Biblical Battles: 10 Holy Wars of the Old Testament
10 Wars of the Old Testament

10 Wars of the Old Testament

Larry Holzwarth - July 27, 2018

10 Wars of the Old Testament
The death of King Saul, forewarned to him by the Witch of Endor. Wikimedia

The wars of Saul

The First Book of Samuel gives the account of the rise of Saul to be the first King of Israel. Rather it gives three accounts, in three successive chapters. Saul is described as being from the rebuilt town of Gibeah, a member of the Tribe of Benjamin, anointed by Samuel in the first description. In the second Saul is named King by Samuel at a gathering of the tribes held in Mizpah, an appointment not received happily by several of the tribes. In the third Saul forms and leads an army against the Ammonites to victory, and is proclaimed the King of Israel in the aftermath of this victory. His first act as king was to order the punishment of those who opposed him to receive the crown.

Saul, according to First Samuel, conducted military operations against the Ammonites, Edomites, Moabites, Philistines, and others as King of Israel, achieving victory in each of his campaigns. During his campaign against the Philistines, he forced his troops to fast during the day, rather than allowing them to stop on the march and eat, fearful of allowing the Philistines to gain ground during the march. This weakens his forces and slows them down, but a group of Israelite troops under Jonathan were unaware of the order to fast, and were successful in defeating the Philistines, having eaten honey on the march.

Under the law, Jonathan was liable to be put to death for violating an oath of which he was unaware, but he was spared due to his popularity among the people following his victory. Saul’s authority was further eroded after he was ordered by Samuel to exterminate the Amalekites and “blot out the remembrance of Amelek from under heaven…” Saul killed all of the Amalekites but their king and did not destroy their livestock. Samuel learned of Saul’s failure to obey and informed him that God rejected Saul as king. Samuel killed the Amalekite king himself, after telling Saul that the kingdom would be taken from him.

A new Philistine Army invaded Israel, and Saul and his army met them, with Saul hoping a victory over the Philistines would consolidate his kingdom. When the Philistines challenged a single combat, with Goliath as their champion, Saul summoned the young shepherd David of the House of Judah as the Israelite’s champion. After David slew Goliath his popularity grew to rival that of Saul, despite several victories of the Israelites over the Philistines, victories in which David took part in increasingly important roles. The relationship between the two grew complex and when Saul led yet another army against the Philistines David was not present.

The Philistines and Israelites faced each other at the Battle of Mount Gilboa, before which Saul consulted the Witch of Endor, according to the biblical account, and Saul learned from a channeled Samuel that God had rejected him, and that his prayers went unheard. Samuel told Saul that he would lose the battle and his life. The Israelites were crushed at the battle, and though there are conflicting accounts of Saul’s death as the Israelites fled, he was beheaded by the Philistines and his head, as well as those of his sons, were put on display.

10 Wars of the Old Testament
King David, shown here in prayer, was not always so pious and humble. Wikimedia

Civil War among the Israelites

The death of Saul led to the anointing of David as the King of Judah, but Saul’s successor and designated heir was Ishbaal, the only of his sons to survive. The House of Judah seceded from the Kingdom of Israel, an action not recognized by Ishbaal, who was supported by Abner, a commander of Saul’s army and the dead king’s cousin. David established his reign over Judah at Hebron, while Ishbaal was anointed as king at Mahanaim, east of the Jordan. The opposing factions, according to the biblical stories, fought each other for some time, though the Bible only provides details to a few of the encounters. Josephus’s Antiquities confirms the civil war.

Armies of the two factions opposed each other at Gibeon, situated in present day Palestine. It was agreed between the armies to settle the issue using champions according to Second Samuel, and twelve men from each side were picked to oppose each other in mortal combat. In the biblical account, all of the champions were killed in the combat, leaving the issue unresolved, and a general engagement between the armies was launched. Abner’s forces were defeated, and he fled with the remains of his army, with Abner personally pursued by Asahel, the brother of Joab, one of the staunchest supporters of King David.

Asahel caught up with Abner and though the latter attempted to avoid combat, knowing that the younger and smaller Asahel was no match for him, Asahel persisted and Abner was forced to kill him. According to Samuel, this was the cause of a personal feud between Abner and Joab who, under the customs of the time was honor-bound to avenge his brother. Josephus disagreed with the account of the feud, stating that Joab recognized that his brother was killed in honorable single combat. Following the battle at Gibeon, the tide of the civil war was clearly in favor of David, and dissension appeared in Ishbaal’s kingdom.

The dissension led to Ishbaal accusing Abner of taking one of Saul’s concubines for his own, an act which could be seen as displaying intentions towards taking all of Saul’s property, including the throne of Israel. Fearful of assassination, Abner switched sides to that of David, and in so doing brought the Benjamin tribe with him. After Abner joined David’s forces Joab murdered him in Hebron, an act attributed to vengeance by Samuel, and to jealousy of rank by Josephus, who claimed that Abner’s rank threatened Joab’s position in the court and in the army. David did not retaliate against his general for the death of Abner.

The civil war was brought to an end with the assassination of Ishbaal, by two of his officers, Rechab and Baanah. The assassins had expected to be rewarded by David, who instead had them arrested for the crime of regicide and hanged after their hands and feet were cut off. According to Second Samuel, the assassins brought David Ishbaal’s head as evidence of their deed, and David had it buried in Abner’s grave in Hebron, saying to the murderers, “…shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?”

10 Wars of the Old Testament
Combat between the soldiers of David and Ishbaal by Gustave Dore. Wikimedia

David forges an empire

During the early days of Israel, the religious capital was considered to be Shiloh. Saul had ruled his kingdom from Gibeah, according to First Samuel the city of his birth. David ruled the Kingdom of Judah from Hebron, and Ishbaal the Kingdom of Israel from Mahanaim. Under King David, the monarchy was strengthened and David moved the capital of the Kingdom of Israel to the fortress at Jerusalem. According to the biblical stories of David’s kingdom, all of Israel was united under David, an assertion disputed by modern scholars who believe that the regions of the two former kingdoms retained their unique identities and cultures.

The Bible recounts the expansion of Israel led by David to absorb the lands of the Philistines, Moab, and others as a means of securing the borders of the kingdom. During the remainder of his reign, Israel absorbed vassal states, including Aramean city-states. It was during one of the wars of conquest, against the Ammonites, that the biblical story of David and Bathsheba occurs. Uriah the Hittite was serving with David’s army at the siege of Rabbah, the capital of the Ammonites. David remained with his court in Jerusalem. When David saw Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, bathing he ordered her brought to him, and soon after it became apparent that she had become pregnant.

David first attempted to cover his sin by recalling Uriah for a period of rest, as the siege of Rabbah was ongoing, but Uriah showed no interest in his wife, and David was obliged to arrange for Uriah to die in battle, after which he took the widowed Bathsheba as his wife. The child of their union was a son, named Absalom in some accounts. According to the Hebrew Bible, Absalom was the son of David and his wife Maacah, and there are other conflicting accounts of his lineage and youth, but Absalom grew into a rebellious and headstrong youth, who killed his half-brother (and son of David) Amnon, after learning that Amnon had raped his sister.

Absalom fled to the home of his maternal grandmother for protection and remained in exile for three years before he returned to Jerusalem, where he began to foment dissent over David’s reign among members of the court and public who were unable to obtain an audience with the king to obtain redress for wrongs. Absalom pointed out the inadequacies of the legal system and the entire government, which was paralyzed when David was absent from Jerusalem, with no single person authorized to hear grievances or deliver judgments. After four years of creating dissension, Absalom went to the former capital at Hebron.

In Hebron, Absalom declared himself to be King of Israel, and occupied his father’s property, taking his concubines as a sign of his new authority as holding the throne of the kingdom. He also called for revolt, and raised an army as most of Israel joined in his rebellion. David, with support of only a few clans and his bodyguard, was forced to withdraw from Jerusalem and retreated across the Jordan, though he left behind spies to keep him informed of Absalom’s plans, and to provide false information concerning his own. Absalom, regarding the advice of one of these spies, remained in Jerusalem for a time preparing for an attack, giving David a respite in which to build his own forces.

10 Wars of the Old Testament
Absalom is caught by his hair in a tree to await his fate. Wikimedia

The Battle of the Wood of Ephraim

The war between King David and his rebellious son culminated in a single battle, fought in the Wood of Ephraim. Absalom selected his cousin Amasa, also David’s nephew and a cousin of Joab, to be the commander in chief of his army, and followed the growing army of his father into Gilead. David had meanwhile expanded the army under his command, as warriors responded to his calls for support and flocked to his troops at Mahanaim. David split his forces into three divisions, with the first commanded by the eternally loyal Joab, a second by the ally Ittai, head of the mercenary troops which arrived from Gath, and the third by Abishai, a warrior with vast experience leading troops garnered during the wars of expansion.

The exact location of the Wood of Ephraim is unknown, as there are no other explicit references in the biblical texts, but it is believed to be to east of Mahanaim, from which location David dispatched his troops against Absalom’s forces. According to Second Samuel, Absalom erected a monument in Jerusalem to perpetuate his name to posterity, an indication that he meant to conquer or die in the attempt. Whether David was aware of the monument from his spies is not known, but David expressly forbade his commanders from harming Absalom in any way, warning them, “Beware that none touch the young man Absalom”.

The heavy woods made it difficult to maneuver and the rebel forces were caught between the three divisions of David’s army. Absalom himself fled from the battle as it became a rout of the rebels, and according to Samuel his long hair became entangled in the branches of a tree, leaving him suspended from the boughs as his horse or mule, accounts differ, moved on. He was discovered by one of David’s servants, who recognized him and sent the information to Joab, who ordered him executed. Other accounts claim Joab himself killed the rebellious youth. David was informed that Absalom had perished, though he was not told how.

Following the defeat of the rebellion and the death of Absalom, David brought the rebel commander, Amasa, to Jerusalem and after obtaining an oath of loyalty appointed him as commander of the army for life, a political move meant to bring the loyalty of the rebellious clans back to the throne. Joab recognized the move as a threat to his own position within the power hierarchy. When another rebellion began among the Benjamites, Amasa moved too slowly in preparing the Israelite army to suppress it, and Joab, though loyal to David, murdered Amasa.

Other than the biblical accounts there is little historical evidence for the tale of the rebellion and Absalom’s part in it, despite it becoming one of the most popular Old Testament stories in subsequent literature, music, poetry, and films. The monument erected to himself by Absalom has been identified by some who support the historicity of the Bible as the Tomb of Absalom in the Kidron Valley. In the early twenty-first century, the monument was dated as being from the first century of the Common Era, a millennia following the reign of David.

10 Wars of the Old Testament
Hezekiah begs for divine intervention during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. Wikimedia

Assyrian invasion of Israel

The first Chronicles tells the story of the invasion of the Kingdom of Northern Israel, occupied by ten of the original twelve tribes of Israel. The ruling city of the Northern Kingdom, Samaria, was occupied after a siege of more than three years. The Book of Kings carries accounts of the Assyrian occupation, and the removal of the Israelites to Assyrian exile. Whether large populations of the cities and towns of Northern Israel were actually transported to Assyria or lived in their homelands under Assyrian rule remains a source of debate among scholars of the Bible and of history, but by 720 BCE all of Northern Israel was under Assyrian rule.

The Hebrew Bible books of Isaiah, Chronicles, and Second Kings tell of the Siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians. King Hezekiah of Judah, as well as his predecessor King Ahaz, allowed their kingdom to become a de facto vassal state to the Assyrians, paying annual tribute to its rulers. When Hezekiah reconquered lands from the Philistines in the Negev and negotiated an alliance with Egypt, he suspended the tribute to the Assyrians. As the Assyrians prepared for an invasion of Judah Hezekiah took steps to defend Jerusalem, including reinforcing the walls of the city, the construction of a tunnel to deliver fresh water from the Spring of Gihon, and the filling-in of wells outside the city, to deny water to the Assyrians.

As the Assyrians approached Hezekiah relented and paid a heavy tribute for the promise that they would withdraw, which the Assyrians accepted and continued to approach anyway. The Assyrian commander Sennacherib used psychological warfare to convince the citizens of the city that their god could not help them, as the Assyrians had swept away all false gods before them. The Hebrew account of the siege relates that God sent an angel who killed 185,000 of the Assyrians in a single night, and the devastation of the army forced the Assyrians to withdraw to Nineveh. Josephus somewhat corroborates this account, confirming a pestilence which struck the invaders.

The Assyrian records of the siege of Jerusalem and other cities of Judah are recorded in Sennacherib’s Prism, discovered in Nineveh in 1830. It claims that the size of the Assyrian army caused the allies of the Israelites to flee and that the Assyrians received sizable tribute from the King of Judah. The casualties caused by either the pestilence mentioned by Josephus or the angel in the Hebrew Bible are not mentioned in the prism. The Assyrian wars of conquest continued following the siege of Jerusalem, which the Hebrew Bible claims were a victory of Yahweh over the enemies of his people. The Assyrians likewise claimed victory.

The existence of the Assyrian prism, which contains some references which agree with the Hebrew accounts, also calls much of the biblical version into question. Sennacherib claimed to have captured more than 40 fortified cities of Judah, and from Hezekiah received tribute in money, his daughters, his harem, jewels, antimony, and other payments for which he allowed the King of Judah to retain his throne. From then on Judah paid tribute to Assyria, and several of its cities became vassal states of the Assyrian empire. The prism has been dated to about 690 BCE, making it contemporaneous to events described.

10 Wars of the Old Testament
The traditional site of the grave of the Prophet Samuel near Jerusalem. Wikimedia

Wars of the Bible

The accuracy of the history described in the Old Testament and the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, has long been debated. There are those who believe that the Bible is a one hundred percent factually accurate rendition of history, written as it occurred, and the stories of the Bible are not legends and sagas, but facts. To them, the evidence which calls any of the events described into doubt is what is fabricated. Archaeology, conflicting history, and lack of physical evidence of an event taking place are of little concern to them, secure in their belief in the words of the book, and that is their privilege.

Most of the Hebrew Bible, which is the basis of the Christian Old Testament, is considered to be non-chronological in many sections. The third-century Talmudist and teacher Abba Arika created the system of study which led to the creation of the Talmud, and established that the Torah was not in chronological order. The Bible presents several histories, that of theology, narrative history, political history, and the development of a people over a period of many centuries, to name just a few. Much of the authority for the accuracy of the events recounted was the belief that it was written by those who witnessed the events.

The truth now known is that they weren’t in most cases. The Book of Joshua was not written by Joshua, many of the books describing the wars of Jewish history in the Bible were written long after the events which they describe. During the conquest of the lands of Canaan mass exterminations of cities and towns are described in the Bible, only to find the same cities and towns well-populated and thriving less than a generation later. The Books of Samuel contain both historical information and that is known to be derived from ancient legends, as well as anachronisms which preclude it being written in the eleventh century BCE, the time period it describes.

Among these are types of armor which did not appear for several centuries, horsed troops riding singly (cavalry) rather than in chariots, the use of iron picks as if they were readily available, and a reference to a people, the Kushites mercenaries which were not common in the era of Samuel, but were common three centuries later, which is also true of the other above items. The inference is that Samuel was written three hundred years after the events it describes, and thus the author or authors was not a witness to the events, even taking into account the extraordinary life spans attributed to earlier figures described in the Bible.

The wars of the Bible and the events leading up to and following them include homicide, suicide, fratricide, patricide, matricide, genocide, rape, incest, enslavement of peoples, the destruction of cities and towns, and virtually every atrocity which is possible for humans to commit upon each other. They went on, according to the biblical accounts, for thousands of years, in a tiny area of the globe occupied by the descendants of the patriarchs. Since then nearly every nation which has gone to war has done so in the belief that its god is on their side, part of the justification for going to war in the first place.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Third Mill – The Book of Joshua: Victorious Conquest

Time Magazine – Why Do People Build Walls? The Real Story of Jericho Offers a Surprising Answer

Express UK – The ‘Evidence’ That Can Prove Bible’s Account Of Fall Of Jericho

Bas Library – Who Destroyed Canaanite Hazor?

The Torah – The Story of the Concubine at Gibeah: A Satire on King Saul

Haaretz – Meet the Real King David, the One the Bible Didn’t Want You to Know About

Haaretz – Did David and Solomon’s United Monarchy Exist? Vast Ancient Mining Operation May Hold Answers

BAS Library – Sennacherib’s Siege of Jerusalem: Once or Twice?

Warfare History Network – Sennacherib: The Assyrian King’s Failed Second Siege of Jerusalem

History of Information – Sennacherib’s Annals, Inscribed on Three Surviving Six-Sided Prisms

Haaretz – Who Really Wrote the Biblical Books of Kings and the Prophets?


“Joshua”, by Jerome F. D. Creach, 2003

“The Quest for Historical Israel: Debating Archeology and the History of Early Israel”, by Israel Finkelstein, 2007

“Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It”, by Lester L. Grabbe, 2017

“Judges and Ruth”, by Victor Harold Matthews, 2004

“King Saul, The True History of the First Messiah”, by A. Green, 2007

“1, 2 Samuel”, by David T. Bergen, 1996

“David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King”, by Baruch Halpern, 2001

“Pregnant Passion”, by Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, 2004

“The Bible as History”, by Werner Keller, 1983

“Judges, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First and Second Chronicles, Joshua, Isaiah”, Cliff Notes

History Collection – 18 Ways the Bible has Changed throughout History

History Collection – 20 Pieces of Evidence That Support Events in the Bible