Nahor, Abraham’s Brother

Some of my favorite things about the Torah are the snippets of legends that the early Jews knew so well that they didn’t even need to write down. Passing references and later commentary are the only ways that we know figures like Enoch and Nimrod. Genesis 34 marks the transition between Abraham’s and Isaac’s stories, ironically with a sidebar where neither are protagonists. More on that later, but this scene also marks the second mention of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Nahor may not be a prominent biblical figure, but this verse in Genesis 24 caught my attention:

Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor.

Genesis 24:10

How can you not want to learn more about a man who is the brother of a patriarch and has a town named after him? More after the break.

Nahor on a coin (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A Tale of Two Nahors

If you pay attention to biblical genealogy, Nahor’s name stands out immediately. He is the first figure in the Torah to be named for an ancestor, his grandfather: Nahor, the son of Serug. Genesis 11 contains the only thing we know about this elder Nahor:

And Serug lived thirty years, and begat Nahor: And Serug lived after he begat Nahor two hundred years, and begat sons and daughters. And Nahor lived nine and twenty years, and begat Terah: And Nahor lived after he begat Terah an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters.

Genesis 11:22-25

Nahor the elder had Terah at 29 and lived to be 148. What amazing thing did this Nahor do to inspire Terah to name his son after his grandfather? The text is silent.

The Town of Nahor

When Abraham sends out his servant to find his kin, he sends him to Aram Naharaim, translated by the KJV and other bibles as “Mesopotamia”. Later in Genesis, this kingdom will be revealed to be close to (or containing) the city of Harran, where Terah settled his family en route to Canaan. Paddan Aram, first mentioned in Genesis 25, may be an alternate or more specific name for the region. Although Nahor is in Aram Naharaim at the start of this story, Genesis 11 does not record him traveling with his father and siblings:

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.

Genesis 11:31

Terah took his son Abram, his daughter Sarai, and his grandson Lot. Why not Nahor? We can only speculate, but my guess is that Nahor is the younger brother– and possibly even born on the road to Canaan. By Genesis 24, Nahor is so at home in Aram that a town bears his name. Although Abraham and Nahor took different paths, they both appear to be prominent in their communities. Like Abraham, Nahor was probably rich: he may have founded the town that he lived in and his granddaughter Rebekah was well-stocked with nurses and attendants. He also had plenty of children: twelve in all, one fewer than Jacob’s named children and more than Abraham’s eight. Even if he wasn’t prominent in the text, he was a prominent man in his community. We should expect no less of the grandfather (or great-grandfather) of three matriarchs: Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel.

The God of Nahor

Unlike Abraham, Nahor and his family integrated with his new surroundings:

  • Bethuel, one of Nahor’s sons and Rebekah’s father, is named an Aramean even by Genesis’ narrator. But while he was born in Aram, he was not an Aramean by blood. The Arameans were descended from of Shem’s son Aram, while Terah and his family were descended from another of Shem’s sons, Arpachshad. He could not have been an Aramean even on his mother’s side: she was Milkah, a daughter of Haran from Ur and his father’s wife and niece.
  • Kemuel, another of Nahor’s sons, even named his son (and Nahor’s grandson) Aram! Whether this was in honor of his adopted ancestor or his homeland isn’t clear, but the meaning is unambiguous.

The evidence that Nahor adopted his new homeland is clear. Did he take their gods as well? Was Nahor an idolator or a believer in the God of Abraham? Genesis 12 reports that God revealed himself to Abraham in Harran, while Terah and Nahor were present. Abraham could have shared this revelation with his younger brother. Except for a confusing reference in Genesis 31, it hardly matters. In this passage, Jacob had fled from Laban (Nahor’s grandson) with his wives. Afterwards, the pair reconciled with an oath, spoken by Laban:

May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.

Genesis 31:53

Laban is an idolator. One of the conflicts between Laban and Jacob was that Jacob’s family stole the household gods (idols) as they fled. This phrase is ambiguous. The “God of Abraham” is clear, but what do the “God of Nahor” and the “God of their father” (Terah) refer to? Does this passage reflect the universality of God, that he is over all men? Or is Laban covering his bases by citing all of the gods of his ancestors?

Hebrew scholars (starting with Genesis Rabbah) postulate this as one real god and two idols: only the God of Abraham is real, and the God(s?) of Nahor and Terah are included only because of Laban’s polytheism. Other sources, largely Christian ones (here and here, for example), read the text as being reflective. The “God of Abraham” is a synonym for “God of Nahor”.

The Book of Joshua resolves this conflict unambiguously:

Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.

Joshua 24:2

In short, Nahor lived beyond the Euphrates and worshipped other gods. End of story.

It’s amazing how much can be read into one text. Nahor is a minor figure and yet the hints are there, if we just want to search for them, of a man behind the myth.

Up next: Isaac gets a bride

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