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The Genesis patriarchal narratives

A study of the different kinds of writing style prevalent in the ancient Middle East gives insight into what category of writing the Old testament accounts fit into. Here, just the Genesis patriarchal accounts will be considered.

There are three basic kinds of writing style encountered all over the region. In many cases they are used in each of the 3rd, 2nd and 1st millennia BCE and so are only of indirect use for the purposes of dating. However, the analysis of form is intrinsically interesting in its own right, and does help to dismiss some theories of composition.

Basically we see three main literary types, not considering inscriptions on temple walls or similar material.

  1. The first is might be called a biographical or autobiographical account. These are found in all periods from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BCE. Most are written in the 1st person, though a few are in the 3rd person, especially for introductory sections. They typically originate from within or soon after the lives and events described. They are focussed on real people (in many cases these can be independently confirmed) and their actions. They are set in real places and move around them in a realistic manner. Interactions with deities are largely either prayers or visions. Other than such personal items, there are few if any magical or supernatural events.
  2. The second might be called historical legends. They are found in the 2nd and 1st millennia. They also deal with historical people (again, many of these are independently known) and recognisable places, but they were typically written long after the events (perhaps a 1000 years in some cases). The quantity of magical and fantastic events is much higher - for example animals cut into pieces miraculously reassemble and come back to life, or mountains of gold and lapis lazuli are found in the way of an army. However, these are not necessarily crucial for the main plot. The writing is often quite stylised in poetic or epic form rather than straightforward narrative.
  3. The third are just pure fictional stories, clearly for entertainment and not dissimilar to fairy-stories in our culture (this is not a derogatory but a descriptive term). There are normally no named individuals or places, and the setting is clearly for story-telling purposes rather than accuracy. The level of magic or fantasy is much higher than either of the above and forms a crucial part of the story. The "Arabian Nights" cycle is a good (though much more recent) example.

OriginCategory 1Category 2Category 3
Egyptthe Story of Sinuhe (early 2nd mill), Wenamun (late 2nd mill) Tales of the Magicians (mid 2nd mill, based on the court of Cheops mid 3rd mill) Shipwrecked Sailor (early 2nd mill), Tale of 2 Brothers (late 2nd mill)
Syria/PalestineIdrimi of Alalakh (mid 2nd mill) Legend of King Keret (Ugarit, mid 2nd mill) several Ugaritic examples
MesopotamiaMost of these are of royal origin except on rare occasions when there were weak rulers, eg Shamshi-ilu (early-mid 1st mill)Loads in both Sumerian and Akkadian, eg Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, account of Sargon of Akkad's campaign3 Ox Drivers of Adab, The Old Man and the Young Girl
HittitesAgain almost all of these are royal texts mostly copies of Mesopotamian with a few indigenous examples mostly copies of Mesopotamian with a few indigenous examples

Finally, consider the patriarchal accounts of Genesis (chapters a-b - the accounts of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph). The distinctive features are:

  1. They deal with everyday human life - families, arguments, marriage, children etc
  2. There are visions, dreams and prayers but no magical or fantasy embellishments
  3. People's names are given explicitly, and are attested externally (as personal names, not as individuals) from other sources of the indicated era
  4. Locations are carefully specified and in the right relationship to each other
  5. Relations with deities are comparable with other ancient accounts (cf Rameses II's prayers before the Battle of Kadesh)
  6. The prose style is straightforward narrative, not poetic or epic
  7. They are not found as royal inscriptions, nor as autobiographical accounts
Comparing these features with the above, it is clear that they are between (1) and (2), with more in common with (1) (about the only point they fail on is the use of 3rd person narratives which is less common for group 1). They lack all of the distinctive features of group (3) so on pure style grounds one would tend to discard the idea they were just invented stories.
Much of the material on this page is summarised from K. Kitchen's book "The Bible in its World"

Writing styles