Abraham’s Trained Men

We never really think of Abraham as a warlord. He was the father of the nation of faith, so he must have been a man of peace, right?

Of course, reading his story this far removed temporally from the events in question, we often get the subconscious impression that it was more or less just Abraham and Sarah in most of their wanderings. We’re completely unused to the very extended families and massive households with large numbers of servants, hired hands, armed retainers and so on that a careful reading of Scripture makes clear Abraham’s was, so we tend to read our own very nuclear families onto the story without even thinking about it.

But it’s obvious from the details we read (and take in without playing out the implications) that Abraham’s household was pretty large, and that he was a powerful chieftain in his own right.

When Abraham and Lot separate, it’s because their households together are too many for the land to support. When he’s in Egypt, he gains large numbers of people as well as sheep and cattle. In his dealings with Abimelech, Abimelech is a lot more circumspect and careful around Abraham than Pharaoh, suggesting Abraham is either of equal or greater wealth and power than the kings of Gerar.

And when he rescues Lot from Kedorlaomer and Amraphel and the kings allied with them, he’s able to call out over three hundred trained warriors from his household troops.

As in the account of King David much later, the idea of a man of faith also being a warrior isn’t coming totally out of nowhere, but we never seem to think about it with Abraham.

I’m fascinated by this incident, and Abraham’s trained men, so I began to do some background reading. It gets more interesting the more you know.

Who were these “trained men”? How could three hundred men make the armies of six kings flee from them, so that they pursued them for several days’ journey?

We can’t precisely date the life of Abraham because there are very few external time references. “Pharaoh king of Egypt” isn’t much good for establishing a chronology, because “Pharaoh” is a title rather than a personal name. The same may be true for Abimelech, seeing as how not only Abraham but also Isaac and King David encounter a king of the Philistines “named” Abimelech. But this battle of six kings against five provides one of the few possible clues to date the whole Abrahamic period, and scholars argue back and forth as only scholars can over the identities of these rulers that the Bible names.

But we can say some things about the time period and the sort of warfare we’d expect to find.

Given that we know that the events of I Samuel take place against a backdrop of the very beginnings of the Iron Age (as evidenced by clues like the Philistines’ monopoly on ironworking shown in I Samuel 13:19, the events of Abraham’s life can be placed squarely in the height of the Bronze Age. Depending on your preferred date of the Exodus and how tight a Biblical chronology you accept (in other words, how much play is there in the Bible’s own reporting of numbers? When it says that the sojourn in Egypt was “four hundred years”, does it mean four hundred exactly, or “about four hundred”, just like we might say the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was “four hundred years ago” even though the exact number is 426 years, or even that it’s a purely symbolic 40 years (Scripturally meaning a period of trouble and testing) x 10 (symbolic of completion, being 1+2+3+4)?), the Abrahamic period could reasonably be anywhere from around 2500BC to around 1800BC.

This puts Abraham squarely in the great age of the chariot empires, and gives us an idea of the sort of battlefield technology we ought to be picturing.

If we think about it at all, we probably picture Abraham riding a camel, or at least, a horse. But archaeologists tell us that camels weren’t even domesticated until about 2500BC and saddled for riding only much later (which suggests that the reason the Midianites were so formidable in the time of Gideon might have been that they had camelry and the Israelites didn’t), and while horses were domesticated in about 3500BC, actual ridden cavalry didn’t happen until some time later. Archaeology points to chariots preceding ridden horses, at least in warfare. The horses of the time were too small to be ridden easily, and it took time to develop innovations like the bit and bridle, that let horses be controlled by a rider, and the framed saddle, which let a rider keep his seat more easily. Even after that, stirrups weren’t invented for several hundred years (about 500BC, if memory serves).

So then, Abraham in a chariot.

We tend to associate chariots with the great settled empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia rather than with nomads like Abraham, but archaeology points to the nomadic peoples, too, having chariots.

The nomads, in fact, often made better warriors than the settled peoples. Whereas settled farming used a lot of time and tended to produce a more timid, peasantlike people, the nomads’ daily life of watching the herds, fighting off wild animals and raiders, and perhaps engaging in a little raiding themselves, was already halfway toward warfare and cultivated the same skills and same watchful mindset. Nomads were generally feared by the settled peoples because they were dangerous, not merely because they were different.

Of course, settled communities of any size had bands of trained warriors supported by taxes on the peasant producers, but the difference was that among the nomads, every man was a warrior.

Abraham was living as a nomad, and had great numbers of sheep and cattle and donkeys. You don’t preserve wealth like this by leaving it unguarded, and Abraham was no fool. His people, and he himself, must have had to fight on occasion.

More than this, though, Abraham had 318 trained men. Over and above the levy of his herdsmen who would fight when necessary, he had 318 men whom the Scripture describes as “trained”. Trained implies they were more than herdsmen. Trained suggests they were purely warriors. Probably these would have been his charioteers, if I’m right in my assumption that he had them. At two men per chariot, that’s three hundred chariots, or two hundred, if these were the heavier, Hittite-style chariots with three-man crews.

This puts a different complexion on the forces Abraham had at his disposal. However, the opposition were no walkovers. Kedorlaomer, king of Elam (in the hills of south-western Persia) is their leader, and they include Amraphel king of Shinar (southern Mesopotamia) and others.

Linguists tell us that this is an Elamite compound word properly Kudur-Lagamar, but records from Elam are sketchy, and in all the records we have from Babylonia, there is no Amraphel. The Babylonians, along with other ancient people, did often deify their great kings. The pharaohs of Egypt famously ruled as god-kings, and much later several Roman emperors elevated themselves to godhood. If a certain well-known ancient Semitic-speaking Babylonian ruler had been deified in his lifetime, their name might have received the -El suffix as denoting a living god. And shorn of the -el ending, there’s really not that much to choose between Amrap(h) and (H)am(mu)rab(i). Not all scholars agree, of course, but linguitically speaking, it’s very possible.

Of course, Hammurabi’s annals don’t mention the events, but the proud and touchy rulers of the Bronze Age are unlikely to record their own defeats. But it provides a tantalising possibility for tying down the events of some of the earlier parts of Genesis.

We can’t say for sure. But it puts flesh on the incident. The kings of the valley of Sodom rebel against the Elamite and Mesopotamian rulers whom they had formerly been paying tribute to. In revenge, Kudur-Lagamar and Hammurabi gather together some of their subject kings and come down to the Jordan valley, plundering and despoiling. After a successful raid on Sodom, Abraham’s nephew Lot is among the plundered captives, and so Abraham decides to go and rescue him. He gathers together his three hundred elite fighting men and goes in pursuit.

We’re apt to read this through the lens of the Israelites’ later technological and military inferiority in the period of the Judges (Sisera’s 900 iron chariots, for example) or the relative strengths of King Hezekiah of Judah and Emperor Sennacherib of Assyria, but that actually doesn’t seem to be entirely what’s happening. The Bible’s never hesitant to make it known that the people of God were facing overwhelming force, but it does not do so here, which suggests, though far from conclusively, that the balance of power was more even. The armies of six kings including the notable Hammurabi do not run from rabbles of scruffy nomads that they themselves outnumber significantly. And if you look at the geography, Abraham’s forces had to chase them for several days before catching up to them and plundering the plunderers. The armies of the day were small enough that Abraham’s three hundred and eighteen trained men, together with however many other support troops he had, were a sizeable army.

So I suppose the lesson we should draw from all this is that using wisdom and reason to achieve what God is calling you to through the resources He has given is not incompatible with having a huge faith. It does not necessarily mean that you have little faith if you deploy your own God-given resources with your own God-given wisdom to achieve a righteous end. It just means that your faith is not being particularly tested right now.

But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.


2 thoughts on “Abraham’s Trained Men

    • Good point. We have a number of options to explain that.
      Firstly, that the approximate date we have for the domestication of the camel is off somewhat. Exactly when you classify an animal as “domesticated” is a little fuzzy; there’s room for some error there.
      Related to this, as I recall Indian elephants are classed as “tamed” rather than “domesticated”. People in India ride on and use elephants but they don’t quite fit all the curlicues of the technical definition of “domesticated”. It could easily be a similar situation with camels for hundreds or even a couple of thousand years.
      Thirdly, it’s an anachronism. As evangelical-type Christians who believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, we don’t like to think about this; it looks like an “error” in what we’ve been raised to think of as inerrant. But the possibility is there.
      Personally, my money’s on the second possibility. So yes, I suppose you could have Abraham on a camel. But my point about chariots stands. It took hundreds or thousands of years to get from people domesticating the horse to riding it in battle; the development of the saddle, bit and bridle, reins and stirrup took a long time.

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