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This article was first published in the Fall 1996 issue of Bible and Spade.

The Lessons of History

Almost all scholars of the art and science of warfare believe that the basic principles of war, strategy and tactics have changed little throughout time. Most will concede that Gilgamesh (ca. 2000 BC), Sun Tzu (ca. 500 BC), Josephus (ca. AD 70), Machiavelli (ca. AD 1500), or Clausewitz (ca. AD 1820) are as important for the student of military affairs today as they were when written.

For example, in a preface to a translation of Sun Tzu, the respected military historian B.H. Liddell Hart argues that Sun Tzu's small tome written about 500 BC

embodied almost as much about the fundamentals of strategy and tactics as I [Liddell Hart] had covered in more than 20 books (Tzu 1963: vii).

Another preface to a well-known book on military science has the writer, General T. H. Bliss, making a similar statement when he argues that

every science, that of war as well as peace, has a basis of general truths or principles of perennial application. These unchanging principles are the foundation on which is slowly built a superstructure.... Some of the germs of the eternal principles... are to be found in the earliest writings that have been preserved to us... (Spaulding, Nickerson and Wright 1937: iii-iv).

Given that students of the art and science of warfare are counseled to search out the "the general truths or the earliest writings" [emphasis mine], I find it interesting that most scholars of military affairs look back only as far as the traditional Classical (Greco-Roman) period for their historical lessons and neglect, or even worse ignore, the pre-Classical Near East. As a soldier, it saddens me that the U.S. Military Academy's text-book Ancient and Medieval Warfare, dedicated "to the citizen-soldier of ancient times" [emphasis added], starts with the Greek hoplite rather than the rich Near Eastern history available in the Bible ¬ records of events centuries prior to the Greeks (May, Stadler and Votow 1984: frontispiece). Arther Ferrill chastises his colleagues and corroborates my analysis of this problem when he states that

although most military historians have paid slightly more attention to warfare in the ancient Near East than to the origins of war in prehistoric times, ancient Near Eastern war remains a much neglected subject (1985: 33).

Military Science in the Bible

Military scholars blame the absence of extant original sources as their reason for not compiling information about Near Eastern military affairs in pre-Classical periods. That complaint may have been true 100 years ago (although I will argue later in this article that such is not valid), but certainly it is not the case today. Within the past ten decades, and more importantly within the last 40 years, the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and etymology have produced data which greatly enhances our understanding of how military affairs were conducted in the Near East well before the traditional Classical period. It is my opinion that archaeology, often encouraged by Bible scholars and interested laymen and women, has done more than any other science to further that understanding with discoveries and explanations of such ancient cultures as Egypt, Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, Palestine, and Asia Minor. Early archaeologists of 50 to 100 years ago, encouraged by Old Testament Biblical accounts, have given us insights on the life, culture and manner of warfare in societies thousands of years older than the Greeks and Romans, and important Near Eastern archaeological discoveries continue to be announced almost monthly.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence provided by the archaeologists, and especially Biblical archaeologists, there is still a reluctance on the part of historians and military theorists to use Near East discoveries as a basis for studying the art and science of war. One reason, they assert, is the lack of a reliable Near Eastern history. Although prominent Near Eastern scholars, like Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool, acknowledge that there is a viable history, others do not seem to believe them. This reticence to accept Biblical history is vividly shown by a recent article that quoted Kitchen as saying the nonbiblical record is consistent with everything known about Biblical cultures, from the price of slaves to the style of warfare. However, he then says, "Is he right? Most scholars don't think so..." (Lemonick 1995: 69) [emphasis mine].

What the "scholars" seem to be searching for is an independent source that will substantiate the accounts in the Bible in spite of the fact that time after time the Biblical accounts have been proven to be accurate. Even contemporary archaeologists seem to be falling into this trap, as exemplified in an article in the March/April 1992 issue of Archaeology, a widely read and respected popular journal. The editor, Peter Young, introduces the issue by stating that he had

reread the Book of Joshua and wondered if these stories had any basis in archaeological fact.

After some analysis and consultation with "scholars," he arrives at his conclusion that the conquest of Canaan

as a unified military campaign led by a single, divinely directed leader, while undoubtedly a powerful narrative, may have little basis in historical fact (1992: 2).

Even the existence of the Bible's greatest king, David, and his military exploits have not been accepted by mainline scholars in major universities, as was reported after the recent discovery of a fragment of stone, widely believed by many to be the first known reference outside the Bible to King David. Although the stone does refer to the "House of David," even this evidence is not enough for Dr. Jack Sasson, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, who states that

the reference to the House of David did not necessarily prove the man existed (Wilford 1993: A1, B2) [emphasis mine!].

Such intellectual arrogance and unwillingness to accept the Bible's accounts of history by those who are closest to the study of the era has led military scholars to overlook a valuable source of information about the origins of the elusive principles of military science. It should be clear to any reader of the Old Testament that its pages detail many military activities. The Bible's accounts are considerably more ancient than those most military analysts use. Archaeologists categorize the Old Testament periods as the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age II (1550-586 BC), times that pre-date the Greco-Roman period by centuries. Therefore, it seems to me that the books of the Old Testament are a primary source, written over 3,000 years ago by many authors. Thus, they should be used by military theorists.

I have often wondered why Bible scholars have not pointed out the Bible's historical cohesiveness and accuracy to military historians and theorists. I suspect one reason is that Bible commentators are not trained in military affairs. As a result, they study the Bible to learn moral or spiritual lessons, not principles of war. In the same way, military scholars overlook the Bible because they perceive it as a book of moral and spiritual lessons, not a book of military history or theory.

The tendency for military scholars to ignore the importance of the Bible is unfortunate, for, as Abraham Malamat has pointed out,

many Biblical sources, when stripped of their theological varnish, do present a candid record of military lessons... (1979: 38).1

Recently, a military affairs analyst has written several books that do take pre-Classical history into account. Richard Gabriel argues that

except for a handful of scholars, the field of ancient military history has been only rudimentarily explored, no doubt due somewhat to the lack of an attentive audience.

He points to the fact that ancient Near Eastern armies deployed forces of modern size and conducted sophisticated military operations approaching the complexity of the United States' recent Persian Gulf campaign (Gabriel and Getz 1991: xiv)! I would argue that there is an "attentive audience" of many Bible scholars and interested lay people who would welcome cogent and accurate analyses and insights of military operations and activities in the Old Testament if they were written by scholars of military affairs.

Importance of Geography

At this point the reader may be asking, "What kinds of lessons and insights could be learned if military scholars and historians would examine the pages of the Old Testament with a view toward accepting its accuracy and reliability?" A complete discussion of the subject is not within the scope of this short article, but a few examples should serve to illustrate the point.

Military operations are fought over terrain, and therefore one of the most important determinants of military operations has to do with geography. In ancient times, as well as modern, terrain dictates the tactics and strategies of military leaders. From Joshua's conquering of the backbone of the "Promised Land" to General Schwartzkopf's use of the vastness of the Arabian desert to conceal preparations for one of the greatest tank battles in history, successful military tacticians have taken advantage of landforms to accomplish their objectives. Military leaders who do not, will probably fail. In Israel, the mountainous backbone has been an obstacle to invading armies for millennia and a place of refuge for its inhabitants. In spite of the ruggedness of the high hills, God directed Joshua to occupy that precise piece of real estate as recorded in the early chapters of the Book of Joshua. In so doing, Joshua secured the Israelites' presence in Canaan. History confirms that no sovereign state has been able to exist in Palestine without occupying the central ridge, and countless ruins of fortifications on its heights and approaches silently attest to the highland's importance. Invaders have avoided the mountains. Napoleon, when asked if he was going to occupy Palestine's mountains, is supposed to have said:

I should not wish to share the fate of Cestius; I will not be bogged down in the mountains (Gichon 1985: 182).

Instead, conquerors have occupied the coastal plains and the important passes and road systems through the mountains, like Megiddo and the Via Maris, not the cities and towns on the mountains. Only when seeking total subjugation of the people in Israel, or in search of treasure, did occupying powers attempt to conquer cities of the mountains like Jerusalem, Lachish, Hebron and Samaria. Cities of the plains and passes, like Megiddo, Gezer and Hazor, were subject to repeated attack.

I dwell on geography because a recent article in a respected military history journal illustrates my point that military scholars ignore, or in this article misinterpret, the history associated with the Bible and Israel. The editor of the journal, as well as the author of the article, argue that Jerusalem was a militarily strategic "choke point" whose occupancy throughout history was critical if external powers were to control the land (Meistrich 1996: 8-23).2 Nothing could be further from the truth. Even a superficial review of Biblical and secular history will reveal that the military giants of yesteryear did not subscribe to this theory. The Egyptians, who were the first in recorded history to control the roads of commerce through this land, occupied Megiddo and Jaffa instead of occupying Jebus (or Jerusalem), a backwater village that was three miles from any major road network. Years later the great armies of the Assyrians did not try to occupy Jerusalem, even though by that time the city was the capital of a nation-state. Rather, the Assyrians contented themselves with the northern parts of the nation in order to control commerce into and from the Fertile Crescent. A century or so later, it took several invasions by the Babylonians into the Holy Land before they finally tackled the reduction of Jerusalem. Even as late as World War I, Lord Allenby turned to the mountains in 1918 only after first capturing Jaffa and the Yarkon River along the coast. Allenby's forces took a scant 12 days to go the 53 miles from Beersheba to Jaffa; however, the 22 miles from Jaffa to Jerusalem took a costly 21 days, which again proves the importance and difficulty of the mountains. But these mountains did not require the occupation of the invading armies; rather, the mountains provided defense for the occupants of the land. I believe the strategic thinking of the military leaders can be summarized by Ben-Hadad I, a Syrian king who, after unsuccessfully attempting to conquer the mountainous capital of northern Israel, Samaria, in about 853 BC, stated that

their [the Israelites] gods are the gods of the hills; therefore, they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they (1 Kings 20:23).

I find it difficult to understand how notable scholars of military history can overlook such evidence and propose that the strategic key to Palestine is Jerusalem.

Military Intelligence

One characteristic that distinguished second millennium BC warfare from that of earlier periods is the existence of developed intelligence systems. This resulted from several facts. One was that commanders, far from the safety of secure borders and interior lines, needed to insure troop security on long campaigns in hostile and unknown terrain. Another was that good maps did not exist. So, as armies increased in size and moved further away from familiar territory, their campaigns were often accomplished under changing and unfamiliar geographical conditions. This demanded reconnaissance to provide accurate and timely information. Extrabiblical historical records provide clues that imply many early commanders made excellent use of intelligence, and the historical books of the Old Testament contain several excellent accounts of intelligence activities. The Bible writers indicate that the Israelites resorted to broad strategic intelligence, and obtained a comprehensive picture when their objective was settlement of the land (Nm13). When destruction of a specific location was their objective, they resorted to a more limited collection of information called tactical or battlefield intelligence (Joshua 2).

Tactical intelligence was gathered by reconnaissance units and spies. There is frequent reference in the Old Testament to "sending spies," but this clause should more correctly be translated as "dispatching a reconnaissance unit before an operation" (Malamat 1979: 33). Strategic intelligence, on the other hand, was gathered from many sources, as can be inferred from Moses' guidance to the 12 men sent to collect strategic information about Canaan (Nm 13:17-20). His intelligence requirements, which were given to the 12 spies, is similar to what any modern commander would need before conducting an invasion.

Sun Tzu argued the necessity for strategic intelligence by stating that

those who do not know the conditions of mountains and forests, hazardous defiles, marshes and swamps, cannot conduct the march of an army (1963: 104).

Hannibal, among other notable military leaders, is well regarded for sending secret agents ahead of his armies to secure detailed information about the country he was about to enter. Moses' foresight and wisdom is even the more remarkable if one considers the experiences of recent military commanders who have neglected or ignored the importance of obtaining vital strategic intelligence prior to a major invasion of unfamiliar territory. Napoleon's and Hitler's attacks of Russia, the British incursion into Afghanistan in the first Afghan War (1839-42), the Soviet Union's efforts in the last decade, and the United States' initial involvement in the war in Vietnam come to mind. Napoleon's inability to obtain information about unfamiliar terrain was apparent as early as 1799 when he campaigned in Palestine. In order to become more familiar with the terrain and enemy forces, he dispatched a reconnaissance-in-force led by the French General Kleber, who almost met defeat at the hands of a much larger Turkish force near Mount Tabor. Kleber's command was saved by the superior training of his troops and the timely intervention of a relief column personally led by Napoleon.

Returning to the Biblical story of Moses, following their 40 day reconnaissance of Canaan the 12 spies presented their findings. Ten of the spies claimed the inhabitants were too powerful to defeat. Two spies, Caleb and Joshua, agreed the inhabitants were powerful, but felt the Israelites could prevail. The public nature of the conflicting reports and the different conclusions of the two groups placed the leader, Moses, in a tough position. Three thousand years later, the great Carl von Clausewitz, the premier Western military strategist of the past 200 years, wrote in his tome, On War:

"[Many] intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain.... In short, most intelligence is false, and the effect of fear is to multiply lies and inaccuracies. As a rule most men would rather believe bad news than good, and rather tend to exaggerate the bad news.... The commander must trust his judgement and stand like a rock on which the waves wreak in vain. It is not an easy thing to do" (1976: 117-118).

As a result of the people's fears, the Israelites were not permitted to invade Canaan until after Moses' death 38 years later.

Unchanging Principles of War

I have purposely quoted von Clausewitz because my study of his book several years ago prompted my interest in the "unchanging principles" of military strategy and science. Bernard Brodie, regarded as the greatest American strategic thinker in the last half of our 20th century, once made this bold statement about Clausewitz:

His is not simply the greatest, but the only book about war [emphasis mine]. Where various other writers of that subject seek to be analytical rather than simply historical, they may be highly respectable in their achievements but as compared with Clausewitz the invariable conclusion has to be that they do not come close (1976: 53).

Thus, I became intrigued with the study of war, that is, war at the strategic or state level, and Clausewitz's understanding of the genesis of wars between nation-states. There is always a danger in reducing hundreds of pages of material into a few short sentences; but Clausewitz's theory of states and war can be reduced to three ideas which he defines, unfortunately for Christians, as a "remarkable trinity":

The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone (1976: 89).

By describing war as the purposeful direction of the passion of the people to achieve objectives set by political leaders, Clausewitz cuts through the lesser issues of morality and ethics and gets at the heart of the question of why wars are fought. In so doing, he permits us to examine the military activities of the Israelites, not as an unled rabble of passionless freed slaves, as many liberal scholars would have us believe, but as a nation with a purposeful political leader, Yahweh.

If Clausewitz's dictum that all war is predicated on the achievement of political objectives is true, what was Yahweh's political goal in having the Israelites go to war? The answer is succinctly stated: Yahweh's desire to provide a place for the Israelites to live. "To your offspring I will give this land," He declares (Gen. 12:7). Unfortunately for those who lived in the land, Yahweh found them objectionable. Thus a military objective was added to the political objective: "Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore he would give to your fathers..." (Deut. 1:8). Yahweh subsequently explained that removing the alien population would also eliminate theological temptations. But in order to effectively "eliminate" the enemy, the Israelites had to totally destroy them.

You must destroy all the peoples the LORD your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you. (Deut. 7:16).

Three thousand years later, Clausewitz proposes his trinity of ideas and argues that there are three objectives in warfare which complement his "trinity": (1) the military power of the enemy must be destroyed so that the enemy army cannot take the field again; (2) the territory of the enemy must be conquered and occupied to prevent the government from forming a new enemy army; and (3) the people's will to fight must be subdued. The Old Testament account in Joshua operationalized those objectives into a twofold military policy of conquest which is recorded in Deuteronomy 20:10-20 . The second part of this strategy required that when the Israelites attacked cities in the Promised Land, the cities were to be besieged and after they had fallen, all living creatures were to be put to death. The effectiveness of these policies insured that no army could emerge, the will of the enemy would be mortally subdued, and the territory occupied. Thus, all three of the objectives Clausewitz believed necessary for total victory were achieved.

In summary, these brief examples of principles of war at the strategic and tactical level illustrate that foundational lessons of military art and science can be gleaned from a careful reading of the pages of the Old Testament. My admonishment to all scholars who write, teach, and conduct research on military affairs, including myself, is for us not to overlook the valuable and important lessons that can be learned from the pages of the Bible. The Bible is not only a book with moral and theological stories, it is about real people, and is a reliable history written in a cultural mileu that enhances our understanding of civilizations thousands of years ago. Valuable lessons about the principles and foundations of politics, military strategy and tactics, economics, ethics, and many other academic disciplines can be gleaned from a study of its pages. Such lessons are as applicable today as they were thousands of years ago. To consider only "recent" history and consider Biblical history as unreliable is narrow-minded and wrong, and scholars do so at their own risk.


Barton Whaley comes to the same conclusion and argues that the contemporary Israeli Army and its commanders consciously draw military inspiration, wisdom and lore from the Bible, and the Old Testament teaches its share of stratagems of war (1969: 81).

See also my letter to the editor, and his response, on pp. 7-8 of the same edition.


Ferrill, A. 1985 The Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great. London: Thames and Hudson.

Gabriel, R., and Getz, K.S. 1991 From Sumer to Rome: The Military Capabilities of Ancient Armies. New York: Greenwood.

Gichon, M. 1985 The West Bank: The Geostrategic and Historical Aspects. In The West Bank: Line of Defense, ed. Aryeh Shalev. New York: Praeger.

Lemonick, M.D. 1995 Are the Bible's Stories True? Time, December 18: 62-69.

Malamat, A. 1979 Conquest of Canaan: Israelite Conduct of War According to Biblical Tradition. Revue Internationale d ‘Histoire Militaire 42.

May, E.C.; Stadler, G.P.; Votow, J.F. 1984 Ancient and Medieval Warfare. Wayne, NJ: Avery Publishing Group.

Meistrich, I. 1996 The Battles for Jerusalem. MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 8, Number 4: 8-23.

Spaulding, O.L.; Nickerson, H.; Wright, J.W. 1937 Warfare: A Study of Military Methods From the Earliest Times. Washington, DC: The Infantry Journal.

Tzu, S. 1963 The Art of War . Griffith, S. B. (trans.). London: Oxford University Press.

Von Clausewitz, C. 1976 On War. Howard, M. and Paret, P. (eds. and trans.), Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Whaley, B. 1969 Stratagem: Deception and Surprise in War. Unpublished manuscript.

Wilford, J.N. 1993 From Israeli Site, News of House of David. New York Times, August 6.

Young, P.A. 1992 Rethinking the Bible. Archaeology 45.

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