Nuzi (Genesis 30)

The ancient city of Nuzi (modern Yorghan Tepe), located a few miles southwest of Kiruk in Iraq, has provided archaeologists with a wealth of material. Estates of the nobility have yielded exquisite wall paintings, figurines, cylinder seals and ceramics in a style dubbed Nuzi ware. The most significant discovery to date, however, has been extensive archives dating to approximately 1500-1350 B.C., during which the Mitanni kingdom controlled Nuzi. Most of the 3,500 tablets in these achives originated from private homes and document the lives of the city’s ruling families, as well as providing information regarding the political structure and social conditions of this region and time.

Several Nuzi texts parallel and illuminate Biblical accounts of the patriarchs. Not all of the alleged correspondences between the Bible and information gleaned from Nuzi are certain, but at the very least they demonstrate that the context of Genesis is in fact rooted in ancient customs. Some of the more famous of the proposed congruencies include:

A childless couple in Nuzi could adopt a servant as an heir (cf. Abram’s assumption that his slave, Eliezer, would inherit his estate since Abram had not yet sired a son; 15:2-3).

Legal tablets demonstrate that an infertile primary wife could give her maidservant to her husband for the expressed purpose of providing him an heir, who could subsequently be adopted by the primary wife. According to these texts, if she later gave birth to her own son, he would displace the maidservant’s son, as the rightful heir (cf. the accounts of Sarah and Hagar in 16:1-4, 21:8-10 and the maidservant of Leah and Rachel in 30:1-13).

Marriage contracts discovered in Nuzi demonstrate that brothers could arrange for their sister’s marriage, although she often had the option to agree or disagree with the proposed union (cf. 24:29-60). Marriage contracts formulated by a father, however, did not require his daughter’s consent (cf. 29:16-30). There are also parallels to the institution of levirate marriage (cf. Judah and Tamar’s story).

Prior to discovery of the Nuzi tablets, scholars had assumed that a later editor had added the notes that Laban gave named maidservants to his daughters when they married (29:22-24, 28-29). But researchers have discovered Nuzi marriage contracts stipulating that the bride was given a handmaiden, Whos name was duly recorded in the contract.

An individual family’s household idols were considered highly important in Nuzi and were handed down to the principal heir. If the inheritance were disputed in court, possession of the family idols could be accepted as proof that the deceased had intended the possessor to be his heir. Thus, Rachel’s theft of the family idols could have been constructed as a serious crime, an attempt to secure Laban’s wealth for her husband and possible future children (31:22-37).

Some historians have argued that Nuzi arrangements allowing a man to adopt a young woman as his daughter for the purpose of giving her in marriage to his son shed light upon Abraham’s two separate protestations that his wife was in reality his sister (12:10-20, 20:1-18). There is some doubt that this is a true parallel, but these incidents at least suggest that the patriarchs’ stories likely had roots in ancient customs of which we may know little ot nothing.

Although the city of Haran, in which Abraham had lived before journeying to Canaan, is some distance from Nuzi, the Hurrians controlled both cities during the second millennium B.C. Therefore it is not surprising that the Nuzi archives and the Biblical stories of the patriarchs reflect common customs and legal arrangements. Future discoveries of relics such as these tablets may shed additional light on some perplexing Biblical issues.

%d bloggers like this: