Arameans as Lovers and Rivals

In Genesis 24, Abraham wanted to find a spouse for his son Isaac outside of Canaan, so he sent his servant north. “Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor.”

In 2 Samuel 8, after King David defeated the Philistines and the Moabites, he faced a challenge from Hadadezer son of Rehob, king of Zobah, who was assisted by the Arameans of Damascus. “David struck down twenty-two thousand of them. He put garrisons in the Aramean kingdom of Damascus, and the Arameans became subject to him and brought tribute.”

In 2 Samuel 10, the Arameans again confronted King David. “Hadadezer had Arameans brought from beyond the Euphrates River; they went to Helam, with Shobak the commander of Hadadezer’s army leading them. When David was told of this, he gathered all Israel, crossed the Jordan and went to Helam. The Arameans formed their battle lines to meet David and fought against him. But they fled before Israel, and David killed seven hundred of their charioteers and forty thousand of their foot soldiers. He also struck down Shobak the commander of their army, and he died there. When all the kings who were vassals of Hadadezer saw that they had been routed by Israel, they made peace with the Israelites and became subject to them.”

Later, in 1 Kings 11, the Arameans posed a threat to King Solomon. “And God raised up against Solomon another adversary, Rezon son of Eliada, who had fled from his master, Hadadezer king of Zobah. When David destroyed Zobah’s army, Rezon gathered a band of men around him and became their leader; they went to Damascus, where they settled and took control. Rezon was Israel’s adversary as long as Solomon lived, adding to the trouble caused by Hadad. So Rezon ruled in Aram and was hostile toward Israel.”

In the archaeological record, the Arameans show up during Iron Age IA, in a prism inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I. The inscription records: “With the help of Assur, my lord, I led forth my chariots and warriors and went into the desert. Into the midst of the Ahlamt, Arameans, enemies of Assur, my lord, I marched.”

The Arameans spoke a Northwestern Semitic language, Aramaic. Aramaic is less closely related to Hebrew than the languages of Israel’s other neighbors, the Moabites and Canaanites. Aramaic appears to finds its way into the Torah in Genesis 31, in the place name Yegar Sahaduta, and possibly in Genesis in the word “bamakhazeh,” meaning “in a vision.”

In 2 Kings 5, the prophet Elisha cured Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram. Afterwards, Naaman said that “When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also, when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”

The exact site of ancient Aram Damascus is uncertain. Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and archaeological investigations there have been limited. The Grand Umayyad Mosque, on high ground in the city’s northwest was the site of a 3rd century CE Roman temple, and is believed to be the site of the temple of the Aramean god Hadad-Ramman. The remains of the Roman temple appear to use stones that were once part of this earlier Aramean temple.

The image above is of the Grand Umayyad Mosque, the proposed site of ancient Aram Damascus temple district. The link here is for the Tiglath-Pileser prism inscription that first records the Aramean presence in Syria:

Ammon on the Hill

In Genesis 19, Lot and his two daughters fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and escaped to mountains where they lived in a cave. Fearing that mankind had been destroyed, Lot’s daughters conspired to become pregnant by their father Lot, and they bore the sons Moab and Ben-Ammi, the forefathers of Moab and Ammon.

In 2 Samuel 11, King David sent his forces to attack the Ammonites. His army laid siege to the Ammonite capital, Rabbah. It was there that David sent Uriah the Hittite to be killed in order for David to take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba as his own. Eventually, in 2 Samuel 12, David’s general Joab captured Rabbah’s water supply, and King David arrived to complete the conquering and plundering of the city.

During the Bronze Age and Iron Age, conditions in Transjordan mirrored conditions in the Cisjordan, to the west of the Jordan River. The region flourish during the Middle Bronze Age, declined during the Late Bronze Age, then after the Late Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE, began to see a process of new states emerging. Where the Philistines and Israelites established themselves in the Cisjordan, Ammon established itself in the Transjordan plateau. There it too developed with a ruling and clerical class.

Rabbath Ammon, known today as the Amman Citadel, sat on an elevated hill above today’s Amman, Jordan. It is from this ancient city that the capital of Jordan gets its name, Amman. The hill forms an L-shape, with the bottom portion of the L running east to west on the southern edge. The city was strategically located near the King’s Highway, an important trading route connecting Egypt, the Mediterranean Coast, Arabia, Syria and Mesopotamia. Control over this route would have invited people to appoint a king to control the route and invaders to attack to seize control of the route.

Excavations at the site of Rabbath Ammon revealed that within the walls of ancient Rabbath Ammon, a tunnel was dug through bedrock to a stairway that led to a large underground chamber, portions of which stood outside the city wall. The construction and large chamber point to it having been a reservoir for the city, a reservoir needed to supply defenders attempting to hold off an enemy siege.

While this has revealed no proof on an ancient battle with David, it raises the possibility that this is the water system referred to in the Bible, where David’s general Joab is said to have captured Rabbath Ammon’s water supply.

The image above is of the Amman Citadel, site of ancient Rabbath Ammon in modern day Amman. 



Prime Real Estate in Iron IIA, with Parking

In Genesis 14, kings united to fight wars against other kings. “Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboyim and the king of Bela, that is, Zoar, marched out and drew up their battle lines in the Valley of Siddim against Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar; four kings against five.” By consolidating forces, the kings gave themselves better odds of victory.

In the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, Deborah points out the tribes that did not assist in the fighting. “Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan. And Dan, why did he linger by the ships? Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves.” A king would have been better able to muster resources and lead a unified army of the combined tribes to improve the odds of success in war, and deliverance might not have needed to come from a woman.

In 1 Samuel 8, the tribes of Israel were driven by a similar logic in asking for a king. Despite the prophet Samuel’s warnings, the people insisted. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

The transition to a king is evident in the archaeology at early Israelite sites. In the Iron I period, roughly 1200-1000 BCE, these sites appear to support egalitarian societies. The pottery was of a low quality, with few prestige goods, with similarly sized homes and simple burials. In the Iron IIA period, after 1000 BCE, there begins a shift towards a more uneven society, with evidence of an aristocracy. 

Rulers could command the premier location on a site, including being situated at the highest point, with commanding views. This ground could be deliberately raised by dirt added to ensure the royal home is visibly the highest point on a site. The royal residence would be surrounded by fortifications.

One type of royal palace that was popular in Syria is the “Bit-hilani.” It is noted for its monumental entrance portico supported by columns which opened up into a large hall, surrounded on all sides by narrower rooms. The royal palace would typically be built with the smoothed stones of ashlar masonry. These buildings might have ornate capitals on top of the columns used to support the buildings.

These residences might have dedicated rooms with a large concentration of storage jars, which would have been used to store taxes collected in the form of goods, to control the available resources of the city, or use in trade as payment in exchange for goods and services. This ability to collect goods allowed rulers to command large-scale construction projects and to support and pay their armies. Royal residences could have space for the king’s horses. These are identifiable by the presence of troughs and holes in pillars for tying the horses. Another sign of a royal residence is the presence of rare and expensive items such as carved ivories, jewelry and precious metals and stones.

All these features begin to appear in Iron Age II Israel and Judah. Bit-hilani style palaces made their way into the southern Levant during the Iron IIA period. Proto-Aeolic capitals are featured in Israelite and Judean royal buildings.

In 1 Kings 10 it notes Solomon’s large collection of horses. “Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem.” 

In the photo above is the central hall of the Iron II royal residence at Megiddo, at an elevated position on the site. This royal palace appears to follow the Bit-hilani form, with a portico, central hall, and surrounding rooms capable of accommodating a large number of horses, necessary for the king’s army.

A New Epoch

In the Torah portion of Noah, God casts destruction upon the world and then starts anew with Noah and his family. In Genesis 8, a new epoch begins. “So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds, everything that moves on land, came out of the ark, one kind after another.”

In the books of the Prophets, the tribes of the books of Joshua and Judges decide that a tribal confederation is insufficient for meeting the Philistine threat and insist that they need a king. After the failed experiment of Saul, David became king, followed by his son Solomon. In the biblical account, these two kings defeated Israel’s enemies and Solomon began to undertake the large scale building projects typical of kings. This too then marks a new period. 

In the archaeological record of the southern Levant, there becomes a marked transition from the Iron Age I to the Iron Age IIA and beyond. Using the ‘High Chronology’ method to assign the years, the Iron I period would be roughly from 1200-1000 BCE, and the Iron IIA period beginning in 1000 BCE.

In the Iron I period, the Philistines established themselves along the southern coastal plain in the cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath and in smaller cities further north. At the same time, the early Israelites were settling in villages and small farms in the central hill country, what is today the Judean and Samarian Hills. The Philistines and the early Israelites became rivals in the Shephelah, the foothills between the two regions.

The two rivals had distinct cultural elements. The Philistines are identifiable in the archaeological record by their unique high quality pottery and the concentration of pig in their diet. The early Israelite sites feature lower quality pottery, collared rim jars, four-room houses and a distinct lack of evidence of pig consumption.

In the Iron Age IIA, those early Israelites begin a process of state formation. Villages and farms are either abandoned or develop into larger towns and cities that gradually came to include fortification systems. These towns built waters systems to ensure a steady supply of water for their inhabitants. Absent in the Iron I period, these developing towns included palaces and other large scale buildings, indicative of royals and the bureaucracy of a state.

These developments appear to be consistent with the situation presented in the books of the Prophets, of groups of tribes with royal leadership forming a unified entity, better able to meet the challenges presented by its rivals.

The image above is of the gate system and a water channel of Iron II Gezer, at the edge of the Shephelah in central Israel. The rebuilt gate system is indicative of the changing needs of the time:

The Genesis of a New Middle East

In Genesis 2, God created a garden in Eden. This garden is described as a source for four rivers. “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there. The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.”

Cush is traditionally identified with Ethiopia, which happens to be one of the main sources for the Nile River. The Euphrates and Tigris begin in Anatolia and run through the area of modern day Iraq. Between these two regions, in the southwestern corner of Asia, is the Levant, encompassing today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian Territories and Israel.

The Late Bronze Age Collapse saw the demise of the large empires and kingdoms in the ancient Near East. Central authority collapsed in Egypt, leading to the Third Intermediate Period. The Hittite Kingdom in Anatolia collapsed, as did the Kassite Babylonian Kingdom in Mesopotamia. Assyria was significantly reduced in size. The collapse of the kingdoms surrounding the Levant allowed for the rise of city states within the Levant.

After a slow start, by the Iron Age IIA, beginning roughly in 1000 BCE, new city states developed across the Levant. In the Cisjordan of the southern Levant, in the central hill country a new kingdom would begin to establish itself. Along the coast, the Philistines established themselves in the Philistine Pentapolis and along the edges of the Shephela, the foothills that led east to the hill country. In the northern coastal plain, in the Galilee and running north to modern day Lebanon, the Canaanites, also referred to as the Phoenicians, played a key role in regional trade. Further inland in the northern Levant, the Arameans, and the kingdom of Aram Damascus held sway.

East of the Jordan River Valley, in the Transjordan, running from south to north were the Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites. The Edomites were situated south of the Dead Sea, extending west into the valley. Moab was in the area east of the Dead Sea, bisected by the Arnon River. Ammon was mainly between the Arnon and Jabbok Rivers. In the Iron IIA, these entities appear to have been at varying stages of development of their kingdoms.

In the Bible, these nations would be the chief rivals to the united kingdom of David and later the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And they would all play a role in the events of the books of 1 Samuel – 2 Kings 15.

For some excitement in the other Moab, in Utah, a driving adventure.

The New Residents of Iron I and Judges

In the 12th century, a new group settled in the southern Levantine coast. This group featured a culture different from the Canaanites in the northern coastal plain and the Galilee, and different from the early Israelites in the central hill country. Theirs was a culture that mirrored the culture in the Aegean. Their temples were supported by two central pillars, similar to others found in the Aegean, and different from Canaanite and later Israelite temple forms. Their pottery was of a high quality and featured a wide variety of shapes, adorned with impressive designs, more typical of pottery found in Cyprus and the Aegean. Their figurines and gods were similar to Mycenaean Greek figurines. Pig represented a high percentage of their diet. Studies of pig DNA in the Levant shows today’s pigs in Israel descend from European pigs, where prior to these invaders’ arrival local pigs predominated, indicating that these invaders brought the pigs that formed their diet from the Aegean. These new arrivals even differed in clothing production, with loom weight designs that differed from the looms found in Canaanite and Israelite areas, and more similar to loom weights found on Cyprus.

These invaders settled the five major cities in the southwestern Levant: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath; the former three cities along the coast and the latter two further inland. They extended their reign further north, reaching the area of modern day Tel Aviv. The foothills between the coastal plain then became the border region between themselves and the early Israelites who controlled the mountainous hill country region.

While the archaeological evidence does not fully support a literal reading of Bible’s account, it contains many parallels with the situation described in the biblical book of Judges.

In the Book of Judges, the Israelite tribes exist as tribal groups, without a king, consistent with the lack of royal monuments and architecture in the archaeological record of the Iron I period. The Egyptians do not figure significantly in Judges, matching the end of Egyptian control of the southern Levant in the 12th century BCE. The Israelites contend with a new adversary, in Hebrew the Pelishtim, in English translation the Philistines, terms with clear linguistic similarity to the Sea Peoples group the Peleset. The Peleset are not mentioned as one of the settled tribes at the time of the exodus account in the Bible, but rather are new to the scene.

Archaeological artifacts from Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tell es-Safi/Gath and Tel Miqne/Ekron show these to have been large Philistine cities, the ones identified as the major Philistine cities in Judges. The clean borders between these cities and the Israelite areas agrees with the biblical description of the two groups as enemies and rivals.

In the Book of Judges story of Samson and Delilah, Samson was tied to the two central pillars of the Philistine temple, and the Philistine temple unearthed in Tel Aviv demonstrates that a Philistine temple was supported by two central pillars. In the 1 Samuel story of David and Goliath, Goliath’s armor matches the armor displayed on the Mycenean Warrior Vase. A name similar to that of Goliath found on an inscription shows the name to belong to a language group different from the native Levantine Semitic language.

In sum, the scenario described in the Book of Judges fits comfortably with the archaeological finds of the Iron Age I period, before conditions change in the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings, and in the Iron II period. 

In the photo above is the Athens Acropolis, with a large Aegean temple supported by pillars. 

And in the Southwestern Corner

Around the time of Israel’s appearance in Canaan in the late 13th century, the eastern Mediterranean region experience a change in climate, to a dry period that may have last for over 150 years. The drier climate is evidenced through studies of ice cores, isotopes in stalactites, pollen samples taken from mud cores and changes in cow DNA from European breeds to breeds better able to survive dry conditions.

Inscriptions from the period indicate an increasing desperation for food. This desperation emerges from Hittite and Ugaritic records, and is a likely culprit in the collapse of these entities.

The drier climatic conditions ushered in the Late Bronze Age Collapse. During the Late Bronze Age Collapse, the ancient Near East experienced a breakdown of the major kingdoms and empires in the region. The Mycenaean kingdoms in Greece disappeared. Egypt would eventually suffer a collapse of centralized rule and the end of the New Kingdom. The Hittite Empire broke apart into smaller statelets. The Assyrian kingdom survived, but as a rump state. The Kassite dynasty in Babylonia ended. With the demise of these kingdoms, the international trade system collapsed. This archaeological dark period would last into the late 10th century BCE, before new large kingdoms were able to reformulate.

Beginning in the 16th century BCE, Egypt gained control over Canaan. Its control can be seen in the presence of strategically located Egyptian military garrisons, containing evidence of Egyptian material culture, placed along strategic trade routes. Locals in Canaan adopted some Egyptian practices, including anthropomorphic coffins and the worship of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

Egyptian domination came at a cost to the locals in Canaan. Egyptian kings boast of taking large numbers of slaves from the region to Egypt. The region saw a decline in walled cities, population and material wealth from the Middle Bronze Age through the Late Bronze Age under Egyptian control.

As the Late Bronze Age Collapse intensified, Egypt faced local dissension. Internal stresses in Egypt weakened Egypt abroad, and the Egyptians began to pull back from Canaan, eventually losing control entirely.

During this period, in the late 13th and early 12th centuries, Egypt came under attack along its northern coast from groups of ‘Sea Peoples’. These invaders appear to have originated from the Aegean or the Anatolian coast in the Mediterranean. The map shown above, on display at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem points to an Aegean origin. These groups may have established beachheads in Canaan in the late 13th century. One of the groups amongst these invaders is known in Egyptian records as the Peleset. This group appeared to settle along the coast in the southern Levant in the early 12th century.

Thus, in the early 12th century, two new rivals appeared on the Canaanite scene. The Peleset, or Philistines, in the southwestern corner. And the early Israelites in their corner of the central hill country. Cue the music:

New Settlers on the Block

Near the end of Moses’ tenure as leader of the Israelites, in Deuteronomy 29, Moses reminds the Israelites of their experiences over the previous forty years: These are the terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb. Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Your eyes have seen all that the Lord did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear. Yet the Lord says, “During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. You ate no bread and drank no wine or other fermented drink. I did this so that you might know that I am the Lord your God.” When you reached this place, Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan came out to fight against us, but we defeated them. We took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

With the end of the Jewish calendar year approaching, now would seem to be a logical time to recall the archaeological findings of the Iron Age I Levant that relate to the stories in the Hebrew Bible.

In the Late Bronze Age, in the 13th century BCE, the Egyptians and the Hittites of Anatolia clashed over control of the Levant, the region approximating today’s Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. Even after a near defeat at the Battle of Kadesh, the largest chariot battle in world history, the Egyptians succeeded in maintaining control over Canaan.

During this period, a new culturally distinct group began to itself in the central hill country region of Canaan, between the coastal plain and the Jordan River Valley. These new settlers lived in homes built in a unique home design. Their pottery was simple, of poor quality, unadorned and notably bereft of imagery. Concomitant with their appearance, there began a near total cessation of pig consumption in the central hill country, based on the lack of pig bones found in settlement refuse dumps. This group appears to have had an egalitarian culture, with no king, no royal monuments or royal architecture. There is a lack of imagery or carved images that might ordinarily be connected to cultic activity.

The Amarna Letters in Egypt from the middle of the 14th century record a group known as the Habiru, a name with linguistic similarity to the Hebrews, attacking a city named Urusalim. But who these raiders were and if they had any connection to the Israelites is unclear. However, in the late 13th century, the Merneptah Stele in Egypt identified a new population group in Canaan as Israel. The appearance of this name, at this time, in this region, has helped connect this new population group in the central hill country with early Israel.

The image above is of a jar adorned with a cartouche, containing the pharaoh Merneptah’s name. 

In recognition of the Israelites as a new group in the region, settling in rough terrain:

A Looming Divide

In Deuteronomy 22, the Bible issues a series of rules that relate to clothing: A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this…Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together. Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear.

In the Iron Age I, women would typically have the responsibility for tasks in the home. These tasks would include child rearing, grinding wheat into flour, cooking, baking, and sewing clothing.

The basic method for weaving clothing is by setting threads in tension along the warp, and then passing the weft over and under the warp. The pick is passed between the warp, over and under, until eventually the fabric is formed. An easy way to see this process is in the short video in the link below.

In the Iron Age in the Levant, this process was done with loom weights. The thread would be tied to a loom weight and then passed between the warp.

The Philistines and early Israelites lived in close proximity to each other, the Philistines along the coast of the southern Levant and the Israelites in the central hill country. The two groups differed in their languages, religion, pottery, home design, diet, and also in weaving clothes.

Both the Israelites and Philistines used loom weights in the clothes making process. At the Israelite sites, the loom weights that were unearthed are short and round, with a hole in the center where the thread would be tied to be passed through the warp. In the Philistine sites, the loom weights are tall and narrow, and even narrower in the center, where the thread would be tied around the loom weight. The Philistine loom weights resemble loom weights found in Cyprus, yet another hint that the Philistines originated further west in the Mediterranean basin.

As mentioned above, for a quick primer on weaving clothing, see this video:

Goliath’s Aegean Armor

Deuteronomy 20 lists the biblical rules of war: procedures for heading into battle, who is exempt from the fighting, offers of peace, treatment of trees, and exemptions to these rules in the case of the conquest of Canaan.

In 1 Samuel 17, the Israelite tribes and the Philistines squared off for battle in Canaan: “Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Sokoh and Azekah. Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.”

From the Philistine camp, Goliath emerged to challenge a lone Israelite. The Bible describes Goliath as follows: His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.

The Philistines were listed among the Sea Peoples, and another piece of archaeological evidence points their having originated in the Aegean.

In the Late Bronze Age, Mycenae was a site in the Peloponnese Region of Greece, southwest of Athens. Mycenaean Greece became the term used to refer to this period, before Greece entered a decline period with the Late Bronze Age collapse.

On the Mycenaean Acropolis on the island of Paros, Greece, archaeologists discovered the “Warrior Vase.” The Warrior Vase is a large bowl, or a krater. Kraters were typically used for mixing water and wine before serving. The Warrior Vase’s design features a row of soldiers in armor. The soldiers wear bronze helmets. They have scale armor on their torsos. Their shins are protected with bronze greaves. And each one carries a javelin.

The similarity between the soldiers’ armor on the Warrior Vase and the description of Goliath’s armor in 1 Samuel 17 is yet another sign that points the Philistines’ Aegean origins.

The Warrior Vase is on display at Greece’s National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The vase can be seen at the bottom of the page using the link below.