From Violence in Scripture
In Genesis 1 and 2, God is as open to the creation as one who invites participation by the elements in the creative process. This view of God, in turn, has direct bearing on the understanding of humankind as made in “the image of God,” (1:26-27). The absence of war and coercive action is at the center of the nature of God and of God’s intention for humankind. With this picture of God and creation the book of Genesis sets the stage for the rest of the Bible. This will become apparent, among other places, in the exodus story. What may seem at first glance simply a story of liberation from slavery in which God battles an historical ruler, the pharaoh of Egypt, is actually an account of a contest between Pharaoh and the God who created Egypt. Pharaoh is the anticreator, the one who tries to undo the purpose of God that God began in Genesis 1. Thus the Egyptian king is largely a symbolic figure, and the story has an openness that defies historical limits.
Nevertheless, God’s destructive activity takes a turn in the book of Exodus that demands further explanation. Here God is presented for the first time explicitly as a warrior. Exodus reports that God fought directly against Pharaoh and the Egyptians. For example, Exodus 14:25a recalls that when the Egyptians pursued the Israelites into the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds), God “clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty.” The Egyptians then respond by saying, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt,” (v. 25b). When the Israelites arrive safely on the other side of the sea they celebrate their deliverance in a song, (15:1-18), in which they declare concerning their deliverer, “The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name,” (v. 3). With this image of God, the second book of the canon seems to present a picture of God that contrasts strikingly with the picture in Genesis.
This image of God as warrior in large part led Marcion to complain that God in the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament is “desirous of war,” (see Tertullian, Against Marcion, I, 1.6). The description of God as warrior demands attention in any serious reading of the Bible. Although the church denounced Marcion for his view, Marcion was not wrong in his general observation about the appearance of God in the Old Testament. As Patrick Miller says, “the view of Yahweh as warrior can hardly be a peripheral matter in the effort to work out a biblical theology. Rather, it lies at the theological center and much of the traditional substance of God-talk when given content from an Old Testament perspective confronts one directly with the wars of Israel and the God who was active in them,” (Divine Warrior in Early Israel, 7).
It is possible to conclude that the notion of God as warrior comes second in the canon to that of God as creator and is thus conditioned by the first portrait of God. It is also possible to separate the presentation of God as a warrior in the text from the real God. Such an approach would understand the text as a flawed work, a relic of the past that naturally presents God in ways that are imprecise and culturally conditioned. A careful analysis of the imagery, according to this view, will lead the thoughtful person to sort out unacceptable ideas, such as God as warrior, and to “think rightly” about God, (on this approach see Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior, 5-6).
Although these two approaches are possible, neither seems particularly helpful theologically. While one cannot deny that biblical texts are culturally conditioned and that the image of God as warrior poses theological problems, the complete separation of the real God from the textually embodied God seems misguided. Such an approach also overlooks the potentially positive role this image plays in Scripture and in Christian theology. Although all figurative language for God has limitations, when God is presented as a warrior God acts to correct and counteract oppression and injustice. God is not “desirous of war,” as Marcion said, but instead God engages in warfare to counteract the destructive forces at work in the world. In the discussion that follows, therefore, I do not try to reject or deny the label of God as warrior. Instead, I seek to discover why certain biblical texts include the imagery and how that imagery might actually speak against violence.
The first occurrence of the idea that God is a warrior is in the so-called Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1-18, (v. 3). The label is communicated in three words woodenly translated, “the Lord is a man of war.” The poem then proceeds to describe the Lord’s warring activity: “The chariots of Pharaoh and his army he has thrown into the sea,” (15:4a).
The Content of the Song
The Song of the Sea has two primary parts. Verses 1-10 celebrate the victory of God over Pharaoh and his army. Hence the first part harks back to the narrative in Exodus 14. This portion of the passages emphasizes two points about God’s action. First, God expressed power directly in God’s action against Pharaoh and his forces. For instance, verse 1b declares, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” Again in verse 4a the passage declares, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea.”
Second, the song shows God using the nonhuman world as an instrument in divine warfare. Statements to this effect punctuate the poem: “the floods covered them,” (v. 5a); “at the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea,” (v. 8); “you blew with your wind, the sea covered them,” (v. 10a); “you stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them,” (v. 12). After the poem ends a summary statement reiterates the point: “When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground,” (v. 19). Thus in this concluding account of God’s defeat of Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s immediate foe is the nonhuman world itself. The power of God is displayed mainly in God’s ability to direct the elements against the Egyptian king. Hence the destructive, warring acts of God described here are closely related to the acts of God to preserve the creation presented in Genesis 1-11. Pharaoh has acted against the intentions of God to bring blessing to the creation through the Israelites. Exodus 15:1-18 shows that creation is under God’s control.
Verses 11-18 then praise God for God’s incomparable power, (vv. 11-12), and God’s steadfast love with which God led God’s people to the holy mountain. This portion of the song looks forward to the rest of the book of Exodus in which the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and receive the law, (Exodus 19-40). God’s work as warrior thus provides a hinge between the two portions of the book and is indeed central to the message of the whole. God’s fight against Pharaoh and the Egyptians is a key to Israel’s freedom from bondage, (Exodus 1-14) and Israel’s being “planted” in the land of Canaan, (Exodus 19-40).
The final portion of the Song of the Sea, (15:11-18), gives important context to God’s warlike activity described in verses 1-10. Verse 11 praises God with a series of questions, “Lord, who is like you among the gods? Who is like you, wonderful in holiness? Who can work miracles and mighty acts like yours?” The questions, however, are not about God’s might in general. Rather, they address God’s ability to keep the promises God made to God’s people. As verse 13 states, “Faithful to your promise, you led the people you had rescued.” God is not only caring and compassionate toward those enslaved in Egypt. God also is powerful enough to deliver on the promise of rescuing them. For that reason, those who oppose God’s will (the Philistines, Edom, Moab, and the people of Canaan) tremble with fear.
Verse 17 describes the ultimate goal of God’s rescue of the Israelites. It is not simply to free them from oppression, but to “bring them in and plant them on your mountain.” In other words, God desires to establish these people in the place where God also dwells. The notion of “planting” the Israelites on God’s mountain anticipates worship in the Jerusalem temple, which will be central to the life and well-being of these people. It also hints that God is trying with the Israelites to restore paradise, since the Temple Mount is an Eden-like place, (see Psalm 46; Ezekiel 28:13-14). Exodus 15:18 sets all the descriptions of God using the natural world against Pharaoh in the proper context of God’s kingship. The words, “the Lord will reign forever and ever,” speak of God’s overarching role as universal sovereign. This point is essential in order to recognize properly the place of God’s creative and warlike activity. God’s chief identity is as one who rules the world. The creation can know the well-being God intends only when all God’s creatures acknowledge God’s rightful place as king. As already observed, God takes on the role of warrior when elements of the creation rebel against the intended order. In 15:1-18, “the Lord is a warrior” who fights against Pharaoh because Pharaoh tried to claim the role only God could occupy. The result was oppression and death. God’s action against Pharaoh was thus an attempt to restore creation. This is the real point of the plague narratives in Exodus 7-12. It is also the point, expressed more subtly, of 15:1-18, which culminates in the declaration, “the Lord reigns,” (v. 18).
The Context in Exodus
As already noted, 15:1-18 plays an integral role in the book of Exodus. The larger literary and theological context of this book, therefore, provides guidance for understanding the first presentation of God as warrior. Any treatment of God’s action as a “man of war,” (v. 3), must be understood in this context. Three primary movements in this larger context seem important: (1) Israel cries to God; (2) God acts for Israel; (3) God’s action for Israel attempts to establish justice.
Israel Cries to God
The victory song in 15:1-18, which celebrates God as warrior, is the final movement in Exodus 1-15, which began with Pharaoh oppressing the Israelites, (Exodus 1-2), and the Israelites crying to God for help, (3:7). The book begins with the Israelites in slavery, describes their condition, and states that the Egyptians “became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them,” (1:13-14). The Song of the Sea is thus a hymnic response of thanksgiving for God’s salvation, which was God’s response to Israel’s cry for deliverance.
Exodus 1-15 has a structure and movement seen in other parts of the Old Testament, specifically a pattern attested in the lament psalms of the Psalter. The pattern includes (1) a statement of distress, accompanied by complaints about being oppressed by enemies; (2) a plea to God for help; and finally (3) a song of praise for God’s deliverance that assumes deliverance has indeed been granted, (see Psalm 13 for an example of this pattern). Two points about this pattern are important. First, the psalmist’s complaint often has a judicial basis. He or she is being accused falsely or is the victim of injustice, and no human authority is willing to hear the case. So the psalmist appeals to God, the ultimate judge. This may have occurred in a sanctuary or temple and in the presence of religious officials thought to have authority to seek God on behalf of one who suffers. Second, the concluding song of praise in such psalms was likely added after the psalmist received a hearing and was assured of protection or freedom. An act of salvation occurred between the plea and praise, though it is not recorded in the psalm.
This pattern in the Psalms identifies the psalmist in two very important ways that also applies to the Israelites in Exodus. (1) It identifies him or her as one who suffers unjustly at the hands of a cruel and evil enemy. The Psalter often characterizes enemies as “the wicked” and portrays them as those who refuse to acknowledge God’s desires for the world, (see Psalms 9-10). The psalmist, in turn, is called “righteous.” This label does not denote moral perfection or moral superiority. Rather, it identifies the psalmist as dependent and pleading, one who turns to God when in trouble, (see Creach, Destiny of the Righteous). (2) The psalmist’s dependence on God is at root an openness that is critical for proper relationship with God.
God Acts for Israel
Exodus 15:1-18 also serves as the climax to the narrative’s emphasis on God acting for Israel. The victory over Pharaoh is narrated in Exodus 14, and the meaning and ethical implications of the Song of the Sea may be discerned in part by paying attention to this narrative setting. The narrative emphasizes that God acted for Israel in a way that is enhanced in 15:1-18; for example, 14:25 noted that God “clogged their chariot wheels,” and 14:27 declared that God “tossed the Egyptians into the sea”; so here in Exodus 15 God directly engages Israel’s enemy. Particularly important are Moses’s words to the Israelites when they realize they are hemmed in by Pharaoh: “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still,” (14:14). The Lord fights because Israel cannot defend itself. Exodus 15:1-18 matches this emphasis on Israel’s helplessness by not even mentioning Moses’s role in the event, which is indirect even in the narrative. But in the Song of the Sea, God delivers Israel without even the mention of a human agent. The implications of this message are crucial. As Millard Lind says, “In the thought of the Song of the Sea Yahweh is involved in Israel’s history by the fact that he alone is warrior,” (Yahweh Is a Warrior, 51). The Passover Haggadah (the Jewish liturgy used during the Seder meal) also emphasizes this point. When recalling the story of the exodus it emphasizes that God acted without intermediaries:
“I will go through the land of Egypt in that night”: I, and not an angel. “I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt”: I, and not a seraph. “And against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments”: I, and not a messenger. “I am the Lord”; I am He, and no other.
Even the portion of the story that refers to Moses as the bearer of signs of God’s power does not mention Moses directly – it mentions only the staff God gave him to display the miraculous signs, (see Glatzer, Passover Haggadah, 37, 39).
It is possible that the image of God as warrior arose within the institution of holy war and thus was directly connected to the wars of Israel, as many scholars have argued, (see Christensen, War Oracle, 11-15). This assessment of the origins of the image of God as warrior may be correct, but it seems clear that the image remained in scripture for a very different reason. Those who shaped the Pentateuch were exiles in Babylon, and, as such, they could not defend themselves. For them, the idea of God as warrior must have served two purposes. First, it would have given them hope that, despite having no recourse against enemies through military means, they had the ultimate defender on their side. Second, the notion of God as warrior served as part of the claim that their God was more powerful than the gods of Babylon and other oppressive peoples.
It is also crucial that the picture of God as warrior seems to include little or no recognition of Earthly warriors who carry out God’s intentions. Although some references to God’s warfare mention other warriors, (Isaiah 13:4-5; Joel 3:9-10), the warriors seem to be members of the divine council. The passages that do speak of human warriors typically speak of the warriors of the nations, marshaled by God to bring justice on Earth. This may be the case in Jeremiah 51:27-28: “Raise a standard in the land, blow the trumpet among the nations; prepare the nations for war against her, summon against her the kingdoms, Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz; appoint a marshal against her, bring up horses like bristling locusts. Prepare the nations for war against her, the kings of the Medes, with their governors and deputies, and every land under their dominion.” Obviously, this call to war is not a call to war in any sense we would recognize within history. Such portraits are probably intended to be apocalyptic in character, and the warriors called are Heavenly warriors. The same use of the image of God as warrior appears prominently in the New Testament as well, (see Mark 13:26; Revelation 19:11-16). John Howard Yoder suggests that the Exodus account of God fighting for Israel against Pharaoh and his army is paradigmatic of how the Divine Warrior theme appears in the Bible and should be applies to the Christian life. The Lord fights, but Israel does not, (see Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 76-88).
Thus although the image of God as warrior poses problems for our understanding of God, it does not legitimate or encourage actual wars, and it may even nullify their legitimacy. This draws a striking contrast between Israel’s use of the warrior image and Israel’s neighbors’ use of that image. Indeed, ancient Near Eastern kings typically used such imagery to support their own quest for power. The Bible, however, does not present God’s warring activity to justify the Earthly war efforts of Israel’s kings. The earliest passages that portray God as warrior, such as Exodus 15:1-18, predate the Israelite monarchy in the opinion of most scholars, (see Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior, 47). Moreover, the two passages that clearly link God’s warfare to the efforts of Israel’s kings show Israel or its king in a state of utter helplessness, having been defeated and humiliated by enemies, (Psalms 74, 89). In other words, the Divine Warrior fights for those who have no Earthly warriors to defend them.
God Administers Justice
Exodus 15:1-18 presents God’s action as a warrior specifically for the purpose of establishing justice. Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle makes the interesting suggestion that the language and imagery of Exodus 15:1-18 speak in important figurative ways about God judging the Egyptians. She sees two symbolic expressions that are particularly important in this regard (“Heart of the Sea”). The first such hint that the song means to present God’s action as a matter of justice is the portrait of the nonhuman world as an instrument in the hands of God. Verse 8 describes God moving the waters of the sea with the blast of the divine nostrils. The result is that the waters of the sea stand upright:
the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deep congealed in the heart of the sea.
As Boyle points out, this verse is typically conflated with the narrative account of the sea dividing so the Israelites are able to pass through on dry ground, (Exodus 14:21-25; “Heart of the Sea,” 17-18). In Exodus 15, however, there is no record of the Israelites passing through the sea. The point is rather that the waters are in God’s control and God uses them to cover Pharaoh and his army, (v. 10).
The second hint that Exodus 15 is about God judging the Egyptians is the poem’s emphasis on the Egyptians being overwhelmed with water and sinking into it, (vv. 5, 10). This motif of water as the instrument of judgment is common in the ancient Near East. As Kyle McCarter points out, the cosmic river in Akkadian literature serves as a judge in legal cases. Exodus 15:1-18 emphasizes the Egyptian soldiers’ being surrounded by water, (vv. 4, 5, 10), and sinking in water. That the Egyptians appear as heavy objects that sink in the water is particularly interesting:
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone. (vv. 4-5)
You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters. (v. 10)
It is striking that these expressions emphasize the Egyptians going down into the waters because they are heavy, “like a stone” or “like lead.” The emphasis here is not on death. To be sure, death is the result of their sinking in the waters of the sea. The song states twice that God destroyed the Egyptians: “your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy,” (v. 6); “you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble,” (v. 7). But most of the references in Exodus 15, and all the references to the Egyptians being covered by the sea, are to them being inundated or sinking: “were sunk in the Red Sea,” (v. 4), “the floods covered them,” “they went down like a stone,” (v. 5), “the sea covered them,” “they sank like lead,” (v. 10).
The psalmists speak numerous times about “going down” to “the pit” or to Sheol as a sign of divine disapproval, (Psalms 28:1, 30:3, 55:15,). In such passages the issue is not death per se but judgment. For example, the psalmist in Psalm 55:15 pleads to God concerning one who is deceitful and untrue: “Let him go down to Sheol alive.” In a similar way, Exodus 15 does not emphasize the death of the Egyptians as much as it focuses on the fact that they “went down” into the depths of the sea. Thus the image of God as warrior plays a positive role as this image is closely related to the picture of God as judge and arbiter of justice.
Within this set of ideas war seems to be one tool God used to settle legal arguments, thus as a legal judgment of Yahweh made for the purpose of resolving a dispute between Israel and neighboring states. It would not seem an exaggeration to say that the Old Testament rests on a general assumption that God is intimately involved in warfare as a judge between the parties who have conflict. Second Chronicles 20 is another interesting case that highlights God’s role as judge over against God’s role as warrior. In this narrative it is Jehoshaphat who comes before God in a public assembly asking God to judge between Israel and its bellicose neighbors. The name Jehoshaphat itself means, “Yahweh judges,” a hint that God’s role as judge is central to the story. At Israel’s east is an assembly of forces prepared to march against Judean territory. Jehoshaphat then calls an assembly in the Jerusalem temple and pleads to God with language suitable for court:
O Lord, God of our ancestors, are you not God in Heaven? Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you. Did you not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of your friend Abraham? They have lived in it, and in it have built you a sanctuary for your name, saying, “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save.” See now, the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy – they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession that you have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you. (2 Chronicles 20:6-12)
Jehoshaphat appeals to God as universal sovereign, the one who has responsibility for judging the world. Then he makes a case against the enemies that threaten Israel. He specifically makes the case that Israel obeyed God after the exodus from Egypt by not challenging Ammon, Moab, and Edom. But now these same nations are unjustly attacking God’s people. Jehoshaphat finally appeal to God as judge on the basis of this injustice and Israel’s inability to defend itself. In other words, 2 Chronicles 20 conceives the military threat from Israel’s neighbors as a legal dispute that only God can arbitrate. The outcome of war is considered the legal decision that God renders (see also Jephthah’s prayer in Judges 11:15-27; when negotiating with the Ammonite king, Jephthah argues for Israel’s right to possess its land and calls on God to judge that right in the context of the Ammonites trying to dispossess God’s people).
This connection between the Lord’s roles as judge and warrior provides significant qualifications for the warlike imagery and language for God. It indicates at least that the label “warrior” for God was not used lightly. It was also not used to argue for God’s favor of Israel. In fact, in none of the examples discussed here does the text tout the Lord’s love for Israel. Rather, each emphasizes that the actions of God were just because Israel’s enemies violated an agreement or a standard of fairness.
Exodus 15 As an Antiwar Poem?
The discussion of Exodus 15:1-18 seems to indicate within the Bible a concern for the involvement of God’s people in wars. It is sometimes assumed that reports of battles and military conflicts appear without any thought that such activity might be unjustified since Israel was the victim of the world’s great empires. But this idea seems clearly to be wrong. Indeed, two very different points seem to be true: (1) Israel in its scripture indeed felt the need to explore the validity of its involvement in individual wars; the examples shown above indicate the particular concern to show that Israel engaged in war to defend its own territory against illegitimate counterclaims to that territory; and especially (2) the Old Testament, with this guiding concern, in most cases subordinates the role of God as warrior to the role of God as arbiter of justice.
This relationship between God’s role as warrior and God’s role as judge does not remove all ethical dilemmas posed by the Bible’s qualified acceptance of war. If Israel was challenged by an aggressive enemy, many texts suggest, Israel could engage in war and God would defend Israel against the aggressor. Perhaps the greatest problem is that such ideas are always open to misuse by those who are looking for an excuse to fight under the guise of justice. But the texts examined here will not allow such a reading if they are interpreted carefully in their contexts. They suggest rather that justice is God’s business, and by extension war is as well. Some people of faith will surely want to keep God’s hand clean and deny that God is involved in such dirty work. But the Bible seems to have the opposite view. By assigning war to God, as part of God’s judicial actions, war is taken out of the hands of humans as a tool at their disposal. Any use of war for selfish purposes then becomes illegitimate. If this perspective is taken seriously it makes war extremely difficult to justify.
Does God Love the Egyptians Too?
We have noted that Exodus 15:1-18 appears in a context that begins with the Israelites crying out to God for deliverance, (2:23, 3:7). The Song of the Sea, therefore, is essentially a song of thanksgiving and praise that God answered the prayers of the slaves. As also observed earlier, the celebration of God’s defeat of Pharaoh has a theological and ethical legitimacy because of that setting. It belongs to those people who are victims of violence, not to those who perpetrate it. Nevertheless, when we ask about God’s involvement in violence the question naturally arises, what about the Egyptians? Where is the record of their cries when their firstborn died and when their soldiers, however misled by Pharaoh, died on the shores of the Red Sea?
Although the book of Exodus does not deal directly with these questions, there is evidence that later biblical authors did, and certainly later Jewish interpretation expressed concern about this matter. In a famous midrash on Exodus 15:1-18, the Israelites, accompanied by the angels in Heaven, see the Egyptian soldiers lying dead on the shores of the Red Sea and break out into cheers and song, (the song of 15:1-18). But a voice from Heaven thunders, “My children are drowning, and you want to sing songs?” (Exodus Rabbah 21:8).
This story may seem completely fanciful, having little to do with the actual story of the exodus and the celebratory song in Exodus 15:1-18. At least one passage, however, may indicate that such reflection indeed occurred within the Bible itself. Isaiah 19:18-25, which is part of Isaiah’s oracle against Egypt (in a larger section of oracles against foreign nations), speaks of a future in which the Egyptians will come into fellowship with the people of Judah and worship Judah’s God. The concluding verse indicates that God loves the Egyptians as God loves Israel: “the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria, the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage,’” (v. 25). Earlier in the passage the oracle seems to allude to the exodus story: “The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them,” (v. 22). The word “strike” here is the same word that appears in the narrative account of God bringing plagues on the Egyptians. Specifically, the term expresses God’s striking Egypt with the plague of frogs in Exodus 8:2 and God striking down the firstborn in Egypt in Exodus 12:27. Thus it is tempting to connect Isaiah’s declaration that God’s action against Egypt amounts to both “striking and healing” to the story of God striking the Egyptians when they enslaved the Israelites. Whether or not this is what Isaiah intended, Isaiah’s oracle against Egypt certainly testifies to a fuller appreciation for God’s relationship to the enemy nation. The larger picture is that Egypt belongs to God as well and God will bring Egypt into God’s will and purpose, even if by “striking” Egypt. This gives credence to the midrash’s notion that the Egyptians lying dead on the shore of the Red Sea were indeed considered God’s children. The death of these children, just like the death of any of God’s rebellious creatures, was thus the cause of divine grief, (see again Genesis 6:6-7).
Psalm 24 is like Exodus 15:1-18 in its concern for who controls the world. The image of God as warrior in this psalm must be understood in the context of this question and concern. This psalm, however, presents God as warrior more clearly within God’s role as creator. Thus the Divine Warrior is one who controls the world and maintains its order.
The psalm begins with the declaration that “the Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” (v. 1). Then the psalm elaborates that God established the Earth, evidence that God owns and controls it. The particular point of verse 2 is that God made the Earth secure on the primeval waters (“founded it upon the seas/established it upon the waters”). Thus God mastered the forces that would threaten the habitable world and made it possible for human community to form. The image of God as warrior comes in verses 7-10, a section directly dependent on the claims of verses 1-2. This final section contains one of the most stirring proclamations of God’s kingship in the Psalter. Verses 7-10 identify God as the “King of glory” and the “lord of hosts.” The latter title in particular is associated with the ark of the covenant. The term “hosts” can also be translated “armies,” and indeed the ark is often associated with warfare. But “hosts/armies” here probably does not refer to human military forces. Rather, the word denotes the Heavenly forces at God’s command, those around his Heavenly throne who do his bidding, (psalms 29:1-2, 82:1, 89:6-7). The warfare that stands in the background of this psalm is God’s defeat of chaos, which is implied in the opening verses of the psalm, (24:1-2).
“King of glory” appears nowhere else in the Old Testament as a label for Israel’s God. A similar label, “God of glory,” however, does appear in Psalm 29:3 in a way that helps clarify the meaning of the expression in Psalm 2. Psalm 29 calls worshipers to ascribe glory to God in a cultic shout, (vv. 1-2, 9). The ascription is made because the Lord has shown himself a mighty warrior by his defeat of the chaotic waters, (v. 3). Hence both titles for God in verses 7-10 identify the one enthroned on the cherubim, who rules in Zion, as the one who also reigns over the world in its entirety.
The central portion of Psalm 24 reveals that the divine warfare celebrated in verses 1-2 and 7-10 intends not only to protect the creation in general but also to ensure justice among human beings in particular. To put it another way, God’s reign over the world and the battle attributed to God as evidence of that reign sets boundaries for human behavior that make violence out of bounds. As James L. Mays says, the life described in verses 3-6 “is a life founded and established by the blessing and righteousness of the Lord in the midst of the chaos of evil,” (Psalms, 124). Indeed, without God’s battle against evil the human would have no hope of living in a world in which right prevailed over chaos and evil.
The central portion of Psalm 24 has prompted some scholars to label the work as an “entrance liturgy,” (Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part I, 117-119). Verses 3-6 contain a set of questions and responses concerning who may ascend God’s holy hill to experience the reign of God. This section of the psalm indicates why the reign of God is so important and why it is sometimes described with military imagery. At stake is the welfare of those who acknowledge and give deference to God’s reign and thus to the ideals of human community God intends. The main characteristic of those who “ascend the hill of the Lord,” (v. 3a), is that they “seek the face of the God of Jacob,” (v. 6). They live in humility before God and therefore relate to other people rightly; they have “clean hands and pure hearts,” (v. 4a); they do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully,” (v. 4b). In other words, those who live this way work against violence and oppression. God is their defender because God ultimately upholds and defends the order in which they live.
Thus one important purpose of the psalm is to present a place where and a people among whom one may know God’s reign. The place is characterized by God’s justice and equity. The people who are permitted to enter are given access because they seek to emulate and embody God’s own righteousness.
On Zion, however, the Lord’s ownership of the world and the stability and order of the cosmos God established on the watery chaos is made known. In the final four verses of the psalm the Lord’s kingship on Zion is celebrated, thus bringing the praise of God as creator of the world to the specific identification of God as one who rules there, (vv. 7-10).
The answers given in verse 4-6 portray people of ideal faith, those who trust in God’s rule, in line with the proper response demanded of those on the holy mountain. Those approved to ascend the holy hill are those who align themselves with God’s will and submit themselves to God’s reign; as a result they know the blessings of God’s reign on Zion; they “shall never be moved,” (v. 5).
Psalm 24 clearly presents God as a mighty warrior, as one who has no rivals, and as one who controls the cosmos. This affirmation, coupled with a belief that this same God is loving and gracious and has good intentions for the world, is an important tenet of faith. It provides the basis of hope that evil and injustice will one day end. The righteous will rest in the protection of the King of glory. Psalm 24 was read by some early Christians as testimony to God’s battle with and defeat of death through Christ. The Gospel of Nicodemus (a medieval document from Western Europe) reports in detail Jesus’s descent into hell by using Psalm 24:7-10 to frame the narrative. This book reports that a cry went up in hell saying, “Remove, O princes, your gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.” Hell then sent Satan out to fight against the King of glory. But the multitude of saints heard of it and cried out again for hell to open its gates for the King of glory to come in. Hell then asked, “as if he knew it not: Who is the King of glory?” And David answered, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle, he is the King of glory.” This reading is appropriate in that Psalm 24 presents God as a warrior who fights against the forces that would threaten life and well-being.
Psalm 46: God’s Reign and the End of Warfare
The relationship God has to violence in Psalm 24 may be illuminated by Psalm 46, which also has a central concern for the experience of God’s reign over the world on Mount Zion. Although God is neither called warrior nor described as doing battle in Psalm 46, the overall picture is the same as in Exodus 15 and Psalm 24, and Psalm 46 does describe in some detail God’s relationship to warfare.
Psalm 46 opens with a declaration of trust in God, “our refuge and strength, (v. 1). The psalmist declares that because of God’s presence “we will not fear,” (v. 2a). But then the psalmist sets the help God offers over against two dangers, the sea and the nations. The problem of the sea has already been discussed in relation to Psalm 24:1. In ancient near Eastern cosmology the Earth was founded upon the sea and secured by the mountains that served as foundational pillars, (Psalm 104:5). Natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods produced fear that the cosmic order would come undone. The psalmist is confident, however, that God is fully in control, that no Earthly power can undo the order God established. The psalmist experiences this security in Zion, “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High,” (v. 4). It is not the city itself that gives such assurance; Zion is not impregnable. Rather, because of God’s presence in Zion “it shall not be moved,” (v. 5).
The second danger the psalmist describes is the nations: “the nations are in an uproar; the kingdoms totter,” (v. 6a). The psalm does not indicate whether this line refers specifically to rebellion against God (as in 2:1) or to political upheaval in general. The effect is the same, however; political unrest threatens the order and indeed the shalom God intends for humankind. The word môt, which refers to the nations’ “tottering,” is the same word used to speak of the mountains’ “quaking” in verse 2; and the term that speaks of the nations being in an “uproar” is from the same root, hmh, that refers to the waters “roaring” in verse 3. The raging and shaking of the nations, however, just as the shaking of the mountains and the raging of the waters, are no match for God, who is “our refuge,” (v. 7).
The final stanza of Psalm 46 speaks about how God’s reign relates to violence, (vv. 8-11). This section seems to address the nations directly with a series of imperatives: “Come, behold the words of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the Earth,” (v. 8). The “desolations” mentioned here may at first seem to point to God’s destructive actions as the Divine Warrior. A close reading of the verses that follow, however, seems to say just the opposite. Reference to the desolations of God lead directly to statements about God bringing peace to the world. Hence the word “desolations” (šammôt) was perhaps intended to be sarcastic. It is the nations who bring desolation through their wars, and God brings all of that to naught. In other words, the reference to desolation is, in essence, an indictment of the nations’ attempts to control one another by violent means.
This becomes clear in verse 9 and 10. Verse 9 declares, “He makes wars cease to the end of the Earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” This verse draws on the image of the ruler in the ancient Near East for whom warfare is crucial for protecting one’s own people and for securing one’s own land; God’s works entail bringing war to an end. Unlike the picture such kings painted of themselves, however, God does not just bring peace for God’s own people by defeating other people. Rather, God establishes peace as the norm in all the Earth.
Verse 10 continues and clarifies this message with an order to the nations to cease fighting. Traditionally rendered “be still,” the first expression in the verse is better translated “stop” or “let it go,” (harpû). The word literally means “let drop.” In some passages the word refers to the hands that hold weapons of war, (2 Samuel 24:16 = 1 Chronicles 21:15). In the context of Psalm 46 this imperative seems to order the nations to cease their dependence on warfare and destruction. Mays appropriately sums up the message of this verse: “Cease your warring! Stop your attacks! Leave off your vain attempts to subject history to your power. There is but one power exalted over the Earth and nations. Only one is God – the one whose work is the destruction of weapons and whose help is the refuge of those who recognize that he is God,” (Psalms, 184).
Thus the Divine Warrior does not destroy and hurt. Rather, here God the warrior fights for peace.
Isaiah 63:1-6 contains some of the most troubling imagery of any passage that speaks of God as warrior:
Who is this that comes from Edom
From Bozrah in garments stained crimson?
Who is this so splendidly robed,
Marching in his great might?”
It is I, announcing vindication,
Mighty to save.
Why are your robes red,
And your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?
I have trodden the wine press alone,
And from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
And trampled them in my wrath;
Their juice spattered on my garments,
And stained all my robes.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
And the year for my redeeming work had come.
I looked, but there was no helper;
I stared, but there was no one to sustain me;
So my own arm brought me victory,
And my wrath sustained me.
I trampled down peoples in my anger,
I crushed them in my wrath,
And I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.
Although the word “warrior” does not appear here, the passage “describes the God of Israel as Divine Warrior on a bloody rampage, in the name of vengeance and vindication, against Edom, representative of the nations that had destroyed and humiliated captive Israel,” (Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 231). It depicts God wearing robes stained red, presumably with the blood of enemies who have been conquered. The passage also describes God’s activity with several terms that are associated with violence and destruction: vindication, (v. 1), anger and wrath, (vv. 3a, 6), and vengeance, (v. 4).
It may be helpful to recognize first that the words “anger” and “wrath,” words that appear frequently in the Old Testament and particularly in the prophetic books, have created for some the false idea that God in texts like Isaiah 63:1-6 is by nature an angry god who exacts harsh judgment on disobedient creatures as a first response. Two points about this language and imagery are important, however. First, each of the features of 63:1-6 just described is part of a picture of God as the Divine Warrior who comes to defend and save the oppressed. This is apparent in part by the fact that God’s action is characterized as “redeeming work,” (v. 4). The word “redeem” refers to the practice of a person buying a relative out of slavery, or of claiming the property of a dead relative in order to ensure the deceased property and the person’s name are preserved for posterity, (Ruth 4). In all cases, however, the redeemer acts on the part of one who is helpless to act for himself or herself. In 63:1-6 God “redeems” Israel.
Second, the nature of the warrior’s saving deeds is characterized perhaps best by the word translated “vindication.” The word is șĕdāqâ indicates that more is involved than simply God bringing retribution on Israel’s fortunes. This is clarified by the statement in verse 4 that his coming represents the “day of vengeance.” “Vengeance” (nāqām) is not the seeking of revenge by an irrational God, as the term “vengeance” sometimes seems to imply. Rather, the word refers to something closer to a judicial action.
This passage does not present the notion of God as warrior to support the warring efforts of human kings or warlords. Indeed, the passage is set historically when the people of Judah are in exile, having suffered the wrath of the mighty Babylonians. Edom, Israel’s neighbor and brother, participated in Jerusalem’s fall and is presented here therefore as the symbol of oppression. Isaiah 63:1-6 portrays God fighting for the defeated who cannot fight for themselves.
The poem begins with a question, “Who is this who comes from Edom, from Bozrah in garments stained crimson? Who is this so splendidly robed, marching in his great might?” (v. 1a-b). The one who asks this question is probably to be understood as a lookout on a city wall who watches for anyone who approached the settlement. Seeing this one with bloodstained robes, the sentinel naturally asks about his identity and purpose. The warrior who approaches responds first concerning identity: “It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save,” (v. 1c).
The expression “day of vengeance” seems to apply to the punishment of Edom, (v. 4a). It is important to note, however, that this “day” is paired with a reference to the “year for my redeeming work,” (v. 4b). Therefore, the punishment of Edom is set in the larger context of Israel’s salvation. It may be helpful to note how this same theme appears in Isaiah 34, a passage that also speaks of a “day of vengeance” against Edom that will bring salvation to Zion, (34:8). In that passage the punishment meted out to Edom is like that given to Sodom and Gomorrah: “the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch,” (v. 9). Like Sodom and Gomorrah, Edom will be turned into a wasteland.
Two points seem important concerning the presentation of Edom here: first, Edom here represents the nations that act against God’s desire for the human community, (Isaiah 34:2, “For the Lord is enraged against all the nations”). Thus, as with so many other references to God acting destructively, the imagery is symbolic. God does not have a grudge against the nation called Edom or any other particular nation. Edom is vilified as an enemy and opponent of God. Second, the passage uses such violent language because “Edom” acts against the very stability of the creation. The subtle comparison to Sodom and Gomorrah in Isaiah 34 suggests this, and 63:1-6 speaks of Edom the same way.
The sentinel then asks specifically why the warrior’s robes are red, why they look like the garment of someone who has been treading grapes in the wine press, (v. 2). The warrior answers with a metaphor that extends the image in the sentinel’s question: “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the people no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes,” (v. 3). The implication seems to be that the red color comes from the blood of the nations that opposed Israel. But when verse 6 says, “I poured out their lifeblood,” the word is not the typical word for “blood” but a term that appears only in this hymn and may simply extend the metaphor of the wine press. This fits with the larger context of the poem. The poem does not describe a literal battle in which the blood of Israel’s enemies stained the robes of real warriors. Rather, the poem represents hope that God will come and do the work that no human warrior has been able to do, to rescue Israel from its enemies. Verses 3-6 emphasize that God acted alone. No other nation was willing to participate in God’s attempts to bring order back to the world; therefore, the nations were all trampled in the wine press of God’s wrath, (vv. 3b, 6).
The violent imagery of 63:1-6 must also be read in the larger context of Isaiah 62-64. Isaiah 62 proclaims salvation for Jerusalem that anticipates the hymn about the Divine Warrior in 63:1-6. For example, 62:6 portrays sentinels posted on the walls of Jerusalem who constantly remind the Lord of the work to be done to bring justice to the Holy City. The present arrangement of material suggests that these sentinels in 63:1-2 see the approach of the Divine Warrior and ask about his identity and purpose. Isaiah 62:8 promises a restored Jerusalem free from the threat of enemies: “The Lord has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored.” Then 62:11 proclaims, “Say to daughter Zion, ‘See, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.’” The people shall be called “Redeemed of the Lord,” (62:12). The Divine Warrior hymn then portrays God coming specifically to “redeem” Jerusalem, (63:4), to vindicate its people. Hence the picture of the Divine Warrior in 63:1-6 seems to present the realization of the promise in Isaiah 62.
The impression of the Divine Warrior and his actions for Israel changes, however, in light of the passage that follows the hymn in 63:1-6. Isaiah 63:7-64:12 presents a complaint that God has not come as a warrior and defeated Israel’s enemies. Hence this larger section of Isaiah, (62-64), is much like communal laments in the Psalms, (see Psalms 74:89). Such passages sometimes describe God’s strength in terms of God battling and defeating enemies, but such descriptions merely set up the petition for God to act. Here the presentation of God as warrior in Isaiah 63:1-6 is the foundation for the complaint of Isaiah 64. The structure of Isaiah 62-64, therefore, is the opposite of the structure of Exodus 1-15. The two sections and their presentations of God as warrior are linked, however, by the fact that both speak to people who suffer at the hands of enemies.
The historical context of Isaiah 63:1-6 is also extremely important for discerning the poem’s significance. Paul Hanson makes an essential point: “Only those are in a position to judge who live in circumstances similar to sixth-century Israel’s circumstances in which the powers of evil seem to have defeated every human agency of justice and in which the only remaining hope seems to reside in God’s direct intervention,” (Isaiah 40-66, 234). Indeed, the extreme circumstances of defeat and domination have produced and give context to this passage. The extreme imagery of God as a conquering warrior is not only understandable, but perhaps necessary to express the theological conviction that God is really capable of saving Israel. As Brueggemann rightly says, “A ‘nicer’ God or a happier God might be preferred, but Israel entertains no romantic illusions about the vexed context of its life,” (Isaiah 40-66, 226).
Given these observations on the original audience of 63:1-6, two final points seem pertinent. First, the original audience is incapable of responding directly to their oppressors. That is in part why 63:3 and 5 speak of the Lord acting alone. That point too is important because it sets Israel’s God apart from others, particularly the Babylonian god Marduk, whose military conquests recounted in the great Babylonian creation myth served to legitimate the Babylonian monarchy’s military campaigns.
Second, the desire of some contemporary faith communities to tone down the image of God presented in 63:1-6 may overlook the need for justice that gives rise to such imagery. Particularly faith communities made up largely of people who are politically and economically secure may miss the cry of the oppressed that lies behind the passage. Rather than wishing to alter the image, a better response might be to ask whether one’s community of faith is part of the oppressive force against which the audience of 63:1-6 speaks. Put another way, the one who read 63:1-6 might well ask if he or she stands with or against the actions of the God of this passage.
Finally, it is worth noting that 63:1-6 plays a prominent role in the New Testament portrait of Jesus. Revelation 19:11-16 presents a scene in which Heaven is opened and a rider comes forth on a white horse. The rider, called “Faithful and True,” (v. 11), and “The Word of God,” (v. 13), is obviously Jesus. Yet the passage declares that “in righteousness he judges and makes war,” (v. 11). As Revelation describes his warfare it draws heavily upon Isaiah 63:1-6. Jesus “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood,” (v. 13), and he comes to “tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty,” (v. 15). As verse 11 makes clear, however, Jesus’s engagement in war is bound up in his efforts to bring justice. The Earthly opponents of God along with the beast and his followers will be judged and sentenced. Thus as David Aune says, “the emphasis here in on the judicial function of the Parousia,” (Revelation 17-22, 1069). But the Divine Warrior image here does not change or tone down the imagery drawn from Isaiah 63:1-6. Indeed, Revelation 19’s use of the warrior image is quite consistent with that in the Isaiah passage. In both cases the Divine Warrior comes to defend the powerless and set the world right for those who have been faithful to God’s calling. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Jesus appears in Revelation 19:1-6 as a warrior, the dominant image of him in Revelation is as “a lamb having been slain,” (Revelation 5:6). The final image of the divine warrior is of one who sacrifices himself, not one who kills others.
Necessity of the Divine Warrior
Throughout much of this chapter I have attempted to cast the notion of God as warrior in a light that makes it more understandable and acceptable. In so doing I have at times argued that this troubling picture of God should not evoke images of God acting destructively or violently. While these nuances are important, the last word should perhaps be that the image of the Divine Warrior is sorely needed, and we ought not attempt to rid ourselves of it. To do so would only increase the problem of violence because that would deny God’s crucial role as the one who has the desire and power to deal with violence. Indeed, to deny the notion of God as warrior would be to miss at least two crucial points.
First, God as warrior is meant to comfort those oppressed by the evil forces of the world. Therefore, many objections to God as warrior are bourgeois. From a perspective of power and wealth, it is easy to seek after a God who appears respectable, calm, and nonplussed by the rampant oppression in the world. But to take such a position is to stand with Pharaoh. For people who have power, however, the proper response to the claim that “the Lord is a warrior, (Exodus 15:3), is not denial but repentance. If we take this stand before God, we open ourselves to God’s judgment of us; we allow God to call into question our participation in the injustice in the world. If we are oppressed, we may find in the warrior God one who stands with us in our oppression and fights against it, not one who stands idly by and allows it to continue. As Brueggemann says, “In a situation of victimization, one is not so worried about violence in the power of one’s rescuer,” (“Book of Exodus,” 803).
Second, to confess “the Lord is a warrior” is to recognize the reality of evil and to claim that God is in conflict with evil in the world. Although scripture insists the battle is certain to be God’s, the persistence of evil requires a warrior God. Brueggemann is surely right when he declares that this battle is too great for us as human beings and that claiming God is a warrior is to claim that “God is for us.”
It is necessary, however, to qualify what it means that God is “for us” as a warrior. One of the problems often identified with the biblical picture of God as warrior is that it seems to carry with it the notion that God fights exclusively for Israel. God defeats enemies so Israel may live in peace, without threats from its neighbors. The goal of God’s warfare seems to be reflected in the declaration that the result of God doing battle is that “Israel lives in safety, untroubled is Jacob’s abode in a land of grain and wine, where the heavens drop down dew,” (Deuteronomy 33:28). Although this theme of God’s protection for Israel is important and pervasive, it is not expressed in such a way that it advocates God only looks out for Israel. As God’s chosen people, Israel benefits from this aspect of God’s work when Israel is oppressed and defeated. But when Israel is unjust or disobedient, God can appear as a warrior against God’s own people. Indeed, God also loves the nations.
In that regard, God’s warlike activity may be categorized as one of two types of justice. There is retributive justice in which God punishes the forces opposed to life. But there is also restorative justice. God punishes in order to rehabilitate, bring back, and reestablish. This second type of justice is particularly apparent in later reflections on passages about the Divine Warrior. So, for example, Isaiah 19:22 insists God struck Egypt in an effort to heal Egypt as well as to defend Israel. The portrait of God as Divine Warrior, therefore, shows that God corrects and heals the world, even those in the world who oppose God’s purpose and go against God’s people.