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Biblical Archaeology Review May/June 2001: Where Was Abraham's Ur?

Where Was Abraham's Ur?

Alan R. Millard

Hershel Shanks has reopened the debate raised long ago by Cyrus Gordon, about which Ur was Abraham’s.* Was the patriarch born in some northern Mesopotamian Ur rather than in Babylonia? I believe the case for identifying the Ur (of the Chaldees) in Genesis 11:28,31 (compare with Nehemiah 9:7) with Ur, now Tell el-Muqayyar, in southern Babylonia, remains strong, although the available information precludes certainty. For our purposes, I assume that there was a man named Abraham and that the stories about him are very ancient.

A number of cuneiform texts mention several places named Ur, or something very like it, but most can be dismissed so far as Genesis is concerned:

1: The Ebla tablets from the third millennium B.C. name Ura and Uru among scores of places within Ebla’s immediate neighborhood. There is nothing to show they had any particular importance, however.(1) According to an Alalakh text of about 1600 B.C., a village named Urê lay at the western edge of the Fertile Crescent.(2) Other Alalakh tablets from about 1450 B.C. attest to a place called Urê and a village named Ura.(3) The Nuzi tablets from about 1400 B.C. name a Great Uri and a Small Uri in Nuzi’s vicinity.(4)

The places referred to in the Ebla, Alalakh and Nuzi tablets were all probably villages within the immediate environs of their respective urban centers.

2: In the 13th century B.C., merchants from a place called Ura had problems in Ugarit that were adjudicated by the Hittite overlord. This Ura figures prominently in Cyrus Gordon’s case against Abraham’s origin in the Babylonian Ur.(5) The Ura in question is now identified as a port on the coast of Cilicia, perhaps modern Gilindere.(6) Another Ura lay within the kingdom of Ugarit.(7) Still another Ura existed at the same time, according to Hittite texts, and may be located near modern Amasya in north central Turkey.(8) In addition, Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria lists Ura among his eighth-century B.C. conquests in the Turkish foothills, perhaps northwest of Diyarbekir.(9)

Neither the Cilician port nor the sites in northern Turkey are likely candidates for Abraham’s Ur. They are too far out of the way, and they are not known to have had a West Semitic populace.

3: The modern town of Urfa, called Orhai in Syriac sources and Edessa in Greek, maintains a traditional association with Abraham, but it may not date to the pre-Christian era. The name Orhai is of unknown origin, but if related to the biblical Ur, it is surprising that the final syllable is not represented in Hebrew. The modern form of the name Urfa cannot be traced prior to Turkish times.(10)

4: The best northern candidate is preserved on a 19th-century B.C. document found at Tell Shemshara, at the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent, which names a place called Ura’u; it is associated with Khaburatum (a name connected with the river Habur; see 2 Kings 17:6) and so possibly lay west of the Tigris,(11) and therefore nearer than the southern Ur to Haran, to which Abraham moved after leaving his birthplace.

On the other hand, none of the arguments arrayed against the southern Ur are conclusive:

1: It is said that the southern Ur is too far from Haran, about a thousand miles. But merchants and others in the early second millennium B.C. routinely traveled long distances. The traders who went from Ashur to Anatolia between about 1950 and 1750 B.C. followed routes that ran up to the Black Sea coast and far across central Anatolia. Their business had southerly connections into Babylonia, and letters of Babylonian merchants in the same period report their activities far up the Euphrates, at Emar, for example.(12) Three tablets trace a route from Larsa, 25 miles north of southern Ur, to Emar, going via Haran. The route did not follow the Euphrates; perhaps to avoid hostile territory, it ran further east, up the Tigris, swinging west across Upper Mesopotamia.

2: Another objection is that a route from southern Ur to Canaan via Haran is quite roundabout. There may have been reasons for this that we cannot discover, but Ur and Haran were the two main centers for worship of the Moon-god, Sin. The names Terah (Abraham’s father) and Laban, and possibly Milcah and Sarah, may be linked to the moon cult. Terah may well have been associated with the worship of the moon (see Joshua 24:2).

3: It is said that Abraham’s nomadic lifestyle is inconsistent with the urban setting of the southern Ur. But living in tents is well attested for the early second millennium B.C. Urban scribes were well aware of tent-dwelling nomads, whom they despised. Moreover, there is nothing to say that Terah’s family was nomadic; they may have lived in a house in Ur, as the excavator, Sir Leonard Woolley, imagined. Perhaps Abraham became a nomad only when he left Haran.

4: Another objection is that the southern Ur lies west of the Euphrates, so it could not be described as “across” the river (Genesis 31:21). But the course of the Euphrates River near Ur in the second millennium B.C. is not well defined. Woolley stated that the “river washed the foot of the western rampart,” taking a new course to the east during the mid-first millennium B.C.(13) For anyone living in the Levant, Babylonian Ur would have lain conceptually “beyond the river,” whatever the precise geography.

5: The Biblical text refers to Abraham’s birthplace as “Ur of the Chaldees.” No evidence exists for the term “Chaldean” earlier than the ninth century B.C. As Gordon observes, the term is never attached to the name Ur in Babylonian documents. Clearly someone thought it necessary to define Ur as “of the Chaldees” in the Genesis text. Following the common hypothesis that Genesis is an interweaving of three separate sources (Priestly, Yahwist and Elohist, the last not being involved here), the addition of the identifying phrase “of the Chaldees” could reflect the renewed eminence of this Ur under the Neo-Babylonian or Chaldean kings (626-539 B.C.), as Peter Machinist has suggested (in Shanks’s essay). If we suppose that the Genesis text has a much earlier origin, then “of the Chaldees” could be an explanation added to the text at a time when the location of Ur needed to be clarified. The phrase may not be part of a tradition reaching back to Abraham’s time, but the information it preserves—namely, that Abraham came from Babylonia—could well be part of the ancient tradition.

Thus, there is no insurmountable objection to the southern Ur, Ur of the Chaldees, being Abraham’s birthplace—as the Bible describes it.

1 Marco Bonechi, I nomi geografici dei testi di Ebla. Repertoire Géographique des Textes Cunéiformes 12.1 (Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1993), pp. 310-312, Ura, Ura’u, Uram, Uri’um, Urru; A. Archi et al., I nomi di luogi di testi di Ebla (Rome: Missione Archeologica Italiana in Siria, 1993), pp. 44,456-457,463-465, Ura, Ura’u, Uri, Uru. (Back)

2 Donald J. Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets (London: British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, 1953), 56.8. (Back)

3 Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets, 105.1 (Urê); 162.4,16 (Urri); 142.13 and 154.10 (Ura). (Back)

4 J. Fincke, Yie Orts-und Gewässernamen der Nuzi-Texte. Repertoire Géographique des Textes Cunéiformes 10 (Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1993), p. 332. (Back)

5 Cyrus H. Gordon, “Abraham and the Merchants of Ura,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 17 (1958), pp. 28-31. For a new translation of the text see Gary Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts, 2nd ed. (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1999), p. 177. (Back)

6 Richard H. Beal, “The Location of Cilician Ura,” Anatolian Studies 42 (1995), pp. 65-73. (Back)

7 Beckman, Hittite, p.175; M. Astour, “La Topographie du Royaume d’Ougarit” in M. Yon, M. Sznycer, P. Bordreuil, eds, Le Pays d’Ougarit autour de 1200 av. J.-C. (Paris: Editions recherche sur les Civilisations, 1995), pp. 55-69, esp. p. 68. (Back)

8 Giuseppe F. del Monte, J. Tischler, Die Orts- und Gewässernamen der hethitischen Texte. Repertoire Géographique des Textes Cunéiformes 6 (Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1978), pp. 457-458. (Back)

9 K. Kessler, Untersuchungen zur historischen Topographie Nordmesopotamiens (Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1980), p. 179; H. Tadmor, The Inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III King of Assyria (Jerusalem: Israel Academy, 1994), pp. 76,126,184. (Back)

10 See Judith B. Segal, Edessa, ‘The Blessed City’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 3,255; A. Harrak, “The Ancient Name of Urfa,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 51 (1992), pp. 209-214, suggested that Urfa was the Admum or Adme of cuneiform sources. (Back)

11 B. Groneberg, Die Orts- und Gewässernamen der altbabylonischen Zeit. Repertoire Géographique des Textes Cunéiformes 3 (Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1980), p. 247. (Back)

12 Mogens T. Larsen, The Old Assyrian City-State and its Colonies (Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1976); C.B.F. Walker, “Some Assyrians at Sippar in the Old Babylonian Period,” Anatolian Studies 30 (1980), pp. 15-22; W.F. Leemans, Foreign Trade in the Old Babylonian Period (Leiden: Brill, 1960). (Back)

13 P.R.S. Moorey, Ur “of the Chaldees.” A Revised and Updated Edition of Sir Leonard Woolley’s Excavations at Ur (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 138,263; see also H.W.F. Saggs, “Ur of the Chaldees,” Iraq 20 (1960), p. 202, n.12. (Back)