Myths, Hypotheses and Facts
Concerning the Origin of Peoples
Names, Languages and Ethnicity
Many divergences exist among scholars concerning the ethnic and linguistic classification of ancient peoples, and often apparent name similarities are the main misleading factor. In many cases, the language spoken by a people is not related with their actual origin. In Mesopotamia and neighbouring region, it is possible to distinguish three main linguistic families that may be defined as follows: Semitic, Kushitic and Indo-Hurrian.
· The Semitic family consisting in Aramaic/Akkadian/Assyrian and Hebrew, spoken by the respective peoples and also by subdued groups like the Canaanites.
· The family here defined as Kushitic refers to the agglutinative languages that, not finding thoroughly suitable the conventional classifications like "Ural-Altaic", "Ugro-Finnic" or "Turanic", chiefly because they are not related to the Central Asian geographic region in this period, it appears to be a better term to call them in this case "Kushitic". They are Sumerian, Elamite and Subarian-Mitanni (often mistaken as Hurrian).
· The Indo-Hurrian family is what in modern terms would be expressed as "Indo-European", or a branch of it that includes Sanskrit, which was the original Hurrian language and was introduced in India by the Aryana ("Aryans"), that were a Hurrian tribe. The existing controversies whether the Hurrian language was Indo-European or agglutinative are owing to the fact that the main Hurrian kingdom in Mesopotamia was ruled by Mitanni, whose language was of the Kushitic family, and therefore it is usually mistaken as "Hurrian".
Consequently, we find Semitic peoples speaking Indo-European or Kushitic languages (as it is the case of Habiri dwelling in Charan, Anatolia, Caucasus, Central Asia, India), Hamitic or Mediterranean peoples speaking Semitic or Indo-European languages (like the Canaanites) or Indo-Hurrian peoples speaking Kushitic or Iranic languages (like many Scythian tribes). Indeed, an ethnic classification according to language is inaccurate, mainly when dealing with nomadic groups.
Further confusion is caused also by similar geographic or personal names - quite often the similarity appears only when they are translated into western alphabet systems, being completely different in the original spelling; for instance, the Hebrew pairs of letters: 'ayin/alef, he/chet, kaf/qof, shin/samek, zayin/tzade, teth/tav, and sometimes he/'ayin, bet/vav or ending kaf/chet are usually transliterated into the same western character. The ignorance of the original languages and their basic linguistic rules has generated the most unlikely speculations, as for example the association MeSHeKH-MoSQvah (Moscow in Hebrew), that are completely unrelated words, having in common only the initial mem. Semitic languages build words from definite roots, and the root m-sh-kh can never generate a word having an m-s-q structure. Sometimes it is difficult to render an exact equivalent for some characters like 'ayin, and it is either ignored or else misrepresented as h, as in the case of the Patriarch 'Ever (Genesis 10:21) apparently similar to the Kenite chief Chever (Judges 4:11), as both names are written "Heber", although actually none of them begins with he - in the second case, however, the h is acceptable as most readers would not interpret ch as it sounds in German, the equivalent of the Hebrew chet.
It may also happen the contrary, that the words are written in the same way and it is the pronunciation that makes the difference (this happens because intermediate vowels are not written in most cases), as for example "Anatolia" and "Spain" in Arabic, respectively ANaDoLuS and ANDaLuS, both words are written exactly alike. This fact may convey difficulties when interpreting an ancient text, as we have already considered the possible location of Sefar/Sefarad - by coincidence, this term is applied to both Anatolia and Spain, though in different periods, perhaps because both are the westernmost extremity of the continent to which they belong and both are peninsulas. Such is the case also with places like the "land of Kush", that is not only Ethiopia but also India, Elam, Arabia and other areas of the Middle East.
With regard to the Patriarchs, their Biblical names have been identified with places or peoples and compared with other sources like the Assyrian or Egyptian records for confirmation. In most cases the identification is correct, but not always. By coincident facts, some of the Habiri personalities have been regarded as the founders or name-givers of the regions where they dwelled. Such is the case of Avraham's brothers, Haran and Nachor, that have been erroneously associated with Hurrian and Mitanni: In Genesis 11:31 we read "Terach took Avram his son, Lot the son of Haran... They came to Haran and lived there". Apparently, Avraham's brother and the land where they settled were called the same way, but in Hebrew these two names are different: the land is written with initial chet, while the personal name is with he. Again in Genesis 24:10 is written "He arose, and went to Aram-Naharayim, to the city of Nahor"; the land of Mesopotamia in Hebrew is called Aram-Naharayim, that is "Aram of the Rivers"; also present-day Assyrians call their homeland Bet-Nahrin, meaning "House of the Rivers". Yet, in Egyptian records, Naharin is the name given to the Mitanni, and hence the hypothesis that the "city of Nahor" and Aram-Naharayim were synonymous (as it is usual in Hebrew to repeat the same concept with different words), and that Nahor was the ancestor of the Mitanni (Naharin). This assumption is unfounded, at least because NaHaRaYim and NaCHOR are non-related words. Consequently, such kind of comparisons, based on apparent transliteration of names is utterly inaccurate.
Another commonly mistaken identity concerns Arpakhshad, a Semite Patriarch and forefather of Avraham, who is erroneously considered as the ancestor of non-Semitic peoples of the east of Mesopotamia: Since Arpakhshad appears also in the Apocryphon of Judit as the name of an alleged king of the Medes, this literary character has been a misleading fact. The writer was probably an exile of the former Kingdom of Samaria that had not an accurate knowledge of the geographic and historic facts, and gave the characters of his novel names that he found in the Book of Genesis. Indeed, there is not any king of the Medes having such name, and perhaps "Arpakhshad" was roughly assimilated to the Achæmenid "Artachshashta" (Artaxerxes). In the same way, Nebukhadnetzar did not reign in Nineveh, neither Ariokh was king of Elam, and the alleged "Assyrian" chief having an Iranic name is utterly improbable, indeed, Olofern was an Armenian king of Cappadocia in 163-157 b.c.e. Therefore, Arpakhshad is not to be related with the Medes.
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