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A Reconsideration of the Habiru in the El Amarna Letters

기동연 1

1고려신학대학원

Accredited

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this article is to study the identity of the Habiru in the El Amarna letters in its context. When the El Amarna letters were discovered in 1877, the theory of the conquest of Joshua and the Israelites was significantly affected. In the early stage of the study of the El Amarna letters, scholars identified the Habiru/Sa.Gaz of El Amarna as Biblical Hebrews and regarded them as a support for Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. However, ever since Benno Landsberger suggested that Habirus were fugitives, many scholars have regarded the Habiru of El Amarna as an outcast group formed by the lower social class. They then have used this new interpretation to explain a completely different theory of the origin of the Israelites from the Canaan conquest. They have defined the Habiru as people who escaped from the control of the ruling class and lived as social outcasts in the form of robbers or killers who threatened the ruling class. However, the Habiru in the El Amarna letters do not give any information about the origin of Israel in Canaan. Whether the scholars use the Habiru for the theory of the Canaan conquest or for an explanation of a social phenomenon, their arguments are founded on their lack of consideration of the specific text and also on the misunderstanding of the context in the El Amarna letters regarding the Habiru. Even though scholars regard Habiru with Sa.Gaz, the El Amarna letters mostly use Sa.Gaz, whereas they use Habiru only 9 times. The word ‘Sa.Gaz’ in the El Amarna letters may have been used, in some cases, to refer to alienated social groups, but it was used, in most cases, as a derogatory expression against the political enemies of the kings of the city states. The word ‘Habiru’ was used only by Abdi-Heba, king of Jerusalem, and it was also a disparaging expression against his political enemies. It cannot be understood through the content of the El Amarna letters why Abdi-Heba used the expression ‘Habiru,’ whereas none of the other kings of the city states did not. Even if there is a chance that the ‘Habiru’ in the El Amarna letters indicates the Biblical Hebrews, Abdi-Heba used it only to belittle the hostile kings of the city states and their people who were his political enemies. Therefore, the expressions ‘Sa.Gaz’ and ‘Habiru’ in the El Amarna letters are unrelated to the Canaan conquest theory, and they do not indicate the socially oppressed lower class who sought independence from the ruling class. The expressions were only used by the kings of the city states to disparage each other as they waged endless wars out of greed to expand their power and land.

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