We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Michael J. Chan
Emory University


Empires and their practices exerted an enormous influence on biblical literature: from the story of Israel's Exodus out of Egypt to the charming tale of Esther in the Persian court, from the imperial image of Solomon to the violent judgment leveled against Assyria and Rome, biblical literature reflects through and through an experience of empire.

Long before ancient Israel developed into a distinct people in Canaan (perhaps sometime around the start of the Iron Age) powerful empires ruled the ancient Near East during the Late Bronze Age. These imperial powers included Egypt, Hatti, Mitanni, Babylon, and Assyria. Some, like Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt, maintained varying degrees of political power into the Iron Age and went on to play a significant role in the Hebrew Bible.

The Egyptian Empire

Literature in the Hebrew Bible is often ambivalent toward empires and emperors. Egypt and its king, who is often called "Pharaoh", are frequently cast in negative terms, especially in texts dealing with the Exodus tradition. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites are slaves of the Egyptian empire, helping to build its monuments. God defeats Pharaoh through a number of wonders that culminate in the defeat of Pharaoh's army at the Re(e)d Sea (Hebrew yam sûf). However, even Egypt, in some prophetic texts, has a positive role to play in Israel's future (see, e.g., Isa 19:24–25).

The Assyrian Empire

Like Egypt, the Assyrian empire, whose borders encompassed much of the Near East in the first half of the first millennium B.C.E. (see the map here), is primarily described in negative terms (see esp. the book of Nahum). As with Egypt, however, there are some exceptions. For example, in the book of Jonah—an elegantly wrought piece of satirical literature —the Assyrians repent of their sins and turn to God. On a political level, Judah became an Assyrian vassal during the reign of Ahaz (743/735–727/715 B.C.E.). During Ahaz's reign the kingdom of Aram in Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel attempted to coerce the southern kingdom into joining their rebellion against the Assyrian king. This event is reflected in Isaiah 7–8, 2 Kings 16, and 2 Chronicles 28. Assyria eventually defeated the northern kingdom by destroying its capital Samaria and making it an Assyrian province.

There are also similarities between Neo-Assyrian international treaties and the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is formulated as a covenant between God and the nation. The structure of the Deuteronomic covenant reflects the structure one finds in Neo-Assyrian treaties. The most well-known of these treaties is the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon. Some of the similarities are so close that many scholars think that Judahite scribes were aware of these treaties, either in their Akkadian original or in Aramaic translation.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire

The Neo-Babylonian empire—named so after its capital city, Babylon—is perhaps the most infamous empire. The southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians in the early sixth century B.C.E. At that time, the Neo-Babylonian empire was ruled by Nebuchadnezzar II/Nebuchadrezzar II (605–562 B.C.E. The Babylonian exile was the result of Nebuchadnezzar's victory over Jerusalem. This short-lived empire fell to the Persians in 539 B.C.E., after Cyrus' general, Gobryas, entered Babylon. Memories of this period, associated in particular with King Nabonidus (the last Babylonian king), are found at Qumran (i.e., the "Prayer of Nabonidus").

The Persian Empire

Of all the human empires in the Hebrew Bible, the one given the most positive press is the Persian empire. One of its rulers, Cyrus II (i.e., Cyrus the Great), is heralded as an "anointed one" or a "messiah" (Isa 45:1) and as one who would help bring about Judah's restoration. Cyrus was responsible for the fall of the Neo-Babylonian empire, an event reflected in the Cyrus Cylinder. Cyrus also allowed Judeans in exile in Babylonia to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple (see Ezra 1:1–4; 2 Chr 36:22–23).

The experience of empire is felt throughout biblical literature. An entire genre developed within prophetic circles which, in literary form, directly addressed foreign nations. Such oracles are called the oracles concerning foreign nations. These oracles directly address foreign kingdoms and empires and often announce their impending doom (e.g., Isa 13–23; Jer 46–51; Ezek 25–32; Amos 1:3–2:16; Obadiah; Nahum. For more information, see "Warnings and Laments Addressed to Foreign Nations and Peoples").

A number of canonical and deuterocanonical books have imperial courts as their setting. These "court tales" include Genesis 37–50, Daniel 1–6, Esther, 1 Esdras 3–4, and Bel and the Dragon. Court tales typically feature a worthy person's achievements in the royal court of a foreign king. The genre is known outside of Jewish literature in the story of Ahiqar, a tale of an Assyrian courtier who is betrayed by his nephew.

The Hellenistic Period

Alexander the Great's defeat of the Persians in 333 B.C.E. marked the beginning of a new era of empire for the Near East: the Hellenistic period (332–63 B.C.E.). After Alexander's death, political strife ensued, resulting in the dissolution of Alexander's empire and the rise of new political forces. The Seleucids ruled from Syria in the north and the Ptolemies ruled from Egypt in the south (see "The Near East in the Hellenistic Period: Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires").

The Roman Empire

The Hellenistic period ended with the rise of the Roman empire. After establishing itself in Latium, Rome first gained control over Italy and eventually over the entire Mediterranean basin. Prior to Pompey's conquest of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E., amicable relations existed between Jews and Rome. The Hasmonean dynasty, started by Judah Maccabee in 161 B.C.E., even maintained a pact of peace with Rome. After Pompey's conquest of Jerusalem, however, Roman imperial control brought a great deal of strife upon Jewish communities. Jewish resistance to Rome ebbed and flowed throughout the Roman period. The First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.) and the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar Kokhba (ca. 132–135 C.E.) are notable climaxes.

A number of Jewish writings reflect the dynamics of these later periods, including parts of the book of Daniel, the books of Maccabees, and a number of other apocryphal/deuterocanonical books. The Dead Sea Scrolls were also written under Hellenistic and Roman rule. In particular, the Romans are mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls under the code-name, Kittim: see especially the pesharim; the War Scroll, and the War Rule.

The Roman Empire is also the overarching political context of the New Testament (see "The Roman Empire: The Background of the New Testament"). Jesus was a Galilean Jew who was born during the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.). Jesus's teaching encouraged people to pay taxes to the empire (Matt 22:21), and his crucifixion was overseen by Pontius Pilate—the Roman-appointed prefect of Judea and official of Rome. What's more, the title, "Son of God," while given to Jesus (see, e.g., Matt 4:3, Mark 15:39, Luke 1:35, etc.) by New Testament writers, was also used of Augustus Caesar (divi filius) and as a messianic title in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The NT author Paul was a citizen of the Roman empire. In the book of Revelation, "Babylon" (i.e., Rome) is pejoratively described in highly sexualized terms, namely, as a mother of prostitutes (see Rev 17).

Finally, many Jewish and Christian texts imagine a future in which God—or Jesus, in the case of Christianity—is reigning as a cosmic emperor, often from Jerusalem/Zion (see, e.g., Isaiah 60; Zech 14:9; Psalm 47; Rev 19:11–21). In fact, many messianic figures in Judaism and Christianity are depicted as ideal emperors, restoring the kingdom of Israel and liberating the elect from oppressive powers (see, e.g., Isa 11:1–9).

Visit Thematic Guides main page

Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice