Thoughts on War in the Bible and Terrorism in the 21st Century, Essay 2 – War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview

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For an introduction to the series, see here.

Often times, especially in the latest round of discussion concerning war, terrorism and the appropriate response to attacks, the Hebrew bible is mined extensively (well, not too extensively, I suspect) to support a violent and oftentimes, religious response in the form of a crusade. I remember the days after 9/11 when our rhetoric was a ‘our God vs their god’ type mentality, with phrases such as ‘we should go Old Testament on their….’ brought up repeatedly. Richard Hess, an editor of this series, shapes a response to those who do violence to the Old Testament by using it to justify a swift and brutal reaction. His purpose is twofold: to consider the issue og war in a then/now spectrum as well as to allow the modern Westerner to regard him or herself in this light allowing them to see how much the views have changed by examining recent contributions to the ethics of war.

He notes that every ancient generation knew war (p20). We should be reminded, even from a casual reading of the Old Testament of places such as Har Megiddo which holds such a violent reaction in our minds because of the blood constantly spilled there during the ancient times. For evidence, as he notes, there is the fact that of the books of the Jewish canon, only two doesn’t mean war. War was a large part of the life of the ancient community, but as he goes on, it isn’t the take on it which we currently have. Instead, Hess begins to craft the notion that when YHWH went to war, it was defensive, except when YHWH stands against Israel. Contrary to Volf, Hess acknowledges the inherent violence in such things as the Day of the Lord and the wrath involved, although the author attributes this to preserving the holiness of YHWH (p24). He goes on, noting the development of ethics, but comes to show that war must be relative to YHWH, His holiness, and His judgment.

In one section of the essay, Hess details various views of war as found in the Hebrew bible – bardic and holy, to name two. I find it interesting though that the consequences of David’s bardic warmongering was not mentioned, in that the promises of the Temple were removed from his hand for the expressed reason that David’s hands were too bloody. David and presumably always fought the battles of YHWH and yet, at the end of his life, his most cherished goal and promise was denied to him because of his bloody acts as King. I do find it interesting, however, that the idea of holy war, something we hear today frequently tossed around, is not expressed in the Old Testament because their understanding included the idea that gods were always involved in war. I do appreciate his taking to task the notion of genocide as an act of human sacrifice, siting the Binding of Isaac as proof that God simply didn’t require sacrifice.

Hess takes the new normal road of seeing the wars and genocidal battles in Joshua and Judges as more in line with the bardic tradition than with an actual presentation of history. To his credit, however, he notes fully that these stories increased in the amount of bloodshed until they bring about a civil war filled with massacre. Further, he notes that the bible doesn’t give explicit approval to these actions, but as in the case of the tribe Dan, pleases the onus of warmongering on the people. (p31) In other words, they care little about being on YHWH’s side, but desperately want YHWH on theirs. It sounds all too familiar. The author deals swiftly with views which focus on war and yet leaves out the narration of such events, which generally speak only to the ‘history of it’ without giving credence to it. He ends his essay by noting that the bible, even in speaking about war, offers contradictions after contradictions on the subject, but carries with it a moral tenor that points to the cosmic struggle.

From reading the sacred text, I find very little reason for war, but the more so when reasons are given we must struggle to see they have divine approval or are the inventions of a fallen humanity. I believe that Hess, succinctly, points this out and doesn’t hide from the fact that war is prevalent in the Hebrew bible but calls us to examine whether or not the reasons are always welcomed by God.

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