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“
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