Archaeology has been one of biblical history's greatest tools to sift out better verified facts of Bible stories. In fact, over the past few decades archaeologists have learned a great deal about the world of Abraham in the Bible. Abraham is considered to be the spiritual father of the world's three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The Patriarch Abraham in the Bible
Historians date Abraham's bibilical story around 2000 B.C., based on clues in Genesis Chapters 11 through 25. Considered the first of the biblical patriarchs, Abraham's life history encompasses a journey starts that in a place called Ur. In Abraham's time, Ur was one of the great city-states in Sumer, a part of the Fertile Crescent located from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq to the Nile in Egypt. Historians call this era from 3000 to 2000 B.C. "the dawn of civilization" because it marks the earliest documented dates when people settled in communities and began such things as writing, agriculture and commerce.
Genesis 11:31 says that the patriarch's father, Terah, took his son (who was then called Abram before God renamed him Abraham) and their extended family out of a city called Ur of the Chaldeans. Archaeologists took this notation as something to investigate, because according to The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas, the Chaldeans were a tribe that didn't exist until somewhere around the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., nearly 1,500 years after Abraham is believed to have lived. Ur of the Chaldeans has been located not far from Haran, whose remnants are found today in southwestern Turkey.
The reference to the Chaldeans has led biblical historians to an interesting conclusion. The Chaldeans lived around the sixth-to-fifth century B.C., when Jewish scribes first wrote down the oral tradition of Abraham's story as they put together the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, since the oral tradition mentioned Ur as the starting point for Abraham and his family, historians think that it would have been logical for scribes to assume the name was tied to the same place they knew in their period, says The Biblical World.
However, archaeologists have uncovered evidence over the past several decades that sheds new light on the era of city-states which corresponds more closely to Abraham's time.
Clay tablets offer ancient data
Among these artifacts are some 20,000 clay tablets found deep inside in the ruins of the city of Mari in today's Syria. According to The Biblical World, Mari was located on the Euphrates River some 30 miles north of the border between Syria and Iraq. In its time, Mari was a key center on the trade routes between Babylon, Egypt and Persia (today's Iran).
Mari was the capital of King Zimri-Lim in the 18th century B.C. until it was conquered and destroyed by King Hammurabi. In the late 20th century A.D., French archaeologists looking for Mari dug through centuries of sand to uncover Zimri-Lim's former palace. Deep within the ruins, they discovered tablets written in an ancient cuneiform script, one of the first forms of writing.
Some of the tablets have been dated back 200 years before Zimri-Lim's time, which would place them around the same time that the Bible says Abraham's family departed Ur. Information translated from the Mari tablets would seem to indicate that the Sumerian Ur, not Ur of the Chaldeans, is more likely the place where Abraham and his family started their journey.
Reasons for the Journey of Abraham in the Bible
Genesis 11:31-32 gives no indication why Abraham's father, Terah, would suddenly uproot his large extended family and head toward the city of Haran, which was some 500 miles north of the Sumerian Ur. However, the Mari tablets offer information about political and cultural strife around Abraham's time that scholars think offers clues to their migration.
The Biblical World notes that some of the Mari tablets use words from the Amorite tribes that are also found in Abraham's story, such as his father's name, Terah, and his brothers' names, Nahor and Haran (also ironically the name for their destination). From these artifacts and others, some scholars have concluded that Abraham's family may have been Amorites, a Semitic tribe that began to migrate out of Mesopotamia around 2100 B.C. The Amorites' migration destabilized Ur, which scholars estimate collapsed around 1900 B.C.
As a result of these findings, archaeologists now surmise that those who wanted to escape the era's civil strife had only one direction to go for safety: north. South of Mesopotamia was the sea known now as the Persian Gulf. Nothing but open desert lay to the west. To the east, refugees from Ur would have encountered Elamites, another tribal group from Persia whose influx also hastened Ur's downfall.
Thus archaeologists and biblical historians conclude that it would have been logical for Terah and his family to head north toward Haran to save their lives and livelihoods. Their migration was the first stage in the journey that led Terah's son, Abram, to become the patriarch Abraham whom God in Genesis 17:4 terms "the father of a multitude of nations."
Bible Texts Related to the Story of Abraham in the Bible:
Genesis 11:31-32: "Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram's wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran."
Genesis 17:1-4: When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, 'I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.' Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 'As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.' "
- The Oxford Annotated Bible with The Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (1994).
- The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas (National Geographic 2007)