War in the Bible—What Ancient Warfare and Arms Were Like?

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The Bible accounts show that when specific forms of wickedness and oppression endangered the Israelites, God approved warfare for the security of his people and the preservation of true worship. However, take note of the following three essential points about such God-supported warfare. When God was involved in the justified battles and warfare, (1) He alone determined who would engage in warfare, (2) when they would engage in such warfare, and (3) God took no pleasure in the death of and humans, and that goes for the wicked as well.

Armor in General–Old Testament

Notice the weapons of attack and defense in use among the Hebrews, mentioned in Scripture. There are no such descriptions given by the sacred writers as are to be found in Homer, who sets forth in detail the various pieces of armor worn by an Achilles or a Patroclus, and the order of putting them on. There is an account of the armor offensive and defensive of the Philistine Goliath (1Sa 17:5-7), and from a much later time we read of shields and spears and helmets and habergeons, or coats of mail, and bows and slings with which Uzziah provided his soldiers (2Ch 26:14). In Jeremiah’s ode of triumph over the defeat of Pharaoh-neco, there is mention of the arms of the Egyptians: “Prepare ye the buckler and shield, and draw near to battle. Harness the horses, and get up, ye horsemen, and stand forth with your helmets; furbish the spears, put on the coats of mail” (Jer 46:3-4). Of the arms of Assyrian, Chaldean, Egyptian and Hittite soldiery there have come down to us sculptured representations from their ancient monuments, which throw light upon the battle pieces of the Hebrew historians and prophets.


In the New Testament

In the New Testament, Paul describes the panoply of the Christian soldier, naming the essential pieces of the Roman soldier’s armor–the girdle, the breastplate, the footgear, the shield, the helmet, the sword–although it is to be noticed that his most characteristic weapon, the pilum or spear, is omitted (Eph 6:10-17). In a similar context, the same apostle speaks of “the armor” of light (Ro 13:12), “of righteousness on the right hand and on the left” (2Co 6:7). Of the equipment of the Roman soldier in detail, the most useful illustration is the account given by Polybius (vi.23): “The Roman panoply consists in the first place of a shield (thureos). …. Along with the shield is a sword (machaira). …. Next come two javelins (hussoi) and a helmet (perikephalaia), and a greave (knemis). ….. Now the majority, when they have further put on a bronze plate, measuring a span every way, which they wear on their breasts and call a heart-guard (kardiophulax), are completely armed, but those citizens who are assessed at more than 10,000 drachmae wear instead, together with the other arms, cuirasses made of chain mail (halusidotous thorakas).”

Offensive Weapons


The commonest weapon in the hands of the shepherd youth of Palestine today is the rod (shebheT; rhabdos), a stick loaded at one end, which he carries in his hand, or wears attached to his wrist by a loop of string, ready for use. It is of considerable weight and is a formidable weapon whether used in self-defense or in attacking a foe. With such a weapon David may well have overcome the lion and the bear that invaded the fold. This shepherd’s rod, while used for guidance, or comfort, or for numbering the flock (Ps 23:4; Le 27:32), was also a weapon with which to strike and punish (Ps 2:9; Isa 10:5,15). In this sense it has for a synonym maTTeh (Isa 9:4; Eze 7:11), and both came to have the derived meaning of spearheads (shebheT, 2Sa 18:14; maTTeh, 1Sa 14:27). They may have been the original of the maul or hammer (mephits, Pr 25:18; Jer 51:20, where Cyrus, as God’s battle-axe, is to shatter Babylon and its inhabitants for the wrongs they have done to His people Israel).


Scarcely less common and equally homely is the sling (qela`; sphendone) (1Sa 17:40). It consists of plaited thongs, or of one strip of leather, made broad at the middle to form a hollow or pocket for the stone or other contents, the ends being held firmly in the hand as it is whirled loaded round the head, and one of them being at length let go, so that the stone may take its flight. It is used by the shepherd still to turn the straying sheep, and it can also be used with deadly effect as a weapon of war. The slingers (ha-qalla`im, 2Ki 3:25) belonged to the light infantry, like the archers. The Benjamites were specially skilled in the use of the sling, which they could use as well with their left hand as the right (Jg 20:16). The sling was a weapon in use in the armies of Egypt and Babylonia, and Jeremiah in a powerful figure makes the Lord say to Jerusalem in a time of impending calamity: “Behold, I will sling out the inhabitants of the land at this time” (Jer 10:18; compare 1Sa 25:29).

Bow and Arrows

A very important offensive weapon in the wars of Israel was the bow (qesheth) and arrows (chitstsim), and the archers whether mounted or on foot formed a powerful element of the fighting forces of the Philistines, Egyptians, and Assyrians.


Spear and Javelin

The spear has various words to represent it. (1) The chanith had a wooden staff or shaft of varying size and length with a head, or blade, of bronze, or, at a later time, of iron (1Sa 17:7). In the King James Version it is sometimes translated “javelin,” but in the Revised Version (British and American) “spear” (see 1Sa 13:22; 18:11). Saul’s spear, stuck in the ground, betokened the abode of the king for the time, just as today the spear in front of his tent marks the halting-place of the Bedouin Sheikh (1Sa 22:6; 26:7). Nahum, describing the arms of the Assyrians, joins together the flashing sword and the glittering spear (Na 3:3). The bearers of the chanith belonged to the heavy-armed troops. (2) The romach, also translated in the King James Version “javelin,” was of the character of a lance. It does not appear to have differed much from the chanith–they appear as synonyms in Joe 3:10, where romach is used, and in Isa 2:1-22,4 where chanith is used, of spears beaten into pruning hooks. It describes the Egyptian spear in Jer 46:4. The bearers of the romach also belonged to the heavy-armed troops. (3) The kidhon was lighter than either of the preceding and more of the nature of a javelin (gaison in the Septuagint, Jos 8:18 and Polybius vi.39, 3; Job 41:29; Jer 6:23). (4) In the New Testament the word “spear” occurs only once and is represented by the Greek logche, the equivalent no doubt of chanith as above (Joh 19:34).

The Spear, lance, or dart, was used as a weapon both for thrusting (close at hand) and for throwing (at a short distance), like the δόρυ of the Greeks (Strabo, 10:448); but chiefly for the former (see 1Sa 18:1; 1Sa 19:10; 1Sa 20:33). The usual Heb. designations are רֹמִח and חֲנַית, which can hardly be distinguished, except that the latter is generally used in connection with the sword (or bow), while both appear in connection with the shield (Jg 5:8; 1Sa 17:15). Instead of either word, we sometimes find קִיַו (2Sa 21:16) and כַּידוֹן (Jos 8:18, 26; 1Sa 17:6; Job 41:21); also שֶׁבֶט in some cases (2Sa 18:14, according to some). They are also thought to have been used as standards for colors (Gesen. Thesaur. p. 683). The spears (see the Persepolitan specimens in Porter, Travels, 1pl. 36, 40, 46, 49) had a wooden shaft ([חֵוֹ], 1Sa 17:7; or [עֵוֹ], 2Sa 21:19; 2Sa 23:7) and an iron point (1Sa 17:7). Ash or fir was preferred (Virgil, En. 11:667; Homer, II. 19:390 sq.; 22:293; Odys. 14:281; Ovid, Ietam. 10. 93; Statius, Theb. 6:102; comp. Pliny. 16:24), and hence many (so Rosenmüller) explain Na 2:4; but בּרוֹשׁ. is probably cypress (q.v.). The hasta of the Romans, a weapon for throwing, is called λόγχη in the New Test. (John.19, 34; comp. 2 Macc. 5, 2; 15:11; see Alstorph. De Hastis Veter. [Amst. 1757]).

Sword In Bible Times

The sword (cherebh) is by far the most frequently mentioned weapon in Scripture, whether offensive or defensive. The blade was of iron (1Sa 13:19; Joe 3:10). It was hung from the girdle on the left side and was used both to cut and to thrust. Ehud’s sword (Jg 3:16) was double-edged and a cubit in length, and, as he was left-handed, was worn on his right thigh under his clothes. The sword was kept in a sheath (1Sa 17:51); to draw the sword was the signal for war (Eze 21:3). Soldiers are “men who draw the sword.” It is the flashing sword (Na 3:3); the oppressing sword (Jer 46:16); the devouring sword (2Sa 18:8; Jer 12:12); the sword which drinks its fill of blood (Isa 34:5-6). The sword of the Lord executes God’s judgments (Jer 47:6; Eze 21:9-10 ff).

The Sword (חֶרֶב), which was carried in a special belt at the hips (1Sa 17:37; 1Sa 25:13; 2Sa 20:8), but certainly not (as Jahn [Archceöl. II, 2, 40] falsely argues from Jg 3:16, 21; Josephus, War, 3, 5, 5) on the right side (see the figures of Ninevites in the Journal Asiatique, 1840, 7 pl. 3, 6, 7, 10; 10:17, 19, 22, 53, etc.). It was enclosed in a sheath ([תִּעִר]  1 Sam17:51; 1Sa 2 Samuel loc. cit.; [נָדָן], 1Ch 21:27; θήκη, Joh 18:11), hence the phrase “to draw the sword” (הֵרַיק חֶרֶב, or שָׁלִŠ, or פָּתִח), and was double-edged (שׂנֵי פַיּות, Jg 3:16; Pr 5:4; δίστομοςHeb 4:12; Re 1:20; Re 2:12; ἀμφήκης, Iliad, 21:118). It was used both for striking and stabbing (1Sa 31:4; 2Sa 2; 2Sa 16; 2Sa 20:10, etc.). The Sept. usually translates the Heb. חֶרֶב by μάχαιραwhich latter occurs in the New Test., and originally denoted the short dagger (comp. Iliad, 3, 271 sq.), but later any (curved) saber in distinction from. ξίφος, the proper (military) sword; but that חֶרֶב also signifies the straight sword there can be no doubt. The Roman sica, a somewhat curved poniard, was introduced later among the Jews, and became, shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem, the deadly weapon of the bold robbers, who hence were called Sicarii (Josephuas, Ant. 20:8, 10; War, 7:10, 1; Life, § 56).

Figurative: In the highly metaphorical language of the prophets it stands for war and its attendant calamities (Jer 50:35-37; Eze 21:28).

In the New Testament machaira is employed for sword in its natural meaning (Mt 26:47,51; Ac 12:2; Heb 11:34,37). Paul calls the Word of God the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17), and in the Epistle to Hebrews the Word of God is said to be sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb 4:12). As a synonym, the word rhomphaia is used in the Apocrypha alone of the New Testament books, save for Lu 2:35. It was the Thracian sword with a large blade and is classed by the ancients rather as a spear. The word is used frequently in the Septuagint like machaira to translate cherebh. In Re 1:16 the sharp two-edged sword of judgment, rhomphaia is seen in vision proceeding out of the mouth of the glorified Lord (compare Re 19:15). Xiphos is still another word for sword, but it is found only in the Septuagint, and not in the New Testament.

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Defensive Weapons.

Shield In Bible Times

The most ancient and universal weapon of defense is the shield. The two chief varieties are (1) the tsinnah, Latin scutum, the large shield, worn by heavy-armed infantry, adapted to the form of the human body, being made oval or in the shape of a door; hence, its Greek name, thureos, from thura, a door; and (2) the maghen, Latin clypeus, the light, round hand-buckler, to which pelte is the Greek equivalent. The two are often mentioned together (Eze 23:24; 38:4; Ps 35:2).

The tsinnah was the shield of the heavy-armed (1Ch 12:24); and of Goliath, we read that his shield was borne by a man who went before him (1Sa 17:7,41) The maghen could be borne by bowmen, for we read of men of Benjamin in Asa’s army that bare shields and drew bows (2Ch 14:8). The ordinary material of which shields were made was wood, or wicker-work overlaid with leather. The woodwork of the shields and other weapons of Gog’s army were to serve Israel for fuel for seven years (Eze 39:9). The anointing of the shield (2Sa 1:21; Isa 21:5) was either to protect it from the weather, or, more probably, was part of the consecration of the warrior and his weapons for the campaign. Solomon in his pride of wealth had 200 shields (tsinnoth) of beaten gold, and 300 targets (maghinnim) of beaten gold made for himself and hung in the house of the forest of Lebanon (1Ki 10:16-17). They were only for show, and when Shishak of Egypt came up against Rehoboam and carried them off, Rehoboam replaced them with others of bronze (1Ki 14:27). On the march, the shield was strapped over the shoulder and kept in a cover, which was removed before the battle (Isa 22:6). Both words are used of the mechanical device known to the Romans as the testudo employed by the besiegers of a city against the darts and stones and blazing torches thrown out by the besieged (Isa 37:33; Eze 26:8).

Figurative: Jehovah is spoken of as the Shield and Protector of His people–of Abraham (Ge 15:1); of Israel (De 33:29); of the Psalmist (Ps 18:30; 35:2, and many other passages). In his description of the panoply of the Christian soldier, Paul introduces faith as the thureos, the large Greek-Roman shield, a defense by which he may quench all the fiery darts of the evil one.


The Shield of Faith, the Helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit

Thureon is the Greek word rendered “shield,” which actually refers to a shield that was “large and oblong, protecting every part of the soldier; the word is used metaphorically for faith.” This shield of faith would and will protect the Christian from the “the fiery darts of the evil one.” In ancient times, the darts of the soldiers were often hollowed out having small iron receptacles, which were filled with a clear colorless flammable mixture of light hydrocarbons that burned. This was one of the most lethal weapons as it caused havoc among the enemy troops unless the soldiers had the large body shields that had been drenched in water and could quench the fiery darts. In fact, the earliest manuscripts repeat the definite article, literally “the darts of the evil one, the fiery (darts),” emphasizing the fact that they were, above all, destructive. If the soldier’s shield caught fire, he would be tempted to throw it down, leaving himself open to the enemy’s spear.

What does the highly metaphorical language of the fiery darts depict and how does this weaken or undercut our faith? It may come in the form of minor persecution if we live in the Western world, such as being ridiculed for our Christian faith, even verbally assaulted by Bible critics. Another fiery dart may be the temptation to put money over the ministry. Then, there is the constant temptation from Satan’s world to lure us into immorality. You would have to be literally blindfolded to not see sexually explicit images hundreds of times per day, as it is used to sell everything. It is not only the images but also the mindset. I will give you just one example, and please excuse the graphic nature. The modern-day junior high school children (13 and 14 years old); literally view oral sex as being no different than kissing one another on the lips.

If we are to protect our Christian family, our congregation of brothers and sisters, and ourselves, we must possess “the shield of faith.” Faith is not a mere belief in Jesus Christ as some misinformed ones might tell us; rather it is an active faith in Jesus Christ. James says at 1:19 “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe, and shudder!” The demons and Satan believe in the existence of Jesus Christ, and yet this brings them no salvation whatever. Faith comes from taking in an active knowledge of the Father and the Son to the point of building a relationship, a friendship based on the deepest love, and the committing of oneself to the point of turning your life over completely. It is regular prayerful communication, understanding and valuing how he protects us. – Joshua 23:14; Luke 17:5; Romans 10:17.

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Yet again, we turn to our great exemplar, Jesus Christ, who demonstrated his faith throughout some very trying times. He completely trusted the Father to accomplish His will and purposes. (Matthew 26:42, 53, 54; John 6:38) A great example of this trust can be found when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane. He was in great anguish because he knew that he was going to be executed as a blasphemer of his Father, and even then, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) Not that he was backing out of the execution, the ransom that is, but he wanted to be executed for another reason, other than a blasphemer. Jesus was an integrity keeper, which brought great joy to the Father. (Proverbs 27:11) As we face difficult times in the world that is alienated from God, we will do well to imitate Jesus great faith, and not give out under the pressures of a world that lies in the hands of the evil one. Moreover, our faith will be refined if we trust in God, evidencing our love for him, by applying his Word in our daily walking with him. (Psalm 19:7-11; 1 John 5:3) The immediate gratifications that this world has to offer could never compare with the blessings that lie ahead. Proverbs 10:22.

Young Christians
Helmet In Bible Times

The helmet, qobha` or kobha`, seems to have been originally in the form of a skull-cap, and it is thus figured in representations of Hittites on the walls of Karnak in Egypt. In the earliest times it is found worn only by outstanding personages like kings and commanders. When King Saul armed David with his own armor he put a helmet of brass upon his head (1Sa 17:38). Uzziah at a later time provided his soldiers with helmets, as part of their equipment (2Ch 26:14). The men of Pharaoh-neco’s army also wore helmets (Jer 46:4), and the mercenaries in the armies of Tyre had both shield and helmet to hang up within her (Eze 27:10). The materials of the helmet were at first of wood, linen, felt, or even of rushes; leather was in use until the Seleucid period when it was supplanted by bronze (1 Macc 6:35); the Greek and Roman helmets both of leather and brass were well known in the Herodian period.

Figurative: Paul has the helmet, perikephalaia, for his Christian soldier (Eph 6:17; 1Th 5:8). In the Septuagint perikephalaia occurs eleven times as the equivalent of the Hebrew term.

Coat of Mail

Body armor for the protection of the person in battle is mentioned in the Old Testament and is well known in representations of Egyptian, Persian and Parthian warriors. The shiryon, translated “habergeon” in the King James Version, rendered in the Revised Version (British and American) “coat of mail,” is part of the armor of Nehemiah’s workers (Ne 4:16), and one of the pieces of armor supplied by King Uzziah to his soldiers. (2Ch 26:14). Goliath was armed with a shiryon, and when Saul clad David in his own armor to meet the Philistine champion he put on him a coat of mail, his shiryon (1Sa 17:5,38). Such a piece of body armor Ahab wore in the fatal battle of Ramoth-gilead (1Ki 22:34). In the battle of Bethsura in the Maccabean struggle the Syrian war-elephants were protected with breastplates, the word for which, thorax, represents the shiryon in the Septuagint (1 Macc 6:43).

Figurative: Isaiah in a striking figure describes Jehovah as putting on righteousness for a coat of mail and salvation as a helmet, where thorax and perikephalaia are the Greek words of the Septuagint to render shiryon and kobha`. It is from this passage (Isa 59:17) that Paul obtains his “breastplate of righteousness” (Eph 6:14).

Breastplate of Righteousness

The breastplate of the soldier was a piece of armor that covered the chest, protecting one of the most important organs, the heart. As all Christians likely know, we have a figurative heart, which is our inner person, and it needs special protection because it leans toward wrongdoing. (Gen. 8:21) For this reason, we must cultivate a love for God’s Word and the standards and values that lie within. (Ps. 119:97, 105) Our love for the Word of God should be to such a depth that we would reject “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life.” (1 Jn. 2:15-17) In addition, once we have developed such a desire for right over wrong, we will be able to avoid paths that would have otherwise led us to a ruination. (Ps. 119:99-101; Am. 5:15) Our greatest example in everything, Jesus Christ, evidenced this to such an extent that Paul could say, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.”–Hebrews 1:9.

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Greaves Armor In Bible Times

Greaves (mitschah; knemides) are mentioned once in Scripture as part of the armor of Goliath (1Sa 17:6). They were of brass or leather, fastened by thongs round the leg and above the ankles. The primary purpose of greaves is to protect the tibia from attack. The tibia is a bone very close to the skin and is therefore extremely vulnerable to just about any kind of attack. Furthermore, a successful attack on the shin results in that leg being rendered useless, greatly hampering one’s ability to maneuver in any way. Greaves were used to counteract this. Greaves usually consisted of a metal exterior with an inner padding of felt. The felt padding was particularly important because, without it, any blow would transfer directly from the metal plating to the shin.

During Greek antiquity, greaves (κνημίδες) were mentioned in many texts, including Hesiod’s Shield of Heracles, Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid. In the Illiad, the Greek forces are commonly referred to as “well-greaved Acheans” (euknēmidas Achaioi, ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοὶ). While these are primarily mythological texts, they still dealt with warfare and the fact that greaves were mentioned is evidence that they were indeed in use. There are also non-fictional testimonies of their use among Roman light infantry (or hastati) from Polybius up to Vegetius. These greaves are thought to have been mass-produced by the Romans using presses on sheets of metal and then attaching lining, usually leather or cloth. While it is generally assumed that greaves were always worn in pairs, there is evidence that many wore just a single greave on the left or right leg. Many skeletons have been found buried with only a single greave, including gladiators and soldiers. People may have worn a single greave as a sign of status, as opposed to any practical use.

Shod Your Feet with the Preparation of the Gospel of Peace

Roman soldiers needed suitable footwear, which (1) kept their footing sure in battle, and (2) allowed them to march some 20 miles during a campaign while wearing or carrying some 60 pounds of armor and equipment. Thus, Paul’s ongoing analogy of the armor of a Roman soldier was right on target, as the appropriate footwear for the readiness of a Christian minister active in spreading the gospel message is even more important. Paul shows the importance again in his letters to the Roman congregation. There he asks how will the people get to know God if the Christian is not willing and ready to bring it to him, as he preaches and teaches? – Romans 10:13-15.

Once again, we must look to our example Jesus Christ, as he says to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” For three and a half years, Jesus walked throughout the land of Palestine, preaching to all who would listen, giving the ministry top priority in his life. (John 4:5-34; 18:37) If we, like Jesus, are eager to declare the good news, we will find many opportunities to share it with others. In addition, our being absorbed in our ministry will help keep us spiritually strong. – Acts 18:5.

Girdle Armor

The girdle (chaghorah; Greek zone) was of leather studded with nails, and was used for supporting the sword (1Sa 18:4; 2Sa 20:8). In literature, girdles are often portrayed as magical, giving power and strength if worn by men, and protection if worn by women. Several scriptures in the Bible make use of the girdle as a symbol for readiness and preparation. … For men a girdle was often used to hold weapons.

The loins are the area on each side of the backbone of a human between the ribs and hips. At the time, that the Apostle Paul wrote this to the Ephesians, soldiers wore a belt or girdle-like you see in the image of Roman soldiers. It was 2 to 6 inches in width. This belt served a double duty: (1) to protect the soldier’s loins, (2) but it also served as a support for his sword. When a soldier girded up his loins, this meant he was getting ready to go into battle. This soldier and his belt served as the perfect analogy, of how a Christian is to put on the belt of biblical truth, to protect his life. The truths of Scripture should be pulled tight around us, helping us to live a life that is reflective of that truth. Thus, we can use that Bible truth to defend the faith, contend for the faith, and save those who doubt. (1 Pet. 3:15, Jude 3, 21-22) If we are to accomplish these tasks, we will have to study the Bible carefully and consider its contents. Prophetically, it was said of Jesus, “your law is within my heart.” (Ps. 40:8) If Jesus came under attack by the enemy of truth, he was able to refer to biblical truth from memory. – Matthew 19:3-6; 22:23-32.

Isaiah 30:20-21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
20 And though Jehovah give you the bread of distress and the water of oppression, yet your Teacher will no longer hide himself, but your eyes shall behold your Teacher. 21 And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.

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Israelite Army

The Israelites were not a distinctively warlike people, and their glory has been won on other fields than those of war. But Canaan, between the Mediterranean and the desert, was the highway of the East and the battleground of nations. The Israelites were, by the necessity of their geographical position, often involved in wars not of their own seeking, and their bravery and endurance even when worsted in their conflicts won for them the admiration and respect of their conquerors.

The First Campaign of History

The first conflict of armed forces recorded in Holy Scripture is that in Ge 14:1-24. The kings of the Jordan valley had rebelled against Chedorlaomer, king of Elam–not the first of the kings of the East to reach the Mediterranean with his armies–and joined battle with him and other kings in the Vale of Siddim. In this campaign Abraham distinguished himself by the rescue of his nephew Lot, who had fallen with all that he possessed into the hands of the Elamite king. The force with which Abraham effected the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him was his own retainers, 318 in number, whom he had armed and led forth in person in his successful pursuit.

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In the Wilderness

When we first make the acquaintance of the Israelites as a nation, they are a horde of fugitives who have escaped from the bitter oppression and hard bondage of Pharaoh. Although there could have been but little of the martial spirit in a people so long and grievously oppressed, their journeyings through the wilderness toward Canaan are from the first described as the marching of a great host. It was according to their “armies” (“hosts” the Revised Version (British and American)) that Aaron and Moses were to bring the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt (Ex 6:26). When they had entered upon the wilderness they went up “harnessed” (“armed” the Revised Version (British and American)) for the journeyings that lay before them–where “harnessed” or “armed” may point not to the weapons they bore but to the order and arrangements of a body of troops marching five deep (hamushshim) or divided into five army corps (Ex 13:18). On the way through the wilderness they encamped (Ex 13:20; and passim) at their successive halting-places, and the whole army of 600,000 was, after Sinai, marked off into divisions or army corps, each with its own camp and the ensigns of their fathers’ houses (Nu 2:2). “From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel,” the males of the tribes were numbered and assigned to their place in the camp (Nu 1:3). Naturally, in the wilderness they are footmen (Nu 11:21), and it was not till the period of the monarchy that other arms were added. Bow and sling and spear and sword for attack, and shield and helmet for defense, would be the full equipment of the men called upon to fight in the desert. Although we hear little of gradations of military rank, we do read of captains of thousands and captains of hundreds in the wilderness (Nu 31:14), and Joshua commands the fighting men in the battle against the Amalekites at Rephidim (Ex 17:9 ff). That the Israelites acquired in their journeyings in the wilderness the discipline and martial spirit which would make them a warlike people, may be gathered from their successes against the Midianites, against Og, king of Bashan, toward the close of the forty years, and from the military organization with which they proceeded to the conquest of Canaan.

The Whole Armor of God

The Times after the Conquest

In more than one campaign the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership established themselves in Canaan. But it was largely through the enterprise of the several tribes after that the conquest was achieved. The progress of the invaders was stubbornly contested, but Joshua encouraged his kinsmen of Ephraim and Manasseh to press on the conquest even against the invincible war-chariots of the Canaanites–“for thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots, and though they are strong” (Jos 17:18). As it was in the early history of Rome, where the defense of the state was an obligation resting upon every individual according to his stake in the public welfare, so it was at first in Israel. Tribal jealousies, however, impaired the sentiment of nationality and hindered united action when once the people had been settled in Canaan. The tribes had to defend their own, and it was only a great emergency that united them in common action. The first notable approach to national unity was seen in the army which Barak assembled to meet the host of Jabin, king of Hazor, under the command of Sisera (Jg 4:5). In Deborah’s war-song in commemoration of the notable victory achieved by Barak and herself, the men of the northern tribes, Zebulun, Naphtali, Issachar, along with warriors of Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin, are praised for the valor with which they withstood and routed the host–foot, horse and chariots–of Sisera. Once again the tribes of Israel assembled in force from “Dan even to Beersheba, with the land of Gilead” (Jg 20:1) to punish the tribe of Benjamin for condoning a gross outrage. The single tribe was defeated in the battle that ensued, but they were able to put into the field “26,000 men that drew sword,” and they had also “700 chosen men left-handed; every one could sling stones at a hair-breadth, and not miss” (Jg 20:15-16).

In the Early Monarchy

Up to this time the fighting forces of the Israelites were more of the character of a militia. The men of the tribes more immediately harassed by enemies were summoned for action by the leader raised up by God, and disbanded when the emergency was past. The monarchy brought changes in military affairs. It was the plea of the leaders of Israel, when they desired to have a king, that he would go out before them and fight their battles (1Sa 8:20). Samuel had warned them that with a monarchy a professional soldiery would be required. “He will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots; and he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and he Will set some to plow his ground, and reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots” (1Sa 8:11-12). That this was the course which military reform took in the period following the establishment of the monarchy may well be. It fell to Saul when he ascended the throne to withstand the invading Philistines and to relieve his people from the yoke which they had already laid heavily upon some parts of the country. The Philistines were a military people, well disciplined and armed, with 30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen at their service when they came up to Michmash (1Sa 13:5). What chance had raw levies of vinedressers and herdsmen from Judah and Benjamin against such a foe? No wonder that the Israelites hid themselves in caves and thickets, and in rocks, and in holes, and in pits (1Sa 13:6). And it is quoted by the historian as the lowest depth of national degradation that the Israelites had to go down to the Philistines “to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock” (1Sa 13:20) because the Philistines had carried off their smiths to prevent them from making swords or spears.

It was in this desperate condition that King Saul was called to begin the struggle for freedom and national unity in Israel. The victories at Michmash and Elah and the hotly contested but unsuccessful and fatal struggle at Gilboa evince the growth of the martial spirit and advance alike in discipline and in strategy. After the relief of Jabesh-gilead, instead of disbanding the whole of his levies, Saul retained 3,000 men under arms, and this in all probability became the nucleus of the standing army of Israel (1Sa 13:2). From this time onward “when Saul saw any mighty man, or any valiant man, he took him unto him” (1Sa 14:52). Of the valiant men whom Saul kept round his person, the most notable were Jonathan and David. Jonathan had command of one division of 1,000 men at Gibeah (1Sa 13:2), and David was captain of the king’s bodyguard (1Sa 18:5; compare 18:13). When David fell under Saul’s jealousy and betook himself to an outlaw life in the mountain fastnesses of Judah, he gathered around him in the cave of Adullam 400 men (1Sa 22:1-2) who were ere long increased to 600 (1Sa 23:1,3). From the story of Nabal (1Sa 25:1-44) we learn how a band like that of David could be maintained in service, and we gather that landholders who benefited by the presence of an armed force were expected to provide the necessary supplies. On David’s accession to the throne this band of warriors remained attached to his person and became the backbone of his army. We can identify them with the gibborim–the mighty men of whom Benaiah at a later time became captain (2Sa 23:22-23; 1Ki 1:8) and who are also known by the name of Cherethites and Pelethites (2Sa 8:18). These may have received their name from their foreign origin, the former, in Hebrew kerethi being originally from Crete but akin to the Philistines; and the latter, in Hebrew pelethi being Philistines by birth. That there were foreign soldiers in David’s service we know from the examples of Uriah the Hittite and Ittai of Gath. David’s gibborim have been compared to the Praetorian Cohort of the Roman emperors, the Janissaries of the sultans, and the Swiss Guards of the French kings. Of David’s army Joab was the commander-in-chief, and to the military’ genius of this rough and unscrupulous warrior, the king’s near kinsman, the dynasty of David was deeply indebted.

From the Time of Solomon Onward

In the reign of Solomon, although peace was its prevailing characteristic, there can have been no diminution of the armed forces of the kingdom, for we read of military expeditions against Edom and Syria and Hamath, and also of fortresses built in every part of the land, which would require troops to garrison them. Hazor, the old Canaanite capital, at the foot of Lebanon; Megiddo commanding the rich plain of Jezreel; Gezer overlooking the Philistine plain; the Bethhorons (Upper and Nether); and Tadmor in the wilderness; not to speak of Jerusalem with Millo and the fortified wall, were fortresses requiring strong garrisons (1Ki 9:15). It is probable that “the levy,” which was such a burden upon the people at large, included forced military service as well as forced labor, and helped to create the dissatisfaction which culminated in the revolt of Jeroboam, and eventually in the disruption of the kingdom. Although David had reserved from the spoils of war in his victorious campaign against Hadadezer, king of Zobah, horses for 100 chariots (2Sa 8:4), cavalry and chariots were not an effective branch of the service in his reign. Solomon, however, disregarding the scruples of the stricter Israelites, and the ordinances of the ancient law (De 17:16), added horses and chariots on a large scale to the military equipment of the nation (1Ki 10:26-29). It is believed that it was from Musri, a country of northern Syria occupied by the Hittites, and Kue in Cilicia, that Solomon obtained horses for his cavalry and chariotry (1Ki 10:29; 2Ch 1:16, where the best text gives Mutsri, and not the Hebrew word for Egypt). This branch of the service was not only looked upon with distrust by the stricter Israelites, but was expressly denounced in later times by the prophets (Isa 2:7; Ho 1:7; Mic 5:10). In the prophets, too, more than in the historical books, we are made acquainted with the cavalry and chariotry of Assyria and Babylon which in the days of Sargon, Sennacherib, and Nebuchadnezzar had become so formidable. Their lancers and mounted archers, together with their chariots, gave them a sure ascendancy in the field of war (Na 3:2-3; Hab 1:8; Jer 46:4). In comparison with these, the cavalry of the kings of Israel and Judah was insignificant, and to this Rabshakeh contemptuously referred (2Ki 18:23) when he promised to the chiefs of Judah from the king of Assyria 2,000 horses if Hezekiah could put riders upon them.

The Christian Life Is a War with Many Battles That Need to Be Won

Organization of the Hebrew Army

As we have seen, every male in Israel at the age of twenty, according to the ancient law, became liable for military service (Nu 1:3; 26:2; 2Ch 25:5), just as at a later time every male of that age became liable for the half-shekel of Temple dues. Josephus is our authority for believing that no one was called upon to serve after the age of fifty (Ant., III, xii, 4). From military service, the Levites were exempt (Nu 2:33). In Deuteronomic law exemption was allowed to persons betrothed but not married, to persons who had built a house but had not dedicated it, or who had planted a vineyard but had not eaten of the fruit of it, and to persons faint-hearted and fearful whose timidity might spread throughout the ranks (De 20:1-9). These exemptions no doubt reach back to a high antiquity and in the Maccabean period they still held good (1 Macc 3:56). The army was divided into bodies of 1,000, 100, 50, and in Maccabean times, 10, each under its own captain (Sar) (Nu 31:14; 1Sa 8:12; 2Ki 1:9; 2Ch 25:5; 1 Macc 3:55). In the army of Uzziah we read of “heads of fathers’ houses,” mighty men of valor who numbered 2,600 and had under their hand a trained army of 307,500 men (2Ch 26:12-13), where, however, the figures have an appearance of exaggeration.

What Do We Know About the Approaching Conflict with the Enemies of the Church?

Over the whole host of Israel, according to the fundamental principle of theocracy, was Jehovah Himself, the Supreme Leader of her armies (1Sa 8:7 ff); it was “the Captain of the Lord’s host,” to whom Joshua and all serving under him owned allegiance, that appeared before the walls of Jericho to help the gallant leader in his enterprise. In the times of the Judges the chiefs themselves, Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, led their forces in person to battle. Under the monarchy the captain of the host was an office distinct from that of the king, and we have Joab, Abner, Benaiah, named as commanders-in-chief. An armor-bearer attended the captain of the host as well as the king (1Sa 14:6; 31:4-5; 2Sa 23:37). Mention is made of officers who had to do the numbering of the people, the copher, scribe, attached to the captain of the host (2Ki 25:19; compare 2Sa 24:2; 1 Macc 5:42), and the shoTer, muster-master, who kept the register of those who were in military service and knew the men who had received authorized leave of absence (De 20:5, Driver’s note).

The Army in the Field

Before the army set forth, religious services were held (Joe 3:9), and sacrifices were offered at the opening of a campaign to consecrate the war (Mic 3:5; Jer 6:4; 22:7). Recourse was had in earlier times to the oracle (Jg 1:1; 20:27; 1Sa 14:37; 23:2; 28:6; 30:8), in later times to a prophet (1Ki 22:5 ff; 2Ki 3:13; 19:2; Jer 38:14). Cases are mentioned in which the Ark accompanied the army to the field (1Sa 4:4; 14:18), and before the engagement sacrifices also were offered (1Sa 7:9; 13:9), ordinarily necessitating the presence of a priest (De 20:2). Councils of war were held to settle questions of policy in the course of siege or a campaign (Jer 38:7; 39:3). The signal for the charge or retreat was given by sound of a trumpet (Nu 10:9; 2Sa 2:28; 18:16; 1 Macc 16:8). The order of battle was simple, the heavy-armed spearmen forming the van, slingers and archers bringing up the rear, supported by horses and chariots, which moved to the front as need required (1Sa 31:3; 1Ki 22:31; 2Ch 14:9). Strategy was called into play according to the disposition of the opposing forces or the nature of the ground (Jos 8:3; 11:7; Jg 7:16; 1Sa 15:5; 2Sa 5:23; 2Ki 3:11 ff).

Although David had in his service foreign soldiers like Uriah the Hittite and Ittai of Gath, and although later kings hired aliens for their campaigns, it was not till the Maccabean struggle for independence that mercenaries came to be largely employed in the Jewish army. Mercenaries are spoken of in the prophets as a source of weakness to the nation that employs them (to Egypt, Jer 46:16,21; to Babylon, Jer 50:16). From the Maccabean time onward the princes of the Hasmonean family employed them, sometimes to hold the troublesome Jews in check, and sometimes to support the arms of Rome. Herod the Great had in his army mercenaries of various nations. When Jewish soldiers, however, took service with Rome, they were prohibited by their law from performing duty on the Sabbath. Early in the Maccabean fight for freedom, a band of Hasideans or Jewish Puritans, allowed themselves to be cut down to the last man rather than take up the sword on the Sabbath (1 Macc 2:34 ff). Cases are even on record where their Gentileadversaries took advantage of their scruples to inflict upon them loss and defeat (Ant., XIII, xii, 4; XIV, iv, 2).

Christians Know Your Enemies

The Supplies of the Army

Before the army had become a profession in Israel, and while the levies were still volunteers like the sons of Jesse, the soldiers not only received no pay, but had to provide their own supplies, or depend upon rich landholders like Nabal and Barzillai (1Sa 25:1-44; 2Sa 19:31). In that period and still later, the chief reward of the soldier was his share of the booty gotten in war (Jg 5:30 f; 1Sa 30:22 ff). By the Maccabean period we learn that an army like that of Simon, consisting of professional soldiers, could only be maintained at great expense (1 Macc 14:32).

DRIFTING AWAY: Avoid an Evil, Unbelieving Heart, in Falling Away from the Living God!

In the New Testament

Although the first soldiers that we read of in the New Testament were Jewish and not Roman (Lu 3:14; Mr 6:27), and although we read that Herod with his “men of war” joined in mocking Jesus (Lu 23:11), it is for the most part the Roman army that comes before us. The Roman legion, consisting roughly of 6,000 men, was familiar to the Jewish people, and the word had become a term to express a large number (Mt 26:53; Mr 5:9). Centurions figure most honorably alike in the Gospels and the Acts (kenturion, Mr 15:39; hekatontarches, hekatontarchos, Mt 8:5; Lu 23:47; Ac 10:1; 22:25,27). “The Pretorium” is the residence of the Roman procurator at Jerusalem, and in Caesarea (Mt 27:27; Ac 23:35), or the praetorian guard at Rome (Php 1:13). The Augustan band and the Italian band (Ac 10:1; 27:1) are cohorts of Roman soldiers engaged on military duty at Caesarea. In Jerusalem there was one cohort stationed in the time of Paul under the command of a chiliarchos, or military tribune (Ac 22:24). It was out of this regiment that the dexiolaboi (Ac 23:23) were selected, who formed a guard for Paul to Caesarea, spearmen, or rather javelin-throwers.

How Are We to Understand the Warning Against Teachings of Demons?

Figurative: Among the military metaphors employed by Paul, who spent so much of his time in the later years of his life among Roman soldiers, some are taken from the weapons of the Roman soldier (see ARMS ), and some also from the discipline and the marching and fighting of an army. Thus, “campaigning” is referred to (2Ti 2:3-4; 2Co 10:3-6); the “order and solid formation of soldiers” drawn up in battle array or on the march (Col 2:5); the “triumphal procession” to the capitol with its train of captives and the smoke of incense (2Co 2:14-16); and “the sounding of the trumpet,” when the faithful Christian warriors shall take their place every man in his own order or “division” of the resurrection army of the Lord of Hosts (1Co 15:52-53). (See Dean Howson, Metaphors of Paul–“Roman Soldiers.”)

The armies which are in heaven (Re 19:14,19) are the angelic hosts who were at the service of their Incarnate Lord in the days of His flesh and in His exaltation follow Him upon white horses clothed in fine linen white and pure.

WHEN TEMPTATIONS ENTICE US: How Can We Gain the Victory Over Human Weakness

The Praetorian Guard

Pre-to’-ri-an: “My bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other, places” (Php 1:13 the King James Version). This verse is translated in the Revised Version (British and American), “My bonds became manifest in Christ throughout the whole praetorian guard, and to all the rest,” and is noteworthy.

Pretorium in Philippians–Usual View

It has been usual to connect the words, “the soldier that guarded him,” Ac 28:16, with this statement in Php 1:13, that the apostle’s bonds were manifest in the whole praetorium, and to understand that the former was the cause of the latter; that the result of Paul’s making the gospel known in his own hired house to those soldiers to one of whom he was chained by the wrist day and night, was that it became known in all the praetorian regiment that his bonds were endured for Christ’s sake, that it was for conscience’ sake that he was suffering wrongfully, that he was no wrongdoer but a prisoner of Jesus Christ. In this way the gospel would spread through the whole of the praetorian guard in that regiment’s headquarters which were situated in a permanent camp established by Tiberius in Rome, outside the Colline Gate, at the Northeast of the city. This verse would also mean that the gospel had been proclaimed in the same way to those members of the praetorian guard who were on duty as the bodyguard of the emperor and who were lodged in one of the buildings which adjoined the emperor’s palace on the Palatine Hill.

2 CORINTHIANS 4:3-4: In What Way Has Satan Blinded the Minds of the Unbelievers?

Lightfoot on Interpretations

Thus, Lightfoot, discussing the meaning of the phrase “in the whole praetorium” (Commentary on Philippians, 99 ff), reviews the different interpretations which have been given of the word, and shows (1) that no instance is to be found of its signifying Nero’s palace on the Palatine Hill; (2) that there is no authority for the interpretation which would make it mean the praenterinn barracks on the Palatine; (3) that neither is there any authority for making it mean the praetorian camp outside the walls of Rome. In Lightfoot’s words (op. cit., 101), “All attempts to give a local sense to `praetorium’ thus fail for want of evidence.” Lightfoot accordingly defends the interpretation, “the praetorian guard,” and the Revised Version (British and American), above cited, follows him in this.

View of Mommsen and Ramsay

One of the meanings of “praetorium” is a council of war, the officers who met in the general’s tent (see PRAETORIUM). Lightfoot is very decided in interpreting “praetorium” to mean the praetorian regiment, the imperial guards, and he adds, “in this sense and in this alone can it be safely affirmed that the apostle would hear the word praetorium used daily,” and that this sense is in all respects appropriate. But the other meaning, though not appropriate here, namely, a council of war composed of the officers and their general, is much nearer to that which is now accepted by such authorities as Mommsen and Sir W.M. Ramsay, who hold that in this passage “praetorium” means a council, not of war, however, but the council of judgment, the emperor’s court of appeal in which he was assisted by his legal assessors (see Mommsen, Berlin Akad. Sitzungsber., 1895, 501; Ramsay, Paul the Traveler and the Rein Citizen, 357; Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, 35). Over this court there presided the emperor or his delegate, the prefect of the praetorian guard, and associated with him were twenty assessors selected from the senators. Formerly their votes were taken by ballot, but Nero preferred to receive from each a written opinion and on the next day to deliver his judgment in person. Such, it is now believed, is the praetorium to which Paul refers.

The meaning, therefore, of the words, “My bonds in Christ are manifest in the whole praetorium,” will be that when Paul wrote the Epistle to the Philippians his first Roman trial was already so far advanced that he had been able to impress upon his judges, the twenty assessors and their president, the fact that he was no evildoer, but that the sole cause of his imprisonment was his loyalty to Christ. It was manifest to all the members of the emperor’s court of appeal that Paul was enduring his long imprisonment, suffering wrongfully, but only for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Examining Your Christian Faith

Bearing on Paul’s Captivity and Trial

The important bearing will be seen which this signification of “praetorium” in this passage has on the question of the order in which Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon–the epistles of Paul’s captivity in Rome–were written. On subjective evidence Lightfoot concludes that Philippians is the earliest of them, basing his opinion largely on the resemblance which exists in many particulars between the thoughts and expressions in Philippians and in the Epistle to the Romans, making Philippians, as it were, a connecting link between Paul’s earlier and his later epistles. See Lightfoot, Philipplans, 42 f; he writes: “These resemblances suggest as early a date for the Epistle to the Philippians as circumstances will allow,” earlier, that is, than Colossians and Ephesians. But Lightfoot’s argument is set aside by the new light which has been thrown upon the real meaning of “praetorium.” Sir W.M. Ramsay (St. Paul the Traveler, 357) writes: “The trial seems to have occurred toward the end of AD 61. Its earliest stages were over before Paul wrote to the Philipplans, for he says, `The things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the progress of the Good News; so that my bonds became manifest in Christ in the whole Pretorium, and to all the rest; and that most of the Brethren in the Lord, being confident in my bonds, are more abundantly bold to speak the word of God without fear.’ This passage has been generally misconceived and connected with the period of imprisonment; and here again we are indebted to Mommsen for the proper interpretation. The Praetorum is the whole body of persons connected with the sitting in judgment, the supreme Imperial Court, doubtless in this case the Prefect or both Prefects of the Praetorian Guard, representing the emperor in his capacity as the fountain of justice, together with the assessors and high officers of the court. The expression of the chapter as a whole shows that the trial is partly finished, and the issue as yet is so favorable that the Brethren are emboldened by the success of Paul’s courageous and freespoken defense and the strong impression which he evidently produced on the court; but he himself, being entirely occupied with the trial, is for the moment prevented from preaching as he had been doing when he wrote to the Colossians and the Asian churches generally.”

How Are We to Understand Satan’s Battle for the Christian Mind?

Bearing on Date of Epistle

Thus, the correct meaning of “praetorium” enables us to fix the date of the Epistle to the Philippians as having been written close to the end of Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. That this inference is correct is confirmed by various other facts, such as his promise to visit that city, and the fact that in Php 2:20 f the King James Version he says regarding Timothy, “I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” We could not conceive of Paul writing like this if Mark, Tychicus, Aristarchus, and especially if Luke had been with him then, and yet we know (Col 4:7,10,14) that each and all of these companions of the apostle were with him in Rome when he wrote the Epistle to the Colossians. They had evidently, along with others, been sent on missions to Asia or other places, so that Paul now had only Timothy “likeminded” when he wrote to Philippi.

All these facts and considerations confirm us in accepting the signification of “praetorium” as the emperor’s supreme court of appeal, before which Paul when he wrote the Epistle to the Philippians had so conducted his defense as to produce a most favorable impression, from which he inferred that he might soon be liberated from imprisonment. And his liberation, as the event proved, soon followed.


War; Warfare

Religious Significance

From an early period of Hebrew history war had a religious significance. The Hebrews were the people of Jehovah, and they were reminded in their wars by the priest or priests who accompanied their armies that Jehovah was with them to fight their battles (De 20:1-4). It was customary to open a campaign, or to enter an engagement, with sacrificial rites (1Sa 7:8-10; 13:9). Hence, in the Prophets, to “prepare” war is to carry out the initiatory religious rites and therefore to “sanctify” war (Jer 6:4; 22:7; 51:27-28; Mic 3:5; Joe 3:9; the Revised Version margin in each case); and Isaiah even speaks of Jehovah mustering His host and summoning to battle His “consecrated ones” (Isa 13:3), the warriors consecrated by the sacrifices offered before the war actually opened. The religious character attaching to war explains also the taboo which we find associated with it (De 20:7; 23:10; 2Sa 11:11).


Religious Preliminaries

It was in keeping with this that the oracle should be consulted before a campaign, or an engagement (Jg 20:18 ff; 1Sa 14:37; 23:2; 28:6; 30:8). The ark of God was believed to be possessed of special virtue in assuring victory, and, because it was identified in the eyes of the Israelites with the presence of Jehovah, it was taken into battle (1Sa 4:3). The people learned, however, by experience to put their trust in Jehovah Himself and not in any outward token of His presence. At the battle of Ebenezer the ark was taken into the fight with disastrous results to Israel (1Sa 4:4 ff). On the other hand at the battle of Michmash, the sacred ephod at Saul’s request accompanied the Israelites into the field, and there was a great discomfiture of the Philistines (1Sa 14:18). In the later history prophets were appealed to for guidance before a campaign (1Ki 22:5; 2Ki 3:11), although fanatical members of the order sometimes gave fatal advice, as to Ahab at Ramoth-gilead, and probably to Josiah at Megiddo. Upon occasion the king addressed the host before engaging the enemy (2Ch 20:20-22, where Jehoshaphat also had singers to go before the army into battle); and Judas Maccabeus did so, with prayer to God, on various occasions (1 Macc 3:58; 4:30; 5:32).

Military Preliminaries

The call to arms was given by sound of trumpet throughout the land (Jg 3:27; 6:34; 1Sa 13:3; 2Sa 15:10; 20:1; compare Nu 10:2). It was the part of the priests to sound an alarm with the trumpets (2Ch 13:12-16; compare 1 Macc 4:40; 16:8), and the trumpets were to be blown in time of battle to keep God in remembrance of Israel that they might gain the victory. In the Prophets, we find the commencement of war described as the drawing of the sword from its sheath (Eze 21:3 ff), and the uncovering of the shield (Isa 22:6). Graphic pictures of the mobilizing of forces, both for invasion and for defense, are found in Isa 22:6-8 and Na 3:2 and other Prophets. It was in the springtime that campaigns were usually opened, or resumed after a cessation of hostilities in winter (2Sa 11:1; 1Ki 20:22,26).

Operations of War

Of the actual disposition of troops in battle there are no full accounts till the Maccabean time, but an examination of the Biblical battlefields by modern travelers with knowledge of military history has yielded valuable results in showing the position of the combatants and the progress of the fight (an excellent example in Dr. William Miller’s Least of All Lands, 85 ff, 116 ff, 150 ff, where the battles of Michmash, Elah and Gilboa are described with plans). With the Israelites the order of battle was simple. The force was drawn up, either in line, or in three divisions, a center and two wings. There was a rearguard (called in the King James Version “rereward,” in the Revised Version (British and American) “rearward”) to give protection on the march or to bring in stragglers (Jg 7:16; 1Sa 11:11; 2Sa 18:2; 1 Macc 5:33; compare also Nu 10:25; Jos 6:9; 1Sa 29:2; Isa 58:8). The signal for the charge and the retreat was given by sound of trumpet. There was a battle-cry to inspire courage and to impart confidence (Jg 7:20; Am 1:14, etc.). The issue of the battle depended upon the personal courage and endurance of the combatants, fighting man against man, but there were occasions when the decision was left to single combat, as at the battle of Elah between the giant Goliath and the stripling David (1Sa 17:1-58). The combat at Gibeon between the men of Benjamin, twelve in number, followers of Ish-bosheth, and twelve of the servants of David, in which each slew his man and all fell together by mutual slaughter, was the prelude to “a very sore battle” in which Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David (2Sa 2:16).

To the minor operations of war belong the raid, such as the Philistines made into the Valley of Rephaim (1Ch 14:9), the foray, the object of which was plunder (2Sa 3:22), the foraging to secure supplies (2Sa 23:11 margin), and the movements of bands who captured defenseless inhabitants and sold them as slaves (2Ki 5:2).


Of strategical movements in war there was the ambush with liers-in-wait resorted to by Joshua at Ai (Jos 8:3 ff); the feint, resorted to by the Israelites against the tribe of Benjamin (Jg 20:20 ff); the flank movement, adopted by David in the Valley of Rephaim to rout the Philistines (2Sa 5:22 f); and the surprise, inflicted successfully at the Waters of Merom upon the Canaanites under Jabin by Joshua (Jos 11:1 f). Of all these the story of Judas Maccabeus, the great military leader of the Jewish nation, furnishes illustrations (1 Macc 4:5 and elsewhere).

Important Requisites

Among the requisites for the proper conduct of war the most important was the camp (machaneh). Of the exact configuration of the camp of the Israelites, it is not possible to speak with certainty. The camp of Israel in the wilderness seems to have been quadrilateral, although some have supposed it to be round or triangular (Nu 2:1 ff). The camp in the wilderness was furnished with ensigns and standards–the family ensign (‘oth), and a standard (deghel) for the group of tribes occupying each of the four sides. The standard or banner (nec) is used of the signal for the mustering of troops, but standard-bearer, which occurs only once in the Bible, is a doubtful reading (Isa 10:18, where the Revised Version margin, “sick man,” is rather to be followed). In time of war the camp was surrounded by a barricade, or wagon-rampart (ma`gal), as at Elah (1Sa 17:20); and Saul lay within such a barricade in the wilderness of Ziph with his people round about him when David surprised him and carried off his spear (1Sa 26:5 ff). Tents were used for the shelter of troops, at any rate when occupied with a siege (2Ki 7:7), although at the siege of Rabbah we read of booths for the purpose (2Sa 11:11). Pickets were set to watch the camp, and the watch was changed three times in the course of the night (Jg 7:19; 1 Macc 12:27). It was usual to leave a guard in charge of the camp when the force went into action or went off upon a raid (1Sa 25:13; 30:10). Careful prescriptions were laid down for the preservation of the purity of the camp, “for Jehovah thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, …. therefore shall thy camp be holy” (De 23:9-14; compare Nu 5:1-4). Garrisons (matstsabh) were placed in occupation of fortresses and strategical centers (2Ch 17:2). No doubt the caves in the hillsides and rocky fastnesses of the land, as at Michmash, would serve for their reception (1Sa 13:1-23). The garrisons, however, which are expressly mentioned, were for the most part military posts for the occupation of a subject country–Philistines in Israelite territory (1Sa 13:23-14:1; 14:11), and Israelites in Syrian and Edomite territory (2Sa 8:6,14).


Among the characteristic notes of war, the tumult and the shouting were often noticed by the sacred historians (1Sa 4:6; 14:19; 2Ki 7:6). In the figurative language of the prophets the terrors and horrors and devastation of war are set forth in lurid colors. “The snorting of his horses is heard from Dan,” is Jeremiah’s description of an invading army, “at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones the whole land trembleth” (Jer 8:16). `The crack of the whip and the noise of the rumbling wheel and the galloping horse, and the jolting chariot and the rearing horsemen; and the flash of the sword and the glitter of the spear, and the multitude of slain; and a mass of dead bodies and no end to the carcasses’ (Na 3:2-4: J. M. P. Smith’s translation in ICC). Because of the devastation of territory and the slaughter of men which it entails, the sword is named with famine and “noisome beasts” (the American Standard Revised Version has “evil beasts”) and “pestilence” as one of God’s “four sore judgments” (Eze 14:21, the King James Version). By a familiar figure “the sword” is often taken for all the operations of war because it is characteristic of it to devour and to destroy (2Sa 2:26; Jer 2:30).

Defeat and Victory

While the treatment of the vanquished in the wars of Israel never reached the pitch of savagery common in Assyrian warfare, there are not wanting examples of excessive severity, such as David’s treatment of his Moabite prisoners (2Sa 8:2) and of the Ammonites captured at Rabbah (2Sa 12:31), and Menahem’s barbarous treatment of Tiphsah (2Ki 15:16; compare Nu 31:17; Jos 6:21). That it was common for the Philistines to mutilate and abuse their prisoners is shown by Saul’s determination not to fall into their hands (1Sa 31:4). On that occasion, the Philistines not only stripped the slain, but cut off Saul’s head and fixed his body to the wall of Bethshan (1Sa 31:9-10). It was usual to carry off prisoners and sell them as slaves (2Ki 5:2; 1 Macc 3:41). The conquerors were wont to deport the population of the subjugated country (2Ki 17:6), to carry off treasure and impose tribute (2Ki 16:8), and even to take the gods into captivity (Isa 46:1). On the other hand, the victors were hailed with acclamations and songs of rejoicing (1Sa 18:6), and victory was celebrated with public thanksgivings (Ex 15:1; Jg 5:1; 1 Macc 4:24).

The spoils of war, spoken of as booty also–armor, clothing, jewelry, money, captives and animals–falling to the victors, were divided equally between those who had taken part in the battle and those who had been left behind in camp (Nu 31:27; Jos 22:8; 1Sa 30:24 f).

Spoils and Trophies

A proportion of the spoils was reserved for the Levites, and “a tribute unto the Lord” was also levied before distribution was made of the collected booty (Nu 31:28,30). To the Lord, in the Israelite interpretation of war, the spoils truly belong, and we see this exemplified at the capture of Jericho when the silver and the gold and the vessels of brass were put into the treasury of the house of the Lord (Jos 6:24). Under the monarchy, part of the spoils fell to the king who might in turn dedicate it to the Lord or use it for the purposes of war (2Ki 14:14; 1Ch 18:7,11). The armor of the conquered was sometimes dedicated as a trophy of victory and placed in the temple of the heathen or preserved near the ark of God (1Sa 21:9; 31:9).

Treaties of Peace

As the blast of the war-horn summoned to war, so it intimated the cessation of hostilities (2Sa 2:28); and as to draw the sword was the token of the entrance upon a campaign, so to return it to its sheath, or to put it up into the scabbard, was emblematic of the establishment of peace (Jer 47:6). As ambassadors were sent to summon to war (Jer 49:14), or to dissuade from war (2Ch 35:21), so ambassadors were employed to negotiate peace (Isa 33:7). Treaties of peace were made on occasion between combatants, as between Ahab and Ben-hadad II after the defeat of the latter and his fortunate escape from the hands of Ahab with his life (1Ki 20:30-31). By the appeal of Ben-hadad’s representative to Ahab’s clemency his life was spared, and in return therefor he granted to Ahab the right to have bazaars for trade in Damascus as his father had had in Samaria (1Ki 20:34). Alliances, offensive and defensive, were common, as Ahab and Jehoshaphat against Syria (1Ki 22:2 ff), Jehoram and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom against Moab (2Ki 3:7 ff), and the kings of the West, including Ahab and Hadadezer of Damascus, to resist Shalmaneser II of Assyria, who routed the allies at the battle of Qarqar in 854 BC. It is among the wonderful works of Jehovah that He makes war to cease to the end of the earth, that He breaks the bow, and cuts the spear in sunder, and “burneth the chariots in the fire” (Ps 46:9). And prophetic pictures of the peace of the latter days include the breaking of “the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land” (Ho 2:18), the beating of “swords into plowshares, and …. spears into pruning-hooks” (Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3).

War in the New Testament

Among the signs of the last days given by our Lord are “wars and rumors of wars” (Mt 24:6; Mr 13:7; Lu 21:9,24). Jesus accepts war as part of the present world order and draws from it an impressive illustration of the exacting conditions of Christian discipleship (Lu 14:31 ff). He foresees how Jerusalem is to be encompassed with armies and devoted to the bitterest extremities of war (Lu 19:41 ff). He conceives Himself come, not to send peace on earth, but a sword (Mt 10:34); and declares that they who take the sword shall perish by the sword (Mt 26:52). The apostles trace war to the selfishness and greed of men (Jas 4:1 ff); they see, speaking figuratively, in fleshly lusts enemies which war against the soul (1Pe 2:11); they find in war apt figures of the spiritual struggle and divine protection and ultimate victory of the Christian (Ro 7:23; 8:37; 2Co 10:3,5; 1Ti 1:18; Heb 13:13; 1Pe 1:5), and of the triumphs of Christ Himself (2Co 2:14; Col 2:15; Eph 2:16-17). Paul made the acquaintance of the barracks, both at Jerusalem and at Caesarea (Ac 21:34,37; 23:35); and at Rome his bonds became familiar to the members of the Praetorian guard who were from time to time detailed to have him in keeping (Php 1:13). It is under the figures of battle and war that John in the Apocalypse conceives the age-long conflict between righteousness and sin, Christ and Satan, and the final triumph of the Lamb, who is King of kings, and Lord of lords (Re 16:14-16; 17:14; 19:14).

by T. Nicol, John Rutherfurd, and Edward D. Andrews



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