A two-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle, developed primarily for the battlefield rather than for troop movement behind the lines. All four Hebrew terms referring to the chariot (mer·kavʹ [1Ki 4:26]; mer·ka·vahʹ [Ge 41:43]; reʹkhev [1Ki 1:5]; rekhuvʹ [Ps 104:3]) come from the root verb ra·khavʹ, meaning “ride.” (Ge 24:61; 1Sa 25:42; 1Ki 18:45) The Greek term is harʹma. (Ac 8:28) The chariot provided fast transport in combat, gave soldiers a mobile firing platform, and furnished them with psychological shock power when charging into ranks of foot soldiers. Chariots with many variations of design are widely illustrated on ancient monuments, attesting to both their antiquity and their widespread use.
Basically, the chariot usually consisted of a platform mounted on a single axle, with thigh-high sides; the open back of the car provided quick and easy entrance. The chariot car had a tongue and yoke harnessed to speedy horses. Often chariots were outfitted with auxiliary equipment consisting of quiver and bow cases, shields, and spears. An added menace to foot soldiers was the practice of extending iron scythes from the hubs of the wheels of some war chariots. (Jos 17:16, 18; Jg 1:19) When there was only one charioteer, the reins were held around his waist or hips in battle, leaving his hands free to handle the weapons. Larger and heavier chariots with multiple spans of horses had crews of two, three, or four, with a driver and one or two fighters, and perhaps a shield-man.—Ex 14:7, ftn.
Speed, maneuverability, and stability were prime factors that were improved with continued development. For example, by moving the axle toward the rear, greater maneuverability and stability were achieved. Replacing solid wheels with spoked ones lightened the weight and increased the speed. (1Ki 7:33) The six-spoke wheel became the most common, though some wheels were designed with four, or with eight or more. Using lightweight woods, with only the fittings of leather, bronze, or iron, made chariots light enough that one or two men could carry them over rough terrain or small streams.
War chariots were employed by many of the pagan nations that opposed Israel. At the Red Sea in 1513 B.C.E., Pharaoh’s entire army, including his 600 special war chariots “and all the other chariots of Egypt,” were destroyed by Jehovah. (Ex 14:6, 7; 15:4, 19; Jos 24:6) When conquering the Promised Land, the Israelites routed the enemy and burned many of their captured chariots. (Jos 11:4-9) Jabin the king of Canaan held the Israelites in bondage for 20 years until Jehovah pinned down and destroyed his fleet of 900 chariots equipped with iron scythes and commanded by Sisera, at the torrent valley of Kishon. (Jg 4:2, 3, 13, 15, 16; 5:28) During the period of Israel’s kings, at one time or another, the Philistines, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Syrians, Assyrians, and Babylonians battled against them with large chariot forces, as many as 32,000 chariots on one occasion. (1Sa 13:5; 2Sa 1:6; 1Ch 19:6, 7, 18; 2Ch 12:2, 3; 14:9; 16:8; Isa 37:21, 24) In pronouncements of doom, the prophets sometimes mentioned the chariots in which such nations prided themselves.—Jer 50:37; 51:21; Mic 5:10, 15.
The more level places, such as the Plains of Philistia and the broad Valley of Jezreel, were better suited for chariot warfare than was the hilly country. On one occasion the Syrians boasted that their chariots would overcome Israel if the latter could be lured out of the mountains to fight on the flat land, for, as they thought, “[Israel’s] God is a God of mountains.” However, the great defeat suffered by the Syrians proved that Jehovah is also “a God of low plains.”—1Ki 20:23-30.
In Israel no sizable national chariot force developed until the time of Solomon. This was due in large measure to God’s warning that the king was not to multiply horses, as if the nation’s security depended on them. This restriction limited the use of chariots, since horses were used to power such vehicles. (De 17:16) When Samuel warned of the burden that human kings would inflict on the people, he told them: “Your sons he will take and put them as his in his chariots.” (1Sa 8:11) Absalom and Adonijah, in attempting to usurp the kingship, each had a chariot made for himself, with 50 men to run before it. (2Sa 15:1; 1Ki 1:5) When David defeated the king of Zobah, he preserved 100 chariot horses.—2Sa 8:3, 4; 10:18.
King Solomon, in building up the army of Israel, expanded the number of chariots to 1,400. (1Ki 10:26, 29; 2Ch 1:14, 17) In addition to Jerusalem, other towns known as chariot cities had special facilities for taking care of all this mechanized war equipment.—1Ki 9:19, 22; 2Ch 8:6, 9; 9:25.
After Solomon’s death, chariots were common in both the northern and southern kingdoms. The northern kingdom had a “chief of half the chariots,” indicating that there were two principal divisions of chariots. (1Ki 16:9) King Jehu was recognized by his furious chariot driving. (2Ki 9:20) Several kings of both Judah and Israel, namely, Ahab, Jehoram, Ahaziah, and Josiah, were fatally wounded in their chariots.—1Ki 22:34-38; 2Ki 9:21, 24, 27; 2Ch 18:33, 34; 35:23, 24.
The prophet Isaiah declared to rebellious Israel: “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.”—Isa 31:1.
The chariot was primarily a war implement, and it was useful in the chase of wild animals. There are also instances where it was used for peaceful purposes. Joseph as a food administrator of Egypt rode in a chariot of honor, second only to that of Pharaoh. In his chariot he rode out to meet his father when Jacob entered Egypt. (Ge 41:43; 46:29) Upon Jacob’s death many chariots were in the funeral procession that went from Egypt to Machpelah, the burial place that Abraham had purchased. (Ge 50:7-14) As a means of transportation, chariots were also employed by Kings Rehoboam and Ahab, Naaman the Syrian army chief, and the Ethiopian official who invited the evangelist Philip to ride with him on the road down to Gaza. (1Ki 12:18; 18:44, 45; 2Ki 5:21, 26; Ac 8:28-31, 38) Richly decorated and shaded chariots carried victorious rulers in processions. Sacred chariots and the horses that drew them were dedicated to sun worship by apostate Judean rulers.—2Ki 23:11.
Figurative Use. In a figurative and prophetic sense, chariots are symbols of war just like the bow and sword. (Isa 21:7, 9; Zec 9:10) “The war chariots of God” are said to be “in tens of thousands, thousands over and over again,” denoting God’s invincible power to destroy his enemies.—Ps 68:17; 2Ki 6:17.