Anyone who has even casually delved into the dense tangle of civilizations, kingdoms, nations, tribes, religious pantheons, stray gods, cult cities, languages, and political alliances that rose and fell—along with the remarkable intellectual, technological, and social developments that took place—during the approximately three hundred years when the events described in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis are thought to have occurred knows how complex this tumultuous early period of human civilization in the Near East was. Here I am giving only a brief introduction to the places, peoples, and languages most relevant to the story at hand.
During the third millennium BCE, walled cities emerged up and down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers built around temple complexes for the cult of particular Mesopotamian gods. By then, Sumerian—which originated in Sumer in South Mesopotamia (also known as Babylonia) as far back as 4,500 BCE—had become the spoken language of much of South Mesopotamia, and it is the language in which many of the great Babylonian sacred texts, such as Gilgamesh and the Babylonian Epic of Creation, were conceived. However, by the time of the Dynasty of Sargon of Akkad (2350-2150 BCE), Sumerian was apparently no longer a living language. Akkadian, an early (but now extinct) Semitic language that rose with Sargon’s kingdom, included dialects spoken in Babylonia (South Mesopotamia) and Assyria (North Mesopotamia), and spread in the second and first millennia BCE until it gradually replaced Sumerian as the lingua franca of Mesopotamia. At the time of the patriarchal narratives, however, and all the way up to the first millennium BCE, Sumerian still survived and was taught as the language of the sacred texts, similar to Latin’s survival today, so it was common for people to refer to the gods during this period by both their older Sumerian and newer Akkadian names.
At the beginning of the second millennium BCE, when the short-lived Dynasty of Ur (following the Dynasty of Akkad) fell, Terah, father of the patriarch Abraham, is said to have fled with his family up the Euphrates from Ur, the cult city of the Mesopotamian moon god Sin (Sumerian “Nanna”) in South Mesopotamia, to where they settled near the city of Haran along the Balikh River, a tributary of the Euphrates in North Mesopotamia where a second temple to Sin was established. In Genesis, this region is referred to as “Paddan-aram,” and Laban, Dinah’s matriarchal grandfather, is identified as an Aramian; in his final show-down with his son-in-law, Jacob, Laban speaks Aramaic, the language which will become the lingua franca of the region during Jesus’ era, replacing the now-extinct Akkadian of the patriarchal period. The Aramians were a northwest Mesopotamian Semitic-speaking, semi-nomadic, pastoral people who appear never to have established a unified nation, and who can be traced back definitively to around 1400 BCE (sometime after the period of the patriarchs). Interestingly, there seems to be no other mention of “Paddan-aram” in any ancient text besides Genesis. Still, despite the murkiness surrounding the designation of Paddan-aram as the homeland of Laban and Laban as Aramaic-speaking, I have chosen to accept the Biblical version of the story, since I’ve found no particularly convincing alternative. This portrayal, however, may be somewhat anachronistic.
Canaan, subsequently Palestine and Israel, was a land of extraordinary ethnic diversity in the second millennium BCE. The name “Canaanite” was loosely applied to the major element of the population of Canaan later dispossessed by the Israelites. The Canaanites’ settlement along the main route between Mesopotamia and Egypt gave them the role of middlemen between those two great competing empires. The Canaanite language belonged to the family of Semitic languages of the Levant (along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean), that included Aramaic and Hebrew, all of which except Hebrew are now extinct. The Canaanites worshipped their own pantheon of gods during the period of the patriarchs; however, reflecting the inclusiveness and diversity of their culture, some of the Canaanites’ most important gods came from beyond the bounds of Canaan itself, including Ba’al, the storm god from the north, and Kothar, their craftsman god from Egypt.
As chronicled in Genesis, Abram (god-given name: Abraham), father of the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is said to have travelled into Canaan during the time of the patriarchal narratives, 2000-1700 BCE, and was the first to make covenant with El, the father god of the Canaanite pantheon, vowing to worship him exclusively in exchange for El’s promise to make Abraham the progenitor of a great issue of nations that would reign over the “promised land” in Canaan and spread across all of the earth. The origins of Hebrew, the ancient northwest Semitic language associated with the Israelites (derived from Israel, the god-given name of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson), are unclear, but it was evidently spoken by early Israelite invaders of Canaan in the second millennium BCE.
In Genesis, when Jacob arrives at the city of Shechem in Canaan, the prince of Shechem is described as the son of “Hamor the Hivite.” There is no conclusive evidence identifying who the Hivites actually were. However, some scholars have proposed that “Hivite” was an alternate name for “Hurrian,” an important people of the period who otherwise, somewhat inexplicably, are never mentioned in Genesis. The Hurrians had established the kingdom of Urkesh in the fourth millennium BCE, and the king of Urkesh was said to have formed an alliance with the Akkadian empire by marrying the daughter of the Akkadian King. The Hurrians were well-represented throughout the region, especially the Hittite kingdom, during the Middle Bronze Age. They had their own language and culture, and were famous for their skill as horse riders and horse trainers. While I don’t claim any special authority for the theory that the “Hivites” of Genesis were actually Hurrians, I found it intriguing and adopted it for the telling of this story.
Other peoples mentioned in Genesis (and in this novel) as living and traveling in and around Canaan during this period include the Edomites, who populated Edom (or “Red”) in the heights of Seir southeast of the Dead Sea (associated with Esau, Jacob’s red-headed twin brother); the Amorites (or Amurru), a Semitic-speaking nomadic people who frequented Northern Canaan and the neighboring wilderness areas; the Chaldees, originally from the marshy area around Ur from where Terah and his family had fled; and the Peruzites, who pre-dated the Israelites in Canaan and whom Jacob feared as a threat at the time of the events at Shechem.