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Answering an Aramaic Enigma: Part One

Sultantepe, site of Biblical Haran, is located in southern Turkey near modern-day Syria.

And he said to man, ​​​​​​​‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, ​​​​​​​and to turn away from evil is understanding.’ Job 28:28

The unfolding of your words gives light; ​​​​​​​it imparts understanding to the simple. Psalm 119:130

Men have argued that stripping Scripture of its inerrancy and historicity doesn’t affect its value as God’s inspired word. Nothing could be further from the truth; these are merely the words of men who would rejoice in the quiet of a graveyard. If we gag God in our hearts, how will we have any interest in hearing Him speak? Won’t our violent unbelief restrict us from understanding anything that He has written?

This sad truth is displayed in modern studies on the Book of Daniel, a book now widely purported to be the fictitious work of authors who lived centuries after Daniel’s lifetime. The modern (mis)understanding of the Book of Daniel is a product of research bias—the human tendency to find what we’re hoping for in our quest for truth. Sadly, discrediting the Bible leaves scholars with little hope of understanding it. But what if we risked a different approach? Could bringing God into the discussion help us understand why half of Daniel was composed in Aramaic?

A Simpler Explanation

God is the intelligent being and is committed to making Himself known to us. This belief is the founding premise of biblical interpretation and encourages us to approach Scripture from a position of curiosity and humility. This premise also compels us to explore every feature of a verse before categorizing it under the heading “human fabrication” because the awareness that God does not create empty nonsense calls us to seek out the reason behind every aspect of Scripture.

God had a purpose for writing in Aramaic, and that purpose is discoverable in the Book of Daniel and the role it plays in Scripture. Moreover, the Aramaic contents of the Old Testament are not a random hodgepodge of arcane, linguistic roughage. When we survey Scripture’s Aramaic contents from the perspective of prophecy, we find that the inspired use of Aramaic was focused and intentional from the start.

From Haran to Hebrew

Scripture’s first Aramaic word arrives at a critical moment in Israel’s history: the nation’s severance from its gentile roots. Jacob and his family obeyed God’s command to leave the region of Paddan-aram and return to Canaan, the land promised to him and his descendants according to God’s covenant to Abraham (Gen. 31:13). This controversial step led to some strong words between Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban. Laban was not only an Aramean—the original speakers of Aramaic—but also the head of the family dwelling in Paddan-aram. Unlike Jacob, Laban was descended from the side of the family that had not left Haran for Canaan.

When Jacob first came to Paddan-aram he was welcomed with open arms, but his departure to Canaan was another matter entirely. Genesis shows us that family dysfunction underscored much of the strain between Jacob and his in-laws, but it also suggests that the departure to Canaan would have met with resistance even in the best of conditions. The departure was an affront to Laban’s leadership and the family’s Aramaic roots.

A New Beginning

The conflict found closure when Jacob and Laban agreed to peacefully part ways. A covenant was enacted under Laban’s direction and a cairn was built by both families as a witness to the solemn oaths of both men to deal in faithfulness and goodwill (Gen. 31:44). While the ritual was a gesture of peace, it was also a recognition of a new reality expressed in the words employed by the two leaders. The one cairn—so central to the covenant ceremony—was given three different names in two different languages. Laban called the cairn Yegar-śāh ͤ dūtā  (“the heap of witness” in Aramaic); Jacob chose to call it Gal ʹēd (“the heap of witness” in Canaanite). It appears that Laban then reacted by giving the cairn an even stronger name, also in Canaanite (mitspâh, “watchtower”).

The distinction was further heightened when the oaths were sworn. Laban swore by the God of Abraham, Nahor, and Terah—citing men who had traditional ties to the city of Haran and Paddan-aram (Gen. 31:53a). However, Jacob swore by the Fear of Isaac, citing his living father residing in Canaan (Gen. 31:53b). Whereas Laban set up the covenant according to the family’s traditional Aramaic roots, Jacob engaged in that covenant as distinct from that heritage.

Jacob’s choice of words is surprising when we remember that he had just spent two decades living in the heartland of the Aramaic language. His words and actions were a public statement about his family and their future. From this chapter we can begin to trace a gradual transformation of Israel’s family into a nation with a distinct identity—a “people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations” (Num. 23:9).

Symbolic Power of a Strange Tongue

Genesis 37 presents us with two distinguishing features of biblical Aramaic and its role within Scripture. First, Aramaic was a forgotten language—a heritage that Abraham and his descendants abandoned as they followed God and His purposes for them. Thirteen centuries passed before Aramaic occurred again in the Old Testament Scripture (Jer. 10:11). The pre-exilic books were Hebrew compositions composed by a unique people settled in a land promised to them by God Himself.

Second, and most importantly, Aramaic was a foreign language. The literary and linguistic dominance of Hebrew underscored Israel’s calling and distinction from the nations and their languages, especially the cosmopolitan language of Aramaic. A thoroughly gentile language does not belong in the Hebrew Scriptures, and this fact is the very essence of its symbolic power within Old Testament literature. But to understand this fully, we will need to fast-forward in our Bibles 1300 years to hear the compelling message of a weeping prophet.

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