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Abimelech, Saul, and Amarna - Abimelech and Labayu

  1. Summary
  2. The Letters
  3. Shechem in the Amarna letters
  4. Other places in the Amarna letters
  5. The political situation of the Amarna letters
  6. Analysis - could Abimelech be Labayu?


This page considers the possibility that Abimelech is the same individual as Labayu who appears in the Amarna correspondence. This possibility only arises under the conventional chronology, in which the "good match" values described in the Book of Judges exploration pages suggests a date around 1340 BCE. In NC the Amarna period is in the region of 1025-1000 BCE, and an identification of Labayu with Saul is made. On this page, the Amarna textual evidence is reviewed to see to what extent a correspondence between Abimelech and Labayu can be made.

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The Letters

A more comprehensive review of the letter archive may be found elsewhere (Under Construction). Here only those letters having bearing on the matter of Labayu will be listed. The exact order of letters is not entirely certain.

Letter referenceFrom Brief summary
EA244Biridiya of MegiddoBiridiya complains that Labayu intends to capture Megiddo and is preventing his people from working in the fields, and that the future of the city is precarious because of sickness.
EA243Biridiya of MegiddoBiridiya writes that the warring of the habiru is severe in the land.
EA253LabayuLabayu protests that accusations against him are unfounded. He admits entering Gezer (evidently not in warlike fashion - perhaps to form a treaty?) but pleads that there is no guilt in this. He asserts that he is a servant of Pharaoh, just as his father and grandfather were.
EA254LabayuLabayu repeats his statement that he has entered Gezer but not with deceptive intention. He hints that Milkilu of Gezer is planning some underhand action. He pleads that he did not know that his son had gone over to join the habiru.
EA252LabayuLabayu admits that he has taken a city, but claims that the city was previously his and had been seized. Furthermore if he had not acted swiftly another city would have been lost (some translators read this as saying that two cities had been lost and retaken).
EA245Biridiya of MegiddoBiridiya speaks of going into battle against Labayu with his asssociate Yashdata, but being frustrated when his horse was killed. The next part of the passage is translated in several different ways. Some translators render it that Labayu was killed, others that he was struck down or simply defeated and captured. The later parts suggest that Zurata of Accho took Labayu and claimed a ransom, but subsequently released him again.
EA365Biridiya of MegiddoBiridiya complains that only he is showing loyalty to Pharaoh by cultivating in the region of Shunem and supplying forced labourers.
EA280ShuwardataShuwardata informs Pharaoh that Abdi-Heba has taken the city of Keilah by seeking to bribe them with silver and conquering them: however he has retaken it. Labayu has died and he accuses Abdi-Heba of being a second Labayu.
EA286Abdi-Heba of JerusalemAbdi-Heba protests that accusations of his disloyalty to Pharaoh are unfounded, that the Egyptian commissioner Yanhamu has taken away some Egyptian garrison troops, and that Pharaoh's territory is at grave risk because of the actions of habiru.
EA250Balu-UR.SAG (of an unnamed city in the northern coastal plain)Balu-UR.SAG reports that the two sons of Labayu, together with Milkilu of Gezer, are inciting or possibly threatening him to join them in rebellion. They claim that the people of the land of Qena killed Labayu. In passing they also claim that Labayu had attacked and conquered Shunem and other towns in this area, and Gath-rimmon.
EA289Abdi-Heba of JerusalemAbdi-Heba again pleads his loyalty to Pharaoh and says that there is a coalition of enemies against him. He again requests military support and blames Milkilu of Gezer and the sons of Labayu for stirring up trouble and giving the land to the habiru.
EA255Mutbaal of PellaMutbaal, Labayu's son, acknowledges Pharaoh's order to protect a trade caravan on route to Hanigalbat, and says that in doing so he would be following the example of his father Labayu.
EA298Yapahu of GezerYapahu (ruler of Gezer after the time of Milkilu - Balu-shipti also belongs to this era) writes that his younger brother has moved to Muhhazu (location unknown) and pledged allegiance to the leader of the habiru

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Locations of places of interest

Shechem in the Amarna letters

Shechem only features once in the Amarna archive, in EA289 from Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem to Pharaoh, "Should we do as Labayu, who gave Shechem to the habiru?". Labayu never claims or is said to be king of Shechem, and indeed appears not to have lived there. It seems that his authority was exercised from elsewhere by means of an agreement with the inhabitants. He clearly was able to dictate events there. The phrasing in EA289 could suggest that he had garrisoned his habiru followers at Shechem.

Other places in the Amarna letters

It is not clear what Shuwardata's home town was. Both Keilah and Gath are mentioned: however Shuwardata complains in EA 280 that Abdi-Heba had sought to subvert the town by bribery, which some see as rendering it unlikely that this was his chief town. There are, however, numerous towns called Gath in the region of interest, and it is not clear which is meant here.

The letters show that Labayu's chief area of interest for expansion was into the Jezreel valley, optimistically including Megiddo. On the assumption that Labayu and Milkilu had formed an alliance, this could be seen as securing his southern border in preparation for a more determined push north. The city-rulers who formed an alliance against Labayu were primarily in the coastal plain and northwards. The area around Pella, controlled by Labayu's son Mutbaal, can be seen more as the establishment of a base of operations in the Jordan Valley, rather than a determined attempt to secure the transJordan area.

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The political situation of the Amarna letters

The area can be broadly divided into several areas:
  1. The city states in the west have rulers with Indo-European names - for example Shuwardata (probably of Gath or Keilah, though his town of origin is never explicitly named), Widia (Ashkelon), Biridiya (Megiddo), Yasdata (probably from another city in the Jezreel area), Indaruta (Achshaph), Shubandu (probably from the coastal plain). They were individually powerful, typically in rivalry with each other but willing to cooperate for short-term goals.
  2. Abdi-Heba ruled Jerusalem. Heba is known to be the name of a Hurrian goddess, attested in letters from Mitanni.
  3. Gezer was an independent city-state whose rulers had Canaanite names. These rulers seem to have been willing to make regular alliances with Labayu and his successors.
  4. Labayu and his sons (one known to be called Mutbaal) were based north of Jerusalem, in the central hill country. Their region of influence rivalled that of Gezer or Jerusalem, but was made up of individually smaller settlements.
  5. Kings of Amurru, who were expanding vigorously at this time.

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Analysis - could Abimelech be Labayu?

√ Positive points √ × Negative points ×
Both ruled from the central highland area Labayu clearly had ambitions in the Jezreel valley and towards Megiddo, whereas it is not recorded that Abimelech did
Both are associated with Shechem, though not necessarily as their home town Labayu clearly was willing to make treaties and alliances with the other rulers, whereas it is not recorded that Abimelech did.
Both appear to have used fear and military power to enforce their authority in their own territory Supposing that EA245 means that Labayu was captured and then released, this episode is not recorded in Judges
Both appear to have been leaders of a Habiru band Labayu had two sons who continued similar activities to his own, while Abimelech's offspring (if any) are not mentioned. One son ruled in Pella, just across the Jordan.
The immediate cause for Abimelech's actions against Shechem was that the inhabitants had started robbing passers-by. This would compromise his status with the Egyptians, hence the vigour of his reaction. Mutbaal's emphatic statement that his father had been in the habit of protecting trade caravans could be seen as defending his reputation.  

Finally, the place of death should be considered. EA250 records the sons of Labayu as saying that the people of the land of Qena killed him, whereas Judges says that he was killed in the town of Thebez. Gina and Thebez are in the same general area, north-east of Shechem towards Jezreel. Thus the two statements could be consistent with each other.

Thus on balance, the two accounts show considerable similarity. There are notable differences, but these are typically of omission rather than direct contradiction. The similarity could not be said to be so compelling that identification is certain, but given the other motivations for placing Abimelech at this time, the possibility is supported by the Amarna letter evidence.

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