Have we erred on Ur?

The partially restored great ziggurat of Ur.

For years, most Bible readers have assumed that Abraham’s hometown should be identified with the great city of Ur, located in southern Mesopotamia, an area known in ancient times as Sumer. The area is now in southern Iraq; the site of Ur is near the modern city of Basra. From the time of Leonard Wooley’s spectacular excavations in Ur (1922-34), his claims that the Sumerian Ur was a city “worthy of Abraham” led to that location becoming near orthodoxy in scholarly circles. I for one have repeated it many times to my Old Testament students.

That may have been an “urrer.” I knew the geography was problematic, but didn’t know of a better option until I read a recent post by Gary Rentdorf at Torah.com. Rentdorf, an excellent scholar who teaches Jewish studies at Rutgers University, makes a good case that Abraham’s Ur was actually in southern Turkey.

Why? The Bible makes several references to God bringing Abraham from ’Ur-Kasdim, translated as “Ur of the Chaldees” (Gen. 11:27, 31; 15:7; Neh. 9:7). No one in southern Mesopotamia was called a “Chaldean” in Abraham’s day, but since the story was written much later, we assumed that the author retrojected a contemporary label to an ancient situation. Some of the texts imply that Abraham went straight from “Ur of the Chaldees” to Canaan, but the story in Gen. 11:27-32 says that he moved with his father Terah from Ur-Kasdim to Haran (now in northeastern Syria), but stopped there, remaining until Terah died. Genesis 12 picks up the story in Haran, with God’s call for Abraham to proceed to “the land that I will show you” (12:1).

We know that there were Chaldeans in southern Mesopotamia during the Neo-Babylonian period, 1000 years after Abraham’s time, and the Babylonians of that time were also popularly known as Chaldeans. Some ancient sources, however, suggest that the Chaldeans’ original home was in Anatolia, now a part of Turkey, before some of them migrated south.

The modern city of Siliurfa, with a mosque built at the traditional site of Abraham’s birth in the foreground. Wikimedia Commons.

A cuneiform tablet found at Ugarit contains a significant clue: it is a letter from a Hittite king named Hattusili III, also located in Turkey. The king of Ugarit, on the Mediterranean coast, had complained about the activities of certain Hittite merchants from a city named Ura – which would come into Hebrew as ’Ur. The Hittite king pledged to crack down on the merchants and make them behave.

This is likely the same city, in southern Turkey, that is now called Urfa. It turns out that local Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions have considered Urfa to be the birthplace of Abraham for more than a thousand years. The biblical names of Abraham’s grandfather Nahor and great-grandfather Serug are also the names of towns located near Urfa.The official Turkish name of the city is Saliurfa: in the Byzantine period it was known as Edessa, a popular focus of Syriac Christianity.

Is the Turkish Urfa a better candidate for Abraham’s ’Ur-Kasdim?

We have good reason to think so. Genesis 24:4, 7, 10, and 29 describe Abraham’s birthplace as being in Aram-Naharayim (“Beyond the River”), a region defined as being east of the Euphrates River. The northern Ur was in that area, but the southern city of Ur was built on the west side of the river.

This map, from Torah.com, shows a more likely route for Abraham, with Haran being a way station on the way from the northern city of Ur. Note how far out of the way it is from the Sumerian Ur.

Another geographical problem I’ve long recognized is this: if Abraham’s father Terah had set out for Canaan from the Sumerian Ur, he would have gone north along the Euphrates, bearing west around the top of the fertile crescent, then turning south and traveling through Syria until reaching Canaan. But Terah wound up in Haran – which means he would have had to make a sharp right turn at the Balik River and travel many miles upstream to reach Haran. That makes little sense.

If the family had departed from the northern Ur, however, Haran would have been a natural stop on the way to Canaan.

Cyrus Gordon, who dug at the Sumerian Ur with Leonard Wooley, never accepted Wooley’s identification of the southern Ur as Abraham’s “Ur of the Chaldees.” He consistently argued for a northern location, but few followed his lead, although the northern Ur was generally accepted before Wooley’s argument for the southern Ur became popular. A preponderance of evidence appears to support Gordon’s contention.

The next time I lecture on Abraham, I’ll mention the great Sumerian city of Ur, but will point to the more likely possibility that Abraham grew up in Anatolia, not Sumer.

This is the way biblical studies work: we’re always discovering new things and challenging or refining past ideas. That’s not a bad approach to life in general: being too set in our ways can stymie progress, but accepting the challenge of new understandings broadens the potential for a better future.

(For further reading on the location of Ur, consider these articles: Cyrus Gordon’s “Where Is Abraham’s Ur” at http://www.michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/Where%20Is%20Abrahams%20Ur.pdf, and Gary Rentdorf’s “Ur Kasdim: Where Is Abraham’s Birthplace?” at https://www.thetorah.com/article/ur-kasdim-where-is-abrahams-birthplace.)

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