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Chariots of Iron

There was a place in ancient Israel named Weepings. At this sad spot, the living God told the world’s most marvelous army its winning streak was over. Here, the people of God heard their Deliverer say in effect, “You weren’t willing to follow Me all the way, so you can go your own way. You’re on your own, and you will ruin yourselves.” It is no wonder the people wept.

Things had started out so differently too. Israel’s fearsome reputation crossed the Jordan River before its army even reached the riverbank. The Hebrews believed God had chosen to give them the land of Canaan. They believed He would force the nations that lived there to flee or perish. Their track record suggested they might be right.

The Canaanites heard that the superpower Egypt had tried to hold Israel in slavery. A series of disasters impoverished the country before the Egyptian ruler gave in and released Israel. He then changed his mind and tried to recapture them. The invisible God of Israel opened a land path through the Red Sea for their escape. Of course, the Egyptians gave chase, only to have the sea sweep in and drown the whole army.

Other nations challenged Israel along the way only to fall before the hard-to-understand power of their God. For instance, Balack the king of Moab hired one of the region’s most powerful spiritual men to curse Israel. The plan backfired when God forced this professional to bless instead of curse. Sihon the king of the Amorites responded to a diplomatic request for peaceful passage through his country by mustering his army and attacking. Now he lay dead, and the people of God possessed his land. Og the king of Bashan acted similarly and met the same fate. It wasn’t that this small army of nomads were militarily wonderful. Rather, they had God on their side.  

When the Israelites entered Canaan, their spectacular reputation grew. They forded the Jordan River at flood stage by having their priests carry the box that held a seat for God’s presence (the famed Ark of the Covenant) into the river. The water stopped flowing and remained stopped until the whole nation with their draft animals had crossed.

When Israel approached the walled and strongly defended city of Jericho, they refrained from mounting a traditional siege. Rather they marched around the city once daily for a week. On the seventh and final day, they marched seven times, and then started shouting. The city’s defensive wall crumbled except for a portion holding the house of a family whose scandal-ridden head had come over to Israel’s side.

Powerful nations called Canaan home. Canaanite soldiers stood exceptionally tall in an era when combat victory often went to the biggest and meanest. Some of them even possessed tanks. Well, ok, the tank as we know it hadn’t been invented yet. Even gunpowder was way in the future. Still, how else do we describe the feared chariot of iron except as a horse-drawn tank?

Even these mighty armies fell helpless before Israel and its God. After wiping out the population of Jericho, the people of God found themselves under attack from coalitions of armies. This emerging nation conquered all the major forces of the area. During one of these battles, their leader, Joshua, commanded the sun and moon to stand still in God’s name. Our understanding of astrophysics can only ponder the full ramifications of this request, but Biblical history records that the daylight stretched out for the equivalent of another day as God’s people won a powerful victory. The best armies in the world were no match for a band of God-empowered nomads.

Remnants of Canaanite power remained, but the forces were scattered and broken. A huge mop up operation lay ahead, but it was manageable—especially with God involved. Recognizing his victory, Joshua called the people together. The purpose of this national gathering was to seek God’s guidance in dividing the new homeland between the major political divisions (tribes) of Israel. These primary allotments were then broken down into family holdings, to be passed from generation to generation. Joshua sent the two and a half tribes who’d laid claim to the lands taken from Sihon and Og to their homes. It was now up to each tribe and family to chase out or kill the inhabitants of its assigned land and take possession. God had promised to send swarms of hornets to help if needed.

To today’s reader the notion that God would bless a nation in killing and exiling whole people groups is almost shocking. The conquest of Canaan, however, involves a special set of circumstances even for that pre-Christian era. God let the evil tendencies of Canaan take their course. He kept Israel out of the land for 400 years while the perversion and ritual murder of children reached a horrible climax. Only then did He send Israel in to overthrow these genuinely evil nations. In this instance, the Judge of all the earth chose human agents to carry out His sentence.

God’s plan involved more than justice. He also commanded His people to destroy the altars and idols that the Canaanites used in worship. The ancient world took its idolatry very seriously, and God wanted His people free of its appeal. The trappings of the religion that had contributed to great evil must not remain as a temptation.

After the division of the land among the tribes, Judah and Simeon partnered to clear out their territories. Their effort proved largely successful. They only failed to conquer one region--the area famous for its horse-drawn tanks. The chariots of iron seemed undefeatable.

Other tribes enjoyed some success, but the conquest of Canaan soon bogged down. Part of the failure involved a hesitancy to destroy the pagan altars. It isn’t recorded whether the conquerors wanted to avoid offending the enemies they weren’t driving out, planned to worship at these altars, or simply feared the wrath of the gods and goddesses. In any event, the people of God chose to leave the sources of temptation in their midst.

This spirit of compromise continued with the Canaanites Israel failed to defeat militarily. Even when they gained the strength to beat back the chariots of iron, the people of God chose not to do so. They found it too easy and profitable to coexist with and tax evil people. It seemed a time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their long pilgrimage and conquest.

God didn’t see things that way, however. His people, the ones He had called to be set apart for Himself, had chosen not to go all the way. The people He had delivered from Egyptian slavery had refused to follow Him into complete freedom. The people who had seen Him rain hailstones on their enemies had refused to trust Him for help against a fraction of the original enemy. They had kept unclean altars. They had made pacts with evil people. The next step would be marrying Canaanites. From there the road to idolatry and child sacrifice would prove short. Then as now, God expected obedience and loyalty. Then as now, disobedience and disloyalty fed on each other and brought down a once faithful nation.

It was in this context that God sent an angel to the place soon to be named Weepings with that devastating announcement. The days of fatal hailstorms aiding their armies were over. The days of the sun standing still on command were over. The odds of beating the chariots of iron had just escalated in the wrong direction. The unbeatable army saw its future turning sour and wept, but it was too late. Victory was blunted, not by chariots of iron but by lack of commitment.


God no longer asks us to engage in violence as a service to Himself. He calls us to come to Him through faith in Christ’s blood instead of through the blood of evil people. But He does ask all who come to Him to come in faith. While the challenges to faith today may be less daunting than a chariot charge, they are still very real and powerful for those facing them.

As with ancient Israel, the problem isn’t the power of the other side or its arguments. No, the challenge lies in our own hearts. Will we trust God enough to follow Him in the face of obvious disaster, or will we give in and compromise with a world that doesn’t like Him? In the end, our spiritual success won’t be determined by our strategy against an unconquerable enemy, but rather by our faith in and commitment to the all-powerful God.

And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1)

Note: The name of the place transliterates from the Hebrew into English as Bochim. I follow Adam Clarke's commentary in the translation "Weepings."

This work is in the pubic domain and may be copied and distributed freely.


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