Plowshares Into Swords: The Lost Biblical Ideal of Peace

By David Hazony

The Bible’s vision of peace differs markedly from what one may think.


On an arid plain on the east bank of the Jordan River some three thousand years ago, a young Israelite from the tribe of Levi hurled his javelin through the body of a prince of Israel, killing him along with the Midianite idol-princess who lay naked beneath him.
The biblical story of Pinhas marks the climax of one of the worst crises in the Israelite journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Only a few miles from their destination, many Israelites have abandoned God and turned to the Midianite god Ba’al-Pe’or, offering it sacrifices and partaking of its orgiastic devotional culture. Despite the best efforts of Moses, the religious corruption expands, reaching into the upper echelons of Israelite society and threatening to bring the new nation’s dissolution.
The crisis reaches its height when Zimri ben Salu, chief of the tribe of Simeon, ceremoniously escorts the daughter of Midian’s king into his tent—thereby declaring his tribe’s fidelity to Midian and its effective secession from Israel.1 As a paralyzed leadership looks on, Moses’ great-nephew Pinhas emerges from the crowd and, with a thrust of his spear, brings the crisis to its dramatic conclusion.
The Bible offers an immediate vindication for Pinhas’ act; God tells Moses of his unequivocal approval, and grants Pinhas an honor bestowed on no other individual in the Bible:
And God spoke to Moses, saying: Pinhas son of El’azar son of Aaron the Priest has subdued my anger at the children of Israel, by avenging my jealousy.... I therefore grant him my covenant of peace. And he and his descendants shall bear a covenant of eternal priesthood, since he avenged his God, and atoned for the children of Israel.
For his act of “jealousy” on God’s behalf, Pinhas earns himself a divine “covenant of peace,” as well as the promise of priesthood for his descendants. Moreover, Pinhas is hailed as a hero and subsequently placed in command of the 12,000-man force that invades and conquers the Midianites.3 
Pinhas’ covenantal reward has perturbed biblical commentators for millennia: How is it that a man who achieves extreme ends through violent means, and then leads the charge in war, is granted a reward redolent of amicability and nonviolence? What, indeed, has Pinhas to do with “peace”? The reader is left wondering whether he has missed something basic in the story—and whether the Bible does not have something entirely different in mind when using the term.
The modern peace idea rests on two closely-related principles, both of which merit little sanction from the Hebrew Bible. One is the rejection of the use of force in the maintenance of personal or national interests. This idea formed a central pillar of twentieth-century peace ideologies, causing leading pacifist thinkers such as Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Thomas Mann to call for the dismantling of standing armies entirely: In 1930, the three signed a declaration stating, “Peoples of the world: Unite and testify your desire for peace by demanding universal disarmament!”4 In a slightly modified form, the repudiation of force was permanently enshrined in the world’s political lexicon with the 1945 UN Charter, which obligated all member nations to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force” against other states.5 Today, the idea still stands at the head of peace-activist rhetoric, as seen, for example, in a declaration by Avraham Yassour—one of Israel’s leading peace scholars—that the “beginning of wisdom is the rejection of all means that contain violence and force.”6 
The other idea is that compromise is the only proper means of resolving conflicts—as epitomized by Woodrow Wilson’s famous wish that World War I end in “peace without victory,” that is, without the imposition of a victor’s terms upon the defeated.7 It is this notion which underlies the quest for negotiated settlements in almost all conflicts today: That the key to peace is the achievement of mutual agreement, which can only occur when each party sacrifices something they previously believed to be essential. To the contemporary mindset, the true “peacemaker” is the person who is willing to put aside his own ideas of history, justice and morality—in whose name wars are inevitably fought—in the interest of goodwill and nonviolence.8 
The biblical peace idea, in contrast, begins with an affirmation of self-interest. By far the most common use of “peace” (shalom) in the Bible is to mean “well-being”—usually referring to the health or prosperity of an individual. In the book of Genesis, when the young Jacob travels to Haran to find his uncle Lavan, he meets a group of shepherds who know the man. “Is he at peace?” asks Jacob after his uncle, and the shepherds offer a one-word affirmation: “Peace.” Jacob later sends his son Joseph to Shechem to see after his brothers, instructing him to “see about the peace of your brothers, and the peace of the sheep, and report back to me.”9
This is the principal meaning of the term throughout the later biblical stories, as well. When King David, in the midst of a brutal military conflict against his own son Absalom, asks a messenger returning from the battlefield: “Is the youth Absalom in peace?”10 —he is obviously referring neither to compromise, nor to rejection of force (they were, after all, at war), but to the latter’s personal well-being. Similarly, when the judge Gideon fears for his life after coming face-to-face with an angel, God reassures him, “You shall have peace; fear not, you shall not die.”11 In the book of Esther, Mordechai’s daily visits to the palace are meant to inquire after “the peace of Esther”—that is, her well-being—as he has not seen her in some time.12 And when Daniel undergoes an exhausting series of prophetic exchanges with various angels, he recounts that “in me there was no longer strength, and spirit remained not in me. But again, the likeness of a man touched me and strengthened me. And he said, ‘Fear not, beloved man. Peace unto you—be strong, strong!’”13 Again, “peace” here is the physical and mental well-being necessary for Daniel to continue his prophetic experience—irrespective of his relations with anyone else.
Perhaps the most striking example of peace as well-being appears in the book of Samuel, when King David encounters Uriah the Hittite, who has just returned from the front lines, and asks him about “the peace of Yoav, the peace of the people, and the peace of the war.”14 Startling in light of the modern usage, this case adds another dimension to the biblical peace idea: In the military context, “peace” throughout the Bible means not the avoidance of conflict through compromise, but precisely the opposite—progress toward victory. This usage, of course, is the inevitable extension of the Bible’s understanding of peace as well-being: In a military conflict, well-being is the movement toward victory.
Thus when Benjaminite and Judean tribesmen come to David’s stronghold in Tziklag, where he hides from King Saul’s efforts to kill him, he offers them his loyalty in exchange for their alliance in the war. Their response:
“We are for you, David, and with you, son of Yishai. Peace, peace unto you, and peace unto those who help you, for God has helped you.” So David accepted them, and placed them in charge of the forces.15
Here “peace” clearly refers to neither the rejection of force nor any sort of compromise, but to the military success of David’s forces—without which his personal well-being, in light of Saul’s unremitting enmity, is impossible. Similarly, the idiom “men of peace,” which appears a handful of times in the Bible, refers everywhere to allies in combat, and never to the modern sense of someone dedicated to brokered nonviolent conflict resolution.16
In Psalms also, the idea of peace as military success is explicit: “Praise the Eternal, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion! For he has strengthened the bars of your gates, and has blessed your children among you. He has placed peace at your borders, and has satisfied you with the finest of wheat.”17 The “bars of your gates” refers to military strength, implying that “peace at your borders” comes not from a neighboring country’s amicable intentions, but as a result of Israel’s strategic position. Elsewhere, the Psalmist draws a direct parallel between power and peace: “God grant his nation might, God bless his nation with peace.”18

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