The very first battle that Israel fights as a nation is in Exodus 17:
8 At Rephidim, Amalek came and fought against Israel. 9 Moses said to Joshua, “Select some men for us, and go fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the hilltop with God’s staff in my hand.” 10 Joshua did as Moses had told him, and fought against Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 While Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, but whenever he put his hand down, Amalek prevailed. 12 When Moses’ hands grew heavy, they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat down on it. Then Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other so that his hands remained steady until the sun went down. 13 So Joshua defeated Amalek and his army with the sword. (Ex 17:8-13 HCSB)
This first battle sets an important precedent for all following battles: God is actively intervening in the battle. This really comes as no surprise from the God who has protected the Patriarchs throughout their lives, who gave Abraham victory in Genesis 14, and who brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt with great miracles and power. God then promises to continue his providential care for his people as they take possession of the land:
27 “I will cause the people ahead of you to feel terror and throw into confusion all the nations you come to. I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you in retreat. 28 I will send the hornet in front of you, and it will drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites away from you.
31 I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates River. For I will place the inhabitants of the land under your control, and you will drive them out ahead of you.” (Ex 23:27-28, 31 HCSB)
Despite this promise, Israel fail to trust God and refuse to enter the land when they see how powerful the inhabitants were (Num 14). God then rebukes them, and condemns them to stay in the wilderness for 40 years, until that whole generation had died of old age. Israel decide that they were wrong to doubt God, and so they try to enter the land and pick a fight with the Amalekites. They lose and lose badly. This incident highlights the provisional nature of God’s military support – Israel can only expect him to support their battles when they are completely obedient to him . There is no space for innovation: When he says to enter the land, they must enter. When he says that they must wait for 40 years, then any attempt to take the land early ends up in disaster.
Again, Deuteronomy continues and amplifies this theme. A number of chapters emphasise that the land is being given to Israel by God, that he alone is doing the fighting for them, and that any subsequent prosperity is from him and not from their own hands (e.g. Deut 4; 7; 8; 9; 12; 18; 19; 20; 31; 32). In most cases, these teachings come with the reminder that Israel must stay faithful to the God who has given them the land, and not to worship the idols of the surrounding peoples. This comes to a crescendo in chapter 28, where Moses delivers a final warning of obedience:
1 “Now if you faithfully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all His commands I am giving you today, the LORD your God will put you far above all the nations of the earth. 2 All these blessings will come and overtake you, because you obey the LORD your God: 3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.
7 “The LORD will cause the enemies who rise up against you to be defeated before you. They will march out against you from one direction but flee from you in seven directions.
15 “But if you do not obey the LORD your God by carefully following all His commands and statutes I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overtake you: 16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
25 The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will march out against them from one direction but flee from them in seven directions. You will be an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
49 The LORD will bring a nation from far away, from the ends of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you don’t understand, 50 a ruthless nation, showing no respect for the old and not sparing the young. 51 They will eat the offspring of your livestock and your soil’s produce until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine, oil, young of your herds, or newborn of your flocks until they cause you to perish. 52 They will besiege you within all your gates until your high and fortified walls, that you trust in, come down throughout your land. They will besiege you within all your gates throughout the land the LORD your God has given you.
64 Then the LORD will scatter you among all peoples from one end of the earth to the other, and there you will worship other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 You will find no peace among those nations, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and a despondent spirit. (Deut 28:1-2, 7, 15, 25, 49-52, 64-65 HCSB)
While God knows that Israel will not stay faithful, and that they will suffer these judgements, he also knows that he will bring the nation back to him and restore them:
1 “When all these things happen to you– the blessings and curses I have set before you– and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today, 3 then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. (Deut 30:1-3 HCSB)
Within these warnings to stay faithful, there is the clear statement that God is capable of bringing good or ill – safety or invasion – to Israel according to his desire. For this to be true, God has to have complete control over the international stage. We will return to the theology of the exile when we reach that portion of Israel’s history. However, God capacity to use external nations to punish Israel becomes very clear in the time of the Judges, which we will examine shortly.