The first 11 chapters in the Bible cover roughly 2,000 years of Earth’s early history. Almost half of that is about Noah. The remaining 1178 chapters of the Bible are about Abraham, his children, and the promises God made to him. And yet about Abraham’s early life, we know almost nothing. What we do know comes mostly from one passage – Genesis 11:27-12:4.
Why did God call Abraham? Why was it Abraham whom God made father of the faithful? Why does Abraham deserve a divinely-inspired Bible, why not Terah, or Shem? These are questions that have always bugged me.
The first event in Abraham’s life for which we have a date comes when Abraham was 75 years old – which is already pretty old, though not as old as it sounds, since he lived to be 175 years old. Abraham was 75 when God called him out of the land of Haran, and sent him to wander around Canaan and Egypt. As far as we are told, this is the first direct interaction God has with him.
What happened after that is covered pretty well in Genesis 12-25, but I want to go back and ask “what happened before?” Why did Abraham leave Ur? Why did Terah take his whole family with him? And why, above all, did the Bible bother to tell us “And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees”?
As far as we can tell, this is a completely useless piece of information. Haran is never mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. This doesn’t help us date Abraham’s life or anything. And sure, it’s sad Haran died, but he’s hardly the only person who died young in history – why was he worth such special mention?
You can read this passage again and again, and at face value nothing presents itself as an explanation; yet we know that, like all scripture, this verse must be “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). So what does it mean? It doesn’t say, but we can reason a very convincing story – at least, I think so. You be the judge.
First, let’s observe the facts. Abraham didn’t leave Ur on his own – it says that Terah, his father, “took Abram his son…” and went to Haran. Now obviously the place they went to didn’t happen to be named after their dead relative – they gave it that name once they got there (even though the spelling is slightly different in Hebrew, I can’t accept it being a coincidence).
This shows us that Haran was a figure beloved enough to warrant the naming of a town after him – something often reserved for the person who founded the town, or the god it honored. It also tells us that they left what was, at the time, one of the largest and richest cities on earth to go live at the edge of the known world. People do this for a variety of reasons, but historically, by far the most common reason to face pioneering a new life in the desert is persecution.
That suggests a reason why Haran was dead – some sort of persecution that made it unsafe for Terah’s family to continue living in the Babylonian Empire. It would have taken months of travel to arrive in Haran – traveling from the Persian Gulf to the edge of modern Turkey.
So since it was Terah who “took” his family there, we’d be tempted to assume Terah was righteous, and was troubled by the spreading religion of Babel, which was not far from Ur and had corrupted the entire Mesopotamian plain by then. But Joshua 24:2-3 tells us that Terah was an idol-worshiper, and thus was not righteous!
…and yet he left. Why? “And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees”. Reading that, we tend to assume it means that He died chronologically “before” his father. But that’s self-evident, since he died 150 years or so before Terah died!
But “before” has another, less common meaning in English: “in front of”. Thus, the YLT translates this verse “and Haran dieth in the presence of Terah his father”. This clarifies some things, but raises more questions – what child has ever died without their parent being present? If it was at all possible, certainly EVERY person has died in his family’s presence. So why bother saying this?
The Bible presents this as a fact that we need to know. So let’s assume that it is. If Haran didn’t die of some sickness, with his father at his bedside – which wouldn’t be very helpful for us to know – then he must have died violently. If violently, there are three major options; in war, which means his father probably wouldn’t have been present.
Or in some sort of a street brawl, mugging, or whatever; or else he was murdered or executed! If this last, then it again suggests that Terah left because it wasn’t safe to be there. But if Haran was simply murdered, that wouldn’t explain why the entire family wasn’t safe!
But if he was executed, or killed in a riot for something he said… that would explain why it was necessary to leave town in a hurry, with all your relatives! And to name your new home after the martyred son!
Lot has always been a disappointing hero to me. His righteous soul was vexed in Sodom, but he doesn’t seem to have been outspoken about it (2 Peter 2:7-8). It clearly wasn’t safe to speak out in Sodom (Genesis 19:4-7). Yet when the townspeople wanted to rape his angelic guests, Lot’s solution was to let them rape his daughters instead (verse 8).
Then when Lot finally left town, being delivered from a city that wanted to rape and murder him (verse 9), rather than be grateful we see him dragging his feet (verses 15-16) and finally having to be drug out of the city.
Then, when they told him to flee to the mountains (the same advice Jesus gave the end-time saints, actually (Luke 21:21)), we see him whining in fear and bargaining to save an evil city God had intended to destroy, rather than go to the mountains (Genesis 19:17-22).
Then we see that whatever the state of his faith, his wife’s heart clearly lay back in Sodom (verse 26). Lot, having begged to be allowed to stay in a city, and receiving the angel’s blessing to do so, then was too afraid to actually stay there (verses 29-30). Then his two daughters roofied him and raped him (verses 31-38). This wasn’t technically his fault, but, who raised his daughters?
All in all, as I said, Lot was a disappointment as a role model. And yet… God give him an inheritance equal to Abraham – in fact, Lot got first choice! Genesis 13:5-13. If Lot had chosen Canaan, the rest of the chapter would have read differently (verses 14-17). So why?
For that matter, why did Lot go with Abraham when God called him out of Haran, when no one else in his family did? There were many brothers, cousins, and nephews in Haran when Abraham left; why did Lot go?
The simplest answer seems to be to me that Lot and Abraham had similar beliefs. Unlike pagan Terah, they both were righteous, and vexed by sin. Laban, three generations later, still had idols, which Rachel stole (Genesis 31:30-35). So idolatry still ran in the family back in Haran, but apparently not with Abraham and Lot. People have left home for much less – you yourself might have done so.
It wasn’t until Genesis 35:2-4 that Jacob got the idols all out of his house after he got married. So righteous Lot and righteous Abraham; then we ask the question, why did Lot abhor idols? Where did he learn that? And the most obvious answer is from his father, Haran.
This explains why Lot was blessed, because not only did he follow Abraham, but he was being blessed for his father’s deeds as well, not unlike how Solomon inherited David’s blessing. But it also suggests, again, a reason why Haran died in Ur – standing up for the truth against the people who taught sodomites how to be evil!
We know Terah wasn’t righteous; but we know that Abraham, at least later, was. God must have seen something in him, even in Ur, that was worth saving, because God says “And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it” (Genesis 15:7).
So God orchestrated the events that brought Abraham out of Ur, yet He doesn’t say “I called you” out of Ur; He said “I brought you”. God called him out of Haran. Now whom does God call? 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. If this pattern holds true, God called Abraham because, while he had potential, he was also a deeply flawed person.
The same pattern as Jacob, who was a liar and deceiver as a youth, as Esau said, “Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing” (Genesis 27:36). And yet of these two, before they were born, God said, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Romans 9:13).
We know Abraham lacked faith later in life, when he lied about his wife in Egypt (Genesis 20). Note the reason Abraham lied was fear (verse 11). He was around 99 years old at this point. There was also a lack of faith when he had a child with Hagar, rather than waiting to have it with Sarah as God had promised.
It wasn’t until after his final test in Genesis 22:12, 30 or so years later, that Abraham’s faith really matured. If we extend that backwards to his rash youth, we can gather that Abraham did not really seem to be the “father of the faithful” when he still lived in Ur – just another brash, arrogant, faithless young man. Like all of us.
Yet unlike all of us, Abraham was one in whom, alone in a world of idolaters and sinners, God saw the potential for faith. A man who had the potential to be the friend of God – and so over the next hundred years, God led him through a narrow and rocky road, testing him and helping him grow into the person God knew he could be.
Given all this, we can now extrapolate a pretty coherent story of Haran’s life. Some is speculation, but most of this is pretty well reasoned. So let’s put it all together.
Abraham, Nahor, and Haran were born in Ur, not far from Babel, perhaps 100-200 years after God destroyed the tower. The deceptions of the false church were in full swing and gaining momentum, yet not so far along that it seemed impossible to turn back the tide to righteousness – at least, not to young Haran and Abraham.
So they reasoned in the gates, in the temples, trying to persuade people to go back and believe the words Noah spoke, and not the lies of Ishtar and Tammuz. But they were fighting an uphill battle, because Ishtar had fun celebrations and temple prostitutes on her side, while Haran and Abraham only had laws and righteousness – cold bedfellows.
Haran was the leader, the bold, fearless one. Abraham spoke too, but Abraham feared what would happen when Haran went too far in criticizing the leaders of their city – knowing that when you tell people their deeds are evil, they have a habit of killing you for your trouble (Acts 7:54, Hebrews 11:32-38).
Terah begged his sons to stop this absurd religion and love Ishtar like everyone else did; but still they persisted, they would discuss the words of Noah and Shem until way into the night, as young Lot listened and learned.
For the ending of the story, there are a few possibilities. Perhaps they felt more and more unwelcome in Ur, and were prepared to leave just before the townspeople gathered to stone them. Haran, always the faithful and courageous one, delayed them while Terah got his family away safely. This would certainly justify naming a city after him.
But the ending I like best is based on the fact that faith is born of failure. Peter did the most powerful miracles recorded in the NT, yet Peter denied Christ in His moment of trial (Matthew 26:72, 74). Paul claimed to have done more miracles than all the apostles, yet Paul was the greatest of sinners (1 Timothy 1:12-16).
Yet Paul said he received abundant grace, mercy, and with them faith because of his dark past. Knowing that, how could the father of the faithful not have a dark past? So the ending I prefer is:
After years of trying to persuade an apostate city to turn back to the God of Noah their father, Haran and Abraham went out to have a showdown with the priests of Tammuz and Ishtar, but the crowd was hostile, things got rough, and fearful Abraham fled, leaving Haran to be murdered by the mob.
Abraham fled back home and Terah, knowing if he stayed his whole family would be killed by association, packed in haste and fled as far from Ur as he could, leaving by night so he wouldn’t be seen.
But if either story is true, then this story fulfills yet another pattern of the Exodus – for it would mean that Abraham was no stranger to fleeing a sinful and oppressive country by night, the price of his freedom the blood of a righteous sacrifice which paid for the salvation of his house.
Just as his descendants would find themselves doing 400 years later.