Old Testament Study – The Period of the Patriarchs
We now move into the second period of Old Testament history: the period of the Patriarchs, or Fathers. In this period, amongst other things, we find the biblical account of the beginnings of a distinction between racial groups. And from amongst the varied groupings God selects for himself one man, a man through whom he would found one of these new-born nations, through whom He would work in a special and unique way to provide salvation, and to redeem mankind from the fall.
Before we begin to look at the events of this period, however, we must deal with an issue of prolegomenal import. It must be understood that the Bible was written in the language and the thought-forms of the ancient world. As such, it reflects to a great degree an ancient oriental and — often — specifically semitic understanding of the nature of things. This simple fact has the gravest of consequences for our understanding of scripture.
The major problem we face is that the milieu which produced the scriptures is not our milieu. It is the sitz-im-lieben, the life setting, of another time, a time with which, due to its distance, we can never hope to have more than cordial familiarity. The task of the biblical interpreter is in reality quite akin to that of the
linguistic translator: he must take the words spoken by one individual and attempt to express them in the language and setting of another.
The linguistic translator, to be proficient at his task, must be intimate not only with languages between which he is translating but a good deal of the culture of both the speaker and his audience as well. A Spanish-to-English interpreter, then, must of necessity be thoroughly acquainted not just with the two languages in question, but also with both Spanish culture (so that he may properly understand what is being said) and American culture (so that he can figure out how best to say it). The smallest misunderstanding in this regard can have disastrous effect. Many of you will no doubt recall the incident
during then-president Jimmy Carter’s tour of Poland in which Carter expounded his love of the Polish people. When this was translated into Polish as “I lust for you”, the unfortunate interpreter’s simple
error almost destroyed the international good-will Carter’s trip had been calculated to build.
The Bible translator must take documents which were produced not only in a foreign language but also a foreign culture and a foreign time and place, and must translate the message expressed into modern
terms. He must understand, then, not only ancient Hebrew but also the ancient semitic and oriental cultures, customs, and views of the universe. Lacking, then, a bonafide representative of these cultures
to instruct us, how does one gain such knowledge? Most of what we do know of these cultures and customs comes from the discoveries of archaeology. Archaeology, Indiana Jones not withstanding, is the slow, painstaking and nearly always exceedingly dull uncovering of the remains of ancient cities, the close scrutiny of such minutiae as the foundation patterns of buildings, the layout of ancient streets and
walls, the study of bits of pottery and the utensils of government, of warfare, and of eating for that matter, and the attempt to come to some sort of understanding of their significance. Only infrequently is an archaeologist fortunate enough to stumble onto that rarest of archaeological finds, a written document.
Yet in terms of the advancement of our understanding of those ancient peoples nothing can be of greater value, and the twentieth century has seen a veritable flood of such discoveries. Since 1928 there have been literally thousands of such documents discovered, from every part of the ancient world, so that as the twentieth century draws to a close we find ourselves with a greater understanding of the ancient world than at any time in history. In particular and for the purposes of this study, we will concern ourselves with finds dating from the world of the contemporaries of Abraham and his descendants.
One of the first of these modern finds was the discovery at Alah of a large number of documents dating between 1900 and circa 1780 B.C. and again from the 15th century B.C. Alah is located near the eastern
end of the Mediterranean in modern Syria, north of Tyre and Sidon, and not far from the Antioch of New Testament Times. These documents have shed much light on the worlds of ancient Syria and the Hittite empire.
A second group of documents, discovered near Amarna in 1887, consists of a group of over 350 documents. Amarna is located halfway between the ancient sites of Thebes and Memphis, cities which at one time served as throne cities of the Egyptian pharaohs. These documents have since been dated to the time of Amenhotep IV in the late 15th and early 14th centuries B.C. These documents came from the royal archives and are, in large part, frank, personal letters from various of the foreign kings and officers from not only the likes of Edom and Philistia, but as far away as Mitanni, Babylonia and Phoenicia as well. They are thus of inestimable value to our understanding of the politics not only of Egypt of the day, but also of most of the ancient world.
Yet another treasure trove was discovered at the site of ancient Mari. Here, beginning in 1933, was unearthed the royal city of Zimrilim, king of Mari. In the center of the city lay the royal palace, consisting of more than 250 rooms, including several classrooms yielding a small library of instructional materials which have provided us with insight into both the education of the day and the state of learning in general. Of greatest import to us here, however, is the discovery of the royal archives in which were unearthed more
than 20,000 documents, consisting in part of more than 5000 letters to the king from district offices of the state of Mari, along with diplomatic letters from all parts of the ancient world, including Hamurapi, king of Babylon, before whose later advances Zimrilim himself was to fall. These documents too date to about the 18th century B.C. and shed much additional light on the world of Abraham’s day.
There were, in addition to these, discoveries made at sites along the Tigris River of more than 20,000 clay tablets, and at Ras Shamra, near the site of an ancient Ugarit city on the Mediterranean a little south of Alah, in Syrian territory, consisting of more than 350 documents from the 14th century B.C.
The discovery which has occasioned greater debate amongst archaeologists and historians than any other, however, was the unearthing in 1975 of more than 15,000 tablets from a site at Tell Mardikh in northwestern Syria. It had become clear over the preceding 8 years that Tell Mardikh was in fact the ancient site of the city of Ebla which, it had long been suspicioned, had comprised the center of
something of an empire in the 16th and 15th centuries B.C. Beginning in 1975, however, the documents issuing forth from the find were making it increasingly clear that the Eblaite empire was of such astonishing size and import that virtually all of ancient history would have to be rewritten in light of it. It was, said David Noel Freedman of the University of Michigan, as if after 2,000 years we suddenly discovered the Roman Empire.
To date more than 20,000 tablets have been uncovered at Ebla, and by some estimates it will take as much as two hundred years to explore the site and to properly assess its importance. But already we have
discovered documents from nearly every facet of ancient life. Documents describing international commerce demonstrate that Ebla’s economic empire stretched from Sinai in the south to Mesopotamia in
the east. As a major center of trade during the 3rd millennium B.C., it controlled east-west trade routes for grain and livestock to the west, and timber from Lebanon in the south and metals and textiles from Anatolia (the home of the Hittites, whose existence had at last been authenticated beyond dispute). Documents from the court describing tribute paid by various vassal states helps us to comprehend the extent of Ebla’s political domination. And in addition we have learned much of her arts (she was a flourishing cultural center), her history and literature, and her legal systems, and those of many of her contemporaries as well.
Of perhaps particular interest here are some of the corroborations of Biblical passages which had hither been held in some disregard by historians. Among these is a list of the cities of the Canaanite plain — given in the same order as in Genesis 14:2. In addition, we find preserved here copies of some of the ancient
Canaanite religious rites and literature, including Canaanite stories of the Creation and of a great Flood. The Creation story is most notable in its close parallel of the Biblical account, reading, in part, “There was a time when there was no heaven, and Lugal [`the great one’] formed it out of nothing; there was no earth, and Lugal made it; there was no light, and he made it.”
Though recent archaeological discoveries have been numerous, it has been these six finds which have been of greatest aid to us in our understanding of the world of the early and pre-Old Testament period.
From them we have learned much of the language, the customs, the laws, geography and politics of the time of Abraham and his descendants, and these have in turn taught us much about the biblical message. Our knowledge of ancient treaty rites, for example, will, as we shall see, shed much light on a proper understanding not only of several previously obscure biblical incidents but on the relationship between
God and his people as well. For those who are interested in a good survey of modern biblical archaeology, together with a sampling of translations of some of the more important documents, I cannot too highly recommend _The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Pictures and Text_, by James. B. Pritchard of the University of Pennsylvania.
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