The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition

The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition

The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition traces conflict myth as an ideological tool for legitimization, or de-legitimization, of political entities throughout ancient West Asia. An assistant professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Religion, author Debra Scoggins Ballentine specializes in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions.

Chapter one of The Conflict Myth introduces Ballentine’s approach to myth theory and her purpose, namely “to identify how mythological themes are used in various sorts of contexts, regardless of how scholars classify those contexts” (12). Specifically she focuses on the mythological conflict topos and “its place with respect to ideology” (13). Chapter Two introduces and analyzes the conflict topos within four extant narratives, Anzu, Enuma Elilsh, Aššur Version of Enuma Elish, and the Balu Cycle. Each summary and analysis of extant narrative draws out and focuses upon the ideological implications, especially royal ideology. Ballentine demonstrates that each narrative, though with differing divine taxonomies, utilizes the conflict topos to legitimate kings and royalty, while also de-legitimizing other deities. In effect the myth narratives “promote particular cosmic and earthy locations and royal individuals” (71). Having established the ideological nature of the conflict topos, chapter three analyzes “shorter forms of the motif in epitomes, allusions, and imagery” (72) from sources between the 18th and 6th centuries BCE. Ballentine is careful to display the unique status of various utilizations of the conflict myth through every example. Chapter four continues by noting the various adaptations of the conflict myth through innovative legitimization within eschatological frameworks, drawing on literature of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, 1st and 2nd century Pseudepigrapha, and Rabbinic literature. Chapter five explores the secondary application of conflict myth to Gamaliel, Jesus, and Antiochus IV in regard to the notion of control over the sea. The final chapter (chapter 5) importantly argues that “Chaos” “is not an accurate characterization of the various enemies featured across the articulations of the ancient West Asian conflict topos” (186) and re-states her primary points, especially drawing out the uniqueness of each application of the conflict myth for each particular ideological intention and political environment.

Overall, Ballentine’s goal is clearly accomplished. Without a doubt she demonstrates how the conflict myth is a common theme throughout ancient West Asian culture and how cultures have, throughout centuries, utilized the myth conflict to legitimize certain ideologies. Furthermore, she elucidates how the biblical tradition is not merely a “copy” of ancient West Asian conflict myth; rather, it is utilization of a common theme by which political power could be legitimitized, either by conflict myth of the past or eschatological innovations of conflict myth in the future. Such an accomplishment is one of the strongest elements of her work, especially because it offers a different understanding to the appropriation of characters like “Tiamat, Yammu, Môtu, and Lōtanu/Leviathan as “agents of chaos” or “chaos embodied”” (196). Additionally, her approach offers answers to questions about texts, such as her suggestion that “Rabbinic combat traditions may be responding to the types of claims made about secondary divine figures… propagated in late antique Christos-centered ideologies” (170), ideologies cleaved to by early Christianity for their theological benefit to Christian theologies. Such explanation for certain factors within biblical literature is present throughout her work. Finally, she is able to demonstrate the unique status of the biblical application of the conflict motif without wrongly pushing for its total autonomy from ancient West Asian themes or its total dependence upon ancient West Asian themes.

One major weakness of her work, although it does not take away from the validity of her conclusions, is her use of the Balu Cycle. As she presents the Balu Cycle and compared it to Anzu and Enuma Elish, the Balu Cycle is far more complex in regard to how it represents conflict and therein the characters involved. Although a conflict myth is present, the complexities suggest that the conflict myth within the Balu Cycle is similar to Anzu and Enuma Elish but not the same approach to conflict myth. Such complexities are present in the Hebrew Bible, and the conflict myth in the Hebrew Bible operates within a time period in which Judeans are under the control of another nation, or “deity”, indicating that some nuances of the conflict myth remain unexplored. The necessity for one deity to approve another, as in the Balu Cycle, suggests a very unique political environment, one in which ancient Judeans consistently lived. Hence, further divisions of the types of conflict myth, beyond primary and secondary application, would have bolstered her overall arguments. Specifically, developing more textually based relationships between the various sources would support her argument even more, answering the reason conflict myth in the Balu Cycle and Anzu/Enuma Elish can be considered the same ideological tool of conflict myth.

Aside from how she used the Balu Cycle and her lack of nuances about types of conflict myth, especially as they relate to ideological legitimization, her work is excellent in its presentation of the conflict myth and biblical innovations of it. Wide coverage of literature, from Ugaritic works to Rabbinic works, and thorough analysis of each occur of the conflict motif mark her work as on to be remembered for future discussion. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition provides a unique approach to conflict myth, and especially the Hebrew Bible, that may be utilized by scholars to develop a deeper and fuller understanding of biblical myth and the conflict myth.

Ussher&rsquos Chronology

To understand his work, we must first rid ourselves of this notion that Ussher was working to &ldquoquench scientific knowledge and inquiry&rdquo with static dogma. To do so gravely misinterprets chronological thinking at the time. Attempts to establish a timeline of human history were a major scholarly pursuit in Ussher&rsquos time, and his methods and conclusions were well supported by other researchers. The Venerable Bede, writing in about AD 723, had reckoned the dawn of humanity at 3952 BC, and more contemporary scholars such as Scaliger (3949 BC),the astronomer Johannes Kepler (3992 BC) and the great Isaac Newton (c. 4000 BC) had all come to similar calculations.

As to the scholarly merits of Ussher&rsquos efforts, the calculation of such dates required some serious research and historical reckoning. James Barr emphasises this academic aspect in his study of Ussher&rsquos chronology. Contrary to the common textbook presentation of simply adding up genealogies, Barr identifies three distinct periods of history that Ussher had to deal with to arrive at this date:

  1. The genealogies (from Adam to Solomon). For this period, there is an unbroken succession of the male lineage with ages of each heir at the birth of their son. Even so, the Hebrew and Septuagint Bibles differ by nearly 1500 years in their totals. Ussher went with the Hebrew bible and added up the numbers.
  2. The period of kings (from Solomon to the Babylonian captivity, or around 930 BC &ndash 586 BC). Here things get much more complicated: the succession of kings is not continuous, as regents sometimes rule for periods between successive kings, and there are even overlaps between reigns. Considerable cross-referencing is needed to correlate the Judean kings with other contemporaneous histories.
  3. Between the Testaments (from Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus). The Biblical record of the Old Testament ends with the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Second Temple, which probably happened in about 515 BC. For this 5-century intermission, Ussher relied entirely on alternative timelines such as the Chaldean and Persian histories. By correlating significant events (such as the reign of Nebuchadnezzar), these histories could be used as a &ldquobridge&rdquo to connect the Jewish and the Roman timelines, and thus ultimately arrive at the birth of Jesus in about 4 BC.

In all, it is reckoned that Ussher relied on the Biblical narrative for only one sixth of his chronology. The rest of his references came from his in-depth study of Chaldean, Persian, Greek and Roman history &ndash which, we note, represented virtually all of ancient history know in Europe at the time. His dating of other historical events (such as the deaths of Alexander and Julius Caesar in 323 BC and 44 BC respectively) is in accordance with current estimates.

It may seem a little too neat that his estimate for &ldquoCreation to the birth of Jesus&rdquo comes out at exactly 4000 years. Indeed, it becomes even more suspicious in light of the common view (in Ussher&rsquos day) that the Earth would last 6000 years. Barr considers this question in his study, but ultimately decides against the idea that Ussher &ldquofiddled the numbers&rdquo according to a preconceived notion. Although he was no doubt delighted to calculate that the first temple was completed exactly 3000 years after Creation and was followed exactly 1000 years later by the coming of Christ (the fulfillment of the temple), Ussher appears to interpret these as confirmations of his work rather than a priori assumptions. Stephen Jay Gould comments on Barr&rsquos analysis:

First, Ussher&rsquos chronology extends out to several volumes and 2,000 pages of text and seems carefully done, without substantial special pleading. Second, the death of Herod in 4 B.C. doesn&rsquot establish the birth of Jesus in the same year. Herod became king of Judea (Roman puppet would be more accurate) in 37 B.C. &ndash and Jesus might have been born at other times in this thirty-three-year interval. Moreover, other traditions argued that the 4,000 years would run from creation to Christ&rsquos crucifixion, not to his birth &ndash thus extending the possibilities to A.D. 33. By these flexibilities, creation could have been anywhere between 4037 B.C. (4,000 years to the beginning of Herod&rsquos reign) and 3967 B.C. (4,000 years to the Crucifixion). Four thousand four is in the right range, but certainly not ordained by symbolic tradition. You still have to calculate.

The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition - History

Ishmael and Isaac: the Birth of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?


“…and this is why there is conflict between the Arabs and Jews in the Middle East,” declared the narrator from the tape in the car radio. My family and I were driving through the countryside, listening to the Bible on tape. “It all goes back to Isaac and Ishmael.” I was taken aback to hear this simplified explanation added as commentary, and at the same time, not surprised at this line of reasoning. Internationally and in this region, people and publications link the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael to the current political situation in the Middle East. Often in our experiences on a Musalaha desert trip or conference, we have heard people repeating, “There is no hope for an end to this conflict it goes all the way back to Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael.”

In light of the current situation in this land, the subject of the Biblical roots of the conflict is a timely one. As a result, we wanted to examine the role of theological interpretations, particularly concerning the role of Ishmael. Is it truly the case that the origins of our modern conflict can be found in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael? Did the patriarchs determine the fate of the Arabs and Jews and their modern nations? It is important for all of us involved in Musalaha and other ministries working among Israelis and Palestinians, to raise these questions. The issue has long been one that allows people to reject the other side, to resign themselves to a fatalistic and hopeless view of peace, and to be apathetic towards reconciliation and relationships with the other side.

Certain myths concerning Ishmael prevail that perpetuate division, and hinder reconciliation and evangelism. A careful reading of the Hebrew texts on the character and experience of Ishmael, as recently written about by a number of scholars, challenges these suppositions. So often, texts are interpreted in the light of the present conflict and used to justify nationalist or ethnic positions.

As Christians, we can hesitate to deal with the topic of Ishmael because it might be seen as a defense or apologetic for Islam. Muslims are linked to Ishmael mainly through post-Koranic tradition that draws the roots of Mohammed back to Ishmael. The Arab peoples, who are mainly Muslims and some Christians, originated as nomadic tribes in the Arabian peninsula, and can be traced to Ishmael’s descendants. In addition, discussion of Ishmael can be perceived as taking sides in the conversations concerning the theology of the land. Precisely because this topic has implications concerning very sensitive and relevant issues, it is important to carefully examine what the Hebrew text and its context is communicating about Ishmael. In this short article there is not room to address every issue, and there is no intention to take sides on the issue of theology of the land. Because interpretations of Ishmael have implications for Israeli and Palestinian believers and for reconciliation in this land, we would like to bring up some points and recommend further exploration of the subject.1

1. Rejected by God? One prevailing myth is that Ishmael, because he was not the son of the promise, was cursed and rejected by God. Glen Skirvin disputes this notion, “What is so often overlooked by Bible commentators is the tender care and concern – and yes, love – that God demonstrated toward Ishmael and his mother Hagar throughout their lives… The Lord made specific promises to him, the likes of which he has made to few other men – namely that He would bless him and build a great and prosperous nation from him….”2

Another scholar, Tony Maalouf, discusses the common misconception that because Ishmael wasn’t chosen to lead the nation from which the Messiah would come, he is alienated from God. Ishmael was not removed from the blessing of the covenant:

Ishmael was put under the Abrahamic blessing through obedience to the rite of circumcision… After the calling of Israel to the land of Canaan for a ministry of ‘light to the gentiles’ (Ex 19:6, Is 42:6, 49:6), Ishmael and his descendants were among the first people to benefit spiritually from Israel’s testimony. Despite a couple of conflicts over grazing land, the period called ‘the Light of Israel’ evidenced an integration of Ishmaelites into Israel’s social and theological life that culminated with the era of Solomon. The children of Ishmael were part of God’s people and the royal family and kingdom administration.3

2. Enmity with others? It is also important to note that Ishmael and his descendents did not live in a state of constant enmity with their brothers and neighbors. Ishmael was circumcised as part of the Abrahamic covenant, and it is clear that he came together with Isaac to bury their father (Gen. 25).

3. Wild Man? Another myth that concerns Ishmael’s character is based on the verse that calls him a “wild donkey of a man.” This verse conjures a negative image in the mind of the reader, an image that is projected on to the Arab people, implying as one commentator suggested, that Ishmael is “the father of a great tribe of wild, hostile, people.”4 A closer look at the context indicates differently. This title, pere-adam in Hebrew, refers more to his freedom found in a nomadic lifestyle. The book of Job uses the same term, in a classic description of the pere-adam as an independent, wilderness survivor, who avoids the sedentary life.5 This is contrary to a Western, colloquial image of a wild man, and hostility or negativity is not implicit. The scripture also indicates that Ishmael well dwell al pne with his brothers. Some interpret this as “facing” or “in the presence of,” while others add a measure of defiance to the interpretation. Certainly someone so fiercely independent will get into disputes with his neighbors and brothers. However, as the studies show, it was within the context of relations between tribes and then nations, and not because one side (Ishmael’s) was rejected by God and the other (Isaac’s) was chosen.6

These are brief examples of misperceptions that many have about Ishmael that can have implications in peoples’ attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims, also extending to the modern day conflicts between Arabs and Jews. Such misperceptions can cause a deterministic or fatalistic view of the relationships between Jews and Arabs. They can also lead to dehumanization of Muslims, to such a degree that they are even considered beyond or outside the redemptive act of Jesus on the cross.

As Maalouf states, “The present conflict in the Middle East over Abrahamic material blessings does not reflect a stereotype sustained in biblical history and prophecy. It does not even reflect the pattern of Arab-Jewish relationships in post-biblical history. On the contrary, it reveals a crisis of interpretation of history and theology…. This should create among Christians a desperate burden to refrain from political agendas and invest in the spiritual awakening predicted among both Arabs and Jews. The same God who predicted a shining Messiah’s glory over a faithful remnant of the Jews (Isa. 60: 1-3) foreordained the drawing of the Arab faithful remnant to the glory of salvation light (60: 5-7). God’s visitation of Jerusalem in messianic times cannot be separated from his visitation of his people among the Arabian tribes of Midian and Sheba (60:6) or the Christian worship of Ishmael’s children (60:7). Removing unwarranted biases against Arabs, which neither the Bible nor history sustains, would play a healing role in the Middle East conflict.7

A careful reading of Isaiah 60, as Maalouf mentions, reveals names of Ishmael’s descendants and the fact that they were part of God’s promises. In Acts 2, Arabic was one of the languages listed as being spoken on Pentacost. Paul spent three years in the Arabian desert. The Gospel reached the Arab and nomadic peoples very early in church history, mainly due to their geographical proximity. As such, Arab Christianity has been around since the beginning of the formation of the church. Many of the suppositions that are projected on to the Arabs are based in a failure to understand the character and destiny of Ishmael. These myths enable attitudes such as dehumanization and disenfranchising of the Arabs, because they are Ishmael’s descendants which does little to build bridges of reconciliation and communication of the Gospel.

A solid understanding of the nature of God’s promises to Isaac and Ishmael can be used to bring healing and restoration in the midst of this intractable conflict, instead of being a means of division. As we seek to understand God’s redemptive purposes and the inclusion of all nations, including the descendants of both Isaac and Ishmael, we can live out the Biblical mandates that destroy the dividing wall of hostilities between nations and people groups.

Salim J. Munayer, PhD and Brittany Browning

1 An excellent and detailed study of the issue can be found in Arabs in the Shadow of Israelby Tony Maaluf of Dallas Theological Seminary.)

2 Skirvin, G. (1980) Ishmael: The Forgotten Son of Abraham. Fuller School of World Mission. Introduction to Islam. Prof. Don M. McCurry. (p. 42)

3 Maalouf, T. (2003) Arabs in the Shadow of Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. (pp. 220-221).

4 Allen Ross, “Genesis,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 57.


  • Albright, W.F. 1924 “Contributions to Biblical Archaeology and Philology.” Journal of Biblical Literature 43.
  • Alter, R. 1981 The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books.
  • Andersen, E.I. 1987 “On Reading Genesis 1-3.” Pp. 137-50 in Backgrounds for the Bible, ed. M.P. O'Connor and D.N. Freedman. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
  • Bodine, W.R. 1987 Linguistics and Philology in the Study of Ancient Near Eastern Languages. Pp. 39-54 in “Working with No Data: Semitic and Egyptian Studies Presented to Thomas 0. Lambdin”, ed. D.M. Golomb. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
  • Cassuto, U. 1961 A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One: From Adam to Noah (trans. Israel Abrahams). Jerusalem: Magnes.
  • Castellino, G. 1957 “Les origines de la civilisation selon les textes bibliques et les textes cuniformes”. Pp. 116-37 in Volume du Congrs Strasbourg 1956 (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 4). Leiden: Brill.
  • Dalley, S. 1991 Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Day, J. 1985 God’s Conflict With the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • de Moor, J.C. 1980 “El, the Creator”. Pp. 171-87 in The Bible World: Essays in Honor of Cyrus H. Gordon, ed. G. Rendsburg et al. New York: KTAV.
  • DeRoche, M. 1988 “The r-ah 'elohm in Gen 1:2c: Creation or Chaos?” In Ascribe to the Lord: Biblical and Other Studies in Memory of Peter C. Cragie (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 67), ed. L. Eslinger and G. Taylor. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
  • Grimes, J. 1975 The Thread of Discourse. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Hasel, G.F. 1974 “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology.” Evangelical Quarterly 46: 81-102.
  • Heidel, A. 1963 The Babylonian Genesis (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hess, R.S. 1990 “Genesis 1-2 in Its Literary Context.” Tyndale Bulletin 41.
  • Jackobson, T. 1968 “The Battle Between Marduk and Tiamat.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88.
  • Kapelrud, A.S. 1980 “Creation in the Ras Shamra Texts.” Studia Theologica 34.
  • Kikawada, I.M. 1983 The Double Creation of Mankind in Enki and Ninmah, Atrahasis I 1-351, and Genesis 1-2. Iraq 45: 43-45.
  • Kikawada, I.M. and Quinn, A. 1985 Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • Kitchen, K.A. 1966 Ancient Orient and Old Testament. Chicago: InterVarsity Press.
  • Lambert, W.G. 1965 “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis.” Journal of Theological Studies 16: 287-300.
    1980 “Babylonien und Israel.” Theologische Realenzyklopdie 5: 71-72.
  • Longacre, R.E. 1983 The Grammar of Discourse. New York: Plenum.
    1989 Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence, a Text Theoretical and Textlinguistic Analysis of Genesis 37 and 39-48. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
  • Otzen, B. 1980 “The Use of Myth in Genesis.” Myths in the Old Testament, ed. B. Otzen, H. Gottlieb and K. Jeppesen. London: SCM.
  • McCarthy, D.J. 1967 “Creation Motifs in Ancient Hebrew Poetry.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 29: 393-406.
  • Parunak, H. van D. 1983 “Transitional Techniques in the Bible.” Journal of Biblical Literature 102: 525-48.
  • Sjberg, A.W. 1984 “Eve and the Chameleon.” In The Shelter of Elyon: Essays on Ancient Palestinian Life and Literature in Honor of G.W. Ahlstrm. Sheffield: JSOT Press.
  • Speiser, E.A. 1969 “The Creation Epic.” Pp. 60-72 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Tsumura, D.T. 1984a “The Problem of Childlessness in the Royal Epic of Ugarit: An Analysis of Krt” [KTU 1.14:1]: 1-25. Monarchies and Socio-Religious Traditions in the Ancient Near East, ed. T. Mikasa. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
    1984b “Ugaritic Studies (3): On the Prologue of Keret Epic.” Studies in Language and Literature 9 (in Japanese).
    1985 “Evangelical Biblical Interpretation: Towards the Establishment of Its Methodology.” Evangelical Theology 17: 47-50 (in Japanese, with an English summary, pp. 169-71).
    1988 “A “Hyponymous” Word Pair, 'rs and ttm(t), in Hebrew and Ugaritic.” Biblica 69.
    1989 “The Earth and Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 83. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
  • von Rad, G. 1961 “Genesis.” Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster.
  • Wenham, G.J. 1987 Genesis 1-15. Waco: Word.
    1988 “Genesis: An Authorship Study and Current Pentateuchal Criticism.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 42: 3-18.
  • Whybray, R.N. 1987 “The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 53. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Author: David T. Tsumura, with permission from Associates for Biblical Research

Myths & Facts - Israel’s Roots

A common misperception is that all the Jews were forced into the Diaspora by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. and then, 1,800 years later, suddenly returned to Palestine demanding their country back. In reality, the Jewish people have maintained ties to their historic homeland for more than 3,700 years.

The Jewish people base their claim to the Land of Israel on at least four premises: 1) the Jewish people settled and developed the land 2) the international community granted political sovereignty in Palestine to the Jewish people 3) the territory was captured in defensive wars and 4) God promised the land to the patriarch Abraham.

Even after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile, Jewish life in the Land of Israel continued and often flourished. Large communities were reestablished in Jerusalem and Tiberias by the ninth century. In the 11th century, Jewish communities grew in Rafah, Gaza, Ashkelon, Jaffa and Caesarea.

The Crusaders massacred many Jews during the 12th century, but the community rebounded in the next two centuries as large numbers of rabbis and Jewish pilgrims immigrated to Jerusalem and the Galilee. Prominent rabbis established communities in Safed, Jerusalem and elsewhere during the next 300 years. By the early 19th century — years before the birth of the modern Zionist movement — more than 10,000 Jews lived throughout what is today Israel. 1 The 78 years of nation-building, beginning in 1870, culminated in the reestablishment of the Jewish State.

Israel's international "birth certificate" was validated by the promise of the Bible uninterrupted Jewish settlement from the time of Joshua onward the Balfour Declaration of 1917 the League of Nations Mandate, which incorporated the Balfour Declaration the United Nations partition resolution of 1947 Israel's admission to the UN in 1949 the recognition of Israel by most other states and, most of all, the society created by Israel's people in decades of thriving, dynamic national existence.

“Nobody does Israel any service by proclaiming its 'right to exist.'

Israel's right to exist, like that of the United States, Saudi Arabia and 152 other states, is axiomatic and unreserved. Israel's legitimacy is not suspended in midair awaiting acknowledgement.

There is certainly no other state, big or small, young or old, that would consider mere recognition of its 'right to exist' a favor, or a negotiable concession.”

“Palestine was always an Arab country.”


The term "Palestine" is believed to be derived from the Philistines, an Aegean people who, in the 12th Century B.C.E., settled along the Mediterranean coastal plain of what are now Israel and the Gaza Strip. In the second century C.E., after crushing the last Jewish revolt, the Romans first applied the name Palaestina to Judea (the southern portion of what is now called the West Bank) in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel. The Arabic word "Filastin" is derived from this Latin name. 3

The Hebrews entered the Land of Israel about 1300 B.C.E., living under a tribal confederation until being united under the first monarch, King Saul. The second king, David, established Jerusalem as the capital around 1000 B.C.E. David's son, Solomon built the Temple soon thereafter and consolidated the military, administrative and religious functions of the kingdom. The nation was divided under Solomon's son, with the northern kingdom (Israel) lasting until 722 B.C.E., when the Assyrians destroyed it, and the southern kingdom (Judah) surviving until the Babylonian conquest in 586 B.C.E. The Jewish people enjoyed brief periods of sovereignty afterward before most Jews were finally driven from their homeland in 135 C.E.

Jewish independence in the Land of Israel lasted for more than 400 years. This is much longer than Americans have enjoyed independence in what has become known as the United States. 4 In fact, if not for foreign conquerors, Israel would be 3,000 years old today.

Palestine was never an exclusively Arab country, although Arabic gradually became the language of most the population after the Muslim invasions of the seventh century. No independent Arab or Palestinian state ever existed in Palestine. When the distinguished Arab-American historian, Princeton University Prof. Philip Hitti, testified against partition before the Anglo-American Committee in 1946, he said: "There is no such thing as 'Palestine' in history, absolutely not." 5

Prior to partition, Palestinian Arabs did not view themselves as having a separate identity. When the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations met in Jerusalem in February 1919 to choose Palestinian representatives for the Paris Peace Conference, the following resolution was adopted:

We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds. 6

In 1937, a local Arab leader, Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, told the Peel Commission, which ultimately suggested the partition of Palestine: "There is no such country [as Palestine]! 'Palestine' is a term the Zionists invented! There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria." 7

The representative of the Arab Higher Committee to the United Nations submitted a statement to the General Assembly in May 1947 that said "Palestine was part of the Province of Syria" and that, "politically, the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate political entity." A few years later, Ahmed Shuqeiri, later the chairman of the PLO, told the Security Council: "It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria." 8

Palestinian Arab nationalism is largely a post-World War I phenomenon that did not become a significant political movement until after the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel's capture of the West Bank.

“The Palestinians are descendants of the Canaanites and were in Palestine long before the Jews.”


Palestinian claims to be related to the Canaanites are a recent phenomenon and contrary to historical evidence. The Canaanites disappeared from the face of the earth three millennia ago, and no one knows if any of their descendants survived or, if they did, who they would be.

Sherif Hussein, the guardian of the Islamic Holy Places in Arabia, said the Palestinians' ancestors had only been in the area for 1,000 years. 9 Even the Palestinians themselves have acknowledged their association with the region came long after the Jews. In testimony before the Anglo-American Committee in 1946, for example, they claimed a connection to Palestine of more than 1,000 years, dating back no further than the conquest of Muhammad's followers in the 7th century. 10 And that claim is also dubious. Over the last 2,000 years, there have been massive invasions that killed off most of the local people (e.g., the Crusades), migrations, the plague, and other manmade or natural disasters. The entire local population was replaced many times over. During the British mandate alone, more than 100,000 Arabs emigrated from neighboring countries and are today considered Palestinians.

By contrast, no serious historian questions the more than 3,000-year-old Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, or the modern Jewish people's relation to the ancient Hebrews.

“. [the Palestinian Arabs'] basic sense of corporate historic identity was, at different levels, Muslim or Arab or - for some - Syrian it is significant that even by the end of the Mandate in 1948, after thirty years of separate Palestinian political existence, there were virtually no books in Arabic on the history of Palestine..” 10a


“The Balfour Declaration did not give Jews a right to a homeland in Palestine.”


In 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration:

His Majesty's Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The Mandate for Palestine included the Balfour Declaration. It specifically referred to "the historical connections of the Jewish people with Palestine" and to the moral validity of "reconstituting their National Home in that country." The term "reconstituting" shows recognition of the fact that Palestine had been the Jews' home. Furthermore, the British were instructed to "use their best endeavors to facilitate" Jewish immigration, to encourage settlement on the land and to "secure" the Jewish National Home. The word "Arab" does not appear in the Mandatory award. 11

The Mandate was formalized by the 52 governments at the League of Nations on July 24, 1922.

“The 'traditional position' of the Arabs in Palestine was jeopardized by Jewish settlement.”


For many centuries, Palestine was a sparsely populated, poorly cultivated and widely-neglected expanse of eroded hills, sandy deserts and malarial marshes. As late as 1880, the American consul in Jerusalem reported the area was continuing its historic decline. "The population and wealth of Palestine has not increased during the last forty years," he said. 12

The Report of the Palestine Royal Commission quotes an account of the Maritime Plain in 1913:

The road leading from Gaza to the north was only a summer track suitable for transport by camels and carts. no orange groves, orchards or vineyards were to be seen until one reached [the Jewish village of] Yabna [Yavne]. Houses were all of mud. No windows were anywhere to be seen. The ploughs used were of wood. The yields were very poor. The sanitary conditions in the village were horrible. Schools did not exist. The western part, towards the sea, was almost a desert. The villages in this area were few and thinly populated. Many ruins of villages were scattered over the area, as owing to the prevalence of malaria, many villages were deserted by their inhabitants. 13

Lewis French, the British Director of Development wrote of Palestine:

We found it inhabited by fellahin who lived in mud hovels and suffered severely from the prevalent malaria. Large areas. were uncultivated. The fellahin, if not themselves cattle thieves, were always ready to harbor these and other criminals. The individual plots. changed hands annually. There was little public security, and the fellahin's lot was an alternation of pillage and blackmail by their neighbors, the Bedouin. 14

Surprisingly, many people who were not sympathetic to the Zionist cause believed the Jews would improve the condition of Palestinian Arabs. For example, Dawood Barakat, editor of the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, wrote: "It is absolutely necessary that an entente be made between the Zionists and Arabs, because the war of words can only do evil. The Zionists are necessary for the country: The money which they will bring, their knowledge and intelligence, and the industriousness which characterizes them will contribute without doubt to the regeneration of the country." 15

Even a leading Arab nationalist believed the return of the Jews to their homeland would help resuscitate the country. According to Sherif Hussein, the guardian of the Islamic Holy Places in Arabia:

The resources of the country are still virgin soil and will be developed by the Jewish immigrants. One of the most amazing things until recent times was that the Palestinian used to leave his country, wandering over the high seas in every direction. His native soil could not retain a hold on him, though his ancestors had lived on it for 1000 years. At the same time we have seen the Jews from foreign countries streaming to Palestine from Russia, Germany, Austria, Spain, America. The cause of causes could not escape those who had a gift of deeper insight. They knew that the country was for its original sons (abna'ihi?l?asliyin), for all their differences, a sacred and beloved homeland. The return of these exiles (jaliya) to their homeland will prove materially and spiritually [to be] an experimental school for their brethren who are with them in the fields, factories, trades and in all things connected with toil and labor. 16

As Hussein foresaw, the regeneration of Palestine, and the growth of its population, came only after Jews returned in massive numbers.

Mark Twain, who visited Palestine in 1867, described it as: “. [a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse. A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. We never saw a human being on the whole route. There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” 17


In 1975, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution slandering Zionism by equating it with racism. In his spirited response to the resolution, Israel's Ambassador to the UN, Chaim Herzog noted the irony of the timing, the vote coming exactly 37 years after Kristallnacht.

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, which holds that Jews, like any other nation, are entitled to a homeland.

History has demonstrated the need to ensure Jewish security through a national homeland. Zionism recognizes that Jewishness is defined by shared origin, religion, culture and history. The realization of the Zionist dream is exemplified by more than five million Jews, from more than 100 countries, who are Israeli citizens.

Israel's Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to Jews, but non-Jews are also eligible to become citizens under naturalization procedures similar to those in other countries. Approximately 1,000,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs, Druze, Baha'is, Circassians and other ethnic groups also are represented in Israel's population. The presence in Israel of thousands of dark-skinned Jews from Ethiopia, Yemen and India is the best refutation of the calumny against Zionism. In a series of historic airlifts, labeled Moses (1984), Joshua (1985) and Solomon (1991), Israel rescued almost 42,000 members of the ancient Ethiopian Jewish community.

Zionism does not discriminate against anyone. Israel's open and democratic character, and its scrupulous protection of the religious and political rights of Christians and Muslims, rebut the charge of exclusivity. Moreover, anyone — Jew or non-Jew, Israeli, American, or Saudi, black, white, yellow or purple — can be a Zionist.

By contrast, the Arab states define citizenship strictly by native parentage. It is almost impossible to become a naturalized citizen in many Arab states, especially Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Several Arab nations have laws that facilitate the naturalization of foreign Arabs, with the specific exception of Palestinians. Jordan, on the other hand, instituted its own "law of return" in 1954, according citizenship to all former residents of Palestine, except for Jews. 19

To single out Jewish self-determination for condemnation is itself a form of racism. When approached by a student at Harvard in 1968 who attacked Zionism, Martin Luther King responded: "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You're talking anti-Semitism." 20

The 1975 UN resolution was part of the Soviet-Arab Cold War anti-Israel campaign. Almost all the former non-Arab supporters of the resolution have apologized and changed their positions. When the General Assembly voted to repeal the resolution in 1991, only some Arab and Muslim states, as well as Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam were opposed.

“The delegates of the UN World Conference Against Racism agreed that Zionism is racism.”


In 2001, Arab nations again were seeking to delegitimize Israel by trying to equate Zionism with racism at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The United States joined Israel in boycotting the conference when it became clear that rather than focus on the evils of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia that were supposed to be the subject of the event, the conference had turned into a forum for bashing Israel.

The United States withdrew its delegation "to send a signal to the freedom loving nations of the world that we will not stand by, if the world tries to describe Zionism as racism. That is as wrong as wrong can be." White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher added that "the President is proud to stand by Israel and by the Jewish community and send a signal that no group around the world will meet with international acceptance and respect if its purpose is to equate Zionism with racism." 21

“The Zionists could have chosen another country besides Palestine.”


In the late 19th century, the rise of religious and racist anti-Semitism led to a resurgence of pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, shattering promises of equality and tolerance. This stimulated Jewish immigration to Palestine from Europe.

Simultaneously, a wave of Jews immigrated to Palestine from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq and Turkey. These Jews were unaware of Theodor Herzl's political Zionism or of European pogroms. They were motivated by the centuries-old dream of the “Return to Zion” and a fear of intolerance. Upon hearing that the gates of Palestine were open, they braved the hardships of travel and went to the Land of Israel.

The Zionist ideal of a return to Israel has profound religious roots. Many Jewish prayers speak of Jerusalem, Zion and the Land of Israel. The injunction not to forget Jerusalem, the site of the Temple, is a major tenet of Judaism. The Hebrew language, the Torah, laws in the Talmud, the Jewish calendar and Jewish holidays and festivals all originated in Israel and revolve around its seasons and conditions. Jews pray toward Jerusalem and recite the words “next year in Jerusalem” every Passover. Jewish religion, culture and history make clear that it is only in the land of Israel that the Jewish commonwealth can be built.

In 1897, Jewish leaders formally organized the Zionist political movement, calling for the restoration of the Jewish national home in Palestine, where Jews could find sanctuary and self-determination, and work for the renascence of their civilization and culture.

“Herzl himself proposed Uganda as the Jewish state as an alternative to Palestine.”


Theodor Herzl sought support from the great powers for the creation of a Jewish homeland. He turned to Great Britain, and met with Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary and others. The British agreed, in principle, to Jewish settlement in East Africa.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress at Basle on August 26, 1903, Herzl proposed the British Uganda Program as a temporary emergency refuge for Jews in Russia in immediate danger. While Herzl made it clear that this program would not affect the ultimate aim of Zionism, a Jewish entity in the Land of Israel, the proposal aroused a storm at the Congress and nearly led to a split in the Zionist movement. The Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO) was formed as a result of the unification of various groups who had supported Herzl's Uganda proposals during the period 1903-1905. The Uganda Program, which never had much support, was formally rejected by the Zionist movement at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905.

“All Arabs opposed the Balfour Declaration, seeing it as a betrayal of their rights.”


Emir Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks, signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist leaders during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. It acknowledged the "racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people" and concluded that "the surest means of working out the consummation of their national aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration in the development of the Arab states and Palestine.” Furthermore, the agreement looked to the fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration and called for all necessary measures “. to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible to settle Jewish immigrants upon the land through closer settlement and intensive cultivation of the soil.” 22

Faisal had conditioned his acceptance of the Balfour Declaration on the fulfillment of British wartime promises of independence to the Arabs. These were not kept.

Critics dismiss the Weizmann-Faisal agreement because it was never enacted however, the fact that the leader of the Arab nationalist movement and the Zionist movement could reach an understanding is significant because it demonstrated that Jewish and Arab aspirations were not necessarily mutually exclusive.

“The Zionists made no effort to compromise with the Arabs.”


In 1913, the Zionist leadership recognized the desirability of reaching an agreement with the Arabs. Sami Hochberg, owner of the newspaper, Le-Jeune-Turc, informally represented the Zionists in a meeting with the Cairo-based Decentralization Party and the anti-Ottoman Beirut Reform Society and was able to reach an agreement. This “entente verbale” led to the adoption of a resolution assuring Jews equal rights under a decentralized government. Hochberg also secured an invitation to the First Arab Congress held in Paris in June 1913.

The Arab Congress proved to be surprisingly receptive to Zionist aspirations. Hochberg was encouraged by the Congress’s favorable response to the entente verbale. Abd-ul-Hamid Yahrawi, the President of the Congress, summed up the attitude of the delegates:

All of us, both Muslims and Christians, have the best of feelings toward the Jews. When we spoke in our resolutions about the rights and obligations of the Syrians, this covered the Jews as well. Because they are our brothers in race and we regard them as Syrians who were forced to leave the country at one time but whose hearts always beat together with ours, we are certain that our Jewish brothers the world over will know how to help us so that our common interests may succeed and our common country will develop both materially and morally (author’s emphasis).23

The entente verbale Hochberg negotiated was rendered ineffectual by wartime developments. The outspoken Arab opposition to the Balfour Declaration convinced the Zionist leadership of the need to make a more concerted effort to reach an understanding with the Arabs.

Chaim Weizmann considered the task important enough to lead a Zionist Commission to Palestine to explain the movement’s aims to the Arabs. Weizmann went first to Cairo in March 1918 and met with Said Shukeir, Dr. Faris Nimr and Suleiman Bey Nassif (Syrian Arab nationalists who had been chosen by the British as representatives). He stressed the desire to live in harmony with the Arabs in a British Palestine.

Weizmann’s diplomacy was successful. Nassif said “there was room in Palestine for another million inhabitants without affecting the position of those already there.” 24 Dr. Nimr disseminated information through his Cairo newspaper to dispel the Arab public’s misconceptions about Zionist aims. 25

In 1921, Winston Churchill tried to arrange a meeting between Palestinians and Zionists. On November 29, 1921, the two sides met, but no progress was made becaue the Arabs insisted that the Balfour Declaration be abrogated. 26

Weizmann led a group of Zionists that met with Syrian nationalist Riad al-Sulh in 1921. The Zionists agreed to support Arab nationalist aspirations and Sulh said he was willing to recognize the Jewish National Home. The talks resumed a year later and raised hopes for an agreement. In May 1923, however, Sulh’s efforts to convince Palestinian Arab leaders that Zionism was an accomplished fact were rejected. 27

Over the next 25 years, Zionist leaders inside and outside Palestine would try repeatedly to negotiate with the Arabs. Similarly, Israeli leaders since 1948 have sought peace treaties with the Arab states, but Egypt and Jordan are the only nations that have signed them.

“The Zionists were colonialist tools of Western imperialism.”


“Colonialism means living by exploiting others,” Yehoshofat Harkabi has written. “But what could be further from colonialism than the idealism of city-dwelling Jews who strive to become farmers and laborers and to live by their own work?” 28

Moreover, as British historian Paul Johnson noted, Zionists were hardly tools of imperialists given the powers’ general opposition to their cause. “Everywhere in the West, the foreign offices, defense ministries and big business were against the Zionists.” 29

Emir Faisal also saw the Zionist movement as a companion to the Arab nationalist movement, fighting against imperialism, as he explained in a letter to Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter on March 3, 1919, one day after Chaim Weizmann presented the Zionist case to the Paris conference. Faisal wrote:

The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. We will wish the Jews a hearty welcome home. We are working together for a reformed and revised Near East and our two movements complete one another. The Jewish movement is nationalist and not imperialist. And there is room in Syria for us both. Indeed, I think that neither can be a real success without the other (emphasis added). 30

“Our settlers do not come here as do the colonists from the Occident to have natives do their work for them they themselves set their shoulders to the plow and they spend their strength and their blood to make the land fruitful. But it is not only for ourselves that we desire its fertility. The Jewish farmers have begun to teach their brothers, the Arab farmers, to cultivate the land more intensively we desire to teach them further: together with them we want to cultivate the land -- to 'serve' it, as the Hebrew has it. The more fertile this soil becomes, the more space there will be for us and for them. We have no desire to dispossess them: we want to live with them. We do not want to dominate them: we want to serve with them. ”

In the 1940s, the Jewish underground movements waged an anti-colonial war against the British. The Arabs, meanwhile, were concerned primarily with fighting the Jews rather than expelling the British imperialists.

“The British promised the Arabs independence in Palestine in the Hussein-MacMahon Correspondence.”


The central figure in the Arab nationalist movement at the time of World War I was Hussein ibn 'Ali, who was appointed by the Turkish Committee of Union and Progress to the position of Sherif of Mecca in 1908. As Sherif, Hussein was responsible for the custody of Islam's shrines in the Hejaz and, consequently, was recognized as one of the Muslims’ spiritual leaders.

In July 1915, Hussein sent a letter to Sir Henry MacMahon, the High Commissioner for Egypt, informing him of the terms for Arab participation in the war against the Turks.

The letters between Hussein and MacMahon that followed outlined the areas that Britain was prepared to cede to the Arabs. The Hussein-MacMahon correspondence conspicuously fails to mention Palestine. The British argued the omission had been intentional, thereby justifying their refusal to grant the Arabs independence in Palestine after the war. 32 MacMahon explained:

I feel it my duty to state, and I do so definitely and emphatically, that it was not intended by me in giving this pledge to King Hussein to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised. I also had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in my pledge was well understood by King Hussein. 33

Nevertheless, the Arabs held then, as now, that the letters constituted a promise of independence for the Arabs.

“The Arabs fought for freedom in World Wars I and II.”


Contrary to the romantic fiction of the period, most of the Arabs did not fight with the Allies against the Turks in World War I. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, noted that most Arabs fought for their Turkish rulers. Faisal's supporters in Arabia were the exception.

In World War II, the Arabs were very slow to enter the war against Hitler. Only Transjordan went along with the British in 1939. Iraq was taken over by pro-Nazis in 1941 and joined the Axis powers. Most of the Arab states sat on the fence, waiting until 1945 to see who would win. By then, Germany was doomed and, since it was necessary to join the war to qualify for membership in the nascent United Nations, the Arabs belatedly began to declare war against Germany in 1945: Egypt, on February 25 Syria, on February 27 Lebanon, on February 28 and Saudi Arabia, on March 2. By contrast, some 30,000 Palestinian Jews fought against Nazi Germany.

“Israeli policies cause anti-Semitism.”

Anti-Semitism has existed for centuries, well before the rise of the modern State of Israel. Rather than Israel being the cause of anti-Semitism, it is more likely that the distorted media coverage of Israeli policies is reinforcing latent anti-Semitic views.

As writer Leon Wieseltier observed, “the notion that all Jews are responsible for whatever any Jews do is not a Zionist notion. It is an anti-Semitic notion.” Wieseltier adds that attacks on Jews in Europe have nothing whatsoever to do with Israel. To blame Jews for anti-Semitism is similar to saying blacks are responsible for racism.

Many Jews may disagree with policies of a particular Israeli government, but this does not mean that Israel is bad for the Jews. As Wieseltier noted, “Israel is not bad for the Jews of Russia, who may need a haven or for the Jews of Argentina, who may need a haven or for any Jews who may need a haven.” 34

As noted in the fact about criticism of Israel, taking issue with Israeli policies is acceptable if you do so because you believe that a) Israel has the right to exist, and b) that changes will make Israel a better place. In fact, such criticism, by Israelis, can be found in the Israeli media every day. Criticism crosses the line, however, when it delegitimizes Israel and is intended to weaken rather than strengthen its institutions.

“Israel is the only state in the world today, and the Jews the only people in the world today, that are the object of a standing set of threats from governmental, religious, and terrorist bodies seeking their destruction. And what is most disturbing is the silence, the indifference, and sometimes even the indulgence, in the face of such genocidal anti-Semitism.”

— Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler 35

“Supporters of Israel only criticize Arabs and never Israelis.”

Israel is not perfect. Even the most committed friends of Israel acknowledge that the government sometimes makes mistakes, and that it has not solved all the problems in its society. Supporters of Israel may not emphasize these faults, however, because there is no shortage of groups and individuals who are willing to do nothing but focus on Israel’s imperfections. The public usually has much less access to Israel’s side of the story of its conflict with the Arabs, or the positive aspects of its society.

Israelis themselves are their own harshest critics. If you want to read criticism of Israeli behavior, you do not need to seek out anti-Israel sources, you can pick up any Israeli newspaper and find no shortage of news and commentary critical of government policy. The rest of the world’s media provides constant attention to Israel and the coverage is far more likely to be unfavorable than complimentary.

Myths and Facts also pulls no punches when it comes to addressing Israel’s responsibilities for events and policies that tarnish its image, including Israel’s role in the Palestinian refugee problem, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, and social and economic inequalities between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

Israel’s supporters believe Israel has a right to exist and that close relations between Israel and other nations in the world is in everyone’s best interest. When friends criticize Israel, it is because they want the country to be better. Israel’s detractors do not have that goal they are more interested in delegitimizing the country, placing a wedge between Israel and its allies, and working toward its destruction.

Friends of Israel do not try to whitewash the truth, but they do try to put events in proper context. That is also our goal.

God in Conflict: Images of the Divine Warrior in Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Texts

In the ancient world, writers routinely appealed to martial motifs to express their beliefs and hopes related to the divine. Texts from the ancient Near East depict deities in conflict with one another over the rightful rule of the cosmos. Documents among the Hebrew Bible, which arose out the ancient Near Eastern context, continued to adapt images of divine conflict when describing the God of Israel Jewish authors, however, showed much creativity in bending and shaping the traditional motifs for their rhetorical and theological purposes. This adaptation of divine war images endured into the first century CE among New Testament authors, who incorporated the person and work of Jesus Christ into traditional conflict motifs. This essay offers a brief overview of some key images and texts from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that framed God as a warrior it also gestures toward the varieties of ways authors expressed the hope that God would fight for God’s people, defeat their adversaries, and restore the chosen people.

See Also: Scott C. Ryan, Divine Conflict and the Divine Warrior: Listening to Romans and Other Jewish Voices, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019).

By Scott C. Ryan
Assistant Professor of Religion and Biblical Studies
Department of Humanities
Claflin University, Orangeburg, South Carolina
October 2019


When July 4 rolls around, many in the United States of America attend Independence Day celebrations. As spectators watch fireworks burst and cascade across the sky against a backdrop of music, it is likely they will hear the well-known tune “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and supporter of the Union cause during the Civil War, penned the song with the help of soldiers as a war march sung in protest against antebellum slavery (Stauffer). They set the lyrics to the anti-slavery tune of “John’s Brown Body,” which itself was adapted from an old hymn published in 1807, “Say, Brother, Will You Meet Us/On Canaan’s Happy Shore” (Stauffer). Since the publication of Howe’s version in The Atlantic in 1862, the tune proved to be a rhetorically flexible one indeed, “The Battle Hymn” has been used in support of nearly every political position – from white nationalism to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond (Limbong).

What might be lost on those who sing the hymn with the repeated refrain “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!” at July 4 festivities is that Howe’s lines draw from the deep well of what scholars refer to as divine conflict traditions. Numerous documents from ancient Jewish and early Christian groups include descriptions of God as a warring figure. Howe framed the deity in analogous terms. “The Battle Hymn” describes God as the one “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” “loosing the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and “sounding forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat,” all of which are martial images similar to those in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The warring imagery of the song even includes an allusion to Genesis 3:15 (and maybe Romans 16:20) in reference to human soldiers and/or Jesus Christ: “Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel.” To be sure, appropriating such motifs for triumphal purposes and claiming God’s support in the context of a powerful nation-state is fraught with theological and analogical problems, which all of those in such a context would do well to consider carefully.

The purpose of this essay is to offer a brief analysis of the images related to divine conflict in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, some of which resound in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As will be evident, divine conflict represents a rich fund of motifs in the Jewish and Christian traditions, which authors used to express the hope that God would play the role of divine warrior, come to the aid of the people, defend them against enemies, vindicate them, and reverse their fortunes. The number of motifs and texts associated with divine conflict are far too vast to address fully here nonetheless, the following overview highlights some key motifs and texts related to the portrayal of God as warrior in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Contested Rule: The Divine Warrior in the Jewish Scriptures

For modern readers, the idea of God participating in warring activities might on first glance appear out of place. Yet a careful reading of biblical texts and other documents from the ancient Near East reveals images related to deities in battle. Babylonian and Canaanite writers perceived the cosmos to be contested territory. In these texts, the gods vie for sovereignty over the world and must earn their rightful place on the cosmic throne by winning victory over contenders. Adela Yarbro Collins’s summary of the paradigm of divine conflict provides a helpful starting point:

The pattern depicts a struggle between two divine beings and their allies for universal kingship. One of the combatants is usually a monster, very often a dragon. This monster represents chaos and sterility, while his opponent is associated with order and fertility. Thus, their conflict is a cosmic battle whose outcome will constitute or abolish order in society and fertility in nature. (Combat Myth, 57)

Subsequent scholars discern similar patterns in ancient Near Eastern and biblical texts to the one proposed by Collins. For instance, Tremper Longman and Daniel Reid, in their book God Is a Warrior, find the repeated theme of warfare among the gods, where one of them emerges as victor. As a result of his/her triumph, the other deities acclaim the hero as king or queen of the cosmos. Following the coronation, the conqueror proceeds to build dwelling places for his/her allies and a grand celebration ensues, often complete with victory hymns sung in praise of the victor and celebratory feasts (Longman and Reid, 83–85 see Gombis, 405, 407).

In these divine conflicts, authors tend to portray the gods in human-like ways, using what they know of mortal warriors. The gods use similar martial tactics to those in the terrestrial realm and take up weapons in their hands to fight against one another the tools of war, however, are often cosmic ones, such as the elements of the storm, lightning, rain, and withholding rain to bring a drought. Although the battles routinely occur in the otherworldly sphere, at times the gods step onto the human stage to war against and/or in support of mortal beings (see further Millhouse, 44).

A prime example of divine conflict appears in the Babylonian text the Enuma Elish. This creation epic narrates the story of how the material world and the humans who inhabit it came to be. The focal battle in the Enuma Elish occurs between the storm-god, Marduk, and the sea goddess/dragon, Tiamat. The gods agree to grant Marduk cosmic rule if he is up to the task of defeating Tiamat (EE II.154–162). The text follows the basic pattern noted above from Collins and Longman and Reid. As the storm-god, Marduk rides in a cloud chariot and has at his disposal the elements of the storm to use as weapons (EE IV.31–122 cf. II.151). Marduk defeats Tiamat and thus confirms his power over the chaotic sea, represented by Tiamat. He then uses Tiamat’s body to create the heavens, waters, and earth, provides dwellings for the deities, and places the stars in the sky (EE IV.123–146, V.1–66). Near the end of the text, the gods proclaim Marduk’s cosmic kingship in a victory hymn (EE V.75–166) in which they celebrate the might and dominion of the newly crowned Marduk (EE VII.160–162). Additional documents from the ancient milieu evince similar motifs and patterns, such as the Sumerian Anzu, the Aššur version of the Enuma Elish, and the Ugaritic Ba‘lu Cycle (on this literature, see Ballentine, 22–72 Cross, Canaanite Myth idem, “Divine Warrior,” 11–30 Miller, Divine Warrior idem, “El the Warrior,” 411–31).

Authors of ancient Jewish texts also appeal to themes of divine war when describing the God of Israel. Divine conflict in the Jewish Scriptures falls into two broad categories: (1) God wars on behalf of Israel in order to defeat their enemies and/or deliver the chosen people and (2) God wars against the chosen people of Israel – often commanding foreign entities to besiege and take them captive – as a means of judgment. In addition, there are other points when the Israelite deity operates via a human agent, such as the ruler of a nation or a messianic figure, to accomplish desired outcomes, especially the restoration of Israel (see, e.g., Isa 11–12 43 44:24–45:25 Dan 7 10 1 En. 37–71 Ps. Sol. 17).

God’s deliverance of the Israelites from enslavement to the Egyptian Pharaoh falls into the first category and provides a vivid example of God fighting on behalf of Israel. The Exodus event stands as a significant moment in the life of Israel. It is here, in the second book of the canon, that God demonstrates God’s immense power over foreign nations and the elements of creation, as well as God’s commitment to Israel when battling against Israel’s enemies.

Following the ten plagues God sends against Egypt, Pharaoh finally allows the Israelites to flee (Exod 7–11). Soon after their departure, however, Pharaoh changes his mind and assembles an army to pursue the people. The Egyptians corner the Israelites at the Red Sea. With no escape, the people must depend on God to save them (Exod 14:5–12). Moses assures the Israelites that God will fulfill the promise to deliver them with a “mighty hand” (Exod 14:13–14 6:1–13). In fact, Moses claims the people need only to be silent and witness their salvation as God fights on their behalf (Exod 14:14). Operating through Moses, God causes the waters of the to stand in a heap and provides a way for the Israelites to walk to the other side. The Egyptian army even recognizes this divine action as God “fighting” against them (Exod 14:25). After the Israelites cross safely, the Egyptians pursue only to founder in the waters as the walls crash down on them (Exod 14:21–28). Not only does the narrative affirm God’s ability to rescue Israel, but it also expresses the power God holds over foreign nations and the raging waters, which are familiar themes among divine conflict texts in the ancient world.

Immediately following the episode in chapter 14, Moses offers a song in praise of God’s deliverance in Exodus 15:1–18 (see also the song of Miriam in Exod 15:20–21 and the song of Judith in Judith 9:2–14 cf. Odes Sol. 1:3). The hymn plays on common motifs related to divine conflict (see further Miller, 113 Cross, 112–44 Trimm, 12). According to Moses, God’s enemies are no match for the immense power of Israel’s helper and defender (Exod 15:1–3) the right hand of the Lord protects the chosen people, “shatters” their opponents, and tosses their adversaries into the sea and consumes them with fire (Exod 15:4–10). Moses even describes God as “a man of wars” in the Hebrew Bible and “the God who crushes wars” in the Greek versions (Exod 15:3). This reference serves as an explicit naming of the God of Israel as a divine warrior, who fights on behalf of God’s people (see also Deut 33:1–3, 26–29). For the Israelites, the Exodus event proves their deity holds sovereignty over the cosmos subsequent authors reuse images from the story as a way of inspiring hope that God will indeed rise up again to deliver the people from oppression and restore the nation (see, e.g., Isa 11:10–16 Pss 69 78 89).

Another example of divine conflict appears in Isaiah 59 – a text that portrays God suiting up in armor to deliver Israel. The chapter begins with a series of accusations against Israel: the sinfulness of the people separates them from God their hands are defiled with blood and they spew lies and wickedness (Isa 59:2–8). And yet, “the Lord’s hand is not too short to save” and the Lord’s “ear is not too dull to hear” (Isa 59:1). When God sees there is no one to aid Israel, God puts on “righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle” (Isa 59:17). God then brings “wrath to his adversaries” and “requital to his enemies” (Isa 59:18), and comes “to Zion as Redeemer” (Isa 59:20). Isaiah 60 follows the oracle in chapter 59 with a victory song that proclaims Israel’s restoration by God’s hand.

Elsewhere in Isaiah, the prophet uses the divine conflict image of the divine sword, which the prophet describes as “cruel and great and strong” (Isa 27:1). Paired with this weapon is a reference to the mythical sea dragon called Leviathan, whom Isaiah claims God will punish with the sword (Isa 27:1). This “twisting serpent” and “dragon” of the sea God will destroy when God marches to battle (Isa 27:1, 4 see also Job 26:13 Odes Sol. 22:5 and Ps 74, where God “crushes” and “breaks” the heads of dragons and Leviathan). Later, in Isaiah 51–52, the prophet again references a dragon as God’s enemy. Isaiah reminds the people of God’s great feat to dry up the waters to redeem Israel in the Exodus event (Isa 51:10–11) and calls on the arm of the Lord to wake up and defend the people. The prophet claims this divine arm is the same one that cut Rahab the dragon into pieces (Isa 51:9 see also Ps 89:10) Isaiah also couples this claim with images of divine kingship (Isa 52:7–10). Such references to God’s defeat of serpents and dragons and affirmations of God’s kingship exhort the Israelites to put confidence in their deity, who holds the power to strike their enemies and restore their fortunes.

The minor prophets evince similar themes. In Joel 3, for instance, the prophet tells the nations to “prepare war, stir up the warriors” and requests that God “bring down your warriors,” because “the wine press is full” and ready for treading (Joel 3:9, 11, 13 Zech 14 Jer 25:30–32). The prophet Joel depicts an eschatological day of judgment in martial terms. Often called the “day of the Lord” in prophetic literature, the time of judgment will be a terrible event for those on the receiving end of the warrior’s forays, while it will be a day of vindication and restoration for God’s people. The prophet Joel claims that humans even participate in the eschatological battle as they beat their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears (Joel 3:10 cf. Isa 2:4). As is common among divine conflict texts, creation responds to the march of the divine warrior, withering and shaking at the sound of the Lord’s voice (Joel 3:16 Amos 1:2 Jer 25:30). But the destruction gives way to restoration and peace for God’s people God’s warring activity creates the conditions for the people to live in fidelity to God alone as the true king (see Joel 3:17–21 Zech 14:16-21 Amos 9:11–15).

Yet, as noted above, the portrayal of God as a warrior is not limited to God battling on Israel’s behalf. Divine war motifs proved to be quite malleable, and authors adapted the images to fit their rhetorical purposes. At times in the biblical canon – and especially in Israelite prophetic literature – God also orchestrates battles against the people of Israel. In these cases, God sends foreign invaders and elements of creation to oppose the chosen people, often as a means of judgment for violating covenant loyalty. It is important to note that in these cases the purpose of God’s warring activity is not to destroy Israel completely rather, the goal is to chastise Israel and bring Israel back to fidelity to God. What is more, in almost every case where these martial attacks come by the divine hand, the prophets pair oracles of destruction with the divine promise to save and restore Israel. The same deity, therefore, who holds sovereignty over foreign nations and all creation and who uses them as weapons, also holds the power to deliver and reverse the fortunes of Israel.

The prophet Ezekiel offers a fitting example of this type of divine conflict. Set in the context of the Babylonian exile after the razing of the Jerusalem temple (Ezek 1:1–3), the book of Ezekiel reframes the destruction at the hands of a foreign nation as God’s own work. In doing so, Ezekiel takes away the victory and power of the Babylonians (from the Israelite’s perspective): the only reason the Babylonians proved successful in their siege against Jerusalem is because the sovereign ruler of the cosmos sent this enemy against Israel for violating the covenant. This means, in turn, that God remains the ruler of the world, commanding foreign armies to do God’s bidding and accomplish God’s purposes.

Ezekiel describes Israel as “a rebellious house” (Ezek 3:9, 27), which will face divine judgment because of its “abominations” and rejection of God’s ordinances (Ezek 5:5–12). God thus intends to unsheathe the divine sword (Ezek 5:12, 17 33:27), wield creation as weapons against the people, and loose the deadly arrows of famine, wild animals, and pestilence against the people (Ezek 5:13–17 14:13, 21 33:27). In Ezekiel 11:8–9, the prophet states that God will bring the sword against Israel by handing them over to foreign nations as a form of judgment. In the midst of Ezekiel’s prediction of destruction, he also promises that God will deliver and restore the nation from the hands of their foes: Ezekiel 11:17–19 claims God will gather the scattered people and restore the land to them (see also the eschatological battle against Gog and Magog in Ezek 37–39). Later in the book, Ezekiel 20 repeats similar themes of judgment and restoration, along with imagery from Exodus and themes of cosmic kingship (see Ezek 20:33). Like the episode in Ezekiel 11, here, too, God’s judgment in the exile leads to God’s restoration of the people so that “all the house of Israel” will serve God in the land (Ezek 20:40).

A host of other texts could be marshaled to demonstrate further the point that ancient Jewish authors portray God as a divine warrior. God enters into conflict to defend and deliver the people and even commands foreign enemies and created elements to attack the people (along with the promise to deliver and restore after a time of judgment). Additional texts from Daniel 7–12, Enochic literature, Wisdom of Solomon, Psalms of Solomon, the War Scroll (1QM) from Qumran, and 4 Ezra also evince divine conflict motifs, which authors re-shape for their own purposes (on these texts, see Ryan). Divine conflict images thus permeate the Jewish tradition and appear in a variety of forms and for a variety of purposes in ancient Jewish literature (Longman and Reid, 13 cf. Longman, 306 Miller, 17).

Reshaping Divine Conflict: The Divine Warrior in the New Testament

The martial motifs so prevalent in ancient Near Eastern texts and the Hebrew Bible did not disappear from the scene when authors of New Testament texts reflected on the cross, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, New Testament writers, like their forebears and contemporaries, also utilize and transform divine conflict motifs. Early Christian authors filter their use of such images through the unexpected invasion of God into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, New Testament authors found creative ways to integrate Jesus’ death on a cross and subsequent resurrection into the divine conflict traditions they knew well.

The place to begin a précis of divine war in the New Testament is at the end of the canon, that is, the apocalyptic text known as the Revelation to John. Written near the close of the first century CE, likely during Domitian’s reign as Roman emperor, the author frames the book as the revelatory vision given to John. With rich symbolic imagery, the Apocalypse discloses to readers the coming cosmic battle in which God finally will defeat the forces of evil. The author hopes this revelation will inspire the audience to resist becoming hypnotized by the beast of the Roman Empire and its power and might. John’s Apocalypse includes depictions of God as a divine warrior and incorporates the person and work of Jesus Christ into the traditional motifs.

The vision conveyed in Revelation 12 describes a conflict between a woman great with child and a red dragon. The dragon imagery serves as a common divine conflict motif. Revelation 12:9 identifies this “great dragon” and “ancient serpent” as “the Devil and Satan,” who has seven heads, ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads (Rev 12:3 cf. Dan 7). The dragon of Revelation displays his might and the cosmic scale of the conflict by sweeping down a third of the stars in the heavens and attempting to devour the newborn son, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev 12:4–5 see Rev 19:15 cf. Isa 11:4 Pss 2:9 89:32). A bit later in the chapter, a war breaks out between Michael and the angels on one side and the dragon and his angels on the other (Rev 12:8). The serpent is thrown down to the earth, and a voice offers praise to God now that “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God and the authority of his Messiah” have come (Rev 12:10).

The dragon further grants power to the beast (presumably the Roman Empire) and continues to pursue the woman, her child, and her descendants until the climax of the conflict in Revelation 19–21. In these latter chapters, the author describes Jesus as a warring messianic figure, who brings about the final defeat of the dragon. In Revelation 19:11, John sees the heavens opened and a rider called “Faithful and True” riding a white horse, who “judges and makes war” in righteousness. Several divine conflict elements appear in the description of the messianic figure. He brings a flame of fire, wears a diadem symbolizing his rule, and brings with him armies of heaven (Rev 19:11–12). What is more, from his mouth issues a “sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” and “he will rule over them with a rod of iron” (Rev 19:15). This “King of kings and Lord of lords” also “will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev 19:16). The beast and the rulers of the human realm attempt to war against Jesus and his armies, but the beast is captured and thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 19:19–20). Following Jesus’ victory, the author describes a feast similar to the celebratory feasts in honor of the divine warrior’s victory in other ancient documents (Rev 19:17–18, 21 cf. Isa 25:6–10 34:6–8 Ezek 39:17–20).

Beyond the Johannine Apocalypse, the Pauline letters include divine warfare motifs that fall into two heuristic categories: (1) God wars against the powers at work in the world enslaving humans and (2) God exhorts the communities of Paul’s letters to participate in the ongoing battle alongside God in the present (see Longman, 302–05 Longman and Reid, 136–64 Sherlock, 335–79 Macky, 117–88). First Thessalonians is likely one of the earliest surviving letters from the apostle Paul. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1–10, Paul describes an eschatological scenario, which he refers to as the “day of the Lord,” well known from Israel’s prophetic literature (1 Thess 5:2 cf. 1 Cor 1:8 5:5 2 Cor 1:14 Phil 1:6, 10 2:16 on this theme, see Longman, 292–94). Paul also includes the binary oppositions of light vs. darkness in conflict with one another – a motif that appears in many texts, especially in the eschatological battle depicted in the War Scroll (1QM), where God aids the “sons of light” in the cosmic fight against the “sons of darkness.” As a further indication that Paul is adapting traditional divine conflict motifs, he claims the members of the community suit up in spiritual armor. They “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation,” which are pieces similar to the garb of the divine warrior in Isaiah 59 (1 Thess 5:8 cf. Isa 11:5 Wis 5). Thomas Yoder Neufeld refers to this creative use of the armor motif from Isaiah 59 as a “democratizing” of the role of the divine warrior (Neufeld, 89–93 154–55). The community now participates in the present conflict by living in a manner that resists the ways of darkness (cf. Rom 13:11–14).

Although some scholars are skeptical that the letter to the Ephesians is an authentic Pauline letter, this text includes divine conflict motifs similar to those in 1 Thessalonians 5. In Ephesians 6, the author adapts the divine warrior’s armor from Isaiah 59 and exhorts the audience to “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10–11 cf. 6:13). They suit up with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, along with the shield of faith to withstand “all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:14–17). As in 1 Thessalonians, this writer sees the present time as a spiritual battle in which the people “struggle” not against “enemies of blood and flesh,” but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12 see Neufeld, 93, 154–55 Gombis, 155–79 idem, “Ephesians 2”).

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul offers an extended discussion on bodily resurrection. Throughout the chapter, we find references to kingship and dominion. Take, for example, 15:24–25 where the apostle claims that at the end Christ will destroy “every ruler and every authority and power” before handing over the kingdom to God. Every enemy will be placed under Christ’s feet, including Death – the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:25–26). Paul sees God operating in the person of Christ to war against opponents and ultimately to defeat Death. Near the end of the discourse, the apostle returns to similar themes of conflict when he notes that a trumpet will sound to mark the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:52 cf. Ezek 33:3–6 Amos 3:6 Ps 98:4–9 Pss. Sol. 8:1). The apostle cites Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 in 1 Corinthians 15:54–55. Both texts, he claims, soon will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (Isa 25:8) and Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (Hos 13:14). These two citations come from chapters in the respective prophetic texts where God appears as a divine warrior. Note also that we find the language of “victory” in v. 57 Paul offers a note of praise to God because “we” are granted victory through “Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 15:57).

Finally, Romans also contains elements related to divine conflict, most notably in chapters 5–8. Although Paul states humans were once “enemies” of God, they now have peace with their creator because Christ died on their behalf and rectified the relationship (Rom 5:1–11 8:1, 6). According to the apostle, Sin operates in the world to enslave humans and serves as an opponent of God (Rom 5:12–21 6:12–14) however, God demonstrated God’s love for human beings by setting them free from captivity to Sin via the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 5:6–11, 15–23 6:15–23). God thus battles not against humans, but against the powers enslaving them and God does so through Jesus Christ in the cross, death, and resurrection. In Romans, even non-human creation is caught up in the captivity Sin perpetuates over the cosmos and awaits a final redemption (Rom 8:18–25). In the meantime, Paul insists that those in the community are now “more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37), who present their bodies to God as “weapons” to be used in the ongoing battle (Rom 6:12–14). Even as the conflict rages in the present, Paul claims nothing in all of creation will gain victory over Paul’s audience or pull them away from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:31–39 see further Rom 13:11–14 16:17–20).


As noted earlier, the foregoing overview only begins to address the varieties of divine conflict in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Yet, judging from the analysis offered here, we can see that authors of ancient Jewish and early Christian texts deployed images related to God at war for various purposes and in various contexts. Even with such diversity, however, a few common themes emerge among ancient Jewish and early Christian writers.

We can summarize the findings as follows. (1) In a number of documents, God wars in defense of the people of Israel. Often the depiction of God as a warrior appears in contexts where Israel stands under an oppressive regime and needs rescue. God steps in, using the divine hand, wielding the sword, elements of creation, or operating via a human agent to deliver the people. The Israelite prophets and psalmists also hope that God will rescue Israel in an eschatological scenario, defeat enemies, and restore the people. (2) At times, the prophets also portray God in conflict with the chosen people as a response to their failure to uphold the covenant relationship. In a number of cases, God demonstrates power by using foreign nations and creation to besiege and capture the Israelites as a form of chastisement. But even in these cases, the prophets also include a promise that God will reverse their situation. In other words, the God who has the power to discipline the people also has the power to deliver them. (3) Following the ancient divine conflict patterns, authors tend to pair martial images with those of divine kingship, usually as a way of expressing belief in God’s sovereignty over the cosmos. (4) When we consider New Testament texts, we see yet again authors continuing to utilize divine conflict themes. These authors demonstrate again the flexibility of divine conflict motifs and their own creative use of the traditions by interweaving the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus becomes the figure through whom God wars against the powers enslaving humans. In the Pauline letters, the use of this theme takes on a different dimension, as God wars against the powers at work in the world not by arriving in full armor, but by handing over Jesus to death and thereby delivering humans. Consistent with other Jewish texts, the Pauline letters then invite those delivered to participate in the ongoing battle prior to the final consummation.

The next time someone encounters Howe’s lyrics in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” he/she might recognize that Howe, and the soldiers who assisted her in re-writing the tune, participated in a long-established tradition. In a similar way to those forebears who adapted images of God at war, Howe and her colleagues also reused and reshaped these images in a new context for their particular purpose. As the preceding analysis demonstrates, authors employed the conflict images in different ways, and readers should be careful to interpret such instances carefully and critically.

Works Cited

Ballentine, Debra Scoggins. The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. The Apocalypse. Wilmington: Michael Glazer, 1979.

_____. The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation . Harvard Dissertations in Religion 9. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976.

Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.

_____. “The Divine Warrior in Early Israel’s Cult.” Pages 11–30 in Biblical Motifs: Origins and Transformation, ed. Alexander Altmann, Studies and Texts 3. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Gombis, Timothy G. The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

_____. “ Ephesians 2 as a Narrative of Divine Warfare.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25.4 (2004): 403–418.

Lambert, W.G. “Mesopotamian Creation Stories.” Pages 37–59 in Imagining Creation. Edited by Markham J. Geller and Mineke Schipper, IJS Studies in Judaica 5. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Limbong, Andrew, with Daoud Tyler-Ameen, “One Song Glory: How ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ became an anthem for every cause” ( ).

Longman III, Tremper. “ The Divine Warrior: The New Testament Use of an Old Testament Motif.” Westminster Theological Journal 44 (1982): 290–307.

Longman III, Tremper, and Daniel G. Reid. God Is a Warrior. Studies in Old Testament Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Macky, Peter W. St. Paul’s Cosmic War Myth: A Military Version of the Gospel. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Miller, Patrick D. The Divine Warrior in Early Israel. Harvard Semitic Monographs 5. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.

_____. “El the Warrior.” Harvard Theological Review 60.4 (1967): 411–431.

Millhouse, Roy R. “Re-Imaging the Warrior: Divine Warrior Imagery in the Book of Revelation.” Ph.D. dissertation, Baylor University, Waco, TX, 2012.

Neufeld, Thomas R. Yoder. “Put on the Armor of God”: The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 140. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

von Rad, Gerhard. Holy War in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. Reprint of Der Heilige Krieg im alten Israel. Zürich: Zwingli-Verlag, 1951.

Ryan, Scott C. Divine Conflict and the Divine Warrior: Listening to Romans and Other Jewish Voices, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019, forthcoming.

Sherlock, Charles. The God Who Fights: The War Tradition in Holy Scripture. Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology 6. Lewiston: Edward Mellen, 1993.

Stauffer, John. “The Song that Marches On: History of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Civil War Times Magazine, December 12, 2016 ( ).

Stauffer, John, and Benjamin Soskis, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Trimm, Charlie. “Yahweh Fights for Them”: The Divine Warrior in the Exodus Narrative. Gorgias Biblical Studies 58. Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2014.

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Egypt was here

Scholars have long been arguing about the date of the Exodus, but for the biblical chronology to hold any water, Moses must have led the Israelites out of Egypt sometime in the Late Bronze Age, between the 15th and 13th century B.C.E. – depending on whom you ask.

The problem is that this was the golden age of Egypt’s New Kingdom, when the power of the pharaohs extended over vast territories, including the Promised Land. During this period, Egypt’s control over Canaan was total, as evidenced for example by the Amarna letters, an archive that includes correspondence between the pharaoh and his colonial empire during the 14th century B.C.E. Also, Israel is littered with remains from the Egyptian occupation, from a mighty fortress in Jaffa to a bit of sphinx discovered at Hazor in 2013.

So, even if a large group of people had managed to flee the Nile Delta and reach Sinai, they would still have had to face the full might of Egypt on the rest of their journey and upon reaching the Promised Land.

“The Exodus story in the Bible doesn’t reflect the basic fact that Canaan was dominated by Egypt, it was a province with Egyptian administrators,” says Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein, one of the top biblical archaeologists in Israel.

This is probably because the Exodus story was written centuries after its purported events and reflects the realities of the Iron Age, when Egypt’s empire in Canaan had long collapsed and had been forgotten.

The fact that the biblical account is anachronistic, not historical, is also suggested by archaeological exploration of identifiable sites mentioned in the Bible. No trace of the passage of a large group of people – 600,000 families according to Exodus 12:37 – has been found by archaeologists. Places like Kadesh Barnea, ostensibly the main campsite of the Hebrews during their 40 years wandering the desert, or another supposed Hebrew campsite of Ezion-Geber at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba were in fact uninhabited during the Late Bronze Age (15th-13th centuries B.C.E.), which was when the Exodus would have happened, Finkelstein says. These locations only begin to be populated between the 9th and 7th centuries B.C.E., the heyday of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Most scholars believe the earliest versions of the Exodus myth may have been written during this later time: the biblical authors were evidently unaware that the places they were describing did not exist in the period they were setting the story in.

But even Finkelstein cautions that this does not mean we should callously dismiss the Passover narrative as mere fiction. “Exodus is a beautiful tradition that shows the stratified nature of the biblical text,” he says. “It is like an archaeological site. You can dig it layer after layer.”

The Hyksos expulsion

Most scholars agree that, at its deepest level, the Exodus story reflects the long-term relationship between Egypt and the Levant. For millennia, people from Canaan periodically found refuge in Egypt especially in times of strife, drought or famine – just like Jacob and his family do in the Book of Genesis.

Some of these immigrants were indeed conscripted as laborers, but others were soldiers, shepherds, farmers or traders. Especially during the Late Bronze Age, a few of these people with Levantine roots even achieved high office, serving as chancellors or viziers to the pharaohs and appearing prominently in Egyptian texts.

The Pharaoh Ahmose I fighting the Hyksos Wikimedia

These immigrant success stories have often been seized upon by defenders of the Bible’s historicity for their parallels with the tale of Joseph’s rise to prominence at pharaoh’s court or Moses’ upbringing as an Egyptian prince.

“They do look a bit like Moses or Joseph but none of them would be really fitting as the historical Moses or Joseph,” cautions Romer.

One group of particularly successful immigrants that has often been linked to the Exodus story were the Hyksos, a Semitic people that gradually moved to the Nile Delta region and grew so numerous and powerful that they ruled over northern Egypt from the 17th to the 16th century B.C.E. Eventually, the indigenous Egyptians, led by Pharaoh Ahmose I, expelled the Hyksos in a violent conflict. Already in the 1980s, Egyptologist Donald Redford suggested that the memory of this traumatic expulsion may have formed the basis for a Canaanite origin myth that later evolved into the Exodus story.

While this is possible, it is not clear what the connection was between the Hyksos, who disappeared from history in the 16th century B.C.E. and the Israelites, who emerged in Canaan only at the end of the 13th century B.C.E. It is then, around 1209 B.C.E., that a people named “Israel” are first mentioned in a victory stele of the pharaoh Merneptah.

And in this text, “there is no allusion to any Exodus or that this group may have come from elsewhere,” notes Romer. “It’s just an autochthonous group at the end of the 13th century sitting there somewhere in the highlands [of Canaan].”

Yahweh and the Exodus

So if the Israelites were just a native offshoot of the local Canaanite population, how did they come up with the idea of being slaves in Egypt? One theory, proposed by Tel Aviv University historian Nadav Na’aman, posits that the original Exodus tradition was set in Canaan, inspired by the hardships of Egypt’s occupation of the region and its subsequent liberation from the pharaoh’s yoke at the end of the Bronze Age.

A similar theory, supported by Romer, is that the early Israelites came in contact with a group that had been directly subjected to Egyptian domination and absorbed from them the early tale of their enslavement and liberation. The best candidate for this role would be the nomadic tribes that inhabited the deserts of the southern Levant and were collectively known to the Egyptians as the Shasu.

One of these tribes is listed in Egyptian documents from the Late Bronze Age as the “Shasu of YHWH” – possibly the first reference to the deity who that would later become the God of the Jews.

These Shasu nomads were often in conflict with the Egyptians and if captured, were pressed into service at locations like the copper mines in Timna – near today’s port town of Eilat, Romer says. The idea that a group of Shasu may have merged with the early Israelites is also considered one of the more plausible explanations for how the Hebrews adopted YHWH as their tutelary deity.

As its very name suggests, Israel initially worshipped El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, and only later switched allegiance to the deity known only by the four letters YHWH.

“There may have been groups of Shasu who escaped somehow from Egyptian control and went north into the highlands to this group called Israel, bringing with them this god whom they considered had delivered them from the Egyptians,” Romer says.

This may be why, in the Bible, YHWH is constantly described as the god who brought his people out of Egypt – because the worship of this deity and the story of liberation from slavery came to the Israelites already fused into a theological package deal.

Semitic nomads arriving in Egypt - one of them the Hyksos, Ibscha Relief NebMaatRa

The north remembers

It does seem, however, that as the Israelites went from being a collection of nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes to forming their own cities and states, they did not all adopt the Exodus story at the same time.

The tradition of an Exodus seems to have first taken hold in the northern Kingdom of Israel – as opposed to the southern Kingdom of Judah, which was centered on Jerusalem. Scholars suspect this because the oldest biblical texts that mention the Exodus are the books of Hosea and Amos, two prophets who operated in the northern kingdom, Finkelstein explains.

Conversely, the Exodus begins to be referenced in Judahite texts that can be dated only to after the end of the 8th century B.C.E, when the Assyrian empire conquered the Kingdom of Israel and many refugees from the north flooded into Jerusalem, possibly bringing with them the ancient tradition of a flight from Egypt.

Although geographically Israel was farther from Egypt than Judah, there are a few reasons why this northern polity would have been the first to import a story about salvation from pharaoh as a foundation myth, Finkelstein says.

Firstly, the Tel Aviv archaeologist has recently theorized that there is some evidence suggesting that the Kingdom of Israel formed as a result of the military campaign in Canaan of Pharaoh Sheshonq I in the mid 10th century B.C.E. This campaign was meant to restore the empire Egypt had lost at the end of the Bronze Age, in the 12th century B.C.E., and Sheshonq (aka Shishak) may have installed the first rulers of Israel as petty kings of what was meant to be a vassal state, Finkelstein says.

When Egypt’s imperial ambitions floundered, the northern Israelite polity emerged as a strong regional power, and may have adopted the Exodus story as a charter myth for its own foundation, as a nation once beholden to Egypt but then freed from the pharaoh’s grip, Finkelstein says.

Secondly, as the Kingdom of Israel grew in power, it expanded southward into the Sinai and Negev deserts in the early 8th century B.C.E. The northern Israelites became involved in trade with nearby Egypt, and came into contact with the places and sceneries described in the biblical wandering of the wilderness, Finkelstein says.

At Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite site in Sinai, archaeologists have found a treasure trove of texts and inscriptions from this period that give us some clues about the belief system of the northern kingdom.

One of these inscriptions has been tentatively identified by Na’aman as an early version of the Exodus myth.

While the text is fragmentary, it is possible to discern some of the familiar elements of the story, such as the crossing of the Red Sea, but also snippets that contradict the narrative as we know it. For example, the story’s hero, whose name has not survived, is described as a “poor and oppressed son,” which doesn’t jive with the biblical description of Moses’ gilded upbringing as a prince of Egypt.

Exodus sans Moses?

This brings us to the protagonist of the Passover story and the question of his historicity. Scholars have long pointed out that Moses’ origin story is a suspiciously common trope.

From the Mesopotamian ruler Sargon of Akkad to the founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus – the ancient world seems to have been awash in boys who were birthed in secret, saved from mortal danger by a river and adopted, only to grow up to discover their true identity and triumphantly return to lead their people.

It is in fact possible that Moses, at least as we know him, was a fairly late addition to the Exodus story, because he does not appear in northern biblical texts such as Hosea and Amos, says Romer.

The oldest text that mentions him is the story of the late 8th century B.C.E. Judahite King Hezekiah, who, as part of a religious reform, destroyed a bronze serpent purportedly made by Moses that was being worshipped by the Israelites (2 Kings 18:4).

This leads Romer to posit that the Moses tradition originated in Jerusalem and that there may have been an older Exodus story that didn’t include him as a hero.

Some traces of this tale may have survived in the Bible, Romer says. For example, in the fifth chapter of Exodus, there is an entire chunk of text in which Moses and his brother Aaron disappear from the plot, and unnamed “Israelite overseers” appear in charge of the negotiations with the pharaoh and the protestations over the conditions of the Hebrew slaves (Ex. 5:6-18).

“Some think that here we have traces of a divergent tradition in which it was God directly who brought the people out of Egypt, that it was just the people who cried out and Yahweh delivered them,” Romer says.

Josiah heads for Armageddon

Whether or not Moses was in it from the start, the Exodus tradition must have undergone some serious redactions after it was absorbed by Judah in the late 8th and 7th century B.C.E. As mentioned earlier, many of the locations mentioned in the desert wandering narrative were only inhabited during this later period, which in and of itself indicates that much of the text as we know it was written down during this period.

This time, around 2,700 years ago, was a key moment in the history of the ancient Hebrews. By the late 7th century B.C.E., the Assyrian empire, which had conquered the Kingdom of Israel, was itself on the wane. In Jerusalem, King Josiah led a reform to centralize the cult around the Temple, while his scribes compiled early biblical texts using a combination of sources from the northern kingdom and Judah.

The ambitious Judahite ruler was hoping to unite all the Israelites under a single cult and a shared history. He also coveted the former territories of Israel, which were now being vacated by the Assyrians. But this expansionism put him in conflict with none other than Egypt, which was again eyeing a restoration of its empire in Canaan, Finkelstein explains.

So, once again, the saga of the Exodus was put to political use, providing Josiah with a story that would unite his people against an old adversary, an epic tale that promised deliverance from the oppressor and the conquest of a Promised Land.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned for Josiah. The competing policies of expansionism led to a clash with Pharaoh Necho II, who faced Josiah at Megiddo around 609 B.C.E. and killed the Judahite king (2 Kings 23:29).

Ever since, Megiddo – also known as Armageddon – has become the symbol of an apocalyptic end to a messianic dream, ultimately translating into the Christian tradition that locates there the final battle between good and evil at the end of times, Finkelstein says.

But while Megiddo marked the end of Judah’s political ambitions, it was not the end of the line for the Exodus tradition. This beautifully complex story, which is not the record of a single event in time but an echo of a centuries-long confrontation between two ancient civilizations, has continued to evolve and take on different meanings.

Generation after generation, it has inspired Jews – and non-Jews – to resist in the face of overwhelming odds, to value freedom above all and to hope against all hope that the Promised Land is always just around the corner.

Religious stories, myths, and legends

Writing about myths is much like walking through a mine field. No matter what one writes, it is certain to offend many readers.

Part of the problem is that the word "myth" has two distinct meanings. A Google search produced the following pair of definitions:

    "A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events." In the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) there are many stories that meet this definition: Stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the worldwide flood of Noah, the exodus of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt, etc.

The term "mythology" also has two distinct meanings:

    A collection of myths, especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition. An example is Greek mythology.

Contributing to the difficulties associated with myths is that:

    People readily identify the myths of cultures different from their own as stories about events that never really happened historically, but which may be of very useful in developing a person's worldview.

    Search for the remnants of the Garden of Eden

Topics covered in this section:

  • In the beginning: stories and/or myths about creation, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve:

The Bible: History or Myth?

When you hear the word "myth" associated with the Bible, what is the first thought that comes to your mind?

Many use the term myth in a pejorative sense to mean that the stories described are not factually true. Others define myth as non-historical tales that contain a moral message. Both of these definitions miss the richness of the term. Mythology is a form of literature that expresses fundamental truths in a way that ordinary discourse is inadequate to describe. The stories that make up the myths are often anchored in some historical reality, but this need not be so. Mythology adds a richness of detail and a concreteness to metaphorical language. Reading Biblical stories as mythology gives me the freedom to understand their underlying meaning in a way I never did when I was taught as a child that these stories were factually true.

Why do most modern scholars reject a reading of the Bible as history much less as literal fact?

1. In an age of science and technology, too much of the Bible is simply unbelievable to today's mind and turns people away from the underlying messages. From a scientific standpoint, many of the "facts" in the Bible are simply wrong. One of many examples: according to Genesis, the universe is just over 6000 years old. According to physics, the Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.

2. Many of the stories are also scientifically impossible, like the tale of Joshua stopping the sun moving across the sky. This story assumes (as was the thinking then) that the earth was flat and was at the center of the universe. We simply know this to be false. Second, for the sun to stop would mean that the earth would have to cease rotating on its axis -- an event which would destroy the planet.

3. For many of the miracle stories, natural explanations exist. The authors of these stories lived in an age when people believed that solar eclipses were divine omens, disease was divine punishment, and mental illness was caused by demon possession. In the case of Jesus, healing was an important part of his ministry. However, today we can find faith healers in Haiti who practice voodoo and in tribal Africa who practice witchcraft. Many of these modern-day faith healers have patients who are actually healed by these practices. Doctors call this the placebo effect, an effect so powerful that drugs must undergo double blind experiments.

4. Some of the mythological stories in the Bible are not original, but were borrowed from other traditions. The Epic of Gilgamesh -- a Sumerian poem detailing the creation of the universe that predates the writings of Genesis by many centuries -- contains a flood story whose plot points are almost identical to the story of Noah.

5. The other world religions also contain rich histories of mythology and fantastical sounding (to us) stories. On what basis can we Christians claim that our miracle stories are legitimate, yet theirs are flights of fancy? The mythology surrounding the Buddha, who lived 500 years before Jesus, includes tales of how he healed the sick, walked on water, and flew through the air. His birth was foretold by a spirit (a white elephant rather than the angel Gabriel) who then entered his mother's womb! At his birth, wise men predicted that he would become a great religious leader. Twentieth-century scholars Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell wrote that certain archetypal religious myths are found across cultures, histories, and religions. Examples include the Cosmic Tree, the Virgin BIrth, and The Resurrection.

6. The Bible itself is full of inconsistencies. How can it be an accurate historical record, when the various books contradict each other? Here is UNC Religion Professor Bart Ehrman:

"Just take the death of Jesus. What day did Jesus die on and what time of day? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark? Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross? It depends which Gospel you read. Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died or after he died? It depends which Gospel you read . Or take the accounts of the resurrection. Who went to the tomb on the third day? Was it Mary alone or was it Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, how many other women were there, which ones were they, and what were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they got there or not? What did they see in the tomb? Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel? It depends which account you read."

7. Reading the Bible as a literal historical account of events from the past limits the power of these stories. Rather than expressing universal truths, a literal interpretation limits the actions of God to certain events in history. God's actions in the world become finite, confined to certain historical events: like the chess master making individual moves on a chessboard frozen in time two thousand years ago. Reading these same stories mythologically, however, can bring forth their universal qualities.

8. A literal reading of the Bible alienates much of our society. The stories were written in a different age with different views on social justice -- an age in which slavery was legitimate, an age when discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation was the norm. Too often because of this history, the Bible is used to justify intolerance today.

Reading the Bible as mythology is not a new concept. Two of the early Church Fathers, Origen (185-254 AD) and Augustine (354-430 AD), both interpreted Genesis metaphorically, rejecting literal interpretations. Early in the 20th century, German theologian Rudolf Bultmann called for a "demythologizing" of the New Testament for many of the reasons given above. Rather, the movement in many fundamentalist circles today to read the Bible as inerrant (an extreme form of literalism, in which every word of Bible is viewed as true) is a late development from the 19th century as a response to the chipping away at the historicity of the stories since the Enlightenment.

I fear that an insistence on a literal or historical reading of the Bible will ultimately lead to the irrelevance of Christianity in our society. By throwing off the shackles of having to believe in the historicity of the Bible, we are free to interpret the stories as a testament to the religious experiences of people from a different age -- a testament that communicates a meaning about their experiences of Ultimate Reality, of God. I understand that their experiences of the divine ground in their lives were interpreted through the lens of a pre-modern view of the world, and my own religious experiences will take on a different form today.

Watch the video: The Problem of Myth in the Hebrew Bible