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Posts Tagged ‘Amarna Letters’

As I enjoyed my morning coffee earlier today, I was struck by these lines in the Amarna Letters:

To the king my lord say: Message fo Abdi-Hepa your servant.  At the feet of the king my lord I have fallen seven and seven times…. (El Amarna, 290; trans. by Michael Coogan, my italics)

To the king my lord, my god, my sun-god say: Message of Shuwardatu, your servant, the dust under your feet.  I have fallen at the feet of the king my lord, my god, my sun-god, seven and seven times…. (El Amarna, 271; ibid., my italics)

The Amarna Letters are 350 pieces of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV’s (Akhenaten; 1352-1336 BCE) royal correspondence, recovered from the ruins of his capital city, Akhetaten (modern-el Amarna).  Many of the letters were written by rulers of independent states like Assyria and Babylonia.  Others were written by vassal kings who were subject to Egyptian rule at the time, like those from Palestine.  The Letters give us a great window into the  politics of the Ancient Near East in the 14th century, the Late Bronze Age.

What jumped out at me about the lines quoted above was their parallel in Genesis 33:1-3:

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, 2 putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. 

One of the Amarna Letters from Rib-Addi, king of Byblos, to Akhenaten

One of the Amarna Letters from Rib-Addi, king of Byblos, to Akhenaten

We see illustrated in the introductions of the Amarna Letters and here in Genesis 33 a stereotyped gesture of deference common in the Ancient Near East.  It is also worth noting that the vassal king I first cited, Abdi-Hepa, was the king of Jerusalem.  Of course, nobody needed the Amarna Letters in order to figure out that Jacob’s sevenfold bow was an act of deference toward Esau (of whom he was understandably terrified).  But parallels like these furnish us with salutary reminders of the fact that the Bible was not simply dropped out of the sky into the Church but rather was born out of the contexts, cultures, conceptualizations and, in this case, customs of the Ancient World.

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