Israel and the Nations by John Strong

Q. How is the term “nations” used in the Old Testament? What is God’s judgment of the nations?

A. Ancient Israel defined a nation as a kinship group—such as a large, extended family. This definition was developed out of the ancient Israelites’ visceral experience, for they were born into and grew old surrounded by their extended family, in villages and on land where their ancestors had lived and worked, and where their descendants would do the same. The nation was simply the extension of what they knew at the village level.

Hence, the Hebrew term for “nation” (pronounced something like “ahm”) is linguistically related to the preposition meaning “with,” and a verb form meaning “to be associated with,” “to belong to.” The Israelites understood themselves to have originated from a common set of ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen 11-35). The Edomites originated with Esau (Gen 36), and the many Arab peoples they encountered descended from Ishmael (Gen 17:20; Gen 25:12-16). The Hebrew term for Ammonites is literally “descendants of Ammon.”

The notion of kinship describes the bonds of loyalty and the relationships that bound Israel’s disparate parts into a whole, but it would be a mistake to infer any sense of superiority into the concept. Indeed, Israel understood itself to have been chosen by Yahweh to carry out his will, despite its inherent inferiority relative to the other nations (Num 13:28-29; Deut 4:37-38; Isa 60:22).

At the point when Abraham is chosen, Yahweh states that he will bless all the nations through Israel (Gen 12:1-3). Over time, Israel worked out how this would happen in a variety of ways. Both men and women could be brought into the family circle through adoption or marriage (see the example of Eliezer in Gen 15:1-3). Resident aliens had their place and were given certain protections and status within the greater society (Lev 19:33; Deut 10:17-18; Ezek 47:23).

On the national level, the royal ideology of the Davidic dynasty in Judah held to an ideal that other nations would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to receive instruction from Yahweh, and ultimately receive his blessing/promise of prosperity as well (Isa 2:1-4). Though in practice Israel did not often (if ever?) have enough power to implement this doctrine and move it beyond the realm of ideology and into reality. This doctrine viewed the other nations as subservient vassals to Israel, and as such the other nations would have perceived this policy of the Davidic dynasty more as taxation and exploitation.

Finally, ancient Israel’s literature is filled with “oracles against the nations.” These oracles reflect an Israel-centric foreign policy, based on national interests, policies, and historical circumstances at the time the texts were delivered. These oracles remain very individual in nature and motivation. Texts of judgment—at times xenophobic in tone—must be understood first in their ancient contexts, and utmost discretion must be used when applying such oracles to the modern international setting.

John Strong, "Israel and the Nations", n.p. [cited 24 Jun 2022]. Online:


John Strong

John Strong
Professor, Missouri State University

John Strong is professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, where he teaches courses on Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern Archaeology. He has published mainly in the area of ancient Israel’s prophets (with an emphasis on Ezekiel).


A sequence of rulers from the same family.

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.

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.

a journey, usually with religious significance

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Gen 11-35

The Tower of Babel
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar an ... View more

Gen 36

Esau's Descendants
1These are the descendants of Esau (that is, Edom).2Esau took his wives from the Canaanites: Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah da ... View more

Gen 17:20

20As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make h ... View more

Gen 25:12-16

Ishmael's Descendants
12These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah's slave-girl, bore to Abraham.13These are the names ... View more

Num 13:28-29

28Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.29The Amalekites ... View more

Deut 4:37-38

37And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power,38driving ou ... View more

Isa 60:22

22The least of them shall become a clan,
and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Lord;
in its time I will accomplish it quickly.

Gen 12:1-3

The Call of Abram
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.2I will make of y ... View more

Gen 15:1-3

God's Covenant with Abram
1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Lev 19:33

33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.

Deut 10:17-18

17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,18who executes justice for th ... View more

Ezek 47:23

23In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the Lord GOD.

Isa 2:1-4

The Future House of God
1The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2In days to come
the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be establi ... View more

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