The Hittites were a people who established a vast empire in Anatolia in the second millennium B.C. They are also mentioned as one of the inhabitants of Canaan before the people of Israel conquered the Promised Land in the days of Joshua. According to Deuteronomy 7:1, the original inhabitants of the land of Canaan were mightier and more numerous than Israel. These nations were the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
The History of the Hittites
Although the word Hittites appears more than 50 times in the Old Testament to designate a people living in Canaan before Israel settled in the land, historical and archaeological evidence indicate that there were at least four distinct ethnic groups known as Hittites (Hoffner 1973:197).
The first ethnic group identified as Hittites were called the Hattians. These people lived in Asia Minor in the third millennium B.C. Their capital was the city of Hattusa and they spoke a distinctive language which archaeologists call Hattian or Proto-Hittite. The second group known as Hittites were the Indo-European invaders who settled in Asia Minor circa 2000 B.C. and who conquered and assimilated the Hattians into their own culture. They called their kingdom Hatti and they spoke a language called Nessian or Hittite. The third group known as Hittites settled in north Syria after the Indo-European Hittites were destroyed in 1200 B.C. Archaeologists call this ethnic group “Neo-Hittites.” These Hittites settled in Kadesh. According to 2 Samuel 24:6, David’s kingdom extended as far as Kadesh. Kadesh was a city located near the Orontes River in northwest Syria, a place that the biblical writer calls “the land of the Hittites” (2 Sam 24:6 ESV). The fourth ethnic group of people known as Hittites are the Hittites of the Old Testament, the people who lived in the land of Canaan.
The Hittites of Anatolia
Until the end of the 19th century very little was known of the Anatolian Hittites. The earliest references to the Hittites were found in Egyptian documents. One of these documents refers to the battle of Kadesh on the Orontes between Ramesses II, a pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt and Muwattali, king of the Hittites (Bright 2000:113). Another reference to the Hittites appears in the Amarna Letters. This letter was sent from a Hittite king to Akhenaten, pharaoh of Egypt, on the occasion of his inauguration as the new king of Egypt. The letter is dated around 1380 B.C. (Kempinski 1979:23–24).
At the beginning of the twentieth century, archaeologists began excavating at the ancient Anatolian village of Hattusas, a site in Turkey known today as Boğazköy. During the excavations, archaeologists discovered thousands of cuneiform tablets written in an unknown language. When the language was deciphered, scholars concluded that the Hittite language was not similar to the languages spoken in the ancient Near East, but that it was an Indo-European language, a language related to the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavonic group of languages.
The Hittites of Anatolia probably came from the Caucasus region, a region located between the Black and the Caspian seas, at the beginning of the third millennium B.C. After they arrived, they mixed themselves with the ancient Hattic inhabitants of Anatolia and eventually established an empire that included Anatolia, northern Mesopotamia, and Lebanon.
Several events contributed to bring the demise of the Hittite kingdom in Anatolia. The most important was the appearance of invaders, often identified with the Sea Peoples, circa 1200 B.C. Hittite documents speak of a naval battle between the Hittites and the Sea People and the burning of Hattusas, the capital of the Hittite empire. In addition, a severe drought produced famine throughout the kingdom, forcing the Hittite king to ask Egypt for help.
The Hittites of Canaan
With the end of the Hittite empire in Anatolia, a portion of the population moved into North Syria where they continued and preserved Hittite culture. Archaeologists call this group Neo-Hittites. The north Syria Hittites were divided into several small city-states which were eventually conquered by the Assyrians and incorporated into their vast empire during the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. According to 1 Kings 10:29, Solomon exported horses and chariots to the “kings of the Hittites.” These Hittite kings were the Neo-Hittite rulers of Carchemish, Hamath, and Kue (Cilicia) (Kitchen 1983:241). The Hittites mentioned in the Old Testament should not be identified with the Anatolian Hittites. Old Testament Hittites are Syrian Hittites, the remnant of the Anatolian Hittites that settled in North Syria. It is also possible that the Hittites who lived in Canaan were born and raised in Canaan since the names of all the Hittites that appear in the Old Testament are Semitic names (Hoffner 1973:214).
In the Table of Nations found in Genesis 10, Noah’s grandson Canaan was the father of Heth, the person who is considered to be the ancestor of the Hittites. The Old Testament indicates that the Hittites lived in Hebron (Genesis 23:1-3), in Beer-sheba (Genesis 26:33-34), in Bethel (Judges 1:23-26), and in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 16:3). The biblical text shows that the patriarchs and latter Israelites had many contacts with the Hittites. After Sarah died, Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah from the Hittites to bury his wife (Genesis 23:3 HCSB). The Hebrew text literally reads “sons of Heth.” The cave which Abraham bought was located in Hebron, a place also known as Kiriath-arba (Genesis 23:1). Hebron is located in southern Judah. However, in Numbers 13:29 the Hittites are said to have lived in the hill country of Canaan. Esau, Isaac’s son, married two Hittite women (Genesis 26:34). Solomon also married Hittite women (1 Kings 11:1).
When Joshua was preparing to enter the land of Canaan after the death of Moses, the Lord promised Joshua that Israel’s territory would include all the land of the Hittites: “Your territory will be from the wilderness and Lebanon to the great Euphrates River – all the land of the Hittites – and west to the Mediterranean Sea” (Joshua 1:4). This land located north of Canaan, appears in Assyrian documents as Hatti land, the land of the Hittites.
Scholars have debated whether Hittite culture has influenced the people of Israel. Although there are scholarly discussions on the extent of legal, cultural, and religious influence on ancient Israel, scholars agree that one area in which Hittite culture can be seen in the Old Testament is in the form of the covenant.
The Hittite empire of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1400-1200 B.C.) provides extensive materials that aid us in the study of the covenant traditions of Israel. The covenants that are of greatest importance are those international treaties that regulate relationships between two distinct social or political units.
The form of the covenant between God and Israel has many parallels with Hittite treaties. These include a preamble of the covenant in which the Great King identifies himself, a historical prologue in which the Great King tells what he has done, the stipulations of the covenant in which the nation binds itself in accepting the demands of the covenant, the preservation of the covenant, the public reading of the covenant, the list of witnesses, and the blessings and curses of the covenant.
The Hittites established a great empire in the second millennium B.C. in Anatolia. The documents and monuments they left behind reveal that their empire extended as far as Mesopotamia and yet, their history and culture were unknown until a century ago. The Hittites that appear in the Old Testament are an enigma because they are not related to the Hittites who lived in Anatolia. The remnant of the Hittites who settled in Syria appears in many places in the Old Testament and in many ways, influenced the history and culture of Israel.
NOTE: You can download a PDF copy of this article. The article includes color photos illustrating Hittite culture and religion. To download the article click here: “The Hittites.”
Bright, John. A History of Israel. Louisville: Westminster Press John Knox Press, 2000.
Hoffner, H. A. “The Hittites and the Hurrians.” People of Old Testament Times. Edited by D. J. Wiseman. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1973.
Kempinski, Aharon.“Hittites in the Bible: What Does Archaeology Say?” Biblical Archaeology Review 5 no 5 (1979):30–44.
Kitchen, Kenneth A. “Hittites.” The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology. Edited by E. M. Blaiklock. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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