The land sits at the nexus of the ancient Near East; its primary city is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited in the world. Its population found itself frequently overrun by waves of newcomers, however “civilized” or “barbaric.” Finding itself in the center of everything may have had some benefit, but it also meant the people and the land rarely had opportunities to maintain their own hegemony, save during the days of the early Iron Age described in the pages of Scripture. Thus was the lot of Aram, or Syria.
According to Genesis 10:22, Aram is among the sons of Shem, the son of Noah; the Eblaites, Akkadians, and Babylonians of the third and second millennia BCE all refer to “Aramean” people living along the inner fringes of the “Fertile Crescent.” Genesis 25:20 explicitly identify Abraham’s relatives Bethuel, Rebekah, and Laban as Arameans living in Paddan-Aram, and by extension Esau, Jacob, Leah and Rachel were Aramean as well; thus Israel later confessed their father was a “wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).
The land described by the people of Israel as “Aram” bordered Israel on the northeastern coast of the Sea of Galilee, and extended north and northeast, centered on the city of Damascus. It is believed this area had been one of the first areas in which humans developed consistent agricultural practices in the Neolithic period; the cultural remains of many people have been discovered in the land. As with the land of Canaan, so with the land which would become Aram: it was overrun by the Amorites around 2400 BCE, and they would remain the predominant force and people in the land until after the collapse of the Bronze Age empires and nations around 1100 BCE. The Arameans bring about the ultimate downfall of the Amorites and the land centered around Damascus would be known as “Aram,” and all according to the will of YHWH (Amos 9:7). Aramean people were active in areas beyond Aram specifically: as David consolidates centralized authority in Israel and builds an empire, he would defeat the Arameans under their king Hadadezer of Zobah and would again have to confront Aramean forces which had been summoned by the Ammonites for assistance (cf. 2 Samuel 8:3-7, 10:1-19). Other historical records indicate the proliferation of a number of small Aramean states to the northwest, north, and northeast of Aram, infringing on the territory formerly held by the Hittite, Hurrian, and Assyrian empires.
The Arameans would serve David and Solomon, but Rezon of Zobah would gain control over Damascus in the days of Solomon, and after Solomon’s death the Aramean state centered in Damascus was able to free itself and would never suffer Israelite domination again (cf. 1 Kings 11:23-25). From around 930 until 732 BCE, the Kingdom of Aram would generally remain politically and militarily stronger than either Israel or Judah, and often interfered in their internal disputes. Asa of Judah sent gold to induce Ben Hadad of Aram into a friendly agreement against Israel, leading to an Aramean invasion of Israel under Baasha and relief for Judah on its northern border (ca. 875; 1 Kings 15:18-21); Rezin of Aram allied with Pekah of Israel to overrun Judah and Jerusalem, depose Ahaz, and install a puppet king in what we call the “Syro-Ephraimitic War” of 734-732 (cf. Isaiah 7:1-18). At other times the Arameans entered into open warfare against the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah: Ahab defeated Ben Hadad (II) in battle around 855 but was killed in a later battle with Aram in 852 (1 Kings 20:1-43, 22:1-40), and Hazael, who killed Ben Hadad (II) after Elisha prophesied he would become king, enjoyed the greatest successes of the Arameans against the Israelites, defeating Jehoram and Ahaziah, subduing a good portion of Israel, extracting large financial concessions from Jerusalem, and conquering Philistia (ca. 842-796; 2 Kings 8:8-15, 9:14-15, 10:32, 12:17-18, 13:3, 22). We now believe Hazael commemorated these victories in what we now call the Tel Dan stelae, which famously provides attestation for the “House of David.”
Yet such conflict was only pressed when no other significant threat loomed on the horizon. When confronted by a more serious threat, like a re-invigorated Assyria under Shalmaneser III, the Arameans, Israelites, and others allied together, and from Assyrian records seem to have fought Shalmaneser I to a draw at Qarqar in 853. Hazael’s son Ben Hadad (III) would not be able to hold onto his father’s gains, and his son Rezin was confronted again with the threat of Assyrian domination; such was why he and Pekah allied against Ahaz and instigated the “Syro-Ephraimitic War” as discussed above.
In most historical narratives, the Aramean state is able to exist and thrive in the wake of the collapse of the Bronze Age empires and states and in the face of persistent weakness in Assyria. Yet the doom of Aram had been foretold (Amos 1:3-5, Isaiah 7:1-18), and even though Ahaz king of Judah subjected himself to Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria as a vassal in order to secure an alliance against Aram and Israel, he did not have to bother (2 Kings 16:8, Isaiah 7:1-18). Tiglath-pileser III was a ruler with vigor, ideas, and a ruthlessness not previously seen in the ancient Near East, and thoroughly overran Aram and Israel, leaving only a rump Israelite state centered on Samaria, and entirely eliminating the Kingdom of Aram as a going concern (2 Kings 16:9). He annexed their lands as provinces of Assyria and exiled the Arameans of Damascus to “Kir,” the place from which, according to Amos, YHWH had originally brought them out (Amos 9:7).
The Arameans seemed to serve the pantheons of both Mesopotamia and Canaan, with special honor given to Hadad the storm-god, which Israel would sometime serve to their own hurt (cf. Judges 10:6). Yet the most significant contribution of the Arameans would be their language, Aramaic: the Neo-Assyrian Empire would adopt Aramaic as its language of diplomacy since its script was easier to write and more decipherable to others than Akkadian cuneiform. The various people of the ancient Near East would begin using Aramaic as the lingua franca of the region; portions of the Hebrew Bible were written in Aramaic (Jeremiah 10:11, Daniel 2:4b-7:28, Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26). By the time of Jesus most Israelites spoke Aramaic and reserved Hebrew for the reading of Scripture and certain religious writings; everything in the New Testament recorded as being said “in Hebrew” is really in Aramaic (e.g. Matthew 27:46, Mark 5:41). By the 2nd century CE Aramaic developed into what we now call Classical Syriac; the Old and New Testaments were preserved in Syriac in what is known as the Peshitta, yet from translations of the Hebrew and Greek. Thus, while Syriac is indeed the descendant of Imperial Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken, such does not mean one gains special access or greater closeness to the original words of Jesus by consulting the Syriac Peshitta.
What the Arameans of Damascus experienced would become the fate of almost all the small Aramean, Hittite, and Hurrian states in eastern Turkey and the Levant: all would come under Assyrian dominion, annexation, and exile, including the Kingdom of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-6, 18:33-35). While the Neo-Assyrian Empire would suffer its astonishing fall and collapse by 609 BCE (cf. Nahum 1:1-3:19), the Assyrian domination of Aram has been preserved ever since. When the Greeks emerged from their “Dark Age” and made contact again with the land of the Arameans and related areas, they would call all the lands from the northern Levant to modern-day northern Iraq “Syria” or “Assyria,” and thus the land centered on Damascus has been known as Syria ever since. It is hard to deny the cold reality which the Greeks expressed with such a term: no doubt many descendants of Arameans lived in various parts of “Syria,” but the population distribution had been significantly manipulated by the Assyrians. The land of Syria would pass through the hands of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, and would undergo the same process of “Hellenization” as the rest of the Mediterranean world; the Gospel would sound forth throughout Syria and led to the conversion of most of its population by 300 CE; the sound of Syriac can still be heard in Syriac and Assyrian churches. After the Arab invasions of the seventh century CE the land would become predominantly Muslim as it is to this day.
The Arameans have their place in the story of God and His people; the Israelites descended in significant part from Arameans, shared a similar language, and often fought both with and beside the Arameans. Aram of Damascus faded away, yet its language would be on the tongue of the Son of God, and its people dispersed in Syria and Assyria would eventually hear the Gospel and many would turn to the God of Israel through the Lord Jesus Christ. May we all find salvation through God in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry
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