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Citation for The Historical Context of Ancient Israel

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Humphreys, W. Lee . "Historical Contexts of the Biblical Communities." In The Oxford Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Oct 17, 2021. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195290004/obso-9780195290004-div1-11>.


Humphreys, W. Lee . "Historical Contexts of the Biblical Communities." In The Oxford Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195290004/obso-9780195290004-div1-11 (accessed Oct 17, 2021).

The Historical Context of Ancient Israel

Earliest Israel emerged in a world already old. The Sumerian civilization of ancient Mesopotamia had long vanished, leaving only traces of its legacy in the Assyrian and Babylonian states that followed it. Egypt as well had seen its “age of giants” disappear, its primary remains the grandeur of the colossal monuments and pyramids that endured. In the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 B.C.E.) Egypt claimed at least nominal control of Syria-Palestine, control that was often contested and at times arbitrated in uneasy truces with the Hittite and Mitannian powers in eastern Asia Minor. By the thirteenth century this control was more assertion than fact, and new configurations of peoples moved into and emerged from the Canaanite city-states that jostled each other for space in southern Palestine.

Struggles between city-states in Canaan increased as Egyptian control of the area decreased. The Amarna Letters, a corpus of diplomatic exchanges from the reigns of Amenhotep III and IV (ca. 1403–1347 B.C.E.; the latter is better known as Akh-en-Aton), demonstrate that Egypt was losing control of this region and also that intercity warfare was on the increase, augmented by the presence of groups, called “Habiru,” who were alienated from the established political structures. Their presence suggests that the increased turmoil in this part of the world was taking its toll on trade and the economy of the region, producing a most unstable situation.

It is not clear what forces and factors account for the emergence of a recognizable state of Israel toward the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E. Such a state is referred to, for example, by the Egyptian Pharaoh Mer-ne-Ptah in a victory stela—a stone slab with an inscription, erected as a monument—that has been dated to 1230 B.C.E. It is clear, however, that earliest Israel shaped itself in conscious contrast to both the royalist imperial structure of Egypt and the characteristic hierarchies of power in the Canaanite city-state system. Both were experienced as oppressive and dehumanizing.

Others as well moved into the area from the outside at this time, especially the so-called “Sea Peoples,” whom the Egyptians were barely able to stop at their borders. Some of these Sea Peoples, known as Philistines, settled in five cities near the southern coast of Syria-Palestine, and within a century they were competing with Israel for control of the land. By the time of the death of Israel's first king, Saul of Benjamin, with his sons on Mount Gilboa, these Philistines, possibly in league with the Ammonites to the east of the Jordan river, seemed in control of most of the territory of the Israelite tribes. A note in 1 Samuel suggests that the Israelites had to rely on them for tools and weapons ( 13.19–22 ).

Seen more broadly, the waning of Egyptian authority in the area left a vacuum, disrupting trade as well as economic, social, and political structures. It was not to be the Philistines, however, but Israelites under the leadership of King David who would fill this vacuum. For a time, especially under David's son Solomon, Israel seemed the dominant power in the region. This brief interruption in external control of southern Palestine was a context in which emerged what later Israelites and Jews would view as that nation's “golden age.” But a brief resurgence of Egyptian power in 935–934 B.C.E. under the Pharaoh Shishak I, who launched an attempt to reassert Egyptian control of the area, underscored the internal instability of Israel. This instability had been demonstrated a few years before, upon the death of Solomon, when the united country broke apart into two small kingdoms: Israel (also called Ephraim in some of the prophetic books) in the north and Judah in the south. Egypt would not be able, however, to follow up on Shishak's victories and would only be a sporadic player in the power struggles of the next several centuries.

Egypt would remain in Israel's memory, however, as the land of bondage and dehumanization from which Yahweh delivered the people with “signs and portents” (Deut. 26.8 ). This memory formed the basis of Israel's religious confession and self-understanding, and for those influenced by the Hebraic religious traditions Egypt and Pharaoh for centuries to come would symbolize oppressive structures and rulers. Ironically, a last small band of Israelite nationalists would flee back to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them, when they were no longer able to live under Yahweh and the covenant in the land of promise (Jer. 42–44 ).

The Neo-Assyrian empire based in Mesopotamia would for a time be the dominant international force in the lives of the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah, as well as of other small states in the land that linked Mesopotamia and Egypt. Among these smaller kingdoms, the Damascus-centered Arameans in particular were rivals with northern Israel for control of the region, especially the control of trade and the exchange of goods. Phoenicians to the north of Israel held the Palestinian coast above Mount Carmel. But, since the Phoenician economy was built upon seafaring trade throughout the Mediterranean basin, non-maritime nations like Israel and Aramea competed for the control of land trade and routes.

In fact, for their own benefit the Phoenicians needed to maintain mutually beneficial relations with those around them who might provide both goods for trade and a market for what came through the key port cities of Tyre and Sidon. In periods of relative stability Phoenicia would prosper as a link between land and sea trade, and through Phoenicia both basic and luxury items, as well as less tangible cultural influences, were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin. In the period of Israelite King Omri and his son Ahab, for example, relations with the Arameans of Damascus are depicted as tense at best, sometimes breaking into open hostility, while relations with the Phoenicians were sealed by the marriage of Jezebel (daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Phoenician city of Sidon) to King Ahab (1 Kgs. 16.31 ). Behind the quite hostile depiction of her and of this whole era in the books of Kings we can detect a period of prosperity and blending of cultures and religious traditions. Ivory carvings excavated at Samaria and the ivory houses and beds condemned by Amos ( 6.4 ) are physical evidence of pervasive foreign influences mediated by Phoenicia, which proved most attractive to the upper strata in the state of northern Israel. Samaria was no different from Jerusalem, whose temple was designed on Phoenician models by Phoenician architects and artists.

As the Neo-Assyrians consolidated power under a series of able kings in the ninth century B.C.E., it proved possible for the several states in Syria-Palestine to join together in a defense pact in an attempt to check Assyrian advance into their territory. At a battle fought at Qarqar in 853 B.C.E., such a coalition was successful, and we are told in Assyrian records that Ahab of Israel contributed significant military forces to the cause. Such coalitions were the exception rather than the rule, however, and more often than not relations between the states in the region were tense at best and sometimes openly hostile.

To the south, Judah and its capital Jerusalem were not as directly affected by these events, although they were not immune to either foreign influence or regional conflicts and power struggles. Jerusalem lay somewhat off the major routes of commerce, especially since Philistine cities to the west came to control the coastal routes, while Edom and Moab to the east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan river controlled the major trade routes that linked Arabia and Egypt through Damascus to the north and east. The Davidic kings of Jerusalem appear to have sat out the battle at Qarqar. Later, however, they found themselves on the defensive against a coalition that united northern Israel and Damascus in another attempt to forge an alliance to thwart Neo- Assyrian incursions into their territory. The siege of Jerusalem in 734–733 B.C.E. demonstrated that as Assyrian pressure increased in the region, even Judah and Jerusalem would not be able to stand aloof from the transformations taking place in the larger contexts in which they lived.

By 722 B.C.E. northern Israel had been overrun by Assyria and incorporated fully into its expanding empire. Judah remained nominally independent but in vassalage to Assyria, responsible for annual payment of tribute and support of military expeditions into the region. Assyria wished to remain secure within the river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, which offered no natural protective frontiers (in contrast to the situation of Egypt in the Nile valley). It therefore became Assyrian policy to expand outward, conquering or making vassals of the peoples to the east, north, and west of them. To maintain this far-flung empire, to bolster an economy strained by extensive military expenditures, and especially to sustain the military forces it needed, Assyria had to set its sights on Egypt as a fundamental source of grain.

But for Assyria to secure Egypt, it had to control the corridor into Egypt that was Syria-Palestine. For those with keen foresight, like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah, it seemed only a matter of time until all the states in this region came under Assyrian domination in some form, ranging from outright conquest and incorporation into its imperial system to some form of vassalage that allowed only nominal independence. These prophets of Yahweh could not rest content with an economic, political, and military analysis of Assyrian expansion; for them such incursions posed as well the fundamental challenge of interpreting these events in theological terms appropriate to Yahwism.

Egypt was not unaware of the Assyrian threat, and from the latter part of the eighth century B.C.E. until the middle decades of the seventh it attempted again and again to encourage the independence of the small states in Syria- Palestine, to serve as a buffer between it and Assyria. Often this support took the form of promises of aid for those who resisted Assyria, promises that were broken more often than they were honored. Egypt came to seem a “splintered cane” (Isa. 36.6 ), providing little support and a potential danger to those who might lean on it.

By the middle of the seventh century B.C.E. Assyria took control of Egypt. Ironically, with this success Assyria overreached itself and within decades it would fall to the combined armies of Media and Babylon. The impending collapse of the Assyrian empire so threatened to alter the configurations of power in the Near East that a somewhat revived Egypt under Pharaoh Neco even sought to come to Assyria's aid shortly before the fall of Nineveh. While the Pharaoh was able to alter the course of Judean political and religious history when he cut down the reforming King Josiah, he could not shore up the last traces of Assyrian rule.

Caught up again in changing balances of power in the Near East, kings of the Davidic dynasty, in Judah and its capital Jerusalem, would once more seek to play one power off against another, but this time they would be crushed in the process. In 598 and 587 B.C.E. Babylon's armies were outside Jerusalem's walls, and in the latter year the city fell, its temple was sacked, its rulers and leading citizens were either executed or exiled. The last vestige of the ancient nation of Israel was taken up into the Babylonian provincial system.

The nation Israel, ranging in form from federation to empire to twin kingdoms and then to one small state, thus lived its life in a shifting matrix of power defined by Egypt at one pole and Assyria and Babylon at the other. Caught between these powers, Israel came into being and then thrived for a brief period as an empire when each pole was relatively weak and unable to assert effective control over the region of Syria-Palestine. With the resurgence of Assyria the small states in the lands between Mesopotamia and the Nile valley attempted to survive as best they could by balancing one power against the other, preserving as much independence as possible. But it was a losing game in the long run for them all, even if the end brought the fall of Egypt to Assyria, Assyria to Babylon, and, as we shall see, Babylon to Persia and a new configuration of power.

Within this shifting matrix ancient Israel felt the impact of its historical context in many ways. While Israel emerged and first took shape in reaction against the Egyptian imperial and Canaanite city-state structures, which it found oppressive and dehumanizing, it adopted much from these structures. From its administrative system to personnel serving in the courts of David and Solomon (2 Sam. 8.16–18; 20.23–26 ), from the ivory houses and beds of northern royalty and nobility to the design and ornamentation of the temple in Jerusalem, ancient Israel was heavily influenced by its historical context. The way in which Israel drew on cultural, religious, economic, social, and political currents of that context is further discernible in important themes and motifs in the earlier (J) and later (P) strata of the Torah (Gen. 1–11 ), in ancient poetic forms preserved in the oldest material in the Bible (Exod. 15.1–8; Judges 5; Psalm 29 ), in early wisdom material (Prov. 22.17–24.22 )–and even in the convenantal forms, terms, and themes that shaped the prophetic and deuteronomic understandings of Israel's relation with its God.

Influences from its near neighbors, and from the more distant and larger powers (often filtered through these nearer neighbors) affected ancient Israelite life and the Hebraic religious tradition in profound ways. Influences sometimes came through emulation and borrowing, as possibly in certain forms of covenant language, or through the adoption of traditions associated with the Canaanite high god El Elyon of Jerusalem, as legitimizing the transition from federation to kingship, especially the Davidic dynasty. The historical context also provided negative elements over against which Israelite tradition defined itself, as, for example, in the reaction against Canaanite traditions associated with the dying and rising fertility god Baal or divine kingship as found in Egypt. In general Israel's reactions to and interactions with its historical contexts were complex, different in distinct eras (a particular openness characterized the time of Solomon), and varied across social strata.

The Yahwism of old Israel was essentially a national religion like the religions of the states around it. It is true that the deity's power could be experienced elsewhere, in the midst of Egyptian oppression, for example, but to be a Yahwist was for all practical purposes to be an Israelite. With the death of the nation it was not inconceivable that the God of Israel had died or been rendered impotent as well, if indeed the people had not been abandoned because of God's anger at their misdeeds (see 2 Kgs. 19.22 ). The struggles of early Jewish communities to shape new lives in fundamentally new historical contexts would counter this theological assessment (see the following section). These communities would also shape new understandings of what it meant to live as the people of God in the larger and often alien world.

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