This article was published in the Fall 2002 issue of Bible and Spade.
Tyre’s significance in the 14th century BC can be seen in the Amarna Letters. These cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets found in Tell el-Amarna, Egypt, represent correspondence between minor Canaanite kings ruling under Egyptian auspices during the reign of Egyptian Pharaohs Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaten. This is the century immediately following Joshua’s initial assault on Canaan, according to Biblical chronology.
While Tyre was outside the main area of Israelite operations, it was in the northern sector of Canaan. Ten letters from Abimilki (“my father is king,” like the Hebrew name Abimelech), king of Tyre, to Ahkenaten (EA 146–155)1 reported on political conditions in Canaan. At this time, Tyre was located on the island. The inhabitants obtained water supplies from the mainland settlement, Uzu (Jidejian 1996:40).
The occasion of Abimilki’s letters to Pharaoh Akhenaten appeared to be a very difficult political situation. The foremost problem revolved around the availability of drinking water (EA 146.20; 148.12, 31; 149.51, 75; 50.21; 151.39, 43; 154.18; 155.10, 16, 19, 25, 63).
From the first letter (EA 146.15; see also 147.66-70; 148.24-26; 149.49-63, 67–70; 151.11-14; 152.7-8; 154.11-25), Abimilki had issues with Zimrida king of Zidon (Sidon). Another problem for Abimilki may also have involved the SA GAZ people (EA 146.22; see also 148.43, 45). The SA GAZ, or Apiru as called by the king of Jerusalem (EA 286:19, 56; 287:31; 288:37, 44; 289:24), were viewed by Abimilki as rebels fighting against Tyre and Pharaoh (for an excellent treatment of the subject, see Waterhouse 2001). Abimilki also believed kings of other nearby Canaanite cities joined with them (EA 148:41–43).
The North Palace at Amarna. Here the royal family lived, enjoying courts with pools and shaded garden porticoes.
From the first letter (EA 146.9) and the following letters (EA 147.61-64; 148.21-22; 149.9-10; 150.7-9; 151.6; 153.14-16; 155.50), Abimilki reminds Akhenaton that he was protecting Tyre for Pharaoh. It seems that Abimilki may not have been of the city’s ruling dynasty or even a native of Tyre, but placed on the throne by Pharaoh. A letter from Rib-Addi (EA 89.20-21), king of Byblos (Gebal), says that enemies have killed the ruler at Tyre along with the members of Rib-Addi’s family. Abimilki probably replaced Tyre’s deceased king. It seems Byblos and Tyre, were almost the only cities in the region of Lebanon that were loyal to Egypt.
In his second letter (EA 147.66-70) Abimilki denounces Zimrida of Sidon as a traitor and spy, a recurring theme throughout his letters (EA 148.24-26; 149.49-63, 67–70; 151. 11–14; 152.7-8; 154.11-25).
From the second letter on (EA 147.65-66), Abimilki continued to call on Pharaoh to provide drinking water and wood for heat (EA 148.31-33; 149.51, 75–76; 150.21; 151.39-40, 43; 154.17-18; 155.10, 16, 19, 25, 63) for his island fortress. Tyre would have needed to be periodically resupplied with these and other commodities (straw and clay, EA 148.33-34; straw and earth, EA 155.19). Presumably the adjacent mainland city Uzu was Tyre’s regular supplier.
Consequently, in his third (EA 148.11, 30) and fifth (EA 150.18-21) letters Abimilki requested Uzu from Pharaoh. Scholars suggest it may be the adjacent mainland city known by the Greeks as Paleotyrus. That would explain the fact that in the following letters, Uzu and water (and wood and a few other necessities) are tied together (EA 148.11-12, 30–34; 149.49-51; 150.18-21).
Amarna letters on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Some 380 clay tablets were recovered from the “Office-House of the Letters of Pharoah” at Amarna.
Yet, in his fourth letter (EA 149.49-50), Abimilki tells Pharaoh that the ruler of Uzu had fled and that his enemy, Zimrida of Sidon, has taken the city. It is not clear if Abimilki was ever delivered by Pharaoh from the hand of his enemy. Because his letters appear to stop, it may be assumed his fate was similar to that of many other Canaanite kings at the time. Pharaoh Akhenaten was unable or unwilling to help.
Pharoah Ahkenaten and his wife Nefertiti. Akhenaten encouraged realism in art as can be seen in this painted relief. In other periods, art tended to be idealized and formal. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
Abimilki wrote these letters to his sovereign during a very short period in the 14th century BC. This was the Biblical period of the Judges. An important port city on the northern fringes of the Promised Land and outside the main area of Israelite operation, Tyre was still under plenty of pressure. Abimilki describes a situation that fits the Biblical description of the region during the Conquest and Settlement periods. Every city had a minor king, and these kings kept uniting for or against each other. In at least one case, Abimilki said a king joined with the Apiru, at this time and place apparently the Hebrews (or Israelites). Consequently, the Apiru or SA GAZ, the bad people of the Amarna Letters, were the good guys of the Bible!
1. The letters are identified by the designation EA (el-Amarna) and a sequential number.
1996 Tyre Through the Ages. Beirut: Librairie Orientale.
Moran, W. L.
1992 The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
2001 Who are the Habiru of the Amarna Letters? Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12.1:31–42.