Middle Bronze Age II and the Patriarchal Narrative of Isaac in the Land of Canaan
by Devin M. Esch
Period Summary: Middle Bronze Age II
The Middle Bronze Age II (henceforth called MB II) was a period of wealth, self governance, and general flourishing for those living in the Land of Canaan. There was a great increase in settlements and urbanization happening throughout the land, which allowed for thriving cultures and trade.
In order to talk about the MB II period, one must first examine the chronology.
Most scholars agree that the MB II period can be broken up into three sub-periods: MB IIA, MB IIB, and MB IIC. The beginning and ending dates of these sub-periods are highly debated in the academic community, however. W.F. Albright, basing his chronology off of information gathered from royal tombs in Byblos, suggests the MB IIA period parallels the Thirteenth Dynasty in Egypt (1800-1750 B.C.E). Kathleen Kenyon proposes that these dates are too late and the period should be instead dated from around 1950-1850 B.C.E. Benjamin Mazar and Amihai Mazar disagree with both of these date ranges, suggesting the MB IIA period lasted from 2000-1800 B.C.E. (Mazar, 1990, pp. 190-191). This range encompasses several different phases of occupation levels at numerous MB IIA sites throughout the region, and is the chronology we will consider for this paper. Accepting Benjamin Mazar’s dating of this period allows us to correlate the MB IIA nicely with the Twelfth Dynasty in Egypt.
The cultural transition between the MB IIA and the MB IIB/C was gradual and smooth and was not marked by any distinct crises or events. For this reason, it is difficult to date these periods definitively. Ceramic typology, stratigraphy, and the changes in artifacts are used to form the chronology of the entire MB II period. Amihai Mazar suggests the MB IIB lasted from 1800-1650 B.C.E., therefore correlating generally with the Thirteenth Dynasty in Egypt (Mazar, 1990, p. 195). Using Egyptian scarabs found in Palestine from the Fifteenth Dynasty with the with the names of pharaohs on them, one can reasonably correlate the MB IIC period with the Fifteenth (Hyksos) Dynasty, ending sometime around 1570 B.C.E.
The population in the Land of Canaan during the MB II period changed as people groups moved throughout the land. The majority of the population in the MB IIA was concentrated along the northern coastal plain, where a flow of people, ideas, and culture permeated southward from the coast of Lebanon and inner Syria. This was a Western Semitic population known as the Amorites. Groups of semi-nomads lived in the land as well, and they eventually began to settle down. As the MB II progressed, the population increased and settlements moved further south along the coast of the Land of Canaan. In the north, Hurrian populations increased in number, entered the Land of Canaan, and assimilated into the local Canaanite population.
An increase in settlement and urban growth was taking place throughout the land in the MB II. We can see a network of strong Canaanite cities along the northern coastal plain, while inland, rural settlements dotted the landscape of the central Hill Country. Many of these cities were built on virgin ground, where no previous city had been built before. The MB II was a period of urbanization, with evidence of this classification abounding in many MB II settlements. Cities and fortresses were large and well-fortified, the largest of which were located along the Sharon Plain, north of the Yarkon River, and along the Jezreel and Beth Shean Valleys. A new type of fortification was developed in the MB II; large, earthen ramparts were constructed as a defense against the battering ram and tunneling, with the city located in the bowl that the ramparts created. These earthen ramparts were often covered in smooth stones or lime to further complicate the siege of an attacking army. The glacis is similar in function, its primary difference being that the steep packed-earth slopes were built against an existing mound or hill rather than being free-standing and creating a bowl. In addition to the development of the rampart and glacis fortifications, a new type of city gate appeared during the MB II. Archaeologists have discovered large, chambered, symmetrical gatehouses with towers flanking either side, showing the new focus on strong fortifications characteristic of this period.
Evidence of urban planning also abounds in cities dating to the MB II. The streets were paved and were laid out in an orthogonal design, large public buildings, palaces, and temples were erected, and cultic sites were incorporated into the cities. The lower city of Hazor, established around 1800 B.C.E., is an excellent example of town planning on a grand scale, and consequently, the city became one of the largest and most significant in the Land of Canaan. The urban planning found in many MB II cities signifies strong self-government and significant wealth in Palestine and Syria. As the cities grew, the city-state system was developed, a characteristic feature of Palestine until the Israelite conquest (Bright, 1981, p. 64). Small, rural settlements were spread throughout the coastal plain and central hill country as well. As semi-nomadic tribes began to settle down, small towns and encampments increased in the land. These settlements in the hill country were unfortified and were primarily agriculture based, using terraced farming to grow their crops.
As previously mentioned, Hazor was one of the major cities in Palestine during the MB II. In fact, at 200 acres, it remained the largest city in the region until the 13th century B.C.E. (Mazar, 1990, p.197). Aphek was another large, flourishing city throughout the MB II period. The impressive fortifications characteristic of the MB II period can be found at sites like Megiddo and Yoqneam. Other important cities during this time include Joppa, Beth Shean, Jericho, Jerusalem, Beersheba, and Amman (in Jordan).
The geopolitical situation in the Land of Canaan remained fairly stable throughout the MB II. Evidence of trade routes spanning great distances can be found in the arrival of tin necessary for making bronze, which came in from the region of modern-day Afghanistan. Copper ingots came into Palestine from Cyprus and pottery was exchanged between Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine, and Syria as the importance of trade continued to be evident. In addition to goods and imports, people were also entering the Land of Canaan, resettling and building cities and villages. In the first half of the MB II, a period of weakness and instability gripped Mesopotamia with various rival dynasts jostling with each other for power. The Amorites, who flooded into Mesopotamia after the fall of Ur, were significant players in these events and maintained a noticeable presence in the north throughout the MB II period. Mesopotamia never had the enduring political stability that regions like the Land of Canaan and Egypt enjoyed.
Egypt, meanwhile, enjoyed a time of remarkable stability and prosperity during the MB IIA period when the Twelfth Dynasty reunited the land after a chaotic First Intermediate Period. The Execration Texts suggest that Egyptian control and influence extended over the majority of Palestine in the MB IIA, however this control was probably not very firm and many scholars don’t believe in a direct Egyptian rule. It appears that most of Egypt’s interactions with the Land of Canaan were diplomatic and commercial.
Egypt experienced a period of weakness in the MB IIB/C, which opened the door for the Hyksos rulers, who were likely Canaanite or Amorite princes from Palestine and southern Syria. These Northwest-Semitic Hyksos rulers moved into Egypt and ruled there until Amosis liberated Egypt and expelled the Hyksos sometime around 1550 B.C.E., commonly marked as the end of the MB II.
The rule of the Hyksos in Egypt is one of the major events of the MB II period. Also important was the Hurrians’ entrance and assimilation into the Land of Canaan from northern Mesopotamia and Syria, which greatly impacted the populations and culture. Some of the most influential aspects of the MB II weren’t events, but technological advances. The aforementioned fortification systems of ramparts and glacis were developed to counteract the effects of the new battering rams and war chariots. The fast potter’s wheel was also invented during this time, resulting in a wide variety of new and elegant pottery.
Much of what is known about the MB II comes from archaeological sources and text sources. Evidence of the migration south from Syria can be found in what are called “Syrian Gates” fortifying cities throughout Palestine, which are the same design as those in found in Amari and Aleppo. The Mari Archive from the early 18th century B.C.E. sheds light on the social structures and trading routes during the time, specifically relating to tin shipments into cities in the Ancient Near East. One of the most significant textual finds are the Execration Texts, which suggest the emergence of city-states and reflect first-hand knowledge of the Land of Canaan by the Egyptians. All of these sources reveal important information about what life was like in the Land of Canaan and the neighboring regions during the MB II.
Patriarchal Narrative: Isaac
The patriarchal traditions found in Genesis, when analyzed from a historical geographical perspective, can give us clues about the time period in which the patriarchs lived. Out of the three patriarchs, Isaac’s narrative has the least amount of geographical data. It can be inferred from the biblical text that Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah somewhere in the region of Beersheba, although this is never specifically mentioned. Abraham and Isaac traveled to the region of Moriah sometime during Isaac’s youth or young adult years, where Abraham bound Isaac and the Lord provided a sacrifice.
Nothing else is mentioned about Isaac’s whereabouts until he sees Rebekah after coming “from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev” (Genesis 24:62 New International Version). The Bible places Beer Lahai Roi somewhere between Kadesh and Bered, yet the site has yet to be identified today. It is not known what people group lived in Beer Lahai Roi, nor whether the city survived into later periods of Israel’s history. It is also not known where Isaac came to from Beer Lahai Roi; the Bible simply mentions that he had come from that region but doesn’t specify his destination. Presumably, upon the death of Abraham, Isaac travels for a brief time to Mamre to the cave of Machpelah to bury his father, as alluded to in Genesis 25:9-10. The Bible then states that “after Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer Lahai Roi” (Genesis 25:11).
Due to a famine in the land and direction from God, Isaac went to Gerar, a town in the western Negev where Abimelech was king. This move was atypical during a time of famine in Canaan; most people journeyed to Egypt to seek food and relief (Herzog, 1984, pp. 96-97). The Philistines (a name likely used anachronistically) were living in Gerar, so Isaac undoubtedly had various interactions with them while he stayed there for “a long time” (Genesis 26:8). One of Isaac’s major interactions with the people in Gerar came when he told them his wife Rebekah was his sister. He claimed his motivation was fear he would be killed on account of her, because she was beautiful. Abimelech told everyone in Gerar that if anyone harms Isaac or Rebekah, they would be put to death. The Philistines became envious of Isaac as he became very wealthy, filling in the wells his father Abraham had dug. In this region, water is life, so stopping up the wells was a significant and clear message to Isaac that he was no longer welcome there. Gerar is mentioned a few more times in the Bible; families of the tribe of Simeon settled there during the period of the monarchy and King Asa pursued the Egyptians and “destroyed all the villages around Gerar” (2 Chronicles 14:13). At Abimelech’s request, Isaac moves from Gerar to the Valley of Gerar, an area that is unidentified yet probably falls in the region of Wadi Sheri’a. Again, not much is known about this site and it is not mentioned again in the biblical texts. It is clear, however, that there was fresh water to be found in the area as Isaac’s servants reopened the wells of Abraham and even dug three additional wells, two of which became points of dispute between the herders of Gerar and Isaac.
Beersheba is the next stop on Isaac’s journey, located southeast and higher in elevation than Gerar. It’s here that the first direct mention of Isaac worshipping the Lord occurs. After the Lord promised to bless Isaac and increase his descendants in a theophany, Isaac built an altar, called on the name of the Lord, pitched his tent, and dug a well. Abimelech came from Gerar to Isaac at Beersheba and they made a peace treaty between the two people groups. Beersheba is commonly known from the geographical phrase “from Dan to Beersheba,” a phrase which circumscribes the Promised Land of Israel. Beersheba is also the city where Samuel’s two evil sons served as leaders (1 Samuel 8:1-3) and, in the time of Amos, false worship seems to be running rampant in the city (Amos 5:5).
At some unspecified point, Isaac moved to Mamre, near Kiriath Arba, which is where he died and was gathered to his people, presumably in the cave of Machpelah. A map of Isaac’s journeys can be seen below.
There are many differing views among scholars relating to the historical reality behind the patriarchal traditions. Some scholars are biblical minimalists, believing the biblical texts only contain myths and stories which are too far removed from their time of writing to be true. On the other hand, biblical maximalists hold to the idea that the biblical stories are historical realities and can be used to learn about real events and people from the past. I tend to fall somewhere in-between the minimalist and maximize views, with more inclination to agree with the maximalists. I believe many of the biblical stories are rooted in truth, although I also acknowledge that there were probably some embellishments and allegory woven throughout the narratives as well. I believe the patriarchal narratives in particular fit well into this category of thought. Biblical scholar John Bright takes a slightly more cautious approach, believing the traditions of the ancestors coming from Mesopotamia to wander in the Land of Canaan must be taken seriously. However, “to attempt to use these traditions as historical sources presents severe problems that cannot be shirked” (Bright, 1981, p. 47).
The patriarchal narratives seem to fit best into the end of the MB II period. The settlement patterns and types — urbanized cities with small pastoral clans living in between — well. Abraham’s journey from Ur to Haran to Canaan follows the general migration of people during the MB II. The Hyksos period could be a logical explanation for Joseph’s high position in Egypt, as Semitic princes ruled in Lower Egypt. Additionally, many of the cities mentioned throughout the patriarchal narratives were fortified and occupied during the MB II, lending archaeological credibility to these stories. One issue some scholars raise with the patriarchal narrative is the mention of camels and their domesticated use. There is belief that camels weren’t domesticated in Canaan until the late 10th century B.C.E., an idea made popular by Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, and that the mention of camels in the narratives was anachronistic. However, professor Mark W. Chavalas, in a piece for Biblical Archaeology Review, argues that Bactrian camels were already domesticated in Mesopotamia by Abraham’s time, so it isn’t unreasonable to reject the notion that camels were added to the patriarchal narratives at a later point (Chavalas, 2018, p. 64). When looking at the historicity of the patriarchal narratives and how they fit into a historical timeframe, I believe Amihai Mazar summarizes it best: the similarities between the culture illustrated in Genesis and that of the MB II are too close to be ignored (Mazar, 1990, p. 225).
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Chavalas, M. W. (2018). Did Abraham ride a camel? Biblical Archaeology Review, 44(6), 52–65.
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Mazar, A. (1990). Archaeology of the land of the Bible: 10,000-563 B.C.E. (1st ed.).