The small nations of Ammon, Moab, and Edom lay east of the Jordan River, and the people of these nations were distantly related to the Israelites. The Ammonites and Moabites were descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot, and the Edomites were descended from Jacob’s twin brother Esau. The Israelites had passed by these nations on the way to the Promised Land and battled against them at various times throughout history. David eventually subjugated the Moabites and the Edomites, but many years later they regained their independence. While much animosity often existed between Israel and these nations, the Bible also recounts how Naomi and her husband moved to Moab to seek relief from a famine, and Naomi’s descendant David placed his parents in the care of the king of Moab while he was on the run from King Saul. The people of Edom eventually migrated to the area just south of Judea (Israel) around the time that many Judeans were exiled to Babylon. Herod the Great, who was king of Judea hundreds of years later at the time of Jesus’ birth, was actually an Edomite (Idumean). The Maccabean rulers had forcibly converted the Edomites to Judaism over a hundred years earlier.
Though southern Greece was located over 700 miles from Israel, its history often overlapped with the events of the Bible. During the time of the Judges, Sea Peoples from the Greek mainland began attacking many lands of the Bible. Hundreds of years later during the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, the Greeks fought many famous battles (e.g., Thermopylae Pass, Marathon, Salamis) to keep their land from being subsumed under the vast Persian Empire, who ruled over virtually the entire Ancient Near East. Later the Greeks fought against the Romans, and in 146 B.C. all of Greece came under the rule of Rome. Nearly 200 years later the apostle Paul traveled to southern Greece, visiting the renowned philosophical center of Athens before moving on to Corinth and establishing a church there with the help of Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos. Corinth was a very prosperous city strategically located near the isthmus linking the southern peninsula to the mainland, giving it command over both land and sea travel in the region.
The famed city of Jericho was one of the oldest cities in the world. By the time the Israelites watched its walls fall down under Joshua’s command, Jericho was already thousands of years old. Located on a plain where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea, the heavily fortified city stood guard over the entrance to Canaan from the southwest, which meant the Israelites had to conquer it in order to safely enter the Promised Land. With its hot desert climate and abundant springs, Jericho was known as the “city of palm trees” (Deuteronomy 34:3). Centuries later it was likely near Jericho (which had moved further south) where Jesus was baptized, and he also encountered Zacchaeus and a blind man named Bartimaeus there. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan tells of a man overtaken by robbers on the steep route descending from Jerusalem to Jericho. About ten miles southwest of Jericho lay the forbidding wilderness of Judea, where Jesus fasted and was tempted by the Devil. The desert community of Qumran, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, was also located nearby.
One of the most well-known stories of the Bible is David’s defeat of Goliath, a Philistine giant from the town of Gath. The Philistines may have originated from the island of Crete and settled along the eastern Mediterranean coast around the time of the Judges. As the Philistines pushed further into the interior of Canaan, they often came into conflict with the Israelites, who resided mostly in the hill country. The Philistine threat was likely one of the reasons the Israelites eventually demanded a king to help rally the nation. The five primary cities of Philistia were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza, and these may have been what was in young David’s mind as he chose five stones in preparation to face Goliath. The Israelites subdued the Philistines, but the area remained largely Gentile throughout Bible times. In the New Testament, Peter traveled to the nearby cities of Lydda and Joppa and healed Aeneas and Dorcas, and Philip the Evangelist (one of the original deacons of the early church) met an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza and explained to him that Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Scriptures.
Perhaps as much as two years after Jesus’ birth astrologers called Magi came from the East to worship the newborn king of the Jews, for they had seen a star in the heavens that indicated he had been born, and it directed them to Jerusalem. They asked King Herod where the child was, and he asked the leading priests and teachers of the law, who correctly pointed them to Bethlehem. So the Magi traveled five miles south to Bethlehem, and the star directed them to the house where Jesus and his family lived. There they worshiped Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, the Magi returned to their homeland by a different route. An angel then warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family to escape Herod’s wicked plan to kill the newborn king.
The story of Jesus’ birth actually begins in the little town of Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary lived. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary there and announced to her that she would give birth to the Messiah and that she was to name him Jesus. Soon after this Mary traveled to visit her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea, perhaps near Bethlehem, a 70-mile journey that would have taken Mary about 3 days on foot. Mary stayed with Elizabeth, who was also pregnant and would give birth to John the Baptist, for three months before returning to Nazareth. As the time drew near for Jesus to be born, Mary and Joseph were required to travel to Bethlehem, the town of their ancestor David, to be counted in a Roman census. There Mary gave birth to Jesus.
When the apostle Paul described his native city of Tarsus in Cilicia as “no ordinary city” (Acts 21:39), he wasn’t just spouting empty hometown pride. The whole region of Cilicia, along with the city of Tarsus, already formed a key part of the Hittite Empire even before Moses’ time, and the land had been fought over by virtually all the major civilizations throughout Bible times. Likewise the island of Cyprus–the home region of Paul’s coworker Barnabas–had a similar history as an ancient and prestigious civilization. And the nearby city of Antioch, the home church of Paul and Barnabas, had once been the capital of the mighty Seleucid Empire, and by the time of Paul it was one of the largest cities in the entire Roman Empire. Antioch was where believers were first called “Christians.”
Throughout Bible times, the history of Israel was often intertwined with the history of Egypt, an ancient and enduring civilization that sometimes loomed as a threat and other times offered a place of refuge and shelter for God’s people. The Great Pyramids of Egypt were already hundreds of years old by the time Abraham visited Egypt, and during Joseph’s time the regular flooding of the Nile River allowed the nation to continue producing food when the rest of the Near East was experiencing famine. During Moses’ time, however, Egypt became a threat to the people of Israel and came to be identified as “the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Yet hundreds of years later, many Judeans chose to flee to Egypt for refuge from the wrath of the invading Babylonians. Jesus himself found refuge in Egypt as a baby when his family fled there to escape the murderous soldiers sent by Herod.
The ancient city of Shechem in the hill country of Samaria was a literal crossroads of activity during Bible times. Pivotally positioned between two mountains along a key road running through central Israel, Shechem was often regarded as part of the “heartland” of Israel. Here Abraham first offered sacrifices in the Promised Land and Joseph’s bones were later buried. Here, too, the tribes of Israel were commanded by Moses to stand on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal and reaffirm God’s covenant by shouting out its blessings and curses to each other. Shechem is also where the northern kingdom declared its independence from Judah and Jerusalem. Later the nearby city of Samaria would become the capital of northern Israel. The Samaritans built their rival temple on Mount Gerizim next to Shechem. Many years later at a well in the village of Sychar just outside Shechem Jesus talked with a Samaritan woman and explained to her that he himself was the source of living water for all those who worshiped the Father in spirit and in truth.
In 539 B.C. Cyrus the Great of Persia overthrew the Babylonians, and a year later he decreed that the Judeans who had been sent into exile were allowed to return home and rebuild the temple. A small contingent of Judeans made the long journey and reestablished Judea as a very small district (shown in red) in the much larger Persian province called Beyond the River, which included most of the land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Persian Empire (shown in green) continued to grow until it ruled virtually the entire Near East–a domain about 8 times the size of Texas. This vast empire was the world of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Queen Esther.