Peoples of the Bible: The Legend of the Amorites

And why were the biblical peoples so terrified of migrant shepherds that they described them as raw-meat eating, ancestor-abusing giants? ■ Part 1

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Sacred banquet in the presence of a royal couple, relief on a ritual basin unearthed in Temple B in Ebla, Syria, an Amorite-ruled city wiped out by the Hittites.
Sacred banquet in the presence of a royal couple, relief on a ritual basin unearthed in Temple B in Ebla, Syria, an Amorite-ruled city wiped out by the Hittites.Credit: DeAgostini, Getty Images

Amorites: A people descended from Emer, the fourth son of Canaan, according to the book of Genesis 10:16.

The problem with understanding the Amorites is that they have two wildly different points of reference, an earlier Mesopotamian one and a later biblical one, over a thousand years distant from one another, and which seem to have no connection whatsoever except for the name. Even defining Amorites as a single people may be inaccurate: we cannot be sure they were one, since the Amorites are from a deep, unknown past. But this is what we can say.

Over 4,000 years ago, mysterious herders who would become steeped in lore brought their flocks down from the mountains of Iran and western Syria into southern Mesopotamia. Sweeping on eastward into the Levant, they transformed the social landscape as they spread, destroying old power structures and building new dynasties.

And as the Levant heaved and roiled in its usual state of political turmoil, many of the major cities of eastern Mesopotamia come to be ruled by kings with alien, non-Akkadian, West Semitic names, and these were called Amorites.

We are not sure today whether the Amorites existed as what we think of today as a cohesive people with a distinct language, or if "Amorites" was the name other peoples in the region used to mean "horrible barbarians ". Or if the one morphed into the other over the millennia, as "Philistine" came to mean "lowbrow" in modern argot. Nor can we be sure that the increasing prominence of West Semitic names is necessarily to be identified with "Amorite" groups.

But a memory of bitter clashes would explain the antipathy various groups in the region held for people they called the Amorites. Or, it could also have been that Amorites were there all along, in uneasy coexistence. Here is the evidence we have.

The marriage of Martu to a brute

In the Marriage of Martu, a Sumerian creation legend that took place in the distant past even in biblical times, in which the blushing bride weds an Amorite ("martu" in Sumerian), the stereotype is personified:

“The Amorite he is dressed in sheep skins: he lives in tents in wind and rain; He doesn’t offer sacrifices. Armed vagabond in the steppes, he digs up truffles and is restless. He eats raw meat. Lives without a home; And when he dies, he is not buried according to proper rituals."

The Bible also describes the Amorites with dread, in this case, being of immense stature. Og of Bashan, one of their kings, is said to be the last of the giants, who had to be buried in a sarcophagus measuring four by 1.8 meters (Deuteronomy 3:11).

While that is extremely unlikely, who were these Amorites, who frightened the other peoples of the bible so badly?

Shepherds with truffles

Shepherds, even semi-nomadic ones, are perceived today as cuddly folk gently herding amiable animals to grassy pastures by babbling brooks.

But in the ancient war-torn semi-arid region of the Levant, a shepherd seeking land to graze his flocks would likely have to kill for it.

It is little surprise that the ancients would view incoming waves of Amorite shepherds as barbaric, inhuman raiders who eat "raw meat".

The fungal reference is uzu-dirig, commonly translated from the Sumerian as "truffles," though the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary just calls it a "mushroom." If truffle it is, it would not refer to the black truffle of Parisian cuisine, but to the desert truffle ungi (including the species Terfezia and Tirmania), which are native to the Middle East and what had been Mesopotamia, explains truffles expert Gregory Bonito of Michigan State University.

"They form root associations with some of the desert grasses, and they can be found because the sand cracks or swells up when they grow. These are eaten as a seasonal food source," Bonito told Haaretz.

Whatever they ate, these Amorites spreading and simply taking whatever lands they needed to herd their flocks would have been among the forefathers of the Babylonians and Assyrians in the east, and the Canaanites in the west. And hence the Jews, probably.

But their categorization as a people in the bible was the manifestation of a vague memory going back a thousand years.

A long-lost culture, even then

The Hebrew word Amori could have derived from the Akkadian amurru. Though it remains a mystery to biblical scholars how the name wound up in the bible at all, because as a general population category, "Amorite" no longer existed after the end of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Yet the memory of the Amorites as a distinct people seems to have persisted in Mesopotamia for over a thousand years, into the early second millennium.

Akkadian tablets telling the story of the Jewish exile in BabyloniaCredit: Clay tablets from Al-Yahudu archive, "By the rivers of Babylon" exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. Courtesy: Cindy and David Sofer Collection, Photographer: Moshe Caine

In other words, the reference to "Amorites" in the bible is based on a distant memory of a name, that would have meant different things to the ancient Mesopotamians in the third millennium B.C.E. and to the later Hebrews.

Either way, the fearsome descriptions of Amorite character in the bible have to be pure hyperbole. The culture had long disappeared when the bible was written, though the ancients have left us pearls such as "the former terrible giants, the Rephaim, gave way to the Amorites, an evil and sinful people whose wickedness surpasses that of any other, and whose life will be cut short on earth" (the canonical Book of Jubilees (xxix. [9] 11), or the reference to "their black art, their witchcraft and impure mysteries, by which they contaminated Israel in the time of the Judges" (Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch).

"Keep in mind that we have no evidence that either Hittites or Amorites could actually be identified by these names in this southern region at any time, whether in the second millennium or down into the first, when biblical writers would somehow have known the names," Daniel Fleming of New York University told Haaretz. "It is enough to drive us crazy figuring it out, or figuring out whether to let it all go as impossibly distant folklore."

Much like the Jews in their 2,000 years of diaspora, the Amorites may have originated in one spot and spread around the region, and the term Amorite/amurru may have arisen as a description for people who maintained kinship ties across distance. "That could be simplified by calling this 'tribal,' for the purposes of involvement in long-distance pastoralism," Fleming suggests.

Amorites ascendant and the downsides of a wall

In any case, the earliest-known mention of Amorites is in a 4,400-year-old Akkadian cuneiform tablet, which describes them as a bitter enemy of the Sumerian Kingdom based in Ur (modern-day Iraq).

As they entered Mesopotamia, the Amorites sacked the neo-Sumerian towns.

The ruins of Ur, with the Ziggurat of Ur visible in the background.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eventually the Amorites became such a nuisance to the leaders of Ur that the kings constructed a 270-kilometer long wall stretching from the Tigris River to the Euphrates, to hold them off.

The wall was too long to be properly manned, however. It also had the problem of not being anchored at either end to any kind of obstacle; invaders could simply walk around the wall to bypass it.

That seems to be precisely what the Amorites did. Their incursions weakened Ur and Sumer as a whole.

Finally, Sumerian hegemony over the region was overthrown with the destruction of its capital by the Elamites in 1750 B.C.E. That was enabled by the earlier incursions of the Amorites, who, as they spread through the region, undermined the stability and economy of the great ancient cities.

Abraham the Amorite?

At roughly the same time, the Amorites spread down the Levant and reached the southern regions that would later become the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Some biblical scholars think Abraham's journey from Ur to Haran to the land of Canaan may describe that very thing: “And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son's son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.” - Genesis 11:31

In other words, possibly the forefathers of the Hebrews, Terah and Abraham, were among the Amorites who reached Canaan.

The Canaanite Thinker? Statue from 3800 years ago uncovered in Yehud: The Amorites seem to have been among the forefathers of all Canaanites. Credit: Eyecon, IAA

We cannot know, but, “It is reasonable to assume the Israelites were distant descendants of the earlier Amorites,” Bill Arnold, professor of Old Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, told Haaretz.

Ur does not appear in the Genesis narrative; Haran appears in Genesis 29:4. In a minority view, Fleming believes the Haran reference is rooted in a nearly buried notion that the people defined by Jacob and Joseph maintained old kinship connections with people in northern Syria.

Whatever the case, the bible’s portrait of Israel’s tribal organization and mobile herding background suggests continuity with the same social patterns as the Amorites.

The Amorite Kings sweep over Mesopotamia

Anyway, following the sack of Ur in 1750 B.C.E., the Amorites gradually merged with the Sumerian population in southern Mesopotamia. They had already been established in the cities of Syria since 1900 B.C.E. (Mari) and 1800 B.C.E. (Ebla).

The Amorite king Sin-Muballit assumed the Babylon throne in 1812 B.C.E. He was succeeded by his famous son Hammurabi (who reigned 1792-1750 B.C.E.), best known for one of the earliest known written sets of law. Hammurabi's Code is essentially a collection of decisions and “cases” engraved on clay tablets.

Hammurabi was not only a lawmaker but a skilled military commander who, among other things, destroyed the rival city Mari in 1761 B.C.E. It was he who brought the vast region of Mesopotamia from Mari to Ur under Babylon’s rule and established the city as the center of Babylonia, an area spanning from modern-day Syria to the Persian Gulf.

Hammurabi called himself “the efficient king” and “the perfect king,” but failed to pass these talents onto his son. After his death, the kingdom he had built began to fall apart. Hammurabi’s son Samsu-Iluna (who reigned from 1749-1712 B.C.E.) could not defend the empire from the technologically advanced Hittites and Assyrians.

The Assyrians were the first to make incursions, and regions south of Babylon began breaking away from the empire.

The worst blow fell in 1595 B.C.E., when Mursilli I of the Hittites (1620-1590 B.C.E.) sacked Babylon, carrying off the treasures of the city's temples and scattering the population, as he had done five years earlier, in 1600 B.C.E., at Ebla.

The Kassites followed the Hittites in taking Babylon and re-naming it Karanduniash. They in turn were followed by the Assyrians (again).

By 1600 B.C.E, the Amorite Period in Mesopotamia was over, though it is clear through the distinctive names of individuals on record that Amorites continued to live in the area as part of the general population.

Amorites in the Bible

Today, thousands of years after these people lived and died, we cannot be sure that the Amorites found in biblical literature derived from the old Mesopotamian group. It can be said the Sumerian-era and biblical Amorites were viewed equally askance.

The bible describes the Amorites as a dominant tribe that had seized Moabite land. Amorite kings also ruled Bashan and Gilead.

It also defines the Amorites as one of the populations inhabiting Canaan prior to the Israelites' conquest, whose presence was not to be tolerated:

"When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them" (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).

When the Israelites sent messengers asking the Amorite King Sihon's permission to pass through his kingdom via the king’s road, and vowing not to steal anything from the Amorites on the way, Sihon refused, and gathered his army to block Israel.

It didn't work. The Israelites summarily defeated Sihon at Jahaz and his entire territory fell into Israelite possession (Number 21:21-32; Deuteronomy 2:24-36)

The Lion's Gate at Hattusa, capital of the Hittites - which was destroyed in the mysterious evaporation of civilization 3,200 years ago.Credit: Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons

Invading the neighboring King Og’s territory, Israel also vanquished this Amorite ruler, capturing 60 fortified cities (Numbers 21:33-35; Deuteronomy 3:1-7). The territory of the two defeated Amorite kings now became the inheritance of the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 32-21-33.39; Deuteronomy 3:8-13).

Some commentators think the term “Amorites” in Genesis 15:161 and 48:22 may have been used loosely to represent the peoples of Canaan as a whole.

"Often, 'Canaan' and 'Canaanite' is a geographic designation, whereas 'Amorite' is ethnic," Arnold explains. "But they also sometimes overlap, with no obvious distinction between them. Each text has to be taken on a case-by-case basis to determine what nuance is intended."

Fleming adds, “The notion that we can use the scheme of Genesis 10 to map actual divisions of 'races' is historically problematic, I could have said inconceivable. Look at how the peoples are distributed: Egypt and Canaan are both placed under Ham, because they must be removed absolutely from relationship to Israel, even though in fact, Canaan occupied the same space as what would become Israel, and must have been deeply connected -- as well as entirely unrelated to Egyptians."

The end of the Amorites

Powerful as they had been, the Old Testament brings several accounts of their defeat in battle by Israelite heroes such as Joshua.

Following the decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in c. 600 B.C.E., the name 'Amorite' disappears in the historical record. In time, the cultural Amorites came to be referred to as 'Aramaeans’ and the land they came from as Aram.

“In the Bible, Amorites come up in two different ways in relation to the notion of conquest," Fleming explains.

One is stereotyping, which offers the least potential connection to actual history: the descriptions (barbaric raw meat eaters) seem to be a figment of distant memory. The other appears in the accounts of Israel's acquisition of land east of the Jordan River, as recounted in Numbers 20-21 and Deuteronomy 2-3.

"It is not clear which of these texts is older, but they are clearly related to each other, and they portray this eastern land as taken entirely from 'Amorites' in particular, with no other group in view," says Fleming. But many scholars think this an artifact of twisted ancient memory.

Biblical writers might have encountered the name 'Amorite', as applying to people before the establishment of Israel, in inland Jordan, he suggests: “There are a couple of texts that distinguish pre-Israelite peoples by region, with Canaanites in the lowlands and Amorites in the high country. These are intriguing, even as they can't be explained as simple memories of a historical past," Fleming sums up. "They are notions of a distant past that is totally inaccessible to the authors, pieced together with names they understand as archaic, as throwbacks. Yet even without the capacity to distinguish what is historically feasible or impossible, biblical writers could have used names in old ways that could be of historical interest."



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