When God is Your Air Force

Reading through Joshua, as I have been of late (my friend David says it is his favorite book of the Bible; I’m still partial to Judges), I came across this very interesting little passage concerning the Battle of Gibeon in Joshua 10, where the sun stood still while Israel fought. This comes just before that:

8 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you.” 9 So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. 10 And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who struck them with a great blow at Gibeon and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. 11 And as they fled before Israel, while they were going down the ascent of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword. (Joshua 10:8-11 ESV)

Again, there is God, assuring Joshua of victory, but also proclaiming His role in the coming defeat — “for I have given them into your hands.”

Verse 11, where the Lord tosses down “stones from heaven” on the defeated and retreating army of the five Amorite kings, it what interests me. It reminds me a lot of Surah 105, surat al-fil (The Elephant), of the Qur’an:

In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,
1 Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the Owners of the Elephant?
2 Did He not make their plot go astray?
3 And he sent against them birds, in flocks.
4 Striking them with stones of baked clay.
5 And He made them like a field grazed bare. (Modified Khan & al-Hilali)

The story behind this short and enigmatic revelation is as follows. Before Muhammad was born, Yemen was ruled by a man named Abraha — a vassal of the King of Ethiopia — who was jealous of the Ka’aba in Makka. Abraha wanted to build a bigger house to God and attract all of the pilgrim trade away from Makka to his place in Sana’a, Yemen.

So, Abraha built his church. One day, a member of the Qureysh tribe in Makka came down to Sana’a, saw the church, was infuriated by the whole thing, and — ahem — relieved himself. On the church. This made Abraha very angry, and he raised an army — including nearly a score of African elephants — to invade Makka and destroy the Ka’aba.

As Abraha’s army was advancing on Makka, the Qureysh saw his army, grew frightened, and evacuated the city. “It’s God’s house,” they said of the Ka’aba. “Let Him defend it.”

Seeing the city open, Abraha decided to once and for all crush the competition. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Abraha’s army was overtaken by a massive flock of birds, each carrying tiny stones in their talons. They pelted Abraha’s army until not a soldier — nor an elephant — remained standing. Abraha himself perished fleeing from the battle.

The battle took place the year Muhammad was born.

I bring this up because in 1992, I was listening to Kuwaiti State Radio on the shortwave and this story was used to describe what the Coalition had done to Iraq the previous year. Saddam Hussein was Abraha, and his army suffered a staggering defeat because “he was not a Muslim.” The broadcast even compared the U.S. Air Force to the birds sent by God to destroy Abraha’s army.

Even then, that struck me as a blasphemous (though understandably grateful) comparison. But it’s an interesting — and very creative — use of a religious story.

The Saudis are too pious to name a military operation after something from the Qur’an (Operation Sijjil simply doesn’t translate well, though Operation Decisive Storm is an incredibly awkward name), but I’m wondering if anyone anywhere is thinking of the current bombing campaign over Yemen in terms of Abraha and his army. And God’s defense of His house, the Ka’aba, in Makka.

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