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Biblical Hittites

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The Hittites, also spelled Hethites, are a people mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. They are listed in Book of Genesis as second of the eleven Canaanite nations. Under the names בני-חת (bny-ḥt "children of Heth") and חתי (ḥty "native of Heth") they are mentioned several times as living in or near Canaan since the time of Abraham (estimated to be between 2000 BC and 1500 BC) to the time of Ezra after the return from the Babylonian exile (around 450 BC). Their ancestor Heth (Hebrew: חֵת,  H̱et,  Ḥēṯ,ḥt in the consonant-only Hebrew script) is said in Genesis to be a son of Canaan, son of Ham, son of Noah.


In the late 19th century, the biblical Hittites were identified with a newly discovered Indo-European-speaking empire of Anatolia, a major regional power through most of the 2nd millennium BC, who therefore came to be known as the Hittites. This nomenclature is used today as a matter of convention, regardless of debates about possible identities between the Anatolian Hittite Empire and the biblical Hittites.

Identification hypotheses

According to Genesis, in Abraham's days, the Hittite Ephron sold him the cave in Hebron. Later, Esau married wives from the Hittites. In the Book of Joshua 1:4, when the Lord tells Joshua "From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your border", this "land of the Hittites" on Canaan's border is seen to stretch between Lebanon and the Euphrates, and from there toward the setting Sun (i.e., to the west).

According to the Book of Judges 1:26, when the Israelites captured Bethel, they allowed one man to escape, and he went to the "land of the Hittites" where he founded the settlement of Luz. In King Solomon's era moreover the Hittites are depicted in the Old Testament along with Syria as among his powerful neighbors.

From around 1900, archaeologists were aware of a country established in Anatolia and known to Assyrians as "Hatti". Because it was initially assumed that the people of Hatti were identical to the Hetti of the Hebrew Bible, the term Hittite Empire is still today used to describe the Anatolian state. Their language is known to have been a member of the Indo-European family. Because its speakers were originally based in Kanesh, they called their language "Neshili". The former inhabitants of Hatti and Hattusas are now called Hattites; and their Hattic language was not Indo-European, but is of unknown linguistic relationship.

After the fall of the Hittite Empire around 1178 BC, a remnant of them, still using the name "people of Hatti", established some city-states in the region of northern Syria. Therefore these are usually assumed to be the Hittites mentioned in Solomon's time. However, certain scholars have objected that in their view, the Hittites of the Bible had no connection with either the Hittite Empire or with the preceding Hattites.

The case for identity

Some scholars take the view that the two peoples are identical. Apart from the similarity in names, the Anatolian Hittites were a powerful political entity in the region before the collapse of their empire in the 14th-12th centuries BC, so one would expect them to be mentioned in the Bible, just in the way that the ḤTY post-Exodus are. A stone lion relief found at Beth Shan, near the Sea of Galilee (now at the Israel Museum), dated to about 1700 BC, has been interpreted by professor Bill Humble as confirming this identification, since lions are often pictured in Hittite art. Moreover, in the account of the conquest of Canaan, the Hittites are said to dwell "in the mountains" and "towards the north" of Canaan — a description that matches the general direction and geography of the original Hittite empire, which had been influential in the region prior to the Battle of Kadesh.

Modern academics propose, based on much onomastic and archaeological evidence, that Anatolian populations moved south into Canaan as part of the waves of Sea Peoples who were migrating along the Mediterranean coastline at the time of the collapse of the Hittite Empire. Many kings of local city-states are shown to have had Hittite and Luwian names in the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age transition period. Indeed, even the name of Mount Zion may be Hittite in origin.

The case for separation

Because of the perceived discrepancy between the picture of the Hittites as developed in the Bible and the archaeological discoveries, some biblical scholars reject Archibald Sayce's identification of the two peoples, and believe that the similarity in names is only a coincidence. For example E. A. Speiser, referring to "the children of Heth" in the Book of Genesis writes "For reasons of both history and geography, it is most unlikely that this group name has any direct connection either with the Hattians of Anatolia or with their 'Hittite' successors."

Intermediate hypotheses

Trevor Bryce suggests that biblical references to Hittites may be separated into two distinct groups. The first, the majority, are to a Canaanite tribe as encountered by Abraham and his family. The names of these Hittites are for the most part of a Semitic type; for example Ephron at Genesis 23:8-17 etc., Judith at Genesis 26:34 and Zohar at Genesis 23:8. These were presumably the Hittites who were subject to Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-2, 1 Kings 9:20-21, 2 Chronicles 8:7) and who were elsewhere in conflict with the Israelites (Deuteronomy 20:17, Judges 3:5). They were a small group living in the hills, and clearly to be distinguished from the Hittites of the Anatolian Kingdom.

But there are other biblical references which are not compatible with the notion of a small Canaanite hill tribe. Most notable among these is 2 Kings 7:6: "For the Lord had made the host of the Syrians to hear a noise of chariots, and a noise of horses, even the noise of a great host: and they said one to another, Lo, the king of Israel hath hired against us the kings of the Hittites, and the kings of the Egyptians, to come upon us."

This conveys the impression that the Hittite kings were commensurate in importance and power with the Egyptian pharaohs. A similar impression is conveyed by 2 Chronicles 1:17: "And they fetched up, and brought forth out of Egypt a chariot for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty: and so brought they out horses for all the kings of the Hittites, and for the kings of Syria, by their means." In these cases there can be little doubt that the references are to the neo-Hittite kingdoms of Syria.

If the references to the Canaanite tribe are distinct from those to the neo-Hittite kingdom, the similarity between the names (only two significant consonants) could easily be due to chance.


  • D. J. Wiseman, Peoples of the Old Testament Times, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1973)
  • References

    Biblical Hittites Wikipedia

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