Iraq war eerily mirrors biblical battles of liberation

While clearing the house of leaven and preparing for a seder, a Jew can'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, the first war in the Bible, that foreshadowed key issues confronting America now in this very modern war — offering a source of needed optimism at a trying time for our country.

Passover celebrates the liberation of the Israelites 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 (geographically identical with 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."

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 America's armed forces. Consider the parallels, starting with the relatively mundane:

America has been criticized for raising a blue-collar military, many of whose members entered the armed forces to pay for college. The Talmud, if disapproving of Abram's choice of troops, endorses offering material incentives to warriors. Abram offered his soldiers pay in gold.

Once America 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, in his war, Abram faced just this decision: "He gave chase as far as Dan. There he divided against [the enemy] at night, and he struck them."

Another portion of U.S. forces must keep supply lines safe. Abram knew well the urgency of this task for, says the Midrash, he apportioned half the spoils of war to the soldiers who had guarded his supplies.

Against the advice of other Pentagon officials, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld felt that the Iraq war could be won without overwhelming numbers of troops. Rather, superior technology and planning would carry the day. Abram, too, assumed that numbers were not the key to victory. The biblical text says he mustered only 318 men — and the Talmud indicates that finally it was only Abram and his servant Eliezer who did the fighting.

Before the final, decisive encounter with the enemy, the Talmud recounts that Abram suffered a crisis of confidence: "his strength was enfeebled" just as America has suffered a crisis on realizing 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 which, while not altogether avoiding combat, rely more on precision-guided bombs, raining down destruction from afar.

From his crisis, Abram evidently pulled himself together. America must also. 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 main prerequisite of success, winning freedom requires God's participation. So the liberation of Abram's nephew Lot, similarly achieved with God's help, previews the liberation from Egypt.

America will be victorious if God is on our side. The world's record of past redemptions — pre-eminently the one celebrated at Passover, but including later events like the liberation of Europe from communism — suggests that God looks favorably on such struggles. If the present war truly arises from its stated objective of freeing Iraqis from tyranny, and I think it does, we have reason to be optimistic.