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Hittites in the Old Testament

This page considers the word "Hittite" as used in various parts of the Old Testament, and discusses some implications of this.

It is tentatively suggested that the single translation "Hittite" does not do justice to the variations of use through the Old Testament, and that very few of the references should be solidly linked to the Anatolian people of that name. Instead, the words often refer to a Canaanite tribe living mostly in the hill-country region. Other possible interpretations are considered below.

Words used

There are two root words used:

  1. chêth (Strong's 2845)
  2. chittîy (Strong's 2850)

A possible link is with châthath, to break down, to be/make afraid but this is not certain: equally it could be of foreign derivation. Uses of the two words differ slightly.

This is used as a name on its own only in Genesis 10:15 (the Table of Nations) and the recapitulation of this in 1 Chronicles 1:13, as one of Canaan's offspring. (This verse is not found in the Septuagint). Elsewhere it occurs only in Genesis, and only in combination with benêy (sons of) or benôth (daughters of). Sons of appears in the passages referring to Abraham's purchase of land (Genesis 23, 25 and 49), and daughters of appears in connection with Esau's wives (Genesis 27).
This has two uses, as an adjective or noun. These can be subdivided as follows:
  1. Adjective, masculine. This occurs in these combinations, always with the definite article: ‘ephrôwn hachittîy (Genesis 23, 49, 50), hachittîy ‘ephrôwn ben-tsôchar (Genesis 25), hachittîy be’êrîy and ’êlôwn hachittîy (Esau's wives' fathers, Genesis 26 and 36), ’achîymelech hachittîy (a warrior of David, 1 Samuel 26), and ’ûrîyâh hachittîy (Uriah, numerous times in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings).
  2. Adjective, feminine, chittîyth. In the singular this occurs only in Ezekiel with reference to the moral ancestry of Jerusalem. In the plural (chittîyôth) it only occurs in 1 Kings 11 concerning some of Solomon's wives.
  3. Noun, singular, collective. As a collective noun, a plural English translation is usually preferred. This form is used in the frequent lists of Canaanite tribes, starting in Genesis 15.
  4. Noun, plural, chittîym. This occurs in combinations with other words, specifically:
    • ’erets hachittîym (land of the Hittites), Joshua 1:4 (not in the Septuagint) and Judges 1:26. It has been argued that 2 Samuel 24:6 also uses this construction but that the text has been corrupted - the Hebrew reads ’erets tachettîym châdshîy.
    • malkêy hachittîym (kings of the Hittites), in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 1 in association with malkêy ’arâm (Aramaean kings), and in 2 Kings 7 in association with malkêy mitsrayim (kings of Egypt).


So, to whom is the Old Testament referring? In particular, should any or all of the references be linked with the Anatolian people who flourished during the Middle and Late Bronze Age, or to other (later) uses of the word Hatti or Khatti? Usage outside the Old Testament will be considered below.

As explained above, chêth is restricted to Genesis (both on its own and in combination), except for the single 1 Chronicles 1 reference which is not found in the Septuagint. This may be viewed simply as a patronymic way of identifying a particular tribal group. The term apparently refers to a Semitic-speaking group in the hill country of Israel, with quite similar customs to those of Abraham and his family. The alternative word chittîy is also used of this group, with no obvious difference in use.

The most frequent use of chittîy is as one member of a collection of tribes paraded as enemies of Israel. This usage will be considered below. Excluding this, what is there? The term is applied to a number of specific individuals in the time of the united monarchy (Achimelekh and Uriah) as well as the uses already discussed in Genesis. There is no indication where David had recruited these followers from. However, if the Merenptah stele does indeed refer to a group of Anatolians who had settled in Canaan, there is the possibility that these warriors were recruited from amongst them - in the conventional chronology Merenptah was about 200 years before the united monarchy, which arguably would be long enough for them to become assimilated by a Semitic culture.

This leaves a very small number of plural uses, listed below:

  1. Numbers 13:29 - identifying the occupants of the land as "Amalekites in the land of the south (Negev), Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites in the mountains, and Canaanites by the sea and the Jordan". This has not been classed with the name-list group as the intention is to identify tribal areas rather than simply enumerate enemies.
  2. Joshua 1:4 - identifying the land to be conquered as "from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates - all the land of the Hittites - to the Great Sea on the west". The clause in bold, with the combination ’erets hachittîym, is omitted in the Septuagint.
  3. Joshua 9:1 - the coalition of kings allied with Jabin of Hazor in the north included Hittites (but also Jebusites, so this is not presented as an exclusively northern group of tribes).
  4. Judges 1:26 - the man went into the land of the Hittites (’erets hachittîym).
  5. Perhaps 2 Samuel 24:6.
  6. 1 Kings 10:29 (and 2 Chronicles 1:17) - the kings of the Hittites (malkêy hachittîym), with whom Solomon traded for horses.
  7. 1 Kings 11:1 - (some of) Solomon's wives (chittîyôth).
  8. 2 Kings 7:6 - the kings of the Hittites (malkêy hachittîym), mistakenly believed to be helping Israel.
  9. Ezekiel 16:3, 45 - the moral/religious ancestry of Jerusalem.

It will be seen that there are very few uses overall. They are clustered in two areas: during the conquest of the land, and during the early part of the monarchy. Around the time of the conquest, the term is only used in a group sense - in other words we do not find uses of the kind X the Hittite. In Joshua and Judges the term is used to indicate ownership of part of the land: however we do not find a word used in the abstract for Hatti-land. This contrasts strongly with the nonBiblical use outlined below, and with the Biblical practice for other major nations. For example we have a word for Egyptian people (mitsrîy), and a distinct word for Egypt (mitsrayim), not simply the phrase land of the Egyptians (’erets hammitsrîy). This is a most important distinction.

In the United Monarchy, we once again find individual people called X the Hittite (Achimelech and Uriah). These were part of David's following, seemingly from an early stage of his rise to power. We find Solomon marrying Hittite women and trading with Hittite kings. Later in the monarchy period, we have a single reference to kings of the Hittites in a generic way, with no particular geographic connection except that the Aramaeans are loosely connected with them. This could - but need not - suggest that they were located to the north of Israel.

Non-biblical usage

The Anatolian Hittites who founded first a kingdom and then an empire able to contend with Egypt for control of Syria-Palestine are frequently mentioned in surviving texts. Available evidence indicates that these were not Semitic, and that their principal language was Indo-European (though with some unusual features). However, a considerable number of texts in different languages have been found archaeologically, including Semitic ones. This perhaps suggests that they were comfortable in communicating with other nations in whatever language the occasion demanded. Their land is referred to by the terms:

The Merenptah stele includes the line: Hatti is pacified or at peace. This most likely refers to the Anatolian region, in common with other cases in Egyptian writing. Merenptah did not have the ability to campaign against them, nor the need on account of the peace treaty made by Rameses II and still in place - he provided food supplies to help at one point in his reign. However, at this point of the coda of the Stele, the author is indicating in an inclusive way the whole of the Mediterranean borderlands from west (Tehenu, or Libya) to north-east (Hatti). After this large-scale inclusion, the other peoples listed are within the Syro-Palestinian region. However, it has been suggested that this line refers to a Hittite enclave resident in Canaan. Conventionally this would be during the Judges era, and in the New Chronology this period aligns with the early divided monarchy.

After the demise of the Hittite empire at the end of the Late Bronze Age, various smaller neo-Hittite states outlived it for some time - this would be slightly later than the time of the Merenptah stele.

It is also the case that the term Khatti came from the 8th century onwards (ie the last Assyrian rulers, the neoBabylonians, and the Persian era) to be used for the whole of Syria-Palestine, roughly synonymous with the western half of these Mesopotamian empires. The monarchy-era uses of kings of the Hittites might be seen as reflecting this practice. However, it is important to note, as mentioned above, that the Old Testament does not have an equivalent to Khatti as a territorial indicator.

Some tentative conclusions

If for other reasons it is proposed that the patriarchal accounts should remain in the early 2nd millennium, can this be reconciled? If the Old Testament Hittites are to be regularly linked with the Anatolian people, then the patriarchal accounts - or at least these aspects of them - would be misplaced temporally, as there is no evidence that an enclave of these people had penetrated so far south at this time. The earliest external reference would appear to be in the Late Bronze Age, in the reign of Tudhaliyas IV.

However, there are certain distinct differences between the patriarchal and later references - the patriarchs dealt with these people as fellow-Semites and cultural equals, whereas, with the exception of a few specific individuals such as Uriah, the later mentions are remote and cold - trading partners or mercenaries rather than close allies or siblings. There are three main possibilities:

  1. The words Hittites etc routinely mean the same group of people throughout the Old Testament, and are intended to mean the Anatolian people. In the case of the patriarchal accounts, the word has been mistakenly inserted in place of the actual tribal name of the group in question. The words would therefore be anachronistic, but the account in other respects is in keeping with the era.
  2. The words Hittites etc routinely mean the same group of people throughout the Old Testament, and are intended to mean a local Semitic tribal group in the hill-country of Canaan. The similarity to the Anatolian name is coincidental. There are no particular chronological conclusions from this.
  3. The words Hittites etc do not always refer to the same group of people. In Genesis and during the conquest period, a genuinely Semitic group is intended, and the correct tribal name is given. The term children of chêth is the older and more ethnically correct designation for these people. The monarchy-era uses are more varied, and may refer either to this group, or to the Anatolian people-group.

The two uses in Joshua, and the single use in Judges remain to be discussed, as they form a bridge between the patriarchal and monarchy uses, and in terms of the internal chronology are roughly half-way between them. It is perhaps significant that the Septuagint lacks the Joshua 1:4 reference - this verse reads more like the monarchy-era usage, wheras the other two are more akin to the patriarchal use. This would suggest it could be the annotation of a later editor of the main text. Commentators differ as to which of the Hebrew or Septuagint source texts here represents the older tradition: the Septuagint of Joshua is shorter and has less details that appear to be editorial glosses, but other details suggest the primacy of the Hebrew text.

Hittites in the formal lists of enemies

Starting in Genesis 15, there are a total of 19 of these lists in which Hittites feature. The earliest (Genesis 15:19-21) contains the most extensive list - 10 tribal names in total. They are:

  1. Kenites. These are named fairly often in the early stages of occupation of the land, and again during Saul's reign. They do not appear again as part of a list of enemies.
  2. Kenizzites. These are mentioned only this one time in the Old Testament.
  3. Kadmonites. These are mentioned only this one time in the Old Testament.
  4. Hittites.
  5. Perizzites. These appear frequently in lists with the Hittites, but are not mentioned in other contexts except as early inhabitants of Canaan in Genesis 13:7.
  6. Rephaites. As a group of people, these only appear here and as a group defeated by Kedorlaomer and his allies in Genesis 14 in a region just east of the Sea of Galilee. The Valley of Rephaim appears as the location of David's decisive defeat of the Philistines near Jerusalem.
  7. Amorites. These appear frequently in lists with the Hittites and in other contexts, and are discussed elsewhere on this site.
  8. Canaanites. These appear frequently in lists with the Hittites and in other contexts.
  9. Girgashites. These appear sometimes in lists with the Hittites but are often absent.
  10. Jebusites. These appear frequently in lists with the Hittites, and also are found in separate contexts through Joshua, Judges, and the first part of David's reign. After his capture of the city of Jerusalem (Jebus) they only appear as list-members.

Also appearing in the later lists, but not present in Genesis 15, are the Hivites. In Jacob's time some of this tribe lived around Shechem. The Gibeonites, who persuaded Joshua into making a treaty with them, are said to be Hivites (Josh. 9:7), but other related groups are said to have lived towards Mt. Hermon and Lebanon (see Josh. 11:3, Jdg. 3:3).

The order of tribes mentioned varies considerably. It may be said that the Canaanites, Hittites and Amorites typically appear at the start of the lists, and the Hivites and Jebusites typically at the end, but the authors clearly felt no compulsion to repeat the same pattern on each occasion. On most occasions 6 tribes are named, but 5 and 7 are each found on several occasions. The practice is most common in Exodus and Joshua (which together account for nearly 2/3 of the lists) and is not found in the monarchy period after Solomon's reign.

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