Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

war, armed conflict between two or more opposing peoples. War was so common in the biblical period that the ot makes specific reference to times of peace (Judg. 3:11; 1 Kings 5:4; 2 Chron. 14:1, 5-7). As in modern times, the wars of antiquity were fought for political, economic, and religious reasons, and Palestine’s position near the landbridge between Africa and Asia greatly multiplied the number of wars in which the inhabitants were involved.

The weapons, strategies, and tactics used for war in the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world were highly diversified, and the methodology of war varied from people to people and from period to period. Nevertheless, some aspects of warfare were universal. For example, battles were fought on land and/or sea, with land encounters being subdivided into two basic categories: battles in open terrain (1 Sam. 14) and attacks on fortified cities (2 Kings 17:5; 25:1). While only a few ancient peoples developed significant naval forces (e.g., Phoenicians, Greeks, Persians, Romans), most ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman armies included two major divisions, foot soldiers and horsemen, and many armies made effective use of chariots (e.g., the Egyptians and Assyrians). Infantrymen were divided into various contingents that specialized in the use of particular weapons (e.g., bows and arrows, slings and slingstones). Although some field campaigns were provisioned ‘off the land,’ the great imperial armies counted auxiliary troops within their ranks whose responsibility it was to provision the troops (e.g., the sophisticated logistical system that contributed to the success of Alexander the Great).

Like their modern counterparts, ancient armies poured much human energy and technical skill into the preparation for and waging of war. The number of soldiers involved in a single battle varied from a handful to many thousands, and the death and devastation caused by war was often enormous (2 Kings 8:12; 25:9-10). Finally, students of ancient warfare cannot help but be impressed by the technical skills that were employed in the production of weaponry. A careful examination of the archaeological evidence and artistic representations that relate to military activity allows one to understand that even ancient warfare was an art and a science that involved great learning (see Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3).

Since the Hebrew conquest and settlement of Canaan was partly accomplished by means of armed conflict with a number of people, Israel’s early history (ca. 1225-1025 b.c.) is, to some degree, a history of the wars of Israel. Following these early phases of Israel’s history, the Hebrew monarchy (ca. 1025-586 b.c.) was established and maintained by means of war. The biblical literature that describes the period between the Exile and the end of the nt era does not mention war as much as the narratives relating to the earlier history. Nevertheless, the events and thoughts of the later centuries were molded by the wars that brought Israel under the dominion of Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman conquerors. Throughout this history, many of Israel’s outstanding leaders were known for their military achievements (e.g., Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Saul, David, and Uzziah). Special attention should be drawn to the popular revolts led by Judas Maccabeus (ca. 167 b.c.) and Simon Bar-Kochba (a.d. 132).

This emphasis upon war may be seen as a natural development, since one of the fundamental images of God in the ot is that of a warrior (Exod. 15:3; Ps. 24:8; Isa. 42:13). Israel’s wars were often based upon an ideology that emerged from this understanding of God’s nature—Israel’s enemies are the Lord’s enemies (Judg. 5:31; 1 Sam. 30:26), and the Lord assists Israel in times of war (Exod. 14:13-14; Josh. 10:11; 24:12; 1 Sam. 17:45). Although ‘holy war’ in the proper sense is not mentioned in the ot, divinely sanctioned wars are mentioned quite frequently (Josh. 8:1; Judg. 4:14-15; 1 Sam. 23:4; 2 Kings 3:18), but this ideology was not unique to Israel (see the Mesha Inscription set up about the middle of the ninth century b.c. to commemorate the victory of Mesha, king of Moab, over Israel). While this so-called divine war creates numerous problems for theologians and ethicists, it must be recognized that war was a common phenomenon, almost a necessary evil, in the ancient world.

Although religion was not called upon to explain every war in which Israel engaged, it is obvious that the disastrous defeat that led to the Exile in 586 b.c. was understood as a withdrawal of God’s assistance and the resultant failure of Israel’s army to withstand the Babylonian invasion. In fact, the idea that God ‘used’ war to punish an apostate Israel appears again and again in the ot (Isa. 5:26-28; Jer. 5:15-17; Ezek. 21:1-32; 23:22-28). The belief that God disciplined other nations by means of war was also widespread (Isa. 13; Jer. 46:1-10; Nah. 2:1-9); once again, this theological interpretation of history was common in other parts of the ancient Near East. Ultimately, the language of war was employed by the biblical writers to depict judgment (Joel 2:1-11; 3:9-12; Zeph. 1:14-18; Rev. 12:7-8; 17:14; 19:11). Because war was such a well-known phenomenon and such a serious matter, whether in reality or in its literary analogies (Pss. 18:34-42; 55:21; Eccles. 3:8; 9:18), it was also used as an appropriate symbol for the Christian life (2 Cor. 10:3-4; Eph. 6:11-17; 1 Tim. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:3-4; James 4:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:11).


Connolly, Peter. Greece and Rome at War. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981.
Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. New York: St. Martin’s, 1980.
Yadin, Yigael. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands. 2 vols. Jerusalem: International Publishing, 1963.



Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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