Cultural Exchange in the Ancient Near East by Christopher B. Hays

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 , "Cultural Exchange in the Ancient Near East", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


Christopher B. Hays

Christopher B. Hays
Professor, Fuller Theological Seminary

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.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

The stage of development during which humans used copper or bronze weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 3300 to 1200 B.C.E.

A form of ancient government in which a single city was self-governing and often extended its political sphere to the surrounding countryside. Ancient Mesopotamian and Greek city-states are particularly well-known.

Can refer to the Hittite people, the capital of the Hittite Empire (Hattusa), or the entire Hittite region.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Egyptian wisdom text which dates to between the 14th to 11th centuries B.C.E., which contains several parallel sayings in Proverbs.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

A Mesopotamian social institution of a funerary feast including food and water offerings for the dead. The term can also refer to funerary rituals made at a family tomb.

The countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean sea, from the Sinai in Egypt to Aleppo in Syria.

Referring to the geographical regions of modern-day Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Syria, and sometimes Iraq.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A city along the Euphrates River.

An ancient Israelite social institution consisting of a feast probably after the death of a relative; also attested to at Ugarit, and related to the Mesopotamian practice of kispu.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

An Assyrian city located on the upper Tigris River, known as Kalhu in Assyiran and Calah in the Hebrew Bible. Nimrud was the capital of the Neo-Assyiran empire for much of the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E., and its palaces have yielded stunning archaeological artifacts.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

West Semitic (aka Northwestern Semitic) is a group of Semitic languages belonging to the region of the Middle East. West Semitic languages include all forms of Aramaic, Syriac, Amorite, Ugaritic, and the Canaanite languages such as Hebrew and Phoenician.

Jer 16:5

5For thus says the Lord: Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament, or bemoan them; for I have taken away my peace from this people, says the Lord, my ... View more

Amos 6:7

7Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Prov 22:17-24:22

Sayings of the Wise
17The words of the wise:

Incline your ear and hear my words,
and apply your mind to my teaching;18for it will be pleasant if you keep them ... View more

1Kgs 10

Visit of the Queen of Sheba
1When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, (fame due to the name of the Lord), she came to test him with hard questions. ... View more

2Kgs 18-19

Hezekiah's Reign over Judah
1In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign.2He was twenty-five years ... View more

(2Kgs 25:27-30

Jehoiachin Released from Prison
27In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the mo ... View more

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