Details. —Biblical Data:

The earliest war recorded in the Old Testament is that of the Elamitic king Chedorlaomer and his allies against the five kings of Sodom and its adjacent cities (Gen. xiv. 1et seq.). The result of the conflict was the destruction of the vanquished army in the field and the captivity of all the non-combatants, whose possessions became spoils of war. In the battle the troops were arranged in order (Gen. xiv. 8, R. V.), and the King of Sodom and his four allies displayed a certain degree of strategy by fighting in a valley, although their plan proved unsuccessful. Some modern scholars infer from the obscure passage II Sam. xi. 1 that wars were regularly begun in the spring. In many instances negotiations were carried on through messengers or ambassadors to avert bloodshed (Judges xi. 12-28; I Sam. xi. 1-10; I Kings xx. 2-11); and the Hebrews were expressly forbidden to make an attack without first demanding the surrender of the enemy (Deut. xx. 10 et seq.). The only instance in which war was declared without previous negotiations was that of the war between Amaziah, King of Judah, and Jehoash, King of Israel (II Kings xiv. 8).

In addition to the various modes of Divination employed by all the nations before setting out for war (comp. Ezek. xxi. 26 et seq.), the Israelites consulted Yhwh, who was not only their divinity, but also the war-god par excellence (comp. Ex. xv. 3, and the frequent phrase ), deciding whether they should begin the war and whether they would be successful (Judges i. 1; xx. 18, 23). In these passages the manner of consultation is not indicated, but from other sections and from the Septuagint it may be inferred that the priest put on the ephod and stood before the Ark to consult the Urim and Thummim (Judges xx. 27-28; I Sam. xiv. 18, xxviii. 6, xxx. 7). Occasionally the divinities were consulted through dreams or prophets, or even through familiar spirits evoked by a witch (Judges vii. 13; I Sam. xxviii. 6 et seq.; I Kings xxii. 15). Troops were generally summoned by the blowing of a trumpet or the warhorn, which was likewise the signal that warned the people of an enemy's approach (Judges iii. 27; II Sam. xx. 1; comp. Ezek. xxxiii. 2-11), although sometimes banners were placed on the tops of high mountains or messengers were sent through the different tribes of Israel (Judges vii. 24; I Sam. xi. 7; Isa. xiii. 2). Occasionally extraordinary means were used to arouse a popular feeling of indignation which would ultimately impel the nation to make war, as in the case of the Levite who cut the body of his concubine into twelve parts and sent them to the other tribes of Israel, thus kindling between them and the Benjamites the war which resulted in the destruction of the latter tribe (Judges xix. 29 et seq.; comp. also I Sam. xi. 7).

The War-Priest.

The army of the Israelites was always accompanied to the field by a priest, Phinehas having this post in the battle with the Midianites (Num. xxxi. 6). It was the duty of the priest to care for the spiritual welfare of the soldiers and, before the attack, to encourage them and to inspire martial enthusiasm in them (Deut. xx. 2-4). Sometimes, however, the high priest himself went upon the field, where he attended the Ark, which was carried into action quite as idols and images were borne into battle by the Philistines (I Sam. iv. 3-4; II Sam. v. 21, xi. 11). Like other Semites, the Israelites began a war with burnt offerings and fasting (Judges vi. 20, 26; xx. 26; I Sam. vii. 9, xiii. 10), this explaining the frequency of the phrase "to sanctify war," and the epithet "sanctified" as applied to warriors (Micah iii. 5; Isa. xiii. 3; Jer. vi. 4, xxii. 7). A single instance is recorded, though in obscure terms, of a human sacrifice as a burnt offering in a time of extreme danger (II Kings iii. 27). According to a passage of D, furthermore, the officers of the Hebrew troops were required to proclaim before a battle that whosoever had betrothed a wife and had not taken her, or had built a house and had not dedicated it, or had planted a vineyard and had not eaten of it, or was fearful and faint-hearted, should return home (Deut. xx. 5-9). This regulation was actually carried out under the Maccabees (I Macc. iii. 56), which shows that the document is of a post-exilic date.


From the geographical condition of Palestine, the raid was the favorite mode of warfare both among the Hebrews and among the other Semites (Gen. xlix. 19; I Sam. xiii. 17, xxvii. 8; II Sam. iii. 22; II Kings xiii. 20), although in the course of time regular battles were fought, and in certain cases tactics of modern warfare were employed. The first instance recorded was in the battle of Gibeah between the tribes of Israel and the Benjamites (Judges xx. 30 et seq.). After laying an ambush behind the city, the Israelites pretended to flee from the Benjamites, thus enticing the latter from their fortified positions. Suddenly the Israelites wheeled, and the Benjamites found themselves outflanked on all sides. It is also probable that in the battle of Gilboa between the Philistines and the army of Saul, the Philistines resorted to strategy by striking northward at the plain of Esdraelon instead of attacking the Israelites by the shorter route from the southwest. By this device, which proved completely successful, the Philistines lured Saul's army from the valleys, where a stout defense could be offered, to the open plain, where the Israelites might be overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers (I Sam. xxviii. 1-xxxi. 7). A strong army was sometimes divided so that the enemy might be attacked from different directions (Gen. xiv. 15; II Sam. xviii. 2), and ambuscades were often used with success (Josh. xiii. 10-28; Judges xx. 30-44; II Kings vi. 8-9). Night marches were particularly in favor with the Hebrews; thus Joshua marched at night, Gideon assailed the Midianites about midnight, and Saul attacked the Ammonites before dawn (Josh. x. 9; Judges vii. 19; I Sam. xi. 11). It may be noted that night marches were made by other Semites as well, for Nebo was captured from the Israelites by Mesha, King of Moab, after such a march (Moabite Inscription, line 15). An instance is likewise recorded in which the Philistines chose a champion who challenged one of the opposing army to a duel to decide the fate of both forces (I Sam. xvii. 4 et seq.). Such proceedings were afterward much in vogue among the Arabs in their pre-Islamic tribal conflicts.


Fortresses played an important part in war, especially in defense. In early times the Israelites were unable to reduce the fortified cities of the inhabitants of the land, and consequently had no meansof defense except to hide themselves in caves or mountains (Judges vi. 2; I Sam. xiii. 6; comp. Isa. ii. 21); but in the regal period they became so proficient in the art of warfare that they not only reduced the fortresses of the enemy, beginning with Jerusalem (II Sam. v. 7 et seq.), but also built many fortified cities. The chief method of reducing one of these towns seems to have been to throw up around the walls a bank, from which the archers might shoot their arrows into the place; while an instance is recorded from an earlier period in which the gates of a city were set on fire (Judges ix. 48 et seq.). According to a marginal note on I Kings xx. 12, R. V., the Syrians used engines in their effort to reduce Samaria, while similar machines were frequently employed in addition to the battering-ram for breaching walls in the time of Ezekiel (Ezek. iv. 2, xxvi. 8-9). The strength of the walls and the efficiency of the beleaguering army naturally conditioned the length of a siege. Thus Jericho, which fell in consequence of a miracle, was taken after a continuous onslaught of seven days (Josh. vi. 3 et seq.), but the Syrian sieges in Samaria were doubtless lengthy since they entailed terrible famines, and Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians only after a siege of two years, despite the systematic operations of Nebuchadnezzar (II Kings xxv. 1-4). In their sieges the Hebrews were forbidden to fell fruit-trees for use in building bulwarks against the fortified city (Deut. xx. 19-20).

Treatment of Captives.

The accounts of wars in the patriarchal period show that the conquered peoples were reduced to captivity and their property was taken as spoils of war. In the case of the Shechemites, all the males were massacred by the sons of Jacob, while the women and children and all their possessions were carried off as booty (Gen. xxxiv. 25-29). Later, according to a document belonging to D (Deut. xx. 10-17), the Hebrews were commanded to make a wide distinction between the inhabitants of the land whom they were to replace and the Gentiles outside the land. Mildness was to be shown the latter in case they surrendered without fighting and submitted to pay tribute. If they were subdued by force of arms, however, every man was to be slain, while the women, children, cattle, and all else should belong to the victors. Far different was to be the treatment of the inhabitants of the land, who were to be slaughtered without exception, not even the cattle being left alive. If this passage is of early date, it is evident that the command with regard to the inhabitants of the land was only partially executed, since, excepting the thirty-one kings enumerated in Josh. xii. 9-24, the greater part remained unconquered, and the Israelites were obliged to live with the very Gentiles whom they had been bidden to exterminate (comp. Josh. xviii. 2-3; Judges i. 21-35). Even when the Israelites proved victorious, they often granted the inhabitants their lives, and subjected them only to tribute (Judges i. 28, 30, 33, 35). At a later period, however, gross cruelty was practised both by the Hebrews and by the other nations. After having defeated the Moabites, David cast them down to the ground and measured them with a line, putting to death two lines and keeping one alive (II Sam. viii. 2), while he put the Ammonites under saws, harrows, and axes of iron and made them pass through the brick-kiln (ib. xii. 31). Menahem, King of Israel, the Syrians, and the Ammonites are charged with the massacre of pregnant women (II Kings viii. 12, xv. 16; Amos i. 13); and Amaziah is described as causing ten thousand Edomite captives to be hurled from a cliff (II Chron. xxv. 12), while in some instances children were dashed against rocks (Ps. cxxxvii. 9).

Conditions of Peace.

There are instances of treaties of peace in which conditions were imposed by the victors on their defeated foes. The first treaty recorded is that which Nahash, King of Ammon, proposed to the people of Jabesh-gilead, and which was marked by the savagery of the Ammonite king, the terms being that the right eye of every inhabitant of the city should be put out (I Sam. xi. 2). A treaty which might almost have been made in modern times, on the other hand, was drawn up between Ben-hadad and Ahab; by it the cities previously captured from Israel were to be restored, while Ahab had the right of making streets in Damascus, the same conditions having been previously imposed on the father of Ahab by Ben-hadad's father (I Kings xx. 34). Sennacherib, in the treaty with Hezekiah by which he withdrew his army from Judah, exacted a heavy indemnity from the Jewish king (II Kings xviii. 14). The victors generally returned home in triumphal processions and celebrated their victories with songs and festivals (Judges v. 1 et seq., xi. 34, xvi. 23; comp. Prism Inscription, col. 1, line 53, in Schrader, "K. B.," ii. 141 et seq.).

Attitude of the Prophets.

The wars in the earlier period were religious in character and thus had the sanction of the Prophets. Deborah herself urged Barak to make war on Sisera and accompanied him into the field (Judges iv. 6 et seq.), while Elisha exhorted Joash, King of Israel, to prosecute the war with Syria and advised the allied kings to avail themselves of stratagem against the Moabitish army (II Kings iv. 16 et seq., xiii. 14-19), and an anonymous prophet encouraged Ahab to battle with Ben-hadad (I Kings xx. 13-14). Naturally the Prophets were opposed to war among the tribes of Israel, and when Rehoboam wished to resort to arms to recover his lost sovereignty over the ten tribes, he was prevented by the prophet Shemaiah (ib. xii. 21-24). In later times the Prophets considered war from a political point of view, and Jeremiah, seeing that hostilities against the Babylonians would be to the detriment of the Israelites, always advised the latter to submit to the stronger people and live in peace with them (Jer. xxvii.12 et passim). War in general was represented by the Later Prophets only in its horrible aspect, and many of them, particularly Isaiah, longed for the time when there would be no more war, and when weapons should be transformed into agricultural implements (Isa. ii. 4; Micah iv. 3; and elsewhere). See Army; Fortress.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

The Rabbis laid special stress on the distinction between obligatorywar ("milḥemet miẓwah," or "milḥemet ḥobah") and voluntary war ("milḥemet ha-reshut"). The former category comprised the campaigns against the seven nations who inhabited the land, the battles against Amalek, and the repulse of an enemy attacking an Israelitish city; while the latter class denoted any war waged for the extension of Jewish territory. Obligatory war had the priority, nor was it necessary for the king to ask the permission of the Sanhedrin to levy troops, since he could compel the people to take the field. Voluntary war, on the other hand, could be declared only by the Great Sanhedrin of seventy-one members. Although certain persons were permitted by Deut. xx. 5 et seq. to leave the field before a battle began, this was allowed, according to rabbinical opinion, only in case of a voluntary war. No such leave of withdrawal was granted in an obligatory war, but, on the contrary, even a bridegroom and bride were obliged to leave their nuptial chamber and join the army (Soṭah 44b; Sanh. 2a, 20b; Maimonides, "Yad," Melakim, v. 1-2). The Rabbis differed greatly regarding the terms of peace to be offered the inhabitants of a beleaguered city (Deut. xx. 10 et seq.). According to Sifre, Deut. 199, which was followed by Rashi (on Deut. l.c.), peace might be proposed only in a voluntary war, while in an obligatory war no terms should be allowed. It would appear, however, from Lev. R. xvii. 6 and Deut. R. v. 13 that peace might be offered even in an obligatory war, and this was established as a law by Maimonides (l.c. vi. 1; comp. Naḥmanides on Deut. l.c.). According to both Maimonides and Naḥmanides, the command of extermination which was imposed regarding the seven nations (Deut. xx. 16-17) was applied only in case the beleaguered people refused to surrender. The submission in consideration of which the conquered were granted their lives had to be complete, since they were required to accept the seven commandments of the Noachidæ, and were obliged to pay tribute and to recognize their condition of servitude (Maimonides, l.c.).

In direct opposition to the obvious interpretation of Deut. xx. 5-9, the Rabbis declared that all the proclamations contained in that passage were made by the priest anointed as the chaplain of the army ("meshuaḥ milḥamah"), and the verses were interpreted as meaning that the priest made the proclamations and the officers repeated them to the troops, who could not hear the priest (Soṭah 43a; Maimonides, l.c. vii. 1, 4; comp. Sifre, Deut. 193). A Jewish army was forbidden to begin the siege of a Gentile city less than three days before the Sabbath, but it might continue its operations on that day even in a voluntary war. The army was permitted to encamp in any place, and the slain soldiers were to be buried in the place where they had fallen, since the combat had made it their own.

The Jewish soldiers enjoyed four privileges: they might take wood anywhere without incurring the charge of robbery; they were permitted to eat fruit even though it was not certain that it had been properly tithed ("demai"); and they were exempt from washing their hands and from "'erube ḥaẓerot" (Shab. 19a; 'Er. 17a; Tosef., 'Er. iv. [iii.] 7; see also 'Erub). In besieging a Gentile city, the troops were commanded to invest it on three sides and to leave one side free so that any one who wished might escape from the town (Maimonides, l.c. vi. 7). During the seven years consumed by Joshua's conquest of Palestine the Israelitish soldiers were allowed to eat any food which they found in the houses of the Gentiles, even though such provisions were forbidden under all other circumstances (Ḥul. 17a; Maimonides, l.c. viii. 1).

E. C. M. Sel.