“The Amorite” appears among the list of the sons of Canaan, but elsewhere this term, always in the singular in the Hebrew text, is used collectively of the Canaanite tribe descended from the original Amorite. They were, therefore, a Hamitic race.—Ge 10:6, 15, 16; 1Ch 1:13, 14.
In Abraham’s time the king of Elam in coalition with three other kings raided to the S of Canaan and defeated some of the Amorites dwelling at Hazazon-tamar, thought to be located SW of the Dead Sea. Three Amorite men living near or in Hebron were then “confederates of Abram” and as such aided him in pursuing and defeating the invading kings, thereby rescuing his nephew Lot. (Ge 14) Still, sometime thereafter God advised Abraham that when the error of the Amorites had finally “come to completion,” Abraham’s descendants would return to Canaan from an alien land and would take possession of the Amorites’ land.—Ge 15:13-21.
Shortly before Jacob’s death in Egypt, that patriarch promised Joseph: “I do give you one shoulder of land more than to your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorites by my sword and by my bow.” (Ge 48:22) Since the word rendered “shoulder” in this text is shekhemʹ in Hebrew, some have claimed that Jacob was here referring to the plot of ground he had purchased near Shechem (Heb., Shekhemʹ). (Ge 33:18, 19) The purchase was a peaceable transaction, however, and there is no record of any battle waged by Jacob in connection with the land. While Jacob’s sons later did make a savage attack on the people of Shechem, Jacob disavowed responsibility for the act at the time (Ge 34:30); and on his deathbed he cursed the anger of Simeon and Levi that had motivated the attack. (Ge 49:5-7) Thus, it seems more reasonable to understand Jacob’s promise as a prophetic utterance in which he envisioned by faith the future conquest of Canaan as though it were already effected, with Jacob ‘taking the land of the Amorites’ vicariously through the sword and bow of his descendants.
A Dominant Tribe in Canaan. Some commentators consider the term “Amorites” as used at Genesis 15:16 and 48:22 to represent the peoples of Canaan as a whole. The Amorites do appear to have been the principal or dominant tribe in Canaan at the time of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. (Compare De 1:6-8, 19-21, 27; Jos 24:15, 18; Jg 6:10.) If this is so, then it would be understandable that, at times, other subordinate and related tribes should be referred to under the name of the dominant tribe of the Amorites. Thus, at Numbers 14:44, 45 the account states that “Amalekites” and “Canaanites” handed the Israelites their first military defeat, whereas Moses’ recapitulation of events at Deuteronomy chapter 1 simply says “the Amorites” administered the defeat. (De 1:44) Likewise, Jerusalem is said to be ruled by an Amorite king at Joshua 10:5 (compare Eze 16:3, 45) but is shown elsewhere to be inhabited by Jebusites. (Jos 15:8, 63; Jg 1:21; compare also the case of Gibeon at Jos 9:7 and 2Sa 21:2.) In a similar manner, the name of one tribe of the nation of Israel, Judah, came to apply to all Israelites through the appellative “Jew.”
Nevertheless, the Amorites are also listed separately among the independent Canaanite tribes. (Ex 3:8; 23:23, 24; 34:11-15) They composed one of the “seven nations more populous and mighty” than Israel, all devoted to destruction, with whom Israel was to make no covenant, form no marriage alliance, nor share in false worship.—De 7:1-4.
The 12 spies Moses sent into Canaan found the mountainous region occupied by Amorites, Hittites, and Jebusites, while the Amalekites resided in the Negeb, and the Canaanites dwelt by the sea and by the Jordan. (Nu 13:1, 2, 29) As previously in Abraham’s time, Amorites still resided at Hebron as well as in other cities in the mountains W of the Jordan. (Jos 10:5) However, by the time of Israel’s Exodus, they had invaded Moabite and Ammonite territory E of the Jordan, taking possession of the region from the torrent valley of Arnon in the S (thereafter the border of Moab), up to the torrent valley of Jabbok in the N (the border of Ammon). (Nu 21:13, 24, 26; Jos 12:2; Jg 11:22) This was the realm of Amorite King Sihon, described by Josephus the Jewish historian as “a region situated between three rivers [the Jordan, the Arnon, and the Jabbok], which give it something of the nature of an island.” (Jewish Antiquities, IV, 95 [v, 2]) Additionally, to the N of Sihon’s realm, there was another Amorite kingdom centered in Bashan under King Og. The southern border of his kingdom seems to have been contiguous with the territories of Sihon and of the Ammonites, thus extending from the Jabbok in the S up to Mount Hermon in the N.—De 3:1, 8.
Conquest by Israel. Drawing near the Promised Land and under divine orders not to trespass on the territories of Moab and Ammon (De 2:9, 37), the Israelites requested a transit permit from King Sihon at his capital city, Heshbon, offering stringent guarantees: “Let me pass through your land. We shall not turn off into a field or a vineyard. We shall drink water of no well. On the king’s road we shall march until we pass through your territory.” Instead, Sihon struck at Israel with his combined forces and was summarily defeated a short distance from Heshbon, at Jahaz, his entire territory falling into Israelite possession. (Nu 21:21-32; De 2:24-36; see SIHON.) Invading neighboring King Og’s territory, Israel also vanquished this Amorite ruler, capturing 60 fortified cities. (Nu 21:33-35; De 3:1-7; see OG.) The fall of these powerful Amorite kingdoms to Israel caused a sense of sickening dread to pervade Moab (Nu 22:2-4) and also the people of Canaan, as is revealed by Rahab’s words to the Israelite spies. (De 2:24, 25; Jos 2:9-11) The territory of the two defeated Amorite kings now became the inheritance of the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh.—Nu 32:31-33, 39; De 3:8-13.
As for the Amorites W of the Jordan, “their hearts began to melt” upon hearing of the Israelites’ miraculous crossing of the Jordan. This miracle, combined with the smashing victories Israel had already obtained, may explain, in part, why the Amorites made no attack upon the Israelite camp during the ensuing period in which the Israelite males were circumcised or while the Passover was celebrated. (Jos 5:1, 2, 8, 10) However, after the destruction of Jericho and Ai, a massive alliance of the tribes of Canaan was formed to present a united front against Israel. (Jos 9:1, 2) When the Hivite men of Gibeon elected to seek peace with Israel, they were promptly attacked by “five kings of the Amorites” and escaped destruction only because of an all-night march by Joshua’s forces and Jehovah’s miraculous intervention.—Jos 10:1-27; 11:19.
After this battle and after Joshua’s succeeding campaign throughout the land, the power of the Amorites in the S of Palestine was evidently broken. Still, the Amorites in the northern regions joined with other tribes in an alliance that engaged Israel in battle at “the waters of Merom.” Disastrously overwhelmed, the Amorites are never again mentioned as constituting a major danger to Israel. (Jos 11:1-9) A remnant remained, but their territory was greatly reduced, and in course of time they came into forced labor under Israelite domination. (Jos 13:4; Jg 1:34-36) Amorite women were taken as wives by Israelites, resulting in apostasy (Jg 3:5, 6), and the Amorites generally seem to have continued to be troublesome for some time, for it is mentioned that in Samuel’s day, after a decisive defeat of the Philistines, “there came to be peace between Israel and the Amorites.” (1Sa 7:14) Amorites were again among those put to forced labor during Solomon’s reign. (1Ki 9:20, 21) Their idolatry and wickedness, evidently representative of that of all the Canaanites, was proverbial. (1Ki 21:26; 2Ki 21:11) The taking of Amorite wives still constituted a thorny problem among the returned Israelites after the Babylonian exile. (Ezr 9:1, 2) Eventually, however, the Amorite people, once the foremost ones of all Canaan, passed completely out of existence, like a tall, massive tree with its fruit removed and its roots destroyed.—Am 2:9, 10.
The “Amurru.” Secular historians regularly associate the Amorites of the Bible with the people called the Amurru in early Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) cuneiform texts. The Amurru are represented as invading Mesopotamia early in the second millennium B.C.E. and as having had a kingdom in Babylonia for several centuries. Hammurabi, famed lawgiver of that period, is often referred to as of “Amorite” origin.
The evidence concerning the Amurru, however, does not appear to warrant the strong conclusions that are advanced as to their positive identification with the Biblical Amorites. Amurru in the ancient cuneiform texts basically meant “west” as referring to the region W of Mesopotamia. A. H. Sayce, in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, says that the name Amurru is “a purely geographical indication of their immediate origins, from the perspective of Mesopotamia, and conveys no information about their ethnic composition or their real name.” (Edited by G. W. Bromiley, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 113) While Mari, an ancient city on the Euphrates in northern Mesopotamia, is referred to by modern secular historians as a center of the expansion of the Amurru into Mesopotamia, the thousands of tablets recovered there were almost all in the Semitic Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) language, with some names of West Semitic origin. As noted, however, the Biblical Amorites were Hamitic, not Semitic, and while the adoption of a Semitic tongue by some branch of them is not an impossibility, it is equally possible that the early Amurru were simply “westerners” from among the Semitic peoples living to the W of Babylonia. Professor John Bright in A History of Israel (1981, p. 49) says: “For some centuries [of the late third millennium and early second millennium B.C.E.] the people of northwestern Mesopotamia and northern Syria had been referred to in cuneiform texts as Amurru, i.e., ‘Westerners.’ This became, apparently, a general term applying to speakers of various Northwest-Semitic dialects found in the area including, in all probability, those strains from which later sprang both Hebrews and Arameans.”