But Did it Happen?

FORGET, FOR A MOMENT, WHAT GENESIS MIGHT mean. Did any of it actually happen? The scholarly consensus is that no evidence, archeological or otherwise, exists for the first 11 chapters: nothing for the Creation, of course, nor anything credible for Eden, the Flood or the Tower of Babel.

But starting with chapter 12, which introduces Abraham, Genesis starts reading like good historical fiction, reflecting the places, culture and customs of the second millennium B.C., says archeologist Amihai Mazar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Genesis was compiled much later, however--between the 10th and fifth centuries B.C.) In chapter 13, for instance, when Lot, son of Abraham's dead brother, parts company with his uncle and strikes out for ""the whole plain of the Jordan,'' he saw ""that all of it was well-watered.'' Archeologists, notes Robert Alter in his new translation of and commentary on Genesis,* ""have in fact discovered traces of an ancient irrigation system in the plain of the Jordan.'' When Lot sits ""in the gate of Sodom'' in chapter 19, the reference is to a large chamber in the gateway of Canaanite cities, where residents would gossip, transact business and settle legal matters. And Egyptian records show that peasants paid a 20 percent tax on crops; Joseph, in chapter 47, orders that ""when the harvests come, you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh.''

Even the more bizarre (to modern sensibilities) stories mesh with historical records. When Sarah, unable to conceive, asks Abraham to ""come to bed with my slavegirl [Hagar],'' she isn't making it up as she goes. Clay tablets from the Mesopotamian town of Nuzi, dating from about 1400 B.C., record marriage contracts that make exactly such a provision. ""If [the wife] does not bear,'' reads one, ""[she] shall acquire a [slave girl] as a wife for [the husband].'' The Nuzi tablets also record a case of a firstborn selling his birthright to his brother, as Esau did to Jacob, says Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna of Brandeis University: one son agreed to ""part with his future inheritance share for three sheep received immediately from his brother Tupkitilla.'' The writers of Genesis even kept their prices in line with those of the Middle Bronze Age (2000 to 1550 B.C.). The 20 silver shekels for which Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery matches the price of adult male slaves recorded in the laws of Hammurabi (1792 to 1750 B.C.), says Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool.

Most of the patriarchs' stories take place in and around the hill country of Palestine. This area flourished during the Middle Bronze, with the establishment of ""a prosperous urban culture with pastoral clans living in between the cities,'' says Mazar. That is exactly the picture Genesis paints. Haran, where Abraham once lived, was an important trade city in the second millennium B.C., according to Mesopotamian tablets. Shechem, where Jacob's sons grazed their herds, was excavated in the 1960s and shown to have been a Middle Bronze walled city. Joseph's rise to power in Pharaoh's court is also an accurate echo of ancient Egyptian politics. Starting in the 17th century B.C., the Hyksos, a Semitic people from Canaan, ruled Lower Egypt.

For all of these ""correspondences,'' as Mazar calls them, drawing direct connections between archeological finds and the narrative details of Genesis is dangerous. An archeologist excavating a well at Beersheba in the 1970s concluded that it was either the one found by the slave Hagar, banished into the wilderness by Abraham (chapter 21), or dug by Isaac's servants (chapter 26). But that interpretation collapsed with the discovery that it dates only to the second century B.C. The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, supposed resting place of Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah, may be in the same category. After the 1967 war, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan took a slender 12-year-old to the mosque above the purported tomb. The girl slipped through a hole in the floor and found... piles of coins and prayer notes dropped by the Islamic faith- ful. The cave has never been scien- tifically excavated. A 12th-century monk, though, supposedly spirited away some bones.

Genesis suffers from several glaring anachronisms. Chapter 21 refers to Abraham's sojourning in ""the land of the Philistines,'' even though these seafarers from Crete did not invade coastal Canaan until some 400 years after the patriarchal period is thought to have ended. In chapter 24, Abraham's servant goes to seek a bride for Isaac with a retinue of 10 camels, but these beasts were not introduced to the region until around 1100 B.C. Such slips likely got in because the writers inserted facts of their own times, perhaps a millennium later, into their narratives. Anachronisms aside, ""the more we learn about customs and conditions in the early second millennium,'' says Kitchen, ""the more we find that the narratives [of Genesis] reflect them.''

The protagonists of Genesis may or may not have existed, but stone tablets show that the places they traveled in and the customs they followed existed in the Middle Bronze Age.