(Continued from March-April, 1948.)
You will find it stated in many text-books on Old Testament history that the stories of the Patriarchs in the Book of Genesis were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth until at last, after the lapse of centuries, they were committed to writing in the time of the divided monarchy of Israel and Judah.
Now, if this were so, we should expect to find only the general outlines of the stories preserved in their original form; and in particular we should expect that the picture of the general background of patriarchal life would reflect the conditions of the later days in which the stories took their final shape rather than the conditions of the days in which the Patriarchs actually lived. But one of the most remarkable results of archaeological research in Biblical lands during the past 23 years has been the discovery that the background of tile patriarchal stories of Genesis is exactly the background of the time and place in which Abraham and Isaac and Jacob lived.
Here and there in the earlier books of the Old Testament we read of people called the Horites. Until very recently not much was known about these people; it was commonly, but wrongly, supposed that their name meant “cave-dwellers” and that they were the remnants of the primitive troglodyte inhabitants of Canaan and the surrounding countries. Now we know that this is far from being the case; that they were people possessed of a high degree of civilization who, shortly after 2000 B.C., came from the North and invaded the territory which we call the “Fertile Crescent” – Mesopotamia, Syria and Canaan. So thoroughly did these Horites (or “Hurrians,” as they are generally called nowadays) colonize Canaan that the commonest name which the Egyptians gave to Canaan at one period of its history was Khuru, or “Hurrianland.” And the word Canaan itself seems originally to have been a Hurrian word meaning “land of purple,” in reference to the purple dye which the inhabitants obtained from the murex shell-fish. (For the same reason the Greeks, at a later date, called the Canaanites “Phoenicians,” which is simply Greek for “ people of the purple.”)
About 1925 archaeologists began to appreciate the importance of the Hurrians, for in that year two American scholars, E. A. Speiser and E. Chiera, began to excavate two centres of Hurrian civilization in Eastern Iraq – Nuzu (the modern Tepe Yorghan) and Arrapkha (the modern oil-town of Kirkuk). (There is a close connection, by the way, between the place-name Arrapkha and the name of Arpachshad – or Arphaxad, in the Authorized Version – the grandson of Noah and ancestor of Abraham.) The discoveries made at these two places, and especially at Nuzu, brought to light the laws and customs of the Hurrians, and showed that these law’s and customs tallied remarkably with the laws and customs under which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived. That is not surprising, for those were the parts from which Abraham and his retainers came to Canaan, to which Abraham’s servant was sent to fetch a wife for Isaac, and to which Jacob fled to escape Esau’s vengeance. Other cities in that area bore the names of Peleg, Serug, Nahor and Terah, Abraham’s immediate ancestors; in that neighbourhood, too, was Haran, which was his half-way house on the way from Ur to Canaan.
The laws of inheritance and adoption prevailing in those parts at that time are illustrated in the Bible by Abraham’s reference to his chief household servant, Eliezer of Damascus, as his heir in the days before he had any children (Gen. 15. 2), and again by the peculiar relations existing between Laban and his nephew and son-in-law Jacob. The practice of a man’s having his wife’s female servant as a secondary wife, as Abraham had Hagar, the servant of Sarah, and as Jacob had Bilhah and Zilpah, the servants of Rachel and Leah, has proved to be an established provision of Hurrian law. Rachel’s theft of her father’s teraphim (Gen. 31. 19) has also been illuminated from the same source. These teraphim are now known to have been household gods – similar to the Roman Lares and Penates – and the documents discovered at Nuzu make it clear that possession of these carried with it the right to be regarded as chief heir and head of the family. That was why Rachel took care to secure them in the interests of Jacob.
The implications of these discoveries may be summarized by quoting the verdict of two American archaeologists. Professor G. Ernest Wright says: “These and other Nuzi parallels to Genesis show that the description of Patriarchal society is not distorted, but actually reflects the age which the stories purport to describe” (Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible, p. 30). And Professor W. F. Albright says: “Since the publication of the Nuzian material of the 15th century B.C. it has become increasingly evident that the customary law reflected by the patriarchal stories of Genesis fits better into the framework of Nuzian social and legal practice than it does into that of later Israel or into that of the Babylonian laws and economic documents of the 12th century B.C.” (From the Stone Age to Christianity, p. 180.)
All this, then, points to the conclusion that these stories were committed to writing at or near the time when the people in question lived and the events in question happened, and not at a much later date when the law’s and customs reflected in the stories were obsolete and forgotten.