- What the Bible Says
- When Did the Patriarchs Live?
- Laws, Names and Customs
- The Foreign Kings
- Anachronisms in the Patriarchal Narratives
- Site Focus: Beersheba
The patriarchal narratives of the Book of Genesis are the story of Israel’s origin as a people. They are also – after the obvious mythologizing in fantastic stories such as the creation account and the Noachic flood – the first part of the Bible that might plausibly have happened, and so past investigators focused their attention on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Were they real people? Did they exist?
Much scholarly ink was spilled over this question, but ultimately the search for the patriarchs was not fruitful, and today has largely been given up as a hopeless enterprise. A generation of archaeologists searched for a historical context into which to place them, but no matter which period they considered, there were features of the stories that did not fit. The few details that seemed to promise a way to date or authenticate them slipped away on closer examination. Of course, archaeology can hardly disprove the existence of a specific few individuals, but the best that can be said these days is that the patriarchal accounts are more obscure than ever. If the stories have a historical core, we have no idea when it happened, or to what extent and by whom it has since been modified. The ancestors of Israel seem destined to be forever lost in the mists of the past, their existence a matter of faith rather than evidence.
The patriarchal narratives begin with a man named Abram, son of Terah, who was born in the city of Ur (Genesis 11:26-28). God speaks to Abram, telling him to leave the land of his kindred and go to a country which God will show him, where he will become the father of a great nation. Abram obeys, taking with him his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, and is led to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:5). Abram settles there, moving around and building altars, while Lot establishes his dwelling further east, on the plain of Jordan near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, Sarai is unable to bear children, and she urges Abram to impregnate her maid servant Hagar instead. Abram does so, at which point Sarai changes her mind and becomes jealous, but Hagar conceives a son which an angel instructs her to name Ishmael (Genesis 16:11). God renews his promise to give Abram’s descendants the land of Canaan, changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah in the process, and miraculously enables Sarah, at the age of 90, to bear a son, whom God instructs them to name Isaac.
Meanwhile, the men of Sodom and Gomorrah have become great sinners, and so God decides to destroy both cities. Two angels disguised as men come to Lot’s house in Sodom to bring him out before the divine judgment is executed; this they do, and as Lot and his family escape, God rains fire from heaven and incinerates both cities. Lot’s wife disobeys a divine command not to look back as they flee, and God turns her into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). Soon after their escape, Lot’s two daughters, desperate to bear children, get their father drunk and have sex with him. As a result of this incestuous union, each daughter conceives a son, one of which is named Moab and the other Benammi, the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites respectively (Genesis 19:37-38).
Meanwhile, Sarah has become unbearably jealous of Hagar and Ishmael, and orders Abraham to throw them both out of the house. He does so, but an angel visits Hagar in the desert and promises to make her son the father of a great nation. Soon afterwards, God tests Abraham’s faith by ordering him to kill his son Isaac as a human sacrifice on top of Mt. Moriah; Abraham is willing to do it, but God stops him at the last minute and sends a ram to be sacrificed instead (Genesis 22:13). As reward for Abraham’s faithfulness, God again renews his promise to multiply his descendants “as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore” (Genesis 22:17). Not long afterwards, Sarah dies at the age of 127 in the city of Hebron. Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah from one of the residents of the city and buries her there (Genesis 23:19).
A by now elderly Abraham, concerned to find a wife for his favorite son Isaac, sends a servant to his original home, the land of Ur. There he encounters a beautiful woman named Rebekah, granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, and seeks to take her as Isaac’s wife. Rebekah’s mother Bethuel and her brother Laban are agreeable, and Rebekah goes with him and marries Isaac, who loves her on sight (Genesis 24:67).
At the age of 175, Abraham dies, and Isaac and Ishmael bury him with Sarah in the cave of Machpelah. Isaac’s wife Rebekah conceives two sons, fraternal twins, the older of which is named Esau and the younger Jacob. Esau is Isaac’s favorite, but Jacob is Rebekah’s favorite. Jacob pressures his brother Esau into selling him his birthright; soon afterwards, God appears to Isaac and renews the covenantal promise he made to Abraham (Genesis 26:24). Isaac grows old, and intends to pass this blessing on to Esau, but Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his nearly blind father, lies and claims to be Esau, and receives the blessing instead. Fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacob flees to the land of his uncle, Laban. En route, God appears to him, identifies himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac, and once again renews his promise that the descendants of the patriarchal line, Jacob’s line, will inherit the entire land of Canaan (Genesis 28:13-14).
Jacob serves his uncle Laban for fourteen years and marries both his daughters, Leah and Rachel. Leah bears four sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah (Genesis 29:32-35). Rachel turns out to be infertile, but Jacob impregnates her maid Bilhah with her permission instead, and she gives birth to two more sons, Dan and Naphtali (Genesis 30:6-8). Not to be outdone, Leah also gives her maid Zilpah to Jacob, and by her he has two more sons, Gad and Asher (Genesis 30:11-13). Leah herself (Jacob, evidently, was a busy man) also bears her husband a ninth and a tenth son, Issachar and Zebulun (Genesis 30:18-20). Rachel, with God’s help, finally becomes pregnant and also gives birth to a son, Joseph (Genesis 30:24). As Jacob returns to his home country with his wives and his eleven sons, he meets a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him; Jacob is crippled, but wins, and the stranger (apparently a divine emissary) changes his name to Israel (Genesis 32:28). Soon afterwards, Rachel gives birth to Jacob’s twelfth and final son, Benjamin, and then dies in childbirth (Genesis 35:18-19). Isaac also dies and is buried.
As Jacob ages, Joseph becomes his favorite son, and a rivalry develops between him and his eleven brothers. When Joseph reports strange dreams of his brothers bowing down to him, their rivalry becomes hatred. The others want to kill him, but Reuben and Judah convince them merely to sell Joseph to a band of wandering slave-traders, who carry him away to Egypt. Jacob’s eleven brothers tell their father that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal. In Egypt, Joseph is bought by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph serves his master well, but when he refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife, in a fit of spite she accuses him of raping her, and Joseph is cast into prison (Genesis 39:20).
Two years later, the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has a strange dream which his court magicians cannot interpret. Upon hearing a rumor of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, Pharaoh sends for him. Joseph correctly predicts that Egypt will have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and advises Pharaoh to store up the surplus against the lean years; when his prediction comes true, the grateful Pharaoh makes him the prime minister of Egypt. During this time Joseph also has two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 41:51-52).
The seven-year famine affects the land of Canaan as well, and Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy corn. They meet Joseph, now the prime minister, but do not recognize him. Joseph at first taunts them, accusing them of being spies, but finally gives them what they want and sends them away without allowing them to pay. The eleven brothers return some time later to buy more corn, and this time Joseph reveals his identity to them. The reunited family, including Jacob who is overjoyed to see the son he thought dead, come to live in Egypt under his protection, and so Joseph’s dreams of lordship over his family come true. Jacob dies soon after and is buried with his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham at Machpelah.
The most straightforward way to determine the time of the patriarchs is to use the chronology given by our only source of information on their lives, namely the Old Testament. The Bible states (1 Kings 6:1) that 480 years passed from the exodus until the beginning of construction of Solomon’s Temple. It also says (Genesis 15:13) that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. (Exodus 12:40 instead gives that figure as 430, but a 30-year margin of error will not make that much difference to our chronology.) Going further back, we learn (Genesis 47:28) that Jacob lived 147 years and first came to Egypt with his sons at the age of 130. Jacob was born when Isaac was approximately 40 years old (Genesis 25:20), and Isaac, in turn, was born when Abraham was 100 years old (Genesis 21:5). Ignoring for the moment the unrealistically long life spans of the patriarchs, we get the following sum:
(From Abraham to the birth of Isaac) 100 years
+ (From Isaac to the birth of Jacob) 40 years
+ (From the birth of Jacob to the entry into Egypt) 130 years
+ (Length of the captivity in Egypt) 400 years
+ (From the exodus to the building of the Temple) 480 years
= 1150 years total from Abraham to the building of the Temple
Based on synchronisms with Assyrian and Babylonian accounts, Solomon would have been crowned around the year 970 BCE (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 20). Adding this to the 1,150 year figure, we see that Abraham would have lived sometime around the year 2100 BCE, and the other patriarchs within a century or two of that. Referring to the archaeological timeline, we can see that this falls near the end of the Early Bronze Age. Indeed, some scholars have proposed exactly this as the time of the patriarchs (Mazar 1990, p. 143, note 77).
One person who did so was the American biblical scholar and archaeologist William Foxwell Albright, who excavated sites in Palestine* in the 1920s and 1930s, a period which has been called the “Golden Age” of biblical archaeology (Laughlin 2000, p. 7). A conservative given to a literal reading of much of the Old Testament, Albright placed Abraham in a period which he called the Intermediate Bronze Age, today called either Early Bronze IV or Middle Bronze I, from 2100 to 1800 BCE. The periods both before and after this era – the Early Bronze II/III and the Middle Bronze II – were times of rapid and intensive urbanization, when massive fortified city-states flourished in the land of Canaan. But between these periods, there was a period of decline – an approximately 300-year interval during which the urban society broke down, for reasons still not entirely clear. Many of the largest cities were abandoned, and life in Palestine reverted largely to a pattern of pastoralism and small villages; not for three centuries did the urban system recover and re-establish itself. Albright and others claimed that this breakdown was due to a mass migration – essentially an invasion – of a group of people called “Amurru” in Mesopotamian texts, today normally called Amorites (Mazar 1990, p. 169). Albright believed that the pastoral, nomadic way of life prevalent during this period was an appropriate background to the largely nomadic depiction of the patriarchs, and furthermore that Abraham himself was an Amorite, a caravan driver who came to Canaan from the east along a trade network well-established in those times (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 320). (It is worth noting that the idea of a mass migration in EBIV is generally no longer accepted by the archaeological community.)
A different chronology, proposed by scholars such as Roland de Vaux, links the patriarchs to the following era, the Middle Bronze II. Following the reestablishment of urbanization after the EBIV/MBI nomadic interlude, the MBII was an era of mighty, resurgent city-states with pastoral clans dwelling in the countryside. If we accept the biblical dates for the sojourn in Egypt and the exodus, but reject those which depict the patriarchs as living for implausibly long times and instead give them normal human lifespans, adding up the dates lands us in the Middle Bronze Age. Finally, during this period, northern Egypt was under the control of a foreign Semitic dynasty called the Hyksos, which makes it more plausible that Joseph, a Canaanite, could have risen to a position of power in the government. Advocates of this dating argue that the context of the MBII fits the patriarchal stories better than any other period (Mazar 1990, p. 225).
One final dating scheme has been proposed by the Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, which links the patriarchal period to a time nearly a thousand years later than the other two proposals – the Iron Age I. Mazar argued that details in the text anachronistic to the Bronze Age are accurately reflected by the historical setting of the early Iron Age, around the time of the early Israelite settlement just prior to the establishment of the monarchy (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 324). This chronology, as we shall see, is closer to the truth, though perhaps for different reasons.
There is little in the patriarchal narratives themselves to pinpoint the exact time at which they occurred, but the first generation of scholars staked most of their hopes on the incidental details of society which we can obtain from the text. The Genesis account mentions customs such as a barren wife providing a slave woman to her husband in order for him to have children (16:1-3), details of marriage contracts and betrothal gifts (24:53), business agreements (23:10-16), and other aspects of society in the patriarchs’ time. No less important, the personal names it lists can realistically be derived from languages of the ancient Near East. (For example, the widely accepted derivation of the name “Abraham” is from West Semitic abi-ram, meaning “my father is exalted”, a common style of forming names in these tongues (Van Seters 1975, p. 41).) Many similar names, laws and customs are attested in extra-biblical documents, and scholars hoped to identify the patriarchal period by finding only one historical period in which all the relevant parallels existed.
However, this was not to be. It was not that the customs mentioned in the Bible are not attested to anywhere in extra-biblical documents, but the opposite: many of the customs mentioned in the Bible were so widespread that historical parallels exist from almost every period, including the first millennium BCE, through the times of the divided monarchy, the Babylonian exile, and even beyond. Therefore, the study of names and customs in the Old Testament is of no help in resolving the boundaries of the patriarchal period.
For example, the name “Abram”, as both a male and a female name, is known from the Neo-Assyrian period, and “Abraham” occurs throughout the first millennium BCE, including on a stele erected by Pharaoh Shishak to commemorate a military campaign in the southern kingdom of Judah (Van Seters 1975, p. 40-41). The name Jacob, likewise, is common in the Middle Bronze, but also in the Late Bronze, in the fifth century BCE, and later periods (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 323). John Van Seters reminds us that personal names tend to be conservative in character and often do not change greatly over long periods, or between cultures: “most of the features which characterize West-Semitic names of the early second millennium can be found in those of the late second millennium as well and in many Canaanite or Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Nabatean and Palmyrene names throughout the first millennium” (Van Seters 1975, p. 40).
Social customs of the patriarchal accounts likewise appear in more than one period, and sometimes the strongest parallels occur in monarchic times, far too late to be the era of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The practice of a barren wife providing her husband with a servant to bear him children is known from an Old Assyrian marriage contract of the 19th century BCE (Van Seters 1975, p. 69) and also in the fifteenth-century BCE Nuzi tablets from modern Kirkuk, but also is attested in an Assyrian text of the seventh century BCE (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 323). Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) misrepresentation of his wife as his sister on multiple occasions finds parallel in some sixth century BCE Egyptian marriage contracts, which use similar terminology to describe a spouse clearly not a blood relative (Van Seters 1975, p. 75). Finally, Abraham’s bargaining with Ephron the Hittite to buy the field of Machpelah, where each party exhorts the other to “hear me” (Genesis 23:11, 13), precisely follows the pattern laid out in a type of business contract known as a “dialogue document” which is found exclusively in the Neo-Babylonian, Persian, and later periods (ibid., p. 99).
Genesis chapter 14 tells one of the strangest stories in all the patriarchal narratives. We learn that in the time of Abraham, a coalition of four kings led by Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, waged war on a different coalition led by the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. Chedorlaomer’s side wins and sacks Sodom and Gomorrah, carrying away from those cities all the valuables and, coincidentally, Lot. When Abraham hears of this, he arms 318 of his household servants and sets out in pursuit, and attacking the enemy coalition by night, he defeats them and rescues Lot and the other captives.
Though some of the place names mentioned in this chapter are obscure, Elam was a real place; it was an ancient state on the Iranian plateau, on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf. However, a specific Elamite king by the name of Chedorlaomer is not attested anywhere in the lists of known Elamite monarchs from the second millennium, and the name as a whole is very unlike typical Elamite names (Van Seters 1975, p. 113).
The other states in this coalition can also be identified. “Shinar” is undoubtedly Babylon, a usage known from other OT verses if nothing else (Daniel 1:1-2), though its king Amraphel, like Chedorlaomer, is unknown historically. Tidal, identified as “king of nations”, is a Hittite name, referring to the ancient political power in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey. However, the only time in which “nations” could refer to the kingdom of Hatti is in the middle of the first millennium BCE, when the Hittites were more a coalition of petty kingdoms and city-states than a single unified empire (Van Seters 1975, p. 114). The fourth member of Chedorlaomer’s coalition, “Ellasar”, is the most enigmatic. The most widely accepted explanation is that the name derives from a phonetic reading of the ideograms which spell “Asshur” – an alternative term for the kingdom of Assyria. In one way, this makes sense, since Hatti, Babylon, and Elam were all major powers of the time, and the fourth member of their coalition was surely in the same league.
However, in terms of the politics of the day, such an alliance is unbelievable (ibid., p. 115). These four kingdoms were never allies; if anything, they were bitter enemies, engaged in perpetual war throughout their history. The idea of all four of them acting in concert to subdue a few minor enemies in Palestine is absurd, not least because there were no national states in this region during the second millennium BCE. The ruins we do have from this period are small, independent city-states at best, and yet we are asked to believe that it took the combined military might of the four greatest empires of the time to defeat them – and we are then asked to believe that Abraham, a single local chieftain with a force of only 318 men, could defeat this mighty alliance so completely that not even an attempt was made to retaliate. And this is the same Abraham who, just six chapters later, was afraid of the king of Gerar – a single, insignificant settlement – to the point of lying and claiming his wife to be his sister, lest he be killed so that someone else could marry her (Genesis 20:2). So discordant is this story, so inconsistent and so starkly at odds with what we know of the time, that scholar John Van Seters has concluded, “Our knowledge of the period is, in fact, sufficiently complete for us to know that there is no period or setting which could any longer accommodate such an event…. The whole account is so problematic that it cannot possibly have historical significance and must be viewed in an entirely different manner” (ibid., p. 114). He goes on to suggest that this account best corresponds to a late period of the divided monarchy, the first time the Israelite kingdoms were threatened by Mesopotamian powers, Assyria and later Babylon. Before this time, it is unlikely in the extreme that an Israelite writer would or could have thought in terms of a threat from the east; up until that point, all of Israel’s enemies had come from the west and south: the Philistines, Canaanite tribes, and at times Egypt. After these painful and devastating invasions, however, Abraham’s battles would have seemed all too relevant to the people of the dual kingdoms. As Finkelstein and Silberman write, the patriarchal accounts form a sort of “pious prehistory” (p. 41) that would have been familiar to their readers, casting the Israelites’ current allies and enemies in terms of a vision of the past.
During the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, a lucrative trade network flourished in Palestine, originating in the Arabian peninsula where goods such as gold, spices and incense were brought by caravan through the deserts of southern Judah to Syria, Egypt and Mediterranean ports. This trade was carried out mainly under Assyrian supervision and was of considerable economic importance to the empire, such that Assyrian kings went on numerous campaigns into the desert to subdue Arab tribes who threatened their control over the flow of commerce. Assyrian inscriptions mentioning these campaigns are known from the mid-eighth century onward, starting with the time of Tiglath-pileser III, who took the throne around 750 BCE.
The existence of this trade network was apparently known to the authors of the patriarchal accounts. Consider Genesis 37:25, in which Joseph’s brothers sell him to a group of caravaneers carrying the products of the Arabian trade, “spicery and balm and myrrh”, to Egypt. However, there is no evidence that this trade route, called the “king’s highway”, existed or was of importance in the second millennium BCE (Van Seters 1975, p. 25). As stated, the first known Assyrian campaigns to secure it began only in the mid-eighth century, and there is no justification for simply reading its existence back into a period a thousand years earlier.
The Arameans, a people who lived north of Israel in modern-day Syria, figure into the patriarchal narratives most prominently in the time of Jacob. Isaac’s brother-in-law, Laban, whose daughters Leah and Rachel Jacob married, is identified as an Aramean (Genesis 25:20, 31:20). According to the Bible, not only do the Arameans exist by the time of the patriarchs, but they are apparently a settled people: in Genesis 24:10-29 Laban and his family are depicted as the inhabitants of the city of Nahor, and at a later time as inhabitants of the city of Haran (Genesis 27:43, 29:4).
Outside the Bible, however, the first mention of the Arameans comes in Assyrian inscriptions dating to around 1100 BCE, and these texts clearly describe them as a nomadic people (Van Seters 1975, p. 29). It was not until several hundred years later that settled Aramean kingdoms began to appear on Israel’s northern border, most notably the kingdom of Aram-Damascus. The rich agricultural territory of the northern Jordan valley lay between these two kingdoms, and over the centuries they were at times allies, at other times military rivals battling to control this land – a rocky relationship that is metaphorically exemplified by Jacob’s mercurial relationship with his uncle Laban (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 39). Later on these kingdoms were assimilated into the Assyrian empire and ceased to exist as distinct entities, and therefore the Bible’s picture of the Arameans “could reflect historical reality any time between the tenth and fifth centuries, but not any earlier” (Van Seters 1975, p. 33, original emphasis).
One unusual character in the patriarchal narratives whom both Abraham and Isaac encounter is the ruler of the city of Gerar, Abimelech by name, who is identified as “king of the Philistines” (Genesis 21:32, 26:1).
The problem here is that the Philistines were not natives to the land of Canaan. They were part of a migration wave, one ethnic group in a coalition known as the Sea People, that sailed east across the Mediterranean and landed in Palestine no earlier than 1200 BCE (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 37). Their initial goal, it seems, was to invade Egypt, but they were decisively defeated by Pharaoh Rameses III and instead settled in Canaan, where they formed a pentapolis – an alliance of five cities – consisting of Gaza, Gath, Ashdod, Ekron, and Ashkelon. There is no evidence of a Philistine king ever having reigned over Gerar, or any city other than those five (Van Seters 1975, p. 53-54) – and in fact, Gerar (identified with the mound of Tell Haror northwest of Beersheba) was no more than a tiny, insignificant village until the late eighth century BCE, when it had become a large, fortified Assyrian stronghold, a conspicuous landmark (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 38). Again, the mention of Philistines would be an anachronism in a story dating to the Bronze Age, but in a story composed in monarchic times, it would be a natural mistake to make.
The town of Beersheba, in the Judean Desert at the southern extent of the territory of biblical Israel, plays an important role in the patriarchal narratives. It is named by Abraham in Genesis 21:31 as the result of a dispute with Abimelech over water rights; it is also named a second time by Isaac, who apparently forgot his father had named it the exact same thing, in Genesis 26:33. (The name “Beersheba” is Hebrew for “Well of Seven” and also “Well of the Oath”; both interpretations are possible in the Abraham story, whereas the context of the Isaac story suggests the latter.) Abraham dwells there for some time (Genesis 22:19); Jacob also has a vision of God there en route to Egypt (Genesis 46:1-4).
The general location of biblical Beersheba is not in dispute. The ancient name has been retained in the present-day site of Bir es-Seba, where a modern town has been built over the ruins of a small Roman settlement. Four kilometers west of Bir es-Seba is the mound of Tell es-Seba. Each place has been proposed to be the site of the OT town; it has also been suggested that both places were parts of biblical Beersheba, with the tell being a royal city and the modern site a civilian village (Manor 1992, p. 642).
As it turns out, however, at neither site have there been found any remains from the Early or Middle Bronze Age, although remains from both earlier and later periods do exist. Along the bank of the nearby Wadi es-Seba, remains from the Chalcolithic period, the 4th millennium BCE, have been found. “These early sites, however, have no association with events recorded in the Bible” (ibid., p. 642). Excavations at Bir es-Seba, beneath the Roman occupation level, have produced Iron Age pottery dating to the 10th century BCE, while excavations at Tell es-Seba have identified nine distinct Iron Age strata dating from the 11th to the 7th centuries BCE, during most of which time Beersheba was a large walled city. Following the Iron Age, the site was host to a small Hellenistic fortress and later to a Roman outpost, after which time it was abandoned. No artifacts of any sort from the Bronze Age have been found, and therefore it seems that the city where Abraham and Isaac supposedly dug their wells did not exist at the time when they are thought to have lived. (Note that Genesis 26:33 specifies that Beersheba was a city at the time, not merely a nomadic encampment.) It was, however, a large and distinctive landmark during the Iron Age, the time of the Israelite monarchy.
When we consider the patriarchal accounts, a pattern emerges: those details of the story which can be dated to a specific period all date to the Iron Age or later. There is not a single feature of the story which has parallels only in the Bronze Age.
On the face of it, this would seem to support Benjamin Mazar’s identification of the patriarchal period with the Iron Age (perhaps allowing for some later editing and redaction of the stories). However, the problem is that this would not seem to leave nearly enough time for an Egyptian captivity, an exodus, a wandering, and a conquest. If Solomon was a real person, synchronisms between biblical king lists and Assyrian and Babylonian astronomical observations would put the building of his temple around 1000 BCE. Given that the Iron Age is agreed to have started around 1200 BCE, even if we allow a 200-year uncertainty – which is far more leeway than I have seen in any source – that still leaves no more than about 400 years to fit all the events in between. This is as long as the Bible says the captivity alone took (Genesis 15:13). There would be no time left over for four generations of patriarchs, an exodus and decades of wandering, a conquest, a period of judges, or the reigns of Saul and David. Simply put, if we postulate that the patriarchs lived in the early Iron Age, we must abandon the notion that the Bible’s description of the following events can be read as literal, accurate history. One or more of the major events in the formation of the nation of Israel must not have happened as recorded, or not at all.
This dilemma becomes worse when we consider the famous Merneptah Stele. This artifact will be discussed in greater detail in the next section, but briefly, it tells us that a people known as Israel were already living in Canaan by 1208 BCE, the start of the Iron Age. Clearly this cannot apply to the patriarchal period, when “Israel” consisted of, at most, 12 people; if there is any truth to the events of the Old Testament, Pharaoh Merneptah’s campaign must have occurred after the exodus. This would push the patriarchal period back into the Middle or Late Bronze Age, but again, this is precisely the time period which the evidence weighs against. As we will see, the problem for biblical literalists only gets worse when we consider the next book of the Pentateuch.
* Note: Throughout this essay, I will use the term “Palestine” to denote the land where today exists the state of Israel, and where throughout much of Old Testament times existed the dual kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This is standard terminology in the field of biblical archaeology, and no political implications should be drawn from it.