Abraham Reassessed

Donald J. Wiseman


A.R. Millard & D.J. Wiseman, eds., Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives. Leicester: IVP, 1980. Hbk. ISBN: 0851117430. pp.139-156.
[Reproduced by permission]
To read the other essays, click here.


Discussion of the place of the patriarchs in history and tradition has recently tended to concentrate on a proposed first-millennium origin for the present text of Genesis and on the minimizing of comparisons hitherto made between extrabiblical evidence for the second-millennium period and the biblical narratives.[1] Thus, for example, Van Seters has reviewed the common stance that the patriarchal 'stories present a portrayal of a nomadic way of life which can be documented from the textual remains of the second millennium BC.' This has been the basis of many detailed studies which have mainly discussed the nature of the types of semi-nomadism reflected in the cuneiform texts from Mari.[2] Van Seters concludes that the picture presented in Genesis accords better with the late period, though several scholars have already challenged this.[3] The whole question is in turn influenced by the assumption, yet to be confirmed, that the environment and social and economic factors at Mari on the Euphrates are applicable to the experience of the patriarchs in S. Palestine whether they are to be placed in an early or late setting. The presupposition of these criticisms of the traditional view of a patriarchal period antedating the monarchy need to be re-examined.


The extant Genesis account describes the movement of Abraham and his family in clear terms. First, following a divine call and promise of a grant of land to his successors, Abram set out with his wife, father and nephew from 'Ur of the Chaldees' to go to 'the land of


Canaan' (Gn. 11:31). After a break in the journey of undefined duration at Harran where the father Terah died, the divine call to Abram was repeated, but this time with the extension of a command to leave with his family group the territory they appear to have acquired there and go to a land which was yet to be shown him (12:1). The call was associated with a promise of extended influence over surrounding peoples. The text links the destination with the land of Canaan of the earlier call and, without any details of the journey, next shows them arriving in Canaan with all their possessions (Gn. 12:5).

It will be noted that no emphasis is placed on the long-distant phases of the journeyings, the route taken or the method or time of travel. There is no cogent reason for accepting Gordon's hypothetical equation of 'Ur of the Chaldeans' with one of the several towns named in N. Syria, i.e. modern Urfa, c. 30 km NW of Harran, as the starting point of the journey.[4] Even were the designation 'of the Chaldeans' taken to be a post-ninth-century erroneous explanatory note, Saggs' counter-arguments supporting the traditional S. Babylonian location are strong. He stresses that the tradition is firmly one of movement from the east of the R. Euphrates (Jos. 24:2-3) and that, in addition to the philological weakness of equating Ur with , it would be unlikely that a move eastwards, before retracing steps west toward Canaan, would need to be recorded.[5] In any event, this part of the long journey would have been through well-watered terrain. Thus far the narrative makes no statement which need be interpreted as supporting Abraham's movements as a nomad. Rather it points to a defined change of habitat from one city and its environs to another. No mention is made of any accompanying flocks until after the departure from Harran.

The ultimate destination was stated at the beginning of the narrative when 'Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan' (Gn. 11:31). After Terah's death at Harran Abram leaves his land, people and father's family-household for the new land which God will show him (12:1, usually taken as an early source and quoted by Stephen in Acts 7:2-4).

Genesis gives no detail after leaving Harran until Moreh near Shechem is reached (Gn. 12:6). Since the party is specifically said to have included their property ( usually includes flocks and other animals) acquired in Harran (12:5) it may be assumed that the journey was a slow one. However, at whatever period it took place the


route, whether via the Balih or Euphrates river banks, was marked by sizeable towns or settlements at c. 25 km intervals, with villages between. The caravan would never have been more than a day's march from well-inhabited and watered localities.[6]

At Moreh Abram built an altar to his God Yahweh after a theophany granted him the land where he then was (12:7). Here the first reference is made to the erection of a tent which may indicate that this refers not so much to his mode of living as the setting up of a tent-shrine to mark his acceptance of the divine land-grant, a form of token take-over of the promised land.[7] Similar action was taken at Bethel only a short journey to the south (12:8) to which he returned after the diversion to Egypt prompted through famine (13:4). Movements of peoples, not necessarily nomads in search of food there, are known also from other times.[8] The duration of Abraham's stay there is uncertain.[9]

From a vantage point on high ground in the Judean hills Abram was called to look in every direction at the promised territory before walking through its length and breadth (Gn. 13:17; cf. Jos. 18:4-8). His onward movement was next to Mamre (13:18) where he stayed for a time near Hebron by agreement with local residents (18:1).[10] The southernmost point of his journeyings was Beersheba which Abram marked with the erection of an altar and a tent at what was then probably an uninhabited area near a 'sacred tree'. Later, Beersheba was symbolic of the southernmost point of the land, just as Dan (Tell el Qâdi), near the entry to Damascus to which area Abraham moved later in military action (14:14), was to become the north point - 'from Dan to Beersheba'. To Beersheba Isaac was 'to return later (26:27, 25). For Abraham the only further travel mentioned is the temporary stay as a 'resident-alien' (gr) between Kadesh and Shur in the territory of Gerar then ruled by Abimelek (20:1). This summary shows the comparatively restricted nature of Abraham's movements within Palestine. They were in fact less extensive than the journeys undertaken by Jesus Christ.

It is not argued here that Abraham did not live in tents on occasions. Town and village dwellers required these customary dwelling places in spring and summer, when there was limited transhumance for pasturage of sheep and cattle (cf. Gn. 4:20), religious festivals, and some agricultural fieldwork (Gn. 9:21). In this way his grandson Jacob is said to have 'lived a settled life and stayed among the tents' (Gn. 25:27) which may indicate that that 'tent' () is already used of


'settlement, home' in contrast with Esau's life in the open countryside. Jacob is stated to have occupied a house near Paddan-Aram at Succoth (Gn. 33:17) though during his flight from Laban along the desert route taken by semi-nomads through Gilead and east of Jordan there is the rare mention of his tents and camels (Gn. 31:25, 33-4). After Rachel's death he 'pitched his tent' near Migdol, a fortified settlement (Gn. 35:31). Otherwise the only reference to Jacob's tent is when he (re)built the altar near Shechem now dedicated to 'El - the God of Israel' (33:18).

The later traditional interpretation of Abraham's life was that 'by faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise' (Heb. 11:9 NIV): The emphasis here is not so much on his life as a transient, he is described as resident-alien and exile (cf. 'stranger and passing traveller', NEB), but rather on his act of faith in settling into the divinely promised land. That is, his faith was demonstrated by claiming de facto what God had promised him de jure.

Van Seters has used the references to tents, or the absence of them, as an indication of the late origin of these narratives. 'It is a curious fact that tents are not mentioned in the Mari archives at all and only rarely in other second-millennium sources. This is in contrast to the encampments of the beduin which are a mos distinctive feature by the mid-first millennium B.C.'[11] However, such a conclusion can only be reached by an a priori assumption that references to tents in Genesis must date from the first millennium BC. In practice ancient near eastern texts from either millennium rarely mention the type of dwelling unless for legal reasons or as incidentally necessary to a narrative. Moreover extant references to tents in the first millennium are in fact fewer than the thirty so far attested for the preceding thousand years. These include the '17 kings who lived in tents' of the Assyrian King List dating to the reign of Samsi-Adad I, c. 1750 BC, the earlier Amorite 'tent-dwellers' of the Myth of Martu and administrative texts of the Ur-Isin-Larsa periods c. 2000 -1800 BC as well as the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe (c 1960 -1928 BC) and the reference by Ramesses III (1192 - 1161) to the pillaging of tents in Edom.[12] Van Seters gives insufficient weight to the references to the 'encampments' (nawûm) in the Mari texts themselves. There is no reason, on the ground of references to 'tents' alone, to argue against the descriptions of Genesis as a faith-


ful representation of the practices of an early period. As with references to comparative customs, such rarely changing practices preclude the use of this type of criteria for dating purposes.

1.1 Abraham the Hebrew

Since long-range 'external nomadism' of the type known from central Asia or Arabia is not applicable to the patriarchal narratives, it has been customary to conclude that the closest affinity is found in the pastoral nomadism, herding of livestock and limited seasonal agriculture reflected in the Mari and other texts. This involved tribal communities who were never far from their urban settled brethren and the markets on which they depended.[13] They were part of a dimorphic society, where there was interaction between both nomad and sedentary and tribe and state.[14] Such 'nomads' were far from renouncing obligations to society as has been proposed in the 'withdrawal' theories used to explain the latter Israelite occupation and settlement of the land by Mendenhall and Gottwald.[15]

Short-range semi-nomads engaged in pastoral nomadism with livestock and a few camels moved only slowly and never more than a day's journey from water supplies. Such groups were often designated by several names any of which might indicate the presence of the tribal group (e.g. Ubrabum, Yahrurum, Amnãnum who formed part of the Ben-Yamina or 'Benjaminites' at Mari).[16] It has been suggested that Abraham's link with Aram (Nahur) reflects this link between nomads and sedentary members of a single tribe. Does the designation 'Abram the Hebrew' (Gn. 14:13, ) applied to him by those outside his group mark him as a 'semi-nomad'? The meaning of the word is contested. The commonest opinion is to identify this with (H)apiru which, like the variants used at different periods and places - Amurru (Amorite), Aramu (Aramean) or later Arabu (Arab) - means 'semi-nomad' or the like. The Amorites ('Westerners') are first named (MAR.TU -Amurru) in texts from Fara (c. 2600 BC) and in a date formula of the reign of (2250 BC) and last as an ethnic group in Babylonia in the time of Ainmisaduqa (c. 1645 BC).[17] Their homeland is stated to be in Syria (Jebel Biri) though their activities affected both the west and south-east (Babylonia) of the so-called 'Fertile Crescent'. The Hapiru are occasionally mentioned in early texts from Syria (Brak, Mari and Alalah) then increasingly so from the seventeenth century onwards. It is not certain whether these Hapiru (Egypt. ) should be equated with the Hebrews () either linguistically or functionally. The 'Hapiru' appears to be a sociolog-


ical, and not an ethnic, designation, and for this reason the 'Hebrew' slaves of Genesis (39:14,17; Ex. 1:15-19, etc.) may refer to semi-nomads.[18] From early days there are occasional references to the term Aramean (Aramu) both as a place-name (Naram-Sin, c. 2350 BC) and personal name (Mari, Alalah, Egypt, Drehem). Van Seter's assumption that any reference to Aramean, including the reference to 'the ancestor who was a roving Aramean' (Gn. 26:5 possibly Jacob), must be a late interpolation may be questioned.[19] 'Aramean' is an increasingly common designation of the 'semi-nomads' from the twelfth century until displaced by the term 'Arab', used for the tribes ranging from the Damascus region down to N. Arabia from the ninth century BC onwards. However, the close-knit Assyrian provincial system almost certainly precludes this later period (Iron Age) as a realistic historical background for the Abrahamic episodes as proposed by Thompson.[20]

Among the many suggestions for the meaning of the term 'Hebrew' are a denominative from the ancestor Eber (Gn. 10:21);[21] or 'one who passes through, crosses territory' (). The latter is unlikely since the term to pass through territory used in Genesis is (Gn. 12:8; 26:22, elsewhere commonly in Job, cf. Mari ). It may however have been so interpreted by the LXX of Genesis 14:13 which describes Abraham as a wanderer or transient. Other interpretations of 'Hebrew' as 'dusty ones' (epru) providing or receiving supplies (). 'transferred, without a stable habitat' (); or 'lord' (Hurrian ewri), now receive little support. The solitary mention of Abraham as 'the Hebrew' cannot of itself determine either the date of the narrative or the activities he undertook. It may again be questioned whether the purpose of the Genesis narrative was, as is commonly supposed, to portray him as a semi-nomad.

1.2 Abraham the prince

It has long been considered that the purpose and emphasis of the narratives concerning Abraham is to describe the divine covenant made with him, which included the grant of land and promise of posterity to inherit it. If, as is here suggested, the primary concern is not with Abraham as a 'semi-nomad', it is more clearly with his status as a 'resident-alien' in the promised land (, Gn. 17:8, etc.). He acknowledged this as his position (Gn. 23:4) when addressing others of this same status who lived in a mixed ethnic situation, possibly as a minority among the Canaanites who yet held land themselves in the Hebron area. These men called Abraham 'the Prince' (; Gn. 23:5 AV). Abraham had by this


time lived in the area for sixty-five years (cf. Gn. 12:4; 17:17; 23:1) and was treated with respect by Ephron the Hethite,[22] from whom he sought to purchase the cave of Machpelah. 'You are a mighty prince among us' (Gn. 23:6 NIV), they said, and the title appears to have been used sincerely and in accordance with local custom. Whether the phrase is interpreted here as a superlative,[23] or as an acknowledgment of his appointment to the position by his God, it is any case used by a man of another ethnic origin and religion and denotes a position of respect and leadership.[24] It is used of the chiefs of the men of Shechem (Gn. 34:2) who, with the chiefs of the Midianites (Jos. 13:21; Nu. 25:18) and Edom were concerned in the same promise as made to Abraham (Gn. 17:4-8). This same title of 'prince' () was later applied to David and Solomon (1 Kgs. 11:34) but appears to have fallen into disuse after the adoption of the title 'king' (melek, 1 Sa. 8:5, cf. Ex. 22:28).

It is possible that the use of this title for Abraham implies some idea of an election procedure by the peoples of ten ethnic groups named holding land adjacent to Abraham (Gn. 15:18-21).[25] Abram had earlier made an alliance with Mamre, Eshcol and Aner among other local 'Amorites' (Gn. 14:13, 21). Abraham was their acknowledged leader (14:24).

Abraham's rank and dignity were also acknowledged by the Egyptian king (Gn. 12:10-20) who would otherwise have dismissed an insignificant foreigner, especially if he were a suppliant for relief or a mere herdsman-nomad, whose action had affronted the court. Instead Abraham is given lavish gifts (12:16, 20) and made 'a very rich man' (13:2) though he was previously recognised as a person of substance (12:5; cf. 24:22). The pharaoh may have seen in his relationship with Sarah as 'sister' some covenant relationship which included an obligation to protect her beyond the extent normally due to a wife (12:14), much as Abraham did for Lot who, though his nephew (11:34) was described as his 'brother, ally' in 14:14 (cf. 13:8). Abraham and Sarah rejected any 'covenant-relationship', as commonly made between equals, which any marriage bond with Egypt would have implied (12:17).

Similarly, in his dealings with another foreign ruler, Abimelek, king of Gerar, Abraham is treated as a person of equal status to the extent that a covenant treaty between them included provisions of land tenure which were normally matters of royal prerogative (20:15). That this parity agreement was conceived of as 'interstate' rather than 'inter-individual' can perhaps be adduced from the curses to be invoked in case of defect-


ion. When this occurred through the unwitting action by Abimelek over Sarah the curse was against the city-state and its ruler and to be paid off publicly (20:7, 9, 16).

Moreover the agreement made by Abimelek and his army commander bears all the hallmarks of an ancient parity treaty including provision for the parties to keep each other informed of any transgression of border or well rights (21:26-27). Another indication of the high status and power of Abraham is the clause requiring Abraham never to deal falsely with Abimelek, his children or descendents, and to show reciprocal good will (). Abraham was thought powerful enough to be able to interfere with internal policy within Gerar or to maintain relations on a 'state-equivalent' basis. That Abraham countered with claims of his own (13:25) is an indication that he was not acting as a mere vassal. This treaty lasted at least until ratified by Isaac (26:28-29) and probably until the time of the judges in early Israel (Jdg. 13:1).

Objection has been taken to this narrative because of the supposed anachronisms in the references to 'Philistines' in this patriarchal narrative. Abimelek's territory is said to have included the 'land of the Philistines' (21:32, 34) and in the days of Isaac's dealing with the same Abimelek, or a succeeding king of that name or throne-name, was titled 'king of the Philistines' who were the main inhabitants of Gerar at the time (26:1, 8, 14-18). Van Seters finds this 'anachronism' to be evidence for the late and fictional origin of the narrative,[26] though most scholars take these notes to be an erroneous gloss by some later editor or a later editorial assumption that these areas, though originally Canaanite, were those subsequently occupied by Philistjnes. Most agree that the 'Philistines' were among the 'Sea-peoples' who fought against Ramesses III and in the late thirteenth century settled in SW Palestine in a pentapolis (of which Gerar was, however, not one such city) ruled by lords (s[e]rnîm). Certainly at the time of the exodus there were Philistines in the same area (Jos. 13:2-3; Jdg. 3:3; Ex. 13:17). These references are, therefore, not proven late anachronisms. it is noted that the inhabitants of the Gaza area appear to have been the Avim who were then replaced or joined by the Kaphtorim (Dt. 2:23). The mixed population of the area can be judged by the personal names; Abimelek and Ahuzzat (Semitic), and Phicol (Anatolian?), though they concluded treaties using formulae and procedures long attested throughout the ancient Near East.[27] The weight of evidence points to a more easterly location for Caphtor (Egypt.


Keftiu) usually identified with Crete. The artistic evidence put forward by Wainwright and the recent archaeological studies by Strange, however, point afresh to Cyprus and the adjacent coastlands as the possible location of Caphtor at this early period. This would also coincide with the appearance of Cypriote wares in Palestine in Middle Bronze I-II.[28] If the 'Philistines' were the bearers or importers of this ware it would accord with their small numbers and limited location before the larger quantities of Cypriote 'bichrome' wares found in the early Late Bronze Age, the period (MB-LB) taken by Bimson's revised ceramic chronology as evidence for the late fifteenth-century conquest.[29]

This argument is perhaps the same as the earlier one that small groups of 'Philistines', as an offshoot of other Aegean peoples, had come as immigrants into the Gaza area at an early period, just as Philistines from Kaphtor (cf. Am. 9:7; Je. 47:4) were already in the same area according to Deuteronomy 2:23. Aegean trade is attested in the Middle Minoan II period and the name 'Philistines' could have been used to denote such traders. If Bimson's proposed chronology for the patriarchal period is accepted with Middle Bronze I for Abraham and Middle Bronze II for Jacob (see his essay in this volume), then the mention of Philistines in the time of Jacob and a district of Philistines included in an earlier Abimelek's territory would be understandable.

What was Abraham's role as a 'prince'? As will be shown, this term may have 'dynastic' overtones. Meanwhile, an examination of the means whereby Abraham exercised his function as leader or prince ) shows that he carried out the function of the local or district governor. This office of 'governor' () is well attested from the Mari documents c. 1800 BC,[30] but also appears to have been exercised in the city-state of Ebla earlier. Such governors acted within their region on behalf of the supreme ruler who had appointed them. Regional governors are attested in Palestine in the period of the so-called judges (; Jdg. 2:16-18, better translated 'governor'). Abraham acknowledged the Lord God who had called him, granted him the land and instructed him to 'walk about' (i.e. act as judge) through the length and breadth of the land (Gn. 13: 17).[31] For him God was 'the supreme Governor of all the earth who does right' (Gn. 18:25; cf. Jdg. 11:27). To 'do the right' is the principal role of the judge in the exercise of law and order.[32]

The maintenance of justice, law and order is the first requirement of the governor within his designated


area. So Abraham acted dominantly in settling disputes both within his own family (Gn. 13:17) and also over water rights (21:25). Abraham had to order his own family and set an example of 'keeping the way of the Lord' by the exercise of justice and law (18:19). In carrying out this responsibility the patriarchs were like a local chief () working in the name of the king or deity. Provincial governors were usually granted lands in lieu of salary for their maintenance by the overlord, and Abraham's grant of land may have been for a similar purpose. Sometimes the governor was required to take military action in support of law and order. For this local forces were employed. As in a case at Mari, Abraham faced a problem of involuntary deportation, so using his trained retainers together with men supplied by his allies he recovered Lot (14:14, 24). Other juridical action includes his adjudication in land disputes (as 13:7). As a judge or governor he would sit in the court at the gate. For an inter-ethnic group case he sat with other local elders (23:10). The 'righteousness and judgment' which characterize God as the supreme and ideal ruler had to be reflected by all to whom he gave responsibility as sub-governor. They themselves would be judged by how far and in what manner they kept the 'way of the Lord'.[33]

Diplomacy, especially with neighbouring states, was also a concern of the governor on behalf of his overlord. This may perhaps be seen in Abraham's relations with the kings of Egypt and Gerar, in both of which Abraham intervenes and in which the giving and receiving of gifts are part of the process (12:16, 21; 21:23, 27). The 'misunderstandings' about Sarah might have been part of this process since the interchange of females or other persons was sometimes involved.[34]

Another responsibility was the collection of tribute, dues and taxes which a governor would forward to the authority or hold for his local use. This might include dues used in the support of a local cult-centre. The incident with Melchizedek may reflect this. Abraham 'gave him (Melchizedek) a tithe of everything' (14:20, according also to the traditional interpretation of Heb. 7:4, 10). This act would not only acknowledge the identity of El-Elyon here with Yahweh, but would also support practice of a levy on war-spoils.[35] It is possible, though unlikely, that 'he gave him' could refer to a payment by Melchizedek to Abraham as the local representative of God.

A local governor was also often involved in commercial transactions both on behalf of his superior and on his own account. This has led some to classify Abraham


as 'a merchant-prince',[36] but the evidence for this is not easily found. As a local governor he had to keep his overlord informed of all matters affecting both his own land and its principal citizens and also of affairs in neighbouring city-states. Abraham's intercession with Yahweh on the impending action against Sodom, which would would be viewed as worthy of divine punishment for breaking the law, might come into this category.

A further duty fell upon a governor to provide accommodation, escort and hospitality to any dignitary who might pass through his territory, and especially for any messengers from the overlord. Thus Abraham treated the leader of the three men who came to Mamre with much respect, addressing him as a superior ('my lord'), and providing him with lavish hospitality and with information. Then when two of them departed he provided an escort, provisions and intelligence for the onward journey (Gn. 18:1-21).

This interpretation of the role of Abraham both in his movements within the promised land and his action within it has sought to act as a balance to the tradition al view of him as a nomad chief. Over-emphasis on the latter has led to an ungrounded comparison with extra-biblical data which has to be constantly reappraised or redated in the light of new evidence. As a result, changes in interpretation have led some to believe that the biblical narratives themselves have been found at fault.

1.3 Abraham the father

One argument brought against the placing of the patriarchs a millennium or so before the time of the Hebrew monarchy is the supposed improbability of long oral and/or written tradition going back over several centuries. This implies that the genealogical consciousness of the Hebrews is a later fabrication. The biblical tradition itself is unanimous in placing the patriarchs before the exodus from Egypt, that is at least 300, and possibly more than 500 years before David. The text is consistent in making each successive generation refer back to 'Abraham our father'. Thus Isaac uses this title throughout his life (Gn. 26:24) and finally when passing on his blessing to Jacob (28:4). Jacob also refers to Abraham in this way (28:13), stressing his ancestry when making a covenant with his father-in-law Laban (hence 'The God of Abraham, the God of Nahor' 31:53: cf. 31:42), and in his turn while blessing his son Joseph (48:15-18). This reference to ancestors in the form 'the Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob' was to become a


dominant note both in the call of Moses (Ex. 3:6, 15-16; 4:5; 6:3) and in the subsequent authentication of his mission in bringing the descendents of these three named persons into the land said to have been promised to Israel's forefathers.[37]

This concept is not surprisingly reiterated when Joshua took possession of the land (Jos. 24:2-3) and later during the monarchy, by Elijah in his opposition to those who would alienate the land from being God's possession to his people and thus thwart their implimentation of their spiritual obligations to him (1 Kgs. 13:33). Such passing allusions would have been both unnecessary and meaningless if written by a later scribe, unless the pre-existence of Abraham was a fact.

David, in emphasizing the continuity of his family, dynasty and covenant with his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (1 Chr. 16:16; 29:18) finds echoes with each succeeding generation concerned with their title to the land, Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 7), Hezekiah (2 Chr. 30:6 cf. Is. 29:32; 41:8) and Jeremiah (33:26). Of these ancestors Abraham, both as the first and as the reputed original recipient of the promissary oath, was the most frequently named.[38] This tradition continued through the exile (Ne. 9:7; Ezk. 33:24), through intertestamental times, and into the New Testament when it was customary in thinking of ethnic and religious origins to 'look to Abraham the father' (Mt. 3:9; Lk. 3:8; cf. Is. 51:2) and affirm that 'Abraham is our forefather' (Jn. 8: 39; Rom. 4: 1). Jesus Christ took the same standpoint (e.g. Lk. 20:37) and his claim that 'Before Abraham was I am' would have been meaningless to his hearers if it indicated, among other assertions, merely a chronological precedence somewhere between David and the exile rather than a claim to preexistence as the authority prior to Abraham, the much respected first forefather of Israel.

This clear and unbroken sense of ancestry was for the Hebrews, as for other nations in the ancient Near East, linked with the title to their land. In land transactions reference is usually made back to the original donor, often a king as the one who acquired the territory whether through conquest or purchase. Land-tenure was dependent on the ability to make proper reference back to the original forefather who held the title authenticating the registration and from then on transmitted the deeds.[39] Had Israel and Judah not been able to refer to their origin in specific terms, which for them included the transmitted tradition of the Divine promise quite apart from any de facto possession gained through conquest, they would have been considered by


others as untitled holders of it.

it is not without significance that the same applied to other nations. Early in the second millennium BC, and usually associated with a western or Amorite tradition already of earlier origin, the idea of family descent associated with the legitimacy of the ruler, king or dynasty is already attested.[40] An Old Babylonian text dated c. 1700 BC already shows that the earliest names in a list of kings or 'patriarchs' were synonymous with those of individuals, tribes or places named after them.[41] Finkelstein argued that this genealogical list of the ancestors of the First Amorite (Hammurapi) Dynasty at Babylon follows the same traditional type as that used in the Assyrian King List which records the ancestors of Shamshi-Adad I, king of Assyria, itself dated about the same time.[42] Both texts were probably written to 'legitimize' the dynasty and both represent a consciousness of tribal origins as of major chronological significance. Moreover, there existed prior to both compositions a separate document giving the earliest traditions of 'the kings who lived in tents'.[43] Though once dismissed by some scholars as 'fictitious' or 'mythical', fewer would now suggest this following reference in the Ebla texts which include a treaty made c. 2300 BC between Ebrum of that place with one Tudiya of Assyria, who is named as the first in the Assyrian list.[44] Malamat has compared these lists with the biblical genealogies.[45] He classes the first nine to eleven names as the 'genealogical stock' or common antecedent generation which may be compared with the list of Abraham's predecessors in Genesis 11:10-26. These are followed by a statement of the 'determinative line' of the generations which bridge from the common genealogical stock to the pedigree of the tribes giving rise to the immediate line in question. For Babylonia this was the and Yahrurum, well known from the Mari texts, and for Assyria Abazu and Apishal. It is noteworthy that these, like the 'determinative' line of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all trace back to the same region of NE Syria. Following this the Old Testament traces its pre-Davidic ancestors through the tribal lines of Judah and Benjamin (cf. 1 Chr. 2:5, 9-15; Ru. 4:18-22). It could be that the designation of Abraham as 'the Hebrew' was to single him out as the founder of the 'determinative' line which led to David.[46]

Two further indications of the purpose and use of this early Babylonian genealogical list can be noted. First, the list was taken by the king in question ( of Babylon, c. 1645 BC) as a true record of his lineage with respect to the 'throne'. When David


instituted the liturgy in Jerusalem, his new capital (1 Chr. 16:16) and handed on the dynasty to his successor (1 Chr. 29:18) he made reference to Abraham as his forefather. Secondly, the Babylonian genealogy appears to be associated, or compiled for use, with mortuary offerings (kispus) made to the spirits of royal ancestors. David's association with Saul on a similar occasion (1 Sa. 20:5, 18) acknowledged Saul's rightful place in the royal lineage which should normally have taken precedence over David's personal annual remembrance of his own ancestral line (verses 6, 29). The importance of 'gathering to his fathers' a deceased member of the royal line has long been noted and this is already reflected in the patriarchal period for Abraham lsaac and Jacob being so revered (Gn. 25:8; 49:29, 33).[47] This tradition also was linked with inheritance of the land (Cf. Gn. 50:24-25; Ex. 13:19; Jos. 24:32). Possession of the land is specifically the subject of psalms in which the covenant with Abraham is mentioned (Ps. 47:9 cf. verse 4; 105:6, 9 cf. verses 11, 44).

It is suggested that all these varied references which show that a pre-Davidic consciousness of patriarchal ancestry, with extrabiblical examples of a similar realization of early origins, cannot all be assigned to some reworking of the text by a number of different later editors to whose work they are commonly attributed.

Another aspect of genealogical consciousness is the evidence of Mesopotamian historical texts which make reference to earlier persons and events. While some might argue that this could be explained by the individual nation's or family group's attempt to justify its place by positing early origins, this would be most unlikely over so wide a range of texts unless it could be shown to be a widespread literary phenomenon. This is unsupported by other forms of historical verification. For example, Assyrian kings from Shalmaneser I (1273-1244) to Esarhaddon (680-669 BC) make reference back to their ancestor Shamshi-Adad I c. 1820 BC naming intermediaries and events in precise terms from 60 to 580 years earlier in relation to temple building. Although in a minority of cases there is disagreement over chronology, there is none concerning the historical nature of the forefather.[48] The chronological note linking the beginning of Solomon's temple-building with Israel's coming out of Egypt (1 Kgs. 6:1), though variously interpreted chronographically[49] is a similar reference back in like circumstances within Israel's history.

References to ancestors are well attested in colophons to literary texts and records from the patriarchal


period could similarly have been transmitted through the four centuries to the time of Moses and onwards.[50] Genealogies spanning a long period of time are known from both Mesopotamia and Egypt, usually giving the male line. Seven long Egyptian genealogies are known, each spanning several centuries. That of Ukhhotep who lived in the reign of Amenemhat II c. 1925 BC (a period often ascribed to Abraham) lists fifty-nine ancestors going back to the IXth Dynasty of Egypt c. 2500 BC.[51] The genuineness and early transmission of these documents are beyond dispute, and they provide sufficient warrant for the feasibility of transmission of the knowledge of ancestors, both orally and in writing, by the close-knit Hebrew peoples. In this they were in step with other ancient near-eastern traditions and there is no need to fall back upon any theory of a fictional creation of 'founding fathers' at some late first-millennium date.

1.4. The name of Abraham

Thompson has rightly made two points. First, the contention that the name Abram fits 'only' or 'best' into the first half of the second millennium BC is false. Secondly, the occurence of similar personal names in any given period is not, of itself, chronological evidence for the historicity of a patriarch bearing the same, or similar, name.[52] While at present it does appear that names like Ab(i)ram follow a form structure and language common in W. Semitic at all periods, there is wide divergence as to both its meaning ('Father is exalted', 'Exalted father', 'the Exalted (one) is (my) father' etc.) and the validity of the parallels drawn with extrabiblical texts.[53] It should be noted that of the few possible names cited by Thompson for the first millennium most are questionable: (1) the supposed Egyptian place name sb3rm[c] has to be taken as a personal name (Abirama); (2) the seventh-century female name [f]AD-ra-mi[54] may be explained otherwise than Abi-rami (cf. Alalah Idrimi). This means that, apart from the Abiram of 1 Kings 16:24 () there are very few attested similar names for this late period. Even should the name-type Ab(i)ram be proven to be common at all periods, that of the form Abraham () is not. Special emphasis is given to the fact that 'Abraham' is a new and distinctive name (Gn. 17:5). Even if the name is to be taken as a dialectical variant of Abram[55] the context clearly provides a unique even if popular etymology as 'Father of multitudes' which is closely linked with the covenant and promissary oath.[56] It was a God-given name declaring that God would make Abraham, then childless, ancestor of both his own people


(12:2) and of many different group (17:5-6) It is thus a form of 'dynastic' ancestral name.[57] The change of name marks both a new era and a new status and is consistently used in the subsequent narrative 'probably much the game as in a king's assumption of a special throne-name'.[58] It is not necessary to view the interpretation of the name, be it a 'popular etymology' or 'word-play', as a literary device to interpret a later theology of promise,[59] for it would be more logical to expect that the belief in God's choice of the patriarchs and his promises them were present in Israel from the very beginning.[60] Such a view is already present in what is considered to be one of the earliest poems in the Bible (12:3 cf. Nu. 24:17-19). Moreover, such 'popular etymologies' usually refer back from the monarchy to an earlier pre-monarchic tradition,[61] and from early historical periods a new line or dynasty was marked by the introduction of a new name (e.g. Sargon, Shamshi-Ad(d)u) and with a new or re-emphasized relationship with a particular deity.[62] While the name 'Abraham' as compared with 'Abram' may not be of the same order of differentiation as other dynastic names, it is significant that, as with other such names, the name of Abraham is applied throughout the Old Testament to the patriarch alone.[63] Evidence of its application to other individuals is attested only after the sixth century AD.[64]

It is suggested that the foregoing aspects of the person and function of Abraham are in keeping with his role as a 'great man' and worthy founding father of a nation, and need to be taken into account in any assessment of the historicity of the patriarchal narratives.


[1] T.L.Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (De Gruyter, Berlin & New York 1974); J. van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (Yale UP, New Haven & London, 1975).

[2] On the latter see now V.H. Matthews, Pastoral Nomadism in the Mari Kingdom ca. 1830-1760 BC (American Schools of Oriental Research Dissertation Series, Cambridge, Mass., 1978)

[3] E.g. J.T. Luke, 'Abraham and the Iron Age: Reflections on the New Patriarchal Studies', JSOT 4, 1977, pp.35-47.

[4] C.H. Gordon, 'Abraham and the Merchants of Ura', JNES 17, 1958, pp.28-31.

[5] H.W.F. Saggs, 'Ur of the Chaldees', Iraq 22, 1960, pp.200-209.

[6] B.J. Beizel, 'From Harran to Imar Along the Old Babylonian Itinerary...' in G.A. Tuttle (ed.) Biblical and Near Eastern Studies: Essays in Honor of William Sanford Lasor (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1978), pp.209-219.

[7] D.J. Wiseman, 'They lived in Tents', in G.A.Tuttle (ed.), op.cit., pp.195-200. For the 'tent-shrine' cf. B. Rothenberg, Timna (Thames & Hudson, London 1972), pp.150-2; fig.44, pl.XI.

[8] R. Giveon, Les bedouins shosou des documents égyptiens (Leiden, Brill, 1977), pp.132ff.

[9] B.Z. Wacholder, 'How long did Abraham stay in Egypt?', HUCA 35, 1964, p.43, refers only to very late tradition.

[10] Cf. Gn. 14:13: Cf. 13:18.

[11] J. van Seters, op.cit., p.7.

[12] For details see D.J. Wiseman as n.7, p.198.

[13] M.B. Rowton, 'Autonomy and Nomadism in Western Asia', Orientalia 42, 1973. p.252.

[14] V.H. Matthews, op.cit., p.7.

[15] G.E. Mendenhall, 'Migration Theories vs Cultural Change as an Explanation for Early Israel', in G. McRae (ed.), Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, 1976, pp.135-143; R.K. Gottwald, 'Were the Early Israelites Pastoral Nomads?', Rhetorical Criticism: Essays in Honor of James Muilenberg (eds. J. Jackson and M. Kessler, Pickwick, Pittsburg, 1974), p.234; JSOT 7 (1978), p.46.

[16] Cf. M. Anbar, Biblica 49, 1968, pp.221-232.

[17] M. Liverani, 'The Amorites', in D.J.Wiseman (ed.), Peoples of Old Testament Times (POTT), (1973), pp.100-133.

[18] J. Weingreen, 'Saul and Habiru', Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies I (1967; World Union of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem), pp.63-66.

[19] A. Malamat, 'The Arameans' , POTT, pp.134-135; M. Richardson in a paper read at Tyndale House, Cambridge, on 14 July 1979 argues for as meaning 'lost' not 'roving' in Dt. 26:5.

[20] T.L. Thompson, op.cit.., pp. 325-326.

[21] G. Pettinato, BA 39, 1975, p.47.

[22] On the Hittites in the patriarchal narratives see H.A. Hoffner, POTT, 213-214.

[23] D.W. Thomas, 'A Consideration of Some Unusual Ways of Expressing the Superlative in Hebrew', VT 3, 1953, pp.210-219.

[24] E.A. Speiser, 'Background and Function of the Biblical ', CBQ 25, 1963, pp.111-119.

[25] Speiser, loc.cit., p.115.

[26] J. van Seters, op.cit., p.52.

[27] The framework of the treaties of the patriarchal period is the same as the so-called 'Hittite' treaties of the second millennium. The latter are, however, 'Mesopotamian' in language and style.

[28] R. Amiran, IEJ 10, 1969, p.225; cf. R.S. Merrillees, Levant 3, 1971, pp. 56-79.

[29] J.J. Bimson, Redating the Exodus and Conquest, JSOT supp. 1, 1978, pp.168-172.

[30] A. Marzal, 'The Provincial Governor at Mari: His Title and Appointment', JNES 30, 1971, pp.186-217.

[31] Heb. Hithallek, even without the preposition 'before (God)' is more frequently used figuratively than literally. Rather than just to 'live' it denotes mction according to the divine law expressed in judicial processes. Cf. 1 Sa. 12:2; 25:15 and, referring to land-tenure, Jos. 18:4, 8; Jdg. 21:24. Since this use of the hithpael is more frequent than that of literally 'walking to and fro' (as 2 Sa. 11:2) it may be asked whether this significance does not apply to Gn. 13:17 and to Enoch (Gn. 5:22, 24) as to God's active presence among his people (Lv. 26:12; 2 Sa. 7:6-7; Dt. 23:15). (A fuller study of this term will follow.)

[32] D.J. Wiseman, 'Law and Order in Old Testament Times'. Vox Evangelica 7, 1973, pp.5-21.

[33] Note the rare use of the singular here, cf. Jdg. 2:23; 2 Kgs. 21:22; Pr. 10:29, Is. 40:3; Ezk. 18:29.

[34] Often the interchange of daughters marked the ratification of parity-treaties, Cf. Solomon's many such marriages (1 Kgs. 3:1; 9,16; 10:24-25). The acquisition of Hagar in Egypt may have been part of the royal gift (Gn. 12:16).

[35] Cf. Nu. 31:28. msr is not only used of sacred payments but is sometimes comparable with the mks-tax.

[36] See n.4.

[37] Ex. 32:13; 33:1; Lv. 26:42; Nu. 32:11; Dt. 1:8; 6:10; 9:5, 27; 29:13; 30:20; 34:4.

[38] Is. 29:32; Ps. 47:1; 105:6, 9, 42.

[39] This is also implied by the Assyrian and Babylonian King Lists and by udurru inscriptions of the second millennium BC.

[40] W.G. Lambert in P. Garelli (ed.), Le Palais et Ia Royauté (P. Geuthner, Paris, 1974) , p.634.

[41] J. Finkelstein, 'The Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty', JCS 20, 1966, pp.97-99.

[42] A.K. Grayson, 'The Early Development of Assyrian Monarchy'. UF 3, 1971, pp.317-319.

[43] W.G. Lambert, JCS 22, 1968, p.2.

[44] G. Pettinato, BA 39, 1976, p.48. (Since writing this identification is seriously questioned).

[45] A. Malamat, 'King Lists of the Old Babylonian Period and Biblical Genealogies', JAOS 22, 1968, pp.163-173.

[46] Ibid., p.167.

[47] On. 25:8; 49:29, 33. Cf. M. Bayliss, 'The Cult of Dead Kin in Assyria and Babylonia', Iraq 35, 1973, pp.115-125.

[48] H. Tadnor, 'The Chronology of the Ancient Near East in the Second Millennium BC', B. Mazar led.), World History of the Jewish People 2 (Massada Publishing Co.. Tel Aviv), pp.69-71.

[49] J. Bimson, op.cit., pp.88-92.

[50] P.J. Wiseman, Clues to Creation in Genesis (Marshall, Morgan & Scott, London 1977), pp.68-71.

[51] Cf. also for details K.A.Kitchen, The Bible in its World (Paternoster, Exeter, 1977) , pp.66-68.

[52] T.L. Thompson, op.cit., pp.35, 22.

[53] T.L. Thompson, op.cit., pp.25-36.

[54] K. Tallqvist, Assyrian Personal Names (Acta Societatis Scientarum Fennicae XLIII/1, Helsingfors, 1914) , p.5; M. Noth, ZDMG 81, 1927, p.31.

[55] T.L. Thompson, op.cit., p.23; E.A.Speiser, Genesis (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1964), p.124. takes the medial -ha- as a secondary extension in a manner common in Aramaic.

[56] The assumption that Gn. 17:5 offers a word play on for , 'chief of a multitude' does not seem to allow for ab h[a]môn goyîm being a separate explanatory note on a rare (old?) use of r-m for r-h-m.

[57] So the specific reference to 'royal' succession in Gn. 17:6.

[58] E.A. Speiser, op.cit., p.129.

[59] T.L. Thompson, op.cit., pp.24-25.

[60] J. Bright. Covenant and Promise (SCM, London, 1977), p.26.

[61] T.L. Thompson, op.cit., p.24.

[62] E.g. the throne-name Nebuchadrezzar (I) was linked with a resurgence of the worship of Marduk; W.G. Lambert in W.S. McCullough (ed.), The Seed ol Wisdom: Essays in Honour of T.J. Meek (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1964), pp.3-13.

[63] M. Noth, Die israelitischen Personnennamen... (1966), p.60, attributes this to respect, but the matter needs further investigation in comparison with other 'throne/dynastic' names.

[64] None of the many hundreds of the names of rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud bears the name of Abraham (or indeed of Moses, David or Solomon). Midrash Rabbah Gen.R. 49:1. states that a man should not give his son a name like Pharaoh, Sisera or Sennacherib but rather Abraham, Isaac... '. This does not appear to have taken effect quickly. The widespread use of Abraham as a personal name comes into common use in parallel with that of Ibrahim in the Islamic world after the seventh century AD. (I owe this reference to Dr M. Weizmann)

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