Not much is known about Abraham prior to Genesis 12:1 where God first called to him and said, “Lech Lecha!” which is Hebrew for, “Go, go out!”What kind of world did Abraham live in and leave behind when he left Ur? Why did he leave in the first place? Was Abraham truly a pagan before he decided to trust in the voice of the one true God and heed His call? These questions and more we will try to sort out as we examine the world Abraham grew up in, why he left, and what it meant for him to believe in monotheism, and beyond this, to follow the true God in a world of polytheism.
To begin, we must first briefly examine the world of Abraham (his name was first Abram but later it was changed to Abraham in Genesis 17:5, but we shall just refer to him as Abraham to avoid confusion.) Abraham lived in the region of Mesopotamia, which is a Greek term meaning “land between two rivers.” These rivers would be the Tigris and Euphrates and this land would be found in modern day Iraq and Iran. Mesopotamia was a very rich and fertile place due to the existence of these two massive rivers which helped balance the region. Mesopotamia can be divided up into the Southern Plain, Northeastern Foothills, and the Steppe Area which is located in the northwest. The climate today is very much like what it would have been in the time of Abraham around 1950 BC, and apart from the shifting of the rivers since then, examining the geography can help us pinpoint key areas Abraham would have lived. But let’s examine the geographical setting a little more.
The Southern Plain has dry, subtropical summers, yet at the same time winter can fall below freezing. In the south, it generally receives ten inches of rain annually, which in turn massive irrigation systems were developed in the biblical world and still are utilized today. The irrigation system was also needed due to the salinity levels which are given off into the soil from the Tigris and Euphrates. In the region of the Southern Plain barley became the chief crop prior to Abraham and continued flourishing.
In the Northeastern Foothills, the climate would have been temperate much like it is today, rainfall sufficient which meant a lack of dependence on irrigation such as found in the south. However, despite the significant levels of rain and moisture, the terrain was difficult and contained poor farming land, which meant dependence on trade and transporting certain grains and foods from other localities.
Finally, the Steppe area can be found in the northwest part of Mesopotamia. These vast lands, fertile and rich, have led to many discoveries of ancient mounds which have unearthed ample evidence of vast settlements in and around this region. Also, an interesting note was the discovery of cities and towns with walls being erected around them, which begs the question, what were they afraid of and why did they feel they had to lay out defenses?
During the periods of Halaf (5500-4500 BC), Ubaid (5300-3750 BC) and Protoliterate (3750-2900 BC) we see incredible changes take Mesopotamia by storm. We see an increase in pottery design and decoration, the smelting of copper and other metals which replace stone tools and weapons, we see towns increase in size by the thousands, enhanced irrigation systems put in place, temples grow larger and higher, and fertility become a focal point of the peoples. During these times nearly 70% of all children under age five died, and with deaths increasing from people in battles a sense of the progression of life was focused upon. To the peoples of these periods, they also saw fertility as the earth giving back, and pantheons of gods and goddesses began to develop so that by 3000 BC there were over four thousand deities worshiped in the region as mankind worshiped and adored the creation instead of the true Creator.
However, in the later Protoliterate Period, the north of Mesopotamia began to stagnate as cultural unity was lost, while the south flourished and expanded. The fast potter’s wheel was developed which vastly increased production, the stamp seal was replaced with the cylinder seal, the chariot was invented, metals were in full swing of being used. We also see free standing columns and sculpture, the development of writing, and the massive Ziggurat’s were constructed. This would give way into what is known as the Early Dynastic Period where kings began to rule, establish kingdoms which led to city-states, and of these the kings of Ur became very powerful and strong as they believed their dynastic powers came from the heavens.
During the Akkad Period (2334-2193 BC) a strong king named Sargon expanded and unified all of Mesopotamia making his capital the city of Agade. Cuneiform writing was implemented and other massive changes occurred through the work of stone, bronze, silver, and wood. During his rule the city-state was replaced by the centralized government and widespread law developed. However, this would be short lived for around the year 2112 BC a people called the Guti, who were mountain people invaded the land and ruled for 100 years. During this time they naturally created political unrest, yet soon Ur was rebuilt (for the third time) and founded by a man named Ur-Nammu. This ushered in a Sumerian type of renaissance as peace was restored and father-son succession of throne kings was instituted. At this time the kings ruled absolute and were believed to be gods.
Ur-Nammu developed the oldest known law codes, which predate the Code of Hammurapi by 300 years, with an emphasis on justice. However, this incredible era of change and splendor would close with another invasion yet again in 2004 B.C. when the Elamites would burn Ur to the ground. It would be at this time, shortly after the destruction of Ur III, that Abraham would be born. He would be raised in a world with a strong, proud past, that was civilized and had established life which stretched back thousands of years. In fact, ancient Mesopotamia had more freedoms for people then many countries today in the 21st century.
In Genesis 11:26-29 we see the first mention of Abraham (mentions him as Abram). Through a genealogy we see people such as: his father Terah, his nephew Lot, and in verse 29 we see his marriage with Sarai, later to become Sarah. Now, the Bible does not actually state that Abraham was born in Ur, but it does say in 11:28, “And Haran died before his father Terah in his native land, in Ur of the Chaldeans.” Since Ur is considered the “native land” of Haran, we can then presume this is where Abraham was born and lived as well. Yet, before we move on, one interesting thing is where it states, “Ur of the Chaldeans.” This is the first time in the Bible where the reference to the people of the Chaldeans, is mentioned. The other two major occurrences outside the book of Genesis are in Nehemiah 9:7, and Acts 7:4. What is interesting is that during the time of Abraham the people called, Chaldeans did not exist and when Nehemiah and Acts were written, the Chaldeans had come and gone. So what is this saying then? Well, the book of Genesis is the key. Basically, when Moses wrote what is now called “Genesis” or “Beri’shit” in Hebrew, meaning, “beginning,” the Chaldeans did exist, but there were at least four places called Ur. So Moses attached the people group to the specific city so his readers would know which “Ur” he was speaking about. Thus, we get in all three cases, Abraham being named as coming from Ur of the Chaldeans, or the Ur where the Chaldeans would later settle by. Problem solved.
Now, let’s continue. During the time of Abraham when he was growing up in his father’s house, Mesopotamia was made up of thousands of gods and goddesses with each city having its chief or central god. Some of the main deities we see at the time were: Sin/Nanna god of the moon, Anu the chief god who was replaced by his son Enlil. Enlil would take on many titles, such as “King of the Earth” or “Lord of the Earth.” Enlil was seen as the god of wisdom, protector of arts, crafts, science, literature, and magic which was one thing that highly interested the people of that day. We see the god of sun and magic Marduk, take his place in Babylon, and others such as Ishtar (later Asherah) goddess of sex and war, Shumuqan god of cattle, and Baal god of crops and storms. Amulets were made to keep in homes or wear for protection, and priesthoods were created to be mediators between mankind and the pantheons that ruled the heavens. Pagan worship became very ritualistic as sacrifices (sometimes human) were made, the gods were fed by placing food before them, temple prostitutes appeared as important in matters of fertility, and people adopted household gods to serve. This is the era and world Abraham grew up in. There is no doubt that he would have been influenced heavily by his surroundings.
Many people, both Jewish and Christian, see Abraham as a man who had always rejected the notion of multiple gods. They conjure up a man who, when God called him, obeyed right away because he had never believed in polytheism to begin with. Most likely, this is not an accurate depiction. Did Abraham obey God? Yes he did! Did God call out to Abraham to leave his country? Yes, He did. Genesis 12:1 says that God told Abraham to leave his country, and Acts 7:2 states that God called for Abraham to leave “before he dwelt in Haran” which would mean, when he lived in Ur. In Genesis 12:4 it states that after Abraham heard the word of the Lord he departed, and when he had left Haran he was seventy-five after the death of his father of which the Bible is very clear. From there, he journeyed to Canaan where God would show Himself and bring Abraham to a place of dependence. Simply said, Abraham was a man of faith and believed what God told him.
Yet, was Abraham ever a pagan before God called him? This is possible. There is a story in the Midrash (Jewish collection of stories, translated as ‘to seek, study, or inquire’) where Abram, as a boy, was working for his father who was an idol maker. Abram had come to doubt the validity of idols as being “gods” and so when his father was absent one day, Abram smashed one of the idols and put a hammer into the hand of one of the other idols. When his father returned he was naturally upset and demanded to know what had happened. Abram told his father that one idol had attacked the other and smashed it. His father then declared this to be impossible, for idols were lifeless creations of stone, wood, and metal. Therefore, Abram proved his point, the idols were only man-made, not God. Thus, according to the Midrash, Abram began his journey to discover the real God. Even in the book of Joshua 24:2, it clearly reveals Abraham’s father and family as being pagans. It is then very likely, that having grown up in this home and in a polytheistic city, that Abraham could have spent a portion of his 70+ years either willingly practicing paganism or else in the least going through the motions to please his father. Certainly, he was raised in a pagan home and was heavily exposed to this influence.
It is likely he would have been familiar with stories of past generations from before Noah, the flood and some of the descendants who followed after God (Gen. 5-6) but simply knowing these stories does not entirely mean Abraham followed the true God when he was younger. Even being well versed in the stories of earlier generations, such as Enoch or Noah, does not completely absolve Abraham from the possibility of being a pagan in his early days, as polytheism often syncretizes other beliefs, even adding other ‘gods’ to their pantheons. This can be compared to other pagans in the Bible who, either obeyed a message from God or were said to have believed in God yet, did not completely abandon their polytheism (i.e. people of Nineveh in Jonah, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, or Cyrus of Persia). However, knowing of these earlier men who “were righteous before God” could indeed point towards a doubt that may have simmered for years in Abraham’s mind as to the possible existence of the gods compared with the One True God. Whether Abraham was a pagan or not, one thing we know for sure, that out of this pagan family and environment he lived in, the True God called out to him and Abraham obeyed. In years to come, he would become the father of the Hebrew nation (Israel) as well as a ‘father of many nations.’
We know that for ourselves in the world we have grown up in, it is nearly impossible to separate oneself from our culture, it is a trademark stamped upon ourselves, almost written into our DNA. It can define us, rule our thoughts, and guide us. Our culture is identity and part of our makeup, it is what is familiar, how we talk, sometimes what we believe spiritually, what we do for fun, where we work, and shapes our thinking. Culture is powerful, and to leave ones culture is a very drastic major life choice. This is exactly what Abraham did, but not right away.
In Genesis 11:31 was see an interesting circumstance develop. It states that Terah took his son Abraham, his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai to go to the land of Canaan, but they only made it as far as Haran and he decided to live there. Now, this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the Bible names the main people of importance in this account as Abraham, Lot, and Sarai, yet along with Terah he would have taken his entire household. This would mean animals, servants, concubines, other children of less stature then Abraham, and anybody else associated with him. This was not four people wandering in the desert but a community. When we see Abraham later on moving from Haran to Canaan in Genesis 12:5, again we see that he took even more people that he had acquired there.
But, why did they move to Haran in the first place, apart from God speaking to Abraham? Could there also have been something else to play a part in the move? Since moving to new lands at that period in time was seen as extreme and out of the ordinary, there had to be a purpose to it for Terah to ask such a thing of his family. The Bible does not give us our answer, apart from telling us there had been a word spoken to Abraham from God earlier, but history may also shed some light on this interesting predicament. At the time we find Abraham living in Ur, we see a couple things happen. The Elamites had invaded and continue to be a major problem, we see major crop failures particularly on the barley yields, and political unrest as well as economic strain was prevalent. So, this clearly could have been a strong motivator to find fresh pastures, and for Terah to pack up his belongings, take his family out of Ur, head for Larsa, decide to cross the Tigris, and head to Haran.
Now, one of the final things we will cover is to answer, why Haran? Why did Terah stop there? In Genesis 11:31b it definitively states “…and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.” Now, if one examines a map, Haran definitely is not Canaan. But why did Terah stop? Well, let’s take a glimpse at what Haran was like in those days and perhaps we will find our key. First, Haran was a caravan city, it was politically stable, and was flourishing. These are all very good reasons to stop, but I think the final one may be the hidden key, and that is Haran’s chief god was Nanna the god of the moon. Why is this so important? Well Nanna or Sin, was also the chief god of Ur, where Terah had just left. Joshua 24:2 says, “And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.'” Thus, it is possible Terah found a new home in Haran, and wanted to stay because that was a city that honored and worshiped a god he would have revered all his life, Nanna the moon god. So, essentially we get a familiar religious scene, a good economy, and a location which is safe. Although we cannot know for sure why, these could still very well be clues at why Terah chose to live in Haran.
So, why did Abraham stay in Haran and not just move on if God had called him? Well, unlike today and our societies definition of independence which involves people freely moving and traveling and often living very far from family, in Abraham’s day it was not so. The culture in Mesopotamia was a patriarchal society. So, Terah as the father ruled and his sons and extended family obeyed. In this case, Abraham simply acted in a culturally acceptable way by following his father and bidding his time. We clearly see that by the time Terah did die, Abraham would assume the role as patriarch. Then we see everyone following Abraham, just as he had obediently demonstrated his place as a son to Terah in Ur.
In conclusion, the life of Abraham was a real life account and not a myth. He was a man of God who followed and demonstrated a faith which has been modeled after for centuries and centuries. His step of faith was very significant and went completely against the norms of his age and the world at that time. To believe in one God would have been seen as foolish, strange, and weird, but God called Abraham and he obeyed. We do not see him arguing about journeying to Canaan, or lamenting and wanting to return to Ur, we see him as a hero of the faith, and a man whose heart and mind was opened to the incredible character and nature of the God who had created him, and this would forever change history.