The historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (Genesis 44)

No mention of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel) has been found in extrabiblical documents from their ear (ca. 1950-1550 B.C.), nor should we expect to find such references. Living as nomads on the fringes of populated areas, the patriarchs wandered between the great empires of Mesopotamia ans Egypt, and their activities would have been insignificant to scribes and annalists of that period. The Biblical narratives, which from their side make few references to political events of those times, nevertheless are historical, not myth or fiction. Biblical writers simply selected material appropriate to their theological objectives.

There are various reasons (above and beyond basic faith commitment) for us to accept the Biblical accounts as historically reliable, among them:

Because writing systems were in use by the third millennium B.C., it is unnecessary to assume that a long period of oral transmission existed between the events themselves and their documentation in written records. People of the late third millennium and early second millennium B.C. maintained written records and did not depend on memory for matters they considered to be important. The events of the patriarchal period may have been recorded soon after their occurrence in texts that the Biblical writer later utilized as sources.

Names similar to Serug, Nahor, Terah, Abram/Abraham (Genesis 11) and Jacob (Genesis 25) appear in documents of the first half of the second millennium B.C., showing that these names were common during that period. The names of the kings mentioned in Genesis 14 are difficult to account for, but the evidence does collaborate the story itself.

Apparently some locations mentioned in the patriarchal narratives were sparsely inhabited during the time of the patriarchs and thus are difficult to account for archaeologically. Other locations, however, had larger populations and are known from archaeology and/or texts contemporary to the lives of the patriarchs. There is strong evidence, for example, related to the location of the cities of the plain.

The patriarchs’ travel is not to be regarded as impossible. Texts from Ebla (ca. 2300 B.C. and Cappadocia (ca. 2000 B.C.) indicate that travel, commerce and trade regularly occurred throughout the ancient Near East.

Hurrian family law, in force in Haran (see Genesis 12 and 24) and Nuzi, shed light on some of the activities of Abraham’s family that might otherwise perplex us. Another parallel has been found in a letter from Larsa (an ancient Sumerian city om the Euphrates River), indicating that a childless man could indeed adopt his slave as his heir (see 15:2).

The patriarchal stories faithfully reflect customs that were not practiced and institutions that did not exist during later periods, some of which were even prohibited under the religious norms of later Israel. For example, marriage to a half sister (cf. Leviticus 18:9) or to two sisters simultaneously (cf. Leviticus 18:18) was permissible during patriarchal times but forbidden in later Israelite society. This act argues against the idea claimed by some critics that these stories were invented during the period of the Israelite monarchy.

Thus, various contemporary Near Eastern sources lend support to the historicity of the Genesis narrative. God, as we know and believe, revealed Himself to real persons within the contexts of time and space.

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