General William Tecumseh Sherman is famously said to have proclaimed: “War is hell.” Whether he was referring to the waging of war or its consequences is unclear. But in either case, Sherman was not a proponent of war despite the fact that successful generals are lionized and held in high esteem.
In the spontaneous, lyrical tribute to God for the great miracle He performed at the Reed (not Red) Sea, the Israelites declare God to be a “great warrior” (Exodus 13:3) who drowned the pursuing Egyptian army in the collapsing walls of water while rescuing them. The idea that divine power is commensurable with military might is shared by all ancient Near Eastern societies. But the Sages and their rabbinic successors preferred to imagine the God of Israel as a God or mercy rather than vindictiveness.
For example, the late fifteenth century Italian commentator, Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno explains the description of God as a warrior almost apologetically. “Even though He at times appears as the warrior who destroys His foes by invoking the attribute of justice, He is yet predominantly the merciful God.” Cleverly, Seforno intimates that God is not really a warrior; He merely sometimes appears that way. And besides, he does not make war against his enemies. He merely renders justice. Seforno goes on to say about mercy: “It is this attribute of His which is responsible for the continued existence of all His creatures.”
Moreover, “When He destroys His foes, He is in effect removing weeds from the garden in order to enable the useful plants to survive and develop. The wicked are like the thorns and thistles in a vineyard.” The God of Israel is less a warrior and more a gardener clearing away unwanted vegetation.
Seforno represents the tendency in the Jewish sources to resist the glorification of war. God’s status is not enhanced by his military victories but by His justice and mercy. The same is true in the earthly realm. The more impressive achievement is not David’s conquests and expansion of the kingdom but Solomon’s forty years of peace. Though songs were sung of David’s victories, it was his son Solomon who was mandated to build the Temple. And, of course, the most anticipated future ideal is not the vanquishing of all of Israel’s enemies but the elimination of warfare. For Jews, God is best imagined as a force for peace than a man of war.