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Cultural Exchange in the Ancient Near East

What influence, if any, did the Israelites have on their neighbors?

Bronze figurine of Baal from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit)
Bronze figurine of Baal from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit)

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 Jer 16:5 and Amos 6:7), and perhaps certain aspects of spoken prophecy (as evidenced by the Mari).

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 Prov 22:17-24:22; seemingly supported by the story of the Queen of Sheba admiring Solomon’s wisdom (1Kgs 10)—but we now know that the Egyptian text has been shown to predate Proverbs.

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 2Kgs 18-19 that the Assyrians even employed Hebrew speakers at their court, and various royalty of Judah and Israel seem to have lived at foreign courts for periods of time, including Jehoiachin and his aides (2Kgs 25:27-30). We might assume that the powers picked up a few things from these peripatetic Hebrews; ancient Near Eastern empires were little different from modern ones in their habit of collecting exotica of various kinds. But we have nothing to point to and say, “Here it is!”

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.

  • Christopher B. Hays

    Christopher B. Hays is the D. Wilson Moore Chair of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. He is the author of Hidden Riches: A Textbook for the Comparative Study of the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East (Westminster John Knox, 2014) and A Covenant With Death: Death in the Iron Age II and its Rhetorical Uses in Proto-Isaiah (Eerdmans, 2015). He is working on the Isaiah commentary for the Old Testament Library series, having co-translated the book for the Common English Bible.