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Who is My Neighbor?
Israel's Neighboring Nations

by Elizabeth McNamer

"And who is my neighbor?" We are all familiar with the story Jesus told of the man who fell among robbers and of the Samaritan who came to his aid. It is inserted in Luke—s Gospel as an example of the type of behavior that is expected from those who call themselves followers of Jesus—kindness, concern, a willingness to put oneself at risk for another.

The Book of Leviticus, chapter 19, tells of the command to "love your neighbor," but neighbor there is restricted to fellow countrymen. Jesus may have been attempting to counteract the first-century Jewish attitude to foreigners. The Jews of Jesus— day understood themselves to be the "chosen people," but some groups took this to rather extreme measures.

Pharisees were an important sect in the Judaism of the time. The word pharisee means "separate." The texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written by another sect, the Essenes, are rife with references to the kittim or foreigners whom they despised. Some scholars point out that it was Jesus— concern for foreigners and his associating with them that caused trouble with the authorities and eventually led to his death.

Beginning at Home

The land of Israel, bordering the Mediterranean and stretching from Dan to Beersheba, is generally referred to as the Levant. The Israelites considered it to be a gift from God to them, his favorites.

Their claim to the land went all the way back to Abraham. He and his kinsfolk and their flocks had migrated there about 1800 B.C. from faraway Ur.

Any good businessman could see that it was a place of great natural beauty, with rich, crop-producing soil. It was situated in a good trading position between Mesopotamia and Egypt and had the potential of making its inhabitants rich by collecting taxes from caravans that trudged along the great commercial route.

Abraham asserted that it had been promised by God to him and his descendents forever—never mind that there were people already living there. This was Abraham—s land and so it should be.

The Neighbors

Just who were these people who were there before him? The term Canaanite is used generally to designate several Semitic tribes: Gesurites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. (Semites were supposedly descendants of Shem son of Noah and spoke a language related to Hebrew or Aramaic.)

They were well settled in this region, grew vines (made wine), wheat and barley (made bread and beer), and a variety of fruits and vegetables. They knew how to till the soil to best advantage.

It is often pointed out that the story of Cain and Abel that we read in Genesis is about the Canaanites and the Israelites. Cain was a tiller of the soil, a prototype of the Canaanites; Abel was a keeper of flocks, as were the Israelites when they first entered the land. The message behind God rejecting Cain—s sacrifice and accepting Abel—s seems to be that the Israelites were more pleasing to Yahweh than the Canaanites and so deserved the land.

Archaeological excavations done in Israel show that the Canaanites were not just good farmers, but also skilled goldsmiths and craftsmen. They had an extensive trade with Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus. In fact the word Canaanite means "trader" or "merchant."

Occasionally they banded together for war against a common enemy, but for the most part they lived in independent city-states, some in the hills and some along the coast. They were quite a sophisticated people with a long history of occupation.

The Canaanites were not the only ones living in the region. Egyptians (who had been just up the road for centuries) asserted rights to sojourn in this honeyed land, as did the Hittites.

The Egyptians were frankly more happy sunning themselves by the Nile, but did on occasion venture that way. They were good neighbors. They provided international markets and some security in war. The Hittites were also trustworthy. They oversaw a huge Empire in what we now call Turkey but liked to venture farther afield. The Book of Numbers talks about them living in the hill country. Ephron the Hittite (who calls himself a resident alien) sold a burial ground to Abraham at Hebron (Genesis 23).

Trouble With the Neighbors

The Canaanites who occupied the country must have thought that Abraham—s claim to the land was rather arrogant. They were not convinced by Abraham—s declaration that he had been promised it by God, and were understandably perturbed.

To complicate matters, Abraham—s great-grandsons abandoned the land during a time of famine and moved into Egypt, where they remained for 600 years (a long time to remain an absentee landlord). Eventually Moses and then Joshua led them back to reclaim their inheritance (still occupied by the Canaanites).

Trouble with the neighbors was bound to happen. No one was about to roll out the red carpet in welcome for the returning Israelites and Joshua had to be constantly on the alert for harassment.

It was not just neighbors rumbling at this time. There was trouble aplenty within the family itself. Although it should have been clear that Abraham had deeded the land to his second son, Isaac, other descendants wanted their two-cents— worth as well.

Abraham—s son by Hagar, Ishmael, produced the Ishmaelites, who are referred to in Psalm 83 as "conspirators against Israel." The children he had by Keturah, the Midianites (who made a fortune on incense), ganged up with the others to keep Isaac—s descendants from their inheritance. The Israelites were under Midianite rule for seven years until defeated by Gideon.

The Amaleks, descended from cousin Esau, tried to oppose their kin—s entrance to the Promised Land and were never on friendly terms. Later, King Saul did battle with them, as did David.

The Arameans were distant relatives who kept showing up and showing off. Their Aramaic language was the common language Jesus spoke, and they had a hand in developing the Phoenician alphabet.

The Moabites and the Ammonites were another branch of the family descended from Abraham—s nephew Lot.

The Moabites owned land east of the Dead Sea and rebelled against the Israelite conquest. Later, a Moabite woman, Ruth, adopted the God of her mother-in-law Naomi and became the great-grandmother of the great King David.

The Ammonites lived across the Jordan in Gilead and caused "great distress" when they insisted on hanging on to their land for 18 years. They were conquered by the Israelites and were forever attempting to get their land back. They never succeeded but were a continuous fly in the ointment.

Thus the entrance to the land of milk and honey was not an easy one and the Book of Joshua runs red with accounts of military campaigns, sieges and battles as the Israelite tribes attempted to reclaim their heritage from neighbors and family. They settled there, but would never be quite at ease with those who surrounded them.

Other Friends and Foes

There were also new invaders to contend with. The Philistines (sea people) arrived in the land at about the same time as the Israelites. Some scholars speculate that they had come from Cyprus since the designs on the pottery they used are similar to those used by the Cypriots. In all probability, they were fleeing a famine in their land. For nearly a hundred years they lived side by side with the Israelites, the Philistines on the coastal plain and the Israelites in the hill country.

It might have continued like that forever, but during the 11th century B.C. the Philistines tried to expand their territory and it was at this time that the Israelites attempted to unite as one nation to protect themselves under the leadership of Saul.

The two clashed and the Philistines proved the stronger (possibly because they had iron weapons). David eventually subdued them, but not completely. They retreated to the Gaza strip to nurse their wounds and occasionally made a nuisance of themselves. The Israelites refer to them by the most derogatory term "the uncircumcised."

Some of the neighbors were less of a threat than others. The Egyptians foraged and plundered when they felt they should or when they went to war with people farther north. The Israelites resisted them, at times to their peril.

Hittites continued to pop up. Their empire had come to an end in 1200 B.C. and many migrated into the Judean hills. For example, we find David seducing Bathsheba, whose husband was Uriah the Hittite.

Solomon, an astute politician with an international outlook, bought chariots and horses and resold them to the Hittites, who were skilled horsemen. Solomon also employed Phoenician workers to build the temple in Jerusalem. These people lived to the northwest (present-day Lebanon). They excelled as craft workers and their products were in demand all over the Middle East.

The Phoenicians also turned to the sea to make a living and became great seafarers and traders. Some New Testament scholars suggest that there was a connection between the apostles of Jesus who were mainly fishermen and the fishermen in Phoenicia, since Jesus is reputed to have gone to Tyre and Sidon.

Fierce Conquerors

Some of Israel—s neighbors were particularly fierce. The Assyrians appeared on the scene some 300 years after the conquest of Canaan. They were centered in the valley of the River Tigris, which is in northern Iraq. They began to expand their territory during the 9th century B.C., probably to gain control over trade routes.

For the next 200 years they terrorized all those around them and conducted campaigns against Syria and Phoenicia and then against Israel and Judah. The Assyrians forced their neighbors to pay taxes and showed little mercy if they failed to pay up.

Until Nimrod, Ashur and Nineveh were excavated in the last century, many wondered whether a people as ferocious as their biblical description could have existed or whether the Israelites had made them up. Now we know that they were indeed as fierce as their reputation. They kept records of their warring activities on carved stone slabs that adorned the walls of their palaces so that their kings could boast of their conquests as they sat at lunch.

In 726 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was completely destroyed by this unfriendly neighbor. At the dig in Bethsaida we can still see the soot from the fires set by the Assyrians in that little town 2,700 years ago. Its inhabitants were probably taken and sold into slavery in the cities to the north.

There was, however some intermarriage with the conquered people. The Samaritans are a product of the Israelite tribes conquered by the Assyrians and the Assyrians themselves. The Samaritans tried to be neighborly, but were despised by the true Israelites from the south, the Jews.

When the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell to the assault of the Babylonians in 612 B.C. the prophet Nahum was not distressed to see an end to them:

"O King of Assyria, your nobles slumber. Your people are scattered on the mountains and none to father them. There is no assuaging your hurt, and your wound is grievous. All who hear the news of you, clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?" (Nahum 3:18-19).

But were the new neighbors any better? The Babylonians lived in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. At an earlier stage, they had developed a magnificent system of laws, established writing, agriculture, practiced medicine (even brain surgery) and were aware of the movements of the stars.

In the seventh century B.C., a magnificent city was built by King Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 B.C., he swung over the Fertile Crescent, destroyed all of worth in Jerusalem (including the great temple of Solomon) and gathered up the cream of the population for forced emigration to Babylon. It was at this time that many Jews fled to others parts of the world to live in what is called "the Diaspora."

The Babylonian captivity lasted for about 60 years until Babylon—s neighbors to the south, the Persians, took over and re-established the Jews back in their own land.

Eventually the Jews in Palestine would be conquered by the Greeks and then by the Romans. These were real invaders. They had never lived in the neighborhood.

The Greeks in particular didn—t like the Jews and made no bones about it. They attempted to stamp out Judaism by imposing Greek ways and religion.

The Romans were a little better in that they allowed at least autonomy of religion but had little admiration for the Jews, and could be cruel and ruthless.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the Jews distrusted Gentiles or those who did not think as they did. So when Jesus came along to establish the kingdom of God on earth, it is not surprising that questions such as "Who is my neighbor?" and "What conduct is expected from me toward him?" were such significant issues in the minds of his listeners.

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of Scripture From Scratch and a frequent contributor, spends each June in Bethsaida working at an archeological dig. She teaches Scripture at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.

Next: Jesus, the Healer (by Helen Doohan)



Living the Scriptures

Put these questions into action in your life: What kind of neighbor am I? Do I consider a person—s ethnic background or religion before helping or associating with him? When was the last time I went out of my way to help a neighbor?



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