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

Babylon’s Ever-Shifting Past

Scholarship is always changing the past. Paul Kriwaczek begins his 2010 book, Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, by stressing the ever-shifting landscape that emerges from more than 150 years of scholarship:

Getting to grips with the sweep of history is proverbially a matter of balancing one’s perception of the trees against gaining a view of the whole wood….The trees may constantly be shifting, but you can still make out the wood.
— Kriwaczek, p.10

He goes on to describe “the wood” of Mesopotamia as “surprising for its longevity…remarkable for its continuity…extraordinary for its creativity…[and] astonishing for its non-ethnicity”(pp.10-12), adding: “If history, as by most definitions, begins with writing, then the birth, rise and fall of ancient Mesopotamia occupies a full half of all history.”

Bible, Babylon, and Jews

Kriwaczek touches briefly on the relationship between bible and history, noting that Hebrew and Christian scriptures are responsible both for the “evil repute” of Babylon and for the enduring memory of a city “vanished from the surface of the earth these two millenia” (pp. 167-168). He looks briefly at depictions of Babylon in classical (Greek and Latin) writing, Christianity, and Islam. Then adds:

It was left to Jews to keep the multi-faceted reality of the ancient centre of civilization alive in western cultural consciousness, waiting for the time when a new spirit of enquiry would lead European explorers to investigate the remains properly, when a new discipline, archaeology, would begin to build a picture of Babylon as she once was, and when the name Babylon would be applied allegorically to the new centre of world empire.
— Kriwaczek, p.170

(More on journalist Paul Kriwaczek (1937-2011) and this book.)

To extend Kriwaczek’s “woods” metaphor, 20th Century scholar Georges Contenau builds up a picture of the Babylon landscape from deep inside the roots of individual trees. His Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria is not interested in scripture from outside Mesopotamia but looks instead to evidence from sources such as the books of a “great business house” in the second half of the 5th Century BCE:

This was owned by a certain Murashu and his children, who maintained hundreds of accounts. The Murashu family were Israelites, and when Nebucahdrezzar captured Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and took the most important inhabitants (including the prophet Jeremiah) into captivity, the Murashus were among them. They managed to prosper during their exile…
Contenau, p. 85

Such mid-20th Century archaeology, coupled with biblical scholarship, suggested that life in Babylon was largely copacetic for exiled Jews. David Stowe’s Song of Exile points out, however, more recent scholarship is questioning this assumption:

First, there’s a major sea-change in our understanding of the Judeans who ended up in Babylon, often referred to in the literature as the Golah (Hebrew for “Exile”). The experience of the Exile was undoubtedly a lot more punishing — involving a lot more suffering — than has been acknowledged….

The trouble is, a lack of detail about the Golah can’t be taken as suggesting that living conditions were benign — or harsh, for that matter. A passing over in silence can just as easily reflect the effect of trauma.
— Stowe, p.7,8

Look for more on Stowe’s fascinating book, as we continue Exploring Babylon.