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Since the books of Exodus and Numbers a lot of peoples are referenced and the Judges, Saul and Samuel report a lot of battles and wars against Ammonites, Amorites, Amalekites, Moabites, Edomites, Philistines and many other peoples.

It seems weird that such (relatively) small land can host so many civilizations.

I wonder what they really were: "real peoples", distinguished by language and culture, or just small "tribes", living in relatively small communities, but quite similar by customs and traditions.

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    We shouldn't use the term civilization to describe some tribes or nations.
    – Michael16
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 9:00
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    I recommend consulting the Cambridge Ancient History to get a sense of the cultural environment. Human society began with small groups, and nomadic tribes kept in small groups longer than settled peoples. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 9:52
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    Following the period you note, Israel then adds 12-13 new people groups into the mix, so you've then got Reuben, Gad, Asher... plus Edom and Philistia and others who were still in the region. Which text are you asking about, and what exactly is your question about it? This feels like more of a History question than a Hermeneutics question.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 10:23
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    Biblical history and hermeneutics are intertwined IMO. Once such text: Exodus 33:2 "I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites." Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 15:09
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    "It seems weird that such (relatively) small land can host so many civilizations". Residents of Papua New Guinea are highly amused with your assertion.
    – DVK
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 21:57

4 Answers 4

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Some of these groups formed what we would call "civilizations." Others were nations, tribes or subtribes. I hope the following will be helpful but I do not present it as definitive. Basically, the Hittites, Amorites and Philistines formed civilizations. The Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites became nations, considered as relatives of the Israelites and thus not to be driven out. Of the tribes and sub-tribes mentioned in the Bible, only a little is known.

Civilizations

  • Amorites were originally a nomadic people whose prowess as warriors enabled their rise to power in Mesopotamian civilization from 2000-1600 B.C.E. They came to dominate the region, the most famous Amorite king being Hammurabi. The Amorites then migrated or were pushed westward toward Canaan where they were defeated by Israelite heroes such as Joshua. The term "Amorites" as used in the Bible is sometimes interchangeable with "Canaanite." They disappear from the historical record as a distinct population group around the sixth century B.C.E.

  • Hittites. This people created a major civilization in central Anatolia (Turkey), north-western Syria and Mesopotamia. It lasted from roughly 1680 B.C.E. to about 1180 B.C.E. and survived in the form of later city-states, which were gradually incorporated into the later powers of Syria and Assyria. The map below shows the Hittite empire during the 13th c. B.C.E. enter image description here

  • Philistines. The origins of this people are somewhat controversial, because the biblical record speaks King Abimelech as a Philistine (Genesis 26:1) but the archaeology finds no record of them in Abraham's time. They seem to have been the "Sea People" who settled along the coast. Philistines occupied the five cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath, along the coastal strip of southwestern Canaan that belonged to Egypt up to the closing days of the nineteenth Egyptian dynasty (ended 1185 B.C.E.). During some of this time they acted as either agents or vassals of Egyptian powers and also fought against the Israelites, as recounted in various biblical episodes. Philistine civilization disappeared after its cities were conquered by the Assyrian Empire in the late eighth century B.C.E. Today's Palestinians of the Gaza Strip are probably not related to them, but the name "Palestine" is.

Nations

  • Edomites. The Bible speaks of this nation as descendants of Esau. During the biblical period of the kings, Edom was sometimes a vassal state of the Kingdom of Judah. During the Babylonian Exile, the Edomites plundered Jerusalem and took portions of Judah's land. In later times, Edom was call Idumea. It was conquered by the Jewish king John Hyrcanus around 125 B.C.E. and accepted Judaism. Herod the Great and his descendants were Idumeans. Many Idumeans supported the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 70 C.E. but unlike the Jews, soon faded from history as a distinct group from the Jews.

enter image description here

  • Ammonites. The Bible describes this nation as descended from Abraham's nephew Lot. It was against the Ammonites that David's forces under Joab fought while David infamously remained in the capital and took Bathsheba. They were more pastoral than the Edomites and became vassals of both Israel and Judah at various times. Later, the Ammonites were defeated by Judah Maccabee (1 Maccabees 5:6). The last notice of the Ammonites is found in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (§ 119), which describes them as still numerous in the second century C.E.

  • Moabites. Like the Ammonites, the Moabites are said to be descended from Abraham's nephew, Lot, and were thus not included among the peoples to be driven out by the Israelites when they entered Canaan. The Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad settled among them, sometimes living peacefully and occasionally causing concern for their loyalty among other tribes. King David was of Moabite lineage through his great-grandmother, Ruth. The Moabite Stone records an important period of their history with Israel as well as providing insights into their religious culture. They disappear from the historical record sometime after the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile.

Tribes

  • Midianites. In the biblical account, the Midianites were descended from Midian, a son of Abraham through his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25:1-6). Unknown outside of the Bible, they occupied territory east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, and southward through the desert wilderness. They roamed this territory from roughly the twelfth through the tenth centuries B.C.E. During the time of the Exodus, their territory apparently also included portions of the Sinai Peninsula. The land of Midian was where Moses spent his 40 years in exile after killing an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11–15). During those years, he married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian. However, the Bible considers them as key enemies of who tempted the Israelites to intermarry and commit idolatry. A sub-tribe of the Midianites known as the Kenites apparently joined Israel and became part of the Israelite federation.

  • Jebusites. This tribe is reported to have held Jerusalem from ancient times until it was finally conquered by King David. Formerly known as Salem, its ruler in the time of Abraham was the priest-king Melchizedek.

  • Amalekites. Apparently a sub-tribe of the Edomites, this people ambushed the Israelites during the Exodus, resulting in God declaring an absolute ban against them. They were nearly wiped out by King Saul at God's command but apparently a few did survive. Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, is called an "Agagite," meaning a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag.

The Bible has little to say about the other Canaanite tribes. Historical sources such as the Amarna Letters and documents from Ugarit give more details about Canaanite politics and religion, but not necessarily using the names supplied by the Bible.


Except where otherwise indicated, I have derived much of the above from my work with the New World Encyclopedia.

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    Yes - very good answer indeed. +1. Most except for the Hittites, spoke a semitic language. The hittites appear to have spoken and Indo-European language.
    – Dottard
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 19:43
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    @Dottard that's much the same as Native Americans not speaking Hindi depite some people calling them Indians. The Hittite Empire is not generally considered to be the same group as the sons of Heth in the Bible, despite being identified as such by the first person to encounter them (in the archeological record). Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 14:15
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When the Israelites invaded the "Promised land" it was populated by a large number of waring local tribes - some big and some quite small. Most of them were local city-states. Specifically:

  • Ammonites were those descended from Ammon the son of Lot by his own younger daughter Gen 19:38. They spoke Hebrew.
  • Amorites appear to be an Akkadian people speaking an Akkadian language (similar to Hebrew) of uncertain origin
  • Amalekites were the descendants of Esau's son Eliphaz and his concubine Timna, Gen 36:12, 16, 1 Chron 1:36. They probably spoke the Hebrew language.
  • Moabites were the descendants of Lot by his elder daughter, Gen 19:30-37 and spoke the Hebrew language (actually Moabite which is almost the same as Hebrew)
  • Edomites were the descendants of Esau (Edom is another name for Esau), Gen 25:30, 36:1, 8, 19, Num 20:18, 20, 21, etc. They probably originally spoke Hebrew but diverged later.

There were many more such city states in the land as well such as the people of king Og and in Bashan (Deut 2, 3), the Hittites, Canaanites (with many sub-tribes), Perizites, Hivites, Jebusites, Girgasites (Deut 7:1, etc) and the Gibeonites (Josh 9), five Amorites kings in Josh 10, all the southern city-states (Josh 10) and all the northern city-states (Josh 10).

A longer list is provided (which is not exhaustive) in Josh 12, 33 kings and their peoples.

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    +1 although it could be fleshed out... also - probably better to say "a dialect of Hebrew" rather than "Hebrew." Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 14:21
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    Let's not forget the Stalagmites, Parasites and the Dynamites!
    – Ruminator
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 16:41
  • You might find this link useful - it shows the modern names now associated with these ancient lands: wogim.org/ancient-land-and-their-modern-names
    – Lesley
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 10:16
  • @Lesley - many thanks for your kindness.
    – Dottard
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 10:19
  • You are welcome. New question coming up.......
    – Lesley
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 10:51
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Vanuatu has been described as the world’s “densest linguistic landscape”, with as many as 145 languages spoken by a population of fewer than 300,000 people

That is slightly over 2000 speakers per language, on average!

I suspect that the number of languages in any one area has been decreasing throughout recorded history. If someone armed with stone axes invades an area, they may fight the original inhabitants and conquer some turf, but there is a reasonable chance that things will stabilize. So the folk in Canaan would have resembled the Ni-Vanuatu by speaking many languages in an area that is considered to be one country today. The speakers of each language would have formed a separate polity, with their own ancestors and founding myths.

If the invaders have more advanced technology, they have a better chance of imposing hegemony over the area, but it is interesting that the Jews weren't the only people in Palestine when the Romans were in change. It is difficult, but not impossible, to do ethnic cleansing without firearms (disclaimer: I haven't actually tried this...).

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It seems weird that such (relatively) small land can host so many civilizations.

Don't forget the other dimension, time.

Much of this history happened over hundreds or even thousands of years. Civilizations grew, conquered, flourished, declined, and were conquered. As fast as one declined, others grew to fill the void.

The Bible is a record of only one of those peoples, the descendants of Jacob (“the story of one man's family”).

A good example of this appears in the current issue of “Let the Stones Speak” magazine. Its cover story is a 14 page report on archaeological evidence of the Hittites, which at one time occupied much of the Middle East:

The identity of the Hittites perplexed historians and archaeologists for centuries. Until relatively recently, many considered the Hittites to be a fictitious people mentioned only in the Bible. Some even used the Hittite question as evidence of the Bible’s fallibility.

[… 12 page article …]

The Hittites are a fascinating case study not only into the machinations of an ancient empire and its people but also the progress of scholarly research over the past two centuries—from initial doubt and ridicule to the eventual realization of remarkable discoveries fitting with the very scriptures so derided as fable. (For further investigation, read our accompanying article “Are Biblical Hittites in Canaan Anachronistic?”. It examines the question of how well archaeological discoveries parallel the biblical account of Hittites specifically in the territory of Canaan.)

Now we have undeniable proof of the existence of this once-great empire. Again, in the words of Dr. Melvin Kyle: “[N]o one is saying now that ‘no such people as the Hittites ever existed.’”

Finding the Hittites
By Christopher Eames and George Haddad

Infographic of the Hittite Empire

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