Biblical Nations - Syrians (and a note of thanks)

First, a note of thanks to all my readers - we hit 150,000 views on July 4, which seems quite appropriate given this blog's regular focus on history.  I appreciate every single click!


Key Scripture: 

Figures: Cushan-rishathaim, Ben-hadad, Naaman, Hazael, Rezin, Luke

Sometimes readers of the Bible get the nations of Syria and Assyria mixed up, and for some good reasons.  Both occupy areas northwest of the land of the Hebrews, both had periods of control or influence throughout the region, and obviously their names sound similar in English.  But the nation we're studying this week, Syria, is much more closely related to the Jews and has endured to modern times.  They are also known as Aram in many translations, which may sound familiar when you remember that Abraham was described as a "wandering Aramean" in Deuteronomy 26:5.  Throughout the Old Testament the land of the Syrians is mentioned, acting at times as friend, foe, or example to the children of Israel, and later in the New Testament it became a place of tremendous importance to Christians.  

Although the first settlers in the region were likely nomadic descendants of Ham, the ancestors of the Syrian people can be traced back to a son of Noah's son Shem by the name of Aram.  After the Great Flood their family had settled in northern Mesopotamia, and the area between the Euphrates River and Canaan was referred to as Paddan Aram.  As the place where Abraham's brother Nahor settled, the city of Haran was within the region and was where both Isaac and Jacob's wives originally lived.  In fact, the first 11 sons of Jacob were born prior to his return to his father, so Benjamin is the only one of the tribes of Israel that really got its start in the Promised Land.  After the time of Moses and Joshua, the Israelites learned more about the gods worshipped by their neighbors, and were lured into worshipping many of them, including the Syrian deity Asherah.  Because of their idolatrous practices, God allowed His people to be handed over to a Syrian king named Cushan-rishathaim for eight years before Othniel delivered them and became the first judge.  It was not the last time the Hebrews would struggle with their northern neighbors.

King David conquered Damascus when the Syrians there were hired to wage war against him, resulting in the most important city in the region becoming a vassal to Israel.  Solomon was involved in commerce with Syria, specifically the sale of Egyptian horses and chariots, but because he married foreign wives and built altars to their deities several rulers began to rise up and chip away from the territory that Israel controlled.  After the division of the two Hebrew kingdoms, Israel continued to have dealings with their neighbors.  King Ben-hadad of Syrian had an alliance with Israel's King Baasha, but Asa of Judah stripped the gold and silver from the Temple in Jerusalem to pay for the Syrians to break their treaty and betray Israel.  It wasn't until the reign of Ahab that Israel began to gain the upper hand, and although outnumbered he defeated Ben-hadad twice, as predicted in advance by a prophet.  Not satisfied, however, Ahab coaxed Judah's King Jehoshaphat (who was by that time his son-in-law) to join him in an attack against Syria, which was ultimately a failure and cost Israel's king his life.  Syria spent a number of years exerting pressure against the next several kings of Israel, but two godly prophets were instrumental in helping prevent a complete takeover during the time of Ahab's grandson, Jehoram.  Elijah healed a Syrian commander named Naaman of leprosy when Ben-hadad demanded Israel's king provide the impossible service, and Elisha repeatedly thwarted the Syrian army by alerting Jehoram of their movements and later striking the entire company blind.  Eventually the Syrians did defeat Israel under the command of King Hazael, just as Elisha had foretold, but Judah avoided the same fate by once again paying off their attackers.  Syria and Israel would continue harassing the southern kingdom until Judah's King Ahaz finally paid the Assyrian king to intervene, at which time Damascus was destroyed and Syria's King Rezin was killed, fulfilling the writings of the prophet Isaiah.

Hundreds of years later, the land of the Syrians has been controlled by many of the same empires that dominated the Jewish people.  When Jesus was born just outside of Jerusalem, Syria had been merged with Phoenicia as a single Roman province during Pompey's annexation of the region in 64 AD.  News spread rapidly throughout the area of the miracles being performed in nearby Galilee, and Jesus actually traveled through Syria several times to locations like Tyre, Sidon, the Decapolis, and Caesarea Philippi.  The conversion of the Apostle Paul took place on the road to the Syrian town of Damascus, and the church at Antioch was so unique during the first century that a new term was coined to define its members - Christians.  Fittingly for the location that can claim to be the epicenter of Gentile Christianity, the only author in the Bible that is known to be a Gentile is Luke, who hailed from Syria and wrote both the gospel that bears his name as well as Acts.  The modern nation of Syria still maintains similar borders to the historic land bearing the same name, and the population's ethnicity is strongly related to the people that have inhabited the region for thousands of years.


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