Abraham, One God and Two Rivers

In Genesis Chapter 12, God commands Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s home, to the land that God will show him. Abraham was born in Ur Kasdim, his family moved to Haran and it was there that God gave Abraham his marching orders.

In Genesis Chapter 14, Abraham makes a statement that is considered to be an affirmation of his monotheistic belief in the one God. He refuses gifts from the king of Sodom, because he doesn’t want the king to claim that he is the source of Abraham’s wealth. Instead, Abraham says, “I lift up my arms to the Lord, the Most High God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.” Abraham puts his trust in God.

The idea of Abraham introducing a new idea called monotheism fits its time and place. One of the challenges in analyzing the stories of Abraham is the lack of archaeological evidence. Given the nature of Abraham’s nomadic lifestyle, this lack of evidence is to be expected. Instead, academics often assign the title of the ‘first monotheist’ to figures such as the Persian Zoroaster or the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. But the idea of a religious revolutionary emerging from Ur Kasdim or Haran in the late 3rd millennium and early 2nd millennium fits what we know about human development.

The word Mesopotamia comes from the Greek term ‘between rivers.’ The land mass of Mesopotamia extends from eastern Turkey, through eastern Syria into Iraq, and sits between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were instrumental in making Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization.

Once upon a time, humans were hunter-gatherers. They lived in small groups that would hunt and forage for food, taking them far afield in search of sustenance. Evidence of abstract religious thought in these groups is limited to cave art, figurines and people buried with jewelry, tools and other grave goods.

The Tigris and Euphrates were a reliable source of fresh water. People in Mesopotamia dug irrigation channels that allowed them to cultivate grains and domesticate animals. The new farming technology produced food surpluses, which in turn allowed humans to concentrate on other activities such as building, fishing, clothing manufacturing and trade. Humans no longer had to wander to find food, but could settle in homes near the irrigation channels. Small villages developed, then cities, and then city-states.

The growing cities created the need for new classes of jobs: administrators, traders, judges and policemen. Writing was invented to manage trade, and created a class of scribes. The larger cities could now also support a priestly class. Religion became more complex. Legends were created about about the various gods in the pantheon. Some of these legends, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, were committed to print. Thus the presence of the reliable waters of the Tigris and Euphrates helped create a civilization with a complex religion.

In Genesis Chapter 11, Abraham is born in Ur Kasdim. There are different opinions about its location, some associating Ur Kasdim with the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Iraq, and others with Sanliurfa in southeastern Turkey. Both of these cities are in Mesopotamia. Abraham’s father took his family to Haran. Haran is a city mentioned the Bible’s prophetic book Isaiah and in 2 Kings, and has been positively identified with Altinbasak, Turkey.

Thus we see that Abraham roots are in Mesopotamia. Given the location, and the development of increasingly complex religion in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium, it is conceptually understandable how a religious revolutionary such as Abraham could have arisen from this area.