Warrior Rituals in the Bible

The warrior battle rhythm has three recurring movements: prepare for combat, go to combat, and return from combat. This cadence frames military life. Historically, warrior communities have recognized the importance of helping their troops navigate these phases.[1] Countless rituals, practices, and models of warrior care have emerged from these communal undertakings.[2] This is true for the Bible as well, the Old Testament contains numerous examples of pre- and post-war rituals as the people of God ready and return their warriors.

According to John Wood, there are five discernible pre-war rituals/practices that characterize warfighting Israel.[3] First, the call to war comes through the blast of a trumpet.[4] Second, ritual purity is maintained throughout the camp.[5] Third, sacrifices are made to Yahweh and/or he is consulted.[6] Fourth, the leader proclaims to the army that God is with them and fights for them.[7] Fifth, the army marches out with certainty that God is with them.[8] Sixth, the leaders admonish the warriors not to be afraid.[9]

The regularity of these rituals would convey key truths to Israelite warfighters as they entered combat. They would go to war with cleansed consciences and a right relationship with their maker. They would acknowledge their fear and work through it by placing their trust in Yahweh. They would see the confidence of their leaders and follow behind them with certainty. Internally, externally, and eternally, this “highly stylized pattern” would ready them for the trumpet blast.[10]

Brad Kelle notes five discernible post-war rituals/practices that characterize warfighting Israel.[11] First, the purification of warriors, captives, and objects.[12] Second, the appropriation of booty.[13] Third, the construction of memorials and monuments.[14] Fourth, a time of celebration or procession.[15] And fifth, the practice of corporate lament.[16] These practices, also characteristic of Israel’s contemporaries, were critical for warrior wellness.[17] Israelite warriors were ritually prepared for battle and were ritually returned home. The residual defilement, guilt, and shame of combat was met with purification, forgiveness, and cleansing. Communal solidarity was expressed through sharing both the pain and spoils of war and interior combat memory was externally memorialized. The full expression of emotion was given outlet within the community of faith, freeing the warrior to process grief and celebrate victory.

The implications of Israelite practice for contemporary warriors are significant. Kelle states, “Perhaps the postwar rituals concerning purification, booty, memorials, celebration, and lamentation form a set of signs related to the representation of war that functions to reframe the way warriors and communities conceive, experience, and respond to the realities of combat.”[18] Historical data and contemporary research confirm the benefits of established rituals for warriors.[19] Proper combat preparation, engagement, and return are fundamental to the well-being of the warfighter.

[1]“Anthropological research into tribal societies from various periods, including modern peoples such as the African Zulus, Eskimos, and Native Americans, has also produced evidence of post-battle rituals for returning warriors that include the removal of bloodstained clothes and equipment, washing, and isolation. Among the ancient practices of the ethnic Meru people of Kenya, for instance, return required the sacrifice of a ram and the placing of a portion of the sacrifice on the warrior’s spear. Similarly, the early Irish/Celtic literary epic, the Táin, describes a multistep purification process for the hero’s return from combat that includes women baring their breasts to the warrior—likely a symbol of the nurture provided by children, family, and community—the warrior being placed into successive baths of water that symbolize a ‘cooling down,’ and the changing of the soldier’s clothes. These kinds of postwar rituals for returning warriors received their fullest and most explicit articulation in the formulations of the early and medieval Christian church. Writings from the church in this era frequently required soldiers to do various kinds of penance as a means of purification, expiation, and return to the community, even when the war itself was considered just. The texts vary in their prescriptions but generally involve requirements such as abstaining from communion, church gatherings, or eating certain foods for a particular length of time.” Brad E. Kelle, “Postwar Rituals of Return and Reintegration,” in Warfare, Ritual, and Symbol in Biblical and Modern Contexts, ed. Brad E. Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames and Jacob L. Wright (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2014), 225. See also, Edward Tick, Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul after War (Boulder: Sounds True, 2014), 119-250;

[2] Martin Creveld discerns four things in his historical research on end of war practices that are regularly done: “(1) care for casualties; (2) distribute the spoils and prisoners; (3) celebrate victory with ceremonies to mark the transition from war to peace; and (4) reach a formal agreement to end hostilities.” Martin Van Creveld, The Culture of War (New York: Ballantine, 2008), 149.

[3]Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible, 19.

[4]Judg 3:27, 6:34; 1 Sam 13:3

[5]Josh 3:5; 1 Sam 21:5; 2 Sam 1:21, 11:11; Deut 23:9-14

[6]1 Sam 7:9, 13:9-12; Judg 20:13, 18

[7]Ex 14:14; Deut 3:22, 20:4; Josh 6:2

[8]Judg 4:14, 5:31; Deut 20:4; 2 Sam 5:24

[9]Ex 13:13; Deut 20:3; Josh 8:1, 10:8, 25, 11:6; Judg 7:3; 1 Sam 23:16-17, 30:6; 2 Sam 10:12.

[10]Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible, 19.

[11]“The texts that contain elements that are at least suggestive of rituals for return and reintegration appear in various books, with predictably high concentrations in the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic History.” Kelle, “Postwar Rituals,” 208.


[12]“Numbers 31:13-24 is the only explicit example of this category within the Hebrew Bible. The larger unit of Numbers 31:13-54 is the most, and perhaps only, explicit depiction of post-battle rituals for returning warriors, and the unit as a whole devotes much more space to the postwar activities than to the battle itself, bringing together in unique ways several elements found individually elsewhere…(vv. 19-24) prescribes the ceremonial (and literal) purification (and washing) of the warriors, captives, and booty. Moses commands the returning warriors who killed a person or touched a corpse to remain outside the camp seven days, purify themselves and their captive virgin women on the third and seventh day, and purify the captured garments and articles…Additionally, the warriors must wash their clothes on the seventh day. Perhaps the most noticeably unique aspect of the Numbers construction, however, is the way in which the priestly notion of warfare as a ritually defiling activity departs from the typical understandings within the Hebrew Bible’s other war traditions. No other traditions make (at least explicitly) this connection between warfare and corpse contamination. It seems likely that the underlying notion of death being the ‘utmost de-sacralization’ is what leads to warfare being considered a defiling activity.” Kelle, “Postwar Rituals,” 211-213.

[13]Kelle divides the biblical evidence into two categories. 1) Simple taking of booty: Deut 20:10-18; Josh 7:1; 8:24-29; 11:14; 1 Sam 14:31-35; 15:1-9; 23:1-5; 27:8-12; 2 Chr 15-28:8; 2) Redistribution of booty among combatants, noncombatants, and sanctuaries: Gen 14:17-24; Num 31:25-47; Josh 6:24; 22:7-9; Judg 5:28-30; 1 Sam 5:1-8; 30:21-31; 2 Sam 8:9-12; 1 Chr 26:26-28; 2 Chr 15:11; Ps 68:11-14. “The post-battle activity of handling spoils dominates all others in Hebrew Bible texts. First Samuel 30:21-25 provides the clearest example. Here, David redistributes the spoil from his victory against the Amalekites among the 400 men who went to battle and the 200 who stayed behind, specifically countering the objection that only the warriors should receive the spoil. He also sends other portions of the booty to his supporters among the elders of Judah.” Kelle, “Postwar Rituals,” 215.

[14]Ex 17:14-16; Num 31:48-54; Josh 6:24; 1 Sam 5:1-8; 31:8-10; 2 Sam 8:9-12; 1 Chr 18:7-8, 10-11; 26:26-28; Dan 1:1-2; 5:2-3.

[15]Ex 15:1-18, 20-21; 1 Sam 18:6-9; 2 Sam 19:1-8 (implied by opposite); 2 Chr 20:24-30; Esther 9:16-17; Ps 68:21–27; Isa 25:6. Kelle states, “The fourth category of Hebrew Bible texts contains several passages that portray the victorious returning army participating in rituals of celebration, procession, and thanksgiving. The texts include celebratory praise songs (Exod 15:1-18), feasting (Esth 9:16-17; Isa 25:6), triumphal processions back to the city (Ps 68:21-27; 2 Chr 20:24-30), and women coming out to meet the returning warriors with music and dancing (Exod 15:20-21; 1 Sam 18:6-9).” Kelle, “Postwar Rituals,” 221.

[16]2 Sam 1:19-27; Pss 44; 60; 74; 79; 80; 89; Isa 14:3-20 (ironic); 15-16 (ironic); Jer 48 (ironic); Lam 5; Ezek 32:1-16 (ironic); Joel 1:2-2:17. Kelle suggests “The final category of Hebrew Bible texts contains several references to lamentations (typically communal in nature) offered in response to military failure or defeat in battle. These laments are a natural counterpart to the victory songs and celebrations that comprise the preceding category. The major example in the historiographical books occurs in David’s lamentation over the death of Saul and Jonathan in battle in 2 Sam 1:19-27. Although the passage as a whole is an individual lament by David, verses 21-23 seem to envision a communal lament to be given by women (see verse 24). The highest concentration of such post-battle laments occurs in the psalms, which include several communal laments related to military failure. Psalm 44 is a national lament and communal plea for help that refers to the failure of Israel’s army and the taking of spoil by the enemy (vv. 9-10). Psalms 60 and 79 offer communal laments after defeat that express the disastrous consequences that have come from Yhwh’s refusal to grant victory to the army (see also Pss 74; 80), while Ps 89 has an individual form with a focus on the defeat and humiliation of the king and a plea for a reversal of royal fortune.” Kelle, “Postwar Rituals,” 219.

[17]“The first category of the ritual purification of warriors returning from battle, which appears explicitly in only one Hebrew Bible text (Num 31), is by contrast extensively attested in several comparative contexts. Sources from Mesopotamia and the wider ancient Near East, including Hittite, Egyptian, Ugaritic, and Akkadian texts, refer to a variety of practices involving ceremonial purification after battle, especially through the washing of the body or the weapons used in battle…The second category observed in Hebrew Bible texts—the appropriation of booty—features prominently in postwar rituals found in texts from the ancient world…The third category observed in the Hebrew Bible texts—the construction of memorials and monuments—also appears prominently among ancient postwar rituals in Hittite, Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek sources…For the fourth category of postwar rituals observed in Hebrew Bible texts, numerous references exist to various kinds of victory celebrations that involve processions, music, sacrifice, and so on in many ancient and modern cultures. Egyptian texts refer to the celebratory homecoming of the king and army, sometimes including a divine speech by a god about the king and offerings of praise by the soldiers. Greek texts associate various drink offerings and sacrifices with the end of battle. Later Roman texts from the second century b.c.e. describe what is perhaps the most famous victory celebration ritual, the ‘Triumph’ (triumphus).This celebration featured a public ceremony honoring certain victorious military leaders and included an organized procession of the troops and spoils ending at the temple of Jupiter…The final category observed in the Hebrew Bible texts—laments (communal and otherwise) following military failure—is also attested in different forms within various ancient Near Eastern writings.” Kelle, “Postwar Rituals,” 222-229.

[18]Ibid, 231-232.

[19]“The operative assumption in the contemporary study of moral injury is that although the clinical research on this category is recent, warriors’ experiences of moral injury in war are ancient. Moreover, some researchers insist that aspects of moral injury are best dealt with through various postwar practices that serve certain symbolic functions, and recent research increasingly looks to rituals and practices from traditional and ancient societies for models…the primary function that needs to be fulfilled for the healthy reintegration of morally wounded warriors is the ‘communalization’ of the warfare and the trauma associated with it. The warriors’ reintegration depends upon their ability to reframe the warfare as a communally, rather than individually or personally, owned and executed affair. Returning warriors are in need of practices that give a sense that the moral burden and responsibility are equally distributed among soldiers, leaders, and their community, even those who remained outside of the direct conflict…Additionally, portions of the booty were given over to the sanctuary or temple that stood at the center of the community’s religious and social life. Both actions would seemingly reframe the returning warriors’ conception of the combat, resisting the sense that the warfare had been about selfish acquisition of plunder and closing the perceived gap between the soldiers and the community that stayed behind. The practice of corporate lament after defeat also potentially served as a mechanism to forge a sense of community and mutuality in the face of trauma… A second function identified by contemporary study as necessary for return and reintegration is to help returning warriors reframe the local and specific encounters of combat within a larger perspective or plotline that gives them a broader and perhaps more meaningful significance. Such reframing allows the soldiers to ‘emplot’ their local and limited actions within a larger framework that is shared by the community as a whole and, within many societies, by the deity whose wishes and actions the soldiers are thought to have carried out. Perhaps these symbolic functions are at work in the postwar rituals related to the establishment of memorials…Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, contemporary warfare studies, psychology, and clinical literature increasingly propose that some sense of undergoing purification after battle is a need that must be addressed by today’s practices of return and reintegration. Many contemporary works explicitly cite ancient ceremonial rituals like those found in Num 31 and other sources as models. Without practices that can serve a function of symbolic purification, warriors may find themselves unable to shed not only any feelings of guilt or shame from killing but also social adaptations and behavioral norms that characterize warfare contexts. Perhaps this is a symbolic function of the ancient rituals of purification that seem ceremonial and pragmatic on their surface. They mark with clarity the boundary and transition from a combat context, with its norms and behaviors, to a noncombat context, with a different set of norms and behaviors. They also create time and space for self-reflection and honest disclosure of the actions, experiences, and human effects of participation in the battle.”  Kelle, “Postwar Rituals,” 232-235. Bernard Verkamp explores the church’s practice of requiring penance of its warriors after returning from battle. He concludes that two theological convictions drove this requirement. First, the Old Testament strand of ritual impurity for taking life and coming in contact with death influenced the church’s view of war. The conceptual shift from external impurity to internal impurity was consistent with new covenant Christianity. Hence, going to war resulted in internal impurity which required cleansing. Second, the warrior’s inevitable combat guilt and shame required cleansing, restoration, and forgiveness. Practically, the penance required of warriors was non-access to the Lord’s Supper. The takeaway from these return rituals is the affirmation of war’s impact on the soul and the need to provide mechanisms to engage the impact. Bernard J. Verkamp, “Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in the Early Middle Ages,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 16, no. 2 (1988).

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