Friday, September 11, 2009

Hymns to the Divine Warrior, the Hebrew God of Battle

[The Egyptian army drowning, from 1740 illustrated book, found at the British Museum website]

It's interesting to consider how much social context shapes religious rhetoric and the language we use to describe the divine. Take Christianity. In the West it is the religion most associated with pacifism. Indeed, there is considerable rhetoric of forgiveness, turning the other cheek, universal government, and universal love in the Gospels. But few people realize how this rhetoric of universality is grounded in the Gospel writers' lifestyle under the Pax Romana. The hegemony of Rome from the Atlantic to the Euphrates created an unparalleled sense of security and shared identity for the people of the ancient world, a sense of participating in a universal order few people of earlier or later times would know. In a world where war was generally confined to the borderlands of empire, it was much easier to think and talk about life lived without the necessity of violence and war.
By comparison the Hebrew Bible was composed in more unstable times. Israel was a small ethnic group surrounded by aggressive tribal and imperial neighbors. War was a constant anxiety and violence a frequent reality. By necessity, the Israelites were themselves a capable warrior culture, with many tales of great war chieftains (Abraham, Joshua, Ehud, Gideon, Samson, Saul, David, etc.). Yet for the very same reasons, Israelite writings are permeated with dreams of enduring peace, a peace which in their experience would require a massive reordering of the way things were, a divine transcending of the reality they knew.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the God of Israel is sometimes envisioned as a champion who will fight on Israel's behalf, delivering His people from the hands of oppressor nations.
And so it is that we find a literary genre, the poetic hymn to the "Divine Warrior," which appears in different forms in different periods of Israel's history. Derived from Canaanite and Mesopotamian mythic stories of gods like Baal and Marduk, the Divine Warrior poem stereotypically consists of a series of conventional elements:

1) The threat (cosmic, national, or personal)
2) The battle
3) God victorious
4) The divine procession (to Jerusalem, across the desert)
5) Salvation (in this world, not usually in the Christian sense) for the followers
6) The advent of universal peace.[1]

There are many variations on these six conventions. Like any other restrictive form of poetry - iambic pentameter, or hyku - the artistry lies in the twist the writer can put on the conventions: reordering them, inverting them, compressing or expanding a theme against the other. sometimes a writer will not include one or two of these elements as part of his message.
Bible readers are most familiar with this type of hymn in the "Song of the Sea" (Exodus 15), Moses' victory song after crossing the Sea of Reeds and seeing the overwhelming of the pursuing Egyptians:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD : "I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.
2 The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.
3 The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.
4 Pharaoh's chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh's officers are drowned in the Red Sea….
9 "The enemy boasted, 'I will pursue, I will overtake them. I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them.'
10 But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters.
11 "Who among the gods is like you, O LORD ? Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?....
13 "In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling….
17 You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance— the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established.
18 The LORD will reign for ever and ever."

Other examples of the hymn form appear in Josh. 10-11; Ps. 48, 74; Isa. 51: 9-11, 59:15-20, 63-64; Zech. 9.

This is a remarkably flexible and enduring poetic genre. It is used in the Hebrew Scriptures early and late in the Biblical period to address all kinds of conflict: cosmic or national, military or religious, external or internal, struggles literal and metaphoric.

1. See Cross, Frank, "The Divine Warrior in Israel's Early Cult," in Biblical Motifs and Hanson, Paul, The Dawn of Apocalyptic.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050