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According to the traditional view, Abraham began his migration from Ur in the southern Mesopotamian plain. Some scholars, however, prefer an Ur located in northwestern Mesopotamia, noting that all other references to the patriarchal homeland point to that direction. Yet the evidence for a northern Ur is meager. Leaving Ur, Abraham and his kin probably traveled up the Euphrates River to Haran. An alternate route followed the Tigris River north to the Assyrian city Asshur and thence westward across the steppes. Like Ur, a center of trade and worship of the moon god Sin, Haran lay in the region of the Habor and Balikh Rivers, a steppe land that afforded pastures and water. Genesis 11:31 implies an extended stay in the Haran region, where Abraham’s father, Terah, died.
Documents from the Middle Bronze Age refer to towns near Haran bearing names similar to Abraham’s kinsmen: Serug, Pethor, and Nahor. The biblical terms Paddan-aram (Gen. 28:2) and Aram-naharaim (Gen. 24:10; usually translated “Mesopotamia”) apparently refer to the region of the Balikh and Habor Rivers surrounding Haran. The patriarchs maintained close ties with this area; both Abraham and Isaac sought wives for their sons from kindred people who lived near Haran (Gen. 24, 28).
Entering Canaan. The route Abraham’s clan took from Haran to Canaan is uncertain, although it seems logical they took one of several available trade routes. The most direct led across the desert to Damascus by way of the Tadmor Oasis. A less dangerous but longer route followed the main branch of the International Coastal Highway through Carchemish past Aleppo and Qatna to Damascus. From Damascus, the King’s Highway led southward into Transjordan.
Abraham and his clan entered Canaan from the east, descending from the Transjordan Plateau via the Jabbok River. An alternative crossing near Hazor on the Upper Jordan also was possible, though less likely. Across the way, the Wadi Farah invited the group upward to Shechem in the mountains of western Palestine. Following the watershed road southward, Abraham encamped in the gentle hills between Bethel and Ai before proceeding farther south into the Negeb (Gen. 12:5–9). Eventually, a famine forced the clan to seek relief in Egypt, although the stay was temporary (Gen. 12:10–20).
Abraham in the Promised Land. Abraham’s movements in Palestine were typical of the migrations of the later patriarchs, as an examination of Genesis 12–50 makes clear. The locations mentioned cluster in two basic areas: (1) the central mountains of western Palestine (Shechem, Ai, Bethel), and (2) the Negeb and the desert lands farther south (Beer-sheba, Beer-lahai-roi, Hebron [Kiriath-arba], Mamre, and Kadesh). These regions offered good grazing areas for the clan’s herds and flocks. The oscillation between the mountains and the Negeb is best explained as seasonal migrations required by climatic changes, a process known as transhumance. During the winter the clan moved the animals south into the Negeb and the marginal wilderness areas where winter rains provided grass for grazing. During the hot summer months the patriarchs sought relief from the heat as well as grazing lands in the higher elevation of the mountains. The periodic migrations of the patriarchal clan match the pattern of small herdsman moving their encampments seeking seasonal grazing lands.
Genesis 12–50 mentions a few sites beyond the limits of these seasonal migrations (see maps 19 and 20). Abraham’s nephew Lot settled in Sodom, one of five “cities of the plain” destroyed in a cataclysmic destruction brought on by the depth of their sin (Gen. 13; 19). These cities—Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar—along with other peoples living in the southern Transjordan were the target of a military venture led by four kings from the north. It was during this onslaught that Abraham rescued Lot and received the blessing of Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem) and priest of the Most High God (Gen. 14).
The precise location of these “cities of the plain” remains a mystery, although several suggestions have been made. A few scholars believe the cities lie beneath the shallow waters of the southern end of the Dead Sea, though no evidence has been found. Possibly, the Early Bronze Age ruins located along the small wadis in the Arabah south of the Dead Sea are the remains of these infamous towns. A large Early Bronze Age cemetery at Bab ed-Dhra on the Lisan Peninsula that contained thousands of burials reminds us that this desolate and foreboding region of salt outcrops and bitumen once supported a large population.
Occasionally, the patriarchal migrations brought them into contact with their sedentary neighbors. Both Abraham and Isaac lived for a time in Gerar on the southern coastal plain while Abimelech was king (Gen. 20; 26). The dispute over water rights with herdsmen of Gerar underscores the type of conflict that erupted when the needs of clan and town clashed (Gen. 26:18–33). For the most part, however, relations between the patriarchs and their urban neighbors must have been more cordial, as, for example, when Abraham purchased a burial site for his clan from the sons of Heth—Hittites—in Hebron (Gen. 23). The cave of Machpelah in Ephron’s field became the final resting place for Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah.
Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas, Holman Reference (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998)