Territory east of the Jordan roughly equivalent to the modern state of Jordan. The Ammonites were a Semitic people living northeast of the Dead Sea in the area surrounding Rabbah who often battled with the Israelites for possession of the fertile Gilead. Ammon, the kingdom of the Ammonites, was hardly more than a city-state, consisting of the capital city itself, Rabbah or Rabbath-Ammon (“chief city,” or “chief city of the Ammonites”) and its immediately surrounding territory. Rabbath was located at the headwaters of the Jabbok River, where the southeastern corner of Gilead gives way to the desert. The agricultural productivity of Gilead, the waters of the Jabbok itself and of associated springs, as well as Rabbah’s naturally defendable position, destined Rabbah to be a city of medium importance in ancient times. The proximity of the Ammonites to Gilead likewise destined them to be constant enemies of the Israelites, who made claims to Gilead and actually controlled it during the reigns of certain strong kings such as David, Omri, Ahab, and Jeroboam II.

Most of our information about the Ammonites comes from the OT, although Ammonite kings are mentioned occasionally in the Assyrian records. We know from the latter, for example, that an Ammonite king named Ba’sha, along with Ahab of Israel and other kings of the region, defended Syria-Palestine against Shalmaneser III in 853 b.c. An Ammonite inscription, the so-called Siran Bottle Inscription and several seals/seal impressions have provided additional information about the Ammonites.

Archaeologists have excavated only a small portion of the site of ancient Rabbah (the so-called “citadel” in the heart of the modern city of Amman). The surrounding area remains largely unexplored. In addition to the inscription and seals mentioned above, the bust of an Ammonite warrior (or god) and the remains of round stone towers thought to be Ammonite are significant archaeological discoveries shedding light on the Ammonites.

Conflict broke out between the Ammonites and Israelites as early as the time of the Judges. The Ammonites made war on the Israelites of Gilead, leading the Israelites to appeal to Jephthah, chief of a local band of renegade raiders, to organize and lead their resistance. Jephthah accepted the challenge but only after extracting a promise from the elders of Gilead that, if he indeed succeeded in defeating the Ammonites, they would recognize him as ruler of Gilead. At the same time he vowed to Yahweh, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:30b-31). Jephthah was victorious, and the Gileadites submitted to his rule, but then his little daughter greeted him upon his return (Judg. 10:6-11:40).

On another occasion when the Ammonites were attacking the city of Jabesh in Gilead and the Jabeshites attempted to negotiate terms for surrender, the Ammonites demanded nothing less than to put out the right eye of each man in the city. In desperation the Jabeshites sent messengers to Saul at Gibeah for help. Saul organized an army, hurried to Jabesh, and lifted the siege. Consequently, the Jabeshites were strong supporters of Saul in later years (1 Sam. 11; 31:11-13). The Ammonite king that Saul defeated at Jabesh was Nahash. Presumably this was the same Nahash with whom David had good dealings but whose son, Hanun, renewed hostilities (2 Sam. 10:1-11:1; 12:26-31). The ensuing wars between Israel and Ammon involved warfare between David’s troops and those of Hadadezer of Zobah (2 Sam. 10:6-19) and provided the occasion of David’s affair with Bathsheba. Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, was killed while storming the walls of Rabbah (2 Sam. 11-12).

No war with the Ammonites is reported during Solomon’s reign. On the contrary, Solomon took one or more Ammonite wives and allowed the worship of Milcom, the Ammonite god, in Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:1-8). Presumably the worship of Milcom continued in Jerusalem until it was stamped out by Josiah many years later (2 Kings 23:13). We know little of relations between the Ammonites and either Israel or Judah during the first half century of the separate kingdoms, probably because neither of the Hebrew kingdoms attempted to exercise influence in the Transjordan. The coalition of Syro-Palestinian kings, which included Ba’sha of Ammon and Ahab of Israel, halted the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser’s march in 853 b.c. However, success was only temporary. Later Shalmaneser penetrated the very heart of Syria-Palestine, exacting tribute from the Israelites and, although it is not recorded, probably also from the Ammonites. Eventually, all the petty kingdoms of the region fell to the Assyrians and either were incorporated into the Assyrian province system or controlled as satellites. Ammonite kings paid tribute to Tiglath-pileser III, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon.

The Israelites recognized the Ammonites as relatives, although somewhat more distant than the Edomites. This relationship was expressed genealogically. Specifically, the Ammonites were descended from an ancestor named Ben-ammi, one of two sons that Lot bore to his two daughters. The Moabites were descended from the other son (Gen. 19:30-38). The Ammonites also are mentioned from time to time in Israel’s poetical literature. See, for example, Amos’ oracle against the Ammonites in Amos 1:13-15.

Rabbah apparently had dwindled to an insignificant settlement by the third century b.c. when Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246) rebuilt the city and renamed it “Philadelphia” after himself. Philadelphia came to be regarded as one of the Decapolis cities, a federation of 10 Greek cities in Palestine (Matt. 4:25), and was annexed with the whole Decapolis region to the Roman Empire in a.d. 90.

J. Maxwell Miller

Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary