Tag Archives: Hittite treaty

Wiki Bibleleaks and the conquest of ancient israel

Parshat Mishpatim

The assault on secrecy led by wikileaks argues that transparency will better the world. This week Aljazeera published secret documents revealing the behind closed doors compromises Palestinian negotiators were prepared to make. It remains to be seen, whether such revelations will stymie or expedite the “peace process”. It’s the nature of leaks and otherwise esoteric information that interested parties will spin it to support previously held beliefs. It seems to me that ultimately, such information becomes, one of many useful data points which provide context for forming an enlightened opinion.  As a Rebbe once told me: Not everything that is thought should be written. Not everything that is written should be published and not everything that is published should be believed.

When in the 70’s I studied the Bible, I was intrigued by a growing field of academic research regarding the Exodus/Conquest. It is uncertain how roughly 1.8 million Israelites left Egypt (600,000 males over the age of 20 with an assumed 600,000 wives and 600,000 generation X-odus) without a trace and were sustained in the desert. Different theories were offered. The theory that was most intriguing to me was that a much smaller number of Israelites experienced the sojourn, slavery and ultimate Exodus from Egypt, but that these Israelites linked up with resident Canaanites who may or may not have been related to the Genesis narrative of the Patriarchs. These resident Canaanites were engaged in a social, political and cultural revolution against the established feudal system at precisely the same time the Israelites entered their Promised Land and the two groups mashedup.

According to this school of thought, these nascent Canaanite revolutionaries or outlaws referenced in the Armana Letters were called in Akkadian apiru/habiru meaning bandit, robber or raider. According to Carol Redmount (as recently as 1999) the apiru normally led a marginal and sometimes lawless existence on the fringes of settled society. She defines the various Apiru/Habiru as “a loosely defined, inferior social class composed of shifting and shifty population elements without secure ties to settled communities” who are referred to “as outlaws, mercenaries, and slaves” in ancient texts. In that vein, some modern scholars consider the Habiru to be more of a social designation than an ethnic or a tribal one.

A number of the Amarna letters—sent to pharaohs Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, his two successors from vassal kings in Canaan and Syria in the 14th century BC — mention the “Habiru”. These letters, written by Canaanite scribes in the cuniform-based Akkadian language, complain about attacks by armed groups who were willing to fight and plunder on any side of the local wars in exchange for equipment, provisions, and quarters.

Abdi-Heba, the Egyptian vassal ruler of Jerusalem in the Amarna period (mid-1330s BC), wrote a series of letters to the Egyptian king in which he complained about the activities of the “Habiru.” The Habiru were plundering the lands of the king.

Abdi-Heba wanted to know why the king was letting them behave in this way; why he was not sending archers to protect his, the king’s properties. If he did not send military help the whole land would fall to the Habiru. (see Wikapedia Habiru)

This theory (or leak) that links the ancient Hebrews to the apiru/habiru revolutionaries, always appealed to me because of my association of the word Ivri (עברי) with sin – Avera (עבירה). After all, in the eyes of his father and contemporaries, Abraham had committed the ultimate sin when he smashed his father’s idols. Abraham came from the other side of the tracks; the other side of the river MeEver HaNehar. He debunked the old accepted myths.

The concept of a dual narrative resonated with me because it explains an otherwise obscure phrase found in Deuteronomy 26:5 “Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean…” which is recited upon bringing the first fruits to the Temple and which our Rabbis chose to insert into the Passover Haggada based on the principle: begin the story with a derogatory comment, and conclude it with praise “matchilin b’gnut – u’msaaymim v’shevach” (Mishneh Pesachim 10).

In the beginning our fathers served idols; but now the Omnipresent One has brought us close to His service, as it is said: “Joshua said to all the people: Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel, `Your fathers used to live on the other side of the river – Terach, the father of Abraham and the father of Nachor, and they served other gods.

“And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river, and I led him throughout the whole land of Canaan. I increased his seed and gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. To Esau I gave Mount Seir to possess it, and Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt.” Passover Haggada

This insertion of the “beyond the river” text, seems to me to give credit and in any event, preserve an artifact of the Ivri-Habiru parallel narrative.

The paradigm shift that these Habiru and Exodus Israelis came up with, was that they took the accepted Hittite Vassal – King Suzerainty treaties and turned them on their head. The habiru treaties were between the outcasts and God.. rather than a king of flesh and blood. Their covenant rejected the caste system and subjugation of the king in favor of a God who cared for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. The Hittite King – Vassal Treaty empowered the King. The Hebrew Covenant empowered God and thereby rejected the local King… and all human kingship.

In early Israel there is a deliberate rejection of the rigid order that oppressed the poor to maintain the elite, and this rejection we may assume is nourished on the one hand by the history of state-slavery in Egypt and wilderness wandering, and on the other by the history of oppression remembered by those Canaanite serfs who came to be numbered among the Israelites. (Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea Delbert R. Hillers 1969 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
p. 80)

According to this approach, the Big Idea of the Hebrew Bible was less related to the One God and more related to the fact that this One God is the only authority that humankind is to serve. Man does not serve another man, but serves only God. This is why our liturgy, especially on Rosh Hashanah, emphasizes the kingship of God. God is our King and not man and therefore we are free, but also responsible for our actions.

The Hittite treaties all begin with a preamble-narrative whereby the King represents his long history with the vassal. This corresponds to the narrative of Genesis (creation, Patriarchs) and Exodus. These treaties follow a form that will be recognized by any student of the Bible and the treaty structure goes a long way in explaining the structure and form of the Hebrew Bible:

  • Preamble: Identifies the parties involved in the treaty
  • Prologue: Lists the deeds already performed by the Suzerain on behalf of the vassal
  • Stipulations: Terms to be upheld by the vassal for the life of the treaty
  • Provision for annual public reading: A copy of the treaty was to be read aloud annually in the vassal state for the purpose of renewal
  • Divine witness to the treaty: These usually include the deities of both the Suzerain and the vassal
  • Blessings if the stipulations of the treaty are upheld and curses if the stipulations are not upheld
  • Sacrificial Meal: Both parties would share a meal to show their participation in the treaty (see: Hittite Suzerainty Treaty Form)

While not universally accepted, I believe that the habiru conquest/revolution model provides an insight and introduces a perspective that is most revealing as we study the Bible. It contains within it truths that outlive the details of the theory.

It certainly provides an insight into the reaction of Samuel and God to the Israelites request for a King.

4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

 6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” Samuel I 8:4-9

So too, the Habiru/Covenant Theory gives us a unique insight into the commonly (mis)understood commandment to massacre the Seven Canaanite nations inhabiting the land of Canaan, prior to the conquest.

The first mention of this so-called “ethnic cleansing” provision, is found in Parshat Mishpatim, and appears not as a command, but a Divine promise.

See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD your God, and His blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. I will establish your borders from the Reed Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River. I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you. (Exodus 23: 20-33)

The emphasis is not on extermination of these peoples, but on not following the ways of the existing vassal states and kingdoms, of not making covenants with the rulers and of gradually, spreading the Habiru revolution. The conflict is not with the people that inhabit the land, but with the “petty monarchy and social stratification” that block the revolution. One scholar even suggests that “live in your land” Yoshev BeArtzeha, means not those who inhabit, but rather those who “rule”. Those who sit on the throne and seat of power… the “powers that be”. (The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition George E. Mendenhall, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973 pp 530-534)

Ultimately, the habiru-Hebrew rebellion is only a partial success; neither God nor the Hebrew nation overcome the resident cults and petty politics. Throughout the period of the Judges and Old Testament Prophets, the recurring problem is not of land conquest and racial purity, but of a failed rebellion against the mores and practices of the pagan religions and existing social structure. Just as the Hebrews compromise and ask Samuel for a King; such as all the other nations have, so too, they continue to assimilate the pagan practices and social stratification of the indigenous culture. Yehezkel Kaufman points out that by the end of Joshua’s life (Joshua13:1-6) “a new conception makes its appearance: “the remaining country”… a region that does not exist in the Land of Canaan of the Pentateuch. In “the remaining country” a new people is settled: the later Philistines…. Josh 23 contains the first mention of the conception of “the remaining peoples”. Here we meet, for the first time, the warning that, if the Israelites enter into relations with these remaining peoples, Jahweh will no longer (fulfill his promise to) expel them. By the time of the judges (Judges 2:11 – 3:6) the hope of completing the Conquest is entirely abandoned.” (The Biblical Account of the Conquest of Canaan, Yehezkel Kaufman, Magnes Press, Hebrew University 1953 pp 92-93)

Fast-forward to Maimonides’ code where the promise and law against the Seven Nations has become mute “Their memory has long since perished.” (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:4) Nowadays, the revolution is over… the Seven Nations no longer exist and war is no longer part of a revolution theology, it is simply against people; fellow human beings. As Maimonides writes: “War, whether a war of choice (milchemet hareshut) or a war of mitzvah, should not be waged against anybody until he is offered the opportunity of peace as [Deuteronomy 20:10] states: “when you approach a city to wage war against it, you must propose a peaceful settlement.” (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1)

So whether you buy into my Habiru revolution “leak” or not… the message of the Torah is clear… Give peace a chance and acknowledge that there is strong Biblical precedent for a “remaining country” and a “remaining people”… otherwise known as a two state solution.



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