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. Long before Abraham’s time, Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt and became the first king, and later kings built the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Throughout Egypt’s long history 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 (Genesis 12:6-7) and Joseph’s bones were later buried (Joshua 24:32). Here, too, the tribes of Israel were commanded by Moses to stand in front of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal and reaffirm God’s covenant by shouting out its blessings and curses to each other (Deuteronomy 11:26-32; 27:11-13; Joshua 8:33). Shechem is also where the northern kingdom declared its independence from Judah and Jerusalem (1 Kings 12). Later the nearby city of Samaria would become the capital of northern Israel (1 Kings 16:23-24). 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 (John 4:1-42).
In 539 B.C., Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated 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 (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-2). Under the leadership of Zerubbabel a small contingent of Judeans made the long journey and reestablished Judea as a very small district 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 continued to grow until it ruled virtually the entire Near East-–a domain about eight times the size of Texas. This vast empire was the world of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Queen Esther.
The city of Jerusalem underwent many changes throughout Bible times. When King David captured the city from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:6-10; 1 Chronicles 11:4-9), it was a relatively small fortress positioned next to the Gihon Spring–-a dependable source of water that later enabled the city to withstand various sieges (2 Kings 18:13-19:37; 2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36-37). King Solomon built the Temple of the Lord on a threshing floor north of the city (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21), and the city continued to grow. King Hezekiah eventually expanded the walls to encompass a much larger area and replaced the old Jebusite tunnel with another tunnel (probably called Shiloah) to channel water more securely from the Gihon Spring to the Lower Pool (later called the Pool of Siloam/Shiloah) and the king’s garden. This new tunnel is probably what Isaiah 8:5-8 refers to when it rebukes the people of Judah for rejecting the gently flowing waters of Shiloah to support the Arameans. Many years later in 586 B.C. the Babylonians attacked the city, destroyed the city and the Temple, and sent many Judeans into exile (2 Kings 25:1-21; 2 Chronicles 36:17-21; Jeremiah 39:1-10; 52:1-30).