A century ago, many Old Testament scholars had arrived at the view that the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their families) were fictional characters, or, at least, were based on vague historical reminiscences.
By the middle of the twentieth century, however, it was realised that things were not that simple. Increasing knowledge of the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 BC) tended to confirm – at least in general terms – that the biblical accounts of the patriarchs fitted in quite well with what was known about life at that time.
The kinds of names found in the biblical accounts – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so on – are frequently found in other texts dating from a similar period.
The Tale of Sinuhe describes a nomadic chief living around 1900 BC who evidently had a lifestyle that was very similar to that portrayed in the stories of Abraham and his family. He went to war with an alliance of kings, just as Abraham did (Gen 14:1-16). The names of the kings are typical of names in common use at that time. Evidence from Mari shows that many people had a semi-nomadic existence, settling from time to time before moving on again, similar to what is described in (Gen 12:6–20; 13:12–18; 20:1–18; 26:6–1133:18–20).
Various social and legal customs appear to pre-date the Mosaic law. For example, Lev 18:18 forbids a man to married to two sisters at the same time, and yet Jacob was (Gen 29:15–30). Marriage of a man to his half-sister was prohibited (Lev 18:9, 11; 20:17; Deut 27:22), yet that is what Abraham did, Gen 20:12.
As Drane says
The fact that these anomalies have been preserved in the early stories seems to suggest that the people who wrote them down did not try to assimilate them to the practices of their own day, but handed on authentic traditions in the form they had received them.
Some of the customs described in the Nuzi tablets illuminate those found in the Genesis account. For example, a childless wife might be obliged to provide her husband with a slave girl who would bear him children. this is precisely what happened in the case of Sarah and Abraham, Gen 16:1-14. Furthermore, Nuzi law forbade the expulsion of such a slave – a requirement that may explain the reluctance of Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, Gen 21:9-13).
On the other hand, there are some details within Genesis that cannot readily be reconciled with those found in extra-biblical accounts. For example, it is thought certain that neither Philistines (Genesis 21:34; 26:6–22) nor Chaldeans (Genesis 11:31; 15:7) were around at that time. Camels (Genesis 12:16; 24:35; 30:43; 32:7,15) were not in widespread use until several centuries after the Patriarchal periods.
It is supposed that such anachronisms may reflect the assumptions of of those who wrote and re-wrote (or told and re-told) the stories. Their presence by no means proves that the core substance of the account is historically worthless.
Date and time
The use of cultural parallels to demonstrate the historical reliability of the Old Testament narrative depends on similarities with regard to both time and place. The Mari and Nuzi texts certainly come from places associated with the Genesis accounts. But the The Nuzi texts are thought to date from several centuries after the Genesis account. But, then again, it may be that the kinds of customs both describe were in use for a long period of time.
It would be wrong to assume that there is anything like a perfect overlap between the customs described in the Nuzi texts and those recorded in Genesis. In fact, only a small proportion of the texts show significant parallels.
Some may, in their enthusiasm to find parallels, have been guilty of exaggeration. For example, it was previously thought a text from Nuzi could Rachel’s theft of Laban’s household gods, Gen 31:17–21 (the text seemed to show that by this action she would secure certain rights of inheritance. This supposed link is now considered to be spurious. However, as Drane says, ‘one mistaken parallel does not discount the others’ even though it does remind us to be cautious in our claims. Drane adds that part of the difficulty is that the Nuzi texts are legal documents, whereas in Genesis various customs are described only incidentally.
Although, for the reasons stated above, we should not rush uncritically into any ‘proving’ of the Genesis narrative from supposed parallels in contemporary accounts, nevertheless we can be quite sure that the way of life described in the first book of the Bible is not only very different from the way of life described later in the Old Testament, but also that it is broadly consistent with that described in contemporary accounts.
Based on Drane, Introducing the Old Testament (Lion, 2000)
It must be acknowledged that so-called ‘main-stream’ OT scholarship takes a more sceptical view than that summarised above. Ronald Helden, for example, states:-
We do not know whether Abraham actually existed. But even if he did, many (or most) of the details in the Abraham stories are legendary and not historical.