27. The Battle of Tirzah Valley
The Plaza, Samaria City, Israel
Obadiah stood with Mikayhu on the threshing floor and gazed across the hills toward Tirzah valley.
Mikayhu pulled on Obadiah’s elbow. “You know the Lord’s got this, right, Uncle Biah?”
Obadiah grunted. No way did the Lord have this. Instead of waiting to be smothered, they were taking the battle to the Syrians. But, send Ahab and twelve youths into the Syrian camp? Suicide.
Yet, on schedule, the royal chariot rolled to a stop beside them, and Ahab pointed to the sun near the top of the sky. “Time to show the Syrians who’s in charge.” He wore his purple headscarf and flowing white robe.
Obadiah shook his head. Bait.
Ahab waved. “See you in Tirzah.” He rode through the gate and down the switchbacks. Two hundred junior officers followed.
Obadiah pointed Mikayhu toward the path to Gera’s house. “You’ll be safe from the queen with Uncle Gera, and when this is over, I’ll take you home with me.” He stepped into his chariot, and his bodyguards mounted up. They carried spear, javelin, and sword. Plus, a waterskin and a tiny bag of barley fried with mutton and onions.
At the bottom of the hill, he swiveled in the chariot.
A hundred groups of farmers, fifty in a group, followed him on horseback, lugging swords and spears as if they hauled rakes and shovels to the field. Forty more farmer groups stayed to protect the city.
When Obadiah arrived at the long, narrow entrance to the valley, Ahab waved from the other end. On both sides of this narrow canyon, oaks and acacias clumped around boulders and shrubs. Red and pink Cyclamen sprinkled the valley floor, and thin clouds dusted the top of a light blue sky. A lark sang.
Where was the alarm? The farmers and junior officers had padded in softly, but Syrian lookouts should have reported their arrival.
Ahab flailed an arm one more time then disappeared around the boulders into the Tirzah valley.
Obadiah wiped clammy hands on his robe. He never should have allowed Ahab to march out of sight with a small troop—youngsters at that. This affair felt too much like their long-ago horse race cut short by Syrian arrows.
He followed Ahab’s junior officers to the end of the skinny entrance and rounded the cliff into the broad Tirzah valley.
On the far side, up against the hills, hundreds of coppery red tents covered the ground. Horses on picket lines grazed in the morning sun, while a gentle breeze ignored a dark red flag hanging limp in the heat. Had the Syrians gone back to Damascus and left their tents for the hyenas?
Ah! One red-turbaned head popped up from a tent. One. But where were the hundred thousand? The fleets of red-paneled chariots?
Ahab faced the distant tents with his wedge of twelve and wings of ten. Ready to fly—but toward a target of one?
Farmers tiptoed into the valley and peered over Obadiah’s shoulder.
More red-turbaned heads popped up from distant tents. Men in red spilled out and cursed, then stumbled toward the Hebrews.
Obadiah’s chariot stirred bees and locusts from the grass and roused the aroma of chamomile. He rolled up to Ahab. “Your target, my king.”
Ahab raised his spear. “Charge!” The king, his wedge of twelve and the wings of ten, raced across the valley as if they were a force of hundreds which shook the ground with the thunder of their hooves. In a moment, Ben Hadad’s thousands would emerge and swallow Ahab and his junior officers. But to fight—and to fight on their own terms—beat joining Ben Hadad’s chain gang.
Obadiah’s place was beside Ahab. His driver raised his whip, and the chariot surged in Ahab’s wake. Zak and the bodyguards raced beside him, swords drawn. Obadiah grabbed a javelin from the basket.
Yet, too few Syrians were coming from their tents, and these few couldn’t walk straight. Where was the Syrian army? Obadiah turned to the farmer fifties who had crowded into the valley. He beckoned them to follow the charging Ahab. “Mop-up.”
As soon as cursing Syrians emerged from the tents, Ahab and his junior officers cut them down.
Yet, four or five dozen evaded him and approached Obadiah. The first one to stagger within reach took Obadiah’s javelin through his throat. While Obadiah drove on, farmers at his flanks gutted their own Syrians.
A spear shot toward Obadiah. He slipped aside, stuck his sword between the Syrian’s ribs, and wrinkled his nose at the scent of new-spilled blood.
While the Syrians shouted insults, Obadiah’s farmers dodged and thrust in grim silence.
His driver swerved around a writhing Syrian. Obadiah reached for a javelin. Then he blinked.
The Syrians had disappeared from his part of the valley.
Far ahead, Syrian troops staggered toward the tents. Many lay face-down, their yellow-winged torch of Syria displayed across their shoulders. A few moaned or moved, but most baked in the noonday sun while the junior officers and farmers retrieved arrows and stones from beside them.
Vultures circled low.
The stench of excrement from open intestines overpowered the aroma of chamomile.
Many junior officers gagged. Several knelt and wept.
With the back of his hand, Obadiah wiped sweat from his eyes. He called to Zak sitting tall on his horse. “Where’d they all go?”
Zak aimed an arm toward the Syrian camp. “They’re in the tents.”
Obadiah turned and howled at the farmers. “To the camp! Kill them in their tents!”
In ragged formation, the farmers followed him across the valley floor.
Obadiah’s chariot rolled over a discarded shield. Then over three more. Tens of these red leather ovals littered the valley floor. Then spears appeared among the shields.
At the first tent, Obadiah cut the ropes, and the tent skins sagged.
Foul vulgarities rose.
Obadiah and his driver jumped from the chariot and used both hands to plant spear points deep in the closest humps. With gasps and groans, these mounds collapsed. As Obadiah stabbed more vibrating mounds, bodyguards and farmers slashed tent ropes and skewered dozens of shifting, cursing bulges.
As a Syrian soldier crawled from under his tent, a farmer nudged Obadiah aside. No longer holding his spear as if it were a shovel, he jammed the point between the Syrian’s ribs and loped over to the next tent.
Ahead of Obadiah, a dozen bleary-eyed Syrians in red headscarves weaved between tents.
A gray-haired farmer stabbed the nearest through a lung, toppled him onto the turf, and stepped aside while younger farmers dashed ahead and sank their spears into the others.
When Obadiah opened a tent flap, an empty wineskin stood on a low serving tray, and cups littered the floor. The Syrians had been staggering and stumbling from too much wine.
The sun cast long shadows from trees and boulders. A lark still sang.
Obadiah told the nearest farmer, “This battle is over. Go home.”
Beyond the fleet of chariots, Ahab stood in his chariot surrounded by men in coppery red uniforms.
“Coming, my king!” Obadiah grabbed a javelin and raced to him.
Ahab slowed him with a raised hand. “It’s okay, Biah.” He leaned over the chariot rail and talked with seven men in filthy red uniforms who knelt in the dirt. They wore sackcloth draped around their waists and ropes around their heads.
Ahab asked, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.”
The men in sackcloth shot glances at each other, bowed, and scurried away toward the city.
“Who’s your brother?” Obadiah stood back against his chariot rail.
Ahab watched the men in sackcloth disappear. “They’re bringing me Ben Hadad. Or so they say.”
Obadiah shook his head. Ahab could be such a dupe. “If it’s Ben-Hadad you’re looking for, our troops saw him escaping with the cavalry.”
“So?” Ahab tipped his head.
“So, your man’s in a royal robe trotting northeast on a horse he loosed from a battle wagon.”
Ahab tossed his head. “Those jokers said they have Ben-Hadad, I plan to get back cities and put my markets in Damascus.”
“Right. Lift Ben-Hadad’s head from between his shoulders. Then do as you please with cities and markets.”
Ahab said nothing. Only jutted his chin forward and rocked back on his heels.
Obadiah stared hard at Ahab. “My king, I hope you realize this victory had nothing to do with wedges or wings. The Syrians were drunk.”
But Ahab gazed off beyond the horizon. “I enjoyed watching the junior officers thrust and parry.”
Obadiah rolled his eyes. What was going on inside the royal skull?
“What do you mean, you let him go?” Obadiah stood on tiptoe in the center of the threshing floor. He gripped the rail of Ahab’s chariot and glowered at the king. “Those Syrians in sackcloth clinging to this chariot brought you Ben Hadad, and you kissed him sweetly goodbye?”
A flush crept across Ahab’s cheeks.
Woid-woid-woid. A common whitethroat scolded from the gate.i
“Are you kidding, my king? What made you think Ben-Hadad had any right to negotiate?” King Omri hadn’t passed on his political instincts to his son. “The battle was a route, yet exactly sixty-three of your men died [really?iiiii] in Tirzah canyon. Did you think they died so you could have a cozy little chat with the great Damascus leader?”
Ahab shot Obadiah a glance to freeze the Ein Gedi waterfall. Obadiah ignored the ice. “Your duty was to lifted his head from—”iv
As Ahab rode across the plaza to the palace stairs, Obadiah tucked his scarf against his neck. A chill rode the breeze. vii
Two hundred thirty-two junior officers – 1 King 20:13-15
Drunken Syrians – 1 Kings 20:16
Sackcloth & Ben Hadad – 1 Kings 20:31-34
iDuplicate line in Ch. 29. Murder.
ii“Exactly sixty-three good men died – realistic? [I need to show these deaths in the battle scene.]
iiiI had made myself a mental note to discuss these battles with you. As far as the 63 figure is concerned, it really depends on how complete their surprise was, how unprepared the Syrians are, who the Israelites attacked and how able they were to fight back.
* Did Ahab’s main surprise force run into B-H’s best trained troops? Or his farmers? If they hit trained troops, then 63 is probably a realistic figure out of a “complete victory” involving 500 Israelite troops. If they hit B-H’s conscripts, they might have achieved a nearly bloodless victory. And, since there’s no record of this, it’s your call.
* Your description of the weapons and the fighting style is good as best I understand them. What doesn’t come thru clearly in Kings is how much the element of surprise played into this victory. Typically, the two forces would simply array against one another and have at it. There wasn’t a lot of battlefield strategy as it would be later developed by Alexander and others.
* I think at that point in time both the Aremaens and Israelites would probably have had a small professional standing armies. The Aremeans were regularly having to worry about not just Samaria, but their fierce neighbors to the east, the Assyrians, so they had to stay constantly prepared. Because of that they may have maintained a somewhat bigger and better core army than Ahab’s, but not by much I would guess since both faced the same problems.
* All that by way of saying, don’t undersell Ahab. For one thing, Omri had handed him an effective fighting machine. For another, the historical Ahab is known to have very effectively built on what he inherited. In the year of his death he would field a large army. And he brought a highly effective force to Qarqar. So he was no slouch and his forces weren’t amateurs. If you can beat the Assyrians, you’re a force to be reckoned with. The confidence you portray him having just before this battle must have been real and deserved.
And just a couple of general notes about all these conflicts.
First one is to remind you that the account as you’re portraying it from Kings is skewed. The Judean writers covering Ahab’s history are resentful and pack an in-bred bias about the Northern Kingdom from their decades under its thumb. The historical record of Ahab and his achievements shows someone capable and dedicated to his kingdom. And a capable battlefield commander.
Second, and related, the more I’ve read about them and about the territories won and lost, the more I get the impression that what was going down between Samaria and Damascus was a sort of a running set of border skirmishes where, rather than having big set-piece battles, they were having more like plains Indians turf wars.
That would explain why Ahab wasn’t interested in B-H’s head. He doesn’t see him as a mortal enemy at this point, but more like the head of the gang next door. They are fighting each other for control of specific villages and cities, but not to completely take over each other’s kingdoms till later in their history. And by that time B-H succeeds b/c the Israelite kings continue getting weaker than the Omirides and B-H can feel the pressure building from Assyria.
I know you have a line to follow based on Kings. It’s up to you to decide how much beyond it you want to portray Ahab to readers who won’t know all this detail. But by the same token, if he was as evil and incompetent as his Judean detractors portray him, he could not have accomplished all the things we know he did even in the Kings account.
Hope this is useful.
Watching Ian come ashore just north of our location and wondering what kind of mess he’s going to leave us.
ivSS Biah’s living dangerously with such comments.
v1. what reaction from the royal bodyguards?
2. Plus what reaction from Ahab toward his guards?
vi“I shall refrain, my king. And together, let us enjoy this blue sky the Lord has given.”
viiDuplicate line in Ch. 29. Murder.