Bible Resources

Holy War (The Lord's Battles)

Early Israel’s understanding of warfare is closely connected with their conception of God as a mighty warrior (Exod 15:3; Deut 7; 20; Ps 24:8). The Lord was a warrior who had made Israel his people by defeating the Egyptians (Deut 4:32-34) and who protects and defends them (2 Sam 22:35-37; Ps 144:1). Because the Lord was the God of Israel’s army (1 Sam 17:45), the Israelites prayed for God to lead them into battle (Judg 4:14). They would pray for God’s approval and involvement before engaging in war (1 Sam 28:4-6; 2 Sam 5:17-19).

Though they might be outnumbered, with the divine warrior on their side, the size of the army was unimportant (Judg 7:1-9; 1 Sam 14:6). But even with God’s help, preparation was necessary. Often information was gathered from behind enemy lines (Num 13; Josh 2:1), sacrifices were offered (1 Sam 7:9-10), and stirring speeches were given to inspire the warriors to have no fear. God would be with them to deliver their enemies into their hands (Deut 20:2; 2 Chr 20:20). The battle began with priests sounding the trumpet (Num 10:9; 2 Chr 13:12-18) and bringing out the sacred chest, a symbol of God’s presence in the field (1 Sam 4:4-18). The battle ended when God sent terror into the hearts of the enemy. In their fear and panic they destroyed themselves. This is the miraculous victory that God provides. The Israelites’ only duties were to trust completely in the power of God and to face the enemy unafraid (Exod 14:14).

Following the battle, the Israelites would often destroy part or all of the city or country along with its people, animals, and possessions. This practice, known as “the ban,” meant devoting or setting aside the spoils of war for God. No Israelite was permitted to take anything as a souvenir of war or to capture enemies and make them their slaves once a town had been put under a ban. And anyone who did so was severely punished (Num 21:2; Deut 20:16-18; Josh 6:17).