Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
WAR

1. A short military history of Israel

THE first wars in which Israel took part were wars of conquest, and [biblical tradition shows the people taking possession of the Promised Land by force of arms and with the help of God. The defeat of Sihon, king of Heshbon, and of Og, king of Bashan ( Nb 21: 21-35), and the campaign against Midian ( Nb 31: 1-12) secured a territory for Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh. The Book of Josue describes the occupation of Palestine west of the Jordan as a military operation in three sweeping actions: first, the people cross the Jordan and cut their way through to the very heart of the land ( Jos 1-9); next, a coalition of five Canaanite kings from the south is overthrown and the whole of southern Palestine occupied ( Jos 10); finally, the northern kings are defeated at Merom and their cities fall into the hands of the Israelites ( Jos 11). It is quite certain that this is an extremely simplified version of what really happened, that the actions of the tribes were less concentrated and far slower and that they did not all meet with equal success (cf. Jos 15: 13-17; Jg 1). It is also true that the Israelites infiltrated in a peaceful manner wherever they could; but they did meet opposition, which they had to overcome by force of arms.

The wars in the period of the Judges, and under Saul, were defensive wars. The Israelites first had to withstand the counter-attacks of the Canaanites and of those other peoples out Of whose lands they had carved their territory; later they had to fight against the Philistines, who were making inroads from the coast. The reign of David, on the other hand, was a period of reconquest and, later, of expansion. We are not fully informed of the reasons for David's wars. He declared war on the Ammonites because they had insulted his ambassadors ( 2 S 10: 1-5), and on the Aramaeans for going to the help of the Ammonites ( 2 S 10: 6-19; cf. 8: 3-6). We do not know what provoked the wars against Moab ( 2 S 8: 2) and Edom ( 2 S 8: 13). The bravado of the Ammonites and the eagerness with which the Aramaeans went to their aid show that the neighbouring States were growing anxious about the increasing power of Israel. But they also show that they underestimated the ability of its new leader, and it could well be that their provocation and the Israelite victories led David to adopt a policy of conquest of which he had never dreamed.

-247-

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