God as Warrier

                The Lord is a warrior;

the Lord is his name. (Exodus 15:3) 

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14) 

Who is this King of glory?

The Lord strong and mighty,

the Lord mighty in battle. (Psalm 24:8)

…a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.  (Ecclesiastes 3:8)

The KJV renders Exodus 15:3 in this way:    The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.  And the word that has been translated Lord is the name of God, YHWH—sometimes mistakenly rendered Jehovah.  Most modern translations simply render it “The Lord is a warrior” since that is what is meant.  The passage in Exodus is neither a pre-Christian allusion to the incarnation, nor does it render God human.  Instead, it is simply that in Hebrew, one way to refer to a soldier, a warrior, was with the phrase “man of war.”  The Old KJV tended toward the literalistic in translation, creating some oddities such as the rendering of this verse, or phrases like “holy of holies” rendered more accurately in modern translations as “Most Holy”  Thus, the modern translations which read “the Lord is a warrior” are  actually better and eliminate possible confusion or misperception.

            Beyond this, of course, is the concern that those who are more pacifist in their interpretation of the Bible might have regarding such passages which are doubtless somewhat troubling.  And this is not the only place that creates discomfort for those concerned with militarism and war.  In the 1970s when the NIV was first being translated, a common Hebrew phrase became problematic for the translators and a future publisher who were in a recently post-Vietnam era of wide-spread anti-war sentiment.  The phrase in question was YHWH Sabaoth, which the KJV had rendered “Lord of Hosts.”  The word “hosts” in the 1970s (and today) was an obscure, largely archaic word in the sense that the KJV meant it.  In the 1970s, as well as today, when we hear the word, we will think of the host of a party, a television show, or the like.  We might have thoughts of hospitality.  Thus, since the underlying Hebrew word Sabaoth did not mean that God was claiming to be the God of variety show hosts or women sharing Tupperware, its use in a modern translation was not tenable.  However, the actual meaning of the word was discomforting to those of an anti-war bent; the Quakers and Mennonites on the translation committee would not much care for it, and the publisher who would want to sell as many copies of the final translation as possible, could see the marketability of the resulting translation much diminished and narrowed.  Because the word “Sabaoth” and the older English understanding of “hosts” was best rendered into contemporary English with the word “army.”  The Bible regularly and repeatedly referred to God as “Yahweh of Armies.”  Not to mention the “hosts of heaven” was more properly the “armies of heaven.”  Such a translation did not fit with the idea of a peaceful, flower toting mindset.  Thus, the choice was made to render the phrase as “Almighty Lord” or “Lord Almighty.” 

            Even today, post 9/11, many people remain uncomfortable with the notion of war and find it hard to wrap their minds around the notion that God could ever have sanctioned war.  For convinced pacifists who are of a mind to put bumper stickers on their cars announcing “War never solved anything” they either happily ignore the uncomfortable verses, or reject any belief in the God that shows up in the Bible, especially in what Christians call the Old Testament.  Others will dismiss it simply because it is in the Old Testament, arguing that it has been superseded by the New Testament picture of love and tolerance shown in Jesus—the same Jesus who showed his love to the money changers by making a whip and chasing them out of the Temple. 

            Obviously, the problem is more for those who reject war altogether than for those of a more Augustinian view who accept the notion of “just war.”

            Pacifists are not wrong, at least in an ideal sense.  But the world does not always conform to idealism.  And the Bible’s words and message are not to angels or the ideal and perfect human that does not exist except in the fantasies of those who are wont to sing Kumbaya: the biblical message was given to people who live in a real world, a world fallen and imperfect.  Jesus told the religious leaders who asked him about divorce, that divorce is established in the Law of Moses because of “the hardness of your hearts.”  Ideally, there should never have to be divorce, nor ever any need for it.  But in the real world, that’s certainly not going to happen.  So what did God do?  He made allowance for our hard hearts.  He regulated and mitigated the evil as much as possible in a world filled with fallen creatures.

            I think war is much the same.  It would be nice if the pacifistic dreams come true.  I don’t see it happening any time soon.  For those who imagine that violence never solved anything, I suggest that they are willfully ignorant of reality.  Violence indeed has solved many problems.  Quite obviously Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust are history not because of singing Kumbaya, but because of the violence unleashed by allied armies, navies, and air forces.  The ancient Israelites did not escape Egyptian bondage by politely asking to leave, through boycotts, sanctions, or by means of hunger strikes.