The Bible Says What? ‘God is a warmongerer’

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The Bible Says What? ‘God is a warmongerer’

Student rabbi Lev Taylor takes a controversial topic from Jewish texts and looks at a progressive response

An artwork depicting Moses parting the Red Sea
An artwork depicting Moses parting the Red Sea

This week, we cross the Red Sea. With triumphant fanfare, the waves part and our biblical ancestors take history’s most miraculous sea-front promenade. As they leave Egypt for freedom, Pharaoh’s armies drown and the Israelites sing in celebration.

That song has become known as Shirat HaYam (The Song of the Sea). It has a beautiful tune. But despite Exodus 15’s loveliness, some of its words are very worrying. 

“God’s right hand has shattered the enemy!” “Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea!” “God is a man of war!” Is that what we believe? Is God responsible for every military loss and victory? This writing reminds me of modern religious leaders blessing bombs and politicians conscripting soldiers into war with the promise that God is on their side. It doesn’t sit right.

Most of the Tanakh does not endorse violence so lightly. The prophet Micah famously declared that nations should beat their swords into pruning-hooks and study war no more. Isaiah promised peace without end.

The Bible criticises military victory. Even King David, the great ruler of ancient Israel, is condemned. He expanded Israel’s territories, defeated his enemies and slaughtered anyone who resisted him. But God would not let him build a Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. War had made him impure.

The Bible does not casually condone war. This victory was only celebrated because it was so necessary. Even then, the Talmud condemns this brazen song. According to Sanhedrin 39b, as the Egyptians drowned, the angels began to sing, but God silenced them saying: “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying?” People might celebrate war, but God never does.

  •  Lev Taylor is a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College

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