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Parshat Lech L'cha describes how Lot was captured in the battle of four kings against five kings. When Avraham heard, he mounted a night-time attack to rescue him.

This got me wondering: was a night-time raid a typical tactic for the time (a) at all or (b) for purposes of conducting a rescue? Or would a battle-field battle (with both sides aware) have been the way fights were usually conducted? I'm wondering whether Avraham followed the local norms, or if he didn't and from what he did we can learn how far we must go in rescuing captives.

A plain reading of Bereishit 14:15 suggests to me that he set out at night or planned to attack at night, though it's possible that he left immediately upon hearing the news and the news happened to come at night.

I understand that the victory was a miracle, but since we do not rely on miracles I am wondering about Avraham's context in planning the attack. Did he do what was considered normal in that setting, or were his methods and/or haste unusual and we should learn from that? Or, realized since asking the question, would his captors have expected not a fight at all, but a ransom negotiation?

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    This is a good question for History.se. I would word the question more generically about when night time raids for a rescue are first reported. – avi Nov 6 '11 at 9:35
  • Could it be that Avram began the battle to rescue Lot and refused to rest until successful? – YDK Nov 7 '11 at 3:04
  • @YDK, A plain reading of 14:15 suggests that the attack began at night: mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0114.htm. – Monica Cellio Nov 7 '11 at 3:54
  • It sounds like the chase began prior to dawn. In any event, I just meant that the battle was immediate and without pause as opposed to a pre-planned night tactic. – YDK Nov 7 '11 at 4:29
  • @YDK, oh I see what you're saying -- perhaps Avraham got word in the evening and proceeded immediately even though it would be night? Thanks. – Monica Cellio Nov 7 '11 at 13:37
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I have not found records of night warfare in the Hittite period in question. However, I have found evidence of night warfare from the period of Classical Antiquity, and earlier. For example Yehoshua sends 30000 men to lie in ambush at Ai, as recorded in Joshua (8:4), although that was just troop movement, but not battle. More significantly, in I Maccabees (4:1-5) Gorgias attempts to attack Judas Maccabeus at night. Similarly, II Macabees (8:7) states that Judas Maccabeus preferred surprising enemies at night. Additionally, the Battle of Thermopylae was fought at night as recorded by Diodorus, although Herodotus doesn't mention this, and many historians are skeptical (see here).

So, it seems that fighting at night was not so unheard of as to be a miracle. Notably, I Samuel (14:36) portrays Shaul planning on attacking the Philistines at night, although he does not go through with this battle. Context (such as the troops willingness) indicates that this was not completely out of the ordinary or miraculous.

Additionally, Judges (7:9-22) portrays Gideon conducting a night battle against the Midianites. Eric Cline writes here that this is the first night battle in history for which we have a detailed account. I do not see any indication from there whether this was standard. Notably, Gideon is scared and commanded to proceed by God, but I see no indication that this was because it was night.

According to this book, night warfare had always been practiced, but was considered risky, difficult, and exceptional.

Perhaps we see Avraham's willingness to risk himself to save Lot. On the other hand, it seems that this was a pursuit that dragged into night (see Rashi and Ramban to 14:15). It could be argued that Avraham was less exceptional since battles continuing into the night were more common than those starting at night (see here). However, that seems to have been due to the difficulty of coordinating and disengaging armies, while Avraham and his relatively small party (just 318) could have likely disengaged, and called off the pursuit. Thus, it seems likely that this battle was somewhat exceptional, which is likely why the verse mentions the nighttime in the first place.

Notably, and this doesn't contradict the suggestion that he bravely risked himself through the night pursuit, Seforno (ibid) suggests that he used the cover of night to hide the small size of his party.

It should be noted, that R. Yosef Kara (viewable here) reads the verse differently, understanding that Avraham sped up the chase to avoid it extending into the night given the impracticality of night warfare.

  • According to Ralbag, Avraham chose night in order to maximize his chance of victory victory. "ובחר הלילה כי בזה האופן יתכן שישלם לו הנצוח" – Alex Dec 29 '17 at 1:08
  • @Alex Cool. Is that Ralbag on the spot? (General question:) do you have a link to a decent print of Ralbag? – mevaqesh Dec 29 '17 at 1:11
  • On the spot 14:13 (p. 109 in Mossad Harav Kook edition). No link; I use a print copy. – Alex Dec 29 '17 at 1:27
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You must remember that this victory was a miracle. Rashi brings an opinion that Avraham and Eliezer alone fought the actual fight. So the question may be when is it more preferable to have a miracle and not what were the tactics at that time.

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    Your answer implies that Avram was relying on the miracle. (Otherwise, he would need military tactics also.) Normally we say one should not rely on a miracle. Do you have a source that implies that he was doing so? – msh210 Nov 6 '11 at 8:08
  • Sanhedrin 96a. A Malhach came to help. – rony Nov 6 '11 at 9:08
  • I don't see where the g'mara there implies he was relying on the miracle. (It does say there was one, or that he had angelic assistance, anyway.) – msh210 Nov 6 '11 at 15:43
  • The question was about using the night. From Sanhedrin 96a we learn that the name of the Malach was "Laila" (night). Then it gives another explanation: the night so called "fought" for for him, like in the case of Sisra. That is why I said that we can't learn from this case regular, natural warfare. – rony Nov 6 '11 at 16:19
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I believe that humanity invented raiding (robbing, stealing, kidnapping) before warfare. warfare demands some kind of society and government.

Bearing in mind that Avram was seriously outnumbered (~300 vs combined army of five major kingdoms) and outclassed (herdsmen vs experienced soldiers), going hand-to-hand in a battlefield would be downright suicide, so the only reasonable (still, very daring!!) strategy is some kind of a raid, not even an attack:
1) Scout and spot the location of the captives in the camp.
2) Wait to night time.
3) Hope that the guard's discipline is lacking, being victorious and on the way home.
4) Get in fast, get out faster.
I believe that breaking the rival army was unexpected result, they weren't even trying to get this!

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