When Did Abraham Live?

Determining where Abraham fits into history helps us to better understand the cultural background into which Genesis fits.

Mesopotamia, the region of some of the world’s oldest civilizations, played an important role in post-Flood biblical history. This was Abraham’s original homeland. Understanding where Abraham fits into Mesopotamian history can provide a fixed point of reference for studying and understanding the Abrahamic period. 

The following article is a summary of Abraham and the Chronology of Ancient Mesopotamia,” by Matt McClellan, and of the surrounding discussion and research pertaining to it. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the New Creation.

The Chronology of Ancient Mesopotamia

Scholars studying ancient Mesopotamia have created a chronology of its early occupational periods. 

Early Attempts to Place Abraham in the Chronology

In the 19th and early 20th centuries AD, scholars believed that Abraham lived around the time of Hammurabi, during the first dynasty of Babylon. However, this does not mean that they placed Abraham in the 16th–19th centuries BC as you might think from the dates on the chart above. Rather, they believed that both Hammurabi and Abraham lived much earlier, around the 22nd century BC.1 The chronology used by modern scholars places Hammurabi at around 1792–1750 BC.2

There are currently opposing ideas regarding the dates when Abraham lived. Most scholars place him either in the Ur III or the dynasties of the Isin-Larsa periods. The best way to calculate the date of Abraham is to calculate backwards from the date of the Exodus. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds because there are different ideas about when the Exodus happened. To further complicate the issue, there are different ideas about how long before the Exodus Abraham lived.

For example, one view places the Exodus around 1250 BC and Abraham around 1900–1600 B.C. in the Isin-Larsa period.3 Another view places the Exodus in 1446 BC and Abraham, or specifically Abraham’s 75th year, in 2091 BC, during the Ur III period.4 Some scholars place Abraham in the Middle Bronze Age, designated by the dating system used in the Southern Levant . This designation spans both Ur III and Isin-Larsa in the Mesopotamian chronology.5

Genesis 14, McClellan explains, is one of the best pieces of evidence suggesting that Abraham lived during the Isin-Larsa period. This account describes how Abraham fought a coalition of four kings from Mesopotamia.  Since there were four kings, this suggests that it occurred during a time when the region was not united into a single empire. During Ur III, there was a single, united kingdom, but in Isin-Larsa there was not.6 

An Exciting Discovery

New information came to light in 1974. Archaeologists discovered the archives of the ancient city of Ebla written on clay tablets. David Noel Freedman, who wrote about the tablets, stated that these tablets listed the cities of the kings that Abraham defended. They were even listed in the same order that Genesis 14 lists them. This provides a strong link between the period of the Ebla tablets and Abraham’s time.7 However, the Ebla tablets date before the Dynasty of Akkad, a period much earlier than Ur III or Isin-Larsa. This period correlates to the Early Bronze Age in the Southern Levant and to the third millennium BC.

The five cities that Abraham defended from the invading Mesopotamians included Sodom and Gomorrah. Freedman correlated those cities with Bab edh-Dhra and other sites from the Early Bronze Age located near the Dead Sea. He argued that placing these events in the Early Bronze Age worked much better. After all, there were no known sites from the Middle Bronze Age (the standard date for Abraham) in that region.8

Further Research

Since then, other scholars have studied the Ebla tablets. They disagree with Freedman. McClellan notes that most scholars now believe that the tablets do not list all five of the cities. Furthermore, there is no evidence of a single event destroying multiple cities (including Bab edh-Dhra) as described in Genesis 19. Additionally, placing Abraham in the Early Bronze Age just doesn’t seem to work with any reasonable biblical chronology. 

For this reason, most biblical scholars, even if they disagree on Abraham’s exact date, tend to place him somewhere between 2100 BC and 1900 BC.  It should be a simple matter to find those dates on the chronologies to find what periods he lived during. But are the standard chronologies correct? McClellan adds to the complexity of the issue by bringing in yet another chronology, that of Egypt. He points out that some scholars have begun to question the standard chronologies, especially regarding Egyptian chronology.

Some recent studies have suggested that Abraham dates to the Early Dynastic or Old Kingdom periods in Egypt (The 2nd– 6th Dynasties).9,10 But these dynasties in Egypt pre-date Ur III and Isin-Larsa in Mesopotamia. In fact, they correlate better with the period before the Dynasty of Akkad, exactly when Freedmen suggested that Abraham lived. Furthermore, Kitchen says, this was one of the few periods in Mesopotamian history when a coalition of kings like those mentioned in Genesis 14 could have existed.11 

Egypt and Ebla

The Ebla tablets discussed above came from a site known as Tell Mardikh. Here, in “Palace G,” archaeologists found over 17,000 complete and fragmentary documents. The excavator dated Palace G to the Early Bronze Age. These tablets include a link to Egyptian history since they mention Pepi I of the sixth dynasty of Egypt.

The question is, when did Palace G cease to exist? There are numerous theories. Some researchers suggest that Sargon, the first king of Akkad, attacked and destroyed Ebla. Others believe that Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin was responsible for the city’s destruction. Either way, this would mean that the archive continued in use until early in the Dynasty of Akkad. 

Another theory suggests  Palace G was destroyed before the rest of the city, perhaps by an arsonist or accidental fire. This would place the destruction of Palace G in the Early Dynastic period before the beginning of the Dynasty of Akkad. McClellan points out that much of the archaeological evidence in Palace G suggests that it came to an end before the beginning of the Dynasty of Akkad. 

If the archive in Palace G was no longer in use before the Dynasty of Akkad, that means that Pepi I of Egypt, who was mentioned in the Ebla tablets, must have reigned before Sargon of Akkad. 

The Kings in Genesis 14

McClellan next compares the names of the attacking kings mentioned in Genesis 14 to the Early Dynastic period. There are four kings in this coalition: Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellaser, Kedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim. 

Amraphel of Shinar

Most scholars equate Shinar with Babylon, especially since Genesis 11 and Zechariah 5:11 make this equation. However, a few researchers have suggested other options. Aaldars suggested that the Amraphel king of Shinar of Genesis 14 equates to Amorapil king of Sanhar in northwestern Mesopotamia.12 Unfortunately, very little is known about Amorapil or about Sanhar.  This makes it difficult to prove whether or not this was one of the kings of the coalition. 

Arioch of Ellaser

There is also debate about the second king of the coalition, Arioch king of Ellaser. Leupold equates him with King Rim-Sin of Larsa.13 Kitchen, on the other hand, suggests that Arioch was King Arriqwuk, from northern Mesopotamia.14 

Kedorlaomer of Elam

The third king, Kedorlaomer of Elam, is not quite so difficult to locate in the historical record. The Elamites are well known. However, many Elamite kings had names beginning with “kedor.” The second half of his name, “lagaomer,” is that of an Elamite goddess. Despite this king matching so well with what is known of the Elamites, there is no known record of a king with this exact name. 

Tidal of Goiim

Tidal king of Goiim is the last king on the list. Some scholars equate Tidal with a Hittite name, Tudkhalia. There are records of several people with this name, including kings. However, the kingdom name Goiim does not equate to the Hittites. It can translate as nations, so some scholars suggest it refers to a mixed group of people or to a tribal or barbarian king.

Thus, all four of these kings are disputed and difficult to pin down in the historical record. This does not mean that they didn’t exist, just that archaeologists have not yet found any direct record of them. It is not surprising that no record of them has come to light, since the archives that have been found so far only provide information regarding small portions of early Mesopotamian history. 

Sodom and Gomorrah

What about the cities that Freedman identified as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah coalition?15 There has been quite a bit of scholarly discussion about these cities. B.G. Wood agrees with Freedman’s suggestion. He identifies Bab edh-Dhra with Sodom, Nueira with Gomorrah, Safi with Zoar, Feifa with Khanazir, and Admah with Zeboiim.16 All of these sites were occupied during the Early Bronze Age.

Additionally, Bab edh-Dhra suffered two destructions about 20 years apart from each other.17 Genesis 14 doesn’t specify whether the coalition of invading kings destroyed Sodom. But if they did, this would fit with the archaeology of the site. In this case, the first destruction would date to the invasion and the second one to God’s fiery judgment  on Sodom in Genesis 19. The second destruction of Bab edh-Dhra began on the rooftops, which fits the description in Genesis 19. That the fires began on the rooftops is evident because the burn patterns in the ruins indicate that the interior of the buildings did not begin to burn until after the burnt roofs had collapsed into them.18

Despite the fact that some scholars criticize  the idea of Bab edh-Dhra being Sodom, McClellan feels it is still a strong possibility and criticisms are easily refuted. And, although it is true that the biblical chronology seems to place Abraham in the Middle Bronze Age, not the Early Bronze Age, perhaps the various historical chronologies need some adjustment. McClellan suggests that maybe instead of moving Abraham back into the Early Bronze Age, we should move the Early Bronze Age up to the time of Abraham. 

Conclusion

Although standard chronologies place Abraham in the Middle Bronze Age, which equates to the Ur III/Isin-Larsa period, McClellan suggests Abraham fits better into the Early Bronze Age, which equates to the Early Dynastic period in Mesopotamia and the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Determining where Abraham fits into ancient near eastern history helps us to better understand the cultural background into which Genesis fits. 



Footnotes

  1. Petrie, W.M.F. 1911. Egypt and Israel. New York, New York: E. S. Gorham. ↩︎
  2. Roux, G. 1992. Ancient Iraq, 3rd ed. New York, New York: Penguin Books. ↩︎
  3. Kitchen, K. 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ↩︎
  4. Archer, G. L. 2007. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, revised and expanded. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers. ↩︎
  5. Albright, W. F. 1963. The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra: An Historical Survey. New York, New York: Harper & Row. ↩︎
  6. Kitchen, K. 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ↩︎
  7. Freedman, D. N. 1978. “The Real Story of the Ebla Tablets: Ebla and the Cities of the Plain.” Biblical Archaeologist 41, no. 4: 143–164. ↩︎
  8. Freedman, 1978, 43–164. (Footnote 7) ↩︎
  9. Ashton, J. and D. Down. 2006. Unwrapping the Pharaohs: How Egyptian archaeology confirms the Biblical Timeline.Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books. ↩︎
  10. McClellan, M. 2011. “Ancient Egyptian Chronology and the Book of Genesis. Answers Research Journal 4: 127–159. Retrieved from https://www.answersingenesis.org/arj/v4n/n1/egyptian-chronology-genesis. ↩︎
  11. Kitchen, K. 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ↩︎
  12. Aalders, G. C. 1981. Genesis: Volume I. Translated by William Heynen. Grand Rapids, Michigan ↩︎
  13. Leopold, H.C. 1942. Exposition of Genesis, vol. I. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House. ↩︎
  14. Kitchen, 2003. (Footnote 11) ↩︎
  15. Freedman, 1978, 143–164. (Footnote 7) ↩︎
  16. Wood, B.G. 1999. Digging up the sin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Bible and Spade 12: 67–80. Retrieved from http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/04/the-discovery-of-the-sin-cities-of-sodom-and-gomorrah.aspx#Articl ↩︎
  17. Shea, W. H. 1988. “Numeirah.” Archaeology and Biblical Research 1, no. 4:12–23. ↩︎
  18. Wood, 1999, 67–80. (Footnote 16) ↩︎
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