With its pivotal position at the nexus of some of the greatest civilizations of ancient times, the broad plains of the northern Levant and its many important routes served as the crossroads of the ancient Near East. The region itself was home to some of the oldest civilizations in history, and it has been ruled by nearly all the dominant powers of biblical history, including the Akkadians, the Amorites, the Mitanni, the Hittites, the Arameans, the people of Mari, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, the Parthians, and the Romans. It is no surprise, then, that the history of this region often intersects with biblical history, beginning with Abraham and continuing all the way to the apostle Paul. When Abraham and his father Terah first set out from Ur, they were intending to go to Canaan, but instead they settled in Haran for a time. After Terah died, Abraham left Haran with his family and completed the journey to Canaan (Genesis 11:31-12:5). Later he sent his servant back to the region of Haran to find a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24). Still later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob fled to this same area to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, and there he married two wives (Genesis 28-30). Hundreds of years after this, David’s victories led the king of Hamath to offer him tribute (28:3-9), and Solomon extended Israel’s rule all the way to the Euphrates River (1 Kings 4:24). The Assyrians eventually overtook the entire Levant, including the land of Israel, and they exiled many Israelites to Gozan and beyond (2 Kings 15:29; 17:1-23; 1 Chronicles 5:26). Over a century later Haran became the last holdout of the Assyrians as the their empire collapsed. Alexander the Great also fought several key battles in this region to seize it from the Persians, and his successor Seleucus I Nicator founded the city of Antioch to serve as the capital of his empire. By the time of the New Testament, the Romans ruled over all the Levant west of the Euphrates River, while the Parthians ruled over all the area east of the river. Antioch had become one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, and it is where believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The church at Antioch was also the location from which the apostle Paul began all three of his missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts (13:1-3; 15:36-41; 18:23).
During Solomon’s long and prosperous reign over Israel, he built the first Temple of the Lord (1 Kings 5-6; 2 Chronicles 3), and he also built a lavish palace for himself and his many wives and concubines (1 Kings 7:1-12). Solomon also undertook many other building projects throughout Israel (1 Kings 9:15-19; 2 Chronicles 8:1-6). While much of Solomon’s wealth came by way of his own economic ventures (1 Kings 9-10; 2 Chronicles 1:14-17; 8:1-6; 9:1-28) as well as by tribute brought by foreign powers (1 Kings 4:20-21), Solomon’s many projects also exacted an economic toll on his own people. In order to provide for the needs of his royal court, Solomon divided up Israel’s territory into twelve administrative districts and assigned each one responsibility for one month’s royal provisions every year (1 Kings 4:1-38). It appears that Solomon’s own tribe of Judah may have been exempt from this burden, because Judah is not listed among the administrative districts. After Solomon’s death, Rehoboam’s refusal to lighten this heavy tax burden led most of the northern tribes to revolt against the rule of David’s family and set up Solomon’s former labor boss Jeroboam as king (1 Kings 11-12; 2 Chronicles 10).
It is often said that big things come in small packages. The truth of this saying is no more clearly displayed than in the ministry of Jesus along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. By the time Jesus moved from his hometown of Nazareth to the town of Capernaum, the freshwater Sea of Galilee boasted a thriving fishing industry, and several of those Jesus would eventually choose as his disciples were fishermen (Matthew 4:12-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11). And though this small lake spanned a mere seven miles at its widest point from east to west, a significant number of events in Jesus’ ministry took place along its shores–or sometimes even on the lake itself. One of these events–the feeding of 5000 people–took place near the town of Bethsaida (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15), which was also the hometown of Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44; 12:21). The exact location of this town is still being debated, with some scholars favoring the site of et-Tell and others favoring the site of el-Araj. Other notable events along the lake include Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-36; Mark 6:45-53; Luke 6:16-21), calming the wind and the waves (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41), and teaching people in parables and sermons. Jesus’ most famous sermon (Matthew 5-7) was likely delivered at a place now called the Mount of Beatitudes. On another occasion Jesus taught from a boat on the lake while people listened along the shore (Mark 4:1). This may have happened at a place called the Cove of the Sower, which was a naturally occurring outdoor amphitheater in which the lake itself formed the stage.
To the ancient Israelites, the distant regions of western Europe and Africa would have been regarded as the edge of the world, for beyond the Strait of Gibraltar and the coasts of Spain lay the vast, impassable Atlantic Ocean. Some scholars speculate that Tarshish, mentioned throughout the Old Testament as a far off land (Genesis 10:4; 1 Kings 10:14-25; 22:48; 2 Chronicles 9:21; Psalm 72:10; Isaiah 23; 60:9; 66:19; Jeremiah 10:9; Ezekiel 27; 38:13; Jonah 1:3), may have been located somewhere in these regions, perhaps Tartessos in Spain or one of the large Mediterranean islands. Throughout ancient times the empires of Carthage and Greece competed for the islands and coasts of the western Medterrenaean Sea until the growing Roman Empire seized the entire region by the end of the Punic Wars in 146 B.C. The Romans likewise captured the region of Gaul by about 50 B.C. and firmly established themselves as the uncontested power in the western Mediterranean. During the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Rome and spoke of his desire to visit them on his way to Spain (Romans 15:23-29). It is not clear from Paul’s later letters if his intentions were ever fulfilled, although church tradition holds that they were.
The battle at the Valley of Siddim took place before the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were famously destroyed for their wickedness. At that time these cities, along with Bela (Zoar), Admah, and Zeboiim, had been subject to king Kedorlaomer of Babylonia for twelve years, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. So Kedorlaomer and three of his allies marched to the region and subdued Ashtaroth, Ham, Kiriathaim, Seir, El-paran (perhaps ancient Elath), En-mishpat (Kadesh-barnea), Amalek, and Hazazon-tamar (which was En-gedi; see 2 Chronicles 20:2), and then they advanced to the Valley of Siddim, which was likely the dry southern basin of the Dead Sea. There the forces of Sodom, Gomorrah, Bela, Admah, and Zeboiim met them in battle but were routed. As some of the men of the five cities fled across the valley, they fell into tar pits (or perhaps slime pits), while others escaped into the mountains. The four allied kings then looted Sodom and Gomorrah and captured Lot before returning to Mesopotamia by way of Dan in the far north. One of Lot’s men escaped and reported this news to Abram at Mamre, near the town of Hebron, and Abram quickly mustered 318 trained men from his household to pursue the four kings. He and his allies caught up with them at Dan and attacked, chasing them beyond Damascus and recovering Lot and his possessions along with the other captives. After Abram returned, the priest-king Melchizedek of Salem (probably Jerusalem) pronounced a blessing over Abram and gave his allies a portion of the recovered goods.