On The Biblical Accounts of the Origin of Warfare: James 4:1-4 and Genesis 4:19-24

Today, in my continuing series on the Biblical Way of War, I would examine the issue of the origin of wars.  Two passages in the Bible particularly deal with the topic of the origin of warfare.  James 4:1-4 provides a theoretical account of the motivations that lead people to war and fight in the biblical worldview, and Genesis 4:19-24 shows that theory of warfare’s start in practice concerning the behavior of Lamech, who may be judged as the Bible’s first self-conscious practitioner of the military arts.  Examining what the Bible says, somewhat obliquely, about him, is useful in understanding warfare’s beginning in interpersonal violence.

James 4:1-4 and the Exploration of the Causes of War

James 4:1-4 is perhaps the clearest and most unmistakable account of the explanation for the causes of wars in the biblical worldview.  This short passage places the responsibility for warfare in mankind’s lusts for power and pleasure that lead to the eruption of conflict between others.  James 4:1-4 reads:  “Where do wars and fights come from among you?  Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war within your members?  You lust and do not have.  You murder and covet and cannot obtain.  You fight and war.  Yet you do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.  Adulterers and adulteresses!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

Let us examine that this particular passage is dealing with warfare and strife among the brethren.  After all, those who are “in the world” would presumably not be concerned about their friendship with the world.  Even those who supposedly have God’s spirit working with them are not immune to conflicts based on their lusts for power over others or pleasures (such as positions of authority that would allow one to fly first class around the world, drink the finest liquors, and stay in five star hotels).  People, even godly people, often lust after these things, and they fight and war with those who threaten their positions, and do not receive what they request because they do so with the improper attitude.  To war over worldly and selfish lusts for power, position, and pleasure is to declare hostility to God’s way of service to others and outgoing concern for the well being of those who are thought to be the least important, and to make one’s self an enemy to Him.

If such tendencies are present even among those who are supposedly called by God, though, imagine what kind of influence these lusts for power and pleasure hold over others who do not have the moderating and reforming and redeeming influence of God’s spirit and God’s truth in their lives.  If this dismal account of warring over lust and pleasure is true of people learning how to become like God, how much more is it true of those who are not even trying to be good?

The great German military theorist Karl von Clausewitz said that “war is politics by other means,” namely the means of violence.  What is it that people fight over?  Do they not fight over threats to their dignity, their property, their power, their honor, and their prestige from others, or to take some border province of a neighbor, or to show one’s glory and might to others?  A cursory perusal over the dismal literature of the origins of wars will show that wars start because of lusts for territory (like the Prussian seizure of Silesia to start the War of Austrian Succession), or lusts over threatened honor and prestige (like the attack of the South on the North at Fort Sumter to start the Civil War), or wars undertaken to preserve one’s reputation as a faithful ally (such as the declaration of war by Britain and France against Germany over Germany’s invasion of Poland).

These wars, and many others, result from the covetousness of what others have obtained (the spoils of political office against one’s internal rivals within a state or empire or the colonies and imperial “possessions” around the world a rival empire has obtained through force or diplomacy), or the desire to preserve what one has from the envy and lust of others.  Possession requires one be able to defend one’s self from those who would steal what one has instead of working for it or asking God to bless their efforts.  Likewise, the lusts we all have lead us to develop the capacity to take what we feel we ought to have from others because of the belief that we will not obtain what we need, want, or deserve by any other means except force or fraud–which are the means of warfare.

And yet God tells us that we are to ask Him for blessings rather than to steal from others or war over what we want with others.  If we use our power to exploit others for what we want, we are stealing from those we exploit (James 5:4-6), and will suffer judgment from God accordingly for that theft.  We are to seek the blessings of God for His pleasure, and not for our own, for His will, and not ours.  Only then will we be able to live in peace, when we have all submitted to His authority and live by His standard.  Until then we must be prepared to defend ourselves with the help of God in the knowledge that others wish to lust and obtain the blessings God has given us.

Genesis 4:19-24 and the Biblical Account of Warfare’s Origin

The Bible’s first accounts of intentional warfare occurs in Genesis 4:19-24, which reveals some fascinating details about the elements that played into the start of planned warfare.  Lamech, who can be judged as the (human) developer of war, no doubt with the influence of Satan, shows several elements of warfare’s beginning and its spread throughout the five short verses that speak about his family life and approach to conflict.  Genesis 4:19-24 reads:  “Then Lamech took for himself two wives:  the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah.  And Adah bore Jabal.  He was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.  His brother’s name was Jubal.  He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute.  And as for Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron.  And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah.  Then Lamech said to his wives:  “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; Wives of Lamech, listen to my speech!  For I have killed a man for wounding me, Even a young man for hurting me.  If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Let us examine, in turn, the importance this particular passage has for explaining the origin of warfare for human beings.  First, let us note that Lamech was the Bible’s first known polygamist.  He was the first to violate God’s design of one man and one woman being joined together in unity–the first to seek after “pleasure” by having more than one wife, inviting the strife and competition of women for his attention and affection.  By introducing that sort of warfare into the world, Lamech can be judged as the father of all of those who seek to play two women against each other rather than honorably and faithfully cleave to one woman.  His example was so damaging that it later infected even righteous individuals like Abraham, Jacob, Elkanah, and David (to say nothing of Solomon’s extravagant polyamory) and took a long while to wipe out among God’s people.

Second, let us look at the known careers of Lamech’s children and how they relate to the military arts.  Jubal was said to be the father of those who dwell in tents with livestock.  As Abel was the first shepherd recorded in scripture, it is not his animal husbandry efforts that would seem to merit discussion, but probably his role as the first nomadic chieftain of the world, the first of a long line of nomad kings of the line of Atilla the Hun or Genghis Khan, whose rejection of civilization and nomadic ways promised a particularly mobile and brutal form of warfare.  Jubal was the father of those who play the harp and flute.  How often are the deeds of warriors been immortalized in poetry and song, to inspire others to follow after their example, and to stir up the desire of men to be like those brave warriors and the desire of women to be with them.  And when you add to that the large number of military marching songs set to the fife, one must consider Jubal the father of military music.  Tubal-Cain is listed as the instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron–the father of the blacksmiths and of the proliferation and development military technology.  Whatever Naamah’s role, for the name of a daughter to be listed in this part of the Bible, she must have been a very significant figure herself.  Lamech’s family is certainly a very prominent one in the development of warfare in the biblical account, even from its brief mention.

Let us now look at Lamech’s boast, which closes the passage about him.  His boast to his wives is in poetry, which is how the Bible records its most solemn and important words.  His boast is the sort of bragging one would expect from a warrior obsessed with his physical prowess (as the first polygamist in the recorded history of scripture would qualify as on several counts).  He is so much of a macho man that he kills someone for wounding him, because he can, and because he is above the law limiting punishment to a proportional level.  He can kill a young man for wounding him because that is the sort of person he is–unable to accept the survival of those who resist him or stand up to him.  Likewise, he multiplies the vengeance of Cain eleven-fold, suggesting that he would do the avenging himself, marking his territory as the biggest and fiercest man around, certainly a bully.  With a character like that, it is little surprise that his family was fundamental in developing the aspects of warfare.

What does this passage say about the origins of warfare?  Lamech was a man with an overly prickly sense of insult, retaliating entirely in a disproportionate manner to the way others injured him, combining that prickly sense of honor with pride in his military prowess as well as (presumably) in his possession of multiple wives.  He not only instituted organized warfare outside, but also institutionalized it in his own household in setting up wives as rivals to each other.  He turned warfare into a family business–his sons ended up developing one of the most notable ways of war (the nomadic one), inventing military music and developing military technology and training others in weapons development.  Clearly, this was a family with substantial military ambitions for its time.

It is probably not accidental that the biblical law of kings in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 directly speaks against some of the practices of this family, including forbidding the multiplication of wives (Deuteronomy 17:17), forbidding the multiplication of horses (Deuteronomy 17:16), and commanding strict obedience to the law (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).  It is clear that the Bible does not view Lamech as a model king–but probably the antithesis of it, making him worth understanding as an exemplar of what behaviors and character to avoid if one wishes to be a model biblical warrior.


Both James 4:1-4 and Genesis 4:19-24 provide intriguing and worthwhile sketches about the origin of warfare.  The story of Lamech and his family in Genesis 4 provides a condensed account of how warfare began on the earth in the scriptural record, showing how violence and lust combined to corrupt and pervert the earth and lead it into the sort of sin that moved God to regret ever having made mankind (Genesis 6:6-7).  James 4:1-4 shows the theoretical case for the origin of warfare and strife from its moral causes, giving a generally applicable model that can then be used to understand the causes of warfare in general when one has the specific cases.  Combined, the two accounts give a riveting condemnation of the lust of humanity for power, prestige, and pleasure, and clearly detail the destructive effects of such moral failings in the world at large, as the melancholy history of humanity bears out amply.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical Art of War, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Love & Marriage, Military History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On The Biblical Accounts of the Origin of Warfare: James 4:1-4 and Genesis 4:19-24

  1. Cathy Martin says:

    Nathan, do I have your permission to post this treatise on a website devoted to Christians who wish to resolve their internal issues? The information contained in your examination of the origin of war is both timely and important–and it may help people in sorting through the things they’ve heard or been told.

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