The Amarna Tablets and the Habiru (Judges 2)

A few decades after the conquest, in the mid-fourteenth century B.C., a reformer and visionary named Amenhotep IV came to the throne in Egypt. He instituted sweeping changes in the areas of art, politics and especially religion. Amenhotep IV rejected the traditional pantheon of Egyptian deities and worshiped only “Aten”, the sun disc. Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten, “One wo is effective on behalf f the Aten”, and built a new capital which he called Akhetaten, “the horizon of Aten”, in Amarna about 403 km north of the original capital of Thebes. Life in the new capital centred upon the worship of Aten. Following Akhenaten’s 17-year reign, the conservative Egyptians soon reverted to their old ways, moving the capital back to Thebes and reestablishing their traditional gods.

In 1887 a Bedouin woman discovered a number of tablets with writing on them among the ruins of Akhetaten. When it was learned that the tablets were valuable, the local natives dug up several hundred of them and sold hem to various museums and individuals. A few more were later found in officially sanctioned excavations. Altogether, 382 tablets have been recovered, nearly all of which are diplomatic correspondence and thus referred to in total as the Amarna Letters.

The letters are written in Akkadian (Babylonian), the international language of the day, instead of in Egyptian hieroglyphics. They span a period of about 20 years during the mid-fourteenth century B.C. A stamped brick identified the building where the tablets were found as the “Place of the Pharaoh’s Correspondence”. A few of the letters are in the form of outgoing correspondence, but the vast majority are incoming diplomatic messages from throughout the ancient Near East. Some 106 of them are from Egypt’s vassal kings in Canaan and thus are of great interest to students of the Bible.

The letters from Canaan provide a rare glimpse into conditions a half century or so after the conquest. This was early in the period of the judges, when individual tribes were consolidating their hold upon the land. The Biblical account is similar to the situation reflected in the Amarna Letters. The city-state rulers reported hostilities throughout Canaan. In particular, they complained about a group of people called Habiru. If the pharaoh did not take action, the letters warned, all of Canaan would be taken over by these people. The king of Jerusalem lamented: “The war against me is severe… Habiru have plundered all the lands of the king.” But who were these Habiru?

The Habiru are mentioned in texts from various places in the Near East between about 1750 and 1150 B.C. These texts indicate that they were nomadic tribesmen or fugitives who had penetrated urbanized areas and were proving troublesome to the metropolitan populations. It is possible that there is a linguistic connection between the term “Habiru” and the Biblical term “Hebrew”. Some of the Habiru in the highlands of Canaan in the mid-fourteenth century B.C. may in fact have been the Israelites, since the Bible identifies them as having been in this area at that time. Although it is certain that not all people called Habiru were Israelites, the indigenous peoples of Canaan may well have dubbed the Israelites as such, and the name may have stuck as Hebrews.


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