The history of the people of Israel is at first the story of a family and its founder. Before there was an Israelite nation or an Israelite kingdom, there was only Abraham. According to the Book of Genesis Abraham embarked on an epochal journey from his home in Ur, stopping first in Haran and then continuing to the Land of Canaan—the land that God promises to Abraham’s descendants.
Abraham’s journey traces the great arc of ancient civilization, from Ur in southeastern Mesopotamia, to Haran in northwestern Mesopotamia, and onto Canaan to the southwest. Along his trek, Abraham fathers Isaac, who in turn fathers Jacob (later renamed Israel); Jacob fathers 12 sons, who produce families that will become the 12 Tribes of Israel. Only then do the Israelites emerge as a people and enter the world stage.
Many people wonder whether the Biblical account of Abraham and his offspring is historically reliable. It is true that many details in the Book of Genesis are known only from the Bible and have not been corroborated by the historical record. In the account of the war between the kings of the Five Cities of the Plain and four kings led by the ruler of Elam (Genesis 14), for example, none of the nine monarchs involved are known outside of the Biblical story.
Though many such gaps between the Bible and modern scholarship exist, the broad overlap between the two is striking. The Biblical story of Abraham takes place in a recognizably authentic world, the world of late third millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamia, a world that has been yielding itself to the archaeologist’s spade for the past century and a half.
The world Abraham was born into was a world surprisingly rich in culture and learning. Astronomy and mathematics were already well developed in Mesopotamia in Abraham’s time; a clay tablet with geometrical calculations, now in the British Museum, shows that the Mesopotamians had discovered the same theorem Pythagoras would make famous—1,500 years later! Mesopotamia also boasted a rich literature, made possible by a complex system of cuneiform writing, a system of communication fed by a bustling trade that promoted widespread literacy due to its heavy use of countless business documents—inventories, orders, receipts, and the like. Fully one fifth of all the buildings excavated at Ur contained clay tablets with writing on them.
When Sir Leonard Woolley rediscovered ancient Ur in the 1920s, he found stupendous royal treasures but he also found a city rich in more everyday items. Abraham, like others at Ur, may have lived in a two-story house made of brick and boasting a courtyard, reception rooms, a kitchen, bedrooms, even a toilet. His wife Sarah, like other women in the city, may have worn intricately designed headdresses and other jewelry. Abraham and Sarah would even have enjoyed music. Woolley discovered a beautifully carved lyre overlayed with gold at Ur’s royal cemetery. The ancient Mesopotamians were well versed in music; cuneiform tablets containing musical notations and dating to about1800 B.C.E. have been unearthed at Ugarit, in northwestern Mesopotamia.
When Abraham looked outside his elaborate home, he would have seen Ur’s most impressive public building, a huge ziggurat (stepped pyramid) dedicated to Nanna (also known as Sin), a moon God. Ziggurats such as the one at Ur may have been what the Bible has in mind when it tells the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11-1-9).
Scholars have grappled with the question of when Abraham lived. According to the Biblical chronology, Abraham arrived in Canaan in about 2100 B.C.E.; he, Isaac and Jacob lived in Canaan until about 1875 B.C.E. The Bible assigns 430 years for the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, or from 1875 to 1445 B.C.E.
The Biblical chronology, however, is internally inconsistent, as has been long recognized. Moses and Aaron, according to 1 Chronicles 5, were fourth-generation descendants of Levi, the son of Jacob. The 430 years of enslavement is too long for the three generations preceding Moses. Moreover, 1 Chronicles 7 describes Joshua, Moses’ aide and successor, as a 12th-generation descendant of Joseph, the son of Jacob who rose to become Pharaoh’s vizier. So we have, depending on which chapter of 1 Chronicles we are reading, either three or 11 generations between those Israelites who migrated to Egypt with Jacob and those who left with Moses and Joshua.
Most scholars accept that the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—may be beyond historical recovery. These scholars acknowledge that the Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs were written during the tenth to sixth centuries B.C.E., the period of the Israelite Monarchy. But some scholars have asserted that within these later, written accounts of the Patriarchs are authentic elements of reliable history.
The best-known and most important scholar who argued that the Patriarchal narratives do indeed contain accurate glimpses of ancient life was William Foxwell Albright, who dominated the field of ancient Near Eastern history for nearly half a century. Albright also trained an impressive group of students, many of whom went on to defend their teacher’s views regarding the Patriarchs.
Albright and his followers claimed that the Biblical stories about the Patriarchs reflected the world of early second millennium B.C.E. They pointed out, for example, that the names Abram (Abraham’s name before it was changed to Abraham) and a form of Jacob are found in the early second millennium B.C.E. They also pointed out that marriage contracts discovered at Nuzi, in upper Mesopotamia, require a barren wife to provide her husband with a slave woman with whom to have children; further, sons borne by the slave woman cannot later be sent away. In Genesis, Sarah gives her slave Hagar to Abraham; when she later demands that Abraham send Hagar and their son Ishmael into the wilderness, Abraham is very reluctant to grant her wish.
In another parallel, the Nuzi texts recognize a wife as also a man’s sister, a recognition that granted her greater social status. This dual wife-“sister” role may help explain the incidents in Genesis 12, 20 and 26 in which Abraham (twice) and Isaac both assert that their wives are their sisters.
More recent scholars have not shared the confidence of Albright and his school in pinpointing the exact era of the Patriarchs. We now know that the Biblical names that Albright thought were restricted to the early second millennium B.C.E. were in fact common through many centuries and in many places. The social customs contained in the Nuzi documents have also proved to have been more widespread than first thought.
Still, scholars are in wide agreement that certain aspects of the Patriarchal stories reflect details that are historically reliable, particularly because they are contrary to what we would expect from the period of the Monarchy, when the stories were written down. Among these details is the insistence that Abraham was “a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26-5) and not a native of Canaan. During the Monarchy, the Arameans were an enemy of the Israelites, and the acknowledgment that Abraham had Aramean roots, though perhaps somewhat embarrassing in the later context, indicates that the tradition of Abraham’s origins went back many centuries.
Genesis 11-22 adds further details about Abraham; it names Terah, Nahor and Serug as Abraham’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather. All three names appear in texts as the names of towns near Haran, Abraham’ ancestral home; Abraham’s ancestors were thought of as the founders of those towns. The persistence of the associations between Abraham and the area around Haran suggests that the Biblical accounts reflect a longstanding memory of Abraham’s origins.
Interestingly, the earliest known reference to the name Abraham may be a town listed by Pharaoh Shishak I on a monument he erected to commemorate his military victories during his campaigns in 925 B.C.E. The town was in the Negev and its name translates to the “Fortification of Abraham.” The Bible indicates that Abraham had many important connections with such southern locales as Hebron and Beersheba. Considering the location of the “Fortification of Abraham,” it is likely that the town was associated with the Patriarch and that the founder of the Israelite people was already known, although indirectly, to the mightiest ruler in the tenth century B.C.E.
Isaac, Abraham’s son, is also associated in the Bible with southern areas, especially with Beersheba. This area was settled in the late 13th century B.C.E. Archaeologists have uncovered a sanctuary and a deep well at Beersheba (the name of the town means “Seven Wells”), and this is likely the well mentioned in Genesis 21 and 26.
The life of Jacob, the son of Isaac, reflects the journeys of his father and grandfather. He is born in Beersheba, where Isaac lives, but later journeys to Haran, where Abraham journeyed after leaving Ur. In Haran Jacob labors for 14 years in the service of his uncle Laban (the brother of Isaac) and marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. With his two wives and two concubines Jacob fathers 12 sons, who will go on to found the 12 tribes that will constitute the Israelite nation.
After Jacob returns from Haran, he lives primarily in the central hill country—the very area that will see the emergence of the Israelites. The name Jacob, paired with a divine name, was a common West Semitic name in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (2250-1200 B.C.E.). In the Late Bronze Age, Jacob-El was the name of a town conquered by Pharaoh Thutmosis III (c. 1480-1425 B.C.E.). From its position in the list, it seems that Jacob-El was located in central Canaan. Given its name, location and time period, the town of Jacob-El suggests an awareness of the person we know from the Bible as Jacob.
The latter part of the Book of Genesis (Genesis 37 and 39-47) is dominated by the story of Joseph, the favored son of Jacob who was sold into slavery in Egypt but rose to become that nation’s second most powerful figure. The importance of Joseph in the Biblical narrative may reflect the importance of the areas belonging to Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasseh—the heart of Canaan’s central hill country—during the time when the Israelite tribes banded together as a league and then as a kingdom.
Many scholars believe that the story of Joseph has historical roots. Some suggest that Joseph lived during the Hyksos period (1675-1550), when Egypt was ruled by Semites who had invaded from the east. They note that Joseph’s brothers and their families settled in the land of Goshen, in the eastern Nile Delta, which is where the Hyksos had their capital.
But other scholars are wary of drawing too many connections between the historical record and the Joseph story. The incident in which Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph and then accuses him of trying to rape her when he rebuffs her (Genesis 39) appears in several ancient tales. Dreams and the power to interpret them—so central to Joseph’s rise in Egypt—and particularly the motif of seven lean years are also common in ancient literature.
More problematic is that the Joseph story conveys a sense of Egypt as it was in later centuries, not as it was in Joseph’s purported time. The king of Egypt, for example is called Pharaoh, but that title did not come into use until the mid-1400s B.C.E. Similarly, the Bible says Joseph’s brothers settle in “the region of Ramesses” (Genesis 47), but that name would have dated to after Ramesses the Great, who died in 1213 B.C.E.
On the other hand, several of the names in the Joseph story vouch for a historical core. His wife’s name, Asenath, is similar to Egyptian names in the second and first millennia B.C.E. Her father’s name, Potiphera, appears on a monument of the 11th century B.C.E. That name is very likely related to the name of Joseph’s master, Poitphar. Joseph’s own Egyptian name, Zaphenath-Paneah, while not attested directly in the historical record, is similar in structure to names known from the mid-11th century B.C.E. and after.
Perhaps most telling of all are numerous instances of foreigners coming to Egypt and rising to prominent positions there. And a key feature of the Joseph story—that his father Jacob sends Joseph’s brothers to Egypt in search of grain during a drought in Canaan—is also known in the Egyptian record. During the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah (1212-1202 B.C.E.), a border official recorded that his soldiers allowed a Bedouin tribe to water their cattle in the eastern Delta (the region, remember, called Goshen in the Bible) so that the animals not perish from thirst.
After the reunification of Joseph with his brothers and his father Jacob, the story of the Israelite people takes a dramatic turn. A new pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1-8) comes to power who oppresses the Israelites and eventually forces a confrontation that will result in a daring escape from Egypt and the formation of a people forged during a 40-year wandering in the desert. This story of enslavement, the dash to freedom and the eventual entry into the Promised Land dominates the Books of Exodus through Deuteronomy.
The Bible conveys all this in vivid detail- The new pharaoh sets ever harsher quotas on the Israelites for their production of mudbrick; he forces them to find their own straw for the mudbricks that they must manufacture; and finally orders that all newborn Israelite boys be killed.
The most famous of those newborns is Moses, whose mother places him in a basket and sets him afloat on the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the child and by a wonderful stroke orders his mother to be the child’s wetnurse. Moses grows up as a prince in Pharaoh’s house, but later witnesses an Egyptian abusing an Israelite. In his anger, Moses kills the Egyptian and flees into the desert. There he comes across another case of injustice when shepherds maltreat a group of women waiting to use a well. He marries one of the women, a daughter of a Midianite priest named Jethro.
While tending sheep for his father-in-law, Moses discovers a bush that was burning but not consumed. It is the beginning of an encounter with the divine. God reveals himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and orders Moses back to Egypt to demand of Pharaoh that he allow the Israelites to worship their God in the desert. Pharaoh refuses, and God unleashes, through his messengers Moses and his brother Aaron, an ever-more devastating series of disasters against the Egyptians and their land. After the tenth and most devastating of theses calamities—the death of all firstborn Egyptian males—Pharaoh finally relents and the Israelites march quickly into the desert. Pharaoh has a change of heart and orders his mighty army to pursue. The Israelites are caught between the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) and the Egyptian army. Following God’s command, the Israelites march into the sea, which parts just long enough to pass through. When the Egyptians pursue the Israelites, the waters fall back and drown them.
A powerful and exceedingly well-crafted story, but how historical is it?
Many of the details of the Exodus story match the historical and archaeological record. The Egyptians worried about having too many foreigners within their borders. The “Admonitions of Ipuwer” (thought to have been composed sometime in the 19th to 17th centuries B.C.E.) speaks of defenses meant “to repulse the Asiatics, to trample the Bedouin.” The 21st-century “Instructions of Merikare” says that the eastern Delta “abounds with foreigners.”
We also have records of Semitic peoples living in Egypt, including a papyrus that contains a list of more than 40 female slaves with Semitic names. Interestingly, one of those names is Shiphrah, the same name as that of the midwife in Exodus 1 who refused to kill male Israelite newborns.
Another telling detail is that the Exodus story has the Israelites forced into making mudbrick. And, indeed, a 15th-century wallpainting at Thebes depicts Semitic slaves making mudbrick. That was the common building material in Egypt at the time; a later writer living in Canaan could easily have assumed that the Israelites were forced to build Pharaoh’s store-cities using stone, the typical material used in Canaan. A further confirming detail is that the mudbrick mentioned in the Exodus story contains straw; mudbrick in Canaan was made without straw.
An object from about 1275 B.C.E. now called the Louvre Leather Roll records that mudbrick quotas were not being met, a detail that matches Exodus 5-14.
Such details aside, we cannot match any specific event in the Exodus story with anything known to history (that is, outside the Bible itself). We do not know the route the Israelites took out of Egypt or which mountain in the Sinai desert is Mt. Sinai. As mentioned above regarding the Patriarchs, the Biblical chronology is not consistent, giving the length of the Israelite stay in Egypt as 400 years (Genesis 15-13), 430 years (Exodus 12-40-41) and four generations (Genesis 15-16). 1 Kings 1-6 says that Solomon began to build the Jerusalem Temple 480 years after the Israelites left Egypt; because Solomon’s reign is reasonably well established as having begun in 960 B.C.E. and because the building of the Temple began in the fourth year of his reign, the Exodus would have occurred in 1436 B.C.E.
The figure of 480, however, seems to have more of a symbolic role than a historical one. It equals 12 generations of 40 years each, and 40 is a recurring number in the Bible. The wandering in the desert after the Exodus is given as 40 years, and David and Solomon are both said to have reigned for 40 years. Indeed, according to the chronology in the Book of Kings, the length of time from the building of the Temple to the end of the Babylonian Exile was 480 years—again, 12 times 40. The Biblical chronology, then, seems more concerned with placing the Temple at the center of its history than with providing us with historical dates.
There are other problems with placing the Exodus in the 15th century B.C.E. That period was a time of great Egyptian power in Canaan. The Book of Joshua, in contrast, does not even mention Egypt when recounting the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Even more problematic is that there is no archaeological evidence of a new people arriving in Canaan in the late 15th century B.C.E.
A more likely time for the Exodus to have occurred is the 13th century B.C. By that time, Egyptian influence had waned—making it understandable why Joshua makes no mention of it. More important, though, are the many signs of major demographic changes that took place in the central highlands of Canaan in the 13th century. The population expanded significantly and new villages were founded. Terrace agriculture—leveling areas along hillside slopes to allow for planting—became widespread, and cisterns lined with lime plaster to keep water from seeping away also became common.
Further bolstering a 13th-century B.C.E. date for the Exodus (assuming it is a historical event) is the Egyptian evidence. The long-reigning Pharaoh Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.) looms behind the Exodus story. The Israelites settle in the region of Ramesses (Genesis 47-11) and later build a city by that name (Exodus 1-11); that city later becomes a massing point before they flee into the desert. Ramesses II moved his capital to the northeastern Delta—the same area where the Israelites settled—and he instigated numerous large building projects that required much labor.
Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II, provides the first historical reference to the Israelites. On a black monument dating to 1207 B.C.E. he boasts of his having vanquished various peoples, including the Israelites, during a military campaign in Canaan. By the end of the 13th century B.C.E. the Israelites were known to the mighty ruler of Pharaoh as a people in Canaan. That is why scholars think that century is the most likely candidate for the emergence of the Israelites. But whatever the exact time and nature of their sojourn in Egypt, the Israelites treated their slavery and subsequent escape as central to their understanding of themselves as a people and to their relationship to their God.