Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Exodus

The last chapters of Genesis shift the narrative to Egypt. When Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he wins Pharaoh’s favour by interpreting dreams and ends up as the highest official in the land. One dream warns that famine will strike in seven years, so he sensibly makes preparations by storing grain. When the famine comes, Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to buy food from the stores – they don’t recognise him at first, and he toys with them, but when he finally reveals his identity they are joyful and contrite. Joseph persuades his brothers to move to Egypt, with their father Jacob and his household, to live under his protection.

The second book of the Torah, Exodus, now continues the story. After Joseph’s death, the Israelites continue to prosper in Egypt.

The people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. (Exodus 1:7) 

Then a new Pharaoh [1] comes to power “who did not know Joseph.” Alarmed by the strength of the Israelite community and the threat they could pose, the regime presses them into slavery and eventually orders the male first-borns killed. Ironically, this produces their saviour. One Israelite woman saves her son’s life by sending him down the river in a basket of papyrus reeds. He is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who names him Moses (an Egyptian name) and raises him as a nobleman. Aware of his background, Moses one day kills a guard he sees hitting an Israelite slave, then flees to a town near Sinai to begin a new life as a married shepherd. God appears to him as a burning bush, declaring that the Israelites shall be freed to return to Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey”. Moses doubts himself, even pleading, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” But on Yahweh’s insistence, Moses returns to Egypt and, together with his brother Aaron, organises the Israelites and demands their freedom.

When Pharaoh refuses, Yahweh curses Egypt with ten plagues, until with characteristic brutality he kills every first-born male in Egypt (including cattle). The Israelites are instructed to paint their doorposts in lamb’s blood so that death will pass over them – this is celebrated in Judaism as Passover. Pharaoh finally relents and Moses leads his people out of Egypt, guided by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. As they reach the Red Sea, however, Pharaoh has changed his mind and is close in pursuit with chariots. There follows the famous episode of the parting of the sea: the Israelites cross to safety and Moses closes the waters to drown the pursuing Egyptian troops.

Three months later (chapter 19) the Israelites arrive at Sinai, where Yahweh descends upon the mountain in a cloud of thunder and lightning. This is the real climax of the story. Sinai is the stage for Yahweh’s third great covenant [2], in which he promises to be the protector of Israel and deliver to them the land of Canaan, provided they live according to his laws. To Moses Yahweh issues ten commandments, along with a series of further instructions on social and religious issues. Moses takes these laws to the people for their approval, writes them down, then ascends the mountain again for forty days to receive yet more instructions (chapter 24). When he returns, he finds the Israelites are worshipping a golden calf in a flagrant breach of the laws against idolatry (chapter 32). Furious, he smashes the tablets of the commandments, but persuades Yahweh not to slaughter everyone. According to very precise instructions, the Israelites build the Ark of the Covenant, and a portable dwelling to house it called the Tabernacle, and the covenant is renewed.

The book of Leviticus continues the establishment of the Mosaic covenant, with the Israelites camped at Sinai while inside the tent Moses receives a seemingly endless series of instructions from Yahweh on diet, forms of worship, social behaviour, and so on. In Numbers the Israelites scout out the land of Canaan but are dismayed at the strength of the nations there, and God punishes their lack of faith with years of wandering, long enough for the generation of weak faith to die out. In all, it is forty years before the Israelites finally settle the promised land.

The escape from Egypt, the ensuing wanderings and the covenant at Sinai are so important that they fill four of the five books of the Torah/Pentateuch. 

The escape

The ten plagues may be seen as a contest between the Israelites’ god Yahweh and the Egyptians’ gods (as personified by the ‘wise men and the sorcerers’, the magicians of Egypt). At first the two sides keep pace. When Yahweh turns the Nile into blood, the magicians ‘by their secret arts’ do the same. When Yahweh covers the land in frogs, the magicians do the same. Then Yahweh covers Egypt in gnats, and the magicians can’t match him any more [3], so he proves himself the mightiest.

Though Yahweh wants to win the Israelites their freedom, during the contest he deliberately ‘hardens the heart’ of Pharaoh to make sure he doesn’t free the Israelites too soon. The reason for this oddity is given explicitly:

But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9:16)

Christians generally try to explain Yahweh’s behaviour by pointing out that other verses (e.g. Exodus 8:15) say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, so this was broadly the same thing as God doing it; thus the fault ultimately rests with Pharaoh, who deserved it for being so cruel. It is strange that the omnipotent cosmic power Yahweh has so much concern for worldly fame, and if he had been more merciful, some of the plagues – most appallingly the execution of all Egypt’s firstborn sons – could have been avoided. Yahweh shows not only a very human interest in celebrity and creating a good story, but an excessive cruelty that is unleashed many times in the Hebrew Bible.

We see this also in the collective nature of the punishment. The suffering of the Israelites is the work of the Egyptian ruling, slave-owning class, yet Yahweh punishes the entire nation, even its livestock:

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. (Exodus 11:5)

The great majority of the victims therefore would be relatively impoverished farmers. The emphasis on cruelty rather than forgiveness, on punishing an entire nation instead of singling out the rich, are two powerful differences between the world view of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Gustave Doré’s image of the Egyptians
drowning in the Red Sea
After the Israelites have left, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends chariots after them, trapping them between his forces and the sea. Like the book of Exodus as a whole, this episode (chapters 14-15) was probably put together from different sources and has its own fascinating background.

The oldest section is generally believed to be The Song of the Sea, found in 15:1-18, sung by the Israelites after their successful crossing. Yahweh blasts wind from his nostrils and his enemies sink “like lead in the mighty waters”. In this passage Yahweh appears very like an Ancient Near Eastern storm god. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh rides in the clouds (Psalm 68), his voice is like thunder, he commands wind and rain and lightning, and he sometimes battles sea monsters (e.g. Psalm 74). These traits are shared with his Canaanite contemporary Baal, as reported in a series of stories in Ugaritic known as the Baal Cycle, as well as in Marduk, from the Babylonian Enuma Elish, two gods who in turn owe a debt to older Sumerian gods. Baal even has a palace built for himself on Mount Zephon that could be a counterpart to Yahweh’s Temple on Mount Zion.

It is possible that Yahweh, once the insignificant god of a minor, nomadic people, gradually acquired traits from the established Canaanite religions once the Israelites settled and grew in importance. He may even have been made the protagonist of stories that were not originally about him. Suppressing the cult of Baal became a priority during the first millennium BCE, when the Israelites were keen to stress the difference between themselves and the other Canaanites – it is the main target of the anti-idolatrous invective in the Hebrew Bible, since the cult of Baal was the main competitor to the cult of Yahweh.

Of course, the Bible makes Yahweh not a purely mythological figure but an actor in history. He physically delivers his chosen people from the clutches of their foes, and accompanies them across a specific and familiar landscape over a specific period of time. But like any writers of fiction, the priests drew upon the traditions of their time and place, while adjusting those traditions to their literary needs and world view.

Historicity of the Exodus

It is pointless to examine whether Biblical episodes such as the ten plagues or the parting of the seas could have really happened, and the Bible’s value as literature should not reduced to whether it is literally true or not. Nonetheless, we may ask: is there any broader historical substance to these figures and events?

There is archaeological evidence that ancient Semites did migrate from Canaan to Egypt, to trade, work, or serve as slaves. A painting in the tomb of Beni Hasan, for example, dating to 1991-1783 BCE, depicts a caravan of Semitic traders. It would be surprising if there was no relationship, as Egypt was one of the economic powerhouses of the ancient world and geographically close to the Near East. It was a stable land of plenty that kept stores for the hard times, and in which migrants could become officials or priests, so Joseph’s service as an official for the king is plausible enough. Furthermore, Egypt was a natural destination for people hit by famine or war.

For anyone seeking to prove the Exodus really happened, this seems like a good start. But we soon hit problems. Tracing individual nomads from the 13th century BCE is a hopeless task. We have already seen that it is impossible to prove the historicity of Abraham, and likewise there is no evidence whatsoever outside the Bible text that Moses, Aaron and the others were real people.

Although there is nothing in ancient Egypt’s surviving records to corroborate the Exodus story, there is tantalising evidence of large-scale Semitic migration. The Ptolemaic historian Manetho recorded an invasion by a people known as the Hyksos, which took place in about 1670-1570 BCE. The Hyksos’ Semitic names suggest Canaanite origins – their arrival was probably a gradual immigration of several peoples rather than a single invasion by one ethnic group. After controlling Lower (i.e. northern) Egypt for a couple of centuries, the Hyksos were driven out. There is evidence therefore of a major Semitic migration to Egypt, and of a subsequent expulsion. A folk memory of this upheaval might have survived a few hundred years to inspire the story of the Exodus.   

The Bible says the Exodus happened 480 years before the building of Solomon’s temple, placing it in the 15th century BCE. But our earliest evidence for the existence of the Israelites dates to only 1204 BCE: a stele erected by King Merneptah on which he boasts of having defeated in Canaan, amongst others, the Israelites.

Merneptah Stele from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo: Webscribe (licence).

This inscription is extremely important, as it is the earliest known external reference to anything mentioned in the Bible. Precisely what the text says is disputed, but it seems to confirm that there was a culture known as the Israelites in 1204 BCE. If we count back forty years of wanderings and twenty or so years for settling the ‘promised land’ before Merneptah’s victory, we have a starting date of no later than 1265 for the Exodus. The king at this time was Ramses II, who reigned 1279-1213 BCE and fostered grand building projects: it was the age of Abu Simbel, Karnak and Luxor. Exodus refers to the Israelite slaves building the cities of Pithom and Pi-Ramses. We know the latter was built no earlier than the 13th century BCE under Ramses II, and no Egyptian king named Ramses lived earlier than 1320 BCE, so this timescale makes more sense than the one indicated by the Bible. The Bible’s mention of 480 years is suspicious for another reason: its neat use of idealised numbers, 12 generations of 40 years each, implying the figures were adopted for convenience by scribes in a context where historical accuracy, as we understand it, was not especially important.

We would expect to find some mention in Egypt’s copious records of the Israelites’ epic migration, but there is none whatsoever. In fact, there is no specific mention of Israelites in Egypt at all. This becomes remarkable when we consider the sheer number of people involved in the biblical Exodus. The Bible says that 600,000 people fled Egypt – this would only be the males, so when we allow for women and children also, we are reckoning with at least one and a half million souls, more likely two million or more (and accompanied by flocks and cattle). Yet at the time, Egypt’s entire population was only about 3.5 million! [4] An loss of population on this scale would have been devastating, yet the records, in this highly organised and literary society, are silent.

The route of the exodus. Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.

In the ‘Song of Deborah’ (Judges 5:8) the number of arms-bearing men in Israel is given as forty thousand, just a century or so after the Exodus, which suggests an appalling depletion of population. It is obvious that from a historical point of view the figures are absurd. They only make sense from a literary point of view: as demonstrations of Yahweh’s power.

After their experience with the Hyksos, the Egyptians became wary and built forts along the coast of the eastern delta to observe and control people’s movements. These forts would prove a great obstacle to fleeing slaves, so it seems sensible that the Israelites choose to head south instead. But in the late Bronze Age Egypt had direct control of Canaan, making it a bizarre choice of destination for a people fleeing the Egyptians, whatever route they took.

After spending three months in the desert, feeding on manna sent from heaven, the Israelites camp at Mount Sinai and receive Yahweh’s many laws. From there, the journey to Canaan takes them north-east, passing through sites whose names provide clues for archaeologists. For example they spend 38 of their 40 years of wandering at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea, identified by archaeologists as Ein el-Qudeirat in Sinai. This oasis was excavated in the 20th century but no remains from the period were found there, or indeed in the whole Sinai peninsula. This is extraordinary given that 2 million people are meant to have wandered the region for forty years. The reality is that many of the places mentioned weren’t even inhabited until the 8th century BCE. Mention of nations such as Arad and Edom are similarly anachronistic.

According to the Egyptologist Donald Redford, the geography of Exodus is accurate for a particular time bracket, which helps us identify the book’s likely date of composition. Pithom was built not before 605 BCE; towns like Etham, Pi-hariroth and Baal-zephon were not around when the story supposedly took place, but were familiar later on. The Egyptian names mentioned were most popular in 7th and 6th centuries. It was in the 7th century that Kadesh-Barnea was occupied and a fort was built. In his view, the most likely date of composition, going by the textual evidence, is during the 26th dynasty, in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Exodus was invented from scratch in about the 7th century. There was no significant scribe activity in Israel until the 8th century, so whatever originally happened would have had to have been communicated orally over several centuries. It might have drawn upon older stories that recalled a liberation from Egypt in the distant past, or represent a shared memory of the Hyksos occupation, rise and expulsion. Another possibility is that the story took its final form during the Babylonian exile, when the theme of expulsion and a long journey back home would have been especially potent.

The Covenant at Sinai

When the Israelites are camped at Mount Sinai, Moses is summoned up the mountain to enter a covenant with Yahweh. Although it’s much less interesting than the escape from Egypt for most modern readers, this is one of the most crucial parts of the Bible, as it defines the relationship between Yahweh and Israel. The fortunes of the Israelite people will depend upon how faithfully they obey their god’s laws.

Rembrandt: Moses with the
Ten Commandments
A covenant is a kind of formal agreement or contract. Biblical scholars such as Jon Levenson have pointed out how strongly the Mosaic covenant is influenced by the tradition of Hittite and Assyrian treaties, reproducing a number of their characteristics such as preamble, historical prologue and a list of stipulations. The covenant also includes a set of curses which will befall the human signatories if they don’t obey: Leviticus 26 provides a colourful list, and others in Deuteronomy 28 are strikingly similar to curses from 7th century BCE treaties of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon.

The model is a treaty between a suzerain and a vassal: the ruler of an empire and a less powerful kingdom which must swear allegiance to him. Why present Yahweh’s relationship to the Israelites in terms of a vassal treaty? It ties the national liberation of the Israelite people to observance of an explicit set of instructions. It is interesting to consider this in the light of the probable 7th century date of composition, a time when the threat of conquest by neighbouring empires was immediate: the Israelites’ treaty with Yahweh instead of a king of Egypt or Assyria would be an act of political defiance.

It also ties them, the vassal, to one jealous suzerain, Yahweh. They may not follow any other god, which would serve the centralisation of religion under Josiah theorised by Finkelstein and Silberman. As it turns out, the Israelites are stunningly rebellious, ungrateful and unfaithful. Even after witnessing the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, the magical bread falling from the sky, and the descent of Yahweh upon the mountain with thunder and lightning – physical evidence of God’s existence that modern believers can only dream of – the Israelites seem to have trouble obeying their god. (His apparent absence throughout their 400-year enslavement can’t have helped.) As Moses descends bearing the Ten Commandments, they are already making a golden idol to false gods. They show little concern for the terrible curses Yahweh has threatened. And this pattern of Yahweh’s chosen people letting him down is repeated in the Hebrew Bible again and again. In the Torah/Pentateuch, it is only Moses’ interventions on behalf of his people that keep them from being obliterated by Jehovan lightning.


We have already seen that there is no evidence for the existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; there is also no evidence for the Exodus. Not one potsherd, campfire or tablet.

If the Exodus story was an invention of King Josiah’s time, the writers’ choice of material is puzzling. Why would people in the kingdom of Judah find a tale of distant desert wanderings so fascinating?

It’s possible that Exodus served a propaganda purpose. In the 7th century BCE, the powerful Assyrian empire retreated from the Levant to address problems in Babylonia. This could have encouraged King Josiah to entertain territorial ambitions for Judah, namely the reconquest of the former kingdom of Israel. However, Egypt was on the rise again, spreading as the Assyrians withdrew. The Exodus narrative may therefore have served as a rallying example of Israelite victory over Egypt at a time of tension between the two powers. The Israelite god Yahweh was proved to be mightier even than the superpower, and mightier than its gods. There are also interesting parallels, given Redford’s date range, with the experience of the Israelites after the disaster of 583 BCE: exiles in Babylon dreaming of a return to Judah would have felt a powerful connection to the people of Moses. Here are Finkelstein and Silberman:

According to the Biblical scholar Yair Hoffman, both stories tell us how the Israelites left their land for a foreign country; how in a rough period in exile the Hebrews/Judahites came back to their homeland; how on the way back the returnees had to cross a dangerous desert; how the return to the homeland evoked conflicts with the local population; how the returnees managed to settle only part of their promised homeland; and how measures were taken by the leaders of the returnees to avoid assimilation between the Israelites and the population of the land.[5]

Exodus was written by someone who described society as they knew it in the 7th-6th centuries, who had no access to ancient Egyptian records and no sense of historical accuracy as we understand it. Distant memories of the Hyksos, perhaps, were mixed with regional stories and contemporary conditions, transforming Josiah and Necho into Moses and Pharaoh. On the spiritual and literary level, the narrative explains the history of a people’s relationship with God. But it was very much a product of regional influences and likely to have served immediate, historico-political goals.

[1] Our word ‘pharaoh’ comes from Greek, and is derived from an epithet meaning ‘head of the great house’. It is not actually the ancient Egyptian word for ‘king’.
[2] The first was with Noah (Genesis 9), when Yahweh sets out some laws and promises never again to wipe out humanity in a flood. The second was with Abraham (Genesis 12), whom Yahweh promised to make the father of a great nation.
[3] Whether the magicians’ initial supernatural successes indicate that the gods of Egypt actually exist, and are just less powerful, is an interesting question. This would contradict the model of one all-powerful god in Israelite religion, though it isn’t the only time a slight chink appears in the Hebrew Bible’s monotheism. Another curious instance for example comes in Exodus 15:11 in the Song of the Sea: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?”
[4] With such numbers the Israelites need not have bothered migrating: they could probably have taken over Egypt. Also, it’s true that chariots were the tanks of the ancient world, but it’s hard to see how, at the Red Sea, 600 of them could have posed an existential threat to two million people.
[5] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (2001).

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Patriarchs

The story of the Israelites begins with the journey of Abraham into Canaan.

In Genesis 6-8, Yahweh is so disappointed with the wickedness of human beings that he wipes out every one of them, except Noah and his household, in a global flood. Noah’s generations repopulate the Earth, and following the episode of the Tower of Babel humanity is dispersed into groups with different languages. In chapter 12 Yahweh, who until now has dealt with humanity as a whole, chooses to enter into a special relationship with one culture, the Israelites. He appears to a man called Abram (later renamed Abraham) who is then living in Haran, and tells him to travel to “the land that I will show you”, by which he means Canaan, promising: “I will make of you a great nation.”

Abraham obeys, and becomes the founder of what would later become Judaism and, thereby, of all three ‘Abrahamic’ religions. His great-grandson Joseph ends up in Egypt and invites the Israelites there to escape a period of famine. From there the narrative continues in Exodus with Moses leading the Israelites back to Canaan. There follow a great many chapters about social and ritual regulations, boring to most modern readers, that continue through Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, but the narrative peps up again as Joshua leads the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan.

Let us begin with the closing chapters of Genesis

The Patriarchs

The Patriarchs are a dynasty of male religious leaders regarded as the founders of what later became Judaism, most importantly Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their most important wives – Sarah, Rebekah and Leah respectively – are sometimes referred to as Matriarchs.

Any Christian who likes to fulminate against immigrants or travellers would do well to remember that the chosen people of the Bible, from whom Jesus himself descended, were migrants. Abraham is originally from Ur in Mesopotamia, and his people are roaming shepherds, with “flocks and herds and tents”. We are given no reason why Yahweh picks him. Presumably Abraham is especially devout and righteous, though his faith quickly comes into question when his household finds famine in Canaan and briefly travels to Egypt to escape it – an episode that suggests a lack of confidence in Yahweh’s ability to provide. 

As the migrants establish themselves between Bethel and Ai, the followers of Abraham quarrel with those of Lot, his nephew, as “the land could not support both of them dwelling together”. They decide to go separate ways. Lot settles near Sodom; when this city and neighbouring Gomorrah are obliterated by heavenly fire for their wickedness, he is spared and heads east. Abraham’s faction remains in the west. Even though Yahweh has promised him offspring, Abraham is concerned about his lack of children, not least because his wife Sarai (later renamed Sarah) is a very old woman, so he sleeps with her Egyptian slave Hagar and fathers Ishmael (the ancestor of the Arabs). Thirteen years later Sarah, despite being 90 years old, gives birth to a son named Isaac, and Ishmael is sent away. Yahweh tests Abraham’s faith by demanding he takes Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him. In a mighty act of devotion, Abraham obeys, only for Yahweh to stop him at the last moment.

As he gets older, Abraham sends a servant to find his son a wife, and Isaac is married to Rebekah. The couple has two sons, Esau and Jacob. By deception, Jacob robs the older Esau of his birthright and of his father’s blessing, then goes travelling to escape Esau’s wrath. Marrying the sisters Leah and Rachel (this is one of many polygamous households in the Bible) he fathers twelve sons, founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

One of these sons is Joseph, who provokes his brothers’ jealousy because he is Jacob’s favourite. When Joseph is given a gift of a many-coloured coat, the brothers take action by selling him to some Ishmaelite (Arab) traders for twenty shekels. Joseph ends up in Egypt, and rises to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. When famine strikes Canaan, he invites all the Israelites south into Egypt where he will protect them – here ends the book of Genesis. The Israelites prosper, but in time a Pharaoh arises who throws them into slavery, and it falls upon a new leader, Moses, to lead them to freedom back towards the promised land of Canaan.

The story of Abraham’s family is where the Bible shifts from mythological fantasy to a pseudo-historical saga, a grand tale of faith, family, money and betrayal. For over two thousand years, believers assumed that these characters and events were factual. Yahweh’s covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are a defining part of Judaism and Christianity. It needed to be real, as the Christian scholar Roland de Vaux noted:

If the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.[1]


To confirm the historicity of the Bible, we would need to go beyond the internal textual evidence – which suggests Abraham would have lived in very roughly 2000 BCE – and find something objective in the archaeological record.

The ‘Biblical archaeologist’ William Albright expected that excavations would confirm the truth of the Bible. He tried to place Abraham’s household in the third millenium BCE, the early Bronze Age, identifying them with the Amorite people mentioned in contemporary texts. But the Amorites could not be easily pigeon-holed as pastoral immigrants, and there was no evidence of an influx of roaming pastoralists of Mesopotamian origin. Evidence in Canaan such as pottery styles indicated a mostly sedentary population.

Tablets excavated at the Hurrian site of Nuzi, dating to about 1450-1350 BCE, seem to support an alternative, later date for the Patriarchs in the Middle Bronze Age (approx. 2000-1550 BCE). The tablets recount similar social and cultural practices to those in the Bible regarding adoption, marriage, etc – even paralleling the story of Sarai and Hagar with a case where a barren woman must provide a slave woman to bear her husband a child. Texts found at the erstwhile metropolis of Mari in northern Syria confirm that names like Benjamin, Laban and Ishmael were extant in the 18th century BCE. All this suggests that the socio-economic conditions represented in the Bible were to some degree historically accurate. However, the texts support elements of the narrative’s cultural background, no more, and similar names and customs also appear in the first millennium.

In addition, archaeology shows us that Canaan was a dense network of city states, dominated by fortified towns which aren’t even mentioned in the text, whereas the text does mention the Philistines, a people who did not even exist in the Middle Bronze Age.

In short, there is no evidence outside the Bible for the existence of Abraham and his lineage, and the world of the Patriarchs described in the Bible does not match the realities of Middle Bronze Age Canaan.

The key to understanding the text, as argued by Finkelstein and Silberman, is to trace the anachronisms. Camels were not domesticated until well after 1000 BCE. The trade in ‘gum balm and myrrh’ refers to an Arab trade route active in the 8th-7th centuries BCE. We have mentioned the reference to the Philistines – similarly, the shenanigans over Esau’s birthright are a foundation story of the kingdom of Edom, which didn’t arise until the 8th century BCE. There are many other clues such as the importance of certain cities at certain times: for example, the Philistine city of Gerar earns a mention in Genesis because although it was a mere village at first, it was a significant fortified city by the late 8th century BCE.

This evidence suggests that the text, as we know it, was written in around the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, many centuries after Abraham supposedly lived.

The German biblical scholar Martin Noth found clues of a different sort to the nature of the text. He noted that the stories of Abraham tend to be set in the hilly southern country, Isaac’s near the southern desert, and Jacob’s in the northern hill country, concluding that the patriarchal narratives may have been put together from separate regional stories of local ancestors.

Why combine these older texts into a single saga? Possibly to unify the Israelites, as part of a political project centred on the kingdom of Judah. As we have discussed, Judah in the 8th century experienced considerable expansion when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and its population flowed south. The ruling class of Judah seems to have acquired an inflated sense of its destiny, both temporal and divine, from this rapid swelling of fortunes. The combining of regional traditions into a family saga may represent an attempt to create a national history, by a feat of literature. The primacy is given to Abraham, as a representative of Judah: perhaps he is given as a hometown the prestigious city of Ur, the famed cradle of civilisation, so that Judah may bask in the glow of an excellent pedigree.

This theory seems persuasive but as yet there is no consensus. The Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna thought that portraying Abraham’s household as foreigners, whose right to the land comes purely from statements by Yahweh, was a peculiar approach for someone creating a national history. He also argued that some of the customs, e.g. Jacob’s marriage to two sisters at the same time, went against later Israelite practice – so wouldn’t the Judahites have edited them out?

Scholars are generally willing to accept the broad chronology offered by the Bible from the United Monarchy onwards, because of historical episodes – such as the destruction of Israel in around 722 BCE – that are confirmed by archaeology and by the texts of other cultures. The era of the Patriarchs however is more distant and unclear. There is no evidence outside the Bible itself that any of the patriarchs and matriarchs were real people, or that any of the events of their saga actually happened. The narrative is seen as literal truth by some, as complete fabrication by others. The reality must lie somewhere in-between. The narrative has plausible roots among the customs of the semi-nomads of the Bronze Age, leaving us to argue as best we can over what was written when, how and why. In Finkelstein and Silberman’s words, the patriarchal narratives should “be regarded primarily as a literary attempt to redefine the unity of the people of Israel in the late Iron II period rather than as an accurate record of the lives of historical characters living more than a millennium earlier.”[2]

Whether or not this is quite true, this strange collection of Near Eastern stories is too often asked to be something it is not. It is not a piece of objective history, produced to modern standards of scholarship, and has never pretended to be. It is literature that explores the supposed spiritual destiny of a people. Its writers could never have foreseen the heavy responsibility that future interpreters would place upon its ability to survive tests of accuracy. Viewed as history, it fails the scientific test. Viewed as literature, it remains as fascinating as ever.

[1] Cited in Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (2001).
[2] ibid.