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Amorites and Arameans - Old Testament Usage


This page investigates the terms Amorite and Aramaean as used through the Old Testament and in nonBiblical sources. As a general rule, "Amorite" occurs in the early history of the region now known as Syria, and "Aramaean" later on. This is normally understood to reflect the migration into the region of groups of people from further east. The changeover between the two occurs very approximately at the time of the Late Bronze to Iron Age transition. This has led to some apparent difficulties of interpretation of early Old Testament passages in which "Aramaean" is used.

As well as the Biblical use of these terms, other textual sources, chiefly from Egypt and Mesopotamia, are investigated to identify how other nations used these terms. The pattern found here matches the Old Testament usage to a considerable extent.

The comparative chronological implications in both the conventional model and the New Chronology are similar - the latter model fits slightly less well with the Biblical data in that one would have expected David and Solomon to have had dealings with them, and the books of 2 Samuel and 1 Kings are silent about this.

Old Testament Usage

The Table of Nations (Genesis 10) mentions both Amor and Aram. The Amorites are grouped with the sons of Ham, in a group with Hittite, Phoenician and Canaanite peoples. Aram is mentioned among the Semites, along with Elam and Asshur.

So far as the Bible writers are concerned, 'Amorite' refers predominantly to one group of the original inhabitants of Canaan and the surrounding lands such as transJordan. By extension the word can be applied to their close-at-hand ethnic relatives. Modern usage typically refers to a wider collection of peoples. The Bible writers also frequently used the term in a moral sense as a form of condemnation of specific religious practices. The earliest use in this sense can be found in Genesis 15, and in later books the term can appear purely in a moral sense, detached from any particular ethnic group.

Aram as a placename occurs both in compound forms (such as Paddan Aram or Aram Narathaim), and also as a single word. Aramean is used as a title for individuals (such as "Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean") and also as a generic term (as in "the Aramean armies"). It is never used in a moral sense. Paddan Aram and Aram Naharaim apply to essentially the same area of land, around Harran where the Mitanni nation flourished for a while. Typically, Paddan Aram is used in earlier accounts and Aram Naharaim in later ones. This issue is discussed in more detail in the companion page discussing chronological issues.

The following table shows the relative proportions of usage of these terms in the various blocks of Old Testament books:

 OT section
WordBooks of MosesJoshua/JudgesHistory Samuel-NehemiahPsalmsProphets
Amorite (people)3627722
Amorite (moral use)12302
Aram (place in combination form)111010
Aram (place in simple form)124718
Aramean (individual person)40000
Aramean (people-group)005303

Additionally, of the references to Amorite in the Pentateuch (Books of Moses), about 1/3 are relating entirely to the defeat of the rulers Sihon and Og, and another 1/3 are allusions to the fundamental promise made to Abraham in Genesis 15. Proceeding through the Bible, this proportion increases so that references in the later books are entirely historical or moral rather than contemporary. The latest reference to Amorites in the sense of a contemporary group of people is in 1 Samuel 7.

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