In “The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History,” BAR 21:02, Kenneth Kitchen cites six factors leading him to conclude that the patriarchs can be dated to the first half of the second millennium B.C.E., or the Middle Bronze Age. These factors are (1) the price of slaves, (2) treaties and covenants, (3) geo-political conditions, (4) references to Egypt, (5) patriarchal names and (6) the social world of the patriarchs. Unfortunately, this evidence does not add up to a persuasive argument for the early second millennium B.C.E. as the time of the patriarchs.

The price of slaves

Kitchen correlates the price of slaves recorded at various points in the Bible with slave prices in the ancient Near East. He finds that the 20 shekels of silver paid for Joseph (Genesis 37:28) was the standard slave price in the 19th and 18th centuries B.C.E.; the slave price of 30 shekels listed in Exodus 21:32 matches the going price in the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E.; and the tax of 50 shekels imposed by King Menahem in the eighth century B.C.E.—to finance a tribute to the Assyrian king Pul (2 Kings 15:20)—reflects the slave price at that time.

Is this factual evidence for dating the events of these Biblical passages? Not exactly.

King Menahem’s tax of 50 shekels doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with slave prices, though the coincidence between the amount of this tax and the price of slaves is intriguing.

The slave price of 30 shekels listed in the Covenant Code (Exodus 21:32) may reflect a historical context of the late second millennium or early first millennium B.C.E. It is difficult to be more precise within this historical period. The price of slaves reported in Exodus, however, is a good argument against those who would date the Covenant Code to the Exilic or post-Exilic periods, when slave prices were roughly triple that amount.

The 20 shekels of silver paid for Joseph does correlate with the standard price in Old Babylonian times. But the standard price often varied according to the age and sex of the slave. According to Leviticus 27:1–8, which lists prices for the redemption of individuals from a life of priestly service (compare Samuel in 1 Samuel 1–2), the redemption price for an adult male was 50 shekels, the slave price in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. (when this chapter was probably written). The redemption price in Leviticus for a boy between 5 and 20 years old was 20 shekels (Leviticus 27:5), the price paid for Joseph, a lad of 17 years (Genesis 37:2).

So we cannot use the price paid for Joseph as evidence for a Middle Bronze Age date: Joseph’s price of 20 shekels reflects the going rate for boy-slaves in the early first millennium B.C.E.

Treaties and covenants

Kitchen finds another set of correlations between Biblical and extra-Biblical data in the treaties or covenants made by the patriarchs. The three patriarchal covenants he considers are Abraham’s covenant with King Abimelech of Gerar (Genesis 21:22–32); Isaac’s covenant, also with King Abimelech of Gerar (Genesis 26:26–31); and Jacob’s covenant with Laban (Genesis 31:43–54). Kitchen argues that the form and structure of these covenants matches the form and structure of ancient Near Eastern treaties of the early second millennium B.C.E. Is he right?

First, two of the three Biblical covenants he cites form a doublet, that is, two variations of the same story from different Biblical sources. Abraham’s covenant with Abimelech of Gerar is from the E source, whereas Isaac’s covenant with the same king at the same place is from the J source. Each story ends with the origin of the name of Beersheba (Genesis 21:31; 26:33), suggesting that they are variants of a single tradition concerning the founding of Beersheba. These stories, therefore, cannot be treated as two independent historical sources.

Does the doublet of the covenant with King Abimelech bear the form and structure of early second millennium covenants? And does the treaty between Jacob and Laban share this form and structure?

According to Kitchen, early-second-millennium covenant agreements in the western Near East combined the following elements in a specific order: the invocation of witnesses, the swearing of oaths, the laying-down of stipulations, and the uttering of curses. Of these four elements, two are lacking in the doublet of the covenant with King Abimelech. These texts mention only oaths and stipulations, no witnesses or curses. The covenant between Jacob and Laban fares better, with three of the four elements clearly mentioned, and the fourth—the curses—possibly implied. This sketchy picture does not constitute a strong argument for the correspondence between these Genesis texts and early second millennium political treaties. The correspondence is fragmentary and partial at best.

We should not expect the Genesis narratives to be as formally structured as treaties of international law. Kitchen concedes as much: “In Genesis, we have only the narrative-reports of agreements, not verbatim final texts.”30 I would suggest that he is trying to squeeze too much out of these narrative texts, and that the results are more meager than he recognizes.

Geo-political conditions

For Kitchen, only the Middle Bronze Age fits the circumstances recounted in Genesis 14, where Abraham defeats a coalition of four kings and armies from Elam, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and elsewhere. The leader of the foreign alliance is King Chedorlaomer of Elam, who is the overlord of the Dead Sea region.

Kitchen cites two factors that indicate a Middle Bronze Age context for these events: Only then were there shifting alliances among kings in Canaan and Mesopotamia; and only then did Elam participate in the affairs of Canaan and the Levant. Neither, however, is a viable historical argument.

Kitchen’s only example of Elamite involvement in political affairs in Canaan or the west is a trip by an Elamite envoy to the city of Qatna in Syria.31 This is a far cry from Elamite rule over a region of southern Canaan. Michael Astour is more blunt: “No king of Elam named Kutir/Kudur-Lagamar [the Elamite form of Chedorlaomer] is attested, nor is there the slightest evidence of Elamite political or military engagement in Palestine at any time in history.”32 The Elamite argument is slim indeed.

Is the Middle Bronze Age the only time when alliances among kings in Canaan and Mesopotamia are attested? The answer is no. Kitchen states that for Canaan and the west an alliance among kings must have occurred before the 12th century B.C.E. But in the ninth century B.C.E., at Qarqar in Syria, an alliance of “twelve kings of the West and the seashore” attempted to defeat the mighty Assyrian army. This western alliance included the three great regional powers of Damascus, Hamath and Israel, along with a number of Phoenician cities, various Arab tribes, a contingent from Egypt, and possibly the Aramean state of Beth-Rehob. The annals of Shalmaneser III (858–824 B.C.E.) note laconically after one of these battles: “The twelve kings rose against me. I fought and defeated them.”33 But the western alliance inflicted serious losses on the Assyrian army and slowed their path of conquest.

A number of other western alliances are documented during the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E.34 In the 730s and 720s B.C.E., Israel, Damascus, Tyre, Hamath, Gaza and other western regions formed shifting alliances in rebellion against Assyrian domination.35 These alliances ended in defeat and exile for the allies—with Samaria, for example, falling in 722 B.C.E.

For Mesopotamia, Kitchen states that shifting alliances among kings ceased after the 18th century B.C.E. when new empires rose in Babylon and Assyria. A succession of empires dominated Mesopotamia for the rest of the second and first millennia B.C.E., precluding the formation of alliances. But this is not quite true. Shifting alliances among kings in Mesopotamia were frequent in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., involving kings of Babylonia, Chaldea, Elam, Arabia and other regions opposed to Assyrian rule. This shifting coalition finally achieved victory over Assyria with the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.E.36

Possibly related to this era of alliances and warfare in Mesopotamia are the so-called “Chedorlaomer texts.”37 These are a series of Babylonian texts, probably composed in the seventh to sixth centuries B.C.E., which tell of four kings who attack and flood Babylon. The first invader, the Elamite king Kudur-Nahhunte, was probably a recollection of a 12th-century B.C.E. king of Elam who briefly ruled Babylon. The third invader, a certain Tudhula, appears to be a veiled reference to Sennacherib of Assyria, who conquered and flooded Babylon in the early seventh century B.C.E. Several scholars have tried to see connections between the Chedorlaomer texts and Genesis 14, though such attempts remain speculative. These non-Biblical texts do show, however, that writers in the first millennium B.C.E. could imagine all kinds of battles involving kings from various regions and times.

Neither of the factors cited by Kitchen isolates a single historical period that fits the circumstances of Genesis 14. Elam never exercised political rule in Canaan, and shifting alliances and wars among kings occurred during the second and first millennia B.C.E.

References to Egypt

Is Kitchen correct that “Biblical references to Egypt provide additional evidence for dating the patriarchs to the Middle Bronze Age”? His reason is that Egyptian kings resided in the eastern Nile Delta during this period—which corresponds to the story of Joseph recounted in Genesis 47. He also suggests that the record of residences in the eastern delta corresponds to the story of Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12:10–20, though that story does not specify the location of Pharaoh’s residence.

Kitchen tells us that the Egyptian royal residence was in the eastern Nile delta for most of the period between 2000 and 200 B.C.E. The only time when the royal residence was not in the delta was 1550–1300 B.C.E. Given this chronology, we cannot say that a meeting with the Egyptian king in the eastern Nile delta could only have occurred during the Middle Bronze Age. Kitchen, in fact, backs off from his claim that these facts are evidence for a Middle Bronze Age date: He concedes that it is merely “consistent” with such a date. But it is also consistent with many other dates in both the second and first millennia B.C.E.

Patriarchal names

Kitchen contends that the “type of name … of all the patriarchs except Abram does belong mainly to the Patriarchal Age according to the chronology emerging here—the early second millennium B.C. or Middle Bronze Age.” His reason is that this name-type, which he says is constructed with “Amorite imperfective” verbs, is most common during the early second millennium B.C.E. and less common thereafter.

But does the form of these names—Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Ishmael—indicate that the patriarchs belong to the Middle Bronze Age? The answer is no.

Kitchen is linguistically mistaken when he calls these names Amorite imperfectives. The verb form is not specifically Amorite, nor is it accurate to call it imperfective. This verb form (Proto-Semitic yaqtul) is found in various guises in all Semitic languages. Names compounded with this verb form are found in all Northwest Semitic languages, early and late.

Is it significant historically that this name-type is statistically more prominent in Amorite culture of the early and mid-second millennium B.C.E. than in later times? Not really. A more pertinent question is whether it is ever absent. These names remain current through all periods of the Northwest Semitic languages. So the existence of names of this type is perfectly normal in both the second and first millennia B.C.E.

Consider, for example, the names of the Biblical prophets. The three major prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel—have names of this type. None of the minor prophets does. Are we to believe that the major prophets are from the Middle Bronze Age? Of course not, and no one thinks so. This name-type belongs to no particular period. (For a quite different historical argument concerning patriarchal names, see the accompanying article.)

Social World of the Patriarchs

Kitchen’s last point concerns the history of laws of inheritance. He notes that in Deuteronomy 21:15–17 the first-born son is supposed to receive a “double portion,” more than his brother or half-brother. But in Genesis, says Kitchen, “there is no hint of a double portion for the first born.” He notes that only in about the 20th century B.C.E. was the custom of equal inheritance common—thus he dates the Genesis story to the early second millennium.

But is there no hint of a double or preferred portion for the first-born son in Genesis? Jacob, surely, tricks Esau out of the inheritance of the first-born for some good reason; the blessing he receives from Isaac is clearly better than Esau’s (see Genesis 27). Later, when Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh in Genesis 48, Joseph objects that Jacob is unjustly giving the better blessing to the younger son—suggesting that the normal practice was for the first-born to get the prime inheritance. Jacob also gives Joseph “one Shechem more than [his] brothers” (Genesis 48:22), apparently bequeathing the city of Shechem as an extra inheritance to Joseph, the first-born of Jacob’s favored wife.

The argument that there is no hint of a double or preferred portion for the first-born in Genesis cannot be sustained. This, too, is a broken reed and cannot be relied on.