Their importance in biblical history.
We can find reference to chariots in the Bible going back to it’s first book, Genesis. Such references are not all used in merely historic record, sometimes also figuratively in some texts.
In 2 Kings 18:20 we are given to understand that King Hezekiah would rely on Egypt to assist in Judah’s defence by the dispatch of chariots. It seems, though, that that help was never forthcoming however given the hilly nature of much of Hezekiah’s kingdom, it is questionable how much help chariots might have been, unless the Egyptians arrived early enough the meet an encroaching army on the coastal plains.
Chariots would most likely be the preserve of men of wealth, influence and power, or of officers and noted warriors in a professional army, where the men fought for pay. It is extremely unlikely that any member of a citizens army would have had a chariot. We find an illustration of this in 1 Samuel 8: 11 where Samuel, when asked by the people to appoint a king to succeed himself, warns them tat a king would‘ “take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.”
Where opposing forces met in battle, it is probable that as much as a practical effect in battle, the chariot divisions would incite fear in an opposing force, particularly where such force be comprised largely of a citizens army, with relatively basic weaponry and without access to that battle winning ‘technology’ of the time. In terms of actual lethality the chariot was not always that efficient, as it would be hard for the warrior on board to take a good aim with spear or bow from a moving platform. On battle tactic where the chariot was particularly useful though is on splitting, or dividing the opposing force’s formation, giving a tactical advantage to their own infantry coming up behind the chariots and cavalry.
When Ahab takes to the battlefield against the Assyrian forces at Karkar (c853 BC) We are not told directly in the Bible that the Judahites and Israelites had chariots of their own, however there is evidence that they did. An inscription of the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III tells us that at the battle of Karkar, Ahab had been able to put 2000 chariots into the field but that they were no match for the Assyrian chariot forces.
This might be accounted for not only in the numbers of Assyrian chariots but possibly also in their design. The Assyrian chariots were generally bigger, heavier and drawn by a more horses. Although I have no description of the terrain of the battle, the maps would suggest a relatively flat region where those bigger. heavier Assyrian design of chariot should have an advantage.
In 2 Kings, in chapters 2 and 13, we find ‘chariot’ used figuratively in relation to the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The first occasion in 2 Kings 2:12, is when Elijah is taken to heaven carried on God’s flaming chariot. Elisha reportedly said of this event ,at which he was present, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” A possible interpretation of Elisha’s reaction is that he though Elijah was, or had been, more valuable to Israel than its armies. This impression is reinforced when Elisha is dying and Jehoash comes to him on his death bed and reputedly says “My father, my father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”.
In the New Testament (NT), chariot is only mentioned in 2 places. In Acts 8 when Philip talks with the Ethiopian. Here the chariot is being used only a a means of transport. Yet even this minor use supports the probability that only the wealthy, influential or those with authority would have a chariot; the Ethiopian was “an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace (Queen of the Ethiopians).
The second use we find in the NT is in Revelation 9:9, where chariot is used as a metaphor “the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots” for the sound of the wings of a plague of locusts. The book of Revelation is itself full of metaphor and symbolism which, I have to admit, I struggle with.
Adapted from an article I wrote for a course on the Bible’s prehistory.