War, Warfare


1. General. War was a constant feature in the history of Israel from its beginnings up to the destruction of the second Temple. Long periods of peace seldom occurred and the Bible emphasizes them: “so the land had rest forty years” (Judg 3:11); “but now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side” (1 Kings 5:4; cf. 2 Chron 14:5); and so forth. The nature of the Israelite wars changed according to the political and sociological conditions, such as during the conquest and settlement, the defensive wars of the tribes against the aggressive neighbors in the period of the Judges, the wars of consolidation on the borders during the first days of the Monarchy, the constant struggle for the existence of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the last desperate stand against the great imperial forces.

The days of the second Temple are marked, too, with long periods of continuous warfare. In the earlier wars, mainly concerned with border disputes, and in the later wars of liberation from imperial control, first Seleucid and then Rom., the principal cause was religious; that is, there were struggles to preserve a national identity based on the Temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish religious laws.

In ancient times, two types of wars were distinguished: (a) wars of defense and expansion, which were basically political and which were fought because of physical necessity, and to which there were fixed legal limitations (see below); and (b) holy wars, unlimited and which were compulsory for the entire nation. This distinction was recognized also in the second Temple period. Thus, a radical religious population participated in the early Maccabean wars because they were believed to be holy wars; later, when the Hasmoneans turned to politically oriented wars, the people refused to participate.

Further, to secure God’s aid, the troops would make sacrifices prior to battle (Judg 6:20, 26; 20:26)—sometimes even human sacrifices, as in the story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judg 11:39) or of the son of the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:27). This custom seems also to have been taken from earlier Canaanite traditions, for in many Egyp. reliefs from the late kingdom, depicting the capture of towns in Pal., the besieged are shown throwing their children from the walls in seeking the gods’ favor. Military victory was believed to be the victory of one god over another, often leading to literary depictions of the gods as taking part in actual battles (in the Bible, cf. Josh 10:11).

The laws concerning war in the Book of Deuteronomy deal, inter alia, with the instances in which persons could be exempt from military service, as with those who were seized with fear, were newly married, had recently built a house, planted a vineyard, and so forth. Other laws deal with vanquished peoples, spoils, prisoners and the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees in conquered lands.

The customs and laws of war were fixed and had much in common throughout the ancient Near E. Troops were often drawn from the peasantry, fighting was generally limited to the agricultural off-seasons—from just after harvest till the first rains. War usually was not “declared”; it was naturally assumed that the strong were free to take possession of the lives and possessions of the weak. Only by keeping a strong army could a nation prevent potential enemies at bay, and the only satisfactory alternative was to accept all his demands without going into battle.

2. The Canaanite period. We possess detailed descriptions of battles in Pal. from as early as the late Canaanite period, that is, from the period of expansion of the Egyp. new kingdom (18th-20th dynasties). They are of two types: reliefs or wall paintings in Egyp. temples, and inscrs. or literary texts. The value of either type is rather limited, but together they provide a fairly clear picture. The reliefs usually are schematic and show the conquest of cities in Pal., with the besieged in the last stages of resistance. These reliefs mainly give details on the methods of Egyp. siege-warfare, which included the use of ladders, mining the walls and breaching the gates with axes and fire. The battering ram, however, seems not to have been employed by the Egyptians.

Most of our information on warfare comes from literary texts, some of which are of the heroic or mythological sort. Of the former type is the story of the conquest of Jaffa under Thutmes III (1490-1436 b.c.), which resembles the story of the conquest of Troy. The Egyp. general sent a conciliatory “present” in several hundred sealed baskets which, in fact, contained armed soldiers; once within the city, the hidden soldiers revealed themselves and seem to have opened the gates to the besieging army. More realistic war records, prepared by military scribes, enable modern scholars to reconstruct various battles from beginning to end. The earliest concerns the “Battle of Megiddo,” in the days of Thutmes III. A coalition of many Canaanite kings (“330 rulers”) gathered under the leadership of the King of Kadesh (on the Orontes) and attempted to block the Egyp. army at Megiddo, thus preventing it from penetrating into northern Pal. and Syria. The detailed account tells of the deceptive tactics adopted by the Canaanites prior to the battle, to divert the Egyptians toward an ambush. The Egyp. king saw through this ruse and, by a daring march, surprised the Canaanites in their main camp outside the city, defeating them swiftly, though besieged Megiddo held out for seven months longer. The king boasts that he could have captured the city the same day had it not been for his soldiers’ desire for loot, which diverted them from pursuing the enemy. This enabled the enemy survivors to reach safety behind the city walls. This case seems not to have been the first time, nor the last, in the history of the ancient Near E in which soldiers could not be held to their task, preferring to plunder rather than pursuing the enemy (cf. 1 Sam 14).

Another battle taking place in that period and about which a complete account survives, is the “Battle of Kadesh” (1280 b.c.), between the Egyp. army under Rameses II and the armies of a Syrian league headed by the king of the Hittites. Just as the Canaanites before were fully aware of their military inferiority (esp. against the Egyp. archery), the Syrians attempted deceit by sending out spies with the intention of their being caught. These gave false information leading the Egyptians toward a well-prepared ambush. The ruse seems to have been successful, at least initially, and one of the Egyp. units was wiped out. Egyptian superiority in weaponry and training, and the sudden appearance of a special unit, turned the battle.

It is interesting to note that, in both cases, the Egyptians’ adversaries avoided open battle, rather seeking the security of strongly fortified cities. The ultimate outcome in either case proved the wisdom of such tactics.

The third battle of which we possess a detailed description took place in the days of Rameses III (c. 1180 b.c.), in which the Egyptians repulsed the invasion of the “Sea Peoples” (including the Philistines). This battle is depicted on the walls of Rameses’ temple at Medinet Habu. The Sea Peoples’ attempt was twofold: one wave seems to have come by way of Syria and Palestine, and was defeated near el-Arish; the second wave came by sea and was defeated in the Nile Delta. This is the first detailed description of a sea battle in the history of the ancient Near E. As depicted in the reliefs, the Egyptians won mainly through their superiority in archery—a weapon which their enemies lacked altogether.

The Egyp. sources contain much data on the organization of the Egyp. army, the size of its units, its logistics, and so forth. They are not, however, the only sources on military matters in the ancient Near E.

In cuneiform archives discovered at such sites as Mari, Alalakh, Boghazkoi and el-Amarna, thousands of documents provide details on the weapons, tactics and logistics of Mesopotamian, Syrian, Canaanite, Hittite and other armies. Further, there are many examples of the actual weapons, found in excavations on the various sites. Art objects, such as ivories (esp. those from Ugarit and Megiddo) also provide depictions of weapons and battles.

3. The period of the Israelite conquest and settlement. Early in the Iron Age, political conditions in Pal. changed: the great empires of the previous period, Egypt and the Hittites, were weakened or destroyed, largely by the Sea Peoples, and in the regions between them, many small city-states rose. Palestine was also invaded by two nations new on the political scene and very different in character: from the E came the Israelites, at the time poorly-equipped nomadic tribes who settled in the mountainous areas; and from the W came the Sea Peoples, whom the Bible collectively calls the “Philistines.” These latter settled in the coastal plain and were organized around a pentapolis; they developed a proper standing army, equipped with iron weapons. Small pockets of the older inhabitants of the land remained; these were Canaanites who also were centered on city-states, with the battle chariot as their most formidable weapon.

In the period of the settlement, the Israelites had to withstand the attacks of various nomad tribes, esp. in the S (the Amalekites) and the Jezreel valley (the Midianites), who would raid villages and take prisoners. Warfare against these peoples was conducted in the same manner as before, that is, by means of small and maneuverable units (Heb. gedud, which at the time of Gideon numbered 300 men, and in the days of Saul and David, some 400-600). Larger “militia” units were raised only in times of extreme danger: against the Canaanites (Judg 4; 5) or Ammonites (1 Sam 11), or at a time of intertribal strife (Judg 20).

Using these same tactics (combined small attacks and opposing the enemy in open array), the Israelites succeeded, at least at first, in standing up to their bitterest rivals, the Philistines. It is in this context that we learn of another form of war, that is, the personal duel between two opposing warriors, as in the case of David and Goliath (1 Sam 17; cf. 2 Sam 2:12); such a form of fighting is known in other lands. Upon the death of Saul and Jonathan his son, it became obvious that new tactics were called for. The danger presented by the Philistines was the main impetus for the union of the Israelite tribes into a single kingdom to enable successful resistance. Only political unity could bring about a standing well-trained and equipped army (see Army).

The army organized by David, under the skilled leadership of Joab, soon enabled the Israelites to achieve the upper hand over the other small states surrounding. David consolidated the borders of his kingdom and even considerably expanded them. Actually, there was never a day of peace throughout his reign. Most interesting are the detailed chs. describing the wars against the Ammonites and the Arameans (2 Sam 10:10; 1 Chron 19), where we learn that Hanun, king of the Ammonites, hired Aramean troops to help him in his defense. Joab soon found himself in the midst of the enemy, and in a very characteristic way he brought in the Israelite militia which, alongside his small standing army, defeated the Arameans and then turned to besiege the capital of Ammon.

The great victories of the Israelite army in the days of David, however, and the expansion into most of Syria, can be explained only by the fact that by this time the great empires no longer were able to control this region.

4. The period of the Israelite monarchies. In the first stages of this period, Israel was divided into two kingdoms, at first rivals, but who later came to conduct combined operations against their common enemies, esp. the Arameans. Already in the mid-9th cent. b.c., upon the advent of the mighty armies of Assyria in this region, the petty wars came to an end and the small states grouped themselves into coalitions so as to be able to stand up to the common foe. From 734 b.c. on, Assyria slowly conquered the entire region, taking the petty states one by one. Babylonia, her powerful heir, completed this task.

The Arameans, their soldiers and weapons, are well known to us from reliefs discovered at Tell Halaf (Biblical Gozan), Carchemish, Malatya and other sites. They were fully as strong as the armies of Israel and Judah, and the struggle between them was long-lived. The character of these wars is known from 1 Kings 20, which contains extensive details. Benhadad, king of Aram-Damascus, at the head of a league of thirty-two vassal kings came to Succoth on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, opposite Samaria. When he sent messengers demanding that the Israelites surrender, King Ahab outrightly refused. Ben-hadad, confident in the superior strength of his forces, ordered them to cross the river and besiege the city of Samaria. The Arameans rather heedlessly began the ascent along the steep path of Wadi Far’a, the main route from Succoth, well-known, of course, to the Israelites. Rather than waiting for the enemy in Samaria, Ahab gathered his troops (about 700) and ambushed the Arameans while they were still on the march, thoroughly routing them.

This method of ambushing, in narrow mountain defiles by large, well-equipped forces, takes maximum advantage of the difficulties encountered by anyone attempting to penetrate into the hills of Samaria or the Judean mountains; it became one of the standard methods of warfare among the Israelites down to the fall of the kingdoms. A similar battle was conducted between Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, and a combined Moabite-Ammonite force which was making for Jerusalem the Judean Desert (2 Chron 20).

It was even more characteristic during the Hel. period, when the Jews rose against the Seleucids and later, during the revolts against Rome (see below). The maneuver is typical of guerrilla warfare and enables small forces to achieve the upper hand over numerically superior armies. Not in vain were the Arameans afraid to enter the mountain passes of Samaria, saying: “Their gods are gods of the hills” (1 Kings 20:23).

5. Siege warfare. The battles against the Arameans, Moabites and Ammonites occurred in the open, but not so the wars fought against the mighty armies of Assyria and Babylonia. In the initial clash (in the mid-9th cent. b.c.), Ahab dared to participate against Assyria in a league of southern Syrian rulers which repulsed them in four successive campaigns, near the city of Qarqar. But a hundred years later when the Assyrians approached, the petty kingdoms were unable to unite, and the war degenerated into mere defensive actions, centered upon fortified cities, while the Assyrians were in complete control of the countryside.

The methods of fighting based on fortified cities are well known from excavations and from Egyptian and Assyrian reliefs, in which this subject was quite popular. Remains of city fortifications, including walls and gates, have been exposed at most of the excavated sites of the Israelite period in Pal., revealing even minute details. Moreover, systematic study has clarified the development of siege tactics in this period. The main problem in preparing a city to withstand a siege, besides the construction of the fortifications, was to provide for an adequate source of water within the city walls. This was achieved either by digging vast cisterns for storing quantities of rain water, or by diverting water sources beneath the ground to within the fortified area, concealing any original opening outside. Several such water systems have been discovered, mainly dating from the period of the Israelite kingdoms (at Hazor, Megiddo, Ibleam, Gezer, Gibeon, Jerusalem, Arad and Beersheba). The famous Siloam tunnel inscr. from Jerusalem describes King Hezekiah’s efforts to bring water from the Gihon spring into the city (c. 705 b.c.). In much later times, extensive water systems were built by Herod to bring huge quantities of water into the same city; similar projects by this king included enormous cisterns constructed at Masada, Herodium and Machaerus.

The methods of pressing siege in the ancient Near E were many and varied. We have already noted various ruses employed by the Israelites against Canaanite cities. The Egyptian and Assyrian reliefs reveal even more: scaling walls by means of ladders; breaching walls with battering rams; breaking down gates with axes and fire; and mining beneath walls. Often several methods were employed simultaneously. The Assyrians were depicted as slaying prisoners beneath the very eyes of the besieged, so as to weaken their morale.

If a city resisted all these measures, the attackers had to fall back upon the difficult pursuit of an extended siege, cutting off the inhabitants of the city from all supplies, and making continuous attacks upon the walls at various locations until a weak spot was found or until the city gave in. After the appearance of the great imperial armies in Pal., the Israelite kings concentrated their efforts on fortifying and preparing their cities to withstand prolonged sieges. They sometimes succeeded in stemming a siege of many months or even years. The longest siege recorded in history was that of Ashdod by Psammatik II of Egypt, which lasted no less than twenty-nine years (Herodotus II: 157). There is an exceptional depiction of a Judean city under siege by the Assyrian army, in a relief from Nineveh, showing Lachish as the Assyrian troops were storming its walls with many battering rams, light archery in the fore (mostly non-Assyrian troops from vassal kingdoms), then heavy Assyrian spearmen and archers, followed by slingers. The defenders, on their part, attempted to forestall the work of the siege machines by shooting arrows and throwing stones, oil and flaming torches down upon them.

6. The period of the second temple. From the Pers. period on, our principal sources are literary. The Gr. historians, such as Herodotus, Xenophon, Thucydides and Diodorus, have provided detailed descriptions of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks, as well as the wars among the Greeks themselves. One of the most interesting of these descriptions, Xenophon’s Anabasis, tells of the engagement of the Pers. army with that of Cyrus, satrap of Sardis, in whose service were the ten thousand Gr. mercenaries commanded by Xenophon. In this battle the clear advantage of the new Gr. formations over the traditional oriental armies is quite apparent—a superiority which was even more telling slightly in the victorious campaigns of Alexander the Great.

The main force of Gr. armies in this period were the units of heavily armed infantry, the hoplites. Their name is derived from the large bronze shield which they carried into battle on their left arms, protecting most of the body and enabling the warrior to use his right arm for maneuvering his heavy spear, sometimes even at at distance of some ten ft. from his enemy. The hoplite also carried a short sword, and wore protective armor, including a bronze helmet. These troops fought in a close formation, the phalanx, where the shield of one soldier overlapped that of his neighbor, providing double protection. The superiority of this formation was based upon the fact that the soldiers in the front row, who were in direct contact with the enemy, were immediately supported by their comrades in the rows behind.

From the time of the Peloponnesian wars on, a basic change occurred in the organization of Gr. armies. Besides the hoplite, there was now a lightly armed soldier, the peltast whose name was also derived from a type of shield, smaller and round; these had no protective armor and their principal armament was the small throwing javelin, a weapon derived from Thrace and common esp. among mercenaries. In the Macedonian army, the spear was lengthened, sometimes even reaching a length of twenty feet; actually the several rows of the phalanx used spears of varying lengths so as to present the enemy with a maximum of “fire power” at one time. The bow was little used in classical times (except in Cretan units mercenary archers serving in large numbers with the Greeks). In the Hel. period, Oriental influence brought archers a greater role, and even mounted archers appeared, usually being employed as a protective curtain before the phalanx. War chariots were not used at all in Classical Greece; instead, the Greeks did make use of cavalry as an organic part of the army in several cities. Thus, Athens had cavalry units and, for a short period, also mounted archers. In the Classical period, however, the lack of the stirrup seriously impaired the effectiveness of such troops. Philip and Alexander made more common use of cavalry, and since then such units held an important place in every battle, esp. in outflanking the enemy or pursuing an enemy in flight. The Hel. period, too, saw the introduction—again under oriental influence—of heavy cavalry: chariotry was also used on a small scale.

As for siege machinery, the Gr. sources up to the end of the 5th cent. b.c. are largely silent. An extraordinary discovery in the recent excavations at Paphos in Cyprus has revealed some of the methods employed by the Persians in the successful siege of this city in 498 b.c.; this included the remains of a developed siege ramp. From the literary sources we know that only in the beginning of the 4th cent. b.c. did the Greeks first use a primitive sort of catapult (at Syracuse), which they copied from the Carthaginians. This machine was employed only in siege warfare, throwing darts for a great distance. Later, the catapult was improved, increasing its effective range considerably. Such machines were employed by Alexander in his siege of Tyre (in 332 b.c.). The Greeks actually had two types of siege machines: the catapult for darts, and the balista for throwing stones; these had an effective range of some 600 ft., which the Romans later were able to increase to about 800 ft.

In the Hel. period, the Greeks followed the Persians in using elephants in warfare. Alexander brought over a hundred elephants from India, and Seleucus I had over 500. They were particularly effective against enemy cavalry and could also break through the heavy phalanx. In the “Battle of Gaza” (312 b.c.), the Egyp. army defended themselves against the Seleucid elephants by studding the battlefield with sharp nails—the first “mine field” in history. Antiochus III employed elephants against the Hasmoneans, leading to the well-known story of Eleazar, who was crushed beneath an elephant which he had killed with his spear (2 Macc 13:2). The Romans normally did not use the elephant, prob. because of its awkwardness.

The army of the Hasmoneans appears to have been patterned after the Hel. army model; the Herodian army, however, was more composite, Hel. but with Rom. elements. The Rom. entry into Pal. in 63 b.c. brought about a change in the weaponry and in the military formations of this area; actually, it is esp. in this field that Rom. influence is felt. In excavations of sites in Pal., few remains of Rom. weapons have been found (mainly arrow and javelin heads, a few swords and scales of armor), though many remains of Rom. military architecture are known—the most important of which are the siege camps, the circumvallation wall and the ramp at Masada; the siege camps above the caves in Nahal Hever; the siege ramp at Bethther (from the period of the second revolt, a.d. 132-135); and many small forts in the Negeb and E of the Arabah, parts of the limes, the defensive border system of the Rom. empire here.

The principal sources on the warfare between the Jews and the Romans in Pal. are the detailed accounts by Josephus Flavius in his monumental work, the War of the Jews. Being of inferior strength, the Jews resorted mainly to two forms of fighting—ambushes in narrow mountain defiles, and defense within fortified cities. Josephus relates the events of three such sieges—at Yodfat in Galilee, at Jerusalem and at Masada in the Judean Desert.

A most valuable addition to the sources on the military organization of the Jews in this period are the documents recently found in caves in the Judean Desert: the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, and the Kar-Kokhba Letters, found in Nahal Hever and sent originally by the leader of the second revolt to his subordinates at En-gedi.

Bibliography F. M. Abel, “Topographie des Campagnes Machabéennes,” Revue Biblique 32 (1923), 495ff.; 33 (1924), 201ff., 371ff.; 34 (1925), 194ff.; 35 (1926), 206ff., 510ff.; E. E. Tarn, Hellenistic Military and Naval Development (1930); Y. Yadin, “Let the young men pray thee arise and play before us,” Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society 21 (1948), 110-116; A. Malamat, “The War of Gideon and Midian: A Military Approach,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly (1953), 61ff.; R. O. Falkner, “Egyptian Military Organization,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 34 (1953), 32-47; Iliffe-Mitford, Illustrated London News (April 18, 1953), 613-616; R. de Vaux, “Les combats singuliers dans l’A.T.,” Biblica 40 (1954), 495-508; Idem, The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness (1962); P. E. Adcock, The Greeks’ and Macedonians’ Art of War (1962); Idem, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study (1963); Idem, The Finds from the Bar-Kokhba Period in the Cave of the Letters (1963); J. Liver (ed.), The Military History of the Land of Israel in Biblical Times (1964); Idem, Masada. Herod’s Fortress and the Zealot’s Last Stand (1966).