The Hittites and the Old Testament

By Frederick Fyvie Bruce

Chapter 5


When we find Biblical references to the Hittite occupation of a considerable extent of territory north of Canaan, as in the passage already quoted from Josh. i. 4, we have a usage very similar to the Assyrian one. “From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites” would cover very well the territory which the Assyrians designated the land of the Khatti. The day has long since gone by when a scholar should express surprise at the mention of “the kings of the Hittites” in 2 Kings vii. 6 rather than of “the king of Judah, the real and near ally”.21 But it is obvious now that if Jehoram had indeed enlisted the aid of the Hittite kings, as the panic-stricken Syrians imagined, they might well flee. In point of fact, the Hittite states were at that time allied with the Damascene kingdom by reason of the Assyrian threat to both alike, so that the securing of their aid by Jehoram against Ben-hadad was highly unlikely; but men in a panic will believe anything.

But what of the Hittites who are enumerated as one of the peoples of Canaan? They appear in four parts of the land: (1) at Hebron, where they form the dominant population, the am ha|-āreş, in the time of Abraham, who is a resident alien among them (Gen. xxiii); (2) at Beersheba or thereabout in the time of Isaac, whose son Esau marries daughters of Heth (Gen. xxvi. 34); (3) possibly at Bethel, if this is a proper inference from the fact that the quisling Bethelite made his way to “the land of the Hittites” (Judg. i. 26); (4) at Jerusalem, to which Ezekiel, as we have seen, ascribes a mixed Hittite and Amorite foundation.

To these indications we may add the statement in Num. xiii. 29 that the Hittites were one of the peoples occupying the central mountain-ridge of Canaan. And we may note the interesting fact that as late as 711 B.C. an inscription of Sargon II records a revolt against the Assyrians by the Khatti of Ashdod (for the occasion cf. Isa. xx. 1).

One thing is certain: at no time known to us did the Hittite Empire itself extend into Canaan, much less as far south as Judah. The Canaanite Hittites are not so called because they belonged either to that empire or to the Hittite states which succeeded it.

The use of the word Khatti with reference to the population of Ashdod may simply be the result of the loose Assyrian fashion of denoting Syria in general as “the land of the Khatti”, though this is not the only possible explanation. But the Biblical references to the Hittites as one among several peoples of Canaan can hardly be set down as imitation of Assyrian usage.

The narrative of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah in Gen. xxiii is by the Wellhausenist analysis ascribed to the post-exilic Priestly Code, though the ascription has been questioned. We do not discuss this matter here, but it is to be emphasized that, whatever date be given to the narrative in its final form, its essential antiquity and accuracy must be acknowledged. “The story,” says S. H. Hooke, “has every appearance of being an ancient tradition. The details of the sale conform accurately to the technical style of the numerous Babylonian and Assyrian contract tablets which have been discovered in the course of excavating many Mesopotamian city sites. The purchase price is weighed, as was customary at a time when coinage had not yet made its appearance.” 22

Professor Hooke goes on to say, however: “The principal historical difficulty is the mention of Hittites as occupying Hebron in the time of Abraham.” 23 He suggests that we have here an anachronism, the writer having projected into the past the conditions of a later time. Now, there is nothing to be surprised at in this suggestion; a writer of the present day might similarly say that the Scots opposed Agricola’s advance in North Britain in A.D. 84, overlooking for the moment the fact that there were no Scots in those parts until the fifth century.

Emil Forrer added another argument in two articles on “The Hittites in Palestine” which appeared in the Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement for 1936 and 1937. He connected the presence of Hittites in Palestine with a passage in an inscription of Mursilis II in 1331 B.C. which implies that about twenty years previously certain rebel subjects of the Hittite king escaped as fugitives to Egyptian territory and were allowed by the Egyptians to settle in part of the Egyptian Empire—according to Forrer, in the sparsely populated hill-country of Judah.

However this might be, if these were the first Hittites in Palestine, the placing of them there in Abraham’s day remains an anachronism. But there is more to say.

A further suggestion is that “Hittites” is a general term by which the Old Testament writers denoted the non-Semitic populations of Canaan, and that the Canaanite Hittites are really the people whom we now call Hurrians.24 The Hurrians who, as we have seen, entered Upper Mesopotamia from the north about the same time as the Indo-European Hittites came into Asia Minor, spread farther westward, and so many of them entered Canaan that one of the Egyptian words for Canaan was Khûru (Hurrian-land). That there were Hurrians in Canaan in Abraham’s time is certain. And if we could take Ezekiel’s account of the origin of Jerusalem to mean that it was a joint Amorite and Hurrian foundation, we should immediately have an illuminating commentary on the name of Puti-khepa, governor of the city in the Amarna Age, whose name means “Servant of the (Hurrian) goddess Khepa",25 But on the other hand we must remember the possibility, to put it no higher, that another native of Canaanite Jerusalem, Araunah the Jebusite (perhaps the Jebusite king who accepted David’s over lordship),26 has a name which can plausibly be identified with Hittite arawanis (“freeman”, “noble”)—the only Old Testament character for whose name a Hittite etymology can be offered that is anything like convincing.27

It is no doubt owing to the presence in Canaan of the Hurrians, whose ruling stock was of Aryan linguistic origin, that we find Aryan names in Canaan round about this time, similar to those which appear in the list of kings of Mitanni and of the Kassite kings of Babylonia.28 The theory which finds in these Hurrians the solution of the problem of the Canaanite Hittites is very attractive; and some place must in any case be allowed to the possibility of confusion in the record between Hittites and Hurrians. The Hivites of the Old Testament were either Hurrians pure and simple, or else a particular branch of the Hurrians.29 Now, in Gen. xxvi. 34, Elon, one of Esau’s fathers-in-law, who is called a Hittite in the Massoretic Hebrew, appears as a Hivite in the LXX and Samaritan texts. Contrariwise, “the Hivite under Hermon” in Josh. xi. 3 appears in the LXX as “the Hittites” (τοὺς Χετταίους).

But despite some confusion of the two peoples in the textual tradition, the Hittites and the Hivites are regularly differentiated in the list of the peoples of Canaan (Ex. iii. 8 and some sixteen other places).

The fact is, that when the Hurrians came into Palestine, they were not unaccompanied by other northerners. The migration of both Hurrians and Hittites into Canaan was part of a wide movement, and is to be connected with the southward advance of the Hyksos, the “rulers of foreign lands”, as the Egyptians called them. These Hyksos and their followers, before invading Egypt about 1720 B.C., established their supremacy in Canaan— a supremacy which has left archaeological traces in the distinctive enclosure with rampart-fortifications of terre pisée which the Hebrews called hăşērīm (Deut. ii. 23).30

The Hyksos princes were mostly of Semitic origin, if we may judge by their names (e.g., their leader in the invasion of Egypt bore, according to Manetho, the name Salatis, a Semitic word meaning “ruler”, cognate with Sultan). Yet some of them, like Khian, had decidedly non-Semitic names.31 And their followers were a mixed multitude, including Hittites (probably both Proto-Hittites and Indo-European Hittites), Luwians, Hurrians, and Aryans, as well as Semites;32 and in this mixed multitude the roving bands known as Khabiru were no doubt also represented.

Abraham’s date may be inferred by comparing Gen. xiii. 18 and xxiii. 2 ff. with Num. xiii. 22. According to the last passage, “Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt”; and according to the Genesis passages, Hebron existed in Abraham’s time. The foundation of Zoan (i.e. Tanis or Avaris) referred to in Num. xiii. 22 is doubtless its foundation by the Hyksos about 1720 B.C.33 A date towards the end of the eighteenth century B.C. for Abraham’s arrival in Canaan is therefore indicated, and in view of what has just been said, the presence of Hittites in South Canaan at that time cannot be called an anachronism.

21 Quoted by Sayce, The Hittites (4th ed., 1925), p. 11.

22 In the Beginning, Clarendon Bible vi. (1947), pp. 92 f.

23 Op. cit., p. 93.

24 E. A. Speiser, Mesopotamian Origins (1930), pp. 134f.; J. Paterson, in Studia Semitica et Orientalia ii. (Glasgow, 1945), p. 101.

25 The Semitic names given to early rulers of Jerusalem, Melchizedek (Gen. xiv. 18), and Adonizedek (Josh. x. 1), would derive from the Amorite element in the city’s population.

26 His name is variously given as Awarnah, Arawnah, and Aranyah in 2 Sam. xxiv. 16 ff., and is glossed ham-melekh, “the king,” in ver. 23.

27 Sayce attempted to find a Hittite etymology for Ephron in Gen. xxiii. (JTS. xxix. [1928], p. 405) and suggested that it was equivalent to Hittite khipparas, which he rendered “freeholder”. “Ephron, ‘the Freeholder,’ was thus absolute master of the property which he sold to Abraham.” (But Sturtevant’s Hittite Glossary, p. 50, gives khipparas the meaning “captive”!) Ephron’s father Zohar, Sayce thought, bore a name equivalent to zukharu of the Assyro-Cappadocian tablets, a word denoting the “boy” or “agent” of the Assyrian merchants. This may be ignored, but his further remark is noteworthy, that the Biblical writer in Gen. xxiii. 16 f. repeats the technical language of the contract tables found at Kül-tepe and Kirkuk.

28 In Syria and Palestine we find such Aryan names as Shuwardata, Artamanya, Shubandu, Piridashwa, Indaruta.

29 “Possible is also the assumption of a Horite subdivision known as the Hiwwites, whose name supplanted the more general designation [Horites] on account of complications arising through popular etymology” (E. A. Speiser, Ethnic Movements [1933]. p. 30).

30 E. A. Speiser concludes that “the Avvim who dwelt in enclosures (hăşe|rim)” (Deut. ii. 23) “represented aHyksos group” (Ethnic Movements, p. 31).

31 Speiser, Ethnic Movements, p. 48.

32 Speiser, Ethnic Movements, pp. 34, 51; T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins (1936), p. 5; J. Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (1946), p. 125.

33 W. F. Albright discussed the date of Abraham in the Journal of the Society of Oriental Research x. (1926), pp. 231-69. An earlier date might be suggested if we accept the attractive identification of the campaign of Gen. xiv with the destruction of the Bronze Age civilization of Transjordan dated by Nelson Glueck around 1900 B.C.; but an accommodation between the two datings may yet be reached.


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