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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 battle-ground 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 who were with him was his own retainers, 318 in number, whom he had armed and led forth in person in his successful pursuit.
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 journeying 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 journeying 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 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” (Josh 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, commanded by Sisera (Judges 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” (Judges 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 who drew sword,” and they had also “700 chosen men left-handed; every one could sling stones at a hair-breadth, and not miss” (Judges 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” (1 Sam 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 (1 Sam 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 his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, or his sickle” (1 Sam 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 (1 Sam 13:2). From this time onward, “when Saul saw any mighty man, or any valiant man, he took him unto him” (1 Sam 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 (1 Sam 13:2), and David was captain of the king’s bodyguard (1 Sam 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 round him in the cave of Adullam 400 men (1 Sam 22:1-2) who were ere long increased to 600 (1 Sam 23:1,3). From the story of Nabal (1 Sam 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 (2 Sam 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 (Deut. 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.
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 (Deut. 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.
Over the whole host of Israel, according to the fundamental principle of theocracy, was Yahweh 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 (Josh 8:3; 11:7; Jg 7:16; 1 Sam 15:5; 2 Sam 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).
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 (1 Sam. 25:1-44; 2 Sam. 19:31). In that period and still later, the chief reward of the soldier was his share of the booty gotten in war (Judges 5:30 f; 1 Sam 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).
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.
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, 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).