Ur of the Chaldeans The Old Testament and Archaeology
What kind of city did Abraham live in when God called him from Ur of the Chaldeans (cf. Genesis 11:31; Acts 7:2-4)? What did Abraham leave behind? Questions like these are worth considering because popular notions of those distant “primitive” times are often inaccurate and can therefore hinder a full appreciation of the Biblical account.
Ur of the Chaldeans is generally identified with modern Tell Muqayyar in southern Iraq, about 160 km (as the bird flies) northwest of the modern city of Basra, well-known from the current Iraq-Iran war. This site was chiefly excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley between 1922 and 1934. Interest in this city continues as the publication of the fourth edition of Woolley's account of the dig (Ur “of the Chaldees,” 1982) attests. On the basis of archaeological finds, which include thousands of inscribed clay tablets from the period of Abraham, a picture of Ur in his day can be reconstructed.
Ur was a prosperous bustling metropolis, home of the Sumerian kings, which along with its immediate environs had a population of about 250,000. This wealthy trading and manufacturing centre was renowned for its textile industry where wool and flax from the nearby fertile plains were woven into different types of cloth and shipped abroad. Other exports included grain, dates, fish and skins or leather. Imports from as far away as Asia Minor and southern India made their way into Ur by caravan and boat and included precious metals, ivory and pearls; spices, exotic food, and fruit trees; lumber and aromatic woods. Good communications and an effective banking system helped make all this possible. Enough evidence exists to suggest that Abraham's Ur also had skilled engineers, architects, knowledgeable farmers and artisans, as well as celebrated jewellers. The achievements of the latter graced many a citizen. Indeed, royal graves of Ur from 500 years prior to Abraham's time have yielded a stunning array of art objects of gold and precious stones.
The sophistication of Ur is also evidenced by the level of medical expertise available to its citizens. The Sumerians knew how to isolate quite a variety of chemicals and were aware, for example, that acetylsalicylic acid (“aspirin”) reduced fever and pain. Medical prescriptions have been found and it may be assumed that they had considerable therapeutic effect. Indeed, it has been suggested that these inscriptions, once fully understood, may prove of some practical value to modern research!
Life was quite comfortable in Ur, especially for the wealthy and the prosperous middle class. A typical two-storey house of the well-to-do would be constructed of bricks and plastered and whitewashed both inside and out. It would be built around an open court, with central drain, and contain about twelve rooms, including a reception room, kitchen, one or two lavatories (which in key respects were quite similar to their modern Arab counterparts) and servants' quarters. Low tables, high-backed chairs and beds with wooden frames served as furniture. Reed mats, skin rugs and woolen hangings covered the floors and walls. Although Scripture does not specifically inform us about the material circumstances of Terah and Abraham in Ur, there seems to be no compelling reason to dispute the old idea that they were wealthy (cf., e.g., Genesis 12:5) and thus shared in one way or other in the comforts of this civilization.
Dominating the city, both physically and spiritually, was the temple-tower or ziggurat which rose in three stages to one hundred and fifty feet above the streets. It can still be seen today in a partially restored state. At the base of this edifice were two temples, the vast market place, the temple library and school. Here students learned the basics, writing, reading and arithmetic, before specializing in accounting and banking, mathematics and astronomy, botany, medicine or geology, or in the religious texts. On the top of the ziggurat was a small temple built entirely of blue enameled bricks and dedicated to the moon-god Nanna which was the principal deity of Ur. A special temple workshop would have made the image of such a god and when ready the image underwent a ritual so that its mouth was “opened” and it was considered endowed with life. For all practical purposes, such an image was treated as a living person and was served and surrounded by priests, priestnesses, musicians, eunuchs and temple slaves. Besides their chief city god, the people of Ur worshipped hundreds and even thousands of other gods. Their religion was polytheism of the grossest type, with the liscentiousness and temple prostitution that inevitably accompanied it.
And so although Ur was a great city, with a tremendous culture, it was also a city in deep spiritual darkness. This did not leave Abraham untouched. When the covenant was renewed at Shechem, Joshua reminded Israel: “Your fathers lived of old beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods.” According to Jewish tradition, Terah also bought and sold idols.
From this pagan city and environment, God called Abraham. The grace of God! In a city full of idols, He revealed Himself to Abraham as the true and living God. He called Abraham out in order to make of him a great nation through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:2, 3). The grace of God! He also gave Abraham the faith he needed to leave the “good” life of Ur and to become a stranger in a land not his own. Abraham left a great city, but in faith he saw a far better one. The words of Hebrews 11:9-10 come to mind.
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
With this vision of faith, Abraham was far richer than those who only identified themselves and their well-being with the pagan metropolis of Ur and all its glories. He was rich toward God (cf. Luke 12:21). Therein lies also a message for us today.