We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Ancestral Narratives in the Light of Second-Millennium Discoveries

It is no exaggeration to say that the Ugaritic tablets have revolutionized the study of the Bible. Until their discovery, we had almost no direct information about Canaanite religion. The discoveries at Ugarit opened up for the first time a major part of the Canaanite religio-mythological background, out of which Israelite religion developed, and have allowed us to see the enormous number of Canaanite reflexes in the Bible. They have provided insight into the earliest period of biblical religion by illuminating aspects of the ancestral narratives of Genesis that preserve authentic ancient memories. In addition, the epic tales have thematic parallels to biblical texts and thus have helped develop new understanding about the literary nature of the Genesis narratives. Ugaritic poetry is closely related to the style of Hebrew poetry and has shed light on a number of their common characteristics. Ugaritic vocabulary, being closely related to Hebrew, can often clarify obscure passages in the biblical text. At the same time, there is a danger in drawing too many parallels between Ugarit and biblical Israel. Scholars have sometimes assumed that the Canaanite culture of Palestine was identical to that of Ugarit, and they have reached conclusions about Israel's relationship to Canaanite culture that go beyond the evidence. Although a cultural connection existed between Ugarit, Palestinian Canaan, and Israel, each was in many ways distinctive. Caution is always necessary when using Ugaritic culture as a point of comparison to Israel.

Perhaps the most significant pre-Israelite element in the ancestral narratives is the name of the deity whom Israel's progenitors worshiped. The biblical narratives themselves indicate that Israel recognized a discontinuity between the ancestral religion and its own. To understand this, we must look briefly at some of the names of Israel's God found in the biblical texts.

The most common name by which the God of Israel is identified in the Bible is Yahweh. But he is also referred to as 'elohim, “God,” and 'el, the latter related to, but distinct from, the former. While the name 'el is sometimes used as a title (meaning “the god”), it most often occurs in the Bible as a proper name, thus El. All three of these names appear in the ancestral narratives, but Yahweh is used primarily by the source J, and sparingly by the other two. Both E and P declare that the name Yahweh was revealed first to Moses, and therefore had been unknown to the ancestors. This is most clearly indicated in the Priestly account of God's revelation of the name Yahweh to Moses in Exodus 6.2–3 : “I am Yahweh; I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shadday, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.” El Shadday is often translated “God Almighty,” but it apparently means “El (proper name), the Mountain One.” This passage preserves a tradition that the ancestors worshiped God under the name El. This tradition is further sustained by a number of passages in the ancestral narratives in which the name El appears, usually with a descriptive epithet. For example, in Genesis 14.18–20 Melchizedek, the king of Jerusalem, is described as a priest of El Elyon, “El, the Exalted One,” creator of heaven and earth. Verse 22 identifies El Elyon with Yahweh. In 21.33 , Abraham calls on Yahweh El Olam, “El, the Eternal One.” In 33.20 , Jacob builds an altar on the land he purchases from the people of Shechem and names the altar El-elohe-Yisrael, which means, “El is the God of Israel.” And finally, the name Israel (Yisra'el) itself contains the name El—“El contends.”

The significance of this tradition is that while the name Yahweh relates virtually exclusively to Israel, the god El was well known—across the Near East and in the Canaanite myths from Ugarit—as the king of the gods. In fact, as he is portrayed in the Ugaritic texts, El closely resembles the patron deity of the ancestors as described in Genesis. Although Baal and Anat are the primary subjects of the mythological tablets, El plays a critical role. He is the creator of the universe, and although Baal is sometimes portrayed as the de facto ruler, the status of El as the king is never actually questioned. The creator of creatures, the father of humanity, the father of gods and humans, the father of years, the kind, the compassionate—such are El's attributes. He lives on a mountain, from the foot of which come forth the sources of all the fresh water of the world. He lives in a tent rather than in a temple. In the Kirta and Aqhat epics, El is the deity who alone can provide offspring to the childless.

The patron deity of the Bible's ancestral narratives is portrayed in strikingly similar ways. The fundamental theme of El providing an heir for the heroes of the narrative is paralleled in both of the Canaanite epics found at Ugarit, those of Aqhat and Kirta. It is also striking that the characterization of Yahweh beginning in Exodus differs from the portrayal of the deity in the ancestral narratives. The biblical texts from Exodus on portray God primarily with storm-god imagery, the kind of imagery that was commonly used for Canaanite Baal rather than El. It is this transformation that the E and P sources recognized and explained in their accounts of the revelation of the name Yahweh to Moses. They perceived the disjunction between the religion of the ancestors and that of their contemporary culture, but wanted to emphasize continuity as well. Thus P, in the passage quoted above, explicitly insists that El and Yahweh are the same God. E emphasizes the same point in Exodus 3.13–16 . It is reasonable to conclude, then, that the traditions preserved, if only vaguely, the memory that the ancestors of Israel worshiped the god El as their patron deity, and that the beginnings of the worship of Yahweh in early Israel were perceived as a break from the older tradition, a change that at least some parts of Israel could not ignore, but indeed felt called upon to explain.

Another area in which research on the second millennium BCE has illuminated the ancestral stories has been the understanding of the pastoralist way of life described in the narratives. The ancestors of Israel appear in Genesis as pastoral nomads living along the edge of settled society in the land of Canaan, having occasional dealings with city-dwellers, sometimes even briefly moving into a town. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modern biblical scholars tended to illustrate the life of the ancestors by reference to the modern nomads of the Near East, the bedouin. They were often portrayed as fully nomadic wanderers, isolated from settled life and generally hostile toward the sedentary population. Scholars usually saw an evolutionary pattern at work in nomadic societies, in which the nomads would come out of the desert, clash with the sedentary population, but eventually give up the nomadic way of life and become town-dwellers themselves. This pattern was used to reconstruct the beginnings of the nation of Israel as it emerged from its nomadic origins. There was some skepticism about the accuracy of the depiction of the pastoral life in Genesis, since the stories have the families moving back and forth between nomadic and town dwelling with relative ease.

The past three decades have seen considerable anthropologically based research on the ancient pastoral way of life. This research has shown that pastoralism during the second millennium BCE differed considerably from that of the modern bedouin, and that the earlier evolutionary view of nomadism is incorrect. Of particular help have been the Mari tablets, which provide much information about the pastoralists who inhabited the middle Euphrates during the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries BCE.

The Mari tablets and other texts have shown that there was not a simple process of peoples moving from nomadism to sedentary life. Rather, members of tribal groups fluctuated between pastoralism and sedentary life, depending on their circumstances. In the ancient texts that have recently come to light, tribal groups largely characterized as pastoralists also had large elements within their tribes who were sedentary—some living in villages, and some found even in the large metropolises of the Near East. Nor is there evidence that the pastoralists were generally antagonistic toward sedentary life, regularly raiding and pillaging the towns. Rather, the texts point to a strong symbiotic relationship between the pastoralists and the inhabitants of the small towns, each providing goods that were necessary to the other. Pastoralists and small-town-dwellers alike resisted the large cities' attempts to impose political control over them.

This understanding of the pastoralist life seems reflected in the narrative of Genesis. The biblical ancestors camp near the towns, as one would expect (see Gen. 12.6–9; 13.12–18; 33.18–20 ), and at times even become sufficiently sedentary to carry out cultivation ( 26.12 ). They are portrayed as having close and cordial relations with townspeople ( 21.25–34 ), and in times of trouble they even come for a while to live in major towns as resident aliens ( 12.10–20; 20.1–18; 26.6–11 ). This mode of life was not restricted to the second millennium BCE and therefore cannot be used to argue for the authenticity of the ancestral narratives as historical documents. But information from other Near Eastern sources has given us a clearer understanding of the lifestyle described in these narratives.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2021. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice