Book Reviews

Warfare in the Old Testament

The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies.

Boyd Seevers Grand Rapids November 14, 2013

Seevers’s book highlights a significant component of Old Testament studies that is often underrated. In his opening pages, Seevers, professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Northwestern St. Paul, states that warfare “pervaded much of the ancient Near Eastern world” and that Bible students, pastors and scholars alike need to understand the intricate details of this ancient cultural reality (20).

Although the Old Testament is replete with warfare, the Scriptures do not often describe military strategy, weaponry, or tactics. For example, David’s campaign in 2 Samuel 8:1–14, which established Israel as a major power in the 10th century BC, is “summarized in just fourteen verses” (21). For this reason, Seevers supplies detailed information on the military power of six nations—Israel, Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia—to “help us better understand the biblical message” (21).

The book studies the military strategies of each one of these nations in five sections. First, Seevers begins with a short historical-fiction story, written in first-person, that recounts the experience of a solider engaged in “one of the nation’s major historical battles” (22). For example, the opening chapter, which examines the nation of Israel, records the thoughts and emotions of the fictional Judah ben-Eliezer as Israel is about to attack Jericho (Josh 6). These narratives not only help situate readers in the ancient historical context but also incorporate interesting data pertaining to warfare, such as how leather may “lessen and even deflect entirely some indirect blows” (28).

Second, Seevers provides a succinct historical analysis of the nation’s political and economic development, and he then explains its purpose and role in the biblical narrative. The section on Egypt, for example, presents a chronological study of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms and explains how the story of the Exodus fits in.

Third, Seevers introduces readers to the nation’s military organization, including numerous details about military forces (infantry, chariotry, navy), the wealth and power of the military, the size of the army, and the role of religion. This information contributes to a holistic understanding of these countries and their dominance during the biblical era.

Fourth, Seevers discusses weaponry, which is classified in terms of short range (swords, spears), middle range (javelin), and long range (bows, slings). In addition, the author describes defensive equipment, including the quality and style of helmets, shields, and armor.

Last, the author highlights military tactics, including motivation for warfare, logistics (seasons, food, and travel), and battle strategies. He also comments on the aftermath of warfare (plunders, prisoners, and rewards). This last section highlights potential issues during ancient warfare that readers may not initially consider. For example, when commenting on the long distances traveled by the Assyrian army, Seevers notes how they “would need to supply large quantities of grain . . . for the horses during their training and for the entire time and distance of each campaign” (220–22).

Seevers presents complex information in a straightforward and comprehensible manner. His research is well documented and draws from numerous sources, including the biblical record, primary historical documents, and archaeological discoveries such as pottery, coins, and tomb paintings.

Throughout the book, Seevers inserts photos pertaining to the topics discussed. Maps illustrate the location and dominion of each nation in the ancient Near East. Seevers also includes photos of archaeological artifacts, such as wall paintings and seal impressions, in order to provide readers with concrete images of military clothing and weaponry. The visual component to the book is a great asset, enabling readers to fully grasp the material being presented.

Warfare in the Old Testament also grapples with exegetical issues that directly influence understanding the military. For example, the Hebrew word ’eleph (אלף), which is often employed when numbering Israel’s army, is commonly translated as “thousands” (Num 1:21). This results in a sum total that appears “quite high, especially considering the apparent size of the armies of other, better established contemporary nations” (53). The author provides a concise description of the exegetical issue as well as an alternate interpretation, understanding ’elephas a tribal unit.

One difficult aspect of Seevers’s work is that certain assertions are not entirely validated. For example, he claims that Assyria “preferred victory through psychological warfare if at all possible, and they were masters at it” (238). Although this feature of Assyrian warfare would help explain Assyria’s interaction with Judah in 2 Kings 18:17–37, no endnote identifies extrabiblical sources that support this conclusion. Also, when explaining the long-range weaponry of the Assyrians, Seevers writes, “The Assyrian king . . . began sieges by shooting an arrow in the direction of the enemy” (230). To validate his claim, however, he appeals to a photo that portrays a king “shooting at the besieged city, though obviously well after the siege commenced,” which does not necessarily support his claim (ibid.). It should be noted, however, that Seevers is often honest about unsubstantiated conclusions. When he explains the hierarchical structure of ancient Israel’s officers, he admits, “The information is not clear enough to determine an organizational structure” (49).

Seevers’s Warfare in the Old Testament is an important work for students, pastors, and scholars who are interested in developing a well-rounded perspective on military life in ancient Near Eastern civilization. This book pinpoints how warfare impacted the nation of Israel, thereby providing a unique lens through which to read the biblical narratives. Readers should be aware, however, that this book does not address the moral or ethical components of warfare in the Old Testament. Although God’s role in Israel’s military activity is made clear (e.g. 1 Sam 15:1–3), the difficult passages pertaining to Israel’s conquest and genocide are not discussed here.

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Robert Chisholm Jr.
Robert B. Chisholm is Department Chair and Senior Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. While Dr. Chisholm enjoys teaching the full breadth of Old Testament Studies, he takes special delight in the books of Judges, Samuel, Isaiah, and Amos. Dr. Chisholm has published seven books, most recently commentaries on Judges-Ruth and on 1-2 Samuel. He was translation consultant for the International Children's Bible and for The Everyday Bible and is senior Old Testament editor for the NET Bible. Any discussion with Dr. Chisholm on the Old Testament, however, can be quickly sidetracked when mentioning Syracuse University basketball or the New York Yankees, teams which probably do not have a greater fan outside the state of New York, much to the chagrin of his colleagues.
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