrews expressing in this hymn? Stated simply, they are rejoicing that their God Yahweh scored a decisive victory over the “god” Pharaoh and his hosts. The slave that was powerless and in Pharaoh’s bondage can now sing: “Yahweh [Lord] is my strength … and has become my salvation.” What sort of god is this, and how was he able to vanquish the mighty Pharaoh? The song is explicit in its answer: “Yahweh [Lord] is a man of war.”
Thus far, we recognize an idiom in complete harmony with ancient Near Eastern war ideology. Conflicts between peoples were ultimately conflicts between their respective gods. Victory of one side over the other was traceable to the victory of one people’s god over the other people’s god. Yahweh, by casting Pharaoh’s chariots and his host into the sea, established his superior position in relation to the gods of Egypt. Inasmuch as Egypt was the preeminent power of the ancient world at that time, Yahweh’s victory established him as the incomparable one, in the manner of Marduk after his victory over Tiamat in the Mesopotamian epic Enuma elish. Thus the Israelites could sing:
“Who is like thee, Yahweh, among the gods?
Who is like thee, majestic in holiness,
terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”
Beyond the cultural continuity reflected in the ideology of war, does the Exodus account tell us anything more about Israel’s interpretation of the Exodus event and Yahweh’s role in it? The answer, found in several passages in the Book of Exodus, is yes—see, for example, Exodus 3:7–8:
“Then Yahweh said, ‘I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good 039and broad land ….’ ”
This passage is attributed by some source critics to J, the oldest strand of tradition in the Pentateuch.f But this same thought is expressed in passages attributed to E and P.
In Exodus 3:9–10, attributed to E, Yahweh says to Moses:
“And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”
Exodus 2:23–25 is attributed to P—a later post-Exilic source—but the same idea is expressed there, although the word for God used in this passage is Elohim, rather than Yahweh:
“And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God and God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition.”
In this passage, we see the inverse side of what we earlier observed from the Egyptian point of view: The system of the Pharaoh was secure, changeless and true, reflecting the divine order (maat in Egyptian) that was incarnate in the Pharaoh. Part of that system was the position of serfs and slaves, which was an essential part of the perfect, timeless system that extended from the divine Horus/Harmachis. The lowly position of serfs and slaves was maintained by the watchful eyes of the gods.
In the Exodus, however, we encounter another god viewing the situation of slaves from quite a different perspective. The affliction and suffering of those in bondage are not a natural part of a well-ordered society, but are rather a violation of the fundamental structures of a proper world order. Clearly, this notion is based on a norm radically different from the cardinal Egyptian principles of the absolute authority of the Pharaoh vested in his divine nature, and of the eternal validity of the institutions and social structures of the land. What was the norm that explained a God who identified not with the interests of the Pharaoh, but with the plight of slaves?
In approaching this question, we must be careful to place it within a conceptual context that accurately reflects early Israel’s world view. As the numerous biblical allusions to Yahweh’s defeat of chaos indicate, the delicate balance between order and chaos was of utmost concern to early Israel, a people living amidst innumerable forms of chaos, both historical and natural. The myths that told of the precariousness of life in terms of a conflict between two deities were understandably ingrained into the thought of the early Hebrews. When the early Hebrews thought of relationships between nations, they inevitably couched their ideas in terms of oaths and commitments entailing blessings and curses, of which the curse of defeat in divinely sanctioned war was especially conspicuous. Moreover, the early Hebrews also shared with their neighbors the view that each of the peoples of the world was sponsored by one of the executive gods in the divine assembly. Deuteronomy 32:8–9g puts it this way:
“When Elyon gate to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of humanity,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
For Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.”
This verse no doubt preserves early Israel’s view of her place within the family of nations. The high god Elyon originally apportioned the nations to the members of the divine assembly with the result that each people had its own god. Israel was allotted to Yahweh.
An essential element of this world-view related to the relative power of Jacob’s god to the other gods, for that is what determined the destiny of the descendants of Jacob. It is clear both from the myths and historical annals of the ancient Near 040East in general, and from the Exodus narratives in particular, that that power was demonstrated in conflict—that is, in situations of war through which the superior strength of one god over another was demonstrated.
Does this indicate that the ancient myth of conflict and its corresponding ideology of war remained essentially intact in early Israel’s world view? On the contrary, I believe the following evidence suggests quite the opposite conclusion.
Psalm 82, although it is difficult to date, gives us valuable insights into the transmutation of world views and social orders that began with the exodus. This psalm depicts a council of the gods reminiscent of Deuteronomy 32, from which we have already quoted. In Psalm 82, God (Elohim) presides over the divine assembly and interrogates the other heavenly members regarding the quality of their rule over the nations to which they have been assigned:
“God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
‘How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’ ”
Here is a norm that is accepted as binding on all the gods, a norm that transcends the interests of any royal house and the social structures and institutions it has secured in its land. That norm consists of justice and compassion. Because these gods have failed to uphold the norm of justice and compassion in the governance of their respective lands, a harsh sentence is meted out to them:
“I say, ‘you are gods,
sons of Elyon, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like men,
and fall like any prince.’ ”
This is an astonishing pronouncement. First, it acknowledges the divine status of the sons of Elyon in a kind of flashback to the divine council described in Deuteronomy 32. But then it goes on to judge the gods on the basis of the universal norm of compassionate justice. There is thus a higher authority in heaven than the patron god of each nation and its corresponding king. Though stemming from divine pedigree, the gods are no longer the source of right and wrong, nor the final court of appeal. They are rather subject to judgment against a norm to which all are held responsible.
Psalm 82 ends with an acknowledgment of the only divine being who remains constant in upholding the norm of justice and compassion, the God of Israel. It is thus this God who replaces Elyon as the head of the divine assembly, and who banishes all those who rule unrighteously: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations!” (Psalm 82:8).
Against the background of this reading of Psalm 82, we are able to return to the Exodus narrative and the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15). We now detect that there is more in the background of this early Israelite victory hymn than a contest of raw military power between two divine agents. The ideology of war is not really the dominant principle that is being expressed in this moving poem. The contest is rather between two notions of truth, one centered in divine royal power and prerogative, the other in impartial justice. In the Exodus account, the ideology of elite privilege and royal power is forced to yield to a moral principle. That principle concerns justice and compassion. It is expressed in the freedom of those denied justice and in the protection of the rights of every individual, especially those individuals victimized by oppression (including officially sanctioned oppression!) and those vulnerable to exploitation.
Pharaoh’s defeat by Yahweh is thus not the mere demonstration of superior raw force. It is a demonstration of the validity of the principle of universal justice over the principle of special privilege. In the context of the exodus, Pharaoh epitomizes the rejected principle of royal authority as ultimate authority, and cultic institutions and social structures as immutable and beyond criticism or challenge. The specific phenomenon 041of war is thus secondary. Accordingly, the military context must be evaluated in relation to the fundamental norm of justice and compassion.
We are thus able to formulate a basic thesis regarding the evaluation of war and peace in the Hebrew Bible: We simply cannot understand the phenomena of war and peace in the Bible without understanding their relationship to the fundamental norm that was born in the exodus. Nor can we grasp the significance of the Bible for discussions relating to war and peace in our own world without realizing that that significance emerges not out of the phenomenon of war—or, for that matter, out of the phenomenon of peace defined merely as the absence of war—but out of the dynamic qualities of the order offered to humans by the Deliverer God as an alternative to chaos. What is that order?
It is what I call the “order of shalom.”h The cardinal principle in this alternative ordering of life is that it originates in the initiative of a gracious God. A group of oppressed slaves had no claims to press upon heaven; they could only cry out. There could accordingly be only one condition under which that cry might be heard in heaven, namely, its being received by a God whose essential nature was defined not by power identified with the king, but by impartial righteousness and compassion. The order of shalom, therefore, is not an order governed by the forces of nature; it is not an eternal structure inferred from a metaphysical theory; it is not an immutable social system extrapolated from a primordial myth; and it is not identical with the rule of any earthly authority; rather, it is a gift of fellowship granted by a gracious God to a receptive people. From the human side, therefore, its principal quality is worship.
The community derived from this antecedent, 042gracious initiative of God, patterned itself after the qualities of that God as revealed in God’s redemptive activity on their behalf. In the deliverance of slaves from their bondage, Yahweh was recognized above all to be a God of righteousness and compassion. In the oldest attempted codification of the ideals of the Yahwistic community found in the Bible, the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 20:21–23:19, we can see the process of inference that led to the formation of the ideals of that community: The widow and the orphan are to be treated with tenderness, because God will not stand idly by if they cry out in their affliction, but will judge the offender (Exodus 22:22–24 [in Hebrews 22:21–23]). The creditor is not to force the debtor into foreclosure—and again the motivation is the same, “For if he cries to me, I shall hear, for I am compassionate,” Yahweh explains (Exodus 22:25–27 [in Hebrews 22:24–26]). Likewise, “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Or again, “You shall not be partial to a poor man in his suit,” yet at the same time, “You shall not prevent the justice due to the poor in his suit” (Exodus 23:3, 6). Thus, we see the process by which the norms of a society were teased out of the one absolute norm that was binding on all people regardless of their wealth or class, the norm of compassionate righteousness manifested in the gracious deliverance of slaves from their bondage.
We can interpret these norms as dedicated to the preservation of the equality and dignity of every individual that Yahweh sought to restore in the exodus. It was Yahweh’s acts of righteous 044compassion that had drawn the early Israelites out of chaos into shalom, and now it was clear that the shalom of a free community could be preserved only by safeguarding the qualities of justice and mercy. Even the economic system of the new community was drawn consistently out of this norm, for according to the institution of the nahala, each family received from Yahweh as a trust in perpetuity a piece of land (its inheritance or patrimony) sufficient for its sustenance. Since there was no absolute authority save Yahweh, no one was allowed to dispossess another, for to do so would violate the norm upon which the entire society was based, the norm of righteous compassion and equality, the norm drawn from the heart of a loving God.
Worship, righteousness and compassion—these were the principal qualities defining the order of shalom that upheld all aspects of life in harmony, the order that was God’s gift to Israel (and ultimately, through Israel to the world).
The maintenance of this life-sustaining order was provided for within the framework of the covenant: If Israel practiced righteousness and compassion through obedience to torah (encompassing the books of the law and embodying the law) rooted in true worship, the chaos that threatened life in so many forms would not harm her. It was from this life-sustaining order that God’s people was to address specifically that manifestation of chaos called war.
A people living within God’s order of shalom would not engage in imperialistic wars, for such wars are induced by and abet the collapse of compassionate justice in the land. As for wars coming from the outside, the daring claim was made that the obedient people would be protected from such chaos if they placed their trust solely in their God. Was this claim nothing more than empty utopianism?
The Exodus narrative itself embodies leitmotifs that disallow a romanticized reading of life within the early Yahwistic community. Already in the wilderness, the people grumble about the lousy food God gives them in the wilderness, and they demand that they be returned to the security of their slave homes. They rebel against their leaders, cower before hostile threats and in general seem to do all they can to defeat shalom. Yet, when tested, the resiliency of the new order proves itself capable of coping with just such an imperfect world, even when that test came in the form of the hostile attacks of Canaanite kings seeking to reimpose a repressive system based on the ideology of special privilege and royal power.
As regards the problem of war, we must confront here one of the most difficult parts of the biblical record—that describing Israel’s entry into Canaan. Here we find texts that threaten to undo all we have claimed about an order of shalom defined not by might in battle but by righteousness and compassion. What does the extermination of the inhabitants of Jericho have to do with either righteousness or compassion? The stories of Joshua 6–11 must be read, however, as a reflection not primarily of the early period of Israel’s Tribal League, but of the period of the later Israelite monarchy. It was in the latter period that these stories were shaped so as to give expression to a triumphant royal ideology.
We are able to capture the ambience of the Tribal League period more accurately by examining a poem stemming from that period, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible.
The situation described in Judges 5 is this: The life of the peasantry that constitutes the tribes of Israel has been harshly disrupted. Travel has become perilous, trade has been thrown into chaos, life for the peasants stands in serious danger. The reason is clear. Their life of freedom and equality has encountered a deadly threat: The system from which they were delivered by Yahweh seeks to claim them as victims once again. A Canaanite king, protagonist of the ideology of special privilege and divine power, has attacked one of the tribes. The response is decisive. Some of the other tribes rally to aid the victims, and do so with the confidence that the same God of righteousness and compassion who 045delivered them from Egypt will once again go out before them. The outcome is consistent with the order of shalom manifested in the exodus. Victory does not go to the powerful, but to the weak and the oppressed. In fact, in this case—the first instance of the kind—it goes to a woman (Deborah) who takes on the Canaanite king with none but Yahweh on her side. What decides the battle is not the divine power vested in a tyrant king, but the power of the God of justice who embraces the cause of the powerless. God thus upholds the order of shalom even in a time of terrible threat, for God remains opposed to the chaos of the ruthless tyrants of the earth. As in the case of the exodus, the response of the delivered peasants is one of acknowledging the source of their strength in praise and worship: “… to the Lord I will sing, I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Judges 5:3).
The Song of Deborah, undeniably an account of war, is not a description of chaos, but a celebration of the restoration of shalom. War was not perpetrated by the tribes, but inflicted upon them by forces of chaos seeking to reimpose the bonds of servitude. Deborah’s response is not commanded by a king. It comes, as does the response of the people, as a free act. It is founded on an attitude of trusting no authority save Yahweh. And it results in the restoration of the freedom of the tribes to live true to their ideals of equality and justice in praise of God. We cannot condemn this war as a chaotic act on the part of the tribes, for it was dedicated to the preservation of the alternative order of shalom.
What conclusions can we draw from the two accounts of war in early Israel we have just examined? Although a much broader study would be required to lead to conclusions relating to war in the Bible as a whole, Exodus 15 (the Song of Miriam) and Judges 5 (the Song of Deborah) set the stage for a new approach to the problem. War in the Bible, not unlike war in our world, is a very complex issue, and is not amenable to analysis in terms of war an peace alone. One must seek to grasp the broader structures of value and purpose within which any given war functions; that is to say, one must examine the ideologies of war coming to expression. When this is done, it will be seen that certain accounts of conflict, such as the encounter between Israel and Pharaoh at the Red Sea, or the Canaanite attack against the peasants “by the waters of Megiddo” in the Song of Deborah, actually function to describe the process by which shalom is preserved in a hostile world.
Another lesson emerges: One must penetrate beneath the idioms of any account to grasp the function of that account within its original sociopolitical setting, with full awareness that the seers and historians of ancient Israel spoke in the only language they knew, a language deeply imbued with the myths and legends of their immediate cultural context. The “biblical view of war” can only be understood as deriving from an ardent sense of justice born of the slave experience of deliverance from bondage. People in our own time who are concerned for peace, aware of the harsh realities of economic injustice, international tension and world hunger will not terminate dialogue with the Bible by simply denouncing the Warrior God, but will dig deeper to the Bible’s vision of a world in which “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).
“I simply cannot take seriously a God who commands the slaughter of babies and entire civilian populations!” This outburst of a Harvard undergraduate describes the feeling of many thoughtful people, as they read passages like 1 Samuel 15:2–3: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘… Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ ” For some, the solution is straightforward: The Bible is simply 034consigned to the category of primitive, violent literature, without value for the […]