War; Warfare

wor, wor'-far (milchamah, 'anshe m., "men of war," "soldiers"; polemos, polemein, strateuesthai, stratia):

1. Religious Significance

2. Preliminaries

3. Operations of War

4. Strategy

5. Important Requisites

6. Characteristics

7. Defeat and Victory

8. Spoils and Trophies

9. Treaties of Peace

10. War in the New Testament


1. Religious Significance:

From an early period of Hebrew history war had a religious significance. The Hebrews were the people of Yahweh, and they were reminded in their wars by the priest or priests who accompanied their armies that Yahweh was with them to fight their battles (De 20:1-4). It was customary to open a campaign, or to enter an engagement, with sacrificial rites (1Sa 7:8-10; 13:9). Hence, in the Prophets, to "prepare" war is to carry out the initiatory religious rites and therefore to "sanctify" war (Jer 6:4; 22:7; 51:27-28; Mic 3:5; Joe 3:9; the Revised Version margin in each case); and Isaiah even speaks of Yahweh mustering His host and summoning to battle His "consecrated ones" (Isa 13:3), the warriors consecrated by the sacrifices offered before the war actually opened. The religious character attaching to war explains also the taboo which we find associated with it (De 20:7; 23:10; 2Sa 11:11).

2. Preliminaries:

(1) Religious Preliminaries.

It was in keeping with this that the oracle should be consulted before a campaign, or an engagement (Jg 20:18 ff; 1Sa 14:37; 23:2; 28:6; 30:8). The ark of God was believed to be possessed of special virtue in assuring victory, and, because it was identified in the eyes of the Israelites with the presence of Yahweh, it was taken into battle (1Sa 4:3). The people learned, however, by experience to put their trust in Yahweh Himself and not in any outward token of His presence. At the battle of Ebenezer the ark was taken into the fight with disastrous results to Israel (1Sa 4:4 ff). On the other hand at the battle of Michmash, the sacred ephod at Saul's request accompanied the Israelites into the field, and there was a great discomfiture of the Philistines (1Sa 14:18). In the later history prophets were appealed to for guidance before a campaign (1Ki 22:5; 2Ki 3:11), although fanatical members of the order sometimes gave fatal advice, as to Ahab at Ramoth-gilead, and probably to Josiah at Megiddo. Upon occasion the king addressed the host before engaging the enemy (2Ch 20:20-22, where Jehoshaphat also had singers to go before the army into battle); and Judas Maccabeus did so, with prayer to God, on various occasions (1 Macc 3:58; 4:30; 5:32).

(2) Military Preliminaries.

The call to arms was given by sound of trumpet throughout the land (Jg 3:27; 6:34; 1Sa 13:3; 2Sa 15:10; 20:1; compare Nu 10:2). It was the part of the priests to sound an alarm with the trumpets (2Ch 13:12-16; compare 1 Macc 4:40; 16:8), and the trumpets were to be blown in time of battle to keep God in remembrance of Israel that they might gain the victory. In the Prophets, we find the commencement of war described as the drawing of the sword from its sheath (Eze 21:3 ff), and the uncovering of the shield (Isa 22:6). Graphic pictures of the mobilizing of forces, both for invasion and for defense, are found in Isa 22:6-8 and Na 3:2 and other Prophets. It was in the springtime that campaigns were usually opened, or resumed after a cessation of hostilities in winter (2Sa 11:1; 1Ki 20:22,26).

3. Operations of War:

Of the actual disposition of troops in battle there are no full accounts till the Maccabean time, but an examination of the Biblical battlefields by modern travelers with knowledge of military history has yielded valuable results in showing the position of the combatants and the progress of the fight (an excellent example in Dr. William Miller's Least of All Lands, 85 ff, 116 ff, 150 ff, where the battles of Michmash, Elah and Gilboa are described with plans). With the Israelites the order of battle was simple. The force was drawn up, either in line, or in three divisions, a center and two wings. There was a rearguard (called in the King James Version "rereward," in the Revised Version (British and American) "rearward") to give protection on the march or to bring in stragglers (Jg 7:16; 1Sa 11:11; 2Sa 18:2; 1 Macc 5:33; compare also Nu 10:25; Jos 6:9; 1Sa 29:2; Isa 58:8). The signal for the charge and the retreat was given by sound of trumpet. There was a battle-cry to inspire courage and to impart confidence (Jg 7:20; Am 1:14, etc.). The issue of the battle depended upon the personal courage and endurance of the combatants, fighting man against man, but there were occasions when the decision was left to single combat, as at the battle of Elah between the giant Goliath and the stripling David (1Sa 17:1-58). The combat at Gibeon between the men of Benjamin, twelve in number, followers of Ish-bosheth, and twelve of the servants of David, in which each slew his man and all fell together by mutual slaughter, was the prelude to "a very sore battle" in which Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David (2Sa 2:16).

To the minor operations of war belong the raid, such as the Philistines made into the Valley of Rephaim (1Ch 14:9), the foray, the object of which was plunder (2Sa 3:22), the foraging to secure supplies (2Sa 23:11 margin), and the movements of bands who captured defenseless inhabitants and sold them as slaves (2Ki 5:2).

4. Strategy:

Of strategical movements in war there was the ambush with liers-in-wait resorted to by Joshua at Ai (Jos 8:3 ff); the feint, resorted to by the Israelites against the tribe of Benjamin (Jg 20:20 ff); the flank movement, adopted by David in the Valley of Rephaim to rout the Philistines (2Sa 5:22 f); and the surprise, inflicted successfully at the Waters of Merom upon the Canaanites under Jabin by Joshua (Jos 11:1 f). Of all these the story of Judas Maccabeus, the great military leader of the Jewish nation, furnishes illustrations (1 Macc 4:5 and elsewhere).

5. Important Requisites:

Among the requisites for the proper conduct of war the most important was the camp (machaneh). Of the exact configuration of the camp of the Israelites, it is not possible to speak with certainty. The camp of Israel in the wilderness seems to have been quadrilateral, although some have supposed it to be round or triangular (Nu 2:1 ff). The camp in the wilderness was furnished with ensigns and standards--the family ensign ('oth), and a standard (deghel) for the group of tribes occupying each of the four sides. The standard or banner (nec) is used of the signal for the mustering of troops, but standard-bearer, which occurs only once in the Bible, is a doubtful reading (Isa 10:18, where the Revised Version margin, "sick man," is rather to be followed). In time of war the camp was surrounded by a barricade, or wagon-rampart (ma`gal), as at Elah (1Sa 17:20); and Saul lay within such a barricade in the wilderness of Ziph with his people round about him when David surprised him and carried off his spear (1Sa 26:5 ff). Tents were used for the shelter of troops, at any rate when occupied with a siege (2Ki 7:7), although at the siege of Rabbah we read of booths for the purpose (2Sa 11:11). Pickets were set to watch the camp, and the watch was changed three times in the course of the night (Jg 7:19; 1 Macc 12:27). It was usual to leave a guard in charge of the camp when the force went into action or went off upon a raid (1Sa 25:13; 30:10). Careful prescriptions were laid down for the preservation of the purity of the camp, "for Yahweh thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, .... therefore shall thy camp be holy" (De 23:9-14; compare Nu 5:1-4). Garrisons (matstsabh) were placed in occupation of fortresses and strategical centers (2Ch 17:2). No doubt the caves in the hillsides and rocky fastnesses of the land, as at Michmash, would serve for their reception (1Sa 13:1-23). The garrisons, however, which are expressly mentioned, were for the most part military posts for the occupation of a subject country--Philistines in Israelite territory (1Sa 13:23-14:1; 14:11), and Israelites in Syrian and Edomite territory (2Sa 8:6,14).

6. Characteristics:

Among the characteristic notes of war, the tumult and the shouting were often noticed by the sacred historians (1Sa 4:6; 14:19; 2Ki 7:6). In the figurative language of the prophets the terrors and horrors and devastation of war are set forth in lurid colors. "The snorting of his horses is heard from Dan," is Jeremiah's description of an invading army, "at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones the whole land trembleth" (Jer 8:16). `The crack of the whip and the noise of the rumbling wheel and the galloping horse, and the jolting chariot and the rearing horsemen; and the flash of the sword and the glitter of the spear, and the multitude of slain; and a mass of dead bodies and no end to the carcasses' (Na 3:2-4: J. M. P. Smith's translation in ICC). Because of the devastation of territory and the slaughter of men which it entails, the sword is named with famine and "noisome beasts" (the American Standard Revised Version has "evil beasts") and "pestilence" as one of God's "four sore judgments" (Eze 14:21, the King James Version). By a familiar figure "the sword" is often taken for all the operations of war, because it is characteristic of it to devour and to destroy (2Sa 2:26; Jer 2:30).

7. Defeat and Victory:

While the treatment of the vanquished in the wars of Israel never reached the pitch of savagery common in Assyrian warfare, there are not wanting examples of excessive severity, such as David's treatment of his Moabite prisoners (2Sa 8:2) and of the Ammonites captured at Rabbah (2Sa 12:31), and Menahem's barbarous treatment of Tiphsah (2Ki 15:16; compare Nu 31:17; Jos 6:21). That it was common for the Philistines to mutilate and abuse their prisoners is shown by Saul's determination not to fall into their hands (1Sa 31:4). On that occasion the Philistines not only stripped the slain, but cut off Saul's head and fixed his body to the wall of Bethshan (1Sa 31:9-10). It was usual to carry off prisoners and sell them as slaves (2Ki 5:2; 1 Macc 3:41). The conquerors were wont to deport the population of the subjugated country (2Ki 17:6), to carry off treasure and impose tribute (2Ki 16:8), and even to take the gods into captivity (Isa 46:1). On the other hand, the victors were hailed with acclamations and songs of rejoicing (1Sa 18:6), and victory was celebrated with public thanksgivings (Ex 15:1; Jg 5:1; 1 Macc 4:24).

The spoils of war, spoken of as booty also--armor, clothing, jewelry, money, captives and animals--falling to the victors, were divided equally between those who had taken part in the battle and those who had been left behind in camp (Nu 31:27; Jos 22:8; 1Sa 30:24 f).

8. Spoils and Trophies:

A proportion of the spoils was reserved for the Levites, and "a tribute unto the Lord" was also levied before distribution was made of the collected booty (Nu 31:28,30). To the Lord, in the Israelite interpretation of war, the spoils truly belong, and we see this exemplified at the capture of Jericho when the silver and the gold and the vessels of brass were put into the treasury of the house of the Lord (Jos 6:24). Under the monarchy, part of the spoils fell to the king who might in turn dedicate it to the Lord or use it for the purposes of war (2Ki 14:14; 1Ch 18:7,11). The armor of the conquered was sometimes dedicated as a trophy of victory and placed in the temple of the heathen or preserved near the ark of God (1Sa 21:9; 31:9).

9. Treaties of Peace:

As the blast of the war-horn summoned to war, so it intimated the cessation of hostilities (2Sa 2:28); and as to draw the sword was the token of the entrance upon a campaign, so to return it to its sheath, or to put it up into the scabbard, was emblematic of the establishment of peace (Jer 47:6). As ambassadors were sent to summon to war (Jer 49:14), or to dissuade from war (2Ch 35:21), so ambassadors were employed to negotiate peace (Isa 33:7). Treaties of peace were made on occasion between combatants, as between Ahab and Ben-hadad II after the defeat of the latter and his fortunate escape from the hands of Ahab with his life (1Ki 20:30-31). By the appeal of Ben-hadad's representative to Ahab's clemency his life was spared, and in return therefor he granted to Ahab the right to have bazaars for trade in Damascus as his father had had in Samaria (1Ki 20:34). Alliances, offensive and defensive, were common, as Ahab and Jehoshaphat against Syria (1Ki 22:2 ff), Jehoram and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom against Moab (2Ki 3:7 ff), and the kings of the West, including Ahab and Hadadezer of Damascus, to resist Shalmaneser II of Assyria, who routed the allies at the battle of Qarqar in 854 BC. It is among the wonderful works of Yahweh that He makes war to cease to the end of the earth, that He breaks the bow, and cuts the spear in sunder, and "burneth the chariots in the fire" (Ps 46:9). And prophetic pictures of the peace of the latter days include the breaking of "the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land" (Ho 2:18), the beating of "swords into plowshares, and .... spears into pruning-hooks" (Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3).

10. War in the New Testament:

Among the signs of the last days given by our Lord are "wars and rumors of wars" (Mt 24:6; Mr 13:7; Lu 21:9,24). Jesus accepts war as part of the present world-order, and draws from it an impressive illustration of the exacting conditions of Christian discipleship (Lu 14:31 ff). He foresees how Jerusalem is to be encompassed with armies and devoted to the bitterest extremities of war (Lu 19:41 ff). He conceives Himself come, not to send peace on earth, but a sword (Mt 10:34); and declares that they who take the sword shall perish by the sword (Mt 26:52). The apostles trace war to the selfishness and greed of men (Jas 4:1 ff); they see, speaking figuratively, in fleshly lusts enemies which war against the soul (1Pe 2:11); they find in war apt figures of the spiritual struggle and divine protection and ultimate victory of the Christian (Ro 7:23; 8:37; 2Co 10:3,5; 1Ti 1:18; Heb 13:13; 1Pe 1:5), and of the triumphs of Christ Himself (2Co 2:14; Col 2:15; Eph 2:16-17). Paul made the acquaintance of the barracks, both at Jerusalem and at Caesarea (Ac 21:34,37; 23:35); and at Rome his bonds became familiar to the members of the Praetorian guard who were from time to time detailed to have him in keeping (Php 1:13). It is under the figures of battle and war that John in the Apocalypse conceives the age-long conflict between righteousness and sin, Christ and Satan, and the final triumph of the Lamb, who is King of kings, and Lord of lords (Re 16:14-16; 17:14; 19:14). For other references see ARMY, 9; PRAETORIAN GUARD; TREATY.


Benzinger, article "Kriegswesen" in Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche(3), XI; Nowack, Hebraische Archaeologie, 72; Browne, Hebrew Antiquities, 44-47.

T. Nicol

Bible Verses by Topic Nave's Bible Concordance McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online Bible KJV Dictionary

Scripture linking and popups powered by VerseClick™.