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All the King’s Horses: Chariotry in the Reign of Solomon

I’m ready to resume pondering the shift in military tactics at the end of the Bronze Age as a test case for various theories for the revision of the chronology of the ancient world. If you remember, I began by setting forth Robert Drews’ research on the demise of chariot warfare in favor of massed infantry. Drews concluded that this transition occurred very rapidly—over only a few generations—at the end of the Bronze Age (conventionally, c. 1200 BC). I proposed that, could one locate this transition in the Old Testament narrative, it might serve either to confirm or falsify the theories of some who have argued that the chronology of the ancient world has been skewed upwards (i.e., longer than it really is) by conventional interpretations of the archeological data.

Next, I set out to discover what a Bronze Age military expedition might look like when narrated in the Old Testament. Of course, the biblical writers had seemingly very little interest in military tactics and usually chalked up Israel’s victories to the hand of God rather than the details of what happened on the battlefield. Still, the narrative of the Red Sea crossing was found to be comfortably situated within the Bronze Age—which would be true in anybody’s chronology. On the other hand, Deborah and Barak’s victory over Sisera and his “chariots of iron” (Jdg 4:5) also seems to reflect Bronze Age tactics, which suggests the conventional (scholarly) chronology of the book of Judges may be in need of revision. The traditional (fifteenth-century Exodus) Old Testament chronology can easily accommodate these data with a floruit for Deborah in the mid- to late-thirteenth century.

Then, I looked for clear evidence of the new military paradigm of the Iron Age. I found it in the earliest years of the Divided Monarchy (c. 925-900 BC). In this era, we read of much larger proportions of infantry when compared to horse troops (in the range of 30:1 or more) as well as a more prominent role for cavalry—mounted archers—as opposed to chariot teams. This evidence seems to rule out the possibility that David Rohl’s 350-year downdating of Egyptian chronology is correct, as it would place Ramesses II, the epitome of Bronze Age chariot warfare, in precisely this period when the transition to Iron Age tactics seems to have been thoroughly complete.

If the Old Testament chronology is at least generally correct, the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age some time after 1200 BC (the judgeship of Deborah, give or take) but before 930 (the reign of Rehoboam). But can we be more specific than that? To do so, we’ll have to tackle the tantalizing and sometimes contradictory evidence of the United Monarchy period.

Solomon’s Chariots

Solomon was famous in the Bible for his chariots:

Solomon also had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen. (1 Kgs 4:26)

Solomon gathered together chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses [or “horsemen,” see below], which he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem. (1 Kgs 10:26)

First, let’s follow Kevin Edgecomb‘s suggestion and emend these numbers to 4,000 stalls (the original number is preserved in 2 Chron 9:25) and 1,200 horsemen. The 1,400 chariots of 1 Kings 10:26 (apparently mostly imported from Egypt, 10:29) seems to be the correct number, but the horsemen (not horses, as in NRSV) have suffered the same sort of inflation found in the earlier verse. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to take “horsemen” (parashim) as meaning “chariot fighter” rather than “mounted cavalry fighter.” The same usage is found throughout Exodus 14 where chariot fighters are clearly in view. In any event, these troops are stationed in “chariot cities,” no doubt because the upkeep of any size of chariot force requires a significant expenditure in terms of support personnel (wheelwrights, carpenters, horse trainers, etc.), as Drews describes in great detail.

Do these numbers make sense? The ratio of 4,000 horses to 1,200 chariot fighters (1 Kgs 4) definitely does, as a proper stock of horses would have to include more than merely what was required to send into battle. With breeding stock and young horses not yet trained, not to mention horses held in reserve to replace those who were killed in battle, this number sounds reasonable to put 600 chariots (two humans plus two horses per team) on the battlefield.

Some time later (1 Kgs 10), toward the end of his reign, Solomon is said to have stockpiled 1,400 chariots but not to have increased the number of warriors needed to man them. Does this reflect military expenditures outstripping the king’s ability to recruit the necessary troops? Does it reflect the growing dissatisfaction on the part of the northern tribes with Solomon’s excesses and a refusal to cooperate with his out-of-control military spending (see 1 Kgs 12:1-5)? Or should the figures in the text be read at face value and the problem is in fact a shortage of hardware, not personnel? At any rate, Solomon is depicted as amassing a formidable chariot force and maintaining it from the beginning of his reign until its end.

It should also be noted that, as with Sisera’s forces and unlike those of Iron Age “Shishak” and “Zerah the Ethiopian,” there is no mention of the strength of Solomon’s infantry. It seems that even though Solomon’s reign ended only a few years before “Shishak’s” Iron Age invasion, his military doctrine was firmly rooted in the Bronze Age.

There are two frustrating details, however. First, even though we read of Solomon’s chariots, we have no way of knowing how he meant to deploy them tactically because they never took to the field! Second, the evidence from the reigns of Saul and David, who did lead troops into battle, is far more ambiguous. We’ll begin to unpack this evidence in the next installment.

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