Honoring the Death of Soldiers
In 1951, David Ben-Gurion established the 4th of Iyyar as Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and in 1963, the Knesset enacted the “Memorial Day Law” (חק יום הזיכרון), which opens:
ד’ באייר הוא יום זיכרון גבורה ללוחמי צבא-הגנה לישראל שנתנו נפשם על הבטחת קיומה של מדינת ישראל וללוחמי מערכות ישראל שנפלו למען תקומת ישראל, להתייחדות עם זכרם ולהעלאת מעשי גבורתם.
The fourth of Iyyar is the Memorial Day for the heroism of the soldiers in the Israeli army who gave their lives to ensure the continued existence of the State of Israel, and for the soldiers in the pre-State fighting units, who fell in order to establish Israel, so that we can unite around their memories and set forth their heroic acts.
The idea that battlefield death ensures an enduring memory or name is not distinctive to modernity. In antiquity as well, soldiers facing death on the battlefield often consoled themselves with the knowledge that they may die brave, heroic deaths.
For example, in a dispatch that an Assyrian commander sent to King Ashurbanipal (d. 627 B.C.E.), lamenting that the enemy far outnumbered them, the soldiers exclaim: “If we die, we will do so with an excellent name” (kī nimmutu ina MU [šumim] babbanî nimūt). The reward for noble death in this text is an enduring “name.”
Gilgamesh and Enkidu
Noble death figures prominently in many heroic traditions; we find it, for example, in the Old Babylonian Gilgamesh and Huwawa (OB Yale Tablet, iv. 138-50). Before battling a monster, Gilgamesh declaims: “If I should fall in battle, I will have nonetheless made my name (šumi) to stand. In contrast, Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu, complains that he is forced to die peaceably, a death unbecoming a great warrior:
Then he called to Gilgamesh, “My friend, the great goddess cursed me and I must die in shame. I shall not die like a man fallen in battle; I feared to fall, but happy is the man who falls in the battle, for I must die in shame.”
We find similar discourse about heroism and death in battle in Homer’s Iliad about Patroclus, Achilles, and other warriors.
When King Ammi-Saduqa of Babylon (16th cent. B.C.E.) made offerings to the dead, he encouraged every soldier who “fell in the service of his lord [the king]” to imbibe the offerings alongside his (real and fictive) royal ancestors. These fallen warriors, lacking progeny, belong to the category of the dead who have no one to provide for (=honor) them, and ancient rulers understood that soldiers, especially those who lacked sons, would fight more fearlessly if they could be assured the king would personally honor their names and provide for their spirits if they died in the line of duty.
In the case of Ammi-Saduqa, the Babylonian ruler took upon himself the ritual role traditionally assigned to a son, allowing his soldiers to become integrated into the commemoration of the royal family. This royal ritual of honoring fallen soldiers is the oldest known antecedent to our modern memorial days.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration
Another antecedent of our memorial days are the annual funeral orations from Athens. The best-known description is found in the Histories of Thucydides, which records a speech that the Athenian statesman and general Pericles is said to have delivered in 432 BCE after the first year of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles praises Athens as the city for which many citizens had selflessly died, and urges the living to keep up the good fight and to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”:
So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field… For this offering of their lives made in common by them all, they received […] that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered.
In other words, such sacrificial death ensured everlasting life.
The Repudiation of Heroic Death in the Bible
The rhetoric of Pericles stands in sharp contrast with the writings of the Hebrew Bible, which is conspicuously devoid of any text that glorifies battlefield death. As a whole, the Hebrew Bible extols valor, on the battlefield and beyond, and thus affirms the importance and benefits of military might. But it orients readers towards a different model of heroism.
The Hebrew Bible is ultimately about creating a new culture under conditions of foreign (Babylonian, Persian, etc.) rule.And in the process of creating this new culture, the biblical authors rewrote their battle stories with few references to battlefield death, and tend not to valorize these deaths.
For example, Joshua, though he sometimes exhorts the people to fight (1:11, 6:16, 10:25), never encourages the soldiers to die a noble death, nor does he reflect on the heroism of those who died. If nothing else, the book that bears his name could have included a description of the nation pausing to bury the dead and paying tribute to their sacrifice attained while conquering the Promised Land. But we find nothing of the sort.
In fact, the book gives the impression that no Israelite soldier ever dies in these battles, except as a result of punishment for misconduct, such as the 36 soldiers who died in the first battle against Ai as a consequence of Achan’s sin (Josh 7:5). Joshua’s response here is to mourn, ask God what went wrong, and fix the problem by executing Achan and his family. He never extolls the virtue or bravery of the lost soldiers. Their deaths were a tragic accident and punishment; they are not heroic deaths.
Samson’s Heroic Death – A Result of Foolish Behavior
The conclusion of the Samson cycle seems to extol a heroic death. When Samson brings down the roof down on the party in Ashkelon to kill himself with his Philistine captors, the text notes:
שופטים טז:ל וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְשׁוֹן תָּמוֹת נַפְשִׁי עִם פְּלִשְׁתִּים וַיֵּט בְּכֹחַ וַיִּפֹּל הַבַּיִת עַל הַסְּרָנִים וְעַל כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ וַיִּהְיוּ הַמֵּתִים אֲשֶׁר הֵמִית בְּמוֹתוֹ רַבִּים מֵאֲשֶׁר הֵמִית בְּחַיָּיו.
Judg 16:30 Samson cried, “Let me die with the Philistines!” and he pulled with all his might. The temple came crashing down on the lords and on all the people in it. Those who were slain by him as he died outnumbered those who had been slain by him when he lived.
His death is admittedly heroic, but it is necessitated by his previous sin and foolishness; it is a sign of things gone wrong. If Samson had not given away his secrets to Delilah, he could never have been captured and blinded by the Philistines and would not be in a situation where his only option would be a suicidal last stand.
Death Defying Zebulunites
The Song of Deborah is the only biblical text that valorizes the willingness to die in battle:
שופטים ה:יח זְבֻלוּן עַם חֵרֵף נַפְשׁוֹ לָמוּת וְנַפְתָּלִי עַל מְרוֹמֵי שָׂדֶה.
Judg 5:18 Zebulun is a people that spurned its life/soul to die (or “mocked death”), Naphtali on the open heights.
Yet even with its praise of death-defying bravery, it does not fully partake of the standard “heroic death” paradigm: It does not commemorate the fallen, or even suggest that any of these warriors fell in battle, nor does it affirm that it is better to die than to suffer defeat. That this is the closest the Bible ever gets to the heroic death ethos says a lot.
David and Saul
The Bible sometimes suggests that heroic victory allows a hero to attain a great name. In the book of Samuel, David’s defeat of Goliath brings him great renown, as do his and Saul’s exploits against the Philistines. When they return triumphantly, the women extol David’s name alongside the king’s:
שמואל א יח:ז וַתַּעֲנֶינָה הַנָּשִׁים הַמְשַׂחֲקוֹת וַתֹּאמַרְןָ הִכָּה שָׁאוּל (באלפו) [בַּאֲלָפָיו] וְדָוִד בְּרִבְבֹתָיו.
1 Sam 18:7 The women sang as they danced, and they chanted: Saul has slain his thousands; David, his tens of thousands!
This celebration of victory contrasts sharply with the description of King Saul’s death on Mount Gilboa. When David hears of the death of Saul, and of his son Jonathan who loved David, he utters a lament that brings to mind the scenes of Achilles and Gilgamesh mourning the deaths of their companions.
Yet these traditions are very disparate. David’s lament does not praise Saul and Jonathan for bravely sacrificing their lives for the common welfare. Instead, it presents their deaths as completely tragic, without any redeeming value.
שמואל ב א:יט הַצְּבִי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל בָּמוֹתֶיךָ חָלָל אֵיךְ נָפְלוּ גִבּוֹרִים. א:כ אַל תַּגִּידוּ בְגַת אַל תְּבַשְּׂרוּ בְּחוּצֹת אַשְׁקְלוֹן פֶּן תִּשְׂמַחְנָה בְּנוֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּים פֶּן תַּעֲלֹזְנָה בְּנוֹת הָעֲרֵלִים.
2 Sam 1:19 Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights; how have the mighty fallen! 1:20 Tell it not in Gath, nor proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistine rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult.
In other words, the fatalities are shameful; they are commemorated for their tragic—not their heroic—character.
Tis Sweet and Beautiful to Live for One’s Country!
Joseph Trumpledor (1880-1920), the Israeli symbol of self-defense who was killed defending the settlement of Tel Hai, is remembered as saying, “Never mind, it is good to die for our country”  (אין דבר, טוב למות בעד ארצנו). His statement echoes the famous line from the Latin poet Horace (Odes iii 2.13), “Tis sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country” (Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori).
The same sentiment finds expression in one of the most impressive war monuments—the Arc de Triomphe standing at the center of Paris. Lying beneath this magnificent edifice of military grandeur is the “Tomb to the Unknown Soldier.” The monument affirms the bloody truth that typically statehood requires triumph and triumph necessitates death.
In contrast, as the biblical writers sought to demonstrate that their defeated communities could survive as a people after the loss of statehood, they repudiated the statist ideology that glorifies heroic death. Against it, they affirmed the strategy of name-making through progeny and enduring contributions to family and community.
Deuteronomy: Warning before War
The primacy of procreation is underscored in the law which exempts anyone who built a new house, planted a new vineyard, and betrothed a new woman, from going to battle:
דברים כ:ה וְדִבְּרוּ הַשֹּׁטְרִים אֶל הָעָם לֵאמֹר מִי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בָּנָה בַיִת חָדָשׁ וְלֹא חֲנָכוֹ יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ פֶּן יָמוּת בַּמִּלְחָמָה וְאִישׁ אַחֵר יַחְנְכֶנּוּ. כ:ו וּמִי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר נָטַע כֶּרֶם וְלֹא חִלְּלוֹ יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ פֶּן יָמוּת בַּמִּלְחָמָה וְאִישׁ אַחֵר יְחַלְּלֶנּוּ. כ:ז וּמִי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֵרַשׂ אִשָּׁה וְלֹא לְקָחָהּ יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ פֶּן יָמוּת בַּמִּלְחָמָה וְאִישׁ אַחֵר יִקָּחֶנָּה.
Deut 20:5 Then the officials shall address the troops, saying, “Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another dedicate it. 20:6 Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. 20:7 Has anyone betrothed a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.”
Deuteronomy here offers a sort of draft deferral for soldiers who had not yet lived in their houses, planted vineyards, or established a family. Thus, even in this context of battle preparations, nothing is said about heroic death, while much is said about family life.
Reacting to Defeat: The Biblical Post-State Agenda
As we saw earlier, Pericles, with triumph in sight, delivered his funeral oration paying tribute to the fallen and beckoning the citizens of Athens to keep up the fight. In contrast, with defeatin sight, Jeremiah admonishes King Zedekiah:
ירמיהו כז:יב הָבִיאוּ אֶת צַוְּארֵיכֶם בְּעֹל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל וְעִבְדוּ אֹתוֹ וְעַמּוֹ וִחְיוּ. כז:יג לָמָּה תָמוּתוּ אַתָּה וְעַמֶּךָ בַּחֶרֶב בָּרָעָב וּבַדָּבֶר כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הוָה אֶל הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר לֹא יַעֲבֹד אֶת מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל.
Jer 27:12 Put your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and live! 27:13 Otherwise you will die together with your people, by sword, famine, and pestilence, as YHWH has decreed against any nation that does not serve the king of Babylon.
The book of Jeremiah assigns much of the responsibility for the catastrophe in 587 B.C.E. to a political faction in Jerusalem who insisted on resisting any Babylonian encroachment on Judean sovereignty. What the resistance achieved, the book argues, was only the destruction of the Temple and the forfeiture of the right to dwell in their homeland.
The biblical writers avoided—or perhaps even expunged—any tribute to heroic battlefield death from the older texts they inherited and reshaped. If so, their motivation would be obvious: By including memories of heroic sacrifice, they would have bolstered the willingness of some to lay down their lives in acts of resistance to imperial rule.
In contrast, the biblical writings consistently champion an unspectacular, pragmatic survival strategy, extolling the sounds of jubilant wedding parties, grinding millstones, children playing in the streets, and all living long lives:
ירמיה לג:י כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה עוֹד יִשָּׁמַע בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה…לג:יא קוֹל שָׂשׂוֹן וְקוֹל שִׂמְחָה קוֹל חָתָן וְקוֹל כַּלָּה…
Jer 33:10 Thus said YHWH: Again there shall be heard in this place…33:11 the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride…
זכריה ח:ד כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ מֵרֹב יָמִים. ח:ה וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת מְשַׂחֲקִים בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ.
Zech 8:4 Thus said YHWH of Hosts: “Old men and women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with a staff because of age. 8:5 And the city streets will be filled with boys and girls. All will be playing in the streets.”
The Valor of Boaz
Some biblical texts go even further than this, not only celebrating procreation, but even equating it with martial valor.
The book of Ruth is a late biblical text (probably from the Persian period) that is set in the time of the judges. Yet in contrast to the book of Judges, it portrays neither war nor warriors. While its main characters are women, the male protagonist, Boaz, is called “man of war/valor” (אִישׁ גִּבּוֹר חַיִל; 2:1). The book gives this ancient title of warrior nobility a new meaning: Instead of military prowess, Boaz demonstrates social virtue. The story explicitly plays on the title. When the community blesses Boaz on his marriage with Ruth, they encourage him to act heroically:
רות ד:יא …עֲשֵׂה חַיִל בְּאֶפְרָתָה וּקְרָא שֵׁם בְּבֵית לָחֶם.
Ruth 4:11 …May you do a mighty deed of valor in Ephrathah and make a name in Bethlehem.”
The mighty deed of valor and the making of a name refer here not to battlefield courage or noble death, but to marriage and procreation.
Toeing the Line and Growing the People
The making of a name through procreation is in the interest not only of individual families but also of a people—especially a small people—concerned with survival in a world governed by imperial powers. The biblical writers fought an ongoing battle against more militant segments of the population. Many in ancient Israel and Judah were willing to pay the highest price to resist the encroachment of imperial armies and the loss of territory. As we hear throughout the book of Jeremiah, the majority of Jerusalem’s population preferred death to defeat and surrender, and wrongly believed they could defend themselves against the Babylonians.
The writers who most dramatically shaped the Bible’s profile and message were living after the unsuccessful rebellions against the Babylonians, in the much more modest Persian province of Judah (Yehud). They understood that given the limitations of a small nation—one destined to remain on the sidelines in the world’s great military contests—martial resistance and martyrdom would have only impeded reconstruction under new political realities.
Battlefield Death in 1 Maccabees
Political reality changed again after the fall of the Persian empire, during the period of Syrian-Greek rule that followed. Specifically, during the turbulent times of Antiochus IV’s rule and his persecutions of the Jews, life in a ruled province became difficult for Judeans to tolerate. Yet at the same time, an opportunity for freedom and independence arose before their eyes.
1 Maccabees tells of the establishment of a powerful Judean kingdom under the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) in the second century B.C.E. As we would expect from any ancient or modern state—yet in sharp contrast to writings that would make it into the Bible!—the book’s authors praise sacrifice on the battlefield.
At one point, the Seleucid Greeks march with a massive army against Jerusalem, inciting most of Judas Maccabees’ forces to flee in fear. Even though they are now far outnumbered, their commander Judas orders the remaining soldiers to advance. Fearing death, they attempt to dissuade their commander (1 Macc 9:9): “We are not able. Let us rather save our own lives now….” In response to their hesitation, Judas overturns the biblical models, and rebukes his men, urging them to die an honorable death rather than flee (9:10):
Far be it from us to do such a thing as to flee from them.
If our time has come, let us die bravely for our brethren,
and leave no cause to question our honor!
Sure enough, Judas falls in battle and his army is vanquished. At his funeral, the mourners eulogize his bravery and his willingness to put his life on the line, quoting David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan (9:21):
How is the mighty fallen, the savior of Israel!
This line is presented purely as words of praise, without the negative language of humiliation in defeat we find in Samuel. This attitude toward heroic death—and 1 Maccabees features other episodes of martial martyrdom—matches what we observed for Mesopotamia and Greece (and perhaps reflecting the influence of the latter).
The funeral eulogy for Judas is what we would expect for any society, ancient or modern—but do not find in the Bible. It is a necessary part of encouraging people to do what is necessary in order to win at war. This eulogy worked: In contrast to the disastrous rebellion against Babylon, the Maccabees eventually won freedom for Judah, which became an independent state for decades.
Yom HaZikaron and War Memorial
Two millennia later, when an independent state of Israel was declared in 1948, the Jews needed to defend themselves from attacks on all sides. In honor of those who fell in that war, and all its battles before and since, Israel established Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day. Such a commemoration hearkens back to the time of the Maccabees and, most likely, to the time of the ancient states of Israel and Judah, before the Bible as we have it was produced.
Homage to the war dead is, to be sure, an indispensable component of statehood. Those who risk their lives in defense of the state must be assured that their names will be venerated in perpetuity. Hence, it is only natural that commemoration of fallen soldiers and the hallowing of heroic sacriﬁce accompany the establishment of most states.
Forming a Nation: Awaiting a State
But the biblical writers were not making a case for statehood. Writing after defeat, their objective was to demonstrate the possibility of surviving and flourishing as a people even when the political conditions were not propitious for the re-establishment of a state.
The biblical authors were not opposed to statehood. To the contrary, their writings reflect a longing for the independence and national sovereignty imagined during the days of David and his successors. But in the meantime, they devoted their energies to creating a new nation, one that could cope with unfavorable political realities. And that meant directing their readers to ways of name-making that did not involve heroic death.
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Prof. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. His doctorate is from Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen. He is the author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and its Earliest Readers (which won a Templeton prize) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory.
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