AFTER insulting David's emissaries from Jerusalem, (II Samuel 10:15; I Chronicles 19:1-5) King Hanun of Ammon later learned that he had been most unwise. Reports kept coming to him that the Israelites were so angry that they were almost certain to attack the Ammonites in the region east of the Dead Sea.
A Gentile Plot
The army of Hanun, king of the Ammonites, was very small compared to King David's army. Hanun realized that the only possible way to meet his enemy on anything resembling an equal basis would be to hire troops from nearby Aramaean and Mesopotamian nations. After much diplomatic bargaining, Hanun managed to secure 33,000 soldiers — many of them horsemen and charioteers — from four of those neighboring Syrian kings. This was quite an accomplishment, inasmuch as the Syrians (called Aramaeans in the original Hebrew Bible) had recently suffered great defeat by Israel. The troops assembled around the city of Medeba east of the northern tip of the Dead Sea in the vicinity of Mount Nebo, where Moses died. (II Samuel 10:6; I Chronicles 19:6-7). Certain members of David's expanding espionage system promptly sent to Jerusalem the news of the Syrian accumulation of soldiers. David was more disappointed than worried. He had hoped that wars could be avoided for many more years, but now he knew that since Israel didn't trust God for protection, Israel's army would have to be sent out again. If it failed to show up against the Syrians, they would be likely to work themselves into the foolish idea of going northward from Medeba into eastern Israel. Or they might cross westward over the Jordan and wipe out some of the Israelite towns. Although the people of Israel and especially David, were angry because of what Hanun had done to the men who had come to the Ammonites for a friendly purpose, David hadn't planned on waging major warfare over the matter. But the Ammonites had now invited attack on themselves for the second time. The Philistines posed no threat to Israel at that time. So most of Israel's army was sent eastward across the Jordan River to meet the enemy. David remained in Jerusalem, sending Joab as head of the fighting force, and Abishai, Joab's brother, as second in command. (II Samuel 10:7; I Chronicles 19:8.) When the Israelites came in sight of Medeba, the Ammonites rushed out to station themselves in front of the city. Their intention was to try to cause the Israelites to believe that only the very limited numbers of Ammonites were on hand to fight. This attempted trick momentarily looked successful. But Joab's rear guard saw the thousands of Syrians pouring over a ridge behind them and sounded a warning. The Aramaeans had planned on waiting for the Israelites to close in on the Ammonites, and then to quickly attack the Israelites from the rear. Joab hastily chose the best soldiers of the army to go against the 33,000 Syrians. The remaining Israelite troops were put under Abishai's command to be used against the Ammonites. "Your men should be able to rout those Ammonites in front of the gates of Medeba," Joab told Abishai. "I'll take the rest of the troops against these Aramaeans coming toward our rear column. It's up to us to make the very best use of our men to fight for the people and cities of Israel. If the Aramaeans are too strong for me, come quickly with your men to help me. If the Ammonites prove too strong for you, I'll rush back to help you. Don't be concerned about being defeated. If God sees fit, He will help us win." (I Samuel 10:8-12; I Chronicles 19:9-13).
A Trap Turned to Victory
Joab's last remark could be considered a bit odd for one who was an expert soldier who believed in force and violence to settle matters. Nevertheless, he believed in God's great power, even though he wasn't usually inclined to obey God's laws. He never realized to what an extent God was using him to deliver the unbelieving, sinful Israelites from their neighbors. At Joab's command the stronger part of the army suddenly reformed their lines to face the Aramaeans. When the Syrians realized that they, instead of the Ammonites, were the first objects of attack, they fell into a noisy state of panic. They raced away from Medeba with such frantic haste that Joab commanded his men not to tire themselves in futile pursuit. About the same time Abishai's troops rushed at the Ammonites, who were so discouraged at the retreat of the Syrians that they fled into Medeba and slammed the gates shut on their pursuers. As Abishai was planning how he could break into the city, Joab joined him after giving up the chase of the Syrians. The Syrians continued their hasty retreat to their homeland. "The Ammonites have learned that they have no chance of defeating us," Joab told Abishai. "This city is on the border, and we'd probably have to destroy it and the women and children inside in the process of wiping out the soldiers. The Syrians have gone, so the wisest thing to do is return to Jerusalem." (II Samuel 10:13-14; I Chronicles 19:14-15). Even while the Israelite army was returning home, certain Syrian men were planning to combine their military power into a mighty force intended to sweep into Israel with deadly violence. Embarrassed and angered by the rout of their soldiers from Medeba, Syrian leaders schemed for immediate reprisal. The man who was eager to champion their cause was Hadadezer. He was the Syrian king who previously had lost thousands of men and many horses and chariots to the army of Israel. By this time Hadadezer had rebuilt an army. This, combined with the men of other Syrian kings, made up a sizable fighting machine. But Hadadezer wasn't satisfied until he had recruited many more Aramaean soldiers from Mesopotamia, the ancient land north of the Euphrates river. Hadadezer sent the army southward under the command of an experienced and able military leader by the name of Shobach. Shobach halted his army for the night at the town of Helam, in the territory of eastern Manasseh. He planned to begin laying Manasseh waste next morning. Then he would ravage every Israelite town and village in his path to the Jordan River and on to Jerusalem. He didn't intend to let anything stand in the way of his great number of men and chariots. (II Samuel 10:15-16; I Chronicles 19:16.) But there was a problem he didn't know about till next morning, when the huge Israelite army appeared on the southwest horizon!
An International Scheme Ruined
Shobach was almost overcome with surprise. He had been told that the Israelite army was in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and that he would meet no opposition until he was almost there. He didn't know that David, through his alert spies, had learned several days before of the movements of the Syrian army. Because this appeared to be such a serious threat to Israel, David decided that he would lead the army, with Joab next in command under him. He ordered the army to move fast and with long periods of marching. It was necessary to meet the Syrians before they could enter and damage any part of Israel. In spite of being taken by surprise, Shobach felt that he had an advantage in meeting the enemy on fairly flat ground. There his chariots could operate with slaughterous abandon. He sent them off at once to attack. The approaching Israelites knew they must look to God for help when they heard the growing roar of thousands of horses' hoofs. They saw row upon row of bladed chariots being drawn swiftly toward them. The line of chariots soon curved almost halfway around them from the northwest to the southeast horizons. As the Syrian foot soldiers were hurrying forward two or three miles from the Israelites, the Syrian chariots disappeared from their view in a mammoth cloud of dust. There was no way for the Syrian foot soldiers to know how much carnage their chariots were causing when they rolled against the Israelites. Later, after the dust had partly settled, Shobach and his men received their second jolting surprise. Out of the thinning cloud of dust emerged a wide phalanx of Israelite infantrymen with bows, javelins and spears poised for instant action! As for the chariots that had been sent out against the approaching Israelites, the first lines of vehicles had been stopped by a tremendous shower of javelins and arrows well aimed at the horses as well as the drivers and their companion fighters. Succeeding lines of chariots had piled up against those that were halted or overturned. More and more chariots had charged blindly onward through the choking cloud of dust to pile up in a staggering mass of screeching metal, whinnying horses and yelling, groaning men. The Israelites had scrambled over them, dealing death as they passed, and then had hurried on to surprise the oncoming Syrian infantrymen. Shobach didn't have time to find out what had happened to his chariots and their drivers. The closest Israelites let their arrows and javelins fly with deadly accuracy and force that almost completely downed the foremost ranks of the bewildered Syrians before they could counteract. Regardless of Shobach's orders to keep pressing ahead, the Syrians who had seen what had happened to their front ranks wheeled around and frenziedly plunged into those behind them in a mad effort to retreat. Within minutes the whole Syrian army was a struggling, screaming, disorganized mass of men, trampling, clawing and hacking at each other in a wild attempt to get away from the oncoming Israelites. Shobach was killed in the terrible struggle that followed. Even the huge cavalry force, which was to follow the chariots, was made useless when many horses became overly excited and threw and trampled their riders. Aware of the Syrians' trouble, David told Joab to order the Israelites to make the most of the situation by doubling their efforts to crush their enemies while a state of panic existed. The military strength of Israel was so great against the Syrians that in the next few hours 40,000 cavalrymen and foot soldiers lost their lives and hundreds of chariots were destroyed with their drivers. As usual, as in almost any great battle, many escaped. Miraculously, because of God's help, very few Israelites were injured.
Temptation Sneaks In
Following this great contest, a vast wealth of army material was picked up from the vanquished Syrians. Moreover, the subdued nations brought tributes to the Israelites and served them in other ways. Syrian leaders realized how tragic it had been to try to help the Ammonites fight against Israel. They determined that they would never again be drawn into such a foolish alliance, although helping the Ammonites was only one of several reasons why they had come to war with Israel. (II Samuel 10:17-19; I Chronicles 19:17-19.) The next year, when weather permitted more favorable movement of troops, David planned to send an army against the Ammonites. They had been responsible for much of the warfare the year before. And he felt that they hadn't been dealt with in a manner that would keep them from invading Israel again. David wasn't concerned with vengeance. He wanted to curb the war-loving, ambitious Ammonites before they could build an army strong enough to trouble Israel in the future. The Israelites easily invaded the land of Ammon and devastated much of the countryside and lesser fortifications. There was little resistance until they neared Rabbah, the capital, about thirty miles northeast of the Dead Sea. The terrain in that area was rugged. Joab and Abishai, the commanders of the Israelite troops, knew that the Ammonites could be very troublesome in such a region. Thousands of Ammonites might charge out of the defiles and gullies before the Israelites could reach Rabbah. (II Samuel 11:1; I Chronicles 20:1.) Back in Jerusalem, David wondered how matters were going with his army. The last report that had come to him by a special messenger informed him that all was going well. Thus encouraged, David took a late afternoon nap on the private roof area of his palatial home. It was a warm day, and he wished to rest outside to take advantage of the gentle breeze. He awakened just as dusk was coming on, and got up to stroll around the terrace and gaze out across the city. Oil lamps were being lit here and there. The starting flares of more lamps on a nearby building below drew his attention. He saw a young woman stepping into a tub to bathe. There wasn't anything very unusual about a person bathing in sight of others in those times. Privacy was something not everyone could afford. A little later, just as David was coming back around the terrace, the young woman emerged from the tub. David looked down to see her again. This time he watched her with more than passing interest as she gracefully draped a robe over her dripping body. He hadn't noticed the first time that she was so beautiful. On inquiring who the woman was, David learned that her name was Bathsheba, and that she was the wife of a man named Uriah, a Hittite. (The Hittites were living in the region around the headwaters of the Jordan River when the Israelites had come to Canaan.) (II Samuel 11:23.) Uriah was one of the thousands of soldiers in the army of Israel that had gone to attack the Ammonites. And he was one of David's thirty-seven great military heroes. (II Samuel 23:39.) This was disappointing information. David had hoped that Bathsheba was unmarried. Even though he didn't know her, the possibility of taking her for a wife was growing in his mind. He was unwisely allowing himself to be influenced by lust for physical beauty alone.
It spite of his usual ability for fairness and good judgment, David continued to think about Bathsheba. He impulsively decided to do something about it. "Take this message to the woman named Bathsheba, wife of Uriah," David told a servant. When Bathsheba opened the sealed message, she was surprised and pleased to find an invitation for her to privately visit the king. When Bathsheba walked up to him at the appointed time, David was captivated even more by her appearance. Even before sending his message, David had gone too far in allowing his lusts to control him. He became unusually familiar with Bathsheba in the next few hours, and before the light of another day arrived, the familiarity resulted in adultery. Instead of shoving tempting thoughts out of his mind, David had yielded to them. The result was going to be the start of the most miserable era in his life. He had broken the Seventh and the Tenth Commandments. Now trouble was certain to come. (II Samuel 11:4.) The first blow came to David when he received a message from Bathsheba informing him that she was going to have a child several months later. David had already started to regret his foolish affair with this woman. Now sudden dismay was added to regret. The only possible way to escape from this miserable situation, he thought to himself, was to get Uriah back to his wife at once. If Uriah stayed with his wife a few days, he would think the baby was his. David lost no time in sending a fast messenger to Joab, requesting him to get Bathsheba's husband back to Jerusalem by the swiftest means available to report on the progress of the war. Uriah rushed back and was brought to David. "Why am I here?" Uriah asked David. "Why am I being singled out?" David answered: "From time to time I like to pick certain men out of my army, even during a war, to learn from their observations. It's important that I know what my men think." Uriah was a bit uncertain why the king had sent for him, and he wasn't going to give the wrong answers if he could help it. "What's your opinion of the attitude of the soldiers?" David began. "Do they feel that they're being fed well enough? Do they think that this drive against the Ammonites is worthwhile?" By the time the questioning was over, Uriah was still a little confused, but he felt that he had somehow given David the answers he sought.