Three main branches made up King David’s military, the Army, the Militia, and the Royal Guard. The Thirty (David’s Mighty Men) was a smaller, but unique group within this military structure comprised of David’s most elite warriors.
In the Biblical text, the existence of an army and royal guard during the Davidic Kingdom is abundantly clear. The exact role of The Thirty is a bit more speculative, but the Bible clearly lays out its existence in two separate books (II Samuel 23 and I Chronicles 11). However, the casual reader may miss the references to a militia, but the accounts of David’s war against the Ammonites give a strong indication of its existence.
The Army vs the Militia: War Against the Ammonites:
During the war against the Ammonites, II Samuel 10:7 says David initially “sent Joab and all the host of the mighty men.” Joab defeats the Ammonites and their Syrian mercenaries. In response, the Syrians attack Israel with a much larger force, and then the text reads in II Samuel 10:17, “And when it was told David, he gathered all Israel together.” With this force, David defeats the Syrians and they become a vassal state. I Chronicles 19 recounts the same event and uses the same phrasing. See I Chronicles 19:8 and I Chronicles 19:17.
After the initial defeat of the Ammonites and later the Syrians, Joab moves to take siege of the Ammonite city Rabbah.
“Joab led out the army and ravaged the country of the Ammonites and came and besieged Rabbah.” (I Chronicles 20:1)
He is successful in securing the city’s water supply, and then David “gathered all the people together and went to Rabbah and fought against it and took it.” (I Samuel 12:29)
In these two events, there is consistent language and differentiation between “the army” and “the people” or “all of Israel.” The army participated in the initial assault and a much larger supporting force joins the fight later. The wording hints at the use of a regular army that can quickly deploy and a reserve force or militia that would take longer to levy but provide greater numbers of fighting men. This account, along with the detailed structure provided in I Chronicles 27, provides the basis for my analysis of both a standing army and a militia.
In ancient warfare, leaders found it difficult to maintain standing armies. Armies require manpower and they, therefore, compete for the same labor force needed to tend the fields and keep the economy thriving. When military service was relegated to just a few months a year, it would affect the quality and professionalism of the force. A warrior culture, like the Spartans, used slave labor to relieve the tension between the need for a military and the needs of the local economy.
With both a regular army and a militia, King David was able to balance these competing requirements. The militia were not professional soldiers, but rather citizen-soldiers with reserve duties.
Career soldiers made up his army and were able to deploy rather quickly. This army, led by his nephew, the notorious, but very capable Joab, would become crucial in the wars of expansion that helped grow David’s empire.
The Size of David’s Army
The Bible does not provide an exact number, but there is enough information in the text to extrapolate the army’s size.
In the battle against the Ammonites, the regular army fought against at least 33,000 men per II Samuel 10:6. Joab, the commander of the army, would have to present forces of a similar size in order to successfully defeat the Ammonites. It was not an easy victory for Joab, so we know he did not have an overwhelming advantage. We assume then, that the force he deployed was probably between 20,000 to 30,000 men. We can compare that number to the size specified of men marching during a military procession.
When David was taking the ark to Jerusalem, only a few years prior to the war against the Ammonites, it says in II Samuel 6:1 that “David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.” The phrase “chosen men” usually appears in relation to men of war. Since the transport of the ark was such an important event, it is safe to assume that David required the greater part of his standing army to take part in the procession (leaving a small part of his force at garrison). The number 30,000 coincides nicely with the number we guestimated fought against the Ammonites.
Therefore, a good estimate of the size of David’s regular, standing army was approximately 30,000-35,000 men.
The Militia (David’s Reserve Force)
Some scholars have mistaken I Chronicles 27:1-15 to be a description of David’s army and its organization. The organization as it appears in the text would make little sense for a standing army from a military perspective. At least it would not be a very efficient one. However, if we attribute these sets of passages to a militia, a much clearer picture emerges.
The militia was David’s reserve force and divided in such a way that each citizen soldier would be required to serve one month out of the year. 24,000 citizen soldiers would be called up each month and serve under experienced, veteran commanders. The Bible lists Banaiah (who was also the head of David’s Royal Guard) and Asahel as commanders within this militia structure. Both men were veteran fighters and both were also part of the elite group, The Thirty.
Did each month also correspond with each tribe?
Likely not. Each tribe appears to have had areas of specialization. Benjamites were excellent slingers, for example, and those from the tribe of Issachar were experts in intelligence gathering. (See Judges 20:16, I Chronicles 12:2, I Chronicles 12:32). It would make little administrative and operational sense to use those specializations only one month out of the year. Also, the tribes, which varied in size and population, would not have been keen on the requirement to all provide the same number of fighting-age men each month. As we have seen, King David was very sensitive to tribal rivalries (see King David, The Rise of the Warrior King), and would have avoided stirring the pot with such a seemingly unjust system.
Instead, each tribe would have to organize its own units of reserves to feed into the monthly requirements. Tribal leaders likely managed these units. In other words, every tribe provided units each month that would equal a total of 24,000 men overall. In this way, each division of 24,000 would benefit from the experience and specialization of each tribe.
The militia allowed King David to swell his forces when needed as he did with the Ammonites, but avoid draining the Israeli economy from much-needed labor during times of peace.
The Royal Guard
The primary function of David’s Royal Guard was the security of the empire. In addition to protecting King David, they squashed rebellions, at their source if necessary. Foreigners known as the Cherethites and Pelethites made up this force. By using mercenary type force, David could assure himself allegiance and avoiding tribal rivalries.
The leader of this group was an Israeli from the tribe of Levi, Benaiah, and they operated independently of the Army. Sadly, it was the Royal Guard under Benaiah who was tasked with executing Joab for treason after King David’s death. You can access a complete analysis of the Royal Guard in my article The Cherethites and Pelethites: David’s Royal Guard.
The Thirty (David’s Mighty Men)
The Thirty (also known as David’s Mighty Men) was a group of elite warriors whose role likely evolved through David’s reign into a highly trusted military council.
During David’s evasion of Saul, the wilderness forged many of the men who would take their place as part of The Thirty. They were known for their stunning feats detailed in the records found in the Bible. King David filled key positions across his military from this group as was the case with Benaiah, Abishai, and Asahel.
- Benaiah was the commander of the Royal Guard (and a division of the militia).
- Asahel was commander of a division within the militia.
- Abishai led a division within the standing army and reported directly to Joab.
These men and the tales of their feats would have inspired the rank and file. It was akin to the boost in morale the Greeks experienced when Achilles finally joined the fight against the legendary Troy.
I cannot overstate the importance of this group during David’s reign. The Bible clearly records that these mighty men helped establish David’s kingdom. The awe they inspired and their unparalleled leadership within David’s military were instrumental in helping maintain a cohesive military for the majority of his reign. For more detailed information on this distinct group, please read, “Who Were David’s Mighty Men (The Thirty)?”
The Brilliance Behind the Organization of David’s Military
While David might have inherited certain elements of the military structure from his predecessors, other key elements appear to be unique to David. Such was the case of a Royal Guard comprised of foreigners and The Thirty. Both of these played a crucial role in keeping a tribal system united and helping David maintain power throughout his reign despite attempted coups and betrayal. One branch would serve as a check on the others.
King David was no doubt a strategic genius. Under his leadership, Israel grew into an empire. The organization of his military is a testament to his brilliance.