BIBLE BACKGROUND: The Middle Bronze Age in Mesopotamia and Egypt

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After the collapse of urban civilization, powerful states reappeared beginning about 2000 B.C. In southern Mesopotamia the city-state of Ur had already gained control of the surrounding territory. Ur-Nammu, greatest king of the Third Dynasty of Ur (ca. 2113–2006 B.C.), erected a great ziggurat (temple tower) and encouraged art and literature.

Chart 3: Period at a Glance, the Middle Bronze Age 2000 to 1550 B.C.








Third Dynasty of Ur (2113–2006) Ur-Nammu


Emergence of urban centers after two centuries of decline; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s migrations (?)




Middle Kingdom: Late Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties (ca. 2000–1786)


Increasing domination over Mesopotamia by Amorites


Tale of Sinuhe





Execration Texts





Old Babylonian Kingdom Hammurabi (1792–1750)

Second Intermediate Period; Thirteenth through Seventeenth Dynasties

Classical Canaanite Era; many heavily fortified cities; introduction of Bronze technology


(Zimri-lim, king of Mari)



Infiltration of Asiatics (Hyksos)



Law code of Hammurabi



Babylonian Literary Epics: Gilgamesh Epic; Enuma Elish






Egyptian unity collapses; Hyksos kings rule the Delta and central Egypt from Avaris; native Egyptian kings maintain some control on southern Egypt







(Descent of Joseph and his brothers into the Delta of Egypt?)


Indication of earliest writing in Palestine





Sack of Babylon by the Hittite king Mursilis I


Kings of the Seventeenth Dynasty (Kamose, Seqenenre, and Ahmose) drive Hyksos from the Delta, attacking Hyksos strongholds in southern Palestine






THE AMORITES: Canaanite Tribe, Semitic People First Mentioned in the Bible as Descendants of Canaan

The Amorites. The power of Ur ebbed under increasing pressure from new groups of people who came into Mesopotamia and changed the political landscape. Particularly important were the Amorites, a Semitic people perhaps originally from the fringes of the Syro-Arabian Desert west of Mesopotamia. Tribally oriented and seminomadic, moving with small herds of sheep and goats, these Amorites gradually penetrated Mesopotamia, overthrowing the rulers of city-states and establishing Amorite dynasties at Isin and Larsa. During a span of two hundred years (2000–1800 B.C.) Amorites dominated most cities in Mesopotamia.

Genesis 10:15-16 BDC: Were the “Amurru” the Amorites of the Bible?

By 1800 B.C. two powerful Amorite states—Mari and Babylon—controlled affairs along the Euphrates River. Zimri-lim, king of Mari, built a palace comprised of 260 rooms covering an area 200 × 120 meters. Within this palace archaeologists discovered twenty-five thousand clay tablets inscribed in Akkadian. These tablets contain valuable information on social customs of the Middle Bronze Age and give some indications of how prophets functioned outside Israel.

Babylon. By the 1700s B.C. Babylon became the center of a kingdom that controlled most of central and southern Mesopotamia. Hammurabi, sixth king of the First Amorite Dynasty of Babylon (1792–1750), was the most important ruler of the Old Babylonian Kingdom. He conquered Mari and established a modest empire that included southern and central Mesopotamia. His famous law code, now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, indicates high levels of social and cultural refinement.

The court at Babylon fostered the writing of great epics adapted from earlier Sumerian prototypes. The Gilgamesh Epic, or “Babylonian Flood Story,” has been especially intriguing to biblical scholars because of its literary parallels with the flood recorded in Genesis 7–8. The Enuma Elish recounts the exploits of the great Babylonian god Marduk who prevailed over the primordial monster Tiamat and created the world. Although in its present form the Enuma Elish probably dates to the later second millennium, elements of the epic may go back to the old Babylonian period. The Epic of Atrahasis recounts the creation of human beings to carry out the tiresome toil upon earth assigned to the lesser gods by the greater gods. Noting the rapid increase of the human population whose noise disturbed the sleep of the gods, the epic next describes a terrible flood dispatched by the gods that destroys humankind except for Atrahasis who was spared because of his piety. After the flood the gods reestablished humankind and maintained greater control over their population. The Atrahasis Epic is the only Mesopotamian account that connects aspects of creation and a flood in a continuous narrative. The epic draws from earlier Sumerian themes but dates in its present form to the Old Babylonian period. The literature and archaeological remains of this period testify to the vitality and strength of the Mesopotamian states in the Middle Bronze Age.

A reproduction of tablet eleven of the Gilgamesh Epic describing the Babylonian account of a great flood.

After Hammurabi, the power of Babylon gradually ebbed. Nippur and Isin were lost to Babylonian control shortly after Hammurabi’s death. A Hittite raid by Mursilis I about 1595 B.C. brought an end to the First Amorite Dynasty of Babylon. Babylon entered a dark age for the next four hundred years, during which the Kassites dominated southern Mesopotamia.


The Stele of Hammurabi containing the famous Law Code of Hammurabi (about 1750 B.C.).

Twelfth Dynasty. Egypt, too, recovered from a period of weakness that gripped her from 2200 to 1991 B.C. The powerful Twelfth Dynasty finished the process of unification begun by the kings of the Eleventh Dynasty who came from Thebes far to the south. Moving their capital to Itjowy near the Faiyum region, the Twelfth Dynasty rulers extended their control south into Nubia and northeast into the Sinai.

The Tale of Sinuhe from about 1950 B.C. records the journey of a high Twelfth Dynasty official, Sinuhe, who was forced to flee Egypt. Sinuhe’s route took him across Sinai into Palestine and southern Syria, where he lived among Asiatic tribes. Descriptions of the land in which Sinuhe sojourned bear striking similarities to biblical descriptions of the promised land: “It was a good land, named Yaa. Figs were in it, and grapes. It had more wine than water. Plentiful was its honey, abundant olives. Every (kind of) fruit was on its trees. Barley was there and emmer. There was not limit to any (kind of) cattle” (Pritchard, ANET, p. 21).

Such contact between Egypt and various groups from Palestine was normal throughout historical times, but the Egyptians sought to regulate the traffic from the Twelfth Dynasty onward. Egypt served not only as an important outlet for trade for these seminomadic groups, but also as a place of refuge during times of drought that frequently afflicted portions of the Levant. Famine drove the patriarchs from Palestine into Egypt on several occasions (Gen. 12:10; 41:57–42:1).

Second Intermediate Period. With the decline of the Twelfth Dynasty about 1780 B.C., Egypt entered a period of political instability called the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1780–1550 B.C. if one includes the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties). No single line of kings ruled all of Egypt. Native dynasties controlled much of southern and central Egypt, while the Delta in the north increasingly came under the influence of non-Egyptians called “Hyksos.” These Hyksos infiltrated the Delta from Palestine and gradually established themselves as legitimate kings.

By Thomas V. Brisco


Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas, Holman Reference (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998)


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