Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. He divided his forces against them by night, and he and his servants attacked them and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people.
- Genesis 14: 14-16
The earliest battle described in the Bible that involves the Hebrews in The Land is Abram’s rescue of Lot and his people at Dan. In the fewest possible words that still allow for reconstruction and understanding, the battle is described in three verses in Genesis 14. By analyzing them carefully, it is possible to work out what happened, and what strategies and tactics Abram used.
The Importance of Trees
The key to understanding the verses is trees. In the time of Abram, the entire area around Dan was a big forest made up of the kind of trees that can still be seen at the nature reserve near Dan. When the trees are taken into account the entire operation becomes plausible, and not just a mythical story from the Bible.
The Importance of Strategy
Taking the verses point-by-point:
he armed his servants – Abram had weapons ready at hand and that means he had prepared for the eventuality of war. He had allocated a part of his wealth (Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold.) to defense and had established an armory with smiths to make weapons or he was able to source his weapons from outside. A basic principle is established – when it comes to governmental budget allocations, life is more important than quality of life. By issuing weapons, Abram ensured that each of his men had an effective weapon and not just a 'knobkerrie' and a kitchen knife.
318 servants – This about a battalion sized force. (Abram could have raised a much larger army from amongst his Amorite confederates). The main advantage of about three-hundred men is that this is the maximum size a single commander can exercise effective strategic control over (that is - feed, organize leave, orderly march, make camp, etc.) and that can therefore operate as a single unit. At the same time, there are enough men available so smaller tactical combat units can be formed. Modern armies are still built around the battalion for exactly this reason – much larger and strategic control is lost, much smaller and tactical division into smaller combat groups becomes impossible.
born in his own house – Abram had the loyalty and knew the quality of his men. The key to a good unit of any size is always loyalty from the men, and that means trust in the commander, and the commander knowing what his troops are capable of and therefore being able to trust them to carry out the tasks allocated to them.
pursuit as far as Dan – Chedorlaomer the king of Elam (Persia or Iran) might have been able to get his armies straight across the desert to The Land but returning, the captives, animals and goods had to travel following the ‘fertile crescent’, the ancient travel route, and that meant travelling north to Dan.
From the Dead Sea to Dan is a long slow journey and Abram had time to study the enemy during the trek north, gathering information on how they made camp, how the guards were set and where they concentrated their forces. The morale of the soldiers was low because they had been away from home for a long time; the battles were behind them and the road was slow. General negativity and slackness increased by the day. They saw no signs of danger with guard-duty being done in a slap-dash manner only to prevent the captives from escaping. The murmuring streams at Dan relaxed them even more, and the enfolding trees created a false sense of security.
divided his forces – No-one can keep control of an army of three-hundred while they are moving through a big wood full of little rivers at night as the woods naturally splits up the group. Soldiers bump into each other, get mixed up, walk in the wrong direction, get lost, start calling for each other in loud whispers, fall in the water and so on, and so on.
Woods are one of the ‘control- breaking’ factors in warfare and gaining control over such situations is neatly illustrated by Abram. The trees naturally split the force up, that is the ‘control breaker’, and it is made worse by the loss of control that normally happens at night. By splitting his force before going into the woods Abram mimicked the breaking up in order to get a new form of control.
Each smaller group moved in under its own leadership, with its own guide, its own plan, its own target destination, and an open time frame. (This was also the complete opposite of the Elamite central-control warfare system.)
To summarize the concept: Abram deliberately mimicked the result produced by the control-breaking factor, in a controlled fashion, to gain a new form of control. Once he was out of the woods, he could return to central control and concentration, as his forces were organized to do so. The enemy that had been scattered by the trees remained scattered and could put up little resistance to the concentrated follow up action of Abram and his men.
against them by night – The main advantage of attacking at night is confusion in the ranks of the enemy. Being able to operate at night in a strange big wood meant that Abram had help from local people who knew the area and provided guides.
and he and his servants attacked them – When the leader is also in the battle even if he’s not directly controlling every part of the action the men are comforted that the battle will go well and this gives them confidence. This is pure and simple the ‘daddy’ effect. Troops transfer the security feeling they had as children from their fathers to their leaders. That, and not command and control is the greatest advantage of having leaders in the front lines.
pursued them – Once the battle has been won, the attackers must move through and drive the enemy until they are no longer a threat. Failure to do this--and it happens all the time--means the enemy can regroup and counter-attack.
In using the correct tactics to fight amongst the trees, the trees made victory possible for Abram.