History

“History”: Historicity of the Abrahamic Patriarchs (Part 2: Isaac into Israel)

AKA. Izzyac into Izrael.

I’ve gone almost two weeks without doing a history post. Part of the reason for that is that it’s December and Christmas and I’m doing all of my End Of Year stuff but this is getting a bit much. So I think I’ll finish off my thought train diversion of where the important people in the text of Genesis fit in with the history that we can accurately attest with the knowledge that we have of that time period so far. Then Assyria’s first part in a couple of days. Then I finish the year having done everything I want to do that started before 2000 BC. It’s a good milestone. Although actually this bit would technically be after 2000 BC but I intended to do it in one post anyway and I just cut it in two because I realised I was already over-extending it.

As with my first post on this subject, I’d like to remind anyone religious who happens to read this that I am from a Christian background even if only nominal personally, and I like respecting all religions and letting people believe what I want to believe. If I snark, it’s for light-hearted comedic purposes only.

In the first part I went from Adam down to Abraham. Now I’m going to cover Isaac into Joseph.

Isaac I’d probably say would be the figure for which historians would probably have the least problem believing he was real. I mean, there’s the Binding of him which reads like a fable of ‘don’t put too much trust in what your God tells you to do, at least not literally’. Abraham still sacrifices something symbolically in the end for that last point. Discussing this further goes into theological arguments which isn’t something I want to do, I just want to point out that historically, it seems like a fable. But beyond that, Isaac comes across like a historical tribal forefather, he leads men to wells and digs them, competing with locals for the water, he commands political talk with Abimelech of the nearby Philistines. There almost certainly was a person like Isaac as a tribal chief of the forerunners of the Israelites around this time, just as there was throughout history. Whether he was called Isaac and had twin boys is less likely but it’s still possible. The narratives that the less ancient but still pretty ancient Israelites wrote when writing down these stories would have been based in oral tradition.

They’d also put political statuses of their time into the story to be represented back in here. If you look at the family tree of the patriarchs, you also can see a reflection of the political ‘family tree’ of Israel and its neighbours. Jacob is the person representative of Israel. I’ll get into why that is in his section. Isaac is the person representative of a slightly wider tribal network that includes Israel and the state of Edom, as Edom itself is directly representative of Esau, Jacob’s older twin brother. Edom and Israel were huge historical rivals and fought many times. Abraham and the generation above represent the wider network even further as Abraham’s cousin Lot’s sons are Ammon and Moab, also rival states of Israel. When you go down through the ‘true patriarch’ line, that reinforced to the Jews that they were the ones God had chosen. Additionally, the names of Jacob’s sons are mostly analagous to the areas of Israel as a country. So therefore it would have made a lot of literary sense to the Israelite scholars to directly represent that with the sons of Jacob. I.e. aetiology. Two exceptions being the areas of Manesseh and Ephraim, who are explained as Joseph’s sons as Joseph has to carry the story, and Levi, who doesn’t have a landed area but he allows them to explain where the priestly class of Israelite society came from.

Back to Jacob. Again, Jacob’s story can also be ascribed mostly, like Isaac, to that of a tribal leader around this time, if we’re being generous. Again, there almost certainly were people like that. The more supernatural events, the stairway to heaven *insert rock chord*, the wrestling with the angel, very important events in the culture of the Jewish tradition, exceedingly hard to attest historically. We can’t invalidate them either because there’s so little we know but the direct stories as we have through Genesis are unreliable on their own historically. Non-believers would say the supernatural events didn’t happen, I’m not going to say anything on that subject.

Joseph is where I can sort of say something on the historicity and I covered this a little in my Middle Kingdom post. Joseph is disliked by his brothers so they sell him into slavery in Egypt and then he does such a good job of being an Egyptian slave and ‘dream interpreter’ that he becomes the second most powerful man in the country after the Pharoah. And I believe I said that it may well have been the powerful Senusret III if anything that Joseph could have come into so that certainly would have been very powerful. A good rags to riches story is nice but again, it’s more of a literary likelihood than a historical one and as I said, we have evidence of a few of Senusret’s viziers and none seem to have names approximating Zaphath-Paaneah, Joseph’s Egyptian name.

After that, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt and bring Jacob and it seems to be a large population of the people their family held sway over. This I actually like in fitting in with the historical context. In a way. Over the period between Joseph and the story of the Exodus, in recorded history we have the 14th Dynasty, which had names indicating a possible Semitic descent. And there were the Hyksos. Point is, it does fit with a period of Canaanite immigration into Egypt around the Eastern Nile Delta where Joseph’s family were settled. So yes, there were people who could have been the ancestors of the Jews in Egypt during these years, so the end of the story in Genesis does have some basis in history, although again, we have to consider that Genesis itself was written far later and based off oral traditions that had to survive nearly a millennium of telling and retelling.

History of A Nation returns to Assyria… soon.

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