Old Testament: Foreign Nations

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Home > The Old Testament > Foreign Nations

This page has two purposes. The first is to quickly provide sufficient information to understand references to ancient Israel's neighbors. The second is to collect links to additional background material in a single location rather than having those links scattered unevenly across many pages of scriptural commentary. Locations within Israel are addressed at Old Testament: Places. Each entry on this page should remain short enough to read in less than five minutes.

The land of Canaan[edit]


Pages that redirect to this heading: Amorite(s), Canaan(ite)(s), Hivite(s), Jebusite(s)

From the time of Abraham to Joshua, the people who already lived in the land of Canaan were often referred to collectively as Canaanites. Those who lived in and around Jerusalem were known as Jebusites, those to the south as Amorites, and those to the north as Hivites. The Old testament can be understood without distinguishing between these various groups of Canaanites. The important thing is simply to recognize them as the previous inhabitants of Canaan.


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Israel and Judah[edit]

Pages that redirect to this heading:

While the House of Israel remained united as a single nation, the territory of Israel included Upper and Lower Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, as well as Gilead east of the Jordan River.

Upon the death of king Solomom in 931 BC, Israel divided into the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the northern Kingdom of Israel.

The Southern Kingdom of Judah continued to be ruled by the descendants of David and Solomon and to have its capital at Jerusalem. The Southern Kingdom's territory included only Judah and included only the tribes of Judah, Simeon, some Levite possessions, and eventually also Benjamin.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel was ruled over by kings from the Tribe of Ephraim. Its territory included Galilee, Samaria, and Gilead. A capital city was soon built at Samaria. The Northern Kingdom included all of the other tribes, including Dan, which had migrated from its inheritance in the far southwest to a new location in the far north.

The extent to which Israel fully occupied any of these areas depended on Israel’s relative military strength at the time.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Samaritan(s)

Upon the death of king Solomon in 931 BC, Israel divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom had its capital at Samaria. Two hundred years later in 723 BC during the days of Isaiah, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom, carried off much of the Israelite population, and brought in foreigners to repopulate the land. The mixture of remaining Israelites and imported foreigners became known as Samaritans. Their religious practices were also a mixture, and they were looked down upon by the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

Babylon subsequently conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah and carried off many of the Jews. But in 538 BC, two hundred years after the Samaritans had become a people, the Persian king Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Samaritans attempted to participate in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple, but they were rejected as not being sufficiently Israelite. The offended Samaritans raised opposition to the Jews throughout the reigns of Cyrus and Darius, including writing a letter to the king that stopped construction on the temple and city wall of Jerusalem. (Ezra 4:1-5).

The Samaritans later built their own temple on Mount Gerizim in competition with the temple at Jerusalem. (See Jn 4:19-26) and remained enemies to the Jews through the days of Christ, as reflected in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (Lk 10:25-37).


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Neighbors to the west[edit]

The two important countries to the west, between Israel and the Mediterranean coast, were the Phoenicians and the Philistines. These countries were not related to Israel.


Pages that redirect to this heading: Phoenicia(n)(s), Sidon(ian), Tyre

The Phoenicians lived northwest of Israel on the Mediterranean coast (now Lebanon). The two chief Phoenician cities were Tyre and Sidon. The Phoenicians are sometimes referred to as Sidonians.

The Phoenicians were known as sea-faring traders more than conquerors. This is the one nearby nation that had little conflict with Israel.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, Gaza, Philistia, Philistine(s)

The Philistines lived on the coastal plain between Israel and the Mediterranean coast (now mostly in the Gaza Strip of Palestine). The five principal Philistine cities are often listed as a group: Gaza, Gath, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron.

The Philistines were a significant threat to Israel throughout the reign of the judges and King Saul. David took several cities from the Philistines that were later lost back to the Philistines.


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Neighbors to the east[edit]

Israel and its neighbors to the East all considered themselves to be joint descendants of Abraham and therefore as related to each other. This does not mean that they got along well with each other.

The three eastern neighbors most important to understanding the Old Testament are Ammon, Moab, and Edom. Other related neighbors are also listed here for reference, but they are not as important to understanding the Old Testament.


Pages that redirect to this heading: Ammon(ite)(s)

Ammon descended from one of the two daughters of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Ammon was located directly east of Israel across the Jordan River (now northwest Jordan). Ammon consistently disputed the territory east of the Jordan River that was occupied by three of the tribes of Israel. Ammon remained hostile to Israel even after both had been conquered by great powers.

Ammon was idolatrous.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Moab(ite)(s)

Moab descended from one of the two daughters of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Moab was located south of Ammon, or east of Judah across the Dead Sea. With the Dead Sea to separate them, Moab did not as often come into direct conflict with Israel, but the two were generally unfriendly.

Ruth was from Moab.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Edom(ite)(s)

Edom descended from Jacob’s brother Esau and was therefore the nation most closely related to Israel. The two countries generally hated each other. Israel was commanded not to destroy Edom (Deut 2:2-6), but it subjugated Edom when it could.

Edom was located south of Moab, or southeast of Judah (now southwest Jordan). Its capital Sela was built high on Mount Seir at or near the current site of the ruins of Petra.

At the conclusion of Israel's forty years of wandering in the desert, Edom refused to Israel pass through its territory on the way to invade Canaan (Num 20:14-21).

In later years Edom was known as Idumea, a term also used to refer to the wicked world.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Midian(ite)(s)

Midian descended from Abraham through his sons by his concubine Keturah. The Midianites roamed the Arabian Desert east of Israel but also raided west into Israel until defeated by Gideon. (Judg 7:15-25).


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Ishmaelite(s)

The Ishmaelites descended from Abraham through his wife Hagar and her son Ishmael. West in the Arabian Desert. Ishmael is generally regarded as the ancestor of the modern Arabs.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Amalek(ite)(s)

The Amalekites lived in the Negev Desert south of Beersheba.

The Amalekites may have been descended from a grandson of Jacob’s brother Esau who was named Amalek.

Israel was commanded to utterly destroy only two groups of peoples, the Canaanites and the Amalekites (Deut 25:17-19). The Amalekites were the first to attack Israel after it left Egypt (Exodus 17:8). They were constantly at war with Israel until greatly weakened by Saul and David. The Amalekites were ultimately destroyed by the tribe of Simeon (1 Chronicles 4:43).

Hamman the Agagite in the much later story of Esther (Esther 3:1-11), who was intent on destroying the Jews, may have been a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag who was killed by the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 15:33).


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Two other small nations to the north[edit]


Pages that redirect to this heading: Haran, Mitanni

In Abraham’s day, Haran was located far north of Damascus and far west of Ninevah in an area known as Mitanni. Isaac and Jacob both married girls who lived there and who were descended from Abraham’s brother Nahor.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Elam

Elam was a mountainous area east of Babylon in what is now Iran hat is mentioned in prophecies by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.


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Powerful neighbors to the south and north[edit]

Israel spent much of its existence caught between two great powers, one to the south and another to the north. As these two great powers struggled for supremacy, Israel and its small neighbors struggled just to survive.

The great power to the south was Egypt. The role of northern great power, in contrast, was taken up by one people after another.


Pages that redirect to this heading: Egypt(ian)(s)

Egypt was rich and powerful because the annual floods of the Nile River continually replenished its soil. Egyptian dynasties came and went, but Egypt itself was always an important player in the Near East until conquered by Rome shortly before the birth of Christ.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Hittite(s), Hittite Empire

At the time of Abraham and Jacob the great northern power was the Hittite Empire based in what is now Turkey.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Aram, Damascus, Kedar, Syria(n)(s)

Syria (or Aram) with its capitol at Damascus was the great northern power in the early days during the time of Judges and Samuel. Syria often invaded southward into Gilead, the fertile land east of the Jordan River held by three of the tribes of Israel.

In even earlier times Syria was known as Kedar.

While Syria was larger and more powerful than Israel and its other immediate neighbors, in later times Syria was only a mid sized power compared to the even greater size of the other great powers listed below.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Assyria(n)(s), Ninevah

After Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the great northern power was Assyria with its capital at Ninevah. The Assyrians were especially feared for their unusual cruelty. In 723 BC the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom and carried off the Lost Ten Tribes, leaving behind the people who became Samaritans. Assyria managed to briefly invade Egypt but withdrew after about a decade.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Babylon(ia)(n)(s)

The next great northern power was Babylon. Babylon decisively defeated the combined armies of both Assyria and Egypt at the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC and thus became the sole great power in the Near East. Babylon also conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah, destroyed the temple, and carried off much of the population in three waves during 605-587 BC.

From this point on the Israelites rarely enjoyed political independence, but were instead occupied by a succession of four world powers before finally being dispersed by Rome. Babylon, as the first of these worldwide powers to occupy Jerusalem, is often used as a metaphor for the world, its power, and its attractions.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Persia(n)(s)

In 539 BC Persia conquered the Babylonian empire, including Israel. The Persian king Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.

In earliest times the seat of Persian power and culture was in Elam. The Old Testament ends during the Persian Period.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Alexander the Great, Greek empires, Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic E/empire, Ptolemies, Ptolemy, Seleucid(s), Seleucid E/empire, Antiochus Epiphanes (IV)

Persia was in turn conquered by Alexander the Great of Greece, who took possession of Jerusalem in 332 BC. Alexander died less than ten years later, and his empire was broken up into four smaller empires based in Macedon (Greece), Asia Minor (now Turkey), Syria, and Egypt.

In 198 BC the Greek Ptolemaic empire in Egypt lost control of Palestine, including Jerusalem, to the Greek Seleucid empire with its capitol at Antioch in Syria.


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Pages that redirect to this heading: Roman, Roman Empire, Rome

At the time of Alexander, Rome controlled only the Italian peninsula. But by the time of Christ, Rome had conquered the Greek empires of the Ptolemies and Seluecids, as well as Israel.

The New Testament occurs during the Roman Period.


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Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves, such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word. In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources are preferable to footnotes.

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