War at the Command of the Gods
The violence of war disturbed ancient people, as it does modern people. Often the wars were for the glory of the king and his court, and of little benefit to the average citizen, whose family members might be called up to fight or might be subject to the predations of counter-offensives. Therefore, to justify war, ancient kings and their scribes believed that it was the will of the gods. Biblical Israel was no different, in this regard.
According to Sa-Moon Kang, the people of the ancient Near East, including biblical Israel, connected the divine to war in three main ways:
- Command—wars were explained as commanded by a deity;
- Warrior—the deities accompany the army to war and fight on its side;
- Judgment—wars were described as the judgment of the deity against the enemy.
I will show how each of these three themes are reflected in the Bible, and then in the broader ancient Near Eastern world.
1. YHWH’s Command
When marching north in the Transjordan, the Amorite king Sihon of Heshbon confronts Israel with his army, and YHWH then commands them to attack Sihon and take his land:
דברים ב:לא וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי רְאֵה הַחִלֹּתִי תֵּת לְפָנֶיךָ אֶת סִיחֹן וְאֶת אַרְצוֹ הָחֵל רָשׁ לָרֶשֶׁת אֶת אַרְצוֹ.
Deut 2:31 And YHWH said to me: See, I begin by placing Sihon and his land at your disposal. Begin the occupation; take possession of his land.
Immediately afterwards, King Og of Bashan confronts Israel with his army, and YHWH again commands Israel to conquer them:
דברים ג:ב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי אַל תִּירָא אֹתוֹ כִּי בְיָדְךָ נָתַתִּי אֹתוֹ וְאֶת כָּל עַמּוֹ וְאֶת אַרְצוֹ וְעָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ לְסִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר יוֹשֵׁב בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן.
Deut 3:2 YHWH said to me: Do not fear him, for I am delivering him and all his men and his country into your power, and you will do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon.
Both these commands specify that YHWH will be directly involved in subduing the enemy.
The conquest of Canaan is slightly different: YHWH commands destruction even before any enemy groups gather. Furthermore, YHWH commands Israel to utterly destroy them without remorse:
דברים ז:ב וּנְתָנָם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ וְהִכִּיתָם הַחֲרֵם תַּחֲרִים אֹתָם לֹא תִכְרֹת לָהֶם בְּרִית וְלֹא תְחָנֵּם.
Deut 7:2 and YHWH your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter.
The term for destruction here, hacharem, derives from the root ח.ר.ם (ḥ.r.m), meaning “a dedication.” The use of this root in the hiphʿil (a causative form) here relates to destruction of life and places, mostly in wartime.
Revenge Against Amalek
The command to conquer the Amalekites is framed as a response to an offense. During the wilderness period, the Amalekites attack Israel, thereby earning YHWH’s eternal enmity, as Moses states in an oath:
שמות יז:טז וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי יָד עַל כֵּס יָהּ מִלְחָמָה לַי־הוָה בַּעֲמָלֵק מִדֹּר דֹּר.
Exod 17:16 He said, “For a hand upon the throne of Yah! YHWH will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”
Thus, in Deuteronomy, Moses commands the people to destroy them, and a few centuries later, YHWH has clearly not forgotten their trespass, and commands King Saul to destroy them utterly. Such a harsh decree required divine backing to make it morally palatable.
The Gods of the ANE Also Command War
The claim that a deity commanded a given battle can be traced as far back as the Sumerians, and it appears ubiquitously in ancient Near Eastern documents.
Dagan and Itur-Mer
For example, an important official at the royal court of Mari named Rip’i-Lim, accuses an ally of Mari of not sending troops to assist King Zimri-Lim in his war with the Yaminites. It notes that Mari won anyway, as the war was commanded by the gods Dagan and Itur-Mer:
When Yaminites rebelled against my lord (=Zimri-Lim), my lord wrote you to send an army contingent, but you did not send an army contingent [t]o my lord. However, my lord at the command of Dagan and Itur-Mer inflicted a defeat upon his enemies and he turned their cities to heaps of ruin.
The Mesha Stele offers an especially clear instance where a god commands a war. The Moabite king claims that the conquest of Nebo and its YHWH temple was commanded by the Moabite god, Kemosh:
ויאמר לי כמש לך אחז את נבה על ישראל.
Kemosh said to me: “Go take over Nebo from Israel.”
Šamaš and Marduk
Sometimes, the god required a little coaxing before issuing the command. Thus, Hammurabi of Babylonia (18th cent. B.C.E.) declared to a man named Rim-Sin:
Now, the Larsaite has harassed my land with repeated attacks. Since (the time) in which the great gods [pulled] the claw of the Elamite from [that] land and [showed] much kindness to the Larsaite, and (since) he did [not repay their] favor, I now [urged] Šamaš [and] Marduk, and they answered me with “yes.” I would not have risen to this offensive without (consulting) a god.
Apparently, Hammurabi felt it necessary to defend his conquest of Larsa by saying that he had convinced the gods to allow it.
2. YHWH As Warrior
YHWH often accompanies Israel to war, thereby ensuring their victory. When the Israelites leave Egypt, and the Egyptian army catches up with them, Moses tells the people that YHWH will fight this battle on his own:
שמות יד:יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ הִתְיַצְבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד עוֹלָם. יד:יד יְ־הוָה יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן.
Exod 14:13 But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which YHWH will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. 14:14 YHWH will battle for you; you hold your peace!”
Later, in the Song of the Sea, we are told:
שמות טו:ג יְ־הוָה אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה יְ־הוָה שְׁמוֹ.
Exod 15:3 YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is his name.
Similarly, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people not to fear the Canaanites when they enter the land to conquer it:
דברים כ:ד כִּי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם לְהִלָּחֵם לָכֶם עִם אֹיְבֵיכֶם לְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶתְכֶם.
Deut 20:4 For it is YHWH your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.
The book of Joshua offers a more specific example of divine intervention: YHWH rains hailstones on the enemy combatants in the battle against the five southern kings:
יהושע י:יא וַיְהִי בְּנֻסָם מִפְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵם בְּמוֹרַד בֵּית חוֹרֹן וַי־הוָה הִשְׁלִיךְ עֲלֵיהֶם אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם עַד עֲזֵקָה וַיָּמֻתוּ רַבִּים אֲשֶׁר מֵתוּ בְּאַבְנֵי הַבָּרָד מֵאֲשֶׁר הָרְגוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בֶּחָרֶב.
Josh 10:11 While they were fleeing before Israel down the descent from Beth-horon, YHWH hurled huge stones on them from the sky, all the way to Azekah, and they perished; more perished from the hailstones than were killed by the Israelite weapons.
Sometimes the Bible refers to YHWH’s appearance in battle more indirectly. Such is the case in Deuteronomy’s law that the military camp must be kept clean of human waste and genital impurity, otherwise YHWH will leave:
דברים כג:טו כִּי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ וְלָתֵת אֹיְבֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ וְלֹא יִרְאֶה בְךָ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְשָׁב מֵאַחֲרֶיךָ.
Deut 23:15 Since YHWH your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.
Ancient Near Eastern Divine Warriors
The gods of other ancient Near Eastern polities also accompanied their people into battle.
In the Great Inscription of King Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria (ca. 1241-1206 B.C.E.), the king describes how the god Ashur gave him power to “slay his enemies” and take control of the neighboring lands:
I:21–36 I set my foot upon the neck of the lands (and) shepherded like a herd the extensive black-headed people (namely, the local population). He (Ashur) taught me just decisions. Since I feared all the Anunnaku-gods and cared (literally, knew) about the gods, all my enemies he (Ashur) subdued under my feet.
Tukulti-Ninurta more specifically states that Ashur and the other gods give power to his weapons and even accompany him on campaign:
II:5–14 At that time, with the strong might of Ashur, my lord, with trust in the great gods, who open up my weapons (and) go by my right side, I marched in one direction after another, through the narrow passages (and) the difficult, rocky mountains.
Teshub, the Hittite Storm-God
A starker image of divine involvement appears in the Ten-Year Annals of King Muršili of Hatti, which tells how, during the third year of his reign, Teshub, the Hittite Storm-God, attacked Muršili’s enemies with lightning bolts, causing the enemy king, Uhhaziti, to panic:
When I had gone and when I had arrived in Lawaša, the victorious Storm-god, my lord, showed his divine power. He shot a lightning bolt. My troops saw the lightning bolt and the land of Arzawa saw it. The lightning bolt went and struck Arzawa. It struck Apāša (Ephesus?), the city of Uhhaziti. Uḫḫaziti fell on his knees and became ill. When Uhhaziti became ill, he did not subsequently come against me for battle.
3. Judgment and Punishment
When the Ammonites accuse Israel of stealing their land, Jephthah responds with a lengthy defense, ending with:
שופטים יא:כז וְאָנֹכִי לֹא חָטָאתִי לָךְ וְאַתָּה עֹשֶׂה אִתִּי רָעָה לְהִלָּחֶם בִּי יִשְׁפֹּט יְ־הוָה הַשֹּׁפֵט הַיּוֹם בֵּין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּבֵין בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן.
Judg 11:27 I have done you no wrong; yet you are doing me harm and making war on me. May YHWH, who judges, decide today between the Israelites and the Ammonites!
The Torah more than once explains that YHWH throws the Canaanites out of the land because of their sinfulness. For example, YHWH explains to Abram that taking possession of the land will have to wait many generations כִּי לֹא שָׁלֵם עֲוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי עַד הֵנָּה “for the sin of the Amorites will not be complete until that point” (Gen 15:16).
Sometimes YHWH’s judgment is against the Israelites themselves. The law of the subverted city, which requires Israel to utterly destroy any city which has turned to the worship of other gods (Deut 13:7–12), is one such case.
Punishment for Violating Loyalty Oaths
In the ancient Near East, conquering kings would administer oaths of fealty to vassal kings, and non-observance of an oath treaty taken in the name of a god opened that king up to punishment from the offended deity, and possibly even from his own.
As a practical matter, of course, violation of an oath meant that political relations between the two entities had broken down, and demanded battle, but the religious component was an important part of how the conquering people conceptualized the reason they were going to again fight, die, and kill this other group.
Shamash or Ashur
In the Epic of Tukulti-Ninurta, the Assyrian king mentioned above accuses the Kassite king Kaštiliaš of breaking their treaty, and wronging Assyria:
3.13 When we meet in battle, let [Shamash? Ashur?] judge the case between us… 3.19 So come to me on the battlefield of the servants, let us investigate the case together. 3.20 In this festival of battle, let the oath-breaker not rise up, let them throw down his corpse.
In the Hittite context, they would call for a divine lawsuit. Again, Muršili’s war with Uḫḫaziti, as explained in the Ten-Year Annals, makes this clear:
I (=Muršili) sent a messenger to Uhhaziti. I wrote to him as follows: “Because I asked you to return my subjects who came to you and you did not give them back and you kept calling me a child and you kept belittling me. Now, come, we will fight. Let the Storm-god, my lord, decide our lawsuit.”
Sun-goddess of Arinna and Ishtar
In a 14th century text, King Arnuwanda and Queen Ašmunikal offer a prayer to the Sun-goddess of Arinna, expressing how loyal they are to the gods:
§2 Only Hatti is a true, pure land for you gods, and only in the land of Hatti do we repeatedly give you pure, great, fine sacrifices. Only in the land of Hatti do we establish respect for you gods… §4 No [one] had ever shown more reverence to your [rites]; no one had ever taken care of your divine goods—silver and gold rhyta, and garments—as we have.
This positive self-description is a lead up to their asking why the gods have allowed the Kaška people of northern Anatolia to throw off the Hittite yoke, and even plunder them, especially since the enemies are nowhere near as pious as the Hittites (if they do say so themselves):
§11 We shall surely continue to tell you gods how the enemies [attacked] the land of Hatti, plundered the land, and took it away, [. . .] and we shall continually bring our case before you… §30 They come, take the gifts and swear, but when they return, they break the oaths and they despise your words, O gods, and they smash the seal of the oath of the Storm-god.
As the gods were responsible for who wins in war, the success of the Kaška people was a conundrum. Luckily for the Hittites, about a century later, Ḫattušili III managed to re-conquer the region and rebuild the temples and towns as he related in his long biography titled by scholars “The Apology of Ḫattušili III.” The campaign begins when his brother is king, and the Kaška people have raided Ḫatti territory:
And my brother Muwatalli sent me, but gave me troops (and) chariots in small numbers. I took along auxiliary troops in small numbers from the country and went: I oppressed the enemy at the city of Ḫaḫḫa and fought him. The Lady, My Lady (i.e. goddess Ištar), marched ahead of me, I defeated him and erected a monument.
Here again we see the trope of divine accompaniment. Notably, most cases of divine intervention in war, the gods interfering are male. Ištar, in her various names and forms, is a special goddess, from Sumerian to Greek times. She is not a mother goddess but rather an independent female “goddess of love,” with no children, who participates in war, and supports kings on battlefield.
With Ḫattušili’s defeat of Ḫaḫḫa, the Hittite perspective is that the gods—in this case led by Ištar—have finally decided justly between the righteous Hittites and the sinful Kaškites and brought about a Hittite victory.
Loyalty Oaths in the Bible
Biblical Israel also took oaths seriously. Breaking an oath was referred to as מֶרֶד “rebellion,” or by the term פ.שׁ.ע “defy,” which the Bible uses as a correlative term or parallel, such as in YHWH’s speech to Ezekiel about rebellious Judahites:
יחזקאל ב:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי בֶּן אָדָם שׁוֹלֵחַ אֲנִי אוֹתְךָ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל גּוֹיִם הַמּוֹרְדִים אֲשֶׁר מָרְדוּ בִי הֵמָּה וַאֲבוֹתָם פָּשְׁעוּ בִי עַד עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Ezek 2:3 He said to me, “O mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, that nation of rebels, who have rebelled against Me.—They as well as their fathers have defied Me to this very day…”
The book of Kings notes three such cases of defying the Davidic king. The first is the rebellion of the northern Israelites, who set up their own kingdom:
מלכים א יב:יט וַיִּפְשְׁעוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּבֵית דָּוִד עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
1 Kgs 12:19 Thus Israel defied the House of David, as is still the case.
The divine punishment of Israel, which brings about their destruction and exile, is due in part to their breaking their oath to the house of David. Two other cases involve rebellions of other nations against Judah:
מלכים ב א:א וַיִּפְשַׁע מוֹאָב בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַחְאָב.
2 Kgs 1:1 After Ahab’s death, Moab defied Israel.
מלכים ב ח:כ בְּיָמָיו פָּשַׁע אֱדוֹם מִתַּחַת יַד יְהוּדָה וַיַּמְלִכוּ עֲלֵיהֶם מֶלֶךְ.
2 Kgs 8:20 During his (=Joram’s) reign, the Edomites defied Judah’s rule and set up a king of their own.
Both of these nations are defeated by Judah in subsequent engagements, highlighting the divine disfavor for rebellion. But not only are other nations held to account for oath-breaking, so are the Israelites/Judahites themselves, even when the oath is to non-Israelites.
The book of Joshua, for instance, explains that the Gibeonites, Canaanite inhabitants who should have been killed under the law of the ban (cherem), were allowed to remain alive only because the Israelites mistakenly make an oath with them.
יהושע ט:יט וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָל הַנְּשִׂיאִים אֶל כָּל הָעֵדָה אֲנַחְנוּ נִשְׁבַּעְנוּ לָהֶם בַּי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַתָּה לֹא נוּכַל לִנְגֹּעַ בָּהֶם. ט:כ זֹאת נַעֲשֶׂה לָהֶם וְהַחֲיֵה אוֹתָם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה עָלֵינוּ קֶצֶף עַל הַשְּׁבוּעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְנוּ לָהֶם.
Josh 9:19 All the chieftains answered the whole community, “We swore to them by YHWH, the God of Israel; therefore, we cannot touch them. 9:20 This is what we will do to them: We will spare their lives, so that there may be no wrath against us because of the oath that we swore to them.”
As for punishments for violating oaths, the Book of Chronicles claims that one reason Jerusalem was destroyed was because King Zedekiah violated his oath of fealty to Nebuchadnezzar:
דברי הימים ב לו:יג וְגַם בַּמֶּלֶךְ נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר מָרָד אֲשֶׁר הִשְׁבִּיעוֹ בֵּאלֹהִים...
2 Chron 36:13 He also rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, who made him take an oath by God…
In this case, Judah itself is the victim, and YHWH judges in favor of the Babylonians because the Judean king broke the fealty oath.
The Place of the Divine in War
The ancient world waged wars constantly, causing great loss to human and animal life, alongside terrible economic destruction. Thus, the ancients explained wars using religious language, claiming that the god or goddess joined in the war, that the enemy was judged by the deity to be deserving of destruction, or even that the war was commanded by the deity. Such explanations could not change the terrible realities of war, the destruction of cities and the loss of life, but they allowed kings to continue with their constant wars without taking moral responsibility. In the end, it was all up to the gods.
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Prof. Ada Taggar-Cohen is a professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern studies, and the Head of the Program of Jewish Studies, at the School of Theology of Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan. She earned her BA and MA degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the Bible and History of Israel departments, and her PhD from Ben Gurion University in the Negev, under the supervision of Prof. Victor A. Hurowitz (ז״ל) and Prof. Theo van den Hout of the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on Hittite priesthood and comparative studies of issues related to Hittite and ancient Israelite cultures. Her book Hittite Priesthood (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006) is a comprehensive work on this topic. She has recently co-edited with Roy E. Gane a volume in memory of Jacob Milgrom, Current Issues in Priestly and Related Literature: The Legacy of Jacob Milgrom and Beyond (Resources for Biblical Study 82; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015).
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