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Period: Ancestral Period

Summary

There are no references to Israel's ancestors outside of the biblical texts, and these texts, found in the book of Genesis, do not lend themselves to historical reconstruction. They are legends or sagas, more interested in making a theological case than in presenting historical details. Nevertheless, many would maintain that the early ancestors of what would become Israel came to Syria-Palestine from Mesopotamia sometime in the early second millennium and that their numbers included tribal leaders named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Several migrations of Semitic peoples occurred during this period. The Amorites under Shamshi-adad I seized control of Assyria and the city of Mari from the Akkadians at the beginning of this period and held sway until Zimri-Lim of Mari rebelled. During his reign, the best documented in antiquity, Mari reached its glorious peak. Mari has provided us with over 20,000 cuneiform tablets that enhance our understanding of the period. Similarities with the biblical witness in these texts include the importance of the clan, census-taking procedures, primogeniture, and legal procedures involving adoption and inheritance. Ultimately, Babylonia gained supremacy over Mari and Assyria under Hammurabi, whose famous law code promoting equitable rule became a model for later codes in the ancient Near East.

Meanwhile, another Amorite people, the Hyksos (or "foreign rulers"), defeated Egypt, largely through the use of horse and chariot, and ruled an area stretching from Nubia, south of Egypt, to Syria. Some Hebrew migration to Egypt probably occurred at this time. Further to the north, the Hurrians came from west of the Tigris River through Mesopotamia and into Syria-Palestine. Hurrian parallels to Israel's ancestral customs have been seen in the Nuzi tablets: the provision of a concubine by a childless wife echoes Sarai's giving Hagar to Abram (Gen 16:2); "household gods" as a symbol of inheritance may explain Rachel's theft of those belonging to her father (Gen 31:19-21); and prohibition against the expulsion of a second wife may clarify Abraham's reluctance to send Hagar into the wilderness (Gen 21:11). An Indo-European people from Asia Minor, the Hittites, brought an end to the First Dynasty of Babylon around 1540 B.C.E. The Bible records several dealings between the ancestors of Israel and the Hittites: Abraham lived among them as a resident alien and purchased a cave from them as a family tomb (Gen 23); and Esau married two Hittites, displeasing his parents (Gen 26:34-35; 27:46).

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament