Nuzi Discovery Provides Insight Into Old Testament History


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Several American teams digging from 1925 to 1933 discovered an archaeological find of 5000 family and administrative archives spanning six generations (from 1450 to 1350 BC).

These are referred to as the Nuzi tablets or texts (Nuzi being the name of the city in which these were found; located in present-day Iraq) provide insight into the social, economic, religious, and legal institutions of the Hurrian people from Northern Mesopotamia. Several stories within the biblical Old Testament bear similarities with these older Nuzi texts:

  1. In the story of Abraham, one reads that he and his wife, Sarah, were childless. Abraham adopts Eliezer of Damascus to be his heir (Gen. 15:2–3). Later, in Genesis 16:1–4, Sarah gives her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham in order to bear him an heir (Ishmael). When Isaac is later born to Sarah, he becomes the heir in place of Ishmael, even though he is the younger child.  The Nuzi tablets, as well as texts from later periods, record similar legal situations.
  1. When Isaac married Rebekah, Rebekah’s brother, Laban, handled the negotiations but asked her if she consented (Gen. 24:57–58). But when Laban arranged the marriage of his daughters to Jacob (29:15–30), his daughters were not consulted. The same situation is represented in Nuzi contracts: when a brother draws up the marriage contract, the woman is consulted; but if the father draws up the contract, she is not.
  2. The story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 illustrates the practice of levirate marriage found also in the Nuzi tablets. A widow cannot remarry outside her deceased husband’s family. It is the responsibility of the dead husband’s brother to carry on his brother’s line by marrying the widow.
  1. In the Joseph story, Joseph’s older brothers are jealous of him because they think that their father, Jacob, will choose him as his heir rather than the oldest brother (Gen. 37). The Nuzi tablets indicate that it was within a father’s right to choose a younger son as the heir. This suggests that Joseph’s brothers’ fears were legitimate.
  1. In Genesis 31:50, Laban charges Jacob, with God as his witness, not to take any other wives besides his daughters. A similar prohibition is found in numerous Nuzi marriage contracts.

What is the significance of this? According to Old Testament historian Peter Enns, “the Nuzi documents are helpful in providing a general historical context in which the stories of Israel’s earliest ancestors would have taken place… these biblical stories are at home in ancient Mesopotamia… [and] the Bible reflects these ancient customs and practices…” (1).


1. Enns, P. 2005. Inspiration and Incarnation. p. 50 (Scribd ebook format).

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