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The Patriarchal Narratives

If the entire patriarchal narratives seem historical it is probably because they are written as if they are historical. Nevertheless, is there any evidence that these characters ever existed? Do these stories have any factual basis with regards to the formation of the nation of Israel?

With Genesis chapters 11-50, the Bible begins its tale of the ancestors of the people of Israel. Naturally, the Bible starts with the first two ancestors, Abraham and Sarah (called Abram and Sarai in the first few chapters). Abraham is said to have been born in the ancient city of Ur. Ur was an old Sumerian city, founded as late as 3500 BCE, which sat on the Euphrates River near what was at the time the bank of the Persian Gulf. Its strategic location made Ur one of Sumeria’s most prosperous city-states. It was also the center of worship for the moon-god Nanna, also known as the Babylonian Sin. Its culture was thoroughly polytheistic, so before Abraham worshiped Yahweh he would have undoubtedly worshipped many gods. The Bible refers to the city as “Ur of the Chaldees” (Gen. 11:28, 31Open Link in New Window), but during Abraham’s time it would not have been referenced that way, since the Chaldeans did not settle into the area until between 1000 and 900 BCE—some 1000 years after Abraham would have purportedly lived.

Abraham’s family picks up and moves to Haran, which is now Southern Turkey, and from there Yahweh commands that Abraham and Sarah migrate into Canaan. “Canaan” is a term used to refer to the land encompassing the entire Mediterranean coast south of present day Turkey and north of the Arabian Desert. Yahweh promises to make Abraham the ancestor of a great nation, and also to give all of his descendants all of Canaan. Genesis includes four different versions of this, called the Abrahamic Covenant, which can be found in chapters 12:2-3, 15:1-21, 17:1-22, and 22:15-18.

The only problem is that Sarah is infertile (that and the fact that both Abraham and Sarah are at this point now elderly). Out of desperation, Abraham has a son by his maidservant Hagar named Ishmael, but he is not the promised son. Sarah laughs at the idea of having a child at her advanced age, but nevertheless, a child is born and named Isaac, which means laughter. Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth to the twins Esau and Jacob. Jacob’s name is later changed to Israel, and he has twelve sons, each of which represent the twelve tribes of Israel (imagine that!). The last section of Genesis (37-50) deals with Jacob’s favorite son Joseph and his emergence into Egypt.

The Historical Origins of Israel?

If the entire patriarchal narratives seem historical it is probably because they are written as if they are historical. Nevertheless, is there any evidence that these characters ever existed? Do these stories have any factual basis with regards to the formation of the nation of Israel? Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman argue in their book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (2001, The Free Press) that the patriarchal narratives are not based on actual people or events. Let’s see why that is.

Genealogies in the Bible place Abraham’s birth and departure into Canaan to 2100 BCE. Theories for the historicity of these stories rely on the lifestyles and customs of the patriarchs matching the lifestyles and customs of Canaanite people during this era, particularly pastoral groups migrating through Canaan around 2000 BCE. Such westward migrations from Mesopotamia to Canaan during this time, however, are nonexistent. According to the book, “Archaeology completely disproved the contention that a sudden, massive population movement had taken place at that time. And the seeming parallels between Mesopotamian laws and customs of the second millennium BCE and those described in the patriarchal narratives were so general that they could apply to almost any period in ancient Near Eastern history” (pg. 35-36). Thus, shifting dates around for these narratives could not produce any convincing links. We must now return to the Bible itself for clues.

The narratives are undoubtedly a composite work, consisting of material from the J, E and P sources (Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly) that were later combined into one. Many events in the story are duplicated, giving versions from some or all of the three sources. Scholars date the final composition and compilation of these narratives to the time of the monarchy, between 900 and 700 BCE. Obviously, this is well over a thousand years after Abraham supposedly lived. The Genesis writers could not have had any memory of these events, if they were factual, aside from oral lore. This suggests that the narratives might have been written as a national mythology rather than a historical document.

The Oxford History of the Biblical World (1998, Oxford University Press) states that “There are many reasons to be skeptical of these narratives as historically accurate accounts of the lives of Israel’s progenitors…In modern parlance, their function is sociological rather than historical…Events and characters are often manufactured for the narrative purposes, and variant versions of a single story develop alongside one another” (pg. 27). Indeed, as I just mentioned, the latter is precisely what happened. At least three rival versions cropped up, two of which occurred at roughly the same time. The book also states that the stories “also emphasize the unity of Israel, portraying the nation as the collected descendants of a single couple, Abraham and Sarah. From a historical point of view, such a notion can be shown as inaccurate” (pg. 56).

So why suspect that these narratives were written down between the 10th and 8th centuries (900-700 BCE)? The Bible Unearthed lists many clues taken straight from the narratives themselves. For example, the stories are filled with camels, and in Joseph’s story, camels are described as domesticated animals being used in caravan trade. However, archaeological research has shown that camels were not domesticated until the late second millennium BCE, and not widely used in the land of Canaan until well after 1000 BCE. “And an even more telling detail—the camel caravan carrying “gum, balm, and myrrth,” in the Joseph story—reveals an obvious familiarity with the main products of the lucrative Arabian trade that flourished under the supervision of the Assyrian empire in the eighth-seventh centuries BCE” (The Bible Unearthed, pg. 37). Thus, the author’s knowledge of camels places him in time no earlier than about 800 BCE. Such an incidental detail could not possibly have been based on distant fact, but rather, the author merely assumed that such things would have been true in the patriarch’s time when making his story since they were already known to be true during his time.

But there’s more. There’s also a reference to the Philistines when Isaac encounters “Abimelech, king of the Philistines” in Genesis 26:1Open Link in New Window. “The Philistines, a group of migrants from the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean, had not established their settlements along the coastal plain of Canaan until sometime after 1200 BCE” (Ibid.). These cities prospered and dominated from the 11th century all the way into the Assyrian period (700s-600s). Gerar is mentioned as a Philistine city in the stories of Isaac and as a city in the stories of Abraham (Gen. 20:1Open Link in New Window). At the beginning of Philistine history, excavations show that this city was small and insignificant. “But by the late eighth and seventh century BCE, it had become a strong, heavily fortified Assyrian administrative stronghold in the south, an obvious landmark” (Ibid, pg. 38). That the author was well aware of this city, and that it becomes important with regards to Isaac and Abraham, also suggests that the author was writing during the Assyrian period.


Thus, it seems clear that the patriarchal narratives were put into writing sometime during the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, in the middle of the Assyrian period. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories originated during this time. Is it possible that this “ancient history” circulated throughout the Near East for many centuries—indeed, a millennium—before finally being transferred into writing (ignoring the many problems with oral traditions)? Not likely. As The Bible Unearthed states, “These stories offer a highly sophisticated commentary on political affairs in this region in the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods” (pg. 38-39). In other words, the patriarchal tales appear to be mythical allegories that were designed to reflect the political situations of the monarchy during the Assyrian period.

Consider the Arameans mentioned in the stories of Jacob’s marriages and the relationship with his uncle Laban. Their kingdoms arose in what is now modern day Syria, just north of what was then the kingdom of Israel. They did not become a distinct ethnical group until roughly 1100 BCE and were not a dominant factor in the region until the 9th century. Much of the population of northern Israel were Arameans, and somewhat appropriately, Jacob is described as “a wandering Aramean” (Det. 26:5, referred to as a “Syrian” in the KJV, but it means the same thing). Aram and Israel wavered often between allies and rivals, and this relationship is expressed well by the stories of Jacob and Laban. In Genesis 31:51-54Open Link in New Window Jacob and Laban mark off the boundaries of their territories with a “pillar”, or stone, and this boundary accurately reflects the boundaries of Israel and Aram between the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. Thus, we can see how the author fashioned these stories about Jacob with the purpose of “explaining” the current political situation of his time. Unsurprisingly, Genesis 31:51-54Open Link in New Window is from the E source, which was written by somebody living in the northern kingdom of Israel between the 9th and 9th centuries.

Throughout the 8th and 7th centuries, the southern kingdom of Judah had a hostile relationship with its eastern neighbors, the kingdoms of Moab and Ammon. Genesis 19:30-38Open Link in New Window is from the J source, which was written in Judah, and tells how these two kingdoms were born out of an incestuous union between two daughters and their father, Lot. Their two sons were dutifully named Moab and Ammon. This disrespectful kind of ancestry humorously reflects Judah’s contempt for the two kingdoms.

Another story in Genesis tells of the two brothers Jacob and Esau, eventual fathers of Israel and Edom. They were said to have fought in the womb, and grew up as rivals. Yahweh tells their mother Rebecca that the elder shall serve the younger, and we soon find out that Jacob is the younger. Once again, this kind of relationship accurately reflects the relationships between the two nations during the time of the monarchy. Edom itself did not appear as a distinct kingdom until late in the 8th century, BCE.

Several more examples can be found in The Bible Unearthed, but I think the point is clear. The genealogies in the patriarchal tales are a reflection of the nations living alongside Israel and Judah during their later monarchic period. The metaphor of a family lineage was chosen by the authors as a nice way to describe the roles these nations played throughout the history of the time. This makes them a sort of national mythology rather than a distinct history. And as I mentioned in an earlier quote, the depiction that Israel is the collected descendants of a single group in Mesopotamia is historically inaccurate. “Israel”, in reality, formed out of many different ancient Near-Eastern cultures and ethnic groups that pre-dated it.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:18 pm


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