Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 032. Birthplace

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 032. Birthplace

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1. Ur, the patriarch's birthplace, the modern Mukayyar, was built on the western bank of the Euphrates, not far from Eridu, the ancient seaport of the country. Its name signified “The City,” and was given to it by the Semitic population, for whom it was the leading city of the world. It was a great centre of Western Semitic trade. On the one hand, the maritime trade of Eridu was poured into it, “the ships of Ur” having much the same meaning as “the ships of Tarshish” in the Old Testament; on the other hand, it stood on the edge of the Arabian desert, and was therefore in close touch with the “Amorite” peoples of the West. It was, in fact, a meeting-place of the civilized Babylonian and the less cultured Arab, the spot at which merchants and officials, agriculturists and nomad herdsmen would have gathered together. Its foreign population must have been considerable. Just as in Egypt to-day the wealthier Bedouins settle down and become more or less peaceable townsmen and villagers, so in Ur the wealthier Bedouins of the desert would have had a tendency to do the same. Here, too, would have come merchants and traders from various parts of the Semitic world. Among them were numbers of “commercial travellers” (damqari), who travelled on behalf of their Babylonian employers from one end of Western Asia to the other, and about whom we hear a good deal in the cuneiform texts.

Two or three centuries before Abraham a dynasty of kings ruled over Babylonia for 117 years who made Ur their capital. Wherever their traders had gone, the soldiers of Ur followed. We hear of campaigns in the Lebanon, and the last king of the dynasty fell while endeavouring to suppress a revolt in Elam. Babylonia was already an Imperial power, and claimed to be mistress of Western Asia. Its rulers regarded the Tigris and Euphrates as belonging to them; from their sources to the sea the two great rivers seemed to be of right the possession of the Babylonian kings. Along their banks the agents of the Babylonian commercial firms made their way; silver and copper were brought from the mines of Cappadocia, the cedars of Amanus were floated down the Euphrates, and the pine-logs of Armenia down the Tigris, while the alluvial plain of Babylonia received its stone from the quarries of the Lebanon.

There have been many discussions as to the position of Ur of the Chaldees. Some, on account of the distance from Canaan, apparently, have contended that Ur of the Chaldees is the same as the site known for many hundreds of years as Urfa, in Mesopotamia-the district in which the proto-martyr, St. Stephen (Act_7:2; Act_7:41), places it. Mesopotamia, however, is an appellation of wide extent, and altogether insufficiently precise to enable the exact locality to be determined. To all appearance, though, Urfa or Orfa, called by the Greeks Edessa, was known as Orrha at the time of Isidore of Charax (date about 150 b.c.). Pocock, in his Description of the East, states that it is the universal opinion of the Jews that Orfa or Edessa was the ancient Ur of the Chaldees, and this is supported by local tradition, the chief place of worship there being called “the Mosque of Abraham,” and the pond in which the sacred fish are kept being called Bahr Ibrahím el-Halíl, “the lake of Abraham the Beloved.” The tradition in the Talmud and in certain early Arabian writers, that Ur of the Chaldees is Warka, the ρχόη of the Greeks, and ρεχ of the Septuagint, need not detain us, as this site is certainly the Erech of Gen_10:10, and is excluded by that circumstance.

The identification generally accepted is, that Ur of the Chaldees is the series of mounds now called Mugheir, or, more in accordance with correct pronunciation, Mukayyar, “the pitchy,” from the noun qîr, “pitch,” that material having been largely used in the construction of the buildings whose ruins occupy the site. The identification of these ruins with those of Ur-kasdim, or Ur of the Chaldees, was first proposed by Sir Henry Rawlinson in 1855, on the ground that the name of the city on the bricks found there, which he read Hur, resembled that of the name as given in Gen_11:28; Gen_31:1-55. As a matter of fact, the Semitic Babylonian form of the name approaches even nearer than the celebrated Assyriologist then thought, for it is given in the bilingual texts as Uru. The Akkadian form (which is most probably the more ancient of the two), on the other hand, is not so satisfactory, as it contains an additional syllable, the full form being Uriwa (the vowel before the w only is a little doubtful). This, with the absence of any addition corresponding to the Hebrew Kasdim, is the principal flaw in what would otherwise be a perfect philological comparison.1 [Note: T. G. Pinches, The Old Testament in the Light of the Historical Records of Assyria and Babylonia (1903), 192.]

2. Many legends concerning Abraham-legends of sufficiently high antiquity-exist, but how far they are trustworthy must always be a matter of opinion. In any case, the writers had the advantage-if advantage it was-of living 2000 years nearer to Abraham's time than we do. Thus Eupolemus states that in the tenth generation, in the city of Babylonia called Camarina (which by some is called Urie, and which signifies a city of the Chaldæans), there lived, the thirteenth in descent, Abraham, a man of a noble race, and superior to all others in wisdom. They relate of him that he was the inventor of astrology and Chaldæan magic, and that on account of his eminent piety he was esteemed by God. It is said, moreover, that under the direction of God he departed and lived in Phœnicia, and there taught the Phœnicians the motions of the sun and moon, and all other things, and was on that account held in great reverence by their king.

The alleged birthplace of Abraham at Berzen, near Damascus, affords Moslems a reason for seeking the patriarch there, by vows and prayers, as the place of his revelation, since his mother is said to have given him birth in a hole of the rock. She remained with him three days, and then putting his finger in his mouth, left him. There he abode, according to the legend, seven years. The shrine, which affords a dwelling for the minister on the same court, is especially interesting, because on a sheet of paper posted on the wall, all visitors who are in trouble are invited to make known their sorrows to the well. “Advice to people who visit this place, where is Abraham, father of Isaac, the sacrificed, the grandfather of the prophets! Come, tell him all your adversities and hardships, and he will help you.” It will be noticed that nothing is suggested as to his intercession with God for them. The people are bidden to come to him as the sole source of their comfort.1 [Note: S. I. Curtiss, Primitive Semitic Religion To-day (1902), 81.]

3. Why is Ur called “Ur of the Chaldees”? This is no Babylonian designation of Ur, and must be an addition of Palestinian origin. Kasdim is the Heb. form of the Bab. and Ass. Kaldû (“Chaldæans”), a tribe named often in the inscriptions from 880 b.c.; their home at that time was in Lower Babylonia (the Persian Gulf is called the “sea of the land of Kaldû”); afterwards, as they increased in power, they gradually advanced inland: in 721 Merodach-baladan, “king of the land of Kaldû,” made himself for twelve years king of Babylon; and ultimately, under Nabopolassar (625-605) and Nebuchadnezzar (604-561), the Kaldû became the ruling caste in Babylonia. “Ur Kasdim” is mentioned besides in Gen_11:28, Gen_15:7; Neh_9:7.

4 In whatever part of Babylonia the patriarch may have sojourned, of one thing there is no doubt, and that is, that if he dwelt there, the life which he saw around him, and in which he must have taken part, was that depicted by the Sumerian tablets preserved in the British Museum. He saw the idolatry of the people, and the ceremonies and infamies which accompanied it; he saw the Babylonians as they were in his day, with all their faults, and all their virtues-their industry, their love of trade, their readiness to engage in litigation, and all the other interesting characteristics which distinguished them. He must have been acquainted with their legends of the Creation, the Flood, and all their gods and heroes; and the poetry for which the Hebrew race has always been renowned must have had its origin in the land of Nimrod, whence Abraham of old went forth free, and his descendants, a millennium and a half later, returned as captives.

It is apparent from several indications in the early Jewish books that Abraham belonged to a race, not of monotheists, but of men who worshipped false gods. When Jacob left his uncle Laban in Padan-aram, Laban complained that he had taken away his gods (Gen_31:30). And when he had returned to Palestine and was coming near to Bethel, Jacob said to his household and to all that were with him, “Put away the strange gods that are among you … and let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God” (Gen_35:2-3). And when the Jewish nations entered the promised land to take possession of it, Joshua is represented as saying, “Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor: and they served other gods.… If it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Jos_24:2; Jos_24:15).

How the revelation of God came to Abraham we do not know, but there is a charming legend known perhaps to most of us, but which I will venture to repeat for the sake of those who have never heard it. The scene, according to Dean Stanley, is laid sometimes in Ur, sometimes in the celebrated hill above Damascus. He gives the story in the form in which it is preserved in the Koran. “When night overshadowed him, Abraham saw a star and said, ‘This is my Lord.' But when the star set he said, ‘I like not those that set.' And when he saw the moon rising, he said, ‘This is my Lord.' But when the moon set, he answered ‘Verily, if my Lord direct me not in the right way, I shall be as one of those who err.' And when he saw the sun rising, he said, ‘This is my Lord. This is greater than the star or moon.' But when the sun went down, he said, ‘O my people, I am clear of these things. I turn my face to Him who hath made the heaven and the earth.' ”1 [Note: R. W. Dale.]