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AMORITES (Heb. אֱמֹרִי; Emori), the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land of Israel. The word appears approximately 85 times in the Hebrew Bible and is used to designate all or part of that population. The Semitic derivation of the word, and possibly also the biblical usage of the term, can be illuminated to some extent from extra-biblical sources.

Extra-biblical Sources

In Sumero-Akkadian and Eblaite texts from the period from 2400 to 1600 B.C.E., Sumerian MAR.TU, Eblaite Martu(m), and Akkadian Amurru occur as a geographical term meaning literally "the West." The area extended westward from the Euphrates River as far as the Mediterranean Sea. It specifically embraced the great Syrian desert, the Orontes River valley, and the Amanus Mountains. In later Assyrian texts, Amurru was an established name for Syria-Palestine.

References to "the people of Amurru," in contrast with the more common geographical allusions, are largely from the period prior to 2000 B.C.E. and come from the Akkadian and Ur III periods. A date formula of the Old Akkadian king Sharkali-sharri (ca. 2200) refers to the defeat of the MAR.TU in Basar, identified by scholars with Jebel Bishri, a mountain range in central Syria west of the Euphrates. It seems that the people so named, after having overthrown or weakened Sumero-Akkadian dynasts, and in some cases having founded their own regimes, either quickly amalgamated with the Sumero-Akkadian population or passed on beyond the Tigris River to resume their habitual semi-nomadic type of life. The use of the term in an ethnic sense soon disappeared from the texts.

Strictly speaking, the extra-biblical usage of the name Amorites was applied almost exclusively to people who came from southern Mesopotamian locations prior to 2000 B.C.E. It is clear, however, that people with the same language were present along the mid-Euphrates at *Mari in the 20th century, at Babylon about 1830, and at Asshur on the Tigris River about 1750 B.C.E. That they were even present in Palestine is witnessed by the Egyptian Execration Texts of the 20th and 19th centuries. Their language did not survive in writing, but when they took over Akkadian Old Babylonian, they transliterated their names (which were often theophorous, for example, the elements 'am "people"; 'ab "father"; 'ah "brother," were combined with names of deities such as El and Hadad) and employed words, forms, and linguistic usages most closely paralleled in later West Semitic languages. These wide-ranging peoples belonging to a common linguistic stock have commonly been called "Amorites," by extension of the Sumero-Akkadian geographical term, but not exclusively so. T. Bauer proposed "East Canaanites" to stress their affinities with the Syro-Palestinian or West Canaanites. M. Noth for a time preferred "Proto-Arameans" to underscore their connections with later Arameans. A. Caquot opted for "early West Semites" to emphasize their distance from any of the later West-Semitic subdivisions. It is still a matter of considerable scholarly dispute whether the language of this group was the direct predecessor of Canaanite-Hebrew or Aramaic, or whether it was rather an early development without immediate ties to any of the later, better attested West-Semitic tongues. Indeed, the discovery of *Ebla (Tell Mardikh) some 40 miles south of Aleppo, brought to light the Eblaite language, a previously unknown Semitic language of the third millennium and has complicated the entire classification system of ancient Semitic. For further information, see *Alphabet (North-West Semitic); *Aramaic ; *Hebrew Language (Pre-Biblical); and *Semitic Languages .

If one draws together all the evidence from the sources which are "Amorite" in the broad sense, the bearers of the name appear originally as ass nomads who came out of the Syrian desert and settled unevenly over parts of Syria-Palestine and Mesopotamia, overthrowing existing political regimes and frequently establishing substitute dynasties. Only at Mari, near their desert home, do they seem to have formed the bulk of the populace. They rapidly adopted Sumero-Akkadian or Syro-Palestinian culture; in Mesopotamia they soon lost their original language, whereas in Palestine they may have retained it while it gradually developed over the centuries into the later Canaanite-Hebrew dialects of West Semitic. There is no evidence that they called themselves "Amorites"; instead, they were known as such only to some Sumero-Akkadians, who viewed them as "Westerners." In fact, no ethnic term is known which they applied to themselves.

The life style of the Amorite before settling down is attested, perhaps in exaggerated manner, in a Sumerian hymn: "The Weapon (is his) companion… / Who knows no submission, / Who eats uncooked flesh, / Who has no house in his life-time, / Who does not bury his dead companion" (E. Chiera, Sumerian Religious Texts, 1 (1924), 24; Sumerian Epics and Myths (1934), no. 58, rev. col. 4, lines 26–29). That this semi-nomadic cultural level was abandoned once the newcomers gained a foothold in settled lands is well attested by the hostile policies of Amorite dynasts at Mari toward troublesome nomads in their own kingdom. No inclusive "Amorite" cultural or religious loyalties held the invaders together for long; the newly established Amorite city-states were soon vigorously at war with one another in the familiar Sumero-Akkadian fashion. Similarly, in Canaan the Execration Texts suggest that, within a century of their arrival, the Amorites were split into contending city-states, with single dynasts replacing the initial tribal rule by a cabal of sheikhs or elders.

From an 18th century B.C.E. letter to King Zimri-Lim of Mari comes the earliest testimony to a country in Syria called Amurru. Localized non-biblical usage of Amurru appears next in 14th–13th century B.C.E. Syro-Palestinian texts referring to a kingdom located in the mountains and along the coast of northern Lebanon. The relation of the regional political term to earlier usages of Amurru is unknown. Conceivably it was merely intended to herald that Syrian kingdom as the most important political entity in "the West."

Biblical References

The biblical occurrences of Emori are of two types with three sub varieties of one of the types: (1) Amorites are the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the occupied land in general (e.g., Gen. 15:16; Josh. 7:7). This meaning occurs characteristically in the E source of the Pentateuch (in contrast to J's "Canaanites"), in the conquest narratives, and in the Deuteronomic traditions; and (2) Amorites are a particular subgroup of the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the occupied land: one of several peoples itemized in lists of dispossessed ethnic or political groups (including variously: Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Hivites-Horites, etc.; Gen. 10:16; Ex. 3:8; I Chron. 1:14); inhabitants of the Transjordanian kingdoms of Og and *Sihon (e.g., Num. 21:13; Josh. 2:10; 9:10; Judg. 10:8); and inhabitants of the mountainous regions of West Jordan (in contrast to the Canaanites on the coast and in the plains; e.g., Deut. 1:19 ff., 27, 44; Josh. 10:5 ff.). It is now impossible to draw a direct link between the Sumero-Akkadian term Amurru from 2000 B.C.E. and the Israelite term Amorite in use after 1200 B.C.E. Hebrew Amorite is never a geographical term the way Amurru largely is (save in Josh. 13:4–5 where the kingdom of A murru in the Lebanon is likely meant). It is impossible to draw a direct link between the Hebrew usage of the name Emori and the Sumero-Akkadian Amurru, which died away one thousand years before the Israelites arose in Ereẓ Israel. It is assumed on geographical and chronological grounds, that some of the elements in the local population, perhaps the rulers of the kingdoms of Og and Sihon, were offshoots of the Syrian city-state of Amurru. However, there is no positive evidence in favor of the hypothesis and, even if it were granted for want of a better alternative, it does not explain how the localized usage was extended to refer either to all the pre-Israelite populace in the hill country of Cisjordan or to the peoples of Canaan in toto.

A comparison of the biblical and extra-biblical ethnic usages of Amorite and Amurru shows that groups of Semites with linguistic affinities were called "Amorites" at opposite ends of the Fertile Crescent at periods almost a millennium apart. Beyond that, the peculiarities and disjunctions in the geographical and ethnic references in the two contexts, the uncertainties of relationship between the early Amorite language and the later Canaanite-Hebrew, as well as the vast time gap between the compared terms, frustrate any attempt to determine the precise meaning or meanings of the biblical term Amorites.

[Norman K. Gottwald]

Talmudic References

The Talmud applies the term darkhei ha-Emori ("the ways of the Amorite") to superstitious heathen practices not covered by specific prohibitions but subsumed under the general prohibition of "neither shall you walk in their statutes" (Lev. 18:3). The verse actually refers generally to the prohibition against "the doings of the land of Canaan" in general. The Mishnah (Ḥul. 4:7) forbids as "Amorite practices" the burial at the crossroads of the afterbirth of the first born of an animal which had been set aside for an offering, or hanging it on a tree, and the wearing of such charms as "a locust's egg, a fox's tooth, or a nail from the gallows of an impaled convict" (Shab. 6:10). Chapters 6 and 7 of Tosefta Shabbat give a comprehensive list of such prohibitions, and are referred to as "the chapter on Amorite practices" (Shab. 67a where other examples are given). Nevertheless, the rabbis held that whatever is done for medicinal purposes is not prohibited as Amorite practice (ibid.).


Albright, Stone, 151–6, 163–6; T. Bauer, Die Ostkanaanaeer (1926); E. Dhorme, Recueil Edouard Dhorme (1951), 81–165; Gibson, in: JNES, 20 (1961), 220–4; K. Kenyon, Amorites and Canaanites (1966); Noth, in: ZAW, 58 (1940–41), 182–9; Gelb, in: JCS, 15 (1961), 27–42; Lewy, in: HUCA, 32 (1961), 32–72; Tur-Sinai, in: JQR, 39 (1949), 249–58; Mazar, in: EM, 1 (1955), 440–6; Tur-Sinai, ibid., 446–8; H.B. Huffmon, Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts (1965); Aharoni, Land, index S.V. Amurru. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. van Seters, in: VT, 22 (1972), 64–81; G. Mendenhall, in: ABD, 1, 199–202; M. Anbar, Les Tribus amurrites de Mari (1991); R. Whiting, in: CANE, 2, 1231–42.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.