War In The Hebrew Bible

Matthew Gindin
7 min readNov 29, 2022
Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-of-a-book-in-hebrew-4033818/

It is commonly thought that the Hebrew Bible is a violent, warmongering book, and when read out of context and without an understanding of the ancient middle east- or a thorough, careful reading of the actual Hebrew Bible- it is easy to come to this conclusion. In truth the issue of militarism and war are much more comolicated than this in the Hebrew Bible, and the over all picture is quite different then a superficial aquaintance with the text would suggest.

Both warfare and the rhetoric of war were brutal in the ancient Near East. Yet as Christian theologian Preston Sprinkle points out in his excellent book on violence in the Bible, Fight, “Israel was less violent (than surrounding cultures) and had a stripped down- almost absurd- warfare policy.”

In the Near East, kings and upper class men maintained control through a professional army which stockpiled weapons, horses, and chariots. They were paid through taxation. Torah law, fascinatingly, does not provide taxes for the army and actually limits the Kings ability to stockpile horses and weapons. As odd as it may seem to our ears, Sprinkle seems to have it right: “God doesn’t need a human army to protect his land. He is quite capable of defending it himself.” The Torah repeatedly tells stories of ancient Israelis fighting off much bigger armies when they are in God’s graces, and failing when they are not- even if they have the superior power at the time. Israel’s army is a citizen army with crude weapons and few if any horses, led by a modestly wealthy King with few resources- by design. Even alliances with other nations are frowned on again and again and seen as idolatry and betrayal of YHVH.

When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not get be afraid of them, for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.

It’s worth thinking carefully about the following speech the Torah says should be given to soldiers going out to battle:

And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the LORD your God is he who goes