Book Review: Boyd Seevers, Warfare in the Old Testament

Seevers, Boyd. Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2013. Hb. $34.95   Link to Kregel

While there are a few books on warfare in the ancient world, there are few that attempt to cover how the military functioned in the biblical period for the major people groups of the Bible. Boyd Seevers offers a historical survey of warfare in Israel, Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. Because of the wide range both historically and culturally, the book is necessarily brief on details. It does, however, provide a basis for understanding biblical descriptions of warfare, which is likely the interest of most readers of the book.

Seevers, WarfareEach section begins with a fictional story of a battle, told from the perspective of a soldier. For example, in chapter one Seever creates the narrative of Judah ben-Eliezer, a soldier about to participate in the attack on Jericho. In chapter 5 the story of Dagarat the Philistine introduces the reader to the Philistines as they engage King Saul. In chapter 9, we read about Chrysantes, a commander in the Median cavalry. These short stories are engaging and offer an insight into the content of the chapter. They are not the sort of thing one expects in a scholarly book, but Seevers intends them as a creative way to draw his readers into the topic at hand.

After setting the stage with a short story, Seevers offers a short “background” section explaining how a particular people connect with the story of the Bible. This means that the section is far from a comprehensive history of the nation, but only that narrow period of contact with Israel. After this background, Seevers describes the military structure and weaponry of the people. The chapters are divided into sections (infantry, navy, role of the gods, types of weapons, etc.) marked by marginal comments. Seevers does a good job describing the psychological warfare and cruelty of the Assyrians, something that can illuminate many prophetic texts (Jonah and Nahum, for example).

One special problem of warfare texts that Seevers treats is the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘eleph, traditionally translated as “thousand” (p. 53-55). As is well known, the word may refer to a military unit rather than a literal 1000. This means that instead of approximately 600,000 soldiers at the time of the Exodus, Israel had something like 5,500 units. This solves the problem of the extreme numbers in the Pentateuch. When Israel entered the Land in Joshua, they are portrayed as a small people compared to the Canaanites, but with an army of more than a half million they would have overwhelmed the Canaanite city states! In addition, when the city of Ai kills 36 men out of 3,000, Joshua sees this as a terrible defeat. If it is 36 men out of three military units, then perhaps a third or more of the soldiers were killed.

There are many line-art illustrations drawn from Ancient monuments or other illustrations.  Rather than reproduce a photograph of the siege of Lachish, for example, the author’s brother Josh Seevers faithfully reproduced parts of that wall relief to illustrate elements of the text. This is the same style as Othmar Keel’s Symbolism in the Biblical World. This means that the Assyrian image of the Siege of Lachish appears many times in the text. I would have liked a section that collected photographs of the original as well as the line art, but the illustrations work well in the text.

At the end of the book, Seevers includes a “further readings” section for each unit of the book. These brief reading lists point the reader to more detailed studies of the military in the Ancient Near East. The book uses endnotes placed at the end of each chapter. I prefer footnotes, but the use of endnotes does make for smooth reading.  When Hebrew appears in the text it is transliterated so the reader without Hebrew can follow the text without difficulty.

Missing in this book is any discussion of a theology of warfare in the Hebrew Bible. In addition, the problem of Holy War, sometimes called the Canaanite Genocide is not discussed. Almost nothing is said on the topic and there is no reference to placing a city “under the ban” (herem) as was Jericho (Joshua 1-6) and the Amalikites in 1 Sam 15. In addition, in 1 Sam 22 Saul puts the village of Nob “under the ban” when he orders the priests who helped David destroyed. While this book is historical in orientation and interested mainly in the material evidence of how Israel fought, a section on this extremely difficult problem would have been a valuable inclusion. On the other hand, the problem of war in the Old Testament is worthy of a monograph, perhaps a few pages would not be enough to do justice to the topic.

Conclusion. This book is a good introduction for the layman to the way the military functioned in the Ancient Near East. While the text does use some technical terminology, it is written for the non-professional. Most students of the Bible will benefit from reading this book alongside Joshua, Judges Samuel and Kings.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Romans 1:17 – “From Faith to Faith”?

I am not sure I have never done a blog post “by request” before, but when Mat Loverin calls the tune, I have to dance.  This is a difficult little problem which touches on the syntax of the Greek New Testament, but may very well reflect the presuppositions of the reader more than anything else.  In addition, this is an allusion to the book of Habakkuk and may also illustrate how Paul uses the Hebrew Bible to evoke more ideas that are contained in the actual words.

In his magisterial commentary on Romans in the ICC series, C. E. B. Cranfield lists the following options for understanding this phrase:

  • From the faith of the Old Testament to the faith of the New Testament.
  • From the faith of the Law to the Faith of the Gospel (Tertullian)
  • From the faith of the preachers to the faith of the hearers (Augustine)
  • From faith in one article to faith in another (Mentioned by Aquanis)
  • From faith in the present to faith in the future (Mentioned by Aquanis)
  • From the faith of the words (whereby we now believe what we do not see) to the faith of the things, that is realities (whereby we shall possess what we now believe in) (Augustine)
  • God’s faithfulness to man’s faith (Ambrosiaster)
  • Growth in faith (Sanday and Headlam)

Notice that some of these possibilities seem to bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New, it is all “one faith.”  Others see “faith” as a technical term for “doctrine,” others here the word faith as our response to God.  Some of these historical suggestions are very much driven by presuppostions.

Cranfield says that the problem with all of these views is that they take “from faith” in a different sense that it is used in the Habakkuk quotation.  He mentions that it is possible to take “from faith” as meaning by faith and “by faith” as an instance of  “an abstract for a concrete.”   The Habakkuk quote probably intended to link righteousness and faith.  Habakkuk is commenting on the fall of Judah to the Babylonians – how does a faithful person respond to such a spiritual disaster? Cranfield therefore suggests that the meaning is something like “for in it (the gospel that is being preached) a righteous status which is God’s gift is being revealed (and so offered to men) – a righteous status which is altogether by faith.”  (Romans, 99).  This is a theological unpacking of the text which may very well be good theology, but is it what Paul intended to communicate?

Should the meaning of this line in the book of Habakkuk bear on Paul’s use of the line in Romans 1:17?  It is possible that Paul wanted us to hear the words of Habakkuk in their original context and “hear the echoes” of the fall of Jerusalem in the quote.  If so, then the reader ought to be thinking about the faithfulness of God in keeping his covenant despite the sin of Israel and the judgment of the exile.  The faithful God is working in the people of faith to reveals his righteousness / justice at the present time.   Perhaps this is a text which could be read as an “end of the exile” motif in Paul.  How is it that God has ended the long exile of Israel?  By revealing his righteousness through the faithful act of Jesus on the cross.

But if I say “we have nothing to fear except fear itself,” I am not sure I can expect my audience to hear the words in the context of Franklin D. Roosevelt, nor even know that the words are from his 1933 inaugural address.  (In fact, his point was “we can get through the depression,” but until I looked it up, I would have thought this referred to entering World War II).  There are some people who might think that someone else said the line and “hear and echo” of something I had not intended, and perhaps “create a meaning” in their own mind that was not my intention at all.  Imagine the meaning if someone thought that Yogi Berra was the source of the phrase, describing the chances the 1969 Mets had at winning the World Series!  Or worse yet, Harry Potter trying to convince Ron Weasley to follow the spiders into the Forbidden Forest.  Those contexts might very well spin the meaning of my use of the quote off into unintended and perhaps disastrous meanings to my original text.

Overall I am inclined to give the context of the Hebrew Bible full weight in Paul’s allusion, especially since this line is something of a theme for the whole book of Romans.  Paul is declaring that the faithful God is acting to reveal his righteousness in the faith actions of his Son, on behalf of the faithful.

Romans 1:17 – What is “the Righteousness of God”?

The original meaning of the δικ- word group was “that which was customary,” but was used to describe what was right in judicial cases.  It was used in the sense of “judgement, lawsuit, trial, and penalty.”  In the Greco-Roman world, the word was used for fairness in a court of law.  One was “righteous” if one behaved in accordance with Roman Law. One is righteous in the Greco-Roman usage of the word.

But the Greek Old Testament regularly translates the Hebrew word צַדִּיק (tzadik) with δικαιοσύνη.  This word can refer to both behavior and administrative justice, and to both individuals and to groups.  Occasionally the LXX translates חֶסֶד (hesed) with righteousness (Gen 20:13, for example).  It is hard to overestimate the importance of hesed in the theology of the Hebrew Bible. The word refers to the covenant loyalty of God who keeps his promises and does “loving kindness” toward his people.  The word “righteous” in the Hebrew Bible therefore refers to a proper relationship rather than a legal status. One does righteousness in the Hebrew Bible use of the word.

Is Paul using the word as a Jewish writer might, in the light of the Hebrew Bible, or is Paul using the word the way a Greek or Roman might?  The classic view of Paul is that he is developing a legal metaphor for salvation.  Justification means that the believer is “declared righteous” legally in God’s court; legally he is made righteous.  For example, according to Cranfield, there is “no doubt” that Paul means “to acquit” rather than moral transformation by this word group (Romans 1:95).

For many representatives of the New Perspective on Paul, however, this is a good example of a case where Paul’s Jewish background is important (for example, James Dunn, Romans 1:40). Paul does not necessarily want to evoke a Roman Court scene in the minds of his readers at all.  What he wants them to hear in the word is the character of God in the Hebrew Bible as righteous and faithful.

This is far from an arcane argument among biblical scholars hoping to sell a few books. This verse is the main theme of Romans – God’s righteousness is being revealed from heaven in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The rest of Romans is going to be an exposition of the righteousness of God.  If the traditional view is correct, then the focus of the gospel is on our legal declaration of righteousness. If Dunn and others are correct, we might read this line as saying “God’s covenant loyalty and faithfulness is being revealed.”  The Gospel is therefore about God’s character, the focus is on how he has acted in history to reveal his character.

Psalm 4 – “They Love Vain Words”

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

Like many psalms, the writer describes his oppressor, although it is impossible to relate this to an event in David’s life with any certainty.  It is possible Psalm 4 was intended to be read along side of Psalm 3, which does make reference to Absalom’s rebellion, but this is not necessary.  In fact, there is enough ambiguity in the text to apply it to any number of scenarios in the Hebrew Bible.

They seek to turn the Psalmist’s glory into shame.  The noun honor (ESV, Heb. כָּבוֹד) can refer to personal glory, distinction, or even reputation. In the context of David’s life, this could refer to the time when he was king.  At that time he was honored and had a growing reputation, but many were jealous of his success and sought to attack him.  On the other hand, the noun could be taken as a title for God, he is “My Glory.” The opponents may be attacking the Psalmist’s God.  If the opponent is outside of Israel, then the opponent may be claiming that he is not worthy of worship. If the opponent is from within Israel, then perhaps the attack is aimed at the worship of God in the Temple at Jerusalem.  There are a number of times in the Hebrew Bible when exclusive worship fo the Lord at the Temple was attacked (from the northern kingdom under Ahab and Jezebel, or later under the Judean kings Ahaz and Manasseh).

If “my Glory” refers to God himself, then the point of this line is that the opponent is saying that the God of Israel is not worthy of worship, he is in fact a shameful God.  This could be the words of a foreign nation, or even from the Northern kingdom, saying that worship in the Temple is not acceptable, it is in fact a shameful thing.

They love vain words. The adjective “vain” (רִיק) refers to something that is empty or void.  This can be an action which cannot hope to succeed (the nations plot in vain against the Lord’s anointed, Ps 2:1), and frequently it refers to work which is “in vain” (Isa 49:4; Jer 51:58; Hab 2:13).  The noun “words” does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, hence the NIV’s “they love delusions.”  This is particularly evocative translation for me, since it seems to me that there are many people who are committed to an illusion of life rather than to life as it really is. But this illusion is in vain, it cannot come to any benefit at all since it is empty to begin with.

They seek after lies.  Just as the oppressors seek an illusion rather than reality, they seek lies rather than truth.  The noun here (כָּזָב) is not the usual word for a lie, this is a deception, something which tries to look like the truth but is in fact false. It is very easy to create a self-deception, it is also very easy to believe the lies you tell yourself – the opponents in this Psalm create a reality which suits them!

Just as in Psalm 4, There is a sad tendency in contemporary culture to dismiss someone who even believes in God as some sort of sub-intellectual who holds on to a fairy-tale belief in the face of real-world scientific fact.  To believe in God is to be “shameful,” to be an evangelical Christian is to be the same as people who believe a flat Earth.

This attack is (unfortunately) creates a spiritual inferiority complex.  People say something like, “I believe in God, but not like those people.” Or people reject the name Christian, preferring to be called a “spiritual person” instead.   The real problem is that there are too many Christians who are shameful (Fred Phelps, and many others).  They are the ones who manage to get into the media, or make YouTube videos, or get caught in some incredible hypocrisy.

There are too many of “those people” who turn “our Glory” into a shameful thing.