Siege warfare (2 Samuel 17)

Bilderesultat for masada siege ramp

Illustration: The Masada siege ramp

Siege warfare was a military strategy in which an attacking force would encircle a fortified position, generally a walled city, in order to defeat the inhabiting population. The strategy was employed either to gain control of a city (Deuteronomy 20:10-14) or to regain control of a rebellious city (2 Kings 17:1-6). An attacking force would encamp near the target city, block off all roads leading in and out of the city and cut off access to supply channels, most notably those involving water. Once these preliminaries had been achieved, several strategies could be implemented. (These approaches were not mutually exclusive; often a force would combine two or more tactics during a siege.)

  • A show of force could intimidate the inhabitants to the point of surrender. This line of attack had obvious advantages in that it would prevent a prolonged and potentially costly siege. Sennacherib’s representative employed this strategy – unsuccessfully – against Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:19-19:35).
  • Sometimes an army relied upon a ruse, such as in the story of the Trojan horse. During the siege of Ai, Joshua divided his tropps as a means of enticing the defenders of Ai to leave their defensive positions in order to pursue a portion of Joshua’s forces. Once this had been accomplished, Joshua and his remaining troops were able to enter and destroy the defenceless city (Joshua 8:10-23).
  • All other approaches failing, a besieging army was compelled to resort to direct assault on a city’s wall. The fastest but most dangerous method of taking a defensive wall was to scale it, a tactic commonly involving the use of assault ladders. An Egyptian tomb relief dating to the Fifth Dynasty of the Early Bronze Age depicts warriors raisin ladders against a besieged wall. Depending upon the height of the walls and the tenacity of the defenders, the attackers could suffer extraordinarily high casualties.
  • The nineteenth century B.C. saw the development of effective battering rams, perhaps the greatest invention of siege warfare. These weapons consisted of a long pole, often metal-tipped, that hung from a covered framework (offering protection to the attackers). It would be hurled repeatedly against the wall or gate in pendulum motion.
  • Many cities were surrounded by defensive fosses or dry moats, but would-be attackers would frequently surround such a city with trenches of their own. A process of two opposing armies digging trenches and counter-trenches took place at the Athenian siege of Syracuse in  414 B.C.
  • Sometimes earthen ramps were constructed against a city’s wall. Remnants of the siege mound constructed by Sennacherib during the siege of Lachish in 701 B.C. are still visible, as is the siege mound used by the Romans during the siege of Masada in A.D. 73 (pictured above).
  • Sometimes attackers would attempt to compromise a wall by tunneling beneath it. This was achieved by “sappers”, or tunnel engineers. The annals of Sennacherib describe such a strategy during the siege of Hezekiah’s Judean cities.
  • Siege warfare was also a strategy of attrition, demanding commitment and often patience. (Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Tyre, e.g., lasted for 13 years.) It sought to defeat the enemy not primarily by sword but by starvation and thirst. Defences against a siege included the stockpiling of food and water (2 Kings 25:3), the construction of tall walls and fosses and the reinforcements of city gates with strong bars (Amos 1:5). The city walls themselves could be quite sophisticated in design as well. For example, one technique was to use an offset-inset wall, in which the surface of the city wall was not flat but protruded at intervals. Defending inhabitants would also send out sorties in counterattack in the hope of breaking a siege (2 Samuel 11:17, 1 Kings 20:15-21). A defending force’s greatest advantage was its superior height. This allowed defenders to hurl down stones, arrows, javelins, hot oil or water and even millstones (Judges 9:53).


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