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An understanding of when the Patriarchs lived contributes to our understanding of that time period
We often use terms such as "patriarchal age" without really knowing which period of time covered that age. Many consider that the history of Israel has its official beginning with Genesis 12, stretching to Genesis 50, and that it is not proper to speak of Israel as a nation until the time of the exodus experiences.7,8 But the history of a nation is incomplete without some history of its ancestors, so a history of Israel without a history of the patriarchs would be unthinkable. Certainly these chapters tell how God selected Abraham as the agent through whom he would bless all mankind and of the providential manner in which he guided the lives of this ancestor of Israel and his descendants, in order to bring his promises to fulfillment.
For many years critics of the Bible maintained that the stories contained in these thirty-eight chapters were purely legend, having no historical validity whatever.7,8 Critics argued that none of the characters mentioned in this section could be definitely identified with any known figure in secular history. However, the science of archaeology has shed so much light on the history and culture of the ancient Near East that even the most skeptical of Biblical critics have been forced to look at the inspired record with new respect. The archaeologist's spade has uncovered cities and towns visited by Abraham and his descendants. It has confirmed the existence of such people as the Hittites, who were once believed to be a figment of the Biblical writers' imagination. Most important has been the discovery of an almost incredible number of legal, commercial, political, and religious documents which make it possible to reconstruct a fairly reliable picture of the world in which the patriarchs lived. During the last 60 years, in particular, archaeology has shed considerable light on this period of time when the patriarchs lived and discoveries such as the Ugaritic tablets, the Ebla tablets, the Mari tablets, and many others, have given us considerable information concerning the spiritual, economic, military, historical and sociological conditions which existed at the time of the Patriarchs. These discoveries constitute a major, if not the greatest, contribution of archaeology to Old Testament studies in the last half-century. The two most important groups of these documents, as far as the patriarchal period is concerned, are those discovered at the Amorite city of Mari, dating from the eighteenth century B.C., and at the Hurrian town of Nuzi, dating from the fifteenth century B.C.9-11 For years critics claimed that the Bible itself did not provide us with the dates of the activity of the patriarchs and that none of the events or situations recorded in the Bible were readily identifiable with specific periods in known history. We are highly blessed in our day and age to find that the research of this last century has silenced all but the most vociferous of antagonists, with archaeological dating confirming the Scriptural records. This has caused many critics, such as A.N. Wilson (who is regarded as a secular historian), to resort instead to purely speculative criticism.12
The world of the patriarchs may be considered rather small in terms of the "Jet-set" culture of today - but we need to realise that they moved in circles of the highest culture of their day. Their activity was confined to the area known to most of us as children in history classes as the "Fertile Crescent," that is, the area bounded by the Euphrates River on the east and extending westward to include Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. We quickly realise that Biblical history is bound up with the rise and fall of the several nations that comprise this territory and with the successes and failures of invaders from Arabia and from the lands to the north and east. The archaeologically revealed history of the Fertile Crescent during this period tells us much about the lives of the patriarchs who participated in the culture of the time. For the first two centuries of the second millenium B.C., the western part of the Crescent was under the rule of the Egyptian Pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty. This period was one of the most stable in Egypt's long history. Later generations looked back on it as a Golden Age. On the international level there was sea trade with such places as Syria, Cyprus, and Crete. Fortresses were erected along the borders to thwart invaders from the north and east. Copper mining was revived in the Sinaitic peninsula. At home, land was made arable by means of elaborate irrigation systems. Notable advances were made in various fields of literature and science. In short, it was a high water mark of ancient Egyptian culture.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, this stable situation had begun to disintegrate. Rival dynasties contended for the throne left vacant by the fallen Twelfth Dynasty. It was this disunified situation which paved the way for the domination of Egypt by the foreign invaders known as Hyksos. In the East, at the beginning of this same period, control lay with the Sumerian rulers who had their capital at Ur. About 1950 B.C., this dynasty was overthrown by the Elamites. In the period of political confusion and uncertainty which followed, hordes of Semitic peoples from the Arabian desert poured across the Crescent. In the Bible (Gen. 14:7; Num. 13:29), these invaders are known as the Amorites ("Westerners"). Within two centuries these remarkable people had gained control of all the major centers of population in Mesopotamia. The most important of the Amorite capitals was Mari, whose remarkable archives we have already mentioned. In about 1700 B.C. the great Babylonian king, Hammurabi, conquered Mari and incorporated it into a prosperous, though modest, empire which had its center in Babylon. We are familiar with the infamous Tower of Babel, a type of temple-tower known as a ziggurat, but our perspective of this vast tribute to the folly of man can be affected when we learn that during the reign of Hammurabi, a ziggurat was erected of such proportion and splendor that it became one of the great wonders of the ancient world. When we realise that Babel was not such an unusual project for the men of the time to plan we gain a greater insight into the mind and culture of men who should so attempt to reach to bring their God, or gods, down to their level or to attempt to scale the heights to bring themselves up to His level - and thus incur His wrath!
Hammurabi is best remembered, however, for the code of laws which he issued. The laws contained in this code were not the creation of Hammurabi himself, but are a collection and adaptation of current laws and customs, codified in an effort to provide an official record of what was considered to be accepted law in the empire. Government officials in areas of the empire unfamiliar with Babylonian law could use this as a helpful guide. It was not necessarily binding on them, however, although historians have drawn numerous parallels between this ancient law code and the law codes of Israel.
There is good reason to suppose that Abraham and his descendants were closely connected to these Amorite peoples. There is frequent mention in the patriarchal narratives of the fact that Abraham and his descendants were of Aramean stock. The confession of faith in Deuteronomy 26:5 begins with the words, "My father was a wandering Aramean." When Isaac sought to find a wife for Jacob from among their own relatives, he sent him to the house of his uncle, who is characteristically described as Laban the Aramean (Gen. 25:20; 31:20, 24; see also 28:5). The region to which Jacob went was known as Paddan-Aram ("The Field of Aram," Gen. 28:2). The chief city of this Aramean region was called Haran (Gen. 28: 10), and was a known centre of the new Amorite settlement. In addition to the close connection here between Arameans and Amorites, the very name of the city is significant. We recall that Haran was the name of one of Abraham's brothers (Gen. 11:31). This might be dismissed simply as a coincidence if it were a unique example, but archaeologists have established the existence of several towns that bore names identical with, or similar to, personal names found in the Bible. Among these are Nahor, the name both of Abraham's grandfather and brother (Gen. 11:24, 26; 24:10), Terah, Abraham's father (Gen. 11:26), and Peleg and Serug, both direct ancestors of Abraham (Gen. 11:16, 20). We cannot be sure as to how these towns came to be named. It is not unlikely they were named for the clan that founded or captured them, and that the leaders of these clans are the same men named in the Bible. Another possibility is that the Biblical characters dwelt in the area long enough to take their names from the local towns. Even if neither of these suggestions is correct, the correspondence between the names is significant, for it lends support to the assertion that historians have made concerning the date of the patriarchs, since these names are known to have been current only in this three-hundred year or so period. The same holds true for the names Abraham, Jacob, Benjamin, Zebulun, Ishmael, and Levi, all of which were used as personal names among the Amorites.
The texts of Mari and Nuzi, and other documents from the second millenium B.C. contain frequent references to a people known as Habiru. They were described in a variety of ways. Generally speaking, they were men without a country. They drifted across the Near Eastern lands in a fairly rootless manner, seldom really finding an established place in the social structure of the areas in which they roamed. In peacetime, they might subsist quietly on their flocks and herds, or hire themselves out in various capacities. The Nuzi texts reveal that, in hard times, they sometimes sold themselves as slaves. In unsettled periods, they might seek their living by raiding settled areas or by hiring themselves out as mercenary soldiers.
The similarity between the words Habiru and Hebrew have made it tempting to identify the ancestors of Israel with these unsettled wanderers. Certain items in the Bible seem to support this identification. In their laws discovered on tablets the Habiru sometimes sealed solemn oaths by calling on "the gods of the Habiru" to witness their action. This phrase has been compared with the exact counterpart in the Biblical expression, "the God of the Hebrews" (See Ex. 3:18; 5:3; 7:16). Further, on the only occasion on which Abraham is referred to as a Hebrew (Gen. 14:13-14), it seems he is regarded as something of an "outsider," and the situation is one in which Abraham rallies a fighting force of 318 trained men to do battle with the kings who had sacked Sodom and Gomorrah. The language of this account certainly allows the interpretation that Abraham was not wholly unaccustomed to such warfare, an interpretation that fits well with the known practice of the Habiru. Secular speculation to the effect that the Habiru described in numerous ancient documents were none other than the Hebrews, the forerunners of Israel, may be going too far. Late evidence has disclosed the fact that Habiru were to be found all over Western Asia for a period covering almost the entire second millenium B.C., even after Israel had long since settled in Canaan. It is probably a mistake to conceive of the Habiru as a national or ethnic group. More likely, the name indicates an element of society, a layer of "displaced persons" without definite legal or social status. It is not implausible, however, that the clans of Abraham and his descendants belonged to this unsettled layer and that their migration into Palestine was part of the larger movements that brought Habiru into this area in this period.
Thus, what we know of the Fertile Crescent in the first three centuries of the second millenium B.C. confirms the trustworthiness of the Biblical narratives. Obviously the accounts preserved in Genesis reflect only a glimmer of the complex origins and activities of the numerous clans which made their way into Palestine at this time. But we know that our God deliberately and repeatedly preserves only the writings that are for our spiritual and physical edification and enlightenment and we find that the Old Testament contains nothing that contradicts what we have been able to learn from extra-Biblical sources. Instead, these outside sources help us fill out the Biblical account and give us a clearer and more detailed account of the type of life led by our spiritual forefathers.
We often hear the patriarchs spoken of as nomads. This word sometimes conjures up a picture of deserts and camels, but this is not the kind of nomad we have in mind. Widespread domestication of the camel does not become apparent for several centuries after this and, without camels, penetration of the desert is virtually impossible. The patriarchs' chief beast of burden appears to have been the ass; consequently, the wanderings of the patriarchs were restricted to areas where vegetation was more likely to be available. Much of their time was spent wandering about Palestine seeking food and water for their families and their flocks. Actually, the term semi-nomad is a more accurate designation, for, although they often continued to move about, many of them remained stationary, dwelling in tents, or returned. to the same area frequently enough to become associated with it. Abraham's main dwelling-place was near Hebron, south of Jerusalem, at the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 13:18; 14:13). Not far to the east was the field and cave of Machpelah, the family burial plot (Gen. 23:17-20). Isaac's primary headquarters seems to have been Beersheba (Gen. 26:23; 28:10), in the extreme south of the habitable area of Palestine. Jacob is associated with several locations, particularly Bethel (33:18), Shechem (35:1), and Dothan (37:17). Archaeology has confirmed that these towns were major population centers in Palestine, certainly in the years indicated by the Biblical records.
Naturally, some of these wanderers eventually founded cities or were assimilated into existing communities. At first, these cities were governed by true municipal law. There was no higher authority than the city council, composed of the elders of the city. The notion of a monarchy held little appeal for them. With the passage of time, powerful families sometimes came to dominate a city. An example of this is found in Genesis 34, in which the sons of Hamor are seen to be the ruling powers in Shechem. This story also illustrates another characteristic feature of early Canaanite culture, that of corporate guilt, As reflected here, an entire city (Shechem) could be held responsible for the crime (the rape of Dinah) by one of its inhabitants, especially if that individual was a prominent citizen (the prince of Shechem). The next stage in the political development of these cities was frequently the acceptance of a monarchy. These rulers gathered and commanded armies, built up the fortification of the cities, and, inevitably, levied taxes on the people in order to finance their projects. Regardless of the particular stage of political development in the area in which the patriarchs found themselves, one element in the social structure remained fairly constant in this period - the family, the basic unit of Hebrew society. The very name by which we designate this period - patriarchal - furnishes us with a one-word description of the nature of the Hebrew family. The father was patriarch, the sole possessor and master of his goods, his property, and his family. The family consisted of all who claimed kin to him. This included his wife (or wives), children, unmarried brothers and sisters, parents, and other relatives, as well as servants and concubines. In this circle, his rule was virtually absolute. His will was binding upon this community which attached itself to him. With this power and freedom, however, came the responsibility to instruct his household in the religious and social traditions of the family, the clan, and the nation. Because of the importance attached to children, especially to sons who could carry on the strength and authority of the father, a woman could attain a position of respect and authority in the family through child-bearing. So great was the demand for offspring that, in Genesis 38, Tamar is pictured as a heroine for disguising herself as a prostitute to produce children to carry on the name of her dead husband! Today we struggle to understand this kind of concept, or the pressures that brought about the practice of polygamy through the desire for an abundance of heirs rather than mere sexual passion, but when we realise the time period the patriarchs lived in and the nature of that society we gain a greater understanding of the spiritual and sociological conditions under which they lived.
The best of unbiased secular scholarship has done nothing to discredit the historical accuracy of the patriarchal accounts. On the contrary, it has confirmed them on point after point and has given us increased reason to believe that during this time period there was indeed a man named Abraham who, with the clan of which he was master, set out from Haran and eventually came to Canaan, where he and his descendants spent their lives as semi-nomads. Perhaps they were regarded by the settled inhabitants of the land as belonging to that unsettled class of people known as Habiru. Although they retained a strong feeling of kinship for their ancestors who had remained in Mesopotamia and for their neighbours of similar origins, there was intermarriage with local tribes and assimilation of local culture. The scriptures provide us with few details of this of this complex process, but the stories of Hagar and Ishmael, of Lot's place in the society of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of Esau's marriage to Hittite women surely reflect what was happening on a much wider scale among Israel's ancestors.
We can easily show that the weight of the evidence indicates the patriarchs were real historical individuals and understand from the archaeological and Biblical record the type of lives they led. But, as Christians, our primary reason for studying them at all is to learn something of the nature of their religious beliefs and practices. It is a tendency of our age to think of God - when men think of him at all - as something or someone utterly removed from the everyday affairs of humanity. We find just the opposite feeling among the patriarchs. The God they worshipped was considered a part of the family circle. The family or clan felt a real personal tie to their God. They conceived of God not so much as creator of the whole universe, but as their own personal deity, who was related to them in a special way. For example, when God is spoken of in a formal way, as in an oath, he is not simply called "God," but "the God of Abraham" (Genesis 24:27), "the Mighty One of Isaac" (Genesis 49: 24), or "the God of Nahor" (Genesis 31:53). In return for the devotion of the clan, which was thought of as his family, God protected them from harm and saw that they received those things necessary to their existence. He also served as witness to covenants they made with one another.
The names given to children illustrate this sense of closeness to their God. The Hebrew syllable ab means "father," and when we find it as part of a name of a Bible character, it usually has reference to God. When the patriarchs and their descendants named their children Abiezer or Abimelech or Abiram, they were not simply picking out a name that sounded pleasant to them, as we commonly do in naming our children; rather, they were professing their belief that "My Father is a Helper" (Abiezer), or "My Father is my King" (Abimelech), or "My Father is Exalted" (Abiram). Another class of names expressive of faith in God are those which contain the syllable el. The original Hebrew text of our Bible makes it clear that El was one of the names by which the patriarchs addressed God. He is spoken of as El-Shaddai (translated "God Almighty,"' Genesis 17:1, etc.), El-Elyon ("God Most High," Genesis 14:19-22), and El-'Olam ("God the Everlasting," Genesis 21:33). Using this syllable, men named their children "God is my Helper" (Eliezer), "God is my King" (Elimelech), and, using both syllables we have noted, "God is my Father" (Eliab).
What was important to the patriarchs was their relationship with the God whom they had undertaken to serve. He was the only God to be worshipped but we find fascinating insights in the Scripture which speak of the continuous turmoil caused by their proximity to the surrounding nations. The story of Rachel's theft of the household gods (Genesis 31:19) shows us how often their worship was polluted by idolatry and how they slipped time and time again into the use of images. We see the same tendencies in Roman Catholicism today. Man has not changed or evolved in any manner at all! But what we know of the fertility cults and the orgiastic rites of the contemporary religions with which the patriarchs must have come in contact, makes it clear that the worship of the God of the Fathers was of an entirely different order from that offered to other "gods" of the region. The God of the patriarchs was not a god of a particular shrine, but was a constant unseen traveling companion of the individual or clan with whom he had entered into covenant. He could be addressed in prayer or approached with sacrifice at any time and place. His temple could be found at whatever spot his worshipers built an altar. A second type of religious observance of which we read in Genesis is the erection of pillars (Genesis 28:18; 31:13; 35:14). Ordinarily, these pillars consisted of a single stone or a heap of stones set up as a formal token of a vow (Genesis 31:13) as a commemoration of an appearance of God (Genesis 35:14), or as a reminder of a covenant made in the presence of God (Genesis 31:45).
We see how the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai is brought sharply into focus by a knowledge of these external attributing factors - the pressure and temptation to follow other "foreign" gods "whom you have not known" (Genesis 35:1-5; cf. Deut. 13:2):
1 Then God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau." 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; 3 and let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me wherever I have gone." 4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem. 5 As they journeyed, there was a great terror upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.
As a result the religion of God's people underwent considerable change. Graven images were specifically forbidden. Detailed codes of law were given to guide Israel in every aspect of her life. The presence of God came to be more closely associated with a particular place - the tabernacle and, later, the temple. An official priesthood was ordained to perform all the duties connected with an elaborate sacrificial system. In view of all this, it is natural to ask if Israel was mistaken in looking back to Abraham as the ultimate ancestor of her faith. Despite changes and developments the religion of God's people was ever supported by the two foundation pillars of Election and Covenant. From the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 to the close of the Old Testament, there is a constant affirmation of the belief that God had ordained Abraham and his descendants for a special relationship to him and a special task in the world, and that this elect people is bound to God in a solemn covenant.
The divine election was not based on God's having foreseen that Abraham and his descendants would be righteous. Indeed, even Abraham, the classic example of the man of saving faith, is seen to behave in such a way as to deserve reproach, as in his deception of Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20) or his sending away of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:8-14). Much of the Old Testament is a catalogue of the persistent sinfulness of the Israelites. This helps us see that God did not choose them because they were better, but because he had a task he wanted them to perform. He chose the few for the sake of the many. He chose Abraham that through his seed all nations of the earth might be blessed. This election was made effective by God's entering into covenant with those whom he had elected. In the covenant, God voluntarily bound himself to fulfill the promises he had made to Abraham, and men accepted the conditions of the covenant, signifying their acceptance of it by submitting to circumcision. During the patriarchal period, God renewed this covenant several times (Gen. 15:5,13-16; 18:18-19; 26:2-4; 28:13-15), reaffirming his intention to bring to completion the great work for which he had chosen the family of Abraham. The covenant at Sinai, while in many respects different from the Abrahamic covenant, was still part of this same plan initiated by God for the redemption of fallen humanity.
In the patriarchal period, a man's righteousness could not be "measured" by his obedience to an objective law, for there was no such religious law, no "Law of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." It was understood, of course, that God's people were expected to conform to the standard of morality generally accepted in the society in which they found themselves. But conformity to these standards did not make the patriarchs righteous before God. Righteousness was determined by faith and trust in God's promises and willingness to allow him to work out his purposes in his own good time. Conversely, lack of trust and patience constituted sin. With this understanding of the religion of the patriarchs, together with what we have already learned of the time in which they lived and their mode of life, we can gain a closer understanding of the major figures in the History of the Patriarchs.
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