Almost every kind of weapon known in the ancient Near East is mentioned in the Bible, largely owing to its origin in a region where armies from the north and from the south marched and fought. Mentioned most frequently is the sword, a word that from Genesis to Revelation occurs over four hundred times. The names of several weapons are also used figuratively with political or religious significance (e.g., Rom. 13.4, 12).
Weapons are of two main kinds, defensive and offensive, with some overlap in actual use. Defensive weapons, used to protect the body, include the shield, helmet, and armor of various kinds. Offensive weapons include those for battering, piercing, throwing or hurling, or shooting (in antiquity meaning the bow and arrow). The horse and chariot may be included as an instrument (a mobile platform) that in effect becomes a weapon.
To protect the entire body, the large, oblong shield was used. Goliath's shield was so large that a shield bearer went before him (1 Sam. 17.41). The small, round shield or buckler was held in the left hand (by right‐handed warriors; note the apparent strategic advantage in being left‐handed [Judg. 3.15; 20.16]). The large shield was protection against javelin and arrows; the buckler was more useful for hand‐to‐hand combat. Yahweh's faithfulness is both a shield and a buckler (Ps. 91.4)—however, the unusual word here translated “buckler” is built on a root that suggests something like a cuirass, a protection that encircles the body. Shields and bucklers were made of leather stretched on wooden frames; hence few have been found in excavations.
The helmet protected the head and was made of cloth, felt, wood, leather, or bronze. The body was protected with armor, most likely a breastplate made of plates of leather or bronze fastened together by thongs (1 Kings 22.34). Greaves protected the legs from the knee to the ankle (1 Sam. 17.6); they were made of wood, leather, or bronze. The belt around the loins supported the sheath in which the sword was kept (2 Sam. 20.8). Normally the sheath was on the left side, but Ehud, who was left‐handed, wore his on the right thigh (Judg. 3.16). The “whole armor of God” (Greek panoplia) in Ephesians 6.11–17 consisted of defensive weapons, except for the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Some could be used only at short range. The warclub was used to shatter heads (Jer. 51.20). The sword or dagger was used to slash, cut, or stab the enemy. A very short sword is a dirk or dagger, usually shorter than .25 m (10 in). Because of the relative weakness of bronze, longer swords did not come into use until the Iron Age. They varied in shape, some having two sharp edges (Judg. 3.16), either straight or curved, narrow or broad. The sword is symbolic of the word of God (Eph. 6.16; Heb. 4.12; Rev. 1.16; 19.15).
Other weapons could be used at longer range. The staff was used by shepherds, as was the rod, but both could also be used as a club or lance against an enemy (2 Sam. 23.21; Isa. 10.5). The spear or lance was used to pierce an enemy (1 Sam. 18.10; Judg. 5.8). Strictly speaking, the spear was held while piercing, whereas the javelin was hurled; the distinction, however, is not observed in the Hebrew Bible or in some English translations.
An effective middle‐distance weapon was the sling and slingstones (Job 41.28). The sling consisted of a piece of cloth or leather with strings into which (the “hollow,” 1 Sam. 25.29) a small stone was placed. The strings were held by the fingers and the sling was whirled around several times; one string was released and the stone flew rapidly at the target. Such was David's weapon against Goliath (1 Sam. 17.49). The accuracy of some slingers was remarkable (Judg. 20.16). For greater distance the bow and arrows were used. The bow, made of wood shaped in a single or double arc, was strung by holding the lower end with the foot while pulling down the upper, hence to “tread” the bow (Isa. 5.28; NRSV “bent”). Arrows were made of reeds, usually with a stone or metal head.
William Sanford LaSor