2 Samuel 10 and Related
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Chariots of Mesopotamia
This section of Scripture is quite interesting. Focus here is often placed on the fight against Aram, i.e., Syria, which stretched northeast to the Euphrates River. Yet across the Euphrates from Syria was the empire of Assyria—not yet risen to the major superpower it would ultimately become, but still a great force to be reckoned with. And, though Assyria is not directly mentioned here, we do see that there were forces arrayed against David from Mesopotamia (1 Chronicles 19:6), the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, which included Assyria. Indeed, it also included Babylon to the south. Some try to argue that the words translated "Mesopotamia," Aram Naharaim, denoted just a minor district on the upper Euphrates. But this is negated by the mention of 32,000 chariots (verse 7)—a huge number in any ancient context and unimaginably so if the traditional view of Israel fighting against just a few small neighboring powers is correct. At the height of his power, King Solomon had only 1,400 chariots (1 Kings 10:24-26). In addition to this, we know of 33,000 soldiers from the Aramaean, i.e., Syrian, states (2 Samuel 10:6), but there were probably untold thousands more in conjunction with the chariots sent from Mesopotamia.
While some might argue that the figure of 32,000 chariots is a copyist error, such an error seems highly unlikely since such a number of chariots would have screamed out at ancient readers and scribes as a mistake—unless it were known to be true. (While the Philistines were said to have had 30,000 chariots in 1 Samuel 13:5, it should be noted that these foremost of the Sea Peoples, who almost defeated Egypt shortly before the time of Saul, were a much greater force in the Mediterranean world than they are often reckoned to have been. The fact that Israel overcame them was itself miraculous.)
Surprisingly, then, it appears that what we may be looking at in our current reading is a massive Middle Eastern coalition that included the entire national armies of Assyria and Babylon—all engaged against David. The figure of 32,000 chariots is probably a combined total from all the armies fighting Israel.
What, then, of the instigation of this conflict by the disgracing of David's messengers by the Ammonites? Author Stephen Collins gives some intriguing insights in this lengthy quote from his book, The "Lost" Ten Tribes of Israel…Found!: "The Ammonites were a small tributary nation subject to David and were no doubt aware that David had executed two-thirds of the Moabites who had rebelled against him. Why then would they dare to take the apparently suicidal action of humiliating David's ambassadors and provoking David into a warlike response (I Chronicles 19:1-5)? The only logical explanation is that the Ammonites were acting as agents for someone else who wanted to challenge David, and that the Ammonites knew they would be backed by powerful friends who supported their hostile action. The rest of the account supports that conclusion.
"I Chronicles 19:6-9 states the Ammonites 'hired' a force of 32,000 chariots and an uncounted number of Syrian and Mesopotamian warriors to fight King David's army on their behalf…. Since Ammon was paying gold and silver as tribute to Israel already (I Chronicles 18:11), it hardly had the resources to hire virtually the entire national armies of the nations in Mesopotamia. Indeed, verse 6 indicates the Ammonites had no gold left with which to 'hire' mercenaries and could pay only in silver. Apparently, the other nations wanted to challenge Israel in considerable force, and Ammon's revolt was the pretext to arrange such a conflict…. That this huge Mesopotamian army would allow itself to be 'hired' without receiving any gold at all indicates that their presence was a national policy of Assyria's king! A force of 32,000 chariots could only have been mustered with the approval of the Assyrian Empire, the dominant power of Mesopotamia.
"The Bible's use of the term 'Mesopotamia' to describe the homeland of this vast force of foreign troops [rather than a specific country] indicates that it was a joint expeditionary force of many Mesopotamian nations (Assyria, Babylon, etc.). Verses 6-7 state that many Syrian troops were also 'hired' by the Ammonites to join the Mesopotamian armies in fighting King David. Since David had already conquered portions of Syria, the Syrians were eager to join a large alliance to fight against David. This battle then was an effort by the king of Assyria to defeat the growing power of King David. He arranged for virtually his entire army, along with other Mesopotamian allies and various Syrian kings to be 'hired' (for a pittance) by one of David's subject nations (Ammon) to get rid of the threat posed by King David's power.
"Interestingly, these Mesopotamian nations and Syria had enough respect for King David and Israel that they did not declare war openly, but allowed their national armies to fight as 'mercenaries' of a small nation. In this manner, if things went badly, they could go home and say that they were not technically at war with Israel on a national level. However, as evidence that these nations were actually arranging a war with King David, the Bible states that 'the kings' of the mercenary armies (the Mesopotamian nations and Syrians) came with their armies to personally watch the battle (I Chronicles 19:9)….
"This battle for supremacy of the ancient world was fought in two stages. The initial stage of the battle is described in I Chronicles 19:8-15. Israel's army met the combined forces of Ammon, Syria, and the Mesopotamian nations, and defeated them in a two-front battle. The fact that Israel had to split its forces and fight in two separate directions indicates that Israel's army was not expecting to fight so large a force and found itself surrounded by a numerically superior army. Israel's army likely expected to fight only the upstart Ammonites, and was surprised by the presence of so many enemies. Nevertheless, Israel's army won the battle, and the Mesopotamian army (i.e. the Assyrian army) apparently retreated to its own territory as they are not mentioned in the second stage of the battle.
"David quickly realized that this conflict involved far more than a revolt by the little nation of Ammon. It was actually an attempt to destroy Israel's army and national power, and to prevent it from supplanting Assyria as the preeminent nation in the ancient world" (1995, pp. 8-10).
The superscription of Psalm 60 shows that it refers to these events. David speaks here of having drunk the wine of astonishment or confusion. He speaks of trembling. David must have been overwhelmed at what was happening. But incredibly, the ultimate victory in this apparently titanic struggle was given by the Almighty Lord of Hosts to him and the men of Israel. As David notes in verse 12, it is "through God" that "we will do valiantly." David later uses much of this psalm to write the second part of Psalm 108 (verses 6-13—the first part of Psalm 108, verses 1-5, being taken from Psalm 57, written while David and his men hid from Saul in the cave at En Gedi, compare verses 7-11). Interestingly, Psalm 83, which seems to be a prophecy of end-time events, may also refer to this monumental battle we've been reading about. A psalm composed by the Levitical chief musician Asaph, it concerns a huge Middle Eastern confederacy whose goal is to wipe out Israel—to which Assyria is joined. Perhaps a coming end-time fulfillment of the apparent prophecy here had a prototype in David's time. If so, the episode we've just read about would seem to be the only one that would fit. If Psalm 83 does refer on some level to this episode, we may regard the "inhabitants of Tyre" mentioned in the coalition as rogue elements in that city rather than King Hiram and those loyal to him, as he was a close ally to David and later to Solomon.
"In the second stage of the battle recorded in I Chronicles 19:16-19, the Israelites and the Syrians mobilized their entire national military resources and clashed anew. This time there was no more pretense that the Syrians were Ammonite mercenaries. Also, the Assyrians were apparently no longer engaged, but had retreated after being soundly defeated by the Israelite army. The account states that David 'gathered all Israel' and Syria 'drew forth the Syrians that were beyond the River' (meaning reinforcements from east of the Euphrates River). The second battle of this war involved King David and his fully-mobilized army marching eastward from the Jordan River to fight everyone the Syrians could muster. After suffering 47,000 dead, including their commander, the Syrians yielded to King David and 'became his servants,' meaning they became vassal nations of Israel who paid tribute to King David…."
"What began as an effort on the part of Assyria and its Mesopotamian allies to crush Israel's military power resulted in Israel becoming sovereign over all the engaged Syrians, and the Mesopotamian powers being put to flight. The Assyrians and their allies learned firsthand that they could not successfully stand against Israel's power" (pp. 11-12). Indeed, Collins goes on to quote secular history as explaining that after this point, Aramaean invaders invade Mesopotamia and exhaust Babylonia and Assyria—and he points out that this is while the Aramaeans are vassals to David, indeed that the Israelites might be referred to by the Assyrians as one and the same with these Aramaeans. "After David made the Aramaeans his vassals and (probably in concert with those vassals) subjugated Assyria and Mesopotamia, David was not just king of Israel and Judah, he was emperor over nations. He was the dominant ruler of the known world, and Israel had become an ancient 'superpower'" (p. 19).
David's faith in God to grant victory is expressed in Psalm 20: "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the LORD our God. They have bowed down and fallen; but we have risen and stand upright" (verses 7-8).
With the forces to the north defeated, there remains only a mopping-up operation to finish this whole episode. The terrified Ammonites, their help gone, flee to their capital city of Rabbah to hide behind its city walls. We will see the fight against them in our next reading.