Ur of the Chaldeans
It seems to be rather well ‘fixed’ amongst scholars that the ‘Ur’ mentioned in Gen 11:31 was the same city as Sir Leonard Woolley excavated (begun in 1922 on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum) and from which some quite remarkable finds were extracted and are now on display in London.
However, when we look at the call of Abram, how he journeyed, where he arrived and consider the national boundaries current at that time, it may be possible that Woolley’s Ur hasn’t been correctly identified as Abram’s city of origin.
The problems with ‘theories’ such as the one below are that the archaeological and historical evidence from this time is often scant and unreliable in locating civilisations that appear on the scene later in human history but in considerably different locations. The accessibility to scholarly discussions and papers is hindered primarily because I have no way of knowing from where such papers might be available (or even if they exist - or where to find out if they do!) but, secondarily, because I almost certainly don’t have the expertise to be able to understand such papers (even if they did exist!).
Therefore, the following lines are offered as a ‘starting point’ from which, I hope, people far more capable than I can go on to study the viability of what I propose.
If we pick up most Biblical maps, we’ll find that Ur ‘of the Chaldeans’ is located near the north-east end of the Persian Gulf within the nation of present-day Iraq. But it’s fairly certain (from the resources available to me) that the Chaldeans didn’t settle in this part of the world until after Moses was around and certainly weren’t there way back when Abraham lived among them.
If that’s the case, then we’d best determine just where they were in order for us to find out where Abraham came from and, after this, go on to look at evidence from Genesis chapter 11 that will hopefully substantiate it.
The evidence is scant concerning the region that the Chaldeans inhabited at this time in history, mainly because there are so few texts available from that era, but it was generally believed by Ungers (and I write ‘was’ because the references I now use are getting a bit like pre-history themselves!) that
‘...The Chaldeans were a warlike, aggressive people from the mountains of Kurdistan. Apparently they were Haldians (or Khaldians), the inhabitants of Urartu, that is, Ararat or Armenia’
As you can see, if this is the case, then the city labelled ‘Ur of the Chaldees’ by Woolley might have been their city later on in history when the Israelites were settled in the land, but it wasn’t the Chaldean city that’s referred to in the Scriptural account of Gen 11:31.
Other sources at my disposal are more non-committal concerning the exact location of the ancient Chaldeans but they’re certain that the area that came to be known as ‘Chaldea’ wasn’t the area in which that people originally resided. I offer two more quotes from other sources. Firstly, Genwen who notes that
‘...the epithet “of the Chaldeans” is probably anachronistic in Abram’s day, since the Chaldeans...did not penetrate Babylonia till about 1000BC’
This quote is particularly problematical - not from the point of view of this discussion but because, in order to maintain the location of Ur being the one in the plain of Shinar, it has to be asserted that the authorship of the passage is late.
Secondly, NIDBA comments that
‘The origins of the Chaldeans is obscure. Some have suggested an infiltration from north-east Arabia...There may have been some original kinship with the Arameans, who came to occupy adjacent territory in southern Babylonia to the north of the Chaldeans’
Perhaps we can say no more than this on the archaeological evidence - but there are hints of where Abraham came from in Scripture itself and it’s to these that we must now turn.
If you have access to a Biblical map, now would be a good time to turn to it. In particular, find the locations of Ur, Haran and Canaan - all of which are mentioned in the passage that we’re about to look at. But, also, make a note of Mari and Tirqa (that lie between the first two) and Tadmor, Tiphsah, Halab, Homs and Damascus (these latter cities aren’t as important but should be on the map). I’ve used the Oxford Bible Atlas (Second Edition) as my reference book for the ancient trade routes and place locations and I would have liked to have included a map here but their copyright prohibits it.
Gen 11:31 (my italics) reads
‘Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there’
If you follow that on the map, it looks straightforward. To avoid the Arabian desert, it appears that the family journeyed north-west from Ur until they came to Haran. At that point, for some reason Terah decided to settle down and so abandoned the idea of travelling further onwards to Canaan.
However, the route they adopted throws up some perplexing problems.
Firstly, why didn’t they take the shortest route that ran north-west from Ur then, at Tirqa (about fifty miles north-west of Mari) turn almost due west and follow the normal route through Tadmor, before turning due south at Homs for Damascus (whether this trade route existed in those days is uncertain. This needs to be researched in to thoroughly)?
Secondly, if this wasn’t the best option, why didn’t they continue past Tirqa to Tiphsah and then turn due south at Halab, again arriving at Homs as above (which is another recognised ancient route - more certain to have then been in existence)?
Why did they go out of their way at Tirqa by not turning west, or continuing north-west, but actually bearing north-north-east to journey away from their destination?
As far as Gen 11:31 reads, the phrase
‘when they came to Haran’
infers that they arrived at the city in the course of their journey and not as a diversion along the route. To give a natural example, if a man was travelling from London to Newcastle, it may be said that
‘when he came to Leeds, he stopped to have a rest’
because Leeds is on one of the recognised routes to his destination, but both
‘when he came to Liverpool’
or (which is more like the passage in question)
‘when he came to Cardiff’
beg the question why on earth he would go there ‘on the way to Newcastle’
(this sentence will be revised for the American version!). Therefore, we have to revise our attempt to locate Ur on this basis - that, if they’d come from the Ur in the plain of Shinar, they would never have come to the city of Haran.
When we look at the ancient trade routes of the time and try to speculate the rough area where it would be reasonable to assume Terah would have had to have journeyed from to have arrived at Haran ‘on his way to’ Canaan, we come up with an area that lies, using Haran as our starting point, to the north through east points of the compass - the area in which we’ve already seen that the Chaldeans may have occupied at that time in Ancient History.
Therefore, we should see Abram as, possibly, a dweller of present day Turkey (north-east) or of the land beyond. Whether we ever find a city in this area that can be proven to be ‘Ur’ is not important, for the Bible doesn’t bear witness that it was a large prosperous town and any trace of the place may now have disappeared.
The assertions that followed Woolley’s excavations of the site, placed Abram in a prosperous community and, probably, forsaking his own material wealth within that society. Therefore these projections must be considered to be temporarily groundless until the location of Ur can be better set.
But, certainly, the mountainous region of Ararat is where his city will probably have been located.
Very recently, I noted two articles in the January/February 2000 edition of Biblical Archaeology Review which threw doubt on location of Ur excavated by Woolley as being positively identified with the place from which Abram journeyed - there’s no acknowledgement of this web page as a source, however (which was written around 1998) but just remember where you read it first!
The calling of Abram
God doesn’t choose people just so that they can get blessed. In today’s Church, it’s often the case that an individual’s relationship with God becomes egocentric and subjective based upon an experience that causes the follower to achieve some sort of ‘happiness’ in this life that one can’t obtain elsewhere.
But such a walk with God will often come to an abrupt halt when persecution or trouble arises - whether religious persecution or just worldly grief - that everyone finds themselves subject to from time to time (Mtw 13:20-21, I Tim 6:3-10). The Church’s destiny (just as it was in the early years after Jesus ascended into Heaven) is to fulfil its calling and so bless the world - not to strive after blessing from God that makes it both comfortable and content with materialistic possessions and achievements.
God’s calling of Abram, therefore, wasn’t intended to be concluded with one man getting ‘all blessed up’ - though this is, to some degree at least, what happened. But God chose and called an individual so that His eternal purpose would be fulfilled both through him and in him. There’s much more to our relationship with God than just a ‘calling’, but the elevation of the acquisition of personal blessing over and above that of God’s purpose is an attempt to pacify our human desires by putting them at the steering wheel while at the same time relegating God’s will to the back seat.
In Abram, then, God saw the fulfilment of his purpose as revealed to the serpent and mankind back in Gen 3:15.
God called Abram to ‘Go’ (Gen 12:1), he was obedient (Gen 12:4) and so God’s promise to bless him was to become a reality (Gen 12:2-3). But God’s eternal purpose for mankind was realised in the last phrase of Gen 12:3 which reads that
‘...in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’
This is the RSV’s marginal translation. Genwen translates it
‘...all the families of the earth will find blessing in you’
God told Abram of a time when his line was going to bless the entire earth. This, ultimately, was a reference to the time of the Messiah whom He chose to come through Abram, bringing salvation, and therefore blessing, to the world (see also Gen 22:18, Gal 3:8).
God’s plan was more than blessing an old man with a son - it was to miraculously begin a nation that would bring His Anointed King to the earth (Gen 15:4). the phrase
‘...your own son shall be your heir...’
immediately referred to the son who would come from Abram through natural procreation (that is, Isaac, even though there was the matter of Ishmael to sort out before this came about), yet it meant far more than this. Humans die, passing on their inheritance to their sons so they can never continue to enjoy their inheritance because of death.
The ultimate fulfilment of God’s promise to Abram was going to be in God’s Anointed King, the Son of Abram, who would continue forever and, therefore, keep the inheritance forever. All things promised to any man must fall to his sons, but the Son who lives forever has an eternal inheritance.
Gen 22:18 goes further than this and notes that
‘...by your seed [singular or plural] all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’
The same promise to Abraham is now to his ‘seed’ also - not ‘seed’ referring to many, but ‘seed’ referring to One, the Christ (Gal 3:16). The Hebrew word can be accurately translated either in the singular or the plural.
In John 8:56, Jesus says
‘Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see My day; he saw it and was glad’
where the tenses make it plain that a past event is in mind rather than a present day reality - that is, Abraham, who would now have been in Paradise (the dwelling place of the believing dead see my notes on ‘Eternal Habitations’) is spoken of as having rejoiced as He saw the work of Christ on the earth even before it came about. Johntask writes that
‘The Greek does not mean “rejoiced in the hope of seeing my day” when it actually came, and when Abraham would be in the abode of the blessed; but “rejoiced in that he actually saw” it while he was still on earth’
If, therefore, Jesus is referring to an event when Abram saw the day when Messiah would come to earth, which event in the life of Abram is he referring to?
Amongst the Rabbis of Jesus’ day there was already a belief that Abram had been shown the age to come when Messiah would reign (even though they appear to misunderstand what Jesus is trying to say to them about the revelation that Abram received about the day of the Messiah - John 8:57) but trying to link Jesus’ statement to a specific event in Genesis is far more problematical.
Certainly Genesis 12:1-4 coupled with the promise of Gen 15:4 imply a Son who’ll continue forever and so inherit an eternal promise, but it says little concerning His purpose concerning the work of the cross and the salvation of the world that’s plain, unambiguous and needs no interpretation. What Jesus is saying is that Abram saw His day, realised its significance and rejoiced because of it.
If we should try and tie it down to a specific incident in Abram’s life when he received revelation about Messiah, the best passage appears to be Gen 22:1-19 where God commands him to take Isaac, the child of promise, and offer him as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains in the region of Moriah (the future site for Solomon’s Temple [Cp Gen 22:2 with II Chr 3:1], situated just outside Jerusalem to the north).
Abram here makes two remarkable statements.
Firstly, in Gen 22:8, he says
‘God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering’
echoing the provision of God in Christ. In these words, Abram may have perceived that a Lamb was needed to atone for mankind’s sin, realising that his words had a greater fulfilment than he intended.
But, secondly, and even more compelling, is his labelling of God as Jehovah-jireh in Gen 22:14 where he says
‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’
The Hebrew word here translated ‘shall be provided’ carries with it the concepts of both prevision and provision. Prevision that God sees the need before it arises through His foreknowledge and therefore makes the provision available at the right time. In Abram’s experience through this incident, he witnessed God’s prevision in foreknowing the need to have a ram at hand to be used as a burnt offering and so provided for it (Gen 22:13).
Therefore it’s possible that Abram saw this as a prophetic event (that God sees mankind’s need and has already provided for the ultimate solution) and more so in that what Abram was asked to do (sacrifice his own son) God would have to ultimately do (sacrifice His own Son, Jesus) to reconcile the world to Himself and to ‘bless’ mankind through those who share Abram’s faith (Rom 4:11-17, Gal 3:6-9).