A name of doubtful origin and meaning, used to designate an ancient people often mentioned in the Old Testament. It is by many supposed to be derived from a word akin to the Hebrew ’Amîr and to mean "mountaineers", "highlanders"; but ’Amîr is "summit", not "mountain". The name is much older than any part of the Bible and even much older than the Hebrew people itself; the attempt, then, to fix its meaning by Hebrew usage and the local habitation of the Amorrhites in Hebrew times can only be regarded as misdirected effort. That some of the Amorrhites, thousands of years after the name came to be used, dwelt in mountains can no longer be judged as serious proof that Amorrhite means highlander; its signification still remains obscure. It is worthy of note, nevertheless, that the Amorrhites of biblical and pre-biblical times have usually been found in mountainous districts, although those best known are the Amorrhites of the Jordan Valley, whose sway, however, extended to the mountains east of the Jordan.
In application, the name has a wider and narrower extent in the Bible, varying in a manner the reason for which cannot often be discovered. (1) At times it seems conterminous with Chanaanite, and designates all the inhabitants of the Land of Chanaan before the advent of Israel. Thus the Prophet Amos calls Palestine the land of the Amorrhite, and the race which Israel cast out was the Amorrhite (2:9-10); this usage prevails also in Genesis 48:22, and Joshua 24:15, 18. The same may be gathered from various passages where certain Chanaanitish races or tribes have at one time a specific name and at another are classed as Amorrhite; thus, the inhabitants of Gabaon are called indifferently Hevites and Amorrhites (Joshua 11:19; 2 Samuel 21:2), and of Jerusalem, either Jebusites or Amorrhites (Joshua 15:63, 18:28; Judges 1:21, and Joshua 10:5-6, and Ezekiel 16:3). The Amorrhites of Genesis 14:13 are Hethites (Hittites) in Genesis 23, and the Philistines are likewise deemed Amorrhites (1 Samuel 7:14). While the name therefore seems applicable to all the non-Israelitish peoples of Chanaan, it is to be noted that it generally has a lesser extension than Chanaanite, and the Amorrhites themselves are sometimes regarded as only a branch of the Chanaanite family (Genesis 10:16). (2) Another usage distinguishes sharply between Chanaanites and Amorrhites, putting both on a level as tribes dwelling with several others in Palestine, the Amorrhites, when located, inhabiting the mountains of central and southern Palestine (Deuteronomy 1:7, 19, 27, 44; Genesis 14:7, 13; 15:21; Joshua 10:5, 10:12, 24:8; Exodus 3:8, etc.). There is no evidence that the Amorrhites at any stage of their history occupied the coast lands. (3) Again, the name is applied to the race dwelling on the east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan, from the Arnon to Mt. Hermon, and extending eastward to Jazer and Hesebon (Numbers 21:13, 24, 32; Deuteronomy 3:8, 9), comprising the territory of Sebon, King of Hesebon, and Og, King of Basan (Bashan), which later constituted the entire possessions of the Hebrews east of the Jordan.
These variations in the biblical use of the term Amorrhite as designating all the ancient inhabitants of Palestine, or only one part or tribe dwelling in the mountainous districts of the centre and south, or, finally, those east of the Jordan are found often side by side, and cannot easily be accounted for; it is to be remarked, however, that the application to all the inhabitants of Palestine generally occurs when it is question of the idolatrous rites of the ancient inhabitants, or when they are viewed together as a people doomed for their iniquities to be supplanted by the Israelites, in which cases the Amorrhites may be taken as the most fitting type, though they are but part of the population and in reality confined to the districts implied by the other uses of the term. The name of the Amorrhite also lingered in Hebrew tradition as representative of gigantic stature and warlike character, and is likely to be employed when the writer is thinking of the ancient inhabitants as Israel's foes in battle (Deuteronomy 2:11, 20; 3:11, 13), while precisely the same population under peaceful conditions is called Chanaanite. It has been noted by upholders of the documentary theory that the writer of the Elohistic document seems to use both terms as coextensive. This is the usual account of the variations, and it is noteworthy for the view of the Amorrhite history which it embodies; yet it may well be that the name, instead of being first the name of a southern or trans-Jordanic tribe and extended in time to many various peoples, is on the contrary a survival of an ancient usage for all the inhabitants of Palestine and bordering countries. As early as 3800 B. C., some believe, the Babylonians called Syria and Palestine the land of the Amorrhite. Centuries later (1400 B.C.), in the Tel el-Amarna tablets, the name is applied to the inland country north and north-east of Palestine; Egyptian inscriptions use the term for the same territory, but extend it to the countries eastward as far as the Orontes. In ninth-century Assyrian inscriptions northern and southern Palestine are included under the name. The term, then, may originally or very early have been applied to all this territory; or more likely it was used first to designate the country north of Palestine and later extended south and east. If these Amorrhites of the north, however, are to be considered one in race with the Amorrhites of the Bible, no light has yet been shed upon their migrations into central and southern Palestine or beyond the Jordan. For the present, that part of their history rests in obscurity, though conjectures are plentiful.
The close relationship of the Amorrhite with the races or tribes usually classed as Chanaanitish is asserted in Genesis 10:15-16, and implied in numerous passages where Amorrhite is used in place of Chanaanite, Jebusite, or a cognate name. That these tribes are Semitic in origin is doubted by many, but their language, religion, and institutions are unquestionably Semitic. The Amorrhite is represented as the fourth son of Chanaan, son of Ham. Sayce tries to connect them with a North African Hamitic race, the Libyans, mainly on the strength of the facial resemblance he discovers between them in one Egyptian sculpture of the time of Rameses III. This resemblance is not elsewhere borne out and in any case must be considered a precarious foundation for such an hypothesis. No details have come down to us which will enable us to distinguish the Amorrhites from their kinsfolk (see CHANAAN), except that they seem to have been remarkable for their stature, strength, and wickedness. They dwelt in walled cities and were warlike in spirit.
Though a very ancient race, the Amorrhites have left but a slight mark on history in pre-biblical times. They were not the original inhabitants of Palestine, though the time and circumstances of their advent are unknown. They first appear in the Bible as inhabitants of southern Palestine, where they are defeated by Chodorlahomor and his allies (Genesis 14:7). The Israelites find them in the same region when they attempt, contrary to the divine command, to enter Palestine from the south and are repulsed (Numbers 13 and 14). About this period certain tribes of Amorrhites gain possession of the land east of the Jordan; so there the Israelites next come in contact with the Amorrhites and ask permission of Sehon, their king, to pass through his dominions, promising to do no damage and to pay for whatever they take on the way. The request being refused, war follows. Sehon is defeated and slain, and the Israelites take possession of his territory from the Arnon to the Jeboc. Crossing the Jeboc, they inflict the same fate upon Og, King of Basan, and his territory (Numbers 21; Deuteronomy 2 and 3). These lands, which were awarded to the tribes of Ruben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasses, extended from the Arnon as far north as Mount Hermon (Deuteronomy 4:46-49). When Josue had crossed the Jordan and with divine aid had gained several signal victories, fear fell upon the neighbouring Amorrhites. The inhabitants of Gabaon (Gibeon), an Amorrhite city, yielded to Josue, which enraged their brethren. They were accordingly attacked and besieged by a confederation of Amorrhite kings (the five kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jerimoth, Lachis, and Eglon), and sent to Josue for aid. Josue, coming to their rescue, put the Amorrhites to flight, cut them off in great numbers, captured and slaughtered the five Amorrhite kings and hung their bodies upon trees till the evening (Joshua 10). It was on this occasion that Josue commanded the sea and moon to stand still (for various opinions on this passage, see JOSUE). This victory secured to Israel the tenure of Palestine. The Amorrhites were not driven out of Palestine nor exterminated. Many of them intermarried with the Hebrews and contaminated them by their idolatries and vices (Judges 3; Ezra 9). In the time of Solomon, and even of Esdras and Nehemias, they are still distinguished from their conquerors, but are finally merged into the general population of Palestine.
SAYCE in HAST., Dict. Of the Bible, s.v. Amorrhites and Chanaan; JASTROW, ibid., V, 72, s.v. Races of the Old Testament; Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v.; SAYCE, Races of the Old Testament; LEGENDRE in VIG., Dict. de la Bible.
APA citation. (1907). Amorrhites. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 26, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01433c.htm
MLA citation. "Amorrhites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 26 Apr. 2010 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01433c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to Fr. John Hilkert and St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.