The Nuzi Tablets

Bronze Age records from the time of the Patriarchs

Cuneiform tablets from the site of Nuzi in northern Iraq. Zunkir, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cuneiform tablets from the site of Nuzi in northern Iraq may illuminate traditions and customs from the time of the Patriarchs. Zunkir, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern Iraq is a landscape steeped in both historical and economic significance. During the early 20th century, international oil consortiums dispatched businessmen, geologists, and engineers to the area in search for oil. Their explorations ultimately brought them to the mound of Yorghan Tepe, about 10 miles southwest of Kirkuk. Chance finds and subsequent excavations revealed the site to be ancient Nuzi, a thriving Bronze Age city whose now-famous Nuzi tablets illuminated intriguing legal customs reminiscent of those chronicled in the patriarchal era of the Book of Genesis.

With the discovery of oil in 1927, the geopolitical stage witnessed a flurry of activity as the French and British governments engaged in a protracted dispute over the routing of an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean. France advocated for ports under their control—Beirut, Tripoli, or Alexandretta—due to their proximity to the Kirkuk oilfields, while Britain favored Haifa, which was farther away. Amidst this rapid-paced moment, the American Oriental Society began excavations in Iraq, coinciding with agreements between the U.S. Oil Company and the British and Iraqi governments. As drilling rigs delved into the earth, archaeologists began extracting another form of wealth from the ground—3,500-year-old clay tablets containing a wealth of information.

Map of Middle East, with Nuzi’s location marked in red. From Goran tek-en, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of Middle East, with Nuzi’s location marked in red. From Goran tek-en, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Discovery of Nuzi

Though archaeological pursuits in Iraq were initially fueled by commercial and geopolitical motives, the ancient city of Nuzi found itself in the jaws of discovery prior to 1927. A few years earlier, a local surgeon in Kirkuk had stumbled upon some clay tablets imprinted with unfamiliar Akkadian cuneiform signs and non-Semitic personal names. Not knowing what to make out of it, he sought the expertise of Gertrude Bell, the pioneering director of antiquities in the Kingdom of Iraq. Recognizing the significance of these artifacts, Bell entrusted Professor Edward Chiera of the Baghdad office of the American School of Oriental Research with the task of deciphering the mysteries concealed within the ancient cuneiform tablets.

Upon the direction of Bell, Edward Chiera and his assistant Richard F.S. Starr directed their efforts towards a humble mound near the village of Tarklan that bore traces of Roman remains. Commencing excavations in 1925, they unveiled the ancient metropolis of Nuzi, referred to in Akkadian as Gasur (2334–2154 BCE). In the second millennium BCE, the Hurrians—an ancient people with a distinct language and culture that inhabited the eastern mountains of Anatolia, northeastern Syria, and Iraq—gained control of the town and renamed it Nuzu (Nuzi). Over the course of excavations from 1925 to 1931, a remarkably advanced city emerged, enclosed by walls and city gates, which served as the dwelling place of the Hurrians from c. 1900 to 1300 BCE.

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Within the city, a paved street divided the urban landscape into two distinct sections: the religious sanctuary, housing multiple temples in the northwest, and the palace complex area. This expansive complex featured over a hundred rooms serving various functions such as government offices, kitchens, toilets, and storage cellars equipped with clay pipes for underground drainage. Surrounding the palace area were imposing walls, while the principal thoroughfare guided visitors directly to the palace gate, a structure dating back to 1550 BCE. In the southwestern precinct of the city, excavations unveiled dwellings and residential quarters boasting an intricate drainage infrastructure.

Amid Nuzi’s remains, archaeologists unearthed thousands of clay tablets that included a trove of ancient legal documents. These inscribed tablets were discovered within private residences, attributed to notable inhabitants with Hurrian names like Tehiptilla, Shurkitilla, and Shilwateshub.

The Nuzi tablets provide insightful background into several stories from Genesis, including the story of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham. Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael (1657), by Guercino. Web Gallery of Art: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Biblical Parallels

The Nuzi tablets offer a glimpse into the legal landscape of the Bronze Age Near East, shedding light on negotiations over agricultural produce prices, marriage contracts, inheritance rights, and wills. Remarkably, parallels between these ancient customs and those described in the Genesis account of the patriarchs are visible. For example, the practice of childless couples adopting a son to be their heir resonates with Abraham’s reference to his trusted slave Eliezer in Genesis 15:2.

Furthermore, the Nuzi tablets authenticate customs depicted in the biblical narratives. For instance, we find the practice of a barren wife providing her husband with a concubine, as seen in the story of Sarah (or Sarai) giving Hagar to Abraham (Genesis 16:1, 2). Additionally, the conduct of business transactions at the city gate, illustrated by Abraham’s purchase of the field and cave of Machpelah near Hebron (Genesis 23:1–20), resonates with practices recorded in the Nuzi tablets.

The Nuzi texts also shed light on an ancient custom elucidated in Genesis 12:10–20, 20:2–6, and 26:1–11. In these passages, both Abraham and Isaac presented their wives to foreign rulers as their sisters. The Nuzi texts reveal that among the Hurrians, marriage bonds were profoundly solemn, with a new bride assuming the dual status of “sister” and “wife,” terms that could be used interchangeably in legal documents.

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Finally, the Nuzi tablets detail the selling of birthrights, echoing the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:29–34). Notably, possession of family gods—typically represented by small clay figurines—conveyed rights to property or inheritance, akin to holding a title deed. Such a scenario is referred to in the Bible, where Jacob’s wife Rachel took her father Laban’s household gods, known as teraphim, as they departed (Genesis 31:14–16, 19, 25–35).

Thus, in the wake of the newly formed states of Iraq, French mandate Syria, and British mandate Palestine, the stories of the patriarchs from Genesis began to resurface from the soils of the Middle East. While geopolitical and economic interests fueled archaeological investigations, they also revived towns and names from the Bible, illuminating narratives once shrouded in the depths of antiquity.

However, amid these discoveries, the scholarly community remains divided over the extent to which the Nuzi texts directly validate the historical accuracy of biblical accounts. While some interpret the parallels between the Nuzi tablets and Genesis as corroborating evidence for the patriarchal stories, others contend these similarities simply reflect the shared cultural and legal context of the broader ancient Near East.

Philippe Bohström is an author and archaeologist specializing in biblical history and Near Eastern archaeology. His book The Bible Decoded: The High-Tech Quest to Unlock the Secrets of the Bible (Academica) will be published in September 2024.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Harvard Scholars Leave Nothing Half-Baked

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Freedom Speaks Hurrian: A Cuneiform Song of Liberation

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