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Weapons from Biblical Times

September 6, 2018

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore(Isaiah 2:4 ESV)

 

Introduction

 

Humans have used weapons, fashioned from various materials, for hunting and warfare since nearly the beginning of time.  These implements of violence took a variety of forms during the biblical period. Very early examples of bronze mace heads, unearthed in the Judean Desert and near Beer Sheba, testify that their use for smashing enemy skulls. Later, maces appeared as a symbol of authority, notably by Egyptian pharaohs. Whereas helmets offered some protection against maces, they could not withstand a focused blow from well-balanced hand held battle-axes, crafted of stone, bronze or iron and featuring either single or double bladed heads (Psalm 35:2-3; Jeremiah 51:20). Swords appeared only after the advent of metal smelting and assumed various lengths and forms. One of the more famous styles, developed from the battle-axe and used before and during the Exodus and Conquest, was the sickle sword, with a blade curved to resemble this agricultural implement. Sickle swords are archaeologically attested both on reliefs and a few surviving examples (e.g., Yadin 1963: 172-173, 205-207 Seevers 2013: 58-59, 121).  More common are straight swords in varying sizes and styles (Yadin 1963: 208-209). Spears and javelins, slings and sling stones, as well as arrows shot from either regular or composite bows were widely used in all periods (Yadin 1963: 40-48, 59-64, 77-83; Seevers 2013: 57-64, 119-123, 169-171, 226-231, 266, 290; Trimm 2017: 513-528).

Aside from an isolated example published in 1927, small groups of inscribed bronze arrowheads began to appear on the antiquities markets in Palestine and Israel in 1953. During the ensuing years, the corpus has grown to approach fifty pieces and will very likely exceed this number in the future (e.g., Cross 2003: 195-230, 303-308).  The first group (and perhaps others) reportedly originated near Bethlehem. The names appear to be those from a guild of professional warriors, including a person named “Banaya’, commander of a thousand,” a title that Saul gave to David (1 Samuel 18:13). Regrettably, none of the names inscribed on these arrowheads correspond with the list of David’s mighty men (2 Samuel 23:8-39; 1 Chronicles 11:10-47), although their relative dating and geographical milieu seem to correspond with David’s years as a fugitive from Saul or slightly earlier.  Ehud, the left-handed judge, may have served in a professional warrior guild of Benjaminites (Judges 3:12-30).

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

Weapons appear throughout Scripture in contexts of violence and warfare.  Examples include the account of Ehud (Judges 3:16) fashioning an 18” long double-edged sword he subsequently used to assassinate Eglon, the Moabite king. The Bible recounts (1 Samuel 13:16-22) the Philistine monopoly over iron smelting during the period of the Judges and the paucity of edged weaponry in Israel.  The famed contest between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:4-51) provides a valuable depiction of weapons and armor used by the two combatants as well as Saul.  Afterwards, David retrieves Goliath’s sword from Ahimelek the priest (1 Samuel 17:54, 21:8-9).  Archival material preserved in the Old Testament reports on the weaponry amassed by Judah’s kings, particularly Rehoboam, Uzziah and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 11:5-12; 26:14-15; 32:5).  Even in the gospels, weapons play a role in the arrest of Jesus (Matthew 26:51-52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-50; John 18:10-11), when Peter drew his sword against Malchus, and during the crucifixion (John 19:34), when a soldier pierced Jesus’s side with a spear).  The Bible also refers to weapons in distinctly metaphorical contexts (e.g., Isaiah 49:2, Hebrews 4:12; Ephesians 6:17) to illustrate theological and eschatological impressions (e.g., Psalm 46:9; Ezekiel 39:9-10).

 

Physical Descriptions

 

The Horn Museum collections includes various arrowheads, both the flat two sided blade and tang as well as socketed and ribbed “Scythian” style arrowheads that appeared in the armies of Assyria and Babylonia.  A common find along the walls of fortified cities, archers launched arrow against defenders manning the walls of a fort or city (Yadin 1963: 295-296).

Slings and slingstones were popular weapons on ancient warfare.  Made of perishable materials, slings do not generally survive, but sling stones are very common finds at ancient battlefields and cities.  Most sling stones are carefully worked and nearly perfectly round.  Amongst the Horn Museum collection are three sling-stones (73.0207; 71.0093; 71.0507) discovered at Tall Hisban (biblical Heshbon) and a replica goat hair sling (64.0081).  Trained sling men placed stones with amazing accuracy (Yadin 1963: 296-297).  A collection of javelin and spearheads from various periods, originally used by infantry (Yadin 1963: 156-157, 294-295) are also in the collection.

The Horn Museum collection includes modern replicas of Roman short swords, one of which is famous nonetheless as a movie prop used in the Hollywood biblical epic Ben-Hurin 1959.

 

Bibliography

 

Bishop, M.C., and Coulston, J.C.N.

2006    Roman Military Equipment:  From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome.  Second                          edition.  Oxford: Oxbow Books.

 

Cross, Frank Moore

2003    Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook:  Collected Papers in Hebrew and West                          Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy.  Harvard Semitic Studies 51.  Winona                              Lake:  Eisenbrauns.

 

D’Amato, Raffaele, and Salimbeti, Andrea

2015    Sea Peoples of the Bronze Age Mediterranean c. 1400 BC-1000 BC.  Elite                                    204.  Oxford: Osprey.

 

Gabriel, Richard C.

            2003    The Military History of Ancient Israel. Westport:  Praeger.

 

Gonen, Rivka

1976    Weapons of the Ancient World.  Cassell’s Introducing Archaeology Series 8.  London:                Cassell and Littlehampton Book Services.

 

1993    Charge! Weapons and Warfare in Ancient Times.  Buried                                                                Worlds.  Minneapolis: Runestone.

 

Kelle, Brad E.

            2007    Ancient Israel at War 853-586 BC.  Essential Histories 67.  Oxford:  Osprey.

 

Oakeshott, R. Ewart

            1960    The Archaeology of Weapons:  Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of             Chivalry.  London:  Lutterworth.

 

Rocca, Samuel

            2009    The Army of Herod the Great.  Men-at-Arms 443.  Oxford:  Osprey.

 

Seevers, Boyd

2013    Warfare in the Old Testament:  The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient                    Near Eastern Armies.  Grand Rapids:  Kregel Academic. 

 

Sheppard, Si

            2013    The Jewish Revolt AD 66-74.  Campaign 252.  Oxford:  Osprey.

 

Trimm, Charlie

2017    Fighting for the King and the Gods:  A Survey of Warfare in the Ancient Near                              East.  Resources for Biblical Study 88.  Atlanta: SBL.

 

Yadin, Yigael

1963    The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological                                                Discovery. London:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

 

 

 

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