Review: Ancient Israel’s Neighbors

Ancient Israel’s Neighbors

By Brian R. Doak
(Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2020), x + 212 pp., 24 figures (maps and drawings), $99.00 (hardcover); $24.95 (paperback); $17.99 (ebook).
Reviewed by Ann E. Killebrew

Ancient Israel’s Neighbors

During the past 30 years, several multi-author volumes have addressed peoples of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) from the broader ancient Near East.1 Brian Doak’s book is different in that it is authored by a single scholar (hence more cohesive) and focuses on Israel’s immediate neighbors. These include the Canaanites, Arameans, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Philistines, and Phoenicians, presented in separate chapters according to the chronological order in which they appear in the Hebrew Bible.

Chapters begin with an overview of the archaeological and extrabiblical textual evidence. Then follows a discussion of how the group is presented in the Bible, which is compared and contrasted with information from other primary sources. Lastly, the author considers the “fate” of each neighbor and its representation in later New Testament, Christian, and Jewish sources.

Doak considers the Canaanites, who inhabited Canaan before the emergence of the Israelites, to be Israel’s first and most intriguing neighbor, with implications for Israel’s identity and thinking about other neighboring groups. He concludes by addressing the question, “What happened to the Canaanites?” as understood by the New Testament writers and later sources.

The Arameans, who bordered Israel to the north, are mentioned 135 times in the Bible. Israel’s relationship to the Arameans is complex: They share both a genealogical and adversarial connection. As summarized by Doak, Aram, with its localized power centers and shifting boundaries on the margins of Mesopotamia, appears regularly in first-millennium Assyrian texts. The Tel Dan (“House of David”) inscription, written in Aramaic, is well known to readers of BAR and is a key archaeological discovery for Aram’s relationship with Israel. Doak then discusses how historical circumstances led to the spread of Aramaic, which became the international language of trade and commerce of the Babylonian and Persian empires. Its use and impact continued well into the Common Era.

Israel’s neighbors to the east (beyond the Jordan River)—the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites—make their biblical debut in the Book of Genesis. Their geographical core lies within the boundaries of modern-day Jordan, with Edom’s territory extending into the Negev. The Ammonites continued to flourish into the Hellenistic period, and the modern capital of Jordan, Amman, reflects their strong historical legacy. The Moabites, on the other hand, seem to have disappeared as an entity during the Babylonian conquests of the region. Nonetheless, they continued to serve as a symbol of one of Israel’s enemies in later literature, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Edomites survived into the Roman period, during which time this region was occupied by the Nabateans, a nomadic desert people who created the famous rock city of Petra.

The Philistines and Phoenicians were Israel’s coastal neighbors to the west, with the Philistines in the southern coastal plain and the Phoenicians to the north, in modern-day Lebanon. The Philistine origins are outside the Levant. Thus, their material culture and traditions, especially during the earlier Iron Age (12th–11th centuries B.C.E.), are distinctive from the Levantine cultures and reflect Aegean influences. Contrary to archaeological evidence, they are portrayed in the Bible as an uncultured people. The biblical Phoenicians, on the other hand, receive a more accurate description as wealthy traders, though they are reviled as idol worshipers. As Doak explains, the Phoenicians are the first-millennium B.C.E. coastal descendants of the Canaanites and, like the Canaanites, cannot be considered an “ethnic” group per se. Rather, they were a collection of peoples who lived in city-states and shared a language and material culture. During the Babylonian conquests, major Philistine cities were destroyed, though Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod continued to be inhabited. In contrast, Phoenician influence spread throughout the Mediterranean region well into the first centuries of the Common Era.

Doak concludes his overview by assessing his original goal of presenting each neighbor through integration of the available historical data with the views of the biblical authors, and he determines that this is an impossible task, as the biblical representations depict any neighbor as an idolatrous enemy of Israel. Uniformly, Israel’s neighbors have shameful origins and are the target of prophetic condemnation. Doak’s solution is to present each neighbor on its own terms based on the archaeological and extrabiblical evidence, followed by the viewpoint given by the biblical authors. Readers of BAR will doubtlessly enjoy this engaging, accessible, and affordable introduction to ancient Israel’s closest neighbors.



1. See, e.g., Alfred J. Hoerth, Gerald L. Mattingly, and Edwin M. Yamauchi, eds., Peoples of the Old Testament World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994); Bill. T. Arnold and Brent A. Strawn, eds., The World Around the Old Testament: People and Places of the Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016); and Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilder, and John H. Walton, eds., Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018).

Ann E. Killebrew is Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Jewish Studies, and Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. She co-directs excavations at Tel Akko.

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