Thompson on the Nuzi Texts and Genesis 15

In my write-up today of Thomas Thompson’s Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, I will talk some about Thompson’s treatment of the Nuzi texts.  The Nuzi texts are from Mesopotamia, and they contain information about “administrative, social, economic, and legal structures and practices at Nuzi and neighboring cities and towns”, thereby illustrating “vividly the history and daily life of a mid-2d-millennium B.C. community in the ANE.”  (Here, I’m quoting Martha Morrison’s article on “Nuzi” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.)  There are scholars who have argued that there are parallels between the Nuzi texts and the patriarchal narratives.  In their view, this grounds the patriarchal narratives in the second millennium B.C.E., the purported setting of the narratives, thereby giving them historical authenticity.

But the Nuzi texts date to the fifteenth-fourteenth centuries.  How does that mesh with the scholarly claim that Abraham dates to the early second millennium B.C.E.—coinciding with the migration of West Semites from Mesopotamia to Palestine that allegedly occurred at that time?  How could the Nuzi texts have an influence on Abraham in the 1900’s B.C.E., when they did not exist yet?  According to Thompson, there are at least two answers to this puzzle that have been proposed.  C. Gordon’s solution is to date the patriarchs  to the fifteenth-fourteenth centuries B.C.E.  E.A. Speiser, however, holds to an early second millennium date for the patriarchs, on account of the alleged “Amorite” migration, yet he believes that the Nuzi texts are still relevant to the patriarchal narratives.  Speiser’s solution (according to Thompson on pages 200-201) is as follows:

“Speiser…not only dates the Nuzi tablets relatively early (c. 1500 B.C.), but sees the contracts of Nuzi as representative of general Hurrian practice.  His dating of this general Hurrian influence in North Mesopotamia is placed vaguely from the early part of the Second Millennium.”

Speiser’s point (if I’m understanding it correctly) is that Hurrian practice was around early in the second millennium B.C.E., the time of Abraham.  Later, around 1500 B.C.E., that Hurrian practice was written down in the Nuzi texts.  But the Hurrian practice existed before then, and could thus impact the patriarchs.

In Genesis 15:2, Abram expresses concern that his steward Eleazar Damesheq will be his heir, since Abram does not have a son.  The following statement by Martha Morrison is an example of how many scholars have tied Genesis 15:2 to the Nuzi texts:

“In the story of Abraham in Genesis, Abraham adopted Eliezer of Damascus as his heir because he had no children (Gen 15:2-3).  At Nuzi, slaves were adopted by childless couples.”

Thompson, however, disagrees with this view.  On pages 225-226, he summarizes his findings on the preceding pages.  According to Thompson, Genesis 15 contradicts the Nuzi texts.  First of all, Eliezer is a servant, and the Nuzi texts do not “deal with the adoption of servants”, but rather with free people who can “enter into a mutually binding contract”.  Second, Genesis 15:4 indicates that Abraham having a son would invalidate Eliezer as an heir, but that is not how the Nuzi texts prescribed things.  Rather, the Nuzi texts “guarantee the right to an inheritance portion by the adopted”, even if the father has children.

So how does Thompson account for Genesis 15’s reference to Eliezer?  I’ll refer to two ideas that he mentions.

First, on page 204, Thompson states:

“…Abraham complains to Yahweh that, since he is childless, the usurper of his property will be Eliezer; a servant born in his house is to be his successor, namely Damascus.  The significance of Yahweh’s answer is that not Damascus, but Abraham’s own children will be the heirs of Abraham.  This anti-Damascus tendency could reflect the historical antagonism between Israel and the Arameans of Damascus…This interpretation does not need an understanding of legal inheritance or adoption for its sense, and thus can be understood independent of the Nuzi customs.”

Is Thompson referring to the conflicts between Israel and Damascus that existed in Israel’s pre-exilic period?  If so, then was Thompson not as much of a minimalist when he wrote this book, in contrast to how he is in Mythic Past, in which he sets so much of the Hebrew Bible in the Hellenistic Period, thinking that it reflects that particular historical context?  I do not know.  I talked recently about how Thompson—in both Historicity and Mythic Past—makes the point that the chronologies in Genesis point to the Hasmonean Period, so he may hold even in Historicity that a lot of the Hebrew Bible reflects a Hellenistic context.  And yet, in Mythic Past, Thompson did acknowledge that there are pre-exilic traditions in the Hebrew Bible.  Perhaps (in his opinion) the conflict between Syria and Israel in the Books of Kings is one of those old traditions.

Thompson’s point is intriguing: that the point of Genesis 15:2-4 is that the seed of Abraham, not Damascus, will possess the Promised Land.  And, in the Books of Kings, there are times when Syria makes incursions into the Promised Land, so Genesis 15:2-4 could very well reflect that sort of situation.  Either it addressed Israelites in the midst of their conflict with the Syrians, or it was from the Hellenistic Period, and reflected back on how God safeguarded Israel’s possession of the Promised Land notwithstanding Syrian aggression.

Second, on pages 202-203, Thompson states:

“Because Genesis is composed of stories, these stories can be expected at times to follow not the actual customs of people but the exigencies of the narrative form which has its own traditions and context.  So, for example, we cannot assume on the basis of Gen 38 alone, that the ancestors of the tribe of Judah, or anyone at all, actually used burning as a punishment for adultery.  So too, the assumption that patriarchal authority is actually exemplified by Lot’s willingness to sacrifice his daughters to save his guests is not adequately justified.  The story is perhaps more influenced by the literary necessities of the ancestral hero offering hospitality to strangers, which hospitality is to result in his being saved.  The literary form of the story is not bound to the limitations of actual legal practices, and in several cases in our Genesis stories where the motivation of the patriarchs’ actions has been explained in reference to Nuzi customs, traditional literary practices appear to offer a more adequate explanation.”

At least so far in my reading, Thompson has not related this insight to Genesis 15, but I can see how one could account for Genesis 15:2-4 from a literary standpoint.  Abraham in the story has no children, and he needs to leave his things to someone, and so why not Eliezer of Damascus?

UPDATE: On page 295, Thompson says that the Nuzi texts can still help readers to understand the Hebrew Bible, for they “may serve well as a good basis for the understanding of Near Eastern contracts in general.”  But, for Thompson, they’re not useful for dating the patriarchal narratives only to the second millennium B.C.E.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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