Published: 2 August 2021

Which Ur is Abraham’s Ur?

Everyone knows where Abraham’s hometown of Ur is, right? We’ve all been taught that it is in southern Iraq. It is common for Bible teachers to present a biblical explanation or interpretation as if it were an undisputed fact. Often this is because they do not know there are any other explanations. One reason this blog exists is to inform Christians about information and plausible alternative interpretations debated among scholars which somehow never filters down to the person in the pew.

Sometimes these sequestered ideas are very consequential to our faith, and others are mere curiosities. One such example of a disputed “fact” that falls in the curiosity category is the location of “Ur of the Chaldees.” 

Have we erred about Ur?

Until the 1920’s there was general consensus among Christians, Jews, and Muslims that Abraham’s Ur was in northern Mesopotamia in what is today southern Turkey. In the 1850s, British archaeologists identified Tell el-Muqayyar as the ancient Sumerian city-state of Ur. Tell el-Muqayyar is in southern Iraq about 150 miles northwest of the Persian Gulf. A tell (aka tel or tall) is a word meaning “mound.” Ancient cities were usually elevated above their surroundings.

Leonard Woolley excavated at Tell el-Muqayyar in the 1920s and his notes referred to the site as “the biblical home of Abraham.”[1]Gordon, Cyrus H. “Where Is Abraham’s Ur?” Biblical Archaeology Review 3, no. 2 (1977): 20. Woolley publicly championed the site as the biblical Ur and his descriptions of the ruins captivated the public’s imagination. Woolley’s claim that Tell el-Muqayyar was Abraham’s Ur took firm hold.

Accepting Wooley’s claim, most Bible scholars have concluded that Tell el-Muqayyar is Abraham’s Ur. Not everyone agrees however. Woolley failed to convince his excavation partner, Cyrus H. Gordon, that Tell el-Muqayyar was Abraham’s hometown. In fact, Gordon argues that biblical Ur was in northern Mesopotamia.

Which Ur is Abraham’s Ur?

Since an ancient city named Ur, which existed in the time of Abraham, has been discovered in the land of the Chaldeans, why should we dispute Wooley’s claim? As it turns out, there are good reasons to believe that Tell el-Muqayyar is not the biblical Ur as the articles linked to below do a good job of explaining.

These are all very informative articles and enlightening if you have any interest in topics such as this. I highly recommend reading the articles, but below I’ll give you a summary with a few of my own observations thrown in.

“The first to state his case seems right, until his opponent begins to cross-examine him.” (Prov. 18:17 NET)

The Bible describes Ur as being “beyond the river

When the Bible speaks of “the river” it is usually (always?) speaking of the Euphrates from the geographical point of view of a person in Israel. The Bible calls this area Aram-naharaim which is sometimes translated as Mesopotamia. Aram Naharaim means in Hebrew “Aram of the Two Rivers,” a region in northern Mesopotamia.[2]Harris, W. Hall, eds. The NET Bible Notes. 2nd ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019.

The “two rivers” are the Euphrates and the Tigris and the land between them was called Aram. Strictly speaking, this rules out Tell el-Muqayyar because it is not between the rivers and it is not beyond “the river.” Tell el-Muqayyar is on the west side of the Euphrates; the same side of the river that Israel is on.

We should note that when Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac he ordered him to go “to my country and to my relatives to find a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen 24:4). We can learn where Abraham’s country was by observing where the servant went.

“The servant took ten of his master’s camels, and with all kinds of his master’s goods in hand, he went to Aram-naharaim, to Nahor’s town.” (Gen. 24:10 CSB)

He didn’t go to Sumer to find Isaac a wife, he went to Aram. Also see Joshua 24:2–3.

Ur “of the Chaldees” differentiates biblical Ur from Tell el-Muqayyar.

The fact that the Bible specifies Ur “of the Chaldees” implies that there was another city of the same name. As it turns out, there were several ancient cities called Ur, or a variation of Ur. The one which was most famous, both in antiquity and today, was the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia.

“In favor of a northern Ur, the appellation “of the Chaldeans” in the biblical description suggests an effort to differentiate between biblical Ur and the famous Ur southeast of Babylon. Also, Terah had two other sons besides Abram: Haran and Nahor. Haran died in Ur of the Chaldees and Nahor apparently remained in Ur when Abram departed (Gen.11:29-32). If Nahor stayed in Ur, then Ur should be sought in a northern location since the area where Nahor lived is a northern region called Aram Naharaim (“Aram of the Rivers”; Gen. 24:4, 10; 25:20).”[3]Schlegel, William. Satellite Bible Atlas: Historical Geography of the Bible. 2016, 20.

Haran was in the wrong direction.

The Bible clearly tells us that as Terah, Abraham, and the others traveled from Ur to Canaan, they came to Haran and stayed there. The biblical text sounds as if Haran was a stop along the way. 

However, Haran was not on the route between Sumerian Ur and Canaan. A caravan traveling from southern Mesopotamia heading for Canaan would have followed the Euphrates river in a northwesterly direction and then turned west at Mari or alternatively continued northwest to Aleppo before turning south towards Canaan. Going directly west from Sumerian Ur to Canaan was not a viable route because crossing the Arabian desert would have proven an impractical, or perhaps impossible, challenge.

For Terah and Abraham to visit Haran on their way from Sumerian Ur to Canaan would have resulted in a considerable detour from the normal trade routes. Gordon notes, “Any route from the Ur excavated by Sir C. Leonard Woolley to Canaan would not go so far north or east as Haran.”[4]Gordon, Cyrus Herzl. “Abraham and the Merchants of Ura.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 17, no. 1 (January 1958): 30.. A journey to Haran would have been a significant detour both in direction and distance. Haran is almost 200 miles northwest of Mari! Since Haran was not their intended destination, it would make no sense for them to have gone there, especially given the perils and difficulties of traveling on foot.

Historical consensus places biblical Ur in northern Mesopotamia.

As I noted above, until the 1920s, both ancient and modern consensus was that biblical Ur was located in modern day Turkey. The traditional location is the ancient city of Urfa which was also known as Edessa and today is called Şanlıurfa. There is a cave in Şanlıurfa which is said to be the birthplace of Abraham.

Another candidate, argued for in the article “Has Abraham’s Father, Terah, Been Discovered?,” is Urkesh (Tell Mozan). Archaeologists have discovered ancient tablets which describe correspondence between two ancient men. The name of one of these men was “Terru,” who was an important man in the city of Urkesh. The name is remarkably similar to Abrham’s father, Terah. It has been suggested that Terru and Terah could be the same person.

Simply put, biblical geography and what we can glean about Ur from the Bible leans in favor of a northern city.

There are towns in the vicinity of Urfa named for Abraham’s relatives.

There is a temptation to connect the name of Abraham’s brother, Haran, with the ancient city of the same name. The evidence would suggest that the names are a coincidence and the connection should be resisted.[5]Rainey, Anson F, et al. The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World. 2014, 112. However, the Mari tablets (which date to the time of Abraham) and later Assyrian sources mention cities such as Nahor and Serug in the vicinity of Haran.[6]Ibid.

Map of Haran and vicinity

Ancient Serug is associated with modern Suruç which is about 35 miles east of Haran. Regarding the town of Nahor, some have questioned whether it was the name of a town, or if it was simply the city where Abraham’s brother Nahor lived.

“It is reasonable to assume that “the city of Nahor” is not necessarily a city whose name is Nahor but the city occupied by Nahor. If so, it may refer to Haran, a city in which Abraham sojourned with Nahor before traveling to Canaan (Gen 11:29–31). This is also the city from which shepherds who knew Laban, son of Nahor, came (Gen 29:4–5). On the other hand, there is a city Naḫur which appears in early cuneiform texts. Spelled as na-ḫu-ur or as na-ḫur, it is found in texts from Mari (Kupper 1979:24) and elsewhere in texts from Old Babylonian (Groneberg 1980:173), Middle Babylonian, and Middle Assyrian sources (Kessler 1980: 91; Nashef 1982: 201).”[7]Hess, Richard S. Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance electronic ed., version 4.2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Ancient sources mention Nahor as a geographical entity.[8]Rainey, Anson F., et al. The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World. 2014, 112. Therefore, it is probably safe to conclude that it was a place name as opposed to the town Nahor lived in.

Were ancient Serug and Nahor named for Abraham’s relatives during or shortly after the lifetimes of these men? Were these places named in their honor at a later (but still ancient) time? Either way, it is compelling evidence that the area of Şanlıurfa has ancient connections to Abraham and his family. As for Tell el-Muqayyar, aside from its ancient name of Ur, there is no evidence connecting it to Abraham.[9]https://www.thetorah.com/article/ur-kasdim-where-is-abrahams-birthplace

Conclusion

Whether Abraham’s hometown was in northern or southern Mesopotamia has little to no bearing on our everyday Christian living. However, it is representative of the fact that teachers sometimes present only one aspect when it reality there are other equally plausible explanations.

Unlike the debate about the location of the biblical Ur, much of this sequestered scholarly information is relevant and practical for Christians in their daily lives. Why does the scholarly information not trickle down to the average church goer? Scholars typically publish their research with other scholars as the target audience. It would seem academia offers them no incentives for making it accessible to the rest of us.

Since this is the case, the burden falls upon Bible teachers to digest the scholarly information and make it available for average Christians. However, this rarely happens. The reasons are varied and some are legitimate, but I will not attempt to enumerate them. The point is that it is common for Bible teachers to present a biblical explanation or interpretation as if it were an undisputed fact because they are unaware of scholarly information. Always assume there is more to the story than what you’ve been taught. 

References

References
1 Gordon, Cyrus H. “Where Is Abraham’s Ur?” Biblical Archaeology Review 3, no. 2 (1977): 20.
2 Harris, W. Hall, eds. The NET Bible Notes. 2nd ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019.
3 Schlegel, William. Satellite Bible Atlas: Historical Geography of the Bible. 2016, 20.
4 Gordon, Cyrus Herzl. “Abraham and the Merchants of Ura.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 17, no. 1 (January 1958): 30.
5 Rainey, Anson F, et al. The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World. 2014, 112.
6 Ibid.
7 Hess, Richard S. Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance electronic ed., version 4.2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
8 Rainey, Anson F., et al. The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World. 2014, 112.
9 https://www.thetorah.com/article/ur-kasdim-where-is-abrahams-birthplace