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The Amarna Letters, 14th century BCE

Date- 14th century BCE

Current Location- Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, Germany

Language and Script- Akkadian; cuneiform

Amarna Letter 1

Amarna Letter 2

Biblical Verses-

During his campaign through the land of Canaan, Joshua faced the same groups of chiefdoms as had been powerful two hundred years earlier, in the Amarna Period. Among them was the chiefdom of Jerusalem whose ruler, Adoni-Zedek, sends messages asking for military support, precisely in the fashion of ‘Abdi-Heba, his predecessor-

1When King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem learned that Joshua had captured Ai and proscribed it, treating Ai and its king as he had treated Jericho and its king, and that, moreover, the people of Gibeon had come to terms with Israel and remained among them, 2 he was very frightened. For Gibeon was a large city, like one of the royal cities—in fact, larger than Ai—and all its men were warriors. 3So King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem sent this message to King Hoham of Hebron, King Piram of Jarmuth, King Japhia of Lachish, and King Debir of Eglon- 4“Come up and help me defeat Gibeon; for it has come to terms with Joshua and the Israelites.”

5The five Amorite kings—the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, with all their armies—joined forces and marched on Gibeon, and encamped against it and attacked it.

(Joshua 10-1-5)

In one of his apocalyptic prophecies, Isaiah emphasises the ultimate goal of the future redemption as an ingathering of the Israelites to worship God in Jerusalem, His “holy mountain”-

13And in that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the LORD on the holy mount, in Jerusalem.

(Isaiah 27-13)

General Information-

• In the mid-14th century BCE, the Egyptian king Akhenaten moved his capital from Thebes to what is today el-Amarna, about 190 miles south of Cairo, building it on virgin soil and naming it Akhetaten. 380 tablets with cuneiform writing on them were discovered there, including 350 letters of correspondence between the Egyptian king and a variety of foreign rulers, both great and small. An analysis of these texts has provided a general picture of that period, revealing mounting pressures and conflict in the Levant, particularly in the border areas between the Egyptian and Hittite empires. The enmity between the two empires grew until the great Battle of Kadesh.

• Egypt maintained control over its empire in southwest Asia through a network of smaller Canaanite chiefdoms. Naturally, correspondence was necessary to keep the king up to date and for the local rulers to communicate their needs. Most of the letters are from the rulers of these Canaanite chiefdoms, including those of Byblos, Beirut, Sidon, Akko, Gezer, Ashkelon, Lakhish, and Jerusalem.

• This letter is one of six written by `Abdi-Heba, the ruler of Jerusalem (called Urusalim at that time). In it, he proclaims his loyalty to the king of Egypt and requests more troops to help protect him against his enemies. Since the locally powerful state of Amurru began shifting its allegiance away from Egypt toward the Hittites, alliances throughout Syro-Palestine underwent realignment, bringing new city-states into opposition.

Relevance to Ancient Israel-

• The Amarna Letters give us a unique, detailed view of Canaan in the era preceding the Israelites’ move into the area. The eventual stalemate between the Egyptian and Hittite empires at the end of the 13th century, along with the intrusions of the Sea Peoples, led to an overall weakening of power in the eastern Mediterranean basin. This allowed for small city-states to expand their local power and for outsiders, such as the Israelites, to settle and coalesce in the region.

• Nadav Na’aman of Tel Aviv University uses the Amarna Letters relating to the kingdoms of Jerusalem and Shechem to aid in constructing a fuller picture of the Israelite United Monarchy, an era some 300 years after the Amarna Period. The Late Bronze Age II kingdoms of Shechem and Jerusalem, the two most dominant in the central hill territories of Israel at the time, carried on correspondence with their overlord, the Egyptian Pharaoh. From those letters we learn of the extent of their local power. The testimony of the Amarna Letters of Jerusalem’s importance is very surprising because the archaeological evidence is almost completely nonexistent! But, in comparison to the letters of the ruler of Shechem and its substantial archaeological remains, it is clear that Jerusalem must have been similarly built up.

• Moving forward to the time of the United Monarchy at the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE, we find the same paucity of archaeological evidence in Jerusalem, but, again, we have textual evidence to fill the gap. The Bible informs us of the existence of a scribal tradition during the United Monarchy, implying a bureaucracy of a sizable state, much like what must have been the case with the scribes who wrote the Jerusalem portion if the Amarna Letters. Combining that evidence with the quite significant growth in the number of inhabited sites in the area during the Iron Age when compared to the Late Bronze Age II, there certainly must have been a powerful local stronghold in Jerusalem in the Iron Age from which the central hill territories were ruled.

Na’aman had to go to such lengths of deduction because, unfortunately, no one has found much archaeological remains in Jerusalem from either era. But, when looking at the facts on the ground there, we realize that such an expectation is unrealistic, for three reasons- 1) there are long periods of uninterrupted occupation during which the inhabitants reused the same materials; 2) unique to Jerusalem, the city was continuously rebuilt down to the hillside bedrock for architectural stability (just as in Manhattan); 3) most of the ancient city from the Late Bronze Age II through Iron Age IIA is underneath the Temple Mount and cannot be excavated. These facts leave us with only textual and indirect evidence from other sites to rely on, along with the hope that some structures may be found in the future that were built on top of rather than torn down and replaced.

Circumstances of Discovery and Acquisition- The Amarna Letters were discovered by locals in 1887. During later excavations more tablets were found, the latest in 1979. Next to the king’s main palace in the central city lies a series of scribal offices. Near one, a brick was found stamped with the words, “place of the Pharaoh’s correspondence”–the royal archive where these tablets were stored! More than 300 tablets have been in the hands of private collectors and antiquities dealers, but most have made their ways into museum collections. Main holders of the Amarna Letters include the British Museum, Egyptian Museum of Cairo, and Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum, where the Jerusalem letters reside.

See also-

The Amarna Project

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