Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives

Written by A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman Reviewed By Joyce Baldwin

Several generations of theological students, brought up on books by W. F. Albright, G. E. Wright and John Bright became accustomed to referring to texts of the second millennium bc for light on patriarchal customs. By the 1960s a considerable consensus had been built up in the English-speaking world that a reliable historical setting could be established for the biblical patriarchs. There had always been a few scholars who expressed some reserve, but in the mid-seventies books by T. L. Thompson and J. van Seters completely rejected the claims on which the consensus had been founded. These essays represent work commissioned at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and carried out by a group of Old Testament scholars who have re-examined the evidence in the light of their own specialist knowledge, and who contribute their findings to the current debate.

The first essay by John Goldingay on ‘The patriarchs in Scripture and History’ raises the suggestion of T. L. Thompson that the patriarchal narratives do not have to have any historical value in order to be true. John Goldingay replies: ‘If they are not fundamentally factual, the patriarchal narratives have sense but not reference’. While it is true that the mere factuality of certain events would not in itself prove the validity of the faith perspective set up by the narratives, yet the historicity is a necessary evidence of the truth of the narrative on which it is based. It is relevant therefore that the historical facts to which Genesis refers be investigated; even though historical factuality is not in the end a sufficient basis for faith, it is nevertheless a necessary one.

John Bimson looks afresh at the archaeological data and the dating of the patriarchs, surveying first the five possible periods which have been canvassed. He then gives a comparison of biblical and archaeological evidence as it stands at present relating to individual sites, and concludes by arguing for an MBI period for Abraham and MBII for Jacob. This would require the life of Abraham to be dated largely, if not entirely, before 2000 bc, a date which is supported by the chronology given in the OT, and the descent of Jacob into Egypt would be early in the 19th century bc. Not all the difficulties are thus resolved, but the suggestion takes account of the length of the patriarchal period as envisaged in Genesis, and ‘offers by far the most complete solution to the problems raised … by recent scholarship’.

On comparative customs in ancient Near Eastern texts Martin Selman helpfully reviews the history of their use in connection with the patriarchs, and takes full account of the objections raised by Thompson to the whole notion of historicity, and by van Seters, who understands the Abraham narratives as the work of exilic or post-exilic authors. It is freely admitted that there have been cases of over-enthusiasm for parallels, and other aspects of misuse of extra-biblical data which have done a disservice to correct exegesis. A list of cautions is therefore drawn up (pp. 124, 125). Given proper control, however, ‘the way is still open for the social customs of the patriarchal narratives to be legitimately illustrated and supported from a variety of historical contexts’, and a list of valid examples is given, which ‘make the historical existence of the patriarchs more likely’.

The fourth major contribution is that of G. J. Wenham on the religion of the patriarchs from the point of view of the historian. While there is much in common between the type of religion portrayed in Genesis and later Israelite practice, ‘certain aspects of patriarchal religion are so different from later practice, that to suppose the traditions were invented in the first millennium seems unlikely’. Much of this essay is devoted to a new look at the use of the divine names (cf. Ex. 6:3) and at religious institutions in Genesis. On the basis of a closely reasoned argument the conclusion is reached that an early second-millennium date for the tradition best suits the evidence, while the non-mention of Jerusalem would be strange if it grew up in the later monarchy period.

The two editors, drawing upon their specialist studies in related fields, are well placed to draw attention to positive insights gained from comparative work, and the final chapter, contributed by D. W. Baker, looks at the literary structure of Genesis, which ‘appears to be a well-structured literary document’. At the same time he finds reason to call for a thorough re-examination of the theory of source documents, or the relative dates of those proposed by classical source analysis.

This scholarly work will greatly help the theological student who is needing to get to grips with the mounting quantity of recent writing on the patriarchs, and anyone wanting to be up to date on the patriarchal narratives, and the bearing of archaeology on them, would be well advised to buy this book for reference. It is thoroughly documented with numerous footnotes and is fully indexed. Whether the challenges of Thompson have been fully met remains to be seen; it will be interesting to see what response these essays provoke. The undergraduate needs to realize that in these essays ideas are being ‘floated’ which need further assessment, and therefore they cannot take the place of a text book, but with that proviso this book can be thoroughly recommended.

Joyce Baldwin