Archaeology is rewriting the secular life of Abraham. We now know him as a “big business man” of the nineteenth century B.C. engaged in international commerce.
Abraham followed in the steps of his father Terah, who specialized in trade coming from the Persian Gulf via Ur, up the Euphrates and Balikh rivers to Harran. Sometime before Ur was destroyed by the Elamites (in the lifetime of Terah or Abraham), Terah seems to have sensed trouble and to have moved his headquarters from Ur to Harran. Harran was the ideal transfer point for commerce going east to Assyria and Persia, north to the Hittite country and the Lake Van area, west to the Mediterranean, and southwest to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Apparently Terah planned to enter the Harran-Canaan trade lane, but he died before the new venture got under way. Yahweh then appeared to Abraham and marked out the plans and specifications for a new business venture for him. Abraham fulfilled them faithfully, and later God sealed a covenant with Abraham embracing ownership of the land between the Euphrates and the river of Egypt.
Abraham was a caravaneer—the original meaning of the word “Hebrew.” In his time all land commerce moved on donkey back. The caravan donkeys were large animals that carried 150- to 200-pound packs. Anatolian and Syrian caravans numbered up to 3,000 donkeys. Egyptian caravans ran about 300 to 1,000 donkeys, and Abraham’s was probably in this range.
Every city mentioned in the Abraham story was a key caravan city. Shechem lay at the junction of the north-south ridge road and the east-west pass between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal that linked the Mediterranean with the Transjordan plateau via the Jabbok River. It was a Hurrian enclave where the ass was the sacrificial animal, as at Harran. Bethel, on the same ridge road, was also a junction point for east-west traffic. This road came from the Mediterranean up the valley of Ajalon to Bethel and then descended to Jericho, where it crossed to Transjordan and Arabia.
Hebron was the next Abrahamic city on the ridge road. It handled traffic coming from the Mediterranean via Beer-sheba, passing it on to Transjordan via the south end of the Dead Sea, at that time much farther north than now. Abraham used Sodom as the caravan city to handle his Arabian trade and entrusted it to his nephew Lot. After the destruction of Sodom, Abraham seems to have carried on his business directly with the Arab tribes. This is the only explanation of his marriage to Keturah; it must have been a diplomatic marriage, necessary to carry on international commerce. It was in no way related to the Sarah marriage, which was the “only family marriage.”
The wealth of the family of Abraham was witnessed by the towns in the Harran area that reflected the names of various members of the clan: Serug, Nahor, Terah, and Peleg. Sarah also was rich, for she was a “sister-wife,” an official Hurrian term signifying the highest social rating. Like modern Hong Kong, Harran was a blending of two cultures. Abraham’s life reflects both the Semitic and the Hurrian culture and both legal patterns.
The episode in which Lot was taken prisoner is another evidence of Abraham’s role as a caravaneer, for it shows that he had his own small but highly efficient military unit to protect his commerce in this sparsely settled land. The Abimelech episode at Beer-sheba also suggests the superiority of Abraham’s retainers. Inscriptional materials show that the donkey caravans were often subject to brigandage.
Genesis fourteen gives another clue to Abraham’s business. This chapter used to be an enigma, for the strong allied forces seemed to be going on a dead-end military campaign into the Sinai Desert. Today we know that this was normal warfare; the invaders were after the rich prize of the copper deposits in Edom and Sinai, and the metal from the mines of both countries was doubtless a major part of Abraham’s commerce. This explains his preference for the Kadesh-barnea and Sinai route to Egypt rather than the normal Mediterranean one.
Gerar was a very important caravan city at the beginning of Abraham’s business enterprise, for as a foreigner he needed “resident-alien” rites for the Negeb-Egyptian business. Gerar was the first major Palestine city on the road from Egypt that followed the shore of the Mediterranean. Later Abraham was powerful enough to make his own cities of Mamre (Hebron) and Beer-sheba the caravan cities at the end of his alternate trade route to Egypt via Kadesh-barnea. The Kadesh-barnea route had only a brief history, for the little hamlets along the road were there only during Middle Bronze I, the period to which most scholars assign Abraham. The trade route was not used again until the Iron Age.
As a major caravaneer, Abraham faced a constant problem of feeding his donkeys and drivers. Fortunately the agricultural areas most useful to him were only sparsely occupied, so he himself could farm and graze the area of his trade roads. Special crop techniques were necessary along the route from Kadesh-barnea to Egypt, however, and these methods show up well in the hamlets along the Sinai section of the road. Water had to be conserved for both crops and caravans.
Such an extensive international business as Abraham’s demanded large capital. Abraham did his banking at Damascus, where Eliezer was his banker and his heir in his early business deals. Under Hurrian law a moneylender was adopted into the borrower’s family, thus becoming a legal heir and being assured of repayment.
The business contract of which we have the best detailed report is Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah for the burial of Sarah. Since Abraham was a “resident-alien” at Hebron, he could not make “a man to man” purchase; the deal had to be approved by the town council. Apparently the people of Hebron were Hittites whose closest major city was Jerusalem. Like Abraham they seemed to have been a commercial people, but they had come into the land earlier and had already secured property rights. They had already worked with Abraham in the military campaign against the army that had captured Lot. The price of the land was exorbitant—400 shekels of silver “at the rate of the market.” This last idiom parallels quite modern terminology. Abraham himself was later buried here beside Sarah.
Archaeology can check the religious background in which Abraham lived and worked, but his spiritual life was unique. Yahweh worked with him personally as Christ did later with his disciples. Abraham was “justified by faith,” just as the Christian is justified; the essence of his life was “trust.”
Abraham built his own altars as communication centers with God. He did not use heathen ones. The sacrifice of Isaac is often given Canaanite significance, but Abraham’s faith was greater than that of the commentators. He told the servants, “We will worship and then return to you,” revealing his faith that God would spare Isaac or return his son to him. And when Isaac asked about a sheep, Abraham replied that God would provide it.
The Melchizedek episode is of special interest, for it provides evidence of a true believer who was not in Abraham’s family. Grace was even then to Jew and Gentile.
Archaeology knows many of the details of the Canaanite religion of the peoples surrounding Abraham. Sodom’s destruction was God’s evaluation of the Canaanite religion and its homosexual priestly guilds. In all probability, the Canaanite sanctuary excavated at Shechem is the same one Abraham saw there. The hill east of Bethel was a sacred site much earlier than Abraham’s time, a fact witnessed by the prehistoric flints found beside the sacrificial altars. The Canaanite high place at Bethel has been uncovered and is very similar to the one under the Muslim Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, said to be the place of Abraham’s sacrificial episode with Isaac.
Of all the Abrahamic descendants in Genesis, it was Joseph especially who had both the secular and spiritual qualities of the father of the faithful. The Joseph story ties in perfectly with the Hyksos conquest of Egypt. The Hyksos invaders were themselves largely Semitic and consequently willing to settle some new Israelite Semitic clans at the eastern end of the Nile delta. This was the general neighborhood of the Egyptian terminus of Abraham’s old trade routes. The founding of the Hyksos capital at Tanis is actually synchronized with the founding of Hebron. Potiphar, to whom Joseph was sold, was apparently an Egyptian quisling in the Hyksos government.
The Pharaoh whose dream Joseph interpreted spoke as a Semite and not as an Egyptian when he said, “God has made this all known to you.” No Egyptian-born Pharaoh would have said this, for the Pharaoh was the most important god in Egypt. One cannot be dogmatic about the cows in this dream, but they may relate to Hathor, the cow goddess, who was one of the most important fertility deities in Egypt. She was the equivalent of the Canaanite Astarte. If Hathor is involved in the dream, then the problem of interpretation would have been impossible for an Egyptian magician. The Nile River, the area from which these cows came, was also an important Egyptian god. The honors given to Joseph for interpreting the dream were the highest Egyptian honors.
The seven-year drought is paralleled by an inscription of King Zoser as early as the third dynasty. Some scholars think that the famine was aggravated by revolting Egyptians in the south who succeeded in partially interrupting the flow of water into the delta. More likely it was due to a climatic change caused by the jet streams of the upper air moving to a more northern route. The method by which Joseph secured all the land for Pharaoh was a peaceful method by which the Hyksos Pharaoh could consolidate his throne. The mention of horses in this famine program shows its dating in Hyksos times. The wagons that were sent to bring Jacob’s family to Egypt are of similar date. Neither horse nor wagon appears in the Abraham story. Joseph’s relatives were located permanently in Goshen, and during this period the Hyksos Pharaohs made their capital at Tanis in the eastern delta. This is the same area in which the Israelites are found in the Book of Exodus.
The Israelites kept their title deed on Palestine by burying Jacob there. Joseph, his son, lived a full life according to Egyptian terminology (110 years) and was embalmed in Egypt. His body was taken to Palestine at the time of the Exodus.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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