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All The King’s Horses: Chariotry in the Reign of David

In this post I’m picking up once again my musings about Robert Drews’ The End of the Bronze Age and asking whether Drews’ conclusions might be useful in falsifying various proposals about the chronology of the ancient world. To summarize, Drews contends that warfare in the Late Bronze Age was largely a clash of chariot forces with infantry primarily in support roles. With the “catastrophe” at the end of the Bronze Age, however (c. 1200 BC in conventional chronology), foot soldiers finally acquired the tactics and equipment necessary to hold their own and even defeat chariotry.

Our survey of biblical depictions of warfare now leads us to the reign of David, c. 1011-971 BC. How does the Bible depict military tactics during David’s reign? If the details conform more to the Iron Age situation, the conventional chronology is vindicated or, at worst, is subject to only modest revision. If the details seem more at home in the Late Bronze Age, something is definitely fishy with the conventional chronology.

The Case for an Iron-Age David

The first clue is found in 2 Samuel 8:

David also struck down King Hadadezer son of Rehob of Zobah, as he went to restore his monument at the river Euphrates. David took from him one thousand seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand foot soldiers. David hamstrung all the chariot horses, but left enough for a hundred chariots. (2 Sam 8:4)

As the text stands, infantry outnumber chariotry in the Aramean army of Hadadezer by about 12:1, assuming the casualties were spread out more or less evenly. But there is a textual variant in 1 Chronicles 18:4, where the figures are 1,000 chariots, 7,000 horsemen (i.e., cavalry), and 20,000 foot soldiers. These numbers result in a 5:2 ratio of foot soldiers to horse troops, but the presence of mounted cavalry—and in such greater numbers than the chariot forces—argues for an Early Iron Age milieu. There is no certain evidence for large cavalry units until the ninth century. According to Drews,

The earliest representations of archers shooting from the backs of galloping horses are ninth-century Assyrian reliefs. These reliefs show the cavalry archers operating in pairs: one cavalryman holds the reigns of both his own and his partner’s horse, allowing the partner to use his hands for the bow and bowstring. (165).

By this time, Drews contends, cavalry was “surely superior” to chariotry in everything except accuracy. They could operate in terrain too rough for wheeled vehicles, they had better chances for flight, and the cost of upkeep was less. By the Battle of Qarqar (853 BC), Shalmaneser III boasted of 2,002 chariots but 5,552 cavalrymen. This does not, however, answer the question of how early cavalry was definitely being used, an issue hard to determine because of the lack of documentary or pictorial evidence. No doubt, there are depictions of horse-mounted scouts even in the Bronze Age, but at what point did large cavalry units make their debut?

Furthermore, there are still questions regarding possible emendation of the text(s). In past installments, I have pointed to Kevin Edgecomb’s proposal for emending certain numbers in the Old Testament downward by a factor of 10 or even 100. He suggests the 1 Chronicles 18:4 numbers should be adjusted to 100, 700, and 2000 respectively, based on his understanding of the 2 Samuel passage. He explains,

Both LXX and the parallel 1Chr 18.4 read a number of chariots followed by a number of horsemen. In this case, drawing on the parallels, I would posit the original to have been “one hundred chariots, seven hundred horsemen.”

This scenario best explains the Chronicler’s variant reading, in which all the numbers were simply multiplied by 10. I’m not entirely convinced it best explains the present Samuel reading, nor, indeed, whether the Chronicler’s (and the LXX’s) addition of mounted cavalry is historically reliable. Have later redactors adapted the material to reflect an anachronistic form of troop deployment, just as Edgecomb believes they reflect anachronistic expectations about the size of armies? An army of 1,700 (or 170) chariot warriors and 20,000 (or 2,000) infantrymen would be quite at home on the cusp of the Iron Age.

In the aftermath of a later engagement,

The Arameans fled before Israel; and David killed of the Arameans seven hundred chariot teams, and forty thousand horsemen, and wounded Shobach the commander of their army, so that he died there. (2 Sam 10:18)

The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 19:18 reads “foot soldiers” for “horsemen.” The same variant is found in some Greek manuscripts of 2 Samuel 10:18. Emending both numbers by a factor of 10 (per Edgecomb) maintains the same ratios. But here the Samuel passage with its vast cavalry force certainly seems more anachronistic (archeologically speaking) than the foot soldiers of Chronicles and the Septuagint. Even so, an infantry force outnumbering chariotry by 57:1 is more comfortably set in the Iron Age than the Bronze.

The Case for a Bronze-Age David

So far, the data for the Davidic monarchy is seems on the whole to point toward the Iron Age, regardless of which textual variants or emendation schemes one favors. A final passage, however, injects a maddening bit of uncertainty into the equation:

When the Ammonites saw that they had made themselves odious to David, Hanun and the Ammonites sent a thousand talents of silver to hire chariots and cavalry from Mesopotamia, from Aram-maacah and from Zobah. They hired thirty-two thousand chariots and the king of Maacah with his army, who came and camped before Medeba. And the Ammonites were mustered from their cities and came to battle. (1 Chron 19:6-7)

What about these mercenary chariot forces? Even with Edgecomb’s emendation, 3,200 chariots is a jaw-droppingly large number for the Iron Age—comparable to the number of Hittite chariots at the Battle of Kadesh. Therefore, I might even suggest a further reduction to 320. Since only chariots are mentioned in the second in verse 7, the “chariots and cavalry” (NRSV) of the previous verse (rekeb u-parashim) most likely should be translated “chariots and horses [i.e., to pull them].” Furthermore, the unspecified number of foot soldiers (“…with his army”) seems almost like an afterthought. At every point, these verses seem to portray a situation most comparable to that of Jabin of Hazor and his mercenary maryannu under Sisera.

The Ammonites felt threatened by David’s army, composed primarily of infantry. They responded by hiring mercenary chariot warriors from Mesopotamia. And yet, by the conventional chronology of the Ancient Near East, military strategists had figured out how to defeat chariot forces with infantry some 200 years prior to David. Wouldn’t this have been in some sense the equivalent of buying obsolete military equipment—and the specialists needed to use it—when your enemy already knew how to prevail against it, and when it would have been far cheaper to purchase more state-of-the-art technology (viz., foot soldiers with javelins and body armor)?

The United Monarchy leaves us in a quandary. During the reigns of Saul and David, the data are somewhat ambiguous. There is enough to permit us to read the details in terms of (conventional) Iron-Age tactics, but nothing really conclusive. With David, we have furthermore the unexpected thunderbolt of the Ammonites hiring Mesopotamian chariot warriors with which to confront David’s foot soldiers.

Only then do we come to Solomon and his impressive chariot forces—at precisely the time when the march of history should have put the last nail in the coffin of large chariot forces as the backbone of any ancient army. Had the famously wise Solomon not realized that his predecessors had had little problem thwarting chariot tactics with Israel’s rustic citizen militia?

In my next post, I’ll try to wrap things up and offer some conclusions.



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