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War (in the Bible)


From the serpent's hostility to God in the Garden of Eden (Gn 3.1, 1415) to his absolute and everlasting defeat in the final apocalyptic struggle (Rv 12.9; 20.910), there is in salvation history an underlying, unifying, multicolored theme of warfare between God and his enemies. This article treats in order: holy war in the Old Testament, the technical aspects of Old Testament war, and war terminology in the New Testament.

Holy War in the Old Testament. In Old Testament history Yahweh, the God of Israel, fights His own and Israel's enemies in holy war, the terminology of which takes on in the Prophets' "day of the lord" an eschatological significance. Israel's pagan neighbors looked upon war as having a sacred character; it was the war of its god, undertaken and accomplished according to religious prescription. In the mesha inscription, the king of Moab says that Chamos, the God of the Moabites, commanded him to wage war against Israel (see J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [Princeton 1955] 320). In Israel, holy war had similar characteristics: it was Yahweh's war against His enemies (1 Sm 18.17; 25.18; see also Nm 21.14 where mention is made of the "Book of Wars of Yahweh"), Yahweh commanding what was to be done, fighting as a gibbôr, "warrior" [Dt 10.17; Jer 32.18; Ps 23(24).8; see also Ex 15.3; Nm 32.2021; 2 Sm 22.35; Jos 10.14, 42; Dt 20.4], and gaining the victory (Nm 10.35); the warriors were volunteers inspired by faith in Yahweh (Jos 8.1; 10.25; Jgs 5.14), led by a charismatic leader (Jgs 6.34); they were consecrated (Is 13.3; Jos 3.5); they observed the laws of ritual purity (Dt 23.1015), entered battle carrying the sacred ark (Jos 6.6; 2 Sm 11.11), and gave the prescribed shout, t erû'â (1 Sm 4.56; 10.3536). When the weakhearted had been sent back home (Dt 20.8), the warriors were convinced that victory was certain; with Yahweh present there was no fear, for, if necessary, He could call the elements to fight for Israel (Jos 10.11; 24.7; Jgs 5.20; 1 Sm 7.10), throwing the enemy into sudden fright (1 Sm 14.15), defeat (Jgs 5.31; Dt 32.29), and total destruction, erem (Dt 7.2; Jos 8.2; 1 Sm 15.3).

Under the monarchy the ideals of holy war were more or less lost sight of. The king, now a hereditary leader, relying on his professional army and foreign allies, and with less stress on Yahweh's aid, led his armies to battle; it was his war, no longer Yahweh's (1 Sm 8.20). The wars of the Maccabees, although intensely religious, were not "holy wars"; Yahweh, considered more in a transcendent sense, did not fight as a gibbôr for Israel; Judas prays that God may send His angel (2 Mc 15.23).

The terminology of holy war, appropriated by the Prophets for their conception of the "day of Yahweh," later took on an ever more eschatological significance.

Technical Aspects of Old Testament War. The wars mentioned in the book of Joshua were wars of conquest aimed at occupying the promised land. During the period of the Judges (c. 12001025 b.c.), the Israelites fought mostly defensive wars against marauding Canaanites, Midianites, Moabites, Edomites, and Philistines. Open warfare began under David (c. 1000961 b.c.), whose army consisted entirely of infantry. Solomon (c. 961922 b.c.) introduced cavalry and the chariot corps in Israel (1 Kgs 4.26; 10.26). During the Maccabean wars (c. 166134 b.c.), the Jewish rebels successfully employed guerrilla tactics against the powerful Greek cavalry and elephant corps (2 Mc 13.2, 15).

War usually began in the spring (2 Sm 11.1) after spies had provided intelligence reports about the enemy (Nm 13.133). Battles consisted mostly in fierce hand-to-hand fighting in surprise attacks, with the Israelite warriors outmaneuvering the enemy by dividing into two or three separate companies (Jgs 7.16; 9.43).

Sources of information concerning the arms of Israelite soldiers are vague, for no technical description of Israelite weapons is given in the Bible, nor is the precise meaning of the Hebrew words describing military equipment known. Present evidence indicates that shields, bucklers, helmets, and breastplates were used as protective armor. Clubs, battle-axes, and maces were used for crushing the skull; daggers, lances, and swords were effective in hand-to-hand combat. Missiles included darts, spears, and javelins, and later on, slings, catapults, and bows and arrows were used in long range fighting.

War Terminology in the New Testament. The New Testament usage of war terminology falls roughly into three patterns describing the warfare between Christ and the devil (Gospels), the individual and the devil (St. Paul), and the final eschatological struggle between good and evil (Revelation). The Synoptic Gospels, more in the theme than the terminology, present Christ's mission as a warfare against the kingdom of Satan (Lk 4.113). Christ has come to dispossess Satan of his kingdom (Mk3.27); He conquers him by casting out devils (Mk1.2327), healing (Mk 1.3134), preaching (Mk 1.15), founding His Church (Mt 16.18), and undergoing His Passion (Mk 8.3133; 9.31; 10.3234, 38; Lk 24.26).

St. Paul, mixing military and theological terminology, describes the spiritual life as a warfare between the Christian, armed like a soldier with his virtues, and the devil, the adversary, with his allied powers of darkness. The faithful must be spiritually armed (Rom 6.13; 13.12; 2 Cor 6.7; 10.4; 1 Thes 5.8) and must put on God's armor when battling with the powers of darkness. This armor includes the breastplate of justice, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit, as well as belt and military boots (Eph 6.1017; cf. Wis 5.1722). Paul looks on apostolic workers such as Timothy (2 Tm 2.3), Epaphroditus (Phil 2.25) and Archippus (Phlm 2) as fellow soldiers in the army of Christ. Revelation, following the literary tradition of the later Prophets who in the Old Testament spoke of the "day of Yahweh" as the decisive day of salvation, describes with warlike phantasmagoria the final eschatological war between good and evil as occurring on "the great day of God almighty" (16.14; 20.710).

Bibliography: r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institiutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 213267. y. yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study, tr. m. pearlman, 2 v. (New York 1963). j. w. wevers, ed. g. a. buttrick, The Interpreters'Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville 1962) 4:820825. w. corswant, A Dictionary of Life in Bible Times, tr. a. heathcote (New York 1960) 3536, 292294. g. t. montague, Growth in Christ, a Study in Saint Paul's Theology of Progress (Kirkwood, Mo. 1961).

[f. j. montalbano]

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