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
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
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.↩