The Birthplace of Avraham
Parashat Lekh Lekha describes the momentous trek of Avraham and Sarah towards the Promised Land. The history of Israel as a people finds its tentative beginnings in their act of trust; as we follow the defining chapters of their personal lives, we shall often see the travails and the triumphs of the Jewish people reflected in their story.
Avraham and Sarah were Mesopotamian, born and bred along the length of the great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates that between them nurtured one of the cradles of civilization. The place names associated with their early lives, Ur, Charan, and Aram Naharaim, are all well known to us from external sources. Despite the Torah's characteristic reticence on the matter, we can nevertheless confidently reconstruct the cultural heritage and the social environment in which they must have spent their formative years.
Although the birthplace of Avraham Avinu seems to be mentioned explicitly in the text of the Torah, we shall see that in fact the commentaries are in disagreement over the reading of the relevant passages. More significantly, these differences of opinion yield divergent readings of the exact nature of Avraham's trial of abandoning home and hearth to travel to Canaan. We shall examine two views concerning Avraham's birthplace, and shall then proceed to evaluate the merits and deficiencies of each in light of the local, as well as the larger, context.
Ibn Ezra – Ur and its Implications
The first opinion is that of Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain). He explains that Avraham was born in the city of Ur, called in the Torah 'Ur Kasdim' or 'Ur of the Chaldees.' Certainly, the straightforward reading of the Biblical text supports Ibn Ezra's contention, for the Torah indicates at the end of last week's parasha that Avraham's brother Haran perished in Ur Kasdim 'his birthplace':
"Terach lived for seventy years and he begot Avraham, Nachor and Haran. Haran died during his father's lifetime, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim. Avraham and Nachor took wives; the name of Avraham's wife was Sarai and the name of Nachor's wife was Milka, the daughter of Haran who was the father of Milka and Yisca. Sarai was barren and had no child.
Terach took Avraham his son, Lot his grandson (son of Haran) and Sarai his daughter-in-law wife of Avraham his son, and they set out from Ur Kasdim to journey to the land of Canaan. They traveled as far as Charan and dwelt there. Terach lived to be two hundred and five years old and perished in Charan" (Bereishit 11:26-32).
Thus, Ur is clearly designated as being the 'birthplace' of Haran, Avraham's brother, and presumably of the rest of the family as well. The matter is further reinforced by a pertinent verse from the episode of the 'Covenant between the Pieces,' in which God and Avraham are bound together in a common destiny that links Avraham's descendents to God's law and land. "I am God who took you out of Ur Kasdim, in order to give you this land as an inheritance" (Bereishit 15:7), announces the Deity, implying that Avraham was born and raised in Ur, from whence God bid him to travel westward to Canaan.
Finally, a proof text from quite late in the Biblical period further corroborates Ibn Ezra's contention. When Nechemia attempts to raise the flagging spirits of the people of Jerusalem, who had but recently returned from Babylon and undertaken the difficult task of rebuilding the Jewish state and the Second Temple, he recalls the journey of their faithful forefather Avraham. God is the one, he proclaims, who chose Avraham, "and took him out of Ur Kasdim and changed his name to Avraham, finding his heart to be steadfast..." (Nechemia 9:7-8).
The implications of Ibn Ezra's reading are profound, for they suggest that our forefather was closely connected to one of the most important urban centers in Mesopotamia, itself a cradle of human development. Ur was a prosperous and populous city, located on the lower reaches of the Euphrates River, close to where it empties into the Persian Gulf. Already in the Patriarchal Age, Ur was championed as a hub of culture, commerce, and moon worship. That it was Avraham's birthplace would indicate that he had a cosmopolitan upbringing and a worldly outlook, and was well versed in the complexities of urban living and social intercourse. More importantly, it indicates to us that notwithstanding its many attractions, Avraham nevertheless rejected the values of Ur, undertaking a journey that would soon put him at irreconcilable odds with its worldview.
Textual Difficulties – 1) The Initiator of the Journey
Assigning Avraham's birthplace to the city of Ur, however, raises a number of textual and thematic problems. This week's Parasha of Lekh Lekha begins with God's clarion call to Avraham to begin an odyssey of geographic and spiritual dimensions that is regarded in our tradition as perhaps the most remarkable and momentous ever undertaken by any man. "Get thee out of thy land and thy birthplace and thy father's home, to the land that I will show thee...." Here, Avraham is called upon by Divine entreaty to renounce his land, his birthplace and his family, to leave behind Ur and all of its imposing but shallow blandishments. Yet, a careful study of the end of Parashat Noach clearly indicates that Avraham had already left the city of Ur at the behest of his father, and had settled in Charan, at the northern end of the Euphrates River, over one thousand kilometers distant from Ur. Moreover, it had been Terach who initiated that journey, for the text clearly states:
"Terach took Avraham his son, Lot his grandson (son of Haran) and Sarai his daughter-in-law wife of Avraham his son, and they set out from Ur Kasdim to journey to the land of Canaan. They traveled as far as Charan and dwelt there. Terach lived to be two hundred and five years old and perished in Charan."
Thus, two difficulties are created by assuming that Avraham was born in Ur. Firstly, God's spiritual challenge of 'Lekh Lekha' asks Avraham to leave behind his land and birthplace, but this he had already done of his own volition, many years earlier. Secondly, Parashat Lekh Lekha plainly places the onus (as well as the merit) of the journey on Avraham's shoulders, for he is the one called upon to effect the break with his past. This stands in glaring contrast to the end of Parashat Noach, where it is Terach who is credited with making the portentous decision to leave Ur and journey towards Canaan.
Ibn Ezra, aware of these difficulties, offers a possible interpretation that is exegetically inventive but textually forced. Concerning the words "God said to Avraham: 'Get thee out of thy land...,'" Ibn Ezra comments that 'God had voiced this command while Avraham was still in Ur Kasdim, and had there asked him to leave his land, birthplace and his father's household. This is because God knew that Terach would also embark on the journey but would only travel with his son as far as Charan' (commentary to Bereishit 12:1). Let us clarify Ibn Ezra's position further by quoting his words to last week's parasha, concerning Terach's seeming initiation of the fateful journey:
"It appears correct to say that God's call to Avraham at the beginning of Parashat Lekh Lekha actually took place chronologically prior to the verse 'Terach took Avraham his son...' (Bereishit 11:31).
In other words, Ibn Ezra explains, the call to leave homestead and haven came to Avraham while he was yet in Ur, still ensconced among family. Although it is Terach who is described by the Torah as the one who launched the relocation, it was in fact Avraham who was responsible for the move, for he answered God's summons. Presumably, the passage at the conclusion of Parashat Noach revolves around Terach, for there he functions as the family patriarch who sanctions the emigration of part of the family. Thus, Ibn Ezra reads: "God HAD said to Avraham: 'Get thee out of thy land....'"
Textual Difficulties - 2) The Journey of Eliezer
There is another textual peculiarity that is created by Ibn Ezra's assertion that Ur was the birthplace of Avraham. In a few weeks, we shall read of Sarah's demise, and of Avraham's decision to seek out a wife for his son Yitzchak. The aged Avraham decides to dispatch his loyal servant Eliezer back to his family in the hopes of finding a suitable mate among kin rather than among Canaanites.
"Avraham was aged, well on in days, and God had blessed him with all things. Avraham said to his loyal servant: 'Place your hand beneath my thigh, so that I might cause you to swear by God Lord of heaven and earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. Rather, you shall go back TO MY LAND AND TO MY BIRTHPLACE, and take from there a wife for my son Yitzchak'"(Bereishit 24:1-4).
The dutiful servant proceeds to journey eastwards bearing ten camel loads of his master's riches, but rather than returning to Ur, he instead arrives in Charan!
"The servant took ten of his master's camels and went, taking with him all manner of precious gifts. He journeyed to Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nachor" (Bereishit 24:10).
Here, the servant is met by Rivka who graciously offers water to his men and his camels. As it turns out, Rivka is none other than the daughter of Betuel, and Betuel is one of the eight children of Milka, wife of Nachor brother of Avraham (see Bereishit 22:20-24). Overlooking the convoluted family tree for a moment, what emerges from the passage is that Avraham's brother Nachor and his descendents, which is to say his family and father's household, are not to be found in Ur at all, but rather in Charan! After all, Eliezer the loyal servant fulfills the oath of his master, who explicitly sent him back 'TO MY LAND AND TO MY BIRTHPLACE.' Now, Charan is a city located between the northern reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and we last came across the place name at the end of Parashat Noach, as the location where Terach and Avraham had paused after taking leave of Ur. Since Nachor, Avraham's brother, did not accompany them on the journey, we would have expected to find him back in Ur, and not in Charan, hundreds of kilometers northwards.
Again, Ibn Ezra attempts to explain, but again his interpretation seems forced. Commenting on the critical words 'rather, you shall go back TO MY LAND AND TO MY BIRTHPLACE, and take from there a wife for my son Yitzchak,' Ibn Ezra explains: "'to my land' refers to Charan where Avraham had dwelt, and 'to my birthplace' refers to Ur Kasdim." In other words, according to Ibn Ezra, Avraham had in fact communicated a two-part oath to Eliezer his servant, saying in effect "return first to Charan where we had stopped on the way to Canaan, and where some of my family is still to be found. If you are unsuccessful in finding a wife there, then you must continue on to Ur Kasdim my birthplace, to select a mate for Yitzchak." He fails to explain how and when Nachor had emigrated to Charan from Ur, as the Torah fails to mention that fact as well.
To sum up thus far, Ibn Ezra maintains that the birthplace of Avraham was Ur Kasdim. His claim is supported by a number of Biblical references connecting Avraham to that place. It would certainly explain how Avraham's journey is rightfully regarded as a watershed in Jewish history, for by leaving that place of polytheism and spiritual complacency born out of abundance, Avraham effects a decisive break with the moral equivocation that Ur cannot but champion. In so doing, Avraham and his descendents unleash an ethical and ideological revolution whose effects continue to reverberate across human history. At the same time, there are serious textual difficulties created by designating Ur as Avraham's birthplace, and it is questionable whether Ibn Ezra succeeds in surmounting them satisfactorily. Methodologically, we may note that a successful interpretation must address not only a single, isolated passage, but must be consistent with as broad a context as possible.
Ramban – Hailing from Beyond the River
There is another possible reading that grapples with the same verses and the same seeming inconsistencies, but that arrives at a very different conclusion. "Our ancestor Avraham was not born in Ur Kasdim," says the Ramban (13th century, Spain), "for his progenitors were Semites (and did not hail from those lands). Also, the verse in Yehoshua states that 'from time immemorial your ancestors dwelt beyond the River, Terach the father of Avraham and the father of Nachor, and they served other gods...' (Yehoshua 24:2). The phrase 'from time immemorial' indicates that they had been dwelling there forever, and the verse continues 'I took your father (Avraham) from beyond the River and caused him to traverse all of the land of Canaan...' (Yehoshua 24:3).
"A proof for the matter may be adduced from the fact that Nachor (Avraham's brother) dwelt in Charan. Now, when Terach left Ur Kasdim, he took with him 'Avraham his son, Sarah his daughter-in-law, and Lot his grandson.' If Ur was the birthplace of the family, we would have expected to find Nachor still there, for he did not undertake the journey with Terach his father. Instead, Nachor dwells in Charan!
"Therefore, one must truly conclude that the land of their birth was the land of Aram, designated as the 'lands beyond the River,' and Avraham's ancestors had forever been associated with that place" (commentary to Bereishit 11:28. See also Ramban's commentary to Bereishit 12:1, where he develops his thesis at even greater length).
Thus, the Ramban explains, Avraham had been born in the region of Charan, also known as the 'land of Aram' because of the Aramean tribes that dwelt there. The geographical area called in the Hebrew Bible 'the lands beyond the River' refer to this very location, for 'the River' in question is none other than the Euphrates, and the lands 'beyond' refer to its distant northern reaches. These fertile lands, the 'Aram between the rivers' of Eliezer's journey, are generously watered by not only the Euphrates, but by the upper headwaters of the Tigris River as well.
Resolving the Textual Difficulties and Offering a New Reading
Let us return to the texts to see how the Ramban's interpretation addresses the difficulties that we encountered above. Recall that we had been puzzled by the abruptness of God's command to Avraham, as if he was to be the initiator of the journey to Canaan when in fact Terach had undertaken the move from Ur much earlier. Had they not already left behind their land, birthplace, and family in Ur, thus lessening the renown of Avraham's emotional and spiritual feat? According to the Ramban, the answer is resoundingly negative, for Avraham's birthplace and family were not to be found in Ur at all. Therefore, when Terach undertakes the journey from Ur towards Canaan, it is not an odyssey AWAY from birthplace and kin, but rather TOWARDS it, for their ancestors had dwelt in the 'lands beyond the River from time immemorial!' Arriving in Charan, the land of Aram and the birthplace of Avraham, thus represents a homecoming, and it is for this reason that Terach is content to conclude his leg of the journey and to settle down and eventually die in familiar and friendly surroundings.
It is at that time that the Divine command comes to Avraham with the fiery impact of a hammer striking the anvil:
"Get thee out of thy land and thy birthplace and thy father's home, to the land that I will show thee..." 'Leave behind the land of your birth and youth, your ancestral patrimony and the loving and customary embrace of your father's household, for you are called upon to journey to Canaan, to effect a break not only with Ur, but with Charan as well. You must abandon Terach your father as well as Nachor your brother,' for he and the rest of Avraham's clan had never left their Aramean estates to see the world. How Avraham's trial of faith is now cast in even sharper relief! Rather than being able to henceforth indulge in the warm glow of the family hearth, rather than remaining in Charan with his aging father and beloved brother, rather than settling back into the comforting routine of life beyond the River, he is called upon to change the world, and in the arduous process about to commence, to transform himself as well.
How then had Terach and his children come to dwell in Ur, so distant from their birthplace? The Torah and the Ramban are silent on the matter, so we can only surmise. Was it perhaps because Ur was a commercial and cultural magnet, drawing people from far and wide to marvel at its material modernity and to bask in its soothing idol-worship that assuaged spiritual yearning with empty ritual? If so, Terach's move to Ur with his young sons in tow was telling indeed, and lends much credence to the hoary traditions that cast him as the inveterate idolater and Avraham as the insistent iconoclast. Whatever the reason, the fact is that at some point in time, Avraham and his father became established residents in Ur, but eventually were drawn away by the siren call of home.
The interpretation of the Ramban deftly resolves another glaring inconsistency. Recall that when Avraham later avowed Eliezer his servant by solemn oath to return to 'my land and birthplace' to seek a wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer journeyed not to the distant and foreign city of Ur. Rather, he set his course for 'Aram Naharaim (literally 'Aram that is located between the Rivers') to the city of Nachor.' This was because the environs of Charan was Avraham's birthplace, and from there most of Avraham's family had never emigrated.
'Taken Out' of Ur
There are a number of textual problems to still be worked out, for the Torah on more than one occasion seems to indicate that Ur was Avraham's birthplace. Recall that Haran's untimely death took place while Terach was yet alive:
"Terach lived for seventy years and he begot Avraham, Nachor and Haran. Haran died during his father's lifetime, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim."
Doesn't this passage unambiguously indicate that Avraham's birthplace was Ur, and not Aram Naharaim as the Ramban maintains? Indeed, explains the Ramban, Ur WAS the birthplace of Haran, for he, the youngest of the brothers, had been born while the family dwelt in Ur as foreign residents. It was not, however, the birthplace of Terach or of Avraham, for they had come from 'beyond the River.' The Torah is therefore especially precise in designating Ur as 'the land of his (Haran's) birth,' for Terach and Avraham were NOT born there at all. But rather hailed from Aram.
What about the other references to Ur Kasdim, the one concerning the Covenant of the Pieces, and the other from the passage in the Book of Nechemia? Do these not make it clear that Avraham was born in Ur?
Did God not proclaim "I am God who took you out of Ur Kasdim, in order to give you this land as an inheritance" (Bereishit 15:7)? Didn't Nechemia recall that God chose Avram "and took him out of Ur Kasdim and changed his name to Avraham, finding his heart to be steadfast..." (Nechemia 9:7-8)? But, explains the Ramban, a careful reader notices that in both places, the same verb is used to describe the act of God bringing Avraham forth from Ur, namely 'to take out' (lehoTziH). The texts did not state simply 'to take' (laKaChat), but rather 'to take out,' for this expression "indicates some sort of miraculous intervention, as a prisoner is freed from incarceration. In a similar vein we find at the Decalogue 'I am God your Lord who TOOK YOU OUT of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage'" (commentary to Bereishit 11:28). In other words, the expression of being 'taken out' of Ur does not necessarily imply that Ur was Avraham's birthplace at all. Rather, it suggests providential involvement, preservation in the face of peril, and a destiny that beckons to be fulfilled. Avraham is 'taken out' of Ur, for in Ur took place the formative experiences that were to shape the remainder of his life. Bnei Yisrael were 'taken out' of Egypt, for although they had been born as a family far from its borders, the experiences of Egypt had been the potent and far-reaching catalysts that had forged them as a people and forever bound up their future with God.
To conclude, this week we saw two possible interpretations concerning the birthplace of Avraham. Both the Ibn Ezra as well as the Ramban attempted to grapple with a variety of scattered and discrepant passages, and to offer a comprehensive textual solution that addressed all of them. Either Avraham was born in Ur, or else he hailed from the lands 'beyond the River.' As we saw, the solutions to the textual problems had far-reaching thematic consequences, for they cast Avraham's trek in completely different lights. In either case, the general outline of Avraham's great undertaking is the same: it is the halting and hesitant movement away from the temporal to the timeless, and from 'idolatry' in all of its pernicious forms to the true God. It is the model that continues to inspire the Jewish people and to steady their steps, as they uncertainly embark on the thirty-eighth century of their odyssey.