19. The Historicity of the Patriarchs

The Patriarchs experienced severe vicissitudes in studies of Israelite history over the course of the twentieth century. By focusing on and evaluating the critical moments in this scholarly debate, discuss what happened and what the issues have been and are. In doing so, lay out your own scholarly position on the matter and defend it.

Summary: In the 1930's, the Albright school invoked the Amorite Hypothesis to support the historicity of the patriarch accounts. Comparison was made between the patriarchs' names, nomadic life-style, and customs with those of the Amorites. Soon, however, the tide shifted with minimalists like Thompson arguing against the Amorite Hypothesis and against the historicity of the patriarchs. Today, scholars generally do not argue for the historicity of the patriarchs.

I. Introduction

Since the arguments adduced T.L. Thompson in his groundbreaking book The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (1974) and also by John Van Seters in his Abraham in History and Tradition (1975), the historicity of the patriarchal narratives has been under much suspicion. The members of the so-called “minimalist” school of Israelite historiography are by far not the first to question the historicity of the patriarchal narratives. 

In H. Gunkel’s 1919 article “Jakob” (first published in the Preussische Jahrbücher 176, and trans./ed. in “Water for a Thirsty Land,” pp. 42ff.), Gunkel is already in his time able to recognize that confidence in the historicity of the patriarchs had waned. He states that “there can be no doubt that the narratives that deal with the patriarchs are legends and not strict history; and if many scholars are still reluctant to give up the figure of Abraham, surely the historicity of Jacob cannot rouse anyone to enthusiasm. For what is there that should be historical about him? That on one occasion he deceived his blind father? Or that he fought hand to hand with a god? Or is it his journeys?” Even earlier, J. 

Wellhausen had famously stated that “Freilich über die Patriarchen ist hier kein historisches Wissen zu gewinnen, sondern nur über die Zeit, in welcher die Erzählungen über sie im israelitischen Volke enstanden,” a motto taken up by Thompson in his 1974 study.

II. Albright School (1930's): Arguments for the historicity of the patriarchs (Glueck, Albright, Wright, Bright, and Gordon): 

A.) Amorite Hypothesis

In the 1930s, the movements of the patriarchs were thought to correlate with the so-called “Amorite Hypothesis,” pioneered by Albright and carried forward by some of his students (though now mostly abandoned, it seems). See Miller and Hayes, 51-3 for the following information in these sub-points:

In the 3rd mill. BCE (EB, c. 3200-2000 BCE), a powerful system of city states flourished in Mesopotamia; however, this urban system experienced a breakdown near the end of the 3rd mill., which was followed by a period of largely nomadic and semi-nomadic societies, which was then followed by the re-emergence of urban centers during the MB period (c. 2000-1550 BCE).

Toward the end of the EB, a group called Amurru (Amorites) begins to be mentioned, and, after the collapse of the EB society and the re-emergence of MB city states, many Mesopotamian rulers (such as Hammurapi) bear Amorite names; thus, the idea was that the Amorite movements and invasions produced a period of chaos, after which Amorites ruled Mesopotamia.

B.) How the Amorite Hypothesis Relates to the Patriarchs

Thus, it was thought, the movements of the patriarchs can be correlated to this time period of societal rupture and nomadism. In order for this correlation to work, three arguments were adduced:

You have to have an early 2nd mill. date for the patriarchs, which can be roughly squared with the chronology in Genesis – Kings.

Abraham and Jacob could have travelled freely from Mesopotamia to Palestine and back during this period, since there would have been no strong central Mesopotamian power to regulate travel.

The names and customs of the patriarchs seemed to correlate well with cuneiform materials recovered from Mari (18th cen.) and Nuzi (15th cen.).

Additionally, it was argued the that Habiru/ʕapiru (Sumerian=SA.GAZ) could be identified as the Hebrews (ʕibrîm). The Habiru were not an ethnic group but rather consisted of mercenaries, fugitives, salves, and and outlaws who lived on the fringes of society. However, if the Hebrews did belong to the Habiru, the Hebrews were by no means the one group among the Habiru. Furthermore, it seems the the word "Hebrew" (ʕibrî) is not actually etymologically connected with Habiru/ʕapiru.

C.) Names (PN/GN) and Customs of Patriarchs

Regarding this issue of the names and customs from Mari and Nuzi and their relationship to the patriarchs, some prominent examples were often adduced (for the following sub-points, see Bright, 77ff.):

1.) Names of the patriarchs were thought to be genuinely archaic, and confined only to certain periods...

An 18th cen. text from Chagar-bazar, Upper Mesopotamia, mentions a Ya‘qub-el; a Hyksos chief was named Ya‘qub-‘al; a place name in Palestine from a list of Thutmosis II is given as Ya‘qub-‘al.

The name Abram appears in Old Babylonian materials from the 18th cen., and also Mari. There are no examples of Isaac or Joseph, but Bright claims “both are of a thoroughly characteristic early type.”

The Ebla archives (late 3rd mill. – early 2nd mill. ?) contain numerous PNs found also in the Bible, such as Abram, Eber, Ishmael, Esau, Saul, David, and Israel.

Also, Abraham is said to be from Ur (2060-1950 BCE). Ur was at its height during Amorite movements and destroyed in 1700.

2.) Customs in some cuneiform records were thought to square with biblical stories:

The notion that a slave would become an heir, as is Abram’s fear with Eliezer, is also attested at Nuzi

Nuzi law also provided for a substitute wife to produce a child if the main wife was barren—and if a child was born under such circumstances in Nuzi law, the slave wife and child could not be sent away (c.f. Abraham’s actions in Gen. 21).

Several elements of Jacob story in Aram seem to appear as Nuzi customs; “the adoption of Jacob by Laban,” the resentment of Leah and Rachel against Laban,” “and finally, Rachel’s theft of Laban’s gods.” On the theft of the gods, Bright (79 n. 24) states that “the significance of possession of the gods is disputed. It probably did not convey title to the inheritance... but may have constituted a claim to headship of the family.”

D.) Patriarchs as Semi-Nomads

Finally, the semi-nomadic way of life taken up by the patriarchs seemed to fit with the political and cultural milieu of the early 2nd millennium. See Bright, 80-3 for the following sub-points.

The patriarchs were not full bedouin, roaming the desert away from water supplies; they camp near towns, have relations with the townspeople, and even settle for long enough to farm the land (Gen. 26:12).

This pattern fits M.B. Rowton’s notion of a “dimorphic society,” in which semi- nomads and settled groups rely on one another for products and so on.

Bright (82) admits that the appearance of the Philistines, etc. is an anachronism, but this results from being the text being “adorned with modernizing touches in the course of time. Nevertheless, the total picture remains an authentic one.”

III. Dissenters from the Albright Model: Arguments against the historicity of the patriarchs:

A.) Miller and Hayes (2006: 52-3):

*Provide four arguments against the Amorite Hypothesis outlined above:

1.) The idea of widespread Amorite movements has been overblown, and is by no means an accepted idea among Assyriologists and archaeologists.

2.)While dating the patriarchs to the period of the supposed Amorite movements seems to square with some biblical data, in other places it doesn’t work; Gen. 15:16 assumes a four generation stay in Egypt, and Moses is the fourth-generation descendant of Jacob; if each generation lasted for 100 years, then this chronology can fit, but if not, then not. Note also that we have no reference to Israelites in Palestine before the late 13th cen. Merneptah stele!

3.) The parallel names and customs argument is far less impressive when one considers the fact that the names and customs are also available throughout the first millennium as well (see below)!

4.) The biblical stories do not associate the patriarchs with the Amorites or any other Bronze Age group—rather, we see them interacting with the Iron Age Arameans, Philistines, and so on.

B.) Thompson (1974):

*Refutes the issue of the the Amorite hypothesis, the parallel customs, and  supposed name connections in his attack on the consensus view that the patriarchal stories reflect Mid-Late Bronze Age circumstances in the Levant.

1.) rather than viewing the patriarchal movements as part of an Amorite migration to Palestine, it seems that the textual evidence shows Amorite culture as already entrenched in Palestine in the MB age (and, by the way, why would anyone think that the patriarchal stories are symbolic of some kind of broader, semi-nomadic movement—the Bible speaks only of individuals and families, with perhaps a few other individuals!? When Albright, et al. posit such encoded historical messages, they are not supporting the details of the biblical stories in Genesis as they are presented in the biblical narrative but denying them—isn’t one major point of the stories to show that YHWH can make a teeming nation out of just one man?).

2.) The social practices reflected in the Hurrian Nuzi archives, once thought to be unique evidence connecting certain actions carried out in the book of Genesis (Sarah and Abraham having a baby through Hagar, Rachel stealing the teraphim to ensure inheritance rights, etc.), are also to be found—with equal relevance to the biblical stories—in several other texts spanning the first-second millennium. Thus, as R.W. Neff, Religious Studies Review 3.2 [1977], 90 puts it, “the issue is not whether we use external evidence or not but whether we have external evidence.”

The supposed cuneiform parallels to details in the patriarchal narratives. Not only can adequate first millennium parallels be found for the various idiosyncratic practices of the patriarchs, but the interpretation of the second millennium materials often has less in common with the stories in Genesis than was originally thought. Neff (91) give the following example:

a.) “Cyrus Gordon [“Biblical Customs and the Nuzi Tablets,” BA 3 (1940): 1-12] explained the problematic passage of Gen. 15:2-4 by citing the way in which a childless man at Nuzi could adopt a slave who would take care of him in his old age and arrange his burial and mourning rites at his death in exchange for his property. Thompson shows the difficulty in the biblical text, which requires emendation for the parallel to be considered. A closer analysis of the Nuzi texts shows that individuals involved in adoption practices of this kind were freeborn and not household slaves. The slave status of the adopted heir is not verified by the texts under consideration. Gen. 15:4 implies that Abraham’s servant would not be his heir if Abraham had children. The penalty clauses in the Nuzi contracts, however, guarantee the right of the adopted heir in sharing the inheritance should a natural heir be born [Thompson, 220].”

3.) Parallels to the names of the patriarchs can be readily found not only in cuneiform texts from the 2nd millennium, but also from the first millennium. Also, Thompson makes the following points about the antiquity of the names (see, ch. 2, pp. 17-51).

The name A-ba-am-ra-ma, in an OB letter from Dilbat (variants A-ba-am-ra-am, A-bar-ra-ma), caused quite a stir when it was first discovered, but many problems quickly became apparent (p. 25). Despite the fact that serious linguistic difficulties prevent reading the Akk. name formulation in the same way as the biblical Abraham, and these problems have been amply pointed out by both Assyriologists and biblical scholars (including M. Noth, in his important work on Hebrew PNs in 1928; see pp. 25-6), “biblical scholars have generally accepted the identification of these two names in one manner or another, and this has been introduced into the standard textbook data” (26).

Thompson does find other parallels that more closely mirror the biblical name, for example, from LB Ta‘annek, A-bi-ra-..., and A-bi-ra-mu from Ugarit (33). “We have seen that names of the same type as אברם are found from the time of the Mari texts down through the Neo-Assyrian period, and that names directly parallel to אברם are found from the second half of the Second Millennium until long after the Genesis traditions had been formed” (35). Similar issues can be adduced for the names Isaac, Israel, and Jacob (pp. 36-51).

Interestingly, Thompson (2) claims that the “discussion about names similar to those of the patriarchs which have been found in extra-biblical sources is the most important single issue in the debate over historicity,” as “the names have taken a central place in every detailed discussion of the topic” (several works by Albright, de Vaux, Wright, Parot, Hold, Rowly, and Cazelles are cited on p. 2 n. 1). Though almost no one has ever claimed that the names of the Patriarchs were fabricated outright, it is/was apparently thought that the act of merely finding names similar to those of the patriarchs outside of the Bible during a given time-period confirms the basic historicity of the patriarchal accounts.

C. Other Unresolved Problems Regarding the Patriarchs

1.) A practical argument, but one not dealt with at all (or very well) by conservative scholars: When were these stories written down? Obviously, all historical writing occurs subsequent to the events it describes; yet is important to recognize, as a starting point, that (select portions of) the stories written about the patriarchs are to be dated, on the earliest and most conservative scholarly estimates available today, to a Yahwistic, “Solomonic enlightenment” in the 10th cen. BCE.

Actually, this is not correct; the most conservative estimate would indeed be that the stories were somehow recorded, or began in rigorous oral transmission, during the life of Abraham himself, which, according (roughly) to the Bible’s own chronology, would have to be sometime in the late third or early second millennium BCE. This would lead the most conservative of commentators to posit that donkey-loads of cuneiform tablets recording the adventures of the great ancestors were carted around with each patriarch, and/or that meticulous oral records were kept and preserved accurately over a period of at least 800 years (and, at most, over 1000 years), until they were finally committed to writing by the Yahwist. As Thompson states (8), “to attach this original [patriarchal] tradition to real historical events of the early Second Millennium demands that some means of transmitting this tradition intact for over eight hundred years must be assumed.” Already in 1918, a then 27-year-old W.F. Albright had commented upon this phenomenon (“Historical and Mythical Elements in the Joseph Story,” JBL 37, p. 113) in this way: “The long memory possessed by semi-civilized peoples for historical facts is a pious fiction of over zealous apologists” (quoted in Thompson, 8 n. 26).

Two sources that one might consult detailing the improbability of long periods of accurate, oral transmission are: R.C. Culley, “An Approach to the Problem of Oral Tradition,” VT 13 (1963): 113-25, and J. Vasina, Oral Tradition. A Study in Historical Methodology, London, 1965.

2.) Remaining within the context of the Bible itself, we are able to find other indications that the composition of the stories reflects a date far later than the period of the patriarchs themselves.

Anachronisms of geography and national identity abound in the book of Genesis, as Abraham and Isaac meddle with the Philistines 800 or so years before the Sea Peoples arrive (see Gen. 21 and 26), the designation כשדם (as in “Ur of the Chaldeans,” Gen. 11:31) is only used as a designation for this area in the 1st millennium, the references to the Hittites in Gen. 23 “reflect a designation of the region current in the Neo-Assyrian period,” and “the strongly attested Aramean connection points to the early first rather than the early second millennium” as a backdrop for these stories (Blenkinsopp, 128).

The early poetry does not mention the patriarchs—with the possible exception of Jacob in Gen. 49—and, strangely enough, “there is no reference to Abraham in prophetic texts prior to Ezekiel (33:24).” Jer. 31:15 contains a references to Rachel’s weeping for her children, and Obadiah’s polemic against Edom/Esau would seem to suggest these ancestral figures were known by the 6th cen., at least. Indeed, Hosea ch. 12 makes specific references to Jacob, indicating the stories of his birth, wrestling with God, the dream at Bethel, the sojourn in Mesopotamian and his service to Laban were all known in the north in the 8th cen. BCE. “In exilic prophetic texts, especially Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, we find a very noticeable preference for Jacob as an ethnic designation (e.g. Isa 41:8; 44:1-2; Jer 30:10; 46:27-28; Ezek 28:25)” (Blenkinsopp, 114).

During the period of exile and return, “we begin to hear of Abraham” (Isa. 29:22, 41:8, 63:16; Mic. 7:20; Jer. 33:26), “with special reference to his call and blessing” (Isa. 51:1-2, 63:16) “and his claim on the land” (Ezek. 33:23-9). “Sarah too is named for the first and only time (Isa 51:2), and we cannot fail to note the association with Zion, the barren woman who nevertheless will be blessed with children after the return from exile” (Isa. 49:21, 54:1-3). Blenkinsopp (114) takes this “to be one of several indications that historical experience has played an important part in shaping the stories about the ancestors as we find them in Genesis.”

IV. What is the Opinion Nowadays?

A.) B. Mazar, T. Thompson, Larry Stager—place the patriarch accounts in the Iron Age (Judges/Early Monarchial period) 

*Judges 4:14 Heber the Kenite pitches his tent at a sacred site and worships, just as Isaac does in Genesis 31:25

*Jacob erects a pillar at Bethel in Genesis 35:14, a site depicted as a central shrine in Judges 20:18 and I Samuel 10:3

*Hebron is a focal point in the patriarchal narratives.  Abraham lived near that city, even purchasing a burial plot for his wife Sarah at Machpelah; the site was inhabited before the monarchic period, Hebron gained wealth and status at the beginning of the Davidic Monarchy (Genesis 49)

B.) John Van Seters— places the patriarch accounts in the 6th century BCE

*prominence given to Ur and Harran (and their close association) reflects a time when both cities were at their height, c. the Neo-Babylonian period in general and the reign of Nabonidus in particular

C.) Liverani—Post-Exilic period

*patriarchal narratives are ideological fables that originated in the post-exilic returning community for the purpose of arguing that the religiously pure returnees should peacefully re-integrate with the remainees

*Ammon and Moab’s origins in incest prohibit them from entering into the covenant community

*preferred marriages take place b/t cousins, so the returnees should marry the remainees.

V. My Opinion

* Traditions of patriarchs reflect a distant memory of ancestors. These traditions suggests that these personalities existed. Nevertheless, it is difficult to accept the details of these stories if these stories were written down in the 10th cent. BCE, at the earliest. These stories were traditions as were the traditions of the charismatic Deliverers (i.e. Judges). 

Bibliography: J. Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), esp. pp. 67-103; A.R. Millard, “Abraham,” ABD; J.M. Miller and J.H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), esp. pp. 51- 3.; T.L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (Beihefte zur ZAW 133, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1974)


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