Events of recent weeks offer a serious challenge to our thinking about God and conflict. The video released by the ISIS group of militant Sunni Muslims fighting in Iraq included an British Muslim from Cardiff urging others to join him. In the video he makes three claims: that jihad (understood by some Muslims as a spiritual struggle) involves actual combat; that this is the will of Allah; and that in this Muslim men will find their purpose in life.
Christians often underestimate how indebted our theology of God is to OT ideas of God as warrior. Most of our language of God as ‘Almighty’, as the ‘Lord of Hosts’, and of God have a ‘mighty hand and outstretched arm’ (which I sang in a chorus in church yesterday) originates in contexts of God fighting as a warrior on behalf of his people. One of the clearest examples of this is the song of Moses in Exodus 15, within which Moses proclaims ‘Yahweh is a warrior’ (Ex 15.3). Although these are often ‘spiritualised’ in reading, there is a significant tradition in contemporary Western Christianity which reads such texts as advocating warfare, and such reading has influence Western foreign policy and contributed to justifying the war in Iraq.
What is a responsible way to read such texts? We first need to note two things about Ex 15. First, its historical context was one of a fairly brutal and violent culture, where warfare was common and life was (by comparison with modern expectations) brutish and short. It is in this context that God does not stand aloof, or waits until human culture becomes more ‘sophisticated’, but chooses (according to the biblical text) to become involved. Secondly, it is important to notice the relation between the song of chapter 15 and the account of the events themselves in chapter 14. There are plenty of ‘supernatural’ elements, but there is also a strong naturalistic focus.
The part of the waves happened because of a ‘strong east wind that blew all night’ (Ex 14.21); if you had been there, you would not have seen anything obviously supernatural. Moses’ description of the event owes much to his spiritual interpretation of the significance of the events, and takes a poetic form. As in many of the psalms, God’s nostrils (for example) appear to play a key role! (Ex 15.8). It is within this context—a poetic description of the spiritual significance of the events—that God is described as a ‘warrior.’ (Incidentally, Hollywood always seems to prefer the poetic version rather than the actual account; the film Prince of Egypt about Moses had the walls of water standing either side, as per Moses’ poetic description, instead of the rather mundane blowing of the wind all night—which, let’s be honest, would just not make such good cinema.)
We also need to locate this text within the wide biblical understanding of conflict. There are at least six key texts we need to consider which give insight into this question.
First, the creation account in Genesis 1 has important things to say—when (again) we read it in its context. Most scholars believe that the text of Genesis was written in its final form during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC, and you can see points of contact with the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish. (You can read it in full here, offered as a resource ‘for growing Christian’!) There is a nice summary here, which explains how the male sky god, Marduk, defeats the female sea goddess, Tiamat, and forms the heavens and the earth from the two halves of her body. The different features of the land correspond to her body parts.
When this epic was discovered in the nineteenth century, it was thought by some to show how Genesis derived from it. But on reading, it becomes clear that Genesis is in fact a counter-myth. To see what Genesis is claiming about God, we can look at how it differs from the claims of Enuma Elish. In EE, creation arises from the gods themselves; they are gendered, and involved in a power struggle; the male conquers the female (so is superior to her); work is drudgery since the gods enslave humans to do their work for them. For our purpose, though, the most important fact is that the world was created out of violence and warfare—this is the nature of the world. By contrast, in Genesis God is quite distinct from the world; he has no gender; humanity, both male and female are equally made in God’s image; work is the sharing of God’s dominion over the earth. And, crucially, the creation was ‘good’; the climax of God’s work is to rest, to enjoy the peace, tranquility and fruitfulness of the earth. Conflict and warfare arise from jealousy and envy, not from God’s original purposes.
Secondly, following on from Moses and the Exodus, we find Joshua as the leader of God’s people appointed to lead them in conquest of the promised land. Joshua and his companion Caleb were the only spies to believe that God would be true to his promise (Numbers 14.38), so they alone of their generation enter the promised land. We would have thought, then, that Joshua understood the nature of warfare and God’s role in it. And yet, on the eve of the ‘battle’ of Jericho, we read the extraordinary account of Joshua’s encounter with an angelic figure:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of Yahweh I have now come.” (Joshua 5.13-14)
Joshua thinks that he can check whether God is fighting on his side or not—but the angel quickly disabuses him of any such simplistic notions.
Thirdly, we look at the example of David, king of Israel. Despite his faults, David is consistently portrayed as the ideal king. Along with Saul’s son Jonathan, he is depicted at the ideal man—a successful, courageous warrior. He is the one whom God blesses as he extends and secures Israel’s borders, and give them victory over his enemies. Yet in a remarkable passage in 1 Chron 22, it is made clear that even this success in combat is only a second-best for God’s people. As David briefs his son Solomon (whose name means ‘peace’), he relates God’s word to him:
David said to Solomon: “My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the Yahweh my God. But this word of the Yahweh came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign. He is the one who will build a house for my Name. He will be my son, and I will be his father. And I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever.’ (1 Chron 22.7-10).
The writer of Chronicles has a particular concern for God’s holiness, and the right ordering of worship in the temple. And he makes it clear that, whatever God’s involvement has been in the warfare that David has pursued, there is something fundamentally incompatible between God’s holiness and human slaughter. In fact, it is not war, but peace (or ‘rest’) which is God’s goal for his people. Warfare might have been a pragmatic necessity, but it is no more than an intermediate or second best.
(this post continues in part 2 here)
This (with the following post) was material prepared for a sermon on Sunday 22nd June at St Nic’s Nottingham, and you can listen to the sermon on the church website.