As I mentioned in the last post, the Bible story about Abraham became a “possibility” for me as an atheist based on the archaeological evidence available during my 1971 investigation into theism and Christianity. It seemed from what I was researching that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons “could” have lived during the time frame the Old Testament claimed in the locations it described.
I continued to ask questions about the patriarchs and discovered more evidence from archaeology. Each discovery seemed to lend more support to the credibility of the writings in the Old Testament from an archeological perspective. Archaeologists had found evidence for many of the ancient cities mentioned in the Bible with details about how people lived, worked and worshipped that matched much of what the Old Testament writers included in the process of describing how the Hebrew patriarchs lived and how they interacted with people from other people groups and nationalities.
Rather than the Bible being (as I supposed at the time) a fairy tale filled with legends and myths, I began to see it as history. I had a lot more researching to do to see if the history it presented was credible and believable, but the important point for me was that I was seeing the Old Testament as an historical document that could be tested against other historical documents and against the discoveries of archaeology.
Though Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons lived in the land of Canaan, the nation of Egypt is referred to many more times in Genesis about the lives of the Patriarchs. Egypt was a large country with great wealth and power, hundreds of thousands of citizens and a long history of accomplishments. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons were members of a small, semi-nomadic family, well-acquainted with Egypt.
One example is when Abram and his family traveled to Egypt because of a severe famine in Canaan. Pharaoh treated Abram well for the sake of Sarai (Abram’s wife) and they returned to Canaan from Egypt with sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, and male and female servants (Genesis 12:16). One of the those female servants was a young woman named Hagar. Sarai was not able to bear children at the time, so she gave Hagar to Abram.
“Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan … So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael.” (Genesis 16:3, 15)
Ancient tablets, like the Mari Tablets discovered by French archaeologists during the 1930s AD (at Tell Hariri), confirmed the common use of many personal names and towns listed in Genesis. Ruins of ancient Mari are located in Syria on the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq. The city was an important trade center along the route between Egypt, Babylon and Persia. Archaeologists found thousands of clay tablets that included town and personal names. Among them were Nahor (personal name of Abram’s brother – Genesis 11:27 and home town of Rebekah – Genesis 24:10), Abram the Hebrew (‘ibri in Hebrew – Habiru in Mari tablets – Genesis 14), Abam-ram (Abraham), Jacob-el, Banu-yamina (Benjaminites), Arriyuk (Arioch – Genesis 14:1). The use of these names in the Mari Tablets does not necessarily point to the same persons in the Genesis account, but demonstrates that the names were common during the period of the Patriarchs.
[The Ebla Tablets – discovered by Italian archaeologists in the mid-1970s – are another example of ancient tablets that support information in the Genesis account, but were not available during my investigation in 1971.]
The economy of Egypt was built along the Nile River, fed by melting mountain snow that caused the Nile to flood the river valley. The annual floods receded and left rich topsoil along the banks of the Nile. Egyptians used that soil to plant and harvest two or three crops a year between floods. It was those crops that often brought people to Egypt because of frequent droughts in Canaan.
Egypt was to play a major role in the lives of the patriarchs. Genesis records a covenant ceremony where God promised Abram that his descendants would have the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.” (Genesis 15:18). During that same covenant ceremony, God told Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13-16)
One question that stumped me at first was how Abraham’s descendants could return during the fourth generation if they were going to be afflicted for four hundred years? Wouldn’t that stretch the understanding of a generation from 40 years to 100 years? That sounded wrong – and it may have been – not because Genesis was wrong, but because my understanding of the beginning of the affliction may have been wrong.
First, some background about how I viewed the affliction of Jews in Egypt. I remember going to a movie with my father in 1956 titled The Ten Commandments. It starred Charlton Heston in the role of Moses. I understood from the movie and Sunday School classes that the affliction of the Jews began sometime after Joseph died and a new man became pharaoh who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1). 15 years later as an atheist investigating whether the Genesis text could be true, I questioned how 400 years could be four generations as God had said?
What I was shown was another possibility – that the affliction had started many years earlier with Ishmael’s attitude toward Isaac.
“So the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.’And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son. (Genesis 21:8-11)
It was important to see the emphasis on the fact that Ishmael, who was scoffing about his half-brother Isaac, was the son of “Hagar the Egyptian.” If we count the years from Ishmael’s scoffing to the descendants of Abraham leaving Egypt, it’s very close to the 400 years prophesied in Genesis 15.
As for God saying – “But in the fourth generation they shall return here” – we look to the genealogy of Moses, who led the Jews out of Egyptian slavery, beginning with Levi. Levi moved with his father (Jacob) and brothers from Canaan to Egypt (Genesis 46). Their descendants remained in Egypt until Moses led them out. Here is the genealogy from Levi to Moses according to Exodus 6. Notice the number of generations from when Israel entered Egypt to when Israel departed Egypt.
Levi —> Kohath —> Amram — > Moses
In the fourth generation, just as God had promised Abraham. I still had questions and was skeptical as an atheist, but found the answers and possibilities I was discovering interesting and challenging to my unbelief.
That led to my next question – was there any archaeological evidence to support the story of Jacob (Israel) and his family moving to Egypt and remaining there until Moses led them out?
The story begins with a father’s love and sibling jealousy. Jacob had 12 sons and a daughter. He loved his 11th son more than all his children, because Joseph “was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3). Joseph’s older brothers hated him so much that they couldn’t even speak peaceably to him (Genesis 37:4). That hatred grew to the point the older brothers conspired to kill the 17-year-old Joseph. However, the oldest brother Reuben, convinced the other brothers to throw Joseph in an empty pit (Genesis 37:21-24). Reuben was hoping to get Joseph back to his father safely, but Judah (one of the older brothers) suggested selling Joseph to Midianite traders (Ishmaelites) for twenty shekls of silver. The traders paid the money and took Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 37:26-28). The brothers made up a story to tell their father that a wild animal had killed and eaten Joseph. The news devastated Jacob and he mourned for Joseph for many days (Genesis 37:31-35). The Midianite traders sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard (Genesis 37:36).
Prior to my investigation I had believed that the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors was myth and Israelites being slaves in Egypt miraculously freed by Moses was legend. What came from the investigation? Answers next time as we continue to search for truth about the existence of God.
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”