Is there a geographical error in 2 Chronicles 20:1-2? The problem of "Aram"

by Luke Wayne
05/19/2020

2 Chronicles 20 provides an account of a coalition of enemies who gather against King Jehoshaphat of Judah and how God delivers His people from these invaders. Some critics, however, claim that 2 Chronicles 20:1-2 makes a geographical error when describing where the invading party comes from. While the passage does present an apparent difficulty, the critics are incorrect. The author of 2 Chronicles is not in error.

The Passage

The key verses in question are:

"Now it came about after this that the sons of Moab and the sons of Ammon, together with some of the Meunites, came to make war against Jehoshaphat. Then some came and reported to Jehoshaphat, saying, 'A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the sea, out of Aram and behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar (that is Engedi),'" (2 Chronicles 20:1-2).

Most English-speaking readers in the modern, western world are understandably distant from biblical geography and don't really follow the names and details presented here, but if you looked it up on a map, you would find that description is wonderfully precise. The people of Ammon and Moab are east of the land of Israel. To attack the king of Judah, they would be coming from the other side of the dead sea. Upon crossing the sea, they would arrive in the Judean wilderness, where En-gedi is an oasis and a strategic natural stronghold to set up camp. Thus, 2 Chronicles describes exactly what we would take place if armies from Ammon and Moab sought to invade Judah. The author is even able to provide the name for En-gedi that Jehoshaphat's men used and then to clarify the place for his readers by using the more common name. Only one single detail seems out of place: the reference to Aram.

Out of Aram?

The report that is brought to Jehoshaphat says that the invading force from across the sea came "out of Aram." The problem is that Aram is not across the Dead Sea from Judah. Judah's bordering enemies are Edom and Moab. Ammon is directly north of Moab. Further north, above Ammon and Israel, is the land of Aram (later known as Syria). Thus, the critic says, 2 Chronicles gets it wrong. Arameans are not mentioned as part of the army. The force did not cross over from Aram. Aram is in the opposite direction. Aram doesn't border Judah nor touch the Dead Sea. What does it mean that the army came out of Aram?

As we will see, "out of Aram" is probably not the best translation here, and many English Bibles render this phrase differently. But even if we suppose that "out of Aram" is correct, there are still better explanations than that the ancient author who was otherwise so meticulously accurate in describing exactly the right route made such a blunder here. Commentators have noted several plausible explanations:

  1. Jehoshaphat's Servants are Mistaken: The narrator of 2 Chronicles identifies who is invading and exactly where they are coming from in his own words. He then records what some of the king's men reported to him. It is possible that the author of 2 Chronicles is saying that Jehoshaphat's men incorrectly identified the approaching army as coming from Aram. Jehoshaphat had just recently joined Ahab, king of Israel, in a battle with Aram, (2 Chronicles 18). It would be quite natural for Jehoshaphat's men to have assumed that this was a retaliatory invasion. If this is so, 2 Chronicles accurately tells us who the army really was and accurately tells who Jehoshaphat's men initially thought the army was. The problem with this explanation, however, is that Jehoshaphat seems to already know who the army really is just a few verses later in his prayer for deliverance, (2 Chronicles 20:10).
     
  2. Aram Instigated the Invasion: Another possibility is that Aram, the stronger and more influential power, instigated the invasion by Judah's nearer enemies. Again, immediately before this, Ahab, king of Israel, enticed Jehoshaphat to join in a battle against Aram. Ahab died in the battle, and the king of Aram may have, in turn, enticed or pressured Ammon and Moab to invade Judah. On this explanation, "out of Aram" is a subtle reference to the deeper politics of the invasion, which the author assumes we understand as a continuation of the last few chapters and expects us to see as another negative consequence of Jehoshaphat's sinful alliance with Israel's wicked king. Considering the way that the error of Judah's alliance with Israel continues to factor in later in the chapter, this explanation is entirely plausible.
     
  3. As Far as Aram: A third option is that the author of 2 Chronicles is trying to emphasize just how vast the enemy is by explaining that the sons of Ammon and Moab have come out from as far as Aram. From Judah's perspective, the most distant regions of Ammon and Moab would be Ammon's border with Aram to the north. If the sons of Ammon have come even from as far as Aram, that means an army has been marshaled from the whole land. This language would be emphasizing just how massive the army is, which would fit the context and explain the dread that comes over Jehoshaphat and all of Judah on hearing the news.

Some of these explanations are more likely than others, but any one of them is a better explanation than claiming that the author of 2 Chronicles knew the geography so precisely as to explain in vivid detail who came, what route they took, where they camped, and even what locals called the place, but then somehow had no idea that Aram was located elsewhere. The critic's explanation raises far more difficulties than it answers. Still, there is an even more likely explanation.

Aram or Edom?

Up to this point, we have simply assumed that the NASB's rendering of "out of Aram" is the correct reading. Yet, some other reputable translations read differently here. The ESV, CSB, NIV, NET, MEV, and others all read "Edom" rather than "Aram." Even the NASB (and NKJV, along with others) note "Edom" in the footnotes as a possibility here. If this is correct, the problem disappears entirely. Edom is south of Moab, on the border of the Dead Sea, fits the context perfectly, and makes complete geographical sense. If the verse says "Edom" here, then there is simply no objection at all! So, why the difference in translations? Is there really any reason to think Edom is correct?

The difference comes down to the manuscripts. Most of our Hebrew manuscripts and ancient translations read "Aram" here. A small minority, however, contain the reading "Edom." Because of this, translations like the NASB follow the overwhelming majority of copies in the main body of their text and note the minority reading in a footnote. Conversely, many other solid translations weigh the evidence and conclude that the minority reading is actually more likely to be original.

Why the Difference in Manuscripts?

In English, Aram and Edom don't look very much alike. Other than both being four letters and ending in "m," they are completely different words. In Hebrew, however, it is a little more complicated. First of all, the Hebrew alphabet only has consonants, not vowels. In the late ancient period, centuries after even the New Testament was completed, Jewish scribes indicated vowel sounds through a system of dots and lines above and below the consonants,1 but originally there was nothing in the written text itself to indicate vowels. This removes many of the differences.

Still, Edom and Aram have different consonants, too, right? Even if we take the vowels out, "dm" and "rm" are not the same. In Hebrew, however, they are remarkably close. The Hebrew letter for "r" is resh (ר) and the Hebrew letter for "d" is dalet (ד). As you can see, the letters are extremely similar. Depending on the scribe's handwriting, they can be virtually indistinguishable. So then, the words Aram (ארם) and Edom (אדם) or, for that matter, Arameans (ארמים) and Edomites (אדמים), look almost exactly alike.  It would actually be very easy for copyists or translators to conflate the two. Indeed, the two words are confused elsewhere in the manuscript tradition as well, such as in 2 Samuel 8:12, 2 Kings 16:6, Ezekiel 16:57, Ezekiel 27:16.

To take one interesting example, 1 Samuel 21:7 and 22:9 deal with a man which all English Bibles call "Doeg the Edomite." Indeed, so far as I know, every surviving Hebrew manuscript calls him this. Yet, the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) translates the name as "Doeg the Syrian." Syrian would be the Greek way of saying Aramean. Perhaps the Hebrew copy used by the translators contained the word "Aramean" rather than "Edomite," or perhaps the translator himself misread "Aramean" where the text actually said "Edomite." Either way, this is a clear example of the precise error we are talking about. What is interesting about this is that the Septuagint translators were not the only ones to ever make this error in reading the verses about Doeg. Josephus makes the same mistake, also identifying Doeg as a Syrian.2 This error is also found in the "Biblical Antiquities" of Pseudo Philo,3 a work which only survives today in Latin copies but many scholars believe to have originally been composed in Hebrew. There are also later Latin texts, such as the Morgan Bible (also known as the Crusader Bible or Ms M. 638,) which refer to "Doeg the Aramean."4 While some of these might be interdependent (Josephus, for example, may have simply relied on the Septuagint when referencing Doeg), these sources certainly represent more than one instance of this same mistake occurring in the same verse. There are other examples of this in other passages. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that this is why we have both versions of 2 Chronicles 20 as well.

Which is Correct?

So, we know why the manuscripts disagree, but which version is correct? There are good reasons to think that 2 Chronicles originally read "Edom" here rather than "Aram." Not only does "Edom" fit more straightforwardly in the geographical context, but people from Edom are also repeatedly and unambiguously referenced in relation to the invading army throughout the rest of the passage. In Jehoshaphat's prayer immediately after he hears the news, he says:

"And now, here are the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir—whom You would not let Israel invade when they came out of the land of Egypt, but they turned from them and did not destroy them," (2 Chronicles 20:10).

We see a similar grouping of Ammon and Moab with the people of "Mount Seir" throughout the rest of the passage:

"Now when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushes against the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; and they were defeated," (2 Chronicles 20:22)

"For the people of Ammon and Moab stood up against the inhabitants of Mount Seir to utterly kill and destroy them. And when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they helped to destroy one another," (2 Chronicles 20:23).

Mount Seir is a central location in and often used as a synonym for the land of Edom.5 The term "Mount Seir" is not susceptible to the same scribal misreading as "Edom/Aram," and every manuscript and translation agrees that the rest of the chapter refers to the people of Mount Seir, which are the people of Edom. Thus, if we want to know which term was meant in the more ambiguous verse, we can look at the more certain verses throughout the rest of the chapter, which all refer to "Mount Seir," which means Edom, not Aram. Thus, the evidence would indicate that the minority of manuscripts that read "Edom" are correct and the other copies are the result of a simple misreading on the part of some scribes between the letters ר and ד. If this is correct, then there is no geographical difficulty in the text at all.

Conclusion

There is no geographical error in 2 Chronicles 20:1-2. The reading of "Aram," though it presents some difficulties, can be meaningfully explained in the context. Most scholars today, however, agree that the reading of "Edom," found in a minority of copies, is actually the correct reading, as easily explained through normal scribal practices and testified throughout the rest of the passage.

 

  • 1. Ellis R. Brotzman and Eric J. Tully, Old Testament Textual Criticism (Baker Academic, 2016) 52
  • 2. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 6, Chapter 12, Section 1
  • 3. Chapter 63
  • 4. https://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/63 (accessed 4/1/2020)
  • 5. To see confirmation that Mount Seir is the land of Edom, note Genesis 32:3, 36:8-9, Deuteronomy 2:4-5, 2:12, Joshua 24:4, Judges 5:4, and elsewhere.