The general history of ancient Israel is, by its very nature, somewhat challenging to piece together, as the written and archaeological record is fragmentary (DeVaux & McHugh 213; Miller & Hayes 19). The limited information that is available is sourced primarily from religious texts, and the metaphorical and interpretive nature of these writings creates difficulties in establishing the accuracy of the stories as historical fact (DeVaux & McHugh 241). The same difficulties are confronted when studying the military history of ancient Israel. As DeVaux and McHugh wrote, “the very words used for military equipment are far from precise, and their meaning is often uncertain" (241). In addition, the traditional sources that are used to corroborate historical interpretations, such as archaeology, have not been helpful in terms of expanding historians’ knowledge of ancient military history in Israel. Despite the challenges that are presented in the effort to reconstitute this history, a close examination of secondary sources reveals a consistent narrative that helps contemporary students learn about the important role that the military played in the early days of the Israelites. When these sources are consulted, the student learns that the organization, weaponry, and strategic goals of the military of ancient Israel were distinct from those same variables among the militaries of neighboring tribes and states. In the case of Israel, one of the historical facts that stands out is that the Israelites lacked the sophisticated weaponry and the training to use arms compared to the Philistines, who had advanced weapons of iron (Gabriel 111; Orlinsky 63). In fact, iron plays a central role in the military history of the ancient Near East, and it is this subject that is the focus of this paper.
Throughout the course of human history, the absence of an object or resource has often been as much a provocation for conflict and action as the presence of it. In the ancient Near East, iron plays a significant role in military history, both with respect to the reasons why wars were fought as well as how they were fought. Compared to its neighbors, ancient Israel did not enjoy the kinds of natural resources that were in abundance in the area now referred to as Palestine (Orlinsky 48-49). In particular, Israel lacked reserves of minerals and ores, and as Orlinsky has pointed out, “[t]he copper and iron ores [that did exist] in the south were exploited by the Israelites only when Edom was under their control" (48-49). The absence of ores, especially iron, is significant because the period was the Iron Age, and the enemies of the Israelites had already fashioned advanced weaponry by exploiting the natural resources that were adaptable for this purpose (Gabriel 105; Orlinsky 63). In fact, “[i]ron weapons had been extant in Palestine in small numbers from at least the time of Pharoah Merneptah," a fact which is known because the Pharoah’s own iron sword, was discovered by archaeologists (Gabriel 105).
The fact that the Philistines had access to ores that they could use for developing weaponry was not their only strategic advantage when compared to the Israelites. The Philistines had pioneered and begun to perfect other instruments of war, including the all-important chariot (Gabriel 111). The Israelis had no such instruments; they may not have even known about them (Gabriel 111). The Philistines actively tried to “deny the secret of iron-mongering to both the Canaanites and the Israelites, [a] monopoly [of knowledge which] is recorded in 1 Samuel 13:19-20" (Gabriel 105). In that particular passage of scripture, it was confirmed that “there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel" because the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears: but all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock" (Gabriel 105). When the Israelites finally did discover this powerful secret, it changed their military potency, their strategies, and their very motives (DeVaux & McHugh 241).
In addition to possessing the material for weapons and the means to move around, the Philistines also were able to use their weapons more effectively because their troops were more structured and organized than those of the Israelites (Orlinksy 63). As Gabriel observed, “The armies of the Philistines were mostly comprised of a well-armed professional feudal military caste…." (105). By contrast, the military of the Israelites was considered to be organized loosely and chaotically, a fact which seemed to reflect the very structure of the government, a structure which Gabriel described as non-existent (110) and which DeVaux and McHugh acknowledged as lacking in stability (214). Because of the nature of the loose organization of Israeli society, the military necessarily reflected social realities. In ancient Israel, a cohesive identity as a state and a society had not yet been formed (DeVaux & McHugh 214). Instead, Israel at that time was characterized as a conglomerate of disparate but related tribes, and each tribe tended to act independently of the others (DeVaux & McHugh 214). The Israelites were nomads, and “[a]mong nomads there [was] no distinction between the army and the people" (DeVaux & McHugh 214). Although the various tribes would come together on occasion to defend common interests, they had not trained together, did not necessarily use the same weaponry, and certainly had not had the opportunity, in most cases, to devise any meaningful and effective tactical strategy (DeVaux & McHugh 214). In fact, each man who reported for duty brought his own weapon, fashioned out of whatever materials were available to him (DeVaux & McHugh 216). These arms tended to be simple swords and slings, primitive compared to the advanced weaponry of the enemy (DeVaux & McHugh 216). Another important social variable that had direct implications for the military of ancient Israel was the fact that the Israelites were poor (DeVaux & McHugh 222). Quite simply, their economic limitations did not permit frequent military excursions, especially those that were for purposes of scouting, or prospecting in the region (DeVaux & McHugh 222).
It was not until the leadership of Saul, which spanned 1025 to 1006 B.C.E. that the trajectory of the Israeli military began to be redefined (Gabriel 110). Saul, in fact, laid the foundation for an attack by the Israelites against the Philistines with the purpose of toppling “their valuable monopoly of iron" (Orlinsky 66). “Saul called ‘all Israel’ to arms against the Ammonites," and his strong leadership resulted in one of the earliest of the Israeli military’s victories" (DeVaux & McHugh 215). The importance of this victory cannot be understated, for it was Saul’s call to arms and the subsequent success that created the conditions for political unity to finally be achieved (DeVaux & McHugh 215). By the example of Saul’s leadership, the disparate tribes of Israel began to come together, and Saul leveraged the newfound unity to pursue other strategic targets, among the Amalekites and the Philistines (DeVaux & McHugh 215). Although Saul would be killed in the Battle of Gilboa, meeting “defeat and death at the hands of the Philistines," and possibly even dying on the tip of an iron sword, Saul died knowing that he had done what no other man in military or political history had accomplished; Saul had “gathered ‘all Israel’" (DeVaux & McHugh 215).
Although the weaponry of the ancient Israeli military is one of the most incomplete chapters of history, as the “biblical texts do not describe their weapons" and “very little is known about the equipment of Israelite soldiers" (DeVaux & McHugh 241), some general observations and conclusions can be made based on the limited archaeological findings that have been reported. There are four main types of weapons and pieces of protective gear described by the literature that ancient Israelis were believed to have used for military purposes (DeVaux & McHugh 242). First, is the romah, or a pike. DeVaux and McHugh describe the romah as a simple “pointed stave [with] a metal head…fixed on by a pin or socket" (242). The romah was not “much longer than the height of an average man," and it was used in close-range fighting, generally in hand-to-hand battles (DeVaux & McHugh 242). The second weapon, referred to as a hanith, was somewhat similar to the romah, but was used differently (DeVaux & McHugh 242). The hanith was both shorter in length and lighter in weight than the romah, and it was used as a javelin. It may be reasonable to surmise that the use of iron in the hanith made a significant difference in the innovation of this particular weapon, for the application of iron to the lower end of the hanith served several functions, including “balanc[ing] the weight of the head, mak[ing] the throw more accurate,…and [making it possible for] the lance [to] be stuck in the ground" (DeVaux & McHugh 242). In addition, the butt of the hanith could be used as a weapon, possibly to strike an enemy, as with a blunt object (DeVaux & McHugh 242). According to historians, the hanith was Saul’s weapon of choice (DeVaux & McHugh 242). In addition to the romah and the hanith, iron was also used in Israelis’ arrows and in their helmets. Iron replaced bronze tips in arrows, and “never went out of use" (DeVaux & McHugh 244). As for the helmets, this was a late development in the Israeli military’s protective armoire, but an important one, and it built upon the innovations of gear worn earlier by Egyptians, Assyrians, and, not surprisingly, the Philistines (DeVaux & McHugh 246).
When iron weaponry became standard issue in the military of ancient Israel, the attentive scholar can see how the incorporation of ore was reflected even in religious thought and text. As DeVaux and McHugh wrote, “The rabbis [said] iron is for punishing’, or ‘The altar prolongs life, but iron cuts it short’" (408). They went on to point out another instance when iron was acknowledged in the scripture specific to Israelites: “Ex[odus] 20 merely says that iron ‘desecrates’ stone; the meaning is that things should be used for the service of God only in their natural condition, before they have been interfered with in any way by man" (DeVaux & McHugh 408). Thompson identified another reference to iron in the religious texts, noting that “all of the prophecies of destruction against Israel’s enemies…are mere variations of single theme," summarized in a powerful metaphor from Psalms 2 that makes a direct reference to iron: “‘Pray, and I will give the nations into your possession, [Israel,] and you will own the ends of the earth. You will crush them [the enemies] with an iron mace, break them into pieces like the shards of a pot’" (Thompson 20). One sees, then, how developments in society—even within the military—get incorporated into religious texts and thought. The role that iron played in the military history of ancient Israel is clearly a role of central importance. Its absence, coupled with other variables that must be taken into account, prevented earlier successes, and its eventual incorporation into weaponry and even religious imagery and ideology created new opportunities, including, significantly, a means for Israelis to establish a cohesive identity as a group.
De Vaux, Roland and John McHugh. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. New York: McGraw Hill, 1961.
Gabriel, Richard A. The Great Armies of Antiquity. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
Miller, James Maxwell, and John Haralson Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986.
Orlinsky, Harry M. Ancient Israel. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1954.
Thompson, Thomas L. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books, 1999.