When Abram left Ur of the Chaldees, we are told that he took up residence in Haran, traditionally located in the far north, on the eastern side of the River Euphrates. Bible atlases universally placeHaran in this position, and as far as I am aware, there are no expositors who even question this siting. If therefore in this writing I propose to challenge the traditional siting, it might be construed that I am impudent, merely marching in the mainstream of today’s critics who love to challenge everything for the pleasure of a mere intellectual exercise. Far from it. For many years the placing of Haran has been a perplexity to me, and in this paper I should like to give what I believe are cogent reasons for questioning the traditional view. Some may say, “Does it really matter? Does it make any significant difference to our understanding of Genesis?” To this I would answer – wait and see what I propose, and judge the value of it.
My main reason for being perplexed came from the passage relating to the march that Jacob made after leaving his Uncle Laban. He travelled with his two wives, two concubines, and eleven children. He had numerous servants, and herds and flocks almost without number. We are told in Genesis 31:17-23,“Jacob arose and set his sons and his wives on camels, and he drove away all his cattle, all his livestock which he had gained, the cattle in his possession which he had acquired in Padan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s teraphim (household gods). And Jacob outwitted Laban the Aramean, in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee. He fled with all that he had, and arose and crossed the river, and set his face towards the hill country of Gilead. When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days, and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead.”
A simple reading of this text shows that a distance of no less than 360 miles had been covered in ten days by Jacob, and seven days by Laban. Was it possible for Jacob to travel at that speed with so muchcattle? Remember that it was not flat country, but hilly, with ravines and watercourses. Furthermore, we happen to know something of the extent of his own herds by reading about the size of the “present” he intended to give Esau on meeting him. This is found in Genesis 32:13-15. “Jacob took from what he had with him a present for his brother Esau, 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30milch camels and their colts, 40 cows and 10 bulls, 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses.” If this was the size of the present, then how much did he retain for himself? Logic suggests that he would surely not have given more to Esau than he kept for himself. One might hazard a guess that he selected perhaps a third of his total as a present, but not more. It could have been a quarter. But assuming it to have been a third, this gives us some idea of the huge concourse of animals travelling with him, under the control of his numerous servants.
I asked the opinion of a local farmer about the problems of driving cattle. It is, after all, far from a simple operation, and one that requires much care and understanding of the ways and needs of beasts. I posed the question, given that Jacob travelled with such-and-such quantities of animals, how far do you think he could travel in one day without overburdening them? 5 miles? 10 miles? 15 miles? 20 miles? He answered, “Certainly he could have managed five miles, but it is doubtful he could have achieved more than ten, depending on the terrain.” This being the case, a little simple arithmetic tells us that in ten days Jacob could have travelled 50 miles at five miles per day, or 100 miles at ten miles per day. To have travelled the 360 miles traditionally posed for this journey would have meant 36 miles per day, which is many times greater than any farmer would allow. Here then is the problem. If we have interpreted the text of Genesis correctly, then Haran must have been much nearer to the country ofGilead than its traditional position east of the Euphrates.
I should mention here that some versions of Genesis actually translate “the river” by “the Euphrates”, which is not a translation at all but an interpretation quite unwarranted by the Hebrew text. However, let us assume for a moment that the Euphrates was intended. The point at which Jacob would have crossed the river would have been after crossing two other rivers, and when arriving at the Euphrateshe would have found the river too wide and too deep to allow a crossing other than by ferry. Even supposing that such ferries existed, the time required to take that quantity of cattle across, a few at a time, would have delayed his departure by a considerable time, thus reducing the already slow speed, and cutting down the distance he could have travelled in ten days. This makes the journey even more impossible according to the stated facts.
The trouble is that no one seems to have found another place called Haran, whereas the traditional place in Mesopotamia was well known in antiquity, being (as the name implied) a “cross-roads”, in other words an important position on trade routes. Furthermore, another place in the vicinity was calledNahor, the name of one of Terah’s sons, thereby making it seem more likely that the traditional position was the correct one. “See how simple it is,” the expositors say, “Haran and Nahor, two towns quite near to each other, named after each brother. It must be the correct location.” On the surface, the English reader might very well be impressed by such an argument, not realising that a fatal flaw exists, which would be spotted immediately by any Jewish reader. Terah had two sons, named Nahor and Haran, which the Book of Jashar says were twins. The spelling of Haran (the man) in Hebrew derives from HAR, meaning a mountain. Hence Haran means “mountaineer.” But the spelling of the town should be transliterated as Charan, a word meaning “cross-roads”, as mentioned above. The similarity is therefore misleading. The two words are in fact quite distinct. Remember also that Haran died in Ur before Terahand Abram started this excursion.
A further problem arises when reading the story of Eliezer’s visit to obtain a wife for Isaac. Genesis 24:10 reads, “Then the servant . . . arose and went to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor.” Surely this settles it. We all know where Mesopotamia is, the region between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. The very word Mesopotamia is derived from Greek, mesos=middle, and potamos=river, i.e. (the land) between the rivers. This is a translation of the Hebrew Aram-Naharaim, having an identical meaning, but with the additional information provided by the Hebrew dual ending, making it “Aram of the tworivers.” We have already seen that Jacob lived in a region known as Padan-aram, meaning “the fields ofAram”. So where was the district and country of Aram, usually translated Syria? In Isaiah 7:8 we are told that “The head (i.e. capital) of Syria (Aram) is Damascus.” Ancient Syria consisted of what is nowSyria, together with much of what is Lebanon, which is derived from Laban’s name, “the land of Laban.” Biblical students and historians have assumed that an additional region of Syria was to be found north of the Euphrates, but my own opinion is that the traditional site of Haran would never have been called Aram-naharaim, “Aram of the two rivers,” because the Tigris and Euphrates are too far apart in that northernmost part of the country to have warranted such a name. To refer to the southern country ofBabylonia as “mesopotamia” would be more in keeping with the etymology of the word.
To summarise the last paragraph, Padan-aram, “the fields of Aram”, and Aram-naharaim, “Aram of the two rivers”, must refer to some part of Syria, of which Damascus was the capital city. Could it have been that Abram never went to the northern city of Charan after all, but that he sojourned for some years in another place, also called Aram-naharaim? This is where a new search must begin.
Josephus (Antiquities, Book 1, chapter VII) says, “Nicolaus of Damascus, in the fourth book of his history, says thus:- ‘Abram reigned at Damascus, being a foreigner, who came with an army out of the land above Babylon, called the land of the Chaldeans’. . . . . Now the name of Abram is even still famous in the country of Damascus; and there is shown a village named from him, “the Habitation of Abram””
In the “Chronicles of Jerahmeel” (Chapter 35 §2) we read, “Now it came to pass, when Abram came from Babylon, he betook himself to Damascus, he and his household, and was made King over that City; for Eliezer was then the Ruler of Damascus, but when he saw that the Lord was with Abram, he presented him with the Kingdom and surrendered himself to his service. And I, Jerahmeel, have discovered in the Book of Nicolaus of Damascus that there existed a certain neighbourhood inDamascus called “the Dwelling Place of Abram”. This they honoured exceedingly.”
Ancient Jewish writers say (see Shalshalet Hakabala, folio 77§1) that the servants of Abram builtDamascus, and that he reigned over it. According to the Hastings Bible Dictionary (Article onDamascus) the Moslem tradition makes Eliezer the founder of the City of Damascus, and Abram King over the City before he went south into Palestine.
In Genesis 15:1-3 we read, “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will You give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold Youhave given me no offspring; and a servant born in my house will be my heir.’ On the surface this suggests that Eliezer was “born in his house” as a servant. According to the current laws of those days, a childless man would leave his estate to the chief servant. But here again, there is an anomaly in the Hebrew which first needs our attention. In the original it reads, “the heir of my house is this Damesek(of) Eliezer.” Damesek is the spelling of Damascus in Hebrew. In this reading it makes Damesek the name of Eliezer’s son, hence clearing up the contradiction with other statements made above, whereEliezer was King of Damascus. It seems that when Eliezer threw in his lot with Abram, and became his chief servant, a son was born to him, to whom he gave the name of the City in which they dwelt, not an improbable action at all for those days. This being the case, it implies that Abram was not only King of Damascus, but that he dwelled there for some time, Damesek being the “servant born in my house.”
All this is reasonable to follow, but it does not eliminate the main source of the problem, namely that he was said to dwell at Haran, and that the town was located “between the two rivers.” How can this problem be solved? I telephoned the Royal Geographic Society in London for help. As a result, after several investigations, I was sent a map of Damascus on which, to my delight, I found that some miles east of the City there is a village by the name of Harran-el-Aouamid, (the last word being pronouncedAwamid). Furthermore, it was located between two famous rivers, mentioned in the Bible in the days of Elisha, when Naaman the Syrian went to be healed. On being asked to wash in the Jordan, a muddy river, he complained, saying “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers of Israel?” The Abana is now called the Barada. In Grecian days it was called the Chrysorrhoas, meaning “Golden flowing stream” which flowed through the City of Damascus and supplied it with water from the Anti-Lebanon range. The Pharpar is now the Awaj, a river rising east of Mount Hermon. These rivers render the environs of Damascus, though bordering on a desert, one of the loveliest spots on earth. Harran-el-Awamid lies between these two rivers, and hence serves our text admirably. Aram-Naharaim, “Aram of the two rivers” is the amazingly fertile plain stretching from Damascus City out to the marshy regions some 25 miles eastwards, where Harran is located. Incidentally, I asked a friend who’s spent some years in the Lebanon, and who spoke Arabic, what the word Awamid meant. He said,it is the plural of a word meaning “pillars.” Hence the village is “Harran of the Pillars.” Any ideas?
Finally, we may ask the first question over again. What distance could Jacob travel with his herds and flocks in ten days? If, as the farmer suggested, it could only be between 50 and 100 miles, what do we find here? From Harran to Gilead is a distance of 84 miles. Furthermore, there would have been no problem at all in fording the Awaj.
If this thesis is correct, (and I have for the sake of brevity kept the account to the bare minimum,) then all the maps in Bible atlases, showing this part of the Levant, will have to be changed. I asked,what value is it to make this change? In one sense, wherever one finds anomalies in Scripture, an answer must be found. But my persuasion is that Genesis is already mocked by people instead of treating it as a reliable historical document. Any deeper analysis that adds to its reliability is worth the effort.
(I intended to add a map here showing the position of Harran el Awamid, but it required too large a volume, and I am only allowed 15 megabytes of webspace.)