Anatolia and the Hittites (Exodus 33)

Exodus 33:2 includes the Hittites in the listing of people groups Israel was to conquer (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1, Joshua 3:10). This gives readers the impression that the Hittites comprised a local culture in Canaan. In fact, the term Hittites usually refers to a people group based in central Anatonia (modern Turkey) who controlled a sizable empire the second millennium B.C. Thought to have entered Anatolia around 2300 B.C., the Hittites were Indo-Europeans (like Greeks), not Semites (like Israelites, Assyrians and most Canaanites).

Hittites lived in Canaan as early as the time of the patriarchs (cf. Genesis 23:10) and still inhabited the region as late as the time of David, as indicated by the presence of Uriah the Hittite in David’s army (2 Samuel 11-12). Possibly these “Palestinian” Hittites were simply dispersed members of the Anatolian Hittite populace. On the other hand, there might have been two separate “Hittite” peoples in the Old Testament: an indigenous Canaanite population in the region only much later known as Palestine and the remnants of the Hittite empire in Anatolia (cf. 2 Kings 7:6). In fact, these two groups may have been unrelated and the use of the common name purely coincidental.

The capital city and centre of Hittite power was in central Turkey at Boghazkoy (named Hattusa by the Hittites). A large archive containing tablets in Akkadian, Hittite and other languages has been discovered there. This archive library includes a wide variety of materials, including letters, military instructions and laws. In addition, Hittite prayer and ritual texts reveal a great deal about their religion.

Hittite history may be divided into three distinct periods:

  • Old Kingdom period (ca. 1600-1400 B.C.): The two greatest kings of this area were Hattusili I and his successor, Mursili I (mid-sixteenth century B.C.). These rulers dramatically increased the size  of the Hittite kingdom, expanding in particular toward Syra and Mesopotamia, defeating the Hurrians and sacking Babylon around 1531 B.C. After the assassination of Mursili I, the kingdom declined into factionalism and weakness. Another Hittite king, Telipinu, attempted to put an end to palace strife by creating rules for succession.
  • Middle Kingdom period (ca. 1400-1340 B.C.): Tudhaliya II reinvigorated his people, but the Hittite continued to be troubled by their enemies, particularly those from the north.
  • New Kingdom period (ca. 1340-1200 B.C.): The Hittite Empire returned to its former glory with the accession of Suppiluliumas I, who extended Hittite power to the south, defeating the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni in Syria. Thus the Hittites became the major power in the north and a counterpoint to Egypt, the principle southern power. Around 1275 B.C. the Hittite king Muwatalli fought one of the most famous battles of antiquity at Kadesh against Pharaoh Rameses II – ending in a draw. Hittite power dwindled and finally died out around 1200 B.C. as a result of unknown calamities that overtook much of the world at the end of the Bronze Age.

At the height of their power, the Hittites exercised control over a vast area extending from the Aegean coast to Damascus (cf. Joshua 1:4). Although they held no direct sway over the Holy Land, the Hittite presence in Canaan would have been felt by Israel because geopolitical realities placed the region as a buffer zone between the Egyptians and the Hittites.

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