Feb. 1, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 10

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    Linking ancient peoples:

    Newly translated text reveals connections between Hittites and Hebrews Release from debt, an idea advanced in Hebrew scriptures in passages attributed to Moses, is a concept found in a newly translated text from the Hittites, an ancient people who were powerful in the northern reaches of the Near East about the time of the establishment of Israel in the 13th century B.C.

    The text underscores the connections between the Hebrews and other peoples of the region, says Harry Hoffner, Professor in the Oriental Institute and one of the world's leading Hittitologists.

    The text was recently published in Germany, and parts of it are now being cited in the Chicago Hittite Dictionary, a publication that Hoffner edits with Hans Gueterbock, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Oriental Institute. The Hittite Dictionary is a guide to Hittite literature and culture as well as a reference work on the meanings of Hittite words.

    The newly translated text is bilingual, written in Hurrian and Hittite. It was reconstructed from several partially preserved cuneiform tablets discovered in the Hittite capital of Hattusha in what is now central Turkey. The Hittite Empire was located in central Turkey and northwestern Syria.

    Although some people have thought that many of the ideas expressed in the Bible are unique to the Hebrew culture, scholars are gathering evidence that points to similarities between Israelite experiences and those of other Near Eastern peoples.

    "We've always known that the Bible was an international book. It reflects life in a richly varied world with lots of meeting points. But it's not until we have texts like this that we begin to realize how interconnected the people of biblical times were," Hoffner said.

    The Hurrians, a neighboring tribe of the Hittites, probably had even closer contact with the Hebrews than did the Hittites, Hoffner said. Two groups mentioned in the Bible, the Horites and Hivites, were probably Hurrians, and Abdi-hepa, a Jebusite king who ruled Jerusalem three centuries before its conquest by Israel's King David, had a Hurrian name, Hoffner said.

    Given this connection, it is not surprising to find an echoing of ideas between the Scriptures and the texts of other peoples in the area, he said. They shared similar problems as well as similar values.

    "Because the narratives of the Bible are familiar to many of us from church and synagogue, we often unconsciously divorce them from their ancient roots," Hoffner said. "We do this because we value their moral teachings as expressions of timeless truth. But it is a mistake to fail to see that the particular biblical forms of expressing these timeless truths can be associated with particular groups of people in specific geographical and chronological settings."

    The concept of redemption is one idea that is found in both the Hittite text and the Bible.

    "Redemption was very important to the people of the Near East, especially to the Hebrews, as they changed their nomadic ways and became peasants after settling in Israel. Land was very important, and if a family lost its land by falling on hard times, it was extremely disadvantaged. Redemption from debt was a way by which the society ensured that no family or tribe would be wiped out by hard times," he said.

    The Hittite and Hurrian references to redemption come from a passage titled "The Song of Debt Release," which was excavated in the Hittite capital several years ago. The concept may have originated with the Hurrians, or possibly with other cultures in the ancient Near East. A variation of the same practice was known to the Babylonians during the period in which the Hebrew patriarch Abraham lived.

    In the Hurrian passage, the god Tessub orders his followers to release people of Ebla from their debt. "If you take a debt release in Ebla, I will exalt your weapons. Your weapons will begin to conquer your enemies. Your plowed land will prosper in glory. But if you do not make a debt release for Ebla, the city of the throne, in the space of seven days, I will come upon you. I will destroy Ebla, the city of the throne. I will make it like a city that never existed. I will break the surrounding wall of Ebla's city like a cup. I will knock flat the surrounding wall of the upper city like a garbage dump," the passage reads.

    The value of forgiving a debt is likewise emphasized in a passage in Leviticus that describes the importance of the Jubilee Year, which God tells Moses must be observed every 50 years. In describing the year of the Jubilee, God orders the Hebrews to be merciful. If someone has been forced to sell his property and is unable to redeem it, his debt is to be forgiven and he can claim the property again, according to rules established in the 25th chapter of Leviticus.

    The theme of forgiveness runs through the passage in Leviticus. "If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or temporary worker among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released," reads Leviticus.

    Like the Hittite text, the Hebrew Scriptures promise a reward for obedience. "If you follow my decrees, and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit," God tells Moses in Chapter 26 of Leviticus.

    He also promises the Hebrews victory in battle, as does the Hurrian god who exalted the importance of redemption: "You will pursue your enemies and they will fall by the sword before you."

    And like the Hurrian deity, God in Leviticus promises punishment for disobedience. "I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols," God warns any Hebrews considering ignoring his word.

    Recent scholarship has expanded the modern understanding of biblical references to the Hittites. Although Hittites are mentioned as early as the story of Abraham in Genesis, geographical and chronological incongruities lead many scholars to believe that the reference may be to another group. Hittites who lived in Syria, mentioned in the books of Kings, are considered the real descendants of the group that had its capital at Hattusha.

    The Hurrians, however, did have contact with the Egyptians, and sent ambassadors to the Egyptian court. It is possible that Moses could have met some of them when, according to the biblical accounts, he was a part of that court, Hoffner said.

    "The people of ancient Israel left for us a priceless treasure in the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. These books are valuable not only because they preserve for us centuries of Israelite experience and thought, but also because they transmit much that was received from neighboring cultures whose literary heritage was not preserved," Hoffner said.

    "Through archaeological finds of the past century, more and more of that previously unknown heritage is being recovered. It should not trouble us that these texts echo biblical themes, for this simply shows how much the ancient biblical writers were in touch with their world. Whether they were giving or taking from that world we sometimes cannot tell. That they were sharing with that world is unquestionable."

    -- William Harms