Gary Rendsburg is a scholar of Hebrew linguistics who collaborated with Cyrus H. Gordon on a book in the 1990s, The Bible and the Ancient Near East.
(Gordon is an enigma. He was brilliant. He worked in the army as a cryptographer during World War II. He helped to crack Nazi codes. This skill he brought to the study of ancient history by helping to decipher the Minoan Linear A language. He also studied in the original languages the texts discovered at Ugarit, Ebla, and Nuzi and the Amarna letters. But when he sought to synthesize it all, he proposed some very unlikely theories. He became close friends with John Phillip Cohane, who held even more unlikely theories.)
One of the interesting things Gordon and Rendsburg proposed was to take the genealogies of the Bible seriously.
Many conservatives calculate the dates of the patriarchs or the exodus using the statements in the Bible about how many years the Hebrews were in Egypt or how many years elapsed between the Exodus and Solomon. Many critical scholars find these dates impossible. They distrust any biblical information and look only for dates that other sources corroborate.
But Gordon and Rendsburg accepted the biblical genealogies, while distrusting the year reckonings. By calculating from the geneologies, they dated Abraham to -1385 (p. 112 of The Bible and the Ancient Near East). This would make the Amarna period the age of the patriarchs.
I recently came upon Rendsburg’s supporting essay for this view: “The Internal Consistency and Historical Reliability of the Biblical Genealogies” (PDF here).
He claims that if you take the genealogy of Moses in Exodus 6 and plug it in with the genealogies of other major figures, you get a consistent timeline. The only anomaly is the genealogy of Joshua in 1 Chronicles 7:20-27. I have written before about how old and odd that genealogy is. I see signs that it is really old and perhaps reliable. However, Rendsburg dismisses it as confused and out of line with the rest of our genealogical information.
But there is another way to see it. The schema of Jacob and his twelve sons is artificial. The primary narrative of the Bible built itself around that schema and the genealogies got sculpted to fit. Perhaps that is why they are consistent. Perhaps 1 Chronicles 7:21-24 slipped through as an oversight.
Nevertheless, Rendsburg’s use of the genealogies rather than the year reckonings is suggestive. The genealogies may have been fitted to a narrative. But they probably were not made up out of thin air. The genealogy of David in Ruth 4:18-22 includes Nahshon, who was supposedly a participant in the Exodus. If you calculate back from our best guess for the time of David, you get a date around -1200. for Nahshon. This, incidentally, is near the end of Egypt’s 19th dynasty. That is where I would put the Exodus.
Although Rendsburg sees the patriarchs as historical figures, he recognized that the schema of twelve tribes descended from a single patriarch was not completely historical. He sees two sets of sons of Jacob. Those born early to Leah and Rachel represent historical reality.
Early Israel consisted of twelve tribes each of which had an eponymous ancestor. Six of these ancestors were the sons of one man, the patriarch Jacob, who in turn was the son and grandson of the patriarchs Isaac and Abraham. Certainly, not every member of these tribes could trace a direct lineage back to Jacob, but the leaders of the tribes presumably could. To this group little by little other non-related tribes began to link themselves, so that by the time of the Judges they were twelve in number. These tribes, even their leaders, could not claim descent from Jacob, and accordingly their eponymous ancestors play no part in the stories about the patriarch. But their eponymous ancestors were depicted as sons of Jacob, albeit in the reduced role of the handmaidens’ offspring or as a second set produced by Leah. Once the league was fully established, material such as Gen. xxix 31-xxx 24, xlvi 8-25; Exod. i 1-5, etc., was formulated and the result was Israel’s idealized or schematized history as presented in the Bible (p. 204).
I am not certain that the twelve tribes even go back to the time of the Judges. But Rendsburg’s idea is interesting. I will present a little more radical idea in my next post.