A Political History of the Arameans

A Political History of the Arameans: From Their Origins to the End of Their Polities

By K. Lawson Younger, Jr.
(Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), 857 pp., 100+ maps, illustrations, and tables, $117.95 (hardcover), $97.95 (softcover)
Reviewed by Yigal Levin

The people called “Arameans” are familiar to many readers of the Bible as ancient Israel’s northern neighbors and enemies, living in Haran in Genesis and mostly connected to Da-mascus in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The Arameans were a large group of linguistically related entities that played a significant role in the history and culture of the ancient Near East. Their influence and presence spanned the Fertile Crescent. Yet some readers of the Bible in English and in other modern languages may not be familiar with them at all, since some translations, going all the way back to the Greek Septuagint, actually call them “Syrians.”

In recent years, however, the ancient Arameans have been the focus of quite a lot of historical, archaeological, and linguistic research, with conferences, publications, and even uni-versity research centers being dedicated to the study of this ancient people. The events of recent years in Syria and northern Iraq (the Arameans’ ancient homeland) have helped bring their history into the public mind. Consequently, the present volume, which focuses on the ancient Arameans’ “political history,” is a welcome summary of much of that research.

Author K. Lawson Younger, Jr., is a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and an expert on the relevant languages. With a long list of Aramean-related publications under his belt, he is certainly one of the most qualified people to write such a book.

This volume focuses on what its title calls “political history” of the Arameans, from their earliest origins to the demise of their independent entities. But it is not limited to describing such events as wars and dynastic conflicts. It describes in detail the diverse and complex Aramean socially constructed entities throughout history across large swathes of the ancient Near East.

The complexity of Aramean social structures was due, in part, to the fluidity of their tribal structures, as well as the various migrations of Aramean units across the Middle East. The other peoples with whom the Arameans interacted also had an impact on Aramean units, causing variations in their culture. The author thoroughly integrates the relations and interactions of the Arameans with other groups in the Near East, such as the Luwians, the Assyrians, and the Israelites. He utilizes the new archaeological and textual data that have come to light in the past decade.

This book, however, does not deal at length with economic, religious, and other cultural aspects of the ancient Arameans. In a conversation that we had some time ago, Younger revealed to me that he is now working on a book about the religion of the Arameans, which will certainly be a welcome companion to the present volume.

Using a regional approach to investigate the wide-ranging Aramean polities, the author divides his study into four regions: the Jezirah, where Assyrian power and influence were a particular challenge; the Anatolian north Syria, where in the Iron I and II periods one encounters the Luwian-Aramean cultural symbiosis; the northern Levant (central and southern Syria)—which is still obscure in many ways; and southern Mesopotamia, where indigenous Babylonians, Chaldean groups, and the geography combined to create a very different environment for the Aramean entities.

Younger presents an impressive array of written sources and archaeological data. He also makes extended use of the Biblical materials, especially concerning the kingdom of Aram-Damascus, wading through a wide range of issues that have been at the center of debate for years: the accuracy of books such as Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles when describing the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and, inter alia, their various references to Aram-Damascus and the other Aramean states. While he does not avoid the issues, his attitude is basically positivist: He tends to accept carefully the Biblical record, unless it is disproven by other data.

So who, or what, were the Arameans? Tribes, kingdoms, or “socially constructed units”? Did they all share a common origin? As this book shows, using a vast array of sources, the Arameans were spread over a vast area, experienced different lifestyles, and were known by different names. As Younger states in his concluding words, no other people in the ancient Near East was as impacted by the Assyrians at all stages of their development as were the Arameans.

However, as he also points out, the one thing that they did all have in common, as far as we know, is the Aramaic language. And as the Assyrian Empire swallowed up all of the Aramean polities, it also ingested masses of Aramaic speakers, along with their scribes and their literary traditions.

Aramaic eventually replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca of the entire Middle East. The Aramaic language was the language of administration and commerce of the Persian Empire, the language commonly spoken in the Hellenistic Levant, the language of the earliest Christians, of the Jewish Targum, of the Talmud and the Kaddish, and of the Syriac and “Assyrian” churches. Aramaic is spoken by small communities to this day and has turned out to be the Arameans’ most lasting legacy.

K. Lawson Younger, Jr., is to be commended for bringing early Aramean history together in what is truly an excellent work of scholarship.

Yigal Levin is Associate Professor in the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He also heads Bar-Ilan’s multidisciplinary program for Judaic Studies and teaches at Jerusalem University College. He has worked on staff at several excavations in Israel. His latest book is The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah: 2 Chronicles 10–36: A New Translation and Commentary (London: Bloomsbury, T & T Clark, 2017).

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