April 10, 2003
Biblical Parallel to Iraq War Offers Hope
As I got to work clearing the house of leaven and preparing for seders, I couldn't help noticing that the war in Iraq has coincided with the weeks leading up to Passover.
The coincidence is eerily appropriate. Jewish tradition teaches that Passover has its origins in an ancient conflict. It's the first war in the Bible, and it foreshadows key issues confronting the United States now in this very modern war, offering a source of optimism at a trying time for our country.
Passover celebrates the Israelites' liberation from bondage, but how did the Jews become slaves in the first place? The Talmud traces a thread of causation backward from the events of the Exodus to the patriarch Abraham.
As Genesis 14 relates, Abram, as he was then called, fought a war of liberation against four kings led by the tyrant of Shinar, located in what today is southern Iraq.
The four kings had abducted Lot, the nephew of Abram, who sought to free him. In the Talmud's view, Abram erred in arming his disciples, whose time should have been devoted to study.
For this reason, "Abraham our father was punished: His children would be enslaved to Egypt for 210 years," tradition holds.
Even if I hadn't recently completed a biography of Abraham, I would be amazed at how his actions in that long-ago war seem to comment, if indirectly, on questions facing the United States' armed forces today. Consider the parallels, starting with the relatively mundane:
The United States has been criticized for raising a "blue-collar" military, many of whose members entered the armed forces to pay for college.
Even if it disapproves of Abram's choice of troops, the Talmud endorses giving material incentives to warriors. Abram offered his soldiers pay in gold.
Once the United States deployed troops, the choice was whether to keep our forces together or divide them, devoting some to the siege of Baghdad and some to subduing Iraq's southern cities.
As Genesis makes clear, Abram faced a similar decision in his war: "He gave chase as far as Dan. There he divided against [the enemy] at night, and he struck them."
Before the final, decisive encounter with the enemy, the Talmud recounts that Abram suffered a crisis of confidence, noting that "his strength was enfeebled."
Similarly, Americans grew suddenly nervous when it became clear in the early days of the war that Saddam Hussein's regime was not going to collapse overnight like a sandcastle.
Abram won without direct combat. As the Midrash relates, he hurled dust and straw that became arrows and spears.
The patriarch stood back and watched, not unlike U.S. forces that rely heavily on precision-guided bombs, raining down destruction from afar.
From his crisis, Abram evidently pulled himself together.
For now America seems to have done likewise, but much pain may still lie ahead.
Another connection between Passover and Abram's war offers us hope.
The tide of battle turned in Abram's favor at midnight. In a mystical sense, says the Midrash, the rest of that night was stored up till centuries later, when the enslaved Israelites were liberated: "The night was divided, and in its first half, a miracle was performed for [Abram]. Its second half was kept guarded and came forth at midnight in Egypt."
In Jewish tradition, the redemption from slavery to Pharaoh is a paradigm for all true liberations, which are miraculous in a way, since bondage seems to be the way of the world.
Thus, as a prerequisite of success, winning freedom requires God's participation. The liberation of Abram's nephew, Lot, achieved with God's help, is a preview of the liberation from Egypt.
The United States will be victorious if God is on our side. The world's record of past redemptions -- preeminently the one celebrated at Passover, but also later events like the liberation of Europe from communism -- suggests that God looks favorably on such struggles.
If the present war truly arises from the goal of freeing Iraqis from tyranny -- and I think it does -- we have reason to be optimistic.
David Klinghoffer's new book is "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism," (Doubleday). This article appears courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.