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The Nuzi Tablets: Insights on Genesis

Nuzi Tablets
The Nuzi Tablets (1925)

The city of Nuzi, east of ancient Asshur and a short distance west of Arrapkha in the area of modern Iraq, flourished in the middle centuries of the second millennium BC. Excavations at Nuzi (1925–1931) led by Edward Chiera of the University of Pennsylvania on behalf of the American School of Oriental Research in Baghdad and Harvard University yielded several thousand cuneiform texts which document the rise of the Hurrians (Horites) and illustrate several patriarchal cultural customs. The site of ancient Nuzi is today called Yoghlan-Tepe. It is a tell/mound located about 240 kilometers north of Baghdad, near the foothills of southern Khurdistan. The Hurrians, biblical Horites, gave the name Nuzi when they controlled the city.

Archaeology has not only resurrected the ancient Hittites, who were for centuries practically unknown except for sporadic biblical references, but the enigmatic Horites also. The Pentateuch contains numerous references to this perplexing people called Horites. Chedorlaomer and his invading Elamite and allied armies from southern Mesopotamia defeated the Horites in what later became the nation of Edom (Gen. 14:6). The Bible states that chieftains governed the Horites in ancient Edom (Gen. 36:20–30) and notes that Esau’s descendants eventually destroyed them (Deut. 2:12, 22).

The Hurrians/Horites used to be thought of by scholars as a very local, restricted group of cave dwellers in ancient Edom. Most researchers thought that the name Horite derived from the Hebrew word hor meaning “hole” or “cave.” Other than this false etymology, the Horites remained completely obscure, not appearing outside the Pentateuch or in extrabiblical literature. Within the last century, however, archaeology has resurrected the ancient Hurrians, the biblical Horites, and revealed that they played a prominent role in ancient history.

The Hurrians/Horites, along with their allies the Tiras/Ras/Rosh people, formed the powerful Kingdom of Mitanni which conquered and ruled (c. 1595–1350 BC) the Assyrians and Arameans—including the Aramean city of Haran where Abraham had earlier lived. The Kingdom of Mitanni also attempted to expand into Lebanon and Canaan, which brought it into conflict with the Egyptians. The famous Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III (ca. 1504–1450 BC) undertook seventeen military campaigns during his reign, almost all of them against the Kingdom of Mitanni. However, the Hittites, not the Egyptians, defeated and ended the Mitanni Kingdom in ca. 1350 BC.

Discovering the important role the Hurrians/Horites played in ancient history has convinced researchers to abandon the inaccurate etymology “cave dweller” assumption. Archaeological evidence now indicates that the Hurrians/Horites were a very advanced people who were both international merchants and expert metalworkers, especially proficient in smelting copper and bronze, which probably explains why some appear in the Bible around ancient Edom where copper ore was abundant.

The Nuzi Tablets play an important role in illuminating patriarchal times and customs. Prior to the advent of modern archaeology, some of the cultural practices found in the patriarchal narratives in the Old Testament seemed strange and obscure. Numerous clay tablets from Nuzi and nearby Arrapkha have shed light on these cultural customs so that now we see a clear verisimilitude in their shared cultural practices. Although the Nuzi Tablets date to the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC, several centuries after the patriarchal period (c. 2100–1800 BC), they still illuminate the cultural practices of the patriarchs in earlier centuries. Ancient cultural practices tended to change very slowly.

When Abraham departed Ur in about 2100 BC, he sojourned in the Aramean city of Haran, which was located very close to the original homeland of the Hurrians in northern Mesopotamia, with whom the Arameans had many trade and cultural contacts. It is thus not surprising that many of the same cultural customs prevailed among both the Hurrians/Horites and the Hebrew patriarchs, relatives of the Arameans who then controlled the city of Haran.

For example, in Genesis 15:2, Abraham lamented his childless condition and the fact that his servant Eliezer was to be his heir. However, God assured the patriarch that he was to have a natural born son to inherit his property. The Nuzi Tablets explain the unusual custom of a servant becoming an heir. They relate how a trusted servant, a non-relative, could become the heir of a childless couple. In Hurrian society, it was customary for a couple who did not have a child to adopt a servant as a son to take care of them in their old age and to become their heir when they died. However, if a natural son was born, this agreement was nullified, and the natural son became heir. Eliezer was plainly Abraham’s adopted son, but the miraculous birth of Isaac, as the promised posterity, eliminated Eliezer as Abraham’s heir.

Another example of a cultural practice common both to Hurrians and the patriarchs is the marriage contracts found at ancient Nuzi which sometimes include a provision that a slave girl was given as a wedding gift to a new bride, exactly as is seen in the marriages of Leah (Gen. 29:24) and Rachel (Gen. 29:29).

Another provision sometimes found in Hurrian marriage contracts, especially those of the upper class, specified that an upper-class wife who was childless had to furnish her husband with a slave girl as a concubine to bear him children. In such a case, the wife was entitled to treat the concubine’s offspring as her own. It is for this reason that Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham, resulting in Ishmael’s birth. Hammurabi’s Code (Paragraph 144) parallels a Nuzian practices. Per Hammurabi, a sterile hierodule wife, who gives her aristocratic husband a slave to produce children, becomes their legal mother, and her husband is forbidden from remarrying and having a son who could replace the adopted son. Interestingly, Hammurabi was an Amorite, and Abraham was once allied with three Amorite brothers in Canaan.

Clearly the ancient Nuzians regarded marriage primarily as a means for producing children rather than as a vehicle for companionship. Procreation was the highest priority. One cultural practice found at ancient Nuzi illustrates why Abraham was reluctant to comply with Sarah’s demand that he expel Ishmael after Isaac’s birth. The son of a Nuzian concubine was not supposed to be expelled, even if a natural heir was born. In Abraham’s case, only a divine dispensation overruled human custom and motivated the patriarch’s compliance.

The Nuzi tablets also illustrate cases involving the selection of the heir of the father as is seen in Genesis 27. In Hurrian society the birthright of an heir was generally, but not exclusively, passed on to the firstborn son. The father had the right to name any one of his sons as his heir, regardless of birth order. A Hurrian father’s selection of his heir on his deathbed was especially binding. The selection of an heir by a Hurrian father on his deathbed was generally made by the following introductory declaration: “Now that I have grown old,” which was then followed by the name of the heir and an unbreakable, divine oath. The fact that Jacob tricked Isaac in Genesis 27 into naming him as heir in place of Esau, and that Isaac could not rescind his choice once made under oath, perfectly matches the selection process of an heir in the Nuzi texts.

Nuzian law also illuminates the importance of the obscure teraphim (“household gods”), which Rachel stole from her father as is related in Genesis 31:31–35. Teraphim were likely images of dead relatives used in ancestor worship. Possession of them implied family headship. In the case of a married daughter, possession could garner her husband the right to inherit her father’s property. Laban had sons of his own when Jacob left for Canaan, and they alone as sons had the right to their father’s teraphim idols. The theft of these important household idols by Rachel was therefore a notorious offense (Gen. 31:19, 30, 35) in which she unsuccessfully attempted to obtain for her husband the right to her father’s estate. In special circumstances, a father’s property could pass to a daughter’s husband, but only if the father had handed over his household gods to his son-in-law in a formal ceremony. Apparently, Rachel intended to claim after Laban’s death that he had named Jacob as his heir.

Another ancient custom clarified by the Nuzi texts is found in Genesis 12:10–20; 20:2–6; and 26:1–11. In these passages both Abraham and Isaac introduced their wives to foreign rulers as their sisters. The texts from Nuzi show that among the Hurrians/Horites, marriage bonds were most solemn, and a new bride simultaneously obtained the status of both “sister” and “wife,” and these terms could be used interchangeably in documents. Thus, Abraham and Isaac were being deceptive in calling their wives their sisters, but not strictly dishonest. In ancient Egyptian love poetry, brides are frequently referred to as “my sister.” Abraham and Sarah were, in fact, half siblings, and Isaac and Rebekah were cousins.

The Hurrian/Horite texts from Arrapkha and Nuzi illuminate many patriarchal customs. Thus, the Nuzi texts are an invaluable source of background information on the book of Genesis.

© 2024 Scott Stripling


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