Faith Church of Sellersville | The OT Holy War Motif
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The OT Holy War Motif

The OT Holy War Motif


War seems to have been a staple in the ancient Near East and that was no different for the nation of Israel.  The Old Testament does not seem to go very far without mentioning some narrative in which war was not involved.  The wars particularly that Israel was involved in were significant.  They were also quite miraculous in that the enemies they defeated were not enemies that they necessarily should have defeated or were even capable of defeating.  None the less they had great victories over some very significant enemies.  The question of the significance of the Holy Wars comes into play particularly in the book of Judges.  We must also grapple with the question of why God would even ask Israel to go to war.

Holy War Motif Explained

The holy war motif is traced back before the time of the Judges to the time of the conquest.  One cannot understand holy war apart from the conquest.  When Israel crossed the Jordan to take the land their first obstacle was the fortified city of Jericho.  God sent the troops to follow the priests and the ark as they marched around the city.  The ritual significance of the presence of the priests and ark lies in the fact that this was God’s war and that he was going to secure the victory and therefore receive the glory for it.  He would do this through making the victory won through weak soldiers who had just been circumcised with seemingly ridiculous plans.[1]  Of importance is the fact that this was not Israel’s war.  It was God’s war against a pagan people who were under his judgment.  God in keeping his promise to provide a land for the seed of Abraham was also executing his righeous judgment upon a wicked nation.

The nature of holy war is such that God is first of all accomplishing his purposes not that men are accomplishing theirs.  This is why ritual purity was so important as the nation entered the land.  The people needed to be ceremonially holy.  They were not just going to war to gratify their lust for land and power.  They were following YHWH the God of heaven and earth as he unfolded his plan for the world.  The fact that the heart of Rahab melted at the sight of the Israelites and that the hornet of Joshua 24 scourged the land with terror is ludicrous (from a human perspective) due to the fact that Israel was far from a warring nation.  They had been wandering nomads in the desert for the past forty years.  Most had never known battle.  The essence of holy war in the Old Testament is that God chose to make Israel weak and in that display his great power so that His covenental promises would be fulfilled.  This was seen in the conquest, but continued on through the period of the judges.

Holy War Motif Illustrated

The holy war motif is best illustrated in two narratives in the book of Judges.  The first is that of Deborah and Barak.  Barak is given YHWH’s personal support that in the battle, he would have the victory.  He is clearly told that the army of Sisera would be given over to his hand.  Barak hesitates and seeks the presence of Deborah.  Block asserts that Barak was not acting cowardly, but that he wanted divine visible representation of God’s presence in the form of the prophetess.[2]  The fact that the woman prophetess was the one called upon to assure the male leader of victory is remarkable, but God in securing victory will often do what seems to be weak in the eyes of man to show his incredible power.

The climax of the story is not the battle which is clearly won by YHWH using the armies of Israel, but the climax of the story is the death of King Sisera.  During the battle Sisera escapes and Barak knowing this expends great time and energy to track Sisera down so that he may kill him and receive honor.  Barak’s efforts are in vain however because when he arrives at the tent Sisera was in he finds him already dead by the hand of a woman named Jael.[3]  God ultimately showed that he was the one who procures victory and has the power to remove and establish kings.  He did this by giving the fame of the war to an unknown, Gentile woman.

The next illustration is the Gideon Narrative.  In chapter six Gideon is found threshing wheat secretly in a winepress.  He is approached by the Angel of the Lord and given the commission to deliver Israel from the Midianite oppression.  Gideon’s hesitation concerning the insignificance of his name and clan in the nation falls right into the holy war motif of God using the weak to display his power.  Gideon was indeed inadequate, but God’s assurance to him that he would be with him was the key.  Gideon would not gain the victory, but God would.[4]

Upon gathering an army God instructs Gideon to eliminate the size of the army because it was too great and so 22,000 men left leaving 10,000 to fight.  Upon instructing the men to drink from the river the greater number were the ones who lapped like a dog and they were instructed to depart leaving 300 to fight the thousands.  Why the ones who lapped where told to leave isn’t important.  The important aspect of emphasis is that God was going to win the war not men.[5]

The 300 men used trumpets and pitchers not swords and bows to go up against the enemy of thousands.  Upon surrounding the camp of the Midianites the men broke the pitchers and blew their trumpets and God secured for Gideon and the Israelites a victory that could only be attributed to the God of the Israelites.  The glory for this victory would not go to mere men, but to a holy God who in grace chooses to use mere men for his purposes.


The holy war motif is a fascinating concept to consider.  On one hand it ensures that God be given the glory for his power in performing acts that procure victory that are from a human perspective impossible.  In weakness great power is revealed.  It also reveals his grace in that he would use fallen men to accomplish his task of glorifying his name in the earth.  From a human perspective men tend to use what is beautiful and strong to accomplish tasks whether great or small.  God on the other hand uses what is weak and feeble.  He chooses the outcast and broken and in an awesome display of grace displays great power through them.  It is no different with Jesus.  He came to take the foolish and weak things of this world to bring to nothing the wise and strong.  The holy war motif is carried on in a spiritual sense throughout the new covenant era as the Apostle Paul noted when he said that “your strength is made perfect in weakness.”  Jesus chose 12 disciples to follow him.  The men he chose however were not wise, wealthy, or powerful.  Many of them even proved to be cowards.  Yet it was through these men that the foundation of the church was built.  Christ himself in order to win the victory over his ultimate enemy humbled himself and became weak.  He became the lamb that was slain.  Yet in his death he accomplished a glorious victory.  The war against sin and death was won through Christ becoming weak for us.  As we reflect thorugh this season of Advent let us be reminded of the victory that was acheived through this small, weak child lying in a manger.  The weak lamb that was slain, in that weakness was seen to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah!  His resurrection is the proof of his greatest victory.  Now God in fulfilling his covenant promises to his elect uses frail and weak men and women to accomplish his greates tasks here on earth.


[1] David M. Howard Jr, The New American Commentary: Joshua, (Nashville, TN, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 169-170.
[2] Daniel I. Block, The New American Commentary: Judges & Ruth, (Nashville, TN, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 199.
[3] K. Lawson Younger Jr., The NIV Application Commentary: Judges/Ruth, (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2002), 143.
[4] Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges, (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 1990), 95.
[5] Schneider, Tammi J.,Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry: Judges, (Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 2000), 111.