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Category Archives: Caravanserais

Sarah: Life with Abraham 3

The journeys begin

Sarai’s life story became one punctuated with journeys. First there were the physical relocations. While she grew up in one place—Ur—once she married Abram she found herself periodically going from way stop to way stop, especially since the LORD became an active part of their marriage equation. Then there was the challenge of navigating the endless cycle of hope and despair due to her barrenness. This, she was to learn, would last for almost a lifetime.

Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia.

Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Travel orders

Abram received direct communications from God from time to time, some of which involved picking up stakes and moving. Directives were specific: “…Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell” (Acts 7:2-3). Each time, Abram, with Sarai by his side, obeyed without question.

The road to Haran

One is left to wonder how Abram broke the news to Sarai of an impending move with a rather open-ended destination. Did he confide his encounters with the LORD early on, and in the process plant the seed that would eventually blossom into a faith which guided her life as well? Or was she, too, one of the ones who chose to shun the odious moon goddess, worshiping God only? Whichever the case, husband and wife prepared to leave.

Moving a household long distance must have been quite an undertaking. According to a distance chart in the Archaeological Study Bible, Haran (also known as Paddan Aram) was 612 miles to the north of Ur,[1] situated on an international trade route. The pace of a normal caravan was about twenty miles per day[2] so Terah’s family could anticipate spending around one month in travel.

Sarai and the other women of the household would likely have been responsible for assembling many of the provisions, especially clothing and foodstuffs. There would be containers of salted meat with a “shelf life” of about a month. No doubt grain for grinding, dried fruit, wine or beer, cheese, and oil were among the staples. Water, of course, would be a vital issue, as would provender for any livestock. According to the Collins Atlas of the Bible[3] the normal route between Ur and Haran was never a day’s march from habitations or water (the route followed the Euphrates River, and there were settlements every seventeen miles or so along the way).

So it was that one day Terah, Abram and Sarai, along with Lot, the deceased Haran’s son, set out on a journey which would be Terah’s last, and the first of several for the rest. One can picture their caravan, servants leading supply-laden donkeys and manning ox-drawn carts piled with furniture and other household accoutrements, carpets for bedding, a grinding stone, and various pots and baskets filled with food and other essentials, livestock and herders, all beginning the trek in the cool of the morning.

While there might have been caravansaries along the way, it seems likely that travelers often used tents, the movable habitations of the day. Relatively easy to erect and dismantle, these shelters provided a measure of safety and protection from weather and wild animals. If not on this trip, Abram and Sarai would find themselves living in tents permanently in the years to come.

Why Haran?

Haran was an important commercial center. Presumably the men had portable trades or extended business interests which could sustain the family at least in the near-term, so locating in or near a city was important. If Terah was an idol manufacturer as tradition purports, he would find a lively market in the new locale—another major center of worship for Nanna, the moon goddess. However, some speculate that the family stopped in Haran for an unspecified length of time due to Terah’s health since the Bible records that he died there at age 205 (Genesis 11:32).

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustratio...

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever the reason, after Terah’s death the LORD gave Abram details concerning his next move, this time with promises attached:

“Now the LORD had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

“So Abram departed as the LORD had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:1-5).—KM

 

Next time: Travels, famine, and Pharaoh’s harem.

 

[1] Archaeological Study Bible (2005), Article, “Distances in Miles Between Old Testament Cities,” p. 341, and article, “Archaeological Sites: Paddan Aram,” p. 48.

[2] Ibid. See note on Genesis 12:5, p. 21.

[3] Collins Atlas of the Bible (2003), p. 31.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 2

The Journey to Bethlehem

Mary packed as though she and Joseph were changing residences rather than making a round trip—that’s what astute travelers of her day did. Perhaps she had an idea or premonition that it would be a long time before they would return to Nazareth and home. There would be caravanserais[1] along the way, usually situated where roads crossed, for food and water, bathing, supplies, fodder for the animals, and places to sleep; but the wise and experienced often brought along their own tents and blankets as well as clothing and containers of dried raisins and other foodstuffs, water, oil, and flour, prepared for any eventuality.

Joseph was well aware of the difficulties of such a journey, not just for Mary in her condition, but for their safety as well. The eighty-mile trip could take as many as five days or possibly more, depending on the route and traveling conditions. The shortest and most direct way, through Samaria, was not an option for most Jewish travelers in light of long-standing animosities. They would rather face the threat of robbers and bandits[2] who often menaced the next best highway.

Félix_Bonfils_(French_-_Le_Jourdain_(The_Jordan)_-_Google_Art_Project (1)Caravans frequently traversed Roman roads, including the one he likely chose[3]—the road that went east from Nazareth, crossed the Jordan, and ran south through Perea toward Jerusalem. Ideally they could join such a convoy and lessen the danger along the way. Such a group contained a lively cross-section of humanity. Along with the average traveler and perhaps courses of priests on their way to fulfill their duties in the Temple, opportunistic hawkers often joined these odysseys, producing the latest articles of commerce or luxury, and passing on the most titillating news of the day. Nighttime chatter around campfires must have been a welcome relief from the monotony of seemingly endless miles of travel.

Taxed to the limit

Did Joseph and Mary hear grumbling about the latest demands and scandals of Rome? Most likely, and with good reason.  The general population was already taxed to the limit[4], and now this. Word had it that Caesar was displeased at the declining birthrate[5] in his empire, and this census would confirm his annoyance. It would not only give him his numbers, but replenish his coffers as well. Resentment seethed under the surface at the injustice of it all, a malignant stow-away on this mandatory trek to be counted. What they needed was a deliverer, and soon!

(To be continued.)


[1] Follow the link below for a picture of an Ottoman caravanserais built in the 1700s. Those available to Mary and Joseph were probably much smaller, but were also walled enclosures with guest rooms on upper levels, and the terrace level below, used for bedding down the animals. At night the gate was secured to protect travelers from robbers and wild beasts.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Akko_BW_13.JPG

[2] Palestine was home to highwaymen who robbed only for personal gain, and guerrilla warriors who directed their aggression against Roman Authorities and/or the Jewish authorities and persons who collaborated with them. Even the Apostle Paul was alert to such dangers in his travels (2 Corinthians 11:26). For more information on the social world of bandits, see the following link: http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/node/1511 .

[3]   Alfred Edersheim, in his Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), mentions six different highways or main arteries of commerce in Palestine. See Chapter IV, pp. 42-45. The one I chose for the journey of Joseph and Mary seems to me to be the most likely.

[4] Richard A. Horsely with John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (1985). During the time of Julius Caesar, “the Jewish agricultural producers were now subject to a double taxation, probably amounting to well over 40 percent of their production. There were other Roman taxes as well, which further added to the burden of the people, but the tribute was the major drain” p. 56. “If a peasant family, after rendering up 40 percent or more of its harvest, then had too little left to survive until the next harvest, it would have to borrow grain for food, or for seed for the next sowing….Continued borrowing would increase a family’s debt significantly, with great risk of complete loss of land …[and] sink into the ranks of…the landless day laborers, or…become a sharecropping tenant” (pp.58-59).

[5] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: “What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!” Quoted in Paul L. Maier’s  In the Fullness of Time (1991), p.6.

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