The Historical Accuracy of the Patriarchal Narratives (Fourth part)

Numerous incidents in the Genesis narrative have been explained in the light of customs that obtained in the second millenium. The Nuzi texts, which reflect the customary law of a predominantly Hurrian population in the East-Tigris region in the fifteenth century, are especially fruitful here.

Although these date from a somewhat later century and come from an area where the Hebrews patriarchs never wandered, they undoubtedly embody a legal tradition that was much more widespread and ancient. It must be remembered that as early at the eighteenth century the Semitic population of the upper part of the Fertile Crescent was heavily mixed with Hurrians, and that a few centuries later Hurrians were the predominant element there. It would be surprising indeed if their customs were not known to the “Amorite” population of that area – from whom, indeed, they have may have borrowed aome of them. In any event, the Nuzi texts illuminate a number of otherwise puzzling incidents.

For example, Abraham’s fear (Gen. 15:1-4) that his slave Eliezer would be his heir becomes understandable in the light of slave adoption as practiced at Nuzi. Childless couples would adopt a son who would serve them as long as they lived and inherit n their death. But, should a natural son be born, the adopted son would have to yield the right of inheritance. Again, as Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham as a concubine (ch. 16:1-4), so at Nuzi a marriage contract obliged the wife, if childless, to provide her husband with a substitute. Should a son be born of a such union, the expulsion of the slave wife and her child was forbidden – which explains Abraham’s reluctance to send Hagar and Hishmael away (ch. 21:10f.). [ … ]

Nor such parallels confined to the Nuzi texts, for there is evidence that similar customs with regards to marriage, adoption, inheritance, and the like were observed in various parts of the Fertile Crescent in the second millenium.

For example, a fifteenth-century marriage contract from Alalakh in northern Syria (where the population had long been heavily Hurrian) indicates that a father might diregard the law of primogeniture and designate the son who would be the “first-born”. Here the husband stipulates that if his wife bears no son, his own niece (not a slave) is to be given him in marriage, but that the son of the first wife, should born to him earlier by his other wife (wives). One is again reminded of the incident of Sarah and Hagar, mentioned above. But one is also reminded of the way in which Jacob chose Ephraim as “first-born” instead of Joseph’s oldest son, Manasseh (Gen. 48:8-20), and repudiated his own firstborn, Reuben, in favor of Joseph, the son of his favorite wife, Rachel (Gen. 48:22; 49:3f.; cf. I Chron. 5:1f.). This practice, which seems to have been widespread in the patriarchal age, was explicitly forbidden by later Israelite law (Deut. 21:15-17). [ … ]

To be sure, the force of these parallels, and others that have been advanced, must not be exaggerated. They do not by themselves prove that the patriarchal traditions reach back to the second millenium, still less do they allow us to fix the patriarchs in any specific century. [ … ] Yet if these parallels, in so far as they are valid, do not prove the antiquity of the patriarchal traditions, they in no way contradict it, but rather, taken with other evidence, tend to further to support it. [ … ]. One’s conviction that the patriarchal narratives authentically reflect social customs at home in the second millenium is strengthened. (From John Brigth, A History of Israel, 1980, pp. 78-80)

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