The Shasu of Yahweh

Soleb 20 26 11.04N
30 20 02.36E
Located about 135 miles south of Wadi Halfa, the Soleb temple of Amenhotep III is badly ruined.
Amarah West 20 50 22.92N
30 30 46.17E
The coordinates are for a picture of the ruined temple of Rameses II. Unfortunately, those who contribute pictures to Google Earth have the unfortunate habit of scattering them more or less at random across the map, so goodness knows where the temple is!

I recently did some research on the Moabite Stone, not because I hoped to make some novel discovery but simply because I intended to include it in a lecture I was giving and wanted to be sure that I had the facts right. The story of the stone just underlines the fact that the French don't play cricket!

In the course of this research, however, I came across a translation of the Moabite Stone on Wikipedia, something I do not recall encountering before, and read it with interest. Two things impressed me.

The first was the statement that "in Horonaim lived 'beth...oud'". Apparently there is a letter missing from that word - due, no doubt, to the vicissitudes the stone passed through thanks to the French. Various suggestions have been made - bethmoud, bethboud, bethtoud - without being accepted, but when the Tel Dan Stele was discovered with its unmistakble reference to the "House of David", the Frenchman Andre Lemaire redeemed his countrymen's boorishness by suggesting that the missing letter should be 'd' and that this is a second - and earlier - reference to the House of David.

I like the idea. Not only does it make perfect sense in the context of the inscription, but it agrees with the Biblical history of relations between Israel and Moab.

The second was Mesha's boast that he had "dragged the altars of Yahweh" to the temple of his own god as trophies of victory. Apparently there are no missing letters here and the reference to the God of Israel is accepted by everyone as the earliest non-Biblical mention of the Sacred Name. In fact, some have even claimed that the Moabite Stone establishes the pronunciation "Yahweh", which is probably a claim too far. Like Hebrew, the Moabite language was written without vowels!

The Internet is a wonderful thing and browsing it is almost as interesting as looking something up in an encyclopaedia. I have wasted many a happy hour by looking something up in our now elderly Encyclopaedia Britannica and being led from article to article by cross-references, interesting pictures or chance allusions. The great advantage of the Internet is that you don't have to get up from your seat to lug heavy books around; you just click and there you are at the next reference!

By a route that I cannot now remember, I ended up at a page which described how the name "Yahweh" also appeared in a couple of Egyptian inscriptions, something which I had not known before!

The Egyptians used the term "Shasu" to refer to the wandering tribes of Syria/Palestine, and if they wanted to be more specific they attached some other descriptive term to the name. Thus "the Shasu of Seir" were the Edomites, while "the Shasu of Turbul", were far to the north in the Beqa'a Valley.

The various Shasu were alternatively friends and enemies of Egypt. Tutmoses I describes them as "foreigners, abomination of god" while Rameses II lists Shasu among the forces who sided with the Hittites in his great Battle of Kadesh. On the other hand a letter of 1192 BC reports that "We have finished letting the Shasu of Edom pass the fortress of Merneptah Hotep-hir-Maat which is in Tjeku, to the pools of Per Atum of Merneptah Hotep-hir-Maat, which are in Tkeku, to keep them alive and to keep their cattle alive." It would appear that when famine struck in Palestine, the Shasu migrated down into Egypt in search of water and pasture for their animals.

The Temple of Amenhotep III at Soleb.
The temple of Amenhotep III at Soleb contains a reference to the "Shasu of Yahweh".

Around about 1400 BC the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III built a temple at Soleb, far to the south of Egypt's border at Aswan. Like all such structures it was ostensibly erected in honour of Amun Re, but it served the dual purpose of staking Egypt's claim to the territory - it is the southern-most temple of Amenhotep III - and of glorifying Amenhotep himself. In order to impress the (probably) illiterate tribesmen of "wretched Cush", Amenhotep III had a list of his conquests inscribed on the bases of several columns in the temple's hypostyle hall. Among the areas subject to the conqueror he mentions "the land of the Shasu of Yhw".

Two centuries later Seti I founded a temple amid the sand dunes on the west bank of the Nile at Amara West. Although little remains of the temple, on-going excavations have found traces of a large settlement protected by a substantial mud-brick wall. The temple was rebuilt and enlarged by Rameses II and he too had a list of conquered nations, among which is "the land of the Shasu of Yhw".

The Soleb inscription
"land of the Shasu of Yahweh"
The writing in the Soleb inscription runs from left to right.

The general consensus appears to be that "Yhw" is the Hebrew God Yahweh, possibly vocalised as "Yaho" or "Yehue". Interestingly, when the Elephantine papyri were discovered, scholars found there many references to the "Temple of Yahu" and there is no doubt that this temple was dedicated to Yahweh by Jewish mercenaries in the pay of the Persians.

The question is, who were these "Shasu of Yahweh"? It is immediately tempting to assume that they were the Jews, characterised as nomads during their desert wanderings or even shortly after they arrived in Canaan. This, however, leads to several problems.

In the first place, analysis of the other "Shasu of Xxxx" names appears to indicate that the qualifier referred to a territory - rather like we might refer to "the British in India" or "the British in China". It has been suggested that the qualifier might be the name of a chieftan or god which was later applied to the territory and certainly this is possible. On the other hand I see no reason why the Egyptians might not characterise one group of Shasu as coming from a particular area and another group as being distinguished by their God. After all, the basic point of the Shasu was that they wandered! Fixing them in a particular area is contrary to the etymology of the name.

However the second problem is that when we analyse the names associated with the Shasu we are pointed either towards southern Lebanon or to the area of Edom. Whether we identify the "Shasu of Yahweh" with the patriarchs or with the newly settled Israelites, they are not linked with either of those areas!

The third - and perhaps greatest - problem is that the Egyptians were very clear about the difference between the Shasu and the Habiru. Although there are difficulties associated with identifying the Israelites with the Habiru, the fact remains that Abraham is referred to as "the Hebrew" in Genesis 14:13 and the Children of Israel are still known as Hebrews during their oppression in Egypt - Exodus 1:15. Even if the Jews were just one of the many Habiru bands, that does seem to rule out any identification of them with the Shasu.

There are, it seems to me, three possible solutions. The first is to assume that "Habiru" is strictly a job description. A Jewish mercenary was a Jewish Habiru; a Shasu mercenary was a Shasu Habiru. The problem is that this does not appear to be supported by any ancient texts. It is not contradicted, either, but there is no usage of "Habiru" linked to any racial or ethnic group in this way.

The second solution is that the Israelites passed through three stages in their conquest of Canaan. In the first stage they were still a nomadic people, in the second stage they were less nomadic but still rural and pastoral, only in the third stage did they become a fully-fledge state. If we are correct in suggesting that the Exodus took place at the end of the Early Bronze Age, then the first stage of the Middle Bronze shows clear evidence that the cities were deserted and the people were nomads, occasionally camping among the ruins of the former Canaanite cities. Even when the Israelites had settled down in Canaan proper, the two and a half tribes on the east side of the Jordan may still have been largely nomadic and some, at least, of the northern tribes may have continued the nomadic lifestyle.

Thus in the time of Amenhotep III the Israelites could be identified as "shasu" - nomads - but by the time of Merneptah they had settled down and while not quite an organised state, deserved the apellation "foreign people". Unfortunately we have no hieroglyphic inscriptions relating to the third stage, when Israel had kings, so we cannot be sure that it would have received the determinative for a settled people.

Again, the problem is that this would be a unique usage, for as far as I know no other people group passed through these stages and were called by three different names by the Egyptians.

The third solution is to remember that Abraham and his descendants were not the only worshippers of Yahweh. Abraham, as is well-known, paid tithe to Mechizadek, king of Salem and "priest of the Most High God". Esau, the founder of Edom, had been a worshipper of Yahweh and probably continued to worship Him even if he added other deities to his pantheon. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, was a priest of Midian and certainly acknowledged Yahwh as the greatest God (Exodus 18:11) even if he did not worship Him as the sole God. Baalam, who lived up in Syria, was a prophet of Yahweh.

It is quite possible, therefore, that the "Shasu of Yahweh" were not the Israelites but some other nomadic people who worshipped Yahweh. On the whole, I prefer this third solution.


Shasu The term appears to come from an Egyptian word meaning "to wander", so the Shasu are people who wander - nomads, in other words. Return

Amarah West The Encyclopaedia of Egyptian Architecture places the temple and town on the island which lies at the point where the Nile turns sharply south. Close scrutiny on Google Earth does not reveal any ruins, so if anyone has a map reference for this temple, I would be very grateful. Return

Habiru There is no space here to go into the question of the Habiru. When the name was first discovered people immediately assumed that it referred to the Hebrews, but since then other references to the Habiru describe them as being bandits or mercenaries in Palestine and Syria. They did not have a good reputation! In addition there are references to them from well before the time of Abraham. It would seem, therefore, that "Habiru" referred to a class of people rather than a race and when we remember Abraham's band of 318 well-trained fighting men calling him "Abram the Habiru" was probably well merited!

In addition, if the Hebrews were indeed armed mercenaries it might well explain why the pharaohs of the oppression found their presence and their numbers threatening! Return

"foreign people" In order to clarify what the picture writing meant Egyptian scribes would often put symbols called "determinatives" in front of groups of hieroglyphs to indicate what the following symbols meant. In Merneptah's famous stele, which says, "Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed", Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam are given the determinative of a state, (boomerang and three mountains). Israel, in contrast, is given the determinative of a people (boomerang plus a seated man and seated woman above three vertical lines indicating "many"). Return

© Kendall K. Down 2011