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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Shasu / Shutu (Canaan)

In the mid-third millennium BC, city states began to appear in Syria as people benefited from interaction with Sumer and from improvements in irrigation. Within five hundred years, around 2000 BC, the same process was happening farther south and west, in the Levant, along the Mediterranean coast. Semitic-speaking Canaanite tribes occupied much of the area, creating a patchwork of city states of their own. The Phoenicians (more Canaanites) also occupied parts of this region, eventually founding their own mighty seaborne trading empire.

By around 1750 BC, the time in which the Old Testament claims that areas of Canaan were being settled by the early Israelites, the Syrian states were apparently dependencies of Elam for a short time. Away from the cities of the Levant were populations of habiru, a disorganised movement of outsiders who ranged from semi-nomadic social outcasts and those who had fled the debt-ridden city system, to unemployed farm labourers and mounted mercenary archers.

Between about 2000-1200 BC, these groups plagued the established order with frequent raids and looting, and the attitude to them was invariably hostile - understandably so. In the Egyptian Amarna letters they were constantly presented as a threat to the stability of the region (which turned out to be an accurate forecast), although the regional manpower shortage was sometimes so acute that they could still be hired as labourers or mercenaries.

Akkadian sources which date to the earliest years of the existence of the state of Moab additionally mention nomadic groups along the Trans-Jordanian highlands whom they term the Shutu. These groups extended deep into Mesopotamia, probably occupying the edges of the habitable zone there. Speculation about the Shutu mentions that the name may be a variant of the Egyptian term 'Shasu', Semitic cattle-herding nomads who operated in a clan system with tribal chieftains. While the historical identity of these Shutu is unknown, they have been linked to the Moabites, Ammonites, and Midianites. They occupied the same broad swathe of territory in which the Horites lived, and may well have been amongst those groups which were labelled as habiru.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), from Early Israel and the Surrounding Nations, A H Sayce, from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from The Cambridge Ancient History, John Boardman, N G L Hammond, D M Lewis, & M Ostwald (Eds), from A Test of Time, David Rohl (Arrow, 2001), from Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, David Noel Freedman, B E Willoughby, & Heinz-Josef Fabry (G Johannes Botterweck & Helmer Ringgren, Eds, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), from A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars, Walter C Kaiser Jr (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, and from the NOVA/PBS documentary series, The Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 18 November 2008.and from External Link: Encyclopædia Britannica.)

fl 1600s BC


'King of the Shutu'. The only directly-attributed Shutu leader.

1600s BC

Ar of Moab may in fact be a place or region within the kingdom rather than a king. If so then it is located on the south bank of the River Arnon, close to Moab's northern border. An Egyptian execration text dated to the seventeenth century BC refers to an 'Ayyab' as king of the Shutu, but this is not 'Ar' of Moab.

Mount Nebo
Mount Nebo in the north of Moab is reputedly the spot at which Moses died, within sight of the promised land on the other side of the Dead Sea

The name is possibly a variant form of 'Job', with Jobab of Edom being a handy candidate. However, tentative identification of the mysterious Shutu has linked them with the Moabites and Ammonites to the north of Edom.

c.1230 BC

By this time, four hundred years after their descent into Egypt (a few scholars say only two hundred years), the Hebrews have multiplied from a band of seventy into a people numbering thousands, but they have been reduced to slavery.

A nobility still exists, however, and is represented in the sources by the descendants of Levi. The most recent of his descendants is Moses, who possibly fulfils the role of an advisor or even minister to an unnamed pharaoh who may be Ramses II.

He now leads the loose confederation of Israelite tribes out of Egypt, shortly after his marriage to a Midianite woman, Zipporah, daughter of Jethro the priest-king of the Midianite sub-tribe, the Kenites. Moses is also claimed as an ancestor figure of the early Ethiopian kings.

Map of Anatolia and Environs 1550 BC
Small cities and minor states which had been founded by the Hittites littered the meeting point between Anatolia and Syria around 1500 BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Strangely, and perhaps not coincidentally, the Old Testament has Moses first encountering his god, Yahweh, in the form of a burning bush when he reaches the land of the Midianites. Egyptian records mention that the Midianites (whom they know as Shasu) are found at a place called YHW (probably pronounced 'yahoo') in the deserts of southern Jordan.

The name seems to be picked up by the Israelites and is passed on to others they meet in Canaan, although their numbers are far more likely to be in the upper hundreds than thousands. The use of any larger figure in this regard must date to the period following their take-over of large numbers of Canaanite groups.

As for the Shasu or Shutu, they receive no more mentions in history, although the entire region will soon anyway be plunged into a state of chaos which greatly re-orders it, sweeping away much of the old and replacing it with new or rebuilt groups, tribes, or cities.

This slightly fanciful view of the migrating Israelites does show a surprisingly small number of participants (more are cropped off from the left, but even so their numbers are very finite), something which chimes with the 'ruling elite' theory of migration which is detailed on the Israelites page

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