The Ethics of War in Ancient Israel and Assyria

It will come as little surprise to students of the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern affinities that the idea of the human king as a defender of the cosmic order is closely paralleled in the biblical texts. As in Assyria, the human king is YHWH’s counterpart, defending order and justice on earth in a perpetual re-enactment of YHWH’s own battle against chaos. Though deliberately obscured in the priestly account of creation in Genesis, the idea that YHWH’s creative acts were preceded by a battle against chaos is recognisable in a number of psalms.

See also: War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in Light of Cosmology and History (BZAW 407; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009). [hardback] [e-book] [paperback]

By Carly L. Crouch
Associate Professor in Hebrew Bible
University of Nottingham
August 2017

Decapitation. Impalement. Flaying. Tying prisoners up in cages like dogs. These are but a few of the more extreme acts of violence enacted by the militaries of the ancient Near East. The tendency of scholars and lay readers alike has been to recoil in disgust at these violent descriptions of warfare. Unfortunately, this gut-level revulsion has tended to preempt attempts to understand such acts: we read the ancients’ reports with little regard for context, and assume that they did these things despite knowing them to be immoral. A closer look suggests that this is far from the case. In language with notable modern echoes, the ancients understood war as a life-or-death struggle against alternative way of life that were fundamentally opposed to their own ordered existence, which threatened to bring all of civilisation—indeed, all of the known universe—into disorder and chaos.

Though war may at first glance appear strictly physical—the engagement of armies on the battlefield, with concrete political and economic explanations—its ultimate justification is far more existential: it is a struggle to defend ‘our’ way of life against those who threaten to destroy it. The way in which this sense of danger is articulated varies from culture to culture, but is always intimately related to the overarching framework within which a society’s members view their world. It is not surprising, therefore, to see that the conduct of war in Israel and in Assyria was articulated in terms of their respective accounts of creation.[1]

The Assyrian understanding of creation is best known from Enuma elish, sometimes called the Babylonian Epic of Creation or the Glorification of Marduk. Among other things, Enuma elish includes an account of creation in which Marduk is commissioned by several other gods to fight against the sea goddess Tiamat, who threatens to destroy the universe in her fury over the death of her husband, Apsu. Marduk’s victory prevents the dissolution of the universe into watery chaos and enables his creation of an ordered world. The epic climaxes with the gods’ acknowledgment of Marduk as king and an acclamation of his fifty names.

The ideas that make up this account provide the underpinnings of the Assyrian understanding of warfare. Marduk defeats Tiamat in battle, using conventional weaponry (e.g., bow and arrows) as well as the forces of nature (e.g., flood and storm). As a result of his victory he is declared king of the gods and he is able to proceed in the creation of an orderly and habitable universe. According to Enuma elish, then, the created order is achieved through the violent defeat of Tiamat by the divine king Marduk.

Though interesting, this would be of little use in explaining the behaviour of human kings and their armies if the activities of the gods and the activities of humans existed in mutually exclusive spheres of morality and reality. The story of Marduk the warrior establishing order in the face of Tiamat’s chaos is nothing more than a nice story about the gods unless there is a connection between deity and humanity. The key to this connection is kingship. As already mentioned, Marduk is declared king of the gods as a result of his triumph over Tiamat. In this framework, war is a function of kingship. This is true of both human kingship and of divine kingship.

War is the mutual obligation of the human king as well as the divine king, and the latter’s capacity to fulfil this obligation is made possible through the gift of weaponry from the gods. The practical consequences of this throught process are visible in the royal inscriptions; the first task a new king must undertake is to go out on campaign. When we examine these inscriptions closely, we also see how these human military endeavours are articulated as part of a wider struggle against chaos, with the king’s battles mirroring those of Marduk. The effect is to present the human king and the divine king as working in tandem: the violent actions of both are directed towards the destruction of their chaotic enemies. The Assyrian king’s dispatch of his enemies is thus not merely a matter of historical politics, but a matter of order or chaos, life or death, on a cosmic scale.

The ethical implications of this may be made more explicit. Tiglath-pileser III, who ruled from 745-727 BCE, describes his effects on his enemies as like the effects wrought by the weapons of Marduk at creation, namely the flood and the net. The former especially is not a natural weapon of war; it is used to connect the king’s actions against his enemies with the god’s against chaos. In his titulary, which served as a summary of his self-perception, he describes himself as the one who ‘smashed like pots all the unsubmissive, swept over them like the flood, made them as powerless ghosts’. Sargon II (r. 724-705) uses the same imagery from creation mythology: references to the flood and to the net, together with references to fog and storm. The latter is another weapon explicitly used by Marduk against Tiamat and, while fog is not one of Marduk’s initial weapons in his battle, he subsequently makes it out of Tiamat’s spittle. Sargon’s claim to have used these weapons against his enemies aligns his military activities with those of Marduk at creation. He also repeatedly emphasises that he was ‘without rival’ in battle and combat, which may allude to the climax of Enuma elish, in which Marduk is also declared to be without rival.

Allusions to Enuma elish are more frequent and more complex when an inscription is describing more extreme acts of violence. So, for example, when Sargon describes having bespattered the Babylonians ‘with the venom of death’, he emphasises that this is because they are an ally of Tiamat: he describes them as the ‘likeness of a gallû-demon’, one of the minions of Tiamat in Enuma elish. Similarly, the accounts of Sennacherib’s (r. 705-681) campaigns against the Babylonians contain an unusual concentration of allusions to Enuma elish. This time, the citizens of the entire city are called gallû-demons, and their king is said to be enthroned ‘inappropriately for him’, invoking a rare phrase used to describe Tiamat’s enthronement of her second husband, Qingu, in the midst of her struggles against Marduk. Sennacherib describes himself ‘like the onset of a raging storm’ and ‘like a huge flood fed by seasonal rains’, imagining himself as the weaponry used against Tiamat. This concatenation of allusions is not coincidental: the Babylonian campaigns involved by far the most extreme violence of Sennacherib’s reign. In one passage, for example, he says that ‘(Their) lips I cut off, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers of Siwan (June). Their hands I cut off’. The intensity of allusions to Enuma elish work hard to explain these acts of extreme violence in terms of an existential struggle against chaos. Though violent, the Assyrian kings’ actions are not wanton: they are proportional to the perceived danger, articulated in terms of the enemies’ affinity with personified chaos.

Both Sargon and Sennacherib further reinforce their moral standing by making claims about their own just and righteous status. Sennacherib’s titulary, for example, explicitly conflates of his moral standing and his role in preserving order: it declares that he is the ‘guardian of the right, lover of justice…the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive, who strikes the wicked with lightning’. Both kings’ inscriptions place a heavy emphasis on the rebelliousness of their enemies, using language that conflates this rebellion with sin. Although the emphasis on rebellion is partially pragmatic, because both kings inherited empires and therefore spent much of their time defending earlier gains rather than forging new ones, it also suggests meaningful ethical reflection on the higher level of violence demanded of these kings in their attempts to maintain their empire. These kings’ particular emphasis on their enemies’ rebelliousness seems to suggest that the increased levels of violence required a concomitant increase in moral rationalisation.

It will come as little surprise to students of the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern affinities that the idea of the human king as a defender of the cosmic order is closely paralleled in the biblical texts. As in Assyria, the human king is YHWH’s counterpart, defending order and justice on earth in a perpetual re-enactment of YHWH’s own battle against chaos. Though deliberately obscured in the priestly account of creation in Genesis, the idea that YHWH’s creative acts were preceded by a battle against chaos is recognisable in a number of psalms. That the psalms preserve the clearest vestiges of this tradition, and exhibit some of the closest connections to the Assyrian tradition, is unsurprising: the psalms probably derive from the royal temple and court, and thus reflect a similar social provenance to the Assyrian inscriptions.

Psalms 18 and 89 are especially clear. In Psalm 18, a number of verbs commonly associated with YHWH as warrior are used to connect YHWH to the king, and the psalm also associates certain military imagery (bow, arrow, shield) with both parties. Although this general synergy between YHWH and the king is important in its own right, what is especially remarkable is the way in which it is presented in the context of the struggle for creation. The psalm offers a long description of YHWH’s military power, using terms that evoke YHWH’s struggle against chaos (Ps. 18:11-16), and then, in the midst of a threat from chaotic waters, YHWH seizes the king and equips him to combat those forces by bestowing upon him his own military skill (Ps. 18:17-18).

Psalm 89 reiterates the close connection between YHWH and the human king and underlines the extent to which the human king’s military activity is seen as part of a cosmic struggle. The psalm depicts YHWH as the triumphant victor over the chaotic sea (Ps. 89:11), culminating in the declaration that YHWH is king (Ps. 89:19). Water imagery in the depiction of YHWH’s support for the human king (Ps. 89:22, 26) links the king’s military endeavors to YHWH’s creative battle against chaos, associating the king’s enemies with the chaotic forces which are the opponent of the divine struggle as well (Ps. 89:23–26). As in Assyrian thought, the intimacy between god and king makes aggression against Israel tantamount to aggression against YHWH, and the threat posed by these mutual enemies is conceived in cosmic terms.

That Israel (in any of its forms) never exerted the kind of power that Assyria did seems not to have precluded the theoretical justification of such pursuits. In Psalm 72, for example, the king’s power is ideally conceived as universal, with foreign kings expressing their subordinate status through tribute or prostration. The idea that the execution of violent defeat is a matter of the establishment of justice is also expressed in Ps. 110:5, with the nations full of corpses and shattered heads. As in Assyria, justice language emphasises that this is in these nations’ interests: their people are in need of pastoral care and rescue from corrupt leaders. The psalms also identify Israel’s enemies as wicked, casting Israel as the suppressor of the nations’ unnatural, antisocial, and immoral activities. YHWH and the psalmist are aligned with justice, the nations with wickedness (Pss. 9:15-16; 68:21; 144:11; 9:5-6).

These psalms reflect a moral framework in which king and god converge in war to defeat the chaotic threat posed by their mutual enemies, an ongoing manifestation of the struggle between YHWH and the sea at creation. That the king is engaged in the perpetuation and extension of this same struggle for order is evident from the general affiliations between YHWH and the king as well as more specific allusions. Military affront against Israel is interpreted as a theological affront to the sovereignty of YHWH, and language of wickedness and innocence underscore the moral rectitude of punitive violence. The object of military action is the incorporation of an ever-increasing territory into the ordered dominion of god and king.

Before concluding, it is important to recognise that this cosmological schema was neither static nor immutable. We have seen already how the particular circumstances of Assyria’s conflicts with the Babylonians provoked especially extreme acts of violence and concomitantly extensive invocations of Enuma elish. We have not yet mentioned how rare such invocations are in the inscriptions of the last two major kings of Assyria, Esarhaddon (r. 680-669) and Assurbanipal (r. 668-626). Although the reasons for this are beyond the scope of this discussion, these kings elected to establish their synergy with the gods through appeals to divination, especially prophecy. On the biblical side, it is no surprise to see opinions about war and its rationale change in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel resorts to a radical reconfiguration of the actors in the struggle against chaos: the king of Babylon becomes YHWH’s earthly counterpart, through whom YHWH seeks to establish order, whilst Egypt is the exemplary human chaotic force, a sea monster sprawled in the midst of its watery abode (29:3). In perhaps the most shocking revision, Ezekiel makes Israel’s status dependent on its political allegiances: allied to the Babylonian king, it is an ally of YHWH, but allied with Egypt it is YHWH’s enemy. YHWH’s kingship remains intact, but at the expense of drastic changes in the relationship between YHWH and Israel. Yet, dramatic though Ezekiel’s modifications may seem, they are nothing compared Genesis 1. Though Genesis still closely resembles the older material, it just as clearly departs from it. It emphasises the absolute sovereignty of YHWH, eliminating any hint of a battle as well as the existence of any other deities.

In both Israel and Assyria the idea that the ordered universe was created in the aftermath of an almighty battle between personified chaos and a god who was subsequently acclaimed king produced a world view in which military violence could be morally justified as a struggle against a fantastically dangerous alternative. The actions of human kings were portrayed as part of an ultimate and ongoing struggle, and thus to violently destroy the enemy became not only a matter of preserving one’s own way of life, in the immediate sense, but part of a much wider existential struggle for the preservation of the universe itself. Within an ideological framework where the social, natural and moral worlds are conflated into one, it comes as no surprise that obtaining the submission of the chaotic enemy was not merely a matter of moral tolerability but a matter of moral imperative.

Further reading

Adam, K.-P. Der Königliche Held: Die Entsprechung von kämpfendem Gott und kämpfendem König in Psalm 18. WMANT 91. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchner Verlag, 2001.

Crouch, C.L. ‘Made in the Image of God: The Creation of אדם, the Commissioning of the King and the Chaoskampf of Yhwh’. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 16 (2016): 1-21.

Crouch, C.L. War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in Light of Cosmology and History. BZAW 407. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.

Dalley, S. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Day, J. God's Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament. COP 35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Fales, F.M. “The enemy in Assyrian royal inscriptions: ‘the moral judgement’”. Pages 425-436 in vol. 2 of Mesopotamien und seine Nachbarn: politische und kulturelle Wechselbeziehungen im Alten Vorderasien vom 4. bis 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr. XXV. Rencontre assyriologique internationale Berlin, 3. bis 7. Juli 1978. Edited by H.-J. Nissen and J. Renger. BBVO 1. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1982.

Lambert, W. Babylonian Creation Myths. Mesopotamian Civilizations 16. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2013.

Liverani, M. “The ideology of the Assyrian empire”. Pages 297-318 in Power and Propaganda: A Symposium on Ancient Empires. Edited by M.T. Larsen. Mesopotamia 7. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1979.

Maul, S.M. “Der assyrische König – Hüter der Weltordnung”. Pages 65-77 in Gerechtigkeit: Richten und Retten in der abendländischen Tradition und ihrer altorientalischen Ursprüngen. Edited by J. Assmann, B. Janowski and M. Welker. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1998.

Oded, B. War, Peace and Empire: Justifications for War in Assyrian Royal Inscriptions. Weisbaden: Dr Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1992.

Porter, B.N. ‘Ancient Writers, Modern Readers, and King Ashurnasirpal’s Political Problems: An Exploration of the Possbility of Reading Ancient Texts.’ Pages 103-120 in Literary Construction of Identity in the Ancient World. Edited by H. Liss and M. Oeming. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbruans, 2010.

Weissert, E. “Creating a political climate: literary allusions to Enūma Eliš in Sennacherib’s account of the battle of Halule”. Pages 191-202 in Assyrien im Wandel der Zeiten: XXXIXe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Heidelberg 6.-10. Juli 1992. Edited by H. Waetzoldt and H. Hauptmann. HSAO 6. Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag, 1997.

Zehnder, M. Umgang mit Fremden in Israel und Assyrien: Ein Beitrag zur Anthropologie des »Fremden« im Licht antiker Quellen. BWANT 168. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2005.


[1] I use the familiar ‘Israel’ to refer to the entity(ies) whose theology and ethics are reflected in the biblical texts, in keeping with the dominant self-identification of the authors of these texts in those terms. Note, however, that the state affiliation of most of these authors was to Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem.

Comments (1)

What should we make of 2 Kings 6, which may not quite be a declaration of human rights but does show some principles of restraint in warfare, rather than Assyrian-style total war theory, being applied?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 08/09/2017 - 20:13

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