Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Schmitt, Rüdiger, Der “Heilige Krieg” im Pentateuch und im deuteronomistischen Geschichtswerk: Studien zur Forschungs-, Rezeptions- und Religionsgeschichte von Krieg und Bann im Alten Testament (AOAT, 381; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2011). Pp. xii + 248. Hardback. €65.00. ISBN 978-3-86835-048-7.

An established tradition of scholarship, bolstered by an influential study of Gerhard von Rad, assumes “holy war” to be a real institution that was firmly anchored in Israel's earliest history. Although most scholars today would reject this assumption, along with the conservative view of Israel's history upon which it rests, the field has lacked a comprehensive study of the texts that are usually cited in its favor. This is now no longer the case. Rüdiger Schmitt's monograph examines each of these texts and argues that they owe their commonalities to late redactional activities (Deuteronomistic or post-Deuteronomistic). With M. Weippert, he discards the language of “holy war,” opting to speak instead of the “sacralization of war” in various kinds of texts.

The relatively concise study consists of 50 pages of research history and 120 pages treating the war texts from the Enneateuch, followed by 40 pages of reception history and a 10-page conclusion (see the simplified version of the Table of Contents reproduced below). That the book favors questions of a theological and ethical nature is undoubtedly related to its origins in a collaborative research project in the theological faculties at Munster, Germany (The research project bore the title “Divine Violence: Analyses of the Images of God in the Hebrew Bible from the Perspective of the History of Religions and Reception History”).

In his lengthy research history from the period before WWI to post-9/11, Schmitt provides a comprehensive, if also necessarily compendious, overview of studies that either treat “holy war” in the Hebrew Bible or develop alternatives to it. For the period prior to WWI, Schmitt treats the work of Wellhausen, W. R. Smith, Schwally, and Caspari, while for the period between the wars, he discusses the work of Bertholet, Fredriksson, Pedersen, and Weber. This period of scholarship is characterized, according to Schmitt, by a focus on pre-state Israel and views Yhwh as a war-god. In keeping with a predilection for evolutionary constructions, scholarship up to WWII tended to view “holy war” as an archaic mysterious conception that was transcended by the moral universalism of the prophets before it became ossified in Jewish legalism and finally surmounted by the teaching of Jesus.

That writings on “holy war” multiplied after WWII is due to the influential work of von Rad. In Der heiliger Krieg im alten Israel ,[1] one of the most popular books of the early post-war period (it continues to be published today), von Rad transformed the conception of “holy war,” making it compatible with conservative theological developments (Barth and “Neo-orthodoxy”) that emphasized divine revelation and the “word of God.” Schmitt reviews the studies of de Vaux, Smend, Kang, Craigie, Lind, Fohrer, Stolz, Weippert, Jones, and Donner, each of which problematize von Rad's thesis in different ways and to varying degrees.

More recent research has taken various directions. Under the rubric of “sociological models,” Schmitt treats Mendenhall, Gottwald, and Albertz. “Comparative studies” include P. Miller, Weinfeld, Otto, Chapman, Crouch, Baudler, and Flaig. Among the “exegetical and history-of-religions approaches,” Schmitt considers Weimar, Lohfink, Niditch, Lang, and Scherer. With respect to numerous other war studies, Schmitt separates them into biblical-theology oriented works, hermeneutical approaches, studies of religion and violence, and treatments of “holy war” in the ancient Near East and Egypt. The research review is, however, by no means exhaustive, omitting several important studies in French, Hebrew, and English.

The heart of the study treats the major war texts of the Enneateuch. Schmitt examines these texts under three general rubrics: Deuteronomistic, Priestly, and others (Gen 14, Exod 15, Num 21:21–32, and 2 Chr 20). Because it covers the entire Enneateuch, the treatment of each war text is on average no more than a page in length.

Schmitt begins his discussion with the war laws of Deuteronomy. He denies that they are rooted in actual practice and claims that they function to demonstrate the principle of obedience. They should also be appreciated as “counterfactual” or “contra-presentic,” as they offer a hopeful perspective for those in exile. (The term “contra-presentic” is borrowed from Gerd Theissen and Jan Assmann to describe a type of utopian memory as a reaction to the present.)

One can debate the merits of this approach, but Schmitt inexplicably does not tell us why the biblical authors developed these particular kinds of counterfactual laws. How do, e.g., laws related to the mustering of a militia (Deut 20:5–8) give hope to the postexilic community? Admittedly, such laws cannot be applied when Israel no longer had the possibility of engaging in its own wars, but what is the distinct intent of the counterfactual character of Deuteronomy's laws of war in comparison to its other “utopian” laws?

Schmitt tends to argue for an exilic or postexilic dating of texts, while also taking issue with those who see any humanizing intentions behind the laws. For example, he views the law of the female captive (Deut 21:10–14) as a supplement to the laws in chap. 20 and dates it to the postexilic period. The law lacks any humanism, as it does not forbid sexual exploitation or enslavement of the captive (One would like to know how Schmitt interprets 20:14!). Finally, because it was not possible in the postexilic period to go to war and take captives, the law is said to be about the integration of female slaves. Schmitt leaves unanswered the question as to why the biblical authors needed to disguise their instructions under a war law.

With respect to Deut 1–3, Schmitt describes this text as a counterfactual fiction that emerged in the postexilic period. Its demand for the creation of a tabula rasa has nothing to do with Josianic politics; instead, it reflects postexilic conflicts with Arab (!) neighbors. The contra-presentic construction of military conquest is an expression of hope for the end of the exile and compensation for powerlessness. The Deuteronomistic war speeches (7:1–26; 9:1–8, 22–24; 11:22–25; 20:2–4; 31:1–8; Josh 1:1–9) articulate the importance of strict Law observance as the basis for possession of the land. The waging of war and the execution of the ḥērem is thereby “merely a metaphor” for obedience to the Law.

Turning to the Deuteronomistic texts elsewhere in the Pentateuch, Schmitt discusses the non-Priestly layer of Exod 14 as well as Exod 17:8–16, 23:20–33; Num 13–14, 21:1–3, 33–35, most of which he dates to the exilic or postexilic period. While each of these texts has its individual accent, they all have a common character: they are primarily Gesetzestheologie (theology of the Law) and not Kriegstheologie (war theology). Observance of the Law is the precondition for possession of the land, and execution of the ḥērem is the decisive criterion.

The same applies for the war texts in Josh 6–12. They are all essentially about obedience to the Law. War serves primarily as a way of conceptualizing the principle of absolute fidelity to the Law, with the situations in which ḥērem must be executed as a status confessionis. If war is incidental, serving as background or a stage for the main actors, it follows that Yhwh could give Israel its land without any human involvement. Not surprisingly, Schmitt addresses this issue at many points in his discussion. Joshua 6–12, like many other Deuteronomistic battle accounts, sets forth a synergistic theology by depicting Israel fighting with Yhwh. In contrast, the episode with the “captain of Yhwh's host” in 5:13–15 (see also his discussion of 2 Chr 20) relativizes this synergism, attributing the victories depicted in the following narratives not to Joshua's military prowess but rather to the power of the heavenly hosts (as R. Nelson argues[2]). This claim is however difficult to accept since Joshua still does the fighting in the narrative; a more tenable conclusion is that the supplement affirms the participation of the divine host.

With respect to Judges, Samuel, and Kings, Schmitt argues that these books comprise with Joshua pieces of the Deuteronomistic History. However, their authors could no longer use ḥērem as the “measuring rod” because it was confined to the period of the conquest under the leadership of Joshua. Hence, they replaced it with other criteria. Yet one of the biggest problems for the Deuteronomistic History thesis is not the relationship of Judges to Joshua but rather Judges to Samuel–Kings: As I have argued elsewhere, war in Judges occurs as punishment for the people's sin, while the narratives of Samuel portray war erupting naturally until the Saul and David bring peace.[3] Accordingly, Judges stands in sharp contrast to Samuel–Kings. Schmitt discusses my study that formulates this argument but does not offer a response to its central argument. Nevertheless, he does seem to allow for the possibility of “a small Deuteronomistic History” in Samuel–Kings (see the section title on p. 146).

Turning to the Priestly texts, Schmitt discusses Exod 14, Num 31 (at length), and some texts in Joshua. What these texts have in common is a “hierarchical conceptualization of war with special emphasis on the role of priests” as well as a concern with matters of ritual purity. The paucity of Priestly war texts is due not to the putative pacifism of the Priestly circles (as Lohfink and others have argued with respect to the emphasis on the P miracle in Ex 14) but rather to their interest in questions of cult and ritual authority.

By claiming that the primary purpose of the Bible's war texts is to articulate theological principles, Schmitt stands in direct continuity with early Christian writings (see e.g. Jas 2:25). This approach may serve the needs of some theological constructions, but in my view it fails to account fully for the centrality of war in these biblical texts. Political communities tend to negotiate belonging vis-à-vis war memories. The fact that war figures prominently in the Hebrew Bible while appearing only on the periphery of the New Testament must be related to the very different collective identities these literatures seek to construct: in the former, a territorially oriented people, and in the latter, a transnational de-territorialized religious community.

In many cases, one has the impression that Schmitt's focus on the “sacral” aspects of war in the texts he studies may have caused him to miss more basic meanings. Thus, Abraham's victory in Gen 14 is said to be the confirmation of the divine approbation in Gen 13 that then culminates in the reward of the covenant in Gen 15. By focusing on the “indirect sacralization of war” in this text, he overlooks the primary theme of Abraham's solidarity with the inhabitants of the land—a primary theme of Genesis that distinguishes it from Exodus–Kings. Just as Abraham allows Lot to choose the best land and argues with the deity over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, he goes to war for these neighbors and later waives his right to the war spoils. In return for his goodness, Yhwh promises to be his great reward (Gen 15:1).

In the rest of the book, Schmitt treats various witnesses to the reception history of the biblical war traditions. For the period of the Crusades, he examines the writings of Bernhard of Clairvaux and William of Tyre as well as works of Middle Latin poetry. For the Reformation and Peasants' War, he treats the polemic works of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Jean Calvin, and Thomas Müntzer. For the post-Reformation period, he focuses on Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who led his nation to supremacy during the Thirty Years War and presented himself as Gideon reincarnate. From here Schmitt moves to the WWI and the works of Gunkel, Eißfeldt, and Bertholet, before finally treating the case of Johannes Hempel from the Third Reich. He helpfully identifies seven ways in which the biblical texts were interpreted in these writings: 1) prefiguration; 2) allegory of spiritual warfare; 3) literal instructions for warfare; 4) identification with biblical figures; 5) identification with biblical Israel; 6) identification with historical Israel; and 7) emphasis of differences to Israel.

An overview of “holy war” in European history would have been valuable for readers of Schmitt's study. In Greece a number of “holy wars” were fought by amphictyonies in defense of Delphi (600–590, 448, 355–346, 339–338 b.c.e.). While the Roman Empire conducted their wars with many religious rituals and cultic aspects, most scholars would not apply the term “holy war” to them. This changed with Constantine the Great, as war became a means to spread Christianity. Drawing on Christian writings from the time of Constantine, theologies of “holy war” continued into Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Their authors paved the way theologically for the Crusades and the wars of religion in the Early Modern period. The ideology and rhetoric of “holy war” subsided considerably after the Peace of Westphalia and through the humanistic influence of writers like Hugo Grotius. War became now a controlled and rational game. This period ended abruptly in the Romantic period—specifically, in reaction to Napoleon's conquests. In Russia among representatives of the Orthodox Church and especially in Germany among nationalistic thinkers such Jahn and Arndt, the wars of liberation were identified explicitly as “holy wars.” During WWI, “holy war” assumed even greater significance. Ideologies expressed in the popular genre of war-sermons identified everything as “holy”—blood, time, earth, nation, weapons, and war. This rhetoric shifted in many ways after WWI, but it remained a constant in religious circles of the Third Reich. Even though the history that I have presented here may need revision on certain points, it reveals how the rhetoric and ideology of “holy war” re-emerged in 19th and early 20th century Germany, precisely at the time the leading German scholars of Old Testament were writing their most influential works.

In selecting cases to study in his reception history, Schmitt appears to have looked for European rulers and thinkers who used the biblical texts to sanction excessive violence. While this aspect undoubtedly deserves attention, one should not forget that the biblical war texts were often used for more salutary purposes, namely as the basis for reflection on political organization and monarchic authority. Indeed, Hobbes, Rousseau, and many other great European thinkers produced their most influential works by deeply engaging key war texts from the Bible. Their findings beckon to be studied not only by political theorists but also by biblical scholars, especially as they have shaped the intellectual contexts in which critical biblical scholarship emerged. That such has yet happen to any appreciable extent is understandable, given that much of Old Testament research has been and continues to be conducted in schools of theology and departments of religion, where matters of violence and ethics receive much more attention than questions of political organization. But even within these institutional contexts, biblical scholars can profitably contribute to and benefit from more engagement with political theory.

Schmitt's study does the field a great service by bringing together a range of interesting material on a tradition that has endured for more than three millennia. While I often found myself disagreeing with his interpretations, I—and many others who work on war in ancient Israel—will want to keep this book nearby for frequent consultation.

Appendix: Table of Contents - Chapters and Sections

Kapitel 1—Forschungsgeschichte: Die Konzeptionen von “Heiligem Krieg” und “Jahwe-Krieg” in der alttestamentlichen Forschung

Kapitel 2—Sakralisierung des Krieges in der deuteronomistischen Traditionsbildung

Kapitel 3—Sakralisierung des Krieges in der priesterschriftlichen Traditionsbildung

Kapitel 4—Sakralisierung des Krieges außerhalb der deuteronomisch-deuteronomistischen und priesterlichen Traditionsbildung

Kapitel 5—Die Rezeption der biblischen Exodus- und Landnahmetraditionen in kriegerischen Auseinandersetzungen vom Mittelalter bis zur Neuzeit

Kapitel 6—Zusammenfassung und abschließende Überlegungen

Jacob L. Wright, Emory University

[1] ATANT, 20; Zurich: Zwingli-Verlag, 1951. reference

[2] R.D. Nelson, Joshua: A Commentary (OTL; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997), 83. reference

[3] “Military Valor and Kingship: A Book-Oriented Approach to the Study of a Major War Theme,” in Writing and Reading War: Rhetoric, Gender, and Ethics in Biblical and Modern Contexts (ed. B.E. Kelle and F.R. Ames; SBLSymS, 42; Atlanta: SBL, 2008), 33–56. reference