Abraham: The Father of Faith

He didn’t build any major cities. He left behind no enduring monuments of stone or marble. He didn’t inscribe any clay tablets [that we know of]. He came from the very cradle of human civilization itself – ancient Mesopotamia. He was a city dweller and, then become a semi-nomad. He erected stone altars and, he made sacrifices to God at Shechem, also at a place somewhere between Bethel and Ai, Hebron and Beersheba.

In one sense, he is very familiar to us and, in another sense, deeply mysterious, shadowy, and mostly unknown. He is remembered for something that can’t be seen with the human eye, yet whose effects echo through the centuries to the present – his great faith. He is the father of Faith. Billions of people around the world today draw their spiritual heritage from Abraham of Ur. Today, Christians, Muslims and Jews comprise the three great monotheistic faith traditions of the world whose adherents reach well into the billions. 

In his sweeping two-volume work, The Monotheists, historian F.E. Peters states:

…at a given moment in historical time, he [God] addressed himself to one Abram, the sheikh of an extended family of Near Eastern sheep nomads who were camping in what is today called the Negev. Worship me, the god said, and I will make you and yours a great people. It was not a unique or a solitary voice; we know from plentiful evidence that there were other, many other, gods on that landscape and in the minds of Abram’s contemporaries. Abram, however, limited his worship to this one deity, and the god in turn granted his favor to Abram, or Abraham, as he was henceforward called [1].

Israel’s earliest history connects them to their physical and spiritual father, Abraham. To his physical descendents God promised great blessings, and that He would multiply them as the stars in the heavens (Gen. 22:15-17). Abraham’s blessing would not only to extend to his physical descendants, but to all nations on the earth as well (Gen. 22:18). Later, when Moses stood before God at the burning bush and asked God for instructions on exactly how to communicate to the Israelites what He was about to do in the Exodus, Moses asked:

“Indeed when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they say to me ‘What is His name? What shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’ Moreover God said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations” (Exodus 3:13-15). 

On the pages of the New Testament, in a heated exchange with the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders Jesus stated, “Abraham saw My day and rejoiced” (John 8:46).

But, what about Abraham’s day? Did Abraham even have a “day” in historical space and time? Did he exist? Must we go on pure faith to believe in his existence? Is there any evidence for Abraham?

In the 19th Century, German scholar Julius Welhausen stated that: “…we have no historical knowledge of the Patriarchs, but only the time when the stories about them arose…” and the actual truth of their [i.e. the Patriarch’s] existence is “reflected there like a glorifed mirage” [2]. 

Writing of Abraham directly, Welhausen stated: “Abraham alone is certainly not the name of a people like Isaac and Lot: he is somewhat difficult to interpret. That is not to say that in such a connection as this we may regard him as a historical person: he might with more likelihood be regarded as a free invention of unconscious art” [3].

Modern Scholarship & the Historical Abraham 

Following Welhausen and persisting well into the present day, most ancient Near Eastern scholars and archaeologists are highly skeptical of Abraham’s historical existence. Writing in 1980, D.J. Wiseman and A.R. Millard wrote: 

Today there is renewed interest in the history and tradtions of the patriarchal period. Recent publications have sought, among other things, to show that the biblical patriarchs were a literary, even fictional, creation of the first millennium B.C., produced to provide the nation of Israel, which came into prominence only then, with ‘founding fathers’ [4].

A related and closely connected issue with regard to the historic Abraham, is the origins and historicity of ancient Israel itself — their Sojourn and Exodus from Egypt, and the origins of monotheism. Obviously, if Abraham didn’t exist and, there was no historical Exodus, then according to modern-critical scholars, Israelite monotheism must have originated or, was likely invented when they were in Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C.. 

In 2008, scholar, Simon J. Sherwin addressed this challenge head-on in an essay titled, “Did the Israelites Really Learn Their Monotheism in Babylon?” [5].

Space does not allow for a complete and thorough response to ALL of the challenges to the historical person of Abraham. The following article is offered as an overview of the times in which Abraham lived, according to internal evidence from the Old Testament text, archaeological discoveries, Mesopotamian history, inscriptions, and historical geography. 

ABRAHAM’S HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Chronology of Abraham’s Life as Given in the Old Testament

The dates on the following graphic above correspond to the chronology of the early Exodus dating scheme which we have outlined elsewhere on Epic Archaeology. We also hold as an interpretive principle that the age of the biblical patriarchs as given in Genesis are literal and not metaphorical. Our dating of Abraham also coincides with internal biblical chronology in the Old Testament (1 Kings 6:1) yielding an Exodus date of 1446 B.C., and a conquest date sometime in the 15th Century which has been confirmed through archaeology in the Late Bronze Age in Israel [6].

UR OF THE CHALDEES

Genesis 11:26 tells us that Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees [UR KASDÎM] which is presently located about 150 miles northwest of the Persian Gulf in Iraq. 

Based on our chronological outline for Abraham (above), this would place him in Mesopotamia at the tail-end of the Old Akkadian Dynasty which was founded by the world’s very first empire builder, Sargon I just before the the remarkable Ur III Dynasty (2000-2100 B.C.). 

Sargon of Akkad (aka Sargon the Great) was very likely the biblical Nimrod (see, Genesis 10:8-14). He was the founder of the Old Akkadian or Sargonic empire. Sargon I matches what we know of the historical, archaeological, and epigraphic evidence of the Biblical description of Nimrod. He united all Akkadian and Sumerian speaking peoples into one empire in ancient Mesopotamia, and became the first true “empire builder” in world history.

This is significant in our understanding Abraham’s time, because it means that Abraham was likely multilingual. As Old Testament scholar, Dr. Eugene Merrill remarks: 

“The Ur of Terah and Abraham was… …quite cosmopolitan, for non-Sumerians such as Abram’s own Semitic ancestors lived there and mingled their intellectual and cultural traditions with those of the Sumerians. Since by that time Sargon (2371-2316 B.C.) had created the Semite-dominated Akkadian Empire at Agade, nearly 200 miles north-west of Ur, Abraham was almost certainly bilingual, commanding both Sumerian and Akkadian languages” [7].

The primary deity that was worshipped at Ur was the Sumerian moon god Nanna, also known as Nannar and in Akkadian, as Sin [or EN.ZU]. It is highly likely that Abram and his family were devotees to the very same Sumerian moon god. Some scholars have even identified a potential connection of Terah’s name, as a form of the Hebrew word yārēah (“moon”) —  his very name indicating his religious devotion and orientation [8].

Terah along with his extended family including Abram, would have departed 600 miles north to Haran [another center of worship of the moon-god Nanna] at some point in time [Terah & Abraham’s genealogy is recorded in Gen. 11:10-32]. 

Merrill notes: “Why Terah and his family abandoned Ur cannot be determined, but it might be that the political and cultural upheavals in Sumer caused by the Guti conquest played a major role. There would have been no way for Terah to know that the barbaric Guti would be expelled by 2115 and that the glorious Ur III dynasty would also be established under Ur-Nammu” [9].

Interestingly, after Abraham migrated north to Haran with his father Terah, and then later to the land of Canaan, the neo-Sumerian king Ur-Nammu had restored law and order in southern Mesopotamia (in Ur, Uruk, Eridu, etc…). He would establish a law-code which likely became the basis of the famous code of Hammurabi written several centuries later [ca. 1754 B.C.]. French Assyriologist, Georges Roux notes that: 

Ur-Nammu also revived agriculture and improved communications by digging a number of canals; towns were fortified against future wars, and an enormous amount of rebuilding was carried out. But in the minds of archaeologists the name of Ur-Nammu will forever be associated with ziqqurats, or stage-towers, which he erected in Ur, Uruk, Eridu, Nippur and various other cities and which are the most impressive monuments of these sites [10].

Remains of the Ziggurat at Ur (today) [Wikipedia]

The ancient site of Ur [Tel el-Muqayyar] in southeastern Iraq, was first identified as Ur by Henry Rawlinson in 1849 from inscriptions found on bricks brought to England by William Loftus. The site was visited and noted by Europeans as far early as 1625. Perhaps the most famous early excavator of Ur was the British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley who excavated there between 1922-1934, with funding from the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania [11].

Leonard Woolley excavating a clay figure at Ur (1920’s). ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research).

Illustration of the site of Ur from C. Leonard Woolly’s book, Ur of the Chaldees (originally published in 1929)

During his tenure as chief excavator at Ur, Wooley’s most notable discovery was an extensive Royal Tomb containing a total of around 1,800 burials. Among the remarkable grave goods excavated by Woolley, was what is believed to be a “royal standard,” and beautiful lyre with adorned with the gold head of a bull. The Ur burials excavated by Woolley date to the Early Dynastic period and pre-date Abraham by several hundred years. The artifacts are considered to be some of the finest examples of Early Dynastic art in Mesopotamia and reveal the level of artistic and cultural sophistication of the culture that Abraham was born into. 

Section of what is believed to be the Royal Standard of Ur – although it could also have served as a panel for a sounding box of a musical instrument. The panel features a mosaic of shell figures on a background of lapis-lazuli.

Close-up of the bull’s head of what is called “The Queen’s Lyre” discovered in the Royal Cemetery at Ur by Leonard Woolley.

Ur was destroyed about a century after Abraham left bringing an end to the famous Ur III dynasty (ca. 2000 B.C.). Ur’s fall was subsequently recalled in a cuneiform tablet known as the “Lamentation for Ur.”

Tablet featuring the “Lamentation for Ur” – Louvre Museum, Paris

In the tablet, Ningal, the wife of the moon god Nanna, recalls her petition to the leaders of the gods, An and Enlil to change their minds and not to destroy Ur. She does this both in private and in a speech to the Annunaki assembly: several leading families of the city.

I verily clasped legs, laid hold of arms, truly I shed my tears before An, truly I made supplication, I myself before Enlil: “May my city not be ravaged!” I said to them, “May Ur not be ravaged!”

The council of gods decide that the Ur III dynasty, which had reigned for around one hundred years, had its destiny apportioned to end. The temple treasury was raided by invading Elamites and the centre of power in Sumer moved to Isin, while control of trade in Ur passed to several leading families of the city.

Abraham left Ur for Canaan in around 2091 B.C. (Early Bronze IV) at the end of the Third Millennium B.C. at the beginning of the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III). He was born in the very heart of the cradle of civilization when great revolutions in urbanism, art, law and governance were taking place. 

Abraham, Haran & the Amorite Hypothesis

During Abram’s stay at Haran (Anatolia) he would have had contact with a people the Sumerians called, MAR.TU – known to the Akkadians as the Ammurru (or the Biblical Amorites). Abram very likely became conversant in the Amorite-Semitic regional dialects spoken there and imbibbed in the more semi-nomadic (type) lifestyle with which he would become intimately familiar in Canaan. 

At this time, the Amorites occupied most of the major cities of NW Mesopotamia, but had already begun to expand (possibly for commercial reasons) to the SE and SW. Eventually the Amorite population in Mesopotamia grew so large that it gave rise to Amorite city-states such as Isin, Larsa, and most importantly Babylon. Hammurabi himself (the most well known ruler of Babylon apart from Nebuchadnezzar) was a descendent of these very same Amorites.

Merrill states that, “It is tempting to suppose that Abram did not move in isolation but that he became part of the Amorite migration that was under way at that very time (although Abram is never called an Amorite)” [12]. 

He further notes that, “The Amorite hypothesis is, of course, not essential to the historicity of the patriarchal narratives in any way. Abram could well have moved independently from upper Mesopotamia to Canaan” [13].

ILLUMINATING ABRAHAM’S TIME THROUGH HISTORICAL INSCRIPTIONS

In addition to the historical considerations given above, a large number of inscriptions from ancient libraries and archives excavated in the past century have provided keen insights into the cultural milieu in which Abraham and his offspring lived.

The following is an overview of discoveries which illuminate the some of the cultural practices of the Biblical Patriarchs [inlcuding Abraham] before their Egyptian sojourn, beginning with the earliest discovery to the most recent. 

Hittite Legal Code – ca. 1300 B.C. (discovered 1906-1912) 

In 1906, near the bend of the Halys River located near the modern Turkish village of Boğazkale, a German professor and Assyriologist named Hugo Winckler started full scale excavations the lost Hittite empire at Hattusa. 

After several years of digging, Winckler unearthed an entire library containing 10,000 clay tablets. According to Hans Gustav Güterbock: “The first 10,000 clay tablets and fragments were found in 1906, 1907, 1911, and 1912 in excavations conducted in the name of the Istanbul Museum by its Second Director Theodore Makridi Bey and the Berlin Assyriologist Hugo Winkler [14]. 

Reconstruction of the walls of Hattusa (Hittite Capital) in Turkey (Wikipedia Commons)

The tablets were written in Hittite, Akkadian and Sumerian hieroglyphics. Akkadian was a language familiar to scholars of that time. Other tablets discovered, however, were written in a language unknown to Winckler and his colleagues. We now know that the strange hieroglyphic inscriptions discovered by Winckler were ancient Hittite.

One of the many inscriptions discovered by Winckler at Hattusa was the Hittite Legal Code, dated to the Late Bronze age at about 1300 B.C.. According to Old Testament scholar Gleason L. Archer, this discovery: 

“…illuminates the transaction recorded in Gen. 23 where Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. Hittite law explains the reluctance of Abraham to buy the entire parcel, and his preference for aquiring only the cave itself and the territory immediately adjacent. The law required the owner of an entire tract to perform the duties of ilku or feudal service, a responsibility which doubtless included pagan religious observances. As a Jehovah-worshiper, Abraham was alert enough to prefer avoiding this involvement by purchasing only a fraction of the parcel, thus leaving Ephron responsible to perform ilku as original owner of the tract” [15].

The Nuzi Tablets – ca. 1400 B.C. (discovered 1925) 

From 1925 through 1931 excavations were conducted at Yorghan Tepe twelve miles SW of modern Kirkuk in Iraq. The excavations were conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in cooperation with ASOR (the American Schools of Oriental Research) and the Harvard Semitic Museum under the direction of Edward Chiera. Excavations during this period yielded about 5,000 clay tablets. Many of the tablets dated to an earlier period, while others dated to the Hurrian era. The texts of many of the Nuzi tablets describe many social, economic, legal as well as administrative affairs of the time. The Nuzi tablets were written in Akkadian, which was the lingua franca of the day. 

Cuneiform tablet from Nuzi (Yorgan Tepe). Middle Babylonian (ca. 1400-1100 B.C.). Clay. Akkadian. (Harvard Semitic Museum, Cambridge Massachusetts)

The Nuzi inscriptions both confirm and illuminate the customs and the cultural background of the Biblical patriarchs [including Abraham]. Here are a few which are described by the Nuzi tablets.

  • Gen. 15:2-5 Abraham’s reference to Elizazar as “Son of his house” 

Before the birth of Ishmael and Isaac, Gen. 15:2 indicates that Abraham adopted Eliazar as his legal heir. With the discovery of the Nuzi tablets we learn that if a couple without children adopt a son, the adopted son could care for the aged couple in their later years. But if a son was born to couple in later years, most [if not all] of the inheritance would revert to the biological son as it is outlined in the Nuzi tablets. 

  • Gen. 25:33 – The Selling of a Birthright 

The episode of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob (Gen. 25:33) also finds a parallel in the Nuzi tablets in which a man can transfer his inheritance for the price of three sheep. Additionally, customs recorded in the Nuzi tablets uphold a blessing as binding and irrevocable, which verly likely explains why Isaac was unable to revoke the blessing that Jacob had received under false pretenses (Gen. 27:30-35) [16]

  • Gen. 16 & Gen. 30:1-13 – Provision for a Surrogate to produce Offspring for Inheritance 

Both instances of Sarai and Hagar in Gen.16 as well as Rachel and Bilhah in Gen. 30 reflect a cultural practice well known in the time of the Biblical patriarch’s of providing a surrogate mother in the form of a female servant or slave in order to ensure children for inheritance purposes [something that was also practiced in Egypt among the Pharaohs]. The provision for a maidservant for the bride by the bride’s father is also found in the Nuzi tablets as a legal part of the binding wedding agreement.  

  • Gen. 31A Plausible Motive for Rachel’s theft of her Father’s teraphim (household idols) 

As we have seen above, inheritance was a vitally important matter in Abraham’s time. In addition to the aforementioned principles of the norms for inheritance listed above, the tablets also furnish illumination about why Laban was highly upset when Jacob fled from him in Gen. 31:33-35. Family gods [or household gods] were essential to one’s rightful and legal inheritance. The discovery and interpretation of the Nuzi laws tablets now provide illumination for why Rachel’s stole the teraphim from her father, Laban (household idols).

Clay Teraphim figurines (very likely portraying fertility goddesses)

The Mari Tablets – ca. 1700 B.C. (discovered 1933) 

In 1933 20,000 clay tablets written in Akkadian were discovered by the French archaeologist, André Parrot at Tell Hariri on the western banks of the Euphrates river near Abu Kemal on the Syria-Iraq border. The tablets date to the eighteenth century B.C. and confirm the existence of two Biblical cities — Nakhur, which could be named after Nahor Abraham’s brother (Gen. 24:10; cf. 11:27). Additionally, the tablets also refer to the name Ariyuk (Arioch) as an existing city in the early second millennium B.C.. 

The Ebla Archive – ca. 2350-1600 B.C. (discovered 1964) 

In 1964 the University of Rome began excavating an artificial mound [a tell] located approximately 44 miles south of Aleppo in Syria. The Arabic name for the site is Tell Mardikh, also known as Ebla (which is actually mentioned in the famous Code of Hammurabi, ca. 1754 B.C.). Excavations at Ebla were under the direction of Italian Sumeriologist, Paolo Matthiae. Matthiae discovered that the site had been occupied as early as 3500 B.C.. 

In the initial excavations at Ebla, Matthiae discovered 42 tablets on the palace floor located on the acropolis. The next year of excavation yielded an astonishing 14,000 additional tablets or tablet fragments. The language written on the tablets was somewhat difficult to read at first, because of its close similarities to Sumerian and Akkadian. As it turned out, the language was unique in and of itself. It was to be called “Eblaite” [17]. Archaeology has come a long way since Matthiae excavated the royal archive in the 1970’s, as there is currently a fully searchable digital archive and database of most of the Ebla tablets from the University of Venice in Italy for those who wish to study and read them. 

Tablet from Ebla [Tel Mardikh] (showing a close up view of the cuneiform script on left)

According to Gleason Archer, “…many of the names of kings and leading men of Ebla bore a remarkable resemblance to names that were later used by the Hebrews themselves. Among these were Ibrium (biblical Eber), Ish-ma-il (Ishmael), Ish-ra-il (Israel), Na-khur (Nahor) and Mi-ka-il (Michael). Commercial and political relations were maintained with cities like Dor, Hazor, Megiddo, Shalem (Jerusalem), Gaza, and Ashtaroth” [18]. Because of its extensive trade network, the Ebla tablet lists many of the cities and towns that it conducted trade with. Among the cities listed were Si-da-mu-ki, equivalent to the Hebrew, Sodom and Sa-bi-im, equivalent to the Hebrew Zeboiim [19].

Have the Cities of Sodom & Gomorrah been Found? 

After Abraham’s debacle in Egypt (Gen. 12:10-20) he returned to the Negev with great riches he had acquired in Egypt and settled somewhere in the vicinity of Bethel and Ai (Gen. 13:1-2) where he built an altar and “called on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 13:3-4). Abraham had become so wealthy with flocks in Egypt, that he and Lot decided to separate because of the great amount of livestock between the two of them and because their herdsmen began squabbling over the pasture lands. 

With his eye on the well-watered lands of the Jordan (Gen. 13:10) Abraham’s nephew Lot decided to pitch his tents and move his flocks to the lower Jordan valley, east of Bethel to the Dead Sea near a grouping of cities called “the Cities on the Plain.” Today there is some debate among evangelical and conservative archaeologists and scholars as to the exact location of the cities on the plan, which included the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The two respective candidates for the location of Sodom and Gomorrah are known as the “Northern site” and “Southern site” respectively. 

The Northern Site [Tal el-Hammam] — Archaeologist Dr. Steven Collins proposes the northern site for Sodom at a site called Tall el-Hammam in Jordan. Hammam is located approximately 8 miles (or 13 km) NE of the Dead Sea. Collins identifies Hammam as Sodom based on four primary criteria: geography, chronology, stratigraphy and architecture [20]. Space does not allow for a full critique of the northern proposal for the location of Biblical Sodom, but I will briefly summarize some of the problems of three of them given by archaeologist, Dr. Bryant G. Wood. 

Geography – According to Wood, an analysis of some of the geographical indicators in Scripture places Sodom and the Cities of the Plain south of the Dead Sea. The southern border of Canaan is described in Gen. 10:19 as passing from Gaza, on the Mediterranean coast, to Gerar, identified as Tel Haror 12.4 miles (20 km) SE of Gaza, to the Cities of the Plain [21].

Geology – Bryant also points to the geology south of the Dead Sea as pointing to the location of the Biblical site of Sodom & Gomorrah. For example: “Gen. 14:10 states, now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar (hēmār) pits.’ Hēmār is bitumen, a naturally occuring petroleum substance similar to asphalt. It was used extensively in antiquity for mortar, sealing and as a binding agent, and is commonly found in the area south of the Dead Sea. Both petroleum and sulfur are also present south of the Dead Sea” [22].

Chronology – For some reason Collins lowers the Israelite sojourn in Egypt from over 430 years as indicated in Gen. 12:40 to 215 years, presumably to make the date comport with the site of Tal el-Hammam as Biblical Sodom (ca 1852 B.C.). From chronological considerations listed above, and starting with an Exodus date of 1446 B.C. and an Egyptian sojourn of 430 years, this would yield a date for Abraham between 2166-1991 B.C., inferring that the destruction of the Cities on the Plain occurred sometime in 2067 B.C. [23].

The Southern Site [Bab edh-Dhra & Numeria] — Epic Archaeology holds to the Southern location as the likely site of the Cities of the Plain, including the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Obviously the southern location also finds support from Dr. Bryant Wood (of ABR), and also Old Testament scholar Dr. Eugene H. Merrill, Professor Emeritus at Dallas Theological Seminary [24]. The southern site focuses on the ruins of the abandoned cities of Bab edh-Dhra and Numeria located on the SE side of the Dead Sea in Jordan near the location of the ancient Valley of Siddim. In the 1970’s both of these sites were excavated and identified as the likely locations of Sodom and Gomorrah by archaeologists, Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub [25].

Geography – According to Genesis 10:19 Sodom was on Canaan’s southern border.Knowledge of the Biblical cities to the east and north strongly suggest that Sodom must be located in the south and not north of the Dead Sea. Also, according to Gen. 19:21-23, Lot fled to Zoar (a refuge city), and according to both Josephus and Eusebius Zoar is located south of the Dead Sea. The famous Madaba map (sixth century) also places Zoar and the “Sanctuary of St. Lot” south of the Dead Sea [26].

Geology – Gen. 19:24 states that, “Sulfer rained down from heaven.” As we’ve pointed out above, the southern location is well known for its highly flammable, petroleum based substances such as tar (bitumen) [or Hēmār], and sulfur. Additionally, the two cities of Bab ed-Dhra and Numeria are located directly on a geological fault line known as the Jordan Rift Valley. The two southern locations show evidence of a fiery destruction and an earthquake during the time of Abraham and Lot.

Chronology – Both Numeria and likely Bab ed-Dhra met a fiery destruction at the end of the EB III [Early Bronze III] period, which fits well with the general time-frame and chronology of Abraham and Lot.

Abraham: The Camels and the Critics

As far back as the book of Genesis, camels are can be linked with such Old Testament patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob, Laban and Moses. Camels are also mentioned periodically on various other occasions throughout later Old Testament history. 

In Genesis 12:16 & 24:10-67 camels were used for a trip to Syria; they were also included as a bride price, and when Abraham was in Egypt camels were a small part of larger herds of other animals. 

In Genesis 30:43; 31:34; 32:15 Jacob’s flocks along with Laban included camels as herd animals for Esau in the Seir area. In the Joseph narrative (Gen. 37:25) camels were used by Midianite-Ishmaelite traders caravanning to Egypt. In Exodus 9:3 camels were among the animals which were plagued during Moses’ day in Egypt. 

Some scholars and critics have been quick to point out, however, that camels were either not used or domesticated during the time of the Biblical patriarchs, as well as the region where the patriarchs lived.

In an article published in 2014, in the journal Tel Aviv, Drs. Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures, believe that they have pin pointed the date of the domesticated camels in Israel [27].

Their research is based primarily from data that they have collected from the Aravah (or Arabah) valley located in the southern Levant. The Arabah which is now desert, was a verdant valley in antiquity. It is just south of the Dead Sea and runs roughly north and south bordering Israel & Jordan. 

The conclusion of their findings indicate that camels were domesticated from the 9th – 12th century B.C.. An article which summarized the finding stated: “In all the digs, they found that camel bones were unearthed almost exclusively in archaeological layers dating from the last third of the 10th century BCE or later — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the Kingdom of David, according to the Bible” [28].

The researchers seemed overly eager to point out the discrepancy with the Bible.

For those who hold that the Old Testament patriarchal narratives are historical in nature how does one solve the dilemma that this new research seems to show? Does the lack of camel bones in southern Israel (in the Arabah) during the Patriarchal period reveal the biblical narrative to be the work of late writers?

First of all, one of the many things that the history of archaeology in the Levant has shown over the past several decades is that one report is certainly not the last word on any given subject on ancient or biblical history. New research continues to overthrow long held assumptions and biases against the Bible [such as is the case with the Tel Dan inscription containing the name of “David” in 1993/4]. 

Secondly, the archaeologists primary research area was conducted (according to their own report) in copper mining sites in the southern Arabah. According to the Bible, the patriarchs (Abraham, Jacob, et. al.), where pastoralists and semi-nomads whose travel itinerary would not have left them in any one place for any length of time. So it is not surprising why little camel remains are discovered in the southern Levant.

Also, as Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen has pointed out, camels don’t actually figure that largely in the lives of the patriarchs in any significant sense anyway. He writes: 

“A common claim is that mentions of camels are anachronistic before circa 1100. What are the facts? In biblical terms, between roughly 2000 and 1200 their role is minimal” [29]

In other words, yes, the biblical patriarchs owned camels, but it is not as if they were camel traders or camel herders. Camels played a small part in their lives. 

But even so, other research also suggests that camels have been present on the Arabian peninsula since at least 6,000 B.C.. From 2200-1200 B.C.. Rock art in Southwest Arabia and possible camel remains from Bir Risisim in the Levant suggest that camels were used for milk and also for transport [30].

CONCLUSION 

It is obvious from the above survey of the history and archaeology of the Patriarchal Period, that there is still much we can learn about Abraham – his time and his historical context. He was indeed, a man of great faith. He lived by faith. He walked by faith, and we can trace his outline through the languages, geographycultures and customs of the ancient Near East. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore, from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude — innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore (Hebrews 11:8-12)

Like Abraham we are also called to live and walk a life of faith as sojourners and pilgrims and wait on God’s eternal Kingdom while we are on this earth. For without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

ENDNOTES 

[1] F.E. Peters, The Monotheists: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conflict and Competition, Vol. 1 The Peoples of God (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003), xix.

[2] See his Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1877)

[3] Ibid.

[4] A.R. Millard & D.J. Wiseman, Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), pg. 7. 

[5] see, Simon J. Sherwin, “Did the Israelites Really Learn Their Monotheism in Babylon?” in Daniel I. Bock, Editor, Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), pp. 257-281. 

[6] I am also following the general chronology as outlined in the following works: Paul Benware’s, Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 2003), Eugene H. Merril’s, A Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), and Douglas Petrovich’s, “Amenhotep II and the Historicity of the Exodus Pharaoh,” in The Master’s Seminary Journal, Volume 17 (Spring 2006).

[7] Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 26.

[8] See Merrill, pg. 26 footnote 14, William G. Dever and W. Malcom Clark (1977)

[9] Ibid., 29.

[10] Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, Third Edition (London: Penguin Books, 1992), pp. 162-3. 

[11] see C. Leonard Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavations (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1965), and Seton Lloyd, The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: From the Old Stone Age to the Persian Conquest (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978). 

[12] See, his, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 28-9. 

.[13] Ibid.

[14] Hans G. Güterbock and Frances Güterbock, “Hans Ehelolf and the Bogazkoy Archive in Berlin,” in Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., Editor, Perspectives on Hittite Civilization: Selected Writings of Hans Gustav Güterbock (The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago Assyriological Studies, No. 26: Chicago, IL), 1 [emphasis mine] 

[15] Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 180. 

[16] See, “Nuzi Texts,” in The ESV Archaeology Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 48. 

[17] Ebla, located approximately 55km from Aleppo in Syria, was a prominent site throughout the third millennium. It is the only site of its kind in this region to show levels of urbanisation equal to any Early Dynastic period city in southern Mesopotamia. The city was culturally autonomous, being far away from Sumer, and showed a historical and cultural continuity with earlier periods. Despite being culturally autonomous, the city had adopted the cuneiform writing system of southern Mesopotamia and used it to write its own language, now known as Eblaite. The extensive archives found at Ebla point to a very early adoption of the cuneiform script, and therefore cast doubt on the extent to which their literary material was influenced by Mesopotamia. A large number of religious texts at Ebla have parallels in Mesopotamia, but others written primarily in Eblaite have no attested counterparts and feature geographic references and divine names that indicate a distinctly Syrian milieu (from the Online Cuneiform Digital Library, Oxford, UK). 

[18] Archer, 187.

[19] According to Gleason Archer, the ending of -Ki of the Ebalite words was simply a determinative for a geographical name and was not pronounced aloud. Thus Sidamu-Ki would have been read as Sidamu (equivalent to the Hebrew word Sedōm), see Archer’s Survey of Old Testament Introduction, pg. 189 footnote 23. 

[20] See Steven Collins, “Sodom: The Discovery of a Lost City.” Bible and Spade, 2007, 20:70-77

[21] see, Bryant G. Wood’s, “Locating Sodom: A Critique of the Northern Proposal (accessed 1 Oct. 2019)

[22] Ibid [emphasis mine]

[23] Ibid

[24] see, Merrill, Kingdom of Priests (1996), pp 35-36.

[25] See, W. Rast and T. Schaub, “Preliminary Report of the 1979 Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain, Jordan,” BASOR 240 (1980): 21-61. 

[26] See, B. Wood, “Locating Sodom” (2016). Also see, Mike Matthews, “Have We Found Sodom?” at Answers in Genesis (Sept. 1, 2017) 

[27] http://www.aftau.org/site/News2/2024116989?page=NewsArticle&id=19673&news_iv_ctrl=-1 (accessed, February 11, 14) 

[28] Ibid.

[29] Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge, U.K.; 2003), 338-9. 

[30] See, Juris Zarins, “Camel,” in David Noel Freedman, Editor, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 1, A-C (New York, London: Anchor Doubleday, 1992), 824-6., and Edwin M. Yamauchi, The Stones and Scriptures (Philadelphia & New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1972), 146-62.