Oases of the Arabian Desert

One of the most overlooked locations of biblical history is the desert region encompassing the oases of Dumah, Tema, Dedan, and Yathrib. While Dumah, Tema, and Dedan are mentioned by name only a few times in the Old Testament and Yathrib is not mentioned at all, the history of these cities often overlaps with biblical history at very significant points. All of these cities existed because of their roles as much needed oases along two very important trade routes through the Arabian Desert. The Incense Route stretched for over a thousand miles through forbidding desert, beginning in Sheba in southern Arabia and terminating at Gaza on the Mediterranean coast, where traders could find ready markets for Sheba’s prized incense and precious stones. Traders from Sheba could also reach the great civilizations of Babylon and Assyria by another route that turned northeast from the Incense Route at Dedan and passed through Tema and Dumah. Over time these critical desert oases grew very wealthy, and foreign rulers did not fail to take notice. Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, eventually appointed Belshazzar to rule in his stead while he traveled to each of these cities to defeat them. Then for several years Nabonidus ruled over the these cities from Tema. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel mention these desert cities in association with Edom (Isaiah 21; Jeremiah 25:23; 49:8; Ezekiel 25:13), and Tema is also mentioned in Job 6:19. Dedan is said to be among those who traded with Tyre (Ezekiel 27:20). Dumah is prophesied against by Isaiah (Isaiah 21); Tema is prophesied against by Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isaiah 21; Jeremiah 25); and Dedan is prophesied against by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (Isaiah 21; Jeremiah 25; 49:8; Ezekiel 25:13).

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Troy and Its Surroundings

If ever there was a defining place in the ancient world where pivotal decisions changed the entire course of history, the Troad Peninsula in northwest Anatolia was just such a place. Located along the Hellespont (the ancient name for the single, narrow waterway connecting the prosperous Black Sea with the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea), this region was highly strategic and lucratrive for those who controlled it. The Troad Peninsula also stood at the border between the two great continents of Europe and Asia. The many layers of archaeological ruins at the site of ancient Troy attest to the significance of this prized location, and Troy’s momentous fall to the Mycenaean Greeks became enshrined in history through Homer’s Iliad. It was here also that the Persian army under Xerxes crossed from Asia into Europe at great expense, for his first attempt met with disaster when a storm destroyed the bridges he had built from Abydos to Sestus for this purpose. Xerxes was said to be so enraged that he sought to punish the Hellespont with lashes and fetters. Years later, it was here again that Alexander the Great crossed back into Asia to launch his long campaign of revenge against the Persians. Still later, while the apostle Paul was at Troas he saw a vision of a man from Macedonia calling for to him for help, so Paul and his companions crossed into Europe with the gospel and established a church at Philippi (Acts 16:6-12). On a later missionary journey Paul and his companions returned to Troas from Macedonia, and as Paul was preaching late into the night a young man fell out a window and was taken up dead, but Paul came to his aid, and the young man was returned to his family alive again (Acts 20:1-12). Even in modern times, this strategic area was the site of one of the largest battles of the First World War.

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The Land of Exile

When the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrians around 740 B.C. and 722 B.C., the Assyrians carried away many people to places along the Habor River (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chronicles 5:26) and to cities in Media (2 Kings 17:1-6), and the nation essentially ceased to exist. Over a hundred years later, the kingdom of Judah likewise experienced several exiles at the hands of the Babylonians (605 B.C., 597 B.C., and 586 B.C.; see Daniel 1; 2 Kings 24-25; 2 Chronicles 36; Jeremiah 39; 52), with the most devastating episode occurring in 586 B.C., when the Temple of the Lord was destroyed and Judah was no longer ruled by its own king. Judah’s experience of exile, however, was markedly different from that of Israel. The Babylonians carried away only the upper echelons of society, and from these exiles the Babylonians selected the most promising for service in the royal court (e.g., Daniel and his friends). The rest of the exiles were typically allowed to live together in their own communities in Babylon, to continue to worship the Lord, and to follow their distinct social customs. Many even became prosperous in exile. By the time Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon in 539 B.C. and declared that captive Judeans (now called Jews) could return to their homeland (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1-2), many chose not to return, since by this time life in exile would have been all that many had ever known. This was even more true by the time of Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah, well over 60 years after Cyrus’s decree. As time went on, other Jews left Palestine either voluntarily or by force, so that by the time of the New Testament more Jews lived outside Palestine than in it. This new reality explains why the apostle Paul was almost always able to find a synagogue in the cities he visited along his missionary journeys (Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 17:1,10,17; 18:1-4,19).

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Lower Egypt

In ancient times, the northern region of Egypt, often called Lower Egypt, was dominated by the extensive Nile River Delta and covered with uncultivated brush and papyrus. The Delta continually expanded and changed shape throughout Egypt’s history, as did the many branches of the Nile River. The Pelusaic branch, located at the eastern extreme of the Delta, had silted up entirely by the time of the New Testament. Long before Abraham’s time, Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt and became the first king, and later rulers built the Great Pyramids near the important city of Memphis. During Joseph’s time as second-in-command to pharaoh, Joseph’s father and brothers (the ancestors of the Israelite tribes) settled in Goshen and farmed its fertile soil (Genesis 46-47). Later the people of Israel were forced to labor as slaves in Egypt and built the store cities of Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11). Several canals were dug along Lower Egypt’s eastern border and helped protect the country from invading peoples. Hundreds of years later Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria at the western edge of the Delta, and rulers who succeeded him dug a canal leading from the Nile River to the Bitter Lakes. Alexandria eventually grew into one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and boasted a massive library and scriptorium, making it one of the greatest centers of learning in the ancient world. The city’s large Jewish population produced the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which became the Bible of the early church, since Greek was commonly spoken throughout the eastern Roman Empire.

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The Final Days of the Northern Kingdom of Israel

2 Kings 16-17; 2 Chronicles 28; Isaiah 7-8

The final days of the northern kingdom of Israel were marked by a failed gamble and a desperate gambit. The failed gamble came as an attempt by Aram and Israel to compel neighboring states (including Judah) to form an alliance against the expanding Assyrian Empire around 735 B.C. When Judah refused, Aram and Israel attacked Judah and tried to set up a man named Tabeel as king in Jerusalem, and it is likely that Edom and Philistia raided Judah as well. In desperation, King Ahaz of Judah made a costly gambit: He petitioned the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (also called Pul) for help, but this help would come at the expense of a sizeable tribute and Judah’s independence. Assyria attacked Aram and Israel (annexing all of Aram and much of Israel), but thereafter Judah became a vassal, or subject kingdom, to Assyria and was required to pay them regular tribute. This time of intense fear, anxiety, and complex political maneuvering by Assyria, Aram, Israel, and Judah forms the backdrop for Isaiah’s famous prophecies in Isaiah 7-8. The northern kingdom of Israel never regained its strength after this and was completely absorbed into the Assyrian Empire by 722 B.C.

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