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Real People, Real History: Abraham and Chedorlaomer

The Bible is about real people and real history, not made-up characters who lived in some Never-Never Land. To me, it makes a difference; otherwise, we’re all just talking about whose favorite myth is better than whose. Granted, we don’t always have enough information to verify the facts on how we know that a given character existed, or what they actually did or said. But I always get excited when a Biblical character who was once dismissed as a myth gets rediscovered in the archaeological dirt of ancient history.

Such is the case for both Abraham and the enemies he fought in Genesis 14. Abraham himself has been doubted by many modern scholars, who regard him as little more than a legendary Robin Hood. But the name Ab-ram (Abraham’s original name until Genesis 17) is found in Near Eastern texts in the correct neighborhood in the correct time period (around 2000 BC ±200 years). We have not found the specific Abram son of Terah from Genesis, but his name is not a fictional name.

But we have found the specific king who led his allies to storm the cities surrounding Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 14. Gerard Gertoux, Assyriologist at the University of Lyon, France, has written an amazing study that details what we know about Chedorla‘omer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Arioch king of Ellasar, and even Amenemhat I king of Egypt, whom he pinpoints as the king who tried to marry Abram’s wife. Only the unknown Amraphel king of Shinar (Amar-pi-ilum?) does he assign to a gap in our data.

Gertoux identifies Kudur-Lagamar, who began his reign in the twelfth year of the reign of Šulgi king of Akkad, as the Biblical Chedorla‘omer who led the attack on Sodom. He also identifies Eri-Aku king of Larsa as the Biblical Arioch king of Ellasar, and Tudḫula king of as the Biblical Tidal king of Goyim. (I would add that because an archaic Hebrew letter yod and an archaic letter taw could easily be confused, the name Goyim here is probably “Gutium,” a nation we know from this time period.)

Gertoux gives us specific dates for the events in Genesis 12-14. (While his timeline may be 20 years too early at the time of Rehoboam, he can date events in Abram’s day based on which year of the reign of which king.) Gertoux dates Abram’s encounter with the king of Egypt in 1960 BC (the 42nd year of the reign of Šulgi king of Akkad). He specifies 1954 BC, the 48th year of the reign of Šulgi king of Akkad, as the date that both Kings Chedorla‘omer and Tidal die (at the hands of Abram?). Sodom (Šu-tum) and the other cities of the plain (all five of which are mentioned in the 2300 BC records from Ebla) are then destroyed four years later.

Evidence for Chedorla‘omer’s attack is sketchy outside the Bible, but is worth examining. Texts show that Elam’s neighbors fear this Elamite king’s aggressiveness. Egyptian records from this period tell of a suddenly strong Egyptian pushback against an unknown enemy in southern Canaan at this time. Within a year of Chedorla‘omer’s projected attack, Amenemhat I’s top general brings back so much war plunder from the area that he has to leave some behind.

Gertoux also offers some interesting insights into the role played here by Amenemhat I king of Egypt. The Egyptian king wants to keep the Elamites (from Iran) out of Canaan. So he needs Abram as an ally. That would explain why he makes the unusual move of trying to marry Abram’s “sister” (kings of Egypt don’t marry commoners). It also explains why Genesis 14:14 says that Abram has 318 trained men (ḥanÄ«kÄ«m, an Egyptian term) when he pursues the four kings from the East. Where’d he get those? The fact that Abram is from Ur (in the land of Shinar) enhances his value as an ally to Amenemhat.

None of this absolutely proves the Biblical Abraham or Chedorla‘omer, but it is plausible evidence that Genesis 14 is not an invention or a fairy tale. Indeed, it is evidence for an account that is so ancient that it was not entirely understood by the human author of Genesis, but was faithfully copied nevertheless.

When the Hebrew Bible proclaims its #1 faith event, the parting of the Red Sea, it specifies an exact place, in terms that can be recognized in data from 13th century BC Egypt. (See the works of Egyptologist and Bible scholar James Hoffmaier, Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai.) We don’t get these kinds of details all the time, but when we do, it bolsters our ability to believe the Bible at those points where we can’t verify the narrative.

When the Quran or the Buddhist or Hindu scriptures make statements, such details usually do not matter. We have to take Buddha’s or Muhammad’s word (or not) when he speaks. But the Book of Mormon is like the Bible in that it bases its message on a narrative that is either fact or fiction. It would help tremendously if we could verify the existence of Zarahemla, or find recognizable Book of Mormon names in Mesoamerican texts. This is admittedly harder to do in Mesoamerican studies than in Near Eastern archaeology, due to the difficulties of the language base, and some admirable attempts have been made (the best being the linking of the name Nahom in Oman to a Book of Mormon stopping place on the route to the Americas), but we wish we had more.

Biblical faith is not content to rest on a foundation of fiction. It bases itself on real people and real events. When these cannot be identified, we must rely entirely on faith, but too much of that strains credibility.

I believe that Jesus walked on water, because I am convinced that he rose from the dead. Without convincing evidence for his resurrection, the supernatural claims about Jesus become no more credible than extraordinary claims about Buddha, Muhammad, or any other leader. And without names and events that can be substantiated in the historical evidence available to us, the story becomes harder to defend. We are left asking, “Why should I believe this story, and not another? How do I know that they all haven’t been made up?”

Yes, the Holy Ghost is ultimately the One who opens our eyes to recognize the truth for what it is. But without evidence, we have no way to tell that this is the Holy Ghost speaking to us, and not a spirit from somewhere else.