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Origin and race

The Ammonites were a race very closely allied to the Hebrews. One use of their name itself in the Bible indicates the ancient Hebrew belief of this near relationship, for they are called Bén'ámmî or "Son of my people", meaning that that race is regarded as descended from Israel's nearest relative. This play of words on the name Ammon did not arise from the name itself, but presupposes the belief in the kinship of Israel and Ammon. The name Ammon itself cannot be accepted as proof of this belief, for it is obscure in origin, derived perhaps from the name of a tribal deity. A strong proof of their common origin is found in the Ammonite language. No Ammonite inscription, it is true, has come down to us, but the Ammonite names that have been preserved belong to a dialect very nearly akin to the Hebrew; moreover, the close blood relationship of Moab and Ammon being admitted by all, the language of the Moabite Stone, almost Hebrew in form, is a strong witness to the racial affinity of Israel and Ammon. This linguistic argument vindicates the belief that Israel always entertained this kinship with the Ammonites. The belief itself has found expression in an unmistakable manner in Genesis 19, where the origin of Ammon and his brother, Moab, is ascribed to Lot, the nephew of Abraham. This revolting narrative has usually been considered to give literal fact, but of late years it has been interpreted, e.g. by Father Lagrange, O.P., as recording a gross popular irony by which the Israelites expressed their loathing of the corrupt morals of the Moabites and Ammonites. It may be doubted, however, that such an irony would be directed against Lot himself. Other scholars see in the very depravity of these peoples a proof of the reality of the Biblical story of their incest origin. Ethnologists, interpreting the origin from the nephew of Abraham by the canons usually found true in their science, hold it as indicating that the Israelites are considered the older and more powerful tribe, while the Ammonites and Moabites are regarded as offshoots of the parent stem. The character of Genesis, which at times seems to preserve popular traditions rather than exact ethnology, is taken as a confirmation of this position. But it is not denied, at any rate, that the Hebrew tradition of the near kinship of Israel, Ammon, and Moab is correct. All three, forming together a single group, are classified as belonging to the Aramæan branch of the Semitic race.

Their country and civilization

The Ammonites were settled to the east of the Jordan, their territory originally comprising all from the Jordan to the wilderness, and from the River Jabbok south to the River Arnon (Judges 11:13-22) which later fell to the lot of Reuben and Gad. "It was accounted a land of giants; and giants formerly dwelt in it, whom the Ammonites called Zomzommims" (Deuteronomy 2:20), of whom was Og, King of Basan, who perished before the children of Israel in the days of Moses (iii). The Ammonites were, however, a short time before the invasion of the Hebrews under Josue, driven away by the Amorites from the rich lands near the Jordan and retreated to the mountains and valleys which form the eastern part of the district now known as El-Belka. They still continued to regard their original territory as rightfully theirs, and in later times regained it and held it for a considerable period. Their land, in general, while not very fertile, was well watered and excellent for pasture. Jeremiah speaks of Ammon glorying in her valleys and trusting in her treasures (Jeremiah 49). Her chief city, Rabbath, or Rabbath-Ammon, to distinguish it from a city of the same name in Moab, lay in the midst of a fertile and well tilled valley. It was the royal city; in the time of David it was flourishing under a wealthy king and was well fortified, though it succumbed before the attack of Joab, his general (2 Samuel 11-12). Later rebuilt by Ptolemy II (Philadelphus) and called after him Philadelphia, it still retains something of its original name, being known at present to the Arabs as Ammân. Its ruins to-day are among the most imposing beyond the Jordan, and are said, despite the many vicissitudes of the city, to lend light and vividness to the already vivid narrative of Joab's assault. The Ammonites had many other cities besides Rabbath (see Judith 11:33, and 2 Samuel 12:31), but their names have perished. They indicate, at least, a considerable degree of civilization and show that the Ammonites should not be placed, as is sometimes done, almost on the plane of nomads. In religion they practised the idolatries and abominations common to the Semitic races surrounding Israel; their god was called Milcom, supposed to be another form of Moloch. They seem with the Moabites to have been held in special loathing by the Hebrews. No man of either race, even when converted to the religion of Jehovah, was allowed to enter the Tabernacle; nor his children even after the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23).

Ammon and Israel

This distinction against his nearest relatives was due to the treatment accorded by them to Israel during the march to Palestine, when Israel was struggling towards nationhood. The Hebrews had no intention of taking the land of the children of Lot, either of Moab or of Ammon and were expressly warned against it; this special friendliness and recognition of consanguinity obtained no return from either, who refused provisions to the Israelites and hired Balaam, who was an Ammonite, or at least dwelt among the Ammonites, to curse the host of Israel; though, as is well known, Balaam was forced to deliver instead a blessing (Deuteronomy 23:4, 5; Numbers 22-24). For this lack of brotherly spirit, the ban was put upon the Ammonites; but no attempt was made to seize their land, the Israelites turning aside when they reached the border of the Ammonites. The stretch of land along the Jordan, however, to which they laid claim, was taken from the Amorites who had dispossessed them. Half the land of Ammon, too, is said to have been assigned by Moses to the tribe of Gad (Jos. xiii, 25); but there is no record of its alienation from the Ammonites, which moreover would be in contradiction with the divine command already mentioned. It appears to have been territory from which they were already driven. Shortly after the death of Josue, when the Israelites were established beyond the Jordan, the Ammonites allied themselves with the Moabites under King Eglon in a successful attack upon Israel; but the Moabites were in turn defeated and a long peace set in (Jud. iii, 30). Later, after the judgeship of Jair, the Hebrews were simultaneously attacked by the Philistines from the southwest and the Ammonites from the east. Gad especially, whose dwelling was east of the Jordan, suffered from the incursions of the Ammonites which continued eighteen years; but the victorious enemy pushed beyond the Jordan and laid waste the country of Juda, Benjamin, and Ephraim (Judges 10). At this crisis, Israel was in terror; but a deliverer was raised up in the person of Jephte, who was chosen leader. The Ammonites demanded the cession of the territory beyond the Jordan from the Arnon to the Jabbok, of which they had been dispossessed; but Jephte refused since the Israelites had, three hundred years previously, taken the land from the Amorites and not from the Ammonites; he boldly carried the war into the invaders' country, and completely defeated them, taking as many as twenty cities (Judges 11:33). By the time of Saul, the Ammonites had again grown to great power and under their King Naas (Nahash) had laid siege to Jabes Galaad. Saul had been chosen king by Samuel only one month before and his election was not yet ratified by the people; but as soon as he heard of the siege, he summoned a large army and defeated the Ammonites, inflicting heavy loss (1 Samuel 11). This victory established him in the monarchy. Further operations by Saul against the Ammonites are mentioned without detail (xiv, 47), as likewise the kindness of Naas to David (2 Samuel 10:2), probably before his accession. David signalized the beginning of his reign by military exploits and is said to have dedicated to the Lord the spoils of Ammon (viii, 11); however, there is no mention of a war, which seems inconsistent with the friendliness of David to Hanon, the successor of Naas (x, 2). David's proffer of friendship to Ammon was suspected and rejected and his ambassadors maltreated. War ensued. The Ammonites were joined by the Syrians, and both were attacked and routed by Joab, David's leading general. The next year Joab again invaded the territory of the Ammonites and, pursuing them as far as Rabbath, laid siege to the royal city. It was during this siege that the incident of David and Bethsabee happened, which resulted in David sending the faithful Urias to his death at Rabbath and incurring the deepest stain upon his character. When Joab had reduced the city to the point of surrender, he sent for David who came and reaped the glory of it, transferred the king's massive crown to his own head, sacked the city and slaughtered its inhabitants; and did likewise to all the cities of the Ammonites (x-xii). The power of the Ammonites was now broken, Ammon apparently becoming a vassal of Israel; later, towards the end of David's reign, another son of King Naas, either through lack of spirit or genuine humanity, heaped kindness upon David, when the distressed old king was at war with his son Absalom (xvii). Some of the Ammonites seem to have enrolled themselves in David's service; one is mentioned among his thirty-seven most valiant warriors (xxiii, 37). No hostilities are narrated during the reign of Solomon; he chose Ammonite women as his wives, worshipped their god and built a high-place in his honour (1 Kings 11), which Josias destroyed (2 Kings 23:13). When Solomon died and his kingdom was divided, the Ammonites regained their independence and allied themselves with the Assyrians, joining with them in an attack on Gilead by which their territory was increased. Their barbarous cruelty on this occasion called forth the denunciation of Amos, who foretold the destruction of Rabbath (Amos 1:13). During the Assyrian invasion under Theglathphalasar, when their neighbours, the Reubenites and the Gaddites, were carried into captivity, they regained some of their old territory along the Jordan (2 Kings 15:29; Jeremiah 49:1-6). In the time of Josaphath, King of Judah, when the Israelites were greatly weakened, the Ammonites put themselves at the head of a confederacy of nations for the subjugation of Israel; but suspicion awakening among the allies, they turned to destroying one another and Israel miraculously escaped (2 Chronicles 20:23). After nearly one hundred and fifty years, Joatham, King of Judah, ventured an attack upon the Ammonites, conquering them and subjecting them to a yearly tribute (2 Chronicles 27), which, however, was enforced for only three years. But the doom of the Hebrew monarchy was approaching and the Ammonites had a part to play. With others of the surrounding nations, they were employed by Nabuchodonosor, King of Babylon, to overrun the kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 24); and when the fall finally came, it was the king of the Ammonites who sent assassins into Judea to murder the governor who had gathered together the remnant of Judah (2 Kings 25; Jeremiah 40:14). After the return the old hatred is still seen to live (Nehemiah 4). In the time of Judas Maccabeus, the Ammonites are still a strong people, and the great leader had to fight many battles before he conquered them (1 Maccabees 5). No further mention of them occurs in biblical times; Justin Martyr refers to them as a numerous people in his day, but in the course of the next century they vanish completely from the view of history.


Bible Dictionaries of HASTINGS, VIGOUROUX; Jewish Encyclopædia; DELITSCH, DILLMAN, DRIVER, GRAY, Commentaries (Numbers); LAGRANGE, Historical Method.

About this page

APA citation. Fenlon, J.F. (1907). Ammonites. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fenlon, John Francis. "Ammonites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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