Elam and the City of Susa

Though the nation of Elam receives limited attention in Scripture, the history of this ancient civilization spans nearly the entire breadth of the Bible from Genesis to Acts. After being listed among the descendants of Shem (Genesis 10:22), Elam is noted as one of the four Mesopotamian nations whose kings traveled to Canaan during Abraham’s time to deal with the cities of the plain that ceased paying tribute (Genesis 14). After this there is a long span of silence about Elam in the biblical record until Isaiah prophesied that the Root of Jesse will gather the surviving remnant of his people from faraway lands, including Elam (Isaiah 11:10-12). Later the prophet Jeremiah mentioned Elam in his prophecies as well, but his was a message of doom and exile for the Elamites, though he notes that the Lord would eventually restore their fortunes (Jeremiah 49:34-39). Ezekiel likewise foretold of destruction for the Elamites, who were among those who “spread terror in the land of the living” (Ezekiel 32:23-25). By the time of Daniel, Elam had been subjugated by the Babylonians. In one of Daniel’s visions he saw himself standing by the Ulai Canal in the citadel of Susa, the capital of the province of Elam. There has been much debate regarding which tributary Daniel was referring to, and virtually every tributary in the area has been suggested as a candidate. It appears that in ancient times all the rivers in this region flowed into what the Greeks called the Pasitigris River, which eventually emptied into the Persian Gulf. This river system has also been suggested by some scholars to be the Gihon River of the Garden of Eden, assuming that the “land of Cush” refers to the ancient homeland of the Kassites (Genesis 2:13). Like the rest of the ancient Near East, Elam eventually came under the domination of the Persian Empire. The Persians ruled their vast empire from three capital cities, including the ancient city of Susa in Elam. Thus, it was in Susa that Esther became the new queen of Persia and thwarted Haman’s plans to destroy the Jews. It was also in Susa where Nehemiah served as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia before receiving permission to travel to Jerusalem to rebuild it (Nehemiah 1). Susa also formed the eastern terminus of the great Persian Royal Road, from which government officials and couriers could travel with great efficiency all the way to Sardis near the western coast of Anatolia. The Elamite language–one of the oldest written languages in the world–served as one of the official languages of the Persian Empire. The last mention of Elam in the Bible is in the book of Acts, when Jews from all over the world, including Elam, were gathered in Jerusalem as the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles (Acts 2:1-13).

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