Ancient Nuzi (present-day Yorghan-Tepe in Iraqi Kurdistan) is located east of the Tigris, about eight miles southwest of the modern town of Kirkuk. The site was excavated during five seasons between 1925 and 1931 by American archaeologists. Three areas were unearthed: two small mounds, each with large houses, and the main mound with a palace, temples, and urban dwellings. About 6,000 cuneiform tablets were recovered from the palace, the temple, and many private houses. Some 200 tablets date to the third millennium B.C.E. But the majority were found in the Late Bronze Age “Stratum II” and cover a time span of approximately five generations, from around 1450 to 1350 B.C.E. The written data ends with the site’s final destruction by an Assyrian campaign, probably during the first part of Aššur-uballiṭ I’s reign (1363–1328 B.C.E.).

During this period, Nuzi was one among the provincial towns of the kingdom of Arraphe, whose eponymous capital lies beneath modern Kirkuk. Arraphe was a vassal state of the Mitannian Empire and was located in the eastern fringe of this large political entity, which extended in the west as far as the Mediterranean coast. The Arraphean population as well as its Mitannian overlord belonged predominantly to the Hurrian linguistic group as the textual documentation clearly shows: the names of the individuals mentioned in the texts are overwhelmingly Hurrian, and Hurrian influence is discernible in the Akkadian language used by the Nuzian scribes constituting still further proof that Hurrian was the first language of these scribes. Evidences of Hurrian interference on the syntax and grammar of the Akkadian text include the use of the Hurrian genitive construction, verbal conjugations, and verbal expressions. Moreover, at the lexical level, Hurrian words connected to “material culture” are frequently used instead of their Akkadian counterparts. This phenomenon has led scholars to characterize the Akkadian language of the Nuzi tablets as “Hurro-Akkadian.”


The documentation found in the Nuzi palace consists mainly of administrative tablets recording operations related to numerous items: agricultural produces, consumer goods, equipment, and manpower. Administrative documentation of the same nature originates from the large houses that belonged to prominent individuals such as Prince Šilwa-Teššub, the son of the Arraphean king, or Tehip-Tilla, the son of Puhi-šenni, who managed a large amount of real estate and households throughout the country.

The largest part of the documentation from private houses records the domestic and business activities of individuals inside a family unit, sometimes through several generations. This documentation consists of titles that prove the property transfer of moveables or real estate, various kinds of loans, with or without pledge, and judges’ decisions regarding litigation. Several types of family law documents are also found such as adoptions, marriage deeds, and wills. This considerable corpus of family contracts yields a large amount of information pertaining to social and economic life that led earlier biblical scholars to compare the Nuzi material with biblical texts about the ancestors (Gen 12–50). The differences in genre should be kept in mind, however: the Nuzi tablets are legal and contractual, not narratival, as are the stories from Genesis.

Nuzi, the Bible, and the Hurrians.

Studies of the Bible that took account of the written ancient Near Eastern data were already a long tradition when, in the midst of the 1930s, the Nuzi texts corpora became accessible (thanks to the work of E. Chiera, E. A. Speiser, and others). It was natural, then, given this scholarly tradition, that the texts from Nuzi were initially thought to offer new perspectives and material for comparative studies of the Bible. Since the Nuzi material is concerned with conveyance and contract, the chief parallels between them and the Bible pertained to socio-legal customs. Among other scholars who also drew connections between the two corpora, Cyrus H. Gordon was the most active. In a landmark paper published in 1940, Gordon surveyed points of contact between the Bible and Nuzi and wrote that

"A point of interest which these discoveries have for the Biblical studies is that the Nuzians were Hurrians, the long-lost Horites of the Old Testament. Even more significant is the fact that the archives of the Horite city of Nuzu reflect ways of living that are relatively close in time and place to those of the Patriarchs. Consequently, they clear up some of our misunderstanding regarding the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who wandered between Mesopotamia and Egypt in the first half of the second millennium B.C.(1940, p. 2)"

This Hurrian link became a major piece of the argument connecting the external evidence to aspects of the biblical narratives.

The Hurrians were a people group that is documented from the end of the third millennium B.C.E. in northern Mesopotamia. They were already known from the Bible as a segment of the population that was settled in Canaan. Cuneiform documentation from the Amarna letters to the Ugaritic texts offered evidence of their presence in the Syrian coast and ancient Palestine. These corpora also depicted the predominantly Hurrian Empire of Mitanni as a great power around the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. The idea of a Hurrian common background, widely shared all over the Near East, was thought to explain points of contact in the sphere of socio-legal practices like those described in the Bible, especially in the ancestral narratives. It was also thought that these parallels could serve as a diachronic instrument, justifying a date for the ancestral period in the mid-second millennium.

Nuzi Contracts and the Ancestral Narratives.

Of central importance in the Nuzi–Bible connection was the relationship between Jacob and Laban (Gen 29–31), which was analyzed through its various focal elements. Jacob’s professional relationship to Laban as a hired herdsman, for example, was compared against Old Babylonian and Nuzi herding contracts. These documents show that flocks belonging to households were consigned to herdsmen. Consignment tablets recording the composition of the herd were issued; they were sealed by the herdsman as a legal acknowledgment that he accepted responsibility for the care of the livestock. These texts would also serve for settling the accounts between the owner and the shepherd and establishing the latter’s remuneration, based on his share of the flocks. The animals were brought back in spring at shearing time because the collection of wool was not included among the herdsman obligations. After shearing, both parties could negotiate a new contract for the next year. Ancient Near Eastern texts in general, and the Nuzi tablets in particular, indicate that herdsmen were in most instances free individuals, who often worked for the same owners over a long period of time, sometimes for several generations. This evidence, drawn from the cuneiform documentation, is reminiscent of the contractual situation between Jacob and Laban as depicted in Genesis 30:32–34 and Genesis 31:7–8. However, Jacob’s request to marry Rachel as his payment (Gen 29:15–19, 27) has no counterpart in the cuneiform sources.

Another important point for comparison in the Jacob and Laban narrative is Rachel’s theft of the tĕrāpîm (Gen 31). Her motivation to carry out the theft was justified by her father’s unfair treatment that caused her and Leah economic harm and denied them a share in their father’s estate. In view of the biblical narrative, then, the possession of the tĕrāpîm could be understood as linked to a daughter’s inheritance rights. Various Nuzi texts were helpful in ascertaining the exact nature of the tĕrāpîm. In some instances, the documentation from Nuzi alludes to “gods and spirits,” interpreted here as family gods and ancestor figurines. These statuettes were passed down from father to son, and their possession was associated with real estate, the main part of which was usually inherited by the eldest son. Noteworthy for comparison with the biblical narrative is the unique instance in which women inherit both real estate property and family gods. The tablet in question (Yale 6) is the will of a man who adopts his three daughters with the status of sons, a practice attested elsewhere at Nuzi in two other documents. The father’s statement in this document asserts that: “whoever among my daughters will hold my fields and houses, will dwell in my house (and) will revere my gods and my spirits.” Another text (HSS 14 8) shows that a woman, in this case a mother and head of the family, is able to alienate family gods, apparently under abnormal circumstances; but in this case, nothing is said about any other property.

As evidenced by these examples, the ways scholars linked the Nuzi evidence with the biblical texts were not always methodologically warranted, especially when parts of the Nuzi corpus were picked up as isolated elements. An illustration of this methodological “proof-texting” is found in research on the status of the wife-sister. The situation in which an ancestor declares his wife to be his sister occurs three times in Genesis: Abraham, afraid that he will be killed as the husband of the beautiful Sarah, pretends that she is his sister (Gen 12:11–13; 20:1–2); and, later, Isaac does the same with Rebecca (Gen 26:7–9). The Nuzi tablets offer several examples of women given into adoption to men as sisters. Ephraim A. Speiser noted three texts: a woman, given by her brother as adoptive sister to a man (HSS 5 69), is subsequently married by the adopter (HSS 5 80 and HSS 5 25). Speiser concluded from this that “a woman given in marriage by her brother, either natural or adoptive, became legally her husband’s sister. … The practice was characteristic of, though not restricted to, the top levels of Hurrian society. It was evidently a mark of superior status” (1963, p. 24). But this situation is in fact exceptional: no other example is known. In most cases, when a woman was adopted as a sister, her adoptive brother had the duty to provide her with a husband, but not to marry her himself. Acting as a substitute of the biological brother, he was entitled to the bride-price. It would seem, then, that such a practice characterized families of low status, wherein the natural brother was too poor to find a suitable husband for his sister.

Another tablet was thought to contain evidence concerning the wife-sister status. It is the will of Tarmiya (HSS 19 19), which contains a very strange sentence: “My daughters, old and young, shall be given for marriage to my sons born by Tiešnaya … and the money they shall take for them.” This marriage between brothers and sisters seems extraordinary. Some commentators suggested that Tiešnaya’s sons were born from a previous marriage and adopted by Tarmiya when he married their mother. Tarmiya would thus be the natural father of his daughters and the adoptive father of his sons, who would not be brothers and sisters, biologically speaking. The other possibility is that Tarmiya was the father of all the children, born from different mothers: his daughters would thus marry their half-brothers. If that was the case, it would be consistent with what Abraham tells Abimelech: “Besides, she [Sarah] is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” (Gen 20:12). But here too, the situation described in HSS 19 19 is exceptional; it is the only example of this sort of situation known from the Nuzi corpus, and its interpretation is far from certain.

Family Law: Marriage and Adoption.

Scholars deemed various practices in Nuzi family law helpful for understanding the Bible. For example, the biblical practice of levirate marriage was considered in light of a marriage contract from Nuzi (JEN 441). In this text, a man chooses a bride for his son and the contract stipulates that “if the son dies, she is to be married to another of his sons.”

Other parallels proved to be too far-fetched, however. The Nuzi practice of adopting a daughter to marry her to a son, as in the contract HSS 5 79, was correlated to the situation described in Exodus which concerns what could happen to a daughter sold in slavery to a man: “If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter” (Exod 21:9). But the Nuzi tablet concerns a free female, not a slave; and other adoption tablets demonstrate that there was a variety of alternative options. An adopted daughter could be given in marriage to the adopter’s son, but also to one of the adopter’s slaves.

Jacob’s marriage to Laban’s daughters has also been interpreted as parallel to Nuzi texts where, in the face of no male offspring, a father could marry his daughter to a man that he has adopted (Gadd 51; HSS 5 67). In this perspective, the mention of Laban’s sons later in the Genesis narrative is explained by the fact that they were born after Jacob’s adoption by Laban. However, Jacob’s status does not match the situation of an adoptive son, and this makes it hard to affirm that Jacob was supposed to stay with his adoptive father. Furthermore, it has been noted that Laban’s statement to Jacob—“Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (Gen 29:14)—does not correlate with the adoption formula found in the Nuzi texts.

Widespread Customs in the Ancient Near East.

Other socioeconomic and legal practices and institutions documented at Nuzi offer additional parallels with the Old Testament. These are just one part of a much larger picture, however; in many cases the similarities with Nuzi texts are not unique, but also are found elsewhere in cuneiform documents from other areas and periods.

Such is the case with the biblical custom of debt cancellation and of the return of real estate to its original owner at the Jubilee year (dĕrôr). The equivalent of this institution, andurāru in Akkadian, also occurs in the Nuzi tablets, as in the above-mentioned adoption text (HSS 5 25), which is said to have been written “after the andurāru.” The same notification also appears in various antichretic loans in which the debtor pledges a member of his family or immoveable property, the usufruct of the real estate or the work of the person serving as the interest on the loan. The mention of the andurāru in these cases is intended to protect the creditor, as an indication that the transactions completed after the andurāru are not affected by it. But the royal edicts of the andurāru are also well attested elsewhere in the ancient Near East over a long stretch of time, from the Old Babylonian period (first half of the second millennium) until the Neo-Assyrian period (ninth to seventh century).

Both the Bible and ancient Near Eastern texts address the question of female sterility. The matriarch’s action in Genesis 16 and Genesis 30 was thought to be illuminated by an adoption contract from Nuzi (HSS 5 67). In this text, the adopter gives Kelim-ninu, who is probably his daughter, to be the wife of Šennima, his adoptee. The contract states that “If Kelim-ninu gives birth, Šennima will not take another woman as a wife. If Kelim-ninu does not give birth, Kelim-ninu shall take a woman from the land of Nullu for Šennima as wife. She [i.e., Kelim-ninu] will have no authority over the children (of the second wife).” So, according to this tablet, a married woman who fails to bear children has to give a slave girl to her husband as a wife. Surrogate marriages of this type are seldom represented in Nuzi documentation though examples of the practice are found outside Nuzi, in Old Assyrian, Emar, and Neo-Assyrian tablets. The bulk of evidence is provided by the Old Babylonian documentation where it is attested both in contracts and in the Laws of Hammurapi, mostly for wives with a special religious status, such as the nadītu-priestesses of Marduk. This category of women was forbidden from bearing children; therefore, they chose either a servant or a second wife to provide their husbands with offspring.


Parallels between the Bible and the Nuzi tablets have proven to be less significant than was first assumed. Some of the Nuzi texts were used without taking careful account of their context, or were misinterpreted altogether (the wife-sister dossier). Others parallels are more convincing, like Rachel’s theft of her father’s household gods. And yet, even when a comparison is justified, it does not prove a direct genetic link between the two corpora. Shared practices between the Nuzi texts and the Bible more likely reflect a common cultural milieu that extends beyond just those areas under the influence of Hurrian culture. Indeed, in most cases, the parallels drawn between the Bible and Nuzi might as easily be established with other cuneiform literature from the ancient Near East, such as the Emar corpus (dating to the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C.E.). Recent studies have shown, moreover, that some of the practices at Nuzi are attested as early as the Old Babylonian period. This continuity of tradition, amid the great diversity of cuneiform sources, raises an important point that must be taken into account—namely, the continuum that exists in the sphere of social practices and family laws throughout the ancient Near East.




  • Ben Barak, Zafrira. Inheritance by Daughters in Israel and the Ancient Near East: A Social Legal and Ideological Revolution. Jaffa, Israel: Archaeological Center Publications, 2006.
  • Eichler, Barry L. “Nuzi and the Bible: A Retrospective.” In DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A, Studies in Honor of A. W. Sjöberg, edited by Hermann Behrens, Darlene Loding, and Martha T. Roth, pp. 107–119. Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund 11. Philadelphia: University Museum, 1989.
  • Gandulla, Bernardo. “Marriage and Adoption: Two Institutions of Hurrian’s Family Law in the Patriarchal Traditions.” In Studi sul Vicino Oriente Antico dedicati alla memoria de Luigi Cagni, edited by Simonetta Graziani, pp. 319–331. Naples, Italy: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 2000.
  • Gordon, Cyrus H. “Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets.” Biblical Archaeologist 3 (1940): 1–12.
  • Justel, Josué J. “The Involvement of a Woman in Her Husband’s Second Marriage and the Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives.” Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 18 (2012): 191–208.
  • Lion, Brigitte. “L’andurāru à l’époque médio-babylonienne, d’après les documents de Terqa, Nuzi et Arrapha.” In Nuzi at Seventy-Five, edited by David I. Owen and Gernot Wilhelm, pp. 313–327. Studies on the Civilization and Culture of Nuzi and the Hurrians 10. Bethesda, Md.: CDL, 1999.
  • Maidman, Maynard P. Nuzi Texts and Their Uses as Historical Evidence. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.
  • Morrison, Martha A. “The Jacob and Laban Narrative in Light of Near Eastern Sources.” Biblical Archaeologist 46 (1983): 155–164.
  • Rouillard, Hedwige, and Josef Tropper. “Trpym, rituels de guérison et culte des ancêtres d’après 1 Samuel XIX 11–17 et les textes parallèles d’Aššur et de Nuzi.” Vetus Testamentum 37 (1987): 340–361.
  • Speiser, Ephraim A. “The Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives.” In Biblical and Other Studies, edited by Alexander Altmann, pp. 15–28. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Vita, Juan Pablo. “The Patriarchal Narratives and the Emar Texts: A New Look at Genesis 31.” In Control, Interaction, and Interdependence. The City of Emar among the Late Bronze Age Empires (14th–12th centuries b.c.), edited by Lorenzo d’Alfonso, Yoram Cohen, and Dietrich Sürenhagen, pp. 231–241. Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag, 2008.
  • Wilhelm, Gernot. The Hurrians. Warminster, U.K.: Aris and Phillips, 1989.

Philippe Abrahami and Brigitte Lion