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.

God’s Name in Canaan

Archaeology can often provide historical context for stories in the Bible. Finds from coastal northern Syria shed light on God’s name in the Bible.

In Genesis Chapter 6, “God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. (KJV)”

In the Hebrew Bible, God’s name here is ‘Elohim.’ Derivations of this name for God appear across the Hebrew Bible, in the names Elohim, El, El Elyon (Most High God), El Olam (Everlasting God), El Shaddai (God Almighty) and El Roi (the God who sees me). The one commonality is that ‘El’ is at the root of all these different names.

The term ‘Canaanites’ is commonly used to refer to groups of people who lived in the region of the Southern Levant extending up the coast to include Lebanon and parts of Syria. These groups spoke a Northwest Semitic language related to Hebrew.

Ras Shamra is a city in northern coastal Syria. In 1928, the ancient city of Ugarit was accidentally discovered at Ras Shamra, waking Ugarit’s remains after a 3000-year slumber. Though individual cities of the Levant had their own unique elements, Ugarit is still classified as being Canaanite.

The Ugaritic people spoke a Northwest Semitic language. It was an important city, as evidence by a fortified wall, and it was well positioned on the coast for trade with empires further inland. With dating based on earlier objects associated with Egyptian pharaohs, the city appears to have peaked in the mid-2nd millennium. Amongst the findings at Ugarit were a series of mythological texts, written in a cuneiform script, that together are known as the Baal Cycle. These stories shed light on Canaanite beliefs.

In the Canaanite pantheon of gods, Yam is the god of the sea, Mot is the god of death and the underworld, and Baal the god of lightening and weather. In the Baal Cycle, these gods vie for supremacy. These gods are also brothers, children of the supreme god El. In one of the plot turns of the Baal Cycle, Baal complains that he needs a palace because he is still living in his father El’s house. Thus we see that the Bible’s identification of El as God, though uniquely alone and without the other gods, is consistent with the region’s identification of El as the chief god of the pantheon. The Bible’s reverence for El fits its ancient historical context.

The original Baal Cycle documents, important for linking the Bible to the past, can be seen today. Tablets can be viewed at the Louvre Museum in Paris or without moving anywhere by clicking on the following link: http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=21646

Another portion of the tablets are housed at The National Museum of Aleppo, Syria, referenced here: (http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_ugaritic_baal_myth). For the time being, I would not advocate travel there.

Next Week: Abraham and Geography

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