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Mythological Elements in the Story of Abraham and the Patriarchal Narratives

From obviously mythical characters such as Adam and Eve and Noah we come now to characters that even the more “liberal” Christians accept as historical. We will look at the patriarchal narratives, the stories in Genesis about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

These characters are accepted as historical primarily because they refer to elements in their story which seemed historical. Thus we find in the patriarchal narratives stories relating to domesticated camels, caravan trade routes, neighboring peoples (Philistines, Ishmaelites etc) and actual cities (such as Gerar). Certainly some of these, domesticated camels and camels used as beasts of burdens, can still be seen in the Middle East today. The neighboring peoples were real and the cities have been found.

It is "historical" elements such as these that separate the stories in the patriarchal narratives from the myths of many other religions in the region. Let us see how strong this position is today.

The Large Gap Between Abraham's Life and the Written Account

First we will need to get a firmer date on the earliest possible sources on the character mentioned in the Pentateuch. We show elsewhere that Moses could not have written the first five books of the bible; and that, in fact they were written at a much later date. There is a verse that reveals to us, the earliest possible date for its composition:

Genesis 36:31
These are the kings who reigned in the land of Eden, before any king reigned over the Israelites.

It is obvious from the verse above, the author was writing at a time when the Israelites already had, at least, a king. The first king of the Israelites was Saul who became king around 1025 BC. [a] Thus the earliest possible date for the composition of the Pentateuch, or parts of it, would be the tenth century B.C. Scholars vary in their estimate on exactly when the oldest portion (called the “J” document) of the source document for these books was written. Some estimate the document to be written as early as the tenth century BC (during the reign of Solomon, David’s son), while others estimate it to have been written as late as the sixth century (during the time of the Babylonian exile). These estimates are not relevant to our current analysis. The only point worth noting is that the verse above, have set an upper limit on the date of composition of the Pentateuch. [1]

Now calculating from our table of biblical chronology, Abraham lived around the twentieth second century BC. (As a mark of the historical uncertainty surrounding this date, there exist many different estimates for these dates. Abraham has been estimated to live in the 25th, 21st, and the 16th century BC; i.e. the estimates fall within a span of 1,000 years! [2]) Taking the latest estimated dates for these patriarchs and the earliest estimated date for the composition of the “J” document -in other words the “best case” scenario for believers- we still have a gap of 600 years between the “historical” Abraham and his story in Genesis! The historian Robin Lane Fox (b.1946) has this to say about the effect of this time gap on the historicity of the Pentateuch:

Its chances of being historically true are minimal because none of these sources [the source documents for the Pentateuch] was written from primary evidence or within centuries, perhaps a millennium, of what they tried to describe. How could an oral tradition have preserved true details across such a gap? At most, it might remember a great event or new departure: like... the Israelites Exodus from Egypt...As for...the exploits of Jacob or Abraham, there is no good reason to believe any of them. [3]

Thus save for very rough social memories of major events or turning points in the history of these people, we should dismiss all the rest as myths accreted through the centuries of oral transmission. Note that we are not simply dismissing the rest as myths without any evidence. In fact in many cases where references were made to events or things that could be verified historically, we find the stories in the Bible to be false or anachronistic. Such is the case with the following examples taken from the patriarchal narratives.

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Anachronism #1: Domesticated Camels

In our first example. note that there are two references to domesticated camels in the story of Abraham:

Genesis 12:14-16
[W]hen Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair. The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house. And 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.

Genesis 24:10-11
And the servant took ten camels of the camels of his master, and departed; for all the goods of his master were in his hand: and he arose, and went to Mesopotamia, unto the city of Nahor. And he made his camels to kneel down without the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water.

As noted earlier, Abraham’s lifetime has been estimated anywhere between the 25th century BC and the 16th century BC. The above passage implies that camels were already domesticated and in use during that time.

However, based on every other available evidence we have, tame camels were simply unknown during Abraham's time. Egyptian texts of that era mentioned nothing of them. Even in Mari; the kingdom that is situated next to the Arabian deserts; which would have had the greatest use for camels; and of which archaeologists have a large collection of documents; not a single mention is made of camels in contemporaneous text.

In fact, it was only in the 11th century BC that references to camels started to appear in cuneiform texts and reliefs. After the 11th century, references to camels become more and more frequent. [4] This suggests that camels were domesticated around the 12th or 11th century BC. [b]

Thus there could have been no domesticated camel during Abraham’s lifetime. It must be, then, that the above stories are later additions to the legend of Abraham.

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Anachronism #2: The Arabic Camel Caravan Trade

The next anachronism concerns the story of how Joseph's brothers planned to sell him off to slavery. The brothers initially threw Joseph into a pit (Genesis 37:22-23). They then left the pit for a while and this is how the next phase is narrated

Genesis 37:25-28
And they [Joseph's brothers] sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.

Before analyzing further we need to make known some archaeological facts.

In the first place, as we have shown in anachronism #1, camels were not yet domesticated during that time. Furthermore excavations in the southern coastal plain of Israel found that camel bones increased dramatically only in the seventh century BCE. More importantly these bones were of adult camels, as one would expect of beast of burden used in traveling to different places. For if they were bred there one would expect to find a scattering of young camel bones as well. This means that camels were commonly used in the caravan trades during that time.

This is further supported by Assyrian sources that mentioned camels being used as beast of burdens in caravans during that time. The items being traded, gum, balm and resin, [written as "spicery, balm and myrrh" in the KJV above] were Arabian exports that were traded commonly only from the eight and seventh century BCE under the control of the Assyrian empire.

Now on to a bit of chronology. Even if we accept the rather unusually long ages of the patriarchs, we will see that the incident referred to must have happened only around 260 after Abraham was born (refer to the biblical chronology). Thus during the time of Joseph, camels were still not domesticated, there were still about (at the very best case) another five hundred years before Arabic (Ishmaelites was the Bible name for Arabs) camel caravan trade in gum, balm and resin, could be referred to in an "incidental manner" as above. [5]

Thus the story of Joseph's abduction, specifically the mention of the Arab camel caravan trade and the Arab traders buying Joseph, is also littered with anachronisms.

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Anachronism #3: Circumcision

The second story from Abraham we will look at is the one regarding the institution of circumcision.

Genesis 17: 9-11
And God said to Abraham, “...This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.”

This is definitely another late accretion to the Abraham legend. We know that circumcision was widely practiced in ancient times in the fertile crescent; in particular, the Egyptians and the Canaanites, the people Abraham would have had most contact with, practiced the rite.

Thus the question arises, how could the act of circumcision be “a sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham when everyone else is doing it? It was only during the time of the Babylonian captivity, during the sixth century, that this custom could have set the Jews apart. For the Babylonians of that time did not practice circumcision. [6]

Thus, the story of circumcision being a sign of covenant between God and Abraham is also mythical.

Anachronism #4: The Philistine City of Gerar

Next we discuss an incident from the story of Isaac, son of Abraham:

Genesis 26:1
And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went unto Abimelech king of the Philistines unto Gerar.

Now Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old (Genesis 21:5). Thus the events narrated above happened (if it did happen) somewhere between 24th and 15th century BCE, depending on where Abraham is located in time. (The Biblical chronology points to 24th century BCE.)

Archaeological evidence shows that the Philistines did not have any settlements in the coastal plain of Canaan until after 13th century BCE. Archeological excavation at Gerar (now identified as Tel Haror northwest of Beersheba) shows that it was no more than a "small, quite insignificant" village during the initial settlement of the Philistines during the Iron Age I (1150-900 BCE). Gerar only became a significant city only in the seventh century BCE.[7]

Thus there would have been no city of Gerar and no king of the Philistines to meet with Isaac during the historical period in which he would have lived.

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Conclusions on the Patriarchal Narratives

What can we conclude from the above?

Firstly, at the very least, we can conclude that many elements in the patriarchal narratives are unhistorical. The story of Isaac meeting the Philistine king in Gerar for instance could not have happened because there was simply no Philistine settlement in Canaan during that time and Gerar has not yet existed. The story of how Joseph got shipped to Egypt is in the same boat (pardon the pun). For there were simply no Arabic camel caravan trade groups during the time of Joseph.

Secondly, there is a more disturbing (for believers) conclusion. Thomas Thompson, Professor of Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen, noted that if the specific references in the patriarchal narratives have been shown to be anachronistic, then they add nothing to the story; but these very references were the historical anchors that supposedly rooted the narratives into history in the first place. Without them how are we to distinguish the narratives from other completely mythical folk tales?[8]

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a.This verse is taken from the portion of Genesis believed to have formed part of the original “J” document. The “J’ document is generally believed the be the oldest source documents for the Pentateuch.
b.The general consensus among archaeologist about camels and their domestication can be summed up by the two quotes: The first quote about the domestication of camels is from, Lawrence Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel and Director of the Semitic Museum at Harvard University, who had excavated in Israel, Tunisia and Cyprus, in his article in the recent book Oxford History of the Biblical World (1998):

W.F. Albright’s Assessment, based on contemporary texts and limited faunal remains, that dromedary camels became important to the caravan trade only towards the final centuries of the second millennium BCE is still valid.[9]

The second, is from another archaeologist, Wayne T. Pitard of the University of Illinois, has this to say about camels and their uses :

Scholars have also observed a number of anachronisms in the stories, another characteristic of oral literature…Camel caravans are mentioned in Genesis 26 and 37, but camels were probably not used before the beginning of the iron age (1200 BCE) when Israel was already emerging as a nation.[10]

Fundamentalist apologists have tried to present this by providing what they claimed are examples of camel domestication. One such example is this website. However a close examination of their "evidence" reveals a few fatal flaws:

  • Camel bones and artifacts made from camels found in ancient settlements. These by themselves only show that camel parts were used by the community. For instance in the website sited, much is made of camel bones found at Umm an-Nar (Oman) excavation. Yet the fact that dugong (a sea cow) bones were found at the same location is ignored. Nobody would suggests that finding the sea cow bones in the settlements indicate that they were domesticated! (A good write up on the Umm an-Nar finds can be found here. This website correctly summarized the archaeological evidence favors a late second millennium date for the domestication of dromedary (i.e. one hump) camels.) Obviously the bones signify the animals were hunted and were eaten and leftovers used to make rope, tents etc. Thus such evidence does not show domestication.

  • Carvings and potteries. Most of the evidence for camel domestication prior to the end of the second century BCE depends more on the interpretation of ambiguous carvings and potteries. As the reader can see from the Christian apologist website referenced above, even drawings that merely show the camel lying down is taken as "evidence" of domestication! Animals represented in pottery, carvings of drawings were not exclusively domesticates. In the Umm an-Nar site, relief drawings include camels, oxen, oryx and serpents!

  • The "conclusive evidence" referred to in the website involved "finds" in the early twentieth century. The two archaeologists referred to, G. Möller and G. Schweinfurth , were active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century! This should give the reader pause. If these early findings are conclusive that camel domestication stretches to the third millennium BCE. Why do most archaeologists today still deny this? The reason is simple, the time of the supposed findings (the early years of the twentieth century) is marred by poor stratigraphy, inaccurate pottery chronology and, in the words of the rather conservative archaeologist William Dever in his book What did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did they Know it? (Eerdmans, 2001; p56), “[Showed] An almost exclusively … biblical biases in their work.”! Indeed almost all “biblical archaeology” until around 1970 was dominated by a desire to show that the Bible is true after all. Most of the archaeological works there were funded by American Protestant seminaries. (Devers, p57) Any conclusions on dates from findings that are dated to this time (early years of the twentieth century) has to be treated as suspect.


1.Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament: p34
Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p58
Livingstone: Dictionary of the Chrsitian Church: p143
2.Barthel, What the Bible Really Says: p78-79
Stiebing, Out of the Desert: p33
3.Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p176
4.Barthel, What the Bible Really Says: p79
Keller, The Bible As History: p168
5.Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: p37
6.Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible: p80
Barthel, What the Bible Really Says: p77-78
Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p205-206
7.Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: p37-38
8.Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: p38
9.Coogan (ed), Oxford History of the Biblical World : p109
10.Coogan (ed), Oxford History of the Biblical World : p28

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