Thursday, October 27, 2022

Chariots of Fire

Dana McNeely

In modern times, chariots evoke a poetic romanticism found in media, art, and literature. For example, the title of the film "Chariots of Fire" was inspired by a line written by English poet William Blake, “Bring me my Chariot of Fire!” The poem, in turn, was inspired by the following Bible passage, which also inspired my soon-to-be-published novel, Whirlwind.

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. ~ 2 Kings 2:11-12 New International Version


Giuseppi Angeli, Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire,
courtesy WikiMedia Commons

Going back in biblical history to the first mentions of chariots, the ancients probably did not associate chariots with romantic notions, but with transportation, hunting, or a nation’s strength in battle. It is to that notion of the nation's strength that Elisha compares his mentor when he calls Elijah "the chariots and horsemen of Israel."

The Earliest Chariots 

Image courtesy Wiki Commons.

The first biblical reference to a chariot referred to Joseph riding in Pharaoh's chariot in Egypt. It may have looked like the image above.
"Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. 43 He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, 'Make way!' Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt." ~ Genesis 41:42-43

Six specimens were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. It seems chariots were first used for transportation and hunting, but when improvements increased their speed, mobility, and strength, they were used in warfare. They may have spread to other countries by commerce or when taken as spoils of war. 

The Armored Tanks of Ancient Times

As the Israelites moved into the Promised Land, they quickly learned that the resident's chariots lent them a marked advantage - on level ground. So when Joshua, Israel's commander, learned a coalition of Canaanites was converging on the strategic location of Merom, he watched as they camped in a narrow, presumably hidden, gorge among the hills behind the lake. 

Then Joshua sent his foot soldiers on a stealth attack down the slopes. Before the Canaanites could muster and deploy their chariots, Israel won the victory - and the chariots. But because the Israelites could not use chariots, Joshua destroyed them.

The Israelites were not quick to add chariots to their arsenal.

For twenty years during the time of the Judges, Sisera, a commander of the Canaanite army, tormented the Israelites with nine hundred iron chariots fitted with iron. The Israelites called out to God for help, which He sent in the form of a heavy out-of-season rainstorm and two women: Deborah, a prophetess and Jael, a Kenite.

Image via Wiki Commons
Jael-Sisera circa 1550
When the rainstorm's mud buried wheels in muck, Deborah sent Barak, leader of the Israelite army, in pursuit of the mired-down chariots. 

Meanwhile, Sisera knew his king, Jabin, had a trading relationship with the Kenites, but both appeared unaware of the Kenites' intermarriage with Israelites. Exhausted from his slog through the mud fleeing Israel’s army, Sisera accepted Jael, the Kenite's, offer of rest in her tent. After a drink of warm buttermilk, the enemy commander fell asleep. His nap lasted longer than expected when Jael drove a tent peg through his head. 

An article in Biblical Archaeology discusses an interesting find linking a bronze chariot linchpin to a location believed to be Haroshet Hagoyim – the Canaanite base of Sisera, as mentioned in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Book of Judges.

Under King David during the united monarchy, chariots were used, but the Lord instructed Israel not to "build up multitudes of horses and chariots," but rather to look to God for their strength. 

When the Kingdom of Israel split in two, the northern kings were in rebellion and did not feel compelled to follow the same rules as the southern kingdom. The North, referred to as "Israel" or their capital city "Samaria", often worshipped Canaanite gods and did not recognize the Temple in Jerusalem as the sanctioned place of worship. They added horses and chariots to their armies whenever they could.

Fast forward to a battle circa 853 BC. Although the Battle of Qarqar is not mentioned in the Bible, it is interesting because of a controversial archeological find, the stone Kurkh Monoliths. The stone tablets list eleven kings that fought against Assyrian King Shalmaneser III, among them Ahab of Israel.

At question are the numbers listed on the artifact of forces sent by Ahab - 2,000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers. Scholars doubt whether Ahab's army could have rivaled that of Aram Damascus, and posit that the number 2,000 is a scribal error and should have been 200.

At odds with this argument, is the Bible's account in 1 Kings 20, of Aram's siege against Samaria, which occurred a few years before the Battle of Qarqar. Aram had the upper hand, but an anonymous prophet brought word to King Ahab that the Lord intended to give the battle to Israel so that he would know the Lord was God over Israel.

The prophet laid out the plan, whereby young officers would lead the charge, quickly followed by King Ahab leading soldiers, tradesmen, and other residents of Samaria. Ben-Hadad, leader of the opposition and confident of his upper hand, was getting drunk in his tent with 32 kings of countries who had joined with him against Israel. A messenger told Ben-Hadad that young men were coming down from the city and he ordered that they be brought to him alive.

Ben-Hadad's order could not be carried out because each Israelite soldier killed his opponent, and the rag-tag army led by Ahab surprised the drunks in Ben-Hadad's tent. With no time to harness his chariot horses, the enemy king jumped on a horse and fled with what kings could commandeer a horse, leaving their armies in confusion. The surprise attack gave Israel the battle - and all the chariots of the 32 armies which fled.

Because King Ahab and his Phoenician Queen Jezebel primarily followed her gods rather than Yahweh, Ahab felt no compunction, as did King David before the kingdom was divided, about gathering horses and chariots. Ahab had many stables, as well as chariot cities, in which to house the chariots and horses that were the spoils of this battle.

These are plausible answers to the numbers questioned on Shalmaneser's Kurkh Stela.

I find it fascinating to weave together the Bible's account and what I learn from ancient history, Talmudic accounts, and archeological finds in my writing. My two novels, Rain (available now), and Whirlwind (launching December 6, 2022), cover the time the prophet Elijah spoke God's word to the northern kingdom of Israel. Two more books will follow covering the life and times of Elijah's successor, the prophet Elisha.

For further reading: Biblical Archaeology
Battles of the Bible by Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon

RAIN ~ Whispers on the Wind Book 1

Aban yearns to join the priesthood of Ba'al, unlock the power of the rain god, and 
hear the deity's voice. But first, he must survive a perilous initiation ceremony.

When the mysterious prophet Elijah interrupts the rites, overturns the idol, and curses the land with drought, Aban must choose a side in Yahweh's war against the Ba'als - and it may cost him his life.

WHIRLWIND ~ Whispers on the Wind Book 2

A king's downfall and a love that transcends war. Coming December 6, 2022.

Dana McNeely dreamed of living in a world teeming with adventure, danger, and romance, but she had a problem - she also needed a lot of peace and quiet. She learned to visit that dream world by stepping into a book.

Inspired by the Bible stories of Elijah, Dana wondered about the widow of Zarephath and her son. Who were they? What was their life like before? How did the boy change after he died, saw the other world—and came back?

Those questions led to Dana writing RAIN, where she built her dream world of adventure, danger, and romance. Peace and quiet, however, have remained elusive.

No stranger to drought, Dana lives in an Arizona oasis with her hubby the constant gardener, two good dogs, an antisocial cat, and migrating butterflies.

Learn more about Dana and her books at her website:
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  1. Thank you for posting today. I always enjoy your research findings and tidbits of history.

  2. Thank you, Connie. So kind of you to remark!

  3. Fascinating research! I loved Rain and look forward to the sequel!