Covenants in the Patriarchal Era

by Stephen Caesar

Covenants in the Patriarchal Era

After an extensive study of ancient Near Eastern treaties, Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool discovered that the style of patriarchal covenants/treaties in Genesis matches that of the era in which the Patriarchs were supposed to have lived (early second millennium BC), and not earlier or later. Examining the covenants between Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21), Isaac and Abimelech (Gen. 26), and Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31), he saw the same pattern:

• An introductory oath is demanded (Gen. 21:23, 26:28). In Abraham's treaty (21:23), and Jacob's (31:44-53), the oath is accompanied by the invocation of divine witnesses.

• The agreements or stipulations are stated. Abraham agrees not to deal falsely with Abimelech (21:23), and land and water rights are established (21:30). Isaac and Abimelech swear not to do battle (26:29). Jacob and Laban agreed upon a boundary line (31:52).

• The pact is celebrated in some manner. In the Isaac/Abimelech and Jacob/Laban treaties, a feast is held (26:30, 31:54); in Abraham's case, a tree is planted (21:33).

Kitchen's investigation of secular treaties recently unearthed at Mari and Tell Leilan, at archaeological levels contemporary with the Patriarchs, revealed a style that matched the Genesis covenants to an astonishing degree. On the other hand, these treaties and the patriarchal covenants differed from treaties/covenants from the era just before the Patriarchs. In that earlier time, treaties were based on a Sumerian style which did not match the above characteristics.

Kitchen writes that the Mari and Leilan treaties "exhibit a different basic format [from the Sumerian format] - [but] similar to the patriarchal pacts in the Bible. First, deities are cited as witnesses to the oath binding the parties to the treaty.…The invocation of the deities and the oath are followed by stipulations- prohibiting hostilities, establishing commercial ties, forming alliances, and so on. A ceremony may accompany the making of the treaty, consisting of a feast and sacrifice, or the exchange of gifts. The common features between these early second-millennium treaties and the covenants recorded in Genesis are striking. The treaties, alliances and covenants described in Genesis differ in form and structure from the treaties of the third millennium BC, but are very much like the treaties of the early second millennium BC-corresponding to our dating of the Patriarchal Age to the early second millennium, say about 1950-1700 BC."

Treaties made after the patriarchal era differed from those of the early second millennium BC. Hittite treaties of the 14th and 13th centuries abandoned the style found in Genesis, at Mari, and at Tell Leilan, in favor of a new style which is executed in a seven-fold pattern completely unlike the patriarchal covenants or the Mari and Leilan treaties. This seven-fold pattern is surprisingly similar to the Sinai Covenant (Ex. 20-31, 34-35; Lev. 1-7, 11-26), which is contemporary with these later Hittite texts.

Kitchen remarks: "It is extraordinary that the treaties which, according to the biblical chronology, fall in the patriarchal period resemble early second millennium BC treaties and the Sinaitic covenants resemble late second millennium BC treaties. In both cases, the biblical chronology is supported by external evidence."

The patriarchal and Moses stories are thus products of the times in which biblical chronology claims they took place, and not later products of "pious forgers" inventing stories out of thin air. Later authors would not have known the details of treaties from the Middle Bronze Age (the Patriarchs) or the Late Bronze Age (Moses), since those styles disappeared centuries before the time critics claim the stories of the Patriarchs and Moses were written. Only a genuine author from each period would have been familiar with such details.


Kitchen, K. A. (1995). "The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?" Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 21, no. 2.

Stephen Caesar is currently completing his master's thesis in anthropology/archaeology at Harvard University. He is the author of the e-book The Bible Encounters Modern Science, available at