A number of stone tablets have been discovered at the site of Nuzi (in present-day northern Iraq). These date from the 14th and 15th centuries BC. Although scholars think that the parallels between the customs and practices recorded on these tablets and those recorded in Genesis may have been over-stated, they do nevertheless provide some historical background to the world of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and Jacob’s twelve sons.
According to Peter Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation) the commonly-agreed parallels would include the following:-
- In the story of Abraham, we read that he and his wife Sarah were childless. Abraham adopts Eliezer of Damascus to be his heir (Gen. 15:2–3). Later, in Genesis 16:1–4, Sarah gives her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham in order to bear him an heir (Ishmael). When Isaac is later born to Sarah, that younger child becomes the heir in place of Ishmael, even though he is the younger child. The Nuzi tablets, as well as texts from later periods, record similar legal situations.
- When Isaac married Rebekah, Rebekah’s brother, Laban, handled the negotiations but asked her if she consented (Gen. 28–31). But when Laban arranged the marriage of his daughters to Jacob (29:15–30), his daughters were not consulted. The same situation is represented in Nuzi contracts: when a brother draws up the marriage contract, the woman is consulted, but not if the father draws up the contract.
- The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 illustrates the practice of levirate marriage found also in the Nuzi tablets. A widow cannot remarry outside her deceased husband’s family. It is the responsibility of the dead husband’s brother to carry on his brother’s line by marrying the widow.
- In the Joseph story, Joseph’s older brothers are jealous of him because they think that their father, Jacob, will choose him as his heir rather than the oldest brother (Gen. 37). The Nuzi tablets indicate that it was within a father’s right to choose a younger son as the heir. This suggests that Joseph’s brothers’ fears were legitimate.
- In Genesis 31:50, Laban charges Jacob, with God as his witness, not to take any other wives besides his daughters. A similar prohibition is found in numerous Nuzi marriage contracts.
[For Enns, these parallels raise a question about how we can regard the Bible as uniquely inspired, but I will not engage with that point of view here.]