The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Abraham of the Chaldees

December 17th, 2005 · No Comments · history

Ancient Civilization Unearthed in Syria
The Tell Hamoukar Survey 2000-2001 (University of Chicago)

Archeologists have discovered the ruins of forgotten cities older than most of the other great Mesopotamian city states, but much further north up the Euphrates valley than anyone had expected. In fact, the prevailing theories on the development of ancient civilization say that such city-states had formed in the southern valley. Only in recent years has this thinking been changing, due to excavations in Syria pointing to earlier cultures in the northern parts of the valley.

Modern archeology began as an effort by some folks who wanted to prove that the stories in the were literally true. One of the earliest conflicts revolved around the home of Abraham’s father. In Genesis, after the Tower of Babel story, we get a quick list of begats from Noah to Abraham. We’re told that Abe had a brother who died in the land of his birth, “Ur of the Chaldees”. We’re later told that Abe’s dad, Terah takes his remaining family from “Ur of the Chaldees” to Haran, with the intention of settling in Canaan.

The controversy regarding the location of Ur in dispute erupted for the simple reason that the term is anachronistic. The Ur of the Chaldeans was deep in the southern Mesopotamian valley, but the Chaldeans, themselves, were contemporary of the editors of Genesis, centuries after the supposed life of Abraham, so it begged the question of whether one of the other “Ur”s in Mesopotamia might have been the Ur of Terah. In fact, there’s a number of reasons to suppose that one such Ur, located near the mountainous source of the Euphrates, far to the north-west of Babylon, is the Ur referred to in the Bible.

For one thing, ancient Haran is somewhat south of, and in the general direction of, Canaan, coming from this northern Ur. There is some evidence that, due to some environmental calamity perhaps, the Mediterranian and Mesopotamian civilizations 5000 years ago were overrun by invading tribes from the north with their own pre-existing culture. (I speculate that one of the things these tribes brought is literacy.) It’s not difficult to imagine that Abraham represents a large-scale tribal movement, and there’s a well known such movement about the time of the Patriarchs.

Another reason that the northern Ur has some greater validity than the southern has to do with population density. Even if the Bible was referring to a single man and his family traveling from point A to B, you’re still talking about 50-75 adults and children, and their associated herds of grazing stock animals. From Haran to Canaan was largely open land at the time, but the one likely path from the southern Ur to Haran had been choked with urban development for a thousand years by that point. It’s not likely that they would have been able to move, unmolested, over that distance, unless they had been a very large group. History is silent regarding such a transition, however, and so this becomes a less likely event.

There’s even room to argue that when the text for Genesis was being put together, the experience of the people at that time was that Babylon was the center of culture and civilization and that they could make themselves look good (or at least feel better about themselves) if they could show derivation from an even older empire in that very location. So where an earlier text may have simply referred to “Ur”, presuming its readership would know which one, the redactor of Genesis, or some later translator, helpfully added “of the Chaldees” to take ownership of the greater Ur. (Locating the Tower of Babel tale immediately before the origins of the Patriarchy helps to set the stage, as well.)

The minimalist argument is that “Terah” refers to the Earth as the name “Abram” translates to mean “Great Father”, so the whole thing is just another creation myth, told to memorialize some real or imagined cultural migration in the distant past. We can follow the conspiracy theory out a bit further, and presume that the original texts never mentioned Ur at all, and that the whole phrase was inserted during or shortly after original assembly of the Genesis text. This is supported by the fact that, although the Patriarchs frequently send their sons back to Haran for wives and family support, no one ever goes back to “Ur” for anything. Clearly, the family is better established around Haran, no matter what the Terah story might indicate.

This from

Despite the remarkable discoveries made in the course of the systematic excavations at Ur, especially the royal tombs, no direct evidence has been found of Abraham’s residence there, and such evidence could scarecely be expected, since Ur was very large and Terah and his sons inconspicuous citizens who emigrated from it. However, the case is quite different in the region of Haran to which the patriarch went. In this region of northwest Mesopotamia there is unmistakable evidence of the extended Hebrew residence in the vicinity of the Balikh and Habur rivers, two tributaries of the Euphrates east of the great bend south of ancient Carchemish.

Well, now there’s these walled cities, some 2500 years before Abraham and just south of Haran and the northern Ur. Suddenly, it’s a lot more likely that the northern Ur had the population to support a migration and even less likely that the Babylonian Ur was the source of the Patriarchs. Frankly, this issue isn’t actually much of a controversy anymore, except to those who insist that every word of the Bible is literally true and intended by God. For these, the Babylonian Ur must be the one from which Terah migrated, so don’t confuse the issue with facts.

I do appreciate the irony that every place these literalists have looked to prove their fairy tales, they have uncovered far more interesting cultures and stories, going further back than anyone had expected. My current favorite interpretation is that the Noah story described the inundation of the Black Sea and the Patriarch stories describe the migration of some of the peoples from the lost Black Sea-area cultures through the Levant. This might imply a closer relationship between the ancient Hebrews and their traditional adversaries, the Philistines if the “Sea Peoples” also derive from similar Black Sea region migrations. It’s all interesting speculation, if nothing else.

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