When the Israelites were about to embark on the conquest of their Promised Land, the Moabites occupied the area between the Zered and the Arnon rivers. To the north were the territories of the two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og. The kingdom of Sihon, who ruled from Heshbon, extended from the Arnon to the Yarmuk. The kingdom of Og was to the north, in Bashan. On the borders of the Arabian Desert were the nomadic Midianites and the more settled Ammonites. See a detailed description of where these kings actually ruled on the map directly below.
While still at Kadesh-Barnea, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom, requesting permission to pass through Edomite territory along the King’s Highway. Though the Edomites were distant relatives of the Israelites, they refused to let them pass through the land. This forced them to head south to Ezion-geber and detour around Edom.
Following God’s instructions not to provoke war with Moab or Ammon, the Israelites skirted these territories and encountered their first major confrontation with Sihon, whose land stood between the Israelites and the Jordan. In the battle that ensued, Sihon was defeated and the Israelites occupied his territory from the Arnon to the Yarmuk. The Israelites forces achieved a similar victory over Og, king of Bashan and captured all his territory. They engaged in one more major battle before entering Canaan. This was a holy war against Midian to execute the Lord’s vengeance for tempting his chosen people into idolatry and sin.
The land in Transjordan was suitable for pasture, and at their request Moses granted the conquered territory to the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The above map shows the territory that they each received.
As a witness to their unity with the tribes west of the Jordan, they erected a large altar by the Jordan River. Though there was a huge misunderstanding at first about their motives, they just wanted to make sure that the people of Israel did not forget that they were a part of God’s chosen people. The huge Jordan Rift would be between them and the actual land that God had given the people. They would actually be some distance from the other tribes.
During the years that followed the conquest, the Transjordan territory was squeezed from the north by the Arameans. from the south by the Moabites, and from the east by the Ammonites. King David was later able to reestablish Israelite control over the Transjordan territory, but after his death and the kingdom was divided, much of this territory was lost. At times during their history, Israel gained control of this area again, but there was too much distance between the areas for them to ever be actually united with the land on a permanent basis.
Transjordan rose to prominence during the time between which the New and Old Testaments were written. This was under the influence of the Greek rulers to the north and south. They surmised that founding new cities was the best way to spread Greek culture and established many new cities and renamed old ones. The above map shows some of the older cities that they renamed. The territory occupied by Greek cities became known as the Decapolis after the successful campaign of Pompey to establish Syria as a Roman province.
In the time of Jesus, the territory from the Wadi Arnon north to Pella was called Perea. The Decapolis extended northward to just beyond Hippus and spilled west across the Jordan.
The Cities of Transjordan
Rabbah (Rabbath-Ammon), modern Amman, was the capitol of the Ammonites. It was located northeast of the Dead Sea and was 22 miles east of the Jordan. It was here that Uriah was sent to his death, making possible David’s marriage to his wife Bathsheba. Rabbah was an important trade center since it was situated at the junction of desert roads leading north, south, east, and west. The Greeks recognized its commercial and strategic importance. It was rebuilt and renamed Philadelphia.
This city was situated on the King’s Highway about 20 miles north of modern-day Amman. It rose to its greatness during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The walled city enclosed an area of about 200 acres. It was a city of commercial importance, but was also a worship center for Zeus. A succession of temples dedicated to this god was erected on the hills south of the city’s forum. Later, a temple to Artemis was built in the heart of the city. It was located 35 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, but there is evidence that its influence stretched just about all the way to the sea. Its fame among the Greeks apparently led Luke to mention the city in connection with Jesus’ healing of the demoniac.
Although not particularly significant in biblical history, Medaba became an important town in the Byzantine period. It was located in the Moab region about 12 miles from the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea. The site has become famous for the 1896 discovery of a sixth century A. D. mosaic floor depicting the Bible lands. That early map is an extremely helpful source of information about the topography and sites of the Holy Land as it was understood in that time. Below is a picture of the map that was found, and right under it a drawing showing details of where things were located.