This evening at dinner I read the first half of a sizable book on the subject of civil wars that pointedly ignores the historiography of civil wars as a concept in the Bible while discussing it from Greco-Roman, Arabic, and Chinese contexts. This, quite understandably, led me to ponder on the concept and writing about civil wars within the Bible to see if there is a theory and consistent biblical approach to writing about the subject of civil war. This is not intended in any way to be a systematic or complete approach, but rather a gathering of thoughts, to see if someday a larger project on this subject would be appropriate, as from my thoughts I think it would be pretty easy for such a project to be considerably lengthy, to the point of being book-sized, and that would be a substantial undertaking. Comments and questions are invited among those readers who stumble upon this and find the subject to be interesting, as usual.
The origins of civil war and its writing in the Bible appear, as one would expect, in the conflict between family members. Whether we are looking at the first murder by Cain of Abel, of the efforts of Abraham to avoid conflict between his herders and those of his nephew Lot, similar efforts on a part of Jacob to avoid strive with Esau, as well as the conflict between Joseph and his older brothers, various aspects of civil war are explored in their embryonic forms within the physical family. Similarly, Genesis also contains the first discussion of the threat of the coup d’etat with a look at Pharaoh’s treatment of his baker and butler, a theme that would be repeated throughout the Bible as well.
The remainder of the law contains discussions of internal conflict, but interestingly enough much of the discussion takes place concerning the internal violence within the nascent nation of Israel as a result of sin and rebellion. Whether we are looking at the violence relating to the tribe of Levi handling those who were responsible for the Golden Calf incident, the rebellion of Korah, or the biblical prescription of violence against a city that had adopted foreign/hostile gods, or even the violence of Phineas against the Midianite woman and her Israelite paramour, civil violence is often justified in the law as a response to sin, which is viewed as an act of rebellion against the laws and authority of God.
We find a large amount of civil war and related conflict within the historical prophets, a staggering amount if we are sensitive to it. Joshua contains stories that look at treachery (with the story of Rahab) as well as civil conflict (the story of the Gibeonites) from the point of view of those who are encouraging such internal conflict within the Canaanites as a means of furthering the conquest, even unintentionally (as is the case with the Gibeonites). Joshua ends with the threat of civil war that is ended only with the understanding that the replica altar is not meant as a rival to that of Shiloh. Judges is full of civil war, ranging from the near-extinction of Benjamin on the one hand to Gideon’s punitive actions against cities that refused him aid, to the efforts of his son Abimelech to set up a kingdom in the hill country that involved civil war in Shechem, to the warfare between Jephthah and the tribe of Ephraim. After that one need only examine the examples of civil war we have in the reign of David, including the conflict between him and Ishbosheth, between David and Absalom, between David and Sheba, and between David’s sons over the throne.
The history of Israel starting from the division of Israel into two rival kingdoms is a long chain of civil wars and coups starting, where nearly every change of dynasty was occasioned by some sort of conflict, in some cases where external forcers were involved (such as the likelihood of Assyrian support of Menachem and Hoshea based on their own records), and the efforts of Pekah and Rezin to overthrow the House of David in Jerusalem and put a puppet ruler over Judah who would support their efforts to fight Assyria during the last days of both of those doomed kingdoms. Likewise, the dying period of the kingdom of Judah before Babylonian captivity is marked by internal instability and various civil wars and related internal strife, recalled movingly in such books as Jeremiah. And that is to say nothing about civil war as it is recorded in Daniel concerning the Hellenistic period, as well as the civil strife within Second Temple Judaism during the Gospels and Acts.
While the existence of civil wars is indisputable within the Bible, far less known and understood is the biblical theory about such matters. The rebellions of Sheba and Jeroboam against the rule of David and Rehoboam, respectively, are marked with a call “To your tents, O Israel,” signifying that there was some sort of theory of secession that was known within biblical times. The Bible, as might be expected, takes a rather dim view of rebellion and sedition, and there is a clear discussion of the way that authorities, even evil ones, were very quick to attempt to delegitimize the actions of those who rose up in rebellion against them–witness the need of a prophet to anoint David and Jehu as legitimate rulers, and the efforts of Jezebel to delegitimize Jehu as another Zimri. David’s behavior between his being anointed as king in 1 Samuel 16 and his rule over all of Israel after the death of Saul’s son in the first chapters of 2 Samuel demonstrates the complexity of avoiding outright rebellion by an (understandably?) jealous and paranoid ruler–most would-be revolutionaries were not nearly as restrained in their search for power, and did not wait on God to remove the existing ruler so that they could take power without massive bloodshed. This too is well worth exploring.