My fellow blogger, Tim Bulkeley from New Zealand, wrote a blog, “Reading Abram/Abraham,” in which he expresses his concern over the issue of history/historicity when writing an article about Abraham.
Tim also called attention to my blog in which I made reference to an exhibit about the treasures found in the royal tombs of Ur, which I called “The City of Abraham.” The issue raised by Tim is whether the Ur of the Chaldeans mentioned in the biblical text is the same Ur located in southern Mesopotamia and home of the royal tombs.
I share Tim’s concern about the historicity of the biblical tradition. The biblical record is unanimous in affirming that Terah, the father of Abraham, and his family left Ur to move to the land of Canaan: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there” (Genesis 11:31).
The name “Ur of the Chaldeans,” the city of Abraham’s ancestors, appears four times in the Old Testament (Genesis 11:28; 11:31; 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7). The name given to Abraham’s place of origin, “Ur of the Chaldeans,” is an anachronism. The Chaldeans, a group of Aramean seminomadic tribes who lived along the Persian Gulf in the southern part of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq), did not establish what is called the Neo-Babylonian empire until the 7th century BCE. The Neo-Babylonian Empire began with the reign of Nabopolassar in 626 BCE and ended with the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BCE.
Scholars disagree whether the Ur of the Chaldeans mentioned in Genesis is identical with the Sumerian city of Ur that flourished in southern Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE. Some scholars have attempted to locate Ur in northern Mesopotamia, near the city of Haran.
Two reasons are given for this shift in location. First, the patriarchal narratives seem to corroborate the view that the patriarchs considered upper Mesopotamia, especially the region of Haran, as their place of origin. According to this view, Haran would be out of the way as a route for a group of people moving from Ur to Canaan.
The second reason is that when Abraham sent his servant to his place of origin to procure a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:1-10) and when Isaac sent Jacob to the place of origin of his ancestors (Genesis 28:1-5; 29:1-8), both Abraham’s servant and Jacob came to the region of Haran in upper Mesopotamia.
Cyrus Gordon, in his article “Abraham and the Merchants of Ura,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 17 (1958) 28-31, proposed the northern Mesopotamia city of Ura, a city that is mentioned in cuneiform texts, as the city from which Abraham came. According to Gordon, Abraham was a merchant prince who was involved in caravan trade.
As Tim mentioned in his post, the majority of scholars today, however, still accept the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, located on the southern bank of the Euphrates, as the place referred to in the patriarchal narratives. They also accept the biblical tradition which affirms that the ancestors of Abraham came from southern Mesopotamia.
As for the issue of historicity of the patriarchal traditions, the debate continues unabated. However, the fact is, that in order to write an article on Abraham, the only resource available is the biblical text. Whether these texts are theology, history, or historiography, the biblical texts are the only witnesses available that declare that there once was a man called Abraham. Without the biblical texts, no one would ever know that Abraham existed, and thus, no one would be able to write anything about him.
No one today can prove whether the patriarchal narratives are historical. However, if the four texts that mention Ur of the Chaldeans are the work of people who lived in the exilic period, then they knew that the ancient city of Ur was now Ur of the Chaldeans. As Claus Westermann, in his book Genesis 12-36 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981), p. 136, wrote: “The author of the priestly writing knows that the dominion of the city of Ur is older than that of Babylon; but he designates it by the name which was current for it in his own time and region: Ur of the Chaldees.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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