|Five of 382 Amarna tablets describing the |
diplomatic relations between rulers of Egypt
and her neighbours such as Shechem, Jerusalem and Byblos.
© 2014 Photo by David E. Graves.
By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum
Tell el-Amarna, the capital of Egypt’s controversial Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton), is situated 190 miles south of Cairo along the banks of the Nile. While the present ruins are unimpressive the primary significance of the site revolves around 382 Akkadian/Canaanite cuneiform clay tablets (14th cen. BC) discovered in 1887 by a Bedouin woman.1. The tablets were from the royal Egyptian archives written by Yapahu the ruler of Gezer, Palestine, to Pharaoh’s Amenophis III and his son Akhenatenin Egypt, to address among other things the problem caused by ‘Apiru (written Habiru in non-Amarna letters). The term is used over 250 times in the ancient Near Eastern texts.2. The ‘Apiru were considered disgruntled mercenaries and disturbers of the peace who were traveling throughout the region attacking the established cities.3. One of the letters states:
The ‘Apiru plunder all the lands of the king. If there are archers (here) in this year, the lands of the king, my lord, will remain (intact); but if there are no archers (here) the lands of the king, my lord, will be lost!
Pfeiffer describes their characteristics as follows:
Originally the Habiru seem to have constituted a stratum of society rather than an ethnic group. While many of their names are Semitic, other names appear as well. According to George E. Mendenhall, the Habiru should be considered a people living outside the bounds of a given legal community, and not controlled by its laws and mores. The term would thus refer to unsettled, nomadic people who continually haunted the civilized communities around the Arabian Desert.4.
Some scholars have identified the Habiru as the biblical Hebrews based on the similar etymology. However, the Habiru were found as far north as Anatolia in the Hittite region and it is generally agreed that the terms were not synonymous. However, given the characteristics of the Hebrews
It is possible however, that the Hebrews were regarded in the same light as the Habiru in the period before the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. Abraham is called “the Hebrew” (Gen 14:13) in a context in which he is involved in the political struggles of the day. Most of the Biblical uses of the term Hebrew appear in contexts in which Israelites identify themselves to other people, or in which other peoples discuss the Israelites (cf. Gen. 39:14, 17; 40:15; 41:12; 43:32). While all Habiru were not Hebrews, the Israelites were regarded as Habiru by the people among whom they lived.5.
Another biblical connection is found in one of the letters sent by ‘Abdu-Heba, who was the ruler of Jerusalem.6. This is the first non-biblical reference to the city of Jerusalem and demonstrates that Jerusalem existed as a city in the 14th century. BC.
- 1. Nadav Na’aman, “Amarna Letters,” ed. David Noel Freedman et al., Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 1:174–81; James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 262–77.
- 2. Niels Peter Lemche, “Habiru/Hapiru,” ed. David Noel Freedman et al., Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 3:7.
- 3. Edward F. Campbell, “The Amarna Letters and the Amarna Period,” The Biblical Archaeologist 23 (1960): 2–22; Nadav Na’aman, “Amarna Letters,” ed. David Noel Freedman et al., Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1996), 1:174–81; Nadav Na’aman, “Habiru and Hebrews: The Transfer of a Social Term to the Literary Sphere,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 45 (1986): 271–88; Cyrus H. Gordon, “The New Amarna Tablets,” Orientalia 16 (1947): 1–21; H. Winckler, The Tell-el-Amarna Letters, trans. J. Metcalf (New York: Metcalf, 1896).
- 4. James Bennett Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement, 3rd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969). 1:270.
- 5. Pfeiffer, Wycliffe Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, 273; Lemche, “Habiru/Hapiru,” 6–10.
- 6. Oswald Loretz, Habiru-Hebräer. Eine Sozio-linguistische Studie Über Die Herkunft Des Gentiliziums ˓ibrı̂ Vom Appellativum Habiru, Beihefte Zur ZAW 160 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1984), 60.
David E. Graves, Key Themes of the Old Testament: A Survey of Major Theological Themes (Moncton, N.B.: Graves, 2013), 215-16.