The Tell El-Amarna Letters

By Tom Hamilton

Just like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Tell el-Amarna letters were discovered accidentally by a local resident. In 1887, an Egyptian peasant woman was digging in the ruins of el-Amarna for the nitrogen-rich soil that results from the decomposition of mud bricks used in ancient building sites. She came upon hundreds of clay tablets written in the T-shaped markings of Akkadian (or Babylonian) cuneiform, the language of Mesopotamia, instead of the hieroglyphic writing of Egypt.

The explanation for this linguistic curiosity, as well as the importance of the tablets themselves, lies in the history of el-Amarna. This is the modern designation for the ancient Egyptian capital Akhetaton, built by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (ca. 1369-1353 B.C.) some 200 miles south of modern Cairo on the east bank of the Nile. For a brief time in the fourteenth century B.C., this city was the center of the Egyptian government. Because cuneiform had become the language of international correspondence, much like English is today, this was the language used on official government correspondence sent to or received from other countries. There was even a school for scribes in Akhetaton to train them in cuneiform, and a few of the surviving clay tablets are not letters at all, but practice exercises for the scribes.

It is interesting to note the role Amenhotep IV and his capital city Anketaton played in Egyptian history. This pharaoh may be remembered as the husband of the famed Queen Nefertiti, his own sister, as well as being the pharaoh who imposed monotheism on the Egyptians in the form of worshiping the one and only sun god of Aton. This is why the capital city he built was named Akhetaton and also why he changed his own name to Akhenaton. His preoccupation with such internal religious reforms and a corresponding indifference to foreign affairs has often been cited as a cause of the deterioration of Egypt’s influence and control on the borders of her empire at this time, a situation which is widely reflected in the Amarna tablets. Upon Amenhotep’s untimely death, the powerful cult of the god Amon reasserted itself and Amenhotep’s attempted religious revolution failed, his capital city was destroyed and abandoned. The final victory of the Amon cult is seen in the change in name of Amenhotep’s son-in-law, from Tutankaton to the now famous Tutankamon.

Contents of the Amarna Tablets

Out of the 379 Amarna tablets that survive, 349 are official letters, presumably being just a fraction of the vast government archives that would have been kept at Akhetaton. These tablets are examples of the diplomatic correspondence of pharaohs Amenhotep III (ca. 1398-1361 B.C.) and Amenhotep IV (ca. 1369-1353 B.C.) with foreign kings of other nations or Egyptian officials and subjects in Palestine and Syria. About 40 of these tablets are letters between pharaoh’s court and the courts of nations on a comparatively equal footing with Egypt: Cyprus (biblical Elishah), Assyria, the Kassites of Babylonia, the Hurrians (biblical Horites) of Mitanni, and the Hittites of Hatti. The remaining 300 tablets were written by Canaanite scribes in Palestine, Phoenicia, and southern Syria, who wrote on behalf of either the regional vassal princes subject to Egypt or minor Egyptian administrative officials in these same areas. Over half of these tablets were written to or from Palestine itself, offering valuable insights into the economic, political, and military conditions in Palestine at this time.

The correspondence of Rib-Addi, vassal prince of Byblos, is the most extensive, comprising almost 70 of the tablets, and is also typical of the content of the letters. This ruler repeatedly writes to Amenhotep III urgently requesting military aid in defending himself against a renegade fellow vassal. Judging from the increasing urgency of the requests and the decreasing territory Rib-Addi controlled, it appears that the Egyptians were indifferent to the situation in Palestine and beyond. The inability or unwillingness of Egypt to support its far-flung empire only served to encourage more rivalry and instability in the region. The petty city-states engaged in constant political intrigue, internal feuding, and open aggression against one another.
Importance of the Amarna Tablets
The Amarna tablets have served to make the Amarna age one of the best known and most extensively documented periods of ancient history. These tablets reveal the period to be an unprecedented time of international diplomacy and of cultural exchange. Historians are able to glean many insights into the structure of the entire Fertile Crescent, from Mesopotamia to Egypt.

Likewise, students of the languages of the ancient world have also been able to learn a great deal from the Amarna tablets. While the predominant language of the tablets is Akkadian, and therefore very helpful to students of that language, the tablets also reflect elements of the Amorite, Egyptian, Hittite, Hurrian, and Canaanite languages. For the students of the Bible, knowledge of the Semitic language of the Canaanites helps to further scholarly understanding of the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written.

The final significance of the Amarna tablets depends upon their relationship to what the Old Testament has to say about this same time period. Unfortunately, there is no consensus among scholars, even “conservative” Bible scholars, as to what that relationship is. It is to this final question that we must now turn our attention.

Relationship of the OT to the Amarna Tablets

The Amarna tablets were the first documents to call scholars’ attention to a group of people called the Habiru (or ‘Apiru), whose name bears a striking similarity to the name “Hebrew.” This has led to much study and discussion of the possible connections between these two groups, or of the identification of the Habiru in the Amarna tablets as the Hebrews. In the Amarna tablets, the Habiru appear as nomadic marauders who are allied with one vassal prince against another. They are always spoken of in a derogatory manner, and it seems that the name Habiru itself was a pejorative term, at least as it is used in the Amarna tablets. Subsequent study has located references to these Habiru in Sumerian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, and Canaanite texts ranging from 2500 to 1200 B.C. In general, these people were viewed as politically, economically, and socially inferior troublemakers who easily abandoned legitimate activities and became roving bands of outlaws, raiding and pillaging for a living.

The whole Habiru-Hebrew problem is too complex to go into here, but it must be acknowledged that there might be a connection between the two, although it is unlikely that the two terms should be equated. It is more likely that some Hebrews would have been considered as Habiru, but not all Habiru would have been Hebrews. As the question relates to the Amarna tablets specifically, the question is whether the references to the Habiru in these tablets refer to the Hebrews. There are three basic approaches to this question: (1) The Habiru have no connection with the Hebrews because the Amarna tablets do not have any connection with biblical history. With the Hebrews under Jacob leaving Palestine for Egypt before the events of the Amarna tablets and the exodus occurring after the events of the Amarna tablets, these tablets describe a situation otherwise unknown in Palestine during the 430 years Israel was in Egypt. (2) The Habiru are the Hebrews, and the Amarna tablets are an archaeological confirmation of the occupation of Canaan under Joshua, describing the Canaanites’ viewpoint as Joshua and the Israelites conquer Canaan. (3) The Habiru may or may not refer to the Hebrews, because the Amarna tablets describe the situation in Palestine during the early period of the Judges. The Habiru may be Israelites fighting against their Canaanite oppressors, or they may be bands of outlaws referred to in Judges (9:3; 11:3). Obviously, the whole question comes down to how one dates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. If one adopts a fifteenth century date for the exodus, the Amarna tablets obviously describe conditions in Palestine after the exodus. If one adopts a thirteenth century date for the exodus, the Amarna tablets would describe the situation in Palestine while the Israelites were still in Egyptian bondage.

It is fair to say that those who adopt a thirteenth century date for the exodus (i.e., ca. 1290 B.C.) do so because of the weight they attribute to the archaeological evidence. For example, the nations of Moab and Edom, which Israel needed to circumvent (Num. 20-21), are asserted not to have existed before the thirteenth century. Additional archaeological excavations are thought to show appropriate destruction levels for the later date, or they fail to demonstrate evidence of either destruction or population for the earlier date. The only real biblical evidence adduced is the reference to the city Raamses in Exodus 1:11, suggesting a connection with Ramses II of the thirteenth century.

It should be obvious that the archaeological evidence is, at best, ambiguous and results in arguing from silence. More extensive excavations, additional discoveries, and more exact identifications of ancient sites might very well result in a modification of current views. In addition, it seems more difficult to fit the biblical evidence into a thirteenth century date for the exodus. It is hard to reconcile Moses’ long sojourn in the wilderness (Exod. 2:15-23) with the short reign of Seti I, if he is proposed as the pharaoh of the oppression. Likewise, it would appear that the pharaoh of the exodus drowned with his army (Exod. 14-15), while the proposed pharaoh of the exodus, Ramses II, lived for a very long time after the supposed date for the exodus. Finally, the testimony of 1 Kings 6:1 would place the exodus around 1440 B.C., and there doesn’t appear to be any compelling reason to take the numbers given in a figurative or accommodating way. The fifteenth century date for the exodus from Egypt and conquest of Palestine also allows time for the 300 years mentioned in Judges 11:26.
Even if we adopt a fifteenth century date for the exodus, it is difficult to correlate exactly the Amarna tablets with biblical history. We know that the Amarna tablets date from the reigns of Amenhotep III and IV, but we cannot be certain about the precise dates of their reigns and, therefore, their relation to Joshua or the judges. However, while the Amarna tablets often refer to an impending military threat and urgently appeal to Egypt to send help to her loyal subjects, the requests for reinforcements are small. Often it is thought that fifty men, or in one case as few as ten, were sufficient to reinforce the garrisons. This does not appear to describe sufficiently the threat Israel posed for the inhabitants of Palestine during the conquest under Joshua. However, during the early period of the judges, when Israel was divided, beset by foreign oppressors, and plagued by roving bands of outlaws, we see the same type of conditions described in the Amarna tablets. Perhaps the Amarna tablets give us insight into the enemy’s point of view during this period of biblical history.

Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p22  January 4, 2001