A large body of men organized and trained for warfare on land. The common Hebrew term for “army” (tsa·vaʼʹ) is usually used with reference to human armed forces (Nu 1:3), but it can also denote spirit creatures in the heavens (1Ki 22:19) and physical heavenly bodies. (De 4:19) The Hebrew chaʹyil, evidently from a root meaning “endure” (Job 20:21), is used to refer to a “military force” and a “combat force” (2Sa 8:9; 1Ch 20:1), but it also means “ability; vital energy; capableness; resources; wealth.” (1Ch 9:13; De 33:11; Pr 31:29; Isa 8:4; Eze 28:4) The Hebrew gedhudhʹ denotes a “marauder band” or “troops.” (2Sa 22:30; 2Ch 25:9) Of the four Greek terms referring to an army in the Scriptures, three (stra·ti·aʹ, straʹteu·ma, and stra·toʹpe·don) come from the Greek root stra·tosʹ, basically referring to an encamped army, as opposed to one formed into battle lines. Stra·toʹpe·don, containing the element peʹdon (ground; earth), is appropriately rendered ‘encamped army.’ (Lu 21:20) The Greek term pa·rem·bo·leʹ (from pa·raʹ [beside] and balʹlo [throw]) literally refers to the distribution or arranging of soldiers in battle order. It can mean “army,” “soldiers’ quarters,” or “camp.”
From the time of Abraham, Jehovah’s pre-Christian servants engaged in armed warfare. After the Elamite Chedorlaomer and his allies carried off Abraham’s nephew Lot and his household, Abraham mustered his army of “trained men, three hundred and eighteen slaves,” and with his neighboring confederates went in pursuit up to Dan, about 200 km (120 mi) NNE. He then divided the forces and attacked by night, a strategy repeatedly employed in Biblical times.
Israelite. The nation of Israel, over 400 years later, left Egypt in great haste, but in well-organized “battle formation,” possibly like a five-part army composed of a main body with vanguard, rear guard, and two wings. (Ex 6:26; 13:18) The Egyptian army in pursuit consisted of “six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt.” Each chariot usually carried three men, one to manage the horses and two to fight, likely archers, since the bow was the principal offensive weapon of the Egyptians. The cavalry accompanied them. (Ex 14:7, 9, 17) According to Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, II, 324 [xv, 3]), the Hebrews were “pursued by 600 chariots along with 50,000 horsemen and heavy infantry to the number of 200,000.”
Soon after the Exodus the Israelites engaged in their first military combat as a freed people. The Amalekites attacked them at Rephidim, in the region of Mount Sinai. At Moses’ direction, Joshua quickly assembled a fighting force. The battle lasted the major part of the day, and in spite of their inexperience in the art of warfare, Jehovah gave Israel the victory.
About a year after the Exodus, a count was taken of those eligible for service in the army, males 20 years old and upward. The census totaled 603,550. (Nu 1:1-3, 45, 46) A similar count toward the end of the wilderness journey showed that the army strength had dropped slightly to 601,730. (Nu 26:2, 51) The Levites were exempt from army duty, hence not included in these figures but were numbered separately.
Exemptions. Besides the tribe of Levi, the following exemptions from military service were granted: (1) the man who “has built a new house and has not inaugurated it”; (2) “the man that has planted a vineyard and not begun to use it”; (3) “the man that has become engaged to a woman and has not taken her”; (4) the one who marries “should not go out into the army, [but] . . . should continue exempt at his house for one year”; (5) “the man that is fearful and fainthearted.”
Army arrangements after conquest of Canaan. After the general settlement in Canaan there was little need for a large standing army; border skirmishes were usually handled by the local tribes involved. When it was necessary to assemble a larger unified fighting force from several tribes, Jehovah raised up Judges to take command. The call to arms was accomplished in different ways: trumpet signals, messengers, or tokens were sent to stir the fighting men to action.
Warriors appear to have furnished their own weapons: swords, spears, lances, darts, slings, bows, and arrows. The men generally were responsible for their own foodstuffs; hence Jesse sent provisions for his sons in Saul’s army. (1Sa 17:17, 18) There is one case, however, when 10 percent of the volunteers were set aside to procure provisions for the rest.
Jehovah’s presence in Israel’s camp called for sanctity, ceremonial cleanness on the part of the soldiers. (De 23:9-14) As sexual intercourse made a man unclean until the next day, under the Law, both David and Uriah carefully avoided sex relations while on active duty. (Le 15:16-18; 1Sa 21:1-6; 2Sa 11:6-11) The armies of pagan nations often raped the women of conquered cities, but not so the victorious soldiers of Israel. Nor were they permitted for a month to marry a captive woman.
Israel’s ultimate victories depended on Jehovah, yet good handling of the army was necessary. This responsibility rested on appointed officers and chiefs over thousands and over hundreds. Priests were assigned to encourage and to give direction and purpose to the campaigns. (Nu 31:6, 14; De 20:2-4, 9) During the days of the Judges, the one whom Jehovah raised up led the army personally into battle. The judge also planned the tactics and strategy. He deployed his forces in various ways: division into units (usually three), attack by surprise, ambush, frontal assault, securing river fords, and so forth.
Under the monarchy. Not satisfied with the theocratic arrangement under the Judges, the people wanted to be “like all the nations,” having a king to go out before them and fight their battles. (1Sa 8:20) Samuel, however, warned them that such a king would not fight single-handed; he would take their sons “and put them as his in his chariots and among his horsemen, and some will have to run before his chariots.” (1Sa 8:11, 12; see RUNNERS.) The king was commander in chief, with the chief of the army second in authority.
The size and strength of Saul’s army varied according to the demands. On one occasion he selected 3,000 men, 1,000 of whom were under the command of his son Jonathan. (1Sa 13:2) For another exploit 330,000 were assembled. (1Sa 11:8) But compared with the highly mechanized armies of the Philistines, who, according to the Masoretic text, were capable of mustering 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and “people like the grains of sand . . . for multitude,” as they did at Michmash, Israel appeared ill equipped. “It happened on the day of battle that not a sword or a spear was found in the hand of any of the people,” except Saul and Jonathan.
During the reign of David the army of Israel was greatly improved, both in size and efficiency. There were well over 300,000 men equipped for war that came to Hebron and turned the kingship of Saul over to David. (1Ch 12:23-38) Non-Israelites also served in David’s army.
David retained many of the older organizational plans of the army, such as holding the position of commander in chief himself, appointing field commanders like Joab, Abner, and Amasa, and having under them the heads over thousands and over hundreds. (2Sa 18:1; 1Ki 2:32; 1Ch 13:1; 18:15) However, David instituted some novel plans of his own. A system of monthly rotation provided 12 groups of 24,000 (a total of 288,000), so that a soldier normally served only one month a year. (1Ch 27:1-15) This does not mean that all 24,000 for one month came from the same tribe, but, rather, each tribe furnished its share of the monthly quota throughout the year.
Cavalry and chariot units. Chariots, mobile firing platforms, were highly prized by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians for their speed and maneuverability. They thus became fitting symbols of military power of the leading world empires. Under David, Israel’s greatest military commander, the army in its entirety was composed of the foot soldier with his hand weapons
Therefore, as Joshua hamstrung captured horses and burned enemy chariots, David did the same with horses seized from Hadadezer, king of Zobah. He hamstrung all except a hundred of the many horses captured from the king of Zobah. (Jos 11:6-9; 2Sa 8:4) In a song David explained how his enemies concerned themselves with chariots and horses, “but, as for us, concerning the name of Jehovah our God we shall make mention.” “The horse is a deception for salvation.” (Ps 20:7; 33:17) As the proverb says: “The horse is something prepared for the day of battle, but salvation belongs to Jehovah.”
With the rule of Solomon a new chapter was written in the annals of Israel’s army. His reign was comparatively peaceful, yet he multiplied horses and chariots. (See CHARIOT.) For the most part these horses were purchased and imported from Egypt. Whole cities had to be built throughout the territory to accommodate these new military divisions. (1Ki 4:26; 9:19; 10:26, 29; 2Ch 1:14-17) However, Jehovah never blessed this innovation of Solomon, and with his death and the dividing of the kingdom came the decline in Israel’s army. As Isaiah later wrote: “Woe to those going down to Egypt for assistance, those who rely on mere horses, and who put their trust in war chariots, because they are numerous, and in steeds, because they are very mighty, but who have not looked to the Holy One of Israel and have not searched for Jehovah himself.”
During the divided kingdom. Following the division of the kingdom there was constant hostility between Judah and Israel. (1Ki 12:19, 21) Rehoboam’s successor Abijah had only 400,000 men in his army when Jeroboam came against him with 800,000. In spite of being outnumbered two to one, the southern kingdom proved successful “because they leaned upon Jehovah.” Israel lost 500,000 men.
In addition to intertribal strife, there was the external antagonism from the pagan nations round about. Israel was obliged to maintain a standing army because of provocative foreign relations with Syria to the north. (2Ki 13:4-7) Judah also had to resist the advances of pagan armies. On one occasion Egypt invaded Judah and took away much booty. (1Ki 14:25-27) At another time Ethiopia came against Judah with an army of 1,000,000 men and 300 chariots. King Asa’s forces were only 580,000, but when he “began to call to Jehovah his God,” “Jehovah defeated the Ethiopians,” and not a single one was left alive.
Again, when Moab, Ammon, and the Ammonim came up against Jehoshaphat, although he had a force numbering 1,160,000, Jehoshaphat “set his face to search for Jehovah,” who assured him, “The battle is not yours, but God’s.” (2Ch 17:12-19; 20:1-3, 15) Military history was made on that occasion, for a chorus of trained voices “went out ahead of the armed men,” singing, “Give praise to Jehovah.” In confusion the enemy forces destroyed each other.
Roman. The Roman army, estimated to number 300,000 during Augustus’ reign, was organized quite differently from those of former empires. The principal part of the Roman military establishment was the legion. It was a large independent unit, a complete army in itself, rather than a specialized portion of a greater force. Sometimes legions fought together, merging their resources and strength under a central command, as when four legions combined under Titus for the siege of Jerusalem, 70 C.E. But usually the legion stood alone with its individual commission of duty. Supplementing the legionnaires were noncitizens from all parts of the empire who made up the auxilia, often volunteers from the local district. Auxiliaries, backed up by the legions, were stationed along the borders. Upon honorable discharge one in the auxilia was granted Roman citizenship.
The number of legions varied at different times, from 25 or less to as many as 33. Likewise the number of soldiers comprising the legion fluctuated from about 4,000 to 6,000; in the first century the force usually numbered 6,000. For this reason “legion” as used in the Scriptures apparently means an indefinite, large number. (Mt 26:53; Mr 5:9; Lu 8:30) Each legion had its own commander, responsible solely to the emperor, and under him were six tribunes, called chiliarchs (military commanders, NW).
The legion was divided into ten cohorts, or bands. Thus the Scriptures speak of “the Italian band” and “the band of Augustus.” (Ac 10:1; 27:1; see AUGUSTUS, BAND OF.) When Herod Agrippa died, 44 C.E., there were five cohorts in Caesarea. Further subdivided, the legion had 60 centuries, usually 100 men each, under the leadership of a centurion (army officer, NW). These officers were especially valuable, having the responsibility of training soldiers. (Mt 8:5-13; 27:54; Ac 10:1; 21:32; 22:25, 26; 23:17, 23; 24:23; 27:1, 6, 11, 31, 43; see ARMY OFFICER.) In each legion there were ten officers of special rank who acted as body guardsmen, couriers, and sometimes as executioners.
The Roman legions had their various standards and ensigns bearing images of eagles or some animals; later small statues of the emperor were added. These banners had religious significance, were considered sacred and holy to the point of being worshiped, and were guarded at the cost of human life. It was for such reasons that the Jews violently opposed their presence in Jerusalem.
Those Known as Early Christians. Early Christians refused to serve in the Roman army, in both the legions and auxilia, considering such service as wholly incompatible with the teachings of Christianity. Says Justin Martyr, of the second century C.E., in his “Dialogue With Trypho, a Jew” (CX): “We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,
“A careful review of all the information available goes to show that, until the time of Marcus Aurelius [121-180 C.E.], no Christian became a soldier; and no soldier, after becoming a Christian, remained in military service.” (The Rise of Christianity, by E. W. Barnes, 1947, p. 333) “It will be seen presently that the evidence for the existence of a single Christian soldier between 60 and about 165 A.D. is exceedingly slight; . . . up to the reign of Marcus Aurelius at least, no Christian would become a soldier after his baptism.” (The Early Church and the World, by C. J. Cadoux, 1955, pp. 275, 276) “In the second century, Christianity . . . had affirmed the incompatibility of military service with Christianity.” (A Short History of Rome, by G. Ferrero and C. Barbagallo, 1919, p. 382) “The behavior of the Christians was very different from that of the Romans. . . . Since Christ had preached peace, they refused to become soldiers.” (Our World Through the Ages, by N. Platt and M. J. Drummond, 1961, p. 125) “The first Christians thought it was wrong to fight, and would not serve in the army even when the Empire needed soldiers.” (The New World’s Foundations in the Old, by R. and W. M. West, 1929, p. 131) “The Christians . . . shrank from public office and military service.” (Editorial introduction to “Persecution of the Christians in Gaul, A.D. 177,” in The Great Events by Famous Historians, edited by R. Johnson, 1905, Vol. III, p. 246) “While they [the Christians] inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. . . . It was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes.”
Heavenly. Heavenly armies, in the sense of well-organized multitudes, refer not only to the physical stars but more frequently to the mighty hosts of angelic spirit creatures under the supreme command of Jehovah God. (Ge 2:1; Ne 9:6) The expression “Jehovah of armies” occurs 283 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, first at 1 Samuel 1:3, and twice its equivalent is found in the Greek Scriptures. (Ro 9:29; Jas 5:4; see JEHOVAH OF ARMIES.) In discussing the angelic warriors, such military terms are used as “legions,” “war chariots,” “horsemen,” and so forth. (2Ki 2:11, 12; 6:17; Mt 26:53) In size, the camp of Jehovah’s invisible armies includes “tens of thousands, thousands over and over again,” of war chariots. (Ps 68:17) As a fighting force, they are invincible. “The prince of the army of Jehovah” with drawn sword appeared to Joshua and gave instructions on how Jericho would be captured. (Jos 5:13-15) One angel of these heavenly armies slew 185,000 Assyrians in a single night. (2Ki 19:35) When war broke out in heaven Michael and his angels hurled Satan and his demons down to the vicinity of the earth. (Re 12:7-9, 12) Furthermore, there will be no escape when “the armies . . . in heaven” follow the “King of kings and Lord of lords” as he brings destruction upon “the wild beast and the kings of the earth and their armies.” (Re 19:14, 16, 19, 21) At the same time, however, this mighty invisible army of Jehovah gives protection to his faithful servants on earth.