Shasu

Shasu of Yhw

As we have seen, the Hyksos have been said to represent the hiq shasu/shosu, connoting “rulers of nomad lands.”516 The troublesome š3sw/šʒśԝ/š3ś.w or
Shasu are found in numerous Egyptian texts, including a list of Transjordanian peoples from the fifteenth century. In the time of Amenhotep III (c. 1400 BCE) a topographical list was created at the temple of Amon at Soleb that was copied “later by either Seti I or Ramesses II at Amarah-West” and that “mentions six groups of Shashu: the Shasu of S’rr, the Shasu of Lbn, the Shasu of Sm’t, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw, and the Shasu of Pysps.”517

Wanderers

The name “Shasu” is said to come from an Egyptian verb meaning “to move on foot,” frequently employed to describe either journeys or the “daily motion of the sun.”518 It eventually was used to refer to “wandering groups whom we would call bedu, with the significant distinction that unlike their modern counterparts they lacked the camel.”519

Fig. 41. Shasu prisoner bound around arms and neck, 12th cent. BCE. Line drawing of relief by Ramesses III at Madinat Habu, Egypt

An amalgam of these groups, the northern Hapiru and the southern Shasu,
along with other Amorites and Semitic bedu, would explain many of the characteristics of the later Israelites, as depicted in the Old Testament and indicated by archaeological artifacts.

Plunderers The word shasu may originate instead with the Ugaritic term ṯš- possibly meaning “plunder” and reflected in the Egyptian š3ś.w, denoting “plundering nomads.”520 Describing the Shasu, Redford states:

Their lawlessness and their proclivity to make raids gave rise in Canaanite (and Hebrew) to the denominative verb šasā(h), “to plunder.”

Shasu are found in Egyptian texts from the 18th Dynasty [c. 1550– c. 1292] through the Third Intermediate Period [1069–664]…. lists from Soleb and Amarah, ultimately of fifteenth-century origin, suggest that an original concentration of Shasu settlements lay in southern Transjordan in the plains of Moab and northern Edom.521

Hence, for the most part the Shasu occupied lands settled by those later called “Moabites” and “Edomites,” possibly as their ancestors. Historians Drs. Charles F. Aling and Clyde E. Billington surmise that the Egyptians lumped together under the name Shasu “all of the Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, Amalekites, Midianites, Kenites, Hapiru and Israelites,” a list that “should also probably include the Amorites and the Arameans.”

Transjordan Origin

From the Egyptian sources, the Shasu seem to be “somewhat” different from the early Israelites in the book of Judges. Nevertheless, while the Hyksos evidently comprised Shasu possibly from the western region of Canaan, there is little doubt that the same “pastoral transhumants” occupied the lands from which the Israelites emerged, previously inhabiting the Transjordanian region in the 14th to 12th centuries BCE.

Concerning the Shasu and the settlement in the Late Bronze Age of the
Israelite hill country, Rainey concludes:

Today there is no reason to ignore Transjordan as the most probable source for the new immigrants who established the small villages on the heights of Mt. Ephraim (the Samaria hills). That their pottery and other artefacts show some continuity with Late Bronze material culture is no deterrent....

The Egyptian records reveal that the Shasu pastoralists were becoming more numerous and troublesome during the thirteenth century B.C.E. The archaeological surveys in the central hill country indicate that the Iron I settlements initially sprang up in marginal areas where pastoralists could graze their flocks and engage in dry farming. Later they spread westward, cleared the forests and began building agricultural terraces. Nowadays there is no compelling reason to doubt the general trend of the Biblical tradition that those pastoralists were mainly immigrants from Transjordan.522

The Transjordan origin would indicate the Amorite roots of these Shasu, speaking Babylonian and maintaining elements of that culture.

Westward Thrust

The Shasu of Moab and Edom evidently began making their push westward in earnest during the late 14th to mid-13th centuries BCE.523 In response to this migration, the Egyptians beefed up their presence in the region, which means that any “Israelites” of the Exodus would have encountered Egyptian forces many times during their purported sojourn in the Sinai and into Canaan. Although an Amoritish people, at this point these Shasu were not literate,524 which means they probably were not the Canaanitish Hyksos with sacred texts, although they may have been among them. Moreover, they likely possessed oral traditions, possibly hymns, songs and poetry, recording myths and legends.

Pithom

An Egyptian letter from around 1192 BCE discusses the “Shasu tribes of Edom” who “pass the fortress of Merneptah Hotep-hir-Maat...to the pools of Per Atum…which are in Tkeku.”525 The latter city, Per-Atum, is Pithom, where the Shasu evidently settled. Hence, the inclusion of Pithom in the OT may be based on Shasu traditions of having lived and worked there, although there were several “Houses of Atum” with which the Shasu could have been associated. The word “Shasu:Bedouin” in this passage has been translated as “Bedouin,”526 reflecting the relationship between the two.

Goshen and Joseph

It is surmised that the general location where the Shasu settled in Egypt was that of Goshen, traditional home of the Hebrews, where the patriarch Joseph was said to have ended up, after fleeing a famine in Hebron (Gen 46:28–29). Goshen and Avaris, the Hyksos capital, lie within the Nile Delta, while Pithom lies just to the southeast of Avaris, the entire region of which, therefore, could have been inhabited by the Hyksos/Shasu, who appear to have come in waves, possibly represented in the different Hyksos stories previously discussed.

It is claimed that the “treatment of the Shasu Edomites by the officials of Pharaoh is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s earlier treatment of the Israelites in Egypt during the time of Joseph,”527 this latter story according to the Bible but not the historical record. Nor did they speak Hebrew, a later Semitic dialect evidently produced from the admixture of Canaanite, Amorite and Babylonian speakers of the Hapiru and Shasu tribes.

Even if the Shasu had among them proto-Israelites, and although they were taken captive in significant numbers, there is no historical record or archaeological evidence of two to three million of them living in an enclave as slaves in Egypt.

These Shasu may have comprised proto-Israelite Amorites who had lived in Egypt, some of whom were also descendants of the Hyksos expelled from the delta and subsequently settling in the Judean hill country. These Hyksos descendants may have been the western Shasu per the inscription by Seti I, as well as the Hapiru, while the later hill settlers were drawn from the southeastern bedu as well.

Aromatic Gum

Redford describes the Shasu thus:

…Already in the second half of the fifteenth century B.C. they comprised some 36 percent of the Palestinian captives brought back by Amenophis II… They are consistently described as being divided into “clans,” each governed by a “chief”… Their proclivity for internecine strife drew expressions of contempt from Egypt. Their conflict with Pharaoh and, to a lesser extent, the latter’s surrogates within the Canaanite principalities arose not out of objections to taxation or the draft…but in their well-deserved reputation as robbers and brigands whose code of conduct admitted little mercy on their victims. They lived in tents, in mountainous districts remote from towns, where woods and predators made travel risky. Their principal source of wealth was their cattle, and they were also renowned for an aromatic gum, which perhaps they found in the wild. But their life must have seemed to the Egyptians so Spartan that they contemptuously referred to them as “living like wild game.”

The Shasu settlement in the Palestinian highlands, or nascent Israel as we should undoubtedly call it, and whatever related group had begun to coalesce in the Judaean hills to the south, led a life of such rustic simplicity at the outset that it has scarcely left an imprint on the archaeological record.528

The “aromatic gum” for which the Shasu were known resembles manna, possibly explaining in part the latter motif’s inclusion in the Exodus myth. As we can see, there was much interchange between the Shasu and Egyptians over a period of centuries, including many skirmishes, as well as ingresses into and exoduses out of Egypt.

It is noteworthy that the vaunted frankincense and myrrh, presented along with gold to the newborn savior, Jesus, also are aromatic gums, demonstrating great reverence and demand for these substances. As we might expect, frankincense was “widely used by the ancient Egyptians in their religious rituals,” evidently utilized in the mummification process, signifying that the Egyptian requirement would be great.

Hill Settlement

Around the start of the 12th century BCE, the Shasu began to emulate their Canaanite cousins in their settlements, by inhabiting the hill country. The Shasu settlement came during the destruction by the invading sea peoples, when both Canaan and Egypt essentially lost control of the region.529

Differences between these new “Israelites” and their Canaanite predecessors included the tendency towards a single cult site for several surrounding tribes, rather than the individual “high places” the later followers of Yahweh repeatedly destroy throughout the Old Testament, revealing the religious fanaticism of the southeastern Amoritish Yahwists/Judeans over the Canaanitish northern Israelites. The Israelite aversion to imagery of the deity is also more Arabian than Canaanite, reflecting not the “empty shrine” motif of the “solar theology,” as Redford calls it, but, rather, the desert tribal proscription of idols.530 Also, the lack of pig bones that distinguish Israelites from the Canaanites may reflect a taboo based on previous experiences with leprosy, which has been believed erroneously to be carried and transmitted by pigs, or with trichinosis.