“Teach thy children the use of the bow”

by Joel Ramshaw (2021)

1 Samuel 31:1-4 “Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. Then the Philistines followed hard after Saul and his sons. And the Philistines killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, Saul’s sons. The battle became fierce against Saul. The archers hit him, and he was severely wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armorbearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me.” But his armorbearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword and fell on it.”

Toward the end of 1 Samuel, we end up with a rather depressing scene. After all of the victories Israel had earlier achieved, the Israelites were now on the run, fleeing on the battlefield from their main enemies, the Philistines. King Saul and his sons were dead, and to add insult to injury, the Philistines fastened their dead bodies to the wall in the temple of Baal as a type of trophy.

What had changed to allow this humiliation? For one, Saul had made a fugitive of his best warrior, putting David on the run sending him into hiding in enemy territory. Most of Israel’s battlefield success was due to David, so Saul’s decision to run him away was rather short-sighted. King Saul could not get over his jealously of David, as he was being easily outshined by the constant victories of this young upstart. Unfortunately, this would result in decisive defeat for Israel, as well as the death of Saul and his son Jonathan.

One thing we see over and over with David is that he was an early example of Christ’s teachings in that he always forgave his enemies and treated them well, even when it seemed ridiculous to do so. This is impressive, since David lived during the Old Testament time, many hundreds of years before Christ would teach on this topic. This means David received this knowledge by direct revelation, due to his close relationship with God, being a constant worshipper. When a random Amalekite tried to take credit for killing Saul, thinking David would be impressed and give him a reward, David instead ordered his execution. Likewise, normally a victorious warrior would gloat over the death of his archnemesis, but David rent apart his clothing and created a song of mourning to help restore Saul’s honor after his death. This attitude of forgiveness is one reason which allowed David to become so powerful in God.

The Bow

2 Samuel 1:18 “Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Jasher.”

Following the battle, as David would return from exile and take the lead of his nation, one of his first acts was to require the young men to learn archery. The reason for this is pretty clear. Saul’s death was caused by enemy archers. Israel did not even have a chance to come close to the Philistines. Before they could get in range, the archers were mowing them down. It’s hard to win a battle against your enemy when you can’t get close enough to even use your weapon!

British Longbows

It may seem like a trivial passage, to teach the children of Israel archery. But it led to not only the survival of Israel as a nation, but the survival of Britain and its emergence as a world power. The British considered themselves to be a modern-day version of Israel. The concept of “British-Israelism” was quite popular centuries ago. One of the benefits to this mindset that we miss out on, is that they applied Biblical promises to Israel quite literally to their own situations.

The medieval British passed laws which required every able-bodied male to practice archery on each Sunday. Alternate sporting and games were forbidden, so as not to allow the citizens to be distracted from perfecting their archery skills. They no doubt took influence from reading the story of David who required all of his citizens to learn to handle the bow. It is fortunate that they took this passage seriously, because they would need it.

During the naval battle of Sluys, an outnumbered English force was able to decimate a French army of 20,000 while only losing 600 men themselves. The longbowmen were able to hit the enemy ships from a far range before they even had a chance to get close.

At the battle of Crecy, the English faced a French army many times larger but were nonetheless able to inflict 10x as many casualties as they received, and capture the enemy territory.

In the battle of Poiters, the English faced a French army twice as large as their own, but only lost 340 men, verses the French losses of 2500 dead and 1900 captured.

Finally, in year 1415 we come to the epic battle of Agincourt. Around 7000 English faced a French army 25,000 strong, with much of this army being made up of the finest soldiers from generations of nobility, carrying the best armour and equipment. Outnumbered four-to-one, it was basically a suicide mission even attempting to fight this large French army. Miraculously and in much part due to the longbow, the English decisively defeated this enemy army. This battle was commemorated by Shakespeare in his work Henry V and was celebrated for generations.

Sometimes one Bible verse can really have that big of an impact. Suppose the English had decided to ignore the passage and spend their Sundays playing cards and tennis instead of becoming skilled archers? The French would almost certainly have taken over their island, and spread Roman Catholicism to the inhabitants. There would have been no safe base for Protestantism to flourish and we would have been living in a much darker world today.

Book of Jasher

2 Samuel 1:18 “Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Jasher.”

Jasher 56:9 “Only teach thy sons the bow and all the weapons of war, in order that they may fight the battles of their brother who will rule over his enemies.”

Samuel refers to an unknown “book of Jasher” (which can also be translated “book of the Upright”). In modern times we have a book of Jasher which is essentially a collection of various Jewish Midrashim and oral traditions which had been passed down through the generations, being woven into one story. Even though the modern Jasher is usually said to have been written in medieval times, it is important to note that the stories themselves are thousands of years older. Thus although it cannot be proven that this modern book is the same as the biblical reference, it should not be written off as worthless. Nothing appears in the Bible without reason and perhaps God intended us to examine this book of oral traditions in order to gain perspective on the Jewish mindset, the understanding of which helps us better interpret the Old Testament books.

2 Samuel 31:3 “The battle became fierce against Saul. The archers hit him, and he was severely wounded by the archers.”

Archery was making a hand-to-hand combat based strategy obsolete. Saul’s army was getting whipped before it even had a chance to get close to the enemy. He could have learned from Joshua and sent out some spies on reconnaissance missions to pick up the enemy tactics ahead of time and learn from them, but we see no indication of this. Numbers 13 provides the story where Joshua sent out twelve spies for forty days to scout out the land of Canaan in preparation for the invasion. Although Joshua did not lack faith that God would provide victory, he sent out scouts to help smooth out the logistics and practicalities of preparing for the takeover. This is much wiser than jumping into battle blindly as Saul was known to do.

The Iron Age

Judges 1:19 “And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.”

Iron technology compared to bronze was such an overpowering technology it was similar to cannon and gunpowder compared to fighting with swords. The book of Judges describes Israel’s first encounter with iron (probably the Hittites). Iron chariots were like ancient tanks and the Israelites were totally unprepared for how to deal with this newfound situation. It resulted in them only conquering their inheritance partially and leaving much of the land in enemy hands. The valley regions are where the most fertile and productive soil is and by living in the mountains where it is difficult to grow crops, Israel was accepting a very inferior lot which would result in famines and shortages.

As with the bow, we see another account of Saul’s resistance to technology in his dealings with the Philistines. The Philistines held a complete monopoly on the weapons manufacturing industry to the extent that there was no blacksmith in Israel who could compete with the Philistine prowess. The following passage of scripture illustrates this point:

1 Samuel 13:19-22 “Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make swords or spears.” But all the Israelites would go down to the Philistines to sharpen each man’s plowshare, his mattock, his ax, and his sickle; and the charge for a sharpening was a pim for the plowshares, the mattocks, the forks, and the axes, and to set the points of the goads. So it came about, on the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan. But they were found with Saul and Jonathan his son.”

King Saul just does not seem to have cared much or recognized the value in having his own blacksmiths who were able to produce their own weapons. Allowing your entire weapons industry to be outsourced to a foreign hostile nation is not only a costly decision financially, but a far worse strategic blunder militarily. Israel could have no influence in the region and would easily be taken advantage of by the Philistines due to their hegemony. They would have no way to fight back against oppression and unfair dealings. With his fortune as king, Saul could have easily hired and trained professional blacksmiths whose full-time occupation would be to produce weaponry and arm the populace. Instead, he chose to “hope” the Philistines would not feel the desire to attack. Unfortunately, “hoping” is never a good or practical strategy. In the end, Saul’s stubbornness against adopting superior technology would cost him his life on the battlefield, as well as the lives of his soldiers and countrymen.

David, in contrast to Saul, brought about a complete 180 degree shift in the national attitude towards innovation. His military exploits are well-known throughout scripture. What is not as well-known is his role in the nation’s technological innovations; chiefly leading Israel in the transition to the iron age. Producing high-quality iron was a very difficult task, given its high melting point of 1,538 °C compared to only 1,085 °C for copper. To reach this temperature would require a specialized furnace, with extra equipment for removing slag and impurities. Producing bronze was relatively simple compared to iron and could be done with a common pottery kiln. A bronze sword would be absolutely useless if your enemy had iron weapons however, the proverbial “bringing a knife to a gunfight” scenario.

The Hittites were the first peoples in the ancient near east to develop iron technology. This nation lived far in the north, around the area of modern Turkey and so did not have regular contact with Israel. Iron technology passed from the Hittites to the various sea peoples of the Mediterranean, beginning with the Phoenicians. The prophet Amos mentions the Philistines originated in “Caphtor” which is usually identified as one of the major coastal/island areas, Crete, Cyprus, or Cilicia. They would thus have close contact with the Phoenicians and firsthand access to the secret of making iron. The Philistines migrated onto the south coast of Israel (exactly where the modern 'Palestinians' live). Blocking Israel from accessing much of the coast, it would have been more difficult for Israel to trade and receive shipments of processed iron and its ores as well without first removing the Philistine presence.

The interesting thing is that iron technology is believed to have spread throughout Israel around 1000 B.C. which is right around the time David became king. Now there is a certain passage which mentions David lived among the Philistines for 16 months, “Now the time that David dwelt in the country of the Philistines was one full year and four months” (1 Samuel 27:7). During this time David would have been exposed to much of Philistine culture, warfare strategies, and technology. The Philistine king thought he was at a major advantage having David in his army and he totally failed to realize that David was still planning to return to Israel with the mother-lode of enemy secrets which he would use against the Philistines once he became king.

In the book of Psalms, David is quite vocal about the importance of iron and his familiarity with the metal:

Psalm 149:6-8,Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a twoedged sword in their hand; To execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron;”

Psalm 2:8-9, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.

There are several layers of separation to divide the purified ore from the slag. We can see David’s knowledge of this extensive process of purifying metals based on his psalm:

Psalms 12:6, “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.”

The mention of “seven times” gives an impression that David understood the extensive process required to remove all the impurities and lower the carbon content of the metal so as to make it strong and not brittle. Too much carbon results in an overly-brittle cast-iron, or even worse the completely worthless “pig iron.” In early communist China, the Mao tried to rapidly industrialize while showing contempt for the practicalities of understanding the science of ironworking. The resulted in his nation producing an excess of worthless “pig iron” that could not be crafted into anything useful. The fact that this mistake could be made in our modern age shows the difficulty in making proper iron. It has to be done just right. Altering the temperature or carbon content can create an almost totally different type of metal. For instance, in iron produced below 1390 °C, the atoms align into a face-centered cubic structure of gamma iron which is ductile but has low shear and tensile strength. Above 1390 ° the structure changes to delta iron, with a body-centered cubic matrix, resulting in high strength and resistance to shear. The iron also gains vastly different properties based on the % of carbon it contains, with smaller amounts being weaker but more durable and larger amount of carbon resulting in higher strength but more brittleness which is not desirable for a sword that has to take a beating.

By the time David’s reign was coming to a close the situation had been turned around totally. Whereas the nation originally had only two iron swords and no blacksmith, they now possessed iron “in abundance.”
1 Chronicles 22:3 “And David prepared iron in abundance for the nails for the doors of the gates, and for the joinings; and brass in abundance without weight;”
This verse is the first mention of Israel ever having possession of any iron of their own. Before this, anytime the scripture mentioned “iron” it was always in reference to enemy armour or equipment. What a change David brought about, going from zero to mass-production of this crucial strategic metal. David was probably not too enthusiastic initially about having to run away to Philistine territory and join their army, but in the end we see how God was able to turn around the situation from evil to good. David was able to learn the esoteric purification process of iron while he acted as a double-agent among the Philistines.

The beauty of wisdom

It is not a surprise that the Bible spends so much time talking about the importance of wisdom. Trying to fight with outdated technology is like straining to cut down a tree while using a dull axe.
Ecclesiastes 10:10 “If the ax is dull, And one does not sharpen the edge, Then he must use more strength; But wisdom brings success.”
Taking some time to sharpen the blade may seem like a present delay, but in the end substantially speeds things up. Likewise, sacrifices and “investment” can take us lower in the present, but will more than make up for this in the future.

It is easy to be like Saul and live in denial of the changes around us. This is resulting in the death of the church as we expect the world to come inside the building to hear the message of salvation. That may have worked in the past, but its time to be realistic. Unless we go out into the community and are not ashamed of our faith, Christianity will continue to die in the western world. Staying married to the bronze age tactics was a recipe for slaughter as the iron age took hold, and likewise we need to be vigilant that our tactics are practical and effective, moving away from the religious mindset of tradition which sticks with a practice because “that’s the way we’ve always done things,” being like the ostrich which hides its face in the sand from the reality around it.

Even in personal and non-ministry settings sometimes we can long for the “good old days.” The Bible states that this is foolishness,
Ecclesiastes 7:10 Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.
Examples in our education are the outrage of many parents as cursive writing is taken out of the curriculum at schools. The problem is not that there is anything “bad” per se about learning cursive, but the opportunity-cost is the problem. To spend time learning it, means there is less time to spend learning something more important and useful. Many schools do not teach any financial literacy for instance and this would be far more important to learn. The same goes with learning a language. For most persons, learning a language will be a relative waste of time. The opportunity cost of the years spent practicing just to get to a mediocre level of proficiency would be better put to use learning a productive skill that could bring in an income. For instance, learning to master Excel or computer coding would be a better use of time. The biggest distraction is not the “bad” things in life, but the mediocre. The story of Mary and Martha (John 11) symbolizes the battle between what is good (Martha) and what is best (Mary). Martha got distracted by “good” activities that she missed out on what is “best.” Always consider the opportunity-cost when making a significant time investment. Is what you are spending time on really what is best? Or are you being distracted on something that is simply “good”?

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