"Listen … the Lord of hosts is mustering an army for battle. … Wail, for the day of the Lord is near. … See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger" (Isa. 13:4-9, NRSV).
Isaiah won't let us escape the fact that our God is violent. In fact, Scripture often describes him as a warrior, a warring king who obliterates his enemies. That leaves thoughtful Christians wondering how we deal with this biblical motif. Does the Bible endorse violence? Is violence one of the ways we can fight the Lord's battles?
This biblical language of violence is especially unsettling in this closing decade of the twentieth century, which is clouded with bloodshed—much of it religiously tinged. Christians who aspire to love their enemies have rightly been shocked by public and domestic acts of violence inspired or justified by misreading a "Christian" ideology of the biblical "Wars of the Lord."
Still, moments arise when our thoughts echo those of the disciples when they said (after being snubbed by Samaritan villagers), "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9:54; all references are from the nrsv). Rightly sensing that Jesus was on a mission of divine warfare, they wrongly perceived his strategy. They—and we—are rebuked by Jesus.
What then is Jesus' warfare, and how should we tell the ancient story of the wars of the Lord? Those who stand firmly in the biblical tradition know they cannot refashion the language of Scripture to suit their tastes. "Wrath of God" passages remain part of the authoritative Word. Few would want to follow Marcion, the ancient church heretic who edited out offensive portions of Scripture, including the Old Testament God who was "lustful for war."
What remained for Marcion was a climax with a truncated plot, with the main character split in two: A God of creation and wrath was pitted against a God of salvation and love at the Cross. The church's response to Marcion was the faithful course of submitting to the authority of all Scripture. They believed that whatever offense the "wrath" passages might elicit would be resolved in the unfolding "plot" of God's saving activity, ultimately overflowing in his grace and righteousness.
The conflict and plot development of the saving activity of the warrior God can be understood as an unfolding drama in the biblical narrative: God the divine warrior delivers Israel from her enemies, and Israel is God's warrior people; God also fights against Israel in judgment; these two currents meet in Jesus, who delivers Israel from her darkest enemy, Satan, and takes the divine wrath against Israel upon himself in his death.
We don't have to read far in the Old Testament before we come across the opening scenes of this salvific plot. God is a warrior for Israel's deliverance.
The exodus of Israel from bondage in Egypt marks the first time God mounts the stage in warrior dress. Pharaoh, the king of the superpower Egypt, is overthrown by the little-known God of a nobody people. Moses, Miriam, and the people recount the divine victory: "I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. … The LORDis a warrior; the LORD is his name" (Exod. 15:1, 3).
This "Song of Moses" rehearses the march of God as he leads Israel into the Promised Land, striking fear into its inhabitants and leaving them dead as a stone. The warrior and his followers march to the mountain of God, his holy sanctuary, where his eternal reign is established. All of this is celebrated by Israel on the safe bank of the sea: "You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place, O LORD, that you made your abode" (Exod. 15:17).
The Book of Numbers in-vites us to see Israel in the wilderness like a massive army encampment, with tribal tents pitched 'round about the commander-in-chief's mobile headquarters, the tabernacle. Tribes are numbered and readied for battle. The ark of the covenant, the divine warrior's portable throne, leads Israel's troops into battle. When the ark goes forth, the cry goes up: "Arise, O LORD, let your enemies be scattered, and your foes flee before you" (Num. 10:35).
One thing is clear. The battles against Canaan are God's battles. He goes before Israel. He directs the battle. Israel seeks his will and follows. These wars find God overcoming incredible odds while Israel is armed with little more than faith: Israel against Egypt, Gideon against Midianites, David against Goliath. Israel, a breed of warrior that is strongest in weakness, is a shepherd boy on the battlefields of human history.
Since Yahweh indwells the encampment, leading the march to battle, Israel's soldiers are to consecrate themselves for battle and maintain ritual purity. But for many contemporary Bible readers, the stories of divine warfare create a haunting problem. Israel is commanded to devote to destruction all the residents of cities within the land of promise—men, women, children, and suckling babes. The Hebrew word for the objects of this annihilation is cherem, "banned" or "devoted things":
As for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them … just as the Lord your God has commanded (Deut. 20:16-17).
Our eyes run quickly over these familiar episodes, reported in their spare narrative style. "Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys" (Josh. 6:21). If we pause, we wince at the R-rated scenes of violence cast upon our mental screens. Was this annihilation truly God's will? Perhaps Israel misheard God. If God required this of Israel, how can followers of the Prince of Peace condone these stories and teach them to our children? What comfort and moral direction can we find in a God of warfare?
First, the destruction of one's enemies for the sake of a deity was not an exclusively Israelite notion. It was practiced by Israel's neighbors. Israel's enemy, Mesha, the king of Moab in the ninth century B.C., left an inscription memorializing his ban against Israel! Commanded by his god, Chemosh, to take the city of Nebo from Israel, he struck by night, "slaying all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and maid-servants." They were, in Mesha's words, "devoted to destruction for Ashtar-Chemosh." It appears, then, that God in some sense reshaped a convention of contemporary warfare for his own re-demptive purpose.
Second, from Genesis to Joshua there is a firm understanding that Israel is executing God's judgment on a people whose doomsday clock has struck twelve. God promised Abraham that in the fourth generation his descendants would return and inherit the land when the iniquity of the Amorites was complete (Gen. 15:16). The Ca-naanites, whose godlessness had reached the limit, experience their Day of the Lord at the hand of Israel and her God. Israel's conquest is a boldly enacted parable of the Day of the Lord that will one day dawn on every nation. There is a divine justice in this war, though we may not fully comprehend its dimensions. The instruction to execute judgment against a whole nation, annihilating women, children, and nursing babes, evokes our revulsion and taxes our comprehension of the dimensions of human sin and guilt. Yet we must be reminded that earthly life is God's to give and to take. And more important, in his mercy, God's eternal judgment of individuals does not operate on the same plane as his corporal judgment in these "wars of the Lord."
Third, in holy warfare the vanquished enemies become like a sacrifice, something "devoted to God." Both the object of sacrifice and the object of destruction can be called herem in the Old Testament, which means "something devoted" exclusively to God. This convergence of sacrifice and warfare evokes the imagery of Jeremiah ("The sword shall devour and be sated, and drink its fill of their blood. For the Lord GOD of hosts holds a sacrifice," 46:10) and Isaiah ("When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens, lo, it will descend upon Edom," 34:5). The sword of the Lord, sated with blood and gorged with the fat of his enemies, yields the grisly image of a sacrificial offering for the Lord. The underlying point seems to be that these enemies pay with their lives for the sins for which no other sacrifice on their horizon can atone.
But if the Lord's warfare was holy and just, Israel's execution of it was something else. Laying "unholy hands" on the sword, grasping plunder for personal gain, trusting in her own strength and stratagems, Israel did not play the parable well.
So the plot advances. The story goes searching for a holy warrior, an "Israel" who will obediently carry out the will and embody the strategies of the heavenly divine warrior.
The divine warrior against Israel
This becomes clear: The divine warrior is no genie in an Israelite bottle, his ark no magic talisman. Israel learned the meaning of the divine covenant in the school of experience. If obedience brought the blessing of victory, disobedience brought the curse of defeat. If God would fight for faithful Israel, he would also fight against unfaithful Israel, evacuating his temple, and going over to the side of the enemy. Within the ebb and flow of the Old Testament story, defeat and exile is the rip tide of judgment on Israel. The trauma of reverse holy war, culminating in Israel's ignominious defeat and exile, is sounded in Lamentations: "The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel" (2:5).
There are numerous episodes of this divine warfare against Israel, foreshadowings of the judgment of the exile. Their narrative pattern is laid down in the blessings and curses of God's covenant with Israel. If Israel is obedient to the covenant, God will protect his people from their enemies: "They shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways" (Deut. 28:7). If Israel is disobedient, the curse is invoked and God will cause Israel to be defeated: "You shall go out against them one way and flee before them seven ways. You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth" (Deut. 28:25). Ai (Josh. 7:1-5), Hormah (Num. 14:39-45), and the blood-soaked ground between Ebenezer and Aphek (1 Sam. 4:1-11) stand as tragic memorials of the divine warrior's turning against Israel in judgment. But Israel, feeling good about itself, fattened its collective psyche on a theology of optimism and national immunity. In Samaria, the prophet Amos rebuked those who saw the future "Day of the Lord," as—of course!—the day of victory for Israel: "Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light" (Amos 5:18). The eventual outcome was the northern kingdom's thorough defeat and exile by the sword of the Assyrians. In the language of Israel's covenant, this was the sword of the Lord.
In the face of doom, the prophets—even Amos—nevertheless proclaim hope. Their vision of judgment is coupled with the expectation of a future Day of the Lord when he will defeat all hostility, demonstrate his kingship, renew his people and all creation, and fill heaven and earth with his glory. The creation is no passive and disposable backdrop in this drama but an afflicted subject, anxious spectator, and active participant. As Paul puts it, "the whole creation has been groaning" (Rom. 8:19-23). When God marches to war in judgment, the heavens thunder, creation withers, nature convulses, sea flees, and fertility and music cease (Nah. 1:2-6; Hab. 3:8; Isa. 24:1-13). The creation is also enlisted in battle. The imagery of the storm gods of Canaan is harnessed in one of the hallmark images of Israel's divine warrior: "You make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind" (Ps. 104:3). At God's victory a cosmic reversal unfolds. The creation is rejuvenated, the trees of the forest sing for joy (Ps. 96:11-12), and the exhilarating praise of "a new song" fills the air (Pss. 40:3; 96:1). Clearly this is not simply a conflict and battle for people; the divine warrior is laying claim to his entire created order.
The latter prophets, writing in the shadow of Israel's defeat, show the image of divine warfare as they paint their canvases of judgment, deliverance, and restoration. There is hope beyond the darkness of defeat. The divine warrior makes repeated appearances in Isaiah's mural of renewal: a highway is prepared in the wilderness for his arrival (Isa. 40:3-10); he rescues captives from a mighty tyrant (Isa. 49:24-25); a voice calls on the divine warrior to deliver Israel and lead them rejoicing to Zion (Isa. 51:9-11); the good news of victory will be announced by messengers on the mountains (Isa. 52:7-10). And in a startling scene, the divine warrior approaches from Edom, splendid and mighty, but his robes splattered with gore. With no one to help him, no warriors in Israel fit for the task, he returns from single-handedly defeating his enemies (Isa. 63:1-6).
This lone warrior foreshadows the Cross.
Jesus the warrior
As we turn from prophet to gospel, Israel's plot remains unresolved. Mark opens his gospel with an Old Testament overture of a new Exodus echoing Isaiah. To paraphrase Mark 1:3: "Prepare the way for the divine warrior's procession through the wilderness to his holy mount." Mark accentuates the activism of Jesus, who bounds onto the stage of history ready for battle. Mark takes us to the wilderness where John the Baptist dips repentant Israelites into the same waters their ancestors crossed to enter the land of promise. Jesus enters this water too and, like Israel emerging from Egypt, is named by God "my Son" (Exod. 4:22). Like Israel, he is "driven" (Exod. 12:39) into the wilderness. After 40 days there facing down Satan (the old enemy who enchanted Israel by idols), he proclaims the kingdom, gathers a new body of twelve around him, and casts out demons.
But do we understand the place of casting out demons in his ministry? Mark frames Jesus' encounters with demons as pitched battles in which Jesus "drives out" the unclean spirits. This sounds remarkably like an earlier chapter when the divine warrior, with Israel as his agent, "drove out" Canaanites from the land of promise. The incarnate divine warrior Jesus now carries the conquest to its deepest level. Jesus is a strong man and fierce warrior rescuing those bound by Beelzebul (Mark 3:23-26). Even the "rebuke" Jesus delivers to the demons, the wind, and to hard-hearted disciples carries overtones of the divine warrior defeating his enemies (Ps. 18:15; Nah. 1:4).
Isaiah had spoken of the divine warrior (35:4) moving along his holy highway (35:8) and passing through the landscape of a new creation (35:6-7). Along this highway would march a renewed Israel, symbolized by the blind, deaf, lame, and mute (35:5-6) now restored to wholeness and returning to Zion with joy and singing (35:9-10). The victorious divine warrior king would march to his house amidst voices tuned for celebration. And so Jesus advances toward Jerusalem and the temple, leading his twelve and healing the blind, deaf, lame, and mute.
But the plot thickens. Three times along this way Jesus alludes to ominous events about to overtake this mission: Suffering, rejection, deliverance to Gentiles, and certain death—then a third day of "rising." Here the subtext of the warrior God and Israel's deliverance breaks through in the story of Jesus.
Since Eden's rupture, God has been bearing in his gut the sin and suffering of the world. But the saving act is itself a suffering act. Temple sacrifice of bulls and goats only begins to chart the depths of the costly suffering that undergirds Yahweh's grace. The waiting father who greets the prodigal has died a thousand deaths before he embraces his son. More so with God. The holy warrior bears within himself the suffering on behalf of his people. Israel tasted the redemptive tears of suffering in the boot camp of the Exile, but did not graduate. But from Israel's womb will come a Servant who will pass through pangs of redemptive suffering, made more acute by his innocence.
In our haste to see prophecy fulfilled, we easily overlook that Isaiah's familiar Song of the Suffering Servant actually reveals the profile of a warrior (Isa. 52:13-53:12). Like viewing a large tapestry, we need to step back, readjust our focus. First Isaiah speaks of good news for Zion.
"Listen!" (Isa. 52:8). We listen and hear the heralds announce the approach of a mighty divine warrior who has rolled up his sleeves and "bared his holy arm" of salvation.
"See!" (Isa. 52:13). We look. Could this be Israel that is exalted in triumph and dividing the spoils of battle (Isa. 52:13; 53:12)?
Drawing closer we make out in the face of the servant the telltale features of Israel, evoking the scars and bruises of exile. "He was despised and rejected … a man of suffering." But this Servant, embodied Israel, has taken suffering to the nadir of transcendent love, bearing the transgression of his people to the uttermost and to the astonishment of the nations. A startling vision emerges: the divine warrior appears in Servant flesh. A new meaning of redemptive warfare takes shape, and in Mark's gospel we see him marching from the hills and seasides of Galilee to his appointed day of conflict in Jerusalem.
The victim is the victor
With each word of forgiveness, each healing touch, and each endurance of his disciples' folly, Jesus takes upon himself the consequences of sin and bondage. Not Israel's failure only, but the world's as well, since Israel, at the deepest level, was a nation in the shape of archetypal humanity, Adam, and called to a mission of redemptive suffering for the world.
The paradox of the divine warrior is that while he fights off every effort to hijack Israel's destiny—whether from enemies without or unfaithfulness within—he is also bearing the suffering of human history within himself. The God of battles carries sin and suffering with his own groans, and finally on the cross draws his sovereign wrath down upon himself.
"Holy war" takes on new meaning in this light. The divine warrior, who formerly drove the sword of Assyria and Babylon into the heart of Israel and Judah, is himself pierced by the same sword, now in the hands of Rome.
A thousand Jews who died on Roman crosses had their individual stories to tell. But the story of this Jew and this cross is the larger narrative that encompasses them all. This cross, staked at the epicenter of a tremor that shakes Jerusalem, radiates to the ends of the earth. The divine presence that Ezekiel saw evacuate the temple, borne away on its wheeled chariot, now holds its ground on Zion, inhabiting the first truly innocent Israelite and Adamic flesh. This naked and dying form bears the weight of the darkness of this age. His voice amplifies the lament of the Day of the Lord. When we see the cross we should hear thunder and the churning of chariot wheels in the air. With the Roman centurion, whose battle-hardened eyes knew a warrior's death when he saw one, we too confess that here is the heart of both the judgment and the triumph of the warrior God. The vengeance of God has marched forth to divine sacrifice; the love of God has mounted the throne of the cross. The climax of the story that began with Israel is also the astounding climax of the epic story of Israel's divine warrior.
Exalted and returning warrior
When the divine warrior marches, creation withers; when he triumphs, creation blooms and sings with new life. The Resurrection is the first line of a new song that will one day enfold the cosmos. When Paul and other New Testament writers invoke the language of Psalm 110:1 to speak of Christ as "seated at the right hand of God," with enemies subdued under his feet, the echoes of victory are all around. The cruel instrument of the Roman war machine—the cross—is transformed into Christ's triumphal vehicle in the procession of the defeated principalities and powers of this age (Col. 2:14-15). Spiritual rulers, authorities, and powers are under his feet, both now and in the future, and the last adversary will be the ancient enemy, death itself (1 Cor. 15:25-26).
The warrior God, Christ the victor, will return in triumph riding the clouds of heaven with great power and glory, accompanied by the armies of heaven (Matt. 24:30-31). Paul speaks of this event in the language of the Old Testament tradition of the Day of the Lord, spelling wrath and destruction for the children of darkness and deliverance for the children of light (1 Thess. 5:1-11). In that day the man of lawlessness will be annihilated in a final herem of the triumphant Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 2:3-12). The sword of divine justice is in the hands of the one warrior who is qualified to bear it.
But between these two focal points of battle, the cross and the consummation, the people of God engage in warfare with the powers of this age. Drawing on the language of Isaiah, who speaks of God putting on armor to work salvation (Isa. 59:17-18), Paul encourages believers to "put on the whole armor of God" (Eph. 6:10-17).
Like Israel, the church as the new community of God can be viewed as his holy army, enabled by his victorious might, and set against an enemy whose power has been broken. The battle has several dimensions; not least, it is an intellectual warfare that demolishes arguments and takes every thought captive for Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5). But what is frequently forgotten is that the church militant is a church that follows and imitates Jesus. We enter into the afflictions of the world, mirroring the cosmic reversal ourselves.
Following the victorious Christ, Paul lives the warrior's life under the emblem of the Cross. And following the example of this heroic apostle, the soldiers of Christ are counted as "more than conquerors" (Rom. 8:35-37) as they too experience hardship, persecution, danger, and sword for the sake of the gospel. In the power of the Spirit, the people of God share in the tribulation of the creation, boldly anticipating the coming day of redemption (Rom. 8:18-27).
This is not a warfare of vengeance, of hate speech, or of political force. (Paul leaves the path of vengeance to the wisdom of God; Rom. 12:19.) It is a warfare of cruciform love. Persecutors are assaulted with blessing, bastions of evil overcome with good, and enemies invited to the table for food and drink (Rom. 12:14-21). Both the random acts of rejection and the plotted evils of this age are to be met not with vengeance, but with mercy and love.
A vision of Christian warfare that is truly centered in a theology of the Cross should never be guilty of triumphalism or cultural arrogance. The Cross reminds us that we too were enemies whose hostility and offense have been reconciled through costly battle. As Christians, the Cross continues to judge our thoughts, actions, and stratagems, probing even our most cherished ethnic, national, and cultural assumptions, and calling us back to the path forged by the Captain of our salvation.
"Listen. … Wail. … See, the day of the Lord comes, a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger." The warrior God shows forth the reality of evil in the world. Modern sentiments that cringe at this offensive side of God fail to perceive the startling climax of his wrath in his self-inflicted judgment on the Cross—"a cruel day." But there could be no cosmic peace without cosmic conflict, and no victory without the perfect sacrifice.
The Book of Revelation, the most colorful rebirth of divine warrior imagery to be found in the New Testament, portrays in bold colors the final warfare of the Lion who is also the Lamb. True to the plot reversals of the biblical narrative, it ends with the universal sovereignty of the heavenly king and retired warrior in his new kingdom, overflowing in shalom.
-Daniel G. Reid is reference book editor for InterVarsity Press. Tremper Longman III is professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary. Together they authored God Is a Warrior (Zondervan).
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Last Updated: October 9, 1996
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