1. Name

2. Discovery

3. Physical Character


1. Peculiar Cuneiform Script

2. Method of Writing Proper Names


1. Knowledge of Amorite, Hittite and Mitannian Tongues

2. Persistence of Canaanite Names to the Present Time

3. Verification of Biblical Statements concerning "the Language of Canaan"


1. Political and Ethnological Lines and Locations

2. Verification of Biblical and Egyptian Geographical Notices

3. Confirmation of General Evidential Value of Ancient Geographical Notes of Bible Lands


1. Revolutionary Change of Opinion concerning Canaanite Civilization in Patriarchal Times

2. Anomalous Historical Situation Revealed by Use of Cuneiform Script

3. Extensive Diplomatic Correspondence of the Age

4. Unsolved Problem of the Habiri


A collection of about 350 inscribed clay tablets from Egypt, but written in the cuneiform writing, being part of the royal archives of Amenophis III and Amenophis IV; kings of the XVIIIth Egyptian Dynasty about 1480 to 1460 BC. Some of the tablets are broken and there is a little uncertainty concerning the exact number of separate letters. 81 are in the British Museum = BM; 160 in the New Babylonian and Assyrian Museum, Berlin= B; 60 in the Cairo Museum = C; 20 at Oxford = O; the remainder, 20 or more, are in other museums or in private collections.

I. Introduction.

1. Name:

The name, Tell el-Armarna, "the hill Amarna," is the modern name of ancient ruins about midway between Memphis and Luxor in Egypt. The ruins mark the site of the ancient city Khut Aten, which Amenophis IV built in order to escape the predominant influence of the old religion of Egypt represented by the priesthood at Thebes, and to establish a new cult, the worship of Aten, the sun's disk.

2. Discovery:

In 1887 a peasant woman, digging in the ruins of Tell el-Amarna for the dust of ancient buildings with which to fertilize her garden, found tablets, a portion of the royal archives. She filled her basket with tablets and went home. How many she had already pulverized and grown into leeks and cucumbers and melons will never be known. This time someone's curiosity was aroused, and a native dealer secured the tablets. Knowledge of the "find" reached Chauncey Murch, D.D., an American missionary stationed at Luxor, who, suspecting the importance of the tablets, called the attention of cuneiform scholars to them. Then began a short but intense and bitter contest between representatives of various museums on the one hand, eager for scientific material, and native dealers, on the other hand, rapacious at the prospect of the fabulous price the curious tablets might bring. The contest resulted in the destruction of some of the tablets by ignorant natives and the final distribution of the remainder and of the broken fragments, as noted at the beginning of this article. (see also Budge, History of Egypt, IV, 186). After the discovery of the tablets the site of the ancient city was excavated by Professor Petrie in 1891-92 (Tell el-Amarna; compare also Baedeker, Egypt).

3. Physical Character:

The physical character of the tablets is worthy of some notice. They are clay tablets. Nearly all are brick tablets, i.e. rectangular, flat tablets varying in size from 2 X 2 1/2 in. to 3 1/2 X 9 inches, inscribed on both sides and sometimes upon the edges. One tablet is of a convex form (B 1601). The clay used in the tablets also varies much. The tablets of the royal correspondence from Babylonia and one tablet from Mitanni (B 153) are of fine Babylonian clay. The Syrian and Palestinian correspondence is in one or two instances of clay which was probably imported from Babylonia for correspondence, but for the most part these tablets are upon the clay of the country and they show decided differences among themselves in color and texture: in some instances the clay is sandy and decidedly inferior. A number of tablets have red points, a kind of punctuation for marking the separation into words, probably inserted by the Egyptian translator of the letters at the court of the Pharaoh. These points were for the purpose of assisting in the reading. They do now assist the reading very much. Some tablets also show the hieroglyphic marks which the Egyptian scribe put on them when filing them among the archives. The writing also is varied. Some of the tablets from Palestine (B 328, 330, 331) are crudely written. Others of the letters, as in the royal correspondence from Babylonia, are beautifully written. These latter (B 149-52) seem to have been written in a totally different way from the others; those from Western Asia appear to have been written with the stylus held as we commonly hold a pen, but the royal letters from Babylonia were written by turning the point of the stylus to the left and the other end to the right over the second joint of the first finger.

The results of the discovery of the Tell el-Amarna Letters have been far-reaching, and there are indications of still other benefits which may yet accrue from them. The discovery of them shares with the discovery of the Code of Hammurabi the distinction of the first place among Biblical discoveries of the past half-century.

II. Epigraphical Value

1.Peculiar Cuneiform Script:

The peculiar use of the cuneiform method of writing in these tablets in order to adapt it to the requirements of a strange land having a native tongue, and the demands made upon it for the representation of proper names of a foreign tongue, have already furnished the basis for the opinion that the same cuneiform method of writing was employed originally in other documents, especially some portions of the Bible and much material for Egyptian governmental reports. It is not improbable that by means of such data furnished by the tablets definite clues may be obtained to the method of writing, and by that also approximately the time of the composition, of the literary sources that were drawn upon in the composition of the Pentateuch, and even of the Pentateuch itself (compare especially Naville, Archaeology of the Bible).

2. Method of Writing Proper Names:

Most of the letters were probably written by Egyptian officers or, more frequently, by scribes in the employ of native appointees of the Egyptian government. The writing of so many proper names by these scribes in the cuneiform script has thrown a flood of light upon the spelling of Canaanite names by Egyptian scribes in the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Egypt. It is evident now that certainly some, perhaps most, of these scribes worked from cuneiform lists (Muller, Egyptological Researches, 1906, 40). As the system of representation of Palestinian names by Egyptian scribes becomes thus better understood, the identification of more and more of the places in Palestine named in the Egyptian inscriptions becomes possible. Every such identification makes more nearly perfect the identification of Biblical places, the first and most important item in historical evidence.

III. Philologlcal Value.

1. Knowledge of Amorite, Hittite and Mitannian Tongues:

No other literary discovery, indeed, not all the others together, have afforded so much light upon philological problems in patriarchal Palestine as the Tell el-Amarna Letters. Something is now really definitely known of "the language of Canaan," the speech of the people of patriarchal days in Palestine. The remarkable persistence of old Canaanite words and names and forms of speech of these tablets down to the present time makes it plain that the peasant speech of today is the lineal descendant of that of Abraham's day. The letters are in the Babylonian tongue modified by contact with the speech of the country, a kind of early Aramaic (Conder, The Tell Amarna Tablets, X; Dhorme, "La langue de Canaan," Revue Biblique, Juillet, 1913, 369). There are also frequent Canaanite words inserted as glosses to explain the Babylonian words (Dhorme, op. cit.).

2. Persistence of Canaanite Names to the Present Time: The facts evinced by the persistence of the early Canaanite speech (compare 1, above) down through all the centuries to the peasant speech of Palestine of today furnishes a verification of the Biblical reference to the "language of Canaan" (lsa 19:18). That peasant speech is, as it manifestly has always been since patriarchal times, a Semitic tongue. Now, even so adventurous a work as a grammar of the ancient Canaanite language has been attempted, based almost entirely upon the material furnished by the Tell el-Amarna Letters (Dhorme, op. cit.), in which the speech of Palestine in patriarchal days is described as "ancient Canaanite or Hebrew."

3. Verification of Biblical Statements concerning "the Language of Canaan":

Some more specific knowledge is also supplied by the Tell el-Amarna Letters concerning the Amorite language through the many Amorite names and the occasional explanations given in Amorite words (compare especially the 50 letters of Ribadda), and some knowledge of Hittite (Letter of Tarkhundara; Conder, The Tell Amarna Tablets, 225 f), concerning the Mitannian tongue (B 153, 190, 191, 233). One other tablet (B 342) is in an unknown tongue.

IV. Geographical Value.

1. Political and Ethnological Lines and Locations

There was a very wide international horizon in the days of the correspondence contained in the Tell el-Amarna Letters, a horizon that enclosed Egypt, Babylonia, Canaan, Mitanni and the land of the Hittites; but the more definite geographical information supplied by the tablets is limited almost entirely to the great Syrian and Canaanite coast land. There is difference of opinion concerning the identification of a few of the places mentioned, but about 90 have been identified with reasonable certainty.

2. Verification of Biblical and Egyptian Geographical Notices

It is possible now to trace the course of the military operations mentioned in the Tell el-Amarna Letters with almost as much satisfaction as the course of a modern military campaign, and there is much verification also of Biblical and Egyptian geographical notices.

3. Confirmation of General Evidential Value of Ancient Geographical Notes of Bible Lands

The identification of such a large number of places and the ability thus given to trace the course of historical movements in that remote age are a remarkable testimony to the historical value of ancient records of that part of the world, for accuracy concerning place is of first importance in historical records.

V. Historical Value.

The Tell el-Amarna Letters furnish an amount of historical material about equal in bulk to one-half of the Pentateuch. While much of this bears more particularly upon general history of the ancient Orient, there is scarcely any part of it which does not directly or indirectly supply information which parallels some phase of Biblical history. It is not certain that any individual mentioned in the Bible is mentioned in these tablets, yet it is possible, many think it well established, that many of the persons and events of the conquest period are mentioned (compare 4 (1), below). There is also much that reflects the civilization of times still imperfectly understood, reveals historical events hitherto unknown, or but little known, and gives many sidelights upon the movements of nations and peoples of whom there is something said in the Bible.

1. Revolutionary Change of Opinion concerning Canaanite Civilization in Patriarchal Times

A revolutionary change of opinion concerning the civilization of patriarchal Palestine has taken place. It was formerly the view of all classes of scholars, from the most conservative, on the one hand, to the most radical, on the other, that there was a very crude state of civilization in Palestine in the patriarchal age, and this entirely independent of, and indeed prior to, any demand made by the evolutionary theory of Israel's history. Abraham was pictured as a pioneer from a land of culture to a distant dark place in the world, and his descendants down to the descent into Egypt were thought to have battled with semi-barbarous conditions, and to have returned to conquer such a land and bring civilization into it. All this opinion is now changed, primarily by the information contained in the Tell el-Amarna Letters and secondarily by incidental hints from Egyptian and Babylonian inscriptions now seen to support the high stage of civilization revealed in the Tell el-Amarna Letters (see ARCHAEOLOGY AND CRITICISM). The tablets make mention of " `capital cities,' `provincial cities,' `fortresses,' `towns,' and `villages' with `camps' and Hazors (or enclosures); while irrigation of gardens is also noticed, and the papyrus grown at Gebal, as well as copper, tin, gold, silver, agate, money (not, of course, coins) and precious objects of many kinds, mulberries, olives, corn, ships and chariots" (Conder, op. cit., 4).

The account of a bride's marriage portion from Mitanni reveals conditions farther north: "Two horses, and a chariot plated with gold and silver, and adorned with precious stones. The harness of the horses was adorned in like manner. Two camel litters appear to be next noticed, and apparently variegated garments worked with gold, and embroidered zones and shawls. These are followed by lists of precious stones, and a horse's saddle adorned with gold eagles. A necklace of solid gold and gems, a bracelet of iron gilt, an anklet of solid gold, and other gold objects follow; and apparently cloths, and silver objects, and vases of copper or bronze. An object of jade or jasper and leaves of gold. .... Five gems of `stone of the great light' (probably diamonds) follow, with ornaments for the head and feet, and a number of bronze objects and harness for chariots" (ibid., 188-89). The record of Thothmes III concerning booty brought from Palestine fully confirms this representation of the tablets (Birch, Records of the Past, 1st ser., II, 35-52; compare Sayce, Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions, 156-57).

The Babylonian inscriptions show that Abraham was a part of an emigration movement from the homeland to a frontier province, having the same laws and much of the same culture (Lyon, American Oriental Society Journal, XXV, 254; Barton, American Philosophical Proceedings, LII, number 209, April, 1913, 197; Kyle, Deciding Voice of the Monuments in Biblical Criticism, chapter xv). The Egyptian sculptured pictures make clear that the civilization of Palestine in patriarchal times was fully equal to that of Egypt (compare Petrie, Deshasheh, plural IV).

That these things of elegance and skill are not merely the trappings of "barbaric splendor" is manifest from the revelation which the Tell el-Amarna Letters make of ethnic movements and of influences at work from the great nations on either side of Canaan, making it impossible that the land could have been, at that period, other than a place of advanced civilization. Nearly all the tablets furnish most unequivocal evidence that Egypt had imperial rule over the land through a provincial government which was at the time falling into decay, while the cuneiform method of writing used in the tablets by such a variety of persons, in such high and low estate, implying thus long-established literary culture and a general diffusion of the knowledge of a most difficult system of writing, makes it clear that the civilization of Babylonia had been well established before the political power of Egypt came to displace that of Babylonia.

2. Anomalous Historical Situation Revealed by Use of Cuneiform Script

The displacement of Babylonian political power in Palestine just mentioned (1, above) points at once to a most remarkable historical situation revealed by the Tell el-Amarna Letters, i.e. official Egyptian correspondence between the out-lying province of Canaan and the imperial government at home, carried on, not in the language and script of Egypt, but in the script of Babylonia and in a language that is a modified Babylonian. This marks one step in the great, age-long conflict between the East and the West, between Babylonia and Egypt, with Canaan as the football of empires. It reveals--what the Babylonian inscriptions confirm--the long-preceding occupation of Canaan by Babylonia, continuing down to the beginning of patriarchal times, which had so given Canaan a Babylonian stamp that the subsequent political occupation of the land by Egypt under Thothmes III had not yet been able to efface the old stamp or give a new impression.

3. Extensive Diplomatic Correspondence of the Age

The extensive diplomatic correspondence between nations so widely separated as Egypt on the West, and Babylonia on the East, Mitanni on the North, and the Hittite country on the Northwest, is also shown by the Tell el-Amarna Letters. In addition to the large number of letters between Canaan and Egypt, there are quite a number of these royal tablets: letters from Kadashman Bell, or Kallima-Sin (BM 29784), and Burna-burias of Babylonia (B 149-52), Assur-uballidh of Assyria and Dusratta of Mitanni (B 150, 191-92, 233), etc. There seems at first sight a little pettiness about this international correspondence that is almost childish, since so much of it is occupied with the marriage of princesses and the payment of dowers, and the exchange of international gifts and privileges (Budge, History of Egypt, IV, 189-90). But one might be surprised at the amount of such things in the private correspondence of kings of the present day, if access to it could be gained. The grasping selfishness also revealed in these tablets by the constant cry for gold is, after all, but a less diplomatic and more frank expression of the commercial haggling between nations of today for advantages and concessions.

4. Unsolved Problem of the Habiri

The subject of greatest historical interest in Biblical matters presented by the Tell el-Amarna Letters is the great, unsolved problem of the Habiri. Unsolved it is, for while every writer on the subject has a very decided opinion of his own, all must admit that a problem is not solved upon which there is such wide and radical difference of opinion among capable scholars, and that not running along easy lines of cleavage, but dividing indiscriminately all classes of scholars.

(1) One view very early advanced and still strongly held by some (Conder, op. cit., 138-44) is that Habiri is to be read `Abiri, and means the Hebrews. It is pointed out that the letters referring to these people are from Central and Southern Palestine, that the Habiri had some relation with Mt. Seir, that they are represented as contemporaneous with Japhia king of Gezer, Jabin king of Hazor, and probably Adonizedek king of Jerusalem, contemporaries of Joshua, and that certain incidental movements of Israel and of the people of Palestine mentioned in the Bible are also mentioned or assumed in the tablets (Conder, op. cit., 139-51). In reply to these arguments for the identification of the Habiri with the Hebrews under Joshua, it may be noted that, although the letters which speak of the Habiri are all from Central or Southern Palestine, they belong to very nearly the same time as the very numerous letters concerning the extensive wars in the North. The distinct separation of the one set of letters from the other is rather arbitrary and so creates an appearance which has little or no existence in fact. Probably these southern letters refer to the same disturbances spreading from the North toward the South, which is fatal to theory that the Habiri are the Hebrews under Joshua, for these latter came in from the Southeast. The reference to Seir is obscure and seems rather to locate that place in the direction of Carmel (Conder, op. cit., 145). The mention of Japhia king of Gezer, and Jabin king of Hazor, does not signify much, for these names may be titles, or there may have been many kings, in sequence, of the same name. Concerning Adonizedek, it is diffcult to believe that this reading of the name of the king of Jerusalem would ever have been thought of, except for the desire to identify the Habiri with the Hebrews under Joshua. This name Adonizedek is only made out, with much uncertainty, by the unusual method of translating the king's name instead of transliterating it. If the name was Adonizedek, why did not the scribe write it so, instead of translating it for the Pharaoh into an entirely different name because of its meaning? The seeming correspondences between the letters and the account of the conquest in the Bible lose much of their significance when the greater probabilities raised in the names and the course of the wars are taken away.

(2) Against the view that the Habiri were the Hebrews of the Bible may be cited not only these discrepancies in the evidence presented for that view (compare (1), above), but also the very strong evidence from Egypt that the Exodus took place in the Ramesside dynasties, thus not earlier than the XIXth Dynasty and probably under Merenptah, the successor of Rameses II. The name Rameses for one of the store cities could hardly have occurred before the Ramesside kings. The positive declaration of Rameses II: "I built Pithom," against which there is no evidence whatever, and the coincidence between the Israel tablet of Merenptah (Petrie, Six Temples at Thebes, 28, pls. XIII-XIV) and the Biblical record of the Exodus, which makes the 5th year under Merenptah to be the 5th year of Moses' leadership (see MOSES), make it very difficult, indeed seemingly impossible, to accept the Habiri as the Hebrews of the conquest.

(3) Another view concerning the Habiri, strongly urged by some (Sayce, The Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments, 175 ff), is that they are Habiri, not `Abiri, and that the name means "confederates," and was not a personal or tribal name at all. The certainty that there was, just a little before this time, an alliance in conspiracy among the Amorites and others, as revealed in the tablets for the region farther north, gives much color to this view. This opinion also relieves the chronological difficulties which beset the view that the Habiri were the Biblical Hebrews (compare (2), above), but it is contended that this reading does violence to the text.

(4) Another most ingenious view is advanced by Jeremias (The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East, 341), that the name is Habiri, that "the name answers to the sounds of `Hebrews,' and that the names are identical," but that this name in the Tell el-Amarna Letters is not a proper name at all, but a descriptive word, as when we read of "Abraham the Hebrew," i.e. the "stranger" or "immigrant." Thus Habiri would be "Hebrews," i.e. "strangers" or "immigrants" (see HEBERITES; HEBREW), but the later question of the identification of these with the Hebrews of the Bible is still an open question.

(5) It may be that the final solution of the problem presented by the Habiri will be found in the direction indicated by combining the view that sees in them only "strangers" with the view that sees them to be "confederates." There were undoubtedly "confederates" in conspiracy against Egypt in the time of the Tell el-Amarna Letters. The government of Egypt did not come successfully to the relief of the beleaguered province, but weakly yielded. During the time between the writing of the tablets and the days of Merenptah and the building of Pithom no great strong government from either Egypt or Babylonia or the North was established in Palestine. At the time of the conquest there is constant reference made to "the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites," etc. Why are they so constantly mentioned as a group, unless they were in some sense "confederates"? It is not impossible, indeed it is probable, that these Hittites and Amorites and Perizzites, etc., Palestinian tribes having some kind of loose confederacy in the days of the conquest, represent the last state of the confederates," the conspirators, who began operations in the Amorite war against the imperial Egyptian government recorded in the Tell el-Amarna Letters, and, in the correspondence from the South, were called in those days Habiri, i.e. "strangers" or "immigrants." For the final decision on the problem of the Habiri and the full elucidation of many things in the Tell el-Amarna Letters we must await further study of the tablets by expert cuneiform scholars, and especially further discovery in contemporary history.

The Jerusalem letters of the southern correspondence present something of much importance which does not bear at all upon the problem of the Habiri. The frequently recurring title of the king of Jerusalem, "It was not my father, it was not my mother, who established me in this position" (Budge, History of Egypt, IV, 231-35), seems to throw light upon the strange description given of MELCHIZEDEK (which see), the king of Jerusalem in the days of Abraham. The meaning here clearly is that the crown was not hereditary, but went by appointment, the Pharaoh of Egypt having the appointing power. Thus the king as such had no ancestor and no descendant, thus furnishing the peculiar characteristics made use of to describe the character of the Messiah's priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews (7:3).


Conder, The Tell Amarna Tablets; Knudtzon, Die El-Amarna-Tafeln, in Heinrich's Vorderasiatische Bibliothek, II; Petrie, Tell el Amarna Tablets; idem, Syria and Egypt from the Tell el Amarna Letters; idem, Hist of Egypt; Jeremias, The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East.

M. G. Kyle

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