Yahweh War (in Exodus)

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In Exodus 1–15, 17:8–16 and, 23:20–33, the text displays a persistent emphasis on God as warrior fighting on Israel’s behalf and subduing God’s and Israel’s enemies. God’s encounter with Pharaoh is presented as a raging battle. Military terminology is prominent: Israel, God’s army (14:19) of “six hundred thousand men on foot” (12:37; better: “men capable of fighting,” with dependents; see 12:29–39 commentary notes) is structured in “companies” (6:26; 7:4; 12:41, 51). They leave Egypt laden with booty they plundered from the Egyptians (12:36; 11:2–3, notes). The Israelites are “prepared for battle” (13:18, notes) and move from one (military) camp to another (e.g., 13:20).

Nevertheless, Israel does not fight throughout its exodus, for—as the key word of Moses states—“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (14:14). In warding off the Amalekites, Israel does engage in battle (17:8–16), and the occupation of the Promised Land is projected as a march of military conquest (23:20–33). In both these texts, however, the emphasis also rests fully on God’s role in defeating the enemies, rather than on Israel’s military strength or achievement. In keeping with all this, the Song of the Sea exalts God in hymnic praise:

  • The LORD (Yahweh) is a warrior;
  • The LORD (Yahweh) is his name. (15:3; cf. 1 Sam 17:47; Ps 24:8)


Such warfare, in which the victory is gained by Yahweh either without human fighting or with merely token human participation, occurs throughout much of the OT, and in a somewhat transformed sense, in the NT as well. These wars are called by scholars “Yahweh war” or “holy war.” The former term associates them with Yahweh/God. The term “holy war,” though widely used by interpreters, is avoided in the Exodus commentary because it has become misleading in modern usage.

First, “holy war” suggests to us the notion that “holy” is equivalent to “good,” while the biblical “holy” means “set apart for the service of God.” Second, “holy war” has become the name designating wars fought by humans for their god(s), for example, to spread a certain religion by force of arms, while biblical Yahweh war means the opposite: God fights for humans.

On the other hand, the term “holy war,” though not used in the Bible itself, does point to the fact that the OT presents Israel’s participation in such a war as a service to God analogous to a cultic or worship activity. God was the one who called Israel to it, generally through a prophet. The soldiers had to sanctify themselves (be ritually pure). The decisive action was expected from God, often through a miracle that threw the enemies into a panic or dread, and this could happen with or without human participation in fighting. Any booty taken was to be “devoted,” given over to God as a sacrifice (cf. Von Rad: 41–51; for critiques of this picture, see Ben C. Ollenburger’s Introduction in von Rad: 22–33).

Millard Lind has traced the history and theology of Yahweh war/holy war from Israel’s first and formative experience of it in the exodus events to the end of the Israelite/Judean monarchy in the sixth century BCE. He contends that it was Israel’s calling to serve God in a nonviolent manner, allowing itself to be led by the prophetic word and by God’s often miraculous intervention. The increasing participation of Israel in military conflict represents, according to Lind, a history of falling away from God’s commission to establish a new and peaceful theo-political society in the world, based on obedience to God rather than on the use of military power. The monarchy especially was instrumental in leading God’s elect people back into the mainstream of national-military politics, with its power structures and its secularized warfare. Only in the prophets do we find an ongoing voice challenging this development (Lind, 1980; cf. also 1990: esp. 171–196).

While Lind may have overstated certain aspects of the matter, he points out correctly and forcefully that the concept of Yahweh war is not, as often held, the epitome of OT violence in the name of God, but rather a restriction on warfare and violence. At its core, demonstrated in Exodus 1–15, it is not God’s calling Israel to arms, but rather God’s command to Israel to hold back and let God deal with the enemies. While every nation at war, ancient and modern, claims God or its gods to be on its side, Israel is challenged to trust its God enough to hold back in its own military efforts. (For my more detailed response to Lind, see W. Janzen, 1984:177–81).

Yahweh wars are associated especially with Israel taking possession and keeping hold of the Promised Land of Canaan; this is the story from the exodus to the early monarchy. Later, as Israel increasingly adopted the military strategies of the nations, only occasional Yahweh wars are reported. In the prophets, however, Yahweh war theology finds renewed emphasis. Isaiah, in a new call to rely on God alone, urges the Jerusalem kings of his time to trust in God’s leading and to follow a policy of political-military “quietness.” They are to avoid military alliances with other nations, as well as reliance on Judah’s own military strength, and trust in God, who alone could protect Jerusalem/Zion (e.g., Isa. 7:4; 30:15–17). Hezekiah’s obedience to this call leads to the miraculous preservation of Jerusalem from the vastly superior Assyrian army besieging it (Isa. 36–37).

A century later, Jeremiah proclaims the inversion of Yahweh war against Israel. God, who had once fought for Israel, is now fighting against his covenant-breaking people (Jer. 6:1–8; 21:8–10; 25:8–9; cf. Isa. 63:10; Ezek. 9:1–10). After Israel’s collapse and the deportations, God will again take up the cause of his people, not by calling them to arms, however, but by using the Persian King Cyrus to deliver Israel from Babylonian exile (Isa. 45:1–4).

Finally, in prophetic end-time passages, God is repeatedly presented as the warrior who will subdue all evil powers to establish God’s kingdom, as in Ezekiel 38–39, where God crushes Gog and Magog, embodiments of evil, as the Pharaoh in Exodus had been. This eschatological dimension of the Yahweh war theme extends into the NT: Jesus subdues the demons, with a view to God’s ultimate victory over evil (e.g., Rev. 19:11–21).

Whenever we encounter God as warrior in the Bible, however, we need to remember that the war/warrior language used is metaphorical language that functions like other metaphors for God, such as shepherd, father, king, and so on. Each draws on a particular realm of human experience for terms pointing to a particular aspect of God. Just as calling God our shepherd points to God’s leading and care, God’s designation as warrior or king points to God’s power and authority. But just as God’s shepherd metaphor is no warrant for sheep farming as a particularly divine occupation, the warrior metaphor used for God does not command or sanction human warfare. (For a more comprehensive discussion of war in the OT, see W. Janzen, “War in the Old Testament”: 173–86; and “God as Warrior and Lord”: 187–92; for a survey of scholarly treatments of Yahweh war/holy war, see Ollenburger’s Introduction in von Rad: 22–33).

Bibliography

  • Janzen, Waldemar. “God as Warrior and Lord.” In Still in the Image, 187–92. Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1982.
  • _____. Review of Millard C. Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel. Journal of Mennonite Studies 2 (1984):177–81.
  • _____. “War in the Old Testament.” In Still in the Image, 173–86. Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1982.
  • Rad, Gerhard von. Holy War in Ancient Israel. Translated and edited by Marva J. Dawn from the 3d German ed. (1958). Introduction by Ben C. Ollenburger. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

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Waldemar Janzen