In the first part of this study, we presented the case of the Hebrew/Habiru connection. The names and nature of these peoples were examined, and it was posited, with evidence, that the Akkadian term “Habiru” was used to signify both an ethnic tribe of people and a social distinction, despite the assertions of scholars that it was merely the latter. So, owing to the knowledge that the Habiru were indeed a distinct people, we can now more easily equate these with the Hebrews. Let us not, however, jump to conclusions too quickly. The identification of the Habiru with the Biblical Hebrews is indeed a legitimate contention, but the corroborating proof should still be examined before any argument is settled upon. There remain many questions to be answered concerning this theory, yet there is still much to show in its favor and this will be our endeavor in this segment. Now we shall offer more definite evidence concerning the probable identification of the Habiru with the Hebrews. (Once again, the main source for ancient records here presented is the Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Relating to the Old Testament, edited by James B. Pritchard.)
Hebrew and Habiru – Semitic Root
In northwestern Mesopotamia, on the western bank of the Euphrates River, lay the ancient city of Mari. Located in modern-day Syria and discovered in the site of Tell Hariri (around 250 miles north of the site of Babylon), Mari was first excavated in 1933. Since then, the work of archaeologists at the site has yielded much knowledge concerning the city. From the third to early second millenium BC, Mari was a considerably influential city in northern Mesopotamia, even wrestling Assyria for dominance in the region for some time. The city was greatly coveted by the larger kingdoms of the time for its position and access to key trade routes. However, after the devastating siege and destruction of Mari by Hammurabi of Babylon (19th century BC), the city’s status as a trade center and significance as a center of power ended.
Almost four millenia later, the ruins of Mari were rediscovered. Certainly, the most impressive finding in the city was the grand palace of the king of Mari. But it was within this royal residence that the most significant discovery was made. From therein were recovered around 25,000 clay tablets inscribed in Akkadian writing – a “library” of documents relating to a variety of topics. It seems that the palace complex was a center for record-keeping. Many of the tablets were found to be letters of correspondence which Zimri-Lim, the last king of Mari, conducted with his officials and neighboring states. These letters helped much in developing an understanding of the history of the region before the subsequent domination of Babylon and Assyria. Several other tablets also recorded interactions of the Habiru people with the population and government of Mari. As expected, these texts presented the Habiru in the same light in which they were seen by the rest of the Near East – as nomadic pastoralists and outlaws. In Mari, we find that they were employed by both landholders and the state as laborers, for which the most commonly accepted payment was livestock. In a certain text, there is even mention of a great number of donkeys belonging to the Habiru. This is quite reminiscent of the Old Testament Israelites who also commonly used the donkey as a means of transport and beast of burden.
Of course, the Habiru were also contracted as mercenaries by Mari and other states in the region. One of the Mari letters even reports that as many as 2,000 Habiru soldiers were used to garrison the city of Zallul on the banks of the Euphrates (ANET p. 483, “The Mari Letters”). This is a considerable contingent for a mercenary force (although, there may be argument as to whether these particular Habiru were hired mercenaries or simply tribal auxiliaries). Other tablets record more military engagements and raids conducted by the Habiru, sometimes acting in service to Mari, and other times acting independently (a few of these will be recounted later).
There are a few instances, in the Mari tablets, where forms of the term “Habiru” are used outside of referring to the Habiru people themselves. From among these texts, which concern certain legal proceedings, the word “habaru,” the Akkadian verb form of Habiru, is used. Judging from the context of each case wherein this verb appears, alongside its unmistakeable relation to “Habiru,” “habaru” was quite unequivocally understood by linguists to be translated as “migrate.” This rendering was of course, in some ways, inspired by the similar Hebrew term ‘abar, which, as was stated previously, generally means “to cross over” and also “to migrate.” The verb “habaru” features particularly in two tablets pertaining to the same case. According to these tablets, a Babylonian military official named Addu-sharrum, along with soldiers under his command, migrated from his native country into the land of Mari. The Babylonian state appears to have claimed that Addu-sharrum had deserted and soon demanded his extradition back to Babylon. In reply, however, Addu-sharrum claimed that his departure had simply been a migration to another land, rather than a defection to Mari. And apparently, though “desertion” (Akkadian: pateru) was considered a capital offense, “migrating” (habaru) was technically legal and not prohibited. Consequently, there was no legal reason to extradite migrants. Yet, notice that even though Addu-sharrum had migrated (habaru), he was not described as a Habiru nor was he connected to them; he was still considered a Babylonian. Here, the verb “habaru” speaks of one who is migrating, and not specifically of the Habiru people.
With knowledge of this verb “habaru” which quite plainly means “migrate” and its similarity with the Hebrew ‘abar, let us further relate the terms Habiru and Hebrew by their lingual roots. Now, the similarities of terms and ethnonyms shared between the Akkadian and Hebrew scripts are not coincidental, rather they evidence the close ties in relation held between these languages. Because of this similitude, both Akkadian and Hebrew are classified as members of the “Semitic language” group, which also includes other related languages, such as Phoenician and Aramaic. Although Akkadian is a much older attested language, the certain “influences” which it supposedly embedded in the Hebrew script may in fact simply point to the commonality of this language group in more ancient times. Even though the earliest examples of Paleo-Hebrew inscriptions discovered thus far have only dated back to the tenth century BC, the language’s spoken form is much more ancient. Some have sought to bridge the gap between Akkadian and Hebrew by theorizing that both originated from a common Semitic source, which would have outdated both by several centuries; albeit, with lack of inscriptional evidence, this remains conjecture. Since scholars today are usually only able to account for written languages and scripts from ancient times, the true nature of the most ancient spoken languages, in many ways, still remains a mystery. All this aside, it is clear that with the close relations between the Hebrew and Akkadian languages, there would have been shared interlingual roots with generally the same meaning. The Akkadian root for “Habiru,” as has been investigated, is habarum (some prefer the alternate rendering ‘aparum) which takes on generally the same meaning as the verb habaru in its correlation with the Hebrew ‘abar, the root for the term “Hebrew.” (Notice how these roots also share the same basic consonant order: ‘br – for ‘Ibrîy and ‘abar – and hbr/‘pr – for Habiru and habarum/‘aparum.) With this relation drawn, it seems apparent that the Akkadians and Hebrews used these roots for the same general purpose. At the same time, this also reveals how that “Hebrew” and “Habiru” both derive from common roots between the languages.
Let us now look to the Scriptures and take an in-depth view into the most well-known members of the Hebrew tribe, the Patriarchs of Genesis.
Outline of the Hebrew Patriarchs
Following the initial conquest of Canaan, as recorded in the book of Joshua, the Israelite commander addressed the assembly of his people. Joshua began his address by reminding the Israelites of their heritage and ancestors: “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods” (Joshua 24:2). As Joshua points out, the ancestors of the children of Israel, the Hebrews, lived on the other side (to the east) of the “flood,” or the river Euphrates, which separates Mesopotamia from the rest of the Levant. These Hebrew patriarchs had once abode in Mesopotamia, until certain of them were called to cross over the Euphrates into a land promised to them.
Over four hundred years before the Israelite conquest of Canaan, Terah the Hebrew and his family dwelt in Ur of the Chaldees, located in Mesopotamia (Gen. 11:28). Terah himself was no common Hebrew, for he was descended from the ancient line of Hebrew patriarchs from Peleg, the son of Eber. He undoubtedly held much distinction among his people and was a man of great wealth, in regards to servants and livestock. The place wherein Terah lived, Ur of the Chaldees, has traditionally been identified with the ancient city of Ur in Sumer (southern Mesopotamia). It seems obvious that Terah and his family had a fixed dwelling near the city, though, apparently, it was not permanent. Writing in the first chapter of his book Light from the Ancient Past, author Jack Finegan said of the Habiru: “Although the Habiru are frequently described as foreigners it is also several times indicated that they have fixed places of abode and thus cannot be considered as pure nomads” (Light from the Ancient Past p. 68-69). This seems to be the same case with Terah, who, though he was soon necessitated to move away, still held some ties to Ur. For some reason, Terah decided to move his family from Ur to the distant city of Haran. Of course, migrating in such a manner was not common practice in the ancient world. Terah would have to transport his family, sizable entourage, and belongings to another, far off location. The task at hand was in no way simple nor easy, yet the Hebrew undertook it. And so Terah, accompanied by his two sons, Abram and Nahor, moved his camp to the city of Haran in northern Mesopotamia. According to Scripture, the unseen hand of God was involved in this transfer, as He later relates to Abram how that it was He who brought him out of “Ur of the Chaldees” to be in closer proximity to the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:7).
Thus far, we may already note at least the nomadic tendencies of Terah the Hebrew. Although, it would be his son who would take the next important step. Over time, the Hebrews once more reestablished their lives in Haran and settled their cattle in that country. Only one man among them heard the calling out. Abram, the son of Terah, heeded the call of his God to leave Haran and travel to another land to which He would lead him. God promised this land to Abram and his descendants; a land whereon the Hebrews could finally settle and call their own. And so, at the age of 75, Abram, accompanied by his faithful wife Sarai and nephew Lot, departed from Haran, where his father Terah and brother Nahor remained, and took on nomadic life. Abram and his troop crossed over the Euphrates River to the west and made their way toward Canaan, the “Promised Land.”
Upon entering the land, Abram settled his camp in the country between Bethel and Hai (Ai) and made sacrifice to God. During the entire interval of Abram’s residence in Canaan, it should be noted that he made no permanent settlement anywhere nor did he take up lodging with the local inhabitants, the Canaanites (the same case applies to the succeeding patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob). Instead, Abram sojourned in his tents from place to place in the country, and this many times to suit the vast amount of cattle he owned, consisting of sheep, goats, and oxen. As the eldest son of the Patriarch of the Hebrews, Abram must have possessed a considerable number of servants and livestock. Judging from the Biblical account, Abram had quite a sizable following in his camp, most, if not all, of which were his servants. From a select number of Abram’s home-born retinue of trained warriors in Genesis 14:14 (318 servants), it can be partially estimated that the entourage which departed with him from Haran consisted of around one thousand individuals, if not more. Abram the Hebrew was for all intents and purposes a prince in his own right. Genesis 13:2 substantiates this by stating: “And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold.” His possessions were further increased with the gifts of Pharaoh during the sojourn in Egypt (Gen. 12:16). In fact, the substance of Abram and his nephew Lot had increased to such an extant that they grew to consider the plain between Bethel and Hai insufficient pasturage for their combined livestock. They therefore split their camps. Lot and his followers departed to dwell near Sodom and the cities of the plain, while Abram moved his camp near Hebron in the plain of Mamre. Here, Abram became confederate with Mamre the Amorite, as stated in Genesis 14:13.
Now it came to pass that the four kings of the East, led by Chedorlaomer of Elam, rose up and marched against the five cities of the plain (Sodom, Gomorrah, and associated cities). After defeating and overtaking these cities, the kings of the East took captive the goods and inhabitants, including Lot (Gen. 14:12). When word came to Abram concerning the capture of his nephew, he immediately armed and mobilized those of his trained servants who were “born in his own house” (Gen. 14:14). It seems that Abram had trained certain of his servants for combat. We might even conjecture that he himself may have had some experience in war while living in Mesopotamia. Abram the Hebrew and his 318 warriors, along with support from the Amorites (Gen. 14:24), marched north and successfully ambushed the kings of the East by night. In this way, Lot was reclaimed from his captors. Abram’s strategic ambush of the kings of the East is reminiscent of the Habiru, who also employed similar tactics. As is reported in the Mari tablets, the Habiru were particularly skillful in a certain night raid conducted on the town of Yahmuman. Both the Habiru and the Hebrews were capable and prepared in the case that it became necessary to war. Abram the Hebrew was without doubt a force to be reckoned with, accompanied by his capable retinue of armed servants.
Now, Abram had not abandoned the prospect of settled life in Haran and come to the land of Canaan without reason, for he was following God as his guide. Not only had Yahweh promised him possession of the land but also descendants to inherit. The difficulty in the latter promise was in the obvious fact that Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren. Nevertheless, Abram persevered in that promise and kept his faith in his Guide and Shield (Gen. 15:1). God promised to him no small number of descendants, but a multitude which would later comprise many nations of people, innumerable (Gen. 15:5; 17:2, 4, 5). It was for this reason that Yahweh changed Abram’s name to “Abraham”, meaning “father of a multitude”. Yahweh also promised that Sarai would be the mother of this multitude and her name was changed to “Sarah,” meaning “princess or royal lady.” When Abraham laughed scornfully in response, remarking how that his own age and Sarah’s barrenness held back all such possibility, Yahweh in turn mocked Abraham by assuring him that Sarah would bare a son and that his name would be “Isaac,” meaning “laughter.” In the fullness of time, this same son was born to Sarah. Acknowledging that this was the promised son, God told Abraham that, “in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” It would be with Isaac, the son of Abraham the Hebrew, that Yahweh God would keep this everlasting covenant (Gen. 17:19).
Now assuredly, it would not be the duty of Abraham nor any of his immediate descendants to claim the land of Canaan. This task was to be passed down to the children of Israel centuries later. And so, for the time being, the land remained in the possession of the Canaanites. It is apparent that the locals of Canaan clearly identified the Hebrews as sojourning foreigners, as is seen in Genesis 19:9. As we know, the Habiru were similarly recognized as such all around the Ancient Near East in the same era. This again emphasizes how the Hebrews were outsiders in society, even if, as in the case of Lot and his family in Sodom, they dwelt within the walls of a city (Gen. 19:2).
After moving away from the plain of Mamre near Hebron, Abraham decided to relocate his camp southward near the city of Gerar. Here, following a series of complications, he was further enriched in silver, animals, and servants by the hand of Abimelech, king of Gerar, who also granted the Hebrew liberty to dwell whithersoever he wished in his territory. This agreement was later confirmed in a non-aggression pact made between the king and Abraham the Hebrew. Confirmation of friendship in a treaty with Abraham was no light matter, since, as has been remarked, he was a prince or lord with a great number of servants. His camp was, in many ways, a moving city. And the fact that his troop was mobile and not settled made him a dangerous threat, if antagonized. Ancient records from the kingdom of Yamhad (Aleppo), located in northern Mesopotamia, make note of another treaty made by a king with the Habiru, which was obviously marked as a significant event. The event was recorded as a “year name” and documented as follows: “Year when king Irkabtum made peace with Semuma and the Habiru” (it has been debated as to whether or not this “Semuma” was a Habiru or not, or whether these Habiru were hired mercenaries or acting independently). Evidently, a treaty involving the Habiru was something worth noting. Why else would these record-keepers have noted it as the main event of this particular year? After confirming the treaty with Abimelech, Abraham purchased a well from him. Abraham situated his camp near the well, which he named “Beer-Sheba,” and he “sojourned in the Philistine’s land many days” (Gen. 21:34).
Following the passing of Sarah, Abraham returned to Kirjath-Arba (Hebron) to seek a suitable burial place for his deceased wife. He conversed with the local Hittites, who appeared to have some ownership over the land of Kirjath-Arba, telling them, “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you” (Gen. 23:4). In this passage, the Hittites showed clear reverence for Abraham, addressing him as “lord” and considering him a “mighty prince” in accordance with his status (Gen. 23:6, 11, 15). With the Hittites as witness, he purchased the field of Machpelah and buried Sarah in a cave located there. Note that this was the only piece of land officially owned by Abraham in Canaan. At the same time, the patriarch had other, more permanent concerns to tend to, namely the marriage of his son and heir, Isaac. In relation to this matter, Abraham called upon the eldest of his household servants and urged him thusly, “thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, amongst whom I dwell: But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac” (Gen. 24:3-4). Wherefore, Abraham sent his servant to Mesopotamia, towards the city of Nahor (near Haran), wherein dwelt the family of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Here the servant met with Abraham’s kin, Bethuel, son of Nahor, and his son Laban, who were both designated as “Syrians” (Arameans). This makes evident how that the family of Nahor had ceased living as nomads and now permanently settled in Padan-aram, as the region was called, for which reason, it seems, they were called by the name of the land (Gen. 25:20). After being welcomed by the family, the servant introduced Abraham’s proposal to Bethuel concerning Isaac’s marriage to one of his daughters. With the approval of her father, Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel, was chosen to marry her cousin Isaac. Having acquisitioned Rebekah, the servant of Abraham returned to Canaan the very next day.
Genesis 25 depicts the patriarch Abraham, near death, willing his possessions to his children. To his other sons were given gifts, and afterward, they were sent away to the east (Gen. 25:6). To Isaac, the son of Sarah, Abraham “gave all that he had” (Gen. 25:5). Isaac was the heir-apparent and inherited all that was his father’s, most importantly Yahweh’s covenant. And so, Abraham the Hebrew died at the age of 175, one hundred years after having heeded Yahweh’s call in Haran and crossed over into Canaan. The position of patriarch now passed to Isaac, making him responsible for the livelihood of the Hebrew camp. In the face of a famine in the south, Isaac the Hebrew moved the camp back towards the city of Gerar, where Yahweh appeared and reaffirmed the covenant with him.
Two twin sons were born to Isaac and Rebekah: Esau, the elder, and Jacob, the younger. Despite their closeness in birth, the brothers had contrary occupations and lifestyles as adults. While Esau was a hunter, “a man of the field”, Jacob was “a plain man”, who dwelt in the tents. In all practicality, Jacob was fulfilling the duties of a successor more so than Esau. For while Esau hunted in the fields, Jacob dwelt in the tents, learning the craft of his people. Indeed, this was his destiny, as God had promised to his mother Rebekah before his birth that Jacob, “the younger”, would be the stronger of her two sons (Gen. 25:23). Esau had all but disqualified himself, when he took two Hittites as his wives, “which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and Rebekah” (Gen. 26:34-35). So when the time came that Isaac believed his own death to be near, Rebekah wished to ensure that her younger son, who yet remained unmarried, received the blessing of the first-born son. And so, falling for the cunning of his wife and son, Isaac, in ignorance, imparted upon Jacob the blessing of the patriarch. Receiving this blessing meant that the position of patriarch, head of the family, would be passed down to Jacob, upon the death of his father. After the blessing was given in the sight of God, it could not be returned, which greatly angered Esau. In fear of Esau’s wrath, Rebekah and Isaac convinced Jacob to travel north to Padan-aram, where he might take a wife from among his kin and not follow the disgraceful example set by his brother in marrying Canaanites. Heeding their wish, Jacob departed from the camp and made his way north.
On his journey, Jacob traveled alone and rested under the open, starlit sky. While spending a night in Bethel (“house of God”), Jacob was visited by Yahweh in a dream. He confirmed with Jacob and his descendants the covenant of Abraham and Isaac, additionally reassuring him that he would return to the tents of his father. With more resolve, Jacob the Hebrew traveled north and crossed over the Euphrates into Mesopotamia. Upon arriving at his intended destination, he was welcomed by his uncle Laban and the latter’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel. Laban now ran the estate of his father Bethuel, and, despite living a settled life near Haran, his family still possessed a great number of cattle. He soon found a useful helper in his nephew Jacob, who, with his keen knowledge of herdsmanship, tended to the flocks of Laban. In return for his service over several years, Laban gave Jacob his two daughters in marriage. At this interval, Jacob was blessed with many children. After twenty years of working for his uncle, Jacob entreated Laban that he be allowed to leave with his family and a portion of the cattle which he helped raise, since Laban’s livestock had greatly increased under the care and supervision of Jacob, with God’s blessing. When Laban appeared hesitant at the proposition, Jacob realized his uncle’s craftiness. Using some ingenuity, he spoiled Laban’s machination and laid claim to the strongest and healthiest animals. Jacob himself had already accumulated quite a following, as is stated in Genesis: “And the man increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels, and asses” (Gen. 30:43).
Upon hearing God’s call to return to Canaan and knowing Laban’s displeasure with him in light of his actions, Jacob took up his wives and children and departed with his possessions and entourage in tow. Jacob crossed back over the Euphrates once more, Yahweh having greatly blessed him (Gen. 31:21). However, it took Laban only a few days to overtake them. When Laban demanded restitution and Jacob justified his departure and his claim to the cattle, they agreed to disagree. With Yahweh God as witness, Jacob the Hebrew and Laban “the Syrian” took oaths and parted ways.
As they neared Canaan, Jacob began to fear Esau and his intentions. Distressed by the threat which his brother posed, he made measures to split his camp and sent gifts in advance to appease Esau, before their inevitable meeting. Even as he drew nearer to the land promised to him, Jacob felt as if death at the hands of his vengeful brother was imminent. One night, Jacob, forlorn and desperate, wrestled with a certain man “until the breaking of the day” (Gen. 32:24). As the struggle continued and Jacob began to prevail, he demanded a blessing from the “man.” Instead, the man told Jacob, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Gen. 32:28). This appellation and blessing was to apply not only to Jacob himself, but also to his many descendants, the Israelites.
When Jacob and Esau finally reunited, they reconciled with one another. Once they had made their peace, Esau, or Edom as he was also named, returned to Seir and Jacob the Hebrew reentered the land of Canaan. Having crossed the river Jordan, Jacob bought a parcel of land near the city of Shechem and settled his camp there for a time. Following a series of unfortunate events, Jacob was tempted by the Canaanite Hivites of Shechem to settle with them. In response, the sons of Jacob, notably Simeon and Levi, decided to take matters into their own hands and repaid the slights of the Hivites by sacking their city. They slaughtered the men of Shechem, and claimed the animals and remaining inhabitants captive. On a similar note, accounts of Habiru raids are comparable to this event; in particular, the raid which the Habiru conducted upon the town of Luhaya, from whence they captured 500 sheep and 10 men. The Habiru had no interest in claiming a town for settling. They simply claimed the goods which they desired and departed, leaving the place desolate if necessary. At this point, the same can be said about the Hebrews.
Soon, Yahweh God told Jacob to return to Bethel, and the Hebrews made their journey unopposed, as the fear of God and the sons of Israel lay upon the cities of Canaan. Once again, God appeared to Jacob in Bethel. He assured Israel that the covenant of Abraham would be kept with his descendants, who would become “a nation and a company of nations” (Gen. 35:11). The children of Israel the Hebrew were destined to become a multitude of nations, as Yahweh God promised. After this, Jacob reunited with his father Isaac near Hebron. He remained with his elderly father until his death at the age of 180. With the passing of Isaac the Hebrew, Jacob now took up his position as patriarch, and it would be his duty to lead his people.
Thus far we have examined the ways of the Hebrews and Habiru based on the Scriptures and ancient inscriptions. Already their connection seems practical enough, however, the most conclusive evidence has yet to be presented. And no other texts seem more conclusive of the similarities of the Hebrews and Habiru than the famous Amarna Letters of Egypt.
The Habiru as Israelites: Amarna Letters and the Conquest
The year was 1887, when hundreds of clay tablets were recovered from Tell el-Amarna, the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaten, capital of King Akhenaten. Several hundred of the tablets were discovered to be letters of a diplomatic nature. Mostly written in an Akkadian script, they contained the international correspondence of the pharaohs with the kingdoms of the Near East during the fourteenth century BC. A great number of these Amarna letters contained communications between the Egyptian king and his vassals in the land of Canaan. Of particular note in these letters is the Canaanites’ distress in light of the invasion and incursions of a certain people, the Habiru or “‘Apiru.” These ‘Apiru do not seem to have been a people with whom the Egyptians were not familiar, since no specific explanation was given as to who they were. Their identity must have already been known by Pharaoh. As the letters attest, the ‘Apiru had invaded Canaan, had been capturing cities, and were in the process of conquering the entire land. Even letters addressed to King Amenhotep III, who reigned during the early 1300s BC, speak of the ‘Apiru presence in the land. The account of the ‘Apiru’s occupation in Canaan is almost immediately reminiscent to the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrew Israelites, recorded in the books of Joshua and Judges. The dates for the ‘Apiru invasion also correspond with the Israelite invasion.
In accordance with the chronology supplied from the Scriptures, the date for the beginning of the Israelite conquest under Joshua is placed around 1400 BC. This date would, therefore, have fallen within the reign of the Egyptian king Tuthmosis IV. Interestingly enough, one of the letters sent by Rib-Addi of Byblos in Canaan to King Amenhotep III informs the king that the ‘Apiru had been conquering the land of Canaan since the days of Tuthmosis IV, Amenhotep III’s predecessor. So not only did the ‘Apiru have a presence in the land at that time, but they were already in the process of subduing it, according to the letters. The seriousness of the ‘Apiru threat could not have been more emphatically expressed by the Canaanite princes. In all their distress, they pleaded for Pharaoh to intervene militarily. The Canaanite prince Milkilu sent to Pharaoh, saying: “Let the king, my lord, protect his land from the hand of the ‘Apiru” (ANET p. 486, “The Amarna Letters” – EA, No. 270). The greater mystery which leaves historians intrigued is the fact that the king of Egypt sent no support to Canaan, nor did he express any desire to maintain control over the region after the coming of the ‘Apiru.
The ‘Apiru incursions were neither random nor isolated, as the Amarna letters recounted their raids and conquests in both the southern and northern regions of Canaan. A certain letter from the Canaanite Shuwardata gives the impression of a coordinated offensive by the ‘Apiru in the south and in the north (ANET p. 487, “The Amarna Letters” – RA, xix, p. 106). It became necessary for the Canaanite cities in the south to collaborate with those in the north, in defense against the ‘Apiru onslaught.
Almost none of the pharaoh’s Canaanite vassals so emphatically expresses concern over the ‘Apiru conquest as the prince of Jerusalem, Abdu-Heba. This prince constantly adjured the king of Egypt (Akhenaten) to send support to face the ‘Apiru. Not only did he claim that the land around Jerusalem had been taken, but that the entire land of Canaan was being conquered by the ‘Apiru. In one letter to the king, he states: “The ‘Apiru plunder all the lands of the king” (ANET p. 488, “The Amarna Letters” – EA, No. 286), and in another: “the ‘Apiru capture the cities of the king” (ANET p. 489, “The Amarna Letters” – EA, No. 288). Again, even with the Canaanite’s continuous pleadings, the Egyptians sent no support to Canaan nor did they attempt to reconquer the land from the ‘Apiru, at this time.
A certain hint from another letter may present an additional aspect bringing more credence to the identicality of the ‘Apiru and the Israelites. In this letter, the Canaanite prince Ba‘lu-shipti states: “there is hostility against me from the mountains” (ANET p. 489, “The Amarna Letters” – EA, No. 292). Other accounts give evidence of the ‘Apiru presence in the mountains and the hill country of Canaan, which almost exactly corresponds with the settlement of the Israelites in the land. Anyone who studies the Bible in-depth knows that, from the accounts given in the books of Joshua and Judges, the Israelites did not conquer the entire land in that period. A few isolated cities remained in the Canaanites’ possession. Some of the country of the plains was still held by the Canaanites as well, since the Israelites found it difficult to outmatch the Canaanite chariotry in the flat terrain. For which reason, the tribes of Israel mainly inhabited the highlands of Canaan (as is recorded in Joshua 17:16-18 and Judges 1:19, 34).
The terror in which the Canaanites held the Israelites was in no way unfounded. For the Canaanites feared not only the Israelites themselves, but the God of the Israelites. If we reexamine the references made in the Hittite treaties, the same could be said concerning the ‘Apiru/Habiru. As was noted previously, certain Hittite treaties contained references to the unnamed “Hapiri gods,” and it has been questioned why these “deities” were given such legitimacy in their invocation by the Hittites. Of course, these “gods” could simply be understood as a yet unknown Habiru pantheon, but one other explanation deserves acknowledgment. It should be considered that these treaties are very possibly not referencing “gods,” but rather a god, more precisely the God of Hebrew Israel. These treaties are contemporary to the first settling of the Israelites in Canaan, and it seems doubtful that the Hittites would not have heard tale of the mighty and terrible works wrought by the God of Israel and his people in Canaan. In all probability, this drove the Hittites to, in some ways, acknowledge and revere these “Gods” of power, whom the Habiru worshiped. This is simply a theory, albeit, not one without consequence.
Legacy of the Hebrews
As the records show, the term “Habiru” continued in use as the name of a distinct tribe of people in the Ancient Near East for several centuries. However, by 1000 BC, the term fell out of use, and no more reference was made to the Habiru. Evidently, these former nomads had long ceased living separate from society and had integrated themselves until they were no longer significantly distinct. Nonetheless, the Israelite Hebrews remained a distinct people, creating a kingdom that stretched from the Sinai peninsula to the river Euphrates, during the reign of King David. But, as it turned out, the fate of the Israelites was not for them to remain in the Near East. During the eighth century BC, the Assyrian Empire removed most of the Israelites out of the land and resettled them elsewhere. And so, these deported Israelites had two options: either remain where they were, or move elsewhere. The latter option seemed more attractive to the exiles, who once more took on the nomadic lifestyle of their Hebrew ancestors. Identified under new names, that of “Sakai” (Scythian) and “Cimmerian”, the Israelites moved about the Ancient Near East, until eventually deciding to cross over the Caucasus Mountains into Europe. In Europe, they resettled themselves and went on to found the greatest nations in recorded history. The promise which God made with Abraham would come to pass.
The importance of the Hebrews to history should be quite evident. For though renowned, ancient civilizations like Sumer, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon laid the foundation for our own civilization and culture, these great Adamic nations fell out of existence millenia ago. It was the Hebrews who passed down the bloodline of Western civilization, being the ancestors of the White European race. Nevertheless, it was not only the blood of Abraham, but the faith of Abraham which has passed down to Europeans. For what other reason have our nations survived? Why have our nations not perished, like those of the older Adamic peoples? Ultimately, it is because of the covenant which Yahweh God made with Abraham the Hebrew.