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Notebook: Important Cities of the Old Testament

J Grant

UR OF THE CHALDEES (Gen 11.28-31; 15.7; Neh 9.7)

There are only three direct references in Scripture to this city, but that does not diminish its importance in the dealings of God with Israel. As Stephen, soon to be the first Christian martyr, stood before his accusers in Jerusalem he declared that "The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran" (Acts 7.2). Although Stephen did not mention the city of Ur of the Chaldees by name he would have been aware of the fact that when he heard the call of God Abraham was dwelling in that city.

Ur means "Light" or "Moon City". The great significance of Ur is that Abraham lived there for more than seventy years before he saw the God of Glory. As he and those with him passed through the city gates for the last time, for he would never return, it was the first public act in the birth of the nation of Israel. For Abraham this was a great step on the pathway of faith: "he went out, not knowing whither he went" (Heb 11.8).

The location of Ur

Between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, a region referred to as the land of Mesopotamia, the city of Ur was built. This was a fertile area and yielded fruitful crops and harvests that were sufficient to feed a large population and their cattle. The ruins of Ur are situated between the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf, 140 miles south of Babylon. In the days of Abraham it was a port close to where the Euphrates entered the sea, but the silting up that has occurred now places the ruins well inland. The fertility of the soil and the sea enabled Ur to grow into a centre of commerce and wealth. The location was ideal for the import and export of materials, exporting to other lands and importing to sell on through the established network of trading routes that led out of Ur.

The ruins of the city occupy a site that is 1,200 metres from north-west to south-east and 800 metres north-east to south-west. They rise in height to 20 metres above the surrounding plain. The dominant feature is that of the great ziggurat which was the centre of the city’s worship.

The government of Ur

There would appear to have been three dynasties of kings. The city became the centre of an empire, extending its authority throughout surrounding Sumerian lands. During the reign of Ur Nammu the great ziggurat was built (see picture overleaf). Twice, during the rule of the first and the third dynasties the city was known as the "capital of the world".

The religion of Ur

The great ziggurat was erected to the Sumerian moon god Nanna and his consort Nin-gal. It was an imposing building 62.5 metres in length, 43 metres in breadth, and 11 metres in height. The height may have been greater, as the rubble that was found at the top may have come from other structures. Three ramps allowed access to the building to the first stage and a single stairway gave access to the second. The city was deemed to be the possession of the deity, who, it was believed, nurtured and chose the ruler of the city. He in turn acted on behalf of that deity.

It has not to be thought, however, that the moon god was the only idol worshipped. Joshua states plainly that Abraham, before he met the God of Glory, worshipped other gods (Josh 24.2). Like Athens when Paul preached there (Acts 17.16), Ur was a city "wholly given to idolatry".

Housing in Ur

It is reckoned that the population of the city was 65,000 at its height which would make it, at the zenith of its power, one of the largest, if not the largest city in the known world. During the excavations carried out in the 1920s-30s by Sir Leonard Woolley substantial progress was made in revealing the city. The streets were narrow and the houses rarely had windows at street level. The houses consisted of a central court, which was open to the sky, with the living accommodation surrounding it. There was a small entrance hall, in which there was a drain (probably used for the visitor to wash his feet on arrival) which led to the central court. At the rear of the larger houses there were long brick-paved rooms, the largest in the house, with an altar at the end. Beside the altar there was a pedestal on which would stand an image of the deity. These were the private "temples" of the households. Woolley’s work also revealed the remarkable treasures that were to be found in the royal graves. The wealth of the city was there to be seen in all its beauty.

The lessons to learn

The Sovereignty of God

Ur of the Chaldees is not alone in teaching that the glory that is established by men on earth soon passes away. It is a salutary lesson that those who rule on earth do not control the course of history. This was the secret that was revealed to Daniel in Babylon, that the God of heaven "changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings and setteth up kings" (Dan 2.21), and "that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men" (Dan 4.17).

The sovereignty of God, however, is not just seen in the rule of Gentile nations; it is seen clearly in the choice of Israel to be His possession, the "apple of his eye" (Deut 32.10), a choice that has not been set aside. The glorious future for Israel will yet be realised as Paul states emphatically, "hath God cast away his people? God forbid" (Rom 11.1).

This sovereignty is also seen in the choice of Abram, as Nehemiah reminds us of "the Lord…who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees" (9.7).

The God of Glory

The title use by Stephen is only used on two occasions and is linked with the Millennium. David, referring to the day when "the Lord sitteth King for ever" (Ps 29.10), states that "the God of glory thundereth" (Ps 29.3). David in this Psalm is looking forward to the time when the journey that commenced with a few leaving a city will reach its climax when the sceptre of Him who is the Son of Abraham (Mt 1.1) reaches from shore to shore and exercises dominion over all nations.

In Ur, Abraham and his family were idolaters (Josh 24.2). We do not know when first Abraham believed God. It is stated simply in Genesis 15.6 that he did so, but that does not imply that this was the beginning of his life of faith. What we do know is that there came a time when the God of Glory appeared to him, and the glory of Ur faded away completely before the glory that was revealed to him that day when he was told to "Get thee out of thy country" (Gen 12.1). The attraction of such glory called him away from all he saw around him.

The Separation of Abraham

The cost of the departure of Abraham from Ur must not be minimised. He was to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house. He would feel this keenly. He is the first man in the Scriptures who is asked to separate himself in this way, indicating that a new era in the dealings of God with men and woman was now beginning. It was a call to get out, but it was also a call to get into the land that would be shown him. Let no one underestimate what it meant for Abraham to leave all that he had known to go out with his God, "not knowing whither he went".

Separation is still a New Testament truth. We are not called to leave our country, but we are to "come out from among them, and be…separate" (2 Cor 6.17). It is possible to live in the midst of a society corrupt and godless, and still be separate from it. That challenge is before the believer. Like the godly man of Psalm 1 we must not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful.

Source: Papers from the Museum of Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania

William Rowbottom: Ur in the age of Hammurabi.

R Zettler, L Horne, D Hansen, H Pittman: Treasures from the royal tombs of Ur.

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