Book Review - Warfare in the Old Testament

I was born in 1981 and the last war on American soil was World War II, which ended in 1945. If you do not count the wars since then in which America has been involved overseas, my lifetime has been war-free. Though both my grandfathers served in the military, neither my father nor I have served in any capacity. Wars and small battles, as real as they are, have been the stuff of TV for me. I have read about them in the paper, heard about them on the radio and I can distinctly remember watching live footage of Desert Storm.

However, for many people around the world, war is an everyday part of their lives. For those born during times of war, they cannot imagine their lives without it. Similarly, this is how it was for much of the Ancient Near East (ANE), including Israel. To help the modern reader of Scripture better understand how war is so intricately woven into its fabric, Boyd Seevers has written Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies. Dr. Seevers is an expert in the Old Testament and ancient warfare and has participated in many archeological excavations in Israel where he lived as a professor for eight years.


Warfare in the Old Testament documents, through historical fiction and historical background, the warfare, history, weapons and tactical methods of the six most notable nations in the ANE: Israel, Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. Each nation is examined in two basic parts. First, through historical fiction, Seevers gives the reader insight into the events and possible thoughts of a typical warrior in the nation under consideration. This includes a description of their duties, weapons they might have used, a war or battle they would have fought in and how they might have thought about the events. Second, the historical background is given for the particular war or battle that was discussed during the historical fiction section in addition to all of the know wars of each nation. Finally, through discussion of the nation’s military organization, weapons, strategy and tactics, Seevers provides the reader with detailed description of the inner workings of their armies. To aid in telling the stories and historical information, there are numerous pictures of military artifacts, drawings, sketches and maps.


First, for an Old Testament and ANE expert, Seevers has done a great job writing the historical fiction pieces. The writing is engaging and the details do not drag. One really gains a sense of what it must have felt like to be in those military situations. Second, as would be expected, the historical background sections weave together all of ANE history at the same time. The Biblical and extra-biblical accounts of the wars and battles are woven together to provide a fuller picture of their warfare histories. This is a great service to the reader as Scriptures are provided so they can locate the specifics for themselves. Third, Seevers does not sugar coat the nature of Israel’s involvement in war. War was a part of every nation’s life and Israel was no exception. Where applicable, the author notes when Israel might be acting like the other nations. For instance, the reference in 1 Samuel 18:25-27 to Saul’s request of David to bring him the foreskins from the slain Philistines is a practice the Egyptians did with various body parts (p. 137-38). This proved the warrior killed the enemy in battle and brought him approval and respect from his military leaders and nation. Fourth, Seevers also points out where Israel differed from the other ANE militaries. For example, it was not common practice for a nation to record their military struggles and losses. Israel, however, gives a lot of detail about these struggles. Seevers notes,

Surprisingly, some of the best information from Israel comes from when it was struggling for birth and survival. The Bible’s emphasis on God’s aid to his young nation is evident in the stories of how the military operated through its successive phases. (p. 45)

This can be seen, for example, in the first six chapters of Joshua which detail their entrance into Canaan and the battle of Jericho. This was before they were a strong military power. In contrast, we are only given “a single chapter to David’s campaigns that conquered a large part of the ancient Near East (2 Sam. 8)” (p. 70).

Numbers: was Israel really that big?

One way in which Israel differs from other ANE armies is in their recording the size of their people and armies. The Bible provides a lot of information regarding numbers and more so than other ANE nations records. The predominate word used to describe the size of the Israelite army and people is eleph which means “thousand.” What becomes problematic, says Seevers, is that “if eleph in these passages carries its normal meaning of ‘thousand,’ then many of the numbers appear extremely large” (p. 53). For instance, in Numbers chapters one and twenty-six Israel counts its men available for military service and there are over 600,000. Again, in 2 Samuel 24:9 David counts his fighting men and they come to 1,300,000. Seevers notes that “these numbers appear quite high, especially considering the apparent army size of other, better established contemporary nations” (p. 53).

In an attempt to resolve the problem presented in many passages another possible translation of eleph is “clan”, and, though it does not resolve all of the interpretational challenges, it seems to give us a more realistic picture of the size of Israel’s army at any given time. This, Seevers points out, helps to make more sense of Deuteronomy 7:1 which states that, upon entering Canaan, there were seven nations that occupied the territory that were “more numerous and stronger than (Israel).” So, at the time of the exodus Israel would have had about 5,500 troops and not 600,000 and more like 20,000 people instead of 2,000,000+ as they entered Canaan. Further, this might make more sense of the statement in Judges 15:14-15 where it is said that Samson killed 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. Translating eleph as “clan” would greatly reduce the number of men killed.

As Seevers points out, this solves many issues but it also raises some others. My own sense of this is the important hermeneutical principle – context. If the same word is used in these different contexts but has more than one meaning then we need to pay attention to the context in which it is used. It does seem a bit off to say Israel had 2,000,000 or more people upon entering Canaan. Even though they spent 40 years in the wilderness where they would have decreased their population, there would have been a high mortality rate among births and they lost everyone twenty and older in the wilderness for their sin of murmuring (Num. 14:26-34). For Samson, the issue is whether or not he really did kill 1,000 (give or take) Philistines and not preserving a wrong interpretational history just for dramatic effect. Sure, Samson was strong, but even if he only killed 100 +/- soldiers it is still a great feat. Maybe the focus is on the weapon of choice, a donkey’s jawbone, and not so much the number of men killed. He would have definitely been at a disadvantage without a sword. This is my initial sense and more study on these passages is required on my part.


Dr. Seevers is very knowledgeable in the field of OT and ANE studies and Warfare in the Old Testament is the fruit of a lifetime of studies in these areas. The story telling is as captivating as the historical facts. Seevers will have you thinking at every turn and drive you back to the text of Scripture with new insight and questions. I recommend this book for pastors preaching through the OT, teachers of OT and ANE studies, and for Christians who are fascinated by OT biblical history. There is a wealth of additional information in the end notes and resources listed at the end of the book for further study in specific areas.

About the author

Boyd Seevers (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of Old Testament Studies at University of Northwestern St Paul. He is an expert on ancient warfare and has participated in numerous archaeological excavations in Israel. He lived in Israel for eight years, during which time he was a visiting professor at Jerusalem University College. He has written numerous articles for the Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary and was the author of “Joshua” and “Daniel” in What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About.


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There are 4 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


Really want to read this one!  Have always wanted to know more about how war worked back in those days.

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josh p's picture

Just curious here since I know nothing of Hebrew, has anyone come across this interpretation of the number passages before? 

To me it is concerning to say "it would make more sense" to change 1000 men to some other translation. If there is an exegetical reason to do so ok but without reading the book it sounds like an attempt to find a way to deal with "difficult" passages.

josh p's picture

Ok thanks. I checked Gleason Archers "Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties" and he didn't have these included.

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