Israel and the Geography and History
of the Ancient Near East
© 2003


In this chapter:

    The Origins of Israel
    Major Powers in the Ancient Near East
    Major Periods in the History of Ancient Israel

I. Introduction

    Understanding the geographical references in a particular biblical text can sometimes make a significant difference in understanding the point the author is making. Similarly, having an understanding of the historical circumstances under which a text was written as well as the history about which it speaks can make a dramatic difference in how you understand the author's comments. You should have at least a basic understanding of the geography and history of the area in which the biblical documents arose.
    This chapter provides a very basic overview of some of the information that you will need for the remainder of the semester. As the course moves forward we will expand on the information presented here and in some cases revise it as we see reasons to make dates and locations of particular cities more precise.

II. Geography

A. Topography of Palestine
    Map showing the topography of Israel        
     You should be able to identify on a map several main geographical features in Palestine:
    You may also want to note the Negev ("dry land") to the south of the Central Highlands.
    Moving eastward from the Mediterranean Sea, you would come ashore on the Coastal Plain. Moving farther East the ground begins to rise into a mountainous region called the Central Highlands or the Central Hill Country. Still further East the land drops sharply into the Jordan Rift, a deep valley at the bottom of which runs the Jordan River. The Sea of Galilee is near the northern end of this valley, and the Dead Sea is at the southern end. Continuing eastward, the land rises on the eastern side of the Jordan into a region called the Transjordanian Highlands. This region is sometimes called simply Transjordan, meaning "across the Jordan (River)." The regions of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Gilead, and Bashan (not labelled on the map here) are all located in the Transjordanian Highlands.
B. Cities to Locate
Map showing cities of Israel
    You should be able to identify the following cities on a map:     You should also have a rough idea of the routes of two important highways: the Via Maris (way of the sea) and the King's Highway (North/South through the Transjordan). These highways are not pictured on the maps presented here. The Via Maris ran  from Egypt in the South to Damascus in the far North. For most of this distance it followed the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. As one traveled north the highway moved inland passing through Hazor, then turned East to cross the Jordan River and continue northeast to Damascus. The Kings Highway ran north and south through the Transjordan.


III. History

A. The origins of Israel: The Hebrews/Israelites/Jews and the land of Canaan/Israel/Palestine
    The name "Israel" comes from one of the ancestors of the people known by that name. According to Genesis Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, had his name changed to 'Israel' by God. His descendants eventually became known as the people of Israel (i.e. the descendants of Israel).
    Genesis says that Abraham, the grandfather of Jacob/Israel, left his homeland in Ur, a city in Mesopotamia, and traveled to Haran in the northernmost extension of the fertile crescent. He later left Haran and travelled south to the land of Canaan (which is now called Palestine). Map of Regions around Canaan
    Abraham and his descendants are presented as nomadic people. The people of the region called such wandering Arameans 'Apiru (Habiru). In the language of Abraham's descendants, this word became 'ibri, which we translate into English as 'Hebrew'. Not all of the people called 'Apiru by the Canaanites were what the Bible calls Hebrews, though.
    The account in Torah continues by saying that the descendants of Jacob/Israel were eventually enslaved by the Egyptians. After several hundred years in captivity, they were delivered under the leadership of Moses. They returned to a nomadic lifestyle for about one generation, then came to occupy the land of Canaan, renaming it "Israel" ('the land of Israel'). When they had possession of the land, it became known as 'Israel' and they became known as "Israelites," so the change of name of the land from Canaan to Israel coincides with the change in the name of the people from Hebrews to Israelites.
    The term Israel is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to refer to the people (the nation), sometimes to the place where the twelve tribes of Israel lived (the land of Israel) and later to the northern part of that land, where 10 of the original 12 tribes lived after the nation split in 922 BCE. After that split, the area occupied by the two southern tribes was called 'Judah' (after the tribe of Judah), and the people who lived there are sometimes called Judeans and sometimes Judahites.
    In 721/722 BCE the northern kingdom (which was still called 'Israel') was defeated by the Assyrians. The leading citizens were carried off into captivity, and the northern kingdom (Israel) was never reestablished. After this time the term Israel is sometimes used to refer to the occupants of the southern kingdom (Judah), further confusing the terminology.
    In 587 BCE the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom, Judea, and took its leading citizens off into captivity. A little over one generation later, when the Persians conquered the Babylonians, the people of Judea were allowed to return home. Over time they came to be called 'Jews', a shortened form of 'Judeans'.
    When the Romans conquered the region shortly before the time of Jesus, they took the name, 'Philistia' (which had earlier applied only to the southwestern coastal plain occupied by the Philistines), and applied it to the entire region , including the land occupied by the Jews and their neighbors. It is from this word, 'Philistia,' that we get our modern English name 'Palestine.'

B. Major Powers in the Ancient Near East and their influence on Israel

    You should be able to identify the following centers of power on a map.
I have included in this section a fair amount of detail that may not be presented in class. While you will not need to know all of this at this time, make sure that you (1) know the location of each of the powers mentioned here and (2) have a general idea of why that power is important for our understanding of ancient Israel.
1.    Egypt
    Egypt was a power long before the rise of Israel and remained a significant force until almost the time of the rise of Christianity (although it was under Greek rule for the later part of this period).
    According to Genesis, Abraham's grandson Jacob and his family, pushed by famine in Canaan, went to Egypt to find food. (Some have proposed that this could possibly have been during the reign of the Hyksos, a semitic group that had infiltrated Egyptian society in the 17th century BCE and ruled until 1560 BCE.) The descendants of Jacob, called the Hebrews, were eventually enslaved by the larger Egyptian society according to Exodus.
    If the Hebrew people were in Egypt at the time of the Hyksos,  they would have been there at the time of Amenhotep IV--who changed his name to Akhenaton (Akhen-Aton, "It is well with Aton"). Akhenaton demanded that only Aton, the sun god be worshipped. His reform appears to have demanded henotheism (worship of only one god, but without denying the existence of others) rather than monotheism, though.
    Some historians believe that it was under Ramses II (1290-1224 BCE), during the height of the Egyptian Empire, that the Hebrew people escaped slavery there. Ramses II tended to record even his defeats as victories, so if the Hebrews escaped at this time, it would make sense that the event is not mentioned in the Egyptian records. It is possible that the Israelites (as the Hebrews were called after they established themselves in Canaan) had already settled in Canaan by 1220 BCE. Egyptian records tell of Merneptah (the son of Ramses II) defeating the Israelites in Canaan.
Major Powers around Israel

2.    Hittites
    The Hittites, located in Anatolia (what was later called Asia Minor, northwest of the Fertile Crescent), fought with the Egyptians at about this time, creating a balance of power that would allow an opportunity for changes of control in Canaan (located within the rectangle in the map to the above). This is likely to be the period at which the Hebrew people took control there.
3.    Three Mesopotamian Empires: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia
    Three different empires based in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers would later dominate Israel.
    The Assyrians, located in central Mesopotamia, eventually conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel (721-722 BCE) and took its upper class people away into captivity. They resettled some of their own people among the remaining Israelites. While the Assyrians never completely destroyed the Southern Kingdom (Judah), they did defeat most of its cities and put constant pressure on Judah in the forms of taxes and threats.
    The Babylonians, located in southern Mesopotamia, conquered the Southern Kingdom and took some of its leading citizens into exile in 597 BCE, making Judah a vassal state. In 589-587 BCE Judah rebelled. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the remaining upper class citizens into captivity.
    The Persians, later conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return home (+/- 538-539 BCE). Judah remained a vassal state in the Persian Empire until Alexander the Great defeated the Persians in 333 BCE.
4.    The Greeks (Macedonians)
    In 333 BCE Alexander the Great wrested Judah from Persian control and took it into his growing Empire. The Greeks dominated the territory of the old state of Israel from 333 BCE till the late 160's when Israel won its independence. Greek thought and customs still continued to have an influence in the region long after this time.
5.    The Romans
    The Romans took control of Israel in 63 BCE in the middle of a dispute between two rival Jewish leaders and ruled the area through client kings and direct governors until well after the lifetime of Jesus.

C. Major Periods in the History of Ancient Israel
    You should know the dates for the following periods and be able to give a brief explanation of the name (i.e., Why is the first period called the "patriarchal" period?). There is significant doubt about the dates for the first three periods.

Name of Period

Approximate Dates


Patriarchal Period or Ancestral Period perhaps as early as c. 1850-1700 BCE but possibly later
This period begins with the travels of Abraham and ends with the Hebrew people in slavery in Egypt.
Mosaic Period perhaps c. 1250-1200 BCE This period begins with the rise of Moses in Egypt, includes the departure of the Hebrew people from Egypt, and ends with the death of Moses on the border of Canaan.
Period of the Judges perhaps c. 1200-1020 BCE The period of the judges begins with the conquest/infiltration of the land of Canaan and ends with the naming of Saul as Israel's first king.
The United Kingdom c. 1020-922 BCE The United Kingdom lasted for a very short time. All Israel was united under Saul, then David, then Solomon. At the death of Solomon the nation divided over the choice of Solomon's successor.
The Divided Kingdom c. 922-721 BCE On the death of Solomon the nation of Israel split. The northern ten tribes kept the name "Israel" and the southern tribes adopted the name "Judah". These two new nations coexisted until 721 BCE when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom.
The Judean Period c. 721-587 After the destruction of the northern kingdom, Judah existed without its northern neighbor until it was conquered by the Babylonians in 597 BCE and destroyed in 587.
The Babylonian Exile c. 587-538 BCE Both in 597 and 587 BCE the Babylonians took Judean captives into exile in Babylon. They remained there until freed by Cyrus of Persia in 538 BCE. Some stayed in Babylon even after Cyrus freed them.
The Persian Period c. 538-333 BCE From 538 to 333 BCE Judah remained under Persian control. The former nation was now a province of the Persian Empire.
The Hellenistic Period c. 333-63 BCE In 333 BCE Alexander the Great wrested Judah from Persian control and began an aggressive policy of hellenization (imposition of hellenistic culture). [The people that English speakers call Greeks called themselves the Hellens.] From this time forward until the mid 160's BCE Judah was ruled directly by foreign (usually Syrian) Greek rulers. In the 160's Israel (originally only Judah but later the old northern kingdom as well) won its independence. The Greek influence remained strong, though, even in this period of independence.
The Roman Period 63 BCE-135 CE In 63 BCE the Romans responded to a plea for assistance in a dynastic struggle in Israel and took control of the region. They continued the policies of hellenization begun by Alexander.


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