"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
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.
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Next: Jesus, the Healer (by Helen Doohan)