Our purpose this week is to just very generally familiarize ourselves with the geography, history, and cultures of the Biblical world.
Probably 99% of the stories of the Old Testament take place in the geographic region we commonly call “the Fertile Crescent”, an area of land that stretches from the Nile Valley in Egypt, upwards along the coast of the Mediterranean sea, and then across the mountains in modern day Syria/Turkey, down through the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to where they meet the Persian Gulf. Today we call this part of the world “The Middle East”. Generally when we speak about the geography and historical era of the Old Testament, it is referred to as “The Ancient Near East”, or ANE for short.
The region is called the Fertile Crescent because these are areas with adequate water supplies for farming and agriculture. With good soil and adequate water, this is the region of the world where the first complex societies emerged. We read about this in chapters 4-11 of Genesis. Some 5000 years ago a number of societies and nations began to emerge from the human race that had up to that point in their history, lived as nomadic hunter/gatherers, but now with the ability to farm food in the fertile crescent, cities and states began to form.
The region on the eastern half of the crescent from the Persian Gulf up through the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern day Iraq) was known as Mesopotamia, and from 4000-1500 BC the region was where a loose association of city states sprung up including the cities of Ur, Babylon, Assur, and Ninevah. From Genesis chapter 12 this is how we know where Abraham came from. After 1500 the region became a series of separate empires that would compete with each other and with Egypt to the west for domination of the Ancient Near East.
In the southwest corner of the map, in the Nile Valley was the Kingdom of Egypt, who we read about extensively in the later chapters of Genesis and in much of the book of Exodus. To the east in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. You would read about the Assyrian Empire in the books of 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, Jonah, Isaiah, Micah, Joel, Hosea, and Obadiah. At the height of their empire, Assyria controlled the entire northern half of the map of the fertile crescent. Assyria’s arch rival was the Babylonian empire, which you can read about in 2nd Kings, 2nd Chronicles, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, and Ezekiel. The Neo-Babylonian Empire reigned supreme in the ancient near east after the decline of the Assyrian empire, from about 680-550BC. After that the Persian Empire, located to the east of Babylon in modern day Iran became the dominant world power controlling the entire territory from Northeast Africa to Western India. You’ll read about the Persian empire in the books of Esther and Nehemiah. During a 400 year gap between the Old and New Testaments, a new world power would dominate: Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic Empire from Greece, followed by the Roman Empire in the time of the New Testament. The Hittite empire is mentioned just a little bit in the Old Testament, but beside the major empires of the ANE some other ancient nations of the Fertile Crescent include Moab, Edom, the Amorites, the Philistines. The Land of Canaan is the narrow strip of land that stretches between Egypt and the northern half of the fertile crescent. It is here where most of the Old Testament stories take place. As the story goes on the land of Canaan will come to be called, Judah (in the south), Israel (in the north) and then it will be named Palestine by the Romans in the New Testament.
The story of the Old Testament is about the people of Israel, who would come from one family in the land of Mesopotamia, travel to the region of Canaan, end up in Egypt, return to Canaan, are destroyed by Assyria, then destroyed and taken captive back to Babylon, who then return to Canaan again. The narrow strip of land between Egypt and the Assyrian/Babylonian empires was hotly contested between the three major world powers. The people of Israel often found themselves caught in between, and this frequently shows up in the stories of the Bible.
Because we’re speaking about thousands of years, multiple ethnic groups, and dozens of languages for this session we can only take a very broad general look at the culture of the ancient near east, but a few important themes run consistent.
This was an agricultural society. A person lived or died by their ability to grow crops or raise animals. All of human life was dependent on water. As such, it was an extremely religious world. Most people had local gods whom they worshiped and these local gods were tied directly to nature. A god of the river. A god of rain. A god of sun. A god of soil. The people of the Bible were unique in their monotheism and that the God of Israel was not a local God, but a God over the entire universe.
The ANE was a family based society. Almost all of your immediate relationships were familial. You shared land with your brothers and cousins and uncles. You wanted many children because from a young age, children would help do the work of agriculture. Thus human fertility was important, and as such many of the people of the ANE worshiped gods of fertility. You wanted many healthy children, without them there may not be anybody to care for you in your old age or you would not have many workers for your fields and flocks.
This was a patriarchal society. The eldest male in the family was in charge. Women’s legal rights were few to none. Family lands, inheritances, and traditions were administered by the first born son and dispersed to the other members of the family. When a woman married into another family, she left her family behind and joined the clan of her husband.
Society was formed first and foremost by family. Extended families then lived together in geographical areas were “tribes” who shared an ancestor. Then these tribes made up nations who had shared language, religion, and legal customs. Sometimes these nations were independent, but often the more powerful empires would make them “vassal-states”, pledging obedience and tribute to the larger more powerful nation/empire.
Social order went: Family > Tribe > Nation > Empire
Journaling Assignment this Week
We won’t actually use our journals this week. Instead, students received a blank map of the Ancient Near East and have been asked to color it in and identify about 12 different geographical sites. Most Bibles have some basic maps in the back, or a simple google search can produce some helpful maps as well. The better we know the setting of the story, the more the text will come alive as we read it. A reminder that we do not have class next Wednesday because of MEA week. We’ll dive back in with two feet on October 25 to really start digging into the narrative of the Old Testament.