Lech Lecha
The beginning of our civilization
20 October 2007

Several years ago, I visited the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I entered a room dedicated to Babylonia and and points northeast, going into Persia. There were artifacts, vases, coins, cuneiform tablets, photographs of ruins on high plateaus and maps. It struck me, that this room showed the beginning of our civilization.

I looked at the map showing the two Rivers, looked westward, and followed the journey of Abraham. I understood that the history of the migration of our people is embedded in the Abraham story. This room showed where we came from.
A couple of years later, I returned to the Museum, viewed the Babylonia room, and then visited the Exhibit of the Royal Tombs of Ur..

The end of last week’s portion and the beginning of today’s portion tell of the journey of Abraham. It is brief, but the sweep of history is wide.

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From BibleStudy.org


“Terah begot Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haron begot Lot. Haran died in the lieftime of Treah his father, in his native land, in Ur Kasdim.” Abram and Nahor married.

“Terah took his son Abram, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Abram his son, and they departed with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan; theyarrived at Haran and they settled there."

“The days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran.”

“HASHEM said to Abram, ‘Go from yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.’”

“So Abram went as HASHEM had spoken to him, and Lot went with him . . . . Abram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his grother's son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they made in Haran; and they left to go to the land of Canaan."

“Abram passed into the land as far as the site of Shechem, until the Plain of Moreh,”
where had a vision of God. From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel, where he built an altar and called upon God. “Then Abram journeyed on, journeying steadily toward the south." (Genesis 11:27-12:9, Artscroll)

Where did Abram come from and why did he leave?

Abraham lived in the Middle Bronze Age, about 4000 years ago. The excavations by the University of Pennsylvania at Ur and other locations in Iraq, show that during the time of Abraham, Ur was a wealthy city state. It was a complex civilization. Life centered around the temple---a ziggarut or pyramid--dedicated to the moon-god Sin. The temple had bureaucrats, astronomers and artisans. Cuneiform tablets reveal a complex accounting system. A mathematical system was based on the number 60, rather than 10. Commercial transactions were recorded. Archaelogists recovered tablets written as practice exercises by students training to be scribes.

Terach journied to Haran, a very different place. Haran means cross-roads. It was a commercial hub, 550 miles northwest of Ur, in Turkey, about 10 miles north of the border with Syria. It is on the left bank of the Balikh River. It was founded by Ur as a trading post. Like Ur, it had a temple dedicated to the moon-god Sin. Haran was on the international trade route from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. Its residents engaged in trade, agriculture abd shepherding. They planted vinyerds. In contrast to the metropolitan Ur, Haran was the back country. For Terach Haran was a step down in social status and a step back in civilization. Canaan was 500 miles away---a month's journey.

Why did Abraham and Terach leave Ur? Why did Abraham leave Haran, where he had become wealthy?

I recommend “
The Bible As It Was,” by James Kugel, a professor at Harvard University. Kugel explains the Five Books of Moses, by looking at sources outside the canon.

There are indications that Abraham had to flee from Ur. The Book of Judith at Chapter 5, says that the Hebrews were descended from the Chaldeans. The Hebrews abandoned the gods of their ancestors and worshipped the God of Heaven. Their Chaldean drove the Hebrews out. The Hebrews fled to Mesopotamia where they lived for a long time. Then God commanded the Hebrews to go to the Land of Canaan, where they settled, and grew prosperous in gold, silver and livestock.

The Book of Jubilees, at Chapter 12, tells how Abraham discovered the True God. He confronted his father? Why do you worship the false gods of Ur? Terach replied, "You are right, but I am afraid of the neighbors." One night, Abraham went to the warehouse where the idols were stored. He set the warehouse on fire. Not knowing who had set the fire, Abraham’s brother, Haran went into the burning warehouse to save the idols. Haran died in the fire.

Abraham was a wanted man.

The historian Josephus does not discuss the fire, but says that Abraham preached about the True God. The Chaldeans and the other people of Mesopotamia raised a tumult against him and Abraham saw fit to leave the country. Josephus says that Terach left Ur, because he could not stand being in the city where his son, Haran, had died. Josephus does not say the cause of Haran’s death.

Isaiah 29 says that God "redeemed" Abraham.

Back in Jubilees Chapter 12, Terach and his family departed for Canaan, stopping at Haran. At Haran, Abraham has the “Lech Lecha” vision. He asks Terach permission to leave for Canaan. Terach agrees and lets Abraham take Lot, who acted as Abraham's adopted son. However, Terach insists that his remaining son, Nahor, stay behind. Terach blesses Abraham in the name of the True God and says “Go in peace.” Terach promises that when Abraham returns on a visit, he and Nahor will join him on the return journey to Canaan.

Finally, Kugel deals with the question, why did God tell Abraham to separate himself from his family?

The answer is found in Joshua Chapter 24 and Isaaih Chapter 51.

In the verse quoted in the Haggadah, Joshua tells the people,
". . . 'Your forefathers --- Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor --- always dwelled beyong the [Euphrates] River and they serrved gods of others. But I took your forefather Abraham from beyond the River and led him throughout all the land of Canaan; I multiplied his seed . . . ." (Joshua 24:2-3 Artscroll).

At Isaiah 51, the text states:
“. . . [L]ook to Abraham your forefather and to Sarah, who bore you, for when he was yet one alone did I summon him and bless him and make him many." (Isaiah 51:2, Artscroll).

God told Abraham to separate himself from his family, and from the civilization of Ur and Haran, because Abraham alone, believed in God.