Reviews of

El-Amarna Correspondence

In Ancient Near East, Anson F. Rainey, Brill, Egypt, HB/OT, Kurtis Peters, William Schniedewind, Zipora Cochavi-Rainey on March 22, 2015 at 3:20 am

2015.03.08 | Rainey, Anson F. Z”L. The El-Amarna Correspondence: A New Edition of the Cuneiform Letters from the Site of El-Amarna based on Collations of all Extant Tablets, edited by William Schniedewind and Zipora Cochavi-Rainey. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

Reviewed by Kurtis Peters.

Many thanks to Brill for providing a review copy.

Many students, and perhaps even some scholars, of the Bible are unaware of the corpus of material that comes to us from el-Amarna in Egypt. Of course, this material is not written in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, nor does it tell of any events that can easily correlate with the biblical corpus. Why, then, ought those who study the Bible to know these texts? Or more to the point, what does Rainey’s extensive work on them offer to biblical studies?

These texts from el-Amarna (an artificial name derived from a misunderstanding in the early 19th century – p.1), consist largely of letters written to and sometimes from Egypt during the reigns of the 18th dynasty Pharaohs Amenḥotep III and Amenḥotep IV (who later famously adopted the name Akhenaten). These letters, numbering 382 in total, represent the political affairs of the Ancient Near East during the Late Bronze II (mid-14th century BCE). From them one can deduce information about Babylon and Assyria, Upper Mesopotamia (Mittani Empire), Cyprus (Kingdom of Alashia), and all up and down the Levant. In fact, the Levantine correspondence accounts for the vast majority of the material. Nearly seventy of the letters derive from Rib-Haddi, the ruler of Byblos on the Phoenician coast, alone. What biblical scholars will most appreciate, however, is the correspondence with the vassal kings of the southern Levant, viz. Canaan.

Here one finds that Canaan is a network of many small city-states, ruled by local kings who serve Egypt. The problem, however, is that Egypt seems to be taking less and less note of what actually transpires in the southern Levant, and is content to gather what tribute they are “owed” and otherwise sit back and let things continue on as they will. The Canaanite rulers, though, entreat Pharaoh, time and time again, to act on their behalf in order to put down this or that rebellion in a neighbouring city-state. Interestingly, these rulers regularly accused one another of being ‘apiru, that is, some sort of social group that posed a threat to Egyptian rule. ‘apiru, however, is a term that has been at the centre of much scholarly controversy over the last century. Many scholars, most memorably Mendenhall and Gottwald, equated the ‘apiru with the Hebrews, and here found a social justification for seeing the Israelites really as a group of Canaanites who threw off their Canaanite masters and fled to the hill country and established a new clan identity. Rainey, on the other hand, has on linguistic, historical, and social principles left little doubt that such connections are entirely unfounded (p.31-35). The term has more to do with urbanized mercenaries, and in the case of the Amarna letters, with mercenaries who are aligned with disloyalty to Egypt.

While the ‘apiru-Hebrew debate is certainly one issue where biblical scholarship has taken an interest in the Amarna letters, it is not the focus of this monumental work. Rather, the work is a new critical edition of the entire corpus of letters. Rainey painstakingly collated every single tablet, found scattered in many different museums and other locations, and has provided both a new transliteration of the Akkadian (left-side page) and a new translation into English (right-side page). Rainey himself was uniquely qualified for the task, having already published a four-volume series with Brill on how the Canaanite scribes imposed some of their own native language on the Akkadian used in the letters (Rainey, Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets, 1996). This, though, is not the only dialectical variation in the tablets. One letter is written in Middle Assyrian, many are in Middle Babylonian, and others, like those from Canaan, are written in regional dialects based on Middle Babylonian. Additionally, one letter was written in Hurrian and two in Hittite (p.10-11). To publish a work such as this, therefore, takes someone who is well versed in each of these languages, as well as in the way different regions impose their own conventions on a language. Moreover, an extensive knowledge of archaeology in Egypt and the Near East, and of historical geography in the same area, is something in which few could hope to rival Rainey (see, for example, The Sacred Bridge by Rainey and R. Steven Notley, 2006). It is this kind of knowledge that finds its way into a very helpful introduction to the corpus, that situates the material in its historical and geographical context very effectively.

Sadly, Anson Rainey passed away before he could see this work published. He had already written the introduction and all the transliterations and translations of all the texts, and had invited Jana Mynářová to write a section in the introduction on the discovery, research, and excavation of the tablets. But the work was not yet complete and he asked a friend and former student William Schniedewind to take over the editing of the first volume (the texts). Schniedewind had his research assistant Alice Mandell create the glossary, which most everyone working with the Akkadian will sincerely appreciate. Zipora Cochavi-Rainey, the wife of Anson, worked to edit and complete the second volume, which is essentially a critical apparatus to the texts. Here one can find all the collation notes, including where to find the tablets, photographs, other translations, as well as any of Rainey’s notes on the text itself.

The most significant contribution Rainey has provided to scholarship here is a much needed update to a corpus whose previous critical edition was published a century earlier by J. A. Knudtzon. That edition, while immensely helpful, had some deficiencies. First, several texts have come to light since its publication and have been published in various other locations. Second, after having handled the texts himself, Rainey determined that some of Knudtzon’s transliterations, and those of other scholars, needed emending. Third, the standard transliteration practices have changed since Knudtzon’s edition and therefore the transliterations need updating. Since Knudtzon there have been of course other scholars to work on the letters from Amarna. Most notable among them perhaps is W. L. Moran, who published a translation of all the texts into French (1987) and later into English (1992). Unfortunately, these did not come with transliterations, and therefore Assyriologists were still primarily working with Kudtzon’s edition. Here, finally, one has access to updated transliterations of each of the letters with an appended glossary, clear translations into English, and a thorough critical apparatus. It nearly goes without saying that, as one has come to expect from Brill, the layout, typeface, etc. is clean and lends itself to easy reading. All one could wish for is high resolution photographs of the texts themselves.

The order in the two volumes is simply based up the traditional order of the corpus itself, which originated with Knudtzon’s edition. Each letter is given its number in the format EA 182, for example. For those interested in the historical geography of the letters, a detailed table of contents would have been a great aid, where the letters are grouped according to the region concerned. Currently, the EA numbers have them arranged by group, but there is nowhere a list of which numbers pertain to which region. The following, therefore, is a brief summary. EA 1-16 consist of correspondence with Babylonia; 17-29 deal with Mittani; 30-32 are letters exchanged with Arzawa (southern Turkey); 33-40 concern the kingdom of Alashia (on Cyprus); 41-44 feature the Hittites; and the remaining letters (50-382) are primarily concerned with the Levant. As mentioned above, nearly seventy of these Levantine letters are from Rib-Haddi of Byblos, but the rest are spread out among Ugarit and other northern Levant city-states as well as the city-states of the south. Of particular interest for the biblical scholar/student is the controversy surrounding the notable Lab’ayu, who seemed to be deeply involved in establishing a power base for himself at Shechem together with the help of ‘apiru. It appears that Gideon’s son Abimelech was not the first to use Shechem for a base. Lab’ayu’s activities also brought him into contact with the vassals from other city-states known from the Hebrew Bible such as Gath, Gezer, Megiddo, Akko, as well as Jerusalem.

The letters to, from, and about these cities tell us much of the goings on in Canaan prior to establishment of the Israelite kingdom, and Rainey’s clear and lucid translations offer his readers meaningful access to such a world. Biblical scholars and students alike would do well to become familiar with the el-Amarna correspondence, and Rainey’s edition is an excellent place to begin. Perhaps there is no better capstone to the brilliant career of such a formidable scholar.

Kurtis Peters
Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, BC, Canada
[ at ]

  1. […] Kurtis Peters reviews Anson F. Rainey’s The El-Amarna Correspondence: A New Edition of the Cuneiform Letters from the Site of El-Amarna based on the Collations of All Extant Tablets. […]

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