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The Second Coming of Saturn Part 8: From Urkesh to Canaan

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In Genesis 15, God made a remarkable and somewhat puzzling promise to Abraham:

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13–16, emphasis added)

If there is one thing we should be taught beginning in Sunday school, it’s that no detail in the Bible is unimportant. What did God mean by “the iniquity of the Amorites”? Why did He single out a group of people that most of us have only heard of, if we’ve heard of them at all, in the list of nations that the Israelites had to push out of Canaan? There must have been something unique about the Amorites for God to call them out.

As it happens, scholars of the ancient Near East know a lot about the Amorites. Between the time of Abraham and the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt, roughly 2000 BC to 1500 BC, the Amorites dominated the lands of the Bible. It was the Age of the Amorites in what is now Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, the northern parts of Arabia and Egypt, northwest Iran and southeastern Turkey. For about the last hundred years, it’s been well known among academics that Amorite kings, chiefs, and tribal elders controlled most of what we call the Middle East. Their social structure was similar to what we know of the Israelites between the time of Abraham and Nebuchadnezzar’s sack of Jerusalem, about 2000 BC to 586 BC. That isn’t surprising, since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in a culture dominated by the Amorites. But there were other groups of people who also influenced the world of the patriarchs, and over the last forty years or so we’ve begun to appreciate the importance of the Hurrians.

As we noted earlier, the Hurrians emerged in Northern Mesopotamia, in the Kurdish region along the border between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. The city of Urkesh was founded in the fourth millennium BC and appears to have been an important center of Hurrian religion for more than two thousand years, from about 3500 BC until the city was finally abandoned around 1200 BC. Even though Urkesh was settled several centuries before the earliest evidence of writing, the presence of the abi (ritual pit), a ritual structure “uniquely linked to the Hurrian tradition,”[1] the evidence is strong for Hurrian spiritual and political influence in Mesopotamia during the formative years of the Jewish—and, by extension, Christian—faith. And this Hurrian influence connects three very important mountains in the history of the Bible: Ararat, Sinai, and Zion.

We noted in a previous chapter that the proto-Hurrians, the Kura-Araxes (or Early Transcaucasian) people, migrated from their original homeland on the Ararat Plain. It’s tempting, although we can’t prove this, to connect the origin point of this culture and the survivors of the Flood of Noah, whose boat landed on a mountain somewhere near the Ararat Plain.

Entire books have been dedicated to making the case for or against the Flood. That topic is way outside the scope of what we’re examining here. But for the sake of argument, let’s speculate that a historic Flood did, in fact, deposit a boatload of survivors somewhere in the mountains of Ararat, possibly in the fifth millennium BC. As the descendants of Noah came down from the mountain and established themselves in new territories, a group of Japhethites, the Kura-Araxes people (named for the two rivers that drain the north and south sides of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains) established themselves by about 4000 BC in what is now Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and eastern Turkey. That part of the equation is guesswork, but archaeologists are confident that the Kura-Araxes culture spread from the Ararat Plain after 4000 BC to cover a broad area from northern Iran to eastern Turkey, north of the Caucasus Mountains, and south to the outer edge of the Fertile Crescent, eventually migrating south along the Mediterranean coast to reach the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River valley by about 2850 BC.[2]

This is relevant to our study because the advent of writing in the early third millennium BC allows us to follow text evidence to track the influence of the Kura-Araxes (proto-Hurrian) people on ideas and beliefs through their words, and not just their architecture and pottery.

The spread of the Kura-Araxes (proto-Hurrian) culture

Scholars date the end of the Kura-Araxes culture at about 2000 BC,[3] just about the time the Amorites emerged as a cultural and political force in the Near East.[4] However, the Hurrians, as descendants of the Kura-Araxes culture of the Ararat Plain and founders of Urkesh, connect the mountains of Ararat, the necromantic rituals of the abi, and people encountered by the patriarchs in Canaan.

The year 2000 BC is also roughly the time that Abraham began his migration from Ur to Harran (note: that is the correct spelling of the city’s name) and finally to Canaan. And the Hurrians feature prominently in the stories of the biblical patriarchs.

First, we need to rethink the common assumption of Abraham’s origins: Ur of the Chaldees (or Chaldeans) was not in Sumer, which is modern-day southern Iraq. In fact, for most of the last four thousand years, most people assumed that Abraham came from northern Mesopotamia. It was only when famed British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley found the fabulous “Royal Tombs of Ur” in 1922 that Jews, Christians, and Muslims decided that the fascinating and important Sumerian city was a fitting point of origin for Father Abraham. Until Woolley, Bible scholars generally believed the patriarch had come from southern Turkey. That’s exactly where we find ancient Harran, on the Balikh River about ten miles north of the Syrian border.

In the early second millennium BC, Harran was an important trading center on the caravan route between the Mediterranean coast and Assyria in what was probably a key border zone between the Assyrians to the southeast, the Hurrians to the northeast, an emerging Amorite kingdom at Aleppo to the southwest, and the Hittites, who were arriving in Anatolia to the northwest around that time.

Close by Harran was Ura, a town known as a home base for traveling merchants,[5] as were cities bearing the names of Abraham’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and brother—namely Serug (Sarugi), Nahor (Nahur), Terah, and, of course, Haran, the father of Lot.[6] To be accurate, we should note that “Haran” and “Harran” are different words. As noted earlier, “Harran” derives from the Akkadian ḫarrānum (“road”), while “Haran” probably meant something like “mountaineer,” from har, the Hebrew word for “mountain.” Still, the names of his close family members suggest a much stronger connection between Abraham and northern Mesopotamia than with Ur in Sumer, about seven hundred miles to the southeast (and where there are no mountains).

Likewise, Abraham’s lifestyle as a tent-dwelling nomad is more consistent with the Amorite culture of northern Mesopotamia than with Sumer. He was not a city-dweller, and neither were Isaac and Jacob. And this must be said: If Abraham’s father, Terah, had meant to go from Ur in Sumer to Canaan, he would not have ended up in Harran, not even by mistake. A map of the caravan trails of the ancient Near East makes it obvious. After following the Euphrates northward from Ur, Terah would have had to miss a left turn at Mari, near the modern border between Iraq and Syria. A well-known caravan trail there crossed the steppe to Tadmor (Palmyra) and Damascus before descending into Canaan by way of Bashan, the modern Golan Heights.

Harran isn’t just a little out of the way; it’s ridiculously out of the way. Going from Ur to Canaan by way of Harran is like driving from Atlanta to Dallas by way of Milwaukee.

Most important, the Bible supports a northern location for Abraham’s Ur. When Joshua called on the tribes of Israel to remember their origins, he said:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many.” (Joshua 24:2–3)

The key phrase there is “beyond the Euphrates.” Ur in Sumer is on the west bank of the Euphrates River. Abraham would not have crossed it to get to Canaan. Harran, and presumably Abraham’s Ur, is on the far side of the river. As Cyrus H. Gordon argued in 1958, “It is now clear that Abraham was a merchant prince…from the Hittite realm.”[7]

Perhaps, but it’s possible that the realm was Hurrian rather than Hittite. There are scholars who believe that Ur-Kasdim (“Ur of the Chaldees/Chaldeans”) points to Urkesh. The city-state was at the peak of its power near the end of the second millennium BC, especially after the fall of the Akkadian empire, but its influence began to wane after about 2000 BC. Urkesh is roughly 140 miles east of Harran on a well-traveled trade route coming south through the Mardin Pass and heading west toward markets like Ebla, Halab (Aleppo), and southward to Damascus, Canaan, and Egypt. In a consonantal language like Hebrew, it is conceivable that a scribe in the post-Babylonian exile, writing fifteen hundred years later, might have come across the name of a long-forgotten city, u-r-k-s, and “corrected” it to one he was familiar with, u-r-k-s-d-m—Ur-Kasdim, the Sumerian Ur.[8]

Next: The Well of Souls

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[1] Kelly-Buccellati (2002), op.cit., p. 132.

[2] Yael Rotem, Mark Iserlis, Felix Höflmayer, and Yorke M. Rowan, “Tel Yaqush—An Early Bronze Age Village in the Central Jordan Valley, Israel.” BASOR 381 (2019), pp. 107–144.

[3] Giulio Palumbi and Christine Chataigner, “The Kura-Araxes Culture from the Caucasus to Iran, Anatolia and the Levant: Between Unity and Diversity. A Synthesis.” In: Paléorient, vol. 40, n°2 (2014), pp. 247–260.

[4] Minna Silver, “The Earliest State Formation of the Amorites: Archaeological Perspectives from Jebel Bishri.” ARAM 26:1&2 (2014), p. 244.

[5] Cyrus H. Gordon, “Abraham and the Merchants of Ura.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan. 1958), pp. 28–31.

[6] Mark Chavalas, “Genealogical History as ‘Charter’: A Study of Old Babylonian Period Historiography and the Old Testament.” In Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994), p. 122.

[7] Gordon, op. cit., p. 31.

[8] Patricia Berlyn, “The Journey of Terah: To Ur-Kasdim or Urkesh?” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2005), pp. 73–80.

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