War in Genesis

In the book of Genesis, we see clear demonstrations of God’s sovereign power over the world that he created, even while humanity descends into evil. We also see the first expressions of that providential power in his judging of human evil through direct intervention. Finally, Genesis introduces the idea that God can and will enact his providential rule through the evil actions of people.

There is no consideration of war in the creation accounts, except for the fact that they are not there. Wenham notes the polemical nature of Genesis 1 against contemporary creation epics that involve battles.[1] In this context, it is notable that it is God’s powerful word that brings order out of the chaos, not combat.[2] While the narrative of the fall contains much violence, there is no reference to warfare as such.[3] However, throughout those accounts, God demonstrated his ability and willingness to directly judge the evil of humanity – both individually and collectively – without the mediation of human agency.[4]

Genesis 14

The first reference to war (מִלְחָמָה) occurs not long after the call of Abram.[5] A war brews between a number of kings in the area. The detail and length of the description of the engagement and the number of kings and cities involved paints a picture of a large scale war. By modern standards, this is not large, but by ancient standards, we see all the major powers of the region in a network of alliances with each other ending up at war. This is not a battle between two cities, it is a truly regional conflict, and the main body of military might in the area is concentrated into the main battle of verses 8-9. The significance of this war is made apparent when, in the aftermath, Lot is taken captive.

In the narrative of Genesis, this attach and capture raises questions about God and Abraham. This attack comes soon after God’s covenant promises to Abraham, and just before the confirmation of theses promises in ch 15. But Abraham is just a nomad, caught up in a war between multiple city states. How can he be safe? How can his family be rescued? When Abraham gathers his 318 men, we are not expected to see this as an impressive show of force. Rather, as Wenham notes, Abraham was up against extraordinary odds.[10] However, somehow, his 318 men defeat the victors of a major war and rescue all of the captives.

How are we supposed to understand this? Is this a story of Abraham’s military skill? This is the point that the mysterious Melchizedek appears; he blesses Abraham, and declares that God had given him victory.[7]

 

Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand. (19-20)

Melchizedek becomes an important and enigmatic figure in the time of the NT, but here he is acting as a priest of God, and declaring the spiritual reality that is driving the historical events. Abraham’s offering of a tenth shows his own understanding of this role of Melchizedek.

This event draws a strong connection between war and providence. There was no way that Abraham could have won that battle by his own power, and there was no need for him to build up a massive army to take on the enemy. God gave him the victory against overwhelming odds. Abraham himself recognizes this fact when he refuses to take the spoils of war offered by the king of Sodom. Instead he wants it known that I is God who has made him rich, not other kings.

This blessing shows us the beginning of a theology that God can and will act for the good of his people on the international stage.[8]

Genesis 15

In Genesis 15, God reiterates his promises to Abraham (for more detail, see Providence in Genesis). At the end of that statement, God shows that he is aware that his promise of land was a political claim, and that it would involve armed conflict.

 

In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”…

 

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates – the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”(Genesis 15:16, 18-21)

This gives passage not only pre-figures the wars of conquest, it also gives two of God’s reasons for the wars. Firstly, they are wars of judgment for the sins of the people (v 16). Secondly, they are about the taking of the land to fulfil God’s covenant with Abraham. Again, note that this passage lies within one of the key covenantal passages of Genesis.

Abraham and Isaac in the Land

It is worth noting that, apart from the one battle, Abraham and Isaac’s life in the land was peaceful. A number of times they act out of fear of being harmed (as in the multiple times that they pretend that their wives are their sisters. And a number of times they act to avoid conflict. In chapter 26, Isaac moves on from multiple wells when other people move in and seek to cause conflict. finally, his peaceful growth in wealth and influence causes his neighbours to seek a treaty. If the fears that Abraham and Isaac showed about being killed for their wives was an accurate representation of what might have happened to them in that sort of culture, then it is quite extraordinary to see how peaceful their lives really were under God’s direction.

Dinah and the Shechemites

In Genesis 34, we see the second incidence of war. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a prince of the Shechemites, and her brothers decide and then attack the city. Jacob is angry with his sons for their actions because they risked triggering all out war with their neighbours. Along with this denouncement from the patriarch, the story as a whole suggests that their actions were wrong. This was not an action of public judgement, because the brothers pretended to be making an alliance with the Shechemites, deceived them, and then attacked them while they were post-circumcision. Ironically, this pattern very closely matches the life style of their father in his younger years. This small incident is an example of both judgement and war done wrong.

In Genesis 49, as part of his blessing of his children, Jacob says:

5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
6 Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel.

 However, there are other images of violence in his blessing that seem to be given with approval. These might be hunting images or fighting ones, it is hard to tell at times. It is difficult in this passage to clearly see what Simeon and Levi’s crime was – was it violence, or angry and uncontrolled violence?

 

 

[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas, TX: Word, 1987), xlvii–li. C.f. Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26 (The New American Commentary; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 90–95.

[2] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 36–7. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 93–4, 132–4.

[3] Longman, ‘Warfare’, 835. Daniel. G. Reid, ‘Violence’, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner; Leicester, England: IVP, 2000), 832.

[4] Gen 3:8-19; 4:9-12; 6:12-17; 11:6-9. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 52.

[5] Gen 14:1-16. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 304. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 399, 404 ff.

[8] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 399. Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (The New American Commentary; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 150, 157.

[9] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 321.

[10] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 321.

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