The contents of Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War and The Bible are unrelated. They are, by any quick comparison, worlds apart. The Art of War is a masterpiece in military organisation and strategy. It’s a sage, giving the wealth of a sage’s advice to all who would follow his counsel closely.
The Bible is a collection of books, filled with multiple genres, following centuries of the same consistent theme: God’s faithfulness. Testified to from multiple authors, God’s faithfulness often jars in contrast to human unfaithfulness, both towards each other and towards God Himself.
These include eyewitness accounts, poetry, proverbial wisdom, historiography; prophecy, a litany of apocalyptic predictions, historical letters and genealogies.
The Art of War is a manual. In it the wisdom and experience of Chinese Army veteran, Sun-Tzu is encapsulated in a list of haiku like principles. Whereas The Bible, from start to finish moves from point to point testifying to the revelation of God; as He slowly raised and continues to raise humanity, through Covenant, promise and fulfilment, up out of humanities trajectory towards inhumanity and self-annihilation.
What The Art of War and parts of The Bible share in common is the way in which truth and experience is communicated through metaphor, simile and poetic syntax.
‘A rushing torrent/carries boulders/on its flood; such is the energy/of its momentum’ [i] (Sun-Tzu, The Art of War)
‘Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Jesus Christ, Matthew 19:24, ESV)
There are truths and experiences expressed within both examples.
The relationship between The Art of War and The Bible is established in their use of poetic language to recall history and communicate truths, through narrative and poetic prose.
If they use similar literary techniques, can there be any relevance between the two? Can The Art of War help us better understand The Bible?
My answer to this question is yes.
Though, it’s cultural setting, context, authorship, and in most areas its contents are worlds apart, sections of The Art of War can enlighten our perspective of ancient society, politics and warfare.
Much like Machiavelli’s, The Prince, The Art of War gives in insight into areas of human behaviour, organisation, rule and movement. These include leadership, social organisation, paradox (dialectic)[ii], relationships, management, hierarchy, strategy and, in a few specific places, the importance and value we must place on human life.
‘[Force] March ten miles for some gain/and two in three men will arrive’[iii] (Sun Tzu, The Art of War)
Much of the first five books of the Bible, (the Pentateuch; Torah) discuss the state of the human race, God’s creation, liberation, government and ordering of humanity, centred within and viewed through the lens of His people.
God’s ordering, His governing where His leadership through a close friendship with Moses, is exemplified in the post Exodus, wilderness dwelling, Book of Numbers.
Here, Yahweh’s request under the Covenant with Israel is His way of bringing the Hebrews FULLY out of Egypt [psychologically & culturally, this was as much reformation as it was revolution]. As evidenced by the Golden Calf, one coup attempt, a number of formal protests and general disgruntlement about how much better things were under Egyptian rule. In other words, how much better things were under the rule of Egypt’s hybrid animal-human gods.
Yahweh is brought to trial. The just God is thrown unjust criticism and all manifestations of his grace through the miraculous provision and care given towards His people are forgotten.
The confrontation causes conflict, as Yahweh seeks to take their focus off the creature and put it back onto the Creator; seeks to bring His people completely out of Egypt. To teach them that they are no longer under Egyptian rule, but are under His guidance, blessing, leadership; fatherhood – are united and reborn as the nation of Israel. The gods humans made are directly challenged by the God who made humans.
The victory is won, yet, Yahweh is still fighting against the influence of Egypt and the way of the Egyptian gods.
Throughout this contest, Yahweh is the model of a perfect General (Exodus 15). He avoids the pitfalls described by Sun-Tzu, even though, His people (and even Moses from time to time) fall right into them:
‘These five perils to leadership demand the most careful attention’
‘Recklessness – leading to destruction
Cowardice – leading to capture
Hot temper (manipulated or triggered into reacting poorly) – prone to provocation
Delicacy to honour (concern for reputation; perfectionism) – tending to shame
Concern for his men (easily swayed/influenced, people pleasing; concerned about offending them) – leading to trouble.’
(Sun Tzu, The Art of War)
Numbers teaches us that God perfectly hears us, has perfect self-control, can be provoked to anger, but is patient, quick to restraint and shows mercy, by way of warnings and provision.
God is tolerant up to a point. At which time He makes that point known. Just as He did with those who opposed Israel, there is a point at which He chooses not to allow His people to advance, or they advance into the jaws of their enemies, both without and within.
“Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? – Jesus Christ, Luke 6:39
What Numbers alongside The Art of War teaches us is this: the pitfalls of a General are human pitfalls. That God is the perfect General, and that we fail, when we fail to follow Him into battle, in life and in death. Humanity fails when it fails to recognize or it chooses to reject, His grace. The grace that firmly holds us, even though we walk on the precipice of, and sometimes are forced to hang over the abyss.
‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’
(Paul, Galatians 2:20, ESV)
[i] Sun-Tzu, circa 500 BC. The Art of War: Potential Energy Penguin Ed. 2008 (p.26)
[ii] For example: ‘Orderly disorder is based on careful division; courageous fear on potential energy; strong weakness on troop dispositions’.
[iii] Ibid, pp.40-41
Image credit: Rembrandt, 1659 Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law