Digging Into The Past With Ferrell Jenkins

The Patriarchal Dispensation

Temple Terrace, Florida

The great wealth of archaeological information available may be illustrated by Hazor. The site here is made up of an upper city of 30 acres and a lower city of 175 acres. Between 1955 and 1958 professor Yigael Yadin, working with a staff of 30 archaeologists and a crew of over 100 laborers, excavated 1/400 of the site, or 1/1,600 per season. Albright says Yadin "has suggested that it would take eight hundred years of about four or five months work (the normal season is three months) per year to clear the entire site" (W. F. Albright, New Horizons in Biblical Research, p. 3). Yamauchi points out that there are a number of sites in the Near East that are larger than Hazor; Babylon, for example, covered 2,500 acres (Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Stones, Scripts, and Scholars," Christianity Today, Feb. 14,' 1969, p. 10). He says that an overly optimistic estimate indicates that we still have less than 1/1,000 of the possible evidence from the ancient Near East. Even though this is so, there is so much material available that, in this series, we must be highly selective.

Archaeological Periods

The Biblical archaeologist has his own set of terms to describe the various periods of time. There is some variation in this system, so we have adopted that by J. A. Thompson in The Biblical World, p. 61-62, and have added a few comments to assist the reader in placing these periods.

Mesolithic (Natufian) Pre-Pottery Neolithic ca. 8000-6000 B. C

Pottery Neolithic ca. 6000-5000 B. C

Pre-Pottery Neolithic ca. 5000-4000 B. C

Chalcolithic ca. 4000-3200 B. C

Early Bronze (EB) ca. 3200-2100 B. C


Middle Bronze (MB) ca. 2100-1550 B. C.

(Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph)

Late Bronze (LB) ca. 1550-1200 B. C

(Moses, Exodus, Conquest)

Iron I ca. 1200- 900 B.C.

(Judges and United Kingdom)

Iron II ca. 900- 600 B. C

(Divided Kingdom)

Iron III ca. 600- 300 B. C.

(Exile and Return)

Hellenistic (Greecian) ca. 300- 63 B.C

(Between the Testaments)

Roman ca. 63 B.C.- 323 A.D.

(New Testament Period)

Byzantine ca. 323- 636 A.D

Islamic ca. 636 A. D. to present

Patriarchal Customs

There is no specific mention of Abraham or one of the patriarchs in archaeological records. The records do supply a wealth of background information on the period. The civilization of Ur was already old when Abraham was born. The houses of his time were two stories and included a lavatory and kitchen (See illustration in D. J. Wiseman, Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology, p. 22-23.)

At least five law codes older than the Law of Moses are known to have existed in the Middle East. They are the Code of Hammurabi, Hittite laws, Lipit-Ishtar, Eshnunna and Ur-Nammu. These laws reflect the moral and religious conditions of the time of the patriarchs. Many points in the Pentateuch are more clearly understood because of these finds. The Nuzi tablets, written in the Akkadian language, provide a primary source of information about life in northern Mesopotamia.

Sarah's action in suggesting that Abraham have a child by Hagar was typical of a practice allowed by both the Nuzi tablets and the Code of Hammurabi in the case of a barren wife (Gen. 16:1-2). Horn says "In no other period besides the patriarchal age do we find this strange custom" (Siegfried H. Horn "Recent Illumination of the Old Testament," Christianity Today, June 21, 1968, p. 14.)

Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils (Gen. 25:27-34). The Nuzi tablets tell of one Tupkitilla who sold his inheritance rights to his brother for three sheep.

The practice of the father selecting the wife for his son was a common practice among the patriarchs and their contemporaries (Gen. 24:10).

Kelso calls traveling Abraham an "international business genius" (James Kelso, Archaeology and Our Old Testament Contemporaries.) A Babylonian tablet contains a contract for the rental of a wagon with the stipulation that it not be driven to the Mediterranean coastland. This shows that such travel was ordinary (J. P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History, p. 57).

Towns like Shechem, Bethel, Haran, and Gerar, visited by Abraham, have been excavated and are known to have existed during the Early Bronze and Middle Bronze periods. These towns lie in the zone where annual rainfall is sufficient to have provided for his livestock (Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, p. 21.)

While many patriarchal customs were simply reflections of their age, such can not be said of their religious life. Their relationship to Jehovah was unique and the moral standards required by Him higher.

Abraham's Possessions in Egypt

Gen. 12:16 mentions sheep, oxen, asses, and camels among Abraham's possessions in Egypt. Such animals are portrayed on the walls of the temple of Hatshepsut and in the tomb of Ti at Saqqara. At one time critics spoke of the mention of camels in Egypt at this time as an error (See 1940 ed. of Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Free summarizes the evidence that shows that this account is historically accurate:

"Archaeological evidence showing early knowledge of the camel in Egypt includes statuettes and figurines of camels, rock carvings and drawings, camel bones, a camel skull, and a camel hair rope. These objects, some twenty in number, range from the seventh century B.C. to the period before 3000 B. C." (Free, op. cit., p. 55)

It is interesting to note that horses are not included among Abraham's stock, whereas later there is an emphasis on the fine Egyptian horses (cf. 1 Kings 10:28-29). It has been learned that the Hyksos rulers introduced the horse into Egypt hundreds of years after Abraham was there (ca. 1675-1567 for Hyksos period). (MacRae, Biblical Archaeology, p. 12)


Scores of helpful illustrations from the patriarchal period are now available to the Bible student. One good book on this period is The Patriarchal Age, by Charles F. Pfeiffer. It, like the other books mentioned, is available from the Truth Magazine Book Store and sells for $2.95.

April 1969