Quiet Son, Loud Tribe

In Genesis 44, Jacob’s sons are in Egypt, and the youngest son becomes a pawn in his brother Joseph’s game. There are three distinct versions of the Torah that survive today. The Masoretic Text (MT) that is used by Jewish communities, the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Samaritan Bible. In the Samaritan Bible, Jacob’s twelfth son is Benjamim, with the letter M at the end. In the MT and LXX, it is Benjamin with the letter N.

Benjamin is pronounced Binyamin in the MT. While Binyamin is an individual in the Bible, Binu-Yamina first appears as a tribal group in the archaeological record.

The ancient city of Mari was discovered near the modern city of Tell Harir in Syria, west of the Euphrates River. The city was a trading center, bringing goods to and from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. The ancient city flourished in the 3rd millennium BCE, and peaked in the 18th century BCE, when it was destroyed by the Babylonian king Hammurabi. In the 1930s, a French run excavation of the site unearthed a massive palace complex that has produced over 20,000 documents, primarily in the East Semitic language of Akkadian.

Tablets found contain tribe names that begin with a logogram, a character that represents a word, for the word “son of.” The word could be read one way in the Mesopotamian language Akkadian, or as Binu in the Northwest Semitic language. There were two rival groups, the Binu-Sim’al and the Binu-Yamina.

The Binu-Yamina was a confederation of five Northwest Semitic speaking Amorite tribes: Yarihu, Amnanu, Rabbu, Yahruru and Uprapu. Geographically, they were spread from Mesopotamia to southern Syria. They began as nomads. One text describes the Binu-Yamina as ‘the one who digs up mushrooms at the foot of the mountain…who eats uncooked meat, who in his lifetime does not have a house, who one the day of his death will not be buried.’ Eventually the Binu-Yamina settled.

It is interesting to note that while the Benjamin character in the Bible is silent, the Benjamin tribe in the Bible is amongst the noisier ones. When Joshua leads the nation of Israel across the Jordan, his first attacks are at Jericho and Ai, both within the territory of Benjamin. In the Song of Deborah, in the Book of Judges, Benjamin is the second tribe praised for joining the fight. Israel’s first king was Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin. And the temples of the southern Kingdom of Judah and the northern Kingdom of Israel were in Jerusalem and Bethel, directly adjacent to Benjamin’s territory.

The Mari tablets are catalogued as Archives Royales de Mari (ARM). The vast trove of Mari tablets, including the Binu Yamina tablets, are held at the National Museum of Aleppo, the National Museum of Damascus, and the Deir ez-Zor Museum in Syria. Consult with the U.S. State Department for travel plans.

He Whom the Sun God Gave

In Genesis 39, Joseph was sold to into slavery to Potiphar, one of the pharaoh’s officials. In Parshat Miketz, Genesis 41, the pharaoh gave Joseph the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On, to marry. The names Potiphar and Potiphera can be viewed as being one and the same, as Egyptian writing does not always indicate vowels. Notwithstanding the similarities between the names Potiphar and Potiphera, and the similarities between the roles of slave master and father-in-law, the name Potiphera has significance.

Potiphera translates to “He whom Ra gave.” In the Egyptian pantheon, Ra is one of the, if not the, primary god. The Egyptian pantheon varied by location, with certain gods predominating in various locations, but Ra was commonly associated with the most important gods. In certain locations Ra was considered the creator. When the Egyptian New Kingdom rose to power, Ra was merged with a southern Upper Egyptian local god Amun to become the supreme god, Amun-Ra.

Ra was important for the Egyptians, as it was Ra who traveled by boat nightly taking the sun across the underworld. Without Ra, the sun could disappear under the horizon and never return. In Egyptian art, Ra is often featured with a human body, falcon head and the disk of the sun above his head, as is shown in the image above.

Understanding the importance of Ra in the Egyptian pantheon sheds light on a later story. When God punished the Egyptians with the ten plagues, the ninth plague was darkness. Darkness was not just an inconvenience. Darkness was a challenge to Ra, the Egyptian god who should have been able to deliver the sun and its light every morning.

The Stela of Potiphar is the first known mention of this specific name. It indicates that Potiphar/Potiphera was a prominent Egyptian official, keeper of the storehouse of Ptah, another Egyptian God. This monument dates to the 21st Dynasty, in the 11th or 10th century BCE. This is well after the date of the Joseph story in the Bible, but it is possible the name could have existed earlier. Comparable names with ‘Potipe-‘ followed by the name of another deity are known from the earlier 18th Dynasty. And the Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen argues that a version of “given of” a particular deity exists during Middle Kingdom Egypt, around the time of the Joseph story.

The Stela of Potiphar is held at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is catalogued as Cairo JE 65444.

Judah and the Five Finger Discount

In both Genesis 38 and in the archaeological record, Judah is preserved through acts of theft.

In the Book of Genesis, Judah is amongst the most prominent sons of Jacob. But in Genesis 38, he gets caught with his proverbial pants down. Judah’s oldest son married Tamar, but died before they had children. Judah’s second son married Tamar to help her produce a child, but for reasons you are free to investigate on your own, God killed Judah’s second son. Because Judah did not give Tamar his third son to marry her, Tamar put on a veil and dressed herself as a prostitute to attract Judah as a client. After completing her service, Judah did not have his payment on hand, so he gave her his seal, its cord, and his staff. Tamar stole these and left.

Later, when the unmarried Tamar was discovered to be pregnant, she was taken to be burnt to death. She sent Judah a message, that she is pregnant by the owner of the seal, its cord, and the staff. Judah owned up to it. Tamar’s theft of Judah’s belongings saved herself and the twins inside her, giving Judah two more sons and further preserving his lineage.

In the biblical book 2 Kings chapter 16, Ahaz the King of Judah appealed to Tiglath-Pileser, the king of Assyria, to save him from the kings of Aram and Israel. Ahaz took the gold and silver from the temple in Jerusalem and gifted it to the king of Assyria. Tiglath-Pileser attacked Aram and killed its king, saving the king of Judah.

The Assyrian Empire is considered to be the world’s first true empire, able to assert control over many nations, across a vast territory, for an extended period of time. In the 8th century BCE, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III led the march beyond the Assyrian heartland and its neighboring states, reaching the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.

Tiglath-Pileser III was also a great builder. At Kalhu, today’s Nimrud and 20 miles south of Mosul in Iraq, he built himself a palace. The interiors of the palace were designed with large scale inscriptions and images that recorded his many victories. Included was an inscription that records lands from which he received payment, including from Ammon, Moab, Ashkelon and from the king Jehoahaz of the land Judah. This is the first mention of an entity called Judah outside of the Bible and it corroborates an element of the biblical story, that the king (Jeho)ahaz paid tribute to Assyria. The inscription dates to 733 BCE.

The inscription was discovered in 1873, removed and taken to the British Museum in London. It is cataloged as the Kalhu Palace Summary Inscription 7, Nimrud Tablet K 3751, but is not currently on display. It can be seen in the following link: (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=309441&partId=1&people=92844&peoA=92844-4-7&page=1)

The practice of finding objects and removing them from the host country is a controversial one. The Elgin Marbles, the marble sculptures that ringed the Parthenon in Athens, were removed by the English and shipped back to London. Today they sit in the British Museum. Greece considers this to have been an act of theft, and seeks the return of the marble sculptures to their original location.

If the removal of the Kalhu Palace Summary Inscription 7 is theft, then once again the name Judah is preserved due to a five finger discount. In 2015, ISIS destroyed the archaeological site that contained the Kalhu Palace. The Kalhu Palace Summary Inscription 7 survived only in the safety of the British Museum.

Israel of the North

Mention the North and the South in the USA, and it conjures up images of the Civil War. The Bible too has its own North-South divide. After King Solomon’s reign, the United Monarchy of Kings David and Solomon split into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah, and they engaged in a ‘Civil War.’ There also appears to be a northern and southern divide between the Hebrew patriarchs.

The first patriarch was the monotheistic rebel Abraham. Abraham moved to the Negev, lived in Beersheba and then lived in the land of the Philistines, all in the south of Canaan. The third patriarch, Jacob, is more closely associated with the north. After escaping from his brother Esau, Jacob had his dream at Bethel, later the site of Israel’s rival temple to Judah’s temple in Jerusalem. Jacob headed north to Padam Aram, in today’s Syria, where he eventually engaged in marital union with the sisters Leah and Rachel. In Genesis 32, at the crossing of the river Jabbok, Jacob wrestled with an opponent, who then named him Israel. Jacob stayed in the north, moving to Shechem and then back to Bethel.

It is in the north that Jacob is given the name Israel. And it is in the north where archaeologists have unearthed the name Israel in the mid-2nd millennium BCE.

In the stages of human development, once humans settled into cities, life very much mirrored the way we live our lives today. People engaged in specialized economic activities and produced surpluses that could be traded for other necessities. Vast trade networks developed. Wood from Lebanon, copper from the Sinai, tin from Anatolia, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, finished products from Babylon and grain and linen from Egypt all moved great distances to reach their final destinations. Cities developed to support the international trade. Two such cities were Ugarit and Ebla.

Ugarit was a city in northern coastal Syria. It peaked between the 15th and 13th centuries BCE. Its inhabitants spoke a Northwest Semitic language and wrote in a cuneiform script. Further inland, Ebla was a major trading hub until it was destroyed at the end of the 17th century BCE. Its inhabitants spoke an Eastern Semitic language and wrote in a cuneiform script. Traders in both locations recorded their transactions on clay tablets, and major archives were unearthed at both Ugarit and Ebla. At each of these locations, tablets were unearthed that contained the personal name ‘Israel.’

At Ugarit, a text referenced as KTU 4.623.3 and shown in the image above, features a list of chariot warriors and includes one named Israel. At Ebla, a list of names included the name Israel. Notably, the suffix of the name Israel, -el, is the name of the chief Canaanite god El of the Canaanite epic Baal Cycle found at Ugarit. Thus Jacob receiving the name Israel in the north, where the name appears in different contexts, with the chief Canaanite god El appended to the name, demonstrates that Jacob’s new name Israel fits its time and location.

The Royal Jacob

In Parshat Vayetze Genesis 28, Jacob, or in Hebrew Yaakov, dreams of a ladder extending to the sky, with God above the ladder. God promises Jacob, “I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.” Jacob will be the progenitor of kings. While Jacob’s descendants will eventually become kings, there was a Jacob who was actual royalty.

Egypt is dominated by the Nile River, which flows north from the higher elevations of Upper Egypt in the south to the lower elevations of Lower Egypt in the north. In ancient Egypt, power fluctuated between kingdoms that were able to unify and control both Upper and Lower Egypt, and intermediate periods in which regional kings ruled parts of Upper or Lower Egypt, but not both.

The Old Kingdom controlled all of Egypt, but it eventually collapsed and gave way to the First Intermediate Period. By the turn of the 3rd millennium BCE the Middle Kingdom had consolidated power, but the center failed to hold and gave way to the Second Intermediate Period. Egypt was again united in the 16th century BCE by the New Kingdom, only to see centralized power falter and be followed by the Third Intermediate Period.

In both the periods of centralized rule and intermediate periods, kingship was passed down within the family, to form dynasties, until dynastic rule was interrupted and new dynasties arose. During the Second Intermediate Period, for example, the 13th through 17th Dynasties ruled at different times and in different locations in Egypt.

Amongst these dynasties in the Second Intermediate Period were non-Egyptian kings from western Asia. The 14th Dynasty was non-Egyptian west Asian. The 15th Dynasty was formed by a group from west Asia known as the Hyksos, likely from the term meaning ‘“rulers of foreign lands” or according the 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus, meaning “Shepherd-kings.”

In ancient Egypt, scarabs were small seals that were in the shape of a scarab beetle. Scarabs often contained names of kings. Numerous scarabs with the name Yakub-Her have been found in Sudan, Egypt and as far away as biblical Canaan. This name does not appear on any lists of Egypt’s kings, but the wide geographical range argues for Yakub-Her being an important royal figure and perhaps a king. There are debates about when he ruled, but estimates are in the 14th or 15th Dynasties, between the 18th through 16th centuries BCE.

Yakub-Her is not an Egyptian name, but has west Asian roots. Egyptians in the 2nd millennium BCE did not have the ‘L’ sound in their language, which would give an Egyptian pharaoh something in common with Kim Jong Il in the movie Team America. But Babylonians did have the sound for ‘L.’ And the name Yakub-El appears in earlier Babylonian contracts. Thus others read the name on the scarabs as Yakub-El or Yakub-Baal, appending the name Yakub with gods from the Canaanite epic Baal Cycle.

Given the number of Yakub-Her scarabs that were found, they are housed in a variety of locations. The British Museum has some in their collection. They are not on display, but can seen in the following link: (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=164468&partId=1&people=98041&page=2). One Yakub-Her scarab was also found in Tel Shikmona near Haifa, and is on display at the National Maritime Museum in Israel, near Haifa.

Placing Isaac’s Funny Name

In an episode of Even Stevphen on The Daily Show, the Reverend Stephen Colbert challenges Imam Steve Carell: “it’s God’s logic as written in the Bible, every word of which is true. And we know every word is true because the Bible says that the Bible is true, and, if you remember from earlier in this sentence: every word of the Bible is true. Now, are you following me here, or are you some kind of mindless zealot?”

Isaac is the central character of Parshat Toldot, encompassing Genesis chapters 25-28. Isaac’s name in Hebrew is Yitzchak, an unusual name. Its root derives from the Hebrew verb ‘to laugh,’ stemming from the elderly Sarah laughing when she heard she would give birth to a son, Isaac, at an advanced age. The Ugaritic epic Baal Cycle mentions the god El laughing with the same verb root, but the name Yitzchok does not appear elsewhere outside the Bible in the 2nd millennium BCE. As such, we need to rely on the Bible as the artifact to discover the earliest source of the name.

To the biblical literalist, the Bible is an exact recording of history. The first five books are commonly referred to as the Torah in Judaism and as the Pentateuch or the Law in Christianity, and were delivered to Moses at Mt. Sinai and completed by Moses sometime between the 15th-13th centuries BCE. This would be after the lifetime of Isaac, who was said to have lived in the early 2nd millennium.

To academics, guided by the requirements of the scientific method and need for supporting evidence, the case for the earliest mention of the name Yitzchak needs to be built. And one does not have to be a zealot to see how the Bible can provide that evidence.

In the academic realm, there is a debate as to when the Bible was written. Views range from the late 2nd millennium BCE to as late as the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. For those who argue for late authorship, the earliest evidence for the name Isaac comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls that were found near the Dead Sea and that date to the 2nd century BCE, or from the Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint. The Letter of Aristeas from the 2nd century BCE describes the translation of the Bible into Greek during the reign of the 3rd century BCE Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint thus provide a late 1st millennium BCE anchor for the mention of Isaac’s name.

The Book of Minor Prophets in the Jewish biblical canon consists of the writings of twelve prophets. For Christians, each of these prophets is considered its own book. There is a general consensus that the prophetic writings of Hosea and Amos can be reliably considered to be from the 8th century BCE.

In the Bible, after King Solomon’s reign, the United Monarchy split into two separate kingdoms: the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Hosea was a northerner and Amos was a southerner. Both warned the people of the northern kingdom to cease from their wicked ways or risk punishment from God. The writing styles of these two prophets differ, demonstrating unique authorship. Some argue that Hosea writes in a northern dialect of Hebrew, different from Amos’ Hebrew. Hosea and Amos reference the same kings, anchoring their works to a similar time in the 8th century BCE. One of those kings, Ahaz, is mentioned in the Summary Inscription of Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrian king. Amos mentions an earthquake, a significant enough event to be mentioned by the later prophet Zechariah and for which evidence may exist at important cities Hazor and Lachish.

In Amos 7:9, Amos writes “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.” The Hebrew version here is written with a variant spelling, Yitzchak with the letter for ‘tz’ replaced by an ‘s’, for Yischak. But in context this is the same character, thus Amos of the Minor Prophets of the Bible itself serves as an artifact from the 8th century BCE that preserves Isaac’s name.

A common argument is that the first five books of the Bible were written by a series of authors over an extended period of centuries. The claim is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. In this hypothesis, much of the material in the Book of Genesis, including the stories of Isaac, dates to as early as the 10th century BCE.

Thus even from an academic perspective, going back in time from the 2nd century BCE Dead Sea Scrolls, 3rd century BCE Septuagint, 8th century BCE prophet Amos, to the 10th century BCE Documentary Hypothesis, the name Isaac can gradually be shown to be closer to its time. Thus in a small way regarding the earliest mention of Isaac, the Reverend Stephen Colbert is correct: the Bible can in fact be used to prove itself.

Abraham From the East

Names can be a good indicator of time and place. In 10th century England, AEthelwold, Eadwig and Dunstan were popular names. By the 15th century, John, William, Robert, Henry and Richard had supplanted those names in popularity. In the English speaking United States today, one can find names such as Ishmaa’ily Yuwsha Kitchen, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Frostee Rucker represented at the East West College Bowl. Different eras tend to feature distinct names. One would not expect names such as William, Robert and Henry in 10th century England, just as one would not expect the names Ha Ha, D’Brickashaw and Frostee in 15th century England. Literature that takes place in a specific time period should have names that reflect the time period.

Abraham is the progenitor of the generations that are listed in Genesis 25. Based on the name, Abraham is true to his time and place.

An article written in 1909 by George Barton in the Journal of Biblical Literature discusses a series of letters from the early 2nd millennium BCE that were found in Dilbat, modern day Tell al-Deylam, Iraq, south of Borsippa and near the Euphrates River. The letters were written in cuneiform, the wedge shaped script.

There were five letters between a farmer who rented a small plot of land from the owner, Sin-iddin. The small farmer’s name has a variety of spellings: A-ba-am ra-am, A-ba-ra-ma, and A-ba-am-ra-ma. These all read as variations of the name Abraham. This farmer is not the same as the biblical character. This farmer’s father’s name was Amil-Ishtar; Abraham of the Bible’s father’s name was Terah. This farmer’s brother was Iddatum; Abraham of the Bible’s brothers were Nahor and Haran.

Working backwards in time from later biblical stories, the setting for the Abraham story falls out in the early 2nd millennium. Earlier in the Book of Genesis, Abraham is said to have come from Ur Kasdim, which may have been in Mesopotamia in southern Iraq. There is no overt evidence for the biblical figure Abraham. He was not the leader of a large empire able to produce monumental buildings or employ dedicated scribes, and the stories of his life indicate that he lived a nomadic life, which would reduce the odds of him producing any long lasting artifacts. But based on name alone, Abraham’s name seems to fit its time in the early 2nd millennium BCE and its place in Mesopotamia, in southern Iraq.

One of, and perhaps all of, the letters was held by the Royal Museum of Berlin, catalogued as VAT (Vorderasiatische Abteilung Tontafel) 1473. The Royal Museum of Berlin no longer carries the same name, but the letters should continue to be held at the Vorderasiatisches Museum within the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.


Place names can be indicator of a location’s history, and the values that location holds in high esteem. Washington D.C., (Abraham) Lincoln, Nebraska, Louisville, Knoxville, Nashville and Kiryas Joel all carry the name of figures that its founders deemed important or representative of its values. The same might be said of Abraham of the Bible.

In Genesis 17, God tells Abram that his name is to be changed to Abraham. With this freshly minted name, in Genesis 20 Abraham settles in the Negev, the southern region of the land of Canaan. If God’s order for Abraham to leave Haran had Abraham pass through northern Canaan, it is in south where Abraham eventually settles.

In the biblical book of 2 Chronicles, in Chapter 12, the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak invades the southern kingdom of Judah. He conquers the fortified cities of Judah and then marches on Jerusalem. He attacks Jerusalem and loots the temple and the royal palace.

In Egyptian records, Shoshenq I was a mid to late 10th century BCE pharaoh and the founder of the 22nd Dynasty during the Third Intermediate Period. There is not unanimous agreement about whether Shishak and Shoshenq are one and the same, but the general consensus is that these are the same person.

Over the course of Egypt’s history, the primary capitals of Egypt were Memphis in the north, near today’s Cairo, and Thebes in the south, today’s Luxor. If the pyramids at Giza, outside of Cairo, are Egypt’s most important tourist site, the Karnak Temple in Luxor is a close second. Karnak Temple is one of the world’s largest temple complexes, developed over the course of nearly 2000 years BCE.

The central temple of the Karnak Temple complex is the Temple of Amun-Ra. Within the Temple of Amun-Ra is the Bubastite Portal gate. Photos of the Bubastite Portal gate can be seen with the following link: (http://dlib.etc.ucla.edu/projects/Karnak/feature/BubastitePortal). The Bubastite Portal records a list of Shoshenq I’s military victories. Much of the list is no longer legible, so the exact sites are not all known. The list that can be deciphered does not include Jerusalem, but covers a wide swath of the area corresponding to Canaan. Shoshenq lists sites across the coastal plain, the Shephelah, Megiddo, Jezreel and the Negev. In an article written in 1911 in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, M. G. Kyle argues that the locations listed on lines 71 and 72 combined have a possible reading of ‘Field of Abram.’

If ‘Field of Abram’ is indeed the correct reading, then in the 10th century BCE, Abraham’s original name could be identified with a place in a region that the Bible says Abraham settled. This would be an indication that at that time, for that Negev location’s inhabitants, Abram was an important enough figure worthy of having an area named for him, a veritable Abrahamville.


Abraham, One God and Two Rivers

In Genesis Chapter 12, God commands Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s home, to the land that God will show him. Abraham was born in Ur Kasdim, his family moved to Haran and it was there that God gave Abraham his marching orders.

In Genesis Chapter 14, Abraham makes a statement that is considered to be an affirmation of his monotheistic belief in the one God. He refuses gifts from the king of Sodom, because he doesn’t want the king to claim that he is the source of Abraham’s wealth. Instead, Abraham says, “I lift up my arms to the Lord, the Most High God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.” Abraham puts his trust in God.

The idea of Abraham introducing a new idea called monotheism fits its time and place. One of the challenges in analyzing the stories of Abraham is the lack of archaeological evidence. Given the nature of Abraham’s nomadic lifestyle, this lack of evidence is to be expected. Instead, academics often assign the title of the ‘first monotheist’ to figures such as the Persian Zoroaster or the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. But the idea of a religious revolutionary emerging from Ur Kasdim or Haran in the late 3rd millennium and early 2nd millennium fits what we know about human development.

The word Mesopotamia comes from the Greek term ‘between rivers.’ The land mass of Mesopotamia extends from eastern Turkey, through eastern Syria into Iraq, and sits between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were instrumental in making Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization.

Once upon a time, humans were hunter-gatherers. They lived in small groups that would hunt and forage for food, taking them far afield in search of sustenance. Evidence of abstract religious thought in these groups is limited to cave art, figurines and people buried with jewelry, tools and other grave goods.

The Tigris and Euphrates were a reliable source of fresh water. People in Mesopotamia dug irrigation channels that allowed them to cultivate grains and domesticate animals. The new farming technology produced food surpluses, which in turn allowed humans to concentrate on other activities such as building, fishing, clothing manufacturing and trade. Humans no longer had to wander to find food, but could settle in homes near the irrigation channels. Small villages developed, then cities, and then city-states.

The growing cities created the need for new classes of jobs: administrators, traders, judges and policemen. Writing was invented to manage trade, and created a class of scribes. The larger cities could now also support a priestly class. Religion became more complex. Legends were created about about the various gods in the pantheon. Some of these legends, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, were committed to print. Thus the presence of the reliable waters of the Tigris and Euphrates helped create a civilization with a complex religion.

In Genesis Chapter 11, Abraham is born in Ur Kasdim. There are different opinions about its location, some associating Ur Kasdim with the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Iraq, and others with Sanliurfa in southeastern Turkey. Both of these cities are in Mesopotamia. Abraham’s father took his family to Haran. Haran is a city mentioned the Bible’s prophetic book Isaiah and in 2 Kings, and has been positively identified with Altinbasak, Turkey.

Thus we see that Abraham roots are in Mesopotamia. Given the location, and the development of increasingly complex religion in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium, it is conceptually understandable how a religious revolutionary such as Abraham could have arisen from this area.

God’s Name in Canaan

Archaeology can often provide historical context for stories in the Bible. Finds from coastal northern Syria shed light on God’s name in the Bible.

In Genesis Chapter 6, “God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. (KJV)”

In the Hebrew Bible, God’s name here is ‘Elohim.’ Derivations of this name for God appear across the Hebrew Bible, in the names Elohim, El, El Elyon (Most High God), El Olam (Everlasting God), El Shaddai (God Almighty) and El Roi (the God who sees me). The one commonality is that ‘El’ is at the root of all these different names.

The term ‘Canaanites’ is commonly used to refer to groups of people who lived in the region of the Southern Levant extending up the coast to include Lebanon and parts of Syria. These groups spoke a Northwest Semitic language related to Hebrew.

Ras Shamra is a city in northern coastal Syria. In 1928, the ancient city of Ugarit was accidentally discovered at Ras Shamra, waking Ugarit’s remains after a 3000-year slumber. Though individual cities of the Levant had their own unique elements, Ugarit is still classified as being Canaanite.

The Ugaritic people spoke a Northwest Semitic language. It was an important city, as evidence by a fortified wall, and it was well positioned on the coast for trade with empires further inland. With dating based on earlier objects associated with Egyptian pharaohs, the city appears to have peaked in the mid-2nd millennium. Amongst the findings at Ugarit were a series of mythological texts, written in a cuneiform script, that together are known as the Baal Cycle. These stories shed light on Canaanite beliefs.

In the Canaanite pantheon of gods, Yam is the god of the sea, Mot is the god of death and the underworld, and Baal the god of lightening and weather. In the Baal Cycle, these gods vie for supremacy. These gods are also brothers, children of the supreme god El. In one of the plot turns of the Baal Cycle, Baal complains that he needs a palace because he is still living in his father El’s house. Thus we see that the Bible’s identification of El as God, though uniquely alone and without the other gods, is consistent with the region’s identification of El as the chief god of the pantheon. The Bible’s reverence for El fits its ancient historical context.

The original Baal Cycle documents, important for linking the Bible to the past, can be seen today. Tablets can be viewed at the Louvre Museum in Paris or without moving anywhere by clicking on the following link: http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=21646

Another portion of the tablets are housed at The National Museum of Aleppo, Syria, referenced here: (http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_ugaritic_baal_myth). For the time being, I would not advocate travel there.

Next Week: Abraham and Geography