Warfare in the Old Testament: a book review

While the 20th Century is the bloodiest century in human history, warfare was a reality for ancient peoples. The Bible deals with reality so, it is no surprise that when you look at the Hebrew scriptures you find battles and warfare enshrined in the text. Boyd Seevers, professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of Northwestern St. Paul,  did his doctoral studies on warfare in the Ancient Near East. In Warfare in the Old Testament, Seevers examines Israel and five Ancient Near East cultures to show how each waged war. He looks at their military organization,  weapons, strategy and tactics.

Israel’s had five major enemies through out nationhood, destruction and exile. These include Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. Of course there were other nations which troubled Israel, but these nations were particularly troublesome in different eras of their history. Egypt was the large empire to the West where the Israelites had escaped from. They continued to exert influence throughout the region. The Seafaring Philistines were a thorn in the side of Israel during the period of the Judges and early monarchy. The cruel Assyrians destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and turned Judah into a vassal state and laid siege to Jerusalem. Babylon sacked Judah and carried its inhabitants into exile with the spoils of war. And the Persians and the Medes overthrew the Babylonian empire. Seevers illustrates the unique features of each culture by beginning each section with a ‘historic fiction’ which describes particular battles from the perspective of one of its military commanders. He then goes on to catalog the organization, weapons and tactics of each nation.

This makes this a perfect book for tooling around in the background of the text. Those who study and research the Bible will find Seevers synthesis and summary of Ancient Near East warfare helpful– both academics and pastors working to exegete the text well. This book is exegetical, not expositional. Seevers focuses on describing the tactics of Ancient warfare and thus does not comment on the the theological significance of particular passages of scripture. So when Seevers presents ‘spying’ as an Israeli tactic in warfare (70), he does not comment on the ambiguity of Joshua sending spies in Joshua 2 after God spent  the previous chapter commanding him, “Be strong and courageous.” This is not a criticism, but it does illustrate what this book was intended to do: to fill out the cultural background of warfare, especially where the Bible is economic and sparse in its description.

This is a great resource for teaching from the Old Testament. Because it spans the whole of Israel’s national, military history, it does illuminate the arc and trajectory of the biblical narrative and describes some  technological developments. The illustrations in each chapter (based on archeological discoveries) show how weaponry, armor and military structure changed over  the centuries. I recommend it as a Bible background resource for those exegeting the historical books and the prophets. I give it four stars: ★★★★.

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