Q. Usually, in the exchange of knowledge, there is a give-and-take. What influence, if any, did the Israelite people have on their neighboring cultures?
A. Cultural ideas and artifacts certainly did flow across borders in all directions, especially through trade and diplomacy. The challenge is identifying that influence in the surviving data, which are very incomplete on both the Israelite and non-Israelite sides. Usually, only a few attestations of a cultural phenomenon have survived, and it is tempting to assume that the earliest example that exists now is the earliest example that ever existed, or that we can trace influence in a simple, linear way. Reality is usually a lot more complex.
For example, the Hittites and the Egyptians both flourished before Israel ever existed. So if we find a facet in one of those cultures from the Late Bronze Age or earlier that is comparable with something in Israelite (or Judean) culture, we can be sure that Hatti or Egypt had it first. Furthermore, it is often presumed that more powerful nations were more influential than weaker or smaller ones and Israel was comparatively small. Imperial neighbors such as Egypt, Hatti, Assyria, and Babylon had both prestige and powerful international contacts through which to propagate their cultures.
Nevertheless, we know that smaller nations from the region of Israel and Judah could influence larger ones. One well-known example is the Egyptian adoption of Levantine gods, including Baal, who was worshiped as Seth in Egypt. Other international cultural phenomena may also have originated in the West. These include the kispu offering ritual for dead ancestors (analogous to the marzeaḥ feast mentioned in
Signs of borrowing are often clearer in material culture than in texts. The imperial powers were generally enthusiastic collectors of exotic goods from far-flung areas, including cultural artifacts and even the craftspeople who produced them. A good example is provided by some of the Nimrud Ivories—carved inlays for furniture pieces found in Assyria. They show styles and motifs borrowed from other regions, primarily Phoenicia and Syria. It is not clear in all cases whether the ivories were made in the West and imported, or whether the Assyrians had foreign craftspeople working at their courts. For another example, north Syrian styles of architecture influenced Assyrian styles in what the art historian Irene Winter has called “a complex feedback-loop of mutual interaction.”
One way in which the Judeans seem to have distinguished themselves among their neighbors was through grain production. The Judahite se’ah was used as a measure even in Nineveh, an Assyrian capital, and Judean weights have been found in various neighboring countries, suggesting that they served as one of the basic units of measure for trade in the region.
The question of specifically Israelite/Judean influence is made more difficult by the similarities between its culture and those of the contemporaneous small nations of the Levant, such as the Aramean and Phoenician city-states and the Moabites. We may observe West Semitic influence on a language or culture—there were certainly West Semitic loanwords in other ancient Near Eastern languages—but to identify it as specifically Israelite (or Judean) is more difficult due to the similarities among the West Semitic languages.
Many readers will wonder specifically about the influence of the Bible on surrounding cultures. As regards the ancient Near East, this is almost impossible to identify. Even after writing my recent book Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East, I am unable to point to a single instance from the period of the Bible’s composition in which it directly influenced a text from another ancient Near Eastern culture. Some scholars had claimed that the Egyptian author of the Instruction of Amenemope was influenced by
That’s not to say that the great powers of the ancient Near East experienced no literary influence from Israel and Judah. Some scholars have concluded from the Hebrew speech of the Assyrian Rabshakeh in
Israel and the Bible did, of course, come to have vast cultural influence, but it is to be found later on, as the Bible was propagated widely by Jews and Christians and became the most influential text in Western civilization.
- Faust, Avraham, and Ehud Weiss. “Judah, Philistia, and the Mediterranean World: Reconstructing the Economic System of the Seventh Century BCE.” Pages 82-83 in BASOR 338 (2005).
- Hays, Christopher B. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2014.
- Winter, Irene. “Art as Evidence for Interaction: Relations between the Neo-Assyrian Empire and North Syria as Seen from the Monuments.” Pages 355-82 in Mesopotamien und seine Nachbarn—XXVe Recontre Assyriologique Internationale (Berlin, 2–7 July 1978). Edited by H.-J. Nissen and J. Renger. Berlin: Reimer Verlag, 1982.