Military history

Chapter 2

Origins 2: The Bible

For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.

—Exodus 9:14—16

An alternative account of the origins of strategy—indeed, of the origins of everything—comes from the Hebrew Bible. There is no suggestion in the Bible that strategy is in any sense unnatural. Many of the stories revolve around conflicts (sometimes internecine and often with the enemies of Israel) in which trickery and deception are regularly employed. Some stories (David and Goliath being the most obvious example) still influence the way we think and talk about strategy. The best strategic advice in the Bible, however, is to always trust God and obey his laws. God might allow others to shape the game, but he was always the biggest player. When he withheld support the result was often disaster. When he came in on the side of his people the result was never in doubt.

The questions of the literalness of the Bible and the issues it raises about free will and causation have long been at the heart of theological debate. If everything can be put down to God’s intent, what role is there for distinctive human desires? Is human intent a product of God’s intent, or can it develop independently? For the student of strategy, the Bible makes for frustrating reading. Its stories display evident human frailties, with a pronounced tendency for deception as a vital strategic practice. When an individual was in a tough spot and there was a crafty way out, it tended to be taken. For example, Jacob, with his mother’s connivance, tricked his blind father into giving him the blessing intended for his elder brother, Esau. Jacob was tricked in turn by his prospective father-in-law, so he ended up with two wives rather than one. And finally, Jacob was deceived by his sons into believing that his favorite son, Joseph, had been killed rather than sold into slavery. The Bible acknowledges the moral ambiguity involved in trickery, and the outrage of the deceived, yet also accepts its value in the face of superior but unworthy power. In a world of flawed human beings, deception comes naturally and often.

There are two possible explanations for the latitude allowed by God in human behavior. The first is that there is nothing in the end to be learned from all of this because all actions are subject to a higher manipulation. The second is that humans are able to make their own calculations, but in the end only one strategic judgment matters: whether or not to obey God. After recasting biblical stories using game theory, Steven Brams concluded that God was a “superlative strategist.”1 Given his starting advantages, anything less than superlative would appear something of a disappointment. But Brams noted that God enjoyed omniscience but not omnipotence. He was not a mere puppetmaster but rather was affected by the choices of the other players. To help explain God’s purpose and his later strategy, Brams drew on the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. God created the world for “His own glory,” but this would be pointless unless it could be appreciated. “He needed a setting in which to be great.” This was only possible after the creation of the world, “for now He had someone who could admire Him and to whom to compare Himself—and how favorably.”2 On this reading, God created strategy by allowing choice, because he wanted people to choose obedience through an act of will rather than because they were programed to do so. Even if individuals were part of a divine plan that had been set out at the moment of creation, they were allowed the sensation of choice and the ability to calculate and plan. The Bible tells of human choices regularly being manipulated by God to create the situations in which his greatness would become apparent.

The issue came up as soon as man and woman were formed to take control of the new world that God had created. After placing Adam and Eve in Eden, God immediately set a test. In his first words he explained that they could “eat from any fruit in the garden.” One critical exception was fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. “If you eat its fruit,” God warned Adam, “you will be doomed to die.” We must assume that Eden was created with these tests in mind. If God really did not want Adam and Eve to lapse, it would have been simple not to put the fruit there in the first place. The test was soon failed. Eve tasted the forbidden fruit and then persuaded Adam to do the same. In the face of God’s anger, Adam blamed his own ignorance but also Eve—the “woman whom you gave me”—and so pushed the blame back to God.

The source of the Fall was the serpent who persuaded Eve to disobey. The translations of the serpent’s strategy vary from “subtle” to “crafty” and “cunning.” He convinced Eve that there was no risk and much to gain. The reason the fruit was forbidden was not because of death but because of power. “God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods.” The serpent was accusing God of deception. Perhaps he had a point. Once the fruit was eaten, God did consider Adam and Eve to have become “like one of us” because they could now differentiate good from evil. If they had also taken from the Tree of Life, they would have avoided death. It was precisely for this reason that God expelled them from Eden; had they managed to eat of this tree, God’s threat would have been neutralized and they could have anticipated everlasting life.3 Instead, Adam and Eve became mortal and were now doomed to die (though Adam managed to struggle on until he was 930 years old). Banishment from Eden consigned man to extracting a living from the soil and woman to suffering in childbirth. The serpent was condemned to slither around on his belly and eat dust.4

The Ten Plagues as Strategic Coercion

The point at which God asserted his greatness to his chosen people was when he arranged the escape of the Jews from Egypt, where they were kept as slaves. One reading of the story of Exodus is that it was not so much about freeing the Israelites from slavery as about asserting God’s greatness by establishing a people beholden to him and ensuring that they—and others—were in awe of his power. Under this interpretation, the Exodus story becomes a gigantic manipulation. The Israelites were encouraged to leave a country they were in no hurry to leave. Not surprisingly, they moaned thereafter when they were stuck in the desert, while God used the plagues to drive home the message of his power and superiority over Egyptian gods.

Diana Lipton has suggested that the Exodus reflected less a concern that the Israelites were being oppressed and more one that they were being seduced by Egyptian life and were in the process of being assimilated.5 The Israelites had entered Egypt because of Jacob’s son Joseph, who had risen to high rank in Egyptian society. They were led out by Moses, an Israelite who had grown up among the Egyptians but was persuaded by God to assert the distinctive identity of the Israelites. Moses acted largely as God’s agent in all his dealings with Pharaoh.

The favored strategy was coercive, using threats to persuade the target— in this case Pharaoh—to yield. The challenge was to influence the target’s calculations, so that the potential cost of not complying exceeded the potential cost of losing what was currently held. The Israelite slaves were valuable to Egypt, so the threat had to be substantial. Coercive threats must be credible to be effective, yet those issued by Moses depended on a god not worshiped by Egyptians. There was no immediate reason to take him seriously. The first challenge was therefore how to change this perception. That was not difficult. The greater challenge was to get Pharaoh to respond. The strategy, a standard form of coercion involving a progressive “turning of the screw” in an attempt to find the target’s threshold of pain, led to regular promises of compliance upon which Pharaoh equally regularly reneged.

Moses initially demanded that Pharaoh “let my people go” in relatively modest terms. He asked that the Hebrew slaves be allowed to go into the wilderness for a three days’ journey to pray and sacrifice. If not, Pharaoh was told, then “the Lord our God [might] fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.” The first people to be coerced in this story, therefore, were the Jews themselves. Moses presented them as caught between the power of Pharaoh and an even more powerful God. Pharaoh’s response was to deny any knowledge or respect for this god and to make the Hebrews’ lives even more miserable by telling them to find their own straw for their bricks. This extra suffering immediately undermined Moses’s confidence and credibility.

Pharaoh was not punished at first. Instead, to persuade him to take God more seriously, he was treated to a demonstration of God’s power. Moses’s brother Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and it became a serpent. Surprisingly, Pharaoh’s magicians performed the same trick, but then Aaron’s rod swallowed up all the other rods. This had no impact on Pharaoh. Tricks involving rigidified snakes were quite common in Egypt. So Moses tried but failed to make his point in a non-punitive manner. Pharaoh remained unconvinced of God’s power.

There then followed the ten plagues. First the river turned to blood. This made little impression either. Pharaoh’s magicians claimed they could also transform water into blood. Then out of the river came an abundance of frogs. Pharaoh hesitated and said that the Hebrews could go, but changed his mind when the frogs were removed. After a plague of gnats, the court magicians were stumped. At last a trick that they could not reproduce. They acknowledged the “finger of God,” but Pharaoh was still unmoved. With swarms of flies Pharaoh weakened but again reneged when the plague was lifted. Next was the killing of Egypt’s cattle, followed by everyone being covered in boils. Moses was told by God to go to Pharaoh and say on his behalf:

Let my people go that they may serve me. For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou may knowest that there is none like me in all the earth. For now I will stretch out my hand, that I may smite thee and thy people with pestilence; and thou shalt be cut off from the earth. And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth. As yet thou exaltest thou myself against my people, that thou wilt not let them go?6

Then came a threat of hail and advice that Pharaoh tell everyone to get themselves and their beasts home before the hail lest they die. This started to make the Egyptians uneasy. Some took the advice and sought shelter; others did not. Only the former survived the subsequent hailstorm.

Pharaoh, now anxious, agreed he was wicked and that the Hebrews could go, once the thunder and lightning stopped. Again he reneged, raising the stakes: by breaking a promise, Pharaoh had become a sinner on his own terms. After a plague of locusts, with the deadline for compliance the next day, Pharaoh’s servants had a go at him: “How long shall this man be a snare unto us? Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?” Pharaoh relented and called in Moses and Aaron. He started to bargain. Who would go? Moses said everyone, with their flocks and herds. Pharaoh was only prepared to let the men and children go. He knew the women were irrelevant to acts of worship, and the only reason to take flocks and herds was if there was no intention to return. Moses’s demands were now getting complex. The modest initial demand, an opportunity for the Hebrew men to leave for a while to pray, was being transformed into something much more complete.

After the eighth plague, locusts devouring all the fruits and herbs that had survived the hail, negotiations soon resumed. Pharaoh was contrite, but only until the locusts were blown away. The ninth plague, three days of complete darkness, was most alarming for a kingdom that worshiped the sun and dreaded a persistent eclipse. Like the third and the sixth, this plague was quite unannounced. It was a warning that the time for negotiation was over. Once the darkness lifted, Pharaoh agreed that everyone could go—other than the flocks and herds. Moses said it had to be everyone and everything. It was now evident that this would be no excursion for prayer and sacrifice but a permanent departure from Egypt. Furious, Pharaoh broke off negotiations: “Take heed to thyself, see my face no more; for in that day thou seest my face thou shalt die.” Moses agreed he would not return.

God said there would be one more plague and this would be successful. The Hebrews, spared all the previous plagues, were told to prepare. By daubing their houses with blood from sheep or goats God would know to pass over them when he smote the firstborn of the Egyptians. At midnight on the fourteenth day of the month there was not a house in Egypt “where there was not one dead.” This caused great misery and consternation. Moses and Aaron were summoned and told to leave. So eager were the Egyptians to be rid of them that all the Israelites and their livestock were allowed to depart, with jewelry and raiments and what else they required.

The loss of the slaves was a serious blow to Pharaoh. He changed his mind one last time and decided to chase after them with chariots, horsemen, and his army. Once again, his memory was remarkably short. A regular victim of God’s power, he only seemed to believe in it while the pressure was actually upon him and his people. Initially it appeared that the Hebrews had been caught. They cowered on the edge of the Red Sea, fearing that they were to die in the wilderness, with the Egyptians about to come upon them. There was no time for threats to coerce Pharaoh. This time God’s intervention was more direct. The Red Sea divided and the Hebrews escaped as the waves were held back in suspended animation. The Egyptians followed the same route but the “host of Pharaoh” was drowned as the walls of water engulfed them.

The actual methods employed in this case were quite unique, but the strategic logic reflected a turning of the screw. Commentators have even noticed the pattern of graduated escalation—the first four plagues were mere nuisances, the second four caused real pain, and the last two took the Egyptians into the realm of absolute dread. Others have noted that the escalation progressed in pairs—the first pair connected with the Nile, the second involving insects, the third attacking life, the fourth destroying crops in a two-stage assault, and the last two conveying the full extent of God’s power. Still others have stressed the significance of every third plague arriving without warning. We may note the importance of subtle variations in the way the pressure was applied, playing on the psychology of Pharaoh and his court.

The most striking feature of this story, however, lies in the difficulty of persuading Pharaoh to respond positively to threats of such palpable credibility and potency. Why did he take so long to let the Israelites go? Threats might fail because they are not believed or are suspected to be bluff. Initially

Pharaoh may have assumed he was witnessing just an unusually accomplished version of the sort of magic produced in his own court. A critical turning point came when his magicians realized this magic was beyond theirs. But this point was reached quite early on in the escalatory process. Moses could always demonstrate that he was not bluffing.

Another problem might have been that Moses increased his demands with the pressure. At the start, he asked only for a chance to pray, but this turned into a chance to escape. Once the Egyptians were desperate to see the backs of the Israelites, the demand was for sufficient animals and other goods to ease the privations of the coming journey. A threat that might have been sufficient to obtain compliance with modest demands became inadequate as the stakes were raised.

A superficial reading—and certainly the telling of the Passover tale— suggests that Pharaoh’s obstinacy had a simpler explanation: he was a most unpleasant man, whose continuing deceit and double-dealing contrasted with the courtesy and dignity exhibited by Moses at all times. He was so sure of his own power that he was prepared to engage in this disastrous trial of strength. There is, however, a more intriguing explanation: Pharaoh was set up. Before the plagues started, God told Moses:

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.7

Sure enough, every time Pharaoh hesitated in the face of the onslaught of plagues, the Bible reports that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God explained this to Moses, after the hail, when Pharaoh acknowledged God’s power for the first time but still reneged on a promise.

I have hardened his heart, and the hearts of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him: and that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the Lord.8

God needed an obstinate Pharaoh because the only way he could demonstrate the full range of his power, and its superiority over all other powers on earth, was to put on the most awesome display. If Pharaoh had crumbled at the first plague there would have been no wondrous reports to pass down to future generations. Others would not appreciate the extent of his formidable power.

This was problematic for Talmudic scholars and later for Christian theologians, for it raises fundamental questions of free will. If punishment comes because we have made the wrong moral choices, then what are we to do about an agent who continues to be immoral despite recognizing the folly of his ways? It was not that God wanted an excuse to destroy the Egyptians—witness his rebuke to the Jews when they rejoiced at the destruction of the Egyptian army. As noted, relations between ordinary Egyptians and the Hebrews do not appear to have been bad, yet the loss of innocent life in the final plague—even the sons of maidservants were struck down—only seems to make moral sense if the stubbornness of Pharaoh could be blamed for the suffering of his people. Strategy as well as morality depended on choice, and if the players in this drama were merely acting out a preordained script from which no deviation was permitted, then the only strategist at work here was God.

A Coercive Reputation

One act of successful coercion facilitates future acts. God’s threats now had credibility. The reputation of his extraordinary power made it far easier to coerce the inhabitants of the land of Israel, which had been promised to the Jews. Just before entering this land, Moses died and Joshua became the leader of the Israelites. The first obstacle to occupying the new land was the old walled city of Jericho, at the center of fertile land and in control of the water source.9 Joshua sent two spies to discover the lay of the land. They lodged with Rahab, who is normally described as a prostitute but who may have been more of an innkeeper (an inn was always a good place to pick up gossip). When the king of Jericho demanded that the spies be handed over, Rahab hid them instead. Having heard what had happened to the Egyptians, she explained, “All the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you.” They had all lost heart, and “no man had any spirit left because of you.” She made a deal. In return for her family being spared whatever was going to befall the rest of the city, she agreed not to disclose the spies’ mission. This deal was not based on the moral worthiness of the Hebrew God—just his superior power. When it came to actually taking Jericho, there was no need for a prolonged siege. Around the walls the Israelites marched for six days, until it became such a routine that the guardians of the city took little notice, and then they struck as God brought the walls (weakened through a recent earthquake) tumbling down.

As the invasion progressed, those on its line of advance had every reason to be afraid. There was no mercy shown to those occupying the land God had promised to the Israelites, although mercy could be shown to people who lived far away. Aware of this, the Gibeonites pretended to Joshua that they were not from the next city but rather a distant people. They engaged in a careful deception, appearing disheveled and claiming to have traveled from a faraway place, drawn by the fame of God. When Joshua doubted this claim, they drew attention to their “dry and crumbly” bread, their cracked wineskins, and their worn-out clothes and sandals. Joshua was sufficiently taken in that he promised not to harm the Gibeonites in return for their servitude. Soon the Israelites realized they had been duped. Joshua was furious. He could not break an oath made in God’s name even if obtained by deceit. Instead he cursed the Gibeonites, telling them that they would be slaves forever. “Why did you deceive me?” he asked. The answer was honest. Once they knew of God’s promise “to give you the whole land and to wipe out all the inhabitants of the country on your account,” they were in great fear. Joshua had only himself to blame if he had been deceived. Convinced by the Gibeonites’ appearance, he “did not inquire of the Lord.” What is the point of having access to omniscience if it is not used to check out a potentially dubious story?10

The book of Judges relates a regular pattern of Israelites turning away from God, who then used a hostile tribe, the Midianites, to punish them. The liberating figure of Gideon appeared after the Midianites had been allowed to enter the country and impoverish the people. The Israelites were suffering for their idolatry and begged for deliverance. God chose Gideon for the mission. When he gathered a large army of some thirty thousand men, God deemed this too many. If they thought victory came by superior numbers, God judged, they might “vaunt themselves against me, saying, ‘Mine own hand hath saved me.’ ” The numbers had to be reduced. First, those who were “fearful and afraid” were asked to depart. This cut the numbers by about two-thirds. Then a curious test was set, involving seeing how the men drank at a lake. Those who went on their knees were sent home; those who put their hands to their mouths were kept, perhaps because this showed that they were staying alert. The numbers were now only 1 percent of the original army—just three hundred men. Against them were ranged their enemies, lying “along in the valley like grasshoppers for multitude; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the sea side for multitude.” Gideon divided his three hundred men into three companies and put a trumpet in every man’s hand. They were then told to watch him and do as he did when they got to the outside of the enemy camp. “When I blow with a trumpet, I and all that are with me, then blow ye the trumpets also on every side of all the camp, and say, ‘The sword of the LORD, and of Gideon.’ ” This they did.

And the enemy “ran, and cried, and fled.”11 This reinforced the basic lesson in all these stories. The best—indeed the only—strategy was to obey God and then do as he told you.

David and Goliath

One of the most iconic of all the Bible’s stories is that of David and Goliath. It is invariably invoked by an underdog, yet the underdog status was illusory because David had God on his side. The basics of the story are well known. On opposite sides of a valley were the armies of the Philistines and the Israelites. Out of the Philistine camp emerged a giant of a man, Goliath of Gath, dressed in heavy brass armor, protected by a shield, and wielding a large spear with a large iron head. He dared the Israelites to send out a champion to fight him. If he was killed in the fight then the Philistines would serve the Israelites. If he prevailed it would be the Israelites who served. The challenge, repeated daily for forty days without a response, appeared to paralyze the Israelites, including their king, Saul. They “were dismayed and greatly afraid.” The only one not afraid was a young shepherd, David, who had been sent to the camp by his father with some bread and cheese for the army. He heard Goliath’s challenge, saw the fear around him, and noted a promise of great riches should anyone actually manage to kill Goliath. David presented himself to the dubious king. David was still young, yet Goliath had been “a man of war from his youth.” David offered as his credentials a tale of how he had killed both a lion and a bear who were after his lambs.

Saul relented and gave David his armor and sword, dressing him for a gladiatorial fight with Goliath. But David discarded these accoutrements, saying he could not take them as he had not “tested them.” Instead he took his staff, five smooth stones from the brook, and his sling. Not surprisingly, Goliath found the challenger that the Israelites had eventually produced unimpressive, even insulting. “Am I a dog that thou comest to me with staves?” Their encounter was brief. Goliath promised to feed David’s “flesh unto the fowls of the air and to the beasts of the field.” The young man replied that he came in God’s name and then ran toward the Philistine. As soon as he was in position, he took a stone out of his bag “and slung it and smote the Philistine in his forehead, so that the stone sunk into his forehead. And he fell upon his face to the earth.” David then took the giant’s sword to kill him and cut off his head. When the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.12

David’s success depended on surprise and accuracy. He knew he could not defeat Goliath on the giant’s terms, which is why he rejected Saul’s armor and with it the conventions of this form of combat. Unencumbered, he had speed and so could unleash his secret weapon before Goliath had a chance to respond. He had one chance with his sling. If he had missed, or if the stone had pinged off Goliath’s armor or not stunned him so effectively, there would have been no second shot. As vital as the first shot was quick action to prevent any recovery. Not only did David bring Goliath down but by killing him he prevented him getting up again. He also depended on the Philistines accepting the result, and not trying to recover honor in the face of such a sneaky attack by turning the individual contest into a full battle. If they had done so, David’s prowess with the sling would have been of no value. Indeed, this was a trick he could never use again. David had no plan B. If his plan A had failed, he would have been left defenseless.

The story is rarely given any context. This was one of a complex set of encounters between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines controlled the territory west of the Jordan River. In earlier clashes, the Israelites fared very badly and lost four thousand men. Having apparently learned their lesson and returned to the laws of God, they regained God’s protection, so that at one point a loud noise was sufficient to send the Philistines running away in panic. They were chased and subdued. The Israelites recaptured lost land. All this took place while the prophet Samuel was still leading the country as a Judge.

Saul was the first king of the Israelites, anointed by Samuel. This constitutional innovation was intended to meet the Israelites’ desire to be led in the same way as other nations. Their king was chosen on the grounds that he looked the part—handsome and tall—was humble, and had shown military prowess. He was not, however, always obedient to God. Hostilities resumed with the Philistines after a provocative raid by Saul’s son Jonathan in which a Philistine officer was killed. The Philistines mobilized and the Israelites were once again overwhelmed. Saul turned out to be a poor general (for example, forbidding his men food on the eve of a major battle) and cautious (reluctant to go out and face Goliath himself). Given that God was supposed to be the best defense, this lack of confidence—and therefore faith—was itself an act of disobedience. Though David’s sling gained the headlines, Goliath’s fate was sealed by David’s faith.

Through the Bible we are allowed to see the factors at work that determined the history of the Israelites, but to the subjects of these stories it would have been challenging to work out what was going on. God’s objectives were clear enough, but his methods were invariably deceptive, leading his victims into traps under the erroneous impression that they were masters of their destinies. As a result, deception became a strong biblical theme. Cunning was accepted as a natural method for an underdog who must use wits to succeed. The trickster appeared defiant, employing “wit, wile, and deception and assum[ing] that no victories are final and neat.” Yet to the extent that they did this without God’s help, the tricks often rebounded and any success was “unstable.”13 David’s success resulted from combining an unreliable trick with a much more reliable faith.

The stories of the Exodus and David have both been used to give hope to underdogs. Indeed, reference to David is almost de rigueur whenever an underdog strategy is discussed. Seldom noted, however, is that success did not solely depend on the initial blow but also on the second blow, by which David ensured that Goliath had no chance to recover, as well as the Philistines’ readiness to accept the result. In both stories, the key to success lay in the opponent’s response. Both the Pharaoh and Goliath failed to appreciate the traps they were entering. Only Pharaoh had the opportunity to consider what he was up against and adjust his strategy accordingly. But as God was hardening his heart, any momentary understanding that he was leading his country into further hardship soon disappeared. Moses was following God’s orders and so was Pharaoh. In the end, the drama—and therefore the evidence of true strategy—was artificial.

The core message of the Bible was evident to those who read it for guidance and inspiration over the centuries. God’s subjects asserted their faith and their obedience as part of their standard preparations for war, even when they were fighting each other. They might have been sure that this was a necessary condition for victory. Few found it sufficient.

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