Bibliotheca Sacra 134 (April-June 1977) 123-30
Copyright © 1977 by
History and Tradition
Part 1: Abraham the Hebrew
Donald J. Wiseman
The study of Abraham in history and tradition has recently
been revived. However, it is accompanied by a recrudescence of a
critical trend in Old Testament scholarship which virtually dismiss-
es Abraham as an eponymous ancestor, a mythological hero of
legendary sagas, or the projection into the past of later Jewish
ideologies seeking for a "founding father." On this basis the Genesis
patriarchs are considered by many scholars to be unhistorical, and
it is argued that this is no problem because their historicity is
irrelevant to the theological value of the biblical narratives. With
this development, Old Testament scholars have reacted against and
reappraised the extrabiblical evidence which has led to the more
conservative understanding and interpretation of a second-millen-
nium B.C. "Patriarchal Age."1 Both viewpoints will now need to be
the light of the recent texts discovered at
reveal for the first time the history, language, and culture of the
1 John van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (
Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (
de Gruyter, 1974).
2 Giovanni Pettinato, "Testi cuneiformi
rinvenuti nelta campagna 1974 a Tell MardIkh=
361-74; and paper read at the XXIIIeme Rencontre Assyriologique Inter-
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of four articles, prepared by
the author for the W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectures at Dallas Theo-
logical Seminary in November, 1976. The editors regret that illness forced
Dr. Wiseman to cancel the lectureship, but they are pleased to present the
series in print.
124 / Bibliotheca Sacra -April-June 1977
It is true that some of the comparisons made between the
social background reflected in Genesis and extrabiblical evidence
have arisen from the desire of scholars to find parallels in ancient
Near Eastern texts. However, dismissing those parallels would not
of itself argue against the historical origin or nature of the Genesis
texts so much as against the various theories proposed for their
interpretation.3 Van Seters has rightly questioned some of these but
goes beyond the evidence when he argues that "there is no real
portrayal of a nomadic pre-settlement phase of Israelite society, nor
any hint of the migratory movements or political realities of the
second millennium B.C."4 For him the Abrahamic tradition as it
stands reflects "only a late date of composition and gives no hint
by its content of any great antiquity in terms of biblical history."5
His argument is that the few nomadic details--the references to
camels and tents, the patriarch's presence and movements primarily
confined to the Negeb, and their contact and political agreement
with the Philistines--are all indications of a mid-first millennium
It is the primary purpose of this paper to examine some of
these contentions. However, these contentions will be examined
more from an interpretive standpoint than from the chronological
standpoint, since it can be shown that in the long "continuity" of
tradition in the ancient Near Eastern traditions, social custom, legal
convention, or literary form are by themselves no sure means of
THE EXTENT OF PATRIARCHAL NOMADISM
Was Abraham a "nomad"? The Genesis account relates the
movements of Abraham primarily in relation to two factors: the
Royal Archives of Tell Mardikh-Ebla," The Biblical Archaeologist 39 (May
1976): 44-52. It is reported that these texts make reference to
and the appearance of personal names such as "Abraham" can be paralleled
in other cuneiform texts (cf. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal
Narratives, pp. 22-36).
3 M. Selman, "Published and Unpublished Fifteenth Century B.C. Cuneiform
Documents and Their Bearing on the Patriarchal Narratives of the Old
Testament" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wales, 1975) and his article in The
Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976), forthcoming.
4 Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition, pp. 121-22.
6 Donald J. Wiseman, "
B.C.," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 5 (1977), forthcoming.
Abraham the Hebrew / 125
divine call, and the divine land-grant to his posterity. Thus the
ultimate destination is declared from the beginning when "Terah
Abram his son and
renewed call is still for Abraham to leave "land, family, and
father's house to go to the land I will show you" (Gen. 12:1).7
No details are given of the route, method, or time of travel. There
reason to assume that a journey from southern
to Syro-Palestine was undertaken only by (semi-) nomads in antiq-
uity. Movements in stages by groups of persons, possibly merchants,
are attested by records of Old Babylonian itineraries.8
Gordon's suggestion that
fied with Ura'
has been adequately answered by Saggs, who has stressed, in addi-
tion to the philological weakness, the unlikely nature of a move
eastward by Abraham before retracing his steps toward Canaan.10
Moreover, Gordon's thesis, coupled with similarity of Old Baby-
lonian place-names with patriarchal patronyms (e.g., Serug, Gen.
; Turch [Terah] and Nahur [Nahor] , Gen. 24:10) would
still be evidence against van Seters' late date for such allusions.
emphasis is placed on the crossing of the
River ('Eber nari,' cf. Josh. 24:2-3).
Genesis places no stress on Abraham's "nomadism"; it merely
he moved in response to the divine call from
to Shechem (Gen. 12:6). The route would have taken him through
or near some of the city-states known to have dominated the region
in both the second and first millennia B.C. At Moreh, near Shechem,
Abram built an altar to the Lord after He in a theophany granted
as a gift the land where he then was (Gen. 12:7). It is noteworthy
that the first mention of "tents" is now made, and it is suggested
(as subsequently near
the tents indicate not so much his mode of living as a tent-shrine
set up symbolically at places where he publicly avowed the promise
7 This is usually taken as an early source; it is quoted by Stephen (Acts
8 William W. Hallo, "The Road to Emar," Journal of Cuneiform Studies 18
9 Cyrus H. Gordon, "Abraham and the Merchants of Ura," Journal of
Near Eastern Studies 17 (1958): 28-31.
10 H. W. F. Saggs, "
126 / Bibliotheca Sacra -April-June 1977
land as a token of its take-over.11 A further journey to
near which another altar was erected and named in association with
a "tent-site" (Gen. 12:8), was followed by a short journey south-
Following the diversion to
-20), Abraham returned to the promised land, to the previ-
ously occupied tent- and altar-site near
Following the separation from
Canaanite opposition and insufficiency of grazing for the flocks
and herds, Abraham was given a further revelation about the extent
of the land (Gen. 13:5-13). From a vantage point on high ground
he was able to look north, south, east, and west at the covenant-
promised territory before walking throughout its length and breadth
(; cf. Josh. 18:4-8), acting as one who already held title to
it. The southward measurement was made by Abraham first; he
moved to Mamre () where he stayed for some time (18:1).
There a further theophany reaffirmed the possession of the land
through an heir. Then he went further south between Kadesh and
Shur (20:1) to stay in the land then dominated by Abimelech of
Gerar (20:1-18) which
over and was marked as a special place by tent and altar and
"sacred tree," to become the symbol of the southernmost part of
promised land stretching "from Dan to
ences to "tents" used by Abraham's successors refer principally to
sites except for the use of a tent by
establishing a permanent lodging in a house in
19:2) and of Jacob's inclusion of tents and camels in his caravan
on the flight from Laban (31:28). He is described as staying
"among the settlements ['tents,' AV]" (Gen. 25:25) when his set-
tled life is contrasted with the nomadic and hunting existence of
Esau. Jacob himself settled in a house at Succoth (33:17).
These scant references to tents are not in themselves indicative
of any special type of nomadism, even of the "enclosed nomadism"
described by Rowton.12
THE TYPE OF PATRIARCHAL NOMADISM
The Genesis picture is not specifically one of semi-nomadism
though it could be compared in some features with the well-docu-
mented nomadism of
11 Donald J. Wiseman, "They Lived in Tents," Studia Biblica et Theologica
7 (1977), forthcoming.
12 M. B. Rowton, "Enclosed Nomadism," Journal of the Economic and
Social History of the Orient 17 (1974): 1-16.
Abraham the Hebrew / 127
second millennium B.C. or with the even earlier activities of the
Sutu (ca. 2700 B.C.) or Egyptian ssyw.13 Some scholars, however,
have tended to exaggerate the supposedly "nomadic" elements by
reference to named groups in the same region at different periods
(e.g., Amurru, Aramu) and to their sedentary condition by refer-
ence to the settled life of the same tribes.
Rowton has shown that long-range nomads, dependent on the
limitations of the desert and rainfall, are rare and probably confined
history to north and south
from the true self-sufficient long-range "external nomadism" of
engaged in pastoral nomadism, owning livestock and a few camels,
and their migration might have involved tribal communities. Such
combinations of camels, sheep, goats, and donkeys moved slowly
and never more than a day's journey from water. They followed
the seasons and interacted with the local market where their more
sedentary brethren lived.14 For this reason there is no single term
in the ancient Near Eastern texts for such people who could be
designated by their role or settlement. The individual group with its
family head or chief (abum, "father") and elders might be referred
to by several names (e.g., Ubrabum, Yahrurum, Amnanum), which
could denote the total group (e.g., Bene-Yamina = "Benjamin-
ites").15 Nomads and sedentary members of a single tribe linked
the former to an urban base as has been suggested for Abraham
and Nahur (
illustrated from the traditional genealogies of the second millennium
B.C. (Hammurapi);17 Assyria
(King List);18 and
13 R. Giveon, Les bedouins
shosou des documents egyptiens
1971); also references are made to nomads in the
14 M. B. Rowton, "Autonomy and Nomadism
42 (1973): 252.
15 So also Midian, Amalek, and Bene-Qedem, all Midianites (Moshe Anbar,
"Changement thes noms thes tribus nomades dans la relation d'un meme
evenement," Biblica 49 : 221-32).
16 A. Malamat, "Aspects of Tribal Society," in La Civilisation de Mari,
R. Kupper (
de l'Universite de
17 J. J. Finkelstein, "The Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty," Journal
of Cuneiform Studies 20 (1966): 95-118; cf. W. G. Lambert, "Another Look
at Hammurabi's Ancestors," Journal of Cuneiform Studies 22 (1968): 1-2.
18 F. R.
Kraus, Konige die in Zelten
Hollandsche Uirgevers Maarschappij, 1965);
Tudiya with the Duddia of Assur, a vassal of Ebrum of Ebla.
128 / Bibliotheca Sacra -April-June 1977
and Nahor, Gen. 22:20-24; 25:1-4). Such semi-nomads could be-
come very influential and take over the government of an urban
The designation and characteristic functions of these groups
varied but little over the centuries. The Amorites (Amurru -"west-
erners" centered on Jebel Biri) are first named in texts from Fara
(ca. 2600 B.C.) and in a date formula of the reign of sar-kalli-sarri
(2250 B.C.) and last as an ethnic group in
of Ammisaduqa (ca. 1645 B.C.).20 The Habiru ('Apiru), though
occasionally mentioned in
and Alalah, are increasingly referred to as semi-nomads in the west
from the seventeenth century B.C. They performed similar functions
within the same general area as the Amorites and disappeared with
the Hurrians about the thirteenth century. Opinions are divided as
to whether these Hapiru (Egyptian 'prw) are to be equated with
the Hebrew 'ibri(m) linguistically or in function, since Habiru desig-
nates a sociological phenomenon rather than an ethnic group.21
The role of the semi-nomad is then taken up into the term Aramu
(Aramean), though before the thirteenth century this is already
used of a
place-name in the
B.C.) and at Mari, Alalah, Drehem, and
sumption that references to Arameans or to related groups must
always portray first millennium B.C. background is therefore open
to strong criticism. The designation Ara/i/bu (Arab) for semi-
sixth year among the allies facing him at the Battle of Qarqar (853
B.C.) and thereafter is primarily used by the Assyrians in their rare
rulers in northern
the Assyrian provincial system precludes this from being taken as
the background of the Abrahamic narratives.
It has been proposed that Amurru, (H)apiru, Aramu, and
Arabu are to be understood as dialectical variants, used at different
periods, of a term for "semi-nomad."23 Many attempts have been
made to identify "Abram the Hebrew" (Gen. 14:13, ha'ibri) with
the Habiru of their fellows; though lately it has been argued to be
19 E.g., the founders of second millennium dynasties: Naplanum at Larsa;
20 M. Liverani, "The Amorites," in Peoples of Old Testament Times, ed.
Donald J. Wiseman (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 100-133.
21 H. Cazelles, "The Hebrews," in Peoples of Old Testament Times, p. 23.
22 A. Malamat, "The Aramaeans," in Peoples of Old Testament Times, pp.
23 Ibid., p. 135.
Abraham the Hebrew / 129
a denominative from Eber (Gen. 10:21 ), now equated by some
with Ebrum king of
ences to the "Hebrew" slaves (Gen. 39:14, 17; Exod. -19; etc.)
to indicate these semi-nomadic groups rather than an identifiable
ethnic identification.24 However, there seems to be no logical re-
quirement for taking either "Abram the Hebrew" or "the ancestor
who was a roving Aramean" (Deut. 26:5, possibly Jacob) as late
interpolations, in the light of the early and frequent occurrences of
While it may be argued that the designation "Abraham the
Hebrew" accords with much of the traditions of the early semi-
nomads or Habiru, there is no certainty as to the meaning of the
word "Hebrew." Suggestions include "dusty ones" (epru); "provid-
ing/receiving subsidies" (eperu; 'pr);25 "transferred, without a stable
habitat" ('apr); "confederates" (ebru); "lord" (Hurr. ewri);26 or,
more likely, "one who passes through, crosses territory" ('eberu) ,
i.e., a stranger who has left his country and crossed a frontier or
"one who seeks a new means of existence after having lost his place
in the old order of things."27 Though this last agrees with the
Septuagint interpretation of Genesis 14:13, which describes Abra-
ham as "the wanderer, the transient, he who passes through," it can
be questioned whether this is in keeping with the stated life of the
ABRAHAM AND THE PROMISE OF THE LAND
The references to Abraham in the land are primarily concerned
with the land as promised to him by divine grant. This does appear
to place the Genesis narratives outside the limited theme of any
land which may be shown to have been inherited by semi-nomads
(even though the form or structure of the narrative does show
similarities with royal grants of land, as argued by Weinfeld).28
24 J. Weingreen, "Saul and Habiru," IVth World Congress of Jewish Studies
(Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1967), 1:63-66.
25 G. Posener, "Textes Egyptiens," in Le probleme des Habiru, ed. J.
Bottero (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1954), p. 166.
26 Cazelles, "The Hebrews," pp. 4-16; F. F. Bruce, in Archaeology and Old
Testament Study, ed. D. Winton Thomas (
Press, 1967), pp. 12-15.
27 Donald J. Wiseman, The Word
of God for Abraham and Today (
28 M. Weinfeld, "The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the
Ancient Near East," Journal of the American Oriental Society 90 (1970):
184-203; S. E. Loewenstamm, "The Divine Grants of Land to the Patriarchs,"
Journal of the American Oriental Society 91 (1971): 509-10.
130 / Bibliotheca Sacra -- April-June 1977
While such grants might associate tribes with sedentary groups,
Abraham is concerned not with his "nomadism" but with his status
as a "(resident-) alien" (ger), and a landless one at that (ger
wetosab). But this is when he is in Canaanite Kirjath-Arba bargain-
ing for a burial place for Sarai (Gen. 23:4; cf. 37:1; 35:27).29 All
other references to his status as a ger refer to his temporary resi-
dence outside the land granted him by God --
; cf. ; 47:49), in Gerar (20:1; cf. 26:3), and in the
cf. 28: 4 ) .
There is therefore no reason to think that Abraham considered
himself only temporary, or merely a transient, or without rights, in
the very land granted him by his God. In this lay the measure of
his faith, in claiming de facto and de jure what had been promised
by God de jure. Hebrews 11:14, 16 certainly agrees with this
interpretation, for there too the description of the great faith of this
"resident-alien and exile" (cf. "strangers or passing travellers,"
land (Heb. 11:9). This does not mean that he, like any man, was
unaware of the transitory nature of life or of the temporary status
of life on earth (cf. Ps. 39:12; 1 Chron. 29:15).
29 Manfred R. Lehmann's interpretation of this transaction as Hittite
("Abraham's Purchase of Machpelah and Hittite Law," Bulletin of the
American Schools of Oriental Research 129 : 15-18) has been ques-
tioned by Gene M. Tucker ("The Legal Background of Genesis 23," Journal
of Biblical Literature 85 : 77-84). However, Tucker's (and van Seters'
[Abraham in History and Tradition, p. 99]) equation of the literary structure
of Genesis 23 with Zweigesprachsurkunde (following Herbert Petschow,
"Die Neubabylonische Zwiegesprachsurkunde und Genesis 23," Journal of
Cuneiform Studies 19 : 103-20, a late neo-Babylonian form) ignores
the fact that this type of document occurs also in the earlier (old Babylonian)
period (Bibliotheca Orientalis 22 : 171; Cuneiform Texts in the British
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Dr. Roy Zuck
Please report any errors to Ted