75. Who were the Hittites?

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In Genesis 23 Abraham deals with a people called Hittites, who seem to be Canaanites, but historians say the Hittites were an Indo-European people that appeared much later in the land that is today Turkey. Is this a case where the Bible has its history wrong?

Actually, this is a case where history has its history wrong.

The Bible calls a people who appear in the patriarchal accounts in Genesis Hittites or descendants of Heth. These Hittites are classified with the Canaanite peoples of the land. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newly discovered ancient texts revealed a new rival of the Egyptians at about the time of the biblical judges. They were an Indo-European people from central Anatolia (Turkey), whom the historians named Hittites.

Much has been written about the Hittite-Egyptian rivalry, and these Hittites play a prominent role in ancient history books. These people moved into an area of Anatolia called the land of Hatti, so the historians named them Hittites, on the basis of the apparently erroneous conclusion that these people were related to the Hittites in the Bible. They then pointed out that these Hittites rose to prominence in central Anatolia significantly later than the biblical dates for the patriarchal period. It was concluded that the biblical references to Hittites must be anachronisms based on confused memories of the Hittites that were introduced into biblical accounts, which these historians claimed were written long after the heyday of the Hittites.

But there is a major problem with this explanation. The problem is that these Indo-European rivals of the Egyptians did not call themselves Hittites. They called themselves Neshians. When they competed with the Egyptians, they were relatively new arrivals in the land of Hatti in central Anatolia, where they displaced an earlier non-Indo-European people called Hattians. The Neshians kept the geographic name, land of Hatti, but they did not call themselves Hattians or Hittites. The Neshians were given the name Hittites by scholars on the basis of the alleged similarity to the name Hatti to Hitti in the Bible. This error produced a discrepancy between the biblical and historical description of “Hittites.” This discrepancy was not produced by the Bible. It was produced by the historians who erroneously stuck the tag Hittites on the Neshians.

About the Hittites the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeological magazine Expedition (January 1974) says:

The first thing to realize about the Hittites is that they are not Hittites. The sad fact is that we are stuck with an incorrect terminology, but it is too late to do anything about it now. This unfortunate situation came about as a result of several deductions made by earlier scholars which, though entirely reasonable at the time, have proved to be false. …

We now know that these people we call Hittites were Indo-European. … It is now believed that the Hittites came into Anatolia sometime in the latter part of the third millennium B.C., though exactly when and from where are questions we still cannot answer. …

The Hittites were indeed a major world power in the period 1700-1200 B.C., but they were not Hittites. That is, they did not call themselves Hittites. They refer to themselves as Neshians, “inhabitants of the city Nesha,” and their language Neshian. But so much for that; the scholarly world had already labeled them Hittites and, like it or not, Hittites they shall forever remain. It is just as well, for the term Neshian only calls attention to our ignorance of this early period; we do not even know where Nesha is to be located…

There was the evidence all along: what we call Hittite should be called Neshian and the evidence for this had been available since 1887.

That is the simplified version of a complicated story. In the EHV we considered calling the biblical Hittites Hethians to avoid the confusion historians have created. But since the biblical Hittites are the real Hittites and the historical Hittites are the imposters, we decided to keep the term Hittites along with the term descendants of Heth and to explain the problem with a brief note.

We have provided an extended discussion of this relatively minor point to illustrate a too common phenomenon: scholars misread the biblical text, draw an erroneous conclusion, and then blame the Bible for their error.