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 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.
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.”
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.
 Cited in Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (2001).