Abraham and Ur

Posted on 3 March, 2011

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In July 2009 I preached on the biblical idea of covenant from Genesis 15. In the sermon, I supposed that Abraham received his call while residing in Haran rather than Ur. This comment probably should have been accompanied with some kind of larger explanation, but since it was an introductory message, I didn’t address the matter. I’ll try to now (after a year and a half!).

It would seem from Genesis 12.1-4 that Abraham’s call and Abraham’s residence in Haran were coordinated. That is, the account from Genesis seems to indicate that Abraham was in Haran when God called him and, at age 75, he packed his household and headed for Canaan. On the surface, this seems to be supported by Genesis 11.31 which tells us that Abraham’s trip from Ur to Haran was motivated not by a spiritual calling, but by his father’s plans. So, are we to understand that the call happened while at Haran, after they had already left Ur?

I venture to say, yes. However, this does not come without some consideration. It seems that there are two not-so-fast elements to consider.

First, do you remember that when Terah gathered his family to leave Ur (Genesis 11.31-32), they were not heading to Haran, but to Canaan? Why is this? Haran was only a pit stop near the two-thirds point of their journey. Presumably, they stayed in Haran because there was family there. But the question still remains, why in the world would Terah want to go to Canaan in the first place, a distance of some 900 miles?! Could it be because there was a supernatural call compelling his son to make this journey? In addition, later in the life of Abraham, God comments to Abraham that it was He who brought him out of “Ur of the Chaldeans (Genesis 15.7).”

Second, the New Testament deacon, Stephen, is clearly under the impression that Abraham’s call came not in Haran, but in Ur, “before he lived in Haran (Acts 7.4).” Nehemiah makes this same assertion (Nehemiah 9.7).

The first not-so-fast element is rather mysterious and, I suspect, will remain so until we meet Abraham himself. I tend to think that Terah was motivated by some economic or political reason to transport his family out of Ur towards Canaan. Jewish tradition says that Terah was not a man of God. And biblical evidence suggests that he was a man of great means; it would have been extraordinary to even entertain such a journey. I tend to think that Terah was motivated through through material gain, whether financial or political; that is, God’s covenant was not made with Terah, but with Abraham. But when I look at Genesis 15.7, where God says to Abraham that it was Him who brought him out of Ur, I begin to suspect that God was using ordinary means, the motivations of Terah, to guide Abraham’s steps. When God speaks to Abraham in Genesis 15.7, it is similar to Jesus speaking to Nathanael, “when you were under the fig tree, I saw you (John 1.48).” God is reminding Abraham that, even before He had made Himself known, He was directing Abraham some 600 miles from Ur to Haran! Abraham was publicly called in Haran, but God was guiding him even through the instrumentality of Terah.

Regarding the second not-so-fast element, there are some clues. Stephen’s account differs from that of Genesis not in one way, but two ways. Not only does he insist that Abraham was called in Ur (Acts 7.4), while Genesis insists that Abraham was called in Haran (Genesis 12.4). Stephen also insists that Abraham did not leave Haran until after his father died (Acts 7.4), while Genesis insists that Terah was only 145 when Abraham left and still had 60 more years to live (Genesis 11.26; 12.4; 11.32). So, how is it that Stephen can differ from Genesis . . . twice?! Here is how one conservative evangelical scholar (I. H. Marshall) deals with the second issue. When Stephen argues that Abraham didn’t leave Haran until after his father’s death, Stephen is telling us that Terah died at age 145 rather than age 205 (as in Genesis 11.32, though some scholars remark that 11.32 is a textual error and should read 145). Marshall says that Stephen’s data is not so peculiar because he may be relying upon Greek manuscripts that are based on the Samaritan Pentateuch. It could be that the Greek text that Stephen uses, which is not extant, reflects the Samaritan Pentateuch which says that Terah’s age at death was 145 and implies that Abraham was called in Ur. So, it could simply be that Stephen’s details come from a different collection of Greek texts.

In the end, the biblical cues are a bit hard to follow; just in Genesis itself, while 11.31 says that Terah took his family from Ur, 12.4 says that God called Abraham from Haran, and 15.7 says that God brought Abraham from Ur. How strange. I have become happy with the conclusion that Abraham was publicly called while in Haran and that he departed after his father died. However, God reminds Abraham later in life that He was the one who guided his unbelieving father, even from his days in Ur.

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Posted in: theology