Stuart A. West

[Mr. Stuart A. West is a graduate of the Law Faculty of University College, London, with an LL.B degree of London University. He now lives in Rehovot, Israel]

The Hurrians And The Nuzi Tablets

In 1925 excavations were begun in North East Iraq, 150 miles north of Baghdad, under the auspices of the American School of Oriental Research in Baghdad, Harvard University and the University Museum of Pennsylvania, on the site of the ancient city of Nuzi. During the course of the excavations, which continued until 1931, more than 4,000 written documents in the form of clay tablets were discovered, which were subsequently transferred to the Oriental Institute of Chicago and the Harvard Semitic Museum. Some of the tablets are also now in the British Museum.

The tablets cover the period when Nuzi was part of the Hurrian Mitanni Empire during the 15th – 14th Centuries B.C.E. and the Hurrians were at the height of their power. The information contained in the tablets discloses considerable data regarding the laws and customs of the Hurrians, much of which is pertinent to a proper understanding of the Biblical narratives concerning the Patriarchs. Although Abraham is thought to have lived in the 18th Century B.C.E., the first known appearance of Hurrians was in the region of Cappadocia to the north of Haran, where texts were found showing a Hurrian presence as early as 2, 000 B.C.E. There is therefore every reason to believe that the Hurrians had an ever increasing influence in the area during the Patriarchal period, so that the Nuzi tablets could very well reflect Hurrian laws and customs at that time.

The Hurrians And The Patriarchs

We know from Genesis 11 that Abraham and his family settled in Haran, before he moved on to the land of Canaan:

And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth

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with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go unto the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.

Genesis 11:31

Like Nuzi, Haran was also part of the Hurrian Mitanni Empire whilst the Hurrians were at the height of their power, so that the tablets discovered at Nuzi would also reflect the way of life in Haran. In this manner, scholars have ascertained from a careful study of the Nuzi tablets that they are very helpful in explaining many of the Biblical episodes relating to the Patriarchs, which had hitherto been somewhat puzzling.

Although the Bible indicates that Abraham eventually left Haran (Genesis 12:4), the Patriarchs nevertheless kept in close contact with that city. Abraham sent his servant back to Aram-naharaim, the region in which Haran was situated, in order to find a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:2–10). Isaac later told his younger son Jacob to flee to his uncle Laban in Haran, in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, whom he had tricked out of his birthright blessing (Genesis 27:43). Jacob indeed fled to Haran, subsequently marrying there his cousins Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29:1–30).

The influence of Hurrian society on the Patriarchs was undoubtedly very strong, not only because of the origins of Abraham in Mesopotamia, but also because all the Patriarchs maintained contact with the area. This is borne out by the fact that many of the incidents in the Biblical narratives relating to the Patriarchs in reality reflect Hurrian social and legal customs, and prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Patriarchal way of life had its roots in Hurrian society.

Say, I Pray Thee, Thou Art My Sister

In Genesis 12:10–20 we read of famine in the land of Canaan, which caused Abraham to go down to Egypt. Before entering that country, Abraham instructed Sarah his wife to tell the Egyptians that she was his sister, for fear that if she said she was his wife, they might kill him. She did as she was instructed and was taken into Pharaoh’s house. Abraham was treated well by Pharaoh, but the royal household suffered great plagues as the result of divine intervention. When Pharaoh ascertained the true relationship of Sarah to Abraham, he quickly sent the couple on their way and had his men escort them out of Egypt. However, it would appear that the failure of the stratagem was lost on Abraham, because in

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Genesis 20:1–18 we find the same story repeated, only this time with Abimelech, King of Gerar. On this occasion the divine intervention was by a dream, which Abimelech had in the night, revealing the truth to him, and by making the women of his household barren. After Abraham explained to Abimelech the reason for what he had done, Abimelech gave him gifts which enriched him considerably and invited him to dwell in the land wherever he pleased. In response to Abraham’s prayer, the affliction on the royal household was lifted.

Apparently Isaac was unaware of the double failure of his father’s stratagem or, if he was aware, chose to ignore the lesson, for in Genesis 26:6–12, the same basic story is once again repeated, although it is Isaac and his wife Rebekah who are involved with Abimelech. This time though, there was no divine intervention; Abimelech realised the truth when he caught the couple sporting together.

This thrice repeated story has been the subject of much discussion by commentators through the ages, but only with the discoveries at Nuzi has it become clear that Abraham and Isaac were not involved in any trickery, but were endeavouring to protect their respective wives from molestation by invoking the Hurrian custom or law of wife-sistership. According to the Nuzi tablets a woman having the status of a wife-sister rather than that of just an ordinary wife, enjoyed superior privileges and was better protected. The status was a purely legal one, a wife-sister being quite distinct from the physical relationship usually understood by the word “sister”. In order to create the status of wife-sistership two documents were prepared — one for marriage and the other for sistership. Thus, we find a Nuzi tablet, according to which a person by the name of Akkuleni, son of Akiya, contracted with one Hurazzi, son of Ennaya, to give to Hurazzi in marriage his sister Beltakkadummi. Another tablet records that the same Akkuleni sold his sister Beltakkadummi as sister to the same Hurazzi. If such a marriage was violated, the punishment was much more severe than in the case of a straightforward ordinary marriage. It would appear that the actions of Abraham and Isaac reflect this custom.

And Laban And Bethuel Answered And Said

It is interesting to note that in the example cited from Nuzi, it was the brother who gave his sister away in marriage, indicating that the system of fratriarchy existed in Hurrian society. Likewise, when Abraham’s servant was negotiating to take away Rebekah to be a wife for Isaac, the principal negotiator representing

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the family was Laban, her brother, whose name precedes that of Bethuel, her father, in the Biblical text (Genesis 24:50). Precedence is also given to the brother over his mother in the account (Genesis 24:53, 55), and no further mention is made of the father. Furthermore, the description of the family farewell hints that the system of fratriarchy was being practised in Rebekah’s home:

And they sent away Rebekah their sister, and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant, and his men. And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her: ‘Our sister, be thou the mother of thousands and ten thousands, and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them.’

Genesis 24:59—60

Also significant is the fact that before the marriage was finally agreed, Rebekah was consulted:

And they called Rebekah, and said unto her: ‘Wilt thou go with this man?’ And she said: ‘I will go.’

Genesis 24:58

This reflects the Nuzi tablet according to which the bride consented to her brother Akkuleni giving her as wife to Hurazzi.

The Possessor Of My House Will Be Eliezer

The basic purpose of marriage being to produce children, it is possible to sympathize with Abraham’s remarks after years of childless marriage:

And Abram said: ‘O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said: ‘Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed, and lo, one born in my house is to be mine heir.’

Genesis 15:2–3

The Nuzi tablets have indicated a possible explanation of Abraham’s remarks. They reveal that under Hurrian law a man’s heir could be either his natural-born son — a direct heir — or, in the absence of any natural-born son, an indirect heir, who was an outsider adopted for the purpose. In the latter case, the adopted heir was required to attend to the physical needs of his “parents” during their lifetime. The following is an example found on a tablet at Nuzi:-

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The tablet of adoption belonging to Ehelteshup, son of Puhiya, who adopted Zigi, son of Aknya. Accordingly, all my lands, my buildings, my earnings, my domestics, one (part) of all my property, I have given to Zigi. In case Ehelteshup has sons (of his own), they shall receive a double portion and Zigi shall be second. If Ehelteshup has no sons then Zigi shall be the (principal) heir…. As long as Ehelteshup is alive, Zigi shall serve him; he shall provide him with garments.

In the light of this tablet we can also understand the Lord’s reply to Abraham:

‘This man shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.’

Genesis 15:4

Go In, I Pray Thee, Unto My Handmaid

Apart from adoption, concubinage was another method of providing an heir in the case of a childless marriage. Thus, one Nuzi tablet reads:-

Kelim-ninu has been given in marriage to Shennima…. If Kelim-ninu does not bear children, Kelim-ninu shall acquire a woman of the land of Lulu (i.e., a slave girl) as wife for Shennima.

Clearly this provision guarded against the possibility of being left without an heir and is reflected in the Patriarchal narratives:

Now Sarai Abram’s wife bore him no children; and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram: ‘Behold now the Lord hath restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall be builded up through her’. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived....

Genesis 16:1–4

The same pattern is repeated later in relation to Rachel, who had not borne Jacob any children:

And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her

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sister; and she said unto Jacob: ‘Give me children, or else I die’. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said: ‘Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?’ And she said: ‘Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; that she may bear upon my knees and I also may be builded up through her.’ And she gave him Bihah her handmaid to wife; and Jacob went in unto her. And Bilhah conceived, and bore Jacob a son.

Genesis 30:1–5

It is also interesting to note that Rachel acquired Bilhah as her maid in much the same way as was customary among the Hurrians, for the Nuzi tablets reveal a Hurrian custom of assigning a slave girl as handmaid to a bride by way of a wedding gift:

And Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah his handmaid to be her handmaid.

Genesis 29:29

Regarding marriage generally, the Nuzi tablets provided that if a man worked over a period of time for the father of the girl whom he wished to marry, then he would have the right to take the girl as his wife. This exactly mirrors the Biblical account of Jacob’s working for his uncle Laban in order to marry Rachel (Genesis 29:15–30).

Wherefore Hast Thou Stolen My Gods

Rachel’s theft of her father’s idols (Genesis 31:19) reflects the Hurrian custom of keeping household gods, although Scripture’s contempt for such a custom is emphasized by Rachel’s hiding them in her camel’s saddle and then sitting on them while she was in a menstruant state — a state of being ritually unclean (Genesis 31:34–35). Nevertheless, the real significance of what she did, and perhaps the reason for the theft, lies in the fact that according to the Nuzi tablets he who possessed the household gods was the legitimate heir. Thus, a Nuzi tablet of adoption of one Wullu by a certain Nashwi provides:

If Nashwi has a son of his own he shall divide (the estate equally) with Wullu, but the son of Nashwi shall take the gods of Nashwi.

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Hence, Laban’s anxious question to Jacob:

‘And now that thou art surely gone, because thou sore longest after thy father’s house, wherefore hast thou stolen my gods?’

Genesis 31:30

Rachel’s reason for taking her father’s household gods may well have been to secure the inheritance for Jacob, especially as Laban had no sons.

The same Nuzi tablet as provides for Wullu’s adoption also makes provision for his marriage to Nashwi’s daughter and to no other woman:

If Wullu takes another wife he shall forfeit the lands and buildings of Nashwi.

Similarly, Laban warned Jacob:

‘If thou shalt afflict my daughters, and if thou shall take wives beside my daughters, no man being with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee.’

Genesis 31:50

Now That I Am Grown Old

As in modern society, inheritance under Nuzi law was effected by testamentary disposition, although the tablets indicate that such a testament was often made orally. One of the tablets tells of a lawsuit between brothers concerning the possession of their late father’s slave girl, Sululi-Ishtar. The youngest of three brothers, Tarmiya, was defending his elder brothers’ claim to Sululi-Ishtar and the tablet sets out his testimony:-

‘My father, Huya, was sick and lay on a couch; then my father seized my hand and spoke thus to me, ‘My other sons, being older, have acquired a wife; so I give herewith Sululi-Ishtar as your wife.’

In the end result the Court found in favour of Tarmiya, upholding his father’s oral testamentary disposition.

It also appears from another Nuzi tablet that even an oral testament commenced with an opening introductory statement such as: ‘Now that I am grown old….’ which was the legal phraseology to indicate that what was to follow constituted a testamentary disposition. In similar manner, Isaac indicated to his elder son Esau that he wished to bestow upon him his testamentary blessing: ‘Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death’ (Genesis 27:2).

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Transference Of Birthright

The blessing, intended for Esau, was in fact given to Jacob, due to the latter’s deception (see Genesis 27), but there are other instances in the Patriarchal narratives which indicate a deliberate transference of birthright. By reason of Jacob’s first-born son, Reuben, having had sexual intercourse with his father’s concubine, Bilhah (Genesis 35:22), he was deprived of his birthright:

….forasmuch as he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel..

I Chronicles 5:1

So, too, in blessing Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, Jacob favoured the younger Ephraim:

And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near unto him. And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Manasseh was the firstborn…. And when Joseph saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he held up his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head unto Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said unto his father: ‘Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head’. And his father refused, and said: ‘I know it, my son; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations’. And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’ And he set Ephraim before Manasseh.

Genesis 48:13–20

It is quite apparent from the Nuzi tablets that instances of the transference of birthright, such as occurred in the Patriarchal narratives, were not uncommon in Hurrian society. One example concerns a certain Zirteshup, whose father disowned him but later restored his status:-

As regards my son Zirteshup, I at first annulled his relationship; but now I have restored him into sonship. He is the elder son and a double share he shall receive….

Another instance of the transference of birthright from the Nuzi tablets is the

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exchange by one Kurpazah of his birthright in consideration for three sheep given to him by Tupkitilla, his brother. In the light of this example, Esau’s willingness to exchange his birthright for Jacob’s mess of pottage (Genesis 25:29–34) is perhaps more understandable.

So it is that we find in the Patriarchal narratives many reflections of the Hurrian laws and customs as revealed at Nuzi, which have both elucidated the Biblical text and have given to us a better insight into the Patriarchal way of life.


Understanding Genesis – The Heritage of Biblical Israel by Nahum M. Sarna, published by Schocken Books, New York (1970).

Biblical Personalities and Archaeology by Leah Bronner, published by Keter Publishing House Ltd., Jerusalem (1974).

The World History of the Jewish People – Patriarchs Vol. II, edited by Benjamin Mazar, published by Massada Publishing Co., Tel Aviv (1970).

The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible edited by George Ernest Wright and Floyd Vivian Filson, published by the S. C. M. Press Ltd., London (1946).

The Making of the Old Testament edited by Enid B. Mellor, published by Cambridge University Press (1972).

Encyclopaedia Judaica Vols. 8 & 12, published by Keter Publishing House Ltd., Jerusalem (1971).

(Reprinted by permission from Dor le-Dor. Vol. VIII, No. 1, Fall 1979.)

As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him: rooted and built up in Him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been tought, abounding therein with thanksgiving.

Colossians 2:6–7

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