Abraham and His Princess

by Arthur C. Custance

(Extract from "Hidden Things of God's Revelation" Zondervan, 1977 ISBN 0-310-23021-7)

Although this is not strictly the starting point of Abraham's story, I should like to begin with his stay in Haran. It is customary to look upon his stay here as an example of partial obedience. The Lord called him to go into the Promised Land, we are told; but he went only halfway. This may be a justifiable interpretation perhaps, but the text itself seems rather to indicate that Terah, his father, was the one who decided to make the first move. In Hebrews 11:8 it is said that Abraham, when he was called to go into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed. Genesis 12:1 indicates that the "call" came rather when Abraham was already in Haran rather than when he was in Ur. The text of Genesis 11:31 reads, "And Terah took Abram his son and Lot, . . . and Sarai. . .; and they went forth from Ur of the Chaldees to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there."

Now, Haran was not just a city like any other city, but had a special significance for the traveler, a significance underscored by the fact that Haran bore a unique relationship to the city of Ur. In the first place, the name Kahar-ra-nu is not Semitic being a derivation from the Sumerian word, Kharran meaning "a road." (This is dealt with interestingly by W. St. Chad Boscawen, "Historical Evidences of the Migration of Abram," Trans. Vict. Instit. 20 (1886): 117-18. The information given is most complete). In a bilingual vocabulary this word is given as an equivalent of the Assyrian words Daragu and Metik, the first being related to the Hebrew word meaning "a road" or "a way"; and the second related to a further Hebrew word, which means "to transfer," in the sense of transport. Kharranu is also an ideographic reading of the cuniform, the ancient form of which clearly represented a crossroads. It was, therefore, a city which derived its name because it lay on one of the great road junctions of the Tigro-Euphrates Valley and other roads from the north and west. Even today, from its various gateways roads branch off to Mosul, to Diarbeker, Berijik via Ofra to Balis and other places. In ancient times the roads from Carchemish and Nineveh and Babylon all met bore.

But even more important, though these circumstances would be quite sufficient to explain why Terah settled here, is the fact that it was chiefly noted in ancient times as being the site of a well-known temple of the Moon-god, Sin—the same deity that was the divine patron of Ur. This temple was called Bit-Khul-Khul, which is taken to mean "The House of Great Brightness," the reduplication being intended to signify superlative light. A cylinder of Nabonidus of Babylon, who was the father of Beltshazzar of Daniel's time, refers to it as "The House of Sin Which is Within the City of Kharran." He has occasion to mention it because he records his restoration of it. We find, therefore, a very close link of a special kind (i.e., religious) between Ur and Haran, so that Terah who worshiped this deity found himself very much at home. (There was a time when it was held by scholars that the Hebrew people originated not in Mesopotamia, Abrabam's birthplace, but in Arabia. I do not believe that this latter view is any longer held with much conviction. Linguistic evidence is positively against it. For example, the Arabic word for "ostrich" is na'am, and Arabia is the home of this creature. But the Hebrew word for ostrich is ya'en. Similarly, the wild ox is called in Hebrew re'em which appears in Assyrian as remu. This word is also found in Arabic, but here it is applied to a quite different animal. The explanation of this is probably that the Hebrews and Assyrians shared the word for the same animals, but the Arabs, emigrating from a country such as Babylonia, carried the name with them into their new land but, finding no wild oxen there, applied it to another animal. See John Urguhart, Modern Discoveries and the Bible, Marshall Bros., London, 1898, pp.311 ff. and 323ff).

However, this is still not the whole story. For although one has a picture of gross paganism and obscene forms of worship associated with all Babylonian religions, there is evidence from an inscription of Nabonidus that even in his time, many centuries later, there were still men who saw through the corrupted outward forms an inner sublime truth. It was as though, as Paul put it in Romans 1:28, they held the truth (the Greek even allows the word retained) in unrighteousness, i.e., they still maintained fragments of an earlier pure faith encrusted with the corrupting influences of later centuries. At any rate, the following prayer, the author of which was none other than Nabonidus himself, was found in the ruins of the temple of the moon-god, at Ur:

Oh Sin, Lord of the Gods, King ofthe Gods of Heaven and Earth, [andl God of the Gods who inhabit the heavens, the mighty ones, for this temple with joy at thy entrance, may thy lips establish the blessing of Bit Sagila, Bit Zida, and Bit Giz-nugal, the temples of thy great divinity. Set the fear of thy great divinity in the hearts of his people that they err not; for thy great divinity may their foundations remain firm like the Heavens. As for me, Nabonidus, King of Babylon, preserve me from sinning against thy great divinity, and grant me the gift of a life of long days; and plant in the heart of Bel-sarra-utzur [Belshazzar], the eldest son, the offspring of my heart, reverence for thy great divinity, and never may he incline to sin. With fulness of life may he be satisfied. (Given by Boscawen, ref. 4, p. 113).

Such, then, at a much later date was the spirit of one man worshiping in Ur and restoring a temple to this God of Gods in Haran. Long before, the spirit of worship may have had even purer and clearer light both in Ur and Haran, so that perhaps Abraham was not brought up altogether without the influences of some quite devout worship. And perhaps the very grossness and depravity of Canaanite religion, which would presumably be much better known among the people of Haran who were closer to it than the people of Ur a thousand miles away, discouraged Terah from going any further. But when Terah died in Haran, then the call came to Abraham to undertake by faith what his father had feared to do.

Abraham then set out from Haran taking with him his family and servants. Like Paul, he was a citizen of no mean city. The civilizations of both Ur and Haran were complex and well developed. He was a city dweller originally and not unnaturally, therefore, he looked not for a country but for a city (Hebrews 11:10). His first settlement in the Land of Promise appears to have been uneventful and fairly brief, being terminated by a famine which led him to journey on into Egypt. As he entered this ancient land, he realized that his wife, being such a beautiful woman, might be a source of danger to himself since he supposed that some of the Egyptians in authority with whom he expected to do business would desire her for themselves and might take steps to have himself put out of the way.

Looking at a picture of women in Palestine of not so long ago who were veiled so that only their eyes show, one might wonder how the Egyptians would be able to "look upon her" and "see her." The critics jumped on this immediately and said, "This is a fairy story, a projection from a much later age when women had more freedom." The fact is that the monuments show that the later customs of the East were not those of ancient Egypt, whose women moved about freely and did not conceal their faces. Indeed, they dressed—to use a modern term—revealingly; their clothing was often quite diaphanous. Had this story been written centuries later by a Jew living in Palestine, he would surely either have added an explanatory note saying why her beauty was so evident (for the benefit of his contemporary readers) or he would never even have imagined such an event.

The critics also pointed out that Abraham's suspicions regarding the intentions of the Egyptians seemed in sharp contrast to the known fact that at this particular period in their history, the Egyptians were quite open and friendly with foreigners. (Joseph Free, in Archaeology and Bible History, ref. 1, p. 54, footnote 12, gives the evidence of this in some detail from ancient authorities). However, archaeology has shed a wonderful light on even this element in the story, for there has been found an ancient Egyptian papyrus, which is now in the British Museum, which is probably the oldest known bit of fiction (?) in the world. (Urquhart, John, ref. 5, p. 349). It is called "The Story of the Two Brothers." In this story, the Pharaoh sends two armies to fetch a beautiful woman by force and then to murder her husband. The king is not described as a tyrant nor a scoundrel, is beloved by his people and at his death passes unchallenged into heaven. The action is prompted by members of his court. It will be noticed in the Case of Sarai that in similar manner it was the princes of Pharaoh who saw her (Genesis 12:15) and commended her to Pharaoh, who then took her into his house. And Abraham was treated very well, since the king imagined he was her brother only, and therefore her special guardian.

A word seems in order here about Abraham's statement that Sarai was his sister. Twice Abraham used this device to secure his own safety, and in the second instance (Genesis 20) he added by way of justification the rather cryptic statement that "indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother." What did he mean by this?

The background of this perfectly true observation is a little complicated but worth taking time to examine, because it only goes to show that there is no part of this early record which cannot be taken quite literally. This is a faithful record. It is exactly what Abraham could have said in view of what we now know about family relationships both of Abraham's time and even of recent times among non-Indo-European peoples.

In Genesis 11:25-27 we have the following genealogy:

"And Nahor lived after he begat Terah an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters. And Terah lived seventy years and began Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot."

This can be set forth schematically as follows:

                                   NAHOR m. wife
                                     I
                                     I
                                     I
                   ____________________________________
                   I                                  I
                 TERAH                       SONS AND DAUGHTERS
                   I
                   I
            ___________________________________
            I              I                  I
          ABRAM          NAHOR              HARAN m. wife
                                              I
                                              I
                                             LOT 

Up to this point, the sons and daughters of Nahor who were Terah's brothers and sisters are not named, but information given in the following verses provides very good grounds for believing that one of these was named Haran. We shall examine this shortly, but for clarity we now modify the above genealogy as follows (vv. 28, 29):

                                   NAHOR m. wife
                                     I
                                     I
                                     I
                   ____________________________________
                   I                                  I
                 TERAH                           HARAN m. wife
                   I                                  I
                   I                                  I
            ____________________              _______________
            I        I         I              I             I
          ABRAM    NAHOR     HARAN m. wife  ISCAH        MILCAH
                               I
                               I
                              LOT 

It will be noted that Terah's brother, Haran, had two daughters, Iscah and Milcah. The former of these, Iscah, was Sarah by another name. This identification is very widely agreed upon, was accepted in Jewish commentaries, and is assumed by Josephus in his Antiquities (Book I, vi, 5).

It may appear to the reader that large liberties are being taken with the text, but this is not really the case. Like many others, the Jewish people commonly accepted the principle that if a man's brother married a woman and subsequently died before the children were married, he took his brother's place and became in effect both her husband and the father of her children. This is the basis of the Pharisees' hypothetical question in Luke 20:27-38. If therefore Terah's brother Haran had died, the duty of becoming in effect the father of Iscah and Milcah would automatically devolve upon Terah. Terah's "new" children would then become sisters to his own sons and, when Abraham and Nahor subsequently married Iscah and Milcah, they would, socially, be marrying their own sisters. Genetically they were not, the two girls being cousins. However, they were a special kind of cousin, namely, "parallel cousins." The term has been invented by anthropologists to signify the following relationship: my father's brother's children are parallel cousins; by contrast, my mother's brother's children are cross-cousins. In a Semitic society, the ideal wife for a man was one of his parallel cousins. Furthermore, where several sons existed and several female parallel cousins, it was assumed that the oldest son would marry the oldest girl and so on down the line. The expected wife for Abraham would therefore be his Uncle Haran's daughter of comparable age.

Now this seems a little complex, but it is particularly striking in this instance, because even today among many Arab tribes in all their love stories the man looks upon his paternal uncle's daughter as his "princess." ((As reported to me personally by Ali Tayyeb, himself a native of the Muti Ali of Arabia, and referred to by Roland B. Dixon in this ethnographic study of this people published in 1926(?). This is the term by which he refers to her in his poetic moments. In Hebrew the word for prince is Sar, the feminine form of which is Sara, meaning "princess." The terminal possessive pronoun my is a long i so that Sara becomes Sarai meaning "my princess." This is how Abraham referred to his beautiful wife. He name was Iscah, but he called her "My Princess" or Sarai.

Thus Terah's brother Haran, who predeceased him, is identified in verse 29 as the father of Milcah and Iscah, whereas Terah's son Haran, who also predeceased him, is referred to as the father of Lot (v. 31). Because his son Haran (no doubt named after his uncle died prematurely, Lot became in a special sense the charge of Terah and subsequently of Abraham.

It is interesting to find that the American Indians adopted virtually the same forms of social responsibility. (Robert H. Lowie, Social Organization, Rinehart, New York, 1948, p. 62). According to Lowie, the Seneca reckon the father's brothers as "fathers," exactly as Abraham and Nahor, reckoning Haran as a father, would look upon Iscah and Milcah as sisters. The same is true in Hawaii, where a single word exists for "father" and "father's brother," the two individuals being considered as standing in the same relationship simply because if the one dies, the other assumes his position.

So when Terah's brother died, Terah took his brother's wife and became the father of his brother's children. Because he was also the father of Abraham, this allowed Abraham to say with perfect truth (though with ulterior motives) that Sarai, his princess, was indeed his sister, being the daughter of his own father—but not the daughter of his own mother. There is, therefore, not the slightest element of invention here insofar as the record of Genesis goes. Genesis 11 gives us sufficient information, if carefully read, to see that there is nothing imaginary about the circumstance which so compounded Abraham's relationship with his own wife.

Only one further observation seems appropriate here. And that is, every brother in a society of this nature is given a particular responsibility for the sister who is next to him in age. He bears a special protective relationship toward her and must approve her husband. He will, moreover, be called upon to chastise her children if necessary—while the husband will not be allowed to do so. It was thus important to curry the favor of any brother who was manifestly the protector of the sister whose hand might be sought in marriage, in which position Abraham must have appeared in the eyes of Pharaoh. This is why Abraham felt sure of his own safety, and indeed of being favored by Pharaoh or anyone else who might be in a position to desire Sarai. And it worked!

By contrast with the treatment that Abraham received, there is an early record of another visitor to Egypt who did not fare so well. (Urquhart, John, ref. 5, p. 350. It may be pointed out that the treatment of the husband was possibly much less unpleasant to him than we might suppose. The famous Madame de Pompadour (cf. a book of that title written by Nancy Mitford, Reprint Society of London, 1954)—whose life was (if the word may be used in an entirely non-Christian context) "saintly" indeed despite her position as the mistress of Louis XV—was married to a man whom the King recompensed for the taking of his wife by providing him with complete social security. At the very end, when she was near the point of death, the church asked her to offer to return to him, which she did—though she loved the king with a completely genuine love. One must remember the "times" in which such things occurred. However, her husband was so free and "well off" that he refused her. There was no actual love in any case between the husband and wife. Perhaps the same was true in this case, and the visitor to Egypt gladly surrendered his "wife" for a royal price).The papyrus recording this story was formerly in the Berlin Museum. It reports how a foreign artisan enters Egypt, only to find his ass seized by an inspector. He appeals to the governor, who in turn appeals to the King, Neb-ka-ra of the eleventh dynasty. The result is that the Pharaoh of the time seizes the foreigner's wife and children and orders so much food and water to be given to the artisan. This seems rather unfair, but apparently it was quite customary and was accepted as proper. In Abraham's case, it is evident that the Pharaoh was in a sense a God-fearing man, for when he discovered by divine intervention the true relationship between Sarah and Abraham, he rebuked Abraham for telling lies, restored him his wife, and sent him away unharmed. custance.htm


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