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Amarna letters

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EA 161, letter by Aziru, leader of Amurru, (stating his case to pharaoh), one of the Amarna letters in cuneiform writing on a clay tablet.

The Amarna letters (also known as the Amarna tablets) are diplomatic correspondence to Amenhotep III and IV written on clay tablets, most of which were discovered in 1887 by a fellaheen peasant woman at a site known as el-Amarna in central Egypt. The 380 tablets were written from the foreign rulers of city-states, as well as correspondence from the more powerful kingdoms to the north and east, such as Assyria and Babylon. The tablets were written in the cuneiform script of the Akkadian language.


The first name of interest to Biblical scholars in the Amarna Tablets is "Labayu", the "Lion Man", who held sway over central Palestine and was active in fighting against the Philistines. A hypocoristic, and not a proper name, "Labayu" has been translated as "the Great Lion of N", the "N" suggesting a god’s name. Here in the Amarna Tablets, transposing them from the 13th century B.C. of the conventional chronology to the 10th century B.C. the career of Labayu is in many ways a match for the Biblical record of the first king of the Israelites, Saul.

Labayu also warned Pharaoh to keep out of his internal affairs. In letter EA 252 Labayu writes:

"I was denigrated in front of the king, my lord. Further, an ant, when it is squashed, doesn't revolt perhaps and bite the hand of the man who squashes it?" [1]

In Amarna letter EA 244 Labayu assaults Meggido:

"May the king know that since the archers have gone back, Labayu carries out acts of hostility against me, and that we cannot shear the wool, and that we cannot pass through the gate in the presence of Labayu, since he knows that you have not given (me) archers; and now he intends to take Meggido, but the king will protect his city so that Labayu does not seize her. In truth, the city is destroyed by death as a result of pestilence and disease. Grant the king one hundred garrison troops to guard the city, lest Labayu take it. Certainly, Labayu has no another intentions. He tries to destroy Meggido." [2]

Saul and his sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malkishua were killed in battle with the Philistines near Mt. Gilboa in the Jezreel Valley, not too far from Meggido. The event is recorded in 1 Samuel 31. In EA 245, a ruler of a city-state, Addu-qarrad of Gitti-padalla, wrote to pharaoh "Why did you give into the hand of the king your lord Gitti-padalla, a city that Lab'aya our father had taken?" Thus the two sons of Lab'aya said to me: "Make war against the men of Qina, because they killed our father!" In the Bible, Qina was called En-Ganim.

EA 252, the letter from Labayu warning pharaoh, was studied extensively in the early 1940's by William F. Albright, the American archaeologist. He determined that the writer of the tablet knew little of the Akkadian language, which was the common correspondence between countries in that time period; instead the language was first written in Hebrew, then translated idiomatically into Akkadian. Essentially, the letter was from an untutored or uneducated man from humble beginnings who grew into a powerful ruler, which was exactly Saul.

In Psalm 57 Saul's bodyguards are called lebaim, a Hebrew word meaning lions. David, as he is hiding from Saul's men in the cave of En-Gedi (I Samuel 24), writes:

"I am in the midst of lions (Hebrew 'lebaim'); I lie among ravenous beasts - men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords." (Psalm 57:4)

EA 289 records the disruption of the area under Saul, but mentioning the Habiru:

"Are we to act like Labayu when he was giving the land of Shechem to the Habiru?"

The Habiru, thought by scholars to be stateless wanderers, and later by Biblical scholars as the Hebrews themselves, now become David's Hebrews who carried out mercenary assaults upon the Philistines.

  • In 1 Samuel 13:3-5, Jonathan smashed the Philistine pillar at Gibeah. This event was also mentioned by Labayu in EA 252.
  • In 1 Samuel 20:30-31, Saul reprimands his son Jonathan for consorting with David; in EA 254, Labayu does the same.

Amenhotep IV's inaction in the matter of Labayu is easily explained. He had become a pacifist, a monotheistic revolutionary who turned Egypt's religious structure upside-down with his insistence that they worship one god, the sun (Aten); he changed his name to Akhetaten as a result. By the time the powerful military commander Horemheb took control as pharaoh, the conquest of the Promised Land under David was complete. When Solomon sat on the throne, he was powerful enough to have an Egyptian princess as his wife in a marriage alliance.


  1. The Lab'aya Affair, prepared by Ian Hutchesson, 05/02/2000
  2. Letters from Biridiya of Megiddo, An introduction to the history and culture of Pharaonic Egypt, edited by andré dollinger