Answering this question is actually a fairly easy one to tackle. But there are two ways to go about it, and each way gives us a different picture of what the biblical writer is trying to do in Genesis.
In Genesis 11:26-32, we get the story about Terah, the father of Abraham (whose name was slightly different at this point, “Abram.”):
- When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran.
- Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.
- Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran (Genesis 11:26-32 ESV).
In summary, Abraham’s family moves from the land of Ur (in modern day Iraq), to Haran (in modern day Turkey), an area about half-way along the journey, across the Fertile Crescent, well short of reaching Canaan.
Terah eventually dies while the family is in Haran. But then the story picks up from there, in the very next chapter:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1-5a ESV).
You can spot a difficulty, highlighted in the first verse of chapter 12, where at first glance, the text tells you, “Now the Lord said to Abram….” If you assume a straight reading, of a chronological, sequence of events, it gives you the impression that Abraham received the call to go to the land of Canaan (arriving in Shechem, in the above map), after his father Terah died, while in Haran.
But when you compare this to other passages in the Bible, such as Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 (see Acts 7:2), and Genesis 15:7, you get a different idea as to where Abraham received his call:
And he said to him [Abraham], “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” (Genesis 15:7 ESV).
Using the time-honored principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture, you get the clear idea that Abraham received his call to go the Canaan, while he was still living in Ur…. NOT Haran.
So, what is the deal with Genesis 12:1, where a translation like the ESV (English Standard Version) gives you the impression that Abraham got his call while in Haran?
Grammatically speaking, it all comes down to how verb tenses work in the Hebrew language. In a strictly literal sense, the verb structure of this verse indicates, when the Lord “said,” should be rendered in the past tense. Therefore, more strictly literal translations of this verse, like here in the ESV, as well as the CSB (Christian Standard Bible), and the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version), records something like, “Now the LORD said to Abram,” which is in the past tense, indicating that the event took place at that moment in the past, in the narrative of the text.
A looser, or less strictly literal translation, in this particular case, like the KJV (King James Version), the NIV (New International Version), or the NLT (New Living Translation), reads something like, “Now the LORD had said to Abram,” which is in the past perfect tense, indicating the event had already taken place, prior to where it appears in the text. If you look at the ESV passage again, you will see that the ESV sort of covers both bases, by having the “had said” down in a footnote. This would allow the reader to understand that the call of Abraham happened prior to Terah’s death in Haran, permissibly allowing the reader to sync up the chronology with those other passages of the Bible, to show that Abraham was called to go to Canaan, while still living in the land of Ur.
So, we get our answer to the question, that Abraham got his call from God while in Ur, but it still leaves a nagging thought: Why are there these differences in all of these English Bible translations?
Many modern Christians will often read the Book of Genesis, looking for a rather strict chronology of events, assuming that the author is laying things out in a sequential narrative from. But in order to get that strict chronology of events, some Bible translations opt to render the verb in the past perfect tense, in order to more clearly line up the chronology. We see this same type of verb syntax structure in Genesis 2:7 and Genesis 2:19.
But is it permissible for Bible translators to do that? Can a past tense verb, like this, be interpreted in the past perfect, and still stay true to Hebrew grammar? Is the Hebrew verb syntax that flexible? Apparently, some Bible scholars say, YES (C. John Collins), whereas others say NO (Claude Mariottini).
The scholars on the “YES” side of this debate help to easily resolve the chronological problem, but they do so at a cost. The ironic story with this controversy, is that in order to nail down and harmonize a strict chronology, you have to use a looser, or less strict method of biblical translation to arrive at harmonizing such a strict chronology. Conversely, if you follow a more strict method of biblical translation here, it can sort of gum up your ability to reconstruct a strict, chronological sequence of events.
Did you follow that?
Well, there is a bit more to it, actually.
One might conclude that the “NO” side of the scholars; that is, those who argue that the past perfect tense is not allowed here, is somehow insinuating that there might be some sort of “error” of chronology in the Bible. However, such a cynical judgment is not really necessary.
Consider how yet another strictly literal translation, in this case, such as the NET Bible, handles this difficulty in Genesis 12:1, in the notes:
The Lord called Abram while he was in Ur (see Gen 15:7; Acts 7:2), but the sequence here makes it look like it was after the family left to migrate to Canaan (11:31-32). Genesis records the call of Abram at this place in the narrative because it is the formal beginning of the account of Abram. The record of Terah was brought to its end before this beginning.
In other words, there is a reasonable chronology at play here in this text, namely that Abraham did, in fact, receive the call while in Ur, and NOT in Haran. However, the biblical writer is using a type of narrative style that is not exclusively concerned with giving the reader a strict chronology, upon a casual reading. Instead, the biblical writer is arranging the material in a more highly stylistic, and less chronologically-oriented, manner. First, Genesis 11:26-32 tells us the story of Terah. But once done with Terah, the writer refocuses the story on the person of Abraham. Still, Genesis 11:26-32 provides some general context for the “big story,” that centers around Abraham.
We will come back to that “big story” in a moment, but consider this: Those who are drawn towards a more modern approach, looking for a straight-forward, chronologically sequential report, when reading the Bible, might be puzzled: Is there any good evidence for a less chronologically-concerned approach to telling the story?
Just look back in Genesis 11:26, where we read, “When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran.” When I first studied this passage years ago, I got the sense that Abraham, Nahor, and Haran, were all born in the same year. Furthermore, the writer of Genesis was following a practice, common in contemporary journalism and historical writing, of mentioning children being born, in their birth order: Abraham was born first, Nahor second, and finally Haran. Whether we are talking triplets or twins somewhere here, is another question, but the birth order seems self-evident (Some translations, like the NIV and NLT, try to help the reader out, by saying something like: “After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abraham, Nahor, and Haran,” but I digress).
Following a strictly chronological, sequential report approach, you might get the impression that Terah was 70 years old when Abraham was born. But if you do the math, such a strictly literal reading of the text does not work. For if Terah died at age 205 (Genesis 11:32) and Abraham was 75 when he left Haran to go to Canaan (Genesis 12:4), you end up with a contradiction, a 60 year difference (Terah’s age at death: 205 minus 75, gives you 130, NOT 70).
The issue is plausibly resolved by adopting a less chronological orientation to the text. This would indicate that Abraham was mentioned first in Genesis 11:26, not because he was the first born son, which would make him chronologically the first one born, but because Abraham had a special place of honor.
It would be through the line of Abraham that the Messiah would come, and not through the line of his two other brothers. This allows the reader to understand that Abraham was born at a later point in time, most probably after either (or both) Nahor and/or Haran, when Terah was 130 years old, and not 70. The discrepancy is resolved, but it requires a view of Genesis 11:26 that is not concerned with strict chronology.
Likewise, consider the ordering of events a bit earlier in Genesis, between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11. Genesis 10 tells us the table of nations, describing the status of the nations, after they were dispersed by differentiation in language. But Genesis 11:1 tells us that all of the peoples of the earth spoke in just one language! All this happens before the Tower of Babel incident, when the dispersal of the people, into different language groups, occurs.
Did the writer get confused in the chronological ordering of events? Not necessarily. The NET Bible comments on this discrepancy with the following:
Genesis 11 begins with everyone speaking a common language, but chap. 10 has the nations arranged by languages. It is part of the narrative art of Genesis to give the explanation of the event after the narration of the event.
Interesting. “The narrative art of Genesis.”
Here are yet a couple of additional examples, where a modern reader would normally assume a strictly chronological presentation of events, but the biblical writer has some other purpose in mind. It is less a chronological telling of a sequence of events, and more of a form of art. Even a ministry, such as Answers in Genesis, which normally assumes a very strict chronological sequencing in the text of Genesis, admits that a strict chronological sequencing of events between Genesis 10 and 11 is not in view here.
Let’s go back to Abraham. Here is the bigger story:
God is calling Abraham to leave everything behind in Genesis 12, including his family and his father’s household, to go the Canaan. But Abraham is only partway obedient to the call. Though we do not know the details, Abraham does not leave his family, as he was commanded by God to do, but instead, manages to possibly persuade his father to travel in the direction towards the land of Canaan. But Terah only gets so far. As both Ur and Haran were known to be centers of moon worship, it was perhaps considered too risky by Terah to make the entire journey to Canaan, and fully leave behind his paganism.
The partial obedience of Abraham highlights the character of Abraham, as a man who has faith in the God of the Bible, but who is a bit reluctant to follow through on everything God asks him to do. In many ways, the story of Abraham mirrors the story of Israel as a nation. Yes, Israel as a nation is the people of God, set aside for a purpose, in particular for bringing the Messiah into the world. And yet, Israel often fails miserably in being fully obedient to that very calling.
But what is the big deal about Abraham being called out of Ur, as opposed to Haran?
It is important to remember that Ur simply is not any old place on the map. The land of Ur is squarely located in the same geographical area as Babylon, what would later become Israel’s chief nemesis, that would destroy its first Temple, and lead God’s people into exile, in a foreign land, beginning in 587 B.C.
Abraham’s journey from Ur to Canaan sets the reader up to better understand the Jewish later hope, during the Babylonian captivity, that they might return to the Promised Land from their period of exile. As John Sailhamer puts it, in his Genesis commentary, in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series, “Abraham thus becomes a prefigurement of future exiles who, like him, wait in faith for the coming of God’s blessing” (Kindle location, 5275). See also the prophet Micah’s identification of the Jews in exile, awaiting for their return to the land, with Abraham (Micah 7:18-20).
So, we got the big picture, but there are apparently two ways to get here.
Some focus on reading Genesis, in a very modern way, imagining it to be recording a strictly chronological sequence of events. But it is easy to get stumped by passages like Genesis 12:1 in the process of piecing that chronology together. Sure, you can probably put such a chronology together, but if you have made it this far in reading this blog post, you realize that you have to work pretty hard to get at it.
Perhaps the biblical writer does have a strict chronological sequence of events in mind, but he does not make it obviously easy for the reader to figure that out.
The other way is to take a more open-minded approach, appreciating that the writer of Genesis may not be so concerned about handing us a strict, sequential chronology, as so many modern readers tend to expect. As Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser says, we should have the courage to “let the Bible be the Bible,” and trust that God knows what He is doing through the writings of the human, biblical writer. This does not necessarily rule out the possibility of reconstructing a type of chronology, but it does encourage us to consider that reading the Book of Genesis is simply not like a reading a newspaper, or the latest David McCullogh, New York Times best selling history book. Rather, the Book of Genesis really stands as a unique type of art form, all on its own.