God in Conflict: Images of the Divine Warrior in Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Texts

In the ancient world, writers routinely appealed to martial motifs to express their beliefs and hopes related to the divine. Texts from the ancient Near East depict deities in conflict with one another over the rightful rule of the cosmos. Documents among the Hebrew Bible, which arose out the ancient Near Eastern context, continued to adapt images of divine conflict when describing the God of Israel; Jewish authors, however, showed much creativity in bending and shaping the traditional motifs for their rhetorical and theological purposes. This adaptation of divine war images endured into the first century CE among New Testament authors, who incorporated the person and work of Jesus Christ into traditional conflict motifs. This essay offers a brief overview of some key images and texts from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that framed God as a warrior; it also gestures toward the varieties of ways authors expressed the hope that God would fight for God’s people, defeat their adversaries, and restore the chosen people.

See Also: Scott C. Ryan, Divine Conflict and the Divine Warrior: Listening to Romans and Other Jewish Voices, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019).

By Scott C. Ryan
Assistant Professor of Religion and Biblical Studies
Department of Humanities
Claflin University, Orangeburg, South Carolina
October  2019


When July 4 rolls around, many in the United States of America attend Independence Day celebrations. As spectators watch fireworks burst and cascade across the sky against a backdrop of music, it is likely they will hear the well-known tune “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and supporter of the Union cause during the Civil War, penned the song with the help of soldiers as a war march sung in protest against antebellum slavery (Stauffer). They set the lyrics to the anti-slavery tune of “John’s Brown Body,” which itself was adapted from an old hymn published in 1807, “Say, Brother, Will You Meet Us/On Canaan’s Happy Shore” (Stauffer). Since the publication of Howe’s version in The Atlantic in 1862, the tune proved to be a rhetorically flexible one; indeed, “The Battle Hymn” has been used in support of nearly every political position – from white nationalism to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond (Limbong).

            What might be lost on those who sing the hymn with the repeated refrain “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!” at July 4 festivities is that Howe’s lines draw from the deep well of what scholars refer to as divine conflict traditions. Numerous documents from ancient Jewish and early Christian groups include descriptions of God as a warring figure. Howe framed the deity in analogous terms. “The Battle Hymn” describes God as the one “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” “loosing the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and “sounding forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat,” all of which are martial images similar to those in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The warring imagery of the song even includes an allusion to Genesis 3:15 (and maybe Romans 16:20) in reference to human soldiers and/or Jesus Christ: “Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel.” To be sure, appropriating such motifs for triumphal purposes and claiming God’s support in the context of a powerful nation-state is fraught with theological and analogical problems, which all of those in such a context would do well to consider carefully.

       The purpose of this essay is to offer a brief analysis of the images related to divine conflict in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, some of which resound in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As will be evident, divine conflict represents a rich fund of motifs in the Jewish and Christian traditions, which authors used to express the hope that God would play the role of divine warrior, come to the aid of the people, defend them against enemies, vindicate them, and reverse their fortunes. The number of motifs and texts associated with divine conflict are far too vast to address fully here; nonetheless, the following overview highlights some key motifs and texts related to the portrayal of God as warrior in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Contested Rule: The Divine Warrior in the Jewish Scriptures

For modern readers, the idea of God participating in warring activities might on first glance appear out of place. Yet a careful reading of biblical texts and other documents from the ancient Near East reveals images related to deities in battle. Babylonian and Canaanite writers perceived the cosmos to be contested territory. In these texts, the gods vie for sovereignty over the world and must earn their rightful place on the cosmic throne by winning victory over contenders. Adela Yarbro Collins’s summary of the paradigm of divine conflict provides a helpful starting point:

       The pattern depicts a struggle between two divine beings and their allies for universal kingship. One of the combatants is usually a monster, very often a dragon. This monster represents chaos and sterility, while his opponent is associated with order and fertility. Thus, their conflict is a cosmic battle whose outcome will constitute or abolish order in society and fertility in nature. (Combat Myth, 57)


Subsequent scholars discern similar patterns in ancient Near Eastern and biblical texts to the one proposed by Collins. For instance, Tremper Longman and Daniel Reid, in their book God Is a Warrior, find the repeated theme of warfare among the gods, where one of them emerges as victor. As a result of his/her triumph, the other deities acclaim the hero as king or queen of the cosmos. Following the coronation, the conqueror proceeds to build dwelling places for his/her allies and a grand celebration ensues, often complete with victory hymns sung in praise of the victor and celebratory feasts (Longman and Reid, 83–85; see Gombis, 405, 407).

In these divine conflicts, authors tend to portray the gods in human-like ways, using what they know of mortal warriors. The gods use similar martial tactics to those in the terrestrial realm and take up weapons in their hands to fight against one another; the tools of war, however, are often cosmic ones, such as the elements of the storm, lightning, rain, and withholding rain to bring a drought. Although the battles routinely occur in the otherworldly sphere, at times the gods step onto the human stage to war against and/or in support of mortal beings (see further Millhouse, 44).

       A prime example of divine conflict appears in the Babylonian text the Enuma Elish. This creation epic narrates the story of how the material world and the humans who inhabit it came to be. The focal battle in the Enuma Elish occurs between the storm-god, Marduk, and the sea goddess/dragon, Tiamat. The gods agree to grant Marduk cosmic rule if he is up to the task of defeating Tiamat (EE II.154–162). The text follows the basic pattern noted above from Collins and Longman and Reid. As the storm-god, Marduk rides in a cloud chariot and has at his disposal the elements of the storm to use as weapons (EE IV.31–122; cf. II.151). Marduk defeats Tiamat and thus confirms his power over the chaotic sea, represented by Tiamat. He then uses Tiamat’s body to create the heavens, waters, and earth, provides dwellings for the deities, and places the stars in the sky (EE IV.123–146, V.1–66). Near the end of the text, the gods proclaim Marduk’s cosmic kingship in a victory hymn (EE V.75–166) in which they celebrate the might and dominion of the newly crowned Marduk (EE VII.160–162). Additional documents from the ancient milieu evince similar motifs and patterns, such as the Sumerian Anzu, the Aššur version of the Enuma Elish, and the Ugaritic Ba‘lu Cycle (on this literature, see Ballentine, 22–72; Cross, Canaanite Myth; idem, “Divine Warrior,” 11–30; Miller, Divine Warrior; idem, “El the Warrior,” 411–31).

       Authors of ancient Jewish texts also appeal to themes of divine war when describing the God of Israel. Divine conflict in the Jewish Scriptures falls into two broad categories: (1) God wars on behalf of Israel in order to defeat their enemies and/or deliver the chosen people; and (2) God wars against the chosen people of Israel – often commanding foreign entities to besiege and take them captive – as a means of judgment. In addition, there are other points when the Israelite deity operates via a human agent, such as the ruler of a nation or a messianic figure, to accomplish desired outcomes, especially the restoration of Israel (see, e.g., Isa 11–12; 43; 44:24–45:25; Dan 7; 10; 1 En. 37–71; Ps. Sol. 17).

       God’s deliverance of the Israelites from enslavement to the Egyptian Pharaoh falls into the first category and provides a vivid example of God fighting on behalf of Israel. The Exodus event stands as a significant moment in the life of Israel. It is here, in the second book of the canon, that God demonstrates God’s immense power over foreign nations and the elements of creation, as well as God’s commitment to Israel when battling against Israel’s enemies.

        Following the ten plagues God sends against Egypt, Pharaoh finally allows the Israelites to flee (Exod 7–11). Soon after their departure, however, Pharaoh changes his mind and assembles an army to pursue the people. The Egyptians corner the Israelites at the Red Sea. With no escape, the people must depend on God to save them (Exod 14:5–12). Moses assures the Israelites that God will fulfill the promise to deliver them with a “mighty hand” (Exod 14:13–14; 6:1–13). In fact, Moses claims the people need only to be silent and witness their salvation as God fights on their behalf (Exod 14:14). Operating through Moses, God causes the waters of the to stand in a heap and provides a way for the Israelites to walk to the other side. The Egyptian army even recognizes this divine action as God “fighting” against them (Exod 14:25). After the Israelites cross safely, the Egyptians pursue only to founder in the waters as the walls crash down on them (Exod 14:21–28). Not only does the narrative affirm God’s ability to rescue Israel, but it also expresses the power God holds over foreign nations and the raging waters, which are familiar themes among divine conflict texts in the ancient world.

       Immediately following the episode in chapter 14, Moses offers a song in praise of God’s deliverance in Exodus 15:1–18 (see also the song of Miriam in Exod 15:20–21 and the song of Judith in Judith 9:2–14; cf. Odes Sol. 1:3). The hymn plays on common motifs related to divine conflict (see further Miller, 113; Cross, 112–44; Trimm, 12). According to Moses, God’s enemies are no match for the immense power of Israel’s helper and defender (Exod 15:1–3); the right hand of the Lord protects the chosen people, “shatters” their opponents, and tosses their adversaries into the sea and consumes them with fire (Exod 15:4–10). Moses even describes God as “a man of wars” in the Hebrew Bible and “the God who crushes wars” in the Greek versions (Exod 15:3). This reference serves as an explicit naming of the God of Israel as a divine warrior, who fights on behalf of God’s people (see also Deut 33:1–3, 26–29). For the Israelites, the Exodus event proves their deity holds sovereignty over the cosmos; subsequent authors reuse images from the story as a way of inspiring hope that God will indeed rise up again to deliver the people from oppression and restore the nation (see, e.g., Isa 11:10–16; Pss 69; 78; 89).

       Another example of divine conflict appears in Isaiah 59 – a text that portrays God suiting up in armor to deliver Israel. The chapter begins with a series of accusations against Israel: the sinfulness of the people separates them from God; their hands are defiled with blood; and they spew lies and wickedness (Isa 59:2–8). And yet, “the Lord’s hand is not too short to save” and the Lord’s “ear is not too dull to hear” (Isa 59:1). When God sees there is no one to aid Israel, God puts on “righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle” (Isa 59:17). God then brings “wrath to his adversaries” and “requital to his enemies” (Isa 59:18), and comes “to Zion as Redeemer” (Isa 59:20). Isaiah 60 follows the oracle in chapter 59 with a victory song that proclaims Israel’s restoration by God’s hand.

       Elsewhere in Isaiah, the prophet uses the divine conflict image of the divine sword, which the prophet describes as “cruel and great and strong” (Isa 27:1). Paired with this weapon is a reference to the mythical sea dragon called Leviathan, whom Isaiah claims God will punish with the sword (Isa 27:1). This “twisting serpent” and “dragon” of the sea God will destroy when God marches to battle (Isa 27:1, 4; see also Job 26:13; Odes Sol. 22:5; and Ps 74, where God “crushes” and “breaks” the heads of dragons and Leviathan). Later, in Isaiah 51–52, the prophet again references a dragon as God’s enemy. Isaiah reminds the people of God’s great feat to dry up the waters to redeem Israel in the Exodus event (Isa 51:10–11) and calls on the arm of the Lord to wake up and defend the people. The prophet claims this divine arm is the same one that cut Rahab the dragon into pieces (Isa 51:9; see also Ps 89:10); Isaiah also couples this claim with images of divine kingship (Isa 52:7–10). Such references to God’s defeat of serpents and dragons and affirmations of God’s kingship exhort the Israelites to put confidence in their deity, who holds the power to strike their enemies and restore their fortunes.

       The minor prophets evince similar themes. In Joel 3, for instance, the prophet tells the nations to “prepare war, stir up the warriors” and requests that God “bring down your warriors,” because “the wine press is full” and ready for treading (Joel 3:9, 11, 13; Zech 14; Jer 25:30–32). The prophet Joel depicts an eschatological day of judgment in martial terms. Often called the “day of the Lord” in prophetic literature, the time of judgment will be a terrible event for those on the receiving end of the warrior’s forays, while it will be a day of vindication and restoration for God’s people. The prophet Joel claims that humans even participate in the eschatological battle as they beat their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears (Joel 3:10; cf. Isa 2:4). As is common among divine conflict texts, creation responds to the march of the divine warrior, withering and shaking at the sound of the Lord’s voice (Joel 3:16; Amos 1:2; Jer 25:30). But the destruction gives way to restoration and peace for God’s people; God’s warring activity creates the conditions for the people to live in fidelity to God alone as the true king (see Joel 3:17–21; Zech 14:16-21; Amos 9:11–15).

       Yet, as noted above, the portrayal of God as a warrior is not limited to God battling on Israel’s behalf. Divine war motifs proved to be quite malleable, and authors adapted the images to fit their rhetorical purposes. At times in the biblical canon – and especially in Israelite prophetic literature – God also orchestrates battles against the people of Israel. In these cases, God sends foreign invaders and elements of creation to oppose the chosen people, often as a means of judgment for violating covenant loyalty. It is important to note that in these cases the purpose of God’s warring activity is not to destroy Israel completely; rather, the goal is to chastise Israel and bring Israel back to fidelity to God. What is more, in almost every case where these martial attacks come by the divine hand, the prophets pair oracles of destruction with the divine promise to save and restore Israel. The same deity, therefore, who holds sovereignty over foreign nations and all creation and who uses them as weapons, also holds the power to deliver and reverse the fortunes of Israel.

       The prophet Ezekiel offers a fitting example of this type of divine conflict. Set in the context of the Babylonian exile after the razing of the Jerusalem temple (Ezek 1:1–3), the book of Ezekiel reframes the destruction at the hands of a foreign nation as God’s own work. In doing so, Ezekiel takes away the victory and power of the Babylonians (from the Israelite’s perspective): the only reason the Babylonians proved successful in their siege against Jerusalem is because the sovereign ruler of the cosmos sent this enemy against Israel for violating the covenant. This means, in turn, that God remains the ruler of the world, commanding foreign armies to do God’s bidding and accomplish God’s purposes.

       Ezekiel describes Israel as “a rebellious house” (Ezek 3:9, 27), which will face divine judgment because of its “abominations” and rejection of God’s ordinances (Ezek 5:5–12). God thus intends to unsheathe the divine sword (Ezek 5:12, 17; 33:27), wield creation as weapons against the people, and loose the deadly arrows of famine, wild animals, and pestilence against the people (Ezek 5:13–17; 14:13, 21; 33:27). In Ezekiel 11:8–9, the prophet states that God will bring the sword against Israel by handing them over to foreign nations as a form of judgment. In the midst of Ezekiel’s prediction of destruction, he also promises that God will deliver and restore the nation from the hands of their foes: Ezekiel 11:17–19 claims God will gather the scattered people and restore the land to them (see also the eschatological battle against Gog and Magog in Ezek 37–39). Later in the book, Ezekiel 20 repeats similar themes of judgment and restoration, along with imagery from Exodus and themes of cosmic kingship (see Ezek 20:33). Like the episode in Ezekiel 11, here, too, God’s judgment in the exile leads to God’s restoration of the people so that “all the house of Israel” will serve God in the land (Ezek 20:40).

      A host of other texts could be marshaled to demonstrate further the point that ancient Jewish authors portray God as a divine warrior. God enters into conflict to defend and deliver the people and even commands foreign enemies and created elements to attack the people (along with the promise to deliver and restore after a time of judgment). Additional texts from Daniel 7–12, Enochic literature, Wisdom of Solomon, Psalms of Solomon, the War Scroll (1QM) from Qumran, and 4 Ezra also evince divine conflict motifs, which authors re-shape for their own purposes (on these texts, see Ryan). Divine conflict images thus permeate the Jewish tradition and appear in a variety of forms and for a variety of purposes in ancient Jewish literature (Longman and Reid, 13; cf. Longman, 306; Miller, 17).

Reshaping Divine Conflict: The Divine Warrior in the New Testament

The martial motifs so prevalent in ancient Near Eastern texts and the Hebrew Bible did not disappear from the scene when authors of New Testament texts reflected on the cross, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, New Testament writers, like their forebears and contemporaries, also utilize and transform divine conflict motifs. Early Christian authors filter their use of such images through the unexpected invasion of God into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, New Testament authors found creative ways to integrate Jesus’ death on a cross and subsequent resurrection into the divine conflict traditions they knew well.

        The place to begin a précis of divine war in the New Testament is at the end of the canon, that is, the apocalyptic text known as the Revelation to John. Written near the close of the first century CE, likely during Domitian’s reign as Roman emperor, the author frames the book as the revelatory vision given to John. With rich symbolic imagery, the Apocalypse discloses to readers the coming cosmic battle in which God finally will defeat the forces of evil. The author hopes this revelation will inspire the audience to resist becoming hypnotized by the beast of the Roman Empire and its power and might. John’s Apocalypse includes depictions of God as a divine warrior and incorporates the person and work of Jesus Christ into the traditional motifs.

        The vision conveyed in Revelation 12 describes a conflict between a woman great with child and a red dragon. The dragon imagery serves as a common divine conflict motif. Revelation 12:9 identifies this “great dragon” and “ancient serpent” as “the Devil and Satan,” who has seven heads, ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads (Rev 12:3; cf. Dan 7). The dragon of Revelation displays his might and the cosmic scale of the conflict by sweeping down a third of the stars in the heavens and attempting to devour the newborn son, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev 12:4–5; see Rev 19:15; cf. Isa 11:4; Pss 2:9; 89:32). A bit later in the chapter, a war breaks out between Michael and the angels on one side and the dragon and his angels on the other (Rev 12:8). The serpent is thrown down to the earth, and a voice offers praise to God now that “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God and the authority of his Messiah” have come (Rev 12:10).

       The dragon further grants power to the beast (presumably the Roman Empire) and continues to pursue the woman, her child, and her descendants until the climax of the conflict in Revelation 19–21. In these latter chapters, the author describes Jesus as a warring messianic figure, who brings about the final defeat of the dragon. In Revelation 19:11, John sees the heavens opened and a rider called “Faithful and True” riding a white horse, who “judges and makes war” in righteousness. Several divine conflict elements appear in the description of the messianic figure. He brings a flame of fire, wears a diadem symbolizing his rule, and brings with him armies of heaven (Rev 19:11–12). What is more, from his mouth issues a “sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” and “he will rule over them with a rod of iron” (Rev 19:15). This “King of kings and Lord of lords” also “will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev 19:16). The beast and the rulers of the human realm attempt to war against Jesus and his armies, but the beast is captured and thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 19:19–20). Following Jesus’ victory, the author describes a feast similar to the celebratory feasts in honor of the divine warrior’s victory in other ancient documents (Rev 19:17–18, 21; cf. Isa 25:6–10; 34:6–8; Ezek 39:17–20).

        Beyond the Johannine Apocalypse, the Pauline letters include divine warfare motifs that fall into two heuristic categories: (1) God wars against the powers at work in the world enslaving humans; and (2) God exhorts the communities of Paul’s letters to participate in the ongoing battle alongside God in the present (see Longman, 302–05; Longman and Reid, 136–64; Sherlock, 335–79; Macky, 117–88). First Thessalonians is likely one of the earliest surviving letters from the apostle Paul. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1–10, Paul describes an eschatological scenario, which he refers to as the “day of the Lord,” well known from Israel’s prophetic literature (1 Thess 5:2; cf. 1 Cor 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; Phil 1:6, 10; 2:16; on this theme, see Longman, 292–94). Paul also includes the binary oppositions of light vs. darkness in conflict with one another – a motif that appears in many texts, especially in the eschatological battle depicted in the War Scroll (1QM), where God aids the “sons of light” in the cosmic fight against the “sons of darkness.” As a further indication that Paul is adapting traditional divine conflict motifs, he claims the members of the community suit up in spiritual armor. They “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation,” which are pieces similar to the garb of the divine warrior in Isaiah 59 (1 Thess 5:8; cf. Isa 11:5; Wis 5). Thomas Yoder Neufeld refers to this creative use of the armor motif from Isaiah 59 as a “democratizing” of the role of the divine warrior (Neufeld, 89–93; 154–55). The community now participates in the present conflict by living in a manner that resists the ways of darkness (cf. Rom 13:11–14).

       Although some scholars are skeptical that the letter to the Ephesians is an authentic Pauline letter, this text includes divine conflict motifs similar to those in 1 Thessalonians 5. In Ephesians 6, the author adapts the divine warrior’s armor from Isaiah 59 and exhorts the audience to “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10–11; cf. 6:13). They suit up with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, along with the shield of faith to withstand “all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:14–17). As in 1 Thessalonians, this writer sees the present time as a spiritual battle in which the people “struggle” not against “enemies of blood and flesh,” but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12; see Neufeld, 93, 154–55; Gombis, 155–79; idem, “Ephesians 2”).

       In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul offers an extended discussion on bodily resurrection. Throughout the chapter, we find references to kingship and dominion. Take, for example, 15:24–25 where the apostle claims that at the end Christ will destroy “every ruler and every authority and power” before handing over the kingdom to God. Every enemy will be placed under Christ’s feet, including Death – the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:25–26). Paul sees God operating in the person of Christ to war against opponents and ultimately to defeat Death. Near the end of the discourse, the apostle returns to similar themes of conflict when he notes that a trumpet will sound to mark the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:52; cf. Ezek 33:3–6; Amos 3:6; Ps 98:4–9; Pss. Sol. 8:1). The apostle cites Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 in 1 Corinthians 15:54–55. Both texts, he claims, soon will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (Isa 25:8) and Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (Hos 13:14). These two citations come from chapters in the respective prophetic texts where God appears as a divine warrior. Note also that we find the language of “victory” in v. 57; Paul offers a note of praise to God because “we” are granted victory through “Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 15:57).

       Finally, Romans also contains elements related to divine conflict, most notably in chapters 5–8. Although Paul states humans were once “enemies” of God, they now have peace with their creator because Christ died on their behalf and rectified the relationship (Rom 5:1–11; 8:1, 6). According to the apostle, Sin operates in the world to enslave humans and serves as an opponent of God (Rom 5:12–21; 6:12–14); however, God demonstrated God’s love for human beings by setting them free from captivity to Sin via the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 5:6–11, 15–23; 6:15–23). God thus battles not against humans, but against the powers enslaving them and God does so through Jesus Christ in the cross, death, and resurrection. In Romans, even non-human creation is caught up in the captivity Sin perpetuates over the cosmos and awaits a final redemption (Rom 8:18–25). In the meantime, Paul insists that those in the community are now “more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37), who present their bodies to God as “weapons” to be used in the ongoing battle (Rom 6:12–14). Even as the conflict rages in the present, Paul claims nothing in all of creation will gain victory over Paul’s audience or pull them away from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:31–39; see further Rom 13:11–14; 16:17–20).


As noted earlier, the foregoing overview only begins to address the varieties of divine conflict in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Yet, judging from the analysis offered here, we can see that authors of ancient Jewish and early Christian texts deployed images related to God at war for various purposes and in various contexts. Even with such diversity, however, a few common themes emerge among ancient Jewish and early Christian writers.

       We can summarize the findings as follows. (1) In a number of documents, God wars in defense of the people of Israel. Often the depiction of God as a warrior appears in contexts where Israel stands under an oppressive regime and needs rescue. God steps in, using the divine hand, wielding the sword, elements of creation, or operating via a human agent to deliver the people. The Israelite prophets and psalmists also hope that God will rescue Israel in an eschatological scenario, defeat enemies, and restore the people. (2) At times, the prophets also portray God in conflict with the chosen people as a response to their failure to uphold the covenant relationship. In a number of cases, God demonstrates power by using foreign nations and creation to besiege and capture the Israelites as a form of chastisement. But even in these cases, the prophets also include a promise that God will reverse their situation. In other words, the God who has the power to discipline the people also has the power to deliver them. (3) Following the ancient divine conflict patterns, authors tend to pair martial images with those of divine kingship, usually as a way of expressing belief in God’s sovereignty over the cosmos. (4) When we consider New Testament texts, we see yet again authors continuing to utilize divine conflict themes. These authors demonstrate again the flexibility of divine conflict motifs and their own creative use of the traditions by interweaving the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus becomes the figure through whom God wars against the powers enslaving humans. In the Pauline letters, the use of this theme takes on a different dimension, as God wars against the powers at work in the world not by arriving in full armor, but by handing over Jesus to death and thereby delivering humans. Consistent with other Jewish texts, the Pauline letters then invite those delivered to participate in the ongoing battle prior to the final consummation.

       The next time someone encounters Howe’s lyrics in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” he/she might recognize that Howe, and the soldiers who assisted her in re-writing the tune, participated in a long-established tradition. In a similar way to those forebears who adapted images of God at war, Howe and her colleagues also reused and reshaped these images in a new context for their particular purpose. As the preceding analysis demonstrates, authors employed the conflict images in different ways, and readers should be careful to interpret such instances carefully and critically.

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Stauffer, John, and Benjamin Soskis, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Trimm, Charlie. “Yahweh Fights for Them”: The Divine Warrior in the Exodus Narrative. Gorgias Biblical Studies 58. Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2014.

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