Amorites, Ammonites, Jebusites, Edomites, blah-blah-ites. What’s with all these -ites in the Bible?
Sometimes the most confusing thing about reading the Bible is all of the names. Because the early translators used a sort of English shorthand for lots of different idioms, it gets overwhelming and redundant to have all these -ites and not know anything about them.
Here’s a quick list from Genesis 10, known as “The Table of Nations”. It lists seventy people groups who lived in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean basin, and it divides them as descendants of Noah’s three sons.
Japtheth (יפת, “open”)
The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras.
And the sons of Gomer; Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah.
And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim.
By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations. (Genesis 10:2-5)
Let’s start with a couple of misconceptions. The word Gentiles is the Hebrew word goyim and it simply means “nations” or “peoples.” In early Hebrew usage, it means people not from around here. These are people who are distinct from the local conflicts of the Hebrew people. Those conflicts, we will soon see, are about the rivalry between the sons of Ham and the sons of Shem.
The sons of Japheth are the people who lived to the west and north of Israel – in modern Turkey, Armenia and Greece, as well as the islands of the Mediterranean. They lived in the open spaces.
And here, we encounter a Hebrew plural form -im. It appears in Kittim and Dodanim. These words are plurals of the words Kittiy and Dodan. These are foreign words which appear nowhere else in Hebrew except as some kind of geographical identifier.
We believe that Kittiy is the term the Hebrews used for the island of Cyprus. The city of Larnaca, on eastern Cyprus, was known as Kition as early as the 13th century BCE, and the derivation seems to be pretty solid.
Dodan is not as easy to identify. It is possible that the pronunciation was changed from Rodan, in which a likely candidate is the island of Rhodes in the Aegean. In the victory inscription of Ramesses II from the Battle of Karnak in 1275, there is mention of a group of Hittite allies called the Dardanayu. They came from the Aegean, so they might be the same geographic identifier. If so, then the Dodanim would have lived in the Aegean islands.
But the really -ite activity begins with the sons of Ham and Shem.
Ham (חם, “hot”)
And the sons of Ham; Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan.
And the sons of Cush; Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtecha: and the sons of Raamah; Sheba, and Dedan. And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city.
And Mizraim begat Ludim, and Anamim, and Lehabim, and Naphtuhim, and Pathrusim, and Casluhim, (out of whom came Philistim,) and Caphtorim.
And Canaan begat Sidon his firstborn, and Heth, and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgasite, and the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, and the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as thou comest to Gerar, unto Gaza; as thou goest, unto Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Admah, and Zeboim, even unto Lasha.
These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations. (Genesis 10:6-20)
Let’s begin with Ham’s four sons, and the -ites get a bit easier to sort out. They are listed in order of distance from Palestine.
- Cush is mostly people in Africa south of the 2nd cataract of the Nile, except for Nimrod. Nimrod establishes cities in what is today Iraq and Syria. More of that in a minute.
- Mizraim is Egypt, in fact everywhere you read the English word Egypt, it is a replacement for the Hebrew word Mizraim.
- Phut appears to be western Africa, the region of Libya
- Canaan is, of course, Canaan or Palestine as it was later known.
It is in the sons of Canaan that we encounter our -ites. A lot of them are relatively unknown to history, but the Hebrew forms are quite interesting, so I am going to list them out and note how they appear in Hebrew. Specifically, these are considered the people who lived in Canaan when the Hebrews arrived. Eventually, most of them seem to have merged with other people groups.
The first two are easy, because they’re not -ites. They are geographical designations for regions.
- Sidon (צידון) – southwestern Lebanon today, the core of what became the Phoenicians.
- Heth or Hat (חת) – the region of Hatti, Syria and western Turkey – the land of the Hittites
Then we get to all the -ites. In the case of this list, almost all of the names are reflective of location or practices. Traditionally, there has been an attempt to identify them as descendants of specific people, and in some places, there is at least a biblical allusion to that kind of derivation. It is far more likely, however, that we are dealing with a description of life
- Jebusite (יבוסי, Yebusiy, “of the threshing floor”) – Interestingly, the author does not say Jebus as he did Sidon and Heth. Most people assume that Jebus is the name of a person, but it may also be that these were the people who lived around the threshing floor – what became Jerusalem.
- Amorite (אמרי, Amoriy, “of the speaker” or “of the public place”) – Amor is an old Canaanite word for speaker, so it may be that these were the city dwellers of the Canaanites although the presence of the word Chamath later might indicate that they were people who lived at the assembly places. Israel had a couple of places where people, probably representatives of the various peoples, gathered to hear proclamations. (Both Deuteronomy and Joshua are written around these kinds of places.)
- Girgasite (גרגשׁי, Gergasiy, “of the clay”) – Gerad is the Hebrew word for clay. So this could be a group of people who lived in a region known for its clay, like the region east of the Sea of Galilee or it is a group known for working with clay.
- Hivite (חוי, Chiviy, “of the village”) – if the Amorites are the city dwellers, the Hivites are the villagers, those who lived in the unwalled collectives in the region.
- Arkite (ערקי, “of the sinew” or “of the fleeing”) – we assume an affinity of this name with the word ‘araq but no one is really sure how it works. The root word appears only in Job (30:3, 17). In particular, Job 30:3 seems to indicate something people would do in starvation – perhaps gnawing on the sinew or marrow of bones. But no one knows. The imagery of Job evokes, for me at least, images of the Gadarean demoniac.
- Sinite (סיני, Ciyniy, “of the thorns” or “of the moon goddess”) – the word Ciyn appears several times as a descriptor of a wilderness through which the sons of Israel journeyed. No one knows what it actually means. Some thing it means “thorn” while others equate it to the Canaanite moon goddess who might have been called SIN.
- Arvadite (ארודי, ‘rwadiy “of the loose land”) – this word could best be translated as “nomads” because that is the image it evokes. These are people who are not tied to a location or a practice. They are wanderers.
- Zemarite (צמרי, Tzamardiy, “of the two wools”) – Hebrew has a plural form called the dual, denoting pairings of things. It is used for legs, heavens, eyes, and anything else that comes in pairs. This name is derived from the dual of TZEMER or “wool”. Probably these were shepherds and goatherds, although this might also connect to the materials used to make their clothes. We know from Egyptian descriptions that some Canaanites were known for wearing striped woolen garments.
- Hamathite (חמתי, Chamathiy, “of the fortress”) – people who dwell in fortresses.
So, here is a list of the sons of Canaan, all of which have something to do with the way they lived when the Hebrews arrived. They are not necessarily patronyms at all.
Shem (שׁם, “name”)
This is driven home when we read the list of the descendants of Shem and realize that since Shem actually means “name” we are looking at the names of his descendants rather than descriptions of their lifestyles.
Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born. The children of Shem; Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram.
And the children of Aram; Uz, and Hul, and Gether, and Mash.
And Arphaxad begat Salah; and Salah begat Eber. And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan. And Joktan begat Almodad, and Sheleph, and Hazarmaveth, and Jerah, And Hadoram, and Uzal, and Diklah, And Obal, and Abimael, and Sheba, And Ophir, and Havilah, and Jobab: all these were the sons of Joktan.
And their dwelling was from Mesha, as thou goest unto Sephar a mount of the east. 31 These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations. (Genesis 10:21-31)
First of all, it should be noted that Eber may be the source of the word Hebrew and that the genealogy is picked up again in Genesis 11 to tell the connection from Shem to Abraham.
Second, it is worth noting that these are definitely names. There is a distinctly different feel to the way the names are presented. For one thing, it is linear. Both the families of Japheth and Ham only go two or three generations. Here, the genealogy follows the line through one son of Eber, Joktan. In chapter 11, it follows the other son, Peleg.
The division between Peleg and Joktan is the “in his days was the earth divide”, much to the displeasure of creation scientists everywhere who want to make this the continental drift. The line of Shem divides between the two sons of Eber. There is more or less a consensus among scholars that Joktan is representative of the Arab peoples.
Joktan was probably the Hebrew name for the northern Arabian cultures, which are largely nomadic due to the topography of the region. It is generally conjectured among linguists that the Semitic languages began in northern Arabia and spread out from there.
What is interesting about the Semitic peoples is that they are not labeled as -ites generally. They are given the English suffix -ans. So, we have the Assyrians and the Chaldeans and the Babylonians instead of the Assurites, the Chaldites and the Babylonites. This is an intentional distinction, made first in Latin and Greek, and then carried through into English.
Within the line of Shem, we will encounter Abraham and his father Terah. From Abraham’s brother Haran, we get his son Lot. Lot is the progenitor of two of the Hebrews’ closest relatives and rivals, through an incestuous relationship with his daughters:
- Ammonites (עמוני, Ammowniy, “of the tribes”) – the Ammonites are generally called simply AMMONIYM or “the tribes”. They are rarely an organized group.
- Moabites (מֹואָבִי, Moabiy, “of her father”) – likewise, the Moabites have kings from time to time, but they are nomadic peoples.
Both the Ammonites and the Moabites lived in modern Jordan. They were bordered to the south by the Edomites (descendants of Israel’s brother Esau) and the southeast by the Ishmaelites (descendants of Abraham’s illegitimate son with an Egyptian woman). There are also a number of related groups, all of which are various forms of -ites, including people like the Kenites and the Midianites. Do a little digging and you’ll find their relationships to the Hebrews as well.
There is one last group worth mentioning – the Pilistim, or the Philistines. Originally, this term was a designation for people who lived in what is today the Gaza strip. Historically, another group invaded the region during the Bronze Age Collapse and the Hebrews simply referred to them as Pilistim as well although they were clearly a different people.