“History”: Historicity of the Abrahamic Patriarchs (Part 1 – Abraham)

This is a slightly different post for my history section. Normally I just do a map of a nation, where they expanded, what the rulers did, if we know anything about how the people were different from normal people at that time, if you’ve read one of my posts, you know the sections. But this is different – and opens it up for me to do similar side historical notes at later points in history. It still fits into my timeline, Abraham, if he existed, comes into being about 2000-1800 BC or thereabouts, and this is why I’m doing it after the Middle Kingdom – but there’s no way I can assign this to a state for a couple of reasons, firstly, we have no real evidence of there being a state ruled by the patriarchs and the Genesis story portrays them as just one man and his family wandering around Canaan. Secondly, there’s a rather high chance that it’s all just folk tales passed down orally to the writers of the Jewish tradition many centuries later and that there never was an Abraham, an Isaac and so on, which begs the question, so why am I doing this? Also there’s the issue of showing importance to this one above all others but that can just be answered with the answer ‘because it’s important to so many people, that makes it interesting’.

I love knowing what really happened, but because I’m also a huge fan of fiction, if there is nothing that massively contradicts a national myth, I’m happy to entertain that idea as being true to an extent. As long as it isn’t being used for harmful nationalistic purposes, of course. This is also know as the ‘don’t you dare tell me King Arthur wasn’t real’ rule. I may have to think of a catchier name. Point is, as I did in the Xia post, which was basically all national myth and legend, I will not shy away from giving my interpretation of these myths and just generally talking about them as part of ‘history’. It also gives me a lot more opportunities to sarcastically point out the flaws in the story. Of course, as this particular national myth is very important to a lot of people around the world (which is another reason that I chose it over detailing Mesopotamian myths), I should be delicate and explain my personal position on this.

I was raised in a Christian household. Evangelical, and before you say anything, nothing crazy and regressive socially, they’re all normal rational people, but my extended family are or were the sort that has church as a social group, always says grace and attends Christian festivals, so they are quite keen on being devout – certainly for the time period we live in. Therefore, I got raised on all the finer points of the Bible and ended up reading through Genesis many times – at the start of ‘read all of the bible’ challenges that I never finished – I was certainly more interested in the ‘historical’ parts of the Bible than anything else. Currently I’d say I’m still nominally a Christian but don’t regularly do anything to keep that going, besides sometimes attend Anglican services if other people from my family are going. I like being respectful to religion and eventually want to attend… as an observer… public services or visit holy places of as many other major religions as possible, I am genuinely interested in all of that. Though I’m not sure if I believe, I’m very much live and let live so I am fine with anyone believing what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Mostly I just don’t think about religion in my day-to-day life except as a point of scholarly interest.

Anyway, the point of all of that is so that you realise both what sort of cultural background I’m approaching this from and that me poking fun at the unlikelihood of there being a real Abraham as exactly described in the Bible (or Torah or Qu’ran, mustn’t forget the other Abrahamic religions, particularly not the one that the patriarchs are actually associated with founding) is not meant with atheistic intent or to discredit whatever beliefs you may have, I’m just talking about the stories, and how likely they are to have fit in what we actually know about the period at the time. Essentially, treat this like my Canaan post, because I would love to do something on that state but most of what we have about it comes from the story of the patriarchs and later on as a state that used to exist, and the Canaanite state itself is mostly known as an Egyptian New Kingdom colony a few centuries later. Which means then it might be a point to interject with the Exodus version of this post, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get to Genesis.

One theme I’ve noticed a lot when covering these ancient states, particularly the Mesopotamian ones, is that they share similar stories with the first parts of Genesis, and I’ve mentioned this before. This could be indicating a bit of cross-cultural contact and sharing of origin stories that pervade the entire early Middle East – and indeed Abraham originally lives in Ur or at least one of the Sumerian cities beginning with ‘Ur..’, there are a lot of them so the stories themselves acknowledge it. On those parts itself: Adam and the Garden of Eden is one of the less Mesopotamian ideas, but still borrows from them, particularly in the ‘creation from nothingness’ aspect, and it’s a creation story more compatible with a monotheistic God so that it works for the Jewish faith. As for its historicity, it is something that has had a thematic hold on our society but there’s no way it can be reconciled with anything that happened historically. Particularly in the time period we have available for it, circa 4000 BC, while the area for Eden is all inspired by the lush lands in modern Iraq at that time, we already have archaeological evidence for many many humans around the world, some, as I’ve detailed, about to form into embryonic civilisation states and the timing is not enough for Adam and Eve to populate the world. Particularly fun is Cain, the first son of the first man and woman, getting exiled from his family and immediately going to live with the humans over the hill in ‘Nod’ (technically just the Hebrew word for wander, meaning he probably joined a group of nomads) where he finds a wife.

In the next few chapters, we have Genesis 5 being the first example of the long-lived humans of our ancestors before God punished them by slowly decreasing their lifespans and again, that’s very common across the ancient world, many of the older Sumerian kings and even Chinese kings were held to have lived a long time, much longer than a natural lifespan – only in Genesis it’s the current head of the household, the patriarch of all humans, there’s no indication that anyone else is living that long, they just all had ‘many sons and daughters’ to indicate how the human race spread so far, so quickly. Or it would if they didn’t set things back with the flood, which is quite self-defeating. Sometimes the long lives go overboard, you don’t really think about this when reading through but according to the years given, Adam was still alive when his great^6-grandson Lamech, the father of Noah was born. Similarly, Shem actually outlived Abraham, his great^7-grandson, and would have been still kicking about and senile at 600 years old when Esau and Jacob were born. And then you get to the flood.

The flood is a major bone of contention in many people’s disproving of the accuracy of Genesis, the whole world submerged by a flood and then needs to be repopulated again by Shem, Ham and Japheth, who form, as far as the Israelites were concerned, the Semitic (see what they did there), the African and the Indo-European people groups. The flood myth is so prevalent in Mesopotamian myths (and indeed in Chinese and other myths), it’s there as part of Gilgamesh’s story for an example and Yu The Great was known for holding back the waters of the Yellow river. So it is possible that there was a very devastating local flood in that part of the world from the Tigris and Euphrates breaking their banks at one point and that got exaggerated into the entire world for the Abrahamic tradition. We do actually have evidence that there were numerous floods at many cities along those rivers. Oral accounts could easily have been exaggerated in the telling and for the Israelites, got co-opted into their national myths as the descendant of Adam, Noah, and subsequently his sons who form the origin of all people groups. Incidentally about this time, Genesis creates languages by having someone trying to build a Sumerian-like ziggurat at Babel (Babylon’s coming soon guys, get excited), to reach God and so God confuses them. I mean, it’s a nice tale but obviously I’ve talked about Sumerian and Akkadian languages before now – of course people would make up different words for stuff as they find the need to communicate.

Centuries later, we get to the true patriarchs, or at least the ones people think of when you say that name. I would say that Abram/Abraham is the first figure in the Bible for which there is a shred of possibility that he existed and did many of the things associated with him. Not much of a possibility, but a little. At the least, he has a lifespan of merely twice the normal length of a human so we don’t have to think he’s too much of an immortal god. Also he doesn’t deal with the wroth of God flooding the world and instead just has him to talk to. Abraham starts out in Ur – probably not literally the Sumerian Ur, but one of the cities near there, perhaps. There are numerous claims all across the Middle East for where this city could have been but it wasn’t in Canaan. Anyway, he leaves there because God tells him to and heads to the remote land of Canaan. They visit Egypt, as I said in the last post, maybe to see Senusret I or another pharoah about at that around that time, inflict a couple of plagues because that’s just a regular occurrence when Egypt deals with biblical figures, and then leave. If the visit happened then I imagine the equivalent would be a Canaanite tribal chief, maybe an ancestor of the Israelites, sending an emissary to Egypt. Perhaps. Perhaps there was also a beautiful woman with this emissary, where the story came from. This narrative is repeated two times later on in the Bible with the Philistine king Abimelech, one from Abraham and another from Isaac. Almost identical. One theory is that it could speak to the culture of the area at the time, an expectation that foreign travellers would need to placate the local ruler with women under their command, and with Abraham not having any daughters to do that with, fears for his life – it could have been, if we’re being generous, a moral tale speaking out against that practice.

Abraham also encounters the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities on the Canaanite plain by the Jordan river. Obviously they are now associated with immorality galore and being destroyed by the WROTH OF GOD. First though, Abraham and Lot live near them – and aid the kingdom in wars against… ELAM of all the ancient states, coming right over the Fertile Crescent to wage war in Canaan. We don’t have any real evidence for the king of Elam whose name is given, Chedorlaomer, although his name is similar to a ruler of the nearby Sumerian city of Larsa around this time. This is interesting because it’s one of the few direct indications in Genesis that Abraham actually is a leader of men – albeit all ‘trained servants’ rather than specifically others of his ethnicity – to keep with the idea that he alone is the Jewish progenitor I imagine – rather than one fairly rich guy wandering around the wilderness who gets to negotiate with kings.

Sodom and Gomorrah are part of the metropolis on the plain of Canaan, a large gathering of people, quite a high population density for the time, that is of course destroyed later on by fire from the Lord. One part of that metropolis, Zoara, does survive and is inhabited later on, although we have no real evidence that the rest of the sites were inhabited at the time. If they existed, the fallback explanation for why the cities were destroyed is an earthquake, we don’t have any accounts for one around that time period but that doesn’t rule it out. It seems curious to me, knowing that there isn’t as much evidence as I’d like for Canaan at this time compared to the huge cities in Egypt and Mesopotamia, that a large number of cities in one place actually did exist. I would not really take stock in Sodom existing historically, is my take on it, at least not so big to have attracted a king of Elam from across the known world to come and invade it. Maybe some disaster or other destroyed some towns and it got exaggerated in the oral telling.

After that, for Abraham’s life, we stick to his family – Ishmael, supposedly the father of the Arabic peoples, who is sent wandering in the general direction of Arabia because everyone knows Arabs, being the hardy people they are, live in the desert rather than in some cushy farmland. Ishmael also found oil and had his descendants become filthy rich off of the wealth of King Solomon. Ahem. Isaac, the next patriarch, are born and we have events like the Binding of Isaac, also something I hear is one of them computer games the youngsters are playing. At this point they mention locations in Israel that are known today, Beersheba, Hebron, Machpelah. This could have come through from when the stories were nailed down later, but it is definitely believed as far as this story goes, that Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs were buried at Machpelah, bought for Abraham’s use from a nearby Hittite – there’s a nation we’ll get to soon too. The Jews consider Abraham to be the person who started off so many nations through his sons, not just Ishmael for the Arabs and Isaac for the Jews but also many other ancient peoples at the same time, Moabites, Ammonites, even the Assyrians – we’ll also get to that very soon. Again, that adds to the unlikeliness that the story is true of course, but it’s entirely possible that a powerful tribal leader around this time, perhaps even called Abraham, with a base in southern Canaan, was visiting neighbouring kings while poor pretending his wife was his sister, was allied with nearby city states that later got destroyed by some means or another and led men to form a group of people who would continue to follow his son Isaac and his son Jacob – who I will cover in the next post as this one’s length got ahead of me. Although I think I’ll probably go back to more solid history and do another state or two first.


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