A Man of War

The KJV renders Exodus 15:3 in this way:

“The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name.”

Most modern translations simply render it “The LORD is a warrior.” The passage in Exodus is neither a pre-Christian allusion to the incarnation, nor does it suggest that God is human. Instead, it is simply that in Hebrew, there is no other way to refer to a soldier, a warrior, than with the phrase “man of war.” The Old KJV tended toward the literalistic in translation, creating some oddities such as the rendering of this verse, or in phrases like “holy of holies,” which is rendered more accurately in modern translations as “Most Holy” Thus, the modern translations which read “the Lord is a warrior” are actually better and eliminate any possible confusion or misperception.

This is not the only place that the Bible creates discomfort for those concerned with opposing militarism and war. In the 1970s when the NIV was first being translated, another common Hebrew phrase also became problematic for the translators. The Vietnam war was winding down for the U.S. and there was wide-spread anti-war sentiment, especially among the younger people who might be the primary audience for a new translation. The war was also not popular outside the U.S. and the NIV translation was not U.S.-centric–it was, after all the New International Version and scholars from around the world were involved in the work. The NIV translators therefore also struggled with the phrase Yahweh Sabaoth, which the KJV had rendered “LORD of Hosts.” The word “hosts” is rarely used anymore in the sense that the KJV meant it. In the 1970s, as well as today, when we hear the word “hosts,” we might think of the host of a party or a television show. We might have thoughts of hospitality. But the Hebrew word Sabaoth did not mean that God was the patron of variety show hosts or especially concerned with women running Tupperware parties. Instead, the word Sabaoth–the KJV “hosts”–was best rendered into contemporary English with the word “armies.”

The Bible in the Old Testament regularly and repeatedly refers to God as “Yahweh of Armies.” Likewise, the “hosts of heaven” could better be rendered in contemporary English as the “armies of heaven.” Since such a translation did not fit with the prevailing cultural notions of peaceful, flower-toting tolerance, the translators chose to retain the impenetrability of the KJV translation for moderns, but in a modern way. Thus, the choice was made to render the phrase as “Lord Almighty” throughout the Old Testament of the NIV. Really, not what the underlying Hebrew meant, precisely, but it didn’t offend modern sensibilities, either.

Many people remain uncomfortable with the notion of war and find it hard to wrap their minds around the idea that God could ever have sanctioned such a thing. For convinced pacifists who are of a mind to put bumper stickers on their cars announcing that “War never solved anything” they either happily ignore the uncomfortable verses, or reject any belief in the God that shows up in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. Others will dismiss the militarism simply because it is in the Old Testament, arguing that the Old Testament has been superseded by the New Testament picture of love and tolerance shown in Jesus. Of course, this is the same Jesus who called the religious leaders “vipers” and “white-washed tombs”—and showed his love to the money changers by making a whip and chasing them from the Temple.

When people ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” it is rare for them to think in terms of making whips and beating folk. But there it is, and given that the God of the Old Testament is actually the Son of God, rather than the Father, the problem for the more pacifistic seems difficult to me.

I think that the Augustinian view of “just war” is probably closer to the biblical picture of things than the modern ideas of pacifism.

I would rather that pacifism was all we saw in the Bible. And I believe that pacifists are not wrong, at least in an ideal sense. Sadly, the world does not always conform to idealism. And the Bible’s words and message are not given to angels or to the ideal: they are for flawed people who live in a real world, a world that is fallen and imperfect. Jesus told the religious leaders who asked him about divorce that divorce is established in the Law of Moses, not because God favors divorce or thinks that divorce is a good idea. Instead, divorce exists in the Mosaic legislation, Jesus said, because of “the hardness of your hearts.” Ideally, there should never be divorce, nor should there ever be the need for it. But in the real world, it’s going to happen. God knows what people are like. So what did God do? He made allowance for our hard hearts. For the fact that we can make mistakes. He regulated and mitigated the evil as much as possible for fallen creatures.

War is not the ideal. But sometimes it is necessary. Gandhi thought that the Jews should quietly accept their fate during the Holocaust and not fight back. I disagree with Gandhi–in fact I am horrified by his attitude. I really don’t think there was any other way to stop the Nazis other than bombing them. For those who wonder where God was during the Holocaust, I would argue that he was using the allied aircraft to bomb the crap out of the Nazis–and he was the Lord of the armies who fought their way to Berlin.

The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name. (Exodus 15:3)

The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14)

Who is this King of glory?
The LORD strong and mighty,
the LORD mighty in battle. (Psalm 24:8)

…a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:8)

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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