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The Historical Accuracy of the Patriarchal Narratives (Fifth part)

In addition to the above, it is now evident that the mode of life of the patriarchs, and the nature of their wanderings as these are described in Genesis, fit well in the cultural and political milieu of the early second millennium.

The patriarchs are portrayed as semi nomads living in tents, wandering uo and down Palestine and its borderlands in search of seasonal pasture for their flocks and, on occasion, making longer journeys to Mesopotamia or Egypt. They were not true bedouin; they did not roam the desert, or even venture into it at all save along routes where an adequate supply of water was available (e.g., on the way to Egypt). They frequently camped near the towns, and seem for the most part to have enjoyed peaceful relationships with the townspeople; on occasion they settled for long enough to farm the land, at least in a limited way (e.g. Gen. 26:12). But they did not (except for Lot) settle permanently in cities or integrate themselves with the urban population, and they owned no land save for modest plots purchased for burying their dead (chs. 23; 33:19; 50:5). In short, they are depicted not as camel nomads like those of later times and today, but as semi nomadic breeders of sheep and other small cattle whose beast of burden was the ass and who confined their wanderings to the settled land and its fringes, where seasonal pasturage might be found. The few references to camels (e.g., chs. 12:16; 24) seem to be no more than anachronistic touches introduced to make the stories more vivid to later hearers; true camel nomads dp not appear in the Genesis story.

This is as it should be. Although the camel was of course known from very early times, and isolated instances of its taming may, therefore, have occurred at any period (it is probable that nomads had kept herds of camels in half-wild state in order to secure their milk, hair, and skin), it appears that the effective domestication of that animal as a beast of transport took place between the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries deep in Arabia. [ … ]

The wanderings of the patriarchs, too, accord well with the situation of the early second millennium. [ … ] The ease with which the patriarchs roam from Mesopotamia to Palestine and back accords well with the situation known from the Mari texts, which show that free intercourse, unhindered by any real barrier, was possible over all parts of the Fertile Crescent. The wanderings of the patriarchs in Palestine fit perfectly in the situation of the Execration Texts, when the land, held loosely or not at all by Egypt, was (especially in the central and southern mountain range) still rather thinly settled. The Beni-Hasan picture illustrates the ease with which groups might move from Asia into Egypt, and the Tale of Sinuhe shows the ease of communication between Egypt and Palestine-Syria. (From J. Bright, A History of Israel, 1980, pp. 80-82)

Simone Venturini


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