Gen 1-11 is generally seen as the preface to the story of Israel and tells the lessons from the origins of humanity. Genesis then focuses on the history of one family that lived in northern Mesopotamia. Gen 11:27-32 gives the family tree for Abraham in such a way that his grandfather, father and brothers are all named after towns in the area near the old caravan city of Haran. This was a literary device used by ancient authors, called “eponymous” writing, and it helped to fix for the reader or listener the exact roots of the hero. The eponym is the person from whom a tribe or nation gets its name.
Gen 12-50 focus on four heroic ancestors: Abraham (12 chapters), Isaac (two), Jacob (nine) and Joseph (ten), although strictly speaking, Joseph should be understood as part of the history of Jacob.
The Setting of the Patriarchal Stories
The patriarchs lived before the period when Israel was in Egypt and so can be dated no later than the 14th cent. BCE. Although many elements in the tradition have been rewritten and updated over the centuries, the sources tried to preserve a description of the way people lived in the Middle Bronze Age i.e. in the period from the 22nd down to the 15th cent. BCE. While a minority of archaeologists and biblical scholars think that much of the material in these chapters is fiction – in the sense that it is a romantic projection back from later times of an ideal life of faith – the majority accept there are genuine remembrances of this early period that form the core of the tradition. Manydetails about travel, semi-nomadic life, marriage customs and inheritance rights mentioned in the narratives were well known in this period.
There is also evidence of a strong westward movement of Semitic peoples from Mesopotamia c.2100 BCE or earlier. These were known as Amorites (“Westerners”), and even if Abraham is not among them, it shows the likelihood that such travels as his were normal. There is some mixed archaeological evidence that the Negev desert, which is the scene of much of the Abraham and Isaac tradition, was settled c.2000 BCE, but largely deserted in later centuries.
A good case could be made for a period of prosperity there between 2000-1800 BCE under the secure rule of the strong pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt. Trade and travel such as reported in Gen 12:9 or 20:1 would be encouraged by such periods of stability. The Bible itself records that Israel spent almost 400 years in Egypt between the arrival of Jacob and the time of the exodus (Gen 15:13; Ex 12:40). This would place Abraham even earlier, near the start of the second millennium.
The general description of Abraham’s lifestyle suggests he was the chief of a wealthy clan whose livelihood depended mostly on raising small livestock such as sheep and goats. He seemed to have had semi-permanent roots near some large city, or at least within a definite area, but often moved with his flocks to new pastures according to the seasons of the year. His life was not that of the city dweller or villager, but he was never far from the major urban centres. Abraham settled near Hebron in the south, but he seems to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In good years, and in mild winters, the clan stayed near the permanent settlement, but in the dry summer season or in years of drought, they might wander far abroad in search of grazing food and land.
Their wide-ranging knowledge of the land, the safety of numbers in travel, and the likelihood that the clan had more members than herding required, supports the idea that trade was also a part of their livelihood. Some references to longer journeys of Abraham make this an attractive idea. He moves between Haran, Damascus, Shechem, Hebron and Egypt, all of which are on the caravan routes, all large cities or trading centres.
The patriarchal story opens in Mesopotamia and northern Syria, and throughout Genesis the clans maintain their ties back to their original homeland. Isaac and Jacob go back to marry wives from among their relatives in Haran. Also many of the customs and practices in the Abraham narratives have parallels in documents from the ruins of 14th and 15th cent. Nuzi in upper Mesopotamia. This, too, is no doubt part of the original memory of Israel’s ancestors.