Torah Torah Torah 6

“6 – Ur of the Chaldees”:

A truly startling example of preservation of exceedingly ancient information is the description in Gen. ii:10-14 of a river with four headwaters, named Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Pherat. Hiddekel which “runs east of Assyria” is clearly the Tigris, and Pherat is still the name in Semitic languages for the Euphrates (in Greek the eu- “good” prefix here makes it the “true Phrat” or “greater Phrat”, as opposed to lesser tributaries called “the Phrat of this place” or “the Phrat of that”). But Pison, which waters the “whole land of Havilah, where there is gold and bdellium and onyx”, and Gihon, which waters the “whole land of Khash”, have been found puzzling by many. An old interpretation identifies Khash with Kush, that is Ethiopia (the KJV has this translation), so that Gihon is the Blue Nile, and Pison then the White Nile (assuming Havilah to be Sudan); never mind that this geography hardly fits together. The word “bdellium” is not very helpful: it is Greek for “noxious stuff” translating a very obscure Hebrew word. But apparently the original meaning was “gooey stuff” and it meant some kind of desert gum; Havilah turns out from other sources to be the Nejd, in northern Arabia (note its occurence among the “sons of Joktan” in Gen. x:26-29, also including Hazermaweth, modern Hadhramaut, in south Yemen; Sheba, as in Solomon’s girlfriend’s realm, in north Yemen; and Ophir, somewhere on the Somalian coast, cf. Greek Afer, root of “Africa”). The Nejd, of course, is a very severe desert with no kind of river except “wadis” which run only rarely as flash floods after an occasional heavy rain. But neither Arabia nor even the Sahara was a desert until “recent” changes in climate in the post-glacial era, and satellite photos show where a major old water-course used to run into the Euphrates from the southwest.<o:p></o:p>

Khash here is, rather, an abbreviated form of Khashd, an old ethnic name which, for obvious reasons, has been altered everywhere it went, either by losing the “d” as here, or in the Greek forms Kossaean or Kassite, or by changing the “sh” to a liquid sound: it was a branch of “Khashd” which conquered downriver Mesopotamia in the 12th century BC and gave it the name “Chaldea”; while the stay-at-home “Khashd” became known as “Kurds”. Thus, Gihon watered “the whole land of Kurdistan”, and stands for the Zab river, which is not now nearly as major as the Tigris or Euphrates, but once was almost of that rank. The ordering Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, Pherat is not geographic (Pison is westernmost, but Gihon easternmost) but in order of size from smallest to greatest. Interestingly, Gihon is also the name used for a small stream by Jerusalem where the priests of the Temple cleansed themselves. And what is also interesting in this old map is that these four are headwaters of a single river: the Tigris and Euphrates now combine into a single river, the Shatt al-Arab, before emptying into the Gulf, but this was not so in classical times, or when J was written; the “deluge” period eroded away a great deal of land from downriver Mesopotamia, so that the Tigris and Euphrates emptied separately into the Gulf, and it took millenia for silt to build up enough that the Gulf coast moved back more or less to where it had been, re-creating the Shatt, which still did not exist as late as Roman times. Thus, the geography which Genesis portrays is an accurate reflection of Mesopotamia, not as it existed when any major “document” portion of Genesis was written, but as it had existed thousands of years previously, well before there was even any form of writing yet invented. The pre-Flood geography of the region must have been preserved in oral tradition for a very long time: this should give us pause before we despise anything which has “merely” been passed down through oral traditions! Yet another very ancient preservation in Gen. ii is the name Eden itself, which turns out to be the Sumerian for “plain” (as noted earlier, there were very, very few preservations of any bit of Sumerian until the rediscovery of cuneiform).<o:p></o:p>

It has therefore commonly been assumed that the Hebrews had an ancient connection with Mesopotamia, and Sumeria in particular. Abraham is said to come from Ur ha-Khashdim “Ur of the Chaldees”, and this is identified with the very old city of Ur (the root Ur itself is used to mean just “town” in many ancient place-names) in Sumeria. This ignores a very basic problem: the social and legal assumptions in the Abraham narrative are simply not Mesopotamian at all. His faithful chief servant Eli’ezer (my candidate for L) is described as his default heir, if Abraham fails to beget any sons, Gen. xv:2. But Mesopotamian cities practiced “chattel slavery”: servants never inherited property, since they were property; if a man died childless, his property would go to his next-of-kin. Although the same word ebed is used for Abraham’s “servants” as for the slaves in later Israelite history, their status appears to be much higher, truly “part of the family”; in the context of other slavery legislation, Israelite or otherwise, we would think this remark about Eli’ezer being his “heir” an obvious mistake or misunderstanding, except that we find this very provision, that a man who dies leaving no children or near kin travelling with his flocks, the chief servant becomes the master of the household, in the law of the Hurrians, a people who migrated down from the Caucasus and were ruling the area around lakes Van and Urmia and the river Zab, which would later be called the kingdom of Urartu (root of “Ararat”) approximately in Abraham’s time. Most people in this area were nomadic animal-herders, and not likely to be in regular contact with cousins who had wandered off elsewhere; different customs made sense for people living by agriculture, on fixed farms or in towns, or even for relatively settled herdsmen with fixed pasturing ranges (like much of the Israelite population in the later periods) than for people accustomed for many generations to a wandering lifestyle (though there were both kinds of people, settled farmers and nomads, throughout the region: it is a question of which dominated, and determined such matters as prevailing inheritance laws). Can we really view Abraham as a city boy who just decided one day to buy a bunch of sheep and goats and start roaming all over? On the contrary, it makes more sense to assume that he was natively of the nomadic north, not the urban southeast.<o:p></o:p>

Consider, then, Ur here to mean just “town”, not the famous old town of that name (in rather steep decline by Abraham’s day anyhow), and Khashdim as referring not to the branch of the Khashdic people who mastered horsemanship c. 1750 BC and invaded “Chaldea”, but to the stay-at-home branch which came to pronounce their name more like “Khard”: Abraham’s home was not “Ur of the Chaldees”, but rather “Ur of the Kurds”. As it happens, in western Kurdistan we have a candidate: a little northwest of the ancient city of Harran, supposedly named for Abraham’s brother (father of Lot, Gen. xi:31-32), is the town of Urfa, and a cave which has been exhibited since time out of mind to pilgrims and tourists as Abraham’s birthplace. Now, Urfa has a long and peculiar record of walk-on roles at the edges of great political and religious controversies (more on this at some other time). It was founded by Tiglath-Pileser II of Assyria, a contemporary of king Solomon’s. From early in Assyrian times it was called Urkhai which looks like Ur-Khashdi with that un-euphonious consonant cluster simply deleted rather than simplified. This does not, alas, quite solve the problem. Harran has been a town since an early enough period that it might indeed have been founded by Abraham’s relatives, but Urfa simply was not occupied prior to Tiglath-Pileser’s foundation. And it would seem odd to mention a “move” from Urfa to Harran, a distance of a few miles, as if it were some momentous migration. A speculative but plausible reconstruction of what has happened here: Abraham was not born in “Ur of the Kurds”, but during the course of the family’s migration from there to the Harran plain; centuries later, king Solomon becomes an ally of Tiglath-Pileser II, perhaps borrows some books on the Flood and other ancient Mesopotamian lore from T-P’s library, and sends T-P a copy of his own new book, J; T-P knows a location in his realm which is remembered as the birthplace of his good friend Solomon’s illustrious ancestor, and founds a city there in his honor. J does include a bit of flattery for the Assyrians, which has been often misunderstood: the “Table of Nations” genealogies in Gen. x interrupt the longish list of “descendants” of Shem, Ham, and Japheth (names of ethnicities, not individuals) to tell us that Nimrod “began to be a mighty one” as the KJV puts it, or “founded the institution of monarchy”, to translate it better. “Nimrod” means Tukulti-Ninurt (called “Ninus” and made the subject of some very garbled stories in Herodotus), the first really powerful king of Assyria. The old Mesopotamian myths make a big deal about which places received “kingship let down from heaven” after this or that disaster had put an end to the old kingship (throughout the Sumerian period, though each city had its own “king”, there was always, at least in theory, one pre-eminent city whose king was above all others), and J is here saying that Assyria received the kingship after the Flood; but by medieval times this has become expanded into legends in which Nimrod is a wicked tyrant who torments Abraham, the very opposite of the intent of this passage, which was to lionize rather than villainize Tukulti-Ninurt.<o:p></o:p>

Which leaves us with the question, where then was the home of Abraham’s ancestors, this “Ur of the Kurds”? In the genealogy from Shem to Abram, the name recurs in disguise: Shem’s son “Arphaxad” is better vowel-pointed as Arpha-Khashd where Arpha is the Hurrian word for “town” (and the name of their biggest town in particular, now Kirkuk, Iraq, but then called just “Arpha” much as Ur was just called “Ur”); so this is not a personal name at all, but a place name, in fact synonymous with Ur ha-Khashdim. This genealogy, like the “Table of Nations” to which it appends, is a severe condensation, with each name standing for a lot of people, covering a great swath of time (the interval from the “deluge” time to Abraham is thousands of years). We must not take the lifespans assigned to these people (or to their multi-centenarian pre-Flood ancestors) seriously: that is just P talking, in his dull-minded literalist way. “He was called Peleg, because in his days the earth was ni-palgu” has been considered particularly enigmatic, since the verb p-l-g is literally “to disperse” (I have seen Mormons and fundamentalists assert seriously that all the continent drift happened right then, the continents scooting along at a few miles per hour I suppose), but this is now understood: in Akkadian palgu is “irrigation ditch”, an evident specialization of the verb to mean “to disperse water for the crops”; thus, “He was called the Irrigator, because in his days the land was irrigated”. The full genealogy reads, Arpha-Khashd: we moved down from Mt. Ararat and built a town; Shelah (“the exalted”): a line of rulers was enthroned; Eber (from a root meaning “over” as a preposition, “to cross; to travel” as a verb, “merchant; nomad” as a noun): some of us started wandering; Peleg: some of us settled down to farming; Reu: this is actually a personal name, which recurs in other places, and must here stand for someone important who did something memorable but unfortunately no longer remembered; Serug: I haven’t a clue what this means; Nachor (a [large] “river” as opposed to a stream): we reached the area of the major Euphrates tributaries (Aram-Nacharaim “Syria of the rivers”); Terach: concerning this name I will have something to say at another time; Abram.<o:p></o:p>

The name of the old home town recurs in another disguise in Ptolemy’s Geography (Ptolemy is usually made fun of for his geocentric astronomy, with all its “epicycles”; but putting the Earth at the center hardly seemed unreasonable, and decomposing the periodic but irregular-seeming planetary motions into superimposed circular motions was actually a very sound and brilliant mathematical technique, now called “Fourier transformation”; his Geography was also a great piece of work, inventing the concepts of “latitude” and “longitude” and giving the first discussion of the problems involved in projecting a spherical Earth onto a flat map), which calls it Arraphachitis and tells us that it is between lakes Van and Urmia on the headwaters of the Zab. An overview of the archaeological literature told me, to my dismay, that no archaeological site was known in such a location; so, being much younger and more foolhardy in those days (1980), I went to look for it myself. Southeast of Van is the city of Baskale; east and a little north are the towns of Shkeft (then being transformed into a military base, with eviction decreed for all but the most elderly residents) which has some interesting hermit-holes carved into the hills where medieval Armenian monks used to live (crosses are carved in the walls in the directions of Jerusalem and Echmiadzin), and further upstream Albayrek, also called Zab-basi (dot on the s making it “sh”; no dot on the i making it “uh”) “head of the Zab” because here three streams come together to form the Zab, where there is a ruined Christian church (more testimony to the disappearance of the Armenians). And in between these two, where the river escapes from between rocky cliffs to spread out into a marsh, I found an old piece of earthwork wall sticking out, distinguishable from a natural formation by the neat row of punched holes just below the top edge, which must have been for archers to fire out through. This could only have been a “town” in the loosest of senses, a fort for the locals to gather in when invaders threatened, hardly anyone living inside on any permanent basis. Alas, the chances of an archaeological dig here are very poor: the river has buried the area in slimy muck, and would have to be dammed and diverted before any excavation would be practical; and the unfortunate geopolitical position of this site, two miles from the Iranian border to the east, not comfortably distant from the Iraqi border to the south, in the heart of Kurdish rebellion and arms smuggling, would make the Turkish government’s permission to proceed vanishingly unlikely to be obtained. I myself was arrested by the Turks for “trespassing in a security zone”, but came to no harm since I was obviously a harmless kook.

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