Van Seters’ Historical Arguments Regarding the Patriarchs

I’m continuing my way through John Van Seters’ Abraham in History and Tradition.  Here are three items.

1.  A significant point that Van Seters makes is that the patriarchal narratives have anachronisms: they locate things from the first millennium B.C.E. in the second millennium B.C.E.  Examples that Van Seters offers include: tents (which, according to Van Seters, are not mentioned in Mari texts or other second millennium sources); the domesticated camel (which existed on a limited scale in the second millennium B.C.E. and is occasionally represented on monuments, but there was no widespread domestication of camels or Near Eastern camel-nomads who had contact with the Fertile Crescent); nomadic use of goats and cattle; a route that connected Ur with Haran, and Haran with Palestine (the route from Haran to Palestine was possible during the late Assyrian empire, and the route from Ur to Haran occurred under the neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus); and Arabs (who were in the South Transjordan and the Negev in the late monarchical-early exilic period, which is important because the patriarchal narratives present the Ishmaelites as having a relationship with Transjordanian peoples).  (For conservative scholar James Hoffmeier’s interaction with what appears to be Van Seters on the tent question, see here.)  Moving to the debate over whether Abraham lived in Middle Bronze I or Middle Bronze II (both of which are in the second millennium B.C.E.), the patriarchal narratives present cities, whereas Middle Bronze I was largely pastoral.

On page 29, Van Seters argues that the patriarchal narratives do not reflect what we know about second millennium B.C.E. Palestine from the Amarna letters and Nineteenth Dynasty inscriptions.  Abraham’s enemies in Genesis 14 are from Mesopotamia and Chatti but not from Egypt, which is odd because Egypt ruled Canaan in the second millennium B.C.E.  The sons of Jacob kill Shechemites, when Shechemites cooperated with the Hapiru during the second millennium B.C.E.  The patriarchal narratives largely depict a peaceful setting, which is different from nomadic existence of the late second millennium B.C.E.  Speaking of nomads, Van Seters argues that the patriarchs do not fit the profile of nomads: they do not reflect all that often “the basis characteristics of nomadism—transhumance, belligerence, and migrations” (page 38).

2.  Like Thomas Thompson, Van Seters interacts with the scholarly arguments that Abraham’s migration is historically-accurate because Amorites or Arameans migrated south in the second millennium B.C.E., and that the customs in the patriarchal narratives reflect second millennium B.C.E. customs.  For the first argument, Van Seters states that the patriarchal narratives assume that the Arameans have already settled, as well as sharply distinguish Abraham from the Amorites.  For the second argument, I’ll refer to a custom that Van Seters discusses, that of a childless man sleeping with a maid in order to have children (for I have already discussed the wife-sister stories and Eliezer of Damascus elsewhere on my blog).  In the second millennium B.C.E., the focus of texts regarding this issue is on the childless husband, whereas the patriarchal narratives consider the wife’s perspective, or (in the case of Jacob) present a man who already has children sleeping with his maid to give children to his childless wife.  In the twelfth century B.C.E. and the first millennium B.C.E., we see consideration in ancient Near Eastern texts of childless women, and so Van Seters concludes that the patriarchal stories reflect the first millennium B.C.E. rather than the early-middle second millennium B.C.E.

3.  On page 54, Van Seters discusses the story about Abimelech the king of Gerar.  Gerar is said to be in the land of the Philistines in Genesis 21:32, which is an anachronism because the Philistines only settled in that area after they were defeated by Raamses III in the late second millennium B.C.E.  Nahum Sarna argued that it was not an anachronism, however, because it depicts the Philistines differently from how they were in the first millennium B.C.E.—for example, it does not mention the five powerful Philistine cities.  Sarna argued that Genesis was depicting Philistia as it was before the first millennium B.C.E.  But Van Seters goes the opposite route: he says that the part about Gerar being in the land of the Philistines was added during Israel’s exilic period, which was after the Philistine pentapolis broke down and the Jews remembered Philistine society rather vaguely—and thus did not mention the pentapolis.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I 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. 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.
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