King Hazael of Aram-Damascus Subjugates Israel, 9th Century B.C.E.
The prophet Elisha goes to Damascus, where he meets Hazael, who will soon assassinate Hadadezer the king of Aram-Damascus, take the throne for himself, and attack Israel. Standing before Hazael, Elisha starts to cry:
מלכים ב ח:יב וַיֹּאמֶר חֲזָאֵל מַדּוּעַ אֲדֹנִי בֹכֶה וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רָעָה מִבְצְרֵיהֶם תְּשַׁלַּח בָּאֵשׁ וּבַחֻרֵיהֶם בַּחֶרֶב תַּהֲרֹג וְעֹלְלֵיהֶם תְּרַטֵּשׁ וְהָרֹתֵיהֶם תְּבַקֵּעַ.
2 Kgs 8:12 “Why does my lord weep?” asked Hazael. “Because I know,” he replied, “what harm you will do to the Israelite people: you will set their fortresses on fire, put their young men to the sword, dash their little ones in pieces, and rip open their pregnant women.”
Arameans tearing apart Israelites is also mentioned in Amos, which describes it as “threshing” (דּוּשׁ)—drawing on the image of crushing and shredding grain stalks in the process of extracting grain kernels:
עמוס א:ג כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי דַמֶּשֶׂק וְעַל אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ עַל דּוּשָׁם בַּחֲרֻצוֹת הַבַּרְזֶל אֶת הַגִּלְעָד.
Amos 1:3 Thus said YHWH: For three transgressions of Damascus, for four, I will not revoke it: Because they threshed Gilead with threshing boards of iron.
Hazael ruled over Aram-Damascus for most of the second half of the 9th century, and his consistent attacks on Israel are described in multiple biblical accounts, sometimes mentioning him by name, and sometimes just referring to the Arameans.
The Tel Dan Inscription
The sensational discovery of the Tel Dan Stele, which describes the wars between Aram and the Northern Kingdom from the perspective of the King of Damascus, probably Hazael, has certainly enriched our understanding significantly. First of all, it provides us an extra-biblical evidence for the wars between the two kingdoms in the 9th century. It also offers a different perspective on the war’s beginning:
ויעל · מלך · ישראל · קדם · בארק · אבי
The king of Israel had previously entered my father’s land.
According to this, the attack on the Kingdom of Israel, was actually a response to an earlier attack of the Israelites, most likely an allusion to the Battle over Ramoth-Gilead. The text goes on to describe the wars:
ואקתל · מל[כן · שב]ען · אסרי · א[לפי · ר]כב · ואלפי · פרש · [וקתלת · אית · יו]רם · בר · [אחאב · ]מלך · ישראל · וקתל[ת · אית · אחז]יהו · בר · [יהורם · מל]ך · ביתדוד
I killed [seve]nty king[s], who harnessed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen. [And I killed Jo]ram son [of Ahab], king of Israel, and I kill[ed Ahaz]yahu son of [Jehoram, kin]g of BetDavid.
Notably, the text reveals a different perspective on the death of these two kings. While the Bible attributes their death Jehu’s coup (2 Kgs 9:22–28), the Tel Dan inscription credits this to the king of Aram.
In addition to these texts, archaeology allows us to reconstruct the length and nature of wars, and even trace the territorial expansion of Aram-Damascus.
In Search of the Damascene Subjugation of the Southern Levant
In the late 1950s, the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin (1917–1984) suggested that the destructions of two strata at Hazor, an important mound on the border between Israel and Aram-Damascus, may have been caused by the Aramaeans: Stratum IX by Ben-Hadad I and Stratum VII by Hazael.
In the following decades, various scholars suggested that other cities located in the vicinity of Hazor, including Tel Dan, Tel Kinrot, et-Tell/Bethsaida, and Tel ‘Ein Gev, were also destroyed the Arameans. And yet, most of the destruction layers in cities in this region were dated earlier or later than the late 9th century, leaving the footprints of the military conflicts between Israel and Aram-Damascus during Hazael’s reign relatively faint from an archaeological perspective.
In the 1990’s Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University introduced a new dating system which he called the Low Chronology and contributed to the visibility of these conflicts in the field. Its main feature was to down-date many archaeological strata previously assumed to be 10th century and considered as part of David and Solomon’s kingdom to the second half of the 9th century. This changed the picture in many sites. Monuments and events that were previously dated to the 10th century are interpreted now against a 9th century reality, the time of the Omride and early Nimshide kings.
Even though, some of the proposed changes have not withstood the test of time, the ripple effect it had in scholarship led many archaeologists—even those who do not accept the low chronology—to reevaluate the dating of strata throughout the land. The direct consequence of this new understanding for our subject is that, nowadays, many more strata containing destruction or abandonment layers are dated to the latter half of the 9th century, a decision which finds consistent support in many radiocarbon-based studies.
As Nadav Na’aman of Tel Aviv University has proposed, these layers likely reflect the Aramaean campaigns in the region as described in the Bible. Collating the biblical and archaeological evidence leads to the hypothesis that the Hazael’s incursion into the southern Levant occurred in three stages, which consequently suggests that the Damascene takeover of the region was a slow and planned process rather than occasional raids against an hateful enemy. The evidence for the first stage is mostly biblical, the second mostly archaeological, and the third rests on both pillars.
1. War Over Gilead
The first point of reference for the wars between Israel and Aram-Damascus is the battle of Ramoth-Gilead, an important city in the Irbid Plateau, the northern sector of biblical Gilead. As many scholars have argued, these clashes probably commenced with the death of King Adad-Idri (biblical Hadadezer) mentioned above, likely at Hazael’s hands, sometimes between 845–843 B.C.E.
It is very likely that Hazael’s usurpation of the throne provided Joram, the Israelite king, with the justification for breaking the former alliance between the two kingdoms, as reflected, first and foremost, in the Battle of Qarqar, when the Israelite and Aramaean kings fought side by side against the Assyrians. According to the Bible, Joram starts the war by claiming territories in the Gilead, which at that time were apparently under Damascene rule:
מלכים א כב:ב וַיְהִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁלִישִׁית וַיֵּרֶד יְהוֹשָׁפָט מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה אֶל מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל. כב:ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל עֲבָדָיו הַיְדַעְתֶּם כִּי לָנוּ רָמֹת גִּלְעָד וַאֲנַחְנוּ מַחְשִׁים מִקַּחַת אֹתָהּ מִיַּד מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם. כב:ד וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל יְהוֹשָׁפָט הֲתֵלֵךְ אִתִּי לַמִּלְחָמָה רָמֹת גִּלְעָד וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשָׁפָט אֶל מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּמוֹנִי כָמוֹךָ כְּעַמִּי כְעַמֶּךָ כְּסוּסַי כְּסוּסֶיךָ.
1 Kgs 22:2 In the third year, King Jehoshaphat of Judah came to visit the king of Israel. 22:3 The king of Israel said to his courtiers, “You know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, and yet we do nothing to recover it from the hands of the king of Aram.” 22:4 And he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you come with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?” Jehoshaphat answered the king of Israel, “I will do what you do; my troops shall be your troops, my horses shall be your horses.”
Joram’s move turned out to be a substantial strategic mistake, as Aram-Damascus defeated the north-Israelite army in the battle where Joram himself was mortally wounded:
מלכים ב ח:כח וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶת יוֹרָם בֶּן אַחְאָב לַמִּלְחָמָה עִם חֲזָהאֵל מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם בְּרָמֹת גִּלְעָד וַיַּכּוּ אֲרַמִּים אֶת יוֹרָם.
2 Kgs 8:28 He marched with Joram son of Ahab to battle against King Hazael of Aram at Ramoth-gilead, but the Arameans wounded Joram.
The clashes in the Gilead were a primary crossroads in the political relations between the two kingdoms, as from this point, the territorial conflicts between Aram-Damascus and Israel continued into the 8th century B.C.E.
Unfortunately, for the conflicts under discussion, archaeology has little to contribute to our understanding of this phase of the conflict. Even Paul Lapp’s excavations at Tell er-Rumeith, identified in the past by many scholars as the location of Ramoth-Gilead, do not clarify the events, as the earliest strata in this fortified stronghold were not satisfactorily preserved.
2. The Fall of the North-Israelite Cities in the Northern Valleys
In the next stage, it is possible to observe multiple destruction and abandonment layers in cities dotting the northern valleys (i.e., the Jezreel, Hula, and Beth-shean valleys). In contrast to the previous stage in the Damascene takeover of the region, we know about this stage mostly from archaeology, although hints for this process appear in both the Tel Dan Stele (quoted above) and the Bible:
מלכים ב יג:ג וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתְּנֵם בְּיַד חֲזָאֵל מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם וּבְיַד בֶּן הֲדַד בֶּן חֲזָאֵל כָּל הַיָּמִים.
2 Kgs 12:3 And the anger of God was kindled against Israel, and He delivered them into the hand of Hazael king of Aram, and into the hand of Ben-hadad the son of Hazael, continually.
The most important site in this region is the city of Hazor, a fortified stronghold in the Hula Valley, which looked toward Aram-Damascus in the northeast and the Phoenician city-states in the northwest. While little evidence can be marshalled for the destruction of Hazor Stratum IX, with no conclusive signs of a conflagration, this stratum of Hazor shows clear signs of having been rapidly abandoned.
Amnon Ben-Tor of Hebrew University, the excavator, dates this abandonment to the early 9th century B.C.E. However, many other scholars date it to the second half of the 9th century B.C.E. and attribute its abandonment to Aram-Damascus. The limited data we have—the pottery assemblage and the few radiocarbon dates—support the later dating.
Thus, it would appear that, despite its heavy fortifications, Hazor was quickly abandoned before an Aramaean attack. It was not burned by the Aramaeans, but instead, like Tel Dan further north (Stratum IVA), it was repurposed as an Aramean site (Hazor Stratum VIII).
The natural next step in the subjugation process of the Northern Kingdom by the Aramaeans was the takeover of prime locations in the Jezreel Valley, the “breadbasket” of the Kingdom of Israel, and of the Beth-Shean Valley, which controlled the trading routes connecting the Transjordan with Phoenicia.
At Megiddo, the most investigated site in the Jezreel Valley, very limited evidence for conflagration was identified in two places around the site: within a storage facility in the southeastern sector of the mound and a domestic structure near the gate area. Both contexts seem to reflect, however, incidental and localized events.
While no decisive evidence of violent destruction has been found in any of the monumental structures of the city, the site appears to have been rapidly abandoned in this period. This means that complete vessels were left on the floors of houses, but no clear signs of any burning was found by the excavators. Similar “peaceful” abandonment episodes were also documented at other nearby sites in the Jezreel Valley, such as Yoqne‘am and the royal compound exposed at Jezreel.
Destruction in the Beth-shean Valley
The Beth-Shean Valley tells a different story. Here, the Arameans left a wake of destruction: in Tel Rehov, Tel Beth-shean, Tel Amal, and Tell el-Hammah, all of which have destruction layers dated to the second half of the 9th century B.C.E. Tel Rehov suffered the most severe attack, which led to the abandonment of the lower settlement after several centuries of continuous activity.
We have no written record of why the treatment of sites in the Beth-shean Valley was so much harsher than that of the Jezreel and Hula valleys. Possibly, this region was considered especially hostile to Aram, given that it was the region from which Jehu, king of Israel, and his clan, the Nimshites, hailed. Indeed, archaeological inscriptions connect this clan specifically with Tel Rehov which, as noted, was demolished.
3. Hazael’s Campaign against Philistia and Judah
The book of Kings mentions that Hazael conquered the Philistine city-state of Gath, after which he turned against the Kingdom of Judah:
מלכים ב יב:יח אָז יַעֲלֶה חֲזָאֵל מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם וַיִּלָּחֶם עַל גַּת וַיִּלְכְּדָהּ וַיָּשֶׂם חֲזָאֵל פָּנָיו לַעֲלוֹת עַל יְרוּשָׁלִָם.
2 Kgs 12:18 At that time, King Hazael of Aram came up and attacked Gath and captured it; and Hazael proceeded to march on Jerusalem.
Many scholars have argued that the Aramaeans, having defeated Israel, Philistia, and Judah, must have extended their political hegemony over the entire southern Levant. Some scholars suggest that this campaign occurred ca. 830 B.C.E., while others date it toward the very end of the 9th century B.C.E.
Here archaeology adds to the picture. On their way to the south, the Aramaeans had to cross the central coastal plain, and indeed, here we find two destruction layers of seemingly Israelite sites dated to the late 9th century B.C.E.: one in Tel Michal, near the harbor of modern Herzliya, and another one in Tel Aphek, on the sources of the Yarkon River.
Possible support for the correlation of the destruction of Aphek in the Sharon with Hazael’s campaigns, and its political affiliation with the Kingdom of Israel could also be found in a half verse found only in in the Lucianic recension of the Septuagint in the book of Kings. The main verse reads:
מלכים ב יג:כב וַחֲזָאֵל מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם לָחַץ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל כֹּל יְמֵי יְהוֹאָחָז.
2 Kgs 13:22 King Hazael of Aram had oppressed the Israelites throughout the reign of Jehoahaz.
The Lucianic recension of the LXX continues with the following phrase, absent in the MT and other versions of the LXX:
2 Kgs 13:22 [LXX L✝] And Hazael took the Philistines (lit. “foreigner”) from his (=Jehoahaz’s) hand, from the Sea of the Evening to Aphek.
According to the simple meaning, Israel was ruling over part of Philistia before Hazael arrived. As this is unknown elsewhere, and the term “Sea of Evening” is an unusual name for the Mediterranean Sea, many scholars assume that the text is corrupt and offer alternative reconstructions. And yet, the simple meaning of the text works well with the archaeological record.
Elsewhere in Philistia, the long-term excavations of Tell es-Safi, unanimously identified with biblical Gath, revealed a substantial destruction layer that was radiocarbon-dated to the second half of the 9th century B.C.E.  Additionally, several small-scale soundings excavated along the fringes of the lower mound unearthed evidence for a moat-like feature, which was interpreted by the excavators as an Aramaean siege system.
In the vicinity of the Philistine city, additional destruction layers dated to the same period were identified in sites that most likely comprised part of the periphery of Gath (e.g., Tel Harasim, Tel Zayit, and Tel Goded), further clues for the decisive efforts of the Aramaeans to take power in this region. But what about Jerusalem?
Jerusalem Pays Hazael All the Gold in the Temple
The biblical authors describe how following the destruction of Gath, Hazael turned to conquer Jerusalem but was appeased by the gifts King Joash offered him.
מלכים ב יב:יט וַיִּקַּח יְהוֹאָשׁ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה אֵת כָּל הַקֳּדָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הִקְדִּישׁוּ יְהוֹשָׁפָט וִיהוֹרָם וַאֲחַזְיָהוּ אֲבֹתָיו מַלְכֵי יְהוּדָה וְאֶת קֳדָשָׁיו וְאֵת כָּל הַזָּהָב הַנִּמְצָא בְּאֹצְרוֹת בֵּית יְ־הוָה וּבֵית הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיִּשְׁלַח לַחֲזָאֵל מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם וַיַּעַל מֵעַל יְרוּשָׁלִָם.
2 Kgs 12:19 Thereupon King Joash of Judah took all the objects that had been consecrated by his fathers, Kings Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, and Ahaziah of Judah, and by himself, and all the gold that there was in the treasuries of the Temple of YHWH and in the royal palace, and he sent them to King Hazael of Aram, who then turned back from his march on Jerusalem.
This implies that we should not find further destruction of Judahite sites in this period. Indeed, the archaeological evidence from settlements located to the south of Nahal Guvrin and the Beersheba-Arad Valley, territories that are usually assumed to be controlled by the Kingdom of Judah, do not reveal any evidence of major destruction events dated to the late 9th century B.C.E., a situation that may aligns with the biblical accounts that describe its quick submission to the Aramaeans.
Hazael’s Step-by-Step Campaigns
The Damascene subjugation of the southern Levant was a slow and calculated process. It is not surprising that the biblical authors may have exaggerated the nature of the events, whether out of (northern) animus to Aram-Damascus or to demonstrate the (Judahite) view that Israel was being punished for their profoundly wrong religious practices.
That said, when the biblical picture is put along side the archaeological picture, we can see the stark reality of Hazael’s powerful drive into the Levant over the decades of his rule. After the initial conquest of the Gilead, Hazael moved into the Hula Valley, whose cities were repurposed as Aramean cities, the Jezreel Valley, whose cities were abandoned, and into the Beth-shean Valley, whose cities, the home region of Israel’s ruling dynasty, were destroyed.
After establishing his rule in the north, Hazael carried out additional campaigns to the southern districts of Canaan, destroying Philistine Gath and its satellites, and turning Judah into a vassal state. With that Aram-Damascus seems to have contributed to the decline of the lucrative copper trade and established itself as the dominant regional power, at least for a short while. Hazael likely intended to establish permanent hegemony over his neighboring states, but his time of power was cut short by the renewal of the Assyrian campaigns to the west.
Israel Pushes Back
Following Hazael’s death in ca. 805 B.C.E., the Israelite kings, whose political control was limited thus far to the Samaria Highlands and some nearby regions, harness the new geopolitical situation in their favor and strike back at Aram-Damascus:
מלכים ב יג:כה וַיָּשָׁב יְהוֹאָשׁ בֶּן יְהוֹאָחָז וַיִּקַּח אֶת הֶעָרִים מִיַּד בֶּן הֲדַד בֶּן חֲזָאֵל אֲשֶׁר לָקַח מִיַּד יְהוֹאָחָז אָבִיו בַּמִּלְחָמָה שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים הִכָּהוּ יוֹאָשׁ וַיָּשֶׁב אֶת עָרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
2 Kgs 13:25 Then Jehoash the son of Jehoahaz took again from Ben-hadad the son of Hazael the cities that he had taken from Jehoahaz his father in war. Three times Joash defeated him and recovered the cities of Israel.
Joash’s campagins already signified that beginning of a new era in the relations between the two neighboring kingdoms. From an archaeological perspective, the military campagins of the Northern Kingdom in the days of Joash and his son, Jeroboam II, are best reflected in the shattering of the Tel Dan Stele the most vivid indication for the control of Aram-Damascus over the northern valleys of Israel, and the establishment of Israelite rule over an extensive territory, stretching, at least for a little while, from Kuntillet Ajrud in the south to the Lebanese Beqaa in the north.
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Dr. Assaf Kleiman is a senior lecturer at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a senior staff member of the Megiddo Expedition. His main research interests and scope of publications are the settlement history, material culture, and inter-regional contacts of complex communities across the Iron Age Levant.
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