ABRAHAM and his LANGUAGE

 

The subject is debated and in the following text we will try to limit ourselves to those facts that are clear. The text of Genesis itself is very helpful.

 

Genesis 11: 26 - 32.
Abraham lived in a town in Mesopotamia, called "Ur Casdim" . This town is usually considered to be the same as "Ur of the Chaldeans", but that is not certain.
"Ur" simply says "town" and there have been various towns with "Ur" in their name, also in what today is Syria or East Turkey, like in South East Iraq.

 

Abraham at the time was still called Abram and he was married to Sarai, a very beautiful woman. Her name later was changed into Sarah.

 

Abraham was the son of Terah (Teragh), son of Nahor 1 (Naghor). Very old research, in Hebrew called "Midrash", reveals that Abraham and his youngest brother Haran worked and lived together with their father Terah, who made and sold idols .

 

Abram and Haran understood that the idols they made themselves, had nothing divine. They also realized that there can be only one God. They became convinced monotheists and made no secret of it. This brought them in conflict with the established authorities of Ur Casdim.

 

They were persecuted and condemned. Haran was executed by fire, but Abraham succeeded in escaping death. Then Terah decided to leave Ur Casdim with Abraham and Sarai and with Lot the son of Haran. They wanted to go west, to the Land of Canaan near the Mediterranean. But instead they interrupted their journey at a place called Haran (Gharan) and settled there. Terah died in Haran.

 

The second brother, Nahor 2 (Naghor), is not mentioned as having travelled west with his father as well. But, unless he lived in the region of Haran, either he or his offspring have moved to there , as later his son Bethuel, his grandchildren Laban and Rebecca, and of course Lea and Rachel lived there . From Genesis 31: 30-35, 53 it is clear that Laban and his children still used idols, besides believing in :"The God of Abraham, The God of Nahor (may - judge between us), the Gods of their Fathers ". Later eleven of Ya'aqov's twelve sons were born there . A town nearby had the name "Nahor". Genesis 25: 5 defines Laban and his father Bethuel as Arameans. Deuteronomium 26: 5 confirms the word "Aramean", though it is not clear if it refers to Ya'akov, to Abraham or to the Patriarchs.

 

Genesis 24: 4 - 10
Terah and his family did not just by chance settle in Haran, that was more than simply a town they would have passed through. Abraham himself calls that region "the Land of my birth". Thus Abraham and Terah, after having encountered deadly problems in Ur Casdim, came back home in the western part of the Fertile Crescent.

 

This is confirmed in the text, as Abraham upon sending his main servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, specifies that God "..took me from my father's house and my native land ", while he already lived in Haran. In the text the region is also called "Aram Naharaim", or "Aram of the two rivers", exactly where Haran was.

 

Usually it is presumed that Abraham was born in a town with "Ur" in its name and especially in "Ur of the Chaldeans", a supposition based on the hypothesis that Ur of the Chaldeans and Ur Casdim would have been two names for the same town, and that Abraham and his family lived there when he was a grown-up. Further as well that the text says that his brother Haran was born in Ur Casdim . Instead according to Abraham himself he was born in Aram Naharaim. Genesis 15: does not contradict this.

 

Not documented but quite probable is that Terah with his family left Aram Naharaim for the important town Ur Casdim , in order to make use of a bigger market for his idols. Abraham was the first son, Haran the third, certainly born in Ur Casdim.

 

Some scholars believe that Ur Casdim was near Haran in the North Western part of The Fertile Crescent, whereas Ur of the Chaldeans was in the South East, near the Persian Gulf.

 

Genesis 12: 1 - 5.
Haran was situated in what today is northernmost Syria, between the two big rivers. In Haran Abraham became rich and gathered many souls around him, obviously converting them to monotheism. This may be considered as an early step to the creation of the Hebrew people .

 

While in Haran, Abraham was told by God to go south to Canaan and so he did, with all his riches and with his many followers. He built altars to God in various places and for much time settled down at Hebron, with his tents. Thus this nucleus of the future Hebrew people acted as an independent unit.

 

Genesis 14: 12 - 16
In Canaan territorial boundaries were little known or not very consequential. Tribes of various origin, Semitic and non, lived, usually in peace, among each other. But sometimes war broke out and also Abraham, rich and powerful, fought very successfully with his small army of 318 men, in particular to free Lot .

 

His campaign took him even north of Damascus. But he had different war ethics. He freed the kidnapped people, retook all booty and returned 90% of the stolen goods to the rightful owners, without accepting any reward. The other 10% he gave to the monotheist king-priest Malki Tsedeq (The Just King) of Salem (Jerusalem?), who welcomed him with bread and wine and blessed him in the name of the only God (El Elyon).

 

Hebrew, the word and name. Genesis 14 - 13 speaks for the first time of "Abram Haivri" or "Abram the Hebrew".

 

The word "Ivrý = Hebrew" has possible cognates in many ancient texts, in terms like "'apiru" and "habiru" that indicate people that were not of the traditionally settling kind, in all sorts of variations, or migrants. It referred to Semitic people that migrated and rendered services, often becoming well-to-do.

 

The root "Ayin + vowel, Beth, Resh" in Semitic carries this message. The initial "Ayin + vowel" may alternate with "H + vowel" as seen in the mentioned words . This is confirmed in Egyptian texts that use an initial " H " in "habiru" that in several cases obviously refers to "Hebrews". But "Habiru" is applied to many groups, individuals and powerful communities that existed before the Hebrew people as such came into being. Even Terah and Abram, like many others in the second millennium, probably might have been defined as migrants or "Habiru".

 

So the original meaning of the root is "he who passes" or "migrant" and many figurative or secondary meanings occur but should not mislead us. As name for the Hebrew people, in its Hebrew version "'Ivrý", it was accepted and maintained also when Abraham remained settled, be it living in large tents, in Hebron for many years. And as well subsequently when in Egypt the Hebrews remained settled, in houses among the Egyptians, for four centuries .

 

The Torah is written by Jews, Hebrews, which means that the name "'Ivri" was fully accepted as a self-definition. This does not change because also "Benei Israel (Sons of Israel)" and later "Yehudim (Jews)" were used. As mentioned, Genesis 25: 5 defines Laban and his father Bethuel as "Arameans".

 

The language Abraham spoke.
The mentioned facts leave no doubt. Abraham spoke the language of Aram between the rivers.
This language must have been within the group of Northwest-Semitic. At the time it may have had its dialects but seems not yet to have split up into distinct but still very similar branches like Aramaic , Phoenician and of course Hebrew.

 

The Hebrew language in Israel and Egypt.

 

Languages as distinguished from others are shaped and developed among people that form communities, sharing common interests and vicissitudes. Thus early Hebrew came to life in the period of the Patriarchs in Israel.

 

An indication of this development is seen in Genesis 31: 43 - 48, when Ya'aqov and Laban choose different words from what was still the same language in order to indicate the "mound of testimony".

 

The striking fact is that the Hebrews during over four centuries of living together with and among the people of Egypt have rigidly maintained:

     

  1. Monotheism
  2. The detailed organization in twelve tribes
  3. The Hebrew language.

     

 

 

 

 
Created: Tuesday 6 November 2007 at 22.30.54 Updated: Thursday 10 January 2013 at 20.01.25