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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

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Before Israel

Syria-Palestine in the Bronze Age

Wayne T. Pitard

By the time the nation of Israel emerged as a political entity in the late thirteenth century BCE, Near Eastern urban civilization had already grown ancient—more than two millennia old. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian and Old and Middle Babylonian cultures had long since risen and fallen. For Egypt, the final days of imperial glory were at hand.

The Israelites felt their late-coming keenly, even emphasizing it in the narrative traditions that told of their beginnings. In this they differed from other Near Eastern peoples, whose stories of national origins tended to merge with their accounts of the creation of the cosmos. For example, in the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, Babylon's foundation culminates the creation of the world, thereby obscuring the city's relatively late surge into political prominence in Mesopotamia. But Israelite tradition set the nation's birth within a historical rather than a mythic framework. Biblical stories of the Israelites' origins deal with their slavery in Egypt, their subsequent escape, and their eventual conquest of the land of Canaan, which would become their homeland. Biblical accounts of the creation of the world remained distinct from those that related Israel's own origins. Indeed, between its accounts of creation and its record of the rise of Israel, biblical tradition placed a series of tales about several generations of ancestors; according to the tradition's own chronology, these progenitors lived centuries before Israel came to be. Now preserved for the most part in the book of Genesis, these narratives told the story of a pastoralist named Abraham—the nation's ultimate father—and his descendants. In the form in which we know them, these tales tell the stories of four generations of Abraham's family, explaining how they migrated through the land of Canaan and eventually settled in the Nile Delta in northern Egypt. There, the tradition goes on to narrate, Abraham's descendants lived for four hundred years, eventually growing into the nation of Israel.

In this chapter we look at the ancestral narratives in Genesis 12–50 and consider their relationship to the history of Israel. We then examine the wider history of Syria-Palestine from the late third millennium to 1200 BCE, exploring the historical and cultural milieu in which Israel was born. We conclude by examining aspects of second-millennium culture that illuminate some of the ancestral traditions that Genesis preserves.

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