Genesis 11:28-31 identifies Abraham’s original hometown as “Ur of the Chaldees,” or “Ur of the Chaldeans.” Sometime during Abraham’s adult life, probably while he was already about seventy years old, his father Terah moved the family clan to the city of Haran in northern Syria as the first step in a planned migration to the land of Canaan. Terah himself did not complete the journey; he died while the family was living in Haran. When Abraham was seventy-five years old, he received a personal call from God to migrate to Canaan (Gen 12:1-3). This caused a division in the family clan: Abraham’s nephew Lot went with him to Canaan, while the rest of Abraham’s family stayed in the area of Haran, where Abraham’s relatives are found living in later chapters of Genesis.
There are two ancient cities called “Ur” that are known from archaeology. By far the most famous is a city in southeastern Mesopotamia that was a great center of early civilization. A second Ur, which was far less prominent, is called “Ur in Haran” by an ancient tablet from Ebla. Islamic tradition identifies Shanliurfa, which is 24 miles (39 km) northwest of Haran, as Abraham’s original home. This city was refounded in the Hellenistic period as Edessa, and later became the center of the Syriac Christian community.
Although some scholars identify Ur of the Chaldees with the northern city of Ur, the arguments in favor of the southern location are compelling. In Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, he says that Abraham’s original home was in “the land of the Chaldeans” (Acts 7:4), a term which is used by other biblical writers to refer to southern Mesopotamia (e.g., Isa 23:13; Jer 25:12; Ezek 12:13). It seems that the author of Genesis intended to specify the southern location of Ur by identifying it as the one that is in the land of the Chaldeans. Stephen says that Abraham had to leave the land of the Chaldeans in order to travel to Haran (Acts 7:4), whereas the reference to the northern Ur as “Ur in Haran” shows that it already lay within the territory of Haran. Stephen also indicates in Acts 7:2 that what he means by “Mesopotamia”—Abraham’s original home—is a different region than the region around Haran, since he says that Abraham lived in Mesopotamia before he lived in Haran.
Abraham’s relatives are found in later chapters of Genesis to be living near Haran in northern Syria/Aram (now part of Turkey). However, as has already been noted, this does not mean that “Ur of the Chaldees” was in northern Syria, since Genesis 11:31-32 states that Terah had moved Abraham’s extended family to Haran prior to Abraham’s journey to the land of Canaan with Lot (Gen 12:5). Since Arameans dominated the region around Haran, the Bible calls Laban “the Aramean” (Gen 25:20; 31:20, 24), and portrays Laban as a speaker of the Aramaic language in Genesis 31:47. Deuteronomy 26:5 even calls Jacob an “Aramean” because of his twenty years spent with Laban in Paddan-aram (near Haran). But Jacob and Laban could not have been of Aramean descent, since they were descended from Shem’s son Arpachshad (Gen 11:10-26), whereas the Arameans were descended from Shem’s son Aram (Gen 10:22-23).
Some scholars argue that because Abraham seems to be culturally Semitic in the Genesis narratives, he must have been from the northern location of Ur, which was in Aramean territory, and not from the southern location of Ur, which was in Sumerian territory. Several points may be noted against this argument. First, although the southern Ur was in Sumerian territory, it was culturally Hurrian, and the dates of modern secular archeology are divergent enough from the Bible’s chronology so that we cannot be certain which group dominated the city at the time of Abraham. Possibly Ur was already dominated by the Chaldeans (an Aramean tribe) at the time of Abraham. Alternatively, the reference to the Chaldeans could have been made by a later writer (I would argue Ezra) who updated some geographical references in the Pentateuch. Second, Abraham himself was a Semite by birth, and therefore would have retained the culture of his clan, regardless of where he lived. Third, although most of the stories in the Abraham narrative of Genesis occur in a Semitic cultural setting (the Canaanites spoke a Semitic language even though they were not Semites by blood), Abraham and Sarah chose to move to an urban, sophisticated Egyptian culture during a famine, and they evidently had little difficulty living in that culture. Lot, as well, chose to live in the large urban center of Sodom, which seems to indicate that the family was used to life in a big city with a mixed population. When Abraham seems to act like a Bedouin, it may just be that he is conforming to the culture of the land.
Ur in southern Mesopotamia was founded by the Sumerian people. But the earliest Semitic texts in Mesopotamia are also from Ur. The Sumerians called the early Semitic migrants “westerners.” Abraham was evidently part of the huge Semitic minority that lived in the large Sumerian city-state of Ur. Ur had hot and cold running water, a sewer system, multistory buildings, paved roads, major temples, ornate furniture, and a variety of metal instruments. The Sumerians developed a sexagesimal system that divided the hour into 60 minutes, the minute into 60 seconds, and the circle into 360 degrees—a system that we still use today. There were well developed law codes and a standard system of weights and measures. There was a system of canals connecting the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to control floods and provide irrigation so farming could go on year-round. At the time of Abraham, Ur would have been on or very near the shore of the Persian Gulf, in the Euphrates River delta, though the vast amounts of sediment carried by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have since filled in about 150 miles of the original gulf. There was probably a port on the gulf shore that was alive with trade and fishing boats.
In my job working for BiblePlaces, I have looked at pictures of more than 10,000 ancient artifacts from the collections of museums all over the world. One would think that the artifacts from the most ancient periods would be crude, and the craftsmanship would become finer in later periods. But I would say that the artifacts from Abraham’s Ur are among the most impressive of all. Their craftsmanship is finer, more luxurious, better, than most of what came later.
If Abraham was a wealthy man in Ur, as he appears to have been, he must have possessed many treasures of the finest craftsmanship and the most exquisite materials. He would have lived in a mansion in Ur that would probably still look impressive today. As an upper class, free man, he would have attained a high level of education and must have been literate and fluent in Sumerian, Akkadian, various other Semitic languages (e.g., Amorite, Aramaic), and probably Egyptian as a trade language. He would have enjoyed a refined urban life in a highly advanced center of civilization. To leave all of this in order to journey to Canaan would have meant a huge sacrifice of material comfort for Abraham. Abraham lived in a tent in Canaan, not in a house, and he lived in rugged fields, deserts, and mountains, away from the conveniences of civilization. Whereas Ur had a perpetually dry and sunny climate with a stable water supply from rivers, Canaan had a far messier and more unpredictable climate, with rain, snow, frost, dew, and so forth. The only two centers of advanced civilization near Canaan were Egypt and Sodom, both of which were spiritually problematic and outside of the area where God wanted Abraham to live.
When we read the narrative of the call of Abraham, it is easy to overlook the fact that Abraham gave up a lot of wealth and comfort when he left Ur and went to Canaan. Abraham also gave up the linguistic sophistication of Ur, since his descendants would adopt the language of the land of Canaan (Hebrew), which was not one of the major literary languages of the ancient world (outside of its use by Abraham’s descendants). That Abraham obeyed God’s call to settle his family in the land of Canaan shows that when he was forced to make a choice between God and money, he would choose God. The depth of Abraham’s commitment to God is shown again in Genesis 22, when Abraham chose to obey God even at the cost of his own son Isaac’s life. Abraham was truly a man with a great heart for God.
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