Psychological warfare in the Bible: archaeology

                  HOME: Bible Archaeology                                                           

Find out more

Assyrian archers

Ancient warfare

Copper axehead

Ancient war axes

Ancient swords

Ancient swords

War chariots

Model of an ancient battering ram

Battering rams

Use of helmets, different types, archaeology: helmets in the Bible


Different types of armour in the ancient lands of the Bible: archaeology


Different types of shields used in ancient warfare: Bible archaeology


Young man with sling-shot

Slings in warfare





Psychological war in the Bible 

Psychological warfare, or PSYWAR as it is now called, is not a modern invention. The ancient Assyrians were masters of the art.
Their strategy was four-pronged:

  • advance warning of their strength; the formidable army of the Assyrians hardly ever lost a battle, and anyone who faced them knew they had virtually no chance of winning; their reputation for ferocity was one of their best weapons

  • continual vilification, contempt and insults directed at the citizens of a besieged town

  • prominent display near the city walls of tortured, dismembered, disemboweled captives; the people inside the walls of a besieged town knew that decapitation would be a mercy for any prisoner of the Assyrians.

  • records of the savage details of their victories, prominently displayed in their own palaces so that visiting envoys and ambassadors had to pass and see them.

Graphic depiction of soldiers removing the skin of captives at Lachish

Graphic depiction of soldiers removing the skin of captives at Lachish 

Assyrian wall relief, showing impaled captives (upper left)

Assyrian wall relief, showing impaled captives (upper left)

Siege warfare, which involved the entire noncombatant population of the besieged town, was governed by a strict rule: before any hostile action, peace was offered in return for surrender to the besieging army. If this offer was refused, 

  • the town's adult male population was liable to death

  • the women and children to death or slavery

  • and all the town's property to confiscation.

The Assyrians had capable generals, well-trained soldiers, and excellent weapons. At the height of their power they were virtually invincible on the battlefield.

So if they invaded a country (like the little kingdom of Judah), and the inhabitants were not prepared to surrender, it was marginally safer for the people to hole up in their fortified city and wait out the inevitable siege. This is what the people of Lachish tried to do.

Having the psychological edge

There was little chance of beating the Assyrians, since part of their power lay in their reputation - first for success, but also for dealing unmercifully with kingdoms who did not toe the line.
This gave them a psychological edge.

Assyrian kings used prominently-displayed inscriptions in their own palaces, and abroad, as a warning to foreign nations. They boasted that they destroyed all cities they took, and they often claimed to have killed entire populations.

High-ranking (denoted by their long fringed robes) Assyrian officials carry away the loot from the now-ruined city of Lachish

High-ranking (denoted by their long fringed robes) Assyrian officials carry away the loot from the
 now-ruined city of Lachish. They are followed by a soldier with a mace, the symbol of power. 

Wall relief showing the aftermath of conquest of a biblical city

The fate of captives was severe. The luckiest among them (women and children) have lost all their possessions and became slaves. The men were tortured in a variety of ways - this wall relief shows them being skinned alive and left to die. In the bottom panel of the wall relief, the reason for the destruction is shown: the rich palm groves of the city.

War propoganda in the ancient world

The wall reliefs were meant as deterrents, warnings to anyone who even thought about rebellion or resistance.

According to these inscriptions, the most imaginative refinements of cruelty were reserved for cities resisting the Assyrians:

'With battle and slaughter I stormed the city and captured it, 3,000 of their warriors I put to the sword;  their spoils and their possessions, their cattle and sheep I carried off. 
Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. 
From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others I cut off their noses and their ears. I put out the eyes of many. 
I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts round about the city. 
Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire, the city I destroyed, 
I devastated, I burned it with fire and consumed it.'

Another inscriptions says:

I took the city, and 800 of their fighting men I put to the sword, and cut off their heads. 
Multitudes I captured alive, and the rest of them I burned with fire, and carried off their heavy spoil. 
I formed a pillar of the living and of heads over against his city gate and 700 men I impaled on stakes over against their city gate. 
The city I destroyed, I devastated, and I turned it into a mound and ruined heap. 
Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire.'

The Bible records that at the siege of Jerusalem, Sennacherib's officer, taunting the Jews on the city, wall, assured them that they were doomed to 'eat their own faeces and drink their own piss' (2 Kings 18:27). This seems mild compared with the fate described in the inscriptions above. 

As it happened, Jerusalem was saved - probably by cholera or dysentery from a polluted water supply, which affected the Assyrians so badly that they withdrew their forces and accepted an enormous ransom/bribe instead.

Rubble of a destroyed city

Rubble of a destroyed city


See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible




   Home                                     FAQs                                        About the Author