Zulus, Boers, Brits, and the Bible

It was 10:30 am on that bright, sunny Wednesday morning when 1,200 British soldiers were stunned by the sight of 12,000 Zulu warriors advancing over a hill toward the unfortified British camp. By 4:00 pm that afternoon, it was all over.  Only a handful of Redcoats escaped with their lives to tell the world of Britain’s biggest military disaster.  That evening the haunting vista of well over a thousand British soldiers’ corpses confirmed that the Battle of Isandlwana on January 22nd, 1879, was a catastrophe for England. Nobody knows exactly how Zulus armed with nothing more than short assegais and clubs annihilated a well-armed and highly disciplined regiment.

Some say that the state of the art Martini-Henry single shot rifles used by the Redcoats began to overheat and jam. Others claim that the breech-loading guns puffed a big cloud of white smoke out of the front of the barrel after each shot, obscuring the enemy Zulus and preventing accurate aim.  The solar eclipse that darkened the field at 2:29 that afternoon certainly diminished shooting accuracy and favored the Zulus.  The chief factor that enabled the British to hold out as long as they did was their superb discipline.  They held to their “thin red lines” until the foe was upon them, killing them ferociously in hand-to-hand combat. 

My own view is that the Zulus won because they possessed ferocious courage and pressed forward relentlessly even in the face of their own three thousand casualties.  That, along with their famous and flawlessly executed  ‘horns of the bull’ flanking strategy brought them victory.   But as you’ll soon see, there was another ingredient in their victory.

Seven years after the Battle of Isandlwana, gold was discovered in South Africa which prompted the British to try to seize the fledgling country. After many humiliating defeats during the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), Britain finally overcame the Afrikaaners and the country fell.  But the world was astounded by the severe beating administered to the British Empire by a tiny ragtag bunch of Afrikaans farmers or boers.  Against that fast-moving and often invisible enemy fighting for its homeland, British military discipline was not enough.

During the British Mandate of Palestine between World War 1 and World War 2, the British army struggled to impose order over Arab nationalists. They also failed to dominate a small number of survivors of Hitler’s Final Solution who were trying to build a Jewish homeland.  Again, famed British military discipline was not enough.

This was again the case in the wars of Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s when the far smaller Catholic population brought the British army to its knees.

The question to ask, I think, is why their unparalleled discipline was not enough.  Ancient Jewish wisdom offers an answer as useful to military strategists as it is to parents of toddlers, business professionals growing their enterprises, and teachers.

For success in any leadership role, one needs an exquisitely balanced tension between hard, tough discipline on the one hand and tolerance, understanding and compassion on the other. 

Both are necessary, but the sequence is terribly important. Is it best to start the conversation or the relationship with boundary setting rules and then soften up the connection with warmth and understanding, or is it better to start off with emotional sensitivity and then establish disciplined attention to the rules? 

Consider these two consecutive verses:

…you shall reprove and admonish your kinsman….
(Leviticus 19:17)

…you shall love your friend as yourself…
(Leviticus 19:18)

In Bible study, we know that not only is the content of each verse important but so is its juxtaposition to other verses before and after.  The sequence of these two verses shows that the structure of rules must come first and in that framework of order, love can flourish.

The same decision faces everyone cast into a leadership role.  Parents of toddlers find themselves torn between wanting to surrender to the cuteness of their offspring and knowing that a child raised with no discipline is not a happy child.

Aspiring entrepreneurs, business leaders and managers must learn how to handle this tension or they fail.

This fundamental tension appears in many areas of life sometimes described as tension between firm and soft; male and female; function and form; or law and love.

However, ancient Jewish wisdom most often refers to this spectrum as the tension between justice and mercy— in Hebrew DiN and RaCHaMim respectively.

The fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the Dalet which is the sound ‘D’. It is the first letter in the Hebrew word for justice—DiN.   Here is what it looks like:


  The Hebrew letter which starts the word for mercy—RaCHaMiM—is Reish which has an ‘R’ sound:


Notice that the ‘firm’, ‘unbending’ letter, the Dalet, symbolizing justice, law, and rules, changes direction from horizontal to vertical at a sharp, well defined right-angle. Furthermore, D is a ‘plosive’ letter; its sound comes to a decisive stop.

By contrast, the Reish, symbolizing mercy and gentleness, changes direction from horizontal to vertical in a gentle arc with no hard point of change. This letter is an example of a ‘continuant’ letter, the R sound continuing with no finality

What timeless truth does the shape of these letters teach? Well, combining these two letters gives us two distinct Hebrew words and again sequence is vital.  We can place the D first and then the R or we can reverse them.

The first word is DoR and it looks like this:


DoR means generation. It frequently appears in Scripture signifying enduring stability.

Now here is the second word with our two key letters reversed:


It means  ‘descend’ and also frequently appears in Scripture. Its context is one of decline and deterioration.

The lesson is clear. Whenever you start a new relationship in which you need to lead, maybe even when the person you need to lead is you, start off with structure and rules, the ‘D’ idea.  After that framework is established, there is time to introduce a more personal and compassionate approach, the ‘R’. 

However, should you mistakenly start off with the soft and shapeless ‘R’ approach, it will be harder to introduce the disciplined element and your enterprise will decline and descend into chaos.

The British army up to the start of the 20th century was built entirely on DiN and it was a formidable force of single-minded professional soldiers who forged an empire. However, they never introduced the necessary RaCHaMim. When the British army ran up against citizen warriors who embodied both discipline and compassion, the British did not do as well. The Zulus were incredible warriors but they were also farmers and family men. So were the Afrikaaner Boers, the Irish, and both the Jews and Arabs in Palestine. This was also true for the Americans fighting under General George Washington in the 1770s. Carefully nurturing both these qualities in ourselves and those for whom we are responsible is a powerful and effective success strategy.

10 thoughts on “Zulus, Boers, Brits, and the Bible”

  1. True fathering influence & essence in first position, coupled with true mothering influence & essence supporting all areas of development, what a recipe for enduring generations. Your Thought Tool is literally mined from the depths of the heart and order of the LORD. Oh, I should have said the order and the heart. I know that the letter Dalet is supposed to be a door foremost, but it surely looks like a judge’s gavel as well, also giving its “plosive” and final punctuation to cases brought into the courtroom. Such amazing wisdom woven all through God’s Being, He can’t even draw a squiggle without it being full of life, meaning, purpose, mystery, and eternity! Thank you as always! Stored up in both my heart and my hard drive!

  2. Thank you, RDL for sharing this Ancient Jewish wisdom. It is the best way to begin the day, but also to begin every meaningful venture!

  3. I love learning about the hidden (to us, in this age) wisdom in the Bible! Thank you for showing us. I might add……I think your spellchecker gave you “Island” instead of “Ireland” when you write about Northern Ireland.

      1. Edward Rubinstein

        You either corrected that mistake immediately, or Cindy has something awry with her system. I’m reading this the day it’s published, and it’s correct—and I’m an editor.

        Regardless, this is a fascinating look at the Hebrew language. Thank you.

  4. I haven’t been at work for 8 weeks and thus I’m online for several reasons: to help my toddlers with their lessons, to learn a new trade (wellness coaching), and to prepare for our dental office to reopen. This lesson was a “light bulb ON” moment for me. Let me definitely evaluate my current strategy and make sure they posses these qualities – in that order. Thank you always for timely clarity.

  5. Are you sure the letters aren’t reversed? Dalet is definitely the one with the arched vertical.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Quite sure, Peter, thanks,
      Don’t forget Hebrew reads right to left. The Dalet has its two elements meeting at a right angle whereas the Resh is more of an arc.

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