Patriarchs and Judges
© Charles Chandler
The Torah tells us that the Israelites were descendants of Abraham, who had been granted the land by God,1 which they would inherit on completion of the Exodus.2
So, was Abraham an historical figure? His name doesn't appear in the secular records (aside from the mention much later by Hamzah,3:1:4 which wouldn't be the same as a contemporary account), but that doesn't necessarily mean much. Abram and his half-sister Sarai, who he married, are said to have changed their names to Abraham and Sarah.4,5 The mere addition of an aspirated "H" isn't much of a change, so we should suspect that the author is telling us that they previously went by unrecognizably different names, and that these are the new names of you-know-who. ("Sarah" wasn't even a name — it was a title, meaning princess, or secondary wife. So her name was definitely something different.) The original names would have been expunged when Merneptah set out to kill all of Jacob's descendants (i.e., the Israelites). But the scribes might have left enough clues for us to determine the true identities of the Patriarchs.
As the story goes, Terah & Abraham had moved from Ur on the lower Euphrates to Harran, the probable capital of Mitanni, at the upper end.6,7:231 (It's also possible that Terah was from India, and that Abraham & Sarah are the same as Brahma & Sarai-Svati.8) Then there are two stories of Abraham trying to hook Sarah up with kings,9,10 and another nearly identical story, except with Isaac trying to give away Rebekah.11 The first king was an unnamed pharaoh, who then rejects Sarah because of "serious diseases inflicted on the pharaoh and his household" due to her presence. The second king was Abimelek of Gerar, who is believed to be Abimilku, governor of Sur,12:104 mentioned in the Amarna letters,13:EA254 and thus a contemporary of Akhenaten. If we get the rank from the former story, and the date from the latter, Sarah and/or Rebekah were hooked up with Amenhotep III and/or Akhenaten.
There are, indeed, records of Mitanni princesses marrying Egyptian pharaohs in this period,14 and only for a few generations were relations between Egypt and Mitanni so amicable.
Gilukhipa (c. ) was the daughter of Shuttarna, king of Mitanni. She was married (c. ) to Amenhotep III, king of Egypt (c. ) as a secondary wife. Her elder sister or half-sister Mutemwiya was the wife of Tuthmosis IV, and mother of Amenhotep III, her own nephew. An historic scarab, issued at this time, announced the arrival of the princess, in the tenth year of his reign (c. ), and revealed that Gilukhipa was escorted by 317 women of her harem, who acted as personal ladies-in-waiting. She was accorded the regal title and had her own court at the palace of Malkarta, but left no recorded children. When her niece Tadukhipa, the daughter of her brother, King Tushratta, was also sent to marry Amenhotep (c. ), her brother wrote proudly to Amenhotep, asking him to compare the dowry he sent with his daughter, which he considered even more lavish than that which had been provided for his sister.
Note the similarity between Gilukhipa's 317 servants and Abraham's 318 servants mentioned in the Torah (after Sarah was expelled from Egypt, and their assets were merged).15,16,17:52 Since Gilukhipa's dowry definitely included 317 servants, it's highly unlikely that a similar (or greater) dowry would have been offered to the governor of Sur, since it would have been an insult to the pharaoh. So Abraham's 318 servants had to have been part of Gilukhipa's dowry to Amenhotep III. And Gilukhipa's niece Tadukhipa is considered by some to be Queen Kiya, one of Akhenaten's wives, mentioned in a letter by Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III. Thus we know of two generations of Mitanni princess-brides from Egyptian records, and we have accounts in the Torah of two generations of men giving away their half-sisters to Egyptian nobility in Akhenaten's time. There were enough parallels in the stories that the ancient audience surely made the connection, though the specifics contradict each other, as if the authors were trying to tell the truth, but they deliberately swapped a few details so that nobody would get arrested for openly reciting the Israelite heritage after it was suppressed. The elaborate effort was warranted because the issue at stake was important — this is what established the Israelite property rights in Canaan. So we should like to wink at the authors, and acknowledge that Sarah was probably Princess Gilukhipa, while Rebekah was probably Princess Tadukhipa.
So why did the pharaoh reject Sarah? That God would inflict "serious diseases" on the Egyptians to punish the pharaoh for unwittingly taking a married woman as his wife is clearly story-telling. It's also wholly consistent with the anti-Atenist propaganda that persisted, and showed up later in Tacitus' account. Yet if Sarah was Princess Gilukhipa, wife of Amenhotep III, she was long gone before the Plagues and the Exodus, so the actual reason for the expulsion was something else.
In , King Tushratta of Mitanni (Shuttarna's son, and Gilukhipa's brother) invaded Egyptian Syria.13:60/85/101 It's possible that Tushratta was too greedy in cashing in on the alliance, causing Amenhotep III to rescind.17:52 The story in the Torah reads as if the marriage was never even consummated, but the rejection could have been 15 years later, in , due to Tushratta's actions. The fact that Abraham and Sarah were sent away, along with the dowry, indicates a polite rejection, not a prelude to war. Mitanni was an important ally in checking the advance of the Hittites. It's possible that Amenhotep wanted an alliance with Mitanni, but wasn't willing to give up territory to get it.
A contemporary account from Ugarit tells of a "woman of Terah" and various tribes being ousted from the Negev.18:215 This is where Abraham was said to have settled before being ousted.10 If the "woman of Terah" was Sarah getting kicked out because of Tushratta's aggression, this tells us that she and Abraham had the same father (i.e., Terah), but since they were half-siblings, they had different mothers. For Sarah to be a Mitanni princess, her mother had to be the wife of King Shuttarna. This would also suggest that the land grant in Canaan,19 which the Israelites later called their inheritance, wasn't to Abraham, but to Sarah, as one of her entitlements as queen. It's possible that Amenhotep III let her retain Canaan, as long as she considered herself to be an Egyptian vassal — that way, if Tushratta pressed any further south, he'd have to fight his own sister. That the grant was a vassalage, and not just a gift, is indicated by the terms — all of the males had to get circumcised,20 which was an Egyptian custom. So the pharaoh gave Canaan to Abraham & Sarah on the condition that the male heirs be permanently marked as Egyptians.
Hence the best inferences that can be drawn, all sources considered, are that:
  • Terah was a nobleman in Sumeria or India (otherwise his daughter by the queen of Mitanni would not have been considered a princess fit for marriage to a pharaoh),
  • Abraham was likewise a nobleman, Sumerian or Indian by birth, and by the intermarriage of his family with Mitanni and Egyptian royalty, and
  • Sarah was the daughter of Terah by the queen of Mitanni, and the wife of Amenhotep III, whose entitlement to Canaan was converted to Abraham's governorship.
For Sarah to be married in , she had to be at least 15 years old or so, meaning she had to have been born not much later than . Abraham was born 10 years prior,21 so he was born . (This is consistent with Abraham coming 14 generations before Solomon,22 who was born .23:20 14 generations times 30 years per generation equals 420 years, taking us back to .) Isaac would have been born in (just after Sarah's expulsion from Egypt and subsequent marriage to Abraham,24 when she was 30 years old). Abraham would have lived to be 75, if he died when Isaac was 35 years old.25:27:8 So Abraham died in . Sarah had already died. The story of her passing attests to the dominance of Hittites in Hebron.26 The Hittites never officially held anything that far south, so we can only guess that such dominance could have only been during the greatest southern extent of the Hittite Empire, which was during the reign of Suppiluliuma I (). If Sarah died before Abraham, but sometime after Suppiluliuma came to power, the date range would be , when she was between the ages of 60 and 65. That the passages refer to Abraham as a "mighty prince" suggests a period in which Hittites still respected Mitanni royalty, which would have been early in the reign of Suppiluliuma, when Sarah's half-brother Shattiwaza was courting Suppiluliuma's daughter. And such dates allow Isaac to have been in contact with the Philistines,27 who were not present in the Levant until , and who were wiped out by Ramesses III in .
With Isaac being born in , and at 30 years per generation, Jacob would have been born in , making him 65 when the Hebrew nation was formed by Seti I in . He then moved to Egypt, accepting a land grant from Ramesses,28 at a time when we know that people from Canaan were migrating to the Nile delta. Jacob lived another 17 years,29 and therefore would have died at the age of 82. And Joseph would have been born in , making him at least 41 years old when he was put in charge of the pharaoh's palace,30 sometime after the capital was moved to the delta by Ramesses, which was no earlier than .
Thus the four generations of Patriarchs are fixed in time by numerous constraints. Most notably, the alliance between Mitanni & Egypt at the beginning of the succession, and the references to Ramesses at the end, have the Patriarchs bracketed in this period. Then it's no surprise that many more relevant dates, considered in this and subsequent sections, fall comfortably within this range.
This has profound implications for the history of Judaism. If Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were born in 1420, 1380, 1350, and 1320 respectively, and if Ramose could not have been born much earlier or much later than , Isaac and Ramose were contemporaries. Furthermore, they might have actually been adversaries, or at the very least, uneasy allies, because upon arrival at the Jordan River, Ramose was denied admittance into the Promised Land.31 The date would have been , when Tutankhamun abandoned Amarna and exiled the high priests. Isaac would have been ~51 years old, and Jacob would have been ~21. So Ramose was denied entry by Isaac and Jacob. This is odd, in that Jacob's new name was Israel,32 thus the new nation was named for him, and the Abrahamic faiths are named in honor of his grandfather. It's even possible that the Torah was named after his great-grandfather Terah.17:55 So how did Isaac and Jacob refuse to let Ramose cross the Jordan, and then get remembered as the Patriarchs of the faith that Ramose was championing? Perhaps it was just that the Patriarchs were hereditary governors, who were going to end up with the credit for anything that had occurred within their territory. Ramose, on the other had, was an exiled heretic — a stranger in a strange land.33 So Ramose had to play nice with the Patriarchs.
Jacob seems to have escorted the 1312-Exodus through the wilderness, for it was he (as Israel) who assured Esau (as Edom) that the exiles would take nothing from the land without paying in silver, but Esau swore that he would attack if the exiles attempted to pass through his territory.34 (Note that these verses clearly refer to Israel as a person, not a tribe. If we accept the conventional chronology, in which Jacob came two generations before Ramose, we have to read "Israel" as Jacob's descendants. But if that's what the authors meant, they would have used "b'nei yisrael" as they did elsewhere, in which they were clearly referring to the whole tribe.35 And the first verse explicitly calls Israel the brother of the king of Edom,36 which wouldn't be said about the whole tribe.) On being denied passage, Israel then ventured to Mount Hor.37 This could have been Jacob appealing to Horemheb. Then no battle between Esau & Jacob ensued. The only person more powerful in Canaan than Esau was the pharaoh, so it sounds like Horemheb ruled in favor of the exiles. Later, Jacob's name is listed repeatedly, as the one that Balaam was to curse,38,39,40 and in the camp in Moab.41 So Jacob was definitely there, apparently mediating between Horemheb, Isaac, and Esau.
This is not to say that Jacob had converted to Atenism. While Ramose was receiving the Ten Commandments, the rest of the exiles made a golden calf and dedicated it Jacob, in return for leading them out of Egypt.42 The choice of idols is significant — the Egyptian bull god, which was popular in Memphis (a likely home town for a lot of the exiles), was Apis, whose powers included the ability to mediate between human beings and higher gods, especially Atum (also popular in Memphis, and the prototype for the Aten).43 So if Ramose's followers were going to lapse into idolatry, the first step in that direction would be to summon the powers of Apis for assistance in communicating with the Aten. But Ramose resented the idolatry, and/or the dedication to Jacob, not to mention the loss of all of that jewelry. So Ramose confiscated the golden calf, and ordered the Levites to slaughter the idolaters.44 Later conflicts between Jacob & the Levites would sharpen the distinction between these two groups.
To summarize, there was a covenant between God and Abraham, including a land grant in Canaan, if "God" can be taken to mean Amenhotep III, and if the grant was originally to his wife Sarah. Since it was a relatively recent grant, and since the general political relationships among Egypt, Hatti, Mitanni, and Sumeria hadn't changed much, and since Amenhotep III was still an honored ancestor at the court of Tutankhamun and Horemheb, the grant was still valid. And this was the legacy bequeathed to Abraham's descendants. But Ramose wasn't a Patriarch — he was an Egyptian clinging to his beloved Adonai, and whose ministry among the Bedouins under the name of Otni'el would one day be credited to Moses, son of Amram, son of Kohath, son of Levi, son of Jacob, even if Ramose was actually Jacob's senior.


1. Genesis 12:6-7. (J)

2. Exodus 6:8. (P)

3. Hamzah (960): The Annals of Hamzah Al-Isfahani. K. R. Cama Oriental Institute

4. Genesis 17:5. (P)

5. Genesis 17:15. (P)

6. Genesis 11:31. (P)

7. Olmstead, A. (1922): The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.

8. Matlock, G. D. (2017): Who Was Abraham?

9. Genesis 12:10-20. (J)

10. Genesis 20:1-2. (E)

11. Genesis 26:7. (J)

12. Benamozegh, E.; Luria, M. (1995): Israel and Humanity. Paulist Press

13. Moran, W. L. (2000): The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

14. Russell, C. (2013): Gilukhipa (Khirgipa).

15. Genesis 14:14. (J)

16. Gordon, C. (1954): The Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

17. Chandler, T. (1976): Godly Kings and Early Ethics. Exposition Press

18. Dussaud, R. (1934): Nouvelles archéologiques. Syria, 15 (2): 214-216

19. Genesis 15:18-21. (J)

20. Genesis 17:10. (P)

21. Genesis 17:17. (P)

22. Matthew 1:1-6.

23. Silberman, N. A.; Finkelstein, I. (2002): The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Touchstone

24. Genesis 17:21. (P)

25. Eusebius (325): Chronicle.

26. Genesis 23:1-7. (P)

27. Genesis 26:8-16. (J)

28. Genesis 47:11. (J)

29. Genesis 47:28. (P)

30. Genesis 41:39-40. (E)

31. Deuteronomy 34:4. (E)

32. Genesis 32:27-28. (E)

33. Exodus 2:21-22. (J)

34. Numbers 20:14-21. (E,J)

35. Joshua 3:1.

36. Numbers 20:14. (E)

37. Numbers 20:22. (S)

38. Numbers 23:7. (E)

39. Numbers 23:21. (E)

40. Numbers 23:23. (E)

41. Numbers 24:5. (J)

42. Exodus 32:3-4. (E)

43. (2017): Bronze statuette of Apis, Dyn. 18. Virtual Egyptian Museum

44. Exodus 32:28. (E)

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