How it all began

Were the Apiru Hebrews a separate semi-nomadic warring tribe which eventually sought to settle in Canaan and did so only after some rather tragic Egyptian experiences?

April 7, 2015 22:37
National Gallery of Art

A boat from the tomb of Amenhotep II (1427-1400 BCE) on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Amenhotep II (about 1447-1421 BCE), son of Thutmose III, carried out Asiatic campaigns twice. At least this is what two partly damaged stelae from Memphis and Karnak tell us. Both were hacked up under pharaoh Akhenaton during the Amarna revolution, but were restored by his son, Tutankhamon (about 1361- 1353). One stela was later usurped by Pharaoh Horemheb (about 1349-1319), who inserted his name in place of Tutankhamon, since the latter was accused of heresy, as far as the ancient Egyptian deities were concerned.

Most Egyptian pharaohs of the Second Millenium BCE regarded Canaan as part of their own dominions, but actually to be robbed and enslaved in a series of successive “heroic” invasions. Amenhotep II and his son Thutmose IV (1421-1413) may be remembered for their conquests in Canaan, which brought an abundance of Asiatic gods and goods to Egypt. The “Dream Stela” of Thutmose IV tells us of the settlement of the fortifications of Men-khepru Re with Syrians his majesty captured in the town of Gezer.

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Thutmose IV initiated the custom of listing the Asiatic and African countries which he had conquered and from which he brought slaves to fill the workhouses of Egyptian temples. This custom continued after Horemheb’s Seti I (1318-1301), Rameses II (1301-1234), Rameses III (1195- 1164), and Sheshonk I, (945-924), the Shishak of the Bible.

They all carried out well-prepared, lengthy Asiatic campaigns in order to prove their courage, physical strength and ability to endure dangers and hardships, and their success was measured by the sheer number of captured slaves, material goods and animals which they retained or handed over to their temples and distinguished soldiers.

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The carefully planned conquests of Canaan must have been easy; the country was divided between many smalltown princes and principalities, competing and fighting each other, under the negligent care of an Egyptian governor.

During an invasion, some of these princes saved their skins by offering assistance and making pledges of continued allegiance. Others were captured or killed, their hands having been cut off hands for a victory parade.


What is most interesting is that one of Amenhotep’s II carefully prepared lists of Caananic captives begins with 127 princes, 179 brothers of princes, 3,600 Apiru, 15,000 Shasu (Beduin), 36,300 Kharu (Horites of the Negev) and 15,070 Neges (people of Northern Syria), men, women and children, carrying some of their possessions, and small cattle without limit. There were also 60 chariots of silver, gold, painted wood and weapons of warfare, in addition to other goods.

But what interests us most are the Apiru. They were preceded in the list only by princes and by their “brothers” or close relatives. Their number was smaller than other tribes. It is clear from this stela that Egyptians regarded them as a distinct entity. It seems therefore likely that they kept themselves separate. An Apiru was also mentioned together with local defenders of Jaffa under Thutmose III. A famous Egyptolog, James P. Pritchard, explains that “apiru” is an Indo-Iranian word for “nobles,” used in Egyptian texts to signify warriors.

The basalt stela of Seti I is most difficult to read. The only passage that can be discerned tells us that: “On this day, lo, his majesty – life prosperity, health! The Apiru of the mountain of Yer...together with Tir...who had exerted force....” Here some military action of the Apiru is mentioned. “Yer” may be Yeruham. Apiru are mentioned again in the lists of serfs of the Egyptian Heliopolitan section: “Warriors, sons of foreign princes, maryanu, Apiru, and people settled in this place, numbering 2,093 persons.”

Here the term “Apiru” was explained by Pritchard as “aliens,” or “others, outsiders or foreigners.”

But some scholars agree that “Apiru” is etymologically related to “Hebrew” – even if this does not mean that these captives were Hebrews. In this instance Apiru appear on the list after “maryanu” or Asiatic warriors.

This means that they were warriors of a different, possibly semi-nomadic sort.

Fortunately, we learn a lot about Apiru in a collection of cuneiform letters found at Tel el-Amarna in Middle Egypt in 1887, the site of Akhenaton’s capital. The 377 letters belonged to the royal archive of Amenhotep II and his son Akhenaton. Many letters written by Canaanite scribes on behalf of their local rulers refer to the threat of Apiru, an apparently semi-nomadic tribe for whom the local rulers felt contempt, as for landless and dangerous foreigners and wanderers, and who spread fear, leading the local rulers to seek Egyptian presence and authority in Canaan.

Thus King Labayu (“lion-like” in Canaanite) writes to the Pharaoh in letter No. 254 that he did not know his son “associated with Apiru,” and that the son will be punished. Letter No. 286, by Abu Hebda, the prince of Jerusalem, asks for the Egyptian assistance “in his permanent struggle with Apiru.” Abu Hebda says that as long as he lives he will say to the commissioner of the Egyptian pharaoh: “Why do you like the Apiru and dislike his [pharoah’s] governors.” The Amarna letters mention that Apiru had frequently entered into league with certain Caananite city-states against others to stregthen their presence.

It is therefore a fact to be considered more seriously that Amenhotep III brought to Egypt some 3,000 Apiru and his more liberal son released them. Were the Apiru Hebrews, a separate semi-nomadic warring tribe which eventually sought to settle in Canaan and did so only after some rather tragic Egyptian experiences? We may never know for sure, but everything we learn about Apiru makes this probability rather likely. Well. After all the Apiru tried hard and were resisted, but it was up to the Hebrews to make it.

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