What Does The Bible Say About Alliances?

“We are at ease like fattened calves enjoying the ride on the trailer to the slaughterhouse.”

“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” (Psalm 146:3)

Over the last week or two, I have written a lot about why we should not intervene in foreign wars. Some people might ask why I care so much, the bombs are over there, not over here, who cares what our government does overseas, it’s not our problem. This is precisely the problem. We are at ease like fattened calves enjoying the ride on the trailer to the slaughterhouse.

Sure, one way to approach that is to enjoy the nice view on the ride, another way to look at that is: oh no, things are about to get really different and messy. In this context we need a deeper understanding of how God interacts with nations, because nations that are at ease in wickedness will be judged:

“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes! 2 Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory, 3 O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence? 4 “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, 5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, 6 who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! 7 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.” (Amos 6:1-7)

Australians care more about their next leisure activity than the fact that our nation just declared war by giving arms to a foreign nation at war. No war has ever seriously affected the Australian mainland since WW2 and even the attacks by Japan at the time of that war were relatively minor compared to what was happening in most of the other theatres of war.[1]

Aussies culturally think of war as something “over there”, something for the barbarian lands, where we go to establish justice and freedom. This view that war is “over there” has helped make us a nation that cares more about getting the boat out to go fishing, or the smoker out to slow cook a brisket, than telling our leaders to stop engaging in foreign wars. Like ancient Israel, we are a nation at ease in a time before judgement comes. 

In some of my previous pieces on war, I noted three pillars of non-interventionism: sovereignty of government, sovereign borders and rejecting alliances. Some people really struggled with the concept of “not going down to Egypt” meaning: that alliances are always to be avoided. To be fair, it is understandable why some people will struggle with this, because I am challenging what is essentially a well established the behaviour of nations.

To say we should avoid alliances sits in stark contrast to how we think about international relations. We think it is good and decent and necessary to have military alliances with similar nations, so we are ready for whatever wars come. Most Christians can agree alliances are dangerous, and most should be avoided, and not interfering in most wars is wise. But they can’t handle the idea of this not going far enough. They struggle with the idea that we should never have military alliances. So, what I want to do in this piece and the next is show how central this theme is to the Old Testament and that it is carried into the New Testament. You will see by the end of this argument just how powerfully this theme is backed up in the Scriptures.

Do Not Go Down To Egypt

I already explored this in more detail in a previous piece, but there are a few more things to be said. Isaiah says also this about alliances;

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; 2 who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! 3 Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.” (Isa. 30:1-3)

In Scripture building military alliances is idolatry. Straight up. This is how it is consistently referred to. It is important that some of these references regard Egypt, the dominant power for Israel to rely on. If you are going to make alliances, you make them with the strongest possible partners and even this was condemned. But the ESV notes the words translated “who make an alliance” here means “who weave a web”. This has within it the intrinsic scheming that accompanies making foreign alliances, something the Bible outright condemns (Ps 2:1-3).

The KJV, however, reads this passage to mean, “that cover with a covering, but not of my spirit”. This reading of the Hebrews words still has the meaning of making alliances but is built upon the root concept “to pour out” or make a “libation”[2]. This reading has in view the concept of the rituals of making an alliance with a foreign nation. “Again, this act would constitute rebellion against Yahweh, for it would involve recognition, if not worship, of Egyptian gods.”[3]

So, explicitly, and clearly, the concept of alliances in the Bible is rebuked from the outset. Depending on how you interpret the words in this passage they either carry the idea of scheming like the wicked pagan nations or covering your nation with the protection of foreign powers instead of God, just like a pagan nation. You don’t even need an understanding of Hebrew to glean this meaning, because the plain text of Isaiah 30-31 clearly frames trusting in alliances as idolatry.

Hosea says essentially the same thing:

“Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel. 9 For they have gone up to Assyria, a wild donkey wandering alone; Ephraim has hired lovers. 10 Though they hire allies among the nations, I will soon gather them up. And the king and princes shall soon writhe because of the tribute.” (Hos. 8:8-10)

Those familiar with the Old Testament language of idolatry know that what Hosea is saying here is that Israel has committed idolatry, spiritual adultery, by hiring foreign nations as allies. Not only is this sinful, and condemned here, as in Isaiah, but Hosea notes how allying with other nations had ruined Israel, taking away its distinctiveness among the nations, and enslaved it to foreign tribute. Alliances fail, they corrupt your nation, they come with great cost, and they make you like the pagan idolatrous schemers around you.

This is not just a warning for Israel either, “Turn to him from whom people have deeply revolted, O children of Israel” (Isa. 31:6). Alliances are not ok for pagan nations, but a sign of their wickedness, and why they have so many troubles. This is a warning for God’s people, and all people to turn and trust in God, not alliances. The pagan nations rely on alliances and are constantly ruined because of this. This is a deep and consistent theme in the Bible, going all the way back to the founder of God’s people, Abraham. 

Abram and the Men of His House

There is a remarkable passage in Genesis 14 which mentions Abram and his allies. But if you just stop at this surface glance you will miss how this passage powerfully teaches us not to rely on alliances.

The context of the passage is a war between two alliances of kings. One led by Chedorlaomer and the other by the king of Sodom. The allies of Chedorlaomer defeat the king of Sodom and his allies, who flee, and in the process, Abram’s nephew lot is captured (vv.8-12). This is where Abram’s allies are now mentioned, “Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram” (v.13). Someone escapes and comes and tells Abram about what has transpired. Abram is currently staying near his allies, likely this escapee is related to these allies, or maybe Lot and his household. So, what happens next?

This is where you would expect the captain to round up his allies, gather as large an army as he can, and lead them in battle against the five victorious kings. But an alliance of kings has already failed. What does Abram then do?

“When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus.” (Gen. 14:14-15)

Abram did not round up his allies, he rounded up the men of his own house. This is remarkable because there is a clear contrast between his behaviour and that of the kings on either side of the previous battle. The kings gathered alliances and were defeated, and one of those alliances was defeated by a man with the men of his household, his servants, born and trained in his house. Genesis is careful to note this, and then repeat this, so we know Abram did not rely on alliances.

This is not missed by the ancient witnesses, the righteous priest of God in that region notes:

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’” (Gen. 14:18-20)

Abram’s refusal to rely on allies shines light on the God who gave Abram the victory. Abraham here sets the model for a righteous people: trust in God, not in alliances. To drive this message home Abram refuses to keep any of the loot for himself but only accepts what is given to his men, and the men who were owed back their possession, such as his allies.[4] The passage is very clear to note Abram relied on the men of his own house and God, not these allies.

There is practical wisdom for this as well. Alliances built by foreign cultures are inherently unstable and fragile. Many examples can be given, but anyone familiar with the famous account of the Iliad will know that Homer goes out of his way to note that the allies of the Trojans spoke many languages, and the Greeks were united in their common language and culture. This gave the Greeks a definite advantage on the battlefield because just from the perspective of passing along commands, there was less difficulty. Managing alliances is tricky, relying on the men of your own house, or in other words your own people, and your God is far wiser.

Not Allowed to Marry Foreign Women

Not only is relying on the men of your own people wise but so is marrying the women of your own house. The Old Testament had very strict rules around who the Israelites could marry. If you do not understand how foreign relations worked in the ancient world, then you will miss some of the significance of what God is saying with these rules. Deuteronomy 7:3-5 notes why the Israelites should not marry the women from the nations surrounding them when they take the land of Canaan:

“You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.” Deut. 7:3-5

Foreign women will lead your men astray. Most Christians understand the individual aspect of this warning. Don’t marry a foreign woman today, for Christians, means don’t marry an unbeliever. They understand the application for Israelites was that they were not to allow the influence of foreign gods into their nation. This is why Boaz did not sin by marrying Ruth because Ruth had renounced her foreign gods and proved her dedication to Yahweh through her righteous living. But there was more to this rule than just this.

In the ancient world, indeed, in Royal circles until very recently, it was customary for alliances to be made by marrying the daughter of a king or noble to another king or noble. This had the effect of cementing the closeness of the relationship between the two nations. But it also had the effect of allowing the foreign nations to influence each other with their cultures. If you read Bede’s ecclesiastical history you will see the Roman Church used this as a strategy to convert pagan kings in Anglo-Saxon England. But ancient peoples did this with their various pagan ideologies as well. This is why marrying foreign women was forbidden, it was to protect Israel from such influence and stop foreign alliances, causing Israel to be caught up in foreign agendas. 

The Kings of Israel often disobeyed this command. The most famous examples of this were Solomon and Ahab. Of Ahab we are told:

“And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (1 Kings 16:30-33)

And of Solomon we are told:

“Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. 3 He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart.” (1 Kings 11:1-3)

Solomon took this to a level far beyond what Ahab did after him, marrying more women than most people would think conceivable. This opened the door for foreign influence in Israel:

“For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. 5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.” (1 Kings 11:4-5)

You can think of kings giving their daughters to foreign leaders as an ancient form of statecraft and influence. Via these foreign marriages, alliances were made with many nations, and through those alliances, the influence of these nations seeped into Israel. This can come in by trade alliances as well, but military alliances are particularly corrupt because they require nations to come together for a common cause.[5] It’s not an accident that the more we have gone to war under the banner of the United States the more we have lost our culture to their culture. There is nothing new about how this works.[6] The Bible warned us about this several thousand years ago. We just don’t want to listen.

For those who say, the Bible did not condemn foreign alliances, then explain how a nation like Israel was supposed to make military alliances with foreign nations if they could not take the women of those nations as their wives? This command alone, without all the other stuff we have examined, proves military alliances with foreign nations were roundly condemned, and even trade alliances would have been more difficult, though not as much. By cutting off the ability for Israelites to marry foreign women, God was making it very hard for Israel to rely on alliances.

[1] This is not to dimmish the loss of life by the several hundred people who died, but simply to note that Australia has never been successfully invaded since colonization, nor has it had to face war in its own territory, except in very minor instances in WW2.  Cf. this article or this Wikipedia page,_1942%E2%80%931943#Attacks_on_north_Queensland,_July_1942 for more information on these attacks.

[2] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, p545.

[3] Ibid, p545.

[4] Vv. 14-15 make is clear that Abram only went up to battle with the men of his own house. V. 24 appears to imply that his Amorite allies were with him. This is easily reconciled if we recognize that the man who escaped was coming back to Abram’s allies, and therefore among the kings’ takings were possessions of Abram’s allies, which he promptly got back for them when he rescued his son Lot with the men of his household.

[5] There are more reasons why they are particularly corrupt. Combined military campaigns cause nations to align their identities together to make them more cohesive in war time, and they forge the nations closer in reliance on each other, and much more. Which we may explore in a future piece. They can also have the opposite effect, turning allies into arch enemies. 

[6] I for one really despise this loss of Australian culture to American globalism. Some level of trade and friendly relationship is good, but Australia is now beholden to American cultural and military ambitions, and this has had the effect of stamping out the unique Aussie identity, which I believe is worth preserving. 

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