Traces of language
In addition to these ancient uses of the word ‘Amorite’, modern scholars have applied the term to thousands of personal names which occur on cuneiform tablets of the second millennium BC (ca. 2000–1200 BC). These names had meanings, and when their grammar is studied, they prove to be in a West Semitic tongue, related to Hebrew and Aramaic, which may well have been the language called ‘Amorite’ in ancient Near Eastern documents. If so, these names are the only remaining traces of Amorite language, apart from a few Amorite words loaned into other languages. These names appear especially in documents from the early second millennium BC (ca. 2000–1600 BC), when Amorite kings ruled several of the most powerful states of the Fertile Crescent. After this, Amorite names slowly diminished, though some of them persisted into the late second millennium BC and beyond.
In the Bible, Amorites appear in two major units: in the patriarchal narratives (Genesis 12–50) and in the Exodus-Conquest narratives (Exodus–Judges). The break between them corresponds to several generations recounted in only three verses (Exodus 1:6-8), the time between Joseph and Moses. Traditionally, the events recounted in the patriarchal narratives are located in approximately the first half of the second millennium (ca. 2100–1550 BC) and the Exodus-Conquest in the latter half of the second millennium (ca.1550–1200 BC).
Our first encounter with individuals who are called ‘Amorite’ is in Genesis 14:13, which refers to ‘Mamre the Amorite (ha-emori), brother of Eshcol and of Aner.’ These Amorites are distinguished from ‘Abram the Hebrew’ (ha-ibri), with whom they have a pact which involves mutual protection. The name Abram (meaning ‘father is exalted’) is well-attested among the Amorite names; the other names are not, though they are not necessarily out of place in the time and region. Eshcol means ‘grape-cluster’ in West Semitic languages and Mamre may mean something like ‘fatness,’ so two of the brothers’ names may have shared a semantic theme of abundance, a kind of onomastic family resemblance.
While the events of Genesis 14 are told from the point of view of a later time (see 14:1), the traditional dating for the setting of this story is sometime in the first half of the second millennium BC. This, as it happens, was a time when Amorite kings ruled the major political powers of Mesopotamia and the Levant, and some features of the story can be shown to be appropriate for this period. For example, the northern coalition of kings appears to be led by Chedorlaomer (14:4-5), an Elamite king with an Elamite name (meaning ‘the deity Lagamar is a shepherd’). Elam is a country far to the east, beyond Mesopotamia, and the Elamites exerted political dominance as far as the Levant only in the first half of the second millennium BC.
Moreover, in contrast to Abram’s Amorite allies, Abram himself is called a Hebrew (ibri). This word has often been connected with the term abiru (same consonants as ibri, but different vowels), which refers to groups of displaced people. The comparison of these two terms has some problems (and it is best not to get into the details of those here), but in the Amorite age of the first half of the second millennium BC, the parts of some tribes which remained in the steppe with the flocks and herds could be called ibri, like ‘Hebrew’ in Genesis 14:13. Indeed, in Genesis 13 Abram parted from Lot because their respective herds were too big to coexist, and ‘Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley…’ (13:12). The reference to Abram as ibri, then, may mean that he is someone who resides with the flocks and herds in the country. Such features of Genesis 14 indicate that the events recounted there are best viewed in the framework of the first half of the second millennium BC, and it may be that the term ‘Amorite’ in Genesis 14 carried some of the connotations current at that time. Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner may have been from the land of Amurru along the coast of the Mediterranean or they may have had some sort of Amorite cultural heritage similar to that of the Amorites of the first half of the second millennium BC. But the matter is difficult, and the story is recounted from the point of view of a later time, when ‘Amorite’ may have taken on different connotations.