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Home >Theology of Peace and War > Wesleyan Quadrilateral> Scripture: Biblical Perspective > Old Testament


The Old Testament, derived from the Hebrew Bible, is a vital part of the Christian tradition. It reveals a growing understanding of God and God's will for us. It also shows evolving approaches to war and peace. Here we offer several perspectives of this legacy.

War and Hope for Peace in the Hebrew Bible
Old Testament Foundations for Peacemaking
Bishops Analyze the Old Testament

War and Hope for Peace in the Hebrew Bible
by Harold C. Washington

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) makes clear that Godís ultimate purpose for the world is peace and reconciliation among the nations, but it also contains troubling passages concerning warfare. How are we to understand the biblical praise of God as a mighty warrior (Exodus 15.3)? How can the biblical God of justice and mercy command wars of annihilation against Israelís enemies (e.g., 1 Samuel 15.2-3)? How can a Scripture containing such elements inspire peacemaking in the world today?


Old Testament Foundations for Peacemaking in the Nuclear Era
by Bruce C. Birch (1985)

Many discussions of the Old Testament foundations for peacemaking have narrowed too quickly to the accounts of Israel’s wars, without attention to the wider context of the Old Testament understanding of the world, and people’s relationship to God in the world. It is the Hebrew concept of shalom that will aid us most in identifying this wider context.


Bishops Analyze the Old Testament

During the 1980s when U.S. Catholic and United Methodist bishops conducted studies on nuclear weapons, they established a strong biblical basis for their conclusions. Much of their analysis applies to broader issues of war and peace. Here we summarize their observations on the Old Testament and provide referral to their documents.

U.S. Catholic Bishops

In their 1983 Pastoral Letter on War and Peace the National Conference of Catholic Bishops offered an analysis of how war and peace are portrayed in the multi-layered accounts of the Old Testament. They recognized: "Violence and war are very much present in the history of the people of God, particularly from the Exodus period to the monarchy." But the image of a warrior God "was not the only image, and it was gradually transformed, particularly after the experience of the exile, when God was no longer identified with military victory and might."

Thus, "the images of peace and the demands upon the people for covenantal fidelity to true peace grow more urgent and more developed." "It was part of fidelity to care for the needy and helpless....Furthermore, covenantal fidelity demanded that Israel put its trust in God alone and look only to him for security."

This led to a portrayal of hope for eschatological peace. In the final age, the Messianic time, creation will be made whole and "justice will dwell in the wilderness." "There will be no need for instruments of war." "A messiah will appear, a servant of God upon whom God has placed his spirit and who will faithfully bring forth justice to the nations."

For the U.S. Catholic bishops' full exposition on the Old Testament, read pp. 10-13 in The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response.

United Methodist Bishops

In their 1986 document In Defense of Creation the United Methodist Council of Bishops observed, "At the heart of the Old Testament is the testimony of shalom, that marvelous Hebrew word that means peace....Shalom is positive peace: harmony, wholeness, health, and well-being in all human relationships....It is harmony between humanity and all of God's good creation."

"To be sure," the bishops wrote, "the Old Testament tells of much violence and warfare. In Israel's earliest traditions Yahweh is often portrayed as a warrior. God's victory over Pharaoh and the Egyptians to liberate Hebrew slaves discloses God's implacable opposition to oppression and injustice, which violate shalom. Exodus is liberation."

"It is when the elders of Israel forsake their moral covenant for warrior-kings that the nation begins its dismal descent into generations of exploitation, repression, and aggression -- and then into chaos and captivity." The great prophets of Exile offer a renewed vision of shalom: "Swords into plowshares, arms converted to food and death to life, no more wars or training for wars, peaceable kingdoms, covenants written on the heart." "The images forecast the coming of One who will be the Prince of Peace."

Read pp. 23-27 in In Defense of Creation for the United Methodist bishops' full discussion of the Old Testament.

The United Methodist bishops offer further analysis of the Old Testament in their 2004 study guide, In Search of Security. Topics include the promise of God, to walk securely, the redemption of Israel, the question of justice, trust and security, and against false security.

Regarding the "wars of the Lord", the bishops point out that God destroyed the Egyptian army without any help from soldiers or weapons on Israel's side. "Even in the battles for the conquest of the promised land and its defense against its enemies we have many stories that seek to show rather graphically that God is not 'always with the largest battalions'. " The bishops conclude, "In the Bible, taking up arms is never the way to real security and peace."

The United Methodist bishops' Old Testament analysis is found on pp.7-11 of In Search of Security from the perspective of security.


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