Patriarchal Customs—Genesis 24

The social customs of the patriarchal period may seem strange and puzzling to the modern reader, especially to those in the Western world. However, archaeology has discovered documents and artifacts that provide information about the social practices of the Hebrew patriarchs.

In many cases the customs of the patriarchal period reflect the Mesopotamian laws in place from ancient times, including the laws of King Ur-Nammu of the third dynasty of Ur, the laws of the city-state Eshnunna, the laws of king Lipith Ishtar, the Code of Hammurabi (one of the most important law codes), and the Hittite Code. In addition to the legal corpora, some documents recovered from Nuzi contain reports on customs, social networking practices, contracts, administrative procedures, and other life issues similar to those practiced by the biblical patriarchs.

Social organization. The prevailing social unit in the desert environment was the tribe which bound together nomadic herders sharing the same ancestry. Such a social structure needed to be compact enough to be mobile yet strong enough to ensure their safety. Members of tribes obeyed the established rules to ensure both their unity and their very survival. In general, the biblical patriarchs were semi-nomads, had large herds, and lived in tents (Gen. 13:18).

Distribution of property. During the patriarchal period, people sought to ensure that property (land, herds, and material goods) would remain within the tribe, clan, and family. The main motivator was the belief that the land and its resources were a divine grant promised to Abraham in confirmation of the covenant between God and the patriarch (Gen. 12:7; 13:14, 15). Thus the land was inalienable and transferable only within the same tribal unit,

After Israel entered the land of Canaan, it was distributed among the tribes by lot, as then established by law (Num. 26:55). The Hebrew word translated variously as “luck,” “fate,” or “destiny,” is goral, whose original meaning was “stone” or “pebble.” The expression: “cast the lot” (Isa. 34:17) had the meaning of “throw the stone” to make the distribution of the property.

The recipients of the land then used kudurru columns or piles of stone to define boundary lines (Gen. 31:51, 52; Prov. 22:28). In addition, the tombs of ancestors, such as that of Rachel (Gen. 35:20), could also serve as boundary flags.

Transfer of property. One of the important goals of the patriarchal period was to maintain the patriarch’s name through inheritance (Num. 27:3, 4). The transfer system was patrilineal, that is, only the male child received all the inheritance, such as we see in the case of Isaac (Gen. 25:5), hence the need to have an heir. To have spread a family’s inheritance among too many people would have diluted the family resources to the point that it would not have been sufficient for the family to survive. Thus, to distribute land to too many people would have meant that not everyone would have enough land to support a family. If the patriarch had no legitimate son, he had the following options: adopt an heir from the same ethnicity or someone born in his household or conceive children through a second wife or even by his wife’s female servant. Law 145 of the Code of Hammurabi explains that children born of the servant would be considered by the patriarch’s wife as hers and thus fit heirs. A Nuzi document classified as HSS 67 explains that the adopted son or one from the second wife yields his place as heir if the patriarch should have a son, as was the case with Ishmael (Gen. 21:10).

The birthright. It was the custom to give special consideration to the first son, a practice related to the “covenant” that decreed that every firstborn belonged to God and, by extension, the firstborn of animals (Exod. 13:2). The firstborn received as his inheritance certain rights of services and property. Such rights of services derived from the power to exercise authority, promote justice, and make major decisions, including ones involving life and death (for example, see Gen. 38:24).

The firstborn received a “double portion” of the assets distributed among the heirs, which was a common practice among Mesopotamian cultures. A document from the ruins of Nuzi, classified as HSS 19-46, reveals the desire of Zikanta to provide the eldest son with the “double portion” of the fields, estates, earnings, and the entire property. In some cases, the inheritance set aside for the eldest son could be given to others instead, based on paternal will, as was the case of Jacob who showed preference for his son Joseph (Gen. 37:3).

Marriage. As the prophetic writings confirm (Isa. 54:5; Jer. 31:3), marriage was an institution also associated with the covenant that God had established with Abraham. It was essentially a monogamous union, though polygamy could occur as a solution to the problem of infertility. In that event the patriarchs followed the Mesopotamian laws that allowed marriages with their wives’ maidservants (Gen. 16:1, 2) or with another woman to produce offspring, according to Law 145 of the Code of Hammurabi cited above.

The patriarch would preferably select a wife from the same family or clan (Gen. 24:3, 4), which is a practice known as endogamy. After choosing a wife, both families would celebrate the marriage commitment, recognized with the Hebrew term “aras,” followed by payment of the bride’s value, called mohar, which is an amount that ranged between 30 and 50 “shekels” of silver (Lev. 27:3, 4; Deut. 22:29). One could substitute labor for the mohar, as was the case with Jacob (Gen. 29:18). The bride would receive from the groom’s father a young woman as servant as part of the dowry.

Household idols. In the Hebrew Bible the word translated as “household idols” is teraphim, which were relatively small, anthropomorphic objects perhaps placed behind the door or very close to it. The teraphim were associated with the family ancestors and represented the property as part of the inheritance. Rachel took her father Laban’s “household idols” with her, because he retained her inheritance (Gen. 31:14, 19). In the Nuzi documents, the “household idols” are objects of worship and devotion.

Hospitality. Nomads consider welcoming visitors as a “virtue of the highest esteem.” In a time when there were no hotels, restaurants, and other travel aids, it was hard to survive without the support of hospitality. Its practice emphasized two moral principles: first, the pleasure of meeting physical needs, as did Lot for the visitors of Sodom (Gen. 19:2); second, willingness to serve, as seen when Lot issued repeated invitations (verse 3). When receiving a stranger, the Hebrews bowed with their faces to the ground before the visitor.

Patriarchs were not isolated from their contemporary communities. They shared cultural norms of the day, but the call of God demanded distinction from other people groups.