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Chariots in the ancient Near East.

Heavy wheeled vehicles drawn by asses were used in Southern Mesopotamia throughout the 3rd millennium b.c. and are represented in finds from Ur, Kish and Tell Agrab. From Tell Agrab dating c. 2500 b.c., comes a small copper model of a war chariot drawn by four asses. It consists of a flat platform, a pole and two disc wheels, and it was driven by a single driver.

The true chariot which was much lighter was drawn by the faster horse (q.v.). It did not come into use until the 2nd millennium b.c., when folk movements brought peoples from the S Russian steppes and introduced the horse to Mesopotamia. The art of warfare was revolutionized by the horse-drawn chariot. The term “horse” occurs in cuneiform inscrs. as an ideogram meaning “foreigners,” and in phonetic form as sisû in 19th cent. tablets from Anatolia. These folk movements had already reached Asia Minor in the 19th cent. b.c. As the 2nd millennium wore on, Hittites in Anatolia, Kassites in Mesopotamia and Hyksos in Syria, Palestine and Egypt all gained advantage in warfare by the use of the chariot. The Hyksos were enabled thereby to conquer most of Syria and Egypt between c. 1800 and c. 1600 b.c.

The disc wheel gave place to the spoked wheel about 1700 b.c. when wheels with four, or more regularly, six spokes, came into use and remained until about the 10th cent. b.c. The Assyrians in the days of Ashurnasirpal II (c. 883-859) began to use eight spokes. Such wheels remained in use down to Pers. times.

In the second half of the 2nd millennium a special class in society, the mariannu, is referred to in the documents found at Alalaḥ and Ugarit, in the Amarna letters, and in documents from Egypt. They were men of importance who owned a chariot or wagon, perhaps best described as “chariot warriors.” That the two great powers in Western Asia, the Hittites and Egyptians, were using horse-drawn chariots for war is attested both by documents and bas reliefs. The small Aramaean states in Syria and the Canaanites in Pal. also learned to use the chariot. In the 1st millennium the Assyrians made extensive use of the war chariot, which was the secret of their widespread military success.

In construction the chariot was very light, the basic materials being wood and leather. Only essential parts were made of bronze or iron. The body was made of light wicker work with a high front to which were attached holders for spears, arrows, and a battle ax. The back was open. In later chariots the axle was regularly at the rear of the chariot body; earlier it was in the middle. Mostly chariots were low-set, although Sennacherib used one with wheels as high as a man.

The chariot crew consisted of two to four men. In the Egyptian and early Assyrian chariots there were two men, a driver and a warrior. The Hittites had a third man to carry a shield and the Assyrians followed this custom. Their records refer to the šalšu rakbu, “third rider.” Three-man chariots were known in Syria and possibly among the Israelites who had a military officer known as שָׁלִישׁ, H8957, “third man” (Exod 14:7; 15:4; 1 Kings 9:22; 2 Kings 9:25; etc.). In the time of Ashurbanipal Assyrian chariots carried four men at times.

Normally two horses were used to draw a chariot. Some Assyrian bas reliefs show a third horse, not yoked to the chariot but tethered behind.

The chariot was of maximum use in battles on the plains although it was used in mountainous areas also, judging from the Bronze Gates of Shalmaneser III in Balawat which depict a campaign in the mountainous areas of the Upper Tigris.

The use of chariots.

Chariots were used in both war and peace. Reliefs and paintings from various lands show the chariot in use for hunting, processions and ceremonial rites. On such special occasions runners preceded the chariot calling bystanders to pay honor to the dignitary who was approaching (Gen 41:43; Esth 6:11). In Hel. and Rom. periods the chariot was popular for processions and festive occasions and also chariot races in the arenas.

Numerous bas reliefs and inscrs. show the importance of the chariot in war. The number of chariots engaged in battles was listed, as were the numbers taken as booty. Thus Thutmose III claims to have taken 924 chariots in booty at Megiddo (ANET p. 237), and Amenhotep II lists 60 chariots of silver and gold and 1,032 painted wooden chariots among the booty of one of his campaigns (ANET p. 247). Shalmaneser III of Assyria lists 1,121 chariots and 470 horses as the booty for his campaign against Hazael (ANET p. 280), while at the Battle of Karkar in 853 b.c. he claims that Ahab the Israelite sent a contingent of 2,000 chariots to the battle (ANET p. 279). Assyrian and Egyptian records provide many more examples.

Chariots in the OT.

After Solomon’s day, the northern kingdom developed its own chariot force. Elah had two groups of chariots (1 Kings 16:9), and Ahab had a very large chariot force. No reference is made to this in the OT, but Shalmaneser III records that Ahab sent 2,000 chariots to the Battle of Karkar in 853 b.c. (ANET p. 279). It seems probable that the stables excavated at Megiddo are the work of Ahab, and not Solomon as was formerly thought.

In Jehu’s and Jehoahaz’ wars with the Syrians Israel’s chariot force was nearly wiped out. Hazael of Damascus reduced Israel to ten chariots and fifty horsemen (2 Kings 13:7) in the days of Jehoahaz. When eventually Samaria fell Sargon reported the capture of only fifty chariots (ANET p. 284).

There is little mention in the OT of chariots in Judah, which prob. had less need of them because of its hilly terrain. Josiah had two chariots at the Battle of Megiddo in 609 b.c. (2 Chron 35:24) but these may have been personal ones. Judah seems to have depended on Egypt for help (Isa 31:1).

In later days chariots featured in the Seleucid wars (Dan 11:40; 1 Macc 1:17; 8:6) when some chariots were fitted with scythes (2 Macc 13:2). There is no evidence that the Jews had chariots, however.

Chariots in the NT.

There are only five references to chariots in the NT. Three of these are concerned with the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:28, 29, 38). The chariot here was evidently a means of transport (Gr. ἅρμα, G761). Chariots and horses feature in a list of merchant’s cargo in Revelation 18:13, ῥέδα, and in Revelation 9:9 the noise of a locust plague is likened to that made by horses and chariots going into battle.


C. J. Gadd, The Assyrian Sculptures (1934), 27, 28, 30-35; O. R. Gurney, The Hittites (1952), 104-106, 124, 125; D. J. Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets (1953), II; A. G. Barrois, Manuel d’Archéologie Biblique II (1953), 98 ff.; V. G. Childe, “Wheeled Vehicles” in Singer, Holmyard and Hall, History of Technology, I (1954), 724-728; Y. Yadin, B. A. XXIII (1960), 62-68; R. de Vaux, AI (1962), 222-225; J. Gray, The Legacy of Canaan (1965), 7, 144, 232.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(merkabh, merkabhah, "riding-chariot," rekhebh, "war-chariot"; harma):

1. Chariots of Egypt

2. Chariots of the Canaanites

3. Chariots of Solomon and Later Kings

4. Chariots of the Assyrians

5. Chariots of Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks

6. In the New Testament

7. Figurative Use


1. Chariots of Egypt:

2. Chariots of the Canaanites:

The Canaanites had long been possessed of horses and chariots when Joshua houghed their horses and burnt their chariots with fire at the waters of Merom (Jos 11:6,9). The chariots of iron which the Canaanites could maneuvere in the plains and valleys proved a formidable obstacle to the Complete conquest of the land (Jud 1:19). Jabin had 900 chariots of iron, and with them he was able to oppress the children of Israel twenty years (Jud 4:3). The Philistines of the low country and the maritime plain, of whom we read in Judges and Samuel, were a warlike people, were disciplined and well armed and their possession of chariots gave them a great advantage over the Israelites. In the war of Michmash they put into the field the incredible number of 30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen, only in the end to suffer a grievous defeat (1Sa 13:5; 14:20). In the battle of Gilboa, however, the chariots and horsemen of the Philistines bore down all opposition, and proved the destruction of Saul and his house. Of these chariots there have come down to us no detailed description and no representation. But we cannot be far wrong in turning to the chariot of the Hittites as a type of the Canaanite and Philistine chariot. It is not from the monuments of the Hittites themselves, however, but from the representations of the Kheta of the Egyptian monuments, that we know what their chariots were like. Their chariotry was their chief arm of offense. The Hittite chariot was used, too, for hunting; but a heavier car with paneled sides was employed for war. The Egyptian monuments represent three Hittites in each car, a practice which differed from that of Egypt and attracted attention. Of the three, one guided the chariot, another did the fighting with sword and lance, and the third was the shield-bearer.

3. Chariots of Solomon and Later Kings:

(1) the pole to which the two horses were yoked,

(2) the axle--resting upon two wheels with six or eight spokes (1Ki 7:33)--into which the pole was fixed,

(3) a frame or body open behind, standing upon the axle and fitted by a leather band to the pole.

The chariots of iron of which we read (Jud 4:3) were of wood strengthened or studded with iron. Like that of the Hittite, the Hebrew chariot probably carried three men, although in the chariot of Ahab (1Ki 22:34) and in that of Jehu (2Ki 9:24 f) we read of only two.

4. Chariots of the Assyrians:

In the later days when the Assyrians overran the lands of the West, the Israelites had to face the chariots and the hosts of Sennacherib and of the kings (2Ki 19:23). And they faced them with chariots of their own. An inscription of Shalmaneser II of Assyria tells how in the battle of Karkar (854 BC) Ahab of the land of Israel had put into the field 2,000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers. But the Assyrian chariotry was too numerous and powerful for Israel. The Assyrian chariot was larger and heavier than the Egyptian or the Hebrew: it had usually three and sometimes four occupants (Maspero, Life in Ancient Egypt and Assyria, 322). When we read in Nahum’s prophecy of "chariots flashing with steel," "rushing to and fro in the broad ways" (Na 2:3,4), it is of the Assyrian chariots that we are to think being hastily got together for the defense of Nineveh.

5. Chariots of Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks:

In early Babylonian inscriptions of the 3rd millennium before Christ there is evidence of the use of the war-chariots, and Nebuchadrezzar in his campaigns to the West had chariots as part of his victorious host (Jer 47:3). It was the Persians who first employed scythed chariots in war; and we find Antiochus Eupator in the Seleucid period equipping a Greek force against Judea which had 300 chariots armed with scythes (2 Macc 13:2).

6. In the New Testament:

In the New Testament the chariot is only twice mentioned. Besides the chariot in which the Ethiopian eunuch was traveling when Philip the evangelist made up to him (Ac 8:28,29,38), there is only the mention of the din of war-chariots to which the onrush of locusts in Apocalyptic vision is compared (Re 9:9).

7. Figurative Use:

In the figurative language of Scripture, the chariot has a place. It is a tribute to the powerful influence of Elijah and Elisha when they are separately called "the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof" (2Ki 2:12; 13:14). The angelic hosts are declared to be God’s chariots, twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands (Ps 68:17). But chariots and horses themselves are a poor substitute for the might of God (Ps 20:7). God Himself is represented as riding upon His chariots of salvation for the defense of His people (Hab 3:8). In the Book of Zec, the four chariots with their horses of various colors have an apocalyptic significance (Zec 6). In the worship of the host of heaven which prevailed in the later days of the kingdom of Judah, "the chariots of the sun" (see article) were symbols which led the people into gross idolatry and King Josiah burnt them with fire (2Ki 23:11).


Nowack, Hebrew Archaeology, I, 366 f; Garstang, Land of the Hittites, 363 f; Maspero, Struggle of the Nations and Life in Ancient Egypt and Assyria; Rawlinson, Five Great Monarchies, II, 1-21.

T. Nicol.