Area immediately east of Jordan River settled by Reuben, Gad, half of Manasseh, Edom, Moab, and Amon. The most prominent topographical feature of Palestine is the Jordan River Valley, referred to in the Old Testament as the “Arabah” and called today, in Arabic, the Ghor. This valley represents a huge geographical fault line which is prominent also in Lebanon, where it creates the Beqa'a Valley, continues southward from Palestine to form the Red Sea, and extends even as far as Mozambique in east Africa. Center stage of the biblical narrative is the hill country west of the Jordan where most of the Israelite tribes were settled and where the famous cities of Samaria, Shechem, Jerusalem, and Hebron were sited. See Jordan, Palestine.
The highlands east of the Jordan also played a significant role, especially during Old Testament times. Transjordan included: The River Jabbok, scene of the account of Jacob's wrestling on his return from Aram (Genesis 32:22-32); the Plains of Moab, where the Israelites are said to have camped following their Exodus from Egypt and where Baalam prophesied, and Mount Nebo, from which Moses viewed the Promised Land, (Numbers 22:1-24:25;
Deuteronomy 34:1). Three Transjordanian kingoms (Ammon, Moab, and Edom) were contemporary with the two Hebrew kingdoms (Israel and Judah) sometimes as allies, sometimes as enemies (1 Samuel 11:1;
1 Samuel 14:47;
2 Samuel 8:12;
2 Samuel 10:1;
2 Kings 3:1;
Amos 1:11-2:3). The prophet Elijah was from Tishbi, a town in the Transjordanian territory of Gilead (1 Kings 17:1). Other Israelite prophets and poets often referred to the territories and peoples of the Transjordan. See, for example, the allusions in
Amos 4:1 and
Psalms 22:12 to the cows and bulls of Bashan.
The vast Arabian Desert stretches southeastward from the geological fault line described above. The Transjordan which figures in the biblical narratives is not the whole desert expanse, but rather the north-south strip of highlands sandwiched between the Jordan Valley and the desert. This strip of highlands receives abundant rainfall from the Mediterranean winds during the winter months, which allows farming and cattle grazing. The rainfall fades rapidly as one moves eastward, however, so that the generally rugged and cultivable land gives way to rocky desert approximately thirty to thirty-five miles east of the Jordan.
Four major rivers, along with numerous smaller and intermittently active stream beds, drain the Transjordanian highlands into the Jordan Valley. (1) The Yarmuk River, not mentioned in the Bible, drains the area known in Old Testament times as Bashan. Bashan, good cattle country as indicated above, was situated roughly east of the Sea of Galilee. Main biblical cities in the Bashan region were Ashtoroth and Karnaim (Joshua 9:10;
Amos 6:13). (2) Nahr ex-Zerqa, the Jabbok River of Old Testament times, drains the area known then as Gilead. Gilead, situated east of that portion of the Jordan which connects the Sea of Galilee with the Dead Sea, produces grapes, olives, vegetables, cereals, and also is mentioned in the Bible as a source of balm (Genesis 37:25;
Jeremiah 8:22). Among Gileadite cities which appear in the biblical narratives were Mizpah, Jabesh, and Ramath (Judges 10:17;
1 Samuel 11:1;
1 Samuel 31:12;
1 Kings 22:3,
2 Kings 8:28). (3) Wady el-Mujib, the Arnon River of ancient times, bisected the ancient land of Moab and enters the Dead Sea approximately midway along its eastern shore. (4) Wady Hesa—probably the ancient Zered but not absolutely certain—would have separated Moab from Edom and enters the Arabah at the southern end of the Dead Sea.
An important trade route passed through the Transjordan during biblical times, connecting Damascus and Bostra of Syria with the Gulf of Aqabah and western Arabia. Some scholars prefer to translate the term derek hamelek (Numbers 20:17;
Numbers 21:22) as a proper noun (“The King's Highway”) and identify it with this ancient route. Others interpret the term as a common, appellative noun (“royal road”) and doubt that it referred to a specific route—in the same sense that present-day terms such as “freeway” or “state road” refer to categories of roads rather than to specific highways. In either case, we know that the old trade route which traversed the Transjordan would have played an important role in the economy of ancient Palestine and was refurbished by the Romans who named it the Via Nova Traiana.
The Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad along with certain Manassite clans settled in the Transjordan—primarily in Gilead, it seems, although with some spillover into Bashan and into the traditionally Moabite territory immediately north of the Arnon (see especially
Numbers 32:1). Later, after the establishment of the Hebrew monarchy, several Israelite and Judean kings attempted, some more successfully than others, to rule this portion of the Transjordan with which Israelite tribes were associated. David, Omri, Ahab, and Jeroboam II were the more successful ones. Weaker kings, such as Rehoboam and Jehoash of Judah for example, will have had little or no influence in the Transjordan. Also, of course, one reads of occasional Moabite and Edomite military campaigns which threatened even Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 20:1).
With the rise of Assyria, especially during and following the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 B.C.), the various regions of Syria-Palestine fell under Assyrian domination. The Transjordan was no different. Several of the kings of Ammon, Moab, and Edom are mentioned in Assyrian records—usually listed among those paying tribute or providing other forms of involuntary support to the Assyrian monarch. When the Assyrian Empire collapsed and was superceded by the Babylonian Empire, presumably the Babylonians also controlled the Transjordan.
By New Testament times, a cluster of Greco-Roman-oriented cities with primarily Gentile populations (the so-called “Decapolis” cities) had emerged in the northern Transjordan (earlier Bashan, Gilead, and Ammon). The southern Transhyjordan (earlier Moab and Edom) was dominated, on the other hand, by the Nabateans, a people of Arab origin who established a commercial empire along the desert fringe with its capital at Petra. Eventually, the whole of the Transjordan was incorporated into the Roman Empire. Domitian annexed the northern Transjordan in A.D. 90, forming the administrative province of Arabia. Trajan added the Nabatean territory in A.D. 106 and renamed the province Arabia Petraea. See Ammon; Arnon; Bashan; Decapolis; Edom; Gilead; Jabbok; Moab; Tribes of Israel.
J. Maxwell Miller