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Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. 177–88 

Warfare in the Old Testament: An Argument for Peacemaking in the New Millennium

Lynn Jost

Believers-church Christians, also known as Anabaptists, read the Bible with a Christocentric hermeneutic. The words of Jesus are the lens through which we interpret the rest of Scripture. In this approach Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with his call to reject violence and to love enemies, is paramount.

The issue of God’s will in military matters was never satisfactorily resolved in Israel. Bellicose and nonbellicose ideological traditions exist side-by-side in the Hebrew Bible.

Though as Old Testament scholars we seek to avoid relegating the Hebrew Bible to secondary status, as Anabaptist believers we must be true to the teachings of Christ. Perhaps nowhere is this hermeneutical issue more sharply focused than in the biblical texts claiming that God orders Israel to destroy the enemy. How can Christians accept the Old Testament as authoritative Scripture when it commands such atrocities as slaughter of nonbelligerents (Deut. 20:16-18), accumulation of spoil (Deut. 20:14), enslavement of defeated nations (Deut. 20:11), and forced marriages (Deut. 21:10-14)?


No single, simple solution to the problem of war in the Old Testament has proven entirely satisfactory. Anabaptist Hebrew Bible scholars have pointed the way to a helpful theological interpretation which is true to Jesus’ teachings and, at the same time, undergirds the authority of the Old Testament. Millard Lind argues that, in God’s ideal, judgment of Israel’s enemies is left to Yahweh the warrior. 1 Lind traces successive {178} stages in which, first, Israel fights with Yahweh under the judges and Saul; second, Israel fights for Yahweh under David; and third, Yahweh fights against Israel, sending the nation into exile. In his study of the Zion theology of the Psalms, Ben Ollenburger argues that the Songs of Zion teach that Jerusalem’s security against external threats is grounded in the kingship of Yahweh. 2

Both Lind and Ollenburger make a strong case for a reading of the Hebrew Bible consistent with Jesus’ teachings of peace. Neither, however, completely resolves the problem noted above. How does one square these readings with the legal demands that, if obeyed, result in offenses reminiscent of the Holocaust?

The present study will suggest that the biblical text itself preserves a debate between conflicting understandings of God’s stance vis-à-vis military force. Within the Bible one finds ancient poems that describe Yahweh as the warrior-king who guarantees Israel’s security and demands justice, peace, and absolute trust. One also finds laws that demand heinous acts of war. These apparently contradictory texts are in fact inconsistent. My aim is to develop a plausible scenario which identifies the socioeconomic niche for the two communities that developed these contrary means of understanding Yahweh’s will and review the biblical basis for both schools of thought.


A naive reading of the story of Israel’s origins in Palestine yields the impression of straightforward simplicity. Israel’s military leader Joshua had conquered “all their enemies” and “not one of all their enemies had withstood them . . .” (Josh. 21:44).

Such a reading ignores problems presented by the biblical text itself. Joshua 13:1 records the words of Yahweh to Joshua: “. . . very much of the land still remains to be possessed.” The book of Judges makes it painfully clear that if there was a conquest like the one described in the book of Joshua, its results were short-lived. Plenty of enemies still threatened Israel. In fact, a clear description of Israel’s political and sociological context can significantly inform our reading of the biblical controversy over military strategy.

Canaanite City-State

According to Judges 1-2, Israel emerged not in the sterile purity of a land cleared of its enemies but in a land steeped in Canaanite ideology. A hierarchical religious and political system characterized the Canaanite city-state structure. 3 Canaanite religion was rooted in a series of myths {179} that understood life as a cyclical pattern of nature determined by a pantheon of gods. Human society mirrored the hierarchical structure of the divine pantheon. 4 The king had exclusive control of power, land, and wealth. The royal house, some two-to-three percent of the total population, used its monopoly of weaponry to demand exorbitant taxes. Merchants and craftsmen, not more than ten percent of the populace, produced the city-state’s wealth through trade.

At the bottom of the structure, the vast majority of the people were peasants who provided taxes, slave labor, and military service. Though in theory the king was responsible to provide security for his people, in practice the system produced relative luxury for the royalty and abject poverty for nearly everyone else. Justice in Canaan was defined as royal security at the expense of the rest of the people.

Yahwistic Revolutionaries

George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald have theorized that Israel emerged through a social revolution. 5 Canaanite peasants revolted against the oppressive regimes, withdrew to the highlands, and (with the new technological advances of iron plowshares, increased use of terraces, and lime-plastered cisterns) established independent, egalitarian villages.

Gottwald argues, however, that for a new society to emerge on the hillside, an ideological basis was needed. According to the new ideology, justice was to be egalitarian. The ideology for this new system was supplied by the small band of invading Yahwists, liberated Egyptian slaves, who provided legislation to protect the poor and disenfranchised. Biblical egalitarian ideals of justice provide the intellectual impetus for the peasant revolt.

The social revolution model explains the existence of a sociological group that is searching for a new worldview to replace the old hierarchical, militaristic system. The model offers an explanation as to why a variety of points of view might be accepted within the larger dogma. One can readily accept as plausible the development of competing strategies within the larger revolutionary group. Some might defend the use of force as a pragmatic necessity. But others could argue that militarism is endemic to the old system. The revolution, the latter would contend, must be consistently radical, including the renunciation of the use of force in favor of absolute dependence on the new king, Yahweh.

Emergence of Israel: Continuous Synthetic Process

Robert B. Coote and Keith W. Whitelam argue that one must also consider the context of a slowly changing social environment. 6 They {180} contend that Israelite emergence on the Palestinian highlands was precipitated by the collapse of international trade. 7 This collapse, resulting from the destruction or decline of the major trading states surrounding Palestine, radically transformed everyday life on the hills above the Canaanite city-states in the time corresponding to the biblical books of Joshua and Judges. In this state of flux, an alternative means of subsistence was needed for the highlanders. Peasants and some nomadic migrants (like the people described as immigrants with Joshua), joined by tribal bandits (’apiru), turned to highland subsistence agriculture. This agricultural revolution was possible only in the absence of conflict that resulted from the decline of Canaanite military power and the highlanders’ decision to avoid mutual hostility.

Because of the stay of conflict, the number of unwalled villages organized for subsistence agriculture exploded during this time period. Energies were concentrated on the highly labor-intensive activities of building terraces, cisterns, and dwellings. The population itself grew as violence, one of the primary psychobiological forms of population control, was reduced. Crop loss due to destruction of tilled land and the pillaging of harvested goods was reduced. 8

Coote and Whitelam argue that Israel emerged in the Palestinian highlands in Iron Age I (1300-1100 B.C.E.). Population increased and villages spread throughout the region as a direct result of the collapse of inter-regional trade. Consequently, a new coalition of subsistence agriculturists formed in the hinterlands. The sociological situation was ripe for an ideology of egalitarian justice and peace.


Two ancient texts, dated by scholars to the time of the events of Joshua and Judges, 9 provide the basis for the nonbelligerent ideology. Yahweh is the warrior who fights for Israel. Israel need not, indeed, should not fight (or develop a military infrastructure) because Yahweh is their protector. Human warfare is immoral because aggression demonstrates a lack of faith in Yahweh’s protection. Yahweh is the sovereign warrior who rules (or orders) both international and domestic affairs.

The Song of the Sea: Ethical Paradigm for a Nonbelligerent Community

The Song of the Sea (Exod. 15) recounts the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea as the formation of a people. The political event-song functions as the ethical paradigm for the new community. 10 The unique distinctive of the tradition is that, though Yahweh fights, the forces of Israel {181} are completely absent from the battle. Yahweh war is distinct from the more common ancient holy war ideology because Israel’s armies do not assist their God in the battle. The nonbelligerence ethic asserts that there are boundaries between the domain of the God and the people of this God. Warfare is limited to God’s judging activity.

One of the primary consequences of Yahweh’s victory is that Yahweh the warrior is also designated “king.” Yahweh not only fights to protect Israel from enemies. Yahweh will also be responsible for determining the justice system that will provide security for the weak in the new politico-economic order.

The Song of Deborah: Paradigm Reaffirmed in the Book of Judges

The Song of Deborah (Judg. 5) traces the trajectory of the Yahweh war tradition. We can discern within the text a shift in Israelite ideology. Human effort is predominant in this poem. The poem glorifies Deborah, Barak, and the tribes Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, and Issachar. Women figure prominently in the saga and with the men cooperate with Yahweh rather than simply witnessing Yahweh’s victory. To be sure Yahweh continues as the sovereign warrior, but the primary military achievement, the murder of Sisera, is accomplished by the non-Israelite woman, Jael.

The poem may offer further traces of the breakdown of the nonbelligerent consensus. The difficult text of Judges 5:8 links the choosing of new gods to war within the gates. Might this phrase suggest a question of which God the village should trust, Yahweh who fights alone or another deity? It appears plausible that the Song of Deborah reflects an accommodation in the face of ideological tension between traditional nonbelligerents and militarists. Judges 5:8, “Was shield or spear to be seen among forty thousand in Israel?” suggests unarmed warriors.

On the other hand, the first phrase of Judges 5:13 speaks of the “remnant of the noble.” Might these be militants, heirs of the military bandits, who pursue the defeated enemy? Jael, a non-Israelite, allies herself with Yahweh by her willingness to “come to the help of Yahweh . . . against the mighty” (Judg. 5:23).


Even if we were to agree that the nonbelligerent paradigm governed early Israelite ideology, later biblical narratives leave no doubt that Israel became a military kingdom. Yahweh war quickly gives place to holy war. Even in the days of the judges, an outnumbered underdog Israelite {182} defense relies on guerrilla strategy against superior forces. Clever tactics often overcome overwhelming odds.

The climate becomes increasingly bellicose with the advent of the kingdom. Kings Saul and David seek to gain military superiority to achieve hegemony in the field of international politics. One might expect that the rise of a military kingdom would spell the end of poetry which confesses complete reliance on Yahweh and the elimination of the forces of war. Surprisingly, however, the Psalter repeatedly portrays Yahweh as the sole warrior in Israel, the one who establishes justice and peace. These psalms lie side-by-side with those that glorify Yahweh for equipping the psalmist for battle. Indeed, some psalms mix the metaphors, giving evidence that the earlier traditions of nonbellicosity have been incorporated by later psalmists who glorify human military efforts.

General Overview

We begin our study by identifying psalms using language that refers to battle, weapons, enemies, warriors, refuge, or peace. We also identify each reference as fitting one of three ideological categories: bellicose, nonbellicose, or a combination of themes. Seventy-four of the one hundred fifty psalms contain references to military terms. Of these seventy-four psalms, seven psalms are consistently bellicose, or supportive of human military activity; thirteen combine ideologies; and fifty-four are exclusively nonbellicose.

Further classification of these psalms reveals that bellicose ideology is concentrated in a rather narrow band of psalmic genre. The thirteen psalms classified as battle songs, royal battle songs, or royal enthronement psalms all contain language that approves of human military engagement. On the other hand, the twenty-two psalms with military references that we classify as hymns, thanksgiving songs, wisdom songs, and Songs of Zion never speak approvingly of human military action. Either they refer to Yahweh as the agent of military deliverance, promise peace and justice, or speak disapprovingly of the perpetrators of violence. The largest group of psalms, the laments, include one psalm requesting that God give the people military victory, two combined forms, and thirty-one nonbellicose psalms.

Looking at the general results, we can tentatively summarize our discoveries as follows. First, both bellicose and nonbellicose ideologies are represented. Second, nonbellicose expressions predominate. Third, bellicose ideology is almost exclusively limited to royal enthronement and battle songs. Fourth, military metaphors are used very frequently. Nearly half the psalms use them at least once. {183}

Royal Psalm Bellicose Ideology

Psalm 18 offers a particularly interesting study in bellicose ideology. In this very ancient psalm, David is no longer the passive witness but clearly the active partner with Yahweh in battle. The traditional nonbellicose themes of Yahweh as warrior are still present. Especially in verses 29-48, however, David is described as the active warrior. Yahweh equips David with strength: feet like a deer (vv. 33, 36), position on the high ground (vv. 33, 36), hands trained to use the mighty bow (v. 34), a shield (v. 35), stride (vv. 36-37), and victory (vv. 38, 42, 43, 47-48).

Unlike the paradigmatic songs, Psalm 18 makes no mention of Israel. The king is armed and conquers the enemy, a familiar royal ancient Near Eastern motif. 11 In this royal ideology, the king represents the whole people of Israel.

Nonbellicose Ideology in the Psalms

Several recurring themes mark the nonbellicose tradition in Psalms. One, Yahweh is described not only as shield and refuge, but also as king (Pss. 10:16; 45:6). Two, the purpose of Yahweh’s victory and kingship is justice for the oppressed (Pss. 9:8-9, 18; 10:8-9, 18; 12:5; 17:7, 14; 22:26, etc.). Three, the psalmist avoids violent ways (17:4). Four, Yahweh offers peace by disdaining and even destroying weapons of war (33:16-17; 46:9). Five, it is the wicked who act violently (37:14-15). Six, the appropriate response to Yahweh is trust (46:10).

Once again, a single psalm unit focuses our study. Psalms 9-10, which probably should be read as a single acrostic psalm, 12 are a lament, a prayer for deliverance from enemies. 13

Psalm 9 focuses on Yahweh, who sits enthroned as the Royal Judge (Ps. 9:7-8) to judge the world with righteousness and equity. In Psalm 10 the focus shifts to the wicked who act violently (Ps. 10:8) and oppress the poor and helpless (10:9-10). 14 This reading of Psalms 9-10 underscores some of the characteristics of nonbellicose ideology noted above. This ideology sees the world divided into those who trust Yahweh for security and those who oppress the needy. Security is found in two concerns. One, Yahweh the king protects the weak from the physical threats of the more powerful foe. Two, Yahweh the Judge provides a system of justice that provides for the economic needs of the disenfranchised.

Conclusions Regarding Bellicose and Nonbellicose Ideology in Psalms

We have noted that the use of military themes is common in the Psalter. We assert that nonbellicose traditions are established from the {184} earliest moment of Israelite peoplehood (at the Red Sea) and the first days in the land of Israel (at the Kishon River). Bellicose ideology, on the other hand, appears to be adopted from Canaanite and Near Eastern royal mythology.

If these assertions are true, it is particularly interesting to note that even bellicose ideology must recognize Yahweh as both the one who arms the king for battle (Ps. 18) and the one who demands that the king defend the cause of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed (Ps. 72). Written early in the monarchy, preserved throughout history, both bellicose and nonbellicose human action is applauded in Israel’s prayerbook.


We have sketched the sociological origins of the people of Israel in the Palestinian highlands and their social context among the Canaanite mythological world in the city-state system. We have surveyed the expression of competing ideologies within the biblical text, focusing on ancient poems from the books of Exodus, Judges, and Psalms. We now move to the task of putting these notions together as we seek to trace the historic development of the communities that developed these competing ideologies.

Assuming that Judges and 1 Samuel reliably report Israel’s position of relative political weakness and geographic limitations in the rural high country (Judg. and 1 Sam. 13:2), we have the situation outlined above. Israel lives in the highlands, in open villages, survives through subsistence agriculture, and follows an ideology of justice for the disenfranchised.

The biblical text narrates a revolution in that situation. Within a generation Israel was transformed from a tribal alliance of marginal villages into a centralized military power. How is this to be explained?

Ideologically, 1 Samuel 8 suggests that Israel rejected Yahweh’s kingship for a political system “like the nations.” A king “like other nations” is characterized in their request in two ways. First, he “exercises justice” (also translated “governs” in 1 Sam. 8:5 and 20). Second, he goes out before the people and fights their battles (1 Sam. 8:20). In 1 Samuel 8:9-18 the judge Samuel warns the elders of the “justice” or “ways” of the king. The king monopolizes control of the nation’s economic resources, effectively returning the people to the Canaanite hierarchical system they had rejected a couple of centuries earlier. The narratives of Kings David and Solomon describe the results of this military royal coup. Resources and power are centralized in the hands of the {185} king. A standing professional army is developed and resources are dramatically shifted toward the military infrastructure. 15


Coote and Whitelam argue that there is more going on here than simply the Philistine military threat mentioned in 1 Samuel 8. 16 Once again, they suggest that gradual socioeconomic forces prompted the change. In fact, they argue paradoxically, the very success of Israel’s early years resulted in the shift in highland infrastructure that gave way to the monarchy.

First, the Philistine Sea Peoples had replaced Canaanite city-states as the lowland political force that threatened the stable prosperity of the highlanders. Perhaps for the first time in centuries, a military threat presented real reasons for fear.

Second, the highland had reached its capacity for sustaining economic growth. The effects of land depletion and overpopulation led the richer people to command more land.

Third, economic success led to social stratification. The new search for economic advantage multiplied stratification.

Fourth, political centralization accelerated. Centralization, which eventually served the interests of the few rather than the many, became the means by which the powerful preserved the privileges of their increased wealth. The struggle shifted from protecting the marginalized to protecting the holdings of the wealthy. The old ideological consensus was lost.

Fifth, militarization became a much more attractive option. Increased wealth made the largely unprotected highland villages an attractive target to the lowland military states. Wealth also prompted the privileged to organize means to protect their gains. The increasing cost of defense fell upon the landed class. The wealthy sought to shift these costs down the socioeconomic ladder. Once again, agriculturists were expected to provide resources and manpower for military expeditions.

These socioeconomic trends help explain the popular acceptance of the early nonbelligerent tradition and its later preservation. Nonbelligerents would most naturally have come from remote villages furthest from military threats. Less wealthy, less accessible to invaders, less aware of a need to expand the economic base, and more intent on devoting all of their resources to pioneering in the land, nonbelligerents tended to come from the economically, geographically, and socially marginalized. They looked to Yahweh to protect themselves from the security threat of outside invaders and from the economic injustice of their wealthier neighbors. {186}

It is most remarkable that the biblical text preserved the nonbelligerent ideology. The text in its final form is the product of the elite, yet it retains traditional material that counters the belligerent party line. 17 We have noted the paradigmatic ancient songs of deliverance and the nonbelligerent psalms. To the extent that battles were necessary, they were the province of Yahweh. Yahweh could be trusted to protect the people without a professional army.


The thesis of this study has been that bellicose and nonbellicose ideological traditions exist side-by-side in the Hebrew Bible. What is most remarkable is not that a nation would develop a military system but that an absolute monarchy would be forced to tolerate a nonbelligerent tradition. Evidently the issue of God’s will in military matters was never satisfactorily resolved in Israel.

Perhaps this gives us some indication of how we should read these texts as we approach a new millennium. The strong indication of the text is that economic justice is linked most closely with nonbelligerent policy. At the same time, however, one must admit that the realist strategy of military systems is not abandoned. We, too, live with these tensions in our world.

As Anabaptists, the issue is resolved by our hermeneutic. We understand that Jesus resolves the old tension. Jesus declares that in the new reign of God the people of God will love their enemies. They will not resist the evil one. They will be radically generous. Their proclamation of the good news will include abandonment of self-interest in light of the needs of the poor.

New Testament Christians who take the way of Jesus affirm the words of Psalm 46:8-11 (NRSV):

Come, behold the works of the LORD;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. {187}


  1. Millard Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1980).
  2. Ben C. Ollenburger, Zion, the City of the Great King: A Theological Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult, JSOTSup 41 (Sheffield, England: JSOT, 1987), 147.
  3. J. P. M. Walsh, The Mighty from Their Thrones: Power in the Biblical Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 30-32.
  4. Gerhard E. Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1984), 243-96.
  5. George E. Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” Biblical Archaeology 25 (1962): 66-87; and Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 191-233.
  6. Robert B. Coote and Keith W. Whitelam, “The Emergence of Israel: Social Transformation and State Formation Following the Decline in Late Bronze Age Trade,” Semeia 37 (1986): 108-16.
  7. Ibid., 118-25.
  8. Ibid., 124-25.
  9. Frank Moore Cross, Jr. (“The Song of the Sea and Canaanite Myth,” Journal for Theology and the Church 5 [1968]: 10-11, 20) and David Noel Freedman (Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry [Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1975], 27-35, 47) date Exod. 15 to the late twelfth or early eleventh century B.C.E. Rudolf Smend (Yahweh War and Tribal Confederation: Reflection upon Israel’s Earliest History, trans. Max Gray Rogers [Nashville: Abingdon, 1970], 110) holds the Song of Deborah in Judg. 5 to be even more ancient than the Song of the Sea.
  10. Elmer A. Martens (“The Lord Is Warrior,” in The Power of the Lamb, ed. John E. Toews and Gordon Nickel [Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1986], 36) says the Song of the Sea “became a model” for Israelite ethics.
  11. Lind, 119.
  12. Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary 19 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 116.
  13. Ascribed to David in the midrashic title, these psalms may have {188} come from the time of the united monarchy and continued in use in Israel’s worship into the postexilic period.
  14. Claus Westermann (Praise and Lament in the Psalms, trans. Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981], 180) notes that the complaint about the enemy constitutes a basic component of lament psalms, particularly people in time of war.
  15. For a detailed analysis of the cost of the military establishment, see Chris Hauer, Jr., “The Economics of National Security in Solomonic Israel,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 18 (1980): 63-73.
  16. Coote and Whitelam, 131-42.
  17. Lenski, 306-8.
Lynn Jost is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.
This essay is a modified version of the annual faculty lecture presented at Tabor on April 7, 1998.

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