The Shasu (from Egyptian šꜣsw, probably pronounced Shaswe) were Semitic-speaking pastoral nomads in the Southern Levant from the late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age or the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt. They were tent dwellers, organized in clans ruled by a tribal chieftain and were described as brigands active from the Jezreel Valley to Ashkelon and the Sinai. Some of them also worked as mercenaries for Asiatic and Egyptian armies.
The name's etymon may be Egyptian šꜣsw, which originally meant "those who move on foot". Levy, Adams, and Muniz report similar possibilities: an Egyptian word that means "to wander",[which?] and an alternative Semitic one with the meaning "to plunder".[which?]
The earliest known reference to the Shasu occurs in a 15th-century BCE list of peoples in the Transjordan region. The name appears in a list of Egypt's enemies inscribed on column bases at the temple of Soleb built by Amenhotep III. Among the details uncovered at the temple was a reference to a place called "Seir, in the land of Shasu" (ta-Shasu se`er, t3-sh3sw s`r), a name thought to be related to or near to Petra, Jordan.
In 13th century BCE copies of the column inscriptions ordered by Seti I or by Ramesses II at Amarah-West, six groups of Shasu are mentioned: the Shasu of S'rr, the Shasu of Rbn, the Shasu of Sm't, the Shasu of Wrbr, the Shasu of Yhw, and the Shasu of Pysps.
The Shasu continued to dominate the hill country of Cis- and Transjordan between the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron age. The Shasu had become so powerful during this period that they were able to even cut off Egypt's northern routes through Palestine and Transjordan for a while. This in turn prompted vigorous punitive campaigns by Ramesses II and his son Merneptah. After Egyptian abandonment, Canaanite city-states came under the mercy of the Shasu and the Hab/Piru, who were seen as 'mighty enemies'.
Shasu of Yhw
Two Egyptian texts, one dated to the period of Amenhotep III (14th century BCE), the other to the age of Ramesses II (13th century BCE), refer to tꜣ šꜣśw yhwꜣ, i.e. "The Land of the Shasu yhwꜣ", in which yhwꜣ (also rendered as yhwꜣ or yhw) or Yahu, is a toponym.
Regarding the name yhwꜣ, Michael Astour observed that the "hieroglyphic rendering corresponds very precisely to the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH, or Yahweh, and antedates the hitherto oldest occurrence of that divine name – on the Moabite Stone – by over five hundred years." K. Van Der Toorn concludes: "By the 14th century BC, before the cult of Yahweh had reached Israel, groups of Edomites and Midianites worshipped Yahweh as their god."
Donald B. Redford has argued that the earliest Israelites, semi-nomadic highlanders in central Canaan mentioned on the Merneptah Stele at the end of the 13th century BCE, are to be identified as a Shasu enclave. Since later Biblical tradition portrays Yahweh "coming forth from Seʿir", the Shasu, originally from Moab and northern Edom/Seʿir, went on to form one major element in the amalgam that would constitute the "Israel" which later established the Kingdom of Israel. Per his own analysis of the el-Amarna letters, Anson Rainey concluded that the description of the Shasu best fits that of the early Israelites. If this identification is correct, these Israelites/Shasu would have settled in the uplands in small villages with buildings similar to contemporary Canaanite structures towards the end of the 13th century BCE.
Objections exist to this proposed link between the Israelites and the Shasu, given that the group in the Merneptah reliefs identified with the Israelites are not described or depicted as Shasu (see Merneptah Stele § Karnak reliefs). The Shasu are usually depicted hieroglyphically with a determinative indicating a land, not a people; the most frequent designation for the "foes of Shasu" is the hill-country determinative. Thus they are differentiated from the Canaanites, who are defending the fortified cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yenoam; and from Israel, which is determined as a people, though not necessarily as a socio-ethnic group.[a] Scholars point out that Egyptian scribes tended to bundle up "rather disparate groups of people within a single artificially unifying rubric."
Frank J. Yurco and Michael G. Hasel would distinguish the Shasu in Merneptah's Karnak reliefs from the people of Israel since they wear different clothing and hairstyles, and are determined differently by Egyptian scribes. Lawrence Stager also objected to identifying Merneptah's Shasu with Israelites, since the Shasu are shown dressed differently from the Israelites, who are dressed and hairstyled like the Canaanites.
The usefulness of the determinatives has been called into question, though, as in Egyptian writings, including the Merneptah Stele, determinatives are used arbitrarily. Gösta Werner Ahlström countered Stager's objection by arguing that the contrasting depictions are because the Shasu were the nomads, while the Israelites were sedentary, and added: "The Shasu that later settled in the hills became known as Israelites because they settled in the territory of Israel".
Moreover, the hill-country determinative is not always used for Shasu, with the Egyptologist Thomas Schneider connecting references to "Yah", believed to be an abbreviated form of the Tetragrammaton, with the writings in the Shasu-sequence at Soleb and Amarah-West. In an Egyptian Book of the Dead papyrus from the late 18th or 19th dynasty, Schneider identifies a Northwest Semitic theophoric name ‘adōnī-rō‘ē-yāh, meaning "My lord is the shepherd of Yah", which would be the first documented occurrence of the god Yahweh in his function as a shepherd of Yah.
- If the Egyptian scribe was not clear on the nature of the entity he called "Israel," knowing only that it was "different" from the surrounding modalities, then we can imagine something other than a sociocultural Israel. It is possible that Israel represented a confederation of united, but sociologically distinct, modalities that were joined either culturally or politically via treaties and the like. This interpretation of the evidence would allow for the unity implied by the endonymic evidence and also give our scribe some latitude in his use of the determinative.
- Redford 1992, p. 271.
- Miller 2005, p. 95.
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