Who Were the Hittites?

Archaeology and the Bible give different answers

tudhaliya-iv

Who were the Hittites? At one time the Hittites were one of three superpowers in the ancient world. Tudhaliya IV (1237–1209 B.C.E.) ruled over the Hittite Kingdom during its heyday and is depicted here on a rock carving from the Hittites’ sacred open-air shrine at Yazilikaya, less than a mile from the Hittite capital of Hattusa in present-day Turkey. Photo: Sonia Halliday.

Who were the Hittites? This question is not as simple as it appears. There are lots of evidence from archaeology and the Biblical texts, but the two sources of information are not compatible, which adds an element of mystery to this ancient kingdom. The article “The Hittites—Between Tradition and History” in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review examines what archaeology and the Bible say about the Hittites.

Who were the Hittites according to archaeology? As early as 1900 B.C.E., an Indo-European people began to settle in what is now Turkey. By the 16th century B.C.E., they were powerful enough to invade Babylon. Their might continued to expand until they were a superpower on the level with Egypt and Assyria. Relations with Egypt were particularly volatile and included the famous Battle of Kadesh and the eventual signing of the world’s oldest peace treaty. The Hittite capital, Hattusa, has been excavated, revealing a formidable and religious empire.

Excavation evidence shows that Hattusa was invaded and burned in the early 12th century B.C.E., but this was after the city had largely been abandoned. In the 14th century B.C.E., Carchemish in northern Syria was made a vice-regal seat. As the Hittites began abandoning the land of Hatti during the region-wide decline at the end of the 12th century B.C.E., they may have fled to this location.

Who were the Hittites according to the Bible? The Hittites play a prominent role at key places in the Hebrew Bible: Ephron the Hittite sells Abraham the family burial ground (Genesis 23); Esau married Hittite women, and Rebecca despised them (Genesis 26:34); frequently they are listed as one of the inhabitants of Canaan (e.g., Exodus 13:5; Numbers 13:29; Joshua 11:3); King David had Uriah the Hittite killed in order to acquire Uriah’s wife (2 Samuel 11); King Solomon had Hittites among his many wives (1 Kings 10:29–11:2; 2 Chronicles 1:17); and the prophet Ezekiel degrades Israel with the metaphor of a Hittite mother (Ezekiel 16:3, 45).
 


 
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“The impression is that many Hittites are living in the land of Canaan during the time of the Founding Families … And this impression is reinforced by Biblical references to Hittites during the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah,” notes the BAR article “The Hittites—Between Tradition and History.”

hattusa-wall

The wall around Hattusa was more than 6 miles long and had several decorated gates. Visitors to the city would enter through the Lion Gate—named for the stone lions on either side of the entrance. The lion was a symbol of protection, defiance and royalty in Hittite culture. Photo: Sonia Halliday Photographs/Photo by Jane Taylor.

According to the BAR article, “[T]his still leaves us with an open question regarding the references to the Hittites during the time of the patriarchs. To a certain extent, the composition history of the Pentateuch may be relevant to this discussion. If one were to assume that these narratives depict historical realities that were written down close to the time of occurrence, then one might conclude that the references are to the original Hittites rather than the Neo-Hittites. However, the majority of scholars believe that these narratives were composed hundreds of years after the events that they describe and often contain anachronisms for the time of composition superimposed on the narrative time. This would suggest that the references reflect the Neo-Hittites.”

So who were the Hittites? The older Hittites never self-identified as Hittites, but called their language Nesite and their land Hatti, referring to themselves as the people of Hatti. Had scholars known from the beginning what has been subsequently uncovered, these people would probably be called Nesites or perhaps Nesians. When the once-mighty kingdom collapsed, those in the former Syrian vassal states kept the culture alive, becoming the Neo-Hittites. The archaeological record reveals the story of the original Hittites, while the Bible refers mostly to the Neo-Hittites.

For more on the Hittites as told through archaeology and the Bible, read the full article “The Hittites—Between Tradition and History” in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 


 
BAS Library Members: Read the full article “The Hittites—Between Tradition and History” in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Read more about the Hittites in the BAS Library:

E. C. Krupp, “Sacred Sex in the Hittite Temple of Yazilikaya,” Archaeology Odyssey, March/April 2000.

Aharon Kempinski, “Hittites in the Bible: What Does Archaeology Say?” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1979.

Trevor Bryce, “The Last Days of Hattusa,” Archaeology Odyssey January/February 2005.
 


 

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7 Responses

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  1. mazen says

    There is a confusion between a Semetic tribe of Hetti living in Arabia and Canaan and the Hati people of Anatolia and northern Syria. The bible talks about the. small Hetti tribe who with other tribes like Medyans,Moabites,etc….shared the surrounding lands of Canaan.

  2. yvonne says

    I don’t appreciate these findings for “proof” that the bible is true, by faith we believe… I’m a history buff that loves it when God allows a little bit of evidence to be left for all the skeptics! So many times he told the ancients build an altar as a memorial….to whom?! Him? Yes and no but more to the skeptics. Well it’ll all come out in the wash! Can’t wait till the Red Sea gives up its proof!

  3. Kenneth says

    As those of Gath were called Gittites, why wouldn’t those of Heth be called Hittites?
    Heth is listed as the second son of Canaan, and Gath was a Philistine city.

  4. Michelle says

    Then as now family groups and communities immigrate from the land of their origin to the outer parts of their empire and when this empire disappears or retreats these communities may remain. So in the Bible when they refer to individuals at this latter period of time as Hittites it may just mean this a person from a community from this past empire that is still in existence from this time. There may have been merchants from the ancient empire we call the Hittites that remain in communities in Canaan long after the what we now call the Hittite Empire has disappeared.

  5. Rob says

    Michelle: Archaelogist Clark Whisler in the thirties had a lecture on this subject wherein he revealed the migration of cultural artifact styles. A culture (like an amoeba) has a culture center surrounded by “marginal locations” within it’s bounds. His thesis was that innovations migrate from point of origin to surrounding sites over time, and if the whole scene is erased, by, say a large battle, the site where a researcher might discover some apparently newer innovation to some artifact is probably later in time, whereas at it’s point of origin with newer subsequent technology there might be no representation of the item. E.G.: Today, to find a surviving model T Ford, look in the Amazon basin, not New York City. I call this the “marginal survival of a culture trait”; someone else may have a better name.

  6. jerome says

    The Hittites were a Hamitic POC. They were a “darkened” or “black” people that descended from the line of Ham the father of the dark races. During the scattering of Babel, the family of Heth divided itself into three groups. One of the groups followed its grandfather “Canaan” to the land of Canaan or “Gods land”, while the others journeyed northwest and east, into Asia Minor (Turkey), and Aramea (Syria).

  7. Kim says

    Melchizedek, as a priest as well as king, was likely to have been associated with a sanctuary, probably dedicated to


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