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Peoples in Early Israel

Peoples in Early Israel

By Richard S. Hess
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
November 2010

The question of the Canaanites and their existence in early Israel has been a long-standing conundrum for those wishing to interpret the accounts of Joshua and Judges (and even the Pentateuch) and for those concerned with the authenticity of their traditions.  Attempts have been made to dispute the names of people such as the Canaanites as existing in this period.  Indeed, N. P. Lemche (The Canaanites and Their Land [Sheffield Academic, 1991]) argued that the “Canaan” of Joshua and Judges was an ideological construct and that it was unrelated to the “Canaan” of Egyptian sources, which was a vague, undefined area.  He based this on a single reference in the El Amarna letter (EA) 151, lines 49-63, where he argued that Canaan must include Danuna, a region in modern southern Turkey that includes Adana.  Here the pharaoh asked the king of Tyre what news he heard in Canaan.  That the reply included information about Danuna and Ugarit led Lemche to conclude that these must be understood as part of this vague area of Canaan, that lay outside of any of the boundaries defined by the Bible (where Canaan extended no farther north than just beyond Byblos and no farther northeast than the upper bend in the Euphrates).  The alternative suggestion was made that EA 151 could be translated in a manner consistent with the other Amarna, Egyptian, and biblical evidence so that the pharaoh was asking the king of Tyre what news he heard while he (the king) was living in Tyre.  This conformed with the other Egyptian and biblical appearances of Canaan.    

However, those supporting the biblical view of Canaan as a thorough ideological construct did not tolerate an alternative view.  The rather surprising remarks by T. L. Thompson (“A Neo-Albrightean School in History and Biblical Scholarship?” JBL 114 [1995] 692 n. 26) whose suggestions that I was making an “attack” on Lemche, declaring him “wrong” and presenting no evidence to the contrary, can all be evaluated by reading my review ( Themelios 18.2 [January 1993] 24), which contains my position as summarized here.  At the time, JBL’s editor refused to publish responses to such comments made by Thompson and others (JBL 114 [1995] 586 n.).  Nevertheless, further study in the syntax of EA 151 demonstrated that this interpretation was legitimate and that it fit with existing Egyptian and biblical sources regarding a specific interpretation of a land known as Canaan and a people known as Canaanites, who were not considered native to Ugarit, Alalakh, or any regions beyond the northern borders of Canaan that lay in the region of Byblos.  See A. F. Rainey, “Who Is a Canaanite? A Review of the Textual Evidence,”  BASOR 304 (1996) 1-15;  R. Hess, “Occurrences of ‘Canaan’ in Late Bronze Age Archives of the West Semitic World,” IOS 18 (1998) 365-71; idem, “Canaan and Canaanites at Alalakh,” UF 31 (1999) 225-36.      

It is of interest that the recent Israelite history of M. Liverani (Israel’s History and the History of Israel [Equinox, 2005] 274-75) confirms that “Canaan” is the one name of this land that could preserve “some memory” of the earlier event.  When it comes to Hittites, however, this reference must be a vestige of the Neo-Hittite states as preserved in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian texts.  For Liverani, the sixth-century writers of Joshua, Judges, and various parts of the Pentateuch used this meaning.  If the Egyptian New Kingdom usage of “Canaan” corresponds to that of these biblical texts, perhaps it would be reasonable to consider the Egyptian use of “Hittite.”  In fact, a careful examination of the use of this term in Amarna texts (e.g., EA 75.36; 126.51, 59; 129.76; etc.) and elsewhere (e.g., Ramesses II’s Poem of the Battle of Qadesh lines 41-55) confirms the use of “Hittite land” to include the region of northern Syria and areas such as those near Ugarit and Byblos.      

Related biblical groups include, among others, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, and the Hivites.  While the Perizzites could be “village dwellers,” the fact that a similarly named Pirizzi comes from the N. Syrian kingdom of Mitanni in the Amarna letters invites comparison with the other ethnic groups (rather than a social group) in the lists of inhabitants of Canaan.  Liverani’s dismissal that we “know nothing” about the Hivites and Girgashites is only true if one assumes that these names must date from the sixth century B.C.  Nothing indeed is known of them from that time.  However, the same consonants as those for Girgashite appear as a proper name at thirteenth-century Ugarit, and the biblical relation of Hivites and Horites (cf. Genesis 36:2 and 20) connects this group with the like-named Hurrians from northern Syria, a group commonly attested in the Late Bronze Age and later, but not at all after the tenth century.  Numerous personal names of inhabitants of the Jordan Valley and hill country of Palestine in the Late Bronze Age, as attested by the Amarna letters and other texts from the region, witness to the presence of Hurrians and other northerners in the region, just as the material culture manifests this same northern influence.  The facts attest that the early Israel of the Merneptah stele and of the biblical traditions encountered numerous peoples from the north in their early existence in Palestine and that their records preserve a remarkable memory of the names of these groups, a memory that resembles some peoples known only from this period and not from later times.         

Comments (4)

Interesting to see this subject taken up after so many years, and without any new argument to put forward. And on behalf of a book I published almost twenty years ago (The Canaanites and Their Land: The Tradition of the Canaanites [Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991].

EA 151 remains a very interesting testimony of the difference between an etic understanding — the Egyptian one — and an emic — Abimilku's. The Egyptians want information from Canaan, from the ruler of Tyre, and he takes them on a promenade to the Levant stretching from Danuna to Damascus. Rainey tried to escape this interpretation by proposing a unique understanding of the Akkadian preposition ištu, meaning according him in this place only "from within" saying that Abimilku from his position within Canaan should report whatever he knew. The translation of ištu cannot be found in the CAD neither in the AHw. Richard Hess mentions Rainey's objection. It would have been more fair if he had also mentioned my rejection of Rainey's argument (Greater Canaan: The Implications of a Correct Reading of EA 151:49-51, Bulletin of The American Schools of Oriental Research 310 [1998], pp. 19-24), showing that the same phrase comes up in another letter by Abimilku (EA 147:66-70). Moran has his problems as well with EA 151, translating ll. 50-1 in this way: "Write to me what you have heard in Canaan." In his Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets (Leiden: Brill, 1996), we see how Rainey on one place translates the passage "Whatever you have heard from Canaan, then send to me," (vol I, p. 102), while he in another place "Whatever you have heard from within Canaan, send to me!" (vol. III, p. 36). Evidently he saw the problem when he read my little book, and changed his mind, probably because of ideology. It would also have been nice if Rainey — and Hess — had commented on the translation of EA 147:69, where the sentence ša iš-te-mi iš-tu KUR mi-iṣ-rum is almost the same as EA 151:50 ša ta-aš-me iš-tu KUR ki-na-aḫ-na, in Moran translated in its plain sense: "he has heard from Egypt."

Mario Liverani, well, he translates "Ciò, che odi da Canaan, scrivemelo!" (Le lettere di el-Amarna 1 [Paidia: Breschia, 1998], p. 158), so he has no problem. It is correct that Liverani, in his "history" of Israel (Israel's History and the History of Israel [London: Equinox, 2005] says that as a contrast to the other people of Canaan, Canaan itself is a reflection, a memory of things past, and reckons Canaan to be the Egyptian name of their province in Palestine, something I didn't deny in my 1991 book. He also accepts that Canaan was the name of Phoenicia used in the 1st millennium, which is another point which I do not deny. However, he — as little as Hess — makes the appropriate distinction between the emic and etic part of my argument, which is surprising — in Liverani's case; I cannot talk on behalf of Hess. My argument was that there is a difference here: The Egyptians of the LBA as well as the Babylonians know where to look for Canaan. The local people are much less secure, and here Hess should have read a little further in Liverani's history, when he (p. 275) writes about Canaan and the Canaanites in the LBA: "The term did not imply any ethno-linguistic or political unity, which in fact did not exists." Not far from my argument! Canaan was an etic term. God knows what the inhabitants called themselves. We have no idea as no emic testimony has survived. The first Canaanites who knew themselves to be Canaanites were Punic peasants of the 4th century CE (cf. The Canaanites, pp. 56-7), definitely a kind of collective memory telling us that they were aware about the Tyrian origins, something which also says that Tyre was considered a part of Canaan, as implied by EA 151.
#1 - Niels Peter Lemche - 11/09/2010 - 11:44

And I always thought I was a quite well-educated person! I must confess, for shame, that I don't know what either 'emic' or 'etic' means, though I did find that 'emiatic' would mean 'inclined to vomit' - that must be a false track.
Apart from that, I can't quite identify the point at issue. 'My country' is always an ideological construct of a sort, and the ideology often concerns borders, just as it concerns histories and ideals. What I mean by 'British' is neither quite the same as - nor indeed quite different from - what a Sinn Fein member would mean. What was Homer's 'Achaea' or 'Ithaca'? Surely in both cases an ideological construct and only loosely related to whatever passed for sovereign areas and international borders in 'Mycenean' days, whatever Mycenae was. That would not preclude a significant family resemblance (as Wittgenstein would say; I have had some education,honestly) between the way the words were used at different times.
#2 - Martin Hughes - 11/10/2010 - 16:21

emic and etic have become usual in sociology and social anthropology: Emic means the opinion of the "object" (person) under scrutiny, and emic represents the world and ideas of the interviewer.

The terms are boorrowed from linguistics:

phon-emic and phon-etic.
#3 - Niels Peter Lemche - 11/11/2010 - 13:25

"and emic represents the world and ideas of the interviewer."
Should of course have been "and etic represents the world and ideas of the interviewer."

#4 - Niels Peter Lemche - 11/13/2010 - 08:56

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