The Amorites, Phoenicians, and Hebrews

Who were the Amorites? (In the paragraphs immediately below I place note markers *N to link to a following consensus of identification.)

The Encyclopedia Britannia states that by the mid-3rd millennium BC, various Semitic peoples had migrated into Syria-Palestine and Babylonia. Knowledge of this period was enormously enhanced by the excavations at Tall Mard Ykh, ancient Ebla, south of Aleppo (northern Syria). The palace yielded more than 17,000 inscribed clay tablets, dated to about 2600–2500 BC, which detail the social, religious, economic, and political life of this thriving and powerful Syrian kingdom. The language of Ebla has been identified as Northwest Semitic(*1).

Note that this period is later than the construction of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and that the Egyptians were already extending their political power to regions of the Near East. Hence the migrations must be understood in the context of that dynamic social evolution.

The Amorites were members of this ancient Semitic-speaking people. The invasion of these nomadic people, called Amurru by the Akkadians and Martu by the Assyrians, was described as coming from the northwest. They were prominent in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine in the early centuries of the second millennium BC. In the cuneiform sources from Sumeria (c. 2400–c. 2000 BC), they were identified as coming from the west. However, there is considerable doubt concerning their origins. This doubt may be due to the fact that they were troublesome nomads who roamed freely around the Near East. They penetrated deep into Sumeria and were believed to be one of the causes of the downfall of the 3rd dynasty of Ur (c. 2112–c. 2004 BC) (*2).

Ancient writers help us understand the geographic designation for Syria, one of the locales for the Amorites. Homer (Iliad ii.785) and Hesiod (Theog. 304) called the inhabitants of that district Arimoi. Compare the cuneiform Arimu or Assyrian Aramu for Aramaeans. The earliest Assyrian name was Martu, which Hommel regards as a contraction of Amartu, the land of the Amurru or Amorites.

Here we see a confusion between two different Semitic words, found in the Old Testament texts:

Hebrew amoree = Amorite, from amar, a verb, to be or make prominent, and

Hebrew aramee = Aramean, from aram, a noun.


However, both are used to designate people who occupied the same geographical area, and had similar histories. Aram is described as one of the ancestors of Abraham and the Hebrew people, Gen 10:22. Note that the two words demonstrate metathesis, or the switching of two consonants. All Semitic words derived from a verb base; this linguistic confusion may be the reason the word aram has no verbal foundation in Hebrew. Refer to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance and the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Brown, Driver, and Briggs.

During the 2nd millennium the term Amurru referred not only to an ethnic group but also to a language and to a geographic and political unit spread throughout Syria and Palestine. At the beginning of the millennium, a large-scale migration of great tribal federations resulted in the occupation of Babylonia proper, the mid-Euphrates region, and Syria-Palestine. They set up a mosaic of small kingdoms and rapidly assimilated the Sumero-Akkadian culture. Some scholars prefer to call this second group Canaanites.

During the Ur III period, 2100-2000BC, the Amorites, who were already sedentary, formed an identifiable ethnic component along with Sumerians and Akkadians. Nothing certain is known about the authority (if any) that the Sumerian kings of Ur exercised in Syria, so far away from their capital. The end of their dynasty, however, was brought about chiefly by the pressure of these Semitic migrations from Syria, the Amorites (i.e., the westerners), as they were called in Babylonia. Between about 2000 and 1800 BC they covered both Syria and Mesopotamia with a multitude of small principalities and cities, mostly governed by rulers bearing some name characteristic of the Semitic dialect that the Amorites spoke.

Almost all of the local kings in Babylonia (such as Hammurabi of Babylon) belonged to this stock(*3). One capital was at Mari (modern Tall al-Sar YrY, Syria). Farther west, the political center was Salab (Aleppo); in that area, as well as in Palestine, the newcomers were thoroughly mixed with the Hurrians. The region then called Amurru was northern Palestine, with its center at Hazor, and the neighboring Syrian desert.

From about 1100 BC Assyrian inscriptions use the term Amurru to designate parts of Syria and all of Phoenicia and Palestine but no longer refer to any specific kingdom, language, or population. This shows how the various people had blended and mixed to blur ethnic identifications.

The Phoenicians were indistinguishable from the Canaanites of Palestine, using the same language and religious names and practices. Herodotus and other Classical writers preserve a tradition that they came from the coast of the Erythraean Sea (i.e., the Persian Gulf) (*4).

The earliest Egyptian artistic representations of Phoenicians (Canaanites) are found in a damaged relief at Memphis commissioned by Pharaoh Sahure of the 5th dynasty (early 25th century BC). This shows the arrival of an Asiatic princess to be the Pharaoh's bride; her escort is a fleet of seagoing ships, evidently manned by Phoenicians. We know the Phoenicians were seafaring people throughout their known history. The Amorites maintained close contact with Egypt. Costly gifts were given by the pharaohs to the Phoenician and Syrian princes.

The origin of the term Canaan is disputed, but it may derive from an old Semitic word denoting “reddish purple.” Many scholars believe this color designation refers to the rich purple or crimson dye produced in the Palestinian and Phoenician area, or to the wool colored with the dye. Actually, the name refers to the skin color of these people. This skin color puzzle is seen in many examples from Egypt, and was illustrated by Rahotep. Although he shows more as a brown color, other Egyptian illustrations show the skin color as red, or even dark red.

If we arrange and coalesce the components I noted above we can obtain a more enlightening picture of these Amorite-Canaanite-Phoenician-Aramean-Hebrew people. They all came from a common Semitic stock. Since the Egyptian tomb paintings show them with blue eyes, we certainly have a genetic affinity to the blue eyes illustrated by Rahotep, Nofret, and King Hor.

We should keep in mind that different human groups, speaking different dialects of the same language, and related genetically, may be sharply separated by modern scholarship in order to distinguish them historically. This process then blurs and obscures the biological origins and relationship among people. For example, I mentioned the identity of the Canaanites and Phoenicians. This is based on evidence of language, culture, and religious practices. But if we examine Hebrew origins we find that they were the same people also. The difference came about when God performed a memorable work in bringing the descendants of  Abraham out of bondage in Egypt. They then separated themselves from their genetic brothers. This separation became important in demonstrating loyalty to God, and has clung to the Jews to this day. Refer to the many Old Testament proscriptions to avoid interbreeding. Nevertheless, they were genetically and culturally of the same origins.

(Note #1): The Semitic languages are divided into four groups: (1) Northern Peripheral, or Northeastern, with only one language, ancient Akkadian; (2) Northern Central, or Northwestern, including the ancient Canaanite, Amorite, Ugaritic, Phoenician (later Punic), Aramaic, ancient and modern Syriac, and Hebrew; (3) Southern Central, including Arabic and Maltese; and (4) Southern Peripheral, including South Arabic and the languages of northern Ethiopia.

The difficulty with these classifications is that Phoenician and Hebrew were almost identical to one another, with only minor inflectional differences, not more than we find among modern English speakers around the world. Since Phoenicians and Canaanites were essentially the same people this further reduces the language classes. The Amorites was also closely related; using the mother tongue of Abraham. This reduces the classes still farther. Then substantial differences exist only with Ugaritic and Aramaic, but even those are closely related. Modern linguists have become so deeply deluded by their theoretical structures, straining to understand these linguistic affinities, that they no longer can grasp the reality of those ancient days, and have thus become almost useless as a source of understanding.

(Note #2): A text from the Old Testament helps us to understand how the Hebrew people identified their genetic origins. The record shows Moses instructed to admit:

Deut 26:5-6

"And you shall make response before the LORD your God, 'A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage."

We know that Isaac was instructed to take a wife from among their Aramean kin, Gen 24:4, and so on.

Gen 25:20

". . . and Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, the daughter of Bethu'el the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean."

Hence, the Hebrew people regarded their forefathers as Arameans. The Old Testament text leaves this record for us. But other texts suggest a close affinity to the Amorites:

Gen 14:13

"Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, for he dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner; and they were allies with Abram."

We know from Abraham's history that he was a "wandering Aramean." The following references are to the Book of Genesis.

1 - From Ur of Chaldeans to Haran (11:31): his father dies.
2 - From Haran to Shechem (12:1-6): God appears; he builds an altar to God.
3 - Shechem to Bethel (12:8).
4 - From Bethel to Egypt (12:9-11): he denies that Sarah was his wife.
5 - From Egypt to Bethel (13:1-4).
6 - To Haran then to Damascus (14): he saves Lot from slavery.
7 - To Hebron (14-18): Melchizedek; Ishmael is born; he pleads for Sodom.
8 - To Gerar (20-21): Isaac is born.
9 - To Beersheba (21:27-34): he hastens to prepare for offering Isaac as a sacrifice.
10 - To Moriah Mountain (22:1-14): he offers Isaac.
11 - To Beersheba (22:19).
12 - To Hebron (25:8-10): he dies and is buried.

His origin in Ur shows that the Amorite Semites had penetrated far south into Sumeria. Ur at that time was identified as Chaldean, or part of the Semitic ethnic groups.

(Note #3): Because of the modern scholarly partition of ethnic identities into fine segments we miss the true relationship among people. Hammurabi of Babylon belonged to this (Amorite) Semitic stock. The exact date of his reign is subject to much debate, from 2300 BC down to 1900 BC. We might say he was a distant cousin of Abraham.

(Note #4): Herodotus and other Classical writers confirm knowledge that the Phoenicians = Canaanites = Hebrew people had a strong racial and genetic presence in Sumeria. If they came from the coast of the Erythraean Sea, the Persian Gulf, that tradition must have hung heavily upon the later Classical historians.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has published a Bulletin for a hundred years, reporting on its collection of Egyptian artifacts. In the Issue of December, 1908 it described a collection of fine ceramic tile artwork in excellent colors dating from the period of Rameses III, circa 1200 BC.

In a letter from Mr. Bononi, a collector, to a Professor T. Hayter Lewis, a well known architect of the mid-nineteenth century, Bononi mentions observing ceramic artwork:

I have seen at Medinet Haboo a porcelain figure inserted into the jamb of a door leading from the Great Court into the second, the flesh of a red-brown color and every part of the dress of its proper color, in porcelain. It was excellent work for that period.

The Bulletin notes that Rameses III defeated a motley army of allied tribes from the Near East. He then memorialized the event by placing other porcelain tiles at Medinet Haboo. Among those were Syrian, Philistine, Hittite, and Amar (Amorite) representation. The Philistine was represented with reddish skin, small pointed beard, and smooth upper lip.

The Syrian in his long gray robe with embroidered bands and fringes, his head bound with a cloth tied in a know behind with the ends hanging, his yellowish skin and small beard shows how cleverly the artist caught essential characteristics.

The Amorite is striking, with his Semitic cast of features, the long dark beard, the light yellow complexion and the shaven head.

Unfortunately, the Bulletin does not tell us the color of his eyes. I have been unable to obtain color photographs of the porcelain figures.