Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Abraham and the Patriarchs

Posted by foryourfaith on July 21, 2010


Any attempt to teach the history of ancient Israel depends primarily on the biblical record. Some say the Bible is a completely accurate and adequate account. Others view it as a collection of folk tales and miracle stories. The biblical writers themselves did not claim to base their work on factual records, because they were not as concerned with what actually happened as with conveying the Word of God. On the other hand, there is a lot of information in the Bible that can be correlated with independent sources.

The Holy Land

The land of ancient Israel and Judah was known before the Israelites got there as the land of Canaan, which is what the Egyptians called it. This region is a coastal corridor, positioned between great empires for most of its history. To the north were the empires in ancient Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq and northern Syria, which housed the Assyrians and the Babylonians throughout time, and the Hittites, who dwelled in Turkey. To the south were the Egyptians, not only King Tut and the people of the New Kingdom, but Egyptians from even earlier. Later came the Greeks and the Romans from Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient Near East, so ancient Israel was many times caught between two powers.

This area is frequently referred to as the Holy Land. That designation covers the modern states of Israel and Jordan, for the most part, but the borders change dramatically over the course of the history of this region. The Mediterranean is always the western boundary, but the eastern boundary is more indeterminate. Sometimes it lies on the Jordan River, and sometimes it lies further east, where the region gives way to desert. Down South is the Sinai, which historically formed a barrier to settlement. To the north is difficult hill country, where modern-day Israel now gives way to modern-day Lebanon.

East to west, this region is divided into five different zones, mostly by topography and climate. The westernmost is the Coastal Plain, next to the Mediterranean Sea. The plain itself is broken up into the Plain of Sharon, the Plain of Dor, the Plain of Acco, and the Plain of Phoenicia.

Eastward, the second zone is the so-called Western Hills. These foothills, known as the Shephelah, rise up from the Coastal Plain to the central ridge of the country. They were heavily wooded in antiquity and heavily settled. The higher ground, just above these, is known as the Hill Country. This is where the ancient Israel and Judah is located, and this is where the classic trinity of Mediterranean food is found: wheat, olives, and vines. Along the summit line of this ridge are important towns from the Bronze Age and Iron Age (for example, Hebron, Jerusalem, Shechem, Beth-shean). The highest peak along these hills is abut four thousand feet above sea level.

Slightly further east is the Rift Valley, the third zone, one of the deepest points on the face of the earth. The Rift Valley is a major structural rift that runs up from East Africa and forms the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley, Lake Tiberias, and Lake Huleh.

Continuing east is the fourth zone, known as the Eastern Hills, which are high and rugged. These are where the Moabites, the Ammonites, and others mentioned in the Hebrew Bible lived.

Beyond the Eastern Hills is the fifth zone, the desert of Syria, Jordan, and Arabia. This formed the eastern border of the area for much of its history. Frequently, the eastern border was at the Jordan River, rather than the desert, but this is as far as this course will extend geographically.

Early History

The biblical books of Genesis through 2 Kings provide a continuous account of Israelite and Judean history from their earliest times until the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Genesis through Joshua tell about the origins of the Israelites and how they came to possess the land of Canaan. The story begins with the Creation in Genesis. By the end of the Book of Joshua, the people are at rest in the Land of Promise.

The Hebrew Bible is the only ancient source that directly addresses the question of Israelite origins. After the Great Flood, which Noah survived in his ark, the descendants of Noah’s three sons began to multiply. They migrated to the land of Shinar, which is believed to be in lower Mesopotamia, the land of Iraq today. There they began to construct a great tower that was supposed to reach the heavens. To stop the project, God ordained diversity, hence the Tower of Babel. Not able to understand each other anymore, the descendants of Noah’s three sons scattered to different parts of the world.

Among the distant descendants of Shem in the ninth generation is a tent dweller named Abraham. Abraham’s father had left Ur of the Chaldees to migrate to the land of Canaan, but rather than migrating immediately, Abraham’s father settled in the vicinity of a place called Haran in Upper Mesopotamia. It was only after his father’s death that Abraham migrated from Haran to Canaan, where he lived as a sojourner in the land; that is, he resisted integration into local society. God promised Abraham that someday the whole land would belong to his descendants and that they would be great in number, so eventually he made a permanent camp near Hebron and had two sons. The older son was Ishmael, and he became the father of the desert folk, but his favorite and the only son of his wife Sarah was Isaac, born when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety.

In the meantime, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, settled in one of the cities of the plains, in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. He barely escaped with his two daughters when god destroyed several of the cities with fire and brimstone. It was during this time that Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt while they were escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s daughters gave birth to two sons, who became the ancestors of the Ammonites and the Moabites. After Sarah died, Abraham remarried and had additional children, the ancestors of various Arabic tribes. Abraham himself died at the age of 175. Before he died, he obtained a wife for his son Isaac, and Isaac then went on to have children of his own.

Abraham and His Descendants

If Abraham’s father took the journey from Ur in Mesopotamia up to Haran near modern Turkey, he would have followed the course of the Euphrates River, which was a known international trade route at that time, and it is quite possible that he settled down in a region in either north Syria or south Turkey. There are villages in the region today that still look much as they did four thousand years ago. Abraham also fits into some of the general migrations during this time period. It is quite conceivable that Abraham’s and his father’s movements should be seen in the light of these major migrations, which take place at the beginning of the second millennium BCE.

Abraham’s descendants then migrated into the land of Egypt. This falls into the general historical era of the Hyksos, a group of people who ruled Egypt from 1720 to 1550 BCE. Abraham himself fits well into what was happening during the early second millennium BCE, that is, a breakdown of powerful city-states that had flourished during the third millennium (disruptions occurred in Egypt and in Mesopotamia). Some of the disruptions of urban life that took place in the early second millennium have been attributed to a group called the Amorites, and they begin to be mentioned in textual documents of the Mesopotamian city-states.

Building on the Evidence

In the 1930s, William F. Albright, one of the most famous historians studying ancient Israel, built upon the artifactual and documentary evidence. Using texts from later Amorite states of the Middle Bronze Age, Albright and other scholars formulated what is known as the Amorite hypothesis, which states that the Hebrew Patriarchs entered the area of Canaan as a part of wide-spread Amorite movements that disrupted the whole region during the early second millennium BCE. They said that the patriarchal narratives told in the Hebrew Bible should be seen accordingly, that is, against the background of early Amorite society.

An early second millennium date for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob essentially agrees with the chronology found in the early Hebrew Bible, that is, in 1 Kings 6:1, which says that the Exodus took place about 480 years before Solomon’s Temple was built. Exodus 12, the Israelites stayed in Egypt for about 430 years. This means that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob would have been roaming around the ancient Near East sometime during the nineteenth century BCE, that is, the beginning of the second millennium, because Solomon’s Temple was built about the year 960. If 480 years are added to get to the Exodus, and then another 430 years as the length of time the Israelites stayed in Egypt, the year would be 1870 BCE. This was during the time when the Amorites were moving around the ancient Near East, and it also would allow the Hebrews to be placed in Egypt during the so-called Hyksos period, when Egypt was ruled by foreigners. The stories of Abraham’s migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan, and then the later migrations of Jacob into Egypt, makes sense when viewed against the political conditions of the early second millennium BCE and the geographical migrations taking place at that time. Moreover, the names other Patriarchs and some of the customs that are reflected in the Hebrew Bible are quite similar to those that are mentioned in second millennium Mesopotamian texts, such as writings from the cities of Mari and Nuzi.

There are a number of problems with the Amorite hypothesis. One is the idea that the disruption of urban life in Canaan at the end of the Early Bronze Age and the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age was the result of wide-spread Amorite movements. This is by no means universally accepted by all archaeologists and historians, so to say that Abraham was part of this Amorite movement is to stack one hypothesis upon another. Moreover, the Amorite hypothesis creates problems for the associated Genealogical data; for example, Genesis 15 assumes a four-generation stay in Egypt, and Moses is identified as a fourth-generation descendant of Jacob (Jacob to Levi to Amram to Moses). If the genealogical data is to fit with the chronological data, each generation has to last an average of one hundred years. Usually, a generation lasts thirty years, so these people must have lived an awfully long time if the genealogy is to be squared with the chronology.

A second argument against the Amorite hypothesis is that the parallels between biblical names and customs and those that are known from biblical texts become less impressive in light of the fact that the names and customs involved are not confined to the second millennium, but are characteristic of the first millennium as well. If the Hebrew Bible is not written down until the eighth or even the seventh century BCE, then all kinds of things might not be accurate. So some historians and archaeologists say that the parallels are actually relatively useless for pinpointing a particular period and calling it the Patriarchal Age.

Finally, the biblical tradition never associates the Patriarchs with the Amorites, but rather with the Arameans. So the Amorite hypothesis should be called the Aramean hypothesis, but it’s not, because they’re not wandering around just yet. And some of the other groups mentioned in these biblical traditions cannot be placed in an early second millennium BCE context. They are going to come later in the second millennium or even in the first millennium.

Possibilities for the Patriarchs

What are the possibilities then, in looking at Abraham and the Patriarchs? One possibility is that the Amorite hypothesis is correct and that Abraham and the Patriarchs date to the early years of the Middle Bronze Age.

The other possibility is that Abraham and the Patriarchs date to a little bit later in the Middle Bronze Age, maybe into the seventeenth or the sixteenth centuries BCE. This is definitely a possibility, though it cannot be corroborated. The third possibility is that Abraham and the Patriarchs date to the Early Iron Age, that is, the early years of the first millennium, and that the writers of the Hebrew Bible simply placed them more than a thousand years earlier to concoct a made-up history of ancient Israel.

The fourth hypothesis is that there were no Patriarchs, that Abraham and Isaac never existed. They were simply made up to illustrate particular stories and were part of an invented history. How does one choose between these hypotheses? The Amorite hypothesis is a likely one, because the movements of Abraham and his descendants are most possible in the early years of the second millennium BCE. Also, Abraham and his father must have been moving around Mesopotamia in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries BCE in order to get Jacob and the Israelites down into Egypt by the seventeenth century BCE and make everything else fit. The early second millennium may be the best time for Abraham and the Patriarchs ever actually existed. That’s not to say that they did not, however, because absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.


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