By Daniel H. King
A Clue From Joshua
When Joshua gathered the tribes of Israel together at ancient Shechem, the aged solider and leader of the armies of God reminisced about Israel’s hoary past. But it was not altogether resplendent with glory. In the years before God’s revelation of Himself to Abram, there was no distinguishable difference between the patriarch’s religious heritage and that vile heathen idolatry which was the possession of the nations around him. “And Joshua said unto all the people, ‘Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor: and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac'” (Josh. 24:2,3). Joshua’s allusion gives us added information upon the religious patrimony of Abram which is only hinted at in Genesis chapters eleven and twelve.
Importance of Names
One of the suggestive elements of the Genesis account is the presence of certain theophoric designations, i.e. names given to children which glorify a particular deity. It was the practice of ancient peoples to name their children after a god, or with the name of the god in combination with a phrase which said something about the god or the child in connection with the god. When Israel was unfaithful to the Lord many of her children were named after Baal: Gideon’s name was also Jeru-baal (“Let Baal Contend,” Judges 7:1; and cf. also 6:32); one of Saul’s sons was named Eshbaal (“Fire of Baal,” 1 Chron. 8:33; 9:39), although he is called at other times Ishbosheth (“Mari of Shame,” 2 Sam. 2:10); Jonathan, also a son of Saul, had a son named Meribbaal (“Baal’s Fighter,” 1 Chron. 8; 34; 9:40) who is called in other places Mephi-bosheth (“Destroying the Idol” or “Destroying the Shame,” 2 Sam. 4:4). Many who held resolutely to the Lord as the sole God, however, named their children with appellations glorifying the true God: Eli (“My God is El”), Joshua (“Jehovah Saves”), Daniel (“God is My Judge”), Jeremiah (“Whom Jehovah Appoints”), and etc. It was the practice to name children after tutelary or protecting gods even as far back as the time of Abraham. In fact, ancient sources evidence that it even antedates the time of Abraham by many centuries.
Terah of Ur
Terah the father of Abraham, is specifically mentioned at Joshua 24:2 in connection with idolatry. And, it is interesting to note that linguists have for many years related the name of Terah to a Hebrew root meaning either “moon” or “month” (according to the vocalization: Yareah, “moon:” as at Josh. 10:13; or Yerah, “month” as at 1 Kgs. 6:37). The French archaeological mission which worked at Ras Shamrah under Mons. C. F. A. Schaeffer between 1929 and 1939 uncovered numerous tablets written in a language now called “Ugaritic” after the ancient name of the town in North Syria where it was spoken. Among these cuneiform texts are many documents devoted to religious matters. From them we learn that in North Syria the name of the Moon-god was “Terah.” The man Terah was, as an Aramaean, a blood-relation of the North Syrian peoples, and their language (to a degree, at least) was his also. There can therefore be no question here of an accidental resemblance between words of difference origin and meaning. The name of the Moon-god was Terah. The name of Abraham’s father was Terah. It can only be that Terah was considered to be under the special protection of that deity.
Another piece of evidence fitting nicely into this picture comes from the fact that the patron god of the city of Ur was the Moon-god Nannar. There were (according to Woolley) numerous temples and shrines consecrated to other members of the pantheon-but to Nannar the city itself was dedicated. The heart of the town was set apart as the Moongod’s sanctuary. The great ziggurat or temple-tower was his. And, although other gods had their shrines within the sacred enclosure, they were only there as attendants on the majesty of Nannar; he was the “King of Ur,” the “Lord of Heaven.” It was from this same city that the Bible tells us Terah and his family came (Gen. 11:28,31). Moreover, from the written documents of Sumerian Ur names appear compounded with the name of Nannar, e.g., Nannar-ludug, Nannarishag, etc. The possibility therefore exists that Terah was called “Nannar” (or a compound therewith) in Sumerian Mesopotamia but “Terah” by Syrians-Palestinians.
The Migration of Haran
In Gen. 11:31 the record of the migration of Terah and his family (with the exception of Haran who had died at Ur) is recounted. At this point a further piece of evidence is derived: “And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the iand of Canaan; and they came into Haran, and dwelt there.” Now, it is both facinating and interesting that the city of Haran was a seat of the worship of Sin, the Moon-god, from very ancient times. In fact, some have called the inoon-cult of Haran “simply a replica of that of Ur.” If Terah was indeed a benefactor and patron of the Moon-god cult, then it is manifestly apparent why the selection of Haran as a stopping-place on the trip to Canaan. He stopped there for religious reasons, but such as we would hesitate to believe.
Sarah, Laban, and Milcah
In this connection the etymology of the name of Abram’s wife is also important. “Sarah” (or “Sarai”) corresponds to Sharratu (“the Queen”), which is the Akkadian translation of the Sumerian “Ningal,” the spouse of the god Sin. From later references, Laban, brother of Rebekah and son of Nahor, according to Gen. 24:29; 29:5 (and appearing only in the geographical context of the city of Haran in the country called Paddan-arani and Arain-naharaim; Gen. 24:10; 25:20) has also been connected by some scholars with the lunar-god, lord of Haran. The name Laban is documented by a sinall tablet found at Mari, which mentions a Laba-an. In any case we know that Laban possessed household gods, or teraphim (Gen. 31:19) and is characterized in the biblical text as being unscrupulous and dishonest. So there would not be any good reason to objecting to this thesis. Laban’s covenant at the heap called Jegarsahadutha or Galeed (“heap of witness” in Aramaic and in Hebrew; Gen. 31:47) should only be considered typical, for ancient peoples were about as little concerned with religious differences between themselves and others as denominational folk are today. This is altogether evident if Gensis 31:53 is translated literally from the Hebrew.
Other names important to this study which have been brought to light in other ancient literary texts besides the book of Genesis are: Abraham, which is not directly attested from Ur but is found in Mesopotamian texts at the beginning of the second millennium B. C. under the following forms: A-ba-ra-ma, A-ba-am-ra-tna, and A-baam-ra-am, Nahor, the name of Abraham’s brother and his grandfather, is found in Assyrian as Nakhur; Nahor’s wife, Milcha, could be related to the Assyrian malkatu (“princess”). Edouard Dhorme has also traced this latter name to the lunar cult. No such connection exists with either the name of Abraham or Nahor.
Called Out of Paganism
Perhaps some of the above evidence is sketchy and some may even be shown to be dubious in the years ahead, but it is exciting to think that we may know the particular form of paganism Terah and Abram in his youth were adherents of and from which Abraham was “converted.” Abraham was not only called out of his country and from his kindred he was called out of paganism! The all-important how of his “conversion” we have long known: “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said unto him, ‘Get thee out of thy land, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall show thee.’ Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Haran: and from thence, when his father was dead, God removed him into this land (Canaan). . . ” (Acts 7:2-4). God’s revelation of Himself to Abram is the explanation which we accept by faith of Abram’s complete departure from his heathen heritage. The high monotheistic concepts of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as well as that of their loyal descendants were not borrowed, evolved or invented-they were revealed by God: by theophany.
Later writers imaginatively enlarge upon the story of Abram’s early life in apocryphal tales about his and his father’s involvement in idolatry. In the Genesis Rabbah, a late Jewish treatise, Abraham is pictured as the first iconoclast, the first smasher of idols. It is most entertaining: “Abraham’s father, Terah, sold idols. Once, upon going away, he left Abraham to sell them in his stead. A man came and wished to buy one. Abraham asked him, ‘How old are you?’ When the man answered that he was sixty years old, Abraham rebuked him, ‘You should be ashamed, a man of sixty wanting to bow down to an object that is but one day old.’ The man became embarrassed and left.
“Another time, a woman came carrying a plate of flour and said to him, ‘Take this and offer it to them.’ Abraham, thereupon took a stick, broke all the idols and placed the stick in the hands of the largest among them. When his father returned, he demanded to know who was responsible. Abraham answered, ‘Why hide it from you? A woman carrying a plate of flour came and told me to offer it to them. When I did so, each idol insisted that it must eat first and the largest idol got up, took a stick and broke all the others.’ Hearing this, Terah cried out, ‘Why do you mock me? Do idols have any knowledge? Abraham then retorted let your own ears hear your lips speak'”.
Although this is only a fanciful tale which has no rootage in reality, yet the fact of the matter is that the strong theological and philosophical arguments against idolatry and the other follies of heathenism began with God’s revealing Himself to the patriarch Abraham. Thereby God saved him from the absurd religious notions accepted even by his own father. And with him-us!
Truth Magazine XX: 32, pp. 505-507
August 12, 1976