Prospectus: War and the Old Testament

To say that war occurs often in the Old Testament of the Bible would be a complete understatement. Not only does it just occur, but it occurs violently and seemingly without remorse against the enemies of Israel. This ruthless depiction of God and his wars are often heavily scrutinized both historically and ethically. How can such a controversial subject be justified and in what way? What conclusions can be drawn from this investigation about the character of God and the stories that rely heavily on such a topic? Fortunately for the sake of this research, there has been a great deal of scholarly inquiry and investigation devoted to this topic, from a range of different subcategories of focus (including Peter C. Craigie’s “The Problem of War in the Old Testament” and Susan Niditch’s “War in the Hebrew Bible : A Study in the Ethics of Violence”, as well as many other literary sources).

Firstly, I would like to really divulge and seek the greatest amount of information existent in our actual Biblical text. The root of the subject matter is presented here, whether symbolically or literally, across many of the Old Testament’s books by various writers. Some passages in the text blatantly spell out certain rituals and rules for warfare, including Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy, which includes up to 20 verses pertaining to the “rules of waging holy war.”

“When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it responds peaceably and lets you in, all the people present there shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not surrender to you, but would join battle with you, you shall lay siege to it.”

–Deuteronomy 20: 10-12

Careful explanation in the ledger notes explains in great detail possible evidences and reasons for these commands. Violence in general is portrayed in some way in nearly of book of the Old Testament, which more than legitimizes this theme as a major one among the text. The Book for Joshua provides major insight and happenings of war and pillage as they occur, and will most likely be a huge chief contributor to the examples of such warfare undertakings.

Another interesting side of the topic would be to relate the investigation found previously to select other wars in which the information and data may be relative. One major task that biblical scholars and common readers alike struggle with, is relating the lessons learned from stories to contemporary age and modern events. Many wars have been related to and have been conceived based on some sort of theological approach. An example of such a study includes Michael J. Butler’s U.S. Military Intervention in Crisis, 1945-1994: An Empirical Inquiry of Just War Theory, in which he investigates theory on war and even its relation in a theological approach. Obviously the area least helpful in terms of a critical literary exploration the Old Testament itself, but extremely important and useful in terms of relating it to modern accounts and questions along the same lines.

And finally, I would like to possibly consider further the opposite of the argument of war, peace. A great deal of information can be learned in relation to the depictions of peace as defined by the text for the Lord. This juxtaposition of perspectives could eventually unravel some very crucial insight and view on the opposing side of God’s wrath and would be unfair to simply not consider. Taking into thought both of these characteristics of God, quite often depicted throughout the Old Testament, much can be shown about the character development of God as a whole as we read. In Isaiah 2:4, reference to this peaceful adversary can be found within the text:

“Thus He will judge among the nations

And arbitrate for the many peoples,

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares

And their spears into pruning hook:

Nation shall not take up

Sword against nation;

They shall never again know war.”

— Isaiah 2:4


About Ben Ward

Ben Ward is sophomore at the University of Kentucky, majoring in Architecture and minoring in English.
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2 Responses to Prospectus: War and the Old Testament

  1. joe9brown says:

    Very interesting topic! One thing that comes to mind when I consider war in Old Testament is the legacy which the text left to posterity.Several military leaders through history, such as “Stonewall” Jackson during the Civil War, studied and referenced the warfare of the Old Testament to enhance the wisdom of their own campaigns. It might be good to highlight on the implications that the text had on military belligerents who regarded it as scripture. This sounds like it will definitely be an interesting paper.

  2. lmwa223 says:

    This is a cool topic! It looks like you have a variety of sources to examine as you write your paper which will bring a lot to the table. I really like how you are approaching it from different angles, yet still keeping the Biblical text as your primary point of reference. If you keep that mindset throughout the writing process, I’m sure this paper will be a success! Although it seems there are a lot of conflicting qualities that can be attributed to God through this subject, I personally think there is more clarification of His nature through his expectations and actions. I’m sure you can find answers among all the questions raised through your various sources. I look forward to reading your finished product and learning about God’s character through war.

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