Ancient Warrior Societies, Blog 3, World of the Old Testament

Warfare is mentioned over three hundred times in the Old Testament, swords four hundred times.  Ancient Israel was caught in many of the ancient wars since it was in the cross-roads of trade routes between Mesopotamia and Egypt.  Since Judah was mountainous, its armies relied heavily on infantry, but the Bible mentions that King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom had chariots, and that he was felled by arrow probably shot by a composite bow.  Assyria and Babylon had cavalry archers on horseback, but not Egypt or Israel.  An Israeli chariot had three horses pulling three men, a driver with a spear, an archer, and a shield bearer.  We know from our Sunday School stores King David slew Goliath with a sling, but the ancient slings were not the puny toys we imagine, the sling in the ancient world was a deadly combat weapon.  A skilled slinger could sling a rock over 120 miles per hour, faster than the fastest fast ball.

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Jerusalem and most ancient cities had walls and fortified towers with a guarded rampart manned by soldiers, ready to rain rocks and arrows and boiling oil on the attackers stuck in the moat.  Placing cities under siege was a big part of ancient warfare, these sieges could last six months or more, sometimes a year or two.  Pets did not last long in an ancient city under siege.  The attackers would try digging under the moat and the walls, the defenders would dig counter tunnels, with smoke, bees, and soldiers fighting in dark tunnels.  Assyrians and Romans would sometimes build siege ramps built behind movable towers manned by archers to breach the ramparts above.  Or sometimes they would use battering rams to smash through the walls or gates.

We read in Samuel how King David was tempted by Bathsheba bathing on her roof one spring day when he had his general Joab march out with the army in the spring.  In the ancient world, in both Greece and Israel, wars were often fought in the spring after the rains had stopped and the crops had been harvested.  Spring was when the Ottomans invaded the Balkans, fighting all the way to the walls of Vienna, deep into the Middle Ages.

The Assyrians were particularly cruel warriors.  Probably the ten tribes the Assyrians defeated were lost to history because in many cities the Assyrians followed the ancient common practice of slaughtering the men of the defeated army and enslaving their women and children, totally obliterating all traces of their society.  “Life in Biblical History” has an interesting comparison of the biblical and Assyrian accounts of the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib.

Although the Psalms mention the cruelty of the forced march of the exiled Jews to Babylonia, once they reached their destination the Babylonians allowed the Jews to settle their men, women and children in their separate communities, and allowed them to worship Yahweh in the traditions of their fathers.  Although we cannot say for sure that no Jews were enslaved, we get the impression in Ezekiel that the Jewish community was left relatively undisturbed, and they were able to reach a level of prosperity that enabled them to sponsor synagogues and rabbis that wrote down the moral laws and traditions and the ancient stories of their forefathers.  When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonia, he allowed those Jews who wished to return to their homeland, but many Jews chose to stay behind in Babylonia.  Whereas before Jews were the descendants of those who fled Pharaoh to the Promised Land, now the Jews were understood to be those who lived by the commands of the Torah, now both written and oral.[1]

The book “Life in Biblical Israel” devotes many interesting pages on how Jerusalem and other fortunate ancient cities were able to dig down behind the walls until they hit the water table or an aquifer to ensure a pure water supply during a siege, which could last six months or more.  Jerusalem was fortunate to have the spring of Gihon under the city, in the wet season there was plenty of water, and even in the dry season the spring’s cave could fill three times a day.[2]


We puzzle how a Loving God can instruct the Jews to massacre the pagans of Palestine in the Book of Joshua.  The answer to this puzzle is the God of Joshua is an ancient God who leads his chosen people into battle against the despicable foe, the God of Joshua is the God whom Miriam worships in her song, when she sings of the God who throws horse and rider into the sea after the Jews cross over the parted Red Sea.[3]  This famous song is  considered one of the most ancient psams in the Bible by many scholars, sings of our warrior God:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

The Lord is my strength and my might,

and he has become my salvation;

this is my God, and I will praise him,

my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The Lord is a warrior;

the Lord is his name.

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;

his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.

The floods covered them;

they went down into the depths like a stone.[4]

St Augustine in his work On Christian Doctrine teaches us that when reading the Old Testament stories we should interpret allegorically those stories that do not appear to describe a properly moral lesson.[5]  For instance, when the Lord commands Israel to massacre all the inhabitants of the towns of the idolaters in the Promised Land in Joshua, we should interpret this as a command to root out all the sins in our lives.

This view is seconded by the findings of modern archeologists, they have found almost no weapons in the ruins of the early ancient Hebrew cities in the period after the Exodus.  There were few walled towns, many settled in towns away from the coasts, away from the cities where they were not safe, and settled as farmers and herders in the hills north of Jerusalem where they scratched out a living as subsistence farmers.[6]  Archeologists have not found layers of burnt destruction in the archeological layers of many of the cities in the Middle East around the time of the Exodus, the evidence is more mixed.  Some scholars postulate that the stores of gradual settlement in the Book of Judges describe more accurately the settlement of the Promised Land.

Professor Levine in her lecture on the Conquest argues that the evidence on widespread destruction is mixed, you do see some layers of destruction, these could be from the Exodus, or they could be from the normal intra-city conflicts in the ancient world.  Likewise, she argues that a close reading of the text in the Book of Joshua is likewise mixed, not all cities were totally obliterated as a quick reading would lead you to believe.  We encourage you to listen to her Old Testament lectures, they are fascinating, but listen carefully, she packs as much as she can in these lectures.[7]

The Torah, the stories of the Patriarchs and the Exodus, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, were originally stories sung by bards in an oral tradition, perhaps sung for centuries before they were put to writing.  The war stories in the Book of Joshua fulfill a deep need in a warrior society for a caring God who protects his chosen people, a warrior God who accompanies His people into battle, like the Lord who animated the whirlwind and whose glory shown in the Tent of the Tabernacle during the Exodus to the Promised Land.

What would it be like to listen to these ancient stories told by our ancestors by the light of an ancient campfire?  These stories were sung in an uncertain ancient world where you never knew if this would be the year an enemy army would invade and slaughter and enslave all the inhabitants of the land.  These stories were to give God’s people hope in uncertain times that their Mighty God would care for them and protect them from their enemies and their foes, and would grant His people victory when they faced these formidable foes.

[1] Phillip King and Lawrence Stager, “Life in Biblical Israel” (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 223-258.

[2] King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, pp. 210-223.




[6] Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin, “Social World of Ancient Israel, 1250-587 BCE” (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993), pp. 3-5.

[7] Amy-Jill Levine, The Old Testament, lectures recorded by The Great Courses, (, 2001), Lecture 12, The “Conquest”

About Bruce Strom 185 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.