Background of the Old Testament: Peoples, Kingdoms, Cultures, Chronology, Geography
The Middle East provided the setting for the events recorded in the OT. Specifically, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syria-Palestine constitute the core of “the Bible world.” All of this area that lies along the Tigres and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia up to the Persian Gulf, and the tillable land bordering the Syrian desert, plus the coastal land of the eastern Mediterranean is known as the Fertile Crescent. J. H. Breasted gave it the name and it has stuck. The southwestern tip of this “crescent” extends through Palestine, and arable land continues all the way into the Nile valley in Egypt. Here was the cradle of civilization and the scene of God's memorable activities in time and history as recorded in the OT.
Before Abraham appeared on the scene (Ge 11-12), civilizations had risen and fallen. By 3000 b.c. or before full-fledged writing systems had appeared, complex communities and large temple areas had developed. Abraham himself has been dated around 2000 b.c. (suggestions vary from 2400 b.c.-1500 b.c.), so complex civilizations had been in existence for a thousand years. Before he came on the scene, the biblical story had already begun in a world that had witnessed the rise and fall of many human kingdoms. However, it has proved almost impossible to identify much of the early persons, places, or events recorded in Ge 1-11. Many of the persons and places in Ge 14 still elude us.
Mesopotamia (literally, “between the rivers”) was one of the earliest cradles of civilization. It is a fertile area, and the Tigres and Euphrates rivers mothered civilizations in this very area. The great cities of ancient Mesopotamia grew and spread along the rivers. Cities such as Ur, Nippur, Babylon, Assur, and Nineveh sprang up. These cities developed into powerful city-states. The city-states of Assur and Babylon eventually spawned the Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms, which played such important parts in biblical history.
The languages of the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon was Akkadian. The Neo-Assyrian Empire flowered and ruled the area from 911 b.c. to 609 b.c., using the Assyrian language, a subdivision of Akkadian, and a powerful military machine to accomplish its purposes. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was the greatest period of Assyrian domination and that phase of Assyria's history that directly touched Israel. In 722 b.c. Assyria, under King Shalmaneser V, carried Israel, the northern kingdom, into captivity and transplanted foreigners into the land. But soon thereafter the empire deteriorated. The capital, Nineveh, fell to the Babylonians by 612 b.c. The last vestiges of the military might of Assyria fell in 609 (2Ki 23:29-30), after holding out at Haran for some years. The Babylonians (Chaldeans) absorbed the Assyrian land to a great extent. Isaiah spent much of his time resisting the advances of the arrogant Assyrian kings.
The empire of Babylon had ancient roots; it developed and ruled from 2217 b.c. to 1595 b.c., when the Hittite king, Murshili I, sacked the great city. The Neo-Babylonian Empire came to power for a relatively short time (747 b.c. to 538 b.c.).
Under the Old Babylonian Empire, legal, cultural, and social developments touched the Israelites. Most important was King Hammurabi's Law Code (1792-1750 b.c.), which can be compared with great benefit to Moses' laws given in the OT.
But it is the later Neo-Babylonian Empire that affects Israel's history and thinking most profoundly. Merodach-Baladan II (721-710; 703 b.c.) sent envoys to Jerusalem, who were received by Hezekiah (Isa 39). Subsequently, Isaiah issued a prophecy of doom and exile and punishment for this unwise action by Hezekiah (2Ki 20; Isa 39). The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 b.c.), captured Jerusalem and exiled Judah in 586/7 b.c., exiling even the remnant of Israel later (2Ki 24:10-25:21). Babylon suffers the infamy of being assigned the greatest oracles of doom given by Jeremiah (Jer 50-51), and became a symbol of those who oppose God and his people (Rev 18).
Egypt was known as “the gift of the Nile” and played a large part in the formative period of Israel's history. Northern and southern Egypt were united early in the third millennium b.c. and great pharaohs ruled the land. The Egyptian civilization developed to a high level by the middle of the third millennium and continued largely unchanged for three thousand years. Only in 331 b.c. did Alexander the Great change the face of ancient Egypt, in fact the face of the Middle East.
The early pharaohs especially were believed to be gods or divine beings in human form. The culture was relatively stable, and the status quo was constantly sought in Egypt. Times of great upheaval are recorded, however. The ancient Hebrews and the later Israelites had close contact with this civilization. Israel was held captive by Egypt for 400 years during the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1100 b.c.), until, under Moses, the Lord liberated them. The Exodus took place during the second half of the second millennium b.c. under Pharaoh Rameses II (c. 1290 b.c.). After Israel's deliverance from Egypt, the kingdom played a declining part in Israel's history and development, but was always there—often as a temptation to Israel to trust in the horses of Egypt for safety and security rather than the Lord (Isa 21:1-3).
A knowledge of Egyptian language, culture, politics, military might, and economics helps one to understand the OT, especially from 2000 b.c. to 164 b.c.
Syria-Palestine is the focal point for the major events and issues of the OT story. It did not mother, so far as we know, a bona fide super empire, such as Mesopotamia or Egypt did; but it did foster powerful city-states, such as Jericho and Ebla, with which Israel had to interact at her own peril. And this area, both in ancient times and today, served as a buffer zone between super powers or as a prize to be fought over by these same powers. Many important trade and travel routes passed through the area and these resulted in great wealth for inhabitants of the land.
The most seductive feature of this area for the Israelites was the corrupt, polytheistic fertility religions of its inhabitants. Vivid descriptions of this area and its religious disarray are contained in documents from ancient Ugarit (c. fourteenth century b.c.) and the Tell-el-Amarna tablets (early fourteenth century b.c.). Israel was commanded by God to conquer the land and destroy its inhabitants and their religious practices because of their utter corruption and the danger it held for the Israelites.
Syria-Palestine was sifted and tossed by the super powers, first Egypt, then the Hittite kingdom, the Assyrian kingdom, the Babylonian kingdom (old and new), the Persian Empire, the Grecian Empire, and finally Rome. But the central theological fact about Palestine proper is that is was, and is still, to nurture Israel as God's people. It is described as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8), and it was and remains Israel's homeland.
Persia was a vast empire (Est 1:1), extending from India westward to Greece and the upper Nile region. Cyrus the Great (Isa 44:8; 45:1), anointed by Israel's God, consolidated the power of Persia through his victories over Medea (559 b.c.) and Babylon (538 b.c.). The empire lasted until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 331 b.c.
The influence upon and relation of Persia to ancient Israel is discussed fully by Edwin M. Yamauchi in his recent book, Persia and the Bible (Baker, 1990). The major theological and historical event that brings Israel and Persia together in the Bible is the edict of Cyrus (538 b.c.; Ezr 1:1-4) which permitted the Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild their temple and city and to reestablish the worship of their God. Cyrus' decree was lost but later recovered by Darius I and put into effect again (Ezr 5:1-6:15).
The reign of Darius I (522-436 b.c.) is the political setting for the completion of the second temple (520-516 b.c.) and the post-exilic prophets Haggai and Zechariah (cf. Ezr 5:1-3). Other Persian monarchs are mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, and Zechariah. A striking fact about this great empire is that Israel's God is expressly stated to have chosen its greatest monarch, Cyrus, to do his bidding on behalf of the people of Israel. The books of Esther, Zechariah, Haggai, and Ezra-Nehemiah relate events concerning Israel during the regency of Persia. The Elephantine Papyri from Egypt record events occurring in a Jewish colony under the hegemony of Persia during the fifth century b.c. These documents from southern Egypt are in Aramaic and shed light on events in the city of Jerusalem as well as the life and worship of this small group of Jews.
Greece. In 331 at Gaugamala in Persia, however, the Grecian Empire established itself in the Middle East through its leader Alexander the Great, when he conquered Persia. Greek religion, culture, politics, architecture, and philosophy subsequently forced itself not only upon the Jews in Palestine and elsewhere but upon the entire region all the way to India. Greece is mentioned clearly in only two OT books, Daniel and Zechariah, but is prominent in several apocryphal books.
Alexander died in Babylon in 323 b.c. At that time his empire broke up into four separate political areas. The territory inherited by his general Seleucus I in the north and the territory inherited by Ptolemy (Lagi) in the south became the most important political and religious influences upon the Jews until the coming of Pompey of Rome in 63 b.c. The Ptolemies in Egypt ruled the areas of Palestine and Phoenicia until defeated by the Seleucids in 198 b.c. at Panium by Antiochus III. According to ancient tradition, it was during the time of the Ptolemies that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures took place (see above, Ancient Versions). Parts of the books of Daniel and Zechariah have these events and persons in mind.
These centuries of Israelite history were not lived out in a vacuum. Rather, Israel was often plunged into life and death struggles among themselves and against these pagan powers, which God used more than once to punish his apostate people (Isa 1:2). But neighboring nations overstepped their roles and received judgment at the hands of God as well.
Chronology. Because of the nature of biblical accounts up until the six books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, scant knowledge of the early period makes it difficult to ascertain the chronology of the OT. Chronologies that scholars have constructed differ with one another in important areas. But it is helpful to have a general timeline in mind when reading and studying the OT. Below are several suggested chronologies, which should be regularly consulted when reading or studying OT materials. Also refer to John Bright's “Chronological Charts” I-VIII, pp. 415-73, in A History of Israel, 3d edition, and note the excellent article on chronology in Westminster Bible Atlas, pp. 9-16.
Geography. Even an elementary grasp of the geography of Palestine is helpful for understanding certain parts of the OT. In fact, the correct interpretation of certain written texts depends upon a knowledge of the layout of the land.
In the OT, the land of Palestine is called the “land of Canaan” (Lev 25:38) and the “land of promise” (Ge 13:14-17) that was sworn to Abraham and his descendants. After Israel was given the land as an inheritance, it became known as “the land of Israel” (Dt 1:8), but was still ultimately God's land (2Ch 7:20). OT Palestine extended from Dan to Beersheba (Jdg 20:1 etc.) in its north-south axis, and was bounded on the west by the Great Sea (Mediterranean) and on the east by the Jordan Valley. During the time of the Judges and later, Israel included territory east of the Jordan, termed Transjordan. But even under David and Solomon, Israel did not possess all of the area promised to Abraham (Nu 34:1-12). The geographical location of the land was strategic, forming as it did a land bridge that connected many nations, empires, and three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa).
The north-south features of the land are easily recognized and helpful to the student of the OT. These major features are the coastal plain running along the edge of the Mediterranean, the lowlands (shephelah) east of the sea, then the central mountains lying west of the Jordan valley. At the northern edge of the coastal plain, Mt. Carmel juts out into the Mediterranean Sea, which in ancient times provided a spectacular theatre for Elijah's defeat of the prophets of Baal (1Ki 18:18-46). Moving east, the next prominent geographical feature of Palestine is the Jordan rift area. The Jordan River runs southward, fed by its upper tributaries and the Sea of Galilee. It follows a meandering path for about two hundred miles and empties its salt-laden waters into the Dead Sea, the lowest body of water in the world (1,290 ft. below sea level). Waters do not flow out of the Dead Sea. Eastward across the Jordan River lies the Transjordanean Plateau.
The major areas in Palestine were northern Israel which encompassed Galilee (the northernmost part of the country) and Samaria, and southern Israel, Judah, and the Negeb, a high steppe area south of Beersheba, which received little rainfall. Farther south lies the Sinai Peninsula; northeast and southeast are the sprawling Syrian and Arabian deserts.
Israel inhabited the central mountain ranges for the most part, and were called a “people of the hills” in the OT (1Ki 20:28). The Palestinian area has two seasons, rainy (December-March) and dry (May-September). Sometimes rains fell both earlier and later than usual, and the OT refers to these as “early” and “latter” rains (cf. Jer 3:3, 5:24; Joel 2:23). The rainfall, however, occurs on the western slopes of the central mountain ranges and the western side of the Transjordanean Plateau. The eastern parts of these two geographical features are arid. They yield little produce or vegetation of any kind. The disunity of Israel is sometimes considered a result of her broken, fragmented geographical features, but Israel's God and Israel's revealed religion from Yahweh would have been enough to overcome this natural barrier to unity. Isaiah did not attribute the nation's failures to geographical barriers, but to Israel's refusal to pay attention to Yahweh's guidance (Isa 47:18-19).