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Holy War?

Julian Spriggs M.A.

When we read the Old Testament, we get the impression that there appears to have been almost continual warfare in the Ancient Near East, particularly between Israel and her neighbours, and with the great empires of Assyria and Babylon.

The term 'holy war' is rather misleading, as it makes it appear that warfare is morally good, but the term refers to the popular understanding of the nature of warfare in Old Testament times. War was not only between two nations, but involved their gods as well.

Gods of nations

Each nation had their own god, so each god had control of a limited geographical area and one particular people. All the pagan nations around Israel were polytheistic, believing in many different gods, in great contrast to Israel’s belief in one God. None of the nations surrounding Israel believed in a single almighty all-powerful god. The continual challenge for Israel throughout its history was to believe that Yahweh was not merely yet another regional god, who controlled a limited geographical area, but that he was the all-powerful Creator-God of the whole world, who ruled over every nation.

The local nature of gods is shown in one particular conflict between Syria and Israel, when the Syrian army was defeated by Israel. The servants of the king of Aram (Syria) believed this defeat was because they had fought Israel on the hills, where their gods (meaning Yahweh) were stronger. They suggested that if they fought Israel on the plain, then they would be confident that their army would be victorious (1 Kg 20:23-25). The servants of the king of Aram said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they are stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger then they.” They evidently believed that the god(s) of Israel only had power in the hills, and that his power would be limited on the lower ground, on the plain. The Syrian gods had power on the plain, where they would be able to overcome Israel’s god, allowing their army to be victorious.

Going to war

In the general understanding of the Ancient Near East, when one nation went to war against another nation it was because their god was fighting against the god of the foreign nation. Behind each army was the god of that nation. For example, Assyria always fought by the power of their god Ashur (sometimes spelt 'Asshur'), who was the ancestor of their people and founder of their nation (Gen 10:22). In Assyrian carved reliefs showing battle scenes, Ashur was represented by a human figure in a winged disk, often holding a bow and arrow, shown in the sky above the armies.

Israel also had this understanding, as one of the frequently used titles for God in the Old Testament was 'the LORD of hosts'. This is most often used in the books of Samuel, where Yahweh was the God of the armies of Israel, who fought on behalf of his people. David came against Goliath in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel (1 Sam 17:45), and believed that God would deliver Goliath into his hands. His victory would be a testimony so the whole earth may know that there is a God in Israel (17:46).

When Joshua was about to attack Jericho, a man appeared before him with a drawn sword (Josh 5:13). He told Joshua that he was the commander of the army of the LORD. In response, Joshua fell on his face and worshipped him (5:14), thus indicating this was no mere man, but a manifestation of God himself, the God of the armies of Israel, who will give them victory over Jericho and the land he had promised Israel.

Victory and defeat

If one nation defeated another nation it was because their god was stronger. To show their victory, the victorious army seized the idols from the defeated enemy. They then took the idols back to their home city, installing them in the temple of their god. The victory demonstrated that their god was more powerful than the god of the enemy.

Holy war in the Old Testament

These principles of 'holy war' can be seen in the accounts of a number of different battles in the Old Testament. Each of these narratives reveal some of the popular understanding of warfare among the nations, as well as the lessons God was teaching his people, to challenge this understanding.

Israel and the Philistines (1 Sam 4)

After an initial defeat by the Philistines, the elders of Israel suggested that they bring the ark of the covenant from Shiloh, so the LORD may come among them and save them from the power of their enemies (4:3). When the ark arrived in the Israelite camp, all Israel gave a great shout, which drew the attention of the Philistines (4:5). The Philistines were afraid at this development, saying, “Gods have come into the camp.”, and wondering who can deliver them from the power of these mighty gods who had struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague (4:7-8). They evidently thought that the ark of the covenant had particular power, being Israel’s god.

In the subsequent battle Israel was thoroughly defeated and the ark was captured (4:10-11). The Philistines then brought the ark to Ashdod and placed it in the house of their god, Dagon (5:1-2). Their intention would have been to demonstrate that Dagon was more powerful than Yahweh, because Israel’s armies had been defeated by the armies of the Philistines. After the first night they found that Dagon had fallen face down before the ark of the LORD, so they had to put him back in his place (5:3). However, after the second night, Dagon had again fallen down before the ark of the LORD, but this time his head and hands had broken off (5:4). God then struck the people of Ashdod with tumours (5:6), so they moved the ark to Gath, where the people were also struck with tumours (5:8-9). In desperation, they finally sent the ark back to Israel.

The Philistines mistakenly believed their god, Dagon, had defeated Israel’s God. It is probable that Israel also understood events in this way. However, the Philistines had defeated Israel because God allowed them to, as judgement on the sins of the sons of Eli (3:11-14). Instead of being a regional god who had been defeated by a more powerful god, Yahweh was God of all nations, who had exercised his sovereignty over all nations to cause Israel to be defeated by the Philistines, as a punishment for their iniquity.

Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem - 701 BC (Is 36-37, 2 Kg 18-19, 2 Chr 32)

When the Assyrian army besieged Jerusalem in 701 BC, the Rabshakeh (the representative of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib) tried to confuse the people. He challenged them not to be deceived by King Hezekiah into thinking that Yahweh could deliver them from the armies of Assyria. “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the LORD by saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria” (Is 36:15, 2 Kg 18:32). He asked, “Has any of the gods of the nations saved their land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?" (Is 36:18b, 2 Kg 18:33), then listed several defeated nations. They were convinced that their own god, Ashur, had defeated the gods of the all the nations they had already conquered, and did not believe that Yahweh would be powerful enough to save Jerusalem (Is 36:20). The Assyrians had conquered many nations, so their god must be stronger.

In response, Hezekiah prayed to the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, who is God over all kingdoms, including Assyria (Is 37:16). He prays: “O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.” (Is 37:16, 2 Kg 19:15). Hezekiah believed in a God who is totally different from idols of wood and stone which have been thrown aside by Assyria. He knows that Israel’s God is the only God, the creator of heaven and earth, and ruler over all the kingdoms of the earth, including Assyria. Hezekiah then called on God to show his power and deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrians (Is 36:20, 2 Kg 19:20).

The words that came through Isaiah in response to his prayer remind the king that God is the all-powerful ruler of the nations, and that he had planned from long ago that he would use Assyria to bring fortified cities into ruins, and that the pride of Assyria would be humiliated, when they were turned around and dragged home (Is 36:26-29, 2 Kg 19:21-28).

That night the angel of the Lord slew 185,000 soldiers of the Assyrian army outside the city of Jerusalem (Is 37:36, 2 Kg 19:35) - a great deliverance for Hezekiah and a vindication of his faith in Yahweh.

One of the important messages through the Book of Isaiah is that God is the Almighty, the creator and ruler of nations, who is no local regional god, but one who whistles and the armies of the nations start to march, whether Egypt and Assyria (Is 7:18-19), or later Persia (Is 41:2). “He will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the end of the earth; Here they come, swiftly, speedily! None of them is weary, none stumbles, none slumbers or sleeps, not a loincloth is loose, not a sandal-thong broken; their arrows are sharp, all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs seem like flint, and their wheels like the whirlwind ...” (Is 5:26-28).

Capture of Jerusalem by Babylon - 586 BC

When the Babylonians captured and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, they took the sacred vessels used for the sacrifices from the temple to Babylon (2 Kg 25:13-17, 2 Chr 36:18), where they placed them in the house of their gods (Ezra 1:7). This would be to demonstrate that their god, Marduk, was more powerful than Israel’s god, because the armies of Babylon had conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. Evidently they took the sacred vessels because there was no idol to take, and the ark of the covenant had been destroyed, or disappeared. The sacred vessels were the best they could find.

During Belshazzar’s feast, the king commanded that these vessels of gold and silver from the temple in Jerusalem be brought in, so he and his guests could drink from them. As they did so, they praised their gods (Dan 5:2-4). This act would be a celebration of the power of Marduk, and a humiliation of Israel’s god. At that exact moment the hand appeared and wrote on the wall (5:5), writing words which Daniel later interpreted, saying that Belshazzar’s kingdom had come to an end (5:24-28). God was not going to allow his sacred vessels to be desecrated in this way, and his name mocked by a pagan king. That night the armies of Persia captured Babylon and Belshazzar was killed.

When the first group of Jews left Babylon to return to Jerusalem, King Cyrus himself brought these temple vessels and gave them to the returning exiles (Ezra 1:7). There were over five thousand different vessels (1:11). The Jews later reminded King Darius that Cyrus had given them these vessels when they wrote to the king to complain about the opposition to building the temple (Ezra 5 14-15). The decree of Cyrus is recorded in the king’s reply, which again mentions these vessels (6:3-5).

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.