Friday, January 22, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- who were they?

The next urban legend is that “Hebrew” or ivri, applied to Avraham, is the same word as Hapiru, from Mesopotamian documents.
Supposedly Hapiru is SA-GAZ in Sumerian, but the online Sumerian dictionary defines this as “robber” or “murderer” and relates it to Akkadian shagashu, “murderer,” or habbatu, “plunderer.”
Akkadian chapiru means a vagrant.  Chapiru was also used as a personal name.
The Hapiru are first referenced as rebels from Mari and Nuzu against their conquest by Sargon of Akkad.  His empire fell apart at his death and his son and grandson had to repeat his conquest of Mari and Nuzu.  The Hapiru originally date, therefore, to the 2400s BCE, early enough for the ancestors of the Jews to get to the Holy Land by the time of the destruction of the cities of the plain – but as I pointed out last week, they had to leave Mesopotamia before Sargon began his conquest.
There’s also a problem with numbers.  The enumeration of Terach’s group includes blood and marriage kin.  It would also have included the servants that lived with them, maybe 50 people.  It’s not nearly enough people to seriously threaten Sargon’s reign, it’s not even enough people for an army troop.  Such a small group of commoners doesn’t deserve verbiage in a royal chronicle.  Chapiru must refer to a group well beyond this in size, the vast majority of which did not leave Mesopotamia, even if Terach’s family were part of them.
The Hapiru come up in the time of Akhenaten.  The reference is in his diplomatic and political letters found at Tell el-Amarna – and this is the only occurrence of the Sumerian logogram, everybody else spells it out by syllables.  Tell el-Amarna – Akhetaten – was founded about 1345 BCE and Akhenaten died about 1330 BCE, a 15-year period when these letters were sent or received. 
Some letters refer to Labayu and a coalition of disaffected natives and outsiders in the region of Shkhem, who took Shkhem away from Egyptian control and shared the real estate among them.  Other letters complain about a Hapiru attack on Jerusalem.
This last sentence makes it sound as if the Hapiru might be the Israelites who were entering the Holy Land.  That’s a quote out of historical context.  It would mean the Exodus was prior to Akhenaten’s time, which is not when most people think the Exodus happened.  So to identify these Hapiru with the Israelites means throwing out the traditional date of the Exodus.
It also conflicts with the urban legend that Akhenaten was the source of Jewish monotheism.  If these Hapiru attacked Jerusalem during the reign of Akhenaten, then either they spent much less than 40 years in the Sinai, or they left Egypt before Akhenaten came to the throne, let alone adopted Aten as his tutelary deity.  The Israelites had to learn their monotheism somewhere else, to attack Jerusalem during Akhenaten’s reign and have the reports show up at Akhetaten.
Egypt has a reference to Hapiru from the 1400s BCE, before Akhenaten, and these Hapiru already live in the Holy Land.  They are contrasted with the Retenu (Pelishtim), Hurrians, and Shasu (Bedouins).  If the Israelites are Hapiru, they are not Bedouins and they speak neither the language of the Pelishtim that was recorded in Linear B, nor the ergative isolate Hurrian language, but an early form of Hebrew, a western Semitic language.
An Akkadian inscription at Tell Atshanah (Alalakh), dating to the 1550s BCE, was found about 1939 by Woolley.  It identifies Hapiru as people living in the Holy Land.  They helped Idri-mi reconquer the city of Alalakh which had once belonged to his father. 
None of the references indicate that the Hapiru were an ethnic or religious unity or that they originally came from Mesopotamia.  In the case of the conquest of Shkhem, the Hapiru were multi-ethnic. 
The logical conclusion is that the word Hapiru does not equate to ivri, or Israelite, or any term that exclusively means the ancestors of the Jews prior to the Egyptian Captivity.  It’s a case of how urban legends have linked a word in Hebrew to a word from another language, without taking the cultural and historical context into account.  Sayce did the same thing when he wrote about Shabbat.  I’ll say more about the problems of philology much later.

For now, one more ethnic identification and then I can move on to some timing issues.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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