1. In Early Hebrew History

2. In the Monarchy

3. Preliminaries to Siege

4. Siege Operations: Attack

(1) Investment of City

(2) Line of Circumvallation

(3) Mound, or Earthworks

(4) Battering-Rams

(5) Storming of Walls and Rushing of Breach

5. Siege Operations: Defense

6. Raising of Siege

7. Horrors of Siege and Capture

8. Siege in the New Testament


1. In Early Hebrew History:

In early Hebrew history, siege operations are not described and can have been little known. Although the Israelites had acquired a certain degree of military discipline in the wilderness, when they entered Canaan they had no experience of the operations of a siege and were without the engines of war necessary for the purpose. Jericho, with its strongly fortified wall, was indeed formally invested--it "was straitly shut up because of the children of Israel: none went out, and none came in" (Jos 6:1)--but it fell into their hands without a siege. Other cities seem to have yielded after pitched battles, or to have been taken by assault. Many of the Canaanite fortresses, like Gezer (2Sa 5:25; Jos 16:10), Taanach and Megiddo (Jud 1:27), remained unreduced. Jerusalem was captured by the men of Judah (Jud 1:8), but the fort of Jebus remained unconquered till the time of David (2Sa 5:6).

2. In the Monarchy:

In the days of the monarchy more is heard of siege operations. At the siege of Rabbath-Ammon Joab seems to have deprived the city of its water-supply and rendered it untenable (2Sa 11:1; 12:27). At Abel of Beth-maacah siege operations are described in which Joab distinguished himself (2Sa 20:15). David and Solomon, and, after the disruption of the kingdom, Rehoboam and Jeroboam built fortresses which ere long became the scene of siege operations. The war between Judah and Israel in the days of Nadab, Baasha, and Elah was, for the most part, a war of sieges. It was while besieging Gibbethon that Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was slain by Baasha (1Ki 15:27), and, 27 years after, while the army of Israel was still investing the same place, the soldiery chose their commander Omri to be king over Israel (1Ki 16:16). From the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Assyrians, and the Chaldeans, with whom they came into relations in later times as allies or as enemies, the people of the Southern and of the Northern Kingdoms learned much regarding the art, both of attack and of defense of fortified places.

3. Preliminaries to Siege:

It was an instruction of the Deuteronomic Law that before a city was invested for a long siege, it should be summoned to capitulate (De 20:10; compare 2Sa 20:18; 2Ki 18:17 ). If the offer of peace be declined, then the siege is to be proceeded with, and if the city be captured, all the male population is to be put to death, and the women and children reserved as a prey for the captors. To this humane reservation the cities of the Canaanites were to be an exception: their inhabitants were to be wholly exterminated (De 20:16-18).

The same law prescribed that there should be no unnecessary destruction of fruit trees in the prosecution of a long siege. Trees not yielding fruit for human sustenance might be cut down: "And thou shalt build bulwarks (matsor, "siegeworks") against the city that maketh war with thee, until it fall" (De 20:19,20). This instruction to have regard to the fruit trees around a hostile city seems to have been more honored in the breach than in the observance, even in Israel. When the allied kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom were invading Moab and had instruction to "smite every fortified city," the prophet Elisha bade them also "fell every good tree, and stop all fountains of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones" (2Ki 3:19,25). When the assault of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans was imminent, Yahweh commanded the cutting down of the trees (Jer 6:6). In Arabian warfare, we are told, the destruction of the enemy’s palm groves was a favorite exploit (Robertson Smith, OTJC2, 369), and the Assyrians when they captured a city had no compunction in destroying its plantations (Inscription of Shalmaneser II on Black Obelisk).

4. Siege Operations: Attack:

(1) Investment of City:

There was the investment of the city by the besieging army. It was sometimes necessary to establish a fortified camp, like that of Sennacherib at Lachish to guard against sorties by the defenders. Of the siege of Jerusalem we read that Nebuchadrezzar came, "he and all his army, against Jerusalem, and encamped against it" (Jer 52:4; compare 2Ki 25:1). From the commencement of the siege, slingers and archers were posted where they could keep the defenders engaged; and it is to this that reference is made when Jeremiah says: "Call together the archers against Babylon, all them that bend the bow; encamp against her round about; let none thereof escape" (Jer 50:29).

(2) Line of Circumvallation:

There was next the drawing of a line of circumvallation (day’eq) with detached forts round about the walls. These forts were towers manned by archers, or they were used as stations from which to discharge missiles (Jer 52:4; Eze 17:17). In this connection the word "munition" in the King James Version and the English Revised Version (matsor) in Na 1:1 disappears in the American Standard Revised Version and is replaced by "fortress."

(3) Mound or Earthworks:

(4) Battering-Rams:

The earthworks having been thrown up, and approaches to the walls secured, it was possible to set and to work the battering-rams (karim) which were to be employed in breaching the walls (Eze 4:2), or in bursting open the gates (Eze 21:22). The battering-rams were of different kinds. On Assyrian monuments they are found joined to movable towers holding warriors and armed men, or, in other cases, joined to a stationary tower constructed on the spot. When the men who are detailed to work the ram get it into play, with its heavy beams of planks fastened together and the great mass of metal forming its head, they can hardly fail to make an impression, and gradually, by the constantly repeated shocks, a breach is opened and the besiegers are able to rush in and bear down the defenders. It is to the shelter furnished by these towers that the prophet Nahum refers (2:5) when he says,"The mantelet is prepared," and that Isaiah points when he declares that the king of Assyria "shall not come unto this city, nor shoot an arrow there, neither shall he come before it with shield (maghen), nor cast up a mound against it" (Isa 37:33). Ezekiel has the same figure when, describing the siege of Tyre by Nebuchadrezzar, he declares that he shall "cast up a mound" against her, and "raise up the buckler," the buckler (qinnah) being like the Roman testudo, or roof of shields, under cover of which the besiegers carried on operations (Eze 26:8; Colonel Billerbeck (op. cit., 178) is doubtful whether this device was known to the Assyrians). Under the shelter of their movable towers the besiegers could push forward mines, an operation known as part of siegecraft from a high antiquity (see 2Sa 20:15, where the American Revised Version margin and the English Revised Version margin give "undermined" as an alternative to "battered"; tunneling was well known in antiquity, as the Siloam tunnel shows).

(5) Storming of Walls and Rushing of Breach:

The culminating operation would be the storming of the walls, the rushing of the breach. Scaling-ladders were employed to cross the encircling trench or ditch (Pr 21:22); and Joe in his powerful description of the army of locusts which had devastated the land says that they "climb the wall like men of war" (Joe 2:7). Attempts were made to set fire to the gates and to break them open with axes (Jud 9:52; compare Ne 1:3; 2:3; Eze 26:9). Jeremiah tells of the breach that was made in the city when Jerusalem was captured (Jer 39:2). The breaches in the wall of Samaria are referred to by Amos (4:3), who pictures the women rushing forth headlong like a herd of kine with hooks and fishhooks in their nostrils.

5. Siege Operations: Defense: While the besiegers employed this variety of means of attack, the besieged were equally ingenious and active in maintaining the defense. All sorts of obstructions were placed in the way of the besieging army. Springs and cisterns likely to afford supplies of water to the invaders were carefully covered up, or drained off into the city. Where possible, trenches were filled with water to make them impassable. As the siege-works of the enemy approached the main wall, it was usual to build inner fortifications, and for this purpose houses were pulled down to provide the needful space and also to supply building materials (Isa 22:10). Slingers placed upon the walls hurled stones upon the advancing enemy, and archers from loopholes and protected battlements discharged arrows against the warriors in their movable towers. Sorties were made to damage the siege-works of the enemy and to prevent the battering-rams from being placed in position. To counteract the assaults of the battering-rams, sacks of chaff were let down like a ship’s fender in front of the place where the engine operated--a contrivance countered again by poles with scythes upon them which cut off the sacks (Josephus, BJ, III, vii, 20). So, too, the defenders, by dropping a doubled chain or rope from the battlements, caught the ram and broke the force of its blows. Attempts were made to destroy the ram also by fire. In the great bas-relief of the siege of Lachish an inhabitant is seen hurling a lighted torch from the wall; and it was a common device to pour boiling water or oil from the wall upon the assailants. Missiles, too, were thrown with deadly effect from the battlements by the defenders, and it was by a piece of a millstone thrown by a woman that Abimelech met his death at Thebez (Jud 9:53). While Uzziah of Judah furnished his soldiers with shields and spears and helmets and coats of mail and bows and slingstones, he also "made in Jerusalem engines, invented by skillful men, to be on the towers and upon the battlements, wherewith to shoot arrows and great stones" (2Ch 26:15). The Jews had, for the defense of Jerusalem against the army of Titus, engines which they had taken from the Twelfth Legion at Beth-horon which seem to have had a range of 1,200 ft. Many ingenious devices are described by Josephus as employed by himself when conducting the defense of Jotapata in Galilee against Vespasian and the forces of Rome (BJ, III, vii).

6. Raising of Siege:

When Nahash king of the Ammonites laid siege to Jabesh-gilead in the opening days of the reign of Saul, the terms of peace offered to the inhabitants were so humiliating and cruel that they sought a respite of seven days and appealed to Saul in their distress. When the newly chosen king heard of their desperate condition he assembled a great army, scattered the Ammonites, and raised the siege of Jabesh-gilead, thus earning the lasting gratitude of the inhabitants (1Sa 11; compare 1Sa 31:12,13). When Zedekiah of Judah found himself besieged in Jerusalem by the Chaldean army under Nebuzaradan, he sent intelligence to Pharaoh Hophra who crossed the frontier with his army to attack the Chaldeans and obliged them to desist from the siege. The Chaldeans withdrew for the moment from the walls of Jerusalem and offered battle to Pharaoh Hophra and his host, but the courage of the Egyptian king failed him and he retired in haste without encountering the Chaldeans in a pitched battle. The siege was prosecuted to the bitter end, and Jerusalem was captured and completely overthrown (2Ki 25:1; Jer 37:3-10; Eze 17:17).

7. Horrors of Siege and Capture:

In the ancient law of Israel "siege" is classed with drought and pestilence and exile as punishments with which Yahweh would visit His people for their disobedience (De 28:49-57). Of the horrors there described they had again and again bitter experience. At the siege of Samaria by Ben-hadad II, so terrible were the straits to which the besieged were reduced that they cooked and ate their own children (2Ki 6:28). In the siege of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, which ended in the overthrow of the city and the destruction of the Temple, the sufferings of the inhabitants from hunger and disease were incredible (2Ki 25:3; Jer 32:24; La 2:20; 4:8-10). The horrors of siege have, perhaps, reached their climax in the account given by Josephus of the tragedy of Masada. To escape capture by the Romans, ten men were chosen by lot from among the occupants of the fortress, 960 in number, including combatants and non-combatants, men, women and children, to slay the rest. From these ten one was similarly chosen to slay the survivors, and he, having accomplished his awful task, ran his sword into his own body (Josephus, BJ, VII, ix, 1). While all the inhabitants of a city under siege suffered the famine of bread and the thirst for water, the combatants ran the risk of impalement and other forms of torture to which prisoners in Assyrian and Chaldean and Roman warfare were subjected.

8. Siege in the New Testament:

The only. explicit reference to siege operations in the New Testament is our Lord’s prediction of the complete destruction of Jerusalem when He wept over its coming doom: "For the days shall come upon thee, when thine enemies shall cast up a bank (charax, the King James Version, quite incorrectly, "trench") about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall dash thee to the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another" (Lu 19:43,44). The order and particulars of the siege are in accordance with the accounts of siege operations in the Old Testament. How completely the prediction was fulfilled we see from Josephus (BJ, V, vi, 10).


In Paul’s Epistles there are figures taken from siege operations. In 2Co 10:4 we have "the casting down of strongholds," where the Greek word kathairesis, from kathairein, is the regular word used in Septuagint for the reduction of a fortress (Pr 21:22; La 2:2; 1; Macc 5:65). In Eph 6:16 there is allusion to siege-works, for the subtle temptations of Satan are set forth as the flaming darts hurled by the besiegers of a fortress which the Christian soldier is to quench with the shield of faith.


Nowack, Hebraische Archaeologie, 71; Benzinger, "Kriegswesen" in Herzog3; Billerbeck and A. Jeremias, Der Untergang Ninivehs; Billerbeck, Der Festungsbau im alten Orient.

See also

  • War