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Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, part 7

Derek Caldwell

How could a good God command warfare in ancient Israel?

The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.

Deuteronomy 1:30-31

There is probably little else more disturbing to the modern conscience than the idea of God as a divine warrior. And yet, that is the depiction given in various Old Testament texts of warfare in ancient Israel. Moderns recoil at this notion, although such a revulsion was not always the norm. Indeed, at one time these ideas would have been commonplace and expected. It is a great irony that the West rejects these notions of the violent God. The irony comes not only from the ways in which modern society has led to the destruction of cultures and parts of the planet; rather, the irony comes from the fact that Westerners reject this notion of the divine warrior precisely because our consciences have been so shaped by the person of Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus—the One who established that all are made in the image of God and who demonstrated with His life that it is better to suffer than to cause suffering—that our protestations of the Old Testament God find at least their historical foundation.

This is an odd predicament to be in. We find the Bible violent, yet we probably would not find it violent were it not for the content of the Bible itself and the revolution in thought and morality it ushered into the world. And yet, when we look closer, we see that the Old Testament God is also loving, nurturing, and merciful, just as Jesus is. And we also see that Jesus is associated with divine violence, just as Yahweh is in the Old Testament (see Jude 4-5, Revelation 19:11-21).

Nevertheless, because we misunderstand the violence in the Old Testament—as genocidal, xenophobic, brutal, capricious, or desired by God—we wrongly align Old Testament violence with other cases of violence in the world. In considering this question, it is important to consider how we have used our modern feelings about war to try to understood divine violence.

Wrestling with Warfare in Ancient Israel

It should be noted that there have been different ways of wrestling with these texts in the past. We will consider some attempts that I have found particularly helpful. Others, while still helpful in some ways and thought-provoking, I have found less persuasive. For instance, some popular authors have attempted to assert that Israel was simply wrong about their understanding of Yahweh. Israel may have, so the argument goes, retroactively written her history based on current political realities somewhere in the monarchical period. Or perhaps they just wrote about God as if He were one of them, and God bore these false characterizations much like Jesus bore our sins on the cross and became sin on our behalf, to transform them and save us from them.[1]

The problem with these views is that Jesus seemed to have no problem with the God described in the Old Testament, the One Jesus called “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36; cf. John 10:30). These views are perhaps the easiest ways out of the problem, but they do not explain much. For instance, they don’t explain how we could have any confidence in the biblical text if we remove large percentages of it. And it is hard to think that we would not just end up, again, with a God made in our own image rather than the other way around (which means that over time, whatever is added or subtracted from the Bible would change). When we begin to make additions and deletions from a manuscript as carefully preserved as the Old Testament, we bring the entire manuscript—not just the points of addition or subtraction—into question. That’s not to say that those who make these claims do not have intriguing and sometimes convincing reasons to do so; rather, it just says that with increased scrutiny, I don’t think these views can be maintained.

The Early Church

Before moving on, though, I want to address a pernicious rumor found in countless books on this topic. The claim is made that we should simply interpret the Bible the way that Christians did in the first few centuries of the church: allegorically. In other words, the claim is made that by and large the early church—those generations coming immediately after the apostles up to, let’s say, the fifth century—clearly understood large swaths of the Bible to be true spiritually but not literally in a historical sense. And so, we should do the same with those bits of the Bible that the life and teachings of Jesus make seemingly untenable. However, this is not the case.

“All Christians in the early church believed that Scripture was inspired by God,” writes biblical and early church scholar Michael Graves.[2] Graves is quick to point out that ancient interpreters of texts did believe that one could find symbolic meanings behind relatively straightforward narratives in religious texts.[3] The early Christians would have been no different in that regard. They specifically thought that Scripture had different “senses” beyond the literal.[4] That said, “The general tendency among early Christians was to assume that stories narrated in Scripture actually took place.”[5] Clearly, there is deeper meaning and a place for allegorical interpretations that find their fulfillment in Jesus, but these interpretations do not undermine their historical foundations.

While this is an implicit understanding most of the time—these early Christians wrote in a way that assumes the truth of biblical narratives—sometimes they explicitly state it. This is the case in the work of Jerome, who cites the formation of Adam, Noah after the flood, Abraham’s commissioning, the near sacrifice of Isaac, the plagues of Egypt, the sun standing still in Joshua, and even Jonah being swallowed by a large fish as historically true.[6] Theodore of Mopsuestia recognizes something fantastical in the Jonah story, and yet does not progress to calling it out an outright fantasy, writing, “It would, in fact, be a mark of extreme folly, after such extraordinary things happened to him [Jonah], and most of all his deliverance from the sea monster, to pry into the prophet’s egress from the sea monster, and to think that one could grasp it by human reasoning and explain how it happened in our terms.”[7] To deny the historicity of such an event because of a fantastical element would be, according to Origen, like denying there was a Trojan War because of the story of Achilles the son of a sea goddess.[8] There may be times when the early Christians recognized that something within the Bible was not to be understood historically (or, at least, parts of it weren’t), but that was only when they felt the authors of the Bible did not intend it to be taken historically. In other words, “they are invoking the category that we today call literary genre.”[9]

Early church scholar Ronald Heine is also helpful explaining some of the nuance involved. Origen—often considered the most extravagant of the allegorists—firmly believed that Scripture was historical, but that the texts weren’t written to provide only historical details.[10] For example, the Exodus plagues are about keeping God’s commands to escape “illnesses,” by which Origen meant love of the sinful pleasures of the world.[11] Gregory of Nyssa saw in the plagues a lesson about the importance of human free choice in living a virtuous life. Gregory struggled to make sense of the death of the firstborn of Egypt in the tenth and final plague—especially considering Ezekiel’s comment about children not facing judgment for the sins of their parents (Ezekiel 18:20)—but he did not discount its historicity. Rather, he was simply confused as to how to interpret it spiritually for the church’s instruction. Gregory eventually interprets it as a sign that Christians need to put to death the earliest signs of evil in their lives before it grows into full-blown rejection of, and rebellion against, God.

The Early Church did not allegorize their way out of difficult passages of the Bible, nor did they pretend that those parts of the Bible were not difficult. They did not erase depictions of warfare in ancient Israel. Instead, they took what they knew about God’s goodness perfectly personified in Jesus Christ and tried to make sense of the difficult Hebrew scriptures. That meant trying to understand not just what a text means today, but what it meant in its own day, and using the latter to inform the former. They were doing the job of the faithful exegete without discounting that which was unpalatable to their contemporary cultures.

Warfare in the Ancient Near East

Having found no hope of escaping the historical reliability of the Old Testament we must now address warfare contained therein. It will help us to first consider what type of world—what type of warring world—sets the scene of the Old Testament.

Israel was, in some sense, destined to be embroiled in warfare from the beginning. I don’t mean this in a theological sense, but rather a geographical one. Israel’s location in the Levant all but guaranteed it would be in the middle of power struggles between larger empires. Strategically it was, according to scholar Mark Schwartz, the “only viable route from southwest Asia to Africa,” meaning that “it would be of vital interest to growing empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt.”[12] After the collapse of the Egyptian and Hittite Empires in the twelfth-century BC, and before the expansive dominance of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, a power vacuum in the region afforded smaller ethnic groups the chance to create their own nation-states. Israel was one such nation that began to emerge. Schwartz explains that this emergent state fully arrived in the late tenth to early sixth centuries BC, when the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel are active participants in the region’s tensions, partnerships, and wars.[13]

War in the ancient Near East could be exceptionally brutal. Major destruction to life, infrastructure, and land left behind a traumatized population (as mentioned in part 2 of this series, we can get a sense of this trauma from certain psalms of lament and imprecatory psalms). The Assyrians were a group of people infamous for their brutality in war, which included beheadings, flaying people alive, mass deportations, and impaling victims.[14] We also know that warfare included post-battle torture, blinding, digging up the bones of ancestors to scatter, raping, and pillaging.[15] However awful we can imagine it being, it was worse.

The “gods” of other nations were consulted before each conflict in order to receive direction and the assurance of victory. But these were no armchair quarterbacks—the gods accompanied their nations into war. Schwartz notes that there was no such thing as a religious/secular divide when it came to wars in the ancient Near East. A war either being entirely secular or entirely religious did not exist in this region.[16] The benefits of war were not just divine favor, mind you. They also included “wealth, land, and captive labor.”[17]

The ancient world practiced a type of war known as herem warfare, but the definition—or rather, implementation—of this word may not have been the same for each culture. In general, though, it seems the term has something to do with the total removal of an enemy from land—a removal of their persons, their culture, their artifacts, their religious buildings, their livestock, etc. A certain group of people for certain reasons are devoted to total destruction and, if need be, erasure. The term is applied somewhat inconsistently within the Old Testament, which makes definition more difficult. Nonetheless, as we will see when we look later at warfare in ancient Israel, herem is not quite what we’ve often thought it was. Whatever we end up making of herem, it should be noted that instances of this type of warfare used in the Old Testament are relatively rare, and it was not continued into the period of the divided kingdom of Israel.[18]

Warfare in Ancient Israel

Israel had a reputation for its mercy, according to officials of Aram’s (Syria) king, Ben-hadad, who had just been defeated in battle by the northern kingdom’s King Ahab. Ben-hadad’s officials said to him, “Look, we have heard that the kings of Israel are merciful. Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life” (1 Kings 20:31). Old Testament scholars William Webb and Gordon Oeste agree, explaining that warfare in ancient Israel was relatively mild, and the atrocities listed previously (rape, torture, mutilation, etc.) were prohibited. “Repugnant as the biblical war texts are for modern readers [especially on this side of the Geneva and Hague Conventions], they were markedly restrained in their day.”[19]

Setting the biblical portrayal of Yahweh in context is key to painting this picture, though. While we do see warfare in ancient Israel featured prominently in some parts of the Old Testament, we see it tempered by calls for toleration, peace, and coexistence. Schwartz writes,

Interestingly, other sections of Deuteronomy discuss the offering of peace to cities before initiating hostilities (Deut. 20:10), leniency toward cities that have surrendered (Deut. 20:11), prevention of ecological destruction during a siege (Deut. 20:19-20), prohibitions on the rape of female captives (Deut. 21:10-11), and required mourning periods for women captured in battle (Deut. 21:12-14).


Likewise, Webb and Oeste point out Yahweh is a reluctant participant in war. We see this in what the authors describe as “subversive war texts,” which are clues to God’s accommodation to the ways of the world at times, but only for a time. These subversive war texts include, for instance: God’s grief toward war violence against both Israel and Israel’s enemies (Ezekiel 27, 28:1-19); His reluctance to kill when it would not be difficult, and His desire to avoid warfare (2 Kings 6:8-23, where God responds in hospitality rather than the common ancient Near Eastern punishment of enslavement); His prohibition against David building the temple because he was a man of war who shed much blood (1 Chronicles 28:3), even though this was typically the kind of thing that allowed a king to build a temple; and finally, in 1 Samuel 8 the people of Israel ask for a king to lead them. Yahweh decides to give the people what they want, but He also gives them a warning. Without His direct leadership, and under the type of king they want, which is the type of king the surrounding nations have, their warfare will naturally increase not only in frequency of battles but in the quantity of shed blood.[21] Warfare in ancient Israel became more like warfare in the rest of the ancient world as a rejection of God’s ways, not a result of them. God’s heart is to shatter weapons of war (Isaiah 2:4; Hosea 2:18), but man’s heart is to fashion new and more (Judges 21:25; Joel 3:10). In essence, God gives them the warning and tells them what will happen, and it is up to them to decide if that’s what they want.

[The LORD] said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattleand donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

1 Samuel 8:11b-18

God essentially says that they can choose their own way, but they must live with the bloody and tragic consequences. The people of Israel cried out “No!” to Samuel’s relaying of God’s words. “We want a king over us,” they demanded. “Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Kings 8:19-20). Yahweh, in accommodating Himself to this nation, had tempered the violence perpetrated by Israel and the toll taken upon Israel. What they had missed is that they already had a God who went before them in battle, greatly minimizing the requirements of their own sacrifices. Each time they attempted to go their own way, disaster arose. Recall this is not long after the exceedingly wicked period of the Judges.[22] But they demand more, and God allows them to make the same mistake once again.

Warfare in ancient Israel, then, can be understood as an unfortunate accommodation to the fallen world. It does not appear to be God’s ideal, and in fact there are hints already that God will one day prohibit warfare for His people and, even later, end warfare altogether. The most brutal warfare in ancient Israel is a direct rejection of Yahweh’s type of warfare, the kind that goes before violent clashes and expels enemies with minimal casualties. But this the people reject, for His warfare is not like our warfare.

In the Bible and in life itself, as experience has shown us, God grants us the radical freedom we so desire. The freedom that seeks to break relationship with God is a true freedom, but it is like the freedom of a man who can, of his own free will and exertion, climb into the lion enclosure at the zoo, or the one who chooses to defy gravity by walking off the roof of a building. In the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “that way madness lies.”[23]

All articles in this series:

Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction

God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2

God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3

God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4

God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5

The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6

Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7

Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8

Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9

Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10

The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11

Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12

Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13

Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14

Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15

To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16

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Image: Ambrosio Paolo (????), “Presagio Inattuale,” 1985

[1] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014) and Gregory A. Boyd, Cross Vision (Fortress Press, 2018), respectively, are two examples of such approaches.

[2] Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 4.

[3] Ibid., 9-10.

[4] Ibid., 49-54.

[5] Ibid., 81.

[6] Ibid., 81-82.

[7] Theodore of Mopsuestia: Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, trans. Robert C. Hill, Fathers of the Church (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2004),200. Cited in Graves, 82.

[8] Graves, 84.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ronald E. Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 86-87.

[11] Ibid., 86-87.

[12] Mark Schwartz, “Warfare in the World of the Bible,” in Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton (eds.), Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 506.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 510.

[15] William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 285.

[16] Schwartz, 512.

[17] Ibid., 507.

[18] Ibid., 513.

[19] Webb and Oeste, 285.

[20] Schwartz, 513.

[21] Webb and Oeste, 306.

[22] The Book of Judges details a period in the life of Israel that was known particularly for its wickedness, not unlike the world directly pre-flood. Contained within this book are some of the most depraved acts of evil found within the whole Bible, often portrayed by Israel itself. After all God had done to rescue Israel, they continued to fall back and serve other gods. Naturally, this led to a world of pain, and God responded by sending righteous “judges” in their midst to help restore order and flourishing. In this, God was faithful to His promises to Israel, though it was grave unfaithfulness on their part that colors the whole of the book. The Book of Judges is often summarized by its last verse, which is one of it’s more well-known verses: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25).

[23] William Shakespeare, King Lear,3.4.23.