Terah took Abram his son, Lot the son of Haran, his grandson,a and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife. They went from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan, but they went as far as Haran and settled there. Bible see other translations
Lit. “his son’s son”

“Terah took Abram his son, Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife.” It is noteworthy that Terah is not said to take his son Nahor with him, and this is evidence for the northern city of Ur.a

“Ur of the Chaldees.” It is commonly assumed that “Ur of the Chaldees” is the well-known city of Ur that is about 150 miles northwest of the Persian Gulf and deep in the Neo-Babylonian empire. But the evidence weighs against that interpretation. There is another “Ur” in the ancient Near East that much better fits as being the “Ur” of Genesis 11:31. But this northwestern Ur has not been given much attention by scholars until recently. For example, it is not even listed as “Ur” in the well-respected Oxford Bible Atlas, but is listed under its modern name, Edessa, and then called by its archeological site name, Urfa. The third edition of the Oxford Atlas only has one map that has Urfa on it, and the fourth edition of the atlas does not even have a single map that has this more northwestern Ur on it!

We can understand why scholars gravitated toward asserting that the southeastern Ur was the Ur of Genesis. In the 1920s and 1930s, Sir Leonard Wooley excavated the southern Ur, and it was huge and impressive. Furthermore, it was associated with a flood layer that Wooley—wide-eyed and overexcited—claimed was evidence from Noah’s Flood (that claim has now decisively been disproven). Needless to say, the southwestern Ur got a lot of attention and so there was much popular pressure to claim that this now-famous Ur was the Ur of Genesis. That fact, combined with the limited knowledge about northwestern Ur and the many gaps in our understanding of the history of the area at that time, the Arameans, and the Babylonians, resulted in the basically unchallenged belief that the southeastern Ur was indeed the Ur of Abraham. But that has now changed. A number of scholars have reexamined the evidence and now assert—and we agree—that the northwestern Ur is the Ur of Abraham.

The Ur that is now Edessa (or Urfa) is about 30 miles north of Haran. Victor Hamiltonb gives seven good reasons that this northwestern Ur is actually the “Ur” in Genesis 11:31; the Ur of Abraham. Those reasons are summarized here:

  1. The journey would have been incredibly long for a family to take at that time [and traveling through Haran was unnecessary to get to Canaan and added many miles].
  2. There are hundreds of references to the famous Ur in the cuneiform texts, and not once is it called “Ur of the Chaldees.”
  3. The famous “Ur” could not have been called “Ur of the Chaldees” because the Chaldees were an ethnic group that actually lived around where Urfa (Edessa) was, and did not migrate southeast until long after Abraham.
  4. Abraham wanted to get a wife for Isaac, and told him to go to his “country” and the land of his birth and get a wife (Gen. 24:4, 7). Yet the servant did not go to the famous Ur, but went to upper Mesopotamia where Haran and Urfa are (Gen. 24). The woman that became Isaac’s wife was Rebekah, and when she sent her son Jacob to get a wife, she sent him to her family in Haran (Gen. 27:43), not way down southeast to the famous Ur.
  5. A tablet from Ebla refers to “Ur in Haran.”
  6. The expression “Ur of the Chaldees” occurs four times in the Old Testament (Gen. 11:28, 31; 15:7; Neh. 9:7). Each time the Septuagint translates the word “Ur” with a word for land or region, so the translators of the Septuagint connected the Chaldeans with a region, an area.
  7. Some of Abraham’s relatives had names that may be connected with sites in northern Mesopotamia.

It is worth expanding on point number four above that Victor Hamilton made, because it is quite decisive that the “Ur of the Chaldees” is the northern “Ur” (aka, “Edessa” and “Urfa”).

Terah, Abram’s father, had three sons: Abram, Nahor, and Haran (Haran fathered Lot, Abram’s nephew. Cp. Gen. 11:27). God called Abram out of Ur to go to Canaan (Gen. 11:31; 12:1). But at first, Abram and the family members who went with him only went as far as Haran, which was only about 30 miles south of the northern Ur (Gen. 11:31). When Abram left Ur and went to Haran, the only family he took was his father Terah, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot (Gen. 11:31). That meant that Abram’s two brothers, Nahor and Haran, did not leave Ur. The Bible says Haran died in Ur (Gen. 11:28) and Nahor stayed near Ur, married, and had children. Nahor married Milcah and had a son named Bethuel, who married and had Rebekah and Laban (Gen. 24:15, 24, 29, 47). All this becomes important many years later because when Abraham sought a wife for his son Isaac he sent his servant to “my country and to my relatives” (Gen. 24:4) to find a wife for Isaac. The servant went to “Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor” (Gen. 24:10). As we will see, the area that the servant went to in order to find Abraham’s relatives was the area of the northern Ur. The servant went there and found Rebekah and brought her back to Isaac (Gen 24:1-67).

Rebekah married Isaac and gave birth to Jacob and Esau. Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, so Esau planned to kill Jacob (Gen. 27:42). To save Jacob, Rebekah said to him, “Arise, flee to Laban my brother in Haran” (Gen. 27:43). But Haran was not where Nahor was from if the Ur of Abraham is the southern Ur! The southern Ur is some 600 miles southeast of Haran. In contrast, as already stated, Haran was only about 30 miles from the northern Ur. So Rebekah sent Jacob to her brother Laban in Haran, which was very close to the northern Ur, where the family of Terah had originated. It is even quite likely that since Haran was the larger and more influential city, that Nahor or his son Bethuel, the father of Rebekah and Laban, had moved to the area of Haran. In any case, Rebekah would not have sent Jacob to Haran if her family was in the southern Ur.

Still another point that supports that the “Ur of the Chaldees” (Gen. 11:28) is the northern Ur is that when God told Abraham to leave (Gen. 12:1), He said, “Go from your country and from your relatives.” Haran would not have been Abraham’s country, nor would his relatives live there if the “Ur of the Chaldees” was the southern Ur that was some 600 miles from Haran. But Abraham’s country and his relatives would have lived in the area of Haran if “Ur of the Chaldees” was the northern Ur, only about 30 miles from Haran.

Although it has been suggested that the traditional Ur is to be preferred because of what Stephen said in Acts 7:2 about Abraham coming from Mesopotamia, there is no reason to believe that Stephen did not consider Haran to be in Mesopotamia, which reaches as far west as eastern Turkey.

“They came to Haran and lived there.” Terah’s son Haran is spelled differently than the city of Haran in Syria. According to Acts 7:2-4, God first called Abram when he lived in the city of Ur in Mesopotamia. Stephen, drawing upon the Old Testament and history that had been faithfully passed down through the generations, said: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your land, and away from your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.’ Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And when his father was dead, God removed him from there into this land in which you now live.”

That Abram was first called by God while he lived in Ur seems to be also clearly supported by Genesis 15:7 and Nehemiah 9:7. Yet Genesis 11:31 makes it seem like Terah, Abram’s father, was the one who took his clan from Ur to Haran. The apparent contradiction, and Abraham’s seeming disobedience to God in taking his family with him, can be explained by the strength of the cultural norms of the time. God told Abraham to leave his family (Acts 7:3), but he did not (although by “family” it is possible that God may have meant Abram’s more distant family members). Since Abram’s father Terah was going along, culture dictated that Terah, the father of the clan, was the de facto leader of the group. This explains the verbiage in Genesis 11:31, that even though it was Abram whom God called, the text says, “Terah took Abram his son…and Sarai his daughter-in-law…They went from Ur of the Chaldees.”

The Bible has nothing at all to say about the family’s stay in Haran. That should not surprise us, because God called Abram to go to the Promised Land, not go to Haran in Syria. In fact, the Bible does not even say why the family stopped in Haran, although we can set forth an educated guess—it was due to Terah’s age and declining health. From the call of Abram to the Exodus was 430 years (Exod. 12:40; Gal. 3:17), and Abram was called from Ur of the Chaldees. Also, Abram was 75 when he left Haran to go to the Promised Land (Gen. 12:4) and was 100 when Isaac, the “seed,” was born. Furthermore, we know that the length of time between Abram’s “seed” (Isaac) and the Exodus was 400 years (Gen. 15:13; Acts 7:6). But if there were 400 years from Isaac’s birth to the Exodus, and 430 years from Abram’s call to the Exodus, then the call had to predate the birth of Isaac by 30 years, five years before Abraham left Haran. That would mean that Abram was called to go to the Promised Land at age 70, when Terah was 200. The family traveled to Haran, at which point we can surmise that Terah was too weak to travel, so the family stayed in Haran for five years. When Terah died at 205, God called Abram again and he went into the Promised Land. Thus, the five years that Abram stayed in Haran was not something that God wanted but something that He accommodated, so He said nothing about it other than that it happened.

[For a more detailed account of the time periods between Abraham and the Exodus, see the commentary on Exodus 12:40.]

See William Schlegel, Satellite Bible Atlas: Historical Geography of the Bible, map 2-1.
Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 [NICOT], 364-365.

Commentary for: Genesis 11:31