Ur and Har(r)an in Bible and History

Writing in 1949, biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) sounds almost giddy in declaring the question of Ur’s location settled, following centuries of conjecture:

Today, especially after the brilliant results of Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations (1922-1933)…all agree that the Biblical Ur of the Chaldees is none other than this famous city, which was one of the most important…
— Umberto Cassuto. A Commentary on the Book of Genesis Part Two: From Noah to Abraham (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964; Hebrew, first published 1949), p.272

In 1983, when the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute was planning an expedition in the area, Harran was assumed to have importance both “in its biblical context” and “study of ancient Near Eastern religion” (OI News and Notes on The Harran Expedition [PDF: nn88]; more News and Notes on OI’s website).

Please note: For the purposes of this blog, Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldees) of Genesis is understood as the historical Ur, and “Haran” of Genesis is understood as “Harran” of history. In addition, Padan-Aram and Aram Naharaim, other names used in Genesis for Abraham’s country, are understood to mean something similar to “Mesopotamia,” i.e., place between the rivers.

And just to be clear: None of this means that Terah &Co were historical figures; there is (to date, I’m pretty sure) no extra-biblical evidence of their existence. Instead, what it means is that the narratives of Genesis are tied up with historical places that carried specific meanings we will miss without some background on those ancient places.

Cities of “Sin”

One of the things we’d miss without looking at what archaeology and history can tell us is the long-lasting worship-based connection between Ur and Harran:

The foremost astral deities were, of course, §ama§ (Sumerian Utu) and Sin (originally Su’en, Sumerian Nanna), the sun god and the moon god. Each had two major centers in Mesopotamia, §ama§ in Larsa and in Sippar, where his temples were called “White House,” and Sin in Ur and in far-off Harran. Both maintained their popularity throughout the entire history of Mesopotamian civilization….
— A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization by A. Leo Oppenheim, revised by Erica Reiner. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964, 1977)

In the course of Nabonidus’s reign [6th Century BCE], it became increasingly clear that there was to be a new, more inclusive religious identity uniting the empire: the worship of the moon god Sin, who unlike Marduk was not tied to a single city but was indigenous to both the Babylonian south (Ur) and the Aramean north (Haran).
— Albertz, Israel in Exile, p.65 (see sources cited)

See also Cassuto in “Babylon: Back Home

from OI News and Notes 1983

Everybody Comes to Harran

North from Babylonia. West from Assyria. South from Anatolia. Wherever your point of origin or final destination in the ancient near East, your caravan was likely to take you through Harran — a city identified with the Haran [חָרָן] of Genesis:

A clue to the importance and function of Harran in the economic life of the ancient world can be found in the name of the city itself. Harran means “journey or caravan,” and its location at the crossroads of some of the most important ancient trade routes explains the frequent references to the city in sources that date from the third millennium to the first millennium [BCE].
— Douglas Esse (1950-1992), then Associate Director of The Harran Expedition,
the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, OI News & Notes, 1983

Israel in Exile (Albertz)

Albertz, Rainer, Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E., translated by David Green (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

A review in the Journal of Religion calls this book a “biblical, historical, literary, and theological masterpiece.” Albertz is a Christian scholar of “Old Testament,” trained in Protestant Theology at Heidelberg. (See also “Babylon and the Beginning.”) His training is evident throughout this work, but he offers a lot of background and insight focused solely on Tanakh.

Using biblical text and materials of the Neo-Babylonian period, Albertz explores life for exiled Judeans in Babylon. The first two sections, “The Biblical Picture of the Exilic Era” and “The History of the Exilic Era,” offer plenty of detail (in 138 pages).

The next section, “The Literature of the Exilic Period” (roughly two-thirds of the book), analyzes biblical text. Albertz shares detailed insights about the vision and world view behind various narratives and prophecies, but the reader has to work to get to them: The bulk of the discussion involves assigning portions of the Tanakh to appropriate documents, such as “PH (Patriarchal History)” and “JerD (Deuteronomist Jeremiah).”

The final section on “Theological Contribution” is overtly Christian.

Citations to scholarship in German and other Christian sources are unlikely to be helpful to many readers of this blog.

The quote above is all that’s available without paying $10 for the review. Here’s the citation: John Ahn, “Rainer Albertz, Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E,” The Journal of Religion 85, no. 2 (April 2005): 305-307.

Another note: If anyone reading this knows of volumes of any comparable depth by Jewish studies authors — especially ones that are not $140 for an ebook or $300 for print — please advise. Titles local college libraries are likely to stock also most welcome.