The Father of the Nation
The Genesis story of Abraham and the origins of the Israelites is often dismissed as unhistorical but to do so leaves far more questions unanswered the least of which is how such a complex and interwoven narrative could have been fabricated so long ago.
Far more plausible is that that the Abraham stories are legendary, that is, embellished stories of origin and purpose based on real historical memories. There are good reasons for accepting that the Abraham stories of Genesis chapters 12 to 25 have their origins in the Middle Bronze Age; in a number of ways they reflect the way of life, culture, and background political situation of the 13th - 15th centuries BC in the near Middle East. The narrative is clearly ancient and complex in origin and composition and for this reason we can be confident that there was at one time a Middle Eastern nomad named Abram whose descendants remembered him as the father of their nation; however, we may be less confident that he died after his 175th birthday.
The ruins of Ur of the Chaldeans in modern day Iraq.
The biblical narrative has Abraham and his descendants living a nomadic life in and around Canaan which is now modern day Israel then moving down into Egypt during a time of famine and drought.
It is known that in times of trouble nomadic tribes did go down to Egypt where they did find welcome. Around 1350 BC an Egyptian official wrote to the Pharoah that some nomads
'who knew not how they should live,
have come begging a home...'
When nomads settled in Egypt their only means of survival was in manual work. Around 1300 BC the Egyptians began large building projects and used habiru as cheap labour i.e. slaves.
The term 'habiru' is found in many Middle Eastern texts from the 20th to 14th centuries BC and seems to refer to groups of landless, wandering peoples. It is believed that the biblical term 'hebrew' is related.
The Abraham stories are about a small nomadic tribe who would fit this general term. They tell of Abraham moving from the east to the west, from Ur of the Chaldeans in modern day Iraq to ancient Cannan, now Israel.
Cannan was the land 'flowing with milk and honey' that God promises to Abraham and his descendants - the land that would be their home and from which the whole earth would be blessed.
'Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go from your country ... to the land that I will show you.
And I will make of you a great nation ... and by you
all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.'
Genesis 12 : 1 - 3
Egyptian slaves making bricks
The biblical narrative tells of Moses leading Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian slavery, through the Red Sea, through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness until reaching the land of Canaan. It is a huge story which is the subject of much debate and again dismissed by many modern historians. But as with the Abraham legends so also the Exodus narrative is complex, ancient, and very difficult to dismiss as a later imaginary creation. For example, the Crossing of the Red Sea has legendary elements to it but when looked at more closely has a plausible background. It does contain the miraculous but also the natural -
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea;
and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, a natural event
and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. a miraculous event
the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down.....,
and discomfited the host of the Egyptians, a miraculous event
clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily; a natural event
It has been recognised for over a century that the 'Red Sea' is a mistranslation and that the Exodus story refers to a 'sea of reeds' the Red Sea itself being an entirely different body of water. Tidal marsh lands did exist in the north of Egypt which could be crossed by foot but not by chariots. Whatever did happen the story of Moses leading slaves out of Egypt into freedom is remembered to this day all over the world every year in the Jewish Passover. It is the story that provides the backbone to the Old Testament and is referred to again and again throughout the history of the ancient Israelites. It was a defining and nation founding event. Like the Abraham legends it needs careful reading which reveals in the background plausible,
In the biblical narrative just before reaching the Promised Land Moses is instructed to build a tent of meeting called the Tabernacle. When Moses enters the chamber at the back of the tent he meets with God and they talk together 'as a man talks with a friend' and just as Adam used to talk with God in the Garden in the cool of the evening.