From  the  book  by  the  same  name

New Discoveries

The Patriarchs

Living Legends or Legendary Lives?

Archaeology has shed considerable light on the stories of the Patriarchs in Genesis, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not that any records of these men have ever been found outside the Bible, but the veil which previously hid their times has been lifted. As a result, we now know more about the type of people they were, where they came from, how they lived, what they believed, where and how they are to befitted into the histories of the great nations of ancient times than the later Israelites themselves 1

—G.Ernest Wright

The only history known to the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt was that bequeathed to them by their ancestors, the Patriarchs ("fathers who rule"). It was a history of covenant and promise between God and their fathers, which gave the people of Israel hope even in the midst of oppression. For this reason when God acted to deliver his people from the Egyptians, He chose to identify himself with the Patriarchs-—-as "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Exodus 3:6,15-16; 4:5; Luke 20:37-38). By this they were to have assurance of their deliverance, for God had made a covenant with the Patriarchs, which He had sworn to fulfill (Exodus 6:3-8). In fact, the act of circumcision, which is still performed on Jewish males today, testifies to the Jewish community's continued identification with the biblical Patriarchs who lived 4,000 years ago. The Patriarchs remain the essential pillar of Jewish self-definition, and the Patriarchal covenant remains the historical basis for Israel's right to their ancient Land.

Playing Down the Patriarchs

It may seem a strange act of self-denial, then, that many critical Jewish scholars join their Gentile colleagues in the belief that the biblical accounts of the Patriarchs are not historical.2 1 can well remember the first time I became aware of this. I had completed my studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and was a graduate student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At Dallas Seminary the Patriarchal narratives were taught as true history, and I had presumed the same at this leading Israeli academic institution. However, on my first day in a course on the history of early Israel, the teacher, who was one of Israel's foremost historical archaeologists, stated with complete conviction: "Abraham never existed, but his cousins did!" The professor went on to explain that the biblical stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were simply campfire accounts that had been passed down through the centuries and had grown into legends (he used the word saga). He said the Patriarchs were only a backward projection created by nationalist Jews during the mid-first millennium (600-400 B.C.). These nationalists were seeking to create a glorified though non-historical past. In support of his view, he stated that the archaeological evidence did not support the existence of a Patriarchal period. Archaeology aside, I remember pointing out, in my youthful reserve, that such a view for Israelis, whose territorial claims rested in part on the Abrahamic Covenant, and today are a matter of international contention, was tantamount to sawing off the limb on which they were sitting. Today, in my more mature judgment, I would say that it would rather fell the whole tree (see Romans 4:13; 11:28-29)!

Incidentally, Christians should also share a concern over this view because, in the New Testament, Abraham is called "the father of us all" (Romans 4:16), and believers in Christ are said to be Abraham's "sons" and "offspring, heirs according to promise" (Galatians 3:7,29). Furthermore, the historicity of the Patriarchs is accepted by Jesus and the New Testament authors (Matthew 1:1-2; 3:9; 8:11; Luke 13:28; 16:22-30; 20:37-38; John 8:39-58; Acts 3:13,25; 7:16-17,32; Hebrews 2:16; 7:1-9; 1 Peter 3:6) and used as a witness by them of God's pledge to perform His word (Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:6-29; Hebrews 6:13; James 2:21-23). The heart of Hebrews chapter 11 lists a "hall of Old Testament heroes" who demonstrated the reality of living by faith. As Ronald Youngblood points out:

To the credit of the patriarchs, the author of Hebrews
devoted more than half of those twenty-nine verses—
fifteen, to be exact-—to detailing the ways in which the
patriarchs and their wives proved themselves to be men
and women of faith 3

Therefore, without the Patriarchs, whose faithfulness laid the foundation for our faith, neither Jews nor Gentiles have a promise! How can the prominence of the Patriarchs in Scripture-—especially of Abraham as a central figure in both the Old and New Testaments—be dismissed as nothing more than a tradition? Does the archaeological record support or silence the hope of millions of faithful believers whose present faith and future blessings are based on a convenant with the fathers? Let's consider the archaeological evidence and decide for ourselves.

Verifying the Patriarchs

The old Albright school's conservative approach to the historicity of the Patriarchal narratives was no doubt initiated by the surprising archaeological verification of the Hittite empire. Now recognized as the third great Near Eastern empire of ancient history, scholars could not help but notice that references to the Hittites, the sons of Heth (Genesis 10:15), were abundantly sprinkled throughout the Patriarchal accounts (Genesis 11:27-50:26). For similar reasons, a modern reassessment of the archaeological evidence for the Patriarchs has returned some scholars to a more conservative view of the historicity of the Genesis accounts (Genesis 12-36). Why is this happening? Professor Nahum Sarna recently made this observation:

As a whole, the Patriarchal narratives possess a distinctive flavor unparalleled in the rest of the Bible. They reflect a pattern of living and several socio-legal institutions that are peculiar to the period-but often attested in Near Eastern documents the antiquity of the Genesis traditions is confirmed by several Patriarchal practices that directly contradict the social mores and norms of a later age 4

The biblical account of the Patriarchs (including Joseph) in Genesis 12-50 indicates a Middle Bronze period date from the late third millennium to the mid-second millennium B.C. (2166-1805). Archaeological evidence for this period has emerged in the form of the Code of Hammurabi, Egyptian and Hittite texts, and thousands of clay tablets from the Amorite city of Mari (Tel Hariri), the Horite city of Nuzi, and the cities of Leilan and Alalakh. To these we can add the fabulous finds at the Syrian site of Ebla (Tel Mardikh), which though still controversial, have offered some comparative material. This evidence includes law codes, legal and social contracts, and religious and commercial texts.

A generation ago, the case that these artifacts made for the antiquity and historicity of the Patriarchs was accepted more than it is today. In recent times, minimalist scholars have challenged these conclusions.5 Their efforts, however, rather than being destructive to the maximalist position, have aided it by removing elements inconsistent with or unnecessary to the biblical portrayal of the Patriarchs.6 In particular, Thompson's minimalist critical analysis of alleged parallels between the Nuzi tablets and Patriarchal social customs have helped improve the usage of these texts for a more accurate maximalist reconstruction of the Patriarchal age. Even so, the correction of parallels, based on the Nuzi material, have proven to be far fewer than Thompson originally proposed.7 

While there remains less archaeological evidence for this time period than perhaps any other, careful comparisons of the biblical accounts with the available data have offered the following arguments in support of Patriarchal historicity.

The World of the Patriarchs

The texts of numerous contracts from the ancient Near East reveal that the social background portrayed in the Patriarchal narratives is accurate and fits the time suggested by the biblical chronology. One point of comparison between these texts and the Bible involves the laws governing inheritances. In Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his 12 sons, apportioning to each son an equal share of the inheritance. This, however, was changed at Sinai, for the Mosaic Law stipulated that the firstborn son should receive a double inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). This apparent contradiction was formerly explained by the higher critics according to Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis, which held that different writers had composed conflicting accounts of the Pentateuch at the same time late in Israel's post-exilic history. But the extrabiblical texts from the ancient Near East confirm that though this material may have been edited into a final form at a later period, its original composition could have taken place during the time of Moses.8 In the case of the Patriarchal blessing in Genesis 49, an equal share in inheritance laws is evident in the laws of Lipit-Ishtar (twentieth century B.C.).

However, 200 years later in Hammurabi's Code (eighteenth century B.C.), a distinction is made between the sons of a man's first wife—who get first choice—and the sons of his second wife. Then when we compare the texts from Mari and Nuzi (eighteenth-fifteenth centuries B.C.) we find that a natural firstborn son received a double share while an adopted son did not. First-millenium Neo-Babylonian laws reflect a similar progression, with the sons of a first wife getting a double portion and secondary sons only a single portion.

British Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen suggests a number of other social comparisons from the archaeological record that offer correlation with a second-millennium date.9 His list includes the price of slaves in silver shekels (as with Joseph, Genesis 37:28), the specific form of treaties and covenants (Genesis chapters 21, 26, 31), geopolitical conditions (Genesis 14), and references to Egypt (Genesis chapters 12, 45-47). Additional examples proposed by scholars have included the domestication of camels (Genesis 12:16), which has been attested in texts even earlier than the Patriarchs,10 the adoption of sons through surrogates (Genesis 16:2-3; 30:1-3), attested to in Old Assyrian marriage contracts (nineteenth century B.C.),11 and in Hammurabi's Code and at Nuzi, from Mesopotamian law guaranteeing the inheritance rights of an adopted son (such as with Eliezer in Genesis 15:2-4).12 In each of these texts, the archaeological data seems to accord exactly with our information of conditions at the time. Therefore, according to the changing social customs reflected by these laws, only a second millennium context will fit the type of inheritance practice by the Patriarchs.13

The Names of the Patriarchs

One way of determining the chronological setting of historical characters is by considering their names. Names tend to reflect a unique cultural setting in time. Consider for a moment your grandparents' and parents' names. My grandmothers were named Tabitha and Jesse, and my grandfathers Peyton and Ernest. My mother's name is Maurine and my father's name was Elmo. Because such names are time-bound they are rarely passed on (except as initials) to the next generation. Today in American culture it is more common to find a Brandon, Sabrina, or Meagan. The main exceptions are timeless names drawn from great persons of the past, most often biblical figures. For this reason we will always have Davids, Marys, Johns, and Pauls. Let's begin by considering the names of Abram's closest relatives, such as his great-grandfather Serug, his grandfather Nahor, and his father Terah (and even Abram's own name). Researchers have confirmed that these names appear in Old Assyrian and Babylonian texts and that typographical references in Neo-Assyrian texts correspond with places in the Euphrates-Habur region of Syro-Mesopotamia. This geographical linkage with Abram and his lineage agree with the biblical accounts that his family came from Ur and settled in Haran (Genesis 11:28,31). In addition, if we try to place the names of the Patriarchs in a cultural setting, we find that they are most prominent with the Northwest Semitic language group of the Amorite population of the early second millennium B.C. (such as at Mari), and third millennium examples have also been attested at Ebla. Names with an i/y- prefix, such as Yitzchak ("Issac"), Ya'akov ("Jacob"), Yoseph ("Joseph"), and Yishmael ("Ishmael"), belong to this type of name, and the frequency of their appearance diminishes significantly in the first millennium and onward.14 Thus the time during which men with these names would have lived would have been the pre-Israelite period—a fact that is in accord with the biblical text.

The Places of the Patriarchs

The places mentioned in the Patriarchal narratives also reveal a historical consistency when compared to the archaeological evidence from the ruins of Ur, Hebron, Beersheba, and Shechem. In particular, the city of Haran in upper Mesopotamia, which in the biblical text seems to have been a commercial center during the time of Abraham, was abandoned after the Patriarchal period and remained unoccupied from about 1800 B.C. to 800 B.C. Noting this point, Barry Beitzel, an archaeologist at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, observes, "It's highly improbable [that someone inventing the story later] would have chosen Haran as a key location when the town hadn't existed for hundreds of years."

Did Abraham Pass Through This Gate?

The Israelite site of Tel Dan in the Golan Heights preserves the name of the ancient city of Dan, which many Bible readers recall from the geographical description in the Bible "From Dan to Beersheba." According to some Egyptian execration texts, Dan's earlier name was Laish (see also Judges 18:7,14).15 This would have been the name of the city in the time of the Patriarchs. The archaeological excavations at this site have revealed a very large Canaanite city with a highly developed material culture, rich tombs, and massive fortifications of sloping ramparts. The great surprise in the excavation was to find in the midst of the ramparts a 4,000-year-old mud-brick gate built with an arch (an architectural achievement thought to have been invented by the Romans 2,000 years later!). Even more incredible is the fact that this mud-brick gate still stands today exactly as it was originally built, complete with all its courses to the very top.16 This gate served as the main gate to Laish, and would have been used by all who visited the city. According to the gate's excavator, Avraham Biran, this may very well have included the Patriarchs:

Abraham in the book of Genesis proceeded to defeat the kings of the north who took his nephew Lot prisoner, and the text says in Genesis 14 that, "Abraham came as far as Dan." Now, of course in those days the name of the city was Laish and not Dan. I imagine that the Biblical copyist who found the name Laish, said "who remembers Laish anymore, its been gone, forgotten," so he wrote Dan instead. But to my way of thinking, Abraham, no doubt, was invited to visit the city of Laish and for all I know had gone through the gate before it was blocked.17

18. Reconstruction of the city gate of Laish as it appeared at the time of Abraham.

Such a place as the gate of Laish provides confirmation that, as the biblical record states, there was indeed a city at Dan in the time of Abraham, thereby adding credibility to the Patriarchal narrative.

Proof for the Patriarchs at Fort Abram

Another place from the Israelite period has been proposed as incidental evidence for confirming the existence of the Patriarchs. Built in the Negev by David or Solomon in the early tenth century B.C. as part of a line of defenses against the Egyptians, the name of the place is listed in a hieroglyphic text on a wall relief in the Temple of Amun at Karnak (Luxor, Egypt). The name of this place is "The Fort of Abram" or "Fortified Town of Abram." Yohanan Aharoni believed that Fort Abram was the term used by the Egyptians for the Israelite city of Beersheba. That's because in the Egyptian list of cities in the Negev, Beersheba is not mentioned, yet it was a prominent site during that time. The most likely explanation

for this is that the new defensive site at Beersheba had been given the name of Abram because he was the original founder of the city (Genesis 21:22-23). As Roland Hendel explains, "When a government builds fortifications, it is natural to name them for illustrious local or national heroes. Abram of biblical fame surely fits the bill."18

The Climate of the Patriarchs

Through the ages, changes in global and regional climate cycles have affected the movement of human populations. In Genesis we read of the Patriarchs moving from place to place because of regional disasters or famines. Today, the modern climate of the Near East is much drier and arid than it was in earlier periods of its history. Because current conditions do not reflect the ancient, when archaeologists want to correctly appraise the Patriarchal accounts of climatic conditions, they must compare the ancient documentary record of climate changes with the evidence revealed in excavations, core and pollen samples, and radiocarbon calibration.

According to archaeologist James Sauer, who has done extensive excavations and climateological surveys in Jordan and Syria, the material evidence accords with historical records to substantiate the biblical traditions of the Middle Bronze period.19 He has found that during the time of the third millennium B.C. the entire region would have been much wetter. This would have made the Jordan Valley, especially around the present area of the Dead Sea (where the Patriarchal narratives place the Cities of the Plain), a fertile region—-just as the Bible describes. Furthermore, the evidence for the arid cycles during this period correlate well with the famines documented in the archaeological records from Egypt, Canaan, and the surrounding regions. These, in turn, verify the settlement patterns of the Patriarchs, who sought relief from such conditions. This evidence led Sauer to agree with Albright's earlier conclusions concerning the antiquity of the Patriarchs and to suggest:

Since the memories of climatic change and of early geography seem so accurate, it would even be suggested that some of these traditions may not have been written down for the first time in the tenth century B.C.E. but were in fact written down much earlier.20

The Witness of Genesis Chapter 14

Yet another corroboration of the historicity and antiquity of the Patriarchal narratives is found in the account of an invasion of lower Canaan by a coalition of Mesopotamian kings (see Genesis 14). In the ensuing battle Abraham's nephew Lot, who was living in Sodom, was captured and carried away along with his household (Genesis 14:12). Abraham entered the fray and rescued his relative and after the victory met with Melchizedek, the priest of Salem (verses 18-24). So distinct is this account that the higher critics have been forced to either call it a fabrication or assign it to an isolated source (apart from the Higher Critical's school's alleged documentary sources used in the composition of the book of Genesis and based on the text's use of different names for God and supposedly priestly influence referred to as J=Jawehist, E=Elohist, and P=Priestly School). What makes this chapter so impressive is its detailed and precise listing of names and places (both foreign and local), often parenthetically explained by more contemporary names, such as "the valley of Siddim" for "the Salt Sea" (Dead Sea—verse 3), or "the valley of Shaveh" for "the King's Valley" (the lower Kidron Valley—-verse 17). Such literary clarifications are among the traits that indicate this chapter has the mark of antiquity.

Despite the fact that the kings named in Genesis 14 have yet to appear in extrabiblical cuneiform accounts, we do know that the right names are connected with the right places. We know this because while the specific personages are not mentioned outside the Genesis narrative, such names do appear in various Mesopotamian texts of this period. To demonstrate this, let us consider the names of the four Eastern kings given in Genesis 14:1.

"Amraphel king of Shinar" is thought to be a typical West Semitic name from Lower Mesopotamia, found in both Akkadian and Amorite sources, and possibly connected with the Amorite name Amud-pa-ila.21 "Shinar," in Egyptian texts, is used for Babylonia.22 "Arioch king of Ellasar" appears as the Arriyuk(ki)/Arriwuk(ki) in texts from Mari (Araorite) and Nuzi (Hurrian).23 At Mari-this was the name of the fifth son of Zimri-Lim, Mari's king.24 "Chedolaomer, king of Elam" is clearly an Elamite name, based on familiar Elamite terms: kudur ("servant") and Lagamar, a principal goddess in the Elamite pantheon.25 It fits the type of Elamite royal names known as a Kutur type, and is known from at least three royal examples.26 "Tidal king of Goiim" is well attested as an early form of the Hittite name Tudkhalia, which was the name of at least five Hittite rulers.27 One is said to have served as a "king of peoples/groups," which reflects the political fragmentation that existed in the Hittite empire in Anatolia (Turkey) during the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries B.C. and permitted the kind of alliance pictured in Genesis 14.28

The political conditions depicted by the alliance in Genesis 14 and that of the Transjordanian coalition of kings in the Dead Sea basin were possible in only one period of history-—the early second millennium B.C. Only at this time does the archaeological record reveal that the Elamites were aggressively involved in the affairs of the region (the Levant), and only in this period were Mesopotamian alliances so unstable as to permit such a confederation.29 The term "Goyim" is a Hebrew translation of the Akkadian word Umman, a term used to characterize various peoples who came as invaders.30 Thus, this king was most likely a vagabond ruler who assimilated various tribes and provinces into his army. Given this understanding and the shifting political situation, it is logical that an Elamite king would head a coalition of Mesopotamian city-states and launch a punitive raid on rebel Canaanite kings. After this time period, and especially during the first millennium B.C., the political map became completely incompatible with the conditions necessary for such formation.

To these time-bound indicators of historicity we may add the accuracy of the invasion route taken by the Eastern kings, the use of a Hebrew term for "trained men" in verse 14, which is attested outside this passage only in a nineteenth-century B.C. Egyptian text and a fifteenth-century B.C. letter from Ta'anak, and 3) the description of Melchizedek, which accurately depicts a second-millennium setting.31 These details in Genesis 14, attested in extrabiblical documents of the time, could not have been invented and correctly assigned to their respective nations and geographical settings by a Hebrew writer living at a later time. Thus, the antiquity of this account, within the larger context of the Patriarchal narratives, indicates that there is substantial reason to regard the whole as historically accurate.

The Tombs of the Patriarchs

19. Tomb of the Patriarclis at Hebron, over the Cave of Machpelah.

In the case of the Patriarchs of Israel, archaeology has preserved for us not merely their memories but also their memorials.

We often say in a figurative way that people "bury their memories," but normally that phrase is not used in a literal sense. They do not often, do so literally. However, when we come to the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs), the places of their burials are still with us today. What tales do these tombs tell?

The Burial Place of the Patriarchs

One of the best known and most controversial sites in the Land of Israel is the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the city of Hebron. The conflict that engulfs this town today between Jew and Arab over access to this sacred site is an ages-old testimony to the presence of the Patriarchs, from which both groups claim descent. In the Bible we read that after the death of Abraham's wife Sarah in Kiriath-arba (Hebron), Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite a burial cave at Machpelah for his family (Genesis 23:17-20).32 The Bible records that in the tombs at this cave were buried Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and Jacob and his wife Leah. Undoubtedly its character as the place of the Patriarchs made it God's choice for the country's capital under David (2 Samuel 2:1-4; 5:3-5). Standing over the area of the cave today is an archaeological wonder-—a still-intact monumental building more than 2,000 years old. This building, which was built to commemorate and preserve the ancient burial site, is dated by most scholars to the time of Herod the Great. Other scholars, however, believe that the original construction is much older.

No one in recent history has explored inside the cave,33 but there is evidence of the presence of several Middle Bronze Age I shaft tombs beneath the building. The only entrance into the cave during modern times was shortly after Israel regained access to the site during the Six-Day War of June 1967. The late Moshe Dayan had a very thin Israeli girl named Michael let down through the only available entrance to the cave, an 11-inch air shaft located within the upper level of the building.34 While feeling her way along in complete darkness, she measured and photographed a long corridor (57 feet) and 16 steps leading to a large lower chamber. Other than the presence of several large stone slabs, which may be tombstones (one was inscribed in Arabic with words from the Koran), nothing beyond this point could be examined. Visitors to the Tomb of the Patriarchs today can enter only the upper level of the building, where centotaphs (commemorative tombs) of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs can be seen.

The Burial Place of Rachel

According to the Bible, two members of Abraham's family were not included in the family burial cave-—-Jacob's favorite wife, Rachel, and his esteemed son, Joseph. Joseph was buried in Shechem (modern-day Nablus), but the site of his grave is uncertain. Rachel, who died on the way to Bethlehem, was buried in this vicinity. A very late tradition places the site of her tomb where it is today along the Hebron road at the entrance to Bethlehem, but it doubtful that this is the actual place of burial based on a careful geographical comparison of the biblical descriptions in the books of Genesis, 1 Samuel, and Jeremiah. The Genesis account says that Rachel was buried on the road to "Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)" (Genesis 48:7). Bethlehem today is located south of Jerusalem in the territory allotted to the tribe of Judah. However, Jeremiah, alluding to Rachel's death, says that it is "in [or near] Ramah" (Jeremiah 31:15), an area north of Jerusalem (modern-day A-Ram) in the tribal allotment of Benjamin. This placement close to Ramah or to Gibeah (just east of Ramah) seems supported by the statement in Samuel that "Rachel's tomb" was "in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah" (1 Samuel 10:2). The original site of Ephrath has been identified with an ancient town built near the spring of Ein Prat, where the road from Bethel to the spring first passes between Ramah and Gibeah. Only a short walk from this site are located five huge stone structures that, from ancient times, the Arabs have

20. Author with Megalithic structures called "The Graves of the Children of Israel" at Ephrah, identified with Rachel's Tomb.

called Kub'r B'nai Yisrael ("the Graves of the Children of Israel"). The origin of these rectangular structures remains a mystery; they have tentatively been suggested to date from the megalithic era (2000-1500 B.C.), a time frame that includes the Patriarchs.35 During the last century Clermont-Ganneau identified the site as that of Rachel's Tomb.36 Further arguments in favor of the site was made recently by Israeli topographer and naturalist Nogah Hareuveni.37

So, while we may have only circumstantial evidence for the existence of the Patriarchs-—-based on the ancient Near Eastern documents that reflect their customs and practices-—we can also add to this the witness of their tombs from antiquity.

Yet Another Challenge

We may conclude that, based on archaeology, we have a good case for drawing a reliable historical outline for the Patriarchs. Documentary parallels, places mentioned in the biblical account, the accuracy of historical details, and the continued existence of the tombs assigned to them from antiquity have helped to enlighten us about this era. However, one story from the Patriarchal period has been considered as so preposterous that critics have used it to color the form within this historical outline as fantasy. This is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Cities of the Plain (Genesis 18-19). Archaeology's answer to this challenge of historicity will be taken up in our next chapter, so read on!