In the Bible, the Amorites are frequently mentioned among Canaan’s original inhabitants, those who lived in the land before the Israelites. Yet the Amorites received a pointed condemnation unlike any reserved for another group. They are called out for their impure religious practices and deviant gods (e.g., Genesis 15:16; Joshua 24:15; 1 Kings 21:26).
Who were these detested “Amorites,” and how did the biblical writers think about them?
There is a legendary quality to Israelite memories of Canaan’s earliest inhabitants, including the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Canaanites, and Amorites (Numbers 13:29). The Israelite spies who first entered the land characterized them as “strong” and their towns as “fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:28, ESV).
What is more, the biblical writers perceived all of these groups to have descended from antediluvian heroes and giants, namely the Nephilim (the legendary offspring of the “sons of God” and “daughters of man” from Genesis 6:4). This is revealed in Numbers 13 where each group is including the Amorites, are presented as the descendants of the Nephilim.
Even before Israel’s conquest, the Amorites are already identified as inhabitants of Canaan in the Bible. Mamre “the Amorite” was an ally of Abram (Abraham) and assisted him in retrieving his nephew Lot from his captors (Genesis 14). Abram pitched his tent by the “oaks of Mamre” and later encountered the entourage of the “angel of Yahweh” in this region before its fateful trip to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19).
Amorites are also said to inhabit the hill
Elsewhere, the Bible also identifies the highlands east of the Jordan as Amorite land. In Deuteronomy 3, for example, Og of Bashan and Sihon of Heshbon are described as “the two kings of the Amorites” from “the land beyond the Jordan.” King Og, in particular, is clearly
The reference to King Og’s bed is a prime example of how the Israelites developed a mythology to explain and understand the physical landscape around them. The former inhabitants of Canaan, such as the Amorites and their Anakim neighbors, were seen as responsible for elements of the built landscape that the Israelites encountered. Vestiges of this earlier landscape included impressive monuments, fortifications, water systems, and stone monoliths, many of which the biblical writers note were still visible at the time they were writing.
Perhaps most ubiquitous within the landscape were the remains of Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 BCE) fortifications.1 Indeed, as the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, their spies bemoaned the great defenses of cities they found there: “Our kindred have made our hearts melt by reporting, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven!’” (Deuteronomy 1:28).
Between 1800 and 1600 BCE, massive fortifications were laid around sites large and small throughout Canaan. Some of these continued to function into the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1100 BCE) when they gradually fell out of use. The construction of these fortification systems was
Collectively, these defensive elements were intended to thwart siege warfare. The fosse kept siege machinery, such as siege towers and wheeled battering rams, from advancing, while relatively loose earthen ramparts bedeviled efforts to tunnel through or undermine the fortifications. The fortification wall’s sheer thickness dulled the effectiveness of battering rams and hampered efforts to dig through it, especially as arrows harangued the attackers from towers protruding from the fortification line.
By the start of the first millennium BCE, when states such as early Israel and Judah had emerged, nearly all the elements of Middle Bronze Age fortifications had fallen into disuse, being buried under successive strata of later Canaanite cities. Even so, as a result of the significant investment of labor and resources, elements of these massive building projects remained foundational to the layout, topography, and sometimes even defense of later settlements. It is not difficult to imagine various Israelite building projects encountering these remains during their construction. The cyclopean masonry of their curtain and revetment walls sometimes protruded above the surface, giving silent witness to massive building projects of an earlier age. Such remains likely were visible at both Jerusalem and Hebron. At still other sites, particularly those whose fortifications were built on low-lying plains, such as Tell Batash (likely biblical Timnah) in the Shephelah, Middle Bronze Age fortifications served as the very foundations that gave shape to the physical space of Iron Age (c. 1100–539 BCE) towns.
Water systems, another integral element of Middle Bronze Age defenses, played a role in the biblical narrative as well. Jerusalem’s early water system, centered on the Gihon Spring, constructed and enclosed by its own fortification walls, was likely the setting for David’s clandestine entry into Jebusite Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:6-9). Other Bronze Age water systems that likely survived into the first millennium include an example from Gezer, as well as less-securely dated systems from Megiddo and Amman.
Also common to the landscapes of ancient Israel and Judah were stone monoliths, often called standing stones. Gigantic in size, these monuments were part of the commemorative landscape of the Middle Bronze Age. One impressive collection of such monoliths was excavated at Gezer, where ten monoliths, some standing nearly 10 feet tall, were preserved in the center of the Canaanite city.
Such stelae were, by and large, commemorative in function, something made evident by biblical references that acknowledge the continued existence of such monuments during the first millennium. Referring to them as massebot (singular: massebah), the biblical authors often attributed these stones to the patriarch Jacob, who is said to have taken a stone and made it a massebah at Bethel (Genesis 28:18). He did so again when he made a covenant with Laban (Genesis 31:45) and once more at Bethel to commemorate God’s renaming him Israel (Genesis 35:14). Jacob’s connection to the land before the Egyptian sojourn certainly made him a prime candidate for association with such pre-Israelite monuments.
In light of Jacob’s association with commemorative stones, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jacob’s sons, the eponymous ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel, should also have been commemorated with standing stones. Joshua is said to have marked the crossing of the Jordan River, for example, by erecting 12 stones “in the middle of the Jordan” (Joshua 4:4-6).
Despite the actions of revered patriarchal figures like Jacob, what was permissible in an earlier age was viewed, like the Amorites, as anathema in later times. The Book of Leviticus, often regarded as late legal tradition, explicitly decries erecting “a pillar” (massebah; Leviticus 26:1). Nevertheless, much smaller pillars continued to be erected across ancient Israel throughout the Iron Age, whether in gateways, temples, or private homes.
Although it is difficult to reconstruct a coherent picture of ancient Israel’s mythologies surrounding the Amorites, the Bible does preserve glimpses of them. The landscape of ancient Canaan bore the marks of monuments left over from the Bronze Age that took on cultural associations with historical groups and individuals. Regardless of the historical validity of such associations, it is crucial to consider how the remnants of earlier times were understood by the Israelites and Judahites who experienced them as part of the world in which they lived.
In the Bible, the Amorites are frequently mentioned among Canaan’s original inhabitants, those who lived in the land before the Israelites. Yet the Amorites received a pointed condemnation unlike any reserved for another group. They are called out for their impure religious practices and deviant gods (e.g., Genesis 15:16; Joshua 24:15; 1 Kings 21:26). Who were these detested “Amorites,” and how did the biblical writers think about them? There is a legendary quality to Israelite memories of Canaan’s earliest inhabitants, including the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Canaanites, and Amorites (Numbers 13:29). The Israelite spies who first entered the land characterized them […]