Genesis 14:1-3, 14 (RSV) In the days of Am’raphel king of Shinar, Ar’ioch king of Ella’sar, Ched-or-lao’mer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goi’im,  these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomor’rah, Shinab king of Admah, Sheme’ber king of Zeboi’im, and the king of Bela (that is, Zo’ar).  And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea). . . .  When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.
The above passage describes what is known as the Battle of Siddim, or War of Nine Kings, or Slaughter of Chedorlaomer. Siddim is the equivalent of the Dead Sea, or “Salt Sea”. I shall be examining the issue to see how much historical information can be gleaned from it, and to determine whether the biblical account is accurate (or in some lesser-known aspects, plausible or possible), as far as we can determine from what we know in terms of history, linguistics, and archaeology.
First, let’s look at the place names of the Mesopotamian kings (14:1), to see if they even existed in the general time period (c. 2000-c. 1600 BC). I have provisionally accepted the birth and death dates of Abraham as somewhere between c. 1813- c. 1638 BC.
Wikipedia (“Shinar”) provides a very helpful linguistic summary:
Shinar (/ˈʃaɪnɑːr/; Hebrew שִׁנְעָר Šīnʿār, Septuagint Σενναάρ Sennaár) is the southern region of Mesopotamia in the Hebrew Bible. Hebrew שנער Šinʿar is equivalent to the Egyptian Sngr and Hittite Šanḫar(a), all referring to southern Mesopotamia. . . . Sayce (1895) identified Shinar as cognate with the following names: Sangara/Sangar mentioned in the context of the Asiatic conquests of Thutmose III (15th century BCE); Sanhar/Sankhar of the Amarna letters (14th century BCE); the Greeks’ Singara; and modern Sinjar, in Upper Mesopotamia, near the Khabur River. . . . The name Šinʿar occurs eight times in the Hebrew Bible, in which it refers to Babylonia. This location of Shinar is evident from its description as encompassing both Babel/Babylon (in northern Babylonia) and Erech/Uruk (in southern Babylonia). In the Book of Genesis 10:10, the beginning of Nimrod‘s kingdom is said to have been “Babel [Babylon], and Erech [Uruk], and Akkad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.”
No one disputes that cities and kingdoms in southern Mesopotamia are of very ancient origin: long before the time of Abraham. Ur near the Persian Gulf, “dates from the Ubaid period circa 3800 BC, and is recorded in written history as a city-state from the 26th century BC” (Wikipedia, “Ur”). The famous Ziggurat “was built in the 21st century BC . . . during the reign of Ur-Nammu.” This article continues, describing the period under consideration:
The third dynasty was established when the king Ur-Nammu came to power, ruling between ca. 2047 BC and 2030 BC. . . . His code of laws, the Code of Ur-Nammu . . . is one of the oldest such documents known, preceding the Code of Hammurabi by 300 years. . . .
Ur-Nammu was succeeded by Shulgi, the greatest king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, who solidified the hegemony of Ur and reformed the empire into a highly centralized bureaucratic state. Shulgi ruled for a long time (at least 42 years) . . .
The Ur empire continued through the reigns of three more kings with Semitic Akkadian names, Amar-Sin, Shu-Sin, and Ibbi-Sin. It fell around 1940 BC to the Elamites in the 24th regnal year of Ibbi-Sin, an event commemorated by the Lament for Ur.
According to one estimate, Ur was the largest city in the world from c. 2030 to 1980 BC. Its population was approximately 65,000 . . .
The city came to be ruled by the first dynasty (Amorite) of Babylonia which rose to prominence in southern Mesopotamia in the 18th century BC. After the fall of Hammurabi‘s short lived Babylonian Empire, it later became a part of the native Akkadian ruled Sealand Dynasty for over 270 years, and was reconquered into Babylonia by the successors of the Amorites, the Kassites in the 16th century BC.
Some scholars believe that Ella’sar is a variant of Larsa: an ancient city near Ur. Wikipedia elaborates:
The city became a political force during the Isin-Larsa period. After the Third Dynasty of Ur collapsed c. 2000 BC, Ishbi-Erra, an official of Ibbi-Sin, the last king of the Ur III Dynasty, relocated to Isin and set up a government which purported to be the successor to the Ur III dynasty. From there, Ishbi-Erra recaptured Ur as well as the cities of Uruk and Lagash, which Larsa was subject to. Subsequent Isin rulers appointed governors to rule over Larsa; one such governor was an Amorite named Gungunum.. . . As the region of Larsa was the main center of trade via the Persian Gulf, Isin lost an enormously profitable trade route, as well as a city with much cultic significance.
Larsa grew powerful, but never accumulated a large territory. At its peak under king Rim-Sin I (c. 1758–1699 BC), Larsa controlled only about 10-15 other city-states — nowhere near the territory controlled by other dynasties in Mesopotamian history. Nevertheless, huge building projects and agricultural undertakings can be detected archaeologically. . . .
Uruk, near Larsa, is very ancient. Wikipedia:
Uruk played a leading role in the early urbanization of Sumer in the mid-4th millennium BC. By the final phase of the Uruk period around 3100 BC, the city may have had 40,000 residents,] with 80,000-90,000 people living in its environs, making it the largest urban area in the world at the time. The legendary king Gilgamesh, according to the chronology presented in the Sumerian King List (henceforth SKL), ruled Uruk in the 27th century BC. . . .
Scholars identify Uruk as the biblical Erech (Genesis 10:10), . . .
Following the collapse of Ur (c. 2000 BC), Uruk went into a steep decline until about 850 BC when the Neo-Assyrian Empire annexed it as a provincial capital.
The emergence of written records from around 3000 BC also parallels Sumerian history, where slightly earlier records have been found. In the Old Elamite period (Middle Bronze Age), Elam consisted of kingdoms on the Iranian plateau, centered in Anshan, and from the mid-2nd millennium BC, it was centered in Susa in the Khuzestan lowlands. . . .
[T]he Sukkalmah dynasty (c. 1970 – c. 1770 BC) . . . also called the Epartid dynasty after the name of its founder Ebarat/ Eparti, was roughly contemporary with the Old Assyrian Empire, and Old Babylonian period in Mesopotamia, . . . During this time, Susa was under Elamite control, . . .
Notable Eparti dynasty rulers in Elam during this time include Sirukdukh (c. 1850 BC), who entered various military coalitions to contain the power of the south Mesopotamian states; Siwe-Palar-Khuppak, who for some time was the most powerful person in the area, respectfully addressed as “Father” by Mesopotamian kings such as Zimrilim of Mari, Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria, and even Hammurabi of Babylon; and Kudur-Nahhunte, who plundered the temples of southern Mesopotamia, the north being under the control of the Old Assyrian Empire. But Elamite influence in southern Mesopotamia did not last. Around 1760 BC, Hammurabi drove out the Elamites, overthrew Rim-Sin of Larsa, and established a short lived Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia. Little is known about the latter part of this dynasty, since sources again become sparse with the Kassite rule of Babylon (from c. 1595 BC).
Despite the abundance of cuneiform records from Mesopotamia, none of the kings who, according to Genesis 14, fought against the Abrahamic alliance have been identified in an extra-Biblical account. Nevertheless, the right names go with the right places in Genesis 14: “Amraphel king of Shinar; Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedor-laomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim” (Genesis 14:1). Chedor-laomer is clearly an Elamite name (a Kudur-X or Kutur type). Arioch is Arriyuk(ki)/Arriwuk(ki), attested at Mari and Nuzi in Mesopotamia. Amraphel is less clear.
But Tid‘al is universally recognized as an early form of Tudkhalia, well known from the Hittite world centered in Anatolia (modern Turkey). Interestingly, Tudkhalia served as a “king of peoples/groups,” reflecting the fractured nature of political power in Anatolia in the 19th and 18th centuries B.C., according to archives of Assyrian merchants in Cappadocia. In these archives we read of chiefs (rubaum) and overlords or paramount chiefs (rubaum rabium).
Moreover, military campaigns from Mesopotamia into the Levant are well attested from the third millennium B.C. (Akkad and Third Dynasty of Ur) through the early second millennium B.C. A war by the Abrahamic alliance against an alliance of kings from the east in the patriarchal period is certainly plausible. (“The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?”, in Hershel Shanks, editor, Biblical Archaeology Review 21:02; March/April 1995)
Wikipedia (“Arioch”) adds:
There are also sources which associated Ellasar with the kingdom of Larsa and suggested that Arioch could be one of its kings called Eri-Aku, an Akkadian translation for the name Rim-Sin, where rim meant servant and Sin is the Semitic name of the moon god (Agu or Aku in Akkadian). By the 20th century, this theory became popular so that it was common to identify Arioch with Eriaku — through the alternative reading of either Rim-Sin or his brother Warad-Sin, who were both believed to be contemporary with Hammurabi.
If the biblical Arioch is Rim-Sîn I, then it is observed that the latter reigned at “the right time” in the patriarchal and Abrahamic chronology, since he “ruled the ancient Near East city-state of Larsa from 1758 BC to 1699 BC (in short chronology) or 1822 BC to 1763 BC (middle chronology).”
Kitchen, in the article cited above, makes various related historical / archaeological arguments about the identifiable historicity of the patriarchal age, which I shall either cite or summarize:
[T]he patriarchs, . . . should be dated to the first half of the second millennium B.C. (the Middle Bronze Age). What objective evidence, independent of the Bible, do we have to support the Middle Bronze Age as the Patriarchal Age? As it turns out, quite a bit.
The Price of Slaves
One important item involves the price of slaves in silver shekels. From ancient Near Eastern sources we know the price of slaves in some detail for a period lasting about 2,000 years, from 2400 B.C. to 400 B.C. Under the Akkad Empire (2371–2191 B.C.), a decent slave fetched 10–15 silver shekels, though the price dropped slightly to 10 shekels during the Third Dynasty of Ur (2113–2006 B.C.). In the second millennium B.C., during the early Babylonian period, the price of slaves rose to about 20 shekels, as we know from the Laws of Hammurabi and documents from Mari and elsewhere from the 19th and 18th centuries B.C. By the 14th and 13th centuries B.C., at Nuzi and Ugarit, the price crept up to 30 shekels and sometimes more. . . .
Joseph is sold to some passing Ishmaelites for 20 silver shekels (Genesis 37:28), the price of a slave in the Near East in about the 18th century B.C. Another reference is in the Sinai Covenant, where Moses, on God’s instructions, sets forth the laws to govern the people when they settle in the Promised Land (Exodus 20 ff.). One of the laws concerns the compensation to be paid to the owner of a slave if someone else’s ox gores the slave to death: The responsible party is to reimburse the slave-owner with “30 shekels of silver” (Exodus 21:32)—reflecting the price of slaves in the 14th or 13th century B.C. . . .
In each case, the Biblical slave price fits the general period to which it relates. If all these figures were invented during the Exile (sixth century B.C.) or in the Persian period by some fiction writer, why isn’t the price for Joseph 90 to 100 shekels, the cost of a slave at the time when that story was supposedly written? And why isn’t the price in Exodus also 90 to 100 shekels? It’s more reasonable to assume that the Biblical data reflect reality in these cases.
Treaties and Covenants
Another kind of evidence comes from our knowledge of treaties and covenants from as early as the third millennium B.C. The subject is a complex one, but suffice it to say that we can now construct a typology of treaties that allows us to date them by their essential form and structure, which vary from time to time and from place to place. [see the very helpful illustrative chart of these treaties in the article, and many further details about these treaties and covenants; omitted here for brevity’s sake] . . .
In the third millennium B.C., the oldest treaties from Mesopotamia follow Sumerian rules of composition. These treaties are characterized by considerable repetition of standard features in each section of the treaty. Thus each stipulation or agreement in Eannatum’s treaty with Umma is preceded by a formal oath and is followed by a curse embodying a second oath. The treaty between Naram-Sin and Elam likewise has a formal oath before each stipulation. Further west, at Ebla, things were drastically simplified. A prologue and curse were followed by a long list of stipulations; then curses were invoked for violation of the whole.
Very recently some treaties have become partly available from Mari and Tell Leilan dating to the early second millennium B.C., where we would place the patriarchs. These treaties exhibit a different basic format—similar to the patriarchal pacts in the Bible. . . .
The common features between these early second-millennium treaties and the covenants recorded in Genesis are striking. The treaties, alliances and covenants described in Genesis differ in form and structure from the treaties of the third millennium B.C., but are very much like the treaties of the early second millennium B.C.—corresponding to our dating of the Patriarchal Age to the early second millennium, say about 1950–1700 B.C. This conclusion is strengthened by evidence concerning the form and structure of later treaties. In about 1400 B.C. the middle-Hittite Ishmerikka treaty sets its stipulations between witnesses and oath. This differs from the early second millennium treaties—both those attested in the Bible and those from Mari and Tell Leilan—in which both witnesses and oath precede the stipulations. . . .
If the Biblical text had been written in the mid-first millennium B.C., one would expect the patriarchal covenants and treaties to be in this form (the same would hold true for the Sinaitic covenants). On the contrary, the treaty forms fit the times when the Bible places the narratives. In short, this typology of treaties provides factual material that broadly substantiates the Biblical chronology.
. . . In the history of Mesopotamia and its neighbors, we find that the geo-political conditions match the situation in Genesis 14 in only one period, the Patriarchal Age according to the Biblical chronology.
In the late third millennium B.C., Mesopotamia was dominated for a time by a single power, the Third Dynasty of Ur. This dynasty was overthrown by Elam in about 2000 B.C. Then, for some 250 years, no single power ruled in greater Mesopotamia, from Ur to Carchemish. Instead, the area swarmed with major and minor city-states, combining and recombining in ever-changing alliances. Some, like Isin and Larsa, Mari, and then Assyria and Babylon, became more prominent than others. States such as these occasionally headed major alliances, but power was still divided. As one oft-quoted ancient text observes:
“There is no king who is strong just by himself. Ten (to) fifteen kings are following Hammurabi the man of Babylon; so, too, Rim-Sin the man of Larsa; so, too, Ibal-pi-el the man of Eshnunna; so, too, Amut-pi-el the man of Qatna; (and) twenty kings are following Yarim-Lim the man of Yamhad.”
Other documents of the period repeatedly refer to alliances of three, four and five powers. . . .
In short, the kind of military engagement described in Genesis 14 is at home in the early second millennium B.C.
From about the 18th century B.C. on, however, the situation drastically changed in Mesopotamia. The triumphs of Hammurabi of Babylon and Shamsi-Adad I of Assyria ended the era of rival alliances, with the numerous Mesopotamian city-states vanishing forever. From then on, the land was dominated by just two powers, Assyria and Babylon. For two centuries (c. 1550–1350 B.C.) they shared power with Mitanni, but that was all. Not only did the political map of Mesopotamia then become incompatible with the situation as described in Genesis 14, but in the north, in Anatolia, there were drastic changes as well: The chiefs and overlords were absorbed into the Hittite kingdom that dominated the area until about 1200 B.C. . . .
To pursue a different line of argument, the form of the patriarchal names themselves can help us date the Patriarchal Age. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and even Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Hagar) have names that in their original language (Yitzchak, Ya‘akov, Yoseph and Yishmael) begin with an i/y-prefix; scholars of Northwest Semitic languages call these “Amorite imperfective” names.
This was noticed long ago, as was the fact that Amorite imperfective names with an i/y-prefix are common in the Mari archives of the early second millennium B.C. . . .
In the third millennium B.C., i/y-names are already known, for example, at Ebla. But no figures are yet available as to how frequently they appear. For the early second millennium B.C., however, we do have numbers. In a standard collection of over 6,000 names from the early second millennium B.C., 16 percent of the nearly 1,360 personal names beginning with i/y are of the Amorite imperfective type. This type constitutes 55 percent of all names beginning with i/y.
Compare this with the Late Bronze Age (late second millennium B.C.), which includes the archives from Tell el-Amarna and Ugarit. At Ugarit, out of 1,860 names in alphabetic script, only 40 are Amorite imperfectives, a mere 2 percent. Of the syllabically written names, only 120 out of 4,050 names are of this type, a mere 3 percent. Of all names beginning with i/y, the figures for Amorite imperfectives are down to 30 percent and 25 percent—that is, about half of what they were in patriarchal times.
Photo credit: Abraham Makes the Enemies Flee Who Hold His Nephew (1613), by Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Summary: I present various arguments regarding the Battle of Siddim (Genesis 14) & known history, during the life of Abraham: heavily citing archaeologist & “biblical maximalist” Kenneth A. Kitchen.
Tags: Abraham, ancient Hebrews, ancient Israel, ancient Israelites, ancient Jews, archaeology & the Bible, Bible & History, biblical accuracy, biblical anachronisms, biblical archaeology, Bronze Age Canaan, Canaan, Genesis, Hebrews, Holy Bible, infallibility, cities of the plain, Sodom & Gomorrah, Abraham & Sodom, Genesis 14, Battle of Siddim, Hammurabi