Pharoah’s army is pursuing the Hebrews. Their intent is clear—to kill and enslave. When the Hebrews see the approaching army, they cry out in terror to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?“ (Ex 14:11). Moses confidently replies: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (14:13-14). “The LORD will fight for you!”—Israel will long remember these words. After the Egyptians are destroyed by the waters of the Red Sea, Miriam sings in triumph:
I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a man of war;
the LORD is his name. (Ex 15:1-4)
In the Exodus the LORD reveals himself as “a man of war”—a God who fights for his people, who makes their enemies his enemies, a God willing to employ the violence of historical existence to accomplish his covenantal and redemptive purposes. The LORD leads his people to the promised land and defeats the armies of Canaan, securing a place for them to live and prosper. And so the LORD fulfills the promise he made to Abraham generations earlier: “To your descendants I will give this land” (Gen 12:7). How else could this promise have been achieved but by sword and bloodshed?
But what happens if the inconceivable should happen? What if Israel should herself—through disobedience, injustice, apostasy—become God’s enemy? Surely this would be the end, and so Ezekiel prophesies:
And you, O son of man, thus says the LORD God to the land of Israel: An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, and I will let loose my anger upon you, and will judge you according to your ways; and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity; but I will punish you for your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the LORD. (Ezek 7:1-4)
Behold, the day! Behold, it comes! Your doom has come, injustice has blossomed, pride has budded. Violence has grown up into a rod of wickedness; none of them shall remain, nor their abundance, nor their wealth; neither shall there be preeminence among them. (7:10-11)
Because the land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence, I will bring the worst of the nations to take possession of their houses; I will put an end to their proud might, and their holy places shall be profaned. When anguish comes, they will seek peace, but there shall be none. Disaster comes upon disaster, rumor follows rumor; they seek a vision from the prophet, but the law perishes from the priest, and counsel from the elders. The king mourns, the prince is wrapped in despair, and the hands of the people of the land are palsied by terror. According to their way I will do to them, and according to their own judgments I will judge them; and they shall know that I am the LORD. (7:23-27)
An end, the end. The LORD sends Babylon, “the worst of the nations,” to make war on his own people. The God who fights for Israel may also fight against her.
Hard, disturbing questions are raised by the LORD‘s history with Israel. Is God a God of violence? Does he willingly inflict suffering and death? Modern Christians quickly say no, invoking the teaching and example of Jesus. Many argue that a strict pacifism is required of all disciples of Christ. “I am a Christian pacifist,” writes Stanley Hauerwas. “Being Christian and being a pacifist are not two things for me. I would not be a pacifist if I were not a Christian, and I find it hard to understand how one can be a Christian without being a pacifist.” And yet … if God had not providentially wielded the sword throughout the history of Israel, would there have been an Israel, and if no Israel, would there have been a Messiah?
Robert W. Jenson refuses to blink. Both Judaism and Christianity proclaim that God authors history, therefore entailing that it must be understood, not as a series of meaningless events, but as a coherent narrative and drama. Life cannot be, as Macbeth would have had us believe, “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” But if this so, then God must enter the fray and take up arms against his enemies:
Since Judaism and Christianity do not in either Greek or Indian fashion deny the drama of time, they must then face a hard fact: in what we know as time, there is no drama without violence. There is no plotted sequence of events that arrives at its end without conflict on the way. Nor can there be any penultimate sorting out of history that does not find some guilty of capital evil. If, therefore, God is to be active in the history of this age, he too must be “a man of war” (Exod. 15:3 KJV). Had the Lord not fought for—and against—his people of Israel, he could have had no people within actual history, and so no Christ of that people and so no church of that Christ. (Ezekiel, p. 76; emphasis mine)
We may not, argues Jenson, wash God’s hands of his involvement in violence and death. How can we do so and not subvert the story of humanity’s salvation in Jesus Christ? There would have been no Israel if the LORD had sat on the sidelines and allowed the Egyptians, Philistines, or Moabites to overwhelm and destroy his people. There would have been no Israel if the LORD had not chastised his people and taught them (oh what a harsh and terrible tutoring!) to obey his commandments and trust his promises. There would have been no Israel—no Israel to birth the Savior and thus no Savior to die by violence—if the LORD had not fought both for and against his people. Those are the facts on the ground. We cannot ignore them in the name of an idealistic pacifism.
Here is offense. For anyone to claim that God is on one side of a conflict appears to late modernity as a despicable error; God, supposing he exists at all, must stand above the fray. But we must hope that this is not so. For the fray is not going to stop short of an end of what we now know as history, and if God does not fight the forces of evil, they must triumph incrementally.
Surely, after the twentieth century’s oceans of shed blood and the beginning of the twenty-first century’s even more threatening prospects, we can no longer entertain modernity’s great illusion, that our creaturely good intentions are a match for sin’s energy and cunning. Moreover, in the conflicts of actual history, there is never a moral equivalency, however flawed and infected both sides may be; and we must pray that God fights for the better side. For if at this time of writing he does not, then the most hopeful scenario for “what must happen after this” is a long dark age. As to which side of a particular conflict God is in fact on, we must not presume to know that, since we will inevitably think he is on our side—the very error that according to our passage led to the destruction of Judah. (pp. 76-77; emphasis mine)
The last sentence is crucial. In any given historical moment, we may not presume that God is on our side. We must not suppose that God will protect us, either individually or corporately, from the consequences of our sins or ensure our victory against our enemies. Israel’s history clearly teaches he may not. The false prophets assured king and subjects that the LORD would never allow Nebuchadnezzar to conquer Jerusalem, yet he did and he did. In the words of the prophet Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
What of the Church today? Here too Jenson is realistic:
Entire renunciation of violence is the calling of the church herself and doubtless also of certain individual believers. But it can never be the calling of all historical agents, nor can God’s actual creation occur without those “who bear the sword.” (p. 76, n. 6)
Our God is a living God, not a philosophical abstraction. YHWH is his name.