First Sentences in Amorite Found
Old Testament Project
27th February 2023
The first-known examples of Amorite-Akkadian bilingual vocabularies are published in new research by Andrew George and Manfred Krebernik.
In January 2023 two clay tablets from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) were published in the journal Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale. They date to about 2000-1600 BC, roughly the time of Hammurabi (of the Code) and the biblical patriarchs, and they were written in two languages: Akkadian, the main written language of Mesopotamia, and a language closely related to Biblical Hebrew. These tablets were divided into two columns, with Akkadian on the right, translating phrases written in the other language on the left. This latter language is probably what the ancient Mesopotamians called “Amorite” and what makes these tablets particularly interesting is that these are the first texts in this language known to us.
Akkadian and Amorite are part of the Semitic family of languages, like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. While the prestige of Akkadian language and literature meant that it was the language of writing across cultural-linguistic boundaries in the second millennium BC, many other languages were, of course, spoken during this time. But the vast majority of them are not available to us, because they were not (often) written or they were written on perishable materials like leather. Other languages held a similar status to Akkadian within their own cultural horizons, like Egyptian or Hittite. Still others were used for very specific situations, like Sumerian, which was the traditional language of learning in Mesopotamia, but was no longer widely spoken. Occasionally other languages are mentioned in the ancient documents, including Amorite.
Still, bits of Amorite did crop up in isolated cases, especially in the names of people. Names in the ancient Near East normally had a fairly transparent meaning and thousands of names probably in Amorite have been handed down to us in tablets otherwise written in Akkadian. Occasionally, a bit of spoken Amorite was quoted in letters or Amorite terms were borrowed into Akkadian and showed up in Akkadian texts. But we have not had any Amorite texts, until now.
The tablets just published are in a format which we know from many other texts from Mesopotamia, that of lists of translated terms and phrases in different languages. These texts were normally organized with the source language in the left column and the target language on the right, so that the focus of inquiry, so to speak, was in the left column. Since these new tablets are organized with the Amorite in the left column, we may assume that it represents the scribe’s idea of good Amorite, including features like word-order and idioms, which were then rendered into Akkadian. Copies of texts like this were usually produced by pupils in school or by ancient scholars who were interested in the preservation and production of knowledge.
I said that the language in the left column of these tablets is Semitic, but it is more closely related to Biblical Hebrew than to Akkadian, the Semitic language spoken in the scribal circles which produced these tablets. Even if you only have the most basic knowledge of Hebrew, you can easily see the similarities with Amorite on these tablets.
The word in column 1 is the Amorite word for “bread,” while the word in column 2 translates it as “bread,” aklum, in Akkadian. Most first year Hebrew students learn that the word for bread is lekhem. You can see that the consonants are the same as the Amorite word, but the vowels are different. This is because Hebrew as we know it from the Bible had gone through some changes in its patterns of vowels in nouns like this. But by comparison with other Semitic languages, we know that precursors of the Biblical Hebrew forms would have been just like the form in Amorite.
Similar examples could easily be multiplied:
The discovery of texts this old, in a language so close to Hebrew, is important for the study of ancient Semitic languages. It also tells us a bit more about the world in which the patriarchs lived. It is possible that they spoke this language, though one can never be sure. Certainly their names are similar to Amorite names, using the same words and grammatical structures, and they often mean the same things. For example, Abram (אַבְרָם, “Father is exalted”) and his two sons, Ishmael (יִשְׁמָעֵאל, “God heard”) and Isaac (יִצְחָק, “he laughed”) have direct parallels among Amorite names: Abi-ram, “My father is exalted,” Yasma-el, “God heard,” and Yatskhaqum, “he laughed.”
It is important to say that this sort of evidence does not prove the truth of the patriarchal narratives. It is actually rather rare that we have conclusive extrabiblical evidence that particular events in the Old Testament happened, for the very simple reason that the amount and types of evidence available to us are usually not sufficient to do that. The outright rejection of the possibility that Old Testament events occurred because we have nothing but biblical evidence for them, fails to take into account how ancient textual and archaeological evidence work. Trillions of things happened in the past for which there is no evidence, or often there is only one reference to an event in a single text. Most of the events in the patriarchal stories occurred in out-of-the-way places, like rural Canaan, away from monumental architecture and archives of documents, and in the confines of a single extended family which moved around a lot. We would not expect them to have left much of a trace in the archaeological or textual record. What Amorite language and names can show is that aspects of the patriarchal narratives are historically plausible, and from that point of view this evidence is in favor of those who regard these stories as reliable.
Original research: George, Andrew; Krebernik, Manfred (2022). "Two Remarkable Vocabularies: Amorite-Akkadian Bilinguals!". Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale. 116 (1): 113–166. doi:10.3917/assy.116.0113.