Bibliotheca Sacra 134 (April-June 1977) 123-30

Copyright 1977 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.


Abraham in

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

reevaluated in the light of the recent texts discovered at Ebla, which

reveal for the first time the history, language, and culture of the

Upper Euphrates in the latter half of the third millennium B.C.2


1 John van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven, CT:

Yale University Press, 1975); Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the

Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (Berlin: Walter

de Gruyter, 1974).

2 Giovanni Pettinato, "Testi cuneiformi del 3. millenium in paleo-cananeo

rinvenuti nelta campagna 1974 a Tell MardIkh=Ebla," Orientalia 44 (1975):

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

B.C. origin.

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

chronological identification.6




Was Abraham a "nomad"? The Genesis account relates the

movements of Abraham primarily in relation to two factors: the


nationale, Birmingham, England, July 8, 1976; cf. also his article, "The

Royal Archives of Tell Mardikh-Ebla," The Biblical Archaeologist 39 (May

1976): 44-52. It is reported that these texts make reference to Canaan, Pales-

tine, and Syria ca. 2300 B.C. Many place-names may prove to be local to Ebla,

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.

5 Ibid.

6 Donald J. Wiseman, "Israel's Literary Neighbours in the Thirteenth Century

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

took Abram his son and Lot. . . and Sarai . . . and they went

forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of

Canaan" (Gen. 11:31). En route at Haran after Terah's death the

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

is no reason to assume that a journey from southern Mesopotamia

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 Ur (of the Chaldees) is to be identi-

fied with Ura' (modern Urfa' fifteen miles northwest of Haran)9

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.

11:23; Turch [Terah] and Nahur [Nahor] , Gen. 24:10) would

still be evidence against van Seters' late date for such allusions.

Moreover, emphasis is placed on the crossing of the Euphrates

River ('Eber nari,' cf. Josh. 24:2-3).

Genesis places no stress on Abraham's "nomadism"; it merely

states that he moved in response to the divine call from Haran to

the land of Canaan, with no detail of that land which he crossed,

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

that here (as subsequently near Bethel, Hebron, and at Beersheba)

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

(1964): 57-88.

9 Cyrus H. Gordon, "Abraham and the Merchants of Ura," Journal of

Near Eastern Studies 17 (1958): 28-31.

10 H. W. F. Saggs, "Ur of the Chaldees," Iraq 22 (1960): 200-209.

126 / Bibliotheca Sacra -April-June 1977


of the land as a token of its take-over.11 A further journey to Bethel,

near which another altar was erected and named in association with

a "tent-site" (Gen. 12:8), was followed by a short journey south-

ward. Following the diversion to Egypt due to famine (Gen.

12:10-20), Abraham returned to the promised land, to the previ-

ously occupied tent- and altar-site near Bethel (13:4).

Following the separation from Lot, which sprang from local

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

(13:17; 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 (13:18) 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 bordered Beersheba. The latter was taken

over and was marked as a special place by tent and altar and

"sacred tree," to become the symbol of the southernmost part of

the promised land stretching "from Dan to Beersheba." The refer-

ences to "tents" used by Abraham's successors refer principally to

these same sites except for the use of a tent by Lot prior to his

establishing a permanent lodging in a house in Sodom (13:12; cf.

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 Genesis picture is not specifically one of semi-nomadism

though it could be compared in some features with the well-docu-

mented nomadism of Syria and the Upper Euphrates region in the


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

throughout history to north and south Arabia. They are distinct

from the true self-sufficient long-range "external nomadism" of

central Asia and central Arabia. The short-range semi-nomads

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 (Aram).16 The long continuity of this tradition can be

illustrated from the traditional genealogies of the second millennium

B.C. (Hammurapi);17 Assyria (King List);18 and Israel (Abraham


13 R. Giveon, Les bedouins shosou des documents egyptiens (Leiden: E. J.

Brill, 1971); also references are made to nomads in the Ebla texts.

14 M. B. Rowton, "Autonomy and Nomadism in Western Asia," Orientalia

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 [1968]: 221-32).

16 A. Malamat, "Aspects of Tribal Society," in La Civilisation de Mari,

ed. J. R. Kupper (Liege: Bibliotheque de la Faculte de Philosophie et Lettres

de l'Universite de Liege, 1967), pp. 129-38.

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 wohnten (Amsterdam: N. V. Noord-

Hollandsche Uirgevers Maarschappij, 1965); cf. Ebla text linking the "ancestor"

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 Babylonia in the time

of Ammisaduqa (ca. 1645 B.C.).20 The Habiru ('Apiru), though

occasionally mentioned in Syria (Brak, Syria, ca. 2200 B.C.), Mari,

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 Upper Euphrates (Naram-Sin, ca. 2350

B.C.) and at Mari, Alalah, Drehem, and Egypt,22 Van Seters' as-

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-

nomads in the Damascus area is first attested in Shalmaneser III's

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

references to rulers in northern Arabia. At this time the existence of

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;

Sumu-Abum at Babylon; Abdi-Erah at Kish; and Yaggid-Lim at Mari.

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 Ebla ca. 2300 B.C. Others consider the refer-

ences to the "Hebrew" slaves (Gen. 39:14, 17; Exod. 1:15-19; 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

both terms.

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





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 (New York: Oxford University

Press, 1967), pp. 12-15.

27 Donald J. Wiseman, The Word of God for Abraham and Today (London:

Westminster Chapel, 1959), p. 11.

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 -- when in Egypt (Gen.

12:10; cf. 15:13; 47:49), in Gerar (20:1; cf. 26:3), and in the

territory of Abimelech (21 :23-34). Lot is also called a ger in

Sodom (19:9), and Jacob is a ger when in Laban's territory (23:4;

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,"

NEB) lays stress on his settling, albeit as a foreigner, in the promised

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 [1953]: 15-18) has been ques-

tioned by Gene M. Tucker ("The Legal Background of Genesis 23," Journal

of Biblical Literature 85 [1966]: 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 [1965]: 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 [1965]: 171; Cuneiform Texts in the British

Museum [London: British Museum, 1964], vol. 45, no. 60).




This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dr. Roy Zuck

Dallas Theological Seminary

3909 Swiss Ave.

Dallas, TX 75204

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