« Arakin Aram, Arameans, and the Aramaic Language Arator »

Aram, Arameans, and the Aramaic Language


The Name. Old Testament Usage (§ 1).

Origin of the Arameans (§ 2).

Religion (§ 3).

Language (§ 4).

Aram isExtent of Aramean Settlements (§ 5).

Activity and Enterprise of the Arameans (§ 6).

The Arameans of Mesopotamia (§ 7).

Their Place in Biblical History (§ 8).

Cities and States in Southern Syria (§ 9).

The Arameans of Damascus and Israel (§ 10).

Spread of Aramean Influence in Later Times (§ 11).

1. The Name. Old Testament Usage.

Aram is the Old Testament designation for the Semitic Arameans or Syrians settled in Syria and Mesopotamia, north to the Taurus and east to the Tigris; but, as these peoples never formed a political unit, the name is used only with reference to some particular tribe region, or state. Thus the Old Testament distinguishes. (1) Aram Naharaim, “Aram of the two rivers,” i.e., the Euphrates and Tigris (or Khabur; Gen. xxiv 10; Deut. xxiii. 4, Judges iii. 8; Ps. lx. title); in the Amarna Tablets it is called Na‘rima (ZA, vi., 1891, p. 258; in Egyptian inscriptions, Nahrina (W. Max Müller, Asien und Europa, Leipsic, 1893, pp. 249 sqq.). The Pentateuch priest-code reads Padan (Paddan) Aram Gen. xxv 20; xxviii. 2, 5-7; xxxi 18; xxxiii. 18; xxxv 9, 26; xlvi. 15), “fields of Aram,"—a name which may be preserved in the Tell Feddan of Arabic geographers (see below, § 7). (2) Aram Dammesek, named from its chief city, Damascus, often called simply Aram because it was the people best known, and of most importance to Israel (II Sam. viii. 5-6; Isa. vii. 8; xvii. 3; Amos i. 5) (3) Aram Zobah, at the time of Saul and David the most powerful realm in Syria (I Sam xiv. 47; II Sam. viii. 3; x. 6, 8; Ps. lx title; I Chron. xviii. 3; II Chron. viii. 3). Schrader (KAT, 135) identifies Zobah with the Subit of the inscriptions, which he puts south of Damascus; Halévy identifies it with the later Chalcis on the slopes of Lebanon. (4) Aram Beth-Rehob (II Sam. x. 6), a city not far from Dan (Judges xviii. 28) in the upper part of the lowlands of Lake Huleh, watered by the Leddan, the middle source of the Jordan. (5) Aram Maachah (I Chron. xix. 6), and (6) Geshur in Aram (II Sam. xv. 8), independent kingdoms in the time of David. (See below, § 9.)

In the list of nations in Gen. x., four descendants of Aram are mentioned: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash (verse 23). The first name is also found in Gen. xxii. 21 among the descendants of Nahor, and in xxxvi. 28 and I Chron. i. 42 among the Horites. In Jer. xxv. 20 “the kings of the land of Uz” are mentioned among those to whom Yahweh gives the wine-cup of his wrath; they are followed by the Philistines and the latter by Edom. Finally in Lam. iv. 21 the daughter of Edom is mentioned as dwelling in the land of Uz, i.e., having possession of the same. A comparison of these passages, including Job i. 1-3, shows that the Uzites as an Aramaic tribe must be looked for in the Hauran. Hul without doubt is the inhabitants of the Huleh low-country, mentioned above. Gether can not be identified. Mash, for which the Chronicler (i. 17) reads Meshech (cf. Ps. cxx. 5), has been connected since Bochart with Mt. Masius (cf. Strabo, xi., p. 541), now Tur Abdin, north of Nisibis. When Aram is made a descendant of Kemuel (Gen. xxii. 21) and a grandson of Nahor, a younger branch of the Aramaic people is probably meant.

2. Origin of the Arameans.

As to the original home of the Arameans, the prophecy of Amos (ix. 7) states that they were brought from Kir and should go back thither in captivity (i. 5). The location of Kir is uncertain; some identify it with Cyrrhestica, between the Orontes and Euphrates; others think it means South Babylonia. The name has not as yet been found in inscriptions. Moses of Chorene (Hist. armen., i., p.12) mentions Aram among the ancestors of the Armenian people; but Aram has as little to do with Armenia as with Homer’s Eremboi or Arimoi. The name may signify “elevation,” “highland.” In the cuneiform inscriptions it appears as Arumu and Arimi, the “land of the Khatti” also comprises the Arameans. Schrader thinks that the Khatti were the Western and Southern Arameans, the Arumu the Eastern and Northern. The Greeks called the Arameans Syrians, which is an abbreviation of Assyrians. Those Greeks who were settled along the southern coast of the Black Sea first applied the name to their Cappadocian neighbors, who were Assyrian subjects. Thence it was extended to the whole population of the Assyrian Empire, and thus it became synonymous with Aramea. Afterward the Christian Arameans adopted the name Syrian, because among the Jews Aramean meant heathen.

3. Religion.

The religion of the Arameans was polytheistic (Judges x 6; II Chron. xxviii. 23) and like all cults of Nearer Asia was symbolic nature-worship. Owing to the dispersion of the Arameans, an Aramean pantheon is not known, but only individual gods. Furthermore, at a very early period, Babylonian, Arabian, 255 and probably other deities were adopted by the Arameans; the Syrian god Tammuz (Ezek. viii. 14) is of Assyrian origin.

4. The Aramaic Language.

The Aramaic language belongs to the northern division of the Semitic family; it includes an Eastern and a Western branch. To the latter belongs the so-called Biblical Aramaic (Jer. x. 2; Dan. ii. 4-vii. 28; Ezra iv.-8, vi.18; vii. 12-26; cf. Gen. xxxi. 47), which since the time of Jerome (ad Dan., ii. 4) has been erroneously called “Chaldaic.” According to II Kings xviii. 26, Aramaic was understood in Jerusalem in the time of the kings, though not by the common people. At an early time it was the lingua franca of Nearer Asia, and occupied a position similar to that of the English or French languages of today. About the middle of the second century B.C., the Aramaic had become the vernacular in Syria, Palestine, and the neighboring countries. To the Western Aramaic belongs also a great part of Jewish literature (Targums, Palestinian Gemara, etc.), the Samaritan, the idiom of the so-called Nabatæan inscriptions of the Sinaitic peninsula, the Palmyrene inscriptions, etc. The most important branch of the Eastern Aramaic is the so-called Syriac, usually designated as the “Edessene language"; its literature is almost exclusively Christian, and spread even into Persia. The division of these Syriac-speaking Christians into Nestorians and Monophysites resulted in the cultivation of an East Syriac (Nestorian, Persian) and West Syriac (Jacobitic, Roman) dialect. The oldest Syriac document still extant is the translation of the Old and New Testaments which probably belongs to the end of the second Christian century. (See Bible Versions, A, III.) To the Eastern Aramaic belongs also the language of the Babylonian Talmud, a Jewish transformation of the Syriac; the Mandæan (called also Sabian), the dialects in which the holy writings of the Mandæans are written; and certain dialects, still spoken about Tur Abdin on the upper Tigris, in certain parts east and north of Mosul, in the neighboring mountains of Kurdistan, and on the Western side of Lake Urumiah. The Western Aramaic dialects are more closely allied to the Hebrew than the Eastern Aramaic, and not only strongly influenced the Hebrew, but finally displaced it. Just when this took place can not be determined, but at the time of Jesus the vernacular in Palestine was exclusively Aramaic. Also see Mesopotamia.

W. Volck†.

5. Extent of Aramean Settlements.

The Arameans were the most widely distributed of the Semitic families in their permanent settlements in pre-Christian times. Till the end of the seventh century B.C. they were found as seminomads with enormous herds of cattle on both sides of the lower Tigris east of Babylonia. As shepherds and as traders they moved west and north from time immemorial along the course of the Euphrates as far as the mountains, also crossing the river into Syria in occasional bands. After the downfall of the Egyptian and Hittite régimes in Syria they occupied that region in large numbers in the twelfth century B.C., and soon became there the controlling power, a position which, as far as race and language were concerned, they maintained till many centuries after the Christian era. They thus extended from the western border of Elam, as far as the Mediterranean; anywhere in this immense area the Arameans were at home. They had the instinct and the habit of travel and trade.

6. Activity and Enterprise of the Arameans.

Even as shepherds they were not like the Bedouin Arabs, for they kept their flocks and herds mainly for sale in the markets of the cities, near which they were usually found. As traders they were for land traffic what the Phenicians were on the sea. The range of their activity and enterprise is indicated by the fact that in the eighth century B.C. Aramaic inscriptions were written in Assyria east of the middle Tigris, and in the extreme northwest of Syria; that Aramaic was then understood in Palestine (II Kings xviii. 26); and that soon thereafter the Semitic alphabet, with Aramaic endings to the names of the letters, was introduced into Greece from Asia Minor. The Arameans were, in fact, the successors of the old Babylonians in the control of the business and commerce of western Asia, and it was from their system of writing (not from the Phenician) that the later alphabets of most of the civilized world were derived.

7. The Arameans of Mesopotamia.

For Biblical history the most important Aramean settlements were those about the middle Euphrates in upper Mesopotamia, and those in southern Syria and northern Palestine which are usually represented in modern versions by the name “Syrian.” The former region was Aramean from very early times, even when under Babylonian control in the fourth and third millenniums B.C. The center of the community was Charran (Haran), on the river Balich, one of the greatest trading cities of the ancient East. It was a seat of the worship of the moon-god, corresponding to Ur on the lower Euphrates. Hence the clan of Terah, to which Abraham belonged, when on its western migration from Ur halted at Charran and settled in its neighborhood, between that city and the Euphrates. This district is the Paddan-Aram of P, which is shown by Gen. xxxi. 21 to have been east of the Euphrates. Aram Naharaim, used by other writers for the same region, does not mean “Aram of the two rivers” (Euphrates and Tigris), but merely “Aram of the rivers,” and therefore does not include Mesopotamia in the wider sense as the Septuagint translates it. Probably the right reading is Naharim (“rivers”), in accordance with the Amarna form Na’rima.

8. Their Place in Biblical History.

This region was the ancestral home of Israel, as is indicated in the traditions of Rebecca and Laban, of Leah and Rachel as well as in the saying “a wandering Aramean was thy father” (Deut. xxvi. 5, R. V., margin). After the establishment of Israel in Palestine and of the southern Arameans in the intervening Syrian territory, little is heard from the sacred 256 writers of the Mesopotamian Arameans. According to Judges iii. 8, 10 a king, Cushan-rishathaim, overran the whole western country including the land of Israel, which he held for eight years. Another brief notice is to the effect that Hadarezer king of the Arameans of Zobah, had the assistance of troops from beyond the river against King David (II Sam. x. 16).

9. Cities and States in Southern Syria.

Much more important for Israel was the group of communities on the northeast of Palestine, of which the most famous was Damascus, the greatest city and state ever controlled by the Arameans. Damascus, however, as a city, was much older than the Aramean immigration of the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C., and was doubtless an Amorite trading-post in the old days of Babylonian supremacy. Indeed, it is doubtless true that the Arameans occupied Amorite settlements, just as the contemporary Israelites occupied those of the Canaanites. These “Syrian” states, southwest of Damascus, and on the lower slopes of Hermon, are first heard of in connection with the wars of David about 980 B.C. (II Sam. viii. and x.), the passage referring to the wars of Saul (I Sam. xiv. 47) being based on a confused reminiscence of later conditions. To Zobah (at first the most powerful state), Geshur, and Beth-Rehob on the east of the upper Jordan must be added Tob (Judges xi. 3, 5; II Sam. x. 6, 8); and to Maachah on the west must be added Hamath, to be distinguished from “Hamath the Great” (Amos vi. 2), the more famous city on the Orontes in Middle Syria. This Hamath lay northwest of the city of Dan, and beside it ran the road leading west and north to the valley of the Litany and Orontes (Cœlesyria). Hence the “entering in of Hamath” marked the northern boundary of Israel, as did also the neighboring city of Dan. All of these cities and petty states were long debatable ground between Damascus and northern Israel. They lay, however, within the natural domain of Damascus, and ultimately became Syrian.

10. The Arameans of Damascus and Israel.

Israel’s relations with the kingdom of Damascus did much to determine its destiny. After Damascus and the sister states had been made tributary to David, a new régime in Damascus put that city at the head of the Syrian Arameans in the days of Solomon (c. 945 B.C.), and threw off the yoke of Israel (I Kings xi. 23 sqq.). The next step was the annexation of northern Naphtali (already, as above stated, in large part Aramean), in the reign of Baasha, by Benhadad I. (about 890 B.C.). This was the beginning of a war which lasted a century, and which would certainly have resulted in the ruin of Israel, if it had not been for the repeated attacks made upon Damascus for the great Assyrian power. Israel suffered most from Benhadad II., and Hazael of Damascus. Only once is a truce mentioned between the two countries (I Kings xx. 34; xxii. 1), which lasted over two years (855-853 B.C.) and was favored by an exceptional Combination of the western states against an Assyrian invasion under Shalmaneser II., so that in 854 B.C. Benhadad and Ahab were found fighting side by side in defense of the West-land. The war, when resumed, was for a time disastrous to the Hebrews, so that in the reigns of Jehu and Jehoahaz, Hazael of Damascus and his successor held not only northern but probably also southern Israel in subjection. At length in the reign of Joash of Israel in 797 B.C. Damascus was taken by Adad-nirari III., of Assyria, and Aramean domination came to an end. Damascus, however, retained its independence, which it held till it was converted into a Roman province after the capture of the city by Tiglath-Pileser III. in 732 B.C.

11. Spread of Aramean Influence in Later Times.

Damascus, however, still retained its commercial importance and remained the business and social center of Aramean influence in southern Syria, which increased with the extinction of the small western nationalities. Indeed, the unifying process through which the whole of western Asia passed under the domination of Assyria, the later Babylonian, and the Persian empires, was materially hastened by the trade and commerce of the ubiquitous Arameans. Palestine itself gradually became Aramean in speech, if not materially so in population. The prevalence of the Aramaic language for many centuries after the Arameans had ceased to have any great political importance is the most striking proof of the manifold activity of the people. Originally one of the three great north Semitic dialects, along with the Babylonian (Assyrians and Canaanitic (Hebrew), it had practically, displaced the other two as a living speech by the second century B.C. Thus it happens that not only were considerable portions of two Old Testament books written in Aramaic but also all of these books had to be popularly explained in Aramaic and translated into that language in the form of the Targums, before and after the Christian era. Moreover, the language of the later Old Testament books generally is more or less colored by Aramaic, and Jesus and his disciples spoke an Aramaic dialect (Matt. xxvii. 46, and elsewhere). But the chief literary use of Aramaic, came after the close of the canon, Edessa (modern Orfa) in upper Mesopotamia having succeeded to much of the business and importance of the neighboring Charran which remained pagan. A great Christian school was founded there in the second century, and this became the center of the vast “Syriac” literature.

J. F. McCurdy.

Bibliography: For history, etc., consult C. von Lengerke, Kenaan, i. 218 sqq., Königsberg, 1844; C. Ritter, Erdkunde, parts x. and xvi., Berlin, 1843, 1852; T. Nöldeke, Namen und Wohnsitze der Aramäer, in Ausland, xl. (1867), nos. 33-34, also Ἀσσύριος, Σύριος, Σύρος, in Hermes, v. (1871) 443-468, and Die Namen der aramäischen Nation und Sprache, in ZDMG, xxv (1871) 113-131. For the people, A. Featherman, Social History of the Races of Mankind, ii. London 1881; H. Spencer, Descriptive Sociology, v. Asiatic Races, London 1876. For the religion, F. Bäthgen, Beiträge zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte, Berlin, 1888, and Nöldeke’s review of the same in ZDMG, xlii. (1888) 470-487. For the Aramaic language, E. Renan, Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques, Paris 1863; T. Nöldeke, Die semitischen Sprachen, pp, 31-47, Leipsic, 1889; idem, Grammatik der neusyrishcen Sprache 257am Urmia-See und in Kurdistan, Leipsic, 1868; idem, Kurzgefasste syrische Grammatik, Leipsic,1898; S. D. Luzzato, Elementi grammaticali del Caldeo biblico e del dialetto talmudico babilonese, Padua, 1865, Eng. transl. by G. Goldammer, New York, 1877; E. Kautzsch, Grammatik des biblischen Aramäischen, Leipsic, 1884; J. Levy, Chaldäisches Wörterbuch über die Targumim und einen grossen Theil des rabbinischen Schriftthums, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1867-68; C. Brockelmann, Lexicon Syriacum, Berlin, 1895; R. Payne Smith and J. Payne Smith (Mrs. Margoliouth), Compendious Syriac Dictionary, Oxford, 1903; A. Meyer, Jesu Muttersprache, Freiburg, 1896. For the Aramaic and Nabatæan inscriptions, CIS, i. and ii. For the important inscriptions of Senjirli in northern Syria, D. H. Müller, Die alten semitischen Inschriften von Sendschirli, Vienna, 1893; Ausgrabungen in Sendschirli, in Mittheilungen des königlichen Museums, Berlin, 1893 sqq. On the extent of the Aramean settlements and their possessions in northern Palestine consult: Schrader, KAT, pp. 28-29, 36, 182, 232, 239; and H. Winckler, Orientalische Forschungen, vol. iii., part 3, Leipsic, 1905.

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