Who was he? Where was he? When was he? These are very good questions for the patriarch of three of the worlds great religions.
Unfortunately it is not clearly answered by the historical evidence. We have not found a cuneiform tablet giving Abram’s biography and the date when he left Ur. There has even been some suggestion that he wasn’t even at Ur in Sumer, but some other Ur up in modern day Turkey. It is worthwhile to revisit concepts in light of new research.
A very good paper written by Matt McClellan in 2012, brings to light several interesting findings in the current search for Abram.
For years I have been thinking of a narrative that made sense to me. I had placed Abram living in Ur of Sumer, because I believed he kept the core beliefs of literacy he learned in Sumer, while he traveled to Canaan.
Sumer had developed an alphabet and also had developed schools, called “edubbas” where scribes could learn to use the alphabet to write down lists, keep records, and write down cultural proverbs. All this took time, and much of this took place in the Early Dynastic periods from 2900-2330 bce, while it was still a growing Sumer.
The second part of the narrative was later when Sargon conquered Sumer, he did so as an Akkadian.
Akkad adopted the written language, the culture, and everything important in Sumer. The Northern barbarians became the ruling class over the Sumerians.
I had thought that perhaps when Akkad invaded Sumer they may have brought along some allies, such as the people of Haran, who lived next door.
This made good sense and was logical. We know that Abram’s father was named Terah, which appears to be a Sumerian root name. Wikipedia has 1678 bc as Terah’s deathdate, that’s a few years after the decline of Akkad.
As an ally of the Akkadians Terah and Abram would have been among the ruling class and well educated, and perhaps wealthy enough to take an extended trip back to their homeland in Haran. We don’t know how many generations were born in Ur, but they weren’t the native Sag-Giga.
Certainly they knew of the custom of having wisdom literature. While there are significant differences in content when comparing Biblical proverbs with Sumerian proverbs, the fact that both cultures had a history of wisdom literature is interesting.
Another literary connection may be in the Sargon biography story. SARGON became the first King of the dynasty of AKKAD. He was born in Azupiranu, (the saffron-colored city on the banks of the Euphrates). His mother was a high priestess, who brought him secretly into the world, placed him in a basket (made waterproof with pitch) and put him into the river. He was saved by a drawer of water named Aggi, who adopted him, raised him and taught him the trade of gardener.
This is very similar to the tale of Moses. Obiviosly if Abram was a citizen of Ur of Sumer before Sargon, then he could not have known about the reed basket.
So, I’m thinking that Terah and Abram were citizens after the fall of the Akkadians. They would have tried to fight off the barbarian Gutians, and perhaps helped push the Gutians back out to the mountains.
After the fall of the Akkians it would make sense that their allies might feel more comfortable going back home.
Everything works neatly with this narrative except for the experiences of Abram and the Cities of the Plains once he gets to Canaan.
Mostly the cities of Canaan were preliterate. We don’t have the useful King lists, because they didn’t write them down. We can’t find any correlation because no one wrote anything down. Except in Ebla!
The Ebla Tablets are a collection of as many as 1800 complete clay tablets, and 4,700 fragments found in the palace archives of the ancient city of Ebla, Syria. The tablets were discovered by the Italian archeologist Paolo Matthiae in 1974! They date between 2500 bce to the final destruction of the city in 2250 bce. It does appear that the archives were destroyed first, and the city went on for sometime afterwards.
The tablets were discovered just where they had fallen when their wooden shelves burned in the final conflagration of “Palace G”. The archive was kept in orderly fashion in two small rooms off a large audience hall (with a raised dais at one end); one repository contained only bureaucratic economic records on characteristic round tablets, the other, larger room held ritual and literary texts, including pedagogical texts for teaching young scribes.
Many of the tablets had not previously been baked, but when all were preserved by the fire that destroyed the palace, their storage method served to fire them almost as thoroughly as if in a kiln: they had been stored upright in partly recessed wooden shelves, rectos facing outward, leaning backwards at an angle so that the incipit of each tablet could be seen at a glance, and separated from one another by fragments of baked clay.
The burning shelving pancaked – collapsing in place and preserving the order of the tablets. remarkable!
The translation of the tablets went carefully and slowly. Because of this there were fantastic claims in connection with Biblical history. There has been some impact but most of the claims were wishful thinking.
Ebla was uniquely positioned to provide some evidence of the political structure of Canaan. It also had some interesting King Lists and a great list of cities through Mesopotamia. Of course the list of early kings had reigns approaching 40,000 years, so perhaps they weren’t that helpful. But the list has been helpful during the early Bronze Age.
The first big change is in rethinking the dating of Hammurabi. The first part of the 20th century everyone seemed to agree that Hammurabi was close to Abram and was around 2300 bce. Now, the current view is that Hammurabi is dated around 1780 bce.
Abram has been seen to be during the Ur III period, around 2100 bce.
Also, he is believed to be around 1950 bce. Yet another scholar places him in Canaan in 1875 bce. And Bishop Usher has 2136 bce.
The article by McClelland makes a good case of pushing Abram back to the Early Dynastic period around 2750 bce.
This would place Abram in Sumer when the first kings were establishing Eridu, Uruk, Ur, and Lagash. Perhaps they came as tough mountaineer mercenaries to help with wars between the cities. It could still explain why they wanted to leave Ur.
Either they lost or they won, but it was time to go. It cannot be ignored that Abram had much skill as a military commander.
I suppose there is nothing that forbids having two Abrams. 0ne that was an early mercenary that went back to Haran and on to Canaan. Then another Abram that stayed through the Akkadian Empire, absorbed both Sumer and Akkad cultures, then left to join his family in Haran and Canaan. And perhaps he was more widely known as Abraham.
One thing seems relevant. Abram was not a simple shepherd. He was literate, he was a tactician, and a leader of a trained fighting force.
When famine forced him to enter Egypt, it was a big enough thing that Pharoah took notice. Abram wasn’t simply a wandering family.
By the way, the Sumerian language developed in the early Dynastic period? It lasted as an official, formal language into the first century AD. That’s about 3000 years.