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Oxford Bible Atlas Contextualizes the stories and lands of the Bible through user-friendly maps and illustrations.

The Setting of the Genesis Stories

Adrian Curtis

The Book of Genesis is set against a wide geographical background. At first, the setting is Mesopotamia. The story of the Garden of Eden mentions a river flowing from the garden which divided into four rivers branches, two of which are the great rivers which gave Mesopotamia its name (‘between the rivers’), the Tigris and the Euphrates (Gen. 2: 14 ). The other rivers mentioned there cannot be identified with certainty. The story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11: 1–9 ) is doubtless based on the memory of the great ziggurat or temple‐tower of Babylon. It was from Ur in southern Mesopotamia that Abraham is said to have set out and travelled via Haran in north Mesopotamia to Canaan (Gen. 11: 31–12: 9 ). The wives of both Isaac (Gen. 25: 20 ) and Jacob (Gen. 28: 5 ) are said to have come from Paddan‐aram in Aram‐naharaim, the Hebrew equivalent of Mesopotamia (meaning Aram‐of‐the‐two‐rivers) but often referring to Upper Mesopotamia in particular. Although Abraham is said to have travelled as far as Egypt (Gen. 12: 10–20 ) it is primarily with Joseph that the scene shifts to Egypt (Gen. 39–50 ). Joseph is said to have married the daughter of the priest of On, that is, Heliopolis (Gen. 41:45 ). The story ends with a reference to his mummification (Gen. 50: 26 ). Abraham is also said to have encountered Hittites, albeit in Canaan, and to have purchased from one of them—Ephron—a piece of land with a cave in it in which to bury Sarah (Gen. 23 ).

It is therefore appropriate for readers of the Bible to have some knowledge of the wider ancient Near Eastern context in which the writers set the stories, and a brief overview of the earliest history of the region follows. The accompanying map reflects approximately the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE.

©Corbis (Michael S Yamashita)

The Trustees of the British Museum

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