Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The King After God: All the King's Horses

Sandro Vannini/Corbis
In Deuteronomy 17:16, God warned the future king against setting his heart in amassing a great number of horses for himself. Apparently, horses had been a great obsession among ancient royalty. As history will testify, the horse by this time had just been added to military science and, oh, how it revolutionized the way man made war. It was therefore easy for a king to lose sight of God as the Source of his victory and focus instead on his array of war horses and get self-deceived and call himself invincible.

Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
Of all the countries singled out for Israel never to establish any trade agreement in exchange for its horses, God zeroed in on Egypt. He cautioned, “The king…must not…make the people return to Egypt to get more of them (great numbers of horses), for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again’” (Deuteronomy 17:16). In principle, an ancient king owned everything within the limits of his realm. But while he would dismissively allow his subjects to claim property of items within and surrounding their households, only he had the right to assert ownership of the military. And the item closest to his heart was the horses of his cavalry.

National Geographic Society/Corbis
The king of Egypt owned a cavalry so celebrated of the terror it brought in the battlefield to its breathtaking beauty that captures the fancy of romantic splendor, as sung in Songs of Solomon 1:9: “I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots” (King James Version). Because it owned the greatest army of fighting horses in the Near East, many nations chose to ally themselves with Egypt, among which later included Israel. Around 600 B.C. the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah decided it had enough of Babylonian dominance and sent envoys to Egypt “to get horses and a large army” (Ezekiel 17:15). In other words, Judah turned to Egypt to help trounce the proud Babylonian rising tide. Centuries before this, King David made his decision to “trust in the name of our God” than to trust in “chariots and…in horses” (Psalm 20:7). In 586 B.C. the battle-tested horses of Egypt did not prevail against the lightning hooves of the Babylonian steeds, and the kingdom of Judah came to an end.

Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS
The best chariots and the most powerful horses in ancient Egypt belonged to the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh was a steed collector, the kind of king God told the future Israelite monarch never to become. King Saul fulfilled this principle and so did his successor David. Solomon, however, was known to have “accumulated chariots and horses” (1 Kings 10:26). The account was that “he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem.” And where did all these horses come from? Scholars are divided on whether the king imported them from Cilicia up north or from Egypt (verse 28). Solomon not only assembled a great cavalry at peacetime (for his reign was marked with peace, 1 Kings 4:24), and not only did he probably disobey the mandate never to turn to Egypt for its horses, but like Egypt Solomon entered the international chariot-making and -exporting industry and chose the Hittites and the Arameans as trade partners. This began when he approved the importation of an impressive Egyptian chariot worth (verse 29).

During the Second Intermediate Period of the early sixteenth century B.C., a subtly invading group of Semitic people called the Hyksos introduced into Egypt the use of the horse, along with the chariot. It was not until the Empire Period (1600-1100 B.C.), however, when the horse exploded in popularity across the realm. Rameses II, one of the kingdom’s most powerful pharaohs, was known to have kept a massive herd in an elaborate complex of stables he had constructed in the northeast of Cairo, by the Nile Delta (http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/egypt_animals.html).

Michael Nicholson/Corbis
Biblical references indicate that King Solomon, despite all his God-given and innate splendor, seemed to fashion himself like an Egyptian pharaoh and even endeavored to seek the esteem of his Egyptian counterpart. In 1 Kings 3:1 it is clear that “Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter,” whom he honored by constructing for her a precious cedar palace (7:8), similar in beauty as Solomon’s “throne hall, the Hall of Justice, where he was to judge” (verse 7). It seems like whatever the pharaoh had, Solomon wanted the same, whether it was herds and herds of war horses and magnificent chariots (1 Kings 10:26), a holy Temple (Chapter 6), a splendid royal palace (7:1-12), an unspeakable annual net worth measured in gold (10:14), golden shields (verses 16 to 17), a throne so great “inlaid with ivory and overlaid with fine gold” (verse 18 and subsequent specifics from verse 19 to 20), wives and concubines (11:1), and a subtle buildup of a pagan pantheon (verse 2 to 7). It was an ambitious and nauseating attempt identical to nothing more than a former slave seeking the respect of an equal in the eyes of its former master. This was the mortification, among others, that God wanted to save Israel from. God wanted to establish Israel’s dignity apart from the shame of its Egyptian slavery. The miracles and the fear He promised to inspire upon every nation that hears about the Israelites (Exodus 23:27) were to eradicate the slave in anything Israelite. But because of Solomon’s admiration for the Egyptian pharaoh, the period of Israel’s greatest glory was also an ironic re-association with her old slave master.

National Geographic Society/Corbis
An ancient Egyptian on horseback was not really the standard. As shown from historical finds, the most common use of the beast was to pull chariots. From the military cavalry to royal pageants and parades, Egypt followed the two-horse chariot as standard.

Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS

1 comment:

  1. It is noteworthy, Israel during those days had no horses in their habitations. One can understand it was G_d's hands which wrought victory in their battles. Amen.