Outsiders became insiders at Damascus
In antiquity, Damascus (in Syria) was a great center for trade. The city’s location along a river at the crossroads of two major international highways (the Via Maris and the King’s Highway) ensured its prosperity and importance.
Although Damascus is close to the desert, ample supplies of water from two rivers allow the region to support vineyards and abundant crops of fruits, grains, nuts, cotton, wool, silk, and olives. The Abana River (known today as the Barada) is the primary water source for Damascus. It flows from the northwest mountains through a deep ravine into the city. The Pharpar River (now el-A waj) runs on the outskirts of Damascus, supplying the gardens and orchards. Together these rivers irrigate about 1040 square km (400 square miles) of land.
Many biblical characters visited the ancient city of Damascus. Abraham probably went through Damascus when he travelled to Canaan from Haran (Gen. 12:4-5). And he passed through Damascus when he rescued Lot from a group of Mesopotamian kings (Gen. 14:15). His servant would have travelled through Damascus on his way to Aram Naharaim in search for a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:10). And his grandson Jacob probably went through Damascus on his way to Paddan Aram.
Damascus was the capital of Aram (and is now the capital of Syria). Aram was one of Israel’s enemies. They were polytheistic and hostile to the northern kingdom of Israel.
In the Old Testament times, the Jews were God’s people and the Gentiles (including those in Damascus) were outsiders to their covenant with God.
“Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram” who lived in Damascus (2 Ki. 5:1NIV). When he went to Israel to be healed from leprosy, he initially rejected the prophet Elisha’s advice to wash seven times in the Jordan River. He claimed, “‘Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage” (2 Ki. 5:12).
But after obeying and being healed he changed and said “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel” (2 Ki. 5:15-17). And he promised to “never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord”.
As a result of the miraculous healing, Naaman converted to following the God of Elisha and the Jews. He returned to Damascus a changed man, now being a proselyte from polytheism to Judaism.
The Old Testament contains judgments on the enemies of Israel, including Damascus.
In about 740BC, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed,
“A prophecy against Damascus :
‘See, Damascus will no longer be a city
but will become a heap of ruins.
The cities of Aroer will be deserted
and left to flocks, which will lie down,
with no one to make them afraid.
The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim [northern kingdom of Israel],
and royal power from Damascus;
the remnant of Aram will be
like the glory of the Israelites,’
declares the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 17:1-3).
Damascus and other cities in Syria will be destroyed. Because of its alliance with Syria, Ephraim (the kingdom of Israel) will also be destroyed. Only a remnant will remain in Syria and Israel after the Assyrian invasion.
In about 740BC, Amos 1:3-5 also predicted the destruction of Damascus. Damascus was destroyed by the Assyrians in 732 BC (2 Ki. 16:9). And Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel fell in 722BC.
And in about 600BC, Jeremiah also predicted the Babylonian invasion of Damascus (Jer. 49:23-27).
Damascus was later rebuilt and remained an influential city.
After the Assyrians invaded Damascus, King Ahaz of Judah visited Damascus and was impressed with a pagan altar he saw there (2 Ki. 16:10-16). So he commanded the Judean high priest to build one like it in Jerusalem and to use it instead of the bronze altar at the temple. This is an example of Judah following the polytheism of the surrounding nations. This change is opposite to Naaman’s conversion. And such behavior lead to the invasion of Judah by the Babylonians.
In New Testament times, the church (true believers) were God’s people and other Jews and other Gentiles were outsiders to their relationship with God.
At the time of Saul’s conversion there were many Jews living in Damascus as well as some Christians (Acts 9:2; 22:5-6, 10-12). As Damascus was the hub of trade routes in the Middle East, Saul knew that if Christianity flourished in Damascus, then it would quickly spread to other places within the Middle East. So his mission was to stop this spread by imprisoning Christians.
Saul was travelling to Damascus when he was converted (Acts 9:1-31). This event is so important that it is described three times in the Bible (Acts 22:3-16; 26:9-18). He described it to king Agrippa, “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness’” (Acts 26:12-18).
The trip from Jerusalem to Damascus would be about 250km (150 miles). Depending on how he travelled, this could take Saul 1-2 weeks. Immediately afterwards he began preaching in the synagogue about Jesus. But after a while some Jews planned to kill him. When Paul found out about this, some friends helped him escape one night in a basket though an opening in the city wall (2 Cor. 11:32-33).
In the following centuries Christianity spread in Damascus and in Syria giving rise to the Old Syrian Church which remains to this day. It has left a legacy of Christian literature in Syriac (Aramiac).
With regard to Judaism, Naaman changed from being an outsider to an insider. And with regard to Christianity and the church, Saul changed from being an outsider to an insider.
This shows that God wants people of all nations to benefit from His promises. Abraham was told, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). Peter had to learn that no nationality is unclean (Acts 10:9-16, 28, 34-35; 11:4-10). This event is so important that it is described twice in the Bible. Believers are all equal before God (Gal. 3:26-28) . The distinctions between people under the law of Moses have been abolished. There should be no racism in the church because there will be no racism in heaven (Rev. 5:9).
Although the Arameans in Damascus were the enemies of God’s people, one of them (Naaman) was blessed by the prophet Elisha. Through this, a Gentile became part of God’s people. Another Gentile conversion (of Saul) happened near Damascus. This resulted in the gospel spreading across the Roman Empire. So in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, God reached out to Gentiles associated with Damascus.
Saul was “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” before his conversion (1 Tim. 1:13). But he changed to be an example to other Christians. This shows that anyone can change from being an outsider to an insider with regard to the people of God. Have you made the change? This can impact others as after Saul’s conversion, there was a change from polytheism to Christianity at Damascus.
And God eventually punished Damascus for the Arameans’ opposition to the people of God. This reminds us of the judgment coming eventually to those who rebel against God’s revelation to them. Fortunately God has given us many opportunities to acknowledge His existence and accept His offer of forgiveness. No one is without excuse.
Lessons for us
Biblical events associated with Damascus show that the good news about Jesus is for people of all nations and not just those in the church. It can change outsiders into insiders.
The Bible teaches that there should be no racism in the church. Believers are to accept one another as they are accepted by God (Rom. 15:7).
But the destruction of Damascus indicates that there is bad news for those who don’t accept the good news about Jesus. It’s better to heed God’s warnings in the Bible, than to be judged by God.
Written, April 2021
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho
Rebellion and deception at Samaria
Nineveh experienced God’s mercy and justice
Worshipping God and idols at Bethel
Many battles at Megiddo