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  • Writer's pictureAnnemeet Hasidi-van Der Leij

History of Jerusalem, part 4. The Amarna letters

Many political and military events of this period are recorded in the El-Amarna letters.* This archive includes letters from the warring Canaanite city-states to Egypt. All proclaim their devoted loyalty to the pharaoh and beg for military assistance against his adversaries. Of the 350 letters, six were sent by Abdi-Hepa, a king of Jerusalem. He apparently knew personally many influential people in Egypt and pleaded with them for aid. He presented himself as the only one Egypt could really trust, but to no avail. Egypt did not look favorably on the rise of Jerusalem, and helped her adversaries. The Egyptian garrison in Jerusalem was transferred to Gaza. With his defenses weakened and under constant attack from the Apiru and from his rivals in Canaan, the king of Jerusalem complained in his last letter that all was lost. Then the letters stopped. We do not know what became of him and his city. Was Jerusalem conquered or did it survive? Some scholars contend that the verse in Judges (8:1) describing the burning of Jerusalem refers to an early conquest of Jerusalem by some of the Jewish tribes in the 14th century. The issue is not clear at all. However, 100-200 years later, when Joshua enters Israel, we again see Jerusalem as a major force in the Judean Hills. After Joshua 's initial victories it was Adoni-Zedek, king of Jerusalem, who united the kings of the south against Joshua (Joshua ch. 10). He and the others were killed after a battle that took place west of Jerusalem. However, the book of Joshua does not tell us what happened to his city after the battle. The city was apparently occupied by another people, the Jebusites, who spoke a language related to Hittite. The Hittites were a people that lived in Asia Minor and parts of Canaan and spoke an Indo-European language. The book of Joshua tells that Jerusalem was inhabited by the Jebusites: "As for the Jebusites settled in Jerusalem, the tribe of Judah could not drive them out; the Jebusites lived beside the tribe of Judah in Jerusalem to this day " (Joshua 15:63). Who were the Jebusites? The prophet Ezekiel described the origin of Jerusalem in the following way: "Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: your origin and your nativity is of the land of Canaan; your father was an Amorite and your mother was a Hittite " (Ezekiel 16:3) The Amorites were western Semites. In the Bible the word Amorite is often used as a general term for the people in Canaan or those that lived in the Judean Hills. The origin of the Jebusites is not clear, but they lived among the Hittites and Amorites in the Judean Hills (Numbers 13:29).

The Jebusite city was very small but well fortified. It had two main strong holds, one on the north side and one protecting the water. One of them was called Zion (scholars are not sure which), the meaning of which is not known. (The word Zion was later used to denote other parts of Jerusalem: the Temple Mount, and later Mount Zion, neither of which were part of the Jebusite city.) The Jebusite city was surrounded by Jewish settlement for some two hundred years. Most of its land was allotted to the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 18:16). The first Jewish king, Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, never attacked Jerusalem even though it was so close to his home town. That was left to the second king, David. His conquest and the transformation of Jerusalem to the capital of Israel will be the subject of the next post.

*The Amarna letters archive, on clay tablets, mostly diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian administration and its representatives in Canaan and Amurru during the New Kingdom. The letters were found in Upper Egypt at Amarna, the modern name for the Egyptian capital of Akhetaten (el-Amarna), founded by pharaoh Akhenaten (1350s – 1330s BCE), during the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. The Amarna letters are unusual in Egyptological research, because they are mostly written in Akkadian cuneiform, the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, rather than that of ancient Egypt.

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