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Lachish Reliefs in the British Museum to illustrate "Is all fair in war? Innocent blood, armed conflict, and King David" published on the OUP blog

Is all fair in war? Innocent blood, armed conflict, and King David

While the terrible events in Ukraine have reminded Europeans that bloodshed is an inevitable consequence of war, it is widely agreed that even in war, innocent blood should not be shed. Historically speaking, the modern notion of “non-combatant immunity” has its origins in the “Peace of God”—referred to first in statements issued by medieval French church councils in the tenth century to grant immunity from legitimate military attack to various classes of the Christian population. What has not been readily apparent until now is that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the problem of innocent bloodshed in war was first detected and, indeed, dissected much earlier—in its most ancient text, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

David the Warrior 

That this concern with illegitimate killing in war has remained largely undetected until now may be explained by the fact that it is found not in texts explicitly concerned with jus in bello, or the right conduct of war (e.g. the laws in Deuteronomy 20 or the prophetic oracles of Amos 1-2). Instead, this concern is to be found in the books of Samuel and 1 Kings in the stories about David, a man who is arguably remembered more for shedding blood than sparing it. 

Indeed, in the first book of Samuel, the very first words David utters after hearing about Goliath are: “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes the reproach from Israel?” (1 Sam 17:26). Moreover, after famously dispatching the Philistine talisman with his sling, David becomes so prolific in war that the women praise David for slaying ten times more Philistines than King Saul himself. Thus, it is hardly surprising when war serves as the backdrop for not only David’s ascent to the throne but also his reign, as David’s forces defeat the House of Saul, the armies of the neighbouring nations, and then finally those of his rebellious son, Absalom. 

Better spare Saul  

Interestingly, it is precisely this prevalence of armed conflict in the stories of David which allows the problem of illegitimate bloodshed in armed conflict to be explored. The awareness of this problem may be seen in the detailed stories of David’s resolute refusal to shed the blood of Saul (1 Sam 24 and 26). 

While Saul seeks to kill David, and David has already been appointed his successor, David will not kill Saul because Saul is still the divinely appointed king. This insistence is underlined when David interrogates an Amalekite who subsequently claims to have killed Saul, apparently for David’s benefit. However, because he has done so in cold blood, rather than in the heat of combat, the Amalekite is executed by David, who invokes Saul’s illegitimately shed blood on the man’s head. Indeed, throughout the rest of David’s rise to the throne, the reader sees David heeding warnings of the problem of innocent blood, by killing and cursing those whom he judges to have shed it. 

Collateral damage  

Ironically, no sooner has David secured the throne, when the problem of innocent blood precipitates the first of a series of crises in his own royal house. The most infamous of these sees David sleep with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers, who is in the field fighting the Ammonites under David’s general Joab. When David is informed that Bathsheba is pregnant with his child, he recalls Uriah to the capital, but fails to persuade the innocent Uriah to sleep with his wife. Unable to cover his tracks, David sends Uriah back to the front with his own death warrant, instructing his commander, Joab, to place Uriah where the fighting is most fierce to ensure he is killed. When the divine judgment is delivered to David by the prophet Nathan, it is clear that the problem is not just that David has killed the innocent Uriah for his own benefit, but that David has done so with the “sword of the Ammonites.”  

The irony is compounded by the fact that earlier Saul had sought to do something similar to eliminate David, tempting him with the promise of marriage to his daughter, if David would lead a dangerous combat mission, with Saul hoping that his young rival would be slain by the “sword of the Philistines” in the process. Much later, David seems to have learned his lesson, successfully resisting the temptation to kill a kinsmen of Saul under the cover of David’s war against his own son Absalom, because the war was already won.  

General carnage  

The grim story of David’s succession by his son Solomon underlines the significance of the problem of innocent bloodshed in times of war. Here it is made clear to Solomon that David’s long-time general, Joab, must be executed for killing in cold blood, not one but two rival generals, Abner and Amasa, with whom David had made peace. In David’s own words, the problem was that Joab had in deceitfully killing both men, shed the “blood of war” in a time of peace. By heeding his father’s advice and executing Joab, Solomon affirms the risks both men understand innocent blood to pose if it is left unremedied. Indeed, Saul’s earlier recognition that David’s attentiveness to the problem of illegitimate blood has secured David’s kingdom for him is finally echoed by the narrator’s affirmation that Solomon’s kingdom has been secured similarly—a conclusion which underlines the centrality of the problem of innocent blood for David’s story as a whole. 

Innocent blood in armed conflict: a wider problem?   

While the problem of innocent bloodshed is writ large across the stories about David, it is less clear why. One possibility is hinted at by traditions found in the later history of books like 2 Kings and in the prophetic literature of Jeremiah. These traditions attribute the catastrophic fall of Jerusalem and Judah and the exile of its people to Babylon to the royal shedding of innocent blood. Indeed, in this connection, it is perhaps telling that one of the final stories of the Davidic kingdom included in both Jeremiah and Kings recounts the brutal, deceitful, and cold-blooded slaughter of the governor Gedaliah and his allies by Ishmael, a royal descendant of David. This may suggest that those who believed that their nation was ultimately destroyed because of the shedding of innocent blood by David’s descendants, chose to highlight the origins of this problem in the stories of the rise, reign, and succession of David himself. Sadly, recent hostilities in Ukraine and elsewhere suggest that innocent bloodshed in war has not been consigned to history but remains an enduring problem to this day.

Featured image by Mike Peel, CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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