Warfare in the Ancient Near East and the Old Testament 3: Fighting Chaos

By Charlie Trimm Jun. 14, 2017 9:00 a.m. Old Testament

The second chapter of my book on warfare in the ancient Near East (see an overview to the book in this post) studies the casus belli of the ancient kings. Although presumably kings often went to war to gain plunder, this was not frequently stated in such bald terms. Instead, the most commonly stated reason for warfare was that the king fought to defeat chaos and preserve order in the world. In this post we will look at the Egyptian and Assyrian claims for preserving order as their goal for war and how these claims help us understand Scripture.

In Egypt, the key term to describe order was maat, which encapsulates the ideas of truth and cosmic balance. Maat included not only personal interactions and ethics (such as employing honest weights in the marketplace), but also universal order. A primary duty of Pharaoh was guarding maat; failure to do so would bring chaos. Thutmose III went to war in Canaan because the people there were fighting each other; he would bring order to this chaos by defeating them in battle.[1] (Naturally, he does not highlight how they all banded together to fight against him at Megiddo!) When Pharaoh conquered other lands, maat was established there. Because of his victories, Ramses II claimed that travelers were safe in foreign lands: “Thereafter, if a man or woman went out on business to Syria, they could even reach the Hatti-land without fear haunting their minds, because of (the magnitude of) the victories of His Majesty.”[2]

In a similar way, the Assyrian king viewed himself as the one who brought justice and righteousness to the world. In contrast, the enemy kings were sinners, murderers, and wicked people. Since the enemy often trusted in their own strength and forgot Ashur, they were spreading chaos and needed to be defeated. War was then the means by which justice could be brought to the world, as seen in the beginning of one of Sennacherib’s inscriptions:

Sennacherib, great king, strong king, king of Assyria, unrivalled king, true shepherd, favorite of the great gods, guardian of truth who loves justice, renders assistance, goes to the aid of the weak, (and) strives after good deeds, perfect man, virile warrior, foremost of all rulers, the bridle that controls the insubmissive, (and) the one who strikes enemies with lightning.[3]

Like other smaller West Semitic nations, Israel did not attempt to conquer the world due to their small size. However, while these other smaller nations did not employ the language of the empires in describing their deities as sovereign over the whole world, Israel presented their god as sovereign over the entire world (like the empires). In contrast to those empires, however, who desired to conquer the entire world to impose order on them, the Old Testament opposes imperialism: even if YHWH was sovereign, that did not mean that the Israelite king was to conquer the world.

The desire of the empires to defeated chaos also helps to explain various texts in the Old Testament. I have argued in my dissertation (see this post) that the Egyptian desire for maat and their opposition to isft helps us understand YHWH’s actions in the exodus: YHWH showed through the plagues that Pharaoh was not able to keep maat in Egypt. For example, the ninth plague resulted in three days of darkness. In Egyptian mythology, each evening the sun-god Amun traveled through the underworld and was attacked by the snake Apophis. Pharaoh was responsible for the rituals done daily to ensure the safety of Amun. In this worldview, three days of darkness would imply that Apophis had won and Amun had been at least temporarily defeated. When Pharaoh was unable to keep order (maat) even in Egypt, it showed that YHWH was greater than Pharaoh.


[1] §416 in ARE 2:178; COS 2.2A:8.

[2] “The First Hittite Marriage of Ramesses II – Abridged Version” in RITA 2.67 (99).

[3] Lines 1-3 of Sennacherib 213 in RINAP 3/2 (293). 



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