The Amarna Letters are diplomatic correspondence on cuneiform tablets, most of which were discovered in 1887 at Tel el-Amarna, about 180 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian king Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV, 1352-1336 B.C.) founded Amarna, called Akhetaten anciently, as his new capital city. While the majority of these 380+ letters are from Akhenaten’s reign, the archive also included some from the last years of his father’s reign (Amenhotep III).
The letters fit into two main categories, based on their content and purpose. Forty-three of them were sent to Egypt from international political “equals,” such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and the Hurrian kingdom of Mittanni. The kings of these countries refer to each other as “brother.” These letters mainly deal with political and economic matters of an international nature.
The majority of these letters (307 of them) were sent to Egypt from the rulers of vassal city-states in Syria and Canaan, a region controlled by Egypt at the time. These rulers address the Egyptian king as “my lord,” pledge their loyalty to him, report traitorous behavior on the part of other rulers, and ask for help from Egypt in the way of military assistance with those that are resisting their rule.
The Amarna Letters are important to scholars and students of the Bible for several reasons. These letters help students to triangulate the stories told in the Bible, and help moderns to see the Bible through the lens of historical sources. These letters underscore the political and military equality between the major nations of the Ancient Near East during this time period known as the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 B.C.). The fact that letters from all over the Near East – written on palm sized cuneiform tablets, most in the Babylonian language – were received, understood, and replied to by scribes in Egypt demonstrate for historians the international climate at this time.
Probably the greatest contribution the discovery of these letters brought to students of the Bible is the fact that they provide a portrait of the political situation in the land of Canaan at this time period. We learn from these letters that there were city states in Canaan that were under the control of the Egyptian empire in the fourteenth century B.C. and that during this time of foreign control that there existed bands of outlaws who upset the status quo in this area. These marauders were known as the “Habiru” or the “Apiru.” There is discussion amongst scholars whether the Habiru could be the same people as the Hebrew. 1
The following three condensed examples show an example of the tone and content of many of the Amarna letters:
To the king, my lord and my Sun: Thus Lab˒ayu, your servant and the dirt on which you tread. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord and my Sun, 7 times and 7 times. I have obeyed the orders that the king wrote to me. Who am I that the king should lose his land on account of me? The fact is that I am a loyal servant of the king! I am not a rebel and I am not delinquent in duty. I have not held back my payments of tribute; I have not held back anything requested by my commissioner… I did not know that my son was consorting with the Apiru. I herewith hand him over to Addaya. Moreover, how, if the king wrote for my wife, how could I hold her back? How, if the king wrote to me, “Put a bronze dagger into your heart and die,” how could I not execute the order of the king?” 2
Say the king, my lord: Message of Abdi-Ḫeba, your servant. I fall at the feet of my lord, the king 7 times and 7 times… And now as for Jerusalem, if this land belongs to the king, why is it ‹not› of concern to the king like Ḫazzatu? … Are we to act like Lab˒ayu when he was giving the land of Šakmu (Shechem)to the Ḫapiru?… And so may the king send 50 men as a garrison to protect the land. The entire land of the king has deser…
Say to the king, my lord: Message of [ ˓Abdi]-Ḫeba, your servant. I fall at the feet [of the kin]g, my lord, 7 times and 7 times. Here is the deed against the land that Milkilu and Šuardatu did: against the land of the king, my lord, they ordered troops from Gazru, troops from Gimtu, and troops from Qiltu. They seized Rubutu. The land of the king deserted to the Ḫapiru…May the king give heed to ˓Abdi-Ḫeba, 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 desert to the Ḫapiru. 4
- Stuart A. West, The World Jewish Bible Society, Vol. III, No. 3, Spring 1979. West writes, “All evidence from the archaeological discoveries to date seems to point to the conclusion that, sociologically, the Hebrews were in fact Habiru, although not all Habiru were Hebrews. It could well be that the word עברי (Hebrew) was originally only a sociological designation, indicating status or class – in which case the words Hebrew and Habiru are synonymous. The fact that in the later Books of the Bible and in its usage in post-biblical times, the word Hebrew has been used as an ethnic designation simply means that the original meaning of the word has been changed… In the absence of archaeological evidence until comparatively recent times, the Pentateuch itself was the oldest record extant from which an explanation could be sought. And so the term “Hebrew” ultimately became equivalent to the term “Jew” as in the book of Jeremiah where the prophet proclaims: “That every man should let his manservant and every man his maidservant being a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, go free; that none should make bondman of them, even of a Jew his brother…” – Jeremiah 34:9. Nonetheless this cannot detract from the clear indication which exist that the origins of the Hebrews are as Habiru.” See also: George E. Mendenhall, The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Sept. 1962), p. 65-87. S. Douglas Waterhouse, Who are the Habiru of the Amarna Letters? Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 12/1 (2001): 31-42.
- The Amarna letters, W. L. Moran, introduction, 1992 AD, EA 254.
- The Amarna letters, W. L. Moran, introduction, 1992 AD, EA 289.
- The Amarna letters, W. L. Moran, introduction, 1992 AD, EA 290.