Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Cities of the Patriarchs

Posted by foryourfaith on October 12, 2010


The Bible outlines with precision the genealogy of the patriarchs. It reports that Terah, the father of Abraham, was a ninth-generation descendant of Shem, the oldest of Noah’s three sons. There is no historical record other than the Bible itself that tells of Abraham. Nevertheless, we have no reason to doubt that Braham and his descendants were real figures, and not merely symbols created hundreds of years later to help explain the origins of the Hebrew people. Many of the details of the patriarchal account in the Book of Genesis are supported by the political, cultural, and religious history of the second-millennium BC Near East.

Archaeological findings of the last century, most of them textual, have shed new light on the truth of the Genesis narrative. The story begins in Ur, which the Bible calls Ur of the Chaldeans. This name is an anachronism because Ur was not occupied by the Chaldeans, who were from the Persian Gulf area, until the 11th century BC. Scholars are in general agreement that the events described in Genesis, chapters 21-50, took place much earlier – probably between the 20th and 16th centuries BC.

Ur, located in southern Mesopotamia, was one of the largest cities in the kingdom of Sumer and later in Babylonia. Some scholars claim that Ur of the Chaldeans was a different place altogether from the Mesopotamian Ur, but most agree that Abraham and his family were from the Sumerian city, situated in what is today southern Iraq.

The city of Ur reached its peak of development during Sumer’s Third Dynasty, around the 22nd-21st centuries BC. The founder of the dynasty was Ur-Nammu, who, with his son Shulgi, extended the dominion of Sumer north to Akkad. Ur-Nammu compiled the oldest known collection of laws in the world, and he built the great temple, or ziggurat, in Ur.

A ziggurat (from the Akkadian word for pinnacle) was a temple built in the form of a stepped pyramid. The ziggurat of Ur had three steps, with the first providing the massive base. The shrine to the moon god, Nanna (Sin in Akkadian), was at the summit. It was reached by an outside stairway. The ruins of this ziggurat have been partially restored, based on a reconstruction by the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley.

Woolley conducted excavations between 1922 and 1934 at the site of ancient Ur. One of his discoveries was a layer of red soil over eight feet deep, that separated two distinct layers of remains. On the basis of this silt, which had been deposited by water, Woolley postulated that most of the settlements in a 38,610 –square-mile (100,000-square-kilometer) area in the southern region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had been covered by a great flood.

He believed that this was the Great Flood of Genesis. But later researchers found similar flood layers in this region, dating to around 2800 to 2600 BC – too late to have been caused by the biblical flood.

Woolley’s excavations of Ur’s royal cemetery uncovered artistic treasure from about the 25th century BC. The Standard of Ur, for example, consists of two mosaic panels, one portraying “war” – the triumph of the king over his enemies – and the other portraying “peace” – the celebration of victory.

This work not only reveals the artistic achievement of the Sumerians but also certain aspects of their society. The soldiers depicted on the war panel drive chariots with wooden wheels; they wear helmets and fringed skirts and capes. The peace panel indicates a love of music; a man plays the lyre, as a woman, perhaps a singer, follows. Many animals appear in this panel: a bull, an oryx, asses, and goats.

Another important find at the cemetery was a statue of a male goat – made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and white shell – standing upright against a flowering tree. To the Sumerians the natural world was invested with an array of supernatural forces, and this handsome statue may have had religious significance.

Near the beginning of the second millennium BC, Ur went into an economic decline, and was invaded by the Amorite people from the West. Evidence suggests that during this period many families migrated from Ur. It may have been at this time that Abraham and his family left Ur for Canaan, however, when they reached Haran, some 600 miles (965 kilometers) away, they settled there instead of moving on. In ancient times Haran, located in northern Mesopotamia, was a caravan route from Babylon, just north of Ur, to Asia Minor.

The names of various members of Abraham’s clan are reflected in the geography of the region: Haran and Nahor (the latter a town probably southeast of Haran) were the names of Abraham’s two brothers, and Serug (identified with Sarugi, west of Haran) was the name of his great-grandfather. Both Ur and Haran were centers of the moon cult, which also seems to correlate with family names. Terah, the name of Abraham’s father, may be related to the Aramaic word for moon. Laban, the name of Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law, means white and was an epithet of the moon god.

In Haran, Abraham received and obeyed God’s call to continue the journey to Canaan. Two generations later, Jacob, Israel’s third patriarch, traveled from Canaan to Haran to seek refuge with Laban. These wanderings have an authentic ring, echoing the known movements of people in the second millennium BC.

The extra-biblical evidence tends to corroborate the biblical account of the ancestors of Israel, and places it into historical context. In addition to the factors already cited, the legal and social traditions of various ancient Near Eastern cultures are similar to those conveyed in the Bible. So, although there will probably never be absolute proof of an historic Abraham, there is reason to believe that there was such a man, and that he is well served by his description in the Book of Genesis.


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