In the September-October 1996 issue, The Good News examined several archaeological finds that illuminate portions of the book of Genesis. In this issue we continue our exploration of discoveries that verify the accuracy of other aspects of the Genesis account, beginning with the biblical patriarch Abraham.
Abraham and the city of Ur
“And Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, . . . and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 11:31 Genesis 11:31And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran, and dwelled there.
American King James Version×).
A century ago, German liberal critic Theodor Nöldeke questioned the historical existence of Abraham and of “Ur of the Chaldeans.” He, along with others, regarded the Genesis account of Abraham and his descendants as fictional. Yet this century has brought to light an enormous amount of evidence to back the biblical record of Abraham.
In 1922 Leonard Woolley thoroughly excavated the city of Ur in southern Iraq and found it had been a thriving metropolis around 2000 B.C., precisely the time of Abraham. Based on his findings, Woolley even drew a map of the city that showed its orderly boulevards and made up blueprints of spacious dwellings with indoor baths. Classrooms were excavated that yielded schoolchildren’s tablets with lessons on grammar and arithmetic still visible. In addition, variations on the name Abraham were found that dated to a century or two after his death.
The International Standard Encyclopedia , rejecting Nöldeke’s theory that Abraham was a mythical figure, concludes: “From the archaeological evidence it is apparent that Abraham was the product of an advanced culture, and was typical of the upper-class patriarch of his day: His actions are set against a well-authenticated background of non-biblical material, making him a true son of his age who bore the same name and traversed the same general territory, as well as living in the same towns, as his contemporaries. He is in every sense a genuine Middle Bronze Age person, and not a retrojection of later Israelite historical thought, as used to be imagined . . .” (Vol. 1, 1979, p. 17).
“Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there, for the famine was severe in the land” (Genesis 12:10 Genesis 12:10And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.
American King James Version×). “So they took their livestock and their goods, which they had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to Egypt, Jacob and all his descendants with him” (Genesis 46:6 Genesis 46:6And they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had gotten in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob, and all his seed with him:
American King James Version×).
What did the biblical patriarchs and their families look like? The Bible speaks of the wealth of Abraham in cattle and sheep (Genesis 12:16 Genesis 12:16And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.
American King James Version×). Later it talks about the brothers’ envy over the multicolored coat that Jacob gave to Joseph (Genesis 37:3 Genesis 37:3Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors.
American King James Version×). It tells about the sheep and goats that Jacob cleverly bred to avoid their being confiscated by his father-in-law (Genesis 30:33-43 Genesis 30:33-43 33 So shall my righteousness answer for me in time to come, when it shall come for my hire before your face: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the sheep, that shall be counted stolen with me. 34 And Laban said, Behold, I would it might be according to your word. 35 And he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons. 36 And he set three days’ journey between himself and Jacob: and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks. 37 And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. 38 And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink. 39 And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted. 40 And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not to Laban’s cattle. 41 And it came to pass, whenever the stronger cattle did conceive, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods. 42 But when the cattle were feeble, he put them not in: so the feebler were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s. 43 And the man increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels, and asses.
American King James Version×). Mentioned are musical instruments such as the harp (Genesis 31:27 Genesis 31:27Why did you flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and did not tell me, that I might have sent you away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp?
American King James Version×) and weapons such as the bow and arrow used for protection (Genesis 27:3 Genesis 27:3Now therefore take, I pray you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison;
American King James Version×). Were all these only fabrications and the product of fables?
At the turn of our century, several royal tombs were excavated 150 miles south of Cairo. There on one of the walls is a beautiful painting, later dated ca. 1900 B.C., of Semites entering Egypt to sell their wares. Men, women and children are pictured, some with multicolored clothing. They have harps, bows and arrows and spears. Accompanying them are goats and donkeys for food and conveyance. This painting shows people of the same lineage as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob wearing the clothing, caring for the same type of animals and using implements as described in the Bible record. It is an impressive find that backs the biblical description of that time, even in minute detail.
Some have puzzled over the biblical story of Rachel’s desperate attempt to hide her father’s household gods, even risking her life to carry them with her. We read in Genesis 31:
“Then Jacob rose and set his sons and his wives on camels . . . Now Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel had stolen the household idols that were her father’s . . . And Laban was told on the third day that Jacob had fled. Then he took his brethren with him and pursued him for seven days’ journey, and he overtook him in the mountains of Gilead . . .
“And Laban said to Jacob: ‘What have you done, that you have stolen away unknown to me, and carried away my daughters . . .? And now you have surely gone because you greatly long for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?’
“Then Jacob answered and said to Laban, ‘Because I was afraid, for I said, “Perhaps you would take your daughters from me by force.” With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live. In the presence of our brethren, identify what
I have of yours and take it with you.’
“For Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them . . . Now Rachel had taken the household idols, put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them. And Laban searched all about the tent but did not find them. And she said to her father, ‘Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise before you, for the manner of women is with me’ ” (verses 17-35).
Why were these “household gods” so important? Archaeological evidence reveals the answer. Many of these domestic idols, called teraphim, have been found in the Middle East. In the 1920s more than 20,000 tablets, now called the Nuzi tablets, were discovered in northern Iraq. They include much information on law, commercial transactions and religion that has shed light on the customs of Abraham’s time.
The teraphim are mentioned as household gods that were used to determine the inheritance and titles of the sons of a family. Although scholars dispute how much the patriarchs were influenced by such practices, the biblical account fits this picture well. Clearly, Rachel was worried about leaving these idols behind. Laban certainly thought they were of great importance and traveled with his other sons for several days to recover them. These actions on their part make sense if the teraphim were used to help his other sons confirm their rights of inheritance.
These idols were also used to bring good luck and even for calling upon other gods. After another encounter with the true God, when Jacob found that Rachel had stolen the idols, he had her get rid of them. “And Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you . . .’” (Genesis 35:2 Genesis 35:2Then Jacob said to his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments:
American King James Version×).
Again, the biblical account fits with archaeological evidence of the customs of the people of that time.
Joseph in Egypt
“Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt” (Genesis 39:1 Genesis 39:1And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.
American King James Version×).
Perhaps one can acknowledge that these findings fit Abraham and his descendants in Mesopotamia and Canaan, but do they confirm the abundant archaeological evidence of Egyptian life and culture?
The Bible tells of a young Joseph who was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt as a young man. If this account is nothing more than myth, surely the biblical story could easily be refuted, since much more is known of Egyptian history and culture than of any other civilization of the Middle East of that time. The Egyptians left monument after monument, their tombs with walls full of pictures and writings of their daily lives. They inscribed in stone much of their history. If the biblical story is false, it should not be difficult to expose it as a fraud, since details in the account would surely be discovered to be out of place.
Yet the biblical account fits. In Egypt Joseph ended up as a slave in an important official’s home. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. When he fled from her, he was falsely accused by her and thrown into prison. These elements all reflect Egyptian customs as described in the monuments-the abundance of Semitic slaves and stories of frivolous Egyptian wives. Says one encyclopedia: “Egyptian sources indicate that both in literature and in daily life some other Egyptian women were no better than Potiphar’s wife” ( The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia , Vol. 2, p. 1128).
When God intervened and Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream (literature of that time indicates that interpreting dreams was a common practice), he was placed as second in command under Pharaoh.
The Egyptian ruler complimented him: “Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you.’ And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring off his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand; and he clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. And he had him ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ So he set him over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:39-43 Genesis 41:39-43 39 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, For as much as God has showed you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are:
40 You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than you.
41 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.
42 And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in clothing of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck;
43 And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.
American King James Version×).
In one of the walls in a royal Egyptian tomb is a beautiful engraving of the investiture ceremony for a new prime minister. The official is clothed in a white linen gown and wears a gold chain around his neck. As Werner Keller maintains: “Joseph’s elevation to be viceroy of Egypt is reproduced in the Bible exactly according to protocol. He is invested with the insignia of his high office, he receives the ring, Pharaoh’s seal, a costly linen vestment, and a golden chain. This is exactly how Egyptian artists depict this solemn ceremony on murals and reliefs. As viceroy, Joseph rides in Pharaoh’s ‘second chariot.’ That could indicate the ‘period of the Hyksos’ at the earliest, for it is only during the period of the ‘rulers of the foreign lands’ . . . that the fast war chariot reached Egypt . . . Before their day this had not been the practice on the Nile. The ceremonial chariot harnessed to thoroughbred horses was in those days the Rolls-Royce of the governors. The first chariot belonged to the ruler, the ‘second chariot’ was occupied by his chief minister” ( The Bible as History , 1980, p. 89).
From this brief survey we can see some of the light that archaeology has shed on the biblical record. Although doubters will always scoff at the truth of God’s Word-since God’s way of life and His laws are not easy to keep-fewer and fewer now doubt the Bible’s historical basis.
Such discoveries continue to verify the inspiration of God’s Word. As Paul said: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 2 Timothy 3:16-17 16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works.
American King James Version×).
Future issues of The Good News will present more archaeological evidence that confirms the Bible account. GN