Having examined the evidence—what little there is—for military tactics in the Old Testament and comparing it to Robert Drews’ thesis in The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton University Press, 1995) that the shift from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age was marked in a radical transformation from chariotry to infantry as the basic offensive unit of ancient armies, we are ready to take stock of what we have found.
Remember, my point in this exercise has been to see whether the depictions of armed conflict in the Bible might serve either to verify or falsify certain revisionist theories about ancient chronology. According to the conventional chronology, the transition from Late Bronze to Iron Age tactics occurred circa 1200 BC, but there are several challenges to this chronology. Most famously, David Rohl has proposed a circa 300-year downdating which would place this transition some time shortly after 900 BC. Most recently, Pierce Furlong’s dissertation (“Aspects of Ancient Near Eastern Chronology [c. 1600-700 BC],” University of Melbourne, 2007) has argued for a downdating of nearly 200 years. Other theories gravitate between relatively modest adjustments to the standard chronology and sweeping revisions of the magnitude proposed by Rohl and Furlong.
So, where does the biblical evidence leave us? It seems clear that the campaigns against Judah launched by “Shishak” of Egypt (2 Chr 12:3-4) and “Zerah the Ethiopian” (2 Chr 14:10) take place in an Iron Age milieu. Since these expeditions are dated to the closing years of the 10th century BC (ca. 927 and 901 respectively by my estimation), Rohl’s 300-plus-year revision is ruled out as untenable. Ramesses III, representing the end of the era of Late Bronze Age chariotry, cannot have invaded Judah fifty or more years after the Iron Age transition!
Furthermore, the army the (frustratingly) unnamed Pharaoh sent against Israel during the Exodus (Exod 14–15) seems clearly to be a Late Bronze Age chariot force. Whether one prefers a thirteenth-century Exodus or a fifteenth-century one, this establishes a date after which the Iron Age transition occurred. A Late Bronze Exodus is to be expected in anyone’s chronology.
Between these two points, however, the evidence seems far more ambiguous than it should be on standard chronological assumptions.
Early in the period of the Judges, Deborah and Barak’s confrontation with Sisera’s chariot force in Judges 4–5 is described in ways that strongly suggest a Late Bronze Age milieu. When did this battle take place? Biblical chronology offers two possible answers, depending on whether one is calculating from an early Exodus (15th century) or a late one (13th century). On an early Exodus model, a date some time in the 1200’s BC is not out of the question, and once again is perfectly in line with conventional assumptions about the chronology of the ancient world, as this would still be prior to the Iron Age transition. On a late Exodus model, however, circa 1200 BC is probably the earliest possible date. “Twelfth century” is usually as accurate a claim as scholars are willing to make, although I’ve seen specific dates as low as 1120 BC for the judgeship of Deborah. Did those who passed on the oral tradition of this conflict preserve genuine memories of a Bronze-Age battle, or did they insert anachronistic details that would be alien to their own Iron-Age setting? On the theory of a thirteenth-century Exodus, the story of Deborah and Barak at least raises the possibility of downdating the end of the Bronze Age by perhaps 50-100 years.
Finally, the period of the United Monarchy seems to be a tangle of conflicting data. Both Saul and David operated militarily in a setting that seems at one point Iron Age and at another Bronze Age. At the dawn of this period, the prophet Samuel makes reference to (Late Bronze Age) chariot runners and implies that these are standard issue for the prosperous, “civilized” kingdoms Israel wishes to imitate. The presence of large infantry units and armored infantry, seeming hallmarks of the Iron Age, actually made their debut a century or so beforehand, leaving much of the evidence for Saul’s reign subject to varied interpretations. Likewise with David, a case can be made for either an Iron Age or a Late Bronze Age setting. Finally, Solomon—the last king of the United Monarchy period—seems to have a thoroughly Late Bronze chariot force!
The simplest explanation for this ambiguity is that the United Monarchy in fact overlaps with the time of the Iron Age transition in the Ancient Near East. If this transition took place in the decades around 1000 BC rather than 1200 BC, the descriptions of Saul and David’s battles would count as evidence of the contemporary state of flux in military tactics and technology. Samuel can envision his chariot runners, Ammonites can hire mercenary chariot soldiers from Mesopotamia, and Solomon can build his “chariot cities” at the same time the Philistines can field their armored infantry and mounted cavalry can appear on the battlefield for the first time in history.
By this hypothesis, Solomon’s (unused!) chariot force is at worst only slightly behind the geopolitical learning curve. Furthermore, the depiction of Sisera’s chariotry can fit comfortably even on a thirteenth-century Exodus model, since with a circa 200-year downdating of ancient chronology, the entire judges period is within the scope of the Late Bronze Age from beginning to end.
This conclusion enhances my estimation of the work of Jeremy Goldberg and Pierce Furlong, who have independently argued for chronological revisions of similar magnitude, and whose theories—insofar as they intersect with biblical history—I have summarized in the posts linked below.