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All the King’s Horses: What a Bronze Age Military Expedition Might Look Like

We’re continuing to look at military tactics described in biblical texts as an indicator for the end of the Bronze Age and thus a test for or against various proposals to revise the chronology of the ancient world. There are two biblical passages that seem unquestionably to describe Late Bronze Age military expeditions as Robert Drews conceives them in The End of the Bronze Age. We’ll look briefly at each one.

The Exodus

Exodus 14-15 describe Pharaoh sending a chariot force against the Israelites after his change of heart regarding letting them leave Egypt:

So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon. (Exod 14:6-9)

The emphasis is clearly‚ if not exclusively‚ on Pharaoh’s chariotry. In fact, verses 6-7 seem to equate the army with the chariot force. At any rate, if any foot soldiers were involved in this expedition, they were an afterthought in the mind of the biblical writer. What really mattered was the 600 chariot teams Pharaoh put on the field; the “army” (if we are to understand these as the infantry) is not numbered and may well have comprised runners or skirmishers meant to follow after the chariots and finish off any Israelites who didn’t fall to the chariot-mounted archers’ arrows.

By the way, Kevin Edgecomb has proposed a (mostly) consistent way of emending the text with respect to many of the numbers one finds in the Old Testament. I think his suggestions are largely spot on and I intend to shamelessly make make use of them when I think they’re right and emend his emendations when it serves my purpose to do so. 🙂 He is probably correct that Pharaoh had sixty elite chariot teams rather than 600, and that 600 is a likely number for the total number of Pharaoh’s chariots.

At any rate, and regardless of the size of Pharaoh’s chariot forces, the Exodus occurred in the Bronze Age by virtually any chronological scheme, and the depiction of Pharoah’s expedition to the Sea of Reeds confirms this. The widespread scholarly consensus links the Exodus to the time of Ramesses II, the Egyptian pharaoh at the Battle of Kadesh (considered the pinnacle of Late Bronze Age chariot warfare). Some conservative Christians prefer a face-value reading of the chronological notices in 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26, which would set the Exodus some 200 years earlier during the reign (in the conventional chronology) of Thutmose III, who inaugurated his sole reign by facing a Canaanite uprising at the Battle of Megiddo‚ another key chariot battle.

Jabin and Sisera

The next battle described in the Bible involving chariots occurs during the judgeship of Deborah a few generations after the Israelite conquest/settlement of Canaan. At this time, Israel’s oppressor was Jabin, a Canaanite king whose capital was Hazor. The commander of Jabin’s army was Sisera, whose name has been interpreted to be either Hittite or Hurrian in origin‚ fitting for a man who lived in the “woodland of the gentiles” (Harosheth-ha-goyim).

Both Hittites and Hurrians were noted innovators in chariotry. The Hittites, in fact, seem to have been the first nation to capitalize on the military potential of chariot-mounted archers as early as the Middle Bronze Age (Robert Drews, The Coming of the Greeks [Princeton University Press, 1994] 105-106). The Hurrians were noted charioteers who, evidently led by an Indo-Aryan ruling class, had established the kingdom of Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia. Kikkuli, a Hurrian, wrote an important manual for training chariot horses.

It may be, then, that Sisera was a foreigner hired by Jabin for his expertise in chariot warfare. Such chariot warriors dominated many Ancient Near Eastern societies and were collectively known as maryan(n)u. Sisera is said to have commanded 900 chariot teams, although once again I think Edgecomb is correct to read ninety (and only 1,000 foot soldiers for the Israelites). Either way, once again the chariots are numbered and clearly described as being the principal threat an enemy brought to bear against Israel:

Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for [Sisera] had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. (Jdg 4:3)

Unlike the exodus story, here we can actually read some of the details of how the battle unfolded:

When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. Then Deobrah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. The LORD is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. And the LORD threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left. (Jdg 4:12-16)

The chariots proved ineffective against Israel’s infantry, but this was not because of Barak’s superior tactics. According to the poetic retelling of the story in chapter 5, an unexpected storm flooded the wadi:

LORD, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled,
and the heavens poured,
the clouds indeed poured water….

The torrent Kishon swept them away,
the onrushing torrent, the torrent of Kishon.
March on, my soul, with might? (Jdg 5:4, 21)

The biblical writer clearly wants us to see the storm and resulting flash flood as providential. A sudden onrush of water stymied Sisera’s chariot force. Some of it was “swept away”; others would have been bogged down in the mud, forcing them to flee on foot, just as Judges 4 describes. Although Sisera commanded a group of foot soldiers (whose numbers are never provided‚ an indication of their relative unimportance), they seem to have been ineffective against the Israelites. Sisera and his men had expected his chariotry to take the central role in the battle, and when the weather made this impossible, they panicked and fled.

We still seem to be firmly planted in the Late Bronze Age in this episode, although in the mainstream scholarly chronology, we should have entered the Iron Age by now. With a conquest/settlement late in the reign of Ramesses II or perhaps in the reign of one of his successors, it is a tight squeeze to get to Deborah and Barak’s era before the “Sea Peoples” invasion in year 8 of Ramesses III, and a date several decades after would seem to be the norm. If, however, one opts for a mid-15th century exodus, there is still plenty of time to fit this battle in before the “catastrophe” at the end of the Bronze Age, even with a conventional understanding of Egyptian chronology.

In the next post I’ll look for clear evidence for the beginning of the Iron Age in the biblical narrative.

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