In our current world, where conflict is at the forefront, it’s interesting to see how battles are depicted in the past. In the United States, one of the most important conflicts was the Civil War. Perhaps the most popular song composed during that was is the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

Glory, Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

God is described as a warrior going to battle. This is a common theme in not only Biblical texts but also other Near Eastern ancient myths. In the Enuma Elish, the seminal Babylonian tale, the success of Marduk, the storm-god, in his battle over Tiamat, the dragon-like sea goddess, confirms his power over the chaotic sea. A victory hymn celebrates the might and dominion of the newly crowned Marduk.

In Jewish texts, divine war takes two forms. Either God fights on behalf of Israel, or against them.

In the first case, God fights on Israel’s behalf to defeat their enemies and/or to deliver the chosen people. Some examples of God the warrior on Israel’s side are the Exodus from Egypt and the plagues. As the story unfolds, the children of Israel are met by a new enemy – the sea. God shows his power over raging waters (as similar to the Emuna Elish). As a result, Israel shows their appreciation by singing a battle hymn of their own – the Song of the Sea as related in Exodus 15:1-21.

judith and holofernes - uffizi
Judith holding the head of Holofernes

In the Jewish apocryphal book of Judith, after Holofernes had been killed and his army dispersed, Judith sang a song of praise describing God as a warrior.

“The Lord is a warrior who ends war.
He rescued me from my pursuers
and brought me back to his people’s camp.
….
I will sing a new song to my God.
O Lord, you are strong and glorious!
You have never been defeated.
Let all your creatures serve you.
You gave the command,
and all of them were created.
No one can oppose your command.”
Judith 16:3-14

 

Passages in Isaiah and in Joel also rely on the imagery of God as a warrior fighting to save Israel from its enemies and cementing the position of Israel as the chosen nation, since God fights on their side.

There is another more sinister way that God is portrayed as a warrior. Against Israel. God can even use foreign entities to besiege Israel and take them captive as a means of judgment against Israel. In the book of Ezekiel, God uses the Babylonians as a destructive element against the Jews. The victory is taken away from the Babylonians who are portrayed simply as tools in God’s hands in His effort to chastise the Jews for their sins. Things are not all bad, though. In the middle of Ezekiel’s vision, God promises to restore the Jews at some time in the future, supposedly after the punitive sentence has been served. Judgement against the Jewish people is followed by restoration to the “good old days”.

In the Second Temple period, there was a new expansion in the idea of God as a fighter. Prior, as seen from the examples above, the people are passive in the fights. God is given all the credit for the outcome of the wars. People serve God because he is only relevant military strength. But in the Second Temple period, some Jewish sects began to see more of a cooperation between man and God. God increasingly fights not just against physical dangers but existential, religious ones as well. As such, man was required to stand beside God in the battle, especially in a spiritual sense, fending off forces of evil by “suiting up” in spiritual armor. The Yachad sect at Qumran (sometimes associated with the Essenes) saw themselves as standing with God in the upcoming battle of the Sons of Light vs. the Sons of Darkness. Christianity, which began as a Jewish sect during the Second Temple period, takes this view even farther.

“For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.
For those who sleep sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night.
But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
I Thessalonians 5:5-8

As we experience these weeks leading up to the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples and other calamities which occurred of the 9th of Av, we yearn for victory over our enemies.

“I believe in perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah,
And even if he may tarry, I will wait for him, whenever he comes.

Whether human cooperation will be needed for the redemption or God will simply take care of our enemies by himself has been debated through the ages by Jewish sages. In any case, we pray for more songs of praise and better days ahead, free from our interior and exterior foes.

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