Aram's Relations with Israel in Assyrian Sources

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Aram is a continuous thorn in Israel's side throughout the era of the dynasties of Achav and Yehu.  At times, Aram succeeds in its conquests, while at others Israel emerges victorious.  Though Tanakh does not mention Assyria in connection to these wars, the Assyrian annals contribute much to our understanding of the period, helping to explain the fluctuating fortunes of each side.

Biblical Sources

Tanakh speaks of the relations between Aram and Israel at the end of Melakhim I and through much of the first half of Melakhim II.  These chapters discuss the kings in the dynasties of Achav and Yehu:

  • Achav – Achav fights two sets of battles against Aram, described in Melakhim I 20 and Melakhim I 22.  In the first, Israel is victorious, but Achav, nonetheless, decides to spare the life of the enemy king, Ben-Hadad, and makes an alliance with him.  In the second, just three years later, Aram emerges as the victor and Achav meets his death. 
  • Yehoram – Melakhim II 5-7 describe a series of intermittent battles between the two countries during the reign of Yehoram. Though Aram repeatedly sends troops into Israel1 and even besieges Shomeron,2 time and again Israel is miraculously saved.3 Moreover, there is no indication that Aram succeeded in its attempted conquests or that it gained any territorial advantage. In the last year of Yehoram's reign, when Chazael usurps the throne of Aram, it is Yehoram's turn to initiate battle.4 He presumably hoped to take advantage of the instability of a new monarch so as to retrieve lost lands, but he was wounded and returned to Yizrael. [For a discussion of this battle as discussed in Aramean sources, see Chazael and the Tel Dan Stele.]
  • Yehu and Yehoachaz – The picture shifts during the reigns of Yehu and Yehoachaz.  When Yehu rules, Chazael attacks throughout the borders of Israel, "מִן הַיַּרְדֵּן מִזְרַח הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ ‎אֵת כׇּל אֶרֶץ הַגִּלְעָד".‎5  During the tenure of Yehoachaz, the situation appears even more dire, "כִּי לֹא הִשְׁאִיר לִיהוֹאָחָז עָם כִּי אִם חֲמִשִּׁים פָּרָשִׁים וַעֲשָׂרָה רֶכֶב וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים רַגְלִי."‎6 Israel is spared only due to Hashem's mercy, who sends them an unnamed "savior" (Melakhim II 13:5).
  • Yoash and Yerovam – This "salvation" extends into the rule of Yoash and Yeravam, who are finally able to defeat Aram. Yoash defeats Chazael's successor, Ben-Hadad, three times (Melakhim II 13) and Yerovam expands Israel's borders, retrieving "Damascus and Chamat" (Melakhim II 14). 

Assyrian Sources

Understanding what is going on in the larger geo-political sphere during the era can shed light on the interactions between Aram and Israel discussed above.  The role played by Assyria, though not mentioned in Tanakh, is particularly significant:

Reign of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BCE) – Shalmaneser's various campaigns into Syria-Paelstine are discussed in the various editions of his annals, including both the Kurkh Monolith7 and the Black Obelisk Inscription.8  From these we can learn the following:

  • Battle of Qarqar – In the 6th year of Shalmaneser's reign (853 BCE), Aram and Israel allied with 10 others to fight Assyria in what is known as the Battle of Qarqar.  [For details, see Achav, Aram, and the Battle of Qarqar]
  • Battles against coalitions of Aram – In years 10, 11, and 14 (849, 848 and 845 BCE), Shalmaneser once again fought a coalition of 12 kings headed by Hadadezer of Aram.  This time, Israel is not mentioned as being part of the alliance, but since most of the participants are not named, it is hard to know whether the absence signifies that they did not participate.
  • Battles against Chazael – In years 18 and 21 (841 and 838 BCE), Shalmaneser faced Aram yet again, but by this point Chazael was king.  He is referred to in one of the annals as "the son of no one," presumably expressing that he usurped the throne, as described in Tanakh.  These battles no longer mention a coalition, suggesting that Aram now fought alone.
  • Tribute of Yehu – A relief on the Black Obelisk depicts an individual bowing in submission, with others paying tribute behind him.  The caption reads, "The tribute of Yehu, son of Omri:9 I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] spears."

Reign of Shamshi-Adad V (823-811 BCE) – Shamshi Adad's reign was marked by inner turmoil.  His annals reveal that during the final years of Shalmaneser's reign, 27 cities revolted. These rebellions occupied the new ruler's first few years as king. Later, he campaigned in Babylonia, but apparently ignored the west and Syria-Palestine.

Reign of Adan Nirari III (810-783 BCE) –  Adad Nirari's relationship with Aram and Israel is discussed in his inscriptions including those on the Saba'a Stele,10 the Nimrud or Calah Slab 11 and the Tell al-Rimah Stele.12 These tell of renewed campaigns to the west, in which Aram is subdued.  The Tell al-Rimah Stele further mentions tribute paid by "Yoash the Shomeroni".

Relationship Between the Sources

The ups and downs in the wars between Aram and Israel described in Tanakh might be explained in light of the Assyrian military history:

  • During the reign of Achav, the two sides initially fight, but then make a temporary peace when they realize that the real threat is Assyria and that it would be beneficial to work together to defeat the superpower.  However, after a measure of quiet resumes, they return to  their personal feud. For a full discussion, see Achav, Aram, and the Battle of Qarqar.
  • During the reign of Yehoram, the fighting between Aram and Israel continues. However, since Aram is simultaneously heavily involved in fighting Assyria, its powers are divided on two fronts and it can not decisively defeat Israel.
  • The picture changes during the reigns of Yehu and Yehoachaz, when Shamshi-Adad V rules in Assyria.  Occupied with internal affairs, Shamshi-Adad V ignored Aram, leaving Chazael  free to attack Israel.  Prof. Yavin13 further suggests that Chazael's attacks were part of a change in tactics from his predecessors. He decided that rather than attempt to topple Assyria as part of a coalition, he would instead attempt to conquer the whole region,14 hoping to then be strong enough to face Assyria. Alternatively, Chazael's change in tactics was not intentional but rather the result of both his and Yehu's usurping of the throne. The coalitions had been made with the previous dynasties. Once the new kings broke with past, the alliances naturally fell apart.
  • Relative quiet resumes on the Aramean front towards the middle/end of Yehoachaz's reign, when Hashem sends Israel a "savior". According to many scholars,15 this savior is no other than Adad Nirari III of Assyria. The new king campaigns into Aram, subduing it and giving Israel respite. This allows Yoash and Yerovam to successfully go on the offensive, retrieve lands, and expand Israel's borders.
  • Neither the tribute of Yehu nor of Yoash is mentioned in Tanakh.  It is possible that both kings chose to surrender to Assyria when Chazael abandoned the idea of attacking Assyria through a coalition. They recognized that fighting Assyria alone was not an option for Israel and chose to surrender instead.  In so doing, they likely also hoped that Assyria would aid them against their mutual foe, Aram.

Tanakh's Silence Regarding Assyria

Despite the important role played by Assyria in the region, Tanakh does not mention the superpower in connection to this era. The prophet prefers to leave out the geopolitical explanation of the events and to focus instead on the theological realm. Knowing that it would be easy for Israel to attribute its successes and failures to Assyria alone, the prophet ignores their role, telling the reader to look to Hashem's guiding hand instead. Thus, it presents Chazael as a tool needed to punish the people and his conquests as a consequence of the people's sins. The success of Yoash against Aram is not a result of his skill or strategy, but is preordained by Elisha. Finally, the reign of Yerovam is marked by territorial expansion, not because of his worth, but despite his evil ways: Hashem saves the nation because He had mercy on the people.

Other Significance of the Annals

Synchronizing Chronology – It is often a difficult task to date personalities and events mentioned in Tanakh in relation to extra-Biblical events, as no secular dates are given.  Shalmaneser's annals prove to be a particularly helpful tool for creating a synchronized Biblical chronology, as their mention of both Achav and Yehu provide key dates which can be used to determine others. According to the annals, Achav fought the battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE and Yehu paid tribute in 841 BCE. From Tanakh we know that in between their reigns, Achazyahu ruled for 2 years and Yehoram for twelve. To fit in all the events, Achav must have died a few months after the battle in 853 and Yehu must have begun to reign in 841, paying tribute soon after. Knowing these dates allows one to use Tanakh's list of the tenures of each king's reign and work backwards from Achav, and forward from Yehu, to date other events of the era.