In the days of the judges, God raised up from time to time men of special ability to save Israel when she had suffered for her apostasies and had been brought to repentance. These judges saved Israel from her foreign oppressors and they varied greatly in character, from the godly Deborah (
Numbers 1 contains a military census of Israel at Sinai just after the Exodus, and
The common Heb. word for army is צָבָא, H7372, usually designating a group of men engaged in military activity, but sometimes used for other and different group activities like the equivalent Akkad. “Sabu” or Ugaritic צבא. The other word for army (חַ֫יִל, H2657) means “strength,” “force.”
The Patriarchal period and the conquest of Canaan.
During the Patriarchal age, the wandering in the desert and the conquest of Canaan, the tribes of Israel did not develop an independent military organization. As disputes about water resources and pasture areas were common events, and clashes between clans or even tribes were an organic part of life, there was no need for such an organization in this society. Usually every adult member was a trained warrior: “from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go forth to war” (
As already stated above, war played an important role in the tribe’s life, and as so was conducted according to well-established laws. These were initially perhaps unwritten, but well known to each of the tribe’s warriors. A later echo of these laws is to be found in Deuteronomy (23:1-15), announcing the cases when certain people could be dismissed from fighting.
When summoned, every warrior came with his own arms and supplies sufficient for a few days. If war lasted longer than that, supplies were sent to the individual soldiers by their families at home: “And Jesse said to David his son, ‘Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers; also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See how your brothers fare, and bring some token from them’” (
A similar military system was established at that time also among the Canaanite inhabitants of the country, although they were dwelling in city-states. Even the size of their military units was the same, except that they were fixed according to the size or richness of the individual cities and not on the sizes of the tribes. Tablets found lately in the city of Mari testify that when a few towns united in a coalition against a common enemy, they were able to send to war corps which numbered up to ten thousand men. A well-known example is the Canaanite coalition which fought the Egyp. King Thutmose III (1468 b.c.) near Megiddo, where more than three hundred Canaanite “kings” assembled together. Usually the Canaanite corps numbered between three hundred to one thousand men alone. Little cities were able to summon only a few hundred soldiers, the basic unit being the ten.
Although similar in number the organization of the Canaanite army was superior to that of the Israelites for several reasons. The Canaanites were under the absolute rule of kings who kept regular units of hired soldiers. These men were able to devote all their time to military equipment such as chariots. They also had developed an elaborate system of logistics.
The period of settlement and the Judges.
With the beginning of the settlement, conditions were changed. The wandering tribes found themselves inhabiting cities and villages which they had to defend, and the military problems were quite different. They were still divided into tribes, but ties became loose, each tribe now primarily engaged in solving its own problems. Old institutions failed to unite the tribes in face of a common enemy, and this situation is clearly reflected in Deborah’s song (
Soon it became obvious that against the Canaanites and the Philistines with their developed military system and superiority of arms (iron), stronger military organization was badly needed. Consequently, and for a short period, the institution of the judge was born. These new military charismatic leaders who relieved the old one in time of distress, depended completely on a personal courage and ability in battlefield, and solved the problem of a proper leadership. They were not able to change the general situation of the army, which, as in the previous period, was still in the stage of a militia, and could be summoned only for a short period. Moreover, the judges were not able to unite all the forces of the tribes even in the time of great danger, and usually they depended upon their own tribe or upon a few others who dwelt in the immediate neighborhood. This situation is clearly reflected by the phrase: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (
Under the steady military pressure of the Philistines, it became clear that good military leadership alone without a proper army would not save the nation. The necessity for permanent and central rule, which alone would be able to build such an army, was recognized by all. We are told that the demand for a king came from among the people, against the will of Samuel: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him...now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations” (
The transition period betwen the judges and the kings is symbolized by the leadership of Saul. Saul started his career as a typical charismatic judge by showing his military talent in the war against the Ammonites, but later was appointed king by Samuel. He soon turned to build a regular army corps, prob. enlisted from the tribe of Benjamin. This unit initially numbered about 3000 men (
The period of the United Kingdom.
It was not until the days of David and Solomon that a standing army was created. David developed the first regular unit that he inherited from Saul and turned it into a well-organized and efficient tool, with which he gained a large territory for Israel and defeated all his enemies. Solomon completed the task by adding some new corps, as units of war chariots.
The second group serving in the regular army was composed of hired non-Israelite mercenaries (Cherethites, Pelethites and Gittites). These people served as the king’s bodyguard, and were used mainly in time of internal clashes against the king’s personal enemies, since he could always depend on their loyalty (
David did not fail to reorganize the second and bigger part of his army—the militia: “This is the list of the people of Israel, the heads of fathers’ houses, the commanders of thousands and hundreds, and their officers who served the king in all matters concerning the divisions that came and went, month after month throughout the year, each division numbering twenty-four thousand” (
The reorganization of the militia could be accomplished only after an overall numbering. This task was given to Joab (
Solomon, who inherited a well-developed army from his father, added to it some new units, among them corps of war chariots and horsemen: “And Solomon gathered together chariots and horsemen; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem (
The period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
With the division of the kingdom the army was divided too. In Judah it was based on the people of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and in Israel on the people of the other ten tribes. We have no evidence about general changes in the organization of the two armies. It seems that both of them were divided into the same two parts as in the previous period: a regular army and a militia. The main power of the two armies continued to be—at least in the first years—the corps of war chariots. For this hypothesis we have good evidence not only in the Biblical sources, but also in the Assyrian documents and archeological finds. A cuneiform tablet dated to the reign of Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria, describes the battle near the Syrian city of Qarqar (853 b.c.) which was conducted against a coalition of twelve Syrian kings. Among them appears Ahab of Israel, who brought with him about 2000 war chariots, more than all the other kings together (it seems that this formidable army included also that of the kingdom of Judah, as the kings of the two countries were allies [
At the end of the 9th cent. b.c., the chariot corps were defeated so that in the days of King Jehoahaz there were left “not...more than fifty horsemen and ten chariots...for the king of Syria had destroyed them, and made them like the dust at threshing” (
The destruction of the main fighting power of the two kingdoms had driven the armies out of the open battlefield, where they used to meet their enemies in the previous period. The main military efforts were now concentrated in fortifying the walls of the cities to prepare them for long siege. Fine examples of this work were uncovered in the excavating of many Israeli and Judean cities. In a few of them (Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer, Gibeon and Jerusalem) elaborate water systems were also found. The archeological finds bear evidence also to a logistic system practiced in the last days of the Judean kingdom as to the collecting of supply into the king’s storage cities. These are jar handles which were stamped with the Heb. word למלך (to the king) above the royal emblem and the name of the city.
The other units of the armies of the two kingdoms were organized prob. still as they were in the days of David and Solomon. Each of them divided into little units of a regular army with some mercenaries and the militia. An interesting new bit of evidence about the mercenaries was discovered in recent years in the excavations at Tell Arad, a Judean southern border fortress (about nineteen m. E of Beer-Sheba). Here was found a Heb. ostracon (dating to the 8th cent. b.c.) in which certain soldiers are mentioned as כתים. This name was explained by Prof. Y. Aharoni as that of Gr. mercenaries. Another new witness to the existence of Gr. soldiers in Judah (dating to the end of the 7th cent. b.c.) was found in a little Judean fortress on the sea coast not far from Ashdod, called now “Mezad Hashavyahu,” where most of the pottery discovered consisted of imported E Gr. vessels. In this place also was found a Heb. ostracon which is a long letter of complaint sent to the captain (שׂר הצבא) of the fortress by one of the Judean soldiers who served under him.
By a unique Assyrian relief found at Nineveh, we have the opportunity to glance at the Judean army in time of war. This relief describes the storm of the city of Lachish at 701 b.c. by the armies of Senacherib, king of Assyria. The Judean soldiers are depicted fighting from above the walls and the gate of the besieged city. The rare Assyrian relief is until now the only extant document in which one can see the dress and weapons (including one war chariot), of the Judean army in the Biblical period. Relying on this description, Dr. R. D. Barnett tried a few years ago to prove that Judean soldiers were later enlisted into the bodyguard of the Assyrian king.
Another valuable glimpse into the everyday life of the Judean army at that time is given by some ostraca discovered in the recent excavations at Arad and Tel Beer-Sheba, which were at that time southern border posts of the kingdom. These ostraca deal with small cargoes of supply sent with little groups of soldiers. Each of them, even in the smallest quantity, was carefully recorded, and the record was kept in the fortress office.
There exists also another Heb. ostracon, this time from the city of Lachish, found in the room inside the city gate, and addressed to its military officer (השׂר). It is a letter written at the time when the Babylonian army was approaching the region in the last days of the kingdom. In the letter the officer is informed that the neighboring city of Azekah already had been captured by the enemy.
After the fall of Israel and Judah, the country was divided into many satrapies ruled first by the Assyrians and later by the Babylonians and the Persians. There is no doubt that in this period the army units who were stationed here were but part of the general military organization of these empires. It is also evident now that the existence of Jewish troops did not end with the fall of their independent kingdom. This evidence is drawn from the well-known Aram. papyri found at Elephantine in Egypt, dating to the 5th cent. b.c. The papyri reflect the life of a Jewish military colony, formed prob. already by the Assyrians, but surviving until the end of the 5th cent. b.c., when destroyed by the Egyptians. The soldiers were organized in a unit called דבל (Standard) and were under the command of a Pers. officer. Two years ago an ostracon was found at Arad, written in Aram. script and dating also to the end of the 5th cent. b.c. In this ostracon the same unit (דבל) is mentioned, and it seems therefore logical to assume that another Jewish unit was stationed in this desert post.
At any rate, the revival of the Jewish army took place, but not before the country regained its independence during the Hasmonean period. First it existed as scattered guerilla bands, and later—under John Hyrcanus—as paid soldiers, Jewish and Gentile alike (Wars I. v. 4; I. ii. 5).
In the year 63 b.c. Pal. was conquered by the Romans who brought with them their own army. For a short period they let their vassal kings, Herod and his successors, keep their private little armies, in part composed of hired Thracians, Germans, Gauls and Greeks (Wars I. xxxiii. 9). This army ceased to exist after the first war against the Romans (a.d. 69-73).
The last war fought by a Jewish army against the Romans was in the year a.d. 132, when the second rebellion under the leadership of Bar-kokhbah took place. About this war and the army who fought it, we are now in the possession of an important new evidence, discovered in the recent sensational excavations in the desert of Judah. See War, Warfare.
W. F. Albright, “A Colony of Cretan Mercenaries on the Coast of the Negeb,” JPOS (1920), 187ff; W. W. Tarn, Hellenistic Military and Naval Development (1930); Y. Yadin, “Let the Young Men, I pray thee arise and play before us,” JPOS, xxi (1948), 110-116; R. O. Faulkner, “Egyptian Military Organization,” JEA, 39 (1953), 32-47; E. G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri (1953); A. Malamat, “The War of Gideon and Midian; A Military Approach,” PEQ (1953), 61ff.; R. D. Barnett, “The Seige of Lachish,” IEJ 8 (1958), 161-169; F. Willesen, “The Philistine Corps of the Scimitar from Gath,” JSS 3 (1959), 495-508; J. Naveh, “A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century b.c.,” IEJ 10 (1960), 129-139; A. Van-Selms, “The Armed Forces of Israel under Saul and David,” Die Ou Testamentiese Werkgemenskap in Suid Afrika, Studies in the (1960); Y. Yadin, “The Expedition to the Judean Desert, 1960,” IEJ 11 (1961), 35-52; B. Mazar, “The Military Elite of King David,” VT XIII (1963), 310-320; Y. Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study (1963); Y. Aharoni, “Three Hebrew Ostraca from Arad,” BASOR 197 (1970), 16-42; Y. Yadin, “The Megiddo of the Kings of Israel,” BA XXXIII (1970), 66-96.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(chayil, "army," tsabha’, "host," ma`arakhah, "army in battle array" gedhudh, "troop"):
1. The First Campaign of History
2. In the Wilderness
3. The Times after the Conquest
4. In the Early Monarchy
5. From the Time of Solomon Onward
6. Organization of the Hebrew Army
7. The Army in the Field
8. The Supplies of the Army
9. In the
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.
1. The First Campaign of History:
The first conflict of armed forces recorded in Holy Scripture is that in
2. 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
On the way through the wilderness they encamped (
3. 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" (
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 (
4. 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 (
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 (
We can identify them with the gibborim--the mighty men of whom Benaiah at a later time became captain (
5. From the Time of Solomon Onward:
6. Organization of the Hebrew Army:
Over the whole host of Israel, according to the fundamental principle of theocracy, was Yahweh Himself, the Supreme Leader of her armies (
7. The Army in the Field:
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,
8. 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 (
9. In the New Testament:
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 (
The armies which are in heaven (