Fun fact about the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land

Ever wondered if there was evidence for the activities of the Israelites outside the Bible during the time they were heading into the Promised Land?

There’s lots of disagreement but the Israelites started heading into Canaan anywhere from 1400 to 1260 BC.

But here’s a fun thing – the Amarna letters were discovered by archaeologists in the late 19th century. They were tablets containing diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and Canaan written between about 1360-1322BC. There’s over 300 of them and 16 of them mention a group of people in Canaan called the ‘apiru (or habiru in the Akkadian language of Assyria and Babylon). Sound familiar? Sounds like Hebrew right? Don’t get too excited too soon – its not that easy.


The ‘apiru were mercenaries and nomads who posed a threat to the Canaanite states (according to the Amarna letters). But they had been known throughout the ancient world before this – the Sumerians (modern day Iraq) had written of them 500 hundred years earlier. This is well before the Israelites were on the move from Egypt with the exodus. And they were known in lots of other areas.

What scholars now think may have happened is that ‘apiru/habiru didn’t describe a single ethnic group but was a slang term to describe landless mercenaries, troublesome migrants and so on throughout that whole ancient world.

So while it seems that not all ‘apiru were Hebrews (but described lots of different groups and peoples), all Hebrews could well have been ‘apiru. It could well be that the Hebrews, as a people that were a cohesive ethnic people that gradually took over the area, the name became synonymous with them rather than the general descriptor it had been.

The picture of Amarna Canaan [that is, the part of Canaan that was ruled remotely by Egypt] that emerges is that of kinglets ruling precisely those cities that the Israelites are recorded as not having conquered under Joshua. Meanwhile, the Hapiru, whom the other kinglets regard as a common enemy, can in this context be identified with the Israelites.”*

Little things like this excite all my history nerd vibes. But it also twangs my Bible reading strings as well. When I read the book of Joshua, it helps me to see the real picture emerging of a real historical people, harrying and annoying the resident kings and city states.

This is not long lost mythology of a people who may or may not have existed. This was the real history we see in the Bible that sits in our hands right now.

*Mark Chavalas and Murray Adamthwaite, quoted in Iain Orovan, V. Philips Long and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (2nd Edition) 2015, p230-231

One thought

  1. Thanks for sparking interest in these under-read chapters of the Bible! They are not only historically true, but relevant to us today, especially the pattern of how the Hebrews did lip service to the LORD but did not really follow His directions when conquering these lands (or in their worship practices). Sometimes they were to wipe out all the people and animals, other times they could keep some of the spoil. Behind the tailored instructions was a merciful God trying to teach them (and us) not only how seeds of spiritual corruption (and in some cases also biological degradation) can infect and destroy, but also how we should always trust and obey Him even when we dont currently see the reasons.

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