And here is the article on the Divine Warrior motif.
WARFARE AND DIVINE WARFARE
Divine warfare is a recurrent theme in the prophetic literature of ancient Israel: God combats malevolent forces for and within the nation. Biblical use of the leitmotif reflects Israel’s early theological traditions, engagement of other cultures, and victories and defeats.
3. Ancient Near Eastern Context
4. Representative Texts in the Prophets
5. Theology and Ethics
6. New Testament Appropriation
A useful starting point in the study of divine warfare is general warfare, which, for purposes of this article, is defined as violent conflict between nations over sovereignty and justice. General warfare is violent and involves the infliction of harm on an adversary, even harm resulting in death. It is also international or intertribal; it is not violence by or against individuals, families or small groups per se unless the social group represents the nation or tribe. In addition, warfare is political. States make war to defend or to gain territory, to secure access to resources, to enforce compliance with treaties, to maintain honor, or to ensure the conduct of internal affairs without external interferences. Wars demonstrate boundaries of control, and they are waged to protect the rights and properties of state and citizenry and to remedy injustices, inhumane conditions and crimes against humanity. The nonpsychological motivations in general warfare are economic and ideological: territorial sovereignty and civil justice.
Divine warfare, which also is violent, international and political, is waged under the aegis of a deity. The deity is envisioned to be a warrior who leads the army, engages the enemy, and protects the favored. Divine warfare is also cosmic: it involves natural and supernatural forces, terrestrial and celestial realms, and primordial, historical and *apocalyptic elements. At stake are not merely the reign of the monarch and safety of the nation, but the honor of the deity and the order of universe. Divine warfare may be defined as violent conflict between a deity and a preternatural, malevolent adversary, or between nation-states fighting under the aegis of patron deities, that demonstrates sovereignty and effects justice. In divine warfare a deity battles an evil antagonist, and in OT prophetic literature it is the God of Israel who assumes the role of warrior and engages adversaries of Israel and the divine order.
The idea of divine warfare is related to the outcomes and consequences of battle, which are unpredictable and often unintended. This theory is extrapolated from C. von Clausewitz’s seminal work, On War, though the volume is not about divine warfare per se. Von Clausewitz defines war as “the continuation of policy by other means” (von Clausewitz, 87). The means to which he refers are violent actions that end lives, damage bodies, displace communities, destroy properties, harm environments and alter identities (Ames 2011). The violence is an extension of political process—“the continuation of policy” (German, Politik)—albeit an extreme extension. Warfare is the realpolitik of conflict resolution located on a continuum that devolves from resolution by consensus, to judgment by a third party, to bargaining by the principals, and, if they are intractable, to armed conflict resolved by the army that can inflict and sustain the greatest damage (Morgan; Fox). Might, according to the adage, determines right, though power does not constitute virtue and does not guarantee the outcome of battle. Military strength and strategy are critical factors, but they are not decisive. Von Clausewitz recognized that military campaigns are complex endeavors, and that nontrivial outcomes cannot be predicted with certainty. Victory is contingent upon elements beyond human control (e.g., weather) and is not always determined by the deployment of superior forces and the implementation of sound tactics. The outcomes and even the objectives of war depend on factors that politicians, commanders and citizens can never fully anticipate or manage. This observation suggests an explanation for the prevalence of the divine warfare throughout the ancient Near Eastern world: because the outcome of armed conflict depends on factors beyond human control, victory, when achieved, is attributed to the intervention of a higher power. The deity grants victory, and defeat is attributed to abandonment by the divine patron, typically due to transgression within the community. Thus, the outcome of battle is made contingent upon morality, not strategy.
The sages of ancient Israel recognized unpredictable elements in warfare and acknowledged the limits of human control, and they attributed Israel’s victories to Yahweh, *God of Israel. The idea is expressed in the biblical proverb “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD” (Prov 21:31 NRSV). Resources and preparations are necessary but are not sufficient for the day, for God must intervene, and the people must follow God. The OT prophets attributed military achievements to Yahweh (Jer 51:14; Zeph 3:17), reaffirming one of Israel’s oldest theological traditions: God is a warrior who fights for the nation (Ex 15:3; Deut 20:4; Judg 15:18).
3. Ancient Near Eastern Context.
Literary traditions and historic conflicts in the ancient Near Eastern world provide a framework for understanding divine warfare in OT prophetic literature.
3.1. Literary Traditions. Ancient Near Eastern literary analogs to the biblical leitmotif are “significant” (Kang, 7). For instance, Assyrian and Israelite prophetic texts abound with oracles assuring that the divine warrior will safeguard the nation and grant victory in a time of war, and those facing the enemy are commanded not to fear (Nissinen, 97–132): “Fear not, Esarhaddon! I will place you between my arm and forearm. In the midst of distress, I will va[nqu]ish the enemies of my king” (SAA 9 2.5 iii 29–32); “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Is 41:10 NRSV).
The Sumerian Stela of the Vultures depicts Ningirsu wielding mace and net to conquer an invading army in a dispute over tillable lands. One side of the stela portrays the actions of Ningirsu, the patron deity of the city of Lagash, and the other the actions of Eanatum, the ruler of the city. The design captures the confluence of divine and human realms: the battle is fought by the ruler on earth with outcome determined by the deity in heaven (Lang, 47–48; Hamblin, 55–59).
The epilogue of the Laws of Hammurabi (xlix 18-li 91) is replete with gods whom Hammurabi invokes to destroy anyone who disregards his instructions or defaces his image, and the list includes warrior deities such as Zababa, Nergal and Ishtar. Hammurabi asks that Ishtar “smash his [adversary’s] weapon on the field of war and battle, plunge him into confusion and rebellion, strike down his warriors, drench the earth with their blood, make a heap of the corpses of his soldiers upon the plain, and may she [Ishtar] show his soldiers no mercy; as for him, may she deliver him into the hand of his enemies, and may she lead him bound captive to the land of his enemy” (COS 2.131: 353).
The Exaltation of Inanna (iv 29–31) celebrates the military prowess of the goddess, who charges into battle in the guise of a storm—a common motif in divine warfare. The link between storm and battle in the ancient Near Eastern divine warfare motif is prominent in the mythology of the storm-god Baal, who rides the clouds into battle: “Baʿlu (himself) opens up the rift in the clouds, Baʿlu emits his holy voice, Baʿlu makes the thunder roll over and over again. His [holy] voice [causes] the earth [to tremble], [at his thunder] the mountains shake with fear. . . . The high places of the earth totter. Baʿlu’s enemies grasp hold of (the trees of) the forest, Haddu’s adversaries (grasp hold of) the flanks of the mountain(s)” (vii 25–37 [COS 1.86: 262–63]).
In the Baal Cycle the storm-god (Baal) defeats the sea-god (Yam) (iv 18–27). The metaphor of the tumultuous sea is a common trope. The armies rise and threaten like raging waters, which the divine warrior either stirs or stills. In ancient Near Eastern creation mythology the divine warrior battles sea monsters and constrains chaotic waters to create the primordial world. In the Creation Epic (iv 1–146) it is Marduk, the champion of Babylon, who defeats and dismembers the sea monster Tiamat to create the new world. The parallel between the creation of the universe and the defeat of the mythological sea monster (also called “Leviathan” and “Rahab”) is evident in the Teaching of Merikare: “He made sky and earth for their sake, He subdued the water monster, He made breath for their noses to live” (COS 1.35:65, line 131).
Ancient Near Eastern metaphors of storm and sea are woven into biblical references to divine warfare. The God of Israel emerges from the clouds and attacks tumultuous armies, for Israel’s divine warrior rules the skies and the seas. Nations that attack Israel are portrayed as raging storms and roaring waters that Yahweh must still (Is 17:12–14). Yahweh rides the clouds into battle (Is 19:1; 28:2; 29:6) and strikes enemies with hail and lightning: “The LORD will cause his majestic voice to be heard and the descending blow of his arm to be seen, in furious anger and a flame of devouring fire, with a cloudburst and tempest and hailstones” (Is 30:30 NRSV [cf. Is 29:6]). Anticipating a coming day of battle, Isaiah draws upon the mythological metaphors of the ancient Near East and declares, “On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Is 27:1 NRSV [cf. Is 30:7; 51:9–10]).
From the perspective of Israel’s prophets, the power that created heaven and earth is the power that governs military conflicts, delivering the people of Israel from other nations and from unrighteous propensities within Israel, for Yahweh created the universe and rules the world with justice.
3.2. Historic Conflicts. Biblical perspectives on divine warfare reflect the embattled histories of Israel and Judah and the implications of victories and defeats.
The exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan demonstrated that Yahweh is a warrior who fights to free the people of Israel and to secure a bountiful land for them. The Song of Moses, which celebrates the freedom of the formerly enslaved Hebrews, declares, “The LORD is a warrior” (Ex 15:3). The historical prologue of Deuteronomy reminded subsequent generations that the Lord formed the nation “by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power” (Deut 4:34 NRSV). The book of Joshua applies the “divine warrior” motif to Israel’s occupation of Canaan, reporting that no one could turn back the invasion because God fought on the side of the Israelite army (Josh 23:9–10). Because Yahweh fought for the nation, Joshua was able to capture the “whole” land and establish *peace (Josh 11:23). The motif of the divine warrior in the biblical prophets builds upon the *exodus and conquest tradition that Yahweh fights for the nation. In Isaiah, for instance, the nation of Israel is told that it need not fear the Assyrians any more than it feared the Egyptians in the days of Moses, for Yahweh will destroy the empire (Is 10:24–26).
The fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 721 BC (2 Kings 18:9–12), the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:1–20), and the Persian defeat of the Babylonian Empire in 538 BC demonstrated that Yahweh would fight against the unrighteous, even if the unrighteous happened to be the people of Israel and Judah. These conquests also showed that armed forces unleashed by Yahweh must act with restraint, for all nations are subject to judgment for inhumanity borne of hubris. In the book of Isaiah, Yahweh refers to Assyria as “the rod of my anger” and declares, “The club in their hands is my fury” (Is 10:5 NRSV). Yahweh sent the Assyrians against Israel and Judah “to take spoil and seize plunder and to tread down” (Is 10:6b NRSV), but the political objectives of the Assyrians went beyond Yahweh’s goal, for the Assyrians intended “to destroy” Israel and Judah (Is 10:7). For this reason, Yahweh intended to “punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria” (Is 10:12b NRSV). The Babylonians, though they served as instruments of divine wrath, would also experience divine wrath due to their excesses: because they plundered, they would be plundered (Hab 2:8). Victories experienced early in the history of Israel and defeats experienced later provide a framework for understanding the dynamics of divine warfare.
4. Representative Texts in the Prophets.
The defining components of divine warfare can be observed in the book of Zephaniah, which inveighs against social corruptions and religious perversions that were condemned by Josiah’s reform movement, around 621 BC (Zeph 1:1). The prophet announces a day of judgment that calls for *repentance (Zeph 1:2–3:7) and a day of restoration that will bring celebration (Zeph 3:8–20). Yahweh is portrayed as a warrior who fights against the inhabitants of Jerusalem but who will also fight for the city, restore its exiled inhabitants, and live among them (Zeph 1:4; 3:17–20). First, the prophet envisions violence. Warfare on “the day of the LORD’s wrath” (Zeph 1:18; 2:2–3) entails slaughter (with “sacrifice” used metaphorically in the text), pain and destruction (Zeph 1:7–8, 14–16); houses are razed; blood is spilt (Zeph 1:13, 17); and the complacent, who believed that Yahweh would not inflict harm (Zeph 1:12), are shown to be wrong. Second, nations, not individuals, are attacked. These include Judah, the Philistine city-states, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia and Assyria (Zeph 1:4; 2:4–8, 12–13). Divine warfare, like general warfare, is portrayed as a matter of state, even though individuals endure the consequences. Third, issues of national sovereignty and civil justice are addressed. Warfare is waged because Zephaniah’s Judeans had turned from Yahweh to follow foreign gods, including the Canaanite god Baal, the Ammonite god Milcom, and the Philistine god Dagon (Zeph 1:4–6, 9), while government and religious leaders have neglected to observe or enforce the law (Zeph 3:1–4). These acts of disloyalty challenge the sovereignty of Yahweh, who is also angered over instances of “violence and fraud” (Zeph 1:9), and these motivate the prosecution of war. Fourth, war is waged by God. In Zephaniah, Yahweh first discloses the coming onslaught of violence with seven first-person declarations, beginning with the statement “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (Zeph 1:2). The judgement is called the *“day of the LORD” (e.g., Zeph 1:7, 14), and Yahweh is designated a warrior (Zeph 3:17). Fifth, though only Judah and a handful of neighboring countries are named, the conflagration in divine warfare is extensive and cosmic: “In the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed” (Zeph 1:18b NRSV). The exaggerated language, of course, is poetic and may be hyperbole, but the exaggeration reflects the cosmic dimensions of divine warfare. According to Zephaniah, all earthly inhabitants perish, all earthly gods shrivel, and all nations praise *Zion.
In Isaiah, divine warfare is characterized as royal prerogative, for Yahweh reigns. Yahweh’s role as divine warrior is related to his status as righteous sovereign, which is a double-edged sword because Yahweh corrects as well as protects the people of God. Isaiah 6:1–13 portrays Yahweh as a sovereign but offended monarch reigning from a heavenly throne, with royal robe flowing throughout the temple and filling the earth. The monarch sends Isaiah to issue a warning that the people of Israel would not heed “until [their] cities lie waste without inhabitant” (Is 6:11b). Yahweh intends to make war against unrighteous adversaries within and beyond the boundaries of Israel, for divine sovereignty encompasses all peoples. Isaiah 63:1–6 redeploys the symbolism of the royal robe in portraying Yahweh as warrior returning victoriously from Edom (Is 63:2–3). The prophet asks, “Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?” Yahweh replies, ““I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes” (Is 63:2–3 NRSV).
Yahweh opposes those who oppress Israel—a perspective that informs Isaiah’s oracle against Babylon (Is 13:1–14:27). According to the oracle, Yahweh will personally summon an army of warriors (Is 13:2–5), the Medes, who will engage in violent slaughter and overthrow Babylon (Is 13:6–22): “Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered, and their wives ravished” (Is 13:15–16 NRSV). Thus, the offended sovereign will use organized violence to resolve a conflict that is both international and cosmic, a dispute both between Israel and Babylon and between the God of heaven and the nations of earth: the heavens will dim, and the earth will shake (Is 13:10–13). The oracle envisions exiled Israelites restored to their own land and exalted (Is 14:1–2) and the fall of Babylon’s king as a fall from heaven’s heights to Sheol’s depths (Is 14:12–20).
In Isaiah 45 the elements of divine warfare appear in Yahweh’s speech to Cyrus, the Persian ruler who defeated Babylon. Yahweh directs the army of the ruler against other nations (Is 45:1) and prepares the way (Is 45:2). The ensuing victory demonstrates that Yahweh alone is god (Is 45:3–6), and deliverance rains down from the clouds and springs up from the deep, for the power of Yahweh created the world and brings *salvation (Is 45:8–12, 18–19).
Micah portrays Yahweh emerging from his holy *temple to trample the unrighteous in Israel and Judah (Mic 1:2–7, 10–16; cf. Mic 5:10–15), but God eventually will redeem (Mic 7:18–20). Hosea also envisions Yahweh waging divine war. Yahweh says, “I will come against the wayward people to punish them; and nations shall be gathered against them when they are punished for their double iniquity” (Hos 10:10 NRSV), and the sword falls not only on the men of Samaria, but also on women and children, born and unborn (Hos 13:16). Amos declares that Yahweh will defeat Israel and Judah (Amos 2:4–11), waging war against them as well as other nations guilty of war crimes (Amos 1:3–2:3). Yahweh, however, promises life to those who “seek good and not evil” (Amos 5:14; cf. Amos 9:8).
The theme of divine warfare is prominent in Habakkuk’s *prayer (Hab 3), which expresses confidence that God will safeguard the lives of the righteous who exercise faith (Hab 2:4c). The prophet, having learned that God is rallying the warriors of Babylon to punish the unrighteous in Judah (Hab 1:2–11), has also received assurances of God’s protection (Hab 2:1–20). One question that troubles Habakkuk is this: How can God use the unrighteous to punish the righteous? (Hab 1:13). Habakkuk’s faith is expressed in a concluding prayer, a liturgical *lament, that asks God for mercy in the midst of *wrath (Hab 3:2b). The lament characterizes divine warfare as the onslaught of a storm: lightning flashes and brings death (Hab 3:3b–5, 9a, 11); thunder, winds and water destroy lands and dwellings (Hab 3:6–8, 10); and the wind-borne rider “tramples the sea” (Hab 3:14–15). The warrior God, however, enables the faithful to flee like deer (Hab 3:19).
The prophet Jeremiah also envisions Yahweh as a warrior. For instance, the message that Jeremiah sends to Zedekiah is a speech in which the God of Israel says, “I myself will fight against you” (Jer 21:5a NRSV), and elsewhere Jeremiah portrays Yahweh as the ultimate sovereign who is able to plan and to carry out wars at will (Jer 51:12). Yahweh is the “LORD of hosts,” who is able to direct any army (Jer 51:14) and is able to do so because “it is he who made the earth by his power” (Jer 51:15 NRSV). Yahweh said this concerning the army of the Medes: “You are my war club, my weapon of battle: with you I smash nations; with you I destroy kingdoms; with you I smash the horse and its rider; with you I smash the chariot and the charioteer; with you I smash man and woman; with you I smash the old man and the boy; with you I smash the young man and the girl; with you I smash shepherds and their flocks; with you I smash farmers and their teams; with you I smash governors and deputies” (Jer 51:20–23 NRSV).
From the perspective of Israel’s prophets, the armies of the nations are weapons in Yahweh’s arsenal, but Yahweh the divine warrior also rides into battle with the army. Ezekiel’s mysterious lightning storm that threatens from the north, and the wheels within wheels that make a tumultuous sound like an advancing army (Ezek 1:4–28), have glorious Yahweh in their midst (Ezek 1:28; 10:1–22). The vision draws upon the ancient Near Eastern imagery of the war chariot and the divine warrior riding upon the clouds. Visions of war also appear in Daniel, which strongly emphasizes the sovereign and universal reign of God (Dan 4:17, 26; 6:26; 7:27).
According to the prophets, divine warfare was waged for and against the people of God, but it was the experience of war that ultimately challenged and changed popular understandings. Prior to the fall of Samaria and the destruction of Jerusalem, Israel and Judah believed that God protected (Jer 7:8–11). The prophets declared that God also punished—a message challenged by false prophets and rejected by oppressive leaders—but the destruction of Jerusalem confirmed what the prophets had foretold. The restoration of exiles to Judah, however, demonstrated that God did not abandon the people. The Israelites learned that the political objective of divine warfare was related to justice, not citizenship, and the prophets envisioned a future in which war itself, with its many injustices, would be defeated. War, like *death (Hos 13:14), was an enemy to be defeated: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Is 2:4 NRSV [cf. Mic 4:3]). Divine warfare could be waged against Israel’s enemies or against Israel, but ultimately Yahweh the divine warrior would defeat war.
5. Theology and Ethics.
Israel’s prophets believed that God is a warrior, and the “centrality of that conviction and its historical, cultic, literary and theological ramifications can hardly be overestimated” (Miller, 1). The characterization of God as a warrior affords hope for deliverance of the downtrodden and stands as a warning to oppressors, and it raises issues that are not merely academic, historical or literary, but are theological and ethical. Focal points are the sovereignty and justice of God and the perpetuation of violence in the pursuit of security, for those who choose to live by the sword are likely to die by the sword (Gen 9:6; Mt 26:52).
5.1. Sovereignty and Justice. Nations engage in warfare to maintain boundaries of sovereignty, and divine warfare expresses the all- encompassing sovereignty of the God of Israel, who directs and defeats antagonistic armies at will. In divine warfare the plans of God cannot be thwarted (Is 14:24–27). In the ancient Near Eastern world the prerogative of the sovereign to wage war to defend or to expand the empire was assumed, not disputed. It is likely that only the details of specific campaigns, their feasibility, logistics and tactics, would have been open to debate, not the pursuit or legitimacy of war itself. Divine warfare, as the designation implies, is an expression of divine will, embodied and expressed on earth by the king of the nation, and the will of the god or goddess would have preempted any substantive debate about the legitimacy of going to war. If the deity commanded war, whether through prophet, priest or monarch, the only choice before the citizenry was obedience or disobedience, though certain categories of people were exempt from fighting (see Deut 20:1–9; 24:5).
Holy war, as G. von Rad has argued, can be viewed as “a cultic phenomenon” (von Rad, 49), with the slaughter of enemy combatants and destruction of property, animals and individuals captured in battle regarded as offerings sacrificed to Yahweh. The God of Israel was characterized as a warrior who fought in the battle, and warriors were entitled to their share of the spoils (Elgavish). Yahweh led the campaign, and for this reason participation in holy war was construed to be an expression of allegiance and trust, and the Israelite warriors, who followed and were protected by Yahweh, were expected to fight opponents without fear, wholeheartedly embracing the Deuteronomic injunction “Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; for it is the LORD your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory” (Deut 20:3b–4 NRSV).
In ancient Israelite religion, however, divine war was not solely an expression of obedience and faith; it was an instrument of justice, “a legal judgment of Yahweh made for the purpose of resolving a dispute between Israel and neighboring states” (Good, 387). The judicial nature of divine warfare is evident in the proclamation that the prophet Joel issued to Israel, the nations and Yahweh, a call to arms that characterizes the defeat of nations that are hostile to Israel as an act of divine judgment: “Prepare war, stir up the warriors. Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.’ Come quickly, all you nations all around, gather yourselves there. Bring down your warriors, O LORD. Let the nations rouse themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the neighboring nations” (Joel 3:9b–12 NRSV).
Divine warfare was waged to effect justice, and the OT prophetic literature portrays the violence of divine warfare to be a measured response to unjust violent acts perpetrated against others and rooted in human arrogance and callousness. According to the prophets, the wars led or prompted by Yahweh purge or requite wickedness and redress grievances and injustices; they remedy wrongs and settle disputes (see Is 59:15–20; Jer 6:1–6; 21:11–12).
The justness of divine warfare, as portrayed in the OT prophets, is rooted in proportionality; that is, divine warfare, though violent, ostensibly inflicts retribution in proportion to the wrongdoing. Obadiah, predicting a time of violent judgment upon the nations that have sought to harm the people of Israel, explicates the principle of proportional justice that is at work in divine warfare. The prophet informs the errant nations, “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (Obad 15 NRSV). The book of Nahum, which celebrates the justness of the destruction of Nineveh and the demise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (Crouch, 158–73), portrays Yahweh as a patient but powerful judge who is “slow to anger but great in power” and who “will by no means clear the guilty” (Nah 1:2b NRSV). Yahweh’s *destruction of the city repays Assyria’s aggression against other cities, and the rhetorical question that concludes the book summarizes the rationale: “There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (Nah 3:19 NRSV). The city’s suffering, like its cruelty to others, is correspondingly “endless.” In divine warfare violence repays violence in equal measure, according to the spirit of the lex talionis, a proportional moral calculus that is rooted in Mosaic law codes (Ex 21:23–35; Lev 24:19; Deut 19:19–21) and is echoed in NT texts (Mt 26:52; Rev 13:10). The ancient Israelite ideal of proportional justice, though significantly refined in the prophets (cf. different standards of retribution in Ex 20:5 and Ezek 18:2), is never fully realized in actual combat situations, nor could it be. Although provisions for escaping violence are evident in some instances of divine warfare (see Jer 21:8–10), even just wars are filled with injustices. Warfare inflicts collateral damage that is immediate and lasting, and justice achieved through battle perpetrates its own evils. There are always innocent casualties, and violence begets violence (Mt 26:52).
5.2. Security and the Perpetuation of Violence. Historical accounts and prophetic speeches about divine wars that chasten the righteous and deliver from corruption and oppression have for generations captured the imaginations of readers who turn to the OT prophets for insight, guidance and hope, and the prophetic literature offers these in abundance. Ironically, wars are fought to end wars. *Peace is ostensibly the objective, and the prophets set forth a vision of peace, with “swords beaten into plows.” The assurance of a better world that devout readers draw from prophetic visions of divine warfare is powerful, but the hope is bound to violent imagery; the saving acts of God are wed to the harsh realities of war, and the warp and woof of salvation and destruction together form a metanarrative: readers see that deliverance for the righteous often entails the destruction of the wicked. This cannot be excised from a biblical theology of redemption or from the historical realities of justice, for it is embedded in both. Violence, though overtly condemned in some texts, is tacitly endorsed in others, and, unfortunately, the theme of divine warfare has been used to sanction violent activities in modern contexts (Juergensmeyer).
Because Yahweh the divine warrior is righteous and uses violence to establish justice, some will reason, incorrectly, that it is legitimate for humans to engage in violent acts. The violence embedded in biblical texts “cannot be glossed over” (Collins, 19–20) and “should not stand unchallenged” (Fretheim, 22). Empirical studies suggest that exposure to texts that are laden with violent imagery contributes to violence, aggression and decreased sympathy for victims (Berkowitz; Bushman et al.; Fanti et al.).
Of special concern is the desensitization that perpetuates violence against *women, a problem exacerbated by armed conflict (Leatherman). The divine judgments that the prophets typically list are war, famine and pestilence, and they use metaphors of rape, abandonment and humiliation (Gordon and Washington). Hosea, for instance, portrays God as a betrayed husband who abandons an adulterous wife to danger (Hos 2:1–13), and readers are expected to sympathize with the husband—a metaphorical representation of God engaging in divine warfare (Hos 2:1–23). R. Weems notes, “The metaphor of battered wife is admittedly a very risky trope to use to help shed light on questions of God’s response to human failures” (Weems, 106; see Feminist Interpretation; Exum). In addition, the violent winds of war that Yahweh sends against Israel for rebellion include the slaughter of infants and unborn (Hos 13:14–16).
The theological and ethical dilemmas met at the intersections of the sovereignty of God, the justice of war, and the perpetuation of violence in texts that depict divine warfare are not easily resolved. Awareness of issues and empathy toward victims of violence are essential in understanding the divine warfare leitmotif and in minimizing misappropriations that perpetuate violence.
6. New Testament Appropriation.
The NT appropriates the theme but redirects the violence and largely transforms the prophetic tradition of divine warfare, which the early church interpreted in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29 NRSV). In the NT transformation of the theme, the divine warrior achieves victory by dying rather than killing.
In the book of Revelation the Lamb of God is a warrior who conquers (Rev 17:14) and “in righteousness judges and makes war” (Rev 19:11 NRSV), a warrior who “will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev 19:15 NRSV). However, the Lamb of God, who brings salvation (Rev 7:10), does not sacrifice the enemy in holy war but is himself the sacrifice. The sword wielded by Jesus in the role of divine warrior is a proclamation of words that are able to destroy maleficent forces and to create a new heaven and earth (Rev 19:15). The apocalyptic imagery of the book of Revelation, which draws from the book of Daniel, does envision real martyrdoms and judgment (though the referent of symbols and extent of metaphorical language remains a matter of debate among contemporary interpreters), but the saints of God are delivered by the sacrificial death of the Lamb and are called to endure persecution, not to attack their oppressors (Rev 12:11). John advises the reader, “If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev 13:9–10 NRSV). Faith and endurance are rewarded, and the redemption of the saints prompts a new song of praise (Rev 5:9; 14:3), not unlike the victory song of Isaiah 42:10–13.
The Synoptic Gospels identify Jesus as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, who wages war by giving himself to deliver the people of God and to avenge wrongdoing (Is 53:1–12; cf. Mt 8:17). John the Baptist identified Jesus as the divine warrior of whom Isaiah spoke by proclaiming, “Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight” (Is 40:3 NRSV; cf. Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4). The warrior and the restored people march to Zion in victory along a highway that is sacred and safe (Is 35:8–10), and Isaiah’s warrior restores health and wholeness to the people and to creation itself (Is 35:8–10). John the Baptist contrasted the baptism with water that he offered to the baptism of fire—divine war—that would attend the coming of the Lord Jesus (Mt 3:11–12). Moreover, in the Gospel accounts Jesus commands the natural elements and subdues the raging winds and waves (Mt 8:23–27; Mk 4:35–41; Lk 8:22–25), evoking Isaiah’s imagery of the divine warrior rebuking the nations, which “roar like the roaring of mighty waters” (Is 17:12; 43:2), and the imagery of the divine warrior delivering the Israelites from Egypt (Is 51:10), wielding the primordial power that created the world (Is 51:15–16). The actions of Jesus recorded in the Gospels echo the motif of the divine warrior who directs and defeats the monstrous forces of the sea (Is 27:1). Similarly, Jesus is the divine warrior whose chariot traverses the clouds (Mt 24:30; Mk 13:26; Lk 21:27; cf. Is 19:1; Dan 7:13). Jesus does provoke conflict (Mt 10:34–36; Lk 12:51–53), but he accepts the fate of death and cautions against the perpetuation of violence (Mt 26:52; Jn 18:11).
The early church reconceptualized participation in divine warfare, though participation in holy war in ancient Israel is honored for its expression of faith (Heb 11:34). The war waged by the church is not a physical struggle but rather a spiritual one, involving cosmic powers (2 Cor 10:3; Eph 6:12; 1 Pet 3:22). Christians are solders (Phil 2:25; Philem 2; 1 Pet 4:1) who endure hardship for the cause (2 Tim 2:3), and their fight is “the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 1:18; 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7). The divine warrior of Isaiah, who is armed for battle to effect justice and to redeem Zion (Is 59:15–20), and those who follow Jesus are also instructed to “put on the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11 NRSV): truth, righteousness, readiness, faith and salvation (Eph 6:12–17) (see Neufeld).
See also DAY OF THE LORD; DESTRUCTION; EXILE; EXODUS IMAGERY; GOD; PEACE, REST; SALVATION, DELIVERANCE; WRATH.
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Ames, F. R. Boda, Mark J. and J. Gordon McConville, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets. Accordance electronic edition, version 1.1. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2012.