Overlapping Truths

Gary A. Byers

What happens when you compare a biblical account, ancient letters and archaeological data? If you’re studying the book of Judges, cuneiform tablets, and the ruins of Shechem, you’ll find some surprising connections.

The Hebrews and the Shechemites: The Biblical Account

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In the biblical account, the Hebrew people had a relationship with the Shechemites that went back to the time of Jacob (Gen 33). In Judges, the saga continues when Abimelech, a son of Gideon and his Shechemite concubine, aspires to leadership. Abimelech conspires with the Shechemites to kill all 70 of his brothers (Judg 9:5). “By the oak of the pillar,” Abimelech was even crowned as king in Shechem (9:6). But when the Shechemites resisted his leadership, Abimelech responded by destroying the city. This included burning “the stronghold of the house of El-berith” (9:46).

The Habiru of the Amarna Tablets

The most revealing archaeological contribution to our understanding of this episode comes from Egypt, not Israel, in the form of the Tell el-Amarna tablets. These cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets were used for diplomatic correspondence between the pharaohs and their vassal kings in Canaan. Among the 382 known tablets, 106 were written by vassal kings.

In these letters, the Canaanite rulers complained to Pharaoh about a people called Habiru. A major concern of the king of Gezer and the king of Jerusalem is the Habiru moving into the central mountains of Canaan. 1 Another reoccurring theme in the Amarna letters is the treachery of Labayhu, king of Shechem. 2 Both the king of Megiddo and the king of Jerusalem specifically accused Labayhu of working with the Habiru. 3

Numerous ancient Near Eastern texts from 1750–1150 BC mention people groups called Habiru (a generic term like “gypsy”). These references suggest that the Habiru were semi-nomadic tribal groups with kinship alliances, their own law system, and a penchant for invading settled areas.

Because the term Habiru pre-dates the Israelites, not all Habiru would have been Israelites.

But the Habiru mentioned in the Amarna tablets existed in the same place and at the same time as the Israelites in Judges. The similarities between the biblical Israelite-Shechemite and the Amarna Habiru-Shechemite relationships also suggest a correlation.

The Archaeology of Shechem

Archaeological findings suggest that Shechem flourished for some 800 years. It would have been a political power during the period of the Amarna letters. Excavations at Shechem (modern Tell Balata) indicate a violent destruction dating to 1125 BC—the biblical period for Abimelech’s destruction of Shechem, when he “razed the city and sowed it with salt” (9:45).

Abimelech burned the temple of Baal, “the stronghold of the temple of El-berith” (Judg 9:46). Excavations revealed stone foundations of a massive structure created in the 17th century BC and destroyed in the 12th century BC. An open courtyard in front of the building included a stone altar and an enormous, broken limestone pillar. It is perhaps by this pillar that Abimelech was made king (9:6).

What It Means

Although the Habiru term pre-dates the Israelite invasion of Canaan, it’s very possible that the Israelites would have been categorized as Habiru and complained about in the Amarna letters. Together with archaeological excavations of Shechem, these letters present fascinating connections that shed light on the dark age of the judges.

Pick up the Amarna letters at Logos.com/Amarna

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5


RESOURCES USED:

Bryant G. Wood, “Abimelech at Shechem,” in Bible and Spade (Spring 2005).

Bryant G. Wood, “From Ramesses to Shiloh: Archaeological Discoveries Bearing on the Exodus-Judges Period” (eds. David M. Howard Jr. and Michael A. Grisanti; Grand Rapids, 2003), pgs. 256–282.

David G. Hansen, “Shechem: It’s Archaeological and Contextual Significance,” in Bible and Spade (Spring 2005).

Michael C. Astour, “The Habiru in the Amarna Texts: Basic Points of Controversy,” in Ugarit-Forschungen 31 (1999).


1. El-Amarna (EA) tablets 271, 299; 286–289.

2. From Megiddo’s king EA 244–246; from Jerusalem’s king EA 287, 289.

3. From Megiddo’s king EA 246; from Jerusalem’s king EA 287, 289.

God Is Our Shelter

Sheila Walsh

I grew up on the west coast of Scotland. As a child, I used to play in an old ruined castle on the shoreline. I would pretend that I was safe as long as I was within the walls of that castle.

The center tower of these ancient castles was called the “keep.” It provided shelter and an operating station for defense during a siege. In God’s kingdom, there is also a keep—Christ. Paul put it this way:

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor 1:20–22). 1

All of God’s promises find their “Yes” in His son. Not only are God’s past promises fulfilled in Christ, but He also claims us through Christ. Paul uses the imagery of a seal: God stamps us with ownership. Through Christ, He has made an eternal commitment to us.

The force of God’s righteousness and mercy is the foundation on which His promises are built. He does not change, and His promises are as dependable as He is.

Sometimes we have a hard time resting in God’s promises because so many earthly promises are broken. But while we disappoint others and they disappoint us, God is not like us: “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Num 23:19).

We have to separate our human experience from God’s promises that will never be broken. We know that we can trust His promises because of another experience: He has “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor 1:22).

As a child, I believed that if I was within the walls of that ruined castle, I was safe. I know now that those who have made Christ their shelter can say with the psalmist, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’ ” (Psa 91:1–2).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5


1. All biblical references are from the New International Version (NIV).

Don’t Focus on Overcoming

Rebecca Van Noord

Judges 2:11–3:31; Philippians 1:12–18; Psalm 63–64

When I go through difficult circumstances, I want the end. I’m so focused on escape and overcoming that I barely think about what God might be teaching me through that experience. And I’m certainly not thinking about how He might be using me to witness to others.

Paul was on a completely different wavelength. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he sets his Roman imprisonment in context: “Now I want you to know, brothers, that my circumstances have happened instead for the progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in Christ has become known in the whole praetorium and to all the rest” (Phil 1:12–13).

Paul wasn’t just enduring or anticipating the end of his imprisonment. He was using his experience to be a witness for Christ. His captors must have wondered: what makes a person willing to suffer like this? What makes his message worth imprisonment?

Paul’s circumstances didn’t merely create waves with those he was testifying to. Other believers were emboldened by Paul’s endurance and preached the gospel without fear (Phil 1:14).

It’s not natural to be filled with joy in the midst of difficult times. It’s not normal to have a sense of purpose when everything appears to be going wrong. We don’t expect much from ourselves or others during these times, but God wants to refine us and use us. He’s giving us a chance to display the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding”—as a testimony to Christ’s redemptive work (Phil 4:7). Are you responding?

How can you use your difficult circumstances to point others toward Christ?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

Shelf Life Book Review: Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

James R. Hamrick

Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
Zondervan, 2011

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“Just as the ancients knew nothing of iPhones and airplanes, modern readers are likely to know next to nothing about threshing sledges and desert locusts” (from the Preface). In this dictionary, Beck addresses this problem by defining the objects, animals, plants and places mentioned by biblical writers. He discusses the nature and role of each image in the ancient world and examines literal and metaphorical uses.

By rooting the Bible’s images in their ancient contexts, Beck uncovers meanings we might otherwise miss. For example, he tells us that city gates became important social centers where business and law were conducted. This helps us understand Amos’ call to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15). Beck notes when a biblical image may have multiple meanings—helping us to judge which connotation a particular verse is using.

Beck’s entries are written in an accessible style and are accompanied by photographs and maps. This dictionary is a good resource for a church library.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5

Chasing an Inheritance

Rebecca Kruyswijk and David Finkbeiner

We usually think our way is the only way. Or worse: We think our path is God’s path.

The Danites of ancient Israel sought their own way and, in doing so, attempted to justify their own actions. God had already allotted the Danites land (Josh 19:40–48), but between Joshua and Judges, something happened:

“In those days the tribe of the people of Dan was seeking for itself an inheritance to dwell in, for until then, no inheritance among the tribes of Israel had fallen to them” (Judg 18:1).

Why does Joshua say the Danites had land while Judges says they didn’t? Let’s use a Bible atlas and a commentary to sort this out.

If we search through the Holman Bible Atlas, we find that the territory allotted to Dan “touched the western slopes of the central mountains down through the Shephelah along the Sorek Valley and turned northward to the Kanah River (Yarkon River) along the coast.”1 Much of this allotment lay along the fertile region of the Mediterranean coast—a prime territory.

The Judges’ New American Commentary suggests that Dan had not been able to establish control of their territory beyond the cities of Zorah and Eshtaol (see Judg 18:2). Judges 1:34–36 tells us that the Amorites had “pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain.” Being in the hill country, these cities became a refuge from the Amorites as well as the Philistines (see Judges 13–16). Dan was imprisoned between foreign nations. This explains why the Danites were angry and insistent on their own methods.

Nonetheless, God had promised to help Dan take their inheritance: “The LORD your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the LORD your God promised you” (Josh 23:5). Rather than trust in the LORD, Dan took an easier path. On their spies’ recommendation, the Danites attack Laish, a prosperous city north of the Sea of Galilee.

The Danites’ journey to Laish reads like a novel that you know won’t end well. As an afterthought, the Danite spies ask a Levite, who was a priest in the house of Micah, if God will bless their endeavors (18:5). He responds positively. Consequently, they steal Micah’s ephod (the symbol of the priesthood), idols and household gods. They then convince the Levite to join their cause (18:20). (Who doesn’t like people who pronounce that God will bless them?)

Brutality ensues, and everyone is simultaneously seeking favor, idols and the presence of the priest. When Micah realizes that the Levite and his gods have been taken, he pursues the Danites. They taunt and threaten him: “Do not let your voice be heard among us, lest angry fellows fall upon you, and you lose your life with the lives of your household” (18:25).

The narrative reaches a climax as it tells of the demise of the people of Laish—“a people quiet and unsuspecting”—in sympathetic terms (18:27). In the aftermath, we find the Danites setting up Micah’s carved images. The Danites corruptive influence is far-reaching: “Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites” (18:31). Even Moses’ grandson is corrupt.

God’s ways seem obvious in retrospect. But when we’re in the midst of difficult decisions and complex problems, we’re tempted to react like the Danites did. We too often lose sight of what’s really important by focusing on what we’ve claimed is God’s path. But God asked for more than that from the Danites, and He asks for more than that from us.

RESOURCES USED:

Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth (The New American Commentary; Vol. 6; Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999). Logos.com/NACBlock

Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), pg. 88. Logos.com/HolmanAtlas

All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).


Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 5