In online discussions of the recent Nature paper on Sodom a prominent strand was the disdain of survivors of the New Atheist cause for the Genesis account. In some cases this extended to dismissing the scientific article because it might seem to give credence to the fairy tale Genesis. A bit like those scientists who suppress discoveries in biology so as not to give ammunition to the creationists.
New Atheism is now dead in the water, but the assumption that the Patriarchal accounts in Genesis are pure fiction runs deep, after 200 years of hostile criticism.
This began in the nit-picking over vocabulary, “doublet stories” etc which led to the documentary hypothesis, in the days before there was really any archaeological knowledge of the period in question at all (and even now the tradition of ignoring archaeology in favour of literary theories remains strong in academia). For example, it was widely assumed that illiteracy was near-universal when the Patriarchs might have existed, making a far later origin mandatory.
As time has gone by and other ancient literary sources have been found, similar “literary devices” (repetitions, variations in use of names, etc) have been found to be ubiquitous in sources as old as the purported time of the Patriarchs, and so not supportive of nineteenth century literary theories at all. At the same time literacy has increasingly been found to have been widespread in the ANE well before Patriarchal times.
Part of the problem on literacy has been the assumption that Abraham and his family, being clearly nomadic, were therefore to be equated with illiterate Bedouin tribesmen today. Indeed, even now most Bible illustrations have the Patriarchs dressed as Bedouin, despite our knowledge that, if the text is truthful, they would have dressed like early second millennium Mesopotamians, or perhaps by imitation like Canaanites (for whom depictions are more scarce).
Either way, Genesis actually describes Abraham as a successful political leader from a major centre of a literary civilization, able to swing the military balance in a conflict between powerful city-states. And archaeology has shown that such politically-influential nomadic herdsmen existed just at the time portrayed (but not at other times).
It has been known for getting on for a century that many of the details of social customs described in the Patriarchal narratives, such as surrogate marriage to maid-servants, and details of religious customs like the description of the covenant God makes with Abraham, match other ancient ANE sources rather than being fictional or reflections of later periods.
Similar historical verisimilitude exists in the depiction of their interactions with Egypt, which match periods when Egyptian government was weak, and highly influenced by “Asiatic” influx. For someone like Joseph to become vizier is plausible in the period described, but not at any other. The promotion of Joseph is one of the events thought indicative of fiction – “poor prisoner makes good” does, superficially, sound very folklore-ish. But given the historical setting of unstable, and recent, ruling Hyksos elites who had migrated to Egypt, Joseph as an “aristocratic” member of a powerful family in Canaan was their kind of person, a victim of tribal politics rather than an upstart jailbird. Joseph was more a valuable political exile than an illegal immigrant who has destroyed his papers.
In other words, the cycle of stories, barring a few loose ends like the questionable assumption that Abraham’s camels are anachronistic, fits right into the historical setting uncovered by archaeology. In itself it comes across either as an exceedingly well-preserved oral history, or just as plausibly as an account from written sources. Why would Abraham not have been educated in cuneiform, or have a scribe in his household who was? He was, after all, no peasant even by birth, and upwardly mobile in his migrations.
Admittedly, and very interestingly, these stories are in a unique genre. They are most like the annals of a royal dynasty, which is not so strange once one thinks of them not as a private family, but as quasi-royalty in the culture of the time. Civilisation then was not, as was previously presumed, limited to cities, so it is at least plausible to conceive that nomadic leaders, if literate, would record their significant achievements, even though Genesis is our only example. It is worthy of note that the genre is unique even in later literature, so it provides no evidence against the account being authentically contemporary.
All that really leaves as grounds for skepticism (the correct historical principle being that ancient sources should be trusted when no grounds can be found for doubting them) is that they speak of supernatural events which “cannot happen.” In passing, it is notable that the genre differs from royal annals in that the emphasis, at least in Genesis as it now exists, is less on the praiseworthy achievements of the Patriarchs and more on the providences of their God, Yahweh, in moving them closer to a grand vision set out at the onset, Genesis 12.
That theological emphasis apart, though, attributing events to divine acts is entirely normal for all ancient literature. It is essentially a worldview matter to assume that, say, a famine is due to the decision of a deity, or even to their punishment. And there are few such ancient texts that do not include prophetic insights into such divine action. So for God to call Abram out of Ur for some purpose sits entirely in line with the gods telling Pharaoh to wage war in inscriptions whose basic historicity we would never doubt. Joseph’s dreams are the insights of a prophet whose immediate ancestors came from a land with a millennia-long history of such prophetic dreams.
Even now, it is common for quite sane Christians to tell how God has directed them into particular callings or situations, sometimes even involving significant dreams or mental impressions strong enough to be couched in terms of divine speech. All such religious ways of interpreting experience could apply to the experience of the Patriarchs.
True, there are a few physical encounters with angels. But they too are not infrequently described, or at least suggested, by otherwise normal believers now, and not only by afficianados of overly-supernatural events on YouTube. In any case, at this historical remove, it is not altogether clear what would have been meant by an encounter with an angel. For example, might Abraham’s three visitors have been human priestly or prophetic figures regarded as authoritative messengers, or even avatars, of God?
To a modern rationalist, even for an individual of that culture to interpret such visitors as semi-divine beings might suggest that he was deluded, but that would not be evidence that the account itself is fictional. For in fact the Genesis account of these three generations is remarkably free of truly bizarre or miraculous events. For the most part it is a rather prosaic account of quite credible events viewed through religious eyes, in which respect it is similar to most ANE literature now regarded as historical rather than mythical.
There are problems with patriarchal longevity, it is true, but once again we are ignorant of the literary conventions of the time, but aware that numbers were customarily used far more symbolically than nowadays.
There is one glaring exception to this mundaneness, however. And that is the bizarre story of Abraham and Lot being somehow tied into the quite unbelievable account of the destruction of a whole geographic region by a cosmic judgement. I think that this episode alone has been sufficient reason, for two centuries, to brand the whole Patriarchal narrative as a pious fiction, a fanciful novel written centuries later to account for the existence of the nation of Israel. This view was supported by the total absence of the cities of the plain from other ancient sources, a fact that tended to be greeted by critical scholars with a sense of “I told you so.” They would not expect to find cuneiform references to Cockaigne or Brigadoon, either.
This lack of corroboration would indicate that Sodom and Gomorrah were not even a folk-memory, but were invented out of whole cloth to spin the importance of their legendary Abraham in Israelite eyes: here was a man who is consulted by God even on unprecedented supernatural disasters. It would just be the most imaginative outworking of the Babylonian exile’s equivalent of Le Morte d’Arthur.
But of course, the only problem with that is that this “index case” of the impossibility of the Patriarchal narratives now appears to be, because of diligent archaeology and the expertise of the authors of the Nature article, the one firmly historically-attested event in the whole cycle, and indeed an event that can pin down the life of Abraham to within half a century. It is chronological fixed points like that which enable cross-correlations with our other historical knowledge. If we can date the destruction of Sodom, we can also date, to within a few decades, the entry of Israel into Egypt. That enables us to match up Egypt’s dynastic situation, and to study with more certainty the date and circumstances of the Exodus (which has also yielded highly plausible on-the-ground correspondences through the work of people like Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier.
None of that, of course, proves the truth of the religious heart of Genesis – the covenant with Yahweh into which we may, as both Jews and Gentiles, now be incorporated through the cross of Christ. But as many others have pointed out, the author who is careful and accurate in his depiction of events is likely also to be truthful in his account of experience, too. Honesty is a habit.