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The War Scroll

This section of the scrolls presents the Essenes' apocalyptic vision of the final battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. This kind of apocalyptic sensibility was a discernible strain of Jewish thought at the time of Jesus; some scholars detect this sensibility in Jesus' message about the coming Kingdom of God.

The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation
by: Michael Wise Martin Abegg, Jr. Edward Cook
HarperSanFrancisco
1996

1QM, 4Q491-496

Armageddon: the war to end all wars. These words stir up images of inevitable conflict, the final focus on the dark side of human nature, the ultimate catharsis that ushers in an age of peace. All of these issues come to a head in the War Scroll, a text that describes the eschatological last battle in gory detail as righteousness is fully victorious and evil is forever destroyed. This vivid account gives us insight into how, at about the time of Jesus, some Jews conceived of Armageddon.

The first lines of the scroll (1QM 1:1-7) lay the framework for a three-stage conflict between the Sons of Light--that is, members of the Yahad[1] (see 1QS 3:13)--and the Sons of Darkness. The first battle finds the adversaries led by the Kittim of Assyria. (Although the name Kittim is often used in the scrolls as a reference to the Romans, its basic sense seems to have been "archetypical bad guys.") The Kittim of Asshur come in alliance with the biblical enemies Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Philistia. Cooperating with this unholy alliance are the "violators of the covenant": Jews who had spurned the message of the Yahad and in so doing aligned themselves with the Sons of Darkness. The second stage expands the war's influence to the Kittim who dwelt in Egypt, and then finally to the Kings of the North.

Although this war is said to extend over forty years, the writer of the scroll was particularly concerned with the details of the very final day of battle. After six bloody engagements during this last battle, the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness are deadlocked in a 3-3 tie. In the seventh and final confrontation "the great hand of God shall overcome [Belial and al]l the angels of his dominion, and all the men of [his forces shall be destroyed forever]" (IQM 1:14-15). Along the way, in true apocalyptic fashion, the scroll goes into elaborate detail Concerning the battle trumpets (2:15-3:11), banners (3:12-5-2), and operational matters (5:3-9:16). Priestly prayers for the various phases of the conflict are recorded next (9:17-l5:3). Finally, the seven savage engagements of the final day of battle are detailed (15:4-18:8), culminating in a ceremony of thanksgiving on the day following the victory (18:10-19:14).

As with biblical representatives of apocalyptic literature, Ezekiel 38-39 and the Revelation of John as pertinent examples, one can easily lose sight of the primary purpose of the work. It is not to be found in the intricate and often mysterious details of the text. Rather, the author was concerned with the tribulation and hopelessness that his readers were currently experiencing. He built his encouragement on a biblical theology of rescue: the defeat of Goliath at the hand of David (1QM 11:1-2), and Pharaoh and the officers of his chariots at the Red Sea (11:9-10). Coupled with this aspect was his understanding that great suffering was part of God's will for the redeemed. Indeed, God's crucible (17:9) was seen as a necessary component of man's existence so long as evil continued to exist in the world. Ultimately, God's purpose was to exalt the Sons of Light and to judge the Children of Darkness. The message is one of hope. In the face of such perverse evil, the Sons of Light are encouraged to persevere to the end. God was preparing to intervene and bring a permanent solution for the problem of evil.

The scroll itself is one of the first seven texts found by the Bedouin in 1947. Nineteen columns of text are preserved, lacking only a few lines at the bottom edge and the final page or pages of the composition....

The description of the eschatological war.

Col. 1

For the In[structor, the Rule of] the War. The first attack of the Sons of Light shall be undertaken against the forces of the Sons of Darkness, the army of Belial: the troops of Edom, Moab, the sons of Ammon, the [Amalekitesl, Philistia, and the troops of the Kittim of Asshur. Supporting them are those who have violated the covenant. The sons of Levi, the sons of Judah, and the sons of Benjamin, those exiled to the wilderness, shall fight against them with [ . . . ] against all their troops, when the exiles of the Sons of Light return from the Wilderness of the Peoples to camp in the Wilderness of Jerusalem. Then after the battle they shall go up from that place a[nd the king of] the Kittim [shall enter] into Egypt. In his time he shall go forth with great wrath to do battle against the kings of the north and in his anger he shall set out to destroy and eliminate the strength of I[srael. Then there shall be a time of salvation for the People of God, and a time of dominion for all the men of His forces, and eternal annihilation for all the forces of Belial.

There shall be g[reat] panic [among] the sons of Japheth. Assyria shall fall with no one to come to his aid, and the supremacy of the Kittim shall cease, that wickedness be overcome without a remnant. There shall be no survivors of [all the Sons of] Darkness.

Then [the Sons of Rig]hteousness shall shine to all ends of the world, continuing to shine forth until end of the appointed seasons of darkness. Then at the time appointed by God, His great excellence shall shine for all the times of e[ternity;] for peace and blessing, glory and joy, and long life for all Sons of Light. On the day when the Kittim fall there shall be a battle and horrible carnage before the God of Israel, for it is a day appointed by Him from ancient times as a battle of annihilation for the Sons of Darkness. On that day the congregation of the gods and the congregation of men shall engage one another, resulting in great carnage. The Sons of Light and the forces of Darkness shall fight together to show the strength of God with the roar of a great multitude and the shout of gods and men: a day of disaster. It is a time of distress fo[r al]l the people who are redeemed by God. In all their afflictions none exists that is like it, hastening to its completion as an eternal redemption. On the day of their batlle against the Kittim, they shall g[o forth for] carnage in battle. In three lots the Sons of Light shall stand firm so as to strike a blow at wickedness, and in three the army of Belial shall strengthen themselves so as to force the retreat of the forces [of Light. And when the] banners of the infantry cause their hearts to melt. then the strength of God will strengthen the he[arts of the Sons of Light.] In the seventh lot the great hand of God shall overcome [Belial and al]1 the angels of his dominion, and all the men of [his forces shall be destroyed forever].

[1]

This text does not merely reflect a small community living there. Since "community" usually implies a definite and restricted geographical location and thereby calls this mistaken notion to mind, it seems better to find a different word for the text's users. To avoid the misleading connotations of various possible English semi-equivalents we have decided to use one of the association's most common self-designations, Yahad, "unity."

The Dead Sea Scrolls a new translation. (c) 1996 by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook. Reprinted by arrangement with Harper San Francisco. An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

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published april 1998

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