Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
THE HOLY WAR

AMONG all the peoples of antiquity, war was linked with religion, it was begun at the command of the gods, or at least with their approval, manifested by omens; it was accompanied by sacrifices, and conducted with the help of the gods who ensured victory, for which they were thanked by an offering of part of the booty. In antiquity, then, every war was a holy war, in a broad sense. More strictly, the Greeks gave the name of 'holy wars' (ιεροι πόλεμοι) to those which the amphictyony of Delphi conducted against any of its members who had violated the sacred rights of Apollo. More strictly still, the holy war of Islam, the jihad, is the duty incumbent upon every Moslem to spread his faith by force of arms.

This last notion of a holy war is utterly foreign to Israel, it is incompatible with the idea of Yahwism as the particular religion and the peculiar possession of the chosen people. But, precisely because of this essential relation between the people and its God, all the institutions of Israel were invested with a sacred character, war just as much as kingship or legislation. This does not mean that every war was a religious war--a concept which does not appear until very late, under the Maccabees: Israel did not fight for its faith, but for its existence. This means that war is a sacred action, with its own particular ideology and rites; this ideology, these rites, give it a specific character of its own, and single it out among the other wars of antiquity, where the religious aspect was something accessory. Such was the primitive concept of war in Israel but (as with kingship), this sacral character faded into the background and war became a 'profane' thing. Nevertheless, it did retain a religious character for a long time; the old ideal survived, sometimes modified, sometimes taking on a new lease of Fife in particular surroundings or at particular times. We shall attempt to trace the evolution of this process.


1. The concept of the holy war, and its rites

When the people took up arms they were called the people of Yahweh or the people of God ( Jg 5: 13; 20: 2), the troops of God ( 1 S 17: 26), or the armies of Yahweh ( Ex 12: 41; cf. 7: 4). The combatants had to be in a state of ritual cleanliness, i.e. 'made holy' ( Jos 3: 5; cf Jr 6: 4; 22: 7; Jl 4: 9). They were bound to remain continent ( 1 S 21: 6; 2 S 11: 11), and this obligation of

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