Louvre Museum, Paris

Hammurabi, king of Babylon (1792–1750 B.C.), the figure at left, raises his hand to his lips in supplication to the enthroned god Shamash. This seven-foot-high basalt stela from Susa, southeastern Mesopotamia, also displays a cuneiform text known as the Laws of Hammurabi, containing a prologue, 282 laws and an epilogue.

According to one of the laws, the price of a slave is 20 silver shekels. In the Bible, Joseph is sold into slavery for “20 pieces of silver” (Genesis 37:28). Author Kenneth A. Kitchen argues that this is no accident: Since the cost of slaves in the ancient Near East changed dramatically over the centuries, the Genesis story should be dated to the first quarter of the second millennium B.C.—about the time of Hammurabi—when slaves did indeed fetch 20 silver shekels. The price of slaves is just one piece of evidence that Kitchen marshals to support the basic historical reliability of the Bible’s patriarchal narratives.

Another of Hammurabi’s laws, concerning inheritance, is also consistent with material in Genesis. Hammurabi provides that the sons of a man’s first wife get “first choice” in the inheritance, but does not stipulate that they should receive a double share—which was the practice later in the second millennium B.C. In Genesis 49, Jacob’s sons by his wives Rachel and Leah and by his concubines all share equally in the inheritance—again suggesting that the story of Jacob dates to about the same time as Hammurabi.