Ancient Israel: Myth or History? Part 3b

Part 3b

Archaeological Evidence for the Historicity of the Old Testament: The Patriarchs


Contrary to the biblical minimalists and others, there is good historical evidence for the Old Testament as a historical narrative. The problem today is that theories and interpretations which defend the historical and archaeological contexts of the Patriarchal period are for the most part, not accepted in the current politically-correct climate of main-line universities. Funding, grants and tenure are at stake for many professors. The situation is really very similar to what is happening to scientists who would dare endorse and or accept Intelligent Design (ID). To most archaeologists working in the field today and ancient Near Eastern historians, the question of whether or not the biblical patriarchs ever existed (much less a Supernatural God’s dealings with them and promises to them) is just a meta-question. It’s a non-sense issue because the questions that drive biblical research today are not questions of biblical inerrancy or integrity. To many liberal scholars the text is nothing more than entertaining stories; the Patriarchal stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are no more true than the epic myths of Hesiod, Ovid and Homer which tell of Zeus and Apollo. But, as Dr. Eugene Merrill points out, “…if the Bible is in no sense revelatory but merely the religious reflections of an ancient Semitic tribal people, it hardly deserves serious theological inquiry. Like the great religious texts of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Hittites, it may be of interest to students of comparative religion; but it can hardly qualify as authoritative for faith and life.”[1] In other words, if we can’t trust the Bible with earthly things, then how can we trust it with eternal things? Sounds familiar.


In the 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy and his sidekick Sallah have located where they believe the famous Ark of the Covenant is buried. The Nazis are also looking for the Ark, but Sallah lowers Indy into the “Well of Souls” and they discover that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place.


Something very similar is happening with the Bible. Many Bible scholars are looking for historical evidence of the Bible in the wrong TIME period. Of course they won’t find it because it isn’t there! But what if they look in the right time period? These questions highlight the vital topic known as biblical chronology. Chronology is vitally important in aligning purported events to their corresponding calendar date, and this is no easy task for any ancient historian! One of the difficulties in reconstructing an accurate chronology of events is that cultures of the past had different ways of reckoning time. Or to put it different way, when an archaeologist digs up a pottery fragment there is no date stamped on it.

Dr. Edwin R. Thiele was one of the first scholars in the twentieth-century to realize the importance of chronology in the Old Testament. In 1951 he published his ground-breaking book, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings where he set out to accurately reconcile the reigns of the Hebrew kings mentioned in the Old Testament to neighboring Near Eastern cultures. It was in the Ancient Near East that all of the major events recorded in the Old Testament took place and the two accounts must correlate. In chapter one Dr. Thiele’s opening words are worth reading again and again. He writes:

Chronology is the backbone of history. Absolute chronology is the fixed central core around which the events of the nation must be correctly grouped before they may assume their exact positions in history and before their mutual relationships may be properly understood. Without exact chronology there can be no exact history. Until a correct chronology of a nation has been established, the events of that nation cannot be correctly integrated into the events of neighboring states. If history is to be a true and exact science, then it is of fundamental importance to construct a sound chronological framework about which may be fitted the events of states and the international world.[2]

Because of the huge influence of the Documentary Hypothesis by the German scholar Julius Welhausen in the 19th Century, most Old Testament scholars now date the Pentateuch to around the time of the Babylonian exile (circa 586 B.C.). But, if this is how the Pentateuch is dated, then all of the events recorded in it vanish or become mere metaphors or allegories. It was in this climate that the discipline of Biblical Archaeology was born. Biblical archaeology was and is by its very nature, unapologetically apologetic.

One of the earliest defenders of the historical trustworthiness of the Bible was Edward Robinson.

Robinson was a professor of Old Testament at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts; later called Union Theological Seminary in New York. In 1837 he and Eli Smith a Protestant missionary in Beirut, set out to explore the Holy Land. Robinson and Smith hoped to find evidence supporting the Bible’s historicity. From Cairo (in Egypt) they followed the presumed route of the Exodus through the Sinai to Palestine. When he arrived in Jerusalem Robinson noticed some oddly projecting stones in the lower portion of the retaining wall around the Haram esh-Sherif, the Moslem sanctuary on the site of the ancient Israelite temple. He recognized these as the base of an arch that supported a monumental entrance to the temple built by King Herod the Great in the First Century A.D.. These remains are now known today as “Robinson’s Arch.”

More importantly, however, were the discoveries made by Robinson and Smith as they criss-crossed the countryside on their way to Beirut. On his journey with Smith, Robinson was able to recognize the locations and Arabic names of small towns or abandoned mounds of the original places described in the Bible.

For example: ‘Bir es-Seba’ was Beersheba; ‘Beitin’ was Bethel; ‘El-Jib’ was biblical Gibeon; and so forth. By looking at the Arabic names Robinson was able to identify many biblical sites located throughout the Holy Land.

In addition, Robinson along with Sir Charles Warren and Charles Wilson conducted research in and around Jerusalem identifying Hezekiah’s tunnel which was hewn under the city 2700 years ago during the reign of the Biblical king Hezekiah. In the 8th Cent. B.C. Jerusalem was under siege by the Assyrians.[3]

Robinson’s identifications of sites, and cities became the starting point for all later work in biblical geography and archaeology.[4]

The mid-twentieth century saw the high watermark of biblical archaeology in the work of the American archaeologist William Foxwell Albright. Albright, along with his colleague George Ernest Wright and others attempted to synthesize the general picture of the Old Testament narrative with linguistics and the archaeological & cultural background of the Ancient Near East.

The importance of these men for archaeology and the Bible is that they re-discovered real places, actual cities, and sites that were mentioned in the Bible but had been lost to history for millennia. The Bible was proving to be a solid primary source for ancient history in a small corridor of the Near East.

But what about the biblical Patriarchs mentioned in Genesis and the Pentateuch? What time period do we locate them?

The “Problem” of Locating the Time of the Patriarchs

Conservative Old Testament scholars seem to place the biblical patriarchs in the [Middle Bronze age] MBI –II or both.[5] Although there is not total agreement, this is the general agreed upon “time-frame” of the biblical Patriarchs. British Old Testament scholar, John Bimson has explored extensively the dating of the patriarchal period in “Essays in the Patriarchal Narratives,” edited by A. Millard and D. J. Wiseman (1980).[6]  Essentially Bimson believes that the Patriarch’s straddle the MBI and II – so around 2000 to 1800/1750 B.C.. This is partly based on occupational levels of the cities at this time relative to how the biblical text refers to them (i.e. as occupied, thriving cities, well-outposts. etc…).

Cities Mentioned and/or Occupied during the Patriarchal Period

In the archaeological record there are many cities known to have existed and to have been occupied during the times of the Biblical Patriarchs.  Some of these include the cities of Shechem, Bethel, Ai, Zoar/bela, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, Ashtaroth-karnaim, Ham, Salem, Oaks of Mamre, Kadesh, Shur, Beer lahai roi, Gerar, Beersheba, as well as many others. The ancient city of Beersheba is by far the largest city of the Negev. Tel Beer-sheba, the site of the ancient city, is located on a hill overlooking the Wadi-Beer-sheba about two and one half miles east of the modern city of Beer-sheba. The mound itself covers only two and one half acres.

As reflected in the patriarchal narratives, Beer-sheba is the most important center in the Negev during this period. Abraham dwelt in Beer-sheba (Gen. 22:19). Abraham and Abimelech entered into a covenant at Beer-sheba (Gen. 21:32). Abraham planted a tamerisk tree at Beer-sheba (Gen. 21:33). The Lord spoke to both Isaac and Jacob at Beer-sheba (Gen. 26:23; 46:1). Beer-sheba is also the site of some famous wells. Abraham’s well at Beer-sheba was seized by Abimelech’s men (Gen. 21:25). Isaac’s servants dug a well at Beer-sheba also (Gen. 26:25).

Beer-sheba was excavated during eight seasons (1969-1976) by a team from Tel-Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology under the direction of the late professor Yohanon Aharoni.[7] Some objections have been raised in relation to Tel es Saba as the biblical Beer-sheba – because the biblical Beer-sheba might have been just a well – or a watering hole in a barren region. But according to Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog, the Patriarchal Beer-sheba is found in the 13th or 12th Century B.C. (from Stratum IX and VIII).  “In other words, the patriarchal stories concerning Beer-sheba should be regarded as originating at the end of the second millennium B.C. during the so-called settlement period.”[8] In addition, Herzog also believes that he may have found Abraham’s “Well of the Oath” where Abraham and Abimelech made their covenant (Gen. 21:32).[9]

The Nuzi Tablets & The Patriarchs

In addition to these remarkable cities, there is a site southwest of Nineveh near modern Iraqi city of Kirkuk that was excavated between 1925-1941 by Edward Chiera, Robert Pfeiffer, and Richard Starr under the auspices of the Iraqi Museum and the Baghdad School of the American Schools of Oriental Research and later the Harvard University.  That site is the location of the famous tablets called the “Nuzi” tablets.

The over 5000 tablets discovered there provide numerous and amazing illustrations of the customs and culture which existed in the Patriarchal period thus providing conformation, clarification and illumination on this time period.

The tablets, although not directly mentioning the patriarchs, still constituted such valuable testimony about their life-styles that the late Professor William F. Albright (the then-acknowledged “dean” of Palestinian archaeologists) concluded that “the narratives of Genesis dealing with Abram may now be integrated into the life and history of the time [the second millennium B.C.] in such surprisingly consistent ways that there can be little doubt about their substantial historicity”[10]. Professor Albright’s conclusion was based on the following evidence from the Mari and Nuzi tablets:

  1. Names like Abraham and Jacob were in common use among the Amorites in northern Mesopotamia about 2000 B.C. and later.
  2. Mari was the center of a vast network of trade routes ranging from Crete to Elam, from Cappadocia to Megiddo. Merchants constantly traveled these routes from one end to the other. Seen in this context, Abraham’s journey from Ur to Haran, then to Canaan and Egypt, is not as improbable as the critics once thought.
  3. Abraham’s relationship with Hagar (Genesis 16) and Jacob’s with Bilhah (Genesis 30) can be better understood by a comparison with a marriage contract from Nuzi, in which the wife was required, if she proved to be barren, to provide a substitute for her husband.
  4. Abraham’s reluctance to drive out Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16:6) is understandable in the light of Nuzi customs governing such relationships.
  5. Another Nuzi tablet revealed the adoption by a childless couple of a servant born in their house. He became the heir if he cared for them in their old age (see Genesis 15:2-3).
  6. Jacob’s relationship with Laban (Gen 29-31) becomes more understandable when compared to other tablets from Nuzi (adoption customs) as well as Abraham and Eliazar his slave (Gen. 15:4)
  7. Rachel’s theft of Laban’s teraphim (household gods/idols) (Gen. 31:34) is better understood now in light of the Nuzi tablets

All of these observations provide astonishing evidence of the general historical background of the Patriarchal narratives. Each point could be a study in and of itself. Concerning the last observation about the teraphim, in the previous list given above, the late Old Testament scholar, Dr. Merrill Unger of Dallas Seminary observed:

Evidently the possession of these household gods implied leadership of the family and in the case of a married daughter assured her husband the right to the property of her father. Since Laban evidently had sons of his own when Jacob left for Canaan, they alone had the rights to their father’s gods, and theft of these household idols by Rachel was a serious offense (Gen. 31:19,30,35), aimed at preserving for her husband the chief title of Laban’s estate.  …the fact that the patriarchal narratives correctly reflect customs that would long since have become obsolete in the age when the critics contend these documents were…[written].[11]

The Mari Tablets & Abraham

At the site of the ancient city of Mari twenty-thousand clay tablets were excavated beginning in 1933 by the French archaeologist Andre Parrot. These clay tablets were archives from the royal palace at Mari. In addition, Parrot also excavated a temple of Ishtar and a ziggurat. Mari was a flourishing city in Mesopotamia during the early days of Terah (Abraham’s father) who might have passed through on his way to Haran.

A large number of the Mari tablets represent diplomatic correspondence between Zimri-Lim, the last king of Mari and his ambassadors as well as Hammurabi king of Babylon writer of the famous law code that bears his name.

The biblical city of Nahor (Gen 24:10) is mentioned frequently in the Mari letters.

The occurrence of the word – Habiru “Hebrew?” (‘Ibri, Gen 14:13) in the Mari letters (‘Apiru from Egyptian sources) attests to its ancient linguistic lineage. Interestingly, Abraham is the first person mentioned in the Bible to bear the name “Hebrew.”

The wide occurrence of the world Habiru shows that the term: “…is not an ethnic designation, for the Habiru of these various texts are of mixed racial origin, including both Semitic and non-Semitic elements, but its fundamental meaning seems to be “wanderers,” “those who pass from place to place.”[12]

In addition to the Nuzi tablets, the tablets discovered at Mari also provide additional support and backing to the general historical foundation of the Biblical Patriarchs.

The Discovery of Sodom & Gomorrah

Pertinent to a debate in own culture is the story of the great sin and subsequent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis 18-19. Did these cities ever exist, and furthermore, were they destroyed in the manner the Bible describes? What does archaeological research reveal? Without getting into the fine detail, in the 1970’s researchers in Jordan were led “to an Early Bronze Age graveyard on the southeastern side of the Dead Sea that was in the midst of being plundered. Along five “wadis” (dry riverbeds) flowing westward into the southern Dead Sea, an archaeological survey identified five ruined cities that appear to be the cities of the plain mentioned in Genesis 14:8. The most prominent and northerly one was in ancient times called Bab edh-Dhra, which seems to be the Arabic rendering of Sodom. Next in line was Numeira (Gomorrah), then the modern city of Safi (Zoar or Bela, to which Lot fled and which was not destroyed), then Admah and Zeboiim. The key was finding Zoar.”[13]

One of the major sources for help identifying the identity of the five cities was the Bible! According to archaeologist Dr. Bryant Wood:

Sodom and Gomorrah were two of five cities referred to in Scripture as the Cities of the Plain. From references to the “plain of the Jordan” (Gn 13:10), “the Valley of Siddim (the Salt Sea)” (Gn 14:3) and Abraham looking down to see the Cities of the Plain from the area of Hebron (Gn 19:28), it is clear that the cities were located in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. Since the mountains come close to the shore on both the east and west, the cities must have been located either north or south of the Dead Sea. Various commentators over the centuries have suggested locations both north and south (Mulder 1992: 101 102). The reference to “bitumen pits” in Genesis 14:10, however, tips the scale in favor of a southern location (Howard 1984). Bitumen (a natural petroleum product similar to asphalt) was commonly found in the shallow southern basin of the Dead Sea in antiquity. (Bilkadi 1984; 1994; Clapp 1936a: 901–902; 1936b: 341–342).[14]

In 1974-75 Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae uncovered one of the largest archives of clay tablets ever discovered at an ancient site. The tablets now known as the Ebla archives, (from the ancient city of Ebla) and they date from 2400-2350 B.C.. One of the tablets contains a geographical atlas containing 289 place names which include the cities of the plain mentioned in the Genesis along with the biblical city of Sodom.

In addition, further research strongly suggests that the ancient cities of Bab Edh-Dhra and Numeira, located southeast of the Dead Sea, were destroyed in a manner and in the general time frame that is described in the Bible. The cities were crushed and burned it seems, from a linear fault located near the Dead Sea rift – a geological feature which can suddenly erupt in violence and destruction. [For a more detailed archaeological summary of Bab Edh Dhra (“Sodom”) see, W.E. Rast, ‘Bab edh-Dhrain’ in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. D.N. Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 559-61.

From this brief survey we can see that there is more to the Patriarchal narratives than meets the eye. Contrary to current scholarship there are good historical and archaeological reasons to believe the Bible’s account of the past.  It provides eyewitness detail that could only be known by someone who was there.

In my next post I will review the historical and archaeological evidence for the Exodus and Conquest as well as the existence of the Davidic kingdom.

[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion: A Theology of the Old Testament (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 24-5.

[2] Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1983), 33.

[3] The Biblical account maintains that Hezekiah anticipated the Assyrian invasion and made at least two major preparations to resist conquest: construction of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, also known as the Siloam Tunnel, and construction of the Broad Wall. The tunnel is 533 meters long and was dug in order to provide Jerusalem underground access to the waters of the Spring of Gihon/The Siloam Pool, which lay outside the city. This work is described in the Siloam Inscription, which has been dated to his reign on the basis of its script. At the same time a wall was built around the Pool of Siloam, into which the waters from the spring flowed (Isaiah 22:11) which was where all the spring waters were channeled. The wall surrounded the entire city, which bored up to Mount Zion. An impressive vestige of this structure is the broad wall in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. “When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come, intent on making war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officers and warriors about stopping the flow of the springs outside the city … for otherwise, they thought, the King of Assyria would come and find water in abundance (2 Chronicles 32:2-4)”


[4] see, William H. Steibing, Jr., Uncovering the Past: A History of Archaeology (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1993), 87-89.

[5] See, John Bright, A History of Israel, Second Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 67-85; & Alfred J. Hoerth, Archaeology & the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 56-123; & Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 21-55.

[6] John Bimson, “Archaeological Data and the Dating of the Patriarchs,” in Essays in the Patriarchal Narratives, Edited by A.R. Millard and D.J. Wiseman (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 59-93.

[7] Ze’ev Herzog, “Beer-Sheba of the Patriarchs,” in Archaeology and the Bible, Volume 1 Early Israel, Hershel Shanks and Dan P. Cole, Editors (Washington D.C.: The Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992), 2-18.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 18

[10] Biblical Archaeologist, July 1973, p.10.

[11] Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954),123.

[12] Ibid., 125.

[13] John D. Morrs, “Have Sodom and Gomorrah Been Discovered?” (accessed, June 17 2013)

[14] Bryant Wood, “The Discovery of the Sin Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah” Originally published in Bible & Spade (Summer 1999). For more on this including images from the sites see,


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