Jerusalem in the Amarna Letters by Christopher Rollston

The Amarna Letters are a group of inscribed clay tablets discovered around 1887 at Amarna, a site in Egypt on the east bank of the Nile about 190 miles south of Cairo. The city was founded by the Egyptian king (pharaoh) Amenhotep IV, who later became known as Akhenaten. Akhenaten was known as a heretic king; he worshiped only the Egyptian god Aten, perhaps becoming history’s first monotheist, and he apparently attempted (unsuccessfully) to impose this monotheism on Egyptian religion more broadly.

The tablets total almost 400 in number and are written (almost without exception) in Akkadian. Most of these letters come from vassal cities in Syria-Palestine, including Byblos, Tyre, Gezer, Hebron, Shechem (Nablus), Ashkelon, Megiddo, and Jerusalem, and contain diplomatic correspondence with officials in Babylonia, Assyria, Mitanni (an area of northern Syria and southeastern Anatolia), Alashia (Cyprus), and Hatti (central Anatolia). They date to the 14th century B.C.E., primarily to the reigns of the Egyptian kings Amenhotep III (reigned circa 1382–1344 B.C.E.) and Amenhotep IV (reigned circa 1352–1336 B.C.E.).

The letters from Jerusalem (written as “Urusalim” in the Amarna texts) are from a Canaanite ruler named Abdi-Heba. He states that he is a “soldier for the king, my lord” and requests that the Egyptian monarch send him a messenger and some military men to help resist his enemies. In multiple letters he states that he “falls at the feet of my lord the king, seven times and seven times,” a stock phrase and common ancient Near Eastern motif that conveys his faithfulness to his Egyptian suzerain. He also makes clear that it was not his “father or mother who put me in this place” (on the throne), but rather the “strong arm of the king.” Here Abdi-Heba reveals that he was not the heir to the throne but given the throne of Jerusalem by the Egyptian king himself. He goes on to state that for this reason he will always be a faithful vassal of his Egyptian lord, regardless of any accusation by an enemy to the contrary. Among the enemies he refers to in his correspondence are the “Apiru” (people living on the fringes of society in the second millennium B.C.E., sometimes serving as mercenaries) and the Kashites (a Hittite people from Anatolia).

The Amarna Letters from Jerusalem have attracted substantial attention because of their dialect. It is normally argued that they are quite different in terms of cuneiform signs used, orthography, and syntax from the rest of the letters from Canaanite cities¾more sophisticated in certain ways, which may indicate the scribal culture at Jerusalem was of a particularly high quality.

The Amarna Letters from Jerusalem are of interest for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they come from Jerusalem a few centuries before King David would ostensibly vanquish the Canaanite (Jebusite) population of Jerusalem and make it his own capital (2 Samuel 5). Also, the correspondence with a Jerusalem ruler in the 14th century provides evidence for occupation in the city in a period (Late Bronze Age II) for which there is little archaeological evidence. Recently a fragment of an Akkadian tablet (now called “Jerusalem Tablet 1) was found in excavations at Jerusalem, and some scholars have claimed that this tablet contained some correspondence between a king of Jerusalem and a king of Egypt. But this tablet is ultimately too fragmentary to determine if it was a letter.  Among the most important things that these tablets demonstrate is that there was a vibrant and sophisticated scribal apparatus in Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age.  This Canaanite city was certainly not a backwater, but precisely the reverse.

Christopher Rollston, "Jerusalem in the Amarna Letters", n.p. [cited 19 Jan 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/jerusalem-in-the-amarna-letters

Contributors

Christopher Rollston

Christopher Rollston
Associate Professor, George Washington University

Christopher Rollston is an associate professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University.  He is a philologist and epigrapher of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean languages and works in more than a dozen ancient and modern languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, as well as Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, Ammonite, and Moabite. He is the author of several books, including Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (SBL,  2010).

An Egyptian archaeological site built by Akhenaten and notable for its cache of ancient diplomatic letters.

The Mesopotamian language, written on cuneiform, that was used by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

The region of Asia Minor, including modern Turkey, location of the Hittite Empire and Hittite-Luwian languages.

An ancient Near Eastern name for a class of lawless nomads. Despite the name, most modern scholars do not connect them to the Hebrews.

A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

The Egyptian sun god, who was particularly venerated by the monotheist King Akhenaten.

Ancient lower Mesopotamia, which for much of the second and first millenniums was the under the control of an empire centered in Babylon.

The stage of development during which humans used copper or bronze weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 3300 to 1200 B.C.E.

The capital of Egypt since 1168 CE, located near the ancient city of Memphis.

The writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, consisting of wedges pressed into clay.

A variant of a language, characteristic of a certain group of speakers.

Refers to the fringes worn on the corner of the garment (see Num 15:38, Deut 22:12).

Can refer to the Hittite people, the capital of the Hittite Empire (Hattusa), or the entire Hittite region.

The last part of the era during which humans used bronze weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1550 to 1200 B.C.E.

The kingdom of the Hurrian people in Anatolia (Asia Minor), which ruled the region around the 15th century B.C.E.

A sovereign head of state, usually a king or queen.

A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

A language's standardized system of spelling and written usage.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

Ruler or overlord.

A subordinate, often a king who is subject to a more powerful king or emperor.

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