With God On Our Side – The Consequences of War
This chapter explores how war sometimes took on a religious character, and how that development has had consequences for the world. This post and its connected posts outline some of the ideas I came up with in researching this question.
(Scholars who work I rely on and cite include Yaakov Na’aman, Thomas Römer, Robert Alter, Michael Berger, Carl Ehrlich, William Dever, and Susan Niditch.)
I begin with the early Israelites, who lived in a time and place where war was endemic, and was often described by the victors in what hyperbolic terms: “I (the king) slaughtered everyone, I burned everything to the ground, I took all their precious objects and offered them as a sacrifice to my gods.”
The book of Joshua adopts this same language to describe what had happened to the Canaanites – God, through Joshua, had driven them all out of the land. In reality, the Israelites were originally indistinguishable from the rest of the Canaanites, had gradually intermarried with them, and eventually absorbed them into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But this was a time (c 620 BCE, in the reign of Josiah) when the priests of the Jerusalem temple were on a campaign to make Yahweh the only god that the Israelites could worship, and Joshua was part of that program. The end result, however, is that it legitimated warfare by annihilation for purposes of religious purity (even though that war never happened!).
In fact, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah conducted their wars in the same manner (limited) and for the same reasons (security, territory) as everyone around them did. The Maccabean revolt (c. 165 BCE), which was really a war for religious purity, was a limited war, mostly a guerilla campaign, that gradually established a quasi-independent kingdom that lasted until 63 BCE, when the Romans took over. The Jewish War of 66-73 CE, and the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-35 CE, were such military disasters that the developing rabbinic leadership argued for discouraging all militancy by Jews, who were to passively wait for God to forgive them their sins and send a messiah to restore their kingdom.
(Next post: Early Christianity)