Amarna’s Letters of Despair — “Lost are the Lands!”

The Bible in the British Museum

Yapahu Amarna Letter

© Trustees of the British Museum

“As truly as the king, my lord, lives, when the commissioners go forth I will say, ‘Lost are the lands of the king!  Do you not hearken unto me?  All the governors are lost; the king, my lord, does not have a [single] governor [left]!’  Let the king turn his attention to the archers, and let the king, my lord, send out troops of archers, [for] the king has no lands [left]!  The Habiru 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!” — Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem, writing to the Egyptian Pharaoh (Amarna Letter EA 286, from A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Gleason Archer, 1985 edition, page 275).

There was upheaval in Canaan, as a people known as “Habiru” invaded in great force.  Abdi-Heba was desperate for help from Pharaoh, sending multiple letters pleading for “archers” (regular Egyptian soldiers) — but no help came.

Letters in the Desert

The place now called Amarna was the Egyptian capital, Akhetaten, for two decades ending in the second year of Tutenkhamen — about 100 years after the Israelites left Egypt as described in Exodus.

In the late 19th century, a stunning discovery at Amarna brought to light 380 small stone tablets, letters from the royal archives.  The Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin owns 200 of the letters (including EA 286 from Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem), the British Museum eighty.  EA 299 from Yapahu of Gezer, pictured above, is in Room 57 in the Museum.

The letters span perhaps 50-60 years, diplomatic correspondence from throughout the Middle East, mostly in Akkadian, the diplomatic language.  Most are from Canaan and what is now Lebanon, and many are pleas for help — Pharaoh’s vassals in the Levant were apparently not receiving the military assistance to which they were accustomed.

Some letters were earlier than the royal move to Akhetaten, and must have been taken there when the capital moved from Thebes.  Due to a quirk in Egyptian religious history, we have a fairly definite end date for the correspondence — the very latest date any of the letters could have been written is about 110 years after Moses led Israel out of Egypt.

“Severe is the War Against Us — Terribly, Terribly!”

There are messages of despair, as Pharaoh’s lands fall, especially to the Habiru / ‘Apiru.

From “The Lady of the Lions”, EA 274:

May the king, my lord, save his land from the power of the ‘Apiru..–lest it be lost. Sapuma has been take[n].

From Rib-Hadda (king of Byblos on the coast of Lebanon), EA 75:

The Apiru killed Ad[una the king] of Irqata-(Arqa), but there was no one who said anything to Abdi-Ashirta, and so they go on taking (territory for themselves). Miya, the ruler of Arašni, seized Ar[d]ata, and just now the men of Ammiy have killed their lord. I am afraid.

Labaya, ruler of Shechem, was accused of collaborating with the Habiru.  Qatna (in Syria) was desperate for help against the Hittites.  Yapahu of Gezer (to the west of Jerusalem) begs for help (EA 298):

Let the king, my lord, be aware that my younger brother, has rebelled against me and has entered Muhhazu, and he has given over his two hands to the leader of the ‘Apiru.  And since [..]anna is at war with me, take care of your land.

By contrast, Amenhotep III seems to have been more interested in receiving beautiful concubines than in sending soldiers.  Yet, Pharaoh continued to receive letters like EA 100 from the Levant:

When a tablet from the king arrived (saying) to ra[id] the land that the ‘A[piru] had taken [from] the king, they wa[ged] war with us against the enemy of our lord, the man whom you pla[ced] over us. Truly—we are guarding the l[and]. May the king, our lord, heed the words of his loyal servants.  May he grant a gift to his servant(s) so our enemies will see this and eat dirt. May the breath of the king not depart from us. We shall keep the city gate barred until the breath of the king reaches us. Severe is the war against us—terribly! terribly!

“Habiru” vs “Hebrew”

Who are these Habiru / Hapiru / ‘Apiru?  When they first showed up in archaeological discoveries, especially in Amarna letters speaking of an invasion of Canaan, some scholars quickly identified “Hebrew” with “Habiru” — but the “fog of history” is murky.

Idrimi,  100 years before the Exodus, when the Israelites were in Egypt, met “Hapiru” in Canaan.  Were they descendants of “Abraham the Hebrew” through Ishmael or Esau?  Possibly.  But it is more likely that “Habiru” describes behaviour than ethnicity, similar to our modern “traveling people” designation.  They were nomads, not typically settled in one place or having a homeland, but traveling from place to place.  Sometimes they were raiders, sometimes cheap or slave labour, sometimes just migratory people.

Clearly, not every mention of Habiru / Hapiru refers to the nation of Israel — Idrimi’s inscription alone tells us that, and it is not alone.  “Habiru” was a broad term, perhaps meaning “nomad,” not an ethnic description of the descendants of Abraham.

And yet, how would Canaanites (and Egyptians) have described Israel under Moses and Joshua?  “Foreigners.”  “Slaves.”  “Wandering people.”  “Raiders.”  “People without their own land.”  In other words, they would have called them “Habiru.”

Why did Abraham’s descendants take the name “Hebrew?”  Perhaps because that is what people called them?  Perhaps homeless Abraham claimed the promise of a homeland by taking the name “Hebrew,” saying, “Yes, I am homeless, for now?”  Perhaps in Egypt they remembered the promises by taking the name of wanderers, foreigners, unsettled people?

We may never know the origin of the name “Hebrew” — but the people of Egypt, and of Canaan, almost certainly would have called the Israelites “Habiru.” Not every Habiru was a Hebrew, but the Hebrews were undoubtedly Habiru, and very possibly took the name “Hebrew” from that designation.  Yet, that still doesn’t tell us whether the Habiru of the Amarna Letters were Israelites.

The Dates Match

Most Bible-believing scholars date Solomon’s temple at 970-960 BC.  I Kings 6:1 says the Exodus took place 480 years earlier — sometime around 1445 BC, give or take a few years.

Israel wandered in the wilderness, then entered Canaan and celebrated the Passover 40 years after the first Passover in Egypt (Joshua 5:6-10), in about 1405 BC.  It appears from the book of Joshua that Jericho and Ai fell quickly, but other campaigns were longer.

Joshua 11:18 says, “Joshua made war a long time with all those kings.”  In Deuteronomy 7:22, the Lord had said conquest would be slow enough for them to multiply in numbers and fill the land, so the events of Joshua cover an extended time.  Joshua was a young man under Moses (Numbers 11:28), and died at the age of 110 (Judges 2:8), so he probably led Israel for 40-50 years.  The conquest of Canaan, then, was from around 1405 BC to perhaps sometime between 1380 and 1360 BC — and Jerusalem was not completely under Israelite control until the time of David.

The Amarna letters certainly include letters written in the reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1350 BC), though a few may be even earlier, and Amenhotep IV (who changed his name to Akhenaten, 1350-1335 BC).  So the dates match — conquest from about 1405-1370, Amarna letters from about 1390-1335, during the latter part of Joshua’s conquest and its immediate aftermath.  That won’t conclusively prove to a skeptic that the Habiru of the letters were the Hebrews of the Bible — but it fits.

If These “Habiru” WEREN’T “Hebrew…”

…Amarna’s letters still tell of general conditions in Canaan near the time of the invasion that fit with the Biblical record.  Pharaoh was not helping his allies / vassals, as Habiru and Hittites took Egyptian holdings.  Perhaps Egypt was still weakened after losing so many chariots (Exodus 14).  Perhaps after Egypt’s experiences with Israel and their God, they simply wouldn’t send troops anywhere near them.  We don’t know the reasons for Pharaoh’s behaviour, but it fits what we would expect from the Biblical account.

The cities of the land were not united, as is evident in the letters, and Joshua shows them as independents who form small alliances, rather than a grand coalition against Israel.  Joshua feared such a coalition (Joshua 7:8-9), but it never materialised, just as we would expect from the letters.

If These “Habiru” WERE “Hebrew…”

…many things fit, much more than just the sound of the names and the time-frame.

  • The fear, and the wide-scale success of the Habiru, fits a large invasion, much more in keeping with the invasion led by Joshua than with scattered nomadic groups carrying out isolated raids.
  • The cities of Megiddo, Askalon, and Gezer did not fall in the early part of the invasion, as recorded in Joshua — and they wrote to Pharaoh.
  • There are no letters from major cities such as Jericho (Joshua 6) and Hebron (Joshua 10).  By the time of these letters, there was no one in those cities left to write….
  • Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem was able to write, and Jerusalem was not taken in Joshua’s time (Joshua 15:63).
  • Abdi-Heba was outspoken on Pharaoh’s behalf, which perhaps fits with a prior king of Jerusalem initiating a coalition against Israel (Joshua 10:1-4).  Also, his great fear may be in part due to his city already having lost an army and a king (Joshua 10).
  • Gibeon was a major city, but sent no letters — it had “gone Habiru” (Joshua 9) early in the campaign.  Some letters complained of Pharaoh’s allies going over to the Habiru, exactly the type of response we would expect when we read Joshua 10:1-4.
  • Gezer asked for help, but later Abdi-Heba says Gezer has given the land to the Habiru (EA 287 and EA 290).  Joshua 16:10 indicates some kind of peace agreement took place with the Canaanites of Gezer, which perhaps triggered Abd-Heba’s complaint.
  • The events of Joshua 8:30-35 took place near Shechem, apparently with no attack by the people of Shechem — perhaps the basis of accusations of collaboration against Labaya of Shechem.

“Get Me Away From the ‘Apiru!”

As is so often true with the “fog of history” we have no absolute proof that the Amarna Letters describe the conquest of the Hebrews under Joshua.  But the parallels between the letters and the Biblical account are many.   Thus, you can go to the Museum and see the letter pictured above, in which Yapahu revealed the terror of the Canaanites:

May the king, my lord, the Sun from the sky, take thought for his land. Since the ‘Apiru are stronger than we, may the king, my lord, (g)ive me his help, and may the king, my lord, get me away from the ‘Apiru lest the ‘Apiru destroy us.

And then, you can open your Bible and read of similar terror in passages like this:

Joshua 2:9

…I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you.

Joshua 5:1

And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, which were on the side of Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, which were by the sea, heard that the LORD had dried up the waters of Jordan from before the children of Israel, until we were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel.

Joshua 9:24

…we were sore afraid of our lives because of you….

Joshua 10:1-2

1 Now it came to pass, when Adonizedek king of Jerusalem had heard how Joshua had taken Ai, and had utterly destroyed it; as he had done to Jericho and her king, so he had done to Ai and her king; and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel, and were among them;
2 That they feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, as one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all the men thereof were mighty.

“Get me away from the ‘Apiru”?  Perhaps.  But you can never get away from the God of the Hebrews….

Companion post:  The “Heretical” Pharaoh of Amarna


Sources for the British Museum series:

Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Bible in British Museum and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Amarna’s Letters of Despair — “Lost are the Lands!”

  1. Patrick Heeney says:

    Thanks for the great museum tours. I love these articles!

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