The Amarna Letters: A View From The Other Side

The Amarna Letters (along with later Hittite letters from the same era) provide an unusual perspective on events that were once familiar to every schoolboy and are still a subject of considerable interest to me personally (and I hope to many others as well).  For those who are not familiar with these works, they introduce a quirky perspective into a variety of intriguing historical problems, including international relations (where they seem to support a realist view of international relations) and the fragile nature of international diplomacy.  That diplomatic (and military history) are fields of great personal interest ought to be a familiar fact to any reader of this blog.

Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that these archives provide a fascinating glimpse into the “other side” of two immense problems and interrelated problems in ancient history.  One of these enigmas is the place of ancient Israel in the historiography of the Late Bronze Age, and the other is the place of ancient Greece.  As it would happen, these two problems share a common “even and odd” solution.  It is the purpose of this blog not to provide a definitive solution to this problem (that would take a book, and would require an interested publisher), but rather to provide a glimpse at some of the relevant historiography as well as a glimpse at a likely solution.

First I would like to provide the texts from which my judgments draw from, so that any who wish to “check my sources” may be able to do so.  The relevant primary source documents (in translation) are:  The Amarna Letters, edited and translated by William L. Moran, published by The John Hopkins University Press in 1992; Hittite Diplomatic Texts, edited by Gary Beckman, published by Scholars Press in 1999; and the Penguin Classics translation of The Illiad.  Some useful secondary sources are:  Amarna Diplomacy:  The Beginnings of International Relations, edited by Raymond Cohen and Raymond Westbrook, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 2000; The Kingdom of The Hittites, by Trevor Bryce, published by Oxford University Press in 2005, Barry Straus’ The Trojan War:  A New History, published by Simon & Schuster in 2006.  I refer the reader to those works.

When ‘Apiru Attack

As someone who believes in the early Exodus date, during the 1440’s BC, and in the “traditional” chronology that the Exodus occurred at around the period just after the reign of Thutmose III, the Amarna Letters provide a very strange sort of synchronicity between biblical history and its near cousin of Egyptology.  The Amarna Letters were written mostly during the reign of Akhenaton, a mysterious ancient monotheist.  Without getting into too much detail, the synchronicity between the Bible and these letters is on multiple levels:  the monotheism of the “heretic king” was quite possibly influenced by Israelite monotheism and the traumatic events of the Exodus, the Amarna Letters themselves appear to provide a view of the Israelite “conquest” of the Promised Land under Joshua from the point of view of the Canaanite rulers themselves, and the survival of this amazing collection (given its precise importance as corroborating evidence of the Bible) is itself providential in nature.

When one examines the Joshua account alongside the Amarna Letters, one finds a very curious connection between the two.  This fitting together of the pieces in such a matter assumes that the ‘Apiru, however generalized a term of insult as it may have been during the time, actually refers to the “Hebrews” led by God into the Promised Land.  This analysis therefore considers the term ‘Apiru and its use as a slur, to be an early example of anti-Semitism in world history, a sign that from the beginning of Israel’s existence as a people it was hated by corrupt and wicked societies around them.  What we also see, though, is that Israel was itself aided by the existence of surprising allies.

For one, we find that the ‘Apiru were a decentralized set of brigands and irregulars (in the eyes of the Canaanites), and that they had the support of the exploited lower classes of Canaanite cities (as one would expect from a biblical perspective, given the Bible’s egalitarian ethos).  The ‘Apiru also had some allies.  Some of these allies are at least implied in scripture (namely Shechem, which opposed an alliance of Hazor and Tyre during this time period in what appears to be a mirror image of Joshua’s Northern Campaign).  Additionally, the ‘Apiru are said to have killed some of the kings of Canaanite cities, like the king of Jerusalem (a confirmation of the result of Joshua’s Southern campaign).

The people of Israel, though, appear to have had allies that were not mentioned in scripture, at least not entirely directly.  For one, the Apiru appear to have allied with the kings of Damascus and Amurru against their rivals.  These diplomatic intrigues are not listed in the Bible, though the conquests of the Apiru in the area of Sidon and Byblos are mentioned briefly in scripture, part of a pincer movement against Egypt’s allies in the region.  Intriguingly enough, Israel appears to have been the ally (whether implicit or open) of the Hittites in this way.

As the Hittites are one of the most notable, if mysterious, empires of the ancient world, it is worth at least mentioning some of the forgotten connections between the Hittites and the world of the Bible.  For one, there are some intriguing parallels between Hittite literature and the Bible.  The Ten Commandments are framed in the general form of a sovereign-vassal treaty, and other treaties (like that of Jacob and Laban) are framed as parity covenants (with the feasting).  In fact, our traditional wedding, with its feast afterwards, is itself an ancient “parity covenant” that has survived into present times.  Second, the account of the fall of Saul and the rise of David as a legitimate monarch has an analogue in the Apology of Hattusili, which is a similar justification for the removal of a king and his replacement by a worthier ruler.  Also of interest is the fact that even as late as the Divided Kingdom period the nation of Israel was known (or thought) to have been on friendly terms with the Neo-Hittite kingdoms in Southern Anatolia (see, for example, 1 Kings 10:29 and 2 Kings 7:6).  The Hittites and the Israelites had a closer tie than is often realized by students of ancient history.

At any rate, the fact that the Amarna Letters provide a picture of the squabbling Canaanite kings plotting for their own advantage while facing the partial/gradual conquest of the Israelites is something which all students of ancient history can enjoy.  For one, we see that the Bible’s perspective of Israel as the people of God was not the perspective that Israel’s neighbors saw in the “barbarian” tribes that harassed them and burned their cities and killed their kings and led their own exploited lower classes to revolt.  Israel’s presence as a godly people was a direct threat to the corrupt aristocracies of their neighbors, a fact that we ought to remember if we seek to emulate the biblical worldview and perspective.

On The Margins

The other particularly interesting enigma involves the people of Mycenaean Greece, known in the Amarna tablets (and Hittite documents) as the kingdom of Arzawa, whose marginal position as a great power depended on their possession of Anatolian territory.  The Hittite documents portray them as a very ferocious foe with major territorial ambitions along the Aegean coast, with several attacks on the Hittite ally of Wilusa, better known to us as the city of Troy.

The general historicity of the Illiad has been confirmed by Hittite sources from the other side, where an increasingly harassed Hittite Empire, facing warfare with its enemies the Egyptians and Assyrians (again, longtime enemies of the Israelites as well), was unable to protect its allies in Asia Minor to the degree it would have preferred, especially as it was dealing with barbarian Kaska (Phrygian) tribes that eventually sacked their capital.  The fact that the Arzawans had problem with sacking a mere client state of the Hittites suggests they were not really in the same league as the other “Great Powers” at the time, but they certainly gave it a brave effort, before collapsing themselves.

The Arzawans appear as a marginal but ambitious power in the Amarna letters.  For one, they do not speak the Mesopotamian language of diplomacy (Akkadian), and so Arzawa communicated with Egypt in Hittite, a language it apparently understood better.  Additionally, the Amarna letters show the Mycenaean king somewhat reluctant to part with his daughter for her to be a wife of the Pharaoh.  Perhaps the incident over Helen of Troy was a general sign of the possessiveness of ancient Greek men towards the women in their life rather than the exception to the rule, a possessiveness that would survive in the Greek culture for many centuries in very extreme form.

It is also striking that in their first, shadowy, appearance in world history, that the Greek and Israelites were on opposite sides.  The Israelites were within the camp of nations generally friendly to the Hittites and generally hostile to the Egyptians, and the Greeks were hostile to the Hittites and friendly with Egypt.  The religious and political implications of these alignments would be longlasting, as the Greeks would later seek to oppress the true faith with a morally debased Hellenism, and would rule over Egypt and blend their beliefs with those of Egypt.  Already, even in the ancient world, the Egyptians had borrowed from Mesopotamia and passed on those beliefs and practices to the Greeks.


It is striking that we have surviving historical accounts from both sides of the Trojan War and the conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites.  For whatever reason, though, these parallels are not always recognized.  For one, the Bible and the Illiad are part of a larger context of works, and the differences in perspective are instructive.  We learn more about the implications of the Hebrew and Greek worldview by examining them in light of the larger historical record.  We see the biblical worldview more clearly as being hostile to corrupt and authoritarian petty rulers and their arrogant Egyptian master (a lesson many people who feign obedience to the Bible fail to understand and appreciate), and we see the Greek susceptibility to heathen religious beliefs, difficulty in accepting other cultures, as well as possessiveness towards women.  It truly is intriguing and worthwhile to view history from the perspective of the “other side,” as it were.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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