The Hebrews Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The history of the Hebrew people contains a large number of military campaigns and battles.

Political Considerations

The history of the Hebrew people contains a large number of military campaigns and battles. The biblical stories of the walls of Jericho falling down and of David standing against Goliath with a slingshot are familiar ones to many people. These are, however, only two of many well-known war stories from the Bible. Initially, warfare was one of the methods the Israelites employed to first settle a homeland. The location of that homeland, the strategic Syro-Palestinian corridor, guaranteed that they would be engaged in continual warfare, trying to secure the land and to protect themselves from invasions from Mesopotamia and Egypt.HebrewsIsraelPalestine and PalestiniansHebrewsIsraelPalestine and Palestinians

Military Achievement

Israel and Judah, c. 900 b.c.e.

The first military engagements of the Hebrew people of the late Bronze Age were wars of conquest. These included, in Transjordan, the defeat of Sihon, king of Heshbon, and Og, king of Bashan, and the campaign against Midian, both of which are described in the biblical Book of Numbers. Later, Joshua ben Joshua ben NunJoshua ben NunNun accomplished the occupation of CanaanCanaan, the Hebrew “promised land” west of the Jordan, through three strategic military actions, all of which are described in the biblical Book of Joshua. First, the Hebrews crossed the Jordan River opposite Jericho into the heart of the land, capturing Jericho, Ai, and Bethel. Second, a coalition of kings from five Canaanite city-states in the south were defeated and routed in battle at Gibeon, and a number of cities of the southern Shephelah were taken or destroyed. Finally, a league of Canaanite kings under the leadership of Jabin, king of Hazor, were defeated in battle at the “waters of Merom,” in northern Galilee, and their cities were taken by the Israelites (Joshua 11). These achievements were accomplished with a unified militia of Israelite Israelite tribestribes.

Although the unified strategy of Joshua ben Nun succeeded in defeating the coalition of forces capable of threatening Israel’s position in Canaan, the task of mopping up fell to individual tribes at the beginning of the Iron Age (1200-1000 b.c.e.). The lack of tribal unity within the Israelite confederacy during this period allowed a resurgence of Canaanite power and the emergence along the Mediterranean coast of the PhilistinesPhilistines, one group from among the earlier invading Sea Peoples that had been repulsed from Egypt by Ramses Ramses IIIRamses III (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Ramses 03]III (r. 1184-1153 b.c.e.) around 1168 b.c.e. According to extrabiblical records, the Philistines held a well-deserved reputation for martial skill and organization. In addition, they controlled a monopoly on iron metallurgy. Owing to these factors, the Israelite leaders, the judges Samuel and Saul, found themselves fighting defensive engagements. The lack of tribal unity also contributed to a period of civil war, described in the biblical Book of Judges.

Hebrew leader Joshua ben Nun begins the occupation of Canaan, the Hebrew “promised land” west of the Jordan, with the taking of Jericho.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

After consolidating his reign in JudahJudah and Israel, DavidDavid (king of Israel)David (c. 1030-c. 962 b.c.e.) besieged and captured the Jebusite city of Jerusalem around 1000 b.c.e., making it the capital of his kingdom, as described in the biblical Book of 2 Samuel. After the Philistines heard that David had been made king of Israel, they moved to attack, but were defeated by David in the Valley of Rephaim and pursued to Gezer. David then campaigned to expand his kingdom, conquering the Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, Aramaeans, and others. He instituted a standing army and placed garrisons throughout his growing empire. By such means he gained control of the trade along the Kings Highway east of the Jordan as well as the Via Maris, a lowland passage running through Israel to Damascus. Israel reached the zenith of its military and political power under David. SolomonSolomon (king of Israel)Solomon (c. 991-930 b.c.e.), David’s heir, maintained the same control and reigned from the great bend of the Euphrates to Elat on the Red Sea.

During the years of the divided monarchy, the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel were reduced to fighting each other in civil war or supporting each other in defensive battles against outside invasion. Two particular examples of the latter stand out. In 853 b.c.e. AhabAhab (Syro-Palestinian king)Ahab (c. 874-c. 853 b.c.e.), king of Israel, joined other small Canaanite and Syria;biblicalSyrian kingdoms in a coalition against Shalmaneser Shalmaneser IIIShalmaneser III (king of Assyria)[Shalmaneser 03]III (r. 858-824 b.c.e.), king of Assyrians;vs. Hebrews[Hebrews]Assyria. Ahab was able to field 2,000 chariots and 18,000 infantrymen, some of them probably from Judah. The coalition met Shalmaneser III at Karkar in the Orontes Valley and stopped his advance. In 725 b.c.e. Shalmaneser Shalmaneser VShalmaneser V (king of Assyria)[Shalmaneser 05]V (r. 726-722 b.c.e.) laid siege to Samaria,Samaria, Siege of (725 b.c.e.) the capital of Israel. Although the city held out for several years, it finally surrendered, and the kingdom of Israel disintegrated.

Judah remained a vassal-state of Assyria. However, at the end of the eighth century b.c.e. King Hezekiah of HezekiahHezekiah (king of Judah)Judah (r. c. 715-c. 686 b.c.e.) revolted along with rulers of other smaller kingdoms. The Neo-Assyrian king SennacheribSennacherib (Neo-Assyrian king)Sennacherib’s (r. 704-681 b.c.e.) response was brutal. Every town in Judah was captured, and in 701 b.c.e. Sennacherib trapped Hezekiah in Jerusalem. In response to the Assyrian threat, Hezekiah reorganized the army, refortified Jerusalem;biblicalJerusalem, and redirected its water source, constructing the Siloam tunnel to bring water into the city. Sennacherib failed in his siege and returned to Assyria, where he was assassinated. The kingdom of Judah lasted until 587 b.c.e., when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians;vs. Hebrews[Hebrews]Neo-Babylonians.

For several centuries after the fall of Jerusalem the Hebrews were subject to foreign masters. Successively conquered by Babylon, Assyria, Persia, and Greece, they generally cooperated with rulers who tolerated their religious practices. Despite the pacifist strains of Isaiah and other prophets, the Jews could be quite bellicose in defending their religion. When Alexander theAlexander the GreatAlexander the Great;Judea conquestGreat (356-323b.c.e.) conquered Judea, he did not interfere with Jewish worship. However, one of his successors, Antiochus IV Antiochus IV EpiphanesAntiochus IV Epiphanes (king of Syria)[Antiochus 04]Epiphanes (c. 215-164 b.c.e.), decided to impose Greek culture on subject peoples, and around 167 b.c.e. constructed a statue of Zeus in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, forbidding such practices as circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath. Rebellion again broke out in 167 b.c.e. under the MaccabeesMaccabees, a priestly family. The uprising began as a guerrilla war, but Judas Maccabeus (died 160 b.c.e.) organized the army along the old traditional lines. Fighting with small outnumbered forces, Judas proved to be a brilliant tactician accomplishing many difficult military feats. Judas and his brothers liberated Jerusalem and established a new independent Jewish state, with the kings and high priests both coming from the Maccabee family. Once independent, the Maccabees continued to wage war in Samaria, Transjordan, and among the descendants of the Edomites, forcing them to convert to Judaism. They also suppressed Jews who adopted Greek values and practices. For all their militarism, the Maccabees refused to fight on the Sabbath.

The later Maccabees allied with Rome and allowed Judea to fall under Roman Rome;Judeacontrol. Initially, the Romans tolerated the religion of Jews;under Romans[Romans]Jews who did not challenge Roman authority. Jews were allowed to live and prosper throughout the empire, especially in Alexandria and Rome. The Roman Senate designated Herod the Herod the GreatHerod the Great (king of Judea)Great (r. 37-4 b.c.e.) king of Judea, but he had to fight for every inch of his kingdom. In the winter of 39 b.c.e. Herod returned to Palestine with the help of the Roman army. By 37 b.c.e. Herod had taken Jerusalem. Five years later Herod defeated the Nabateans and annexed a portion of their territory. Finally, by 20 b.c.e. Herod’s kingdom had almost reached the size of that of David and Solomon.

Commonly, theReligion and warfare;JudaismRomans permitted conquered peoples to continue worshiping their gods, providing they acknowledged the Roman gods, including Caesar. However, monotheistic Judaism did not allow this accommodation, and guerrilla movements to resist Rome emerged in Judea. The Romans executed Jewish prophets and messiahs who challenged them. Among them may have been Jesus of Jesus of NazarethJesus of NazarethNazareth. One party, the ZealotsZealots, committed to purging Judea of all pagan elements, allegedly kidnapped and killed Jews who cooperated with Rome. In 66 c.e. the Jews revolted against Rome. The rebels set up a government in Jerusalem and divided the country into seven military districts. The emperor NeroNero (Roman emperor)Nero (37-68 c.e.) sent his best general, VespasianVespasian (Roman emperor)Vespasian (9-79 c.e.), to quell the uprising. Vespasian systematically defeated the rebels until the Jews held only Jerusalem and the territory surrounding the city. Vespasian returned to Rome to be crowned emperor, leaving his son Titus (39-81 c.e.) in charge of the Siege of Jerusalem, Siege of 70 c.e.[Jerusalem, Siege of 02]Jerusalem. By August 30, 70 c.e., Titus had taken the entire population of Jerusalem captive and leveled its buildings to the ground. A small group of rebels fled to the stronghold at Masada, Siege of (70-73 c.e.)Masada. They lasted until 73 c.e., when the Romans breached the walls. Approximately 960 defenders at Masada committed Suicide;Masadasuicide during the night rather than surrender to the Romans.

David, the Hebrew king of Judah and Israel, who besieged and captured the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and made it the capital of his kingdom.

(Getty Images)
Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

A wide range of offensive and defensive weapons are mentioned in biblical texts. None of these are in essence unique to the Israelite soldier. By the time of the Iron Age, the Hebrew soldier employed the same weaponry used in the surrounding ancient Near Eastern area.

The most practical offensive weapon was the small sword or Daggersdagger. It was fewer than 50 centimeters in length and generally used in short-range, hand-to-hand combat. The sword was carried in a sheath attached to the belt. The Israelites also used javelins and lances. The most significant long-range offensive weapon, however, was the bow and Bows and arrows;Israelitesarrow. Arrowheads were first made of bronze and later iron. They were designed to pierce armor. David used a Slings;David vs. Goliathsling against Goliath, and soldiers from the tribe of Benjamin, tribe ofBenjamin developed a deadly accuracy with this weapon.

The most common defensive arm, the leather buckler or Shieldsshield, could be made in several sizes. Body armor, coats of mail, and helmets were available although probably were not common until the time of David. The defenders of Lachish, Siege of (701 b.c.e.)Lachish, besieged by the forces of Sennacherib in 701 b.c.e., are shown wearing bronze helmets in the famous Assyrian bas-relief in the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh.

Military Organization

At the end of the Bronze Age, military service was a part of the life of every capable male. Although some exceptions were granted, as described in the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, the survival of the nation as a whole depended upon the tribal fighting units that could be called up for battle as needed. These forces were voluntary and functioned on an as-needed basis. Soldiers returned to their homes and fields after the war.

A major change took place during the monarchy. SaulSaul (Hebrew king)Saul (r. c. 1020-1000) was the first to begin to recruit a more permanent Armies;Hebrewarmy. David developed his own personal bodyguard and a professional army including several mercenaries. The Hebrew army was divided into units of 1,000 commanded by a leader. These units could be further divided into smaller groups of 100 and 50. Solomon was the first to establish a strong chariot force. Chariots;HebrewsChariots were effective on the open plain, but they proved useless in the mountain terrain of much of Palestine.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The early Hebrew army did not seem to do well in pitched battles on open terrain. Usually outnumbered, they were far more effective when they employed Guerrilla warfare;Hebrewsguerrilla tactics. Some of these included feints, decoys, ambushes, and diversionary maneuvers. Night movements and night attacks were also used. The Hebrews also developed a battle cry that would frighten or dishearten the enemy.

David instituted a particular military and political doctrine that provided great wealth for himself and his son Solomon. Even later, when the kings of Israel and Judah also followed this doctrine, political power and prosperity followed. First, David sought peace between Israel and Judah. Second, he exercised a strong hand in matters east of the Jordan. His plan was to subjugate the Aramaeans, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites, and thus to control the trade along the Kings Kings HighwayHighway in Transjordan. Finally, David opened trade relations with the maritime nation of Hiram of Hiram of TyreTyre (r. 969-936 b.c.e.).

Ancient Sources

A fair knowledge of the military achievements of the nations of the ancient Near East is revealed by the numerous paintings, drawings, reliefs, and inscriptions left behind. Even peace treaties describe the titles and functions of individuals in the army. The famous Assyrian bas-relief of the siege of Lachish was at Nineveh and is now held at the British Museum. It has a detailed depiction of Hebrew soldiers. However, information about the military organization of Israel from 1400 b.c.e. to the first century c.e. is not so complete.

The Hebrew BibleBible, or Old Testament, remains the primary resource for understanding the military achievements of the Hebrew people. Although there are extensive references to battles, the Bible is not a military history. Josephus, FlaviusJosephus, FlaviusFlavius Josephus, in his History of the Jewish War (Josephus) Bellum Judaicum (75-79 c.e. ; History of the Jewish War, 1773), wrote about the Revolt of 66-70 c.e. , in which he participated, later supporting the Romans. Antiquities of the Jews, The (Josephus) He later wrote Antiquitates Judaicae (93 c.e. ; The Antiquities of the Jews, 1773). However, these books must be supplemented with archaeological and epigraphic discoveries from elsewhere in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. Many of these are included in J. B. Pritchard’s edited collection, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (1969).HebrewsIsraelPalestine and Palestinians

Books and Articles
  • Aharoni, Yohanan, and Michael Avi-Yonah. The Macmillan Bible Atlas. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
  • Bright, John. A History of Israel. 4th ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.
  • Chapman, Cynthia R. The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2004.
  • De Vaux, Roland. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997.
  • Gabriel, Richard. The Military History of Ancient Israel. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
  • Gonen, R. Weapons of the Ancient World. London: Cassell, 1975.
  • Herzog, Chaim, and Mordechai Gichon. Battles of the Bible. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.
  • Kelle, Brad. Ancient Israel at War, 853-586 B.C. New York: Osprey, 2007.
  • Pritchard, J. B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.
  • Yadin, Yigael. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
Films and Other Media
  • Masada. Television miniseries. ABC, 1981.
  • Moses the Lawgiver. Television miniseries. 1975.
  • The Myth of Masada. Film. Humanities and Science/Arkios Productions, 1993.
  • The Ten Commandments. Film. Paramount, 1956.

Violence in the Precivilized World

The Hittites

The Assyrians

The Chaldeans

The Egyptians

The Persians

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