Understanding Biblical Kingdoms & Empires | Notes & Review

Posted on July 4, 2011


Paul H. Wright. Understanding Biblical Kingdoms & Empires: An Introductory Atlas & Comparative View. Carta, 2010. (40 pages)

On the Edge of Empire in a Land Between

…the overall pattern in the historical record of the peoples of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean Basin portrays the Levant as a frontier of Empire: a bridge to cross, and a buffer to hold. (4)

All had chances, for better or worse, to tap into the imperial routes of the Levant–and face the consequences of Empire in the process. And through it all, it was Judah–the Judeans or Jews–who proved most adept at the role of survivor, and it is their story, immortalized in the records of the Bible, that carried the day. (4)

The story of ancient Israel, then, can be read two ways: from the vantage point of the great empires of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean Basin who sought to impose their will on the land that lay between, but also through the eyes of the kings and prophets of ancient Israel and Judah who, by the sheer force of geography, were never uninterested bystanders. (4)

The Old Babylonian Empire and the Origin of the People of Israel

Whether a cause o a result of policies such as these, Mesopotamia experienced a remarkable cultural flowering during the Old Babylonian Period, with an emphasis on literacy and a synthesis of religion under the supremacy of Marduk, the city-turned-national god of Babylon. (6)

The archaeological record of the southern Levant during the time of the patriarchs–it wasn’t to be called Canaan until somewhat later–paints a consistent picture: powerful, walled city-states operating independently yet with a clear awareness of each other, and the absence of direct political control by anyone from Mesopotamia.

Haran, homeland of Abraham’s extended family, was a large, sophisticated and profitable city-state on the Balih branch of the Euphrates northwest of Mari. Its name comes form the Akkadian word harranu which means variously “highway,” “crossroads,” “journey,” “caravan” or “business venture involving travel,” and says something about the pastoral patriarch’s favored resource base should he have decided to stay. (7)

Hospitality and cleverness, faithfulness and fluidity were all values necessary to survive in the Middle Bronze Age (they still are). On these accounts the biblical patriarchs participated fully in the larger world from which they were called, while at the same time standing as a people apart. (8)

Simply put, Abraham and his emerging family were called to be distinct in a new land, covenanted to a God yet unknown to the peoples of the lands from which they had come. The encounter that would become Israel had begun. (8)

The New Kingdom of Egypt and Israel’s Exodus and Conquest of Canaan

Egypt had an advantage bestowed on it by geography that the homelands of the other great empires of the ancient Near East could only envy. (9)

The doorway of the Sinai, then, opened most often to Egypt’s favor, fostering in Egyptian consciousness a sense that although the southern Levant was foreign, it most naturally belonged to them. (9)

This was a true international age, with Mitanni, the Hittites, Assyria, Babylon and Alashia (Cyprus) all vying for position and the right to be the favorite trading partner of Egypt. (10)

The point is that Egyptian suzerainty was no more welcome in Canaan than Canaanite infiltrators were in the Egyptian Delta, even though both could benefit economically from the presence of the other. (10)

…once Israel entered Canaan,…now that Israel was back home, the long arm of Egypt was simply no longer relevant. (11)

And so Israel first settled the empty parts of the Land Between. (11)

Egypt’s Waning Empire and the Rise of Kingship in Israel

David, Solomon, Siamun, Shishak

The Assyrian Empire and Israel’s Divided Kingdom

Assyria’s strike into the southern Levant hit with brute force in the late eighth century B.C., during the reigns Ahaz and Hezekiah and under the penetrating vision of Micah and Isaiah, prophets with a cause. The collision left an indelible mark on the historical and theological consciousness of ancient Israel. (16)

The empire was badly overextended, and Egypt proved too remote to hold. Quickly burning through what was left of its now-aging youthful energy, the “Might that was Assyria” collapsed and within five short decades had fallen to Babylon. Like fireworks, the Assyrian Empire had a long, promising rise followed by a quick burst of brilliance, and then nothing. (17)’

The overall prophetic attitude held that Assyria was in the process of defeating Israel and Judah not because Asshur was a superior deity or that the Assyrian god commanded a superior army, but because the LORD God of Israel willed it as punishment for sin. (19)

The Neo-Babylonian Empire and Judah’s Last Hurrah

Babylon’s status as the urban repository for what was truly Mesopotamian–like Athens was o Greece-gave it a legacy for cultural greatness that was revered by even its political enemies. (20)

The kingdom of Judah entered the seventh century B.C. on life-support. (22)

The Persian Empire and the Return from Exile

…in the end, a continuous series of uprisings throughout the western provinces, many instigated by Egypt (a familiar role played by the pharaohs against other would-be Asian empires in the past), sufficiently weakened the western defenses of the Persian Empire so that Alexander, who started his own march in 334 B.C., could easily push on through. (25)

The Jews of Jerusalem and Yehud had an address again. (27)

So, given the reality of the times, Ezra was a kind of double-agent: recreating a Torah-observant community in the Jews’ ancestral homeland on the one hand, while enforcing a legal environment in the Persian province of Yehud under which local legal traditions could operate within the framework of Persian legal statues on the other. (27)

The end result was a functioning, semi-autonomous province of the Persian Empire, with a lively Jewish identity centered on a temple rebuilt on holy ground in Jerusalem and a cultural life shaped by the authority of priests and Levites. Political independence was gone, but armed with a realistic working relationship with Persia the Jews of Yehud were able to settle into living patterns that gave them a sense of presence and propriety within the region. It was a formula that worked, and set the tone for what options might be available when a truly foreign power, the Greeks, would arrive on the south Levantine shore toward the end of the fourth century B.C. (27)

The Empire of Alexander the Great and Hellenism in the Levant

Alexander’s march from west to east, across the extent of the entire known world, is widely recognized as one of the greatest turning points in history. By reversing the flow of power and goods on the grid of the ancient Near East he brought hte center of influence and control forever to the West. (28)

But like lands under the control of the Persian Empire which it replaced, Seleucus’ territory lacked homogeneity or a center, and needed something around which to forge a new kind of unity. This was fond in the poleis, cities established to disseminate Hellenism as the cultural flag around which to rally, and by which to foster loyalty to the king. (29)

This led to sharp divisions between those who benefited from Hellenism and those who simply put up with it. In every case, the polis became a vibrant, new heir of the older, oriental town, although in practice cultural influences flowed both ways. (29)


In short, we can assume that a general trend toward Hellenism took hold in the southern Levant in the century following Alexander’s march, primarily along the coast and through the Jezreel corridor to Transjordan. (31)

Hellenism, from the verb hellenizein, “to speak Greek,” also carries the sense of “to imitate the Greeks” or in effect “to become Greek.” It reflects an all-encompassing way of life, with distinctive political, social, economic, cultural and religious aspects. (31)

In the face of all of this, what were the Jews of the southern Levant to do? (31)

The Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires and the Hasmonean Kingdom

The rise and fall of the Hasmonean kingdom brought the issue of what was an acceptable Jewish response to Hellenism out into the open. (34)

In all, these were challenging times, about to be made more so as the reality of Hellenism, now firmly rooted in Judean soil, was to be joined by the heavy political footprint of Rome. (34)

The Roman Empire and the Kingdoms of the Herods

One might ask what this far-off rock and sand-covered corner of the Mediterranean Sea had to offer the already over-fed appetite of Rome. The Senate and generals o the late Roman Republic have been accused of being gripped by an unsatisfied aggression that drove twin vehicles: an innate need for new triumphs on the battlefield, and a practical need for new economies to exploit. (36)

But more importantly, this was the seam linking the wealth of the desert caravans to the growing economies of the Mediterranean world. … All roads, whether on land or sea, led to Rome. (36)

Combining the ancient Near Eastern ideal of the god-king with ideas of the successors of Alexander that linked worship of the king to loyalty to the state, Augustus began a cult of the divine emperor. (37)

To be sure, the Roman Empire was tired of war, and Augustus brought a period of Pax Romana and relief. (37)

Like all oriental despots, Herod convinced himself that his poor subjects would somehow be content living vicariously in the shadow of his pomp. (37)

Without proper representation in the political process, the Jewish masses were left to their own devices to survive. (38)

By the mid-second century A.D. most Christians no longer came from Jewish origins. For better or worse, the emergent church was now weaned from its parent to come to age in a Gentile world. (39)


If success is measured in what lasts, the story is still being told. (40)

— VIA —

Complete with maps and diagrams, this book is an excellent introduction to the cultural backdrops and milieu of the Biblical stories. Not only do I recommend this book, and others by Paul Wright, I recommend visiting JUC and studying in Israel if you are considering being a pastor or teacher.

Like real estate is all about “location, location, location,” so Biblical interpretation is all about “context, context, context.” However, what is so often taught in hermeneutics (interpretation), is literary context first (what comes before and after a verse), and then word studies (lexical content), and then cultural context (which may or may not include history, empire, nationalism, etc.). I contend, however, that cultural context (which includes history), is absolutely primary as everything else is shaped it. I suggest that what is needed is, perhaps a new term, a “phenomenological understanding of historio-cultural context,” to mean what people were feeling and experiencing at the visceral level in their day, in their times. Words, phrases, language, writings, etc., are all shaped by the human experience. Thus, in order to truly understand what the Biblical writers were saying, we must first understanding what they were experiencing (feeling, emoting, etc.) Wright, along with others, provides the critical information for us in that pursuit of understanding.