Hittites, Canaanites, and Phoenicians

The world of western Asia and the Mediterranean basin was packed full of civilizations in ancient times. I have already written about Egypt and about the Minoan civilization on Crete. The latter might have produced the Philistine civilization that bordered upon Israel for many centuries. Further east in Mesopotamia were the cities of Sumer, one of the world’s earliest civilizations. One of the world’s first empires, the Akkadians, arose in northern Mesopotamia and conquered all the Sumerian cities. Later the Sumerians were displaced by Semites, who adopted the Sumerian system of writing (“cuneiform”) and other Sumerian traditions. Hammurabi, famous for codifying the laws of Babylon and publishing them to be read by Babylon’s cities, was Semitic. So was Abraham, who left the city of Ur in Mesopotamia and traveled to Canaan because of commands and promises that were given to Abraham by the Lord.

To the north of Mesopotamia, in the land now called Turkey, arose an empire known as the Hittites. (Turks would not arrive in that part of the world until much later in history. At this time, the Turks were in central Asia, neighbors of China.) During the Enlightenment, skeptics mocked conservative Christians for trusting the Bible’s accounts of early history. The Bible mentioned the Hittites, but no other evidence could be found to prove that Hittites ever existed. That changed in the nineteenth century when archaeologists discovered remains of Hittite cities and began to coordinate their discoveries with unidentified nations mentioned in Egyptian and other records. More than three thousand years ago, the Hittites ruled a powerful empire. For some generations, they were among the rivals of Egypt and other ancient empires. Like the Sumerians and other ancient nations, they lost political power and blended into the moving populations of the world. No one knows today whether he or she has any ancestors who were Sumerian or Hittite. But from the time of Abraham until the time of Samuel, the Hittite Empire was important in west Asian history and culture.

Of course in Canaan, Abraham met the Canaanites. Like the Sumerians and the Greeks, the Canaanites maintained a confederation of separate governments, each in its own city, while sharing among themselves a common culture, language, and religion. The Lord found the religion of the Canaanites especially offensive. Not only did the Canaanites worship false gods; their worship included human sacrifice and ritual prostitution. Canaanite religion, in some ways, appears almost a deliberate mockery of God’s plan of salvation—a plan which centers around the sacrifice of his Son, and a plan in which the Son of God claims God’s people as his Bride. The descendants of Abraham were told to remove the Canaanites from the land. The Israelites were God’s tool to bring punishment upon the Canaanites. Israel was warned not to imitate Canaanite religion, but the people of Israel did not heed that warning. Therefore, the Lord eventually used Assyrian and Babylonian armies to punish his people as he had used his people to bring judgment on the Canaanites.

One nation, closely related to the Canaanites, escaped God’s wrath and punishment, at least for a time. The Greeks called them Phoenicians, and the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet for their own use. This adaptation developed into the Latin alphabet still used today in English, Spanish, French, German, and many other languages. Reading skills in these languages are called “phonics,” in memory of the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians did not compete with the Israelites, because the Israelites focused on the land the Lord had promised to Abraham, but the Phoenicians focused on commerce and settlements throughout the Mediterranean world. Not only did the Phoenicians trade with Egypt, Minoan civilization (before it fell) and the emerging powers in Greece; it also established colonies in southern Europe and northern Africa, all the way to Spain and Morocco. Important Phoenician cities near Israel were Tyre and Sidon. Kings David and Solomon had friendly relations with the king of Tyre. Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel, came from Tyre. One of their famous colonies in north Africa was Carthage, which would become Rome’s greatest rival in the western Mediterranean, leading to the Punic Wars (again, deriving their name from the Phoenicians).

Later prophets spoke against the wealth and arrogance of the Phoenicians. Ezekiel’s sermon about the king of Tyre includes descriptions that are often applied to Lucifer, the fallen angel who became Satan, chief among God’s enemies. That famous sermon of Ezekiel is echoed in Revelation 18 and 19, in which the fallen city is called “Babylon,” but represents false religion throughout the world.)

 Tyre, built on an island, withstood many sieges before the city finally was captured by Cyrus, the Persian Emperor. Alexander the Great also conquered Tyre, and it has since been part of great empires including the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks. Since the World Wars in the twentieth century, Tyre has been part of the small country of Lebanon. The region has seen repeated episodes of turbulence and violence, much of it related to the wars against Israel fought by its neighbors. Such conflict reminds the historian that, as much as politics and technology seem to change, some things about people remain the same since ancient times. J.

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