Article of the Week

"In the Land of the Chaldeans": The Search for Abraham's Homeland Revisited

This daily feature is the introduction to a full article by Stephen O. Smoot that was published in our newest issue, 56:3. To read the full text of this article, follow the link below.

Readers of the Hebrew Bible first encounter Abram (later Abraham), the spiritual father of the three great monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—at the end of Genesis 11. There they discover he was the son of a certain Terah and claimed "Ur of the Chaldeans" as his home (Gen. 11:28). We might start by asking: do either the books of Genesis or Abraham offer any information about the ancient city most scholars consider Abraham's Ur (modern Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq)? Do these books say anything about Ur that converges with what we know about the history of the city in the late third to early second millennia bc, the supposed time of the historical Abraham? What about the middle of the first millennium bc, the time when many biblical scholars think the end of Genesis 11 was either composed or redacted?

Latter-day Saints have likewise been drawn to this discussion, given the existence of the Book of Abraham, which enjoys canonical status in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as part of the book of scripture called the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Abraham purports to be the autobiography of the eponymous patriarch and offers narrative details that on many points converge with Genesis. For instance, as in Genesis, Ur of the Chaldeans claims the privilege of being Abraham's ancestral and personal residence according to the Book of Abraham (Abr. 1:1; 2:1–4). Unlike Genesis, however, the Book of Abraham describes some kind of Egyptian influence or presence in Ur of the Chaldeans that almost resulted in Abraham’s execution for cultic offenses (Abr. 1:8–20).2 These additional elements in the Latter-day Saint scriptural tradition concerning the life of Abraham have, at least from a Latter-day Saint perspective, added some unique (and uniquely challenging) dynamics to the overall discussion about the historicity of the scriptural work "purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt."3

Indeed, the debate swirling around the historicity of Abraham has grown considerably since the rise of the historical-critical method of biblical studies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the great strides made in Syro-Palestinian and Mesopotamian archaeology in the past century. There exists an almost unending stream of monographs, articles, and other works exploring nearly every aspect of this subject. My efforts for this paper shall therefore be relatively modest. In this treatment, I will not attempt to stake out any definitive position for or against the historicity of Abraham either in Genesis or in the book of LDS scripture that bears his name. It would be impossible to do justice to any such attempt in such a short treatment. Rather, I shall focus my attention on highlighting and exploring a few elements of this debate and bring to focus what the current body of evidence can and cannot resolve for us.