Is God a Warrior?

Ian Paul thinks that the reality is not as it seems at first glance to readers of the Old Testament:

Events of recent weeks offer a serious challenge to our thinking about God and conflict. The video released by the ISIS group of militant Sunni Muslims fighting in Iraq included an British Muslim from Cardiff urging others to join him. In the video he makes three claims: that jihad (understood by some Muslims as a spiritual struggle) involves actual combat; that this is the will of Allah; and that in this Muslim men will find their purpose in life.

Christians often underestimate how indebted our theology of God is to OT ideas of God as warrior. Most of our language of God as ‘Almighty’, as the ‘Lord of Hosts’, and of God have a ‘mighty hand and outstretched arm’ (which I sang in a chorus in church yesterday) originates in contexts of God fighting as a warrior on behalf of his people. One of the clearest examples of this is the song of Moses in Exodus 15, within which Moses proclaims ‘Yahweh is a warrior’ (Ex 15.3). Although these are often ‘spiritualised’ in reading, there is a significant tradition in contemporary Western Christianity which reads such texts as advocating warfare, and such reading has influence Western foreign policy and contributed to justifying the war in Iraq.

What is a responsible way to read such texts? We first need to note two things about Ex 15. First, its historical context was one of a fairly brutal and violent culture, where warfare was common and life was (by comparison with modern expectations) brutish and short. It is in this context that God does not stand aloof, or waits until human culture becomes more ‘sophisticated’, but chooses (according to the biblical text) to become involved. Secondly, it is important to notice the relation between the song of chapter 15 and the account of the events themselves in chapter 14. There are plenty of ‘supernatural’ elements, but there is also a strong naturalistic focus.

The part of the waves happened because of a ‘strong east wind that blew all night’ (Ex 14.21); if you had been there, you would not have seen anything obviously supernatural. Moses’ description of the event owes much to his spiritual interpretation of the significance of the events, and takes a poetic form. As in many of the psalms, God’s nostrils (for example) appear to play a key role! (Ex 15.8). It is within this context—a poetic description of the spiritual significance of the events—that God is described as a ‘warrior.’ (Incidentally, Hollywood always seems to prefer the poetic version rather than the actual account; the film Prince of Egypt about Moses had the walls of water standing either side, as per Moses’ poetic description, instead of the rather mundane blowing of the wind all night—which, let’s be honest, would just not make such good cinema.)

We also need to locate this text within the wide biblical understanding of conflict. There are at least six key texts we need to consider which give insight into this question.

Read the rest at Ian’s blog here.


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