The Bible has no great set-piece battles like those of Alexander or Napoleon - if they happened, the Bible does not describe them, or at least not in detail. Very little is known about the deployment of troops during any particular battle - the Bible describes the reasons for the battle, who was involved, and what the result was, but it tells us virtually nothing of the strategies used by the opposing generals.
Before the reign of David, fighting took the form of skirmishes or raids. In this early period, the Israelites were experts at guerilla fighting. They relied on surprise attacks to panic their enemies.
These battles fall into the following two groups - roughly before the reign of David, and after it:
Before David and the establishment of a monarchy:
From the time of King Saul to the Exile
In the early part of Israel's history, each tribe provided a militia from its able-bodied men. This group was willing and able to fight, and had received some training. They were not a regular army as we understand the term, not full-time soldiers, but men who were called on to defend their clan whenever there was a need - somewhat like the men who fought for Scotland in the Battle of Culloden.
In the battle scenes in the film 'Braveheart', William Wallace led a federation of clans/tribes. Each clan could leave or change sides if they wished. That was the pattern for the Israelite army. The tribes were often motivated by self-interest, which is fair enough if the men were going to face death in battle.
But this system could be a problem for a leader trying to muster a large force and hold it together. The advantage of militia is that the men will fight passionately for their home and families. The disadvantage is that they cannot be held for long-term wars or fighting. At harvest time, for example, men often simply downed their weapons and returned home to bring in the harvest.
Despite their undoubted courage, the tribal militias were not really successful. Their enemies, such as the Philistines, were well-organized - 1 Samuel 4:2 tells us that the Philistines were drawn up in lines when they attacked Israel, which suggests a disciplined, well-trained enemy. As well, the Israelites were poorly equipped, with little or no armour.
When King Saul, and then King David and his son King Solomon took the throne, there was a dramatic change. These kings began to copy the strategies of their enemies. They formed regular armies with full-time trained soldiers. They used new strategies and tactics, things that they could see worked well for their enemies - for example, laying siege to a city. But they also held onto the tactics that had worked for them before: surprise attacks, psychological warfare, propaganda.
There are few references to weapons in the period of the Judges, or in the battles that were fought then - no Israelite spears, bows, shields, javelins, axes or maces - or the protective body armor (see Judges 5:8). Their enemies, on the other hand, were well armed - Goliath had a full suit of armor.
After the introduction of monarchy by Saul, David and Solomon, weapons became much more common. The standing army was equipped with effective weapons, and when the Philistine control over the manufacture of metal was broken, the weapons industry of Israel came under the control of the king.
Hand held weapons included the sword, the mace or club, and spears and javelins. Projectile weapons using centrifugal force included the bow and arrow, and the sling. The slingers were probably more accurate at hitting their target than the archers.
Sun Tzu, the great Chinese war tactician, said 'The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack them only when there is no alternative.' He knew that attacking, or even laying siege to a city, was expensive and time-consuming, so he did not favor it.
But siege warfare was the method Joshua frequently used in the story of the infiltration of Canaan, since he lacked the numbers to face an enemy in an open battle. Siege warfare was practised by Abimelech at Shechem, and Jephtah also used it in Ammon.
It was expensive and time-consuming, but effective. The great empires of the ancient Near East perfected this type of warfare. The Assyrians developed specialized storm troops who were able to take advantage of any breaches in the wall. Trained sappers built zig-zag trenches allowing their own soldiers to get closer to the walls of the besieged city, without being hit by missiles coming from the city. Their engineers developed new siege weapons such as covered battering rams and mining tools.
The attackers would seal off the city under attack by encircling it with their army. The soldiers would settle down to work, but it was a busy time for the engineers, who would begin building siege works. An earthen wall might be built to encircle the city; it would have guard towers at regular intervals, to keep watch for breakouts. Siege ramps made of earth and wood would be built (see above right) as soon as the battering rams were ready for use.
Unless relief came from outside, the inhabitants of the city were trapped. All they could look forward to was starvation, surrender, slavery or death - and probably a horrible death at that. Jeremiah describes some of the terrible things that happened during a siege: 'I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege (19:9). And Isaiah comments that 'their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets' (5:25)
See Military Architecture in the Bible: Lachish for the story of the siege.
Unfortunately for Israel it lay at a strategic crossroad, straddling major trade routes and wedged between two great empires, Sumeria/Assyria and Egypt. So it often became a battlefield when foreign troops passed through on their way to somewhere else.
War was part of life in ancient Israel, though the way it was waged changed drastically in the time between 1300-586BC. At first the soldiers were voluntary militia, then later became an organized and disciplined army. Finally, some thirty or forty years after the death of Christ, they were a desperate, defensive force against the Roman invaders.
'For everything there is a season....... a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3.1-8.)
See Bible Top Ten Warriors for the Bible's most valiant soldiers.
War - Old Testament - Archaeology of The Bible - Bible Study Resource: The Army, Battles, Weapons and Military Engineering in the Bible