Israel and the Geography and History
of the Ancient Near East
In this chapter:
The Origins of
Major Powers in the Ancient
Major Periods in the History
of Ancient Israel
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
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.
A. Topography of Palestine
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.
- the Coastal Plain
the Central Highlands/Central Hill Country
the Jordan Rift/Great Rift Valley
the Transjordanian Highlands/Transjordan
the Jordan River
the Sea of Galilee
the Dead Sea
the Mediterranean Sea
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
B. Cities to Locate
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.
Ur (Southern Mesopotamia; see map below.)
Haran (As far north as possible in the fertile crescent; see map below)
Hazor (See the map to the right. Hazor lies to the north of the Sea
of Galilee, but south of Lake Huleh.)
Qumran (the place near which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Qumran was located on the north-west
shore of the Dead Sea, almost directly east from Jerusalem and south from
Shechem (See the map to the right. Shechem was located near the later site of Samaria Sebaste.)
Samaria (The city of Samaria, not the region known by that name, is shown on the map to the right. Samaria lay near Shechem, but slightly
to the west-northwest. Both cities were located in the region later
Jerusalem (in Judah; See the map to the right.)
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).
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
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
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.'
You should be able to
identify the following centers of power on a map.
B. Major Powers in the Ancient
Near East and their influence on Israel
|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.
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,
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.
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.
Three different empires based in Mesopotamia, the
land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers would later
3. Three Mesopotamian Empires: Assyria,
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
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.
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
4. The Greeks (Macedonians)
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
5. The Romans
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
|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.
||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
||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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