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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Warfare in the Old Testament" (Boyd Seevers)

TITLE: Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies
AUTHOR: Boyd Seevers
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014, (320 pages).

This book explores the different philosophies, structures, tactics, theologies, and warfare techniques of the armies in the ancient near east. According to the author, life would be impossible without the army. Wars and conquests are so common that without a strong military, there is no certainly of living. The questions then move toward the meaning and purposes of war, theologically and ethically. The path to greater understanding of the meaning behind the wars and the armies of the ancient near east is to appreciate the ancient contexts of war and conquest. Six nations are studied, namely, Israel, Egypt, Philista, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.

Israel fought in the Name of God as a testimony of how God will provide, protect, and propel Israel to be the father of all nations. Seevers compare how the army under Joshua worked together with inter-dependence, with the armies under Judges which seem to be independent units of war and destruction. The key to the difference is the spiritual condition of the people at each time. Tracing the development of the military sophistication of Israel, readers find fascinating developments of the armies under Saul, David, and Solomon. Each time there is a change of leadership, there is a subsequent tinkering of the military structure. An interesting discovery is the acquisition of horses and chariots which became more prominent during the reign of Solomon onwards, a direct disobedience of Deut 17:16. While there is relatively more information about the sizes and the types of military numbers and equipment, interpreters need to decipher whether the records are literal or symbolic. Given that Israel is often more hapless and untrained in military prowess, it is difficult to ascertain the actual capability of the God-led nation. For if we treat the numbers exactly as they are, then it would make Israel far more superior and less likely to depend on God for deliverance and salvation. The key motivation is salvation rather than starvation. Unfortunately, over the years, Israel's military structures resemble more like their enemies, which is why studying the other nations will illuminate how Israel's armies look like.
Egypt was a superpower in the mid-15th Century BC. Organizationally, young men are drafted into the military with rigorous training and drill. As the kingdom grows, foreign mercenaries and prisoners of war are roped in. The majority of the army comprises foot soldiers, supported by infantry, chariots, even ships. Pharaoh is the commander in chief. As king of the land, there is a clear corelation between offering their gods their worship in exchange for military victories. Captured foreign dignatories are often treated with special respect. The Egyptians even give them positions of leadership, which explains why Egypt allowed Joseph to climb up the ranks.

Meanwhile, the Philistines are described as a race that wears this maxim: "Eat or be eaten." Might and power are the language of warfare. Constantly fighting with Israel, one of the most well known fights is the battle between David and Goliath. There is a strong hierarchy of military leadership, which explains why Philistia literally fled like ants once their Goliath was killed. The Assyrians are referred to as "brutal masters" with its members forced to toe the line of conquest and cruelty. Thus, it is easy for the regime to force weaker characters like Jehoachin to submit and do what it says. So determined and well-arranged that the strategy of the Assyrians is to demand their enemies surrender or perish. For two centuries, Assyria ruled the Ancient Near East. Compared to the others, Assyrians are the most military prepared. So pervasive was the military culture that there were three types of soldiers: career soldiers; periodic service contracts, and specific campaigns. They even included elite guards who always accompanied the king. Interestingly, the chief occupation of the king is warfare, which explains the militaristic culture.

The two other nations considered are Babylon and Persia. The Babylonians have become so powerful that judgment at that time is synonymous of Babylon conquering the punished ones. Such is the case for Judah being punished by the Babylonians. Compared to the Assyrians, not much is known about the Babylonians military equipment, though more information is available for the rulers. There is also a marked absence of pictorial records of Babylonian weapons and infantry. Compared to the Assyrians overwhelming desire to fight and conquer, the Babylonians are driven by material greed. Then there is Persia, or Medo-Persia. They are the final conquerors before the New Testament times. Like the Assyrians, Persia ruled two centuries. Most of the information is gotten from the records of Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 BC.

So What?

What are the benefits of reading a book about Old Testament warfare? I admit, that just looking at the different ancient tools of mass destruction is enough to make my stomach churn. Why look at warfare? What do we have to gain? Is not the gospel one of love and peace? Is the Old Testament really about laws, wars, and genocides? Not really. Let me list five reasons to benefit from this book.

First, we learn the cultural uniqueness. For each nation, there is historical backgrounds to learn from, the different landscapes they live in, and the circumstances that surround each kingdom and era. By learning about the way the various nations fought, we get a glimpse of what Israel had to go through at that time, militarily speaking. At the same time, because every of the foreign nations have intersected with Israel and Judah directly, we can get a bigger picture of the pain and challenges they have to go through. Many of us who study the Bible will appreciate better information to help us understand why Israel struggled so much at that time. Second, Israel is not as militarily powerful as we think. It makes us realize how much Israel and Judah needed to depend on God to save them. While lots of information are available from the Bible and how the Israelites fought, we learn that Israel themselves the military sophistication of their conquering nations. In fact, the very reverse happened. Israel and Judah adopted the same harsh and cruel killings from their neighbours such as the Philistines. More importantly, due to the lack of sophistication of the Jewish nation, the very fact that they are able to climb up the ranks of power reflect not their military strength but God's mercy and power. Third, there is a similarity in which the military equipment and tactics are passed down from one kingdom to another. As the author had said, whatever weapons and know-how, "all ultimately fall to the next great power." That is why as we trace the various transitions of power from kingdom to kingdom, we see that they all had infantry, chariots, spears, and all manner of weapons that appear the same with some slight variations. The important thing is to note the reason for their warfare. Some like Assyria simply enjoys fighting and killing in a big-dog-eat-small-dog philosophy. Others like Babylon are materially greedy. That puts Israel vulnerable to influences from such worldly powers, especially when they themselves are far from obeying God. Fourth, the religious factor is key, for they connect worship with warfare. All of them believed that there is a god behind their victories. It is not correct to call the non-Israelite nations as godless. In fact, they are gods-full. In wanting to appease their gods, they are in fact wanting to be on the right side of their gods so that they can reap the benefit of military conquests.They respect whichever gods whose armies are more victorious. Fifth, war is evil. There is a lot of information about warfare that makes us wonder how sinful the world had become. Each successive kingdom presents new levels of cruelty and harshness. Like the way Israel deteriorated from the time of Joshua to the time of Judges is a case in point. Eventually, the Israelites were exiled to personally experience what it means to live under the cruel hands of the warring nations.

This book will be a helpful resource for Old Testament studies and to understand the historical developments of the various armies of the ancient near east. In the process, may the student gradually learn that Israel's survival and salvation is due not to their military prowess or sophisticated weaponry. Neither is it because of their greater tactical plans or mighty commanders. It is God's grace and mercy to enable them to survive to this day, despite the overwhelming firepower and size of their conquering foes. Hint: The Assyrian, Persian, and Babylonian cultures have largely diminished while the Jewish culture remains strong to this day.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Publications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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