The magnificent palace of Mari with its royal archives of cuneiform tablets is the most significant archaeological find from French excavations at Tell Hariri, which is situated about a mile west of the Middle Euphrates in Syria. Most of these tablets, numbering in the tens of thousands, are royal correspondence dealing with domestic and international matters and economic, administrative, and juridical records of the palace. These texts have supplied important historical, chronological, geographic, ethnolinguistic, and cultural data concerning northern Mesopotamia and Syria‐Palestine from the mid‐nineteenth to the mid‐eighteenth century BCE, a period just before the rise of Hammurapi of Babylon and culminating in the formation of his Old Babylonian Empire.
Part of the significance of the Mari tablets for the interpretation of the Bible stems from the information that they provide about the West Semitic Amurrites (see Amorites), who began a massive infiltration into Mesopotamia at the beginning of the second millennium BCE. The Mari archives document a wide spectrum of Amurrites. They depict confederacies of seminomadic West Semitic tribes such as the Yaminites, who were untouched by Mesopotamian civilization and remained hostile to the central authorities. At the other extreme, they record the rule of thoroughly Mesopotamianized West Semitic kings, such as Shamasi‐addu of Assyria, Zimri‐lim of Mari, and Hammurapi of Babylon, who remained Amurrite only in name. They also describe the West Semitic Haneans in the process of sedentarization, who accepted the authority of the Mesopotamian kings but retained many of the ways of the Amurrites. In recording the activities of all these Amurrites, the Mari archives provide rich documentation of West Semitic personal names, vocabulary, tribal structure and organization, and institutions and practices, such as covenant making and census taking. In the cultic sphere, there is a small but significant group of prophecy texts, which attest to the existence of intuitive divination by “ecstatics” and “answerers” at Mari, who inform the king of the deity's message. (see Prophets, article on Ancient Israel.)
Some scholars have sought to place the events described in Genesis 12–50 within the West Semitic context of Mari, thus dating the ancestors of Israel to the early second millennium. While one must acknowledge the invaluable contributions of the Mari tablets in illuminating the ancient West Semitic background of biblical traditions, parallels alone cannot establish contemporaneity. Until the distinguishing particularities of Amurrite and Aramean cultures can be clarified by new discoveries, we must be content to utilize the Mari data for the insights and perspectives they provide without drawing chronological conclusions that cannot be proved.
Barry L. Eichler