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The Bible’s Yahweh, a War-God?: Called “Lord of Armies” Over 280 Times in the Bible and “Lord of Peace” Just Once (I)

*This piece was first published on Aug, 23.

This article is the conclusion to part 9 of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series. Please read my “disclaimer”, which explains my intentions behind writing this article: The Understanding Jihad Series: Is Islam More Likely Than Other Religions to Encourage Violence?

Islamophobes argue that the holy book of Islam, the Quran, is uniquely violent as compared to other religious scriptures–certainly more so than the “peace-loving Bible.”  Similarly, they argue that the the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was uniquely violent as far as prophets go–certainly more so than the religious figures of the Judeo-Christian faith.

These reassuring platitudes were shattered in LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series(see parts 1234567, and 8).  Clearly, the Bible is more violent than the Quran, and the Biblical prophets were more violent than the Islamic prophet.

But what about the Islamic God?  How does He compare to the Judeo-Christian God?  Is it true that Allah of the Quran is uniquely warlike and violent as the anti-Muslim camp claims?

We previously came to the conclusion (see here, here, here, here and here) that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God–however, whereas the God of the Bible and the God of the Quran are essentially the same, they differ somewhat in their details.  In other words, they have slightly differing qualities and characteristics.  For example, Christians would argue that their God is Trinitarian, whereas the Islamic God is Unitarian.

Anti-Muslim Jews and Christians often try to portray the Islamic God as uniquely warlike and violent, as opposed to the supposedly loving and peaceful God of the Bible.  However, I will argue (quite convincingly) that in fact the Quranic God is no more warlike and violent than the Biblical one.  Indeed, we might even be able to say the opposite: Yahweh of the Bible, unlike Allah of the Quran, is a war-god.

Yahweh originated from a war-god tradition.  Dr. Lloyd M. Barre writes:

The earliest Yahwistic traditions reveal that Yahweh was a bedouin war god from the deserts of Edom and of the surrounding regions. His essentially warlike characteristics are demonstated by his name, by cultic celebrations of his mighty deeds, and by his ark.

Prof. Mark S. Smith notes on p.144 of The Origins of Biblical Monotheism that Yahweh was introduced to the Israelites as a “divine warrior [god] from the south.”  Indeed, “Yahweh and Baal co-existed and later competed as warrior-gods” (Ibid., p.33).  This motif continued in the Israelite tradition: the tribal warrior-god Yahweh went to war against competing gods and nations on behalf of Israel.

Although Yahweh, the God the Israelites adopted, would one day become the supreme God of the land and eliminate his competition, initially he was just one of many competing “war and storm-gods;” as Prof. Erhard S. Gerstenberger writes on p.151 of Theologies of the Old Testament (emphasis added):

Yahweh was not always God in Israel and at every social level.  Rather, initially he belongs only to the storm and war gods like Baal, Anath, Hadad, Resheph and Chemosh…His original homeland was the southern regions of present-day Palestine and Jordan.  Thus the regional and functional, cultural and social limitations of Yahweh should be beyond all doubt.  The elaboration of ideas about Yahweh, e.g. as a guarantor of fertility, personal good fortune, head of a pantheon, creator of the world, judge of the world, etc. is gradual and only fully unfolds in the exilic/post-exilic age, always in connection with social and historical changes.

In other words, Yahweh started out as a “storm and war god,” and only later acquired other functions now commonly associated with God, including for example the ability to create.

Prof. Corrine Carvalho writes on p.79 of Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament that “Yahweh was first and foremost a warrior God.”  From the very beginning, “God appeared to the ancient people as a warrior…’armed in military attire, to contend with all the forces of his foes’” (p.19 of God is a Warrior by Professor Tremper Longman).  This is a reflection of God being introduced to the Hebrews in a time of persecution and war, as Moses defeats Pharaoh’s forces and then leads his people to war against the Canaanites in the Promised Land.

As we shall see later, herein lies a major difference between Yahweh of Judaism and Allah of Islam; the very first introduction of Yahweh to the believers was in the war-god role, not as the creator of all things; as Robert Wright writes in The Evolution of God:

…If you go back to the poems that most scholars consider the oldest pieces of the Bible, there’s no mention of God creating anything. He seems more interested in destroying; he is in large part a warrior god. What some believe to be the oldest piece of all, Exodus 15, is an ode to Yahweh for drowning Eygpt’s army in the Red Sea. It begins, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea…the Lord is a warrior.”

He notes:

The part about creating stars and the moon and the sun and light itself–the story in the first chapter of Genesis–seems to have been added later. In the beginning, so far as we can tell, Yahweh was not yet a cosmic creator.

Biblical scholar Prof. J.M.P. Smith writes in Religion and War in Israel published in The American Journal of Theology (emphasis added):

Among the functions of Yahweh called into play by Israel’s needs, the leading place in the earlier times was held by warHence, Yahweh is constantly represented as a war-god. He it is who marches at the head of Israel’s armies (Deut. 33:27); his right arm brings victory to Israel’s banners (Exod. 15:6); Israel’s wars are “the wars of Yahweh” himself (Num. 21:14; I Sam. 18:17, 25:28); Israel’s obligation is to “come to the help of Yahweh, to the help of Yahweh against the mighty” (Judg. 5:23); Israel’s enemies are Yahweh’s enemies (Judg. 5:31; I Sam. 30:26); Yawheh is Israel’s sword and shield (Deut. 33:29); yea, he is a “a man of war” (Exod. 15:3) As the leader of a nation of war, Yahweh was credited with the military practices of the day.  He shrank not from drastic and cruel measures. Indeed, he lent his name and influence to the perpetration of such deeds of barbarity…Yahweh orders the total extermination of clans and towns, including man, woman, and child (I Sam. 15:3; Josh 6:17 f.).

In line with the customary belief in ancient times, the warrior-god of Israel did not just lend his help from afar or through divine agents but was thought to literally accompany the soldiers on the battlefield. Professor Sa-Moon Kang of Hebrew University of Jerusalem writes on p.224 of Divine War in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East (emphasis added):

YHWH was understood as the divine warrior…YHWH intervened not only to help the army on the battlefield but He also marched in front of the king and soldiers…The victory after the battles was given to YHWH, and the spoils obtained were dedicated to YHWH and His treasures.

In Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, winner of the 2005 National Jewish Book Award, Howard Schwartz writes (emphasis added):

40. The Warrior God

Yahweh is a mighty warrior who defeated Pharaoh at the Red Sea…God appeared to Pharaoh as a mighty warrior, carrying a fiery bow, with a sword of lightning, traveling through the heavens in a chariot…God took a cherub from His Throne fo Glory and rode upon it, waging war against Pharaoh and Egypt, as it is said, He mounted a cherub and flew (Ps. 18:11). Leaping from one wing to another, God taunted Pharaoh, “O evil one, do you have a cherub? Can you do this?”

When the angels saw that God was waging war against the Egyptians on the sea, they came to His aid. Some came carrying swords and others carrying bows or lances. God said to them, “I do not need your aid, for when I go to battle, I go alone.” That is why it is said that Yahweh is a man of war (Exod. 15:3).

Notice here that Yahweh does not merely engage in fighting via divine or worldly agents.  Instead, he is literally on the battlefield itself, fighting as a warrior god.  Schwartz goes on:

In addition to Exodus 15:3, Yahweh is a man of war, God is described as a warrior in Psalm 24: Who is the King of glory–Yahweh, mighty and valiant, Yahweh, valiant in battle (Ps. 24:8).  Frank Moore Cross finds in this passage a strong echo of the Canaanite pattern, in which both El and Ba’al are described as warrior gods.

Prof. F.E. Peters writes on p.272 of The Monotheists:

Yahweh was a warrior God (Exod. 5:3, Isa. 42:13)…The Israelites, quite like the pre-Islamic Arabs, even carried their God with them into conflict on occasion (Num. 10:35-36).

Eventually, the Ark became associated with the presence of God Himself, and was brought to the battle front.  Prof. Reuven Fireston writes in an article entitled Holy War Idea in the Hebrew Bible:

The Ark of the Covenant is the symbol and banner of God’s presence in battle (1 Sam. 4:4, 2 Sam. 11:11), and this connection between the Ark and the presence of God in war is made already in the desert in Num.10:35: “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance O Lord!  May your enemies be scattered and may your foes flee before you!”  The Ark is like a battle station from which God fights for Israel and, although not mentioned in every battle, probably went forth often and is referred to in passing as a regular part of the battle array (Jud. 4:14).  The Philistine army was terrified of the Ark itself and related to the Ark as if it were the very appearance of God (1 Sam. 4:5-8)

On pp.16-17 of God Is a Warrior, Longman et al. trace the “the divine warrior theme,” dividing it into “five stages:”

The first stage is God’s appearance as a warrior who fights on behalf of his people Israel against their flesh-and-blood enemies.  The second stage overlaps with the first, yet culminates Israel’s independent political history as God fights in judgment against Israel itself.  The Old Testament period ends during the third stage as Israel’s prophets look to the future and proclaim the advent of a powerful divine warrior.  While many studies of the divine warrior are restricted to the Old Testament, we will show its development into the New Testament.  The Gospels and letters reflect a fourth stage, Christ’s earthly ministry as the work of a conqueror, though they also look forward to the next stage.  The fifth and final stage is anticipated by the church as it awaits the return of the divine warrior who will judge the spiritual and human enemies of God.

The divine warrior theme is one of the basic motifs of the Bible, and can be seen from the very start of the Biblical narrative with Moses defeating the Egyptians all the way to the end of with it with the triumphant return of the divine warrior conqueror Jesus Christ.  The genocide against the infidels begins with Moses and comes to its completion with Jesus (refer to parts 1234567, and 8 of the Understanding Jihad Series).

*  *  *  *  *

That Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is a war-god is clearly written in the text itself:

Exodus 15:3 The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is His Name.

Of note aside from the obvious “man of war” appellation is that Yahweh is depicted as a man who is actually physically on the battlefield as a warrior, instead of merely helping from afar. The Lord will fight for you” (Ex. 14:14) is meant to be taken very literally.

Says the Bible elsewhere:

Isaiah 42:13 The Lord will march forward like a warrior.  He will arouse His zeal like a man of war.  He will utter a shout, yes, He will raise a war cry.  He will prevail against all His enemies.

God was not just any warrior, but the best of them–victorious in battle:

Psalm 24:8 Who is the King of Glory?  The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.

He would prove his might in battle by crushing the heads of his enemies:

68:21 Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies.

Indeed, the God of the Bible would order his people to do more than that, commanding them to ethnically cleanse and commit genocide against infidel populations (again, refer to parts 1234567, and 8 of the Understanding Jihad Series).

*  *  *  *  *

That Yahweh was a warrior-god can be ascertained from the choice of name itself. A longer name for Yahweh is found in the Bible: Yahweh Tzevaot or Yahweh Sabaoth, which is translated as “Lord of hosts” or “Lord of armies.”  Prof. Corrine L. Carvalho writes on p.79 of Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament:

In other passages in the Bible, a longer version of the name, the Lord of hosts, could also be translated as “the one who created the heavenly armies.” This would suggest that Yahweh was first and foremost a warrior God.

Biblical scholar Jonathan Kirsch writes in God Against the Gods:

Among the many titles and honorifics used to describe the God of Israel is Elohim Yahweh Sabaoth, which is usually translated as “Lord of Hosts” but also means “Yahweh, the God of Armies.”

This name, Lord of Hosts (Armies)–which defines God’s function as the war-God (or warrior God)–is used well over two-hundred times in the Bible.  Stephen D. Renn notes on p.440 of the Expository Dictionary of Bible Words:

This title, translated “Lord of hosts,” occurs around two hundred times [in the Bible], mainly in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the postexilic prophets. It is found occassionally in the Former Prophets, Chronicles, and Psalms.

Biblical scholar David Noel Freedman writes on page 1402 of Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible:

Yahweh is linked with seba’ot (“armies/hosts”) 284 times in the Hebrew Bible.

Jehovah is another way to spell Yahweh in English.  BlueLetterBible.org says of Jehovah Sabaoth (the Lord of Armies):

Use in the Bible: Jehovah and Elohim occur with Sabaoth over 285 times. It is most frequently used in Jeremiah and Isaiah. Jehovah Sabaoth is first used in 1Sa 1:3.

Interestingly, if you scroll up just one entry above, you find the following entry for Jehovah-Shalom (the Lord of Peace):

Use in the Bible: In the Old Testament Jehovah-Shalom occurs only once in Jdg 6:24.

In other words, God is the Lord of Armies over 280 times in the Bible, but Lord of Peace only once.  Based on this, would you say that the emphasis of God’s nature is on his warlike nature or his peaceful side?

*  *  *  *  *

To make matters worse, the one time that the Lord of Peace is used, the passage isn’t that peaceful at all.  As noted above, the name Yahweh Shalom is found in Judges 6, in which God orders an Israelite man named Gideon to ethnically cleanse the indigenous population of Midian, reassuring him that “you will strike down all the Midianites together” (Jdg 6:16).

Gideon expresses some doubt about his ability to do this “great task,” and he wants to make sure it’s really God who said that (reasonable enough, right?).  Gideon asks God to prove that it’s really Him, so God reveals an angel to him.  The angel burns up some meat and bread, which are both completely incinerated.  The meat and bread represent the Midianites, who are to be “utterly destroyed.”

Once Gideon realizes it’s an angel in front of him, he panics and thinks that God is angry with him for asking for proof.  Gideon is worried that God might kill him for that.  That’s when God reassures him that He’s not going to kill him (Gideon, that is), whereupon Gideon breathes a huge sigh of relief and calls God the Lord of Peace for not killing him.  Gideon decides to build an altar at that place which he calls “The Lord is Peace” and then God tells him to build an altar by destroying the altar built for the pagan god Baal.

Then, the Bible goes on to tell how God helps Gideon destroy the Midianites.  Of note too is the fact the name Gideon is a Hebrew name that means “he that bruises or breaks; a destroyer,” as well as “mighty warrior.”  So, The Destroyer built an altar called The Lord is Peace by destroying an altar to another god, in thanks to God for sending him proof that He is the one who asked him to destroy the heathen Midianites.  Not very peaceful at all.

*  *  *  *  *

Indeed, “‘Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of hosts’ is one of the frequent titles or names of God in the Old Testament.”  In fact, using BlueLetterBible.org I compiled a list of the most frequently used names in the Bible, and Yahweh Sabaoth is God’s fourth most frequently used name in the Bible:

Most Frequently Used Names for God in the Bible

1.  Yahweh (Lord): 6,519 times
2.  El, Elohim (God): over 2,000 times
3.  Adonai (Lord): 434 times
4.  Yahweh Sabaoth (The Lord of Hosts/Armies): over 285 times
5.  El Elyon (The Most High God): 28 times
6.  El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty): 7 times
7.  Qanna (Jealous): 6 times
8.  El Olam (The Everlasting God): 4 times
9.  Yahweh-Raah (The Lord is My Shepherd): 4 times
10.  Yahweh Tsidkenu (The Lord Our Righteousness): 2 times
11.  Yahweh Mekoddishkem (The Lord Who Sanctifies You): 2 times
12.  Yahweh Nissi (The Lord My Banner): 1 time
13.  Yahweh-Rapha (The Lord That Heals): 1 time
14.  Yahweh Shammah (The Lord is There): 1 time
15.  Yahweh Jireh (The Lord Will Provide): 1 time
16.  Yahweh-Shalom (The Lord is Peace): 1 time

(This list seems consistent with that provided by Agape Bible Study.)

This would mean that not only is Lord of Hosts/Armies the fourth most common name of God, it would mean that it is the first most frequently used descriptive name of God in the Bible, behind only generic names such as Yahweh (Lord), El/Elohim (God), and Adonai (Lord).  Sabaoth is certainly the most common descriptor following Yahweh, with Raah (as in Yahweh-Raah) a very distant second place.

*  *  *  *  *

Having thus understood the warlike and violent origin and nature of the Judeo-Christian God, one would wonder why it would be something necessary for Muslims to prove that they worship the same deity.  If it is agreed–as is only reasonable–that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians but that their conception and understanding of God differs–I argue that the Judeo-Christian conception and understanding of God is not very desirable in the first place.  That the Islamic view of God differs in regard to war and violence is a good thing.

Stay tuned for the next page, in which we contrast the Islamic conception and understanding of God with the Judeo-Christian one…

Update I: Check out The Bible’s Yahweh, a War-God?: Called “Lord of Armies” Over 280 Times in the Bible and “Lord of Peace” Just Once (II) which was just published.

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  • I want to live free

    finally a site that really does stand up

  • Just Stopping By

    @Muslimlover and @Stoned Gremlin

    This round goes to Stoned Gremlin. The root for sabbath is shin-bet-taf. The root for sabaoth is tzadi-bet-aleph. Moreover, for sabbath, the singular is shabbat and the plural shabatot, while the other is tzeva and tziva’ot (sabaoth), so they are clearly quite different.

    A form of tziva’ot (sabaoth) is first used in Genesis 2:1 (“And-was-finished the-heavens and-the-earth and-all–their-host” per my own word-for-word translation.) So, while it often means armies, one has to view the context because it can essentially mean things that swarm.

    I didn’t respond to Danios’ article when it first came out because it was quite reasonable. Looking at it again, I might note that there is an interesting difference in the relative use of peaceful versus warlike imagery over time in the Hebrew Bible versus the New Testament and Qur’an. The Hebrew Scriptures start with more warlike imagery and move to a pacifist god who, for example, Jonah recognizes would not actually punish Nineveh. As Danios notes, Jesus first loves his enemies and then … http://www.loonwatch.com/2011/04/jesus-loves-his-enemies-and-then-kills-them-all/. And, as Islamophobes are quick to note, the passages of the Qur’an that can be read as more violent tend to occur later (and in their view abrogate) the earlier more peaceful versus. (Note that I am not endorsing that view of abrogation, just pointing out where the facially more violent and peaceful versus tend to be placed in the order of revelation.)

  • Stoned Gremlin

    @Muslimlover

    Funny, I looked up Sabaoth and every website I found offering a definition confirmed that it means “hosts” or “armies.” The “armies” definition applied most especially in ancient times.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia; (In Hebrew, plural form of “host” or “army”)

    According to some scholars the “hosts” represent, at least primitively, the armies of Israel over whom Jehovah exercised a protecting influence.

    Dictionary.com; noun ( used with a plural verb ) armies; hosts. Rom. 9:29; James 5:4.

    World English Dictionary; Bible hosts, armies (esp in the phrase the Lord of Sabaoth in Romans 9:29)

    The Free Dictionary; Sab·a·oth (sb-th, s-bth) pl.n. Hosts; armies: the Lord of Sabaoth. [Latin sabaoth, from Greek sabath, from Hebrew b'ôt, pl. of b', army, from b', to wage war; see b in Semitic roots.]

    etymonline; early 14c., from L.L., from Gk. Sabaoth, from Heb. tzebhaoth “hosts, armies,” plural of tzabha “army.” A word translated in the Old Testament by the phrase “the Lord of Hosts,” but originally left untranslated in the New Testament and in the “Te Deum” in the designation Lord of Sabaoth; OFTEN CONFUSED WITH SABBATH.

    Isn’t that interesting?

    StudyLight.org; Greek Lexicon, “Lord of Sabaoth” Lord of the armies of Israel, as those who are under the leadership and protection of Jehovah maintain his cause in war.

    Biblestudytools.com; “Lord of Sabaoth” Lord of the armies of Israel, as those who are under the leadership and protection of Jehovah maintain his cause in war.

    BibleGateway.com; Sabaoth, “The Lord Of” occurs in (Romans 9:29; James 5:4) but is more familiar through its occurrence in the Sanctus of Te Deum–”Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.” Sabaoth is the greek form of the hebrew word TSEBAOTH meaning “ARMIES,” and is translated in the Authorized Version of the Old Testament by “Lord of hosts,” “Lord God of hosts.” In the mouth and the mind of an ancient Hebrew, Jehovah-tsebaoth was the leader and commander of the armies of the nation, who “went forth with them” (Psalms 44:9) and led them to certain victory over the worshippers of Baal Chemosh. Molech, Ashtaroth and other false gods.

    I also found references to Sabaoth in DOOM 3 (the 3rd Boss) and Star Wars Jedi Star fighter (the name of a DESTROYER class warship)

  • Muslimlover

    Sabaoth means Shabbat (Sabbath) in the plural, day of rest and peace. Adonai Shabaoth is a peaceful monicker numnuts :)

    I was hoping for a MUCH more convincing presentation.

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