Out of the events and unique setting portrayed in the Old Testament arose the nation of Israel, a covenant nation directed by the commandments of God and further shaped and molded as a people by special political, cultural, and physical circumstances. There were the earthly influences of the land on which they dwelt and from which they extracted a living—the soil, the vegetation, the arid landscape. And there were the less subtle forces of neighboring kingdoms—Assyria, Babylon, and others—each one nudging, pressing in, invading, exerting its own influence on the culture and institutions of Israel, changing its political and social structure, testing its fortitude and obedience.
The scenes in the pages that follow illustrate something of the political and geographical milieu of the Old Testament. These are some of the features that will become familiar as we now embark on a two-year study of the Old Testament in our Gospel Doctrine classes, enriching our understanding of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The history of mankind, having been cut short by the Flood, once again resumed its steady march after the ark built by Noah rested “upon the mountains of Ararat” (
Gen. 8:4). The snow-clad summit of Mt. Ararat (1) (now called Agri Dagi), traditional landing place of Noah’s ark, rises to a height of 17,000 feet above the rugged terrain of eastern Turkey near the Soviet border.
Abraham the Patriarch, the “father of many nations” (
Gen. 17:5), began his journey to the land of Canaan from “Ur of the Chaldees,” possibly the city of his birth and childhood (see Gen. 11:27–31). Remains of Ur (2) and its famous ziggurat, or temple tower of Ur-Nammu, can be seen at Tell al-Muqayyar, 150 miles from the Persian Gulf near the lower Euphrates River.
“And they came unto Haran, (3) and dwelt there” for a season, gathering “substance” and “souls” (
Gen. 11:31; Gen. 12:5). From the area of Haran, in the Old Testament region of Padan-aram, also came Rebekah the wife of Isaac ( Gen. 24) and Jacob’s wife Rachel ( Gen. 28–29).
The boundaries of Old Testament Canaan were from Egypt into Syria, and from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, where Sidon (5) (modern Saida, Lebanon) was a major port city.
When the children of Israel began to filter into Canaan after the Exodus, they encountered the worship of Baalim, the local Canaanite fertility gods. These false gods became a “snare” unto the Israelites, who “forsook the Lord, and served Baal” (
Judg. 2:3, 11–12). Shown here in a destructive character, this Baal figure, (4) designated as the “storm god,” was discovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit).
At the recently discovered site of Ebla, (6) an ancient capital in northern Syria, cuneiform tablets were found that made mention of the names Abraham, Esau, Saul, David, and possibly even Eber, who lived six generations before Abraham.
The Assyrian Empire, centered around the cities of Assur, Calah (Nimrud), Nineveh, and Khorsabad in upper Mesopotamia, terrorized Israel from the time of King Ahab and completed the captivity of the Ten Tribes.
A 7-foot limestone monolith (8) discovered at Kurkh (near Diyarbakir, Turkey, fifty miles from the Syrian border) depicts Shalmaneser III (858–824
B.C.) thanking his gods and boasting to them of his “victory” (which was, in truth, a stand-off) over an alliance which, according to the inscription, included “2,000 chariots and 10,000 foot-soldiers of Ahab the Israelite.”
Calah, capital of Assyria for 150 years beginning in 879
B.C., is the site of the 6-acre palace of Ashurnasirpal II, which contained numerous bas-reliefs (7) (11) and other artifacts.
(10) is taken from the mound of Calah (Nimrud) looking westward toward the Tigris River (the dark line of vegetation in the background).
Nineveh, the ruins of which are shown here (9) with the modern city of Mosul in the background, was the last capital of the Assyrian Empire.
The Babylonian Empire succeeded Assyria in its aggressive domination of the Fertile Crescent area. Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562
B.C.), king of Babylon, carried Judah captive in 587 B.C., completing the Exile. Excavations at the mound of ancient Babylon (14) have revealed the ruins of an enormous city (12) (15).
The great Ishtar Gate, (13) dedicated to the goddess of that name, formed one of the principal entrances into Babylon.
After the defeat of Babylon by Cyrus the Great in 539
B.C., the kings of the Persian Empire became masters of Palestine and Syria. Cyrus, who was called “anointed” of the Lord by Isaiah ( Isa. 45:1), allowed the Jews to begin their return to their homeland; and his successor Darius I was reigning during the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Persepolis, (20) the ancient capital of the Persian Empire, was even more spectacular than Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar II in terms of architectural grandeur.
Ancient Susa (biblical Shushan), at one time the chief city of the kingdom of Elam (see
Dan. 8:2), became the Persian royal winter residence. The story of Esther had its setting in Shushan, and Nehemiah served as a cupbearer there. The excavation area of Shushan (19) produced the famous stele (17) inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi (king of Babylon in Abraham’s era), and a pillar (18) adorned by two colossal bulls was found in the great palace hall.
It was flanked by twin towers upon which legendary bulls and serpent dragons (16) were molded in bas-relief. As the scene of the captivity of Judah, Babylon exerted more influence on the thought, activities, and worship of the Jewish people than any other entity; it was to become a symbol of evil in scriptural and prophetic expression.
Photos by George Horton, Church Educational System, David Urry, and Lynn M. Hilton