Ancient Creation Narratives
GENESIS 1 In contrast to the Biblical creation narratives, ancient creation stories from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syria-Palestine do far more than try to explain how the physical world came into being.Creation myths often elevated the particular god of a particular shrine to supremacy over all other gods in order to validate the prestige of that deity, that shrine or the city in which the shrine was located.
For example, Egyptian creation myths tend to assert that a primordial mound or "Island of Creation" arose from a primeval ocean and that a specific god created all things from that location. Several Egyptian shrines, however, claimed to be the site of that primordial mound and asserted that the god of their respective shrine was the great creator god.
At Memphis, it was Ptah.At Hermopolis, it was Thoth. At Heliopolis, it was Re-Atum. Here a sacred stone was said to mark the very spot where Re-Atum, in the form of a "Bennu" bird, alighted and initiated the creative process.
Common motifs in creation myths include a spontaneous generation of gods, sexual reproduction among gods and the deification of nature (e.g., of the sun and moon). A creation myth often focuses on geographic and other elements unique to the shrine associated with the myth. An Egyptian myth, for example, may pay special attention to the creation of the Nile.
Sometimes creation myths relate battles between gods and the monsters of a primeval, watery chaos, through which one or more deities rises to supremacy. Sometimes creation occurs when a god defeats a primeval monster and divides its body into two parts, which become heaven and earth or earth and sea, etc. The Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish describes the god Marduk's defeat of Tiamat, the mother-goddess and sea monster.? After a terrible battle in which Marduk slays Tiamat, he cuts her body in half like"a fish for drying" and uses it to form the heavenly dome. This victory purportedly establishes Marduk's supremacy among the gods.
Greek creation myths are similar. After initial chaos, the primordial deities Gaia (earth-goddess) and Uranus (sky-god) emerge. A series of monster-like gods (such as Cronos, Typhon and the Titans) is born to them, but Zeus (son of Cronos) defeats these beings and establishes the present world order.
Humans in creation myths from various sources are typically created as drudges to perform the gods' "dirty work." Some myths depict humans as the gods' slaves, whose primary function it is to feed them with their sacrifices.
The Genesis account implicitly challenges the claims of these ancient creation myths by affirming God's unity and sovereignty, by portraying the heavenly bodies and great sea creatures as his creations and by presenting humans as God's stewards—and indeed image bearers—rather than as an afterthought born of divine need or laziness.
The Genesis creation narrative refers to the sun and moon as the "great light" and the "small light." Why? By describing these celestial bodies in this way, the Bible reduces them to the status of mere physical objects that rule" only in the sense that they emit light and demarcate the calendar. In contrast, in many ancient languages the words translated "sun" and "moon"also refer to the sun god(dess) or moon god(dess). For instance, the Hebrew word translated "sun" is shemesh, but Shamash is also the name of the Mesopotamian sun god.The Greek word translated "moon," selene, is also the proper name of a Greek moon goddess. Similarly, the ancients regarded the stars (or constellations) as divine beings. In contrast, the terse Biblical statement "He also made the—stars" (Ge 1:16) demotes these bodies to the status of created objects.
The Genesis account rejects the central motif of pagan religion: the deification of nature. Interestingly, it does not seek to elevate Yahweh over other gods. Indeed, in the seven-day creation account (Ge 1:1-2:3) Yahweh is not named; the Creator is simply referred to as"God"(Elohim),a more generic term. Even Genesis 2-3 provides no sense that Yahweh needed to establish his supremacy over other deities. There is no conquest of other gods or monsters, and no shrine or city is said to be the place from which God began the creative process. No sacred object is mentioned.The God of Genesis 1 is indeed the universal God.
The Location of Eden
GENESIS 2 The name Eden might have had one of two origins: the Sumerian word eden, which means "steppe" or "open field," or the identical Semitic word, denoting "luxury" or "delight." In Scripture, Eden is not only the name of the garden in which the first humans resided but also a metaphorical representation of the Garden of God (i.e.,Yahweh's dwelling place; Isa 51:3; Eze 28:12-15; 31:8-18).
Eden's precise location remains a mystery. Genesis 2:8 indicates that the Lord planted the garden"in the east, in Eden."This suggests a location east of Canaan. In addition, the Bible associates four rivers with Eden:the Pishon, the Gihon,the Tigris and the Euphrates (vv. 10-14).
The Tigris and Euphrates are undoubtedly the two Mesopotamian rivers that still bear those names today.' The Gihon (possibly Hebrew for "to gush") and Pishon (usually understood to be a form of the Semitic verb "to spring up") are more difficult to identify.
A spring named the Gihon waters Jerusalem, but this location does not match the description of its route through the land of Cush (v. 13). Many scholars identify the Gihon as the Nile, since Cush is sometimes associated with Nubia, south of Egypt. If this association is correct, it is all but impossible to make sense of the description of Eden's location, since this region nowhere converges with the Tigris and Euphrates.
Others identify Cush as the land of the Kassites, east of the Tigris, also known as Kush during ancient times.This theory makes better geographical sense. Finally, still other scholars posit that the Gihon and the Pishon were canals or tributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Another challenge is determining the relationship of the four rivers to the single river that flowed through and watered Eden. Most scholars believe that they were downstream of the river of Eden, implying that all four rivers shared a common source and placing Eden in northern Mesopotamia or Armenia.
This supposition poses a problem, however, since the Tigris and Euphrates lack a common source. To suggest that the four rivers were upstream of the river of Eden makes some sense because these two rivers converge in southern Mesopotamia before emptying into the Persian Gulf. In this scenario Eden may still, as above, have been located in northern Mesopotamia or in the mountains in Armenia,from which the Tigris and Euphrates spring. Another possible setting would have been southern Mesopotamia, where they converge and end.
The Serpent Motif in Other Ancient Near Eastern Literature
GENESIS 3 Throughout most of the ancient Near East, people revered and often worshiped serpents as symbols of royalty, wisdom, healing,' fertility, death and other forces, both harmful and beneficent. However, in ancient writings serpents and serpentine creatures played their most prominent roles as adversaries of both humans and gods:
In the Egyptian Myth of Osiris, the sun god Ra (sometimes spelled Re) has to contend with Apophis, a demon serpent who attempts each morning to overthrow Ra and thereby enfold the world in darkness. Consequently, Egyptian texts liken the pharaoh's enemies to Apophis, thus calling down curses upon their heads.
The snake of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is somewhat reminiscent of the serpent in Genesis 3 in that it deprives the hero, Gilgamesh, of immortality.While Gilgamesh is bathing in a pond, a serpent robs him of the Plant of Rejuvenation which, if eaten, would have granted him eternal life.The serpent devours the plant and is rejuvenated as it sheds its old skin. Gilgamesh, however, is consigned to die as a mortal.
Serpents similarly oppose humans and gods in other Mesopotamian stories, such as the Etana Myth, Enuma EliSh and lnanna and the Huluppu Tree.
In Ugarit's Baal-Anat Cycle, Baal and his consort, Anat,6 defeat the seven-headed "twisting serpent," Lotan.The word Lotan is related to Leviathan (crushed by God at the time of creation [see Ps 74:14] but prophesied to reassert itself temporarily during the end times [Isa 27:1]). See a discussion of God's dealings with a similar monster, Rahab, in Job 9:13, 26:12, Psalm 89:10 and Isaiah 51:9.
The serpent of Genesis 3 plays an adversarial role, as do those in other ancient Near Eastern literature, but it is introduced simply as one of the creatures "the LORD God had made" (v. 1).God the Creator is omnipotent; his purposes cannot be thwarted by any creature. Although the serpent or sea monster motif in the Bible reflects the fact that Biblical writers incorporated well-known images from the ancient world into their writings, other Biblical material clearly demonstrates that these inspired authors did not accept the mythology behind the Mesopotamian or Egyptian stories.
GENESIS 4 To the Israelites of Biblical times Sumer was an ancient, classical civilization, similar to what ancient Rome is to us. Sumer (Biblical Shinar) refers to that region of Mesopotamia ("Map 14" in the back of this Bible), south of modern Baghdad that enormously influenced the Biblical world.The term Sumerian applies to people who lived there from the mid-fourth millennium B.C. (and possibly much earlier).Their principle cities were Uruk (Biblical Erech), Agade (Biblical Accad), Ur, Nippur, Kish, Lagash, Isin and Larsa. Sumerian civilization and culture came to an end around 1750 B.C. The Sumerians' racial identity and origin are unknown, but they were not Semites (they did not belong to the racial group that included Israelites, Canaanites, Assyrians, Arameans and Arabs).
The Sumerians created the world's earliest writing system, cuneiform, a method also used with another ancient language, Akkadian. Sumerian cuneiform was in fact the basis for the creation of Akkadian cuneiform., Cuneiform appears on about 250,000 known tablets dating from approximately 3200 B.C. to the first century A.D.2 Deciphering Sumerian has proven difficult because this language was linguistically isolated. Whereas English and German are related (an English speaker might guess that the German apfel means"apple"),there is no language related to Sumerian that helps to elucidate the meanings of its words. However, bilingual tablets containing both Akkadian and Sumerian have enabled scholars to gain a working knowledge of Sumerian.
Sumerians contributed in numerous other significant ways to other ancient Near Eastern cultures. They invented the wheel, the potter's wheel and the sexagesimal numbering system (based on the number 60) and compiled collections of laws. In architecture they developed the arch, dome and vault. Incredibly, 100-foot-tall (30.5 m) Sumerian ziggurats—pyramidal, multistoried temple towers—still survive.Their form seems similar to the structure described in the Tower of Babel narrative of Genesis 11, but a direct connection has not been established.
Sumerian mythology also strongly influenced ancient Near Eastern religion, including worship of the sun, moon, stars and several"dying gods," like Dumuzi (also called Tammuz)) Sumerian literature includes hymns,, proverbs, love poems, laments and epic myths,5 and there are interesting Biblical parallels in these Sumerian texts.
The Sumerian King List
GENESIS 5 The Sumerian King List, an ancient record of the kings of Sumer and Akkad, was originally composed in the late third millennium B.C. during the reign of Utu-hegal of Uruk ("Map 1" in the back of this Bible), in order to legitimize the ruling dynasty. It displays striking similarities to the genealogies of Genesis.
The preamble begins with intriguing terminology:"when kingship was lowered from heaven." It goes on to list the succession of kings, the lengths of their reigns and the respective cities from which they ruled. The kings are recorded to have enjoyed extraordinarily long reigns. For example,"En-men-lu-Anna ruled 43,200 years; En-men-gal-Anna ruled 28,800 years." A great flood is then purported to have covered the land, after which kings were recorded as having significantly shorter reigns, though still of incredible duration (140 to 1,200 years).The genealogies in Genesis are also divided into pre- and post-flood periods, with longer life spans prior to the catastrophic deluge of Genesis 5 and significantly lesser longevity after it (ch.11). Unlike the King List, however, the early Genesis genealogies do not serve to legitimate later kings.
Ancient Flood Narratives
GENESIS 6 The traditions of ancient peoples throughout the world share in common the inclusion of flood stories. The Mesopotamian accounts have garnered the most discussion since they are culturally closer to the Biblical material than any of the other non-Scriptural narratives. The most famous Mesopotamian flood account is the Babylonian version, found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (seventh century B.c.) as part of the larger Epic of Gilgamesh.
In this epic, Gilgamesh searches for a man named Utnapishtum (the equivalent of the Biblical Noah), whose story is then recounted. When one of the highest gods, Enlil, becomes annoyed by the cacophony of noise coming from human beings, he decides to inundate and destroy them all in a catastrophic deluge. Enki, the god of waters, reveals Enlil's intent to the mortal Utnapishtum, directing him to construct an enormous boat and load it with pairs of animals. Instructed not to reveal the reason for this mystifying building project, Utnapishtum is further commanded at a critical point to take his wife on board with him. For seven harried days and nights Utnapishtum and his wife are tossed about in this vessel as floodwaters engulf the earth.When the waters finally subside, the boat lodges atop a tall mountain. Utnapishtum sends out a dove, a swallow and a raven,.the last of which fails to return, apparently having located nourishment. The man then disembarks and offers lavish sacrifices to the gods, who in turn bestow eternal life upon him and his wife for having safeguarded the future of humans and animals.
An Akkadian account dating to around 1600 B.C. recounts basically the same tale as that embedded in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, except that the Noah-character is named Atra-hasis.2 An even earlier Sumerian version, known as the Eridu Genesis, contains the stories of creation and the development of the first cities, along with an account of the great flood. Here the hero is Ziusudra.
Bible readers will immediately recognize the similarities between the Mesopotamian and Biblical accounts. But there are significant differences, too. According to the Bible God was not simply irritated by the din of humanity; he was profoundly grieved, to the point that "his heart was filled with pain" by the magnitude of human sin (6:5--7). Nor was his plan thwarted by the cunning of another deity; God himself chose to preserve both humanity and animal life through Noah (vv. 13 —22). Genesis also attests to a longer flood period and, although God made a covenant with Noah, he did not grant him immortality.
Assuming a later date for the Biblical composition, some scholars have suggested that Mesopotamian accounts may have served as a prototype for the narrative in Genesis. But most researchers believe that the Biblical account is not simply a modification of the Mesopotamian stories but one of several versions of a common story. The differences can be attributed to the special revelation God gave the Biblical authors, including the writer of Genesis, by which he made known his plan of redemption. The other versions provide extra biblical confirmation of the story of a great flood rather than demonstrating, as some have suggested, that the Biblical account is a myth.
The Documentary Hypothesis
GENESIS 7 Until fairly recently a majority of scholars espoused the Documentary Hypothesis to explain the composition of the Pentateuch, the first five Old Testament books.This theory asserts that these writings were actually based on four books, none still extant, referred to (for ease of identification) as J (Yahwist or Jahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist) and P (Priestly Code). The main arguments for this theory are the existence of repetition and apparent contradiction within these five books, as well as the use of different names for God.
According to this hypothesis:
j, the oldest document, included large portions of Genesis, passages from Exodus and Numbers and a few short texts from Deuteronomy. In Genesis, J referred to God as Yahweh ("the Logo") because the Biblical author believed that people began using the name Yahweh early in human history (see 4:26,31" text).
E, written somewhat later, followed the same story line as J. In Genesis, E referred to God as Elohim (the more generic"God") rather than as Yahweh because, according to adherents of E, the name Yahweh was not revealed until the exodus period (see Ex 3:15, an "E" text).
D was essentially the book of Deuteronomy. Second Kings records that Hilkiah the priest located a copy of the Law of Moses when the Jerusalem temple was being restored., According to the Documentary Hypothesis, however, Deuteronomy was drafted at this time as a pious fraud to justify Josiah's reformation.
P, written during the postexilic period following the return from the exile, included large portions of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. In Genesis, P referred to God as Elohim since, like E, its author(s) assumed that the divine name,Yahweh, was first revealed at the time of the exodus (see Ex 6:3, a "P"text).
According to this theory the four documents were composed independently of one another but were over a prolonged period of time compiled and edited into the present Pentateuch, with much of the original E material deleted. Still, they argued, the Pentateuch retains significant redundancy and contradiction because the four documents often tell the same or similar stories with inconsistent details. Thus, for example, Genesis 1:1 — 2:4a was identified as the P account of creation,while the rest of Genesis 2 was seen as a throwback to the earlier 1 rendition.
In refuting these arguments it is helpful to recognize that repetition was an essential part of ancient Near Eastern narrative. Storytellers often repeated details two or more times (sometimes from a different perspective or with differing details), and narrators often recounted parallel stories (cf. the three instances of a patriarch passing off his wife as his sister: Abraham in chs. 12 and 20 and Isaac in ch. 26). For a much later example, see the accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts 9,22 and 26. In an ancient narrative, repetition was viewed not as evidence of multiple authorship but as confirmation of a single author.
The argument about the names Yahweh and Elohim may be based on a misunderstanding of certain passages, such as Exodus 6:2-3. This passage appears in the NIV as"! am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham,to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them."This rendering makes it sound (in line with the P portion of the Documentary Hypothesis) as though the patriarchs did not know the name Yahweh ("the Lou"), thus allowing such scholars to attribute to 1 the passages in Genesis referring to Yahweh. But the text may alternatively be translated,"I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty. And my name is the LORD. Did I not make myself known to them?" Rendered in this way, these verses do not assert that Abraham had never heard of"the LORD."
Many scholars today have abandoned the Documentary Hypothesis,agreeing that it is based on a faulty understanding of ancient Near Eastern literature and that it contributes nothing helpful to our understanding of the Pentateuch.
GENESIS 10 Excavating the city of Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh)—see"Map 1" in the back of this Bible—in northwestern Syria, archaeologists have discovered the single largest collection of third-millennium B.C. cuneiform tablets unearthed to date. Immensely important in the study of the ancient Near East, this site has yielded tens of thousands of complete texts and fragments. These texts, which include administrative, lexical, literary and diplomatic tablets, were discovered in the palace, which had been destroyed by fire. Ironically,the conflagration may have helped to preserve the tablets by baking them, although some more important tablets would have been purposely hard-baked when created in order to preserve their information for generations.
The Eblaites utilized the Sumerian cuneiform writing system, adapting it to their Semitic language.2 This has made decipherment and translation of the texts both difficult and tedious. In fact, early translations often vary drastically from more recent ones as more is learned about the Eblaite language. As a result, earlier scholars believed they had found a text parallel to the familiar Biblical proverbs, while today this so-called proverbial text is considered to be merely a list of Sumerian terms for cuts of meat! Some scholars had thought they saw references to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel) in the Ebla tablets, but this also has turned out to be a false lead. At one point, ancient historians believed that information in the Ebla texts indicated that the city, during its zenith, controlled a vast empire from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. Many of these early readings have now come under renewed scrutiny as well, with the result that the extent of Ebla's former power remains in question.
The importance of the Ebla documents for Biblical studies probably lies in what they can tell us in general about life in third-millennium B.C. Syria-Palestine, as opposed to their providing any specific parallels to the Bible, as had been hoped. The history of these documents again reminds archaeologists to exercise caution when attempting to link ancient historical and literary finds to Biblical material.
Evidence for Serug, Nahor and Terah
GENESIS 12 According to the Old Testament the patriarchs' original homeland was in south-central Turkey, in an area known as Aram Naharaim (Ge 24:10) or Paddan-Aram (25:20).' Among the genealogical names of individuals listed in Genesis 11, three—Serug, Nahor and Terah—have survived from antiquity also as names of towns in this region.The names of these Biblical characters have been preserved in the very area from which the Bible specifies the patriarchs to have originated.2 Serug, Abram's great-grandfather, fathered Nahor at age 30 and died at age 230 (11:22-23). His name,which corresponds to the place called Sargi in Assyrian inscriptions of the seventh century B.c., lives on as modern Suruc, 35 miles (56.5 km) northwest of Haran.
Nahor, Abram's grandfather,fathered Terah at age 29 and died at age 148 (11:24-25). A town called Nahor is mentioned in
24:10 as the home of the descendants of Bethuel, another son of Nahor (24:24). This particular town also is mentioned in texts from Mario and Cappadocia from the nineteenth through the eighteenth centuries B.C., as well as in Assyrian inscriptions from the fourteenth century B.C. Later Assyrian records from the seventh century B.C. refer to it as Til Nakhiri, which means"Mound of Nahor." Although Nahor's exact location is unknown today, numerous references in ancient texts place it in the Balikh River valley south of Haran.
Terah fathered Abram at age 70 and died at age 205 (11:26,32). A town named Til Turahi ("Mound of Terah") is mentioned in ninth-century B.C. Assyrian texts as being north of Haran ("Map 1"), also on the Balikh River.
The Cities of the Plain
GENESIS 13 Sodom, where Lot chose to live, was one of five cities (Sodom, Gomorrah, Zoar, Admah and Zeboiim) referred to in the Old Testament as the"Cities of the Plain" (see Ge 13:12; 14:2).These cities were not mythical places but historical sites, and there is evidence of their destruction precisely as described in the Bible.1 Zoar ("Map 1") was the city to which Lot fled at the time of the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah (19:18-22).We know its location from the Madaba map, a mosaic map on the floor of a church in Madaba, Jordan, depicting the Holy Land (only much later called Palestine) during the sixth century B.C. Ancient Zoar was on the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea, just south of the Zared River (Wadi Hesa) near modern Safi. Zoar has a long history. It is mentioned a number of times in the Bible (e.g., Isa 15:5; Jer 48:34) and was the site of the prosperous, Arab-controlled city of Zugar during the Middle Ages.
Approximately 8 miles (13 km) north of Safi lies the archaeological site of Numeira, which was also occupied during the days of Lot. The consonants of the Arabic name Numeira are similar to those of the Hebrew name Gomorrah. Quite possibly the ancient Hebrew name is preserved in this modern Arabic name.
The archaeological site of Bab edh-Dhra, 10 miles (16 km) north of Numeira, also was occupied during the days of Lot.This location had a significant settlement during the Early Bronze period.2 Since Bab edh-Dhra is the largest ancient ruin in the region, it stands to reason that it should be identified as Sodom, the most famous of the Cities of the Plain where Lot"pitched his tents" (Ge 13:12).
The Coalition of Mesopotamian Kings
GENESIS 14 None of the invading kings or events mentioned in Genesis 14 have been identified or confirmed from archaeological evidence, but circumstantial evidence in extra-biblical sources does shed light on this text and supports its historicity. There is no reason to treat it as fiction, as many scholars do.
"Amraphel, king of Shinar" (i.e., southern Mesopotamia) is no longer identified, as he once was, with Hammurabi of Babylon, but the area from which Amraphel is said to have come, Shinar, is Babylonia.
The name Arioch is rendered as Arriyuk or Arriwuk in eighteenth- through fifteenth-century texts discovered at Mari and Nuzi in Mesopotamia.
Ellasar may represent either Asshur or Larsa, a city in southern Mesopotamia. Kedorlaomer, the Hebrew version of Kudur-Lagamar, is comprised of known Elamite elements. Kudur means"servant of" and is included in the names of five other Elamite kings, and Lagamar was an Elamite goddess. Thus Kedorlaomer may be interpreted as"servant of Lagamar."
Tidal is a form of Tudkhalia, the name of five Hittite kings who perhaps all lived later than this king. His title, "king of Goiim" (meaning "nations"), essentially means that he was the principal chief of a loose confederation of tribes, reflecting the decentralized nature of Antatolian politics in the nineteenth through eighteenth centuries B.C.
Contemporary records trace similar Mesopotamian confederations that formed after the fall of the Ur Ill Dynasty (c.2000 B.C.) and before King Hammurabi rose to power (c. 1750 B.c.). Immediately thereafter Assyria and Babylon controlled the entire region.
Curiously, King Yandun-Lim of Mari (c. 1820 B.c.) left behind an account of a series of raids he made into Syria-Palestine in order to enforce the submission of local kings to himself, and this record is quite similar to what we see in Genesis 14. This does not mean that the Biblical episode and the raids conducted by Yandun-Lim are one and the same, but it does make the point that the Biblical narrative fits in well with what we see in the history of the time.
The Patriarchal Period: Mesopotamia During the Time of Abraham
GENESIS 15 Near the end of the third millennium B.C., the Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur lost the predominate influence it had enjoyed over most of Mesopotamia. The entire region experienced severe political instability as its city-states continually challenged one another, as well as those in northern Syria, and power frequently changed hands.
Kings with Amorite names ruled many of these city-states during the patriarchal period. The Amorites comprised a large and diverse group of northwestern Semitic tribes from Syria-Arabia. Many scholars once thought them to have been mostly nomadic invaders who brought with them the widespread political instability mentioned above, as well as the urban decline characterizing the end of the third millennium B.c. However, texts from Mari, and elsewhere indicate that the Amorites included both semi-nomadic pastoralists (raisers of livestock) and sedentary groups, generally organized around patriarchal figures who began settling in Mesopotamian villages and urban centers as early as the middle of the third millennium B.C. This cultural pattern is similar to the one we see occurring in portraits of the patriarchs of the Bible.
By the turn of the third millennium B.C. even larger numbers of Amorites had migrated south into Canaan and southeast into Mesopotamia, perhaps pressured by the Hurrians from the north.3 Many Amorites worked their way into positions of leadership.The most famous of these were Shamshi-Adad I in Assyria (late nineteenth to early eighteenth centuries B.c.) and Hammurabi in Babylon (early to mid eighteenth century B.c.).
The Biblical patriarchs most likely lived within this early second-millennium period. The cross-cultural interaction taking place among the Sumerians, Akkadians and Amorites, as well as the Hurrians and Hittites to the north, is clearly reflected in the patriarchal narratives in terms of social customs, laws and languages.' Far from being anachronistic, the details of the Biblical stories of the patriarchs fit well into the historical environment of the late second millennium B.C.There is no evidence that should lead scholars to question their authenticity.' See"Map 1" at the back of this Bible.
Naming of Children
GENESIS 16 Ancient Near Eastern peoples attached a deep significance to the naming of children. Unlike modern parents, who typically choose names, often long before a child's birth, on the basis of cultural popularity, family tradition, personal preference or sound, Israelite parents tended to select names based upon circumstances surrounding the birth or words spoken near the time of birth. For example, in Genesis 35:18 we read that Rachel, dying in childbirth, named her son Ben-Oni ("my painful son"), although Jacob renamed the baby Benjamin ("son of the right hand").
On rare occasions God revealed a name to a child's parents before birth, signifying the divinely established role that child would play in history. For example, God specified the name Isaac, meaning"he laughs."This name may reflect not only Abraham's and Sarah's laughter of disbelief upon learning that they were indeed to have a son in their old age (17:17; 18:12;21:6) but also the ultimate joy Isaac would bring as the beginning of the fulfilment of God's longstanding promise to Abraham (17:4-8; 21:1-2). Another clear example of God naming a child is his own Son Jesus (the Greek version of Joshua, meaning "he saves"), whose divinely revealed purpose was to "save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:20-21). See also Hosea 1:4, 6 and 9 for some more sobering names God designated for the offspring of the prophet Hosea.
The Role of the Patriarch in Family Life
GENESIS 18 In order to understand the description of Abraham as the founding father of Israel's faith, we do well to recognize the key role a patriarch such as Abraham played in family life during this pre-monarchic period. The social structure of the time had three tiers: tribe, clan and family/household (Jos 7:14). The fundamental unit was the household (Hebrew bet av, meaning "house of a father"). It consisted of a patriarch—responsible adult male—his wife, his sons and their wives, his grandchildren and various other dependents. Since lineage/descent in patriarchal societies was passed along through sons, married daughters joined their husbands' households.
Exploration of Iron Age I' settlements, although they existed later than the patriarchal period, tells us much about Israelite patriarchal society. They indicate that such social units likely inhabited clusters of compounds with a few houses around a courtyard, encircled by a low wall.The elder patriarch and his immediate descendants would occupy one of the homes, with his married sons and their families living in other houses within the compound. In like manner Jacob, along with his sons and their families, sojourned as a small, patriarchal clan (Ge 46:5-7).
Various Biblical passages reveal much about Abraham's patriarchal household. The patriarch was responsible for the socioeconomic and religious well-being of his entire household (14:13-16). In Genesis 18, for example, Abraham's hospitality toward his three visitors reflected kinship responsibilities that even included the protection of vulnerable sojourners or resident aliens (cf. Lev. 19:33-34). Providing water for dusty feet and serving an elaborate meal conferred honor upon guests,and,as in Abraham's case, indicated his generosity.
At the same time, Abraham in Genesis 18 may have realized that he was entertaining heavenly guests and thus have been especially hospitable.The bond established during their subsequent table fellowship engendered a blessing from one of the guests and established a basis for Abraham's intercession for Sodom.
The sacrosanct nature of patriarchal hospitality recurs as a metaphor for God as the host of a feast in Psalm 23:5-6 (cf. Mt 8:11; Lk 13:29).
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
GENESIS 19 According to Genesis 19:24 burning sulfur"rained down"on Sodom and Gomorrah, obliterating both of these cities, as well as the surrounding region (vv. 25,29). To date, the location of Sodom is still disputed. Some people place it on the south-western side of the Dead Sea, others on the north side of this body of water near the mouth of the Jordan and still others at modern Bab edh-Dhra on the southeastern side of the Dead Sea.
Recently archaeologists have focused significant attention upon Bab edh-Dhra, where they have found evidence of several Early Bronze Age occupation levels. Although a layer of ash and burned debris has been discovered in excavations there,the most dramatic evidence that this may indeed be the site of ancient Sodom comes from a nearby cemetery. The dead had been interred in charnel houses, or mausoleums, constructed above ground. Five of these structures were excavated and found to have been burned. A detailed examination of the largest of these (26 ft x 51 ft [8 m x 15.5 m1) indicated that the fire had begun on the roof.Geological investigations determined that an earthquake had added to the devastation.
Since there were several distinct occupation levels at Bab edh-Dhra (evidence of habitation at the site during various time periods), evidence had to be handled carefully. For example, there is a substantial ash layer associated with the occupation in Early Bronze I (the oldest of the Early Bronze occupation levels), but this cannot be associated with the Biblical destruction of Sodom because its ruins point to a date far earlier than the time of Abraham. In fact, this earlier, fire-related damage appears to have been the work of invaders.The Early Bronze III city is more likely to be the Biblical Sodom. A much larger city, evidence points to its destruction by a combination of earthquake and fire in approximately 2350 B.C. People evidently reoccupied this site in Early Bronze IV, but it appears to have been permanently abandoned for some reason around 2150 B.C.
The Negev: Its Climate and Features
GENESIS 20 For thousands of years people have grazed their flocks and herds seasonally in the Negev, the southern region of Israel sandwiched between the hill country of Judah to the north and the deserts of Zin, Shur and Paran to the south. In fact, the semi-nomadic patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel) grazed their livestock in the desert-like Negev during the winter and migrated north to Judah's hill country, around Bethel and Shechem, for the summer months. During the New Testament period the Negev was known as Idumea (Mk 3:8).
In Biblical times the Negev was mostly south of the Dead Sea, some 30 miles (48 km) from east to west and centered around Beer-sheba (again see"Map 1").Open, rugged and sparsely populated,the region supports scrub brush but no forests. It has two seasons: a milder winter with periodic rains and a hot, dry summer. Because less than 8 inches (200 mm) of rain falls annually in the Negev, the area is unsuitable for farming.
Custom and Law in Ancient Mesopotamia
GENESIS 21 Laws from ancient Mesopotamia provide various interesting parallels to the Genesis stories. In particular, numerous regulations illustrate the marriage and inheritance issues found in the accounts of the patriarchs. For example:
Just as Sarai procured an heir for Abram through her maid (Ge 16; cf. ch. 30), the Sumerian laws of Ur-Nammu (founder and ruler of Ur's Third Dynasty, c.2044-2007 B.c.) allowed a husband to take a concubine after waiting in vain for his primary wife to bear children. As in Sarai's case, the primary wife might even have initiated the arrangement. Hurrian law at Nuzi, (mid-second millennium B.c.) and the Code of Hammurabi in Babylonia (early eighteenth century B.c.) allowed a man to adopt as legitimate heirs any children he may have fathered through a slave woman (see 17:18).
In Sumer, the eldest son inherited the whole of his father's estate and assumed responsibility for his siblings. But in Assyria and Nuzi brothers divided their father's estate, with the eldest son receiving a double portion.2 Nuzi law permitted inheritance rights to be transferred to a son born to the primary wife after she had adopted her surrogate's son. In a similar manner Isaac (although born after Ishmael) had the right to be Abraham's chief heir (21:12).
Neo-Babylonian law included the provision that sons born to a concubine would be subordinate to any sons born to the primary wife and that the combined sons of the primary wife would inherit two-thirds of the estate.
The disinheritance of a son,a practice allowed in certain societies, generally required a court order that might be officially overturned if the father were found to have acted unfairly. Some scholars, based upon such a prohibition in Nuzi law, have questioned the legality of Sarah's demand to expel Hagar and Ishmael (ch. 21), which by analogy may indicate that Abraham lived under similar customs and laws. Indeed, Abraham was hesitant to comply with Sarah's wish and did so only after divine intervention (vv.10-13).
In addition to family legislation, certain laws and customs concerning contracts and other agreements mentioned in Genesis had parallels in Mesopotamia. Treaties discovered at Marie and modern Tell Leilan (from the early second millennium B.c.) are strikingly similar to the treaty reports in Genesis 21,26 and 31:
In each case a formal oath was requested and given. The oaths were followed by reports of stipulations,frequently including a pledge of non hostility.
The oaths generally involved ceremonial feasts or sacrifices (26:30) and a gift exchange of sorts, particularly if the parties to the agreement had met in person (cf.21:27-30).
The Mesopotamian cultural milieu from which the patriarchs emerged helps us to understand patriarchal social structures and practices reported throughout Genesis.
GENESIS 22 "Mount Moriah," according to 2 Chronicles 3:1, was the location in Jerusalem where Yahweh appeared to David, inspiring him to build an altar and make a sacrifice. Solomon later constructed the temple on the same site.
Some scholars are hesitant to identify this location as being synonymous with the site where God tested Abraham's faith by the near-sacrifice of Isaac because Genesis 22:2 names Moriah as a region, not a specific mountain. Also, it seems incongruous that Abraham would have carried wood to Jerusalem, a forested area, rather than gathering it at the site of the planned sacrifice. On the other hand, it may not seem surprising that Abraham would have gone prepared to make the sacrifice and would not have wanted to go to the trouble of seeking out suitably dried wood after his arrival. Also, Moriah at Jerusalem can reasonably be described as about a three-day trek from Beersheba (see vv. 4,19).
Genesis 22:14 indicates that later generations would know this site as"the mountain [or hill] of the LORD," language commonly used elsewhere for Zion/Jerusalem (see Ps 24:3; Isa 2:3; Zec 8:3).The name Moriah might be associated with a Hebrew verb meaning "to see" or"to provide," a theologically significant term appearing repeatedly throughout Genesis 22:1-19. In Jerusalem, as in no other place,the Lord would subsequently be"seen" and would "provide" for his people through the benefits of the sacrifices he would ordain. Based upon this association the Biblical authors may have assumed that Abraham was prepared to offer his sacrifice on the same mountain on which the Israelites would later offer theirs—Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
The Cave of Machpelah
GENESIS 23 Until his wife's death Abraham wandered through Canaan as a nomadic herdsman.' Needing a burial plot for Sarah, he purchased his first small slice of the vast territory God had promised his descendants (Ge 15:18). The purchase included the burial cave and the field in which it was located, both known as Machpelah and located in Hebron. The writer of Genesis carefully noted that Sarah, Abraham (25:9 — 10) and Isaac (35:27-29) were all buried in this cave. Later, upon his deathbed in Egypt, Jacob/Israel instructed that his bones were to be brought to Canaan and buried at this location along with those of his grandfather (Abraham), grandmother (Sarah), father (Isaac), mother (Rebekah) and wife (Leah). See 49:29-32; 50:13.
Not surprisingly, the Israelites remembered this cave throughout the ages. A monumental enclosure was built over the site during the days of Herod the Great.3 This beautiful 200 by 110 foot (61 x 33.5 m) structure, bearing a remarkable architectural similarity to Herod's temple mount in Jerusalem,4 is still intact today. Inside it, above ground, six large, medieval cenotaphs (empty tombs serving as monuments) commemorate the patriarchs and matriarchs buried there.
A Byzantine church later constructed inside this enclosure has been converted back and forth from church to mosque following successive changes of rule (and thereby of religion) in the area. During the fourteenth century A.D. Muslims sealed the subterranean structures beneath the compound, but clandestine investigations have since been carried out. One twentieth-century examination, under the direction of Israel's Moshe Dayan, involved the nighttime lowering of a twelve-year-old girl, equipped with a camera, into the tomb areal Investigators reported the existence of a staircase, a long hallway and a simple room.
GENESIS 24 The first Biblical references to domesticated camels occur in the stories of Abraham. He owned them (Ge 12:16),and his servant used them as pack animals (24:10). Camels are also mentioned in the stories of Jacob (30:43; 31:34; 32:15) and Joseph (37:25) and were found among the Amalekites, ishmaelites and Midianites.
Scholars have debated the historicity of these references to camels because most believe that these animals were not widely domesticated until approximately 1200 B.C., long after the time of Abraham. Arguments in support of later domestication of the camel include:
Neither the Mari tablets from the eighteenth century B.C. nor the fourteenth-century B.C. Amarna correspondence mentions domesticated camels.
During the patriarchal period the donkey appears to have been the animal primarily used for transport. For example, the "Beni Hasan painting," which depicts Semites bringing goods to Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty (1900 B.c.), pictures donkeys rather than camels being used in caravans.
On the other hand, we do see clear evidence of camel domestication in the first millennium, much later than the time of the patriarchs. For example, Assyrian wall relief artwork depicts men riding camels into war.
Other evidence does suggest that at least some camels were domesticated earlier. Bone fragments and other archaeological remains have led some scholars to postulate a third millennium date for camel domestication. Although many scholars regard this evidence as inconclusive because it is difficult to distinguish wild from domesticated animals using only bone samples, other evidence, as described below, suggests that people were relying on camels in some manner:
A braided cord of camel hair from pre-dynastic Egypt has been discovered.
A Sumerian text refers to camel's milk.
An Old Babylonian text from the early second-millennium Ugarit describes the camel as a domestic animal.
Thus, the evidence does not force us to regard the appearance of domesticated camels in Genesis as anachronistic. Such tamed animals probably were rare during the second millennium, however, and may have been owned almost exclusively by wealthy people.
The Rights of the Firstborn
GENESIS 25 The Hebrew term bet av ("paternal household") reflects the fact that in ancient Israel the family was patrilineal: Inheritances were passed through the male line.The patriarch had authority over the entire household, including sons, daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters and grandchildren) Upon the patriarch's death the firstborn son became the new head of the family, and the paternal lineage of the extended family continued through him. This firstborn son, therefore, exercised both special privileges and unique responsibilities.
Several Biblical texts stipulate that the firstborn belonged to the Lord and needed to be redeemed (since all firstborn sons belonged to God after the plague on the firstborn in Egypt, Israelites had to symbolically buy them back with animal sacrifices, according to Ex 13:2,12-16; 22:29; Nu 3:13).The firstborn took precedence over his younger brothers (Ge 43:33) and received a double portion of the inheritance,2 as well as a special blessing (ch.27; 48:14ff.).
The patriarch/father was not free to arbitrarily assign the first son's birthright to a younger sibling (Dt 21:15-17), although the birthright could pass to another son in exceptional circumstances (e.g., Reuben lost his birthright because he had defiled his father's bed; cf. 1Ch 5:1-2). Documents from Nuzi and Maria reveal that if a concubine bore the first son, his birthright could be withdrawn if the primary wife subsequently gave birth to a son. This occurred in the case of Ishmael and Isaac.
We also have access to Nuzi documents called"tablet of brotherhood" contracts.These concern the sale of a birthright to someone outside the family (based on a legal loophole of adopting the outsider as a family member) for the purpose of transferring property. Although not identical in concept to what we see in Genesis 25:27 and following,these Nuzi texts do indicate that the birthright could be sold or traded and provide some precedent for Esau's sale of his birthright to Jacob.
The concept underlying the rights of the firstborn son has theological implications. The nation of Israel enjoyed a special relationship with the Lord as his firstborn (Ex 4:22ff.). But Psalm 89:27 indicates that Christ is the Lord's firstborn.This is not to be seen as a contradiction. Believers who are in Christ share in the privileges his intimate relationship with the Father entails (Heb 12:23-24), and we are warned not to spurn or devalue our birthright as Esau did (Heb 12:16-17).
The Tale of Appu's Two Sons
GENESIS 26 In many respects the Neo-Hittite Tale of Appu's Two Sons is similar to the Biblical story of Isaac's twins, Jacob and Esau. Like Isaac (Ge 25:24), Appu, wealthy but aging and childless, prayed for an heir.The sun god granted the request, but Appu named the child Wrong because the gods in his opinion had unjustly withheld a child from him for so long. When Appu's wife became pregnant a second time and bore another son, he named the infant Right, implying that the gods had acted fairly this time. When the boys had matured, Wrong attempted to defraud Right of his legitimate portion of the estate by giving him the sick livestock and keeping the healthy animals for himself. Upon perceiving Wrong's actions, the sun god summoned the brothers before him for judgment, awarding the legal settlement to the younger.
In both the Appu and Isaac narratives the younger son emerged the victor. In Appu's tale the deceptive elder brother was punished but his honest younger sibling appropriately rewarded. In the Genesis account the younger brother was the deceptive one, but he nevertheless came away with both the birthright and the blessing because, despite his character flaws, he was God's chosen.
Although Jacob and Esau reconciled years later, Genesis 27 clearly demonstrates that God's choice was not based on any merit Jacob had to offer but solely upon God's plan for his people. The Tale of Appu's Two Sons appears to have been a kind of morality play, as indicated by the sons' artificial names. In contrast, the Biblical story of Isaac and his sons is historically true and strangely counterintuitive. Similarly, a first-time reader would not expect the saga of Jacob and Esau to turn out as it does; indeed, it reveals a surprising look at our God, whose unexpected and seemingly "upside-down" value system continues to amaze us anew.
GENESIS 27 The ancient city of Haran, which probably derived its name from the Akkadian word harranu ("highway"), is located in modern-day Turkey about 10 miles (16 km) north of the Syrian border. Strategically situated on the historic east-west trade route that linked the Tigris, River with the Mediterranean Sea, Haran was one of northern Mesopotamia's important commercial and religious centers, widely known for its dedicated worship of the moon god, Sin.
Occupied from the mid-third millennium B.C. until several centuries after the New Testament period, this city is best known for its links with the Biblical patriarchs, who lived during the Middle Bronze Age (first half of the second millennium B.c.).Mari texts attest that Haran was thriving, during this time. En route to Canaan Abram and his family lived there for a time, perhaps to care for Terah, Abram's ailing father who eventually died there (Ge 11:31-32). Abram (now Abraham) later found a wife for his son Isaac from among relatives in Haran (cf. 24:1-7,24), and Isaac's son Jacob eventually secured refuge in the region with his uncle Laban (27:42 —28:5),for whom he worked for.20 years. Before returning to Canaan Jacob married both Leah and Rachel (Laban's two daughters) and fathered 11 sons in Haran (chs. 29 —31).
For approximately one thousand years after the patriarchs, Haran continued to flourish on the basis of its trade with other nations and activities related to the moon god, Sin. Following a civic revolt, Assyrian forces captured the city in 763 B.C. Assyrian officials later used this victory to intimidate the Judean king Hezekiah, after which Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (Isa 37:11-12). Haran became the last capital of Assyria in 612 B.C. but was captured in 609 B.C. by the Babylonians, who revived the declining worship of Sin and restored Haran as a thriving trade center (cf. Eze 27:23).
GENESIS 28 The geographical name Paddan Aram has been found only in Genesis (e.g., 28:2), and its meaning and exact location are uncertain. Many scholars believe that Paddan Aram is an alternate name for Aram Naharaim ("Aram of the two rivers"; 24:10), the northern region of the Euphrates River, in the vicinity of Haran, which figures prominently in Genesis as the patriarchs' ancestral home.
The prophet Hosea referred to Jacob's journey to the "country [or field] of Aram" (Hos 12:12).Some scholars believe this phrase to be Hosea's translation of Paddan Aram, based upon the facts that a Ugaritic text refers to "fields of Aram" and that an Arabic noun,paddan, sometimes means "field."This argument remains, however, inconclusive.
Others suggest that Paddan means "road," based on the similar Akkadian word paddanu ("highway"). Thus Paddan Aram would mean "road of Aram." A synonym of paddanu is the word harranu, which may have been the source of Haran,the city from which Abram departed for Canaan (see Ge 12:4-5). Understood in this light, Paddan Aram would in fact be an alternative name for Haran. Although uncertainty about the name remains, scholars are confident that Paddan Aram refers either to the region around Haran or to Haran itself.
GENESIS 30 The ancient city of Nuzi (modern Yorghan Tepe; find Nuzi on "Map 11, located a few miles southwest of Kirkuk in Iraq, has provided archaeologists with a wealth of material. Estates of the nobility have yielded exquisite wall paintings, figurines,cylinder seals, and ceramics in a style dubbed"Nuzi ware."The most significant discovery to date, however, has been extensive archives dating to approximately 1500 — 1350 B.C., during which the Mitanni king-dom controlled Nuzi. Most of the 3,500 tablets in these archives originated from private homes and document the lives of the city's ruling families, as well as providing information regarding the political structure antisocial conditions of this region and time.
Several Nuzi texts parallel and illuminate Biblical accounts of the patriarchs. Not all of the alleged correspondences between the Bible and information gleaned from Nuzi are certain, but at the very least they demonstrate that the context of Genesis is in fact rooted in ancient customs. Some of the more famous of the proposed congru-elides include:
A childless couple in Nuzi could adopt a servant as an heir (cf. Abram's assumption that his slave, Eliezer, would inherit his estate since Abram had not yet sired a son; 15:2 —3). Legal tablets demonstrate that an infertile primary wife could give her maidservant teherhtsband for the expressed purpose of providing him an heir, who could subsequently be adopted by the primary wife. According to these texts, if she later gave birth to her own son, he would displace the maidservant's son, as the rightful heir (cf. the accounts of Sarah and Hagar in 16:1-4; 21:8-10 and of the maidservants of Leah and Rachel in 30:1-13).
Marriage contracts discovered in Nuzi demonstrate that brothers could arrange for their sister's marriage, although she often had the option to agree or disagree with the proposed union (cf. 24:29-60). Marriage contracts formulated by a father, however, did not require his daughter's consent (cf. 29:16-30). There are also parallels to the institution of levirate marriage (cf. Judah and Tamar's story).
Prior to discovery of the Nuzi tablets, scholars had assumed that a later editor had added the notes that Laban gave named maidservants to his daughters when they married (29:22-24,28 —29). But researchers have discovered Nuzi marriage contracts stipulating that the bride was to be given a handmaiden, whose name was duly recorded in the contract.
An individual family's household idols were considered highly important in Nuzi and were handed down to the principal heir. If the inheritance were disputed in court, possession of the family idols could be accepted as proof that the deceased had intended the possessor to be his heir. Thus, Rachel's theft of the family idols could have been construed as a serious crime, an attempt to secure Laban's wealth for her husband and possible future children (31:22-37).
Some historians have argued that Nuzi arrangements allowing a man to adopt a young woman as his daughter for the purpose of giving her in marriage to his son shed light upon Abraham's two separate protestations that his wife was in reality his sister (12:10-20; 20:1— 18). There is some doubt that this is a true parallel, but these incidents at least suggest that the patriarchs' stories likely had roots in ancient customs-of, which we may now know little or nothing.
Although the city of Haran, in which Abraham had lived before journeying to Canaan,3 is some distance from Nuzi, the Humans controlled both cities during the second millennium B.C.4 Therefore it is not surprising that the Nuzi archives and the Biblical stories of the patriarchs reflect com-mon customs and legal arrangements. Future discoveries of relics such as these tablets may shed additional light on some perplexing Biblical issues.
GENESIS 31 Mari ("Map 1"), known today as Tell Hariri, is located on the Euphrates River just downstream from its confluence with the Habur River., Ideally situated at the convergence of several trade routes connecting Sumer to Assyria and Mesopotamia to Syria-Palestine, cosmopolitan Mari was an ideal spot for trade and communications between kingdoms. The city served as a buffer zone between the Sumerian city-states to the southeast and the lands of the pastoral tribes, called Amorites, to the north. These livestock-raising nomads seem to have been particularly concentrated around the city of Haran (cf. Abram's sojourn there mentioned in Ge 12:5).2 Swarming in from Mesopotamia, they settled down there between 2400-2200 B.c. In fact, people from northwestern Syria ruled Mari after this period, so the city's most famous kings were of Amorite descent.
Much of Mari's early history is obscure. Founded around 2900-2700 B.C., the city acquired wealth and importance but periodically was controlled by such great third millennium B.C. powers as Sargon of Akkad and the Third Dynasty of Ur.3 In 1775 B.C. Zimri-Lim of Mari broke free of Assyrian domination, but Hammurabi of Babylon burned the city in 1761 B.C.
Begun in 1933,excavations of Mari have uncovered a large palace and several temples, including a ziggurat. The excavations have also yielded tens of thousands of clay, cuneiform tablets that had become hardened from the heat of conflagrations inflicted by the Babylonians. Well preserved, these tablets address a wide variety of issues, such as palace administration, provincial administration, harems, expenses, gift registries, literary works, letters and treaties.
These Mari documents shed light upon Old Testament study in several ways:
They describe the Amorites and their culture, helping us to understand the broader cultural environment of the early Israelites. They showcase similarities between many Amorite and Biblical names, although there are few, if any, direct links to specific Biblical characters.
They mention the towns of Laish, which the Danites destroyed and rebuilt (1dg 18), and Hazor, an important city even before the Israelites entered the promised land (Jos 11:10).4
They refer to pagan prophets who functioned in some ways similarly to their Biblical counterparts.
Succoth/Tell Deir Alla
GENESIS 33 Succoth, located just east of the Jordan River, is mentioned in several Biblical contexts (but note that the Succoth of Ex 12-13 and Nu 33 ("Map 11 was a different place):
After meeting Esau near the Jabbok River,Jacob proceeded toward the Jordan River near Penuel and built livestock enclosures there (Ge 33:17). Jacob named this place Succoth ("shelters").
Gideon followed Jacob's route in reverse (Jdg 8) while pursuing Midianite raiders) The people of Succoth refused to feed his
troops, and in retaliation they later sacked the town (Jdg 8:13-17).
Most scholars identify Succoth with modern Tell Deir Alla. A significant temple existed here during the late Bronze Age. Remains discovered at Succoth include jar fragments from 1209-1201 B.C., ornamented with a cartouche of an Egyptian queen, and three clay tablets in a script yet to be deciphered.
The Late Bronze-era Succoth was destroyed around 1200 B.C., possibly by Gideon and his troops. Excavation of Iron Age I strata offers no evidence of a permanent settlement there at that time (with the exception of minor structures dated near the end of this period), but remains do exist of furnaces used to smelt bronze. According to "I Kings 7:46 Solomon arranged for bronze-casting in the Succoth area for the making of items designated for the temple . The site was once again built up during the Iron Age IL A plastered wall from this era contains an Aramaic inscription in ink mentioning Balaam.3 An earthquake probably destroyed the city during the eighth century B.C. (cf. Am 1:1).The site was inhabited, however, until the late Persian period, perhaps only seasonally due to the extreme summer temperatures.
GENESIS 34 The Hurrians entered northern Mesopotamia, apparently from the Caucasus region, during the third millennium B.C. and scattered across the ancient Near East.They were well established in the area by the eighteenth century B.c. and created the kingdom of Mitanni in the northern territory between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers by the mid-sixteenth century B.C.' This kingdom became a major international player during the mid-second millennium B.C., but its location between the areas inhabited by the Egyptians, Hittites and Assyrians rendered it vulnerable to attack. By about 1250 B.C. Mitanni had ceased to exist as a kingdom.
Little is known about the Hurrian language because most of the documents these people left behind are in Akkadian rather than in their own language. it is certain, however, that the Hurrians were not Semitic.
In Nuzi, a Hurrian city east of the Tigris River, archaeologists have discovered an archive of cuneiform texts that reveal much about ancient Mesopotamian culture.3 The Hurrians worshiped such deities as a storm god, a sun god and a moon god in a Mesopotamian temple/pantheon (temple dedicated to multiple gods). Excelling in metallurgy and glassmaking,they also were known for an intricately decorated pottery now called "Nuzi ware." Some scholars have suggested that the Biblical Horites (Ge 36:20 — 21; 14:6) were Hurrians, but this is most likely incorrect. The Horites were a late third-millennium tribal group indigenous to the region of Seir, south of the Dead Sea, whereas the Hurrians were a people who entered northern Mesopotamia from the north during the second millennium.
GENESIS 35 The holy site of Bethel played an important role in the lives of Abraham and Jacob/Israel, as well as in later Israelite history. Abraham built an altar between Bethel and Ai (Ge 12:8), and Jacob, en route to Haran while fleeing from Esau, experienced a vivid dream at Bethel' (28:10-17). Before moving on, he set up a commemorative stone at the spot. In addition to serving as places of remembrance, such stones occasionally marked burial sites (35:20).
Biblical scholars have long debated Bethel's precise location. Most have placed it at modern Tell Beitin, 8 miles (13 km) north of Jerusalem, but el Bireh, a few miles farther south, has also been suggested. Clearly Bethel was located within the area north of Jerusalem now referred to as the West Bank.
Tell Beitin, which shows signs of occupation beginning with the Chalcolithic period, was continuously occupied during the Middle Bronze Ages I and II , until the city was destroyed around 1550 B.C. A Late Bronze Age city located on the same site, dating from the fourteenth century B.C., boasted high-quality houses, streets with flagstone pavements, and sewers. There is evidence of its destruction at the end of the Bronze Age, and a later, Iron Age I settlement at the location reflects an impoverished community. This city continued to exist through the Iron Age, but no remains of Jeroboam's temple—which the Babylonian army destroyed in 586 B.C.— have been found here.
According to the Onomasticon, written by Eusebius (A.D. 269-339) and revised by Jerome (A.D. 345-419), Bethel was located at the twelfth Roman milestone on the eastern side of the road leading north to Neapolis (called Shechem in the Old Testament; modern Nablus). In this ancient manuscript Tell Beitin is described as being located at the fourteenth milestone, indicating that, if Eusebius's information was correct, it could not have been Bethel. Bethel may,then, have been situated a little to the south, at mod-ern el Bireh, near the city of Ramallah. No excavation has been done at el Bireh, a town currently occupied by Palestinians.
During the period of Israel's monarchy, Bethel ("house of God") came to be embroiled in a controversy. Associations with its sacred history and monuments led the people to transform it into a center of idolatrous worship.
Jeroboam I, for example, took advantage of the holy traditions associated with Bethel and, against God's will, set up a shrine there to serve as an alternative worship site to Solomon's temple (1Ki 12:26-30). As a result the prophets severely censured worship at Bethel. Hosea (Hos 4:15; 5:8; 10:5) went so far as to refer to Bethel as Beth Aven, a disparaging pun meaning "house of wickedness."' Such texts indicate that there was a debate during ancient times over whether Bethel was a sacred site or a center of apostasy.
The name Bethel was at the center of debate in another context. Bethel appears as a god's name in a seventh-century B.C. Assyrian treaty and in some texts from Elephantine, located in southern Egypt., Based upon these discoveries, some scholars have argued that the word Bethel is used in the Old Testament as a divine name rather than as a place-name. Most interpreters remain unconvinced of the validity of this theory, since it appears quite evident that the Biblical Bethel was a specific place. ln fact, certain Biblical texts seem to attest that Bethel in its early days was a city formerly known as Luz (mentioned in Ge 28:19; 35:6; 48:3) but renamed by Jacob (Jdg 1:23).
Caravan Trading and Routes in the Ancient Near East
GENESIS 37 According to Genesis 37 Joseph found his brothers near Dothan. Overcome by jealousy based on their father's favoritism of this younger brother,they seized him and eventually sold him to a passing caravan of ishmaelites bound for Egypt. Such a caravan probably was headed toward the"Way of the Sea" (Via Maris), an ancient roadway that began in Egypt, hugged the Mediterranean coast of Canaan as it meandered north, then passed just west of Dothan and on to Megiddo.2 From there travelers could continue north beyond the coastal areas of Phoenicia or veer to the northeast toward Damascus and on to Mesopotamia. The King's Highway, another great roadway during Old Testament times, allowed people to travel from north to south through the Transjordan and connected Damascus to the Gulf of Aqaba. During ancient times merchants usually traveled in caravans, seeking protection in numbers on account of the many dangers and the lack of accommodations along the way Caravans tended to be quite large (a column with three hundred donkeys was not extraordinary) and often included armed guards. Ancient texts from the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites' often refer to the hardships of travel. Wild animals, including lions, were a source of danger,, and a lone merchant transporting his wares was a tempting target for bandits. Extreme weather conditions, from drought to snow, also made travel hazardous.
The Romans' elaborate road system (exemplified by the celebrated Appian Way) did not yet exist during Old Testament times., Roads were unpaved, often little more than dirt tracks from earlier caravans. indeed, for many years scholars could only surmise the precise locations of these paths, making assumptions from the shape of the terrain and drawing from references to routes found in ancient documents. Recently, however, satellite photography has proven to be a useful tool for locating these beaten paths. Understandably, merchants transported their goods by sea or on navigable rivers whenever possible.
Despite all these difficulties merchants traded over great distances in the ancient Near East; goods found their way to the land of Israel from as far away as India and southern Arabia.
GENESIS 38 The"duty... as a brother-in-law" mentioned in Genesis 38:8 refers to the social and legal obligations of the levir (Latin for "husband's brother") to marry his widowed sister-in-law in the event his brother had died and left her childless.
This otherwise forbidden marriage arrangement (see Lev 18:16; 20:21) secured the inheritance of the deceased husband' and perpetuated his name (see Dt 25:6), thus reflecting the common desire among ancient Israelites to maintain a presence in the land after their deaths in the persons of their offspring.
In addition, this arrangement provided "social security" for the childless widow, who was effectively helpless and socially disadvantaged in the ancient Near East.2 The Hittites and Assyrians also practiced levirate marriage.
In the event the deceased husband had no brothers (Ru 1:10-13), or if they had declined to fulfill their duty (Ge 38), other relatives might elect to assume the responsibility of the levir. It appears that this regulation was more strictly applied during the patriarchal period than it was several centuries later under the Mosaic Law (Dt 25:5— 10).This is not surprising, since Genesis 38 narrates a period in Israel's history when "being fruitful" and "multiplying" were critical to the young nation's existence. Consequences for a brother-in-law's failure to fulfill this duty in these early days were severe (e.g., Onan's death; vv.8 —10). Tamar, in desperation, used her father-in-law to provide a legitimate heir. It is possible that her culture regarded her act as legally justified; by analogy, Hittite law stipulated that should the brother of a deceased man also perish and so be unable to fulfill his duty to the widow, she should marry her late husband's father.
The Two Brothers
GENESIS 39 An Egyptian text called Papyrus D'Orbiney, dating to approximately 1225 B.C., contains a story titled The Two Brothers. Vividly illustrating the fantastic nature of ancient storytelling, this tale is a curious example of a nonbiblical story having striking similarities to a Biblical text.
In this fictional account, Bata lived with and faithfully served his older brother, Anubis. One day Anubis's wife tried to seduce Bata, who rejected her advances. Furious, she accused him of attempted rape, and the enraged Anubis prepared to kill Bata. But Bata, forewarned by a cow,fled in the nick of time. A lake filled with crocodiles magically appeared between the brothers, cutting off Anubis's pursuit. Anubis returned home—and proceeded to kill his wife!
Meanwhile, Bata cut out his own heart and placed it high in a pine tree, an act rendering him nearly immortal. The gods fashioned a beautiful wife for Bata. An immoral woman, however, she entered Pharaoh's harem and divulged to the Egyptians that Bata could be killed by cutting down the pine tree. They followed through, but Anubis, apparently prepared to reconcile with Bata, found his brother's heart and restored him to life.
Bata in turn transformed himself into a bull and carried Anubis to Pharaoh's court, where Bata's alarmed wife persuaded Pharaoh to sacrifice the bull. Its blood caused two trees to sprout. Realizing that Bata still lived, his wife arranged to have the trees cut down, but a splinter flew into her mouth and she became pregnant. She bore a son, whom Pharaoh raised as his crown prince. The boy—Bata himself—in due course became the pharaoh and appointed Anubis to be his viceroy.
Outlandish as this tale may seem to us, many scholars have noted the amazing similarities between it and the Biblical account of Joseph. Obvious parallels include a rivalry between brothers, a false accusation of rape and an ascent to power in Egypt.There is no reason, however, to surmise that the Biblical story may have been derived from this Egyptian tale.The bizarre quality of the Egyptian story contrasts strongly with the factual tone of the historical, Biblical narrative. At the same time, parallels between the stories may not have been accidental.
If composed after the time of Joseph,the Egyptian tale may have been influenced by the Biblical reality.
If the Egyptian story existed prior to the time of Joseph (assuming that Papyrus D'Orbiney was not its earliest iteration), the obvious parallels included in the Joseph narrative may have been intended to signal the fact that the God of Israel could elevate a son of Israel to power, even in an Egyptian context. The argument could be made that the Biblical account shows that Joseph fulfilled even the Egyptian ideal of a hero.
It is impossible, in the final analysis, to speak definitively of literary dependence going in either direction in this instance; there is simply not enough evidence to make an accurate judgment.
Famine in the Ancient Near East
GENESIS 42 Subsistence farming and chronic malnutrition were common in the ancient world, and many people perceived themselves at any given time as being only a step ahead of starvation. Natural causes (drought, locusts and blight) brought about frequent famines, as did human actions, from siege warfare to destruction of fields by invading armies to the exacerbating of food shortages by hoarding.' Joel 1 recounts the desolation brought about by a locust plague,2 while Isaiah 7 records the devastation of Judah's agricultural economy by invading Assyrians.
Usually famines in this part of the world were temporary and local, but some long-term and widespread occurrences have been recorded. A protracted and extensive drought and consequent intermittent famines centered in Egypt occurred from the twenty-second to the twentieth centuries B.C., as Egyptian texts from this time period attest. For example, The Admonitions of Ipuwer describes famine-related social chaos in Egypt, indicating that during this time people languished from thirst and desert-like conditions prevailed.3 This period of frequent famines corresponds to the patriarchal age; the Bible records famines during the lifetimes of Abraham (Ge 12:10), Isaac (26:1) and Joseph (chs. 41-42).
Centuries later, according to Acts 11:28, Agabus predicted a worldwide famine,which did indeed occur between A.D. 44 and 48,during Claudius's reign.This is attested by extra-biblical sources. For example, Tacitus, in The Annals,12.43, mentioned "scanty crops" during that period.
The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives
GENESIS 44 No mention of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel) has been found in extra biblical documents from their era (c. 1950-1550 B.c.), nor should we expect to find such references. Living as nomads on the fringes of populated areas, the patriarchs wandered between the great empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and their activities would have been insignificant to scribes and annalists of that period.The Biblical narratives, which from their side make few references to political events of those times, nevertheless are historical, not myth or fiction. Biblical writers simply selected material appropriate to their theological objectives.
There are various reasons (above and beyond basic faith commitment) for us to accept the Biblical accounts as historically reliable, among them:
Because writing systems were in use by the third millennium B.c., it is unnecessary to assume that a long period of oral transmission existed between the events themselves and their documentation in written records. People of the late third millennium and early second millennium B.C. maintained written records and did not depend on memory for matters they considered to be important. The events of the patriarchal period may have been recorded soon after their occurrence in texts that the Biblical writer later utilized as sources.
Names similar to Serug, Nahor, Terah, Abram/Abraham (Ge 11) and Jacob (ch.25) appear in documents of the first half of the second millennium B.C., showing that these names were common during that period., The names of the kings mentioned in Genesis 14 are difficult to account for, but evidence does collaborate the story itself
Apparently some locations mentioned in the patriarchal narrative were sparsely inhabited during the time of the patriarchs and thus are difficult to account for archaeologically.' Other locations, however, had larger populations and are known from archaeology and/or texts contemporary to the lives of the patriarchs.5 There is strong evidence, for example, related to the location of the cities of the plain.
The patriarchs' travel is not to be regarded as improbable.Texts from Ebla (c.2300 B.C.; see"Ebla" on p.19) and Cappadocia (c.2000 B.c.) indicate that travel, commerce and trade regularly occurred throughout the ancient Near East.
Hurrian family law, in force in Haran (see chs. 12; 24) and Nuzi, shed light on some of the activities of Abraham's family that might otherwise perplex us! Another parallel has been found in a letter from Larsa (an ancient Sumerian city on the Euphrates River), indicating that a childless man could indeed adopt his slave as his heir (see 15:2). The patriarchal stories faithfully reflect customs that were not practiced and institutions that did not exist during later periods, some of which were even prohibited under the religious norms of later Israel. For example, marriage to a half sister (cf. Lev 18:9) or to two sisters simultaneously (cf. Lev 18:18) was permissible during patriarchal times but forbidden in later Israelite society. This fact argues against the idea claimed by some critics that these stories were invented during the period of the Israelite monarchy.
Thus, various contemporary Near Eastern sources lend support to the historicity of the Genesis narrative. God, as we know and believe, revealed himself to real persons within the contexts of time and space.
The Khu-Sebek Inscription and the Burial of Jacob
GENESIS 50 The Khu-Sebek inscription, discovered at Abydos in Egypt, dates to the reign of Senwosret III (mid-nineteenth century B.c.) during the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history. It contains a first-person account of the career of Khu-Sebek, who rose to power while in the pharaoh's service (apparently as a member of his body-guard). Khu-Sebek boasts of his zealous service to the pharaoh, particularly highlighting his heroic bravery during a campaign in Canaan against the city of Shechem.
The inscription justifies Khu-Sebek's cenotaph (memorial monument) at the Osiris shrine in Abydos,2 while also shedding light on two aspects of the Biblical account of Joseph's career. First, someone whose outstanding service caught the pharaoh's eye
could be elevated to a high rank within the Egyptian government or military. Second, the most conclusive verification that an individual had earned the pharaoh's favor was a distinguished burial or a memorial erected in his honor. Fittingly, Genesis 50 describes the elaborate funeral of Joseph's father, Jacob/Israel, and mentions the embalming of Joseph.