Nomadic Jews? Never!

Fact Paper 14

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

image of a bedouin camp
Was Abraham a bedouin? No way! Neither biblical lore, nor documentary evidence, nor archaeological research supports the representation of the tribe of Abraham as desert nomads. Despite this widely disseminated and commonly believed representation of the progenitors of the Jews, the facts show that the Jews and their antecedents were always among the world's most literate, agriculturally and industrially advanced urban peoples.

The tribe of Abraham is commonly categorized as nomadic. Neither biblical portrayals, archaeological recoveries, ethnological research, nor documentary evidence support the image so blithely repeated, widely disseminated, and commonly believed. The Jews stemmed from a civilization that first domesticated wild grains, that first made use of the axled wheel, that first invented the alphabet, that first passed from the age of copper and stone into the Bronze age, and from the Bronze into the Iron Age.

The Biblical Account

The proposition that the Hebrews were nomadic invaders of Canaan from the desert cannot be educed from biblical lore; It is contravened at the outset of Genesis and at every stage of the unfolding account.

We are told in Genesis 4:2 that "Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a tiller of the ground." Husbandry and agronomy were thus registered as the occupation of the earliest Judaic progenitors. The transformation to an urban society immediately ensues, for Cain "builded a city and called the city after his son, Enoch" (4:17).

The sole allusion to nomadism in Genesis is an aside (4:20), in which Jabal is designated as "the father of such as live in tents." Jabal is also stated to be the father of "such as have cattle." Thus nomadism is distinguished from nomadism. Do we, after all, categorize Texas ranchers as nomads? No further mention of "those that live in tents" occurs for over twenty generations. Furthermore, the characterization is applied not to the Jews, but to their enemies!

The reference to a future group of nomadic people is forthwith superseded by an emphasis on art and industry. We are introduced to Jabalís brother Jubal (4:21) who "was the father of all those who handle the harp and the organ." Music is thus the first art adopted into human society. Industry is introduced in the same sentence: "also bare Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every artisan in brass and iron."

These first sentence in genesis harbor profound inner meanings. Farming requires storage and tools, and consequently sedentary life. The trade of Cainís immediate successor, Tubal-Cain, metal-working, takes agriculture to its conclusion: simple Stone Age agronomy transforms into metal age urbanism ans industrialization. Tubal-Cain also assumes the role of a teacher; he must not only pass on metal-shaping skills, but had to posses knowledge of where to obtain, and how to smelt and forge the required metals. Implicit in the few words in which Tubal-Cain is presented are subjective cultural attributes: a familiarity with sources, geology, pyrotechnology, and even mathematics.

The biblical account of the growth of a Judaic urban culture continues without circumspection. The good Noah and his family settled into a sedentary life as soon as they regained Terra Firma: "Noah began to be a husbandman, and planted a vineyard."

In Genesis 10 we are told that Nimrod constructed a complex of cities and created a kingdom. "And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Akkad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar."

The account goes on to relate (11:2-4) that Shem and his sons "had brick for stone, and slime they had for mortar. And they said, "Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach into heaven." Thus, according to the Bible, the descendants of Shem, the so-called Semites, built sturdy structures in Ur, erected sky-scraping ziggurats, and dwelt in that metropolis for nine more generations. We encounter Shemís descendant, Terach, father of Abraham, in an urban metropolis, the city of Ur.

How can these accounts be construed as a depiction of camel-riding, bedouin wanderers straggling from sandy oasis to sandy oasis with a retinue of a few goats?

After pausing to express our astonishment at an account encompassing millennia by a people who had no scientific establishment to unearth the facts, no university libraries to draw from, no points of reference other than their tribal memory, we turn to the next question: "Was the patriarch Abraham biblically depicted as a bedouin?"

The desert does not enter the biblical scenario until Abraham and his extended family cross from Canaan into Egypt. They donít stay in the Sinai; They pass through that desert to settle in Goshen, the swampy but bountifully foliate Nile Delta. The tribe of Abraham sojourned in the lush delta while a drought was desiccating "the land of milk and honey."

Nomads move seasonally in pursuit of water, but a sedentary people dig wells. Hydroponic engineering had attained a high level of proficiency in the Mesopotamian twin river alluvial basin from which the tribe of Abraham derived. The knowledge proved advantageous in Canaan. The digging of wells was the first priority of Abraham on his return to "The Promised Land."

Abraham became a rancher "rich in cattle and silver and gold." So great were the herds that a tribal decision took place because "the land was not able to bear them" (13:2-6) Hardly a picture of desert-dwelling bedouins!

Abrahamís son, Isaac, continued irrigating the land. He dug more wells and "sowed in that land, and received the same year an hundredfold; and the Lord blessed him. For he had possession of flocks, and possession of herds, and great stores of servants."

Coincidence or Concordance?

The urban culture of the tribe of Abraham is manifested eponymically by an unmistakable identification of Judaic progenitors with the urban centers of civilization. The names of Shemís sons, Elam and Asshur, are obviously eponymous of the Elamites and the Assyrians. Aram is clearly the eponym of the Arameans, and Lud can be related to the Lydians. The name of Abrahamís father, Terach, was likely derived from the town of Til-Turakhi. Likewise, Abrahamís great-grandfather, Sureg, can be related to the town of Suregi, just west of Harran, the birthplace of Rebecca, Leah and Rachel.

Texts recovered from the ancient city of Mari refer to the town of Peleg, the name of another of Abrahams ancestors. Peleg has been archaeologically identified with Phaliga, a town on the Euphrates. The same records inform us that Harran was a flourishing community and the hub of the most important trade routes of the region. The name Harran (al Harranim), indeed, means "caravan city." Nahor, the name of a town near Harran, was also the name of Abrahamís brother.

The Bible relates that the tribe of Terach emigrated from Ur to Harran "and dwelt there." Harran is identified as the place from which the tribe originated. Abrahamís father and brother remained in that bustling trading center while Abraham and his entourage went on to Canaan.

Documentary Accounts

Thus, the Judaic progenitors appear upon the biblical proscenium of history in the context of a thoroughly urban society as city-builders and city-dwellers. Albeit no physical evidence of the existence of Abraham has as yet been found, a number of ancient documents refer to him, but never as a nomad! We encounter the phrase "The Field of Abraham" in a listing of the towns captured by the Egyptian king Sheshonk, the founder of the twenty-second Dynasty (referred to as Sheshak in I Kings 14-25).1

Josephus quotes from Nicalaus, a noteworthy historian charged with educating the children of Anthony and Cleopatra, King Herod, and Herodís counselors. Nicalaus reports on the passage of the tribe of Abraham through his native land and affirms that "the name of Abram is still famous in our land of Damascus [in which Harran was located] and there was a village named after him [which translates to] 'The Habitation of Abraham.'"2

Josephus cites a monument still existing in his time dedicated to Abrahamís brother Harran: "and his monument is shown to this day."3

Most convincing is the testimony of Berosus, a Babylonian priest who wrote of Abraham as far back as the third century BCE: "In the tenth century after the flood, there was among the Chaldeans a man righteous and great, and skillful in the celestial science."4

The Archeological Evidence

Confirmation that Israelís descendants, the Israelites, comprised a nation was inscribed on a stele by the Egyptian Pharaoh Meneptah in 1220 BCE, in which the pharaoh boasts of their defeat.

Definitive evidence of the Israeliteís urban character was found in the ruins of several hundred villages established by the Israelites atop the hills of Canaan. The architecture of the houses, the novel cisterns. The use of iron implements, terracing, the storage of grains, all attest to the technological sophistication of the Israelites.

It was then and there that the Iron Age was born.

John A Callaway, excavator of Israelite towns, asserts that settlement took place about 1220 BCE (the date of the Mereneptah stele!). He describes a typical dwelling, the house of Ahilud, so known because Ahilud inscribed his name on the handles of storage jars found in his house. The name also appears in the Bible as the father of Jehosophat, an official recorder at King Davidís court.

Ahiludís family dwelt in a complex of three houses clustered around a court. The orthostatic construction (with roof-supporting pillars) of the houses was common to Israelite houses; It marks the first domestic use of such construction. Five cisterns were quarried out under the houses, one under a workroom with a metal-working hearth. "Here, metal ingots were melted into crucibles and the molten metal was poured into molds to form the daggers, spear points and axes for Ahiludís household, as well as for other members of the community."5

image of an iron pick
An iron pick, 12th or early 13th century BCE, found in Tel Adir, Upper Galilee. Iron agricultural tools appear at this early date only in Eretz Israel in an Israelite context.

The handle socket of an iron mattock was found within Ahiludís house. The metalworking facility, the terracing and cultivation of cereal grain, the orthostatic architecture, the literacy, all these well-developed, sophisticated disciplines attest to the fact that the technologies were known to and had been practiced by the Israelites over many centuries.

The popular proposition that a people so highly advanced in agriculture and industry arrived in Canaan as primitive nomads can only be regarded as absurd.


Note: This Fact Paper is a digest of chapter 1 of The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization. A full exposition and an extensive bibliography on Israelite ferric arts is provided in chapters 9-12 of that book and in chapter 3 of The Glassmakers; An Odyssey of the Jews.

  1. Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past, I, Princeton 1946, 126; Henry Breasted, A History of Egypt, New York, 1964, 443.
  2. Josephus, Antiquities, Vol. 2, Whiston, reprint by Bantam, NY 1963, 86
  3. Josephus Ibid., 85
  4. Josephus Ibid., 86
  5. Joseph A. Callaway, "A Visit with Ahilud," Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept.-Oct., 1983, 69