The Aramaeans interest historians because of the two sources of information about them: the archaeological and the biblical. Part of the challenge in understanding the Aramaeans is in the effort to link both sets of data.
According to the first citation, the people of ancient Israel and Judah consider themselves ethnic Aramaeans who became a distinct religious group as a result of their experience in Egypt. According to the second citation, the Aramaeans were a people who experienced the brunt of Assyrian aggression in the 12th century b.c.e.
The 1993 discovery of the Tel Dan Stela, an Aramaic-language stone inscription that mentions Israel and David and apparently was written by Hazael, the king of Aram and the greatest Aramaean warrior, brings these two strands together in a historical and religious debate.
The historian is faced with the dilemma of determining when this people first came into existence versus when there is a historical written record about them. The Aramaeans presumably were a West Semitic–speaking people who lived in the Syrian and Upper Mesopotamian region along the Habur River and the Middle Euphrates for the bulk of the second millennium b.c.e., if not earlier.
Their first uncontestable appearance in the written record occurred when Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I (1114–1076 b.c.e.) claimed to have defeated them numerous times. They very well may be connected to the Amorites who previously had been in that area before they spread out across the ancient Near East just as the Aramaeans would do 1,000 years later.
The early stages of Aramaean history are known not through their own writings, but from what others wrote about them. When the Assyrian Empire went into decline, the Assyrian references to the Aramaeans ceased. Presumably they continued to be the primarily pastoral people that the Assyrians had first encountered and lacked the urban-based political structure of the major powers of the region. They used this time to establish themselves in a series of small polities centering in modern Syria.
The void in the record changed in 853 b.c.e. when, thanks to the Assyrians, the Aramaeans again appear in a historical inscription. They do so in the records of Shalmaneser III (858–824 b.c.e.), an Assyrian king who sought repeatedly to extend his empire to the west all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
His primary obstacle to achieving this goal was a coalition of peoples including Arabs, Egyptians, Israelites, and Aramaeans. According to the Assyrian inscriptions, it was Hadad-idr (Hadad-ezer, c. 880–843 b.c.e.) of Aram who led the coalition. The king was named after the leading deity of the Aramaeans, Hadad, the storm god. That deity is probably better known as Baal, a title meaning “lord,” than by his actual name.
Shalmaneser tried again in 849, 848, and 845 b.c.e. to no avail. At that point the coalition crumbled, enabling Shalmaneser to focus on the new ruler of Aram, Hazael (c. 843–803 b.c.e.), a “son of a nobody” (meaning a usurper). Even though Hazael now stood alone, Assyria was unable to prevail in 841, 838, and 837 b.c.e. Shalmaneser then stopped trying. The withdrawal of Assyria from the land provided Hazael with the opportunity to expand his own rule.
His success produced the pinnacle of Aramaean political power during the remaining years of the ninth century b.c.e. Hazael’s stature in the ancient Near East is attested by the Assyrian use of “House of Hazael” for the Aramaean kingdom in the eighth century b.c.e., and later Jewish historian Josephus’s discussion of Hazael’s legacy in Damascus in the first century c.e.
Eventually Assyria did prevail over Aram. Around 803 b.c.e. Adad-nirari III (810–783 b.c.e.) attacked Aram and its new king, Ben-Hadad (c. 803–775 b.c.e.), the son of Hazael. The weakening of Aram aided Israel, which enjoyed resurgence during the first half of the eighth century b.c.e. The political life of the Aramaeans soon ended when Tiglath-pileser III (745–27 b.c.e.) absorbed all the Aramaean states into the Assyrian Empire.
In a great irony of history the Assyrians required a more flexible and accessible language through which to govern their multi-peopled empire. Their cuneiform language was inadequate for the task. Centuries earlier, perhaps around 1100 b.c.e., the Aramaeans had adopted the 22-letter Phoenician alphabet.
Following the Assyrian conquest of the Aramaeans, the latter’s language was accorded special status within the empire and then became the lingua franca of the realm. Its usage continued for centuries including among the Jews.
The writers of the Jewish Bible were of mixed opinion concerning the origin of the Aramaeans. In some biblical translations they appear as Syrians, reflecting the Greek-derived name for their land, a name that continues to be used to this very day.
In Genesis 10:22, Aram is a grandson of Noah and son of Shem. This genealogy puts the Aramaean people in Syria on par with the Elamites (in modern Iran) and the Assyrians (in modern Iraq).
By contrast in Genesis 22:19, the Aramaeans are grandsons of Abraham’s brother Nahor and thus comparable to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. In Amos 9:7, the Aramaeans had their own exodus relationship with Yahweh from Kir (sometimes spelled Qir) west of the Middle Euphrates, just as Israel had had from Egypt under Moses.
Just as the archaeological record of the Aramaeans contains information involving Israel not found in the Bible, the Bible contains information about the Aramaeans during a time of minimal archaeological information about them. Biblical scholarship has struggled to integrate the archaeological and biblical data into a single story. Examples of points of contention include
- Do the references to the Aramaeans in the stories of biblical Patriarchs better fit the circumstances of the 10th century b.c.e. in the time of David and Solomon?
- What was David’s relationship with the Aramaeans particularly as recounted in II Samuel 8 and 10?
- What was Israelite king Ahab’s relationship with the Aramaeans particularly as recounted in I Kings 20 and 22?
- What was Hazael’s relationship with Israel during the Jehu dynasty, given the contrasting comments by the Israelite prophet Elijah in I Kings 19:15–17 and his successor the prophet Elisha in II Kings 8:8–29? According to the biblical text, Elisha was right to weep when he names Hazael king of Aram, given the devastation which the new king would wreak on Israel (see II Kings 10:32, 12:17–18, 13:3). These biblical accounts do agree with the Assyrian account that Hazael was not heir to the throne.
- What is the solution to the double murder mystery of Israelite king Jehoram and Judahite king Ahaziah: Was the murderer the Israelite usurper Jehu (II Kings 9–10) or the Aramaean king Hazael (Tel Dan Stela)?
During this time Assyria occasionally ventured into this arena generally to attack Aram, indirectly benefiting Israel. All this political maneuvering came to an end when Tiglath-pileser III ended the independent political existence of Aram in 732 b.c.e. Just over a decade later Israel fell to the Assyrians.