Rabbi Michael Graetz

[Published in Humash Etz Hayyim by The Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue]

Issues of war and peace are major parts of the Biblical narrative in the historical books, as background to the prophetic books, in the laws and in Biblical theology. There is no unified view of war in the Bible, rather there are varied views. I will confine myself mostly to the Torah, but will briefly touch upon other parts of the Bible and on Rabbinic Judaism. Both of these bodies of literature are influenced by the laws and instances of War in the Torah,

For those interested in historical and archeological studies of wars in the Bible, I recommend reading Battles of the Bible, by Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon. These two experts deal with all known biblical battles. They deal with the battles, the terrain and archeological evidence related to those battles.

God At War

The polytheistic myths of the ancient Near East take strife and war as an inherent part of nature. Polytheism explains the strife and animosity which exists in the world by assuming that gods are at war, or that the state of war or struggle is part of nature. Indeed, many Biblical scholars explore how the themes of strife between gods are sublimated into oblique references in the Biblical text, for example texts dealing with creation of the universe.

Yet, it is clear in the Bible that God is capable of waging war, and is, indeed, portrayed as a warrior in the Exodus story. (cf. below) The 10 plagues and particularly the slaying of the firstborn are acts of war against Egypt (cf. Ex. 13:14-15). They are told from the view that God’s r elationship to other nations is a relationship of unilateral power. God imposes His will on evil-doers, and humans have no part in this war. Only those who accepted God’s sovereignty and were willing to submit to His power by sacrificing the Paschal lamb, were protected by God, i.e. they were removed from the war zone. Some scholars view the paschal sacrifice as part of a trend which expresses another, different, view of war. This view is that God’s power is expressed in partnership with humans, and thus, humans can be allies with God in war. I will return to this view shortly.

The defeat of Egypt’s army and chariots at the Red Sea is an act of war. The first time that this image is unequivocal is in the punishment of the Egyptians at the Red sea (perhaps because the Egyptians are soldiers). The Torah specifically tells us that God leads the people in the Exodus away from population, lest they encounter war, and return to Egypt (Ex. 13:17) From this verse it is clear that the children of Israel are not prepared to fight a war, even though the next verse tells us that they were armed with weapons when they left Egypt (Ex. 13:18). Moses, indeed tells the people that God will “fight for you in war” (Ex. 14:14) against the Egyptian army.

God is thus portrayed in the Song of the Sea as a “man of war”, a warrior,  fighting against the Egyptians (Ex.15:3). The phrase “ish milhama”, used to describe God’s power in destroying the Egyptians is found in 5 other Biblical verses, and each case refers to a soldier, a warrior (Josh. 17:1, Jud. 20:17, I Sam. 17:33, II Sam. 17:8, Ezek. 39:20). Indeed, the messenger of God to Joshua appears as a soldier with drawn sword, and proclaims that he is a general in God’s army. (Josh. 5:13-14) God exerts power over Pharaoh, in a sort of conquest. God brings plagues against Pharaoh, and this leads to an ironic fulfillment of Pharaoh’s own prediction that if a war occurs, Israel will join Egypt’s enemies and fight against it, in order to leave the land (Ex. 1:10). Indeed, Pharaoh has unwittingly predicted the future, Israel does joins Egypt’s enemy, God, and becomes God’s partner, a development expressing the second view of partnership.

Pharaoh’s prediction is alluded to in a double entendre in Ex. 14:31, Israel has seen God’s Hand (“Yad”) in what happened to Egypt, and as a result they believe in God and in Moses. The word “Yad” (‘hand’) also means sign or portent in Biblical Hebrew, thus God’s fighting for Israel is both a sign of God’s might, but also the culmination of the portent of Pharaoh’s own mouth.

The core of the exodus, namely the plagues culminating in the killing of the first-born and the destruction of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army at the Red sea, portrays God’s power as a kind of power which bends evildoers to God’s will by waging war against them. Both Egypt and Israel seem to be more or less objects under the control of God’s will. Indeed, Moses tells the Israelites at the sea, “God will do battle for you, you stand silently by” (Ex. 14:14) This clearly expresses the first view discussed above.

Yet, there are elements in these chapters which express the second view. These elements are based upon a different view of God’s power, namely a view of God’s power as being relational, an expression of partnership. That is, Israel must actually take action to be part of the battle against Pharaoh. The Israelites are to perform a ritual sacrifice, the Paschal lamb, whose purpose is to protect them from the slaying of the first-born (cf. Ex. 12, 13). However, it is clear that this action involves them as active partners with God in the war against Egypt. Furthermore, this action, an act of faith, is a kind of self selection or ‘volunteering’ to be part of God’s ally force.

At the sea, despite the view expressed in 14:14, God tells Israel that they must enter the sea before God uses His control over natural forces to destroy the Egyptians. Indeed, God seems aggravated at Moses’ passivity. God says: “why are you crying out for help to Me? Tell the children of Israel to walk into the sea.” (Ex. 14:15) These verses indicate a role, a function for Israel in God’s battle plan. Indeed, they seem to indicate that Israel needs to use its ability to  fight wars in order to further God’s plans for their salvation. It is ambiguous here whether this ability is God given, or learned. Still, it becomes a given in the Torah that Israel must fight, and that God’s plan of salvation for Israel includes Israel being an active partner in destroying its enemies in battle. Indeed, the whole goal of the exodus, namely establishing a sovereign kingdom under God’s leadership in the land of Israel can only be achieved by Israel creating an army.

Humans at war

God does not seem to be much involved in the instances of war in the ancestral stories of Genesis. The first clear instance of a war in the Torah is the story of a battle of 4 kings against 5 kings in the Abraham sequence (Gen. 14). In this story Abraham has men in his camp whom he can call upon at a moment’s notice to become an army, and he sets out to restore his nephew Lot who has been taken captive in the war between the kings. This whole episode stresses the venal nature of war. It is about control of land, money and power over people. Abraham, who had divided the land with his nephew willingly (cf. Gen. 13:6 ff.), aids the side of the Sodomites, because his nephew is a captive from their side. He refuses however to take any spoils from the war, nor any captives. He does not want anyone to think that Abraham’s wealth came from war (Gen. 14:23), yet he does allow his partners who helped him out to take their spoils.

Another instance of war in Genesis is the example of Simon and Levi who trick the people of Shechem and are able to take the town (Gen. 34). This is a type of war move that relies on “tricks”, somewhat akin to the Trojan horse. On the one hand, this story is a precursor of the rules and later tales of the conquest of the land of Israel by Joshua. On the other hand, it is a story that is repudiated by other parts of the patriarchal narratives. (Cf. Gen. 49:5-7)

Then in the Exodus story, as we have seen, God does it all. Human involvement in this war is next to nothing. Surprisingly, the  next instance of war comes shortly after the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea. They are free of the Egyptians, and can seemingly breathe easily in the barren desert on their way to the promised land. There are not too many people around to bother them, and they purposely avoid population centers so that they will not have to go to war. But, then they are attacked by Amalek a fierce desert tribe of bandits, whose whole life is built around robbing and killing. They are forced to fight. After the experience of the Red Sea, where they witnessed God’s power, they now have to experience war directly. It seems to be some sort of test to see if they can take it. We can thus discern a transition of views from merely implied participation by God in the wars of the ancestral stories, to God being the only warrior in Egypt and at the sea, to an open partnership between God and humans in the wilderness and conquest of the land stories.

Joshua is chosen to pick men to go out and fight (Ex. 17:9). But, the people still are tied to the notion of God fighting for them, so Moses ascends a hill overlooking the battle field, and raises his hands to heaven. His hands become heavy and whenever they fall, the Israelites lose the battle, and when they are raised they win. The solution is to prop up his hands. Here we see graphically the  transference of  power and ability to make war from God to the nation. Formerly, God’s ‘Hand’ did the work of war, now it is Moses ‘hands’, but it is also the hands of the soldiers that Joshua picked. In the end, Israel is commanded to carry on a war against Amalek in each generation (Ex. 17:16). It is an example of a holy mission against those who wish to rule others by force. For this view, God’s ability to carry out war against evildoers is, in some sense, transferred to humans. (For other instances of battles which combine God’s acting as a warrior on behalf of Israel’s warriors cf. Josh. 6:4-5; II Chron. 20:27-29).  In some sense, in the partnership model, God is willing to absorb influence from humans, e. g. when Moses holds his hands up.

The next instances of war have to do with the punishment of evildoers in the midst of Israel itself. After the making of the golden calf, Moses asks the tribe of Levi to kill every one who took part in that revolt against the Lord and the authority of Moses. (Ex. 32:25-28) This incident shows that the view that war is a Divine instrument which humans can use as a way of punishing evil, is applied universally. That is, war can be justified when waged against evil, even in the camp of Israel itself, and not necessarily only against foreign nations. There are other instances of this internal warfare, some of them being on a par with the defeat of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. For example, God fights against Korah and his group by having the earth swallow them up, almost a replay of the Sea swallowing up the Egyptians. (Cf. Num.  16 ff. )

There are other instances of war in the Torah waged against foreign nations as part of Israel’s approach to the promised land. In all of these cases, God is part of the equation, and there is justification of the battles because those nations, like Amalek, did evil to Israel or behaved immorally towards Israel. (Cf. for example, Num. 21:1-3, 21ff., 32ff.) Israel even offers a vow to God, saying that if the Amorites are delivered to them in war, they will proscribe their town (cf. Num. 21:2ff). Proscription or ban (Herem) is part of Israel’s ongoing effort to achieve a kind of ideal purity. A thing which is proscribed is considered consecrated to God, and cannot be sold or redeemed, and in the case of a human cannot be ransomed or sold as slave, but must be killed (cf. Lev. 27:28-29; Deut. 20:16-18) But, the war against Israel was started by the Amorites, who refused Israel passage through their land, and this justifies Israel’s capture and settlement of their cities. (Num. 21:21ff)

In the retelling of this battle in Deut. 3:6-7, the vow of the Israelites is not mentioned. The victory and occupation is attributed to God alone. (Deut. 2:30-35) All of the people are killed under the law of proscription, but there is booty kept, which is not mentioned in Num. In Deut. 7, another rationale for the ban is spelled out, namely, that the existence of these peoples will lead to intermarriage, which will cause syncretism, which will result in abandonment of God and to the adopting of the idolatry and evil practices of the Canaanites. (2-8)

The justification for these wars is fortified in Deut. 12:31 by saying that the abhorrent acts of the Canaanites include the sacrifice of children in fire. Also, the war against Israelites who lead the people astray after foreign Gods is reformulated, once again, in Deut. 13:2-19, and includes Israelite prophets or dreamers who preach disloyalty to God. They are also in the same category of “evil” which is not to be tolerated in Israel society and can be removed by force. This passage does demand a thorough investigation of the allegations, but if the facts are established, there is to be no mercy shown, and all are to be killed. This passage includes the possibility that a whole Israelite town may be placed under the ban (Herem), if all of its inhabitants subvert the nation to idolatry. (Deut. 13:13 ff.)

The Herem is a sweeping kind of “justification” for war and killing. It is put into the context of punishment for evil, and in the context of Israel, or more properly, Israel’s legitimate rulers, being partners of God in punishing evil, i.e. making war on them or executing them. The principle is to be applied to evildoers equally, whether foreign or Israelite.

There are many passages in the Torah and the Bible which demur from this view. Indeed, the whole section of laws that have to do with the redeeming of the first-born may reflect the idea of atonement for the killing of all the Egyptian first-born, or at least an expression of remorse over what had transpired. (cf. Ex. 13:14-15; 34:19-20; Num. 3:41,45)

Even stronger sentiments might be described as ‘anti-war’. In addition to the general prohibition against murder in Gen. 9:5, there is the specific command “you shall not kill” in the ten commandments. (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). Perhaps the general commands to care for widows and orphans implies an anti-war sentiment (e.g. Ex. 22:20-23). The most important passage of this type actually contradicts many of the passages in which the Herem is taught. Deut. 20:10-14, states the position that war is only a choice if peace fails, and furthermore the totality of the ban is tempered in that women, children and animals are not to be eliminated.

Herem “the ban”

Even though the ban is a central part of war making in the Torah, it is not totally clear or consistent how this concept is to be applied, to whom it is to be applied, and under what circumstances it is to be applied. This confusion is apparent when we consider the ambiguities surrounding the laws concerning women captives, as I will discuss in more

detail in the next section. As to male soldiers, there is one consistent rule, namely that they are to all be slain. But, as to women and children there is confusion. Indeed, the very notion of having to wage a war of proscription (ban) against all the inhabitants of Canaan is not totally clear.

In Deut. 20 the whole notion of Herem is made even more ambiguous by the statement that “When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace.” (V.10) If the town responds peaceably then its inhabitants are spared and made into laborers. This injunction seems to be at the very least a compromise with the command to destroy every town in Canaan and all of its men, women and children, and at the most a direct contradiction.

Indeed, Rabbinic Midrash attributes this innovation to Moses (cf. Deut. R. 5:13 end) with God accepting Moses’ idea! The Biblical texts which present the relational view of God’s power, the view that Israel is partners with God, and the view that each side absorbs influences from the other, is carried to its logical conclusion in this Midrash. Not only is Israel a partner with God, but operative functioning of the relational power can start from either side. In this case, God’s law of first trying the road of peace, and leaving war as a last resort, is instigated by Israel’s leader, and God, according to the Midrash, willingly accepts Moses’ decree.

If, however, the town responds with war then the ban is applied, that is all males are to be killed but “You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, the livestock, and everything in the town—all its spoil—and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy, which the Lord your God gives you.” (v. 14) Here, there seems to be no distinction, even by hint, between women who have had sexual experience and those who have not. (cf. below)

Then we are informed that this rule applies only to towns which are not part of the Canaanite nations. Since they are the ones who can lead Israel astray, they must be proscribed, and not a soul shall remain alive, presumably including women and children. Presumably, this is part of the view that justifies the Herem because of the evil that the inhabitants of Canaan would do to Israel. But again, this view is undermined by the events of  Joshua 9. The Gibeonites trick Israel into thinking that they were from a town far away and that they wanted peace. Up to this point Joshua had enforced the ban as written (in Jericho and Ai, cf. Josh. 6ff.). According to the law of the ban Joshua should kill all the Gibeonites. They are residents of Canaan to whom the laws of the Herem apply. It is true, that he has already made peace with them, but there is no moral or legal reason for him to keep the agreement, since it was procured under false pretenses. On the other hand, there is a clear legal reason for him not to keep the agreement, namely, that is the law! Yet, Joshua decides to honor the agreement, and this signals a change in policy. From then on in the book of Joshua the ban is not applied an all encompassing manner.

Once again, Rabbinic Midrash tries to explain this by seeing the law of Herem as being applied by Joshua only in a way that follows the more relational application of that law of Deut. 20. Indeed, this Midrash assumes another option, not mentioned in the Torah at all, namely exile, or exchange for other land. (Lev. R. 17,6) The Midrash adds details and options to the application of Herem by Joshua which make it clear that war is not considered the optimum option.

So, ironically, within the ban literature is found the kernel of a way to make peace, and it is this kernel which is seized upon and used by Joshua for his policy towards the Canaanites. Assuming that the laws in the Torah are meant for a theoretical situation, the actual implementation of the laws did not go in the direction of  war and total destruction, but rather in the direction of peace and accommodation. There is here a kernel of a view that war is not an end in itself, but, at best, a means to an end.

How are we to understand the ban? There are many possibilities, but in my view the ambivalence toward the ban discerned in the Biblical writings leads me to conclude that it is merely an unsuccessful attempt to think of war only in terms of God’s unilateral power and control over everything. This kind of wishful thinking about the unilateral view might have been popular at times when Israel was in fact powerless or weak and felt threatened by outside enemies. But, even from law passages, such as Num. 31, it is clear that killing defiles, and that partaking in war, even in justified war, cannot be viewed as a praiseworthy thing, rather it is something which demands purification and atonement. Thus, in the partnership view moral questions are part and parcel of war. The unilateral view spawns the claim that Israel is only “following God’s will”, bending to God’s unilateral power. The impetus for war and the Herem is presented as a command of God. Some thinkers view this presentation as showing that for the Torah, war is neutral, and whether or not a war is good or bad depends solely on whether or not a particular war conforms to God’s will.

In the partnership model both God and humans have mutual responsibility to justify any war. As we have seen, both in Biblical and more strongly in Rabbinic texts, either side of the partnership can act as check and balance on the other side. The partnership mode cannot adopt an overly simple justification of war. The ethical weakness of the unilateral model is that it is too facile in answering the ethical question of justification. Although the partnership model is also concerned with conforming to God’s will, it cannot merely say “this war is God’s will”, because then the question must be raised, “does the human partner agree to this decision”? This is so since the price of lives is to be paid particularly by the human partner. In the partnership model the human cannot appeal to powerlessness or the virtue of obedience as an argument for not answering to questions of moral responsibility.


Laws are one of the main parts of the Torah, and there are laws concerning war and peace. These laws cover rules about armies, captives, booty, army bases, and the war which will be fought against the Canaanite peoples. These laws apply to different stages of war. Rabbinic literature introduces two basic terms in order to distinguish between wars, terms which are not found in the Bible. Those terms are “milhemet reshut” (a war of discretion) and “milhemet mitzvah” (a war of obligation) (cf. Mishnah Sotah 8:7). In that same Mishnah, R. Yehudah uses the terms “milhemet mitzvah” and “milhemet hovah” respectively. Maimonides (Rambam, d. 12th century) uses the first set of terms exclusively, and does not refer to R. Yehudah’s usage at all. This confusion in terminology resounds throughout Rabbinic literature, but the concept that some wars are obligatory, because, like the war against the Canaanites or against Amalek, they are commanded, while others are discretionary, like David’s wars to expand Israel’s borders, is clear. (cf. Rambam, Melakhim, 5:1 ff.) Since, however, these terms are not found in the Bible, I will not pursue a discussion of them.

Num. 31 is a major source for laws about war and soldiers.  There are rules here about conscription of soldiers into an army. It is specified that the campaign is accompanied (led?) by a priest who takes sacred utensils and trumpets which serve as means of relaying messages to the troops, and serve as instruments of victory. There are rules about how to relate to booty and captives. The soldiers had slain every male, but brought back all females and children as captives. Moses is angry when the expedition brings back all of the captives and booty of the war. He points out that it is the females who were used to entice Israel to foreign gods (cf. Num. 25 ff.), and that the male children would grow up to be soldiers. Thus, he instructs them to kill all the male children and every woman who has had carnal relationships with men. Only women who have had no sexual experience are spared. Every soldier who had killed others or who had been in contact with the slain has to undergo ritual purification and bring a sin offering. It seems as if the taking part in a war and killing others, while justified by Divine command, is nevertheless viewed as “impure”. And, there are rules for dividing up the spoils of the booty. It is interesting that in addition to the priests, those who did not partake in the war, but those who stayed behind to guard and keep the camp in order, also receive part of the spoils.

Other law passages in the Torah have different formulation of these same laws. A different formulation of laws applying to captured women appears in Deut. 21:10-14. There the law does not state if the spared women must be virginal or not, as was specified in Num. 31. The wording of the law in Deut. makes the desire of the male the operative function. It assumes that the desire for this beautiful woman is to make her a wife (polygamy is the norm). However, the Torah demands that she be made less beautiful by trimming her hair etc., and that she be given a month to mourn her slain parents (it is this that hints at an unmarried woman who was living with parents as was the biblical custom). This woman cannot be enslaved, but is treated as a wife, and if the man tires of her, she must be divorced as a wife. Whereas in Num. 31 women captives seem to be on a par with booty,  the formulation in Deut. attributes clear social status to women captives.

There is also another, different, formulation of the rules of conscription to the army. In Deut. 20:1-9 we find an exhortation to soldiers to be fearless. This general order has a very specific ceremony of induction for soldiers, and a specific list of reasons for exemption, at least for a year. Reasons for exemption include if a person has built a new house and not dedicated it, or planted a new vineyard and not had the first harvest, or just been married and not celebrated the wedding properly. The list of exemptions is ceremonially read to those gathered for induction to the army. The closing reason for exemption ties up to the general beginning. If one is faint of heart and afraid of battle, they may return home, for they may cause general weakness in the morale of all the other soldiers. In Rabbinic literature these rules are thought to apply only to a non-obligatory war (“milhemet reshut”), whereas in an obligatory war (“milhemet mitzvah”) even the bridegroom and bride must leave their bridal canopy to take part in the war. (cf. Mishnah Sotah 8:7, etc.)

Another law concerning war has to do with destruction of property during a battle. The Torah rules that when setting up a siege against a city, that the army should not cut down fruit bearing trees in order to build a siege ramp. Only trees which are clearly not fruit bearing may be used for that purpose (Deut. 20:19-20). The context of this rule is the Herem, although, the connection between this rule and the Herem is not clear. Furthermore, there seems to be some tension between the two verses themselves. However one solves the exegetical problems, the rule itself seems to contain an unusual sensitivity to preventing wanton destruction, or destruction that would be harmful to future inhabitants, by invading armies.

Another rule has to do with the army camp or base itself. Deut. 23:10-15states: “When you encamp in war against your enemy, guard yourself from anything evil…. for the Lord your God is present in your camp to save you and give your enemies over to you….and let your camp be holy”. In the Biblical context these rules have to do with ritual purity and with hygiene and cleanliness. That is, the Biblical laws of war include a section which emphasizes the importance of purity in an army camp, both religious purity, and hygiene, such as the provision for keeping excrement outside of the camp and keeping it covered (vs. 13-14).

In the Talmud, this verse is cited in discussions of what is appropriate in terms of the performance of bodily functions in proximity to sacred space or sacred things (cf. Ber. 25a; Shabbat 23a; Shabbat 103a). This discussion thus preserves the original context of the verses, while widening the scope to places which are not necessarily an army camp. In the Midrash Aggadah, the idea of a “holy camp” is widened to include the notion that the encampment of Israel at war must display general ethical behavior at all times (e.g. Lev. R. 24,7; Num. R. 2,4).

The Biblical Views of War and Their Influence in The State of Israel

In the modern State of Israel, the Jewish people has once again constituted an army. In many ways the codes of conduct of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) manifest the view of war and the waging of war which developed in later Biblical tradition and in Rabbinic Judaism. That is, the emphasis is on defense as a reason to justify going to war. Unfortunately, the State of Israel has been under threat of military attack from the first, and thus has had to keep a standing army ready to fight in defense of the lives of its citizens. Indeed, this army has had to operate in open wars and in wars of attrition during the whole period of its existence.

There exists a large number of works on war and army life by many rabbis in modern Israel. Many of these rabbis served in the IDF chaplaincy. In addition there is a tendency to try and find the application of Jewish law, halakha, to every aspect of life in the state. Some of the most famous works are by such Rabbis as Shelomo Goren (IDF’s first chief chaplain) and Shemuel Min-Ha-Har. Almost all of these works deal with problems associated with keeping Jewish religious law, e. g. keeping the Sabbath, while on duty in the army. Very little of these works are devoted to the ethical problems we have raised here, or other ethical problems in army life, such as relationships between commanders and subordinates.

The question of exemption from army service is one of the major debates in Israeli society. Men who study full-time in a Yeshivah have been given an exemption from military service on the grounds that Torah study is equivalent to military service. As the numbers of such exemptions has grown, the public debate over this issue has become more vociferous. Some religious elements have introduced Yeshivot where a person both studies and fulfills regular army service (“yeshivot hesder”). There is also a blanket exemption from army service for women, if they declare themselves to be “religious”. Again, some elements have created an alternative “national service” for young women that parallels army service.

The Law Committee (“Vaad Halakha”) of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly, has promulgated responsa on both of these issues. It has ruled that since modern Israel is constantly engaged in a war of defense for survival, that no one can be exempt. It has also ruled in a similar fashion on the question of women’s exemptions.

The standing orders of the general staff of the IDF  (pekudot matkal) concerning booty and wanton destruction of property have as their heading the verse Deut. 23 concerning the notion that the encampment of Israel at war must display ethical behavior at all times.

These orders contain specific prohibitions against wanton destruction of enemy property, except for certain instances. These are all instances where the property in question can cause harm to IDF soldiers, but trees, sources of water etc. cannot be destroyed. It is also permissible, to destroy an item if that act will help in the effort to win the war by effecting the psychology of the enemy. Fruit bearing trees cannot be cut down, unless it is for the purpose of saving lives. There are no parallels to the status of people thought of as booty. Rather, any captured person is treated as a prisoner of war. No personal booty can be taken, everything must be turned over to the IDF and there are special units whose job is to handle these objects. Much was made of these units in the war in Lebanon, when they methodically searched for booty taken from village homes, and arrested IDF soldiers who had taken such possessions. The thrust of the rules and the administrative procedures is to implement the expansive meaning of “your camp shall be holy”.

In 1994, a special commission established by the IDF published “The Ethical Code of the Israel Defense Forces”. The document is also known as “The spirit of the Israel Defense Forces” (Ruah Tzahal). The commission included senior commanders of the IDF, and Prof. Asa Kasher, who is a professor of Philosophy, well known in Israel for his work in ethics. He is also a bereaved parent, having lost a son during an action of the IDF.

The code was meant to give guidance to soldiers in the IDF, and to reflect the values which underlay the uniqueness of the IDF as an army. Prof. Kasher was quoted as saying: “The IDF is different from other armies. The basic function of this document is to concretize a common language and standard of evaluation for values and norms. Its very existence creates a motivation to operate by its standards.”

Some of the main points of the document are:

  1. A soldier must always be aware of human life, and will endanger himself or another person only to the extent necessary to fulfill the mission.
  1. A soldier will use his weapons to defeat the enemy, to the extent necessary to accomplish that, and will show restraint by preventing harm to human life, honor or property, when force is not necessary.
  1. A soldier will fight and make an effort, to his utter limit, even though endangering his life, not to surrender to the enemy, but to overcome the enemy….
  1. A soldier will always go to help a comrade in need….no matter the danger, including self sacrifice. The soldier will do all that is necessary, even endangering his own life, in order to help his comrades in order not to leave wounded soldiers in the battle-field.
  1. A soldier will act in such a manner that his personal opinions about public, social or ideological issues will not be involved in his military actions.
  1. A soldier will act fairly, properly restrained, informed and professionally in all contacts with civilians who live or are present in the areas which the IDF controls.

The very publication of this document caused a wide range of reactions from praise to damnation. The official IDF stance was very positive about the effort to create a climate of moral awareness in the army. Most critics felt that this document would not work, since reality was different from philosophy, or that it would actually confuse soldiers and be a detriment to their fulfilling their task at all. Some critics took the stance that war and morality were inherently incompatible, so the whole effort was dangerous.

It is interesting that many of the questions raised in this document are found in rabbinic halachic discussions. The codes of the IDF stress that there is a sanctity to life that must be respected, even as one is prepared to kill an enemy who wants to kill you. So everything must be done to avoid wanton or unnecessary killing. We have already seen a review of some of the rules regarding spoils. The IDF, in its practice, places less of an emphasis on medals and ribbons, and other appurtenances of modern armies. I believe that it is the partnership view which is expressed in the IDF code. In such ways, it seems that the later Biblical and Rabbinic tradition, which held up peace as a higher ideal than war, as we will see in the next section, is the tradition upon which the modern IDF is based.

Instances of Peace

There are many instances in the Torah of making peace, that is a formal cessation of war. Abraham, after the war between the kings proposes peaceful relations towards the king of Sodom. Even more central to the Torah narrative is the peace treaty between Abraham, and his descendants, and the Philistine king Abimelech, and his descendants, at Beer Sheba. Armed combat over rights to water is the background to many of the patriarchal stories. The fact that Abraham and Abimelech swear an oath to each other to share water and refrain from warring against each other, for all generations, is a striking contrast to the idea that Israel must conquer the land by exterminating all of the inhabitants. Indeed, the name of the place Beer Sheba, means the “well of oath”, and the oath referred to is the one for peaceful coexistence in the land which God had promised to Abraham. (cf. Gen. 21:22-34, esp. v. 31; cf. Gen. 12:7 et al)

Isaac also makes a covenant of cessation of war with Abimelech, after the incident of filling up the wells. (cf. Gen. 26:26-33) Apparently the pact made by Abraham was not holding up, and it had to be renewed. Jacob seems to be interested in making such a covenant of peaceful relations with Shechem. But, this intention is thwarted by his sons, Simon and Levi. This is made clear by Jacob’s reaction to their deeds (Gen. 34:30), and even more clearly by his final words on this subject (Gen. 49:5-7). Jacob also intends to have peaceful relations with his brother Esau (cf. Gen. 34:4 ff).

God also makes it clear that Israel is not to make war against the children of Lot, for God has given them directly the land they occupy (Deut. 2:19 etc.) Israel is to refrain from war on any kingdom which treated them honorably and civilly.  Presumably, all of these cases are where the nations in question cannot be described as “evil”, and thus war against them cannot be justified. The same principle can be applied internally. At first, it is thought that the two and a half tribes are evildoers, and a war of extinction against them is called for. The evil which they seem to be intent on doing is to abdicate their responsibility for participating in the war of conquest of the land. This is presented as tantamount to blasphemy against God. Once it is clear that their intention is not to shirk their duties as soldiers, they are spared punishment. (cf. Num. 32, and cf. also Josh. 22)


Peace in the Prophets, Writings and Rabbinic literature

The theme of peace as God’s ultimate goal, is reaffirmed in the Prophets and Writings of the Bible, and finds expression in Rabbinic Literature, some of which we have seen above. It is fair to say, that in the later books of the Bible, peace is seen as a major expression of God’s power (e.g. Isa. 45:7; Job 25:2; Isa. 11:6; Isa. 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-5 etc.), and it is possible that justice replaces war as another major expression of God’s power. (cf. Psalms 96, 98 etc.)

Prophets denounce war because of the cruel excesses which it brings about. So the first two chapters of Amos criticize the brutality of war in a very direct way, and in some sense Amos’ words are a literary heir of the criticism of Simon and Levi’s actions (Gen. 34) by Jacob in Gen. 49. Both Isaiah (2:1-4) and Micah (4:1-5) envision a day when nations will expunge the making of war, and turn the implements of war into productive vessels. This is considered by them to be the essence of God’s Torah, the Torah which all the nations come to Zion to learn. The idea that God’s Torah which all nations will desire to learn is simply not to make war, but to help one another produce full lives for citizens of the world, seems to be a contradiction to the idea of God at war in the earlier biblical works. Indeed, this aspect of these eschatological prophecies is the most striking. God’s power is not used to subdue others, but is used to revise the drive to make war. Indeed, Micah can even imagine that the worship of God is not the issue separating nations at all, for in his words “each person coming to learn this Torah will worship their gods in their own way, even though we will worship the Lord our God in our way”. (Micah 4:5) As long as the Torah of no more war is prevalent the distinctions of different kinds of religious ritual worship of God will not be relevant at all.

But, perhaps of all the books of the Bible, Chronicles contains a constant criticism of the brutality of war, and even though seemingly a book of history paralleling Joshua through Kings, in Chronicles the conquest of Canaan stories hardly appear at all!! The peak of this stance of critique of war as a means to approach God is found toward the end of Chronicles where David, the ideal King of Israel in the book of Kings, is told specifically by God: “But the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a House for My name for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.” (I Chron. 22:8) The task of building a house for God cannot be fulfilled by someone who has waged war almost his whole life. Bloodshed is antithetical to bringing God’s presence closer to mankind. War, rather than promoting God’s plan, ends up opposing it.

Thus, later Judaism condemned war as a goal in favor of peace. War of self defense is justified in Jewish religion, but war as a means of diplomacy or for any reason other than self defense is to be resisted and very much limited, as we have seen above. (cf. Mishana Sotah 8 ff.; Rambam, Melakhim 5, 6 ff.)

In the Bible, war is part of the conception of God’s power. It is fair to say that peace is also part of that same conception. Although, later Jewish sources did not directly deal with such matters, it seems clear the tendency was to interpret war as part of a relational view of God’s power, and to praise peace as the goal of God’s plan of salvation.

We have seen that Biblical theology does not present a univocal view of God’s power and of war. One view is that God has unilateral power, and wages war to bend humans to God’s will. In that view God can command war, and humans have no choice but to carry out the commands. On that view, carrying out such a war is morally sound, and no questions can possibly be raised about it.

The other view, which becomes stronger in the later Biblical books and in Rabbinic Judaism, is that God’s power is expressed through equal partnership with humans, with mutual influence. In that view each side may raise moral questions about a given war at any time. In this view, even if a war is justified, actually killing another person is not an act that should be praised excessively, and peace is preferable to war as the final expression of God’s redemption.

For expanded treatment of the themes and views in this essay you may read the following books:

Jon Levenson, Creation and the persistence of Evil.., and bibliography there

Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible, Oxford University Press, 1993, and bibliography there

  1. my commentary on the Paschal lamb, in: Three Language Passover Haggadah, Masorti Movement, Jerusalem, 1990

Responsa of Israel Vaad Halakha, Vol. 2, pp. 67 – 71; cf. also pp. 61 – 66 on the Conscription of Women

Thomas B. Dozeman, God at War, Oxford University Press, 1996, and bibliography there

  1. Bernard M. Loomer, “Two Kinds of Power”, in Criterion (Winter 1976), University of Chicago Divinity School