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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Amarna Letters

Written remains from two sites stand out for the insights they provide into the social and cultural milieu during the late second millennium BCE. These are the famous Amarna letters and the tablets from the city of Ugarit. Part of the archives of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten; 1352–1336), the Amarna letters were found in the ruins of his capital city, Akhetaten (modern el-Amarna). Most were discovered by peasants in 1886–87, sold to antiquities dealers, and eventually bought by museums in Europe and Cairo. Currently 382 tablets are known to scholars, of which 350 are letters, most from the reign of Akhenaten. Forty-four of these letters were written by rulers of foreign states not under Egyptian control—Mitanni, Assyria, Babylonia, Arzawa, Alashiya (Cyprus), and Hatti. Most of the others are from Palestine and southern or central Syria, mainly sent by vassal kings.

Almost all of the letters are in Akkadian, the Mesopotamian tongue that was the international language of the day. Even when the king of Hatti wrote to the king of Egypt, the language used was Akkadian, not Hittite or Egyptian. The quality of the Akkadian varies widely in the letters. The international correspondence is generally well written, although it and also many of the letters from northern Syria contains a number of Hurrianisms, as one might expect from the Hurrian influence in that area.

The letters from southern Syria and Canaan proper for the most part are written in terrible Akkadian, loaded with mistakes and filled with Canaanisms. Some of the texts may be described as written virtually in Canaanite using Akkadian script. Actually, scholars are happy that the scribes did such a poor job, because the Canaanisms in the texts have become a primary source of information about the Canaanite language during the Late Bronze Age. Several detailed studies of the grammars of the various letters have shed light on the prehistory of biblical Hebrew, itself a Canaanite dialect that developed directly out of the language reflected in many of these texts.

Out of the Amarna letters emerges important insight into the structure of the city-states that made up Late Bronze Age Canaan. These small states were ruled by “kings” who seem to have spent much of their time contending with their neighbors. A surprising number of the vassals' letters to the pharaoh plead for Egyptian military assistance against another vassal who, the writer claims, has rebelled against the pharaoh and is now threatening the writer's city. Indeed, say many of the writers, the whole land has rebelled against the king, except of course his majesty's faithful servant. This rebellion often takes the form of the enemy kings turning their lands over to people called the Apiru. Although there is considerable controversy as to the exact definition of the term, the Apiru appear to have been a class of persons in Canaan who had withdrawn their allegiance from any of the states in the region and fled into the countryside, often living by banditry. It is a decidedly pejorative term in the Amarna letters. Writers from both sides of the hostilities take every opportunity to accuse their enemy of becoming an Apiru, while proclaiming their own loyalty to the pharaoh.

Let us, for example, hear Abdi-Hepa, king of Jerusalem:

To the king my lord say: Message of Abdi-Hepa your servant. At the feet of the king my lord I have fallen seven and seven times. Here is the deed that Milkilu and Shuwardatu have done against the land—they have led the troops of Gezer, the troops of Gimtu, and the troops of Qiltu against the land of the king my lord. They have taken Rubutu. The land of the king has gone over to the Apiru. And now, in addition to this, a town belonging to Jerusalem, Bit-Ninurta by name, a town belonging to the king, has gone over to the men of Qiltu. May the king listen to Abdi-Hepa, your servant, and send archers to restore the land of the king to the king. If there are no archers, the land of the king will go over to the Apiru! The act against the land was done at the orders of Milkilu and Shuwardatu, along with Gintu. So let the king take care of his land! (El Amarna, 290; my translation)

Simultaneously, however, Milkilu, king of Gezer and enemy to Abdi-Hepa, thus appeals to the pharaoh:

To the king, my lord, my god, my sun-god say: Message of Milkilu, your servant, the dust under your feet. I have fallen at the feet of the king my lord seven and seven times. Let the king my lord know that the war against me and against Shuwardatu is powerful. Thus may the king my lord save his land from the power of the Apiru. If not, may the king my lord send chariots to get us, lest our servants kill us! Further, let the king my lord ask Yanhamu, his servant, about what is going on in the land. (El Amarna, 271; my translation)

And also Shuwardatu, whose royal city is not known, made sure that the pharaoh heard his side:

To the king my lord, my god, my sun-god say: Message of Shuwardatu, your servant, the dust under your feet. I have fallen at the feet of the king my lord, my god, my sun-god, seven and seven times. The king my lord allowed me to make war against Qiltu. I made war, and it is now at peace with me. My town has been restored to me. Why has Abdi-Hepa written to the men of Qiltu saying, “Accept some silver and follow me”? May the king know that Abdi-Hepa has seized my town! Further, may the king conduct an investigation. If I have taken a man or a single piece of cattle or a donkey from him, then he is within his rights! Further, Labayu, who had previously taken our towns, is dead, but now, Abdi-Hepa is another Labayu, and he is the one who is conquering our towns. Thus may the king pay attention to his servant because of this act, but I will not do anything until the king responds by a word to his servant. (El Amarna, 280; my translation)

Who is the aggressor here, and who is the victim? Perhaps the pharaoh and his court were as uncertain as we.

The wars described in these letters were not large-scale events. When the vassal rulers specify the number of troops they need, they rarely seek more than a hundred, and sometimes only fifty. Nor should we imagine that the battles were major assaults on heavily fortified cities. In fact, few of the major cities in Late Bronze Age Palestine had any walls surrounding them. Heavy fortifications appear to have been discouraged by the Egyptian administration, perhaps even forbidden.

The texts indicate that the Egyptians divided their Syro-Palestinian empire into three large provinces, each administered by an official located in a city under Egyptian control. The area of Palestine and the coast up to Beruta (Beirut) was controlled from Gaza on the southern coast. The coastal region to the north of Beirut and the area covered by the kingdom of Amurru fell within the sphere of the coastal town of Sumur, probably Tell Kazel in Syria. The lands to the east of the Lebanon Mountains, northward toward Qadesh and southward to Hazor, answered to the commissioner at Kumidi, located in the Biqa Valley of Lebanon. In addition, the Egyptians established towns in which small numbers of Egyptian troops were stationed; some of these towns have been excavated, including Beth-shan, Jaffa, and Aphek.

The conflicts between vassals evident in the letters have led some scholars to conclude that during the Amarna period Egyptian authority in Asia had largely collapsed and that Akhenaten took no interest in foreign affairs, being too busy with his reforms at home. Others, however, have argued that the letters indicate that Egyptian administration in the provinces was intact. Egyptian policy allowed the rulers of the city-states considerable freedom in running their domains as long as they paid the required tribute and fostered trade, and the Egyptians kept out of the internal conflicts unless their own interests were jeopardized. But when a ruler began to expand his control over an extensive area, the Egyptians did intervene. Thus at the end of the reign of Akhenaten, when the northern kingdom of Amurru defected to the Hittite camp, arrangements were made to send a major Egyptian force to oppose the Hittite encroachment. This campaign had to be postponed when Akhenaten died, but the evidence does not sustain the notion that Egyptian administration of the provinces had collapsed.

One Canaanite town—Shechem—did manage to expand its territory significantly. Under its ruler Labayu and his sons, the town came briefly to control much of central Canaan. Labayu had already begun his expansion before the letters that we possess were written, and he had taken control of part of the coastal plain. He apparently made treaties with the rulers of Gezer and Gath-carmel that allowed him to turn his attention toward the Judean hills, notably Jerusalem. However, the Egyptians eventually sent troops to bring Labayu to Egypt so that he might account personally to the king for his deeds. On the journey he was murdered by his enemies, and his small empire collapsed. Some time later, Labayu's sons tried to regain control over the coastal regions west of Shechem and also made conquests to the east of the Jordan River. This second attempt at expansion by Shechem does not seem to have been successful.

The situation in Syria was much more problematic for Egypt, particularly given the rise of the new Hittite empire under Suppiluliumas. The complexities can be seen in the activities surrounding the state of Amurru during the Amarna period. Amurru became a significant power in central and southern Syria under the rule of Abdi-ashirta and his son Aziru. Abdi-ashirta's origins are obscure, but from humble beginnings he appears to have risen to a position of great power by organizing the numerous malcontents, or Apiru, in the mountainous regions of Lebanon. Using this army, he then attacked and captured several important coastal cities, including Ardata and Irqata. His imperial dreams climaxed with his seizure of the city of Sumur, the capital of one of the Egyptian provinces.

We can follow Abdi-ashirta's progress primarily through the letters of Abdi-ashirta's greatest—or at least most vocal—enemy, Rib-Addi, the king of Byblos on the Lebanese coast. Rib-Addi wrote or received sixty-seven of the letters preserved from the Amarna archive, many times more than any other ruler. In his letters Rib-Addi begs repeatedly for the pharoah's help to oppose Abdi-ashirta. He accuses Abdi-ashirta of rebellion against the pharaoh, whose last faithful vassal on the coast he claims to be. The pharaoh's consistent policy of ignoring Rib-Addi frustrated the latter to no end, and several of the petty king's letters take on a startlingly bitter tone. At one point the pharaoh sent Rib-Addi a reply asking why he wrote so many letters, a not-so-subtle way of telling him to stop (El Amarna, 106).

The Egyptians were in fact keeping a close eye on Abdi-ashirta, and as long as they thought he would stay within the Egyptian orbit, they did not interfere with his expansion. Eventually, however, they became alarmed at his increasing power, and he was killed. The exact circumstances remain cloudy.

This was not the end of Amurru or of Abdi-ashirta's family, however. Eventually his sons, led by Aziru, recaptured the area that had been controlled by their father. Again capturing Sumur was the climactic victory, and again Rib-Addi of Byblos fired off letter after letter warning the pharaoh of treachery. Like his father, Aziru carefully cultivated the Egyptian court, assuring them of his faithfulness. The tactic worked, for Aziru was accepted as a vassal and even made a trip to Egypt without problems. He returned to Sumur just when the Hittites were making important advances into the area, perhaps during Suppiluliumas's first Syrian war. Despite being a newly confirmed Egyptian vassal, Aziru almost immediately switched sides and pledged himself a vassal to Hatti. Expanding his area of influence to Tunip, all the while he sent letters to Egypt expressing his great loyalty to the pharaoh! Eventually the Egyptians realized what was happening (too late to save their loyal nuisance Rib-Addi) and understood that they had lost much of the northern part of their empire.

The Amarna letters offer a remarkable picture of the kaleidoscopic politics of Canaan during the century prior to the emergence of Israel. Filled with a welter of tiny, contentious city-states, the land revealed in this Egyptian archive corresponds well to the land of Canaan as described in the ancestral narratives of Genesis, as well as in Numbers, Joshua, and Judges.

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