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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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Under this head we may notice some of the usages of Hebrew warfare which have not been considered under other heads, referred to at the end of this article.

The army of Israel was chiefly composed of infantry, formed into a trained body of spearmen, and, in greater numbers, of slingers and archers, with horses and chariots in small proportion, excepting during the periods when the kingdom extended over the desert to the Red Sea. The irregulars were drawn from the families and tribes, particularly Ephraim and Benjamin, but the heavy armed derived their chief strength from Judah, and were, it appears, collected by a kind of conscription, by tribes, like the earlier Roman armies; not through the instrumentality of selected officers, but by genealogists of each tribe, under the superintendence of the princes. Of those returned on the rolls, a proportion greater or less was selected, according to the exigency of the time; and the whole male population might be called out on extraordinary occasions. When kings had rendered the system of government better organized, there was a sort of muster-master, who had returns of the effective force, or number of soldiers ready for service, but who was a kind of secretary of state. These officers, or the shoterim, struck out, or excused from service:— 1st, those who had built a house without having yet inhabited it; 2nd, those who had planted an olive or vineyard, and had not tasted the fruit—which gave leave of absence for five years; 3rd, those who were betrothed, or had been married less than one year; 4th, the fainthearted, which may mean the constitutionally delicate, rather than the cowardly.

The levies were drilled to march in ranks (), and in column by fives abreast (); hence it may be inferred that they borrowed from the Egyptian system a decimal formation, two fifties in each division making a solid square, equal in rank and file: for twice ten in rank and five in file being told off by right hand and left hand files, a command to the left hand files to face about and march six or eight paces to the rear, then to front and take one step to the right would make the hundred a solid square, with only the additional distance between the right hand or unmoved files necessary to use the shield and spear without hindrance; while the depth being again reduced to five files, they could face to the right or left, and march firmly in column, passing every kind of ground without breaking or lengthening their order.

With centuries thus arranged in masses, both movable and solid, a front of battle could be formed in simple decimal progression to a thousand, ten thousand, and to an army at all times formidable by its depth, and by the facility it afforded for the light troops, chariots of war, and cavalry, to rally behind and to issue from thence to the front. Archers and slingers could ply their missiles from the rear, which would be more certain to reach an enemy in close conflict, than was to be found the case with the Greek phalanx, because from the great depth of that body missiles from behind were liable to fall among its own front ranks. These divisions were commanded, it seems, by ketsinim, officers in charge of one thousand, who, in the first ages, may have been the heads of houses, but in the time of the kings were appointed by the crown, and had a seat in the councils of war; but the commander of the host, such as Joab, Abner, Benaiah, etc. was either the judge, or under the judge or king, the supreme head of the army, and one of the highest officers in the state. He, as well as the king, had an armor-bearer, whose duty was not only to bear his shield, spear, or bow, and to carry orders, but, above all, to be at the chief's side in the hour of battle (; ; ). Beside the royal guards, there was, as early at least as the time of David, a select troop of heroes, who appear to have had an institution very similar in principle to our modern orders of knighthood.

In military operations, such as marches in quest of, or in the presence of, an enemy, and in order of battle, the forces were formed into three divisions, each commanded by a chief captain or commander of a corps, or third part, as was also the case with other armies of the east; these constituted the center, and right and left wing, and during a march formed the van, center, and rear.

The war-cry of the Hebrews was not intonated by the ensign-bearers, as in the West, but by a Levite; for priests had likewise charge of the trumpets, and the sounding of signals; and one of them, called 'the anointed for war,' who is said to have had the charge of animating the army to action by an oration, may have been appointed to utter the cry of battle (). It was a mere shout (), or, as in later ages, Hallelujah! while the so-called mottoes of the central banners of the four great sides of the square, of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan, were more likely the battle-songs which each of the fronts of the mighty army had sung on commencing the march or advancing to do battle (; ).

Before an engagement the Hebrew soldiers were spared fatigue as much as possible, and food was distributed to them; their arms were enjoined to be in the best order, and they formed a line, as before described, of solid squares of hundreds, each square being ten deep, and as many in breadth, with sufficient intervals between the files to allow of facility in the movements, the management of the arms, and the passage to the front or rear of slingers and archers. These lasts occupied posts according to circumstances, on the flanks, or in advance, but in the heat of battle were sheltered behind the squares of spearmen; the slingers were always stationed in the rear, until they were ordered forward to cover the front, impede an hostile approach, or commence an engagement. Meantime, the king, or his representative, appeared clad in holy ornaments, and proceeded to make the final dispositions for battle, in the middle of his chosen braves, and attended by priests, who, by their exhortations, animated the ranks within hearing, while the trumpets waited to sound the signal. It was now, with the enemy at hand, we may suppose, that the slingers would be ordered to pass forward between the intervals of the line, and, opening their order, would let fly their stone or leaden missiles, until, by the gradual approach of the opposing fronts, they would be hemmed in and recalled to the rear, or ordered to take an appropriate position. Then was the time when the trumpet-bearing priests received command to sound the charge, and when the shout of battle burst forth from the ranks. The signal being given, the heavy infantry would press forward under cover of their shields, the rear ranks might then, when so armed, cast their darts, and the archers, behind them all, shoot high, so as to pitch their arrows over the lines before them, into the dense masses of the enemy beyond. If the opposing forces broke through the line, we may imagine a body of charioteers reserve, rushing from their post, and charging in among the disjointed ranks of the enemy, before they could reconstruct their order; or wheeling round a flank, fall upon the rear; or being encountered by a similar maneuver, and perhaps repulsed, or rescued by Hebrew cavalry. The king, meanwhile, surrounded by his princes, posted close to the rear of his line of battle, and in the middle of showered missiles, would watch the enemy and strive to remedy every disorder. Thus it was that several of the sovereigns of Judah were slain (; ), and that such an enormous waste of human life took place; for two hostile lines of masses, at least ten in depth, advancing under the confidence of breastplate and shield, when once engaged hand to hand, had difficulties of no ordinary nature to retreat; because the hindermost ranks not being exposed personally to the first slaughter, would not, and the foremost could not, fall back; neither could the commanders disengage the line without a certainty of being routed. The fate of the day was therefore no longer within the control of the chief, and nothing but obstinate valor was left to decide the victory. Sometimes a part of the army was posted in ambush, but this maneuver was most commonly practiced against the garrisons of cities (; ). In the case of Abraham (), when he led a small body of his own people, suddenly collected, and falling upon the guard of the captives, released them, and recovered the booty, it was a surprise, not an ambush; nor is it necessary to suppose that he fell in with the main army of the enemy. At a later period there is no doubt the Hebrews formed their armies, in imitation of the Romans, into more than one line of masses, and modeled their military institutions as near as possible upon the same system [ARMOR; ENCAMPMENTS; ENGINES OF WAR; FORTIFICATIONS; STANDARDS].





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'War'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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