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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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In the reign of David, the Hebrews acquired such skill in the military art, together with such strength, as gave them a decided superiority over their competitors on the field of battle. David increased the standing army, which Saul had introduced. Solomon introduced cavalry into the military force of the nation, also chariots. Both cavalry and chariots were retained in the subsequent age; an age, in which military arms were improved in their construction, the science of fortification made advances, and large armies were mustered. From this period, till the time when the Hebrews became subject to the Assyrians and Chaldeans, but little improvement was made in the arts of war. The Maccabees, after the return of the Hebrews from the captivity, gave a new existence to the military art among them. But their descendants were under the necessity of submitting to the superior power of the Romans.

Whenever there was an immediate prospect of war, a levy was made by the genealogists, Deuteronomy 20:5-9 . In the time of the kings, there was a head or ruler of the persons, that made the levy, denominated השזטר , who kept an account of the number of the soldiers, but who is, nevertheless, to be distinguished from the generalissimo, הסופד , 2 Chronicles 26:11 . Compare 2 Samuel 8:17; 2 Samuel 20:25; 2 Chronicles 18:16 . After the levy was fully made out, the genealogists gave public notice, that the following persons might be excused, from military service, Deuteronomy 20:5-8 :

1. Those who had built a house, and had not yet inhabited it.

2. Those who had planted a כרס , that is, an olive or vine garden, and had not as yet tasted the fruit of it; an exemption, consequently, which extended through the first five years after such planting.

3. Those who had bargained for a spouse, but had not celebrated the nuptials; also those who had not as yet lived with their wife, for a year.

4. The faint-hearted, who would be likely to discourage others, and who, if they had gone into battle, where, in those early times, every thing depended on personal prowess, would only have fallen victims.

At the head of each rank or file of fifty, was the captain of fifty. The other divisions consisted of a hundred, a thousand, and ten thousand men, each one of which was headed by its appropriate commander. These divisions ranked in respect to each other according to their families, and were subject to the authority of the heads of those families, 2 Chronicles 25:5; 2 Chronicles 26:12-13 . The centurions, and chiliarchs or captains of thousands, were admitted into the councils of war, 1 Chronicles 13:1-3; 1 Samuel 18:13 . The leader of the whole army was denominated אלאּ?שרהצבא , the captain of the host. The genealogists, (in the English version, officers, ) according to a law in Deuteronomy 20:9 , had the right of appointing the persons who were to act as officers in the army; and they, undoubtedly, made it a point, in their selections, to choose those who are called heads of families. The practice of thus selecting military officers ceased under the kings. Some of them were then chosen by the king, and in other instances the office became permanent and hereditary in the heads of families. Both kings and generals had armour bearers, נשא כלים . They were chosen from the bravest of the soldiery, and not only bore the arms of their masters, but were employed to give his commands to the subordinate captains, and were present at his side in the hour of peril, 1 Samuel 14:6; 1 Samuel 17:7 . The infantry, the cavalry, and the chariots of war were so arranged, as to make separate divisions of an army, Exodus 14:6-7 . The infantry were divided likewise into light-armed troops, גדודים , and into spearmen, Genesis 49:19; 1 Samuel 30:8; 1 Samuel 30:15; 1 Samuel 30:23; 2 Samuel 3:22; 2 Samuel 4:2; 2 Samuel 22:30; Psalms 18:30; 2 Kings 5:2; Hosea 7:1 . The light-armed infantry were furnished with a sling and javelin, with a bow, arrows, and quiver, and also, at least in latter times, with a buckler. They fought the enemy at a distance. The spearmen, on the contrary, who were armed with spears, swords, and shields, fought hand to hand, 1 Chronicles 12:24; 1 Chronicles 12:34; 2 Chronicles 14:8; 2 Chronicles 17:17 . The light-armed troops were commonly taken from the tribes of Ephraim and Benjamin, 2 Chronicles 14:8; 2 Chronicles 17:17 . Compare Genesis 49:27; Psalms 78:9 .

The art of laying out an encampment appears to have been well understood in Egypt, long before the departure of the Hebrews from that country. It was there that Moses became acquainted with that mode of encamping, which, in the second chapter of Numbers, is prescribed to the Hebrews. In the encampment of the Israelites, it appears that the holy tabernacle occupied the centre. In reference to this circumstance, it may be remarked, that it is the common practice in the east, for the prince or leader of a tribe to have his tent pitched in the centre of the others; and it ought not to be forgotten, that God, whose tent or palace was the holy tabernacle, was the prince, the leader of the Hebrews. The tents nearest to the tabernacle were those of the Levites, whose business it was to watch it, in the manner of a Pretorian guard. The family of Gershom pitched to the west, that of Kehath to the south, that of Merari to the north. The priests occupied a position to the east, opposite to the entrance of the tabernacle, Numbers 1:53; Numbers 3:21-38 . At some distance to the east, were the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon; on the south were those of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad; to the west were Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin; to the north, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. The people were thus divided into four bodies, three tribes to a division; each of which divisions had its separate standard, דגל . Each of the large family associations likewise, of which the different tribes were composed, had a separate standard, termed, in contradistinction from the other, אות ; and every Hebrew was obliged to number himself with his particular division, and follow his appropriate standard. Of military standards, there were,—

1. The standard, denominated דגל; one of which pertained to each of the four general divisions. The four standards of this name were large, and ornamented with colours in white, purple, crimson, and dark blue. The Jewish Rabbins assert, (rounding their statement on Genesis 49:3; Genesis 49:9; Genesis 49:17; Genesis 49:22 , which in this case is very doubtful authority,) that the first of these standards, namely, that of Judah, bore a lion; the second, or that of Reuben, bore a man; that of Ephraim, which was the third, displayed the figure of a bull; while that of Dan, which was the fourth, exhibited the representation of cherubim. They were wrought into the standards with embroidered work.

2. The standard, called אות . The ensign of this name belonged to the separate classes of families.

3. The standard, called נס . This standard was not, like the others, borne from place to place. It appears from Numbers 21:8-9 , that it was a long pole, fixed into the earth. A flag was fastened to its top, which was agitated by the wind, and seen at a great distance, Jeremiah 4:6; Jeremiah 4:21; Jeremiah 51:2; Jeremiah 51:12; Jeremiah 51:27; Ezekiel 27:7 . In order to render it visible, as far as possible, it was erected on lofty mountains, and was in this way used as a signal, to assemble soldiers. It no sooner made its appearance on such an elevated position, than the war-cry was uttered, and the trumpets were blown, Isaiah 5:26; Isaiah 13:2; Isaiah 18:3; Isaiah 30:17; Isaiah 49:22; Isaiah 62:10-12 .

Before battle the various kinds of arms were put into the best order; the shields were anointed, and the soldiers refreshed themselves by taking food, lest they should become weary and faint under the pressure of their labours, Jeremiah 46:3-4; Isaiah 21:5 . The soldiers, more especially the generals and king, except when they wished to remain unknown, 1 Kings 22:30-34 , were clothed in splendid habiliments, which are denominated, הדריאּ?קדש , the sacred dress, Psalms 110:3 . It was the duty of the priests, before the commencement of the battle, to exhort the Hebrews to exhibit that courage which was required by the exigency of the occasion. The words which they used were as follows:— "Hear, O Israel; ye approach this day unto battle against your enemies; let not your hearts faint; fear not, and do not tremble; neither be ye terrified, because of them. For the Lord your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you,"

Deuteronomy 20:2 , &c. The last ceremony, previous to an engagement, was the sounding of the sacred trumpets by the priests, Numbers 10:9-10; 2 Chronicles 13:12-14; 1Ma_3:54 .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Armies'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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