(Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns,
2011), 143 pp., $39.50 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Ziony Zevit
This book is a page-turner. It is difficult to imagine that a book—let alone a revised doctoral dissertation (completed in 2008)—combining Biblical studies, history, archaeology and hippology could be characterized as a “page-turner,” and yet, that is the phrase that kept crossing my mind as I read this relatively short book, 143 pages, over a weekend.
At first Deborah Cantrell wanted to know why the Egyptians didn’t pursue the fleeing Israelites on horseback, “ride after them like cowboys chasing Indians,” rather than attempting to chase them down in chariots (Exodus 14:6–8). Then she wanted to know why Barak and Deborah fought iron chariots with only infantry (Judges 4:14–16). Then she became curious about why David rode a mule rather than a stallion (1 Kings 1:33,38,44) and why Solomon required chariot cities with thousands of horses (2 Chronicles 8:6). She came to her questions naturally; Cantrell has been a rider, trainer, breeder and importer of horses and has engaged in competitive barrel racing, jumping and dressage. Consequently, she approached her research with understanding and a large body of practical knowledge.
The book would not have come into existence but for a trip to Israel. Cantrell was a practicing attorney when she visited the Megiddo stables as a tourist in 1997. Shortly after the visit, her curiosity led her to take a break from the practice of law and to undertake graduate studies in religion at Vanderbilt University. Her legal training is apparent throughout the book in the way she focuses her questions and constructs her interpretations of the Megiddo stables.
Although recent scholarship tends to assume that there were few horses in ancient Israel and that chariotry was relatively insignificant, Cantrell concludes otherwise based on sophisticated inferences from Biblical as well as ancient Near Eastern texts and from an abundance of archaeological evidence. In Iron Age Israel, she argues, there were large numbers of horses.
To evaluate “The Nature of the War-Horse,” she looks at horse psychology and training, the advantages of horses in battle as well as their limitations. One advantage, she says, is that killing a horse in battle is not done easily or quickly. Cantrell concludes that “Iron Age battles were won or lost depending on the best use of horses.”
Horses are rarely mentioned in Biblical stories set before the time of the Israelite monarchy. They first appear in narratives referring to Solomon’s time. The Assyrians mention that King Ahab fielded 2,000 chariots, a number that translates to 4,000–6,000 horses. The Tel Dan stele in lines 6–7 mentions “thou[sands of char]riots and thousands of horsemen [or: horses].” Cantrell also cites narratives about the capture or purchase of horses to prove her point. She concludes that horses were key pieces in the defensive military strategies of both Judah and Israel during the Iron Age.
In her discussion of “Chariotry in Iron Age Israel,” she points out on practical grounds that the topography of ancient Israel was well suited to accommodate a large chariotry and suggests how chariot networks would have facilitated the rapid deployment of strategic resources in time of need.
Cantrell convincingly argues that archaeological excavations at Megiddo uncovered a major equine complex with stables, an exercise area, watering troughs, hitching stalls, and an adjacent granary for feed. She presents evidence for crib-biting, a habit of some horses to grab fixed objects such as troughs or posts with their teeth, and for pawing, a behavior of impatient horses at feeding time. She uses this evidence to support her interpretation of the tripartite buildings at Megiddo (and elsewhere) as stables. She points to the presence of shallow feeding troughs set low, but high enough to keep the chariot horses from jumping out of their stalls. These shallow troughs encouraged slow feeding and minimized waste. Pillars between stalls blocked the sight of adjacent horses during feeding, preventing hostile reactions; holes in some of the pillars were used to anchor tethers used in grooming.*
Although she clarifies what was excavated in the stable complex, she avoids the controversial issue of the date. That was not her brief. Although she explicates archaeological data, she does so from the vantage point of her competencies. She is not an archaeologist. Consequently it is immaterial to her case if the equine complex is assigned to Solomon in the tenth century (1 Kings 9:15,19; P.L.O. Guy), Ahab in the ninth century (Yigael Yadin and most archaeologists and historians today) or Jeroboam II in the eighth century (Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin). Although dating affects the history of the phenomena that she addresses, she has no horse in the race over dating per se.
She also considers the role of chariotry in the context of warfare and explains the transition from chariotry to mounted combat as reflected in the Bible and inscriptions. She finds increasing allusions to cavalry during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. as thinner, smaller breeds of horses were introduced into various parts of the Near East thus improving the maneuverability of mounted riders, enabling them to neutralize chariot horses.
The Horsemen of Israel is a brief but important book that may have a significant influence on conceptualizing certain aspects of warfare, economics, social organization and bureaucracy in ancient Israel. But, no matter what its effects on scholarship may be in the future, it is an interesting and worthwhile read in the present. Ziony Zevit is Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages at the American Jewish University in Bel-Air, California. He has participated in archaeological excavations at Tel Lachish and at Tel Dan.
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