Commentators have traditionally seen the Bible making two conflicting claims about Abraham’s birthplace. Genesis 11:28 states that Abraham’s father’s birthplace was “Ur of the Chaldeans” and 11:31 states that Abraham’s father, Terah, along with his extended family left “Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan.” Thus, according to this textual tradition Abraham’s birthplace is Ur of the Chaldeans.
The narrative beginning in the next chapter, however, introduces a new theme: Yahweh commands Abraham: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). The text—at least as we currently have it—then continues:
And Abram was seventy-five years old when he went out from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their property that they had accumulated and the persons whom they had gotten in Haran; and they went out to go to the land of Canaan (Gen 12:4b-5).
Since this passage explicitly mentions twice that Abraham goes forth from Haran, immediately after Yahweh had declared to Abraham to leave his birthplace and his father’s house in 12:1, critics have seen this portion of the story as claiming Haran for Abraham’s birthplace. This is corroborated by later references to Jacob going back to Abraham’s birthplace, Haran, to find a wife (Gen 28:10, 29:4). But then Genesis 15:7 restates the former through the mouthpiece of Yahweh: “I am Yahweh, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans.” How are these conflicting textual data to be resolved?
It might first be noted that Genesis 12:4b-5 does not explicitly claim that Abraham’s birthplace is Haran; it merely states that Abram goes forth from Haran.1 The assumption that this is Abraham’s birthplace comes from the previous verse, 12:1, where Yahweh commands Abraham to go forth from your birthplace—i.e., Haran. The issue is further confounded by the fact that when both Isaac and Jacob are instructed to return to their father’s birthplace to pursue suitable wives, they return to Haran (28:10, 29:4) or the general locale, Aram Naharaim (24:10) or Paddan-Aram (28:2), “Aram between the rivers” and “the field of Aram” respectively. It is for this reason that critics have come to see Haran as Abraham’s birthplace. Ur of the Chaldeans, it is reasoned, must be part of a variant tradition.
There are other factors that have led commentators to conclude that what we have here are two once separate textual traditions that were later edited together. And as we shall presently see, each tradition or source presents the story of Abraham’s migration in their own unique manner. For instance Genesis 11:27-32 exhibits themes and interests dear to the Priestly writer—an interest in dates, genealogies, settlement records, and a repeated emphasis on Sarah and endogamous marriage practices (see the Priestly writer on the Yahwist in general).
Then, however, Genesis 12:1-4a seems to restart the whole story of Abraham’s migration from a new perspective, emphasizing themes we find in other Yahwist texts—the use of the name Yahweh, an anthropomorphic portrayal of the god, sacrifices to Yahweh (which never occur in P prior to the giving of the cultic legislation), the unconditional promise of the land (see #29), and mention of the blessing and cursing of Abraham’s friends and foes.
Thus in the Yahwist version, Yahweh commands Abraham:1 “Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (12:1). Yet the problem in the combined PJ text is that Yahweh’s commandment comes a little too late. As the text now stands Abraham has already left his birthplace and is presently in Haran when J’s decree comes! In other words, P’s version of Abraham’s migration has already been presented to the reader in Genesis 11:27-32, which then picks up again at Genesis 12:4b-5. But in between this P material, the Yahwist story has been spliced. Separating the two traditions, however, we arrive at the following, where we clearly see two unique and complete versions of the story:
11:27bTerah had fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran, and Haran had father Lot. 28And Haran died in the lifetime of Terah, his father, in the land of his birthplace, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29And Abram and Nahor took wives. Abram’s wife’s name was Sarai, and Nahor’s wife’s name was Milcah, daughter of Haran—father of Milcah and father of Iscah. 30And Sarai was infertile. She did not have a child. 31And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot his grandson, son of Haran, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of Abram his son; and they went with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. And they came as far as Haran, and they stayed there. 32And Terah’s days were five years and two hundred years. And Terah died in Haran.
12:4bAnd Abram was seventy-five years old when he went out from Haran. 5And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their property that they had accumulated and the persons whom they had gotten in Haran; and they went out to go to the land of Canaan.
12:1And Yahweh said to Abraham: “Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I’ll show you. 2And I’ll make you into a great nation and I’ll bless you and make your name great, and you’ll be a blessing! 3And I’ll bless those who bless you, and those who affront you I’ll curse. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” 4And Abraham went as Yahweh had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. 6And Abraham passed through the land as far as the place of Shechem, as far as the oak of Moreh. And the Canaanite was in the land then. 7And Yahweh appeared to Abraham and said: “I’ll give this land to your seed.” And he built an altar there to Yahweh . . .
15:7And he said to him: “I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land, to posses it.”
If the Priestly writer wrote his version to correct or replace the earlier Yahwist version, as many scholars contend, then in what ways does P change the Yahwist storyline? And why?
When the two versions of the story of Abraham’s migration to Canaan are laid out separately, we see that each version stresses its own unique set of themes. J insists that Abraham’s migration and inheritance of the land of Canaan happens through Yahweh’s command, blessing, and promise of descendants and land, while P is silent on these issues. Likewise, while P introduces Abraham’s wife, J makes no mention of Sarah, nor Terah for that matter, and specifies that it was only Abraham and Lot that journeyed forth from their birthplace.
We might reasonably infer that the Priestly writer saw no inherent problem with the Yahwist version of the promise of the land and blessing. Other than the insertion at Genesis 12:4b-5, which specifies Abraham’s age, their property, and their settlement in the land of Canaan, the Priestly redactor has left the Yahwist storyline intact. But the Priestly writer adds significant details to the beginning of J’s story.
The most apparent addition to the Yahwist text is P’s insertion of a genealogy that takes us from Noah’s son Shem—the father of the S(h)emites—to Abraham. This is not just a haphazard insertion reflecting P’s interest in genealogies. It has a more significant function in its present context, and specifically for the Priestly writer’s audience.
Second, we notice that P’s genealogy highlights the fact that an older generation has passed away, and a younger one having been completely born and bred in Ur of the Chaldeans now leaves for the land of Canaan. More importantly P explicitly informs us that this new generation has taken wives from among their own people. In other words, the Priestly writer has added these themes into the narrative, and it is our task to ask why. What was the Priestly writer trying to communicate by highlighting these elements? And to whom?
Like the generation that has passed away and the new one that leaves behind the land of Babylon to travel to the promised land of Canaan, so too the exilic Jews in Babylon in the 6th century BC. A generation has passed and with the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC groups of exilic Jews start their journey back to Canaan. Like Abraham, they will also take wives of their own community, rather than—as we know from later post-exilic texts—take wives from among the people of the land of Canaan, whom they come in contact with when they arrive there. As we will also see in subsequent P texts, Abraham is here being set forth as an example of observing endogamous marriage practices. This is a central concern for the Priestly writer and it reflects the issues of the post-exilic community that returns to Canaan and the danger of exogamous marriages with Canaanite women, as Lot, Ishamael, and Esau all do in P!
So P has radically shaped the narrative so that it now speaks to its exilic community, and has in short set Abraham up as a mirror and example for them to follow in their own present circumstance. They too are second generation Israelites in captivity in Babylon, who are returning to Canaan, with hopefully wives from their own people. The reference to Ur of Chaldeans is another give-away. The term Chaldeans as a synonym for Babylonia did not come into vogue until the 6th century BC. Thus the Priestly writer has painted Abraham in the same plight as his exilic audience. The main storyline of Abraham leaving upper Mesopotamia and migrating to the land promised by Yahweh to his descendants would have resonated with exilic Jews in Babylon as a narrative of hope and comfort.
In other words, stories of the past were told to shed light on present concerns and needs. Here the Priestly writer has altered the tradition he inherited, the Yahwist text, so that it spoke more directly of the concerns and needs relevant to his own historical circumstances. That is to say P has consciously changed the story that he himself had inherited! The Priestly writer felt free to change, or at least in this case, add elements into the story.
This, if anything, is what I want my readers to see. And if not convinced here, that’s OK, because we will see, literally, hundreds and hundreds of more examples like this. Here are some long term questions that we will return to over and over again, and are more or less the issues that I hope to raise, discuss, and debate on this site.
If the Priestly writer is consciously changing, altering, omitting and adding new narrative elements into the very stories that earlier texts have already written about (and our best textual evidence will come when we look at the Deuteronomist doing this), then how does the Priestly writer view these “stories”? As historical fact? The word of God? Historicized theology? Fiction? Stories that served pedagogical purposes? Kinda like a Cinderella story that can be modified to address different audiences and whose importance was its pedagogical or ethical message to its present audience? Or were they rather stories about the present than the past!?
Second, what does this reinterpretive endeavor tell us about the nature of the Bible, how it was composed, who wrote its stories, to whom, and for what purposes? This is what I mean when I advocate an objective study of the Bible. The textual data (hundreds and hundreds as we will see) of later authors consciously changing, adding, and contradicting narrative details in the stories that they themselves inherited leads us to conclude what about these stories, their uses, and the nature of what later generations will label “the Bible”?
- In J there is no name change from Abram to Abraham. Abraham’s name is always Abraham in J. The change only happens in P (Friedman, ibid, 50).↵