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Holman Bible Dictionary
Arms and Armor
Old Testament The offensive arms of the Old Testament include long, medium, and close range arms, and the defensive items include shields and armor.
Long Range Arms The bow and arrow were effective arms from long-range (300-400 yards) and were used widely by the nations of the Bible. Israel had expert archers in men from Benjamin (1 Chronicles 8:40; 2 Chronicles 17:17 ) and the eastern tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh (1 Chronicles 5:18 ). Jonathan and Jehu were individual marksmen. At least four Israelite kings were severely or fatally wounded by enemy arrows: Saul (1 Samuel 31:3 ), Ahab (1 Kings 22:34 ), Joram (2 Kings 9:24 ), and Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:23 ). Bows were constructed with single pieces of wood, or more effectively with glued layers of wood, horn, and sinew, and possibly even with added bronze (2 Samuel 22:35; Job 20:24 ). The size varied from approximately three to six feet in length. Arrows were made of wood shafts or reeds, tipped with metal heads which were forged differently to meet the diverse defenses of the enemy. The arrow was guided by feathers, especially from the eagle, vulture, or kite. A leather quiver strapped to the back or hung over the shoulder carried between 20,30 of these arrows, or if strapped to a chariot, perhaps as many as 50. Frequently a leather arm guard was also used on the bow arm to protect it from the gut string that propelled the arrow.
One might be most familiar with the slingshot through reading about David's encounter with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:40-50 ), without realizing that it was a conventional artillery weapon for deadly long-range use by armies throughout the Middle East. Because of the long-range capabilities, expert slingers were stationed by the hundreds near the archers. It was especially valuable to have those who could sling from the left hand as well as from the right (Judges 20:16; 1 Chronicles 12:2 ). A patch of cloth or leather with two braided leather cords on either end would hold a smooth stone. The slinger then twirled the pocketed missile above his head. Release of one of the cords would eject the stone towards its victim. The blow would disarm, destabilize, knock out, or even kill the enemy. King Uzziah of Judah developed large catapults that projected arrows and stones long-range to defend Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 26:15 ).
Medium Range Arms A javelin is a spear thrown obviously a shorter distance than the archers could arch their arrows or slingers could sling their sling stones. However, as a hurled weapon, its medium range is to be differentiated from the close range thrusting spear of the phalanxed foot-soldier. David faced the javelin while successfully challenging Goliath (1 Samuel 17:6 ) and while peacefully attempting to soothe Saul's spirit. Twice the disturbed Saul hurled his javelin at David (1 Samuel 18:10-11; 1 Samuel 19:9-10 ) and even once at his own son Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:33 ). Usually made of wood or reed, some javelins had one or both of two features that aided its flight: some had a leather cord wrapped around its shaft that caused the released weapon to spin when the cord was retained in the hand, and a counterweight was sometimes fixed on the butt of the shaft. The latter could be even sharp enough to be stuck in the ground to stand the javelin (1 Samuel 26:7 ) or even used to kill (2 Samuel 2:23 ). A quiver was used often to aid the soldier in carrying more than one javelin at a time.
Close Range Arms Hand-to-hand combat brought different weapons to the fore: some sharp, some dull, some long, some short. The thrusting spear was longer and heavier than the javelin and could have been thrown if needed. The soldiers from the tribes of Judah and Naphtali carried spears as a tribal weapon (1Chronicles 12:24,1 Chronicles 12:34 ). Guards protected the Temple with these arms (2 Chronicles 23:9 ). Front battle lines often featured foot soldiers equipped with rectangular shields carrying spears jutting out beyond the walls of shields and pressing forward at the expense of the enemy front line.
Two types of swords were used in the biblical times, the single edge and the two-edged sword (Psalm 149:6 , Proverbs 5:4 ). The single edge was used most effectively by swinging it and hitting the enemy to lacerate the flesh. The blade could be straight or curved to a great degree. In the latter case the sharp edge of the sword was on the outside of the curve. The double-edged sword was used primarily for piercing rather than lacerating, though it could obviously be used either way if necessary. The sword was carried in a sheath attached to the belt. The varieties of the overall width and length of swords in proportion to the hilts were numerous. The difference between a straight sword and the dagger is simply the length. The earliest blades were more daggers than swords. They were lengthened gradually through the ages. Ehud probably used a long dagger in assassinating King Eglon of Moab, since it measured about 18 inches (one cubit, Judges 3:16-26 ).
The mace and battle ax are seldom mentioned in the Bible (Proverbs 25:18; Jeremiah 51:20; Ezekiel 9:2 ); yet they played a significant role in hand-to-hand combat in the biblical lands. The mace was a war club that was used to crush the head of the enemy. The heavy metal or stone head of the weapon would be of various shapes such as round, oval, or pear-shaped. Its wooden handle would fasten by going through the head like a modern hammer or axe. The handle was formed with some flaring at the bottom to keep the weapon from sliding out of the hand. With the pervasive introduction of armor, especially the helmet, the mace gave way in popularity to the piercing edge of the battle ax. These axes with narrow heads could penetrate more easily a helmet or other armor with their elongated shape. Other blades were designed with wider edges to cut and open the flesh where less or no armor was worn.
Armor bearers accompanied the military leaders to bring along extra weapons and defensive equipment that would be expended during a battle (arrows, javelins, shields). They sometimes aided the soldier as well by positioning their shields for them, as in the case of Goliath, and at times killing those enemy soldiers who were left helplessly wounded by preceding combatants.
Battering rams, as modeled by Ezekiel in his object lesson for the Israelites (Ezekiel 4:2 ), were actually rolled on wheels and had metal ends attached to wooden shafts to withstand the collision force with city gates or stone walls.
Defensive Arms Defense against all these arms consisted of the shield which was carried or armor which was worn. Shields were made of wicker, or of leather stretched over wooden frames with handles on the inside. These were much more maneuverable than heavier metal, but obviously less protective. A cross between metal and leather was achieved by attaching metal disks or plates to the leather over a portion of the surface. Two different sizes are referred to in the Bible and in many ancient illustrations (2 Chronicles 23:9 ). One was a round shield used with lighter weapons and covered half the body at most. The tribe of Benjamin preferred these along with the bow and arrow (2 Chronicles 14:8 ). So did Nehemiah when he equipped his men for protection while rebuilding the city walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 4:16 ). The gold and brass shields made by Solomon and Rehoboam respectively were ceremonial and decorative in function (1 Kings 14:25-28 ) and were of this size. A larger shield was more rectangular and covered nearly, if not all, the body and was so large at times that a special shieldbearer was employed to carry it in front of the weapon bearer. Both Goliath and one of these assistants faced David (1 Samuel 17:41 ). The tribes of Judah (2 Chronicles 14:8 ), Gad (1 Chronicles 12:8 ), and Naphtali (1 Chronicles 12:34 ) used this type of shield with the long thrusting spear or lance as the offensive weapon in the other hand. Bowmen also stood behind standing shields while they flung their arrows.
Armor is essentially a shield that is worn directly on the body. Since the body is most fatally vulnerable in the head and chest regions, it was especially there where armor was clad. Saul and Goliath wore helmets (1Samuel 17:5,1 Samuel 17:38 ), as did the entire army of Judah, at least in the time of Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:14 ). The helmet was usually made of leather or metal and was designed with various shapes depending on the army and even on the unit within an army so that the commander could distinguish one unit from another from a higher vantage point. The differently decorated and constructed helmets helped the soldier tell whether he was near an enemy or comrade in the confusion of tight hand-to-hand combat.
With the rise in popularity of the arrow and with its speed of flight and imperceptible approach on its victim, the mail came to be more and more necessary to cover the torso. Fishscale-like construction of small metal plates sewn to cloth or leather was the breastplate for the ancient soldier. These scales could number as high as 700-1000 per “coat.” Each coat obviously could be quite heavy and expensive to produce in volume. The distant enemy units of archers who might find themselves firing on each other would wear mail especially, as well as those archers riding in chariots. While in a chariot, Ahab was hit and killed by an arrow exactly where the mail was least protective—at the seam where the sleeve and breast of the coat met (1 Kings 22:34 ).
Leg armor, like the bronze leglets of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:6 ), was not regularly used in the Old Testament times.
New Testament Arms and armor surface on only a few occasions in the New Testament. Of course, the New Testament times found Roman imperial soldiers equipped with metal helmets, protective leather and metal vests, leg armor, shields, swords and spears. Christ accepted a legal, defensive use of the sword (Luke 22:36-38 ), but he rebuked Peter's illegal and more offensive strike against Malchus at a time of arrest (John 18:10-11 ). Often the New Testament uses arms and armor symbolically as in the Old Testament poets and prophetic books. The Word of the Lord and its piercing, penetrating effect is referred to as a sword (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 1:16; Revelation 2:16; Revelation 19:15 ,Revelation 19:15,19:21 ). Paul used both arms and armor of a soldier to express the virtues necessary to defend the believer against Satan (Ephesians 6:10-17; compare Isaiah 59:16-17 ).
Metaphorical Use In the Old Testament, the devastating effect of a vicious tongue is compared with the destructive purpose of the sword and arrow (Psalm 57:4; Psalm 64:3; Proverbs 12:18 ). However, when weapons are used metaphorically in the Old Testament, it is usually to help convey the supreme sovereignty of God. For instance, one's primary dependence on military arms is considered foolish, since they are not the ultimate source of deliverance, whether it be by the bow or sword (Joshua 24:12; Psalm 44:6; Hosea 1:7 ). This is because God overpowers and shatters the bow and arrow, spear, sword, and shield (Psalm 46:9; Psalm 76:3 ). In other places, God's judgment is spoken of as a bow or sword (Psalm 7:12-13; Isaiah 66:16; Jeremiah 12:12 ). He also uses the literal weapons of conquering nations to judge Israel (Isaiah 3:25 ). Finally, that God is the faithful protector of His people is often expressed by referring to Him as “a shield unto them that put their trust in Him” (Proverbs 30:5 ), just as He Himself encouraged Abraham, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield” (Genesis 15:1 ).
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Arms and Armor'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/a/arms-and-armor.html. 1991.