Where the world comes to study the Bible

7. The Patriarchal Era

Related Media


Perhaps no period of biblical history has received more help from archaeology than this one (cf. Albright, SATC, pp. 236ff; DeVaux, BANE, pp. 111-122). Yet, it is the very conclusions of these men that have been attacked and denied at the end of the 20th century.1 In “New Archaeology,” the patriarchs are created by the imagination of a later generation.


The date for Abraham can be derived by working back from the 480 year period between the Exodus and the fourth year of Solomon as given in 1 Kings 6:1. This involves using Solomon’s accession date which can be determined with a fair amount of accuracy although there is some disagreement concerning it.

4th year of Solomon

958 After Freedman, BANE, p. 274. (Thiele = 961 B.C.)

Exodus to Solomon

480 1 Kings 6:1 1438 (Thiele = 1441)

From promise to Abraham’s seed to Exodus

430 Gen. 15:13; Acts 7:6; Exod 12:40-41; Gal. 3:17

Jacob’s age when he entered Egypt

130 Gen. 47:9

Isaac’s age at Jacob’s birth

60 Gen. 25:26

Years from Haran to Isaac

25 Gen. 12:4; 21:5

Date Abraham entered Palestine 20832

Note: M. Anstey, Chronology of the Old Testament, pp. 56-66, argues that the 430 year figure in Exodus and Galatians includes the entire period of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Palestine (total 215 years) so that only 215 years are involved in the Egyptian sojourn. The LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch support this interpretation. The 400 years, he believes, omit the period of Abraham’s sojourn and the 5 years before Isaac’s weaning. Following this reckoning, Joseph would have entered Egypt at roughly the same time as the Hyksos--a very tempting hypothesis. It would also place Abraham’s migration during the Amorite eruptions. However, though this interpretation is rather easy in Galatians 3:17, it is much more difficult in the other three passages. Consequently, the 430 years should be considered as applying only to the period in Egypt. The date 2083 is generally supported by Glueck.3

The City of Ur in Abraham’s Time

Abraham would have left sometime during the Gutian interlude. The period which followed is known as the 3rd dynasty of Ur (2060-1950). C. L. Wooley is the most famous excavator of the city.4 The most famous king of this dynasty is Ur-Nammu, King of Sumer and Akkad. He is famous for his ziggurat (ANE 1 #85). It was completed by Nabonidus in the neo-Babylonian era. It was 200 x 150 x 70 feet. There was much business in the sacred area. There were receipts for sacrifices and other items of trade. There were factories, workshops and about 20 houses per acre. Ur had about 24,000 residents. Ur-Nammu is also famous for what is now the earliest law code known.

The reference to the city of Ur (Gen. 11:28, 31) as being in the land of the Chaldeans has provoked much debate and speculation. Speiser says, “The mention of Ur of the Chaldeans brings up a problem of a different kind. The ancient and renowned city of Ur is never ascribed expressly, in the many thousands of cuneiform records from that site, to the Chaldean branch of the Aramaean group. The Chaldeans, moreover, are late arrivals in Mesopotamia, and could not possibly be dated before the end of the second millennium [1200-1000]. Nor could the Arameans be placed automatically in the patriarchal period. Yet the pertinent tradition was apparently known not only to P (31) but also to J (28). And even if one were to follow LXX in reading “land” for “Ur,” the anachronism of the Chaldeans would remain unsolved.” He concludes that it is intrusive, however old, and tentatively explains the intrusion as an identification of Ur (center of moon worship) with Haran (also a center of moon worship). This telescoping of two cities would have taken place later when the Chaldeans were prominent.5 Gadd also considers “Chaldean” to be anachronistic, but he does locate it in southern Mesopotamia and not up north as some do. He gives credence to “echoes of Abraham” maintained in legends and traditions for the area.6 The Arameans do not become a political force in history until the first millennium, but as Moscati says, “The one certainty arising from the modern view of their history is that their self-assertion in Syria is no longer to be regarded as coincident with their arrival in the area, but only with the formation of the states known to us.”7 In other words, the Arameans were in the area long before they became known. Is it not possible that when Moses wrote Genesis 11, that the area of Ur was in some way identified with the Chaldeans? The outlines of this problem are too uncertain for dogmatism.8

Palestine during the Patriarchal Era

The Patriarchs were nomads but not like contemporary Bedouin (read the story of Sinuhe). There is a beautiful representation of Semites in Egypt at Beni Hasan from about 1900 B.C. (ANEP, #3).

Execration texts list Canaanite names. Gezer indicates that it was probably an outpost of the Egyptians during the Patriarchal time. The temples at Megiddo indicate Egyptian influence as well.9

The Transjordan and Jordan valley indicate settlement about 2000 B.C. and a sudden departure in about the 19th century according to Glueck.10 This supports the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Speiser argues that Genesis 14 is a historical document. It is not from sources (JEDP). Probably a translation of an Akkadian document. Tidal = Hittite Tudhalya, Arioch = sub prince of Mari, etc. He dates it in the 18th century.11

1 See the discussion in Chapter 1.

2Provan, et al., A Biblical History of Israel, p. 113, says, “This nice, neat date is not unambiguous even on biblical grounds. For one thing, all the numbers sound like round numbers, but of course this fact would only adjust the date by decades. Second, textual variation is present with some of the dates; for instance, the Septuagint understands the 430 years of Exodus 12:40 to cover not only the time in Egypt but the patriarchal period as well. Nonetheless, even with these uncertainties, the Bible itself appears to situate the patriarchs in Palestine sometime between ca. 2100 and 1500 B.C.—the first half of the second millennium B.C.”

3N. Glueck, Rivers in the Desert. See also Freedman, BANE, pp. 266-270, for a general discussion.

4See his account of “The Graves of the Kings of Ur in Leo Deuel, The Treasures of Time.

5E. A. Speiser, Genesis in Anchor Bible, p. 80.

6C. J. Gadd, “Ur in Archaeology and Old Testament Study (AOTS), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967, pp. 87-101. In the same work see Parrot, “Mari.”

7S. Moscati, The Face of the Ancient Orient, p. 214.

8Cf. Provan, et al., A Biblical History of Israel, pp. 116-17 who refer to “Chaldeans” as a later updating.

9See G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology, pp. 48-49. See also I. Finkelstein and D. Ussishkin, Back to Megiddo, BAR 20 (1993) 26-43.

10Cf. Provan, et al., A Biblical History of Israel, on Glueck’s methodology and the comment that “more recent surveys have indicated some evidence of occupation in Transjordan during the so-called ‘gap’ between Early Bronze IV and Late Bronze IIb,” pp. 136-137.

11Speiser, Genesis (on chapter 14).

Related Topics: Archaeology, History