Holy War in the Bible: Before, During, and After the Battle

Exodus 15 is the first of many accounts in the Bible of “Holy War,” where God himself is the Divine Warrior.  Explicitly in Exodus 15:3, we learn that God is called “a man of warrior” or “a warrior,” however, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  The Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is filled with imagery devoted to this theme of God as warrior.

Tremper Longman and Daniel Reid both completed independent studies on this theme in 1982, and came together in 1995, to provide a comprehensive review of this biblical motif in their book God is a Warrior.  In the historical narratives and legal books of the Old Testament they show a consistent pattern of God’s activity before, during, and after these holy battles.  They are worth outlining to help us see the variegated uniformity by which God “warred” for Israel.

Before the Battle

Seeking God’s Will: Before the battle, God made known his will to his people and their leaders.  In Joshua 5:13-15, the commander of the army of the LORD appeared to Joshua and instructed in God’s battle plan for defeating Jericho.  Likewise, in 1 Samuel 23:1-6, David inquires of the Lord to discern his military movements regarding Keilah and the Philistine army.  By contrast, Israel fails to inquire of the Lord in Joshua 9 when they encountered the deceitful Gibeons.  Consequently, Israel fails to defeat this nation.

Spiritual Preparation: Sacrifice is an important act of preparation before going to war.  This is evident in 1 Samuel 13 when Saul fails to wait upon Samuel to come and offer sacrifices to the Lord.  Saul’s sacrifice is illicit not because of the occasion or the act, but because of the person offering it.  Likewise, in Joshua 3-5, Israel consecrates itself before going to war with Jericho (3:5).  Moreover, Uriah the Hittite is shown to be more spiritually-minded than David when he refuses to go home and have relations with his wife.  As a man dedicated unto holy war, Uriah refused to subject himself to uncleanness (see Lev 15:16-18 for explanation).  Instead, he was maintaining purity for holy war—unlike his royal betrayer, David.

Ritual Cleanness: Holy war also esteems two ostensibly mundane laws in Deuteronomy.  Because God as Divine Warrior encamps with Israel, the people of Israel are forbidden to defecate in the camp and they must purify themselves if they have a nocturnal emission (23:9-14).

In all of these ways, we learn how God is leading the people of Israel into battle.  But his instructions are not only for preparations leading up to holy war.  He also fights with the people of Israel.

During the Battle 

Numbers and Weapons Technology:  In Israel’s history, God often sets them in disadvantageous places, in order to display his power.  Israel flees (and fights) Egypt with no weapons.  God reduces Gideon’s army from thirty-two thousand to three-hundred.  In the battle between David and Goliath, we again see how the Lord fights for his people despite their weakness.  Only for a short period of time in Israel’s history (e.g. the United Kingdom) does Israel have great military might.  In all other periods, Israel is the underdog who is defended by the Lord.

The March: God’s word gave great instructions on how Israel was to march.  They were broken into ranks just like an army.  Numbers counts the number of military men, demonstrating that Israel was primarily depicted as a warring nation.  They were the army of the Lord.  He dwelt in their midst.  He dwelt in the center of the their military campground.  And he traveled with in the midst of Israel’s battalion.

The Ark:  Central to the military nature of God’s dwelling with Israel was the way that the ark was incorported in warfare.  The ark was the “mobile symbol of God’s presence” (40).  Wherever Israel went, it went.  It was carried into battle and was presumably present in all military campaigns, even though it is not uniformly mentioned in all accounts.  For a time it was even lost because of its (wrongful) use in battle.

The Combatants:  The combatants at YHWH’s disposal were his angelic host, as seen in the incident with the Syrian army in  2 Kings 6, and the natural elements of creation.  In Exodus 14, Joshua 10, and Judges 5, creation fights for YHWH.  Furthermore, in the prophets, God’s word depicts creation withering under the oppressive judgment of God (cf. Nah 1:2-6; Hab 3:8).

After the Battle

Praise: Finally, we see in God’s holy war, a pattern of praise.  After the Red Sea crossing (Exod 15:1-21), Moses records a song of praise for God’s victory over Egypt.  Again, in Judges 5, the song of Deborah resounds with praise for God who liberated Israel from their oppressors.  Interestingly, the command to sing a “new song” seems to be a technical term for new divine victories.  As it is used in Isaiah, Psalms, and Revelation it calls God’s liberated saints to praise him for his victorious salvation.

Plunder: In addition to praise, there is plunder.  God receives the spoils of war, and anyone who wrongfully takes away God’s spoils is subject to lethal punishment (e.g. Achan in Joshua 7).  Yet, God often in other instances takes the spoils of war and shares them with his people.  To the victor, goes the spoils and while these spoils are always dedicated unto the Lord and sometimes off limits to his people.  In his generosity, he often shares his plunder with his people.  Sadly, in the case of Achan, his stolen booty is a premature grasp at what God was going to give to his people in just a few short days (see Josh 8:27).

This chronological pattern is a helpful way to think about warfare in the Bible.  It shows that warfare is not an accidental or tangential idea, but rather it is at the very heart of what God is doing with his people Israel.  Moreover, it functions typologically to help us see the way in which Jesus Christ, himself, is a divine warrior, one whose entire life consecrated him for battle.  His death on the cross was the battle where God was with him (Immanuel) even as the wrath of God was poured out upon him.  And finally, his death achieved the plunder and praise.  In other words, the three phases laid out by Longman and Reid helpfully display the glory of Christ’s own holy war.

It is worth our time to consider the violent acts of war in the Old Testament because they set the stage for the peace-making work of Jesus Christ on the cross–a peace-making achieved through bloodshed.  Indeed, the beauty of the gospel radiates from the fact that Christ has made peace with sinners by once and for all defeating all the forces and factors that separated man from God.  Through his penal substitution he canceled the effect of the law, he paid the penalty for sin, and he defeated Satan, the great enemy of God and his people.  His is a victory over sin and Satan, and for that we will forever sing a New Song unto the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss