After The Flood
13 ‑ Citizens of Ur
Twelve centuries had passed from the day that Noah and his family stepped out of the Ark, twelve long centuries since the little family had grown into an assembly of nations that was now spreading far over the earth, from Western Europe to China, from Britain to Equatorial Africa and India. The children of Noah were to be found living under varied circumstances and already differentiated by colour and culture. Some led a settled industrial life in built-up cities, some as nomads roaming the wide pastures of their native plains, some advancing in knowledge and achievement. The world was fast taking the shape it has been ever since, although there were as yet still vast areas unknown to and untouched by man.
At the centre of this teeming world lay the land of Sumer, where it all began. Here was the beginning of all that had been achieved, and here still was the repository of knowledge and science, of trade and industry. Here, at the then head of the Persian Gulf, leading up from the Indian Ocean, lay the busy city of Uri-ki, Ur of the Chaldees, a place of twenty-four thousand inhabitants, mostly engaged in merchant shipping and trade or in manufacturing industry. The city was wealthy and prosperous, the houses ornate in appearance and luxuriously appointed, the citizens sleek and well fed, and apart from occasional military raids by the Elamites from the distant mountains, and the enmity of the neighbouring city-states of Isin and Larsa, life was good and seemed likely to remain so. The lofty temple-tower, surmounted by its sanctuary to the patron god of Ur, Nannar the Moon-god, rose into the skies, and ships in the harbour rode quietly at anchor as industrious labourers unloaded rare metals and timber, exotic goods, animals and birds, brought from far-away India and Africa. In the schools, the children sat at their lessons, carefully copying on soft clay tablets the examples set them by the master, committing to memory the five hundred different cuneiform symbols which made up their 'alphabet', and learning the intricacies of mathematics and geometry which they were going to have to use in later life in a society in which these arts occupied so prominent a place. The school ‑ e-dubba, literally 'tablet house' was the most important institution in Sumer and the pupils, from early youth to late teenage, were compelled to attend from sunrise to sunset, a twelve hours per day inculcation of lessons. Woe betide the inattentive. One tablet discovered is evidently part of the rule-book. It runs "If the student at the e-dubba has not recited his task correctly the senior student and the teacher will beat him". No nonsense about the evils of corporal punishment in the school of ancient Sumer. One is reminded of the maxim inculcated by Solomon a thousand years later in Prov.23. 13-14 "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from hell". The beneficent effect of the education they did receive is shown by the vast array of school exercises, some showing correction marks by the tutor that have been discovered. Many of them are lists of equivalent words in two or even three languages and have been of incalculable value in modern times as aids to the decipherment of those languages. Dictionaries, lexicons, grammars, painstakingly impressed on clay tablets by the schoolchildren of Ur and other towns, have been of enormous help to modern scholars.
In the Temple precincts the scribes were busy composing the great epics which enshrined all that history and legend had to tell them about the days and lives of their ancestors who had founded this land ‑ and in the process got legendary and historical events so thoroughly mixed up that these epics have been the despair of modern scholars trying to piece together a coherent story of the times. And so, on the whole, life was good for those citizens of Ur, way back two thousand years before Christ.
Abu-Ramu was one of those citizens. He is referred to in the Book of Genesis as Abram. Abu-Ramu was not a Sumerian; he was a Semite, descended from Shem through Arphaxad, but his family had lived in Ur for probably three or four generations. He was married to his niece Sarratu, daughter of his brother Harannu, sixty years older than himself and now dead. His remaining brother, Nakhur, about twenty years his senior, was married to Sarratu's sister Malkata. Together with the sisters' younger brother Lu-utu they all lived together in a house of Abu-Ramu's father Tarakhu.
This was a common practice in Sumerian cities. The general procedure was to add rooms as the demand arose, and the ruins of some of the dwellings excavated by Woolley in 1930 have as many as twenty or thirty rooms. They were not like modern houses. The exterior presented the appearance of a blank wall without windows. The visitor, passing through the entrance, found himself in a kind of reception hall, a door on the farther side giving access to a patio open to the sky around which was grouped a number of rooms, perhaps eight to ten, in the form of a square. Each one had its own doorway opening from the patio,, and in some cases communicating doors between. A gallery approached by staircase, ran round the sides of the square at first floor level and from this gallery, the first floor doors opened. The roof, which projected over the gallery, was made of reeds and sun-dried clay made watertight with bitumen, and the centre of the patio was open to the sky so that daylight penetrated into all the rooms. Doors and windows faced the patio and the outside walls had no breaks save the main entrance. The residential part of the city must have presented a rather drab vista of sheer brick walls. But as if to make up for the sameness of brick-work in the streets, the public buildings of Ur were ornate and magnificent, often decorated with brightly coloured tiles and enamelled bricks and coloured representations of lions, bulls and dragons, or flowers and date palms in relief. Statues of gold and copper representing the gods or commemorating some military victory stood here and there and in the centre of the city the imposing edifice that was the pride of Ur, the Temple of the Moon-God.
The imposing building, the 'ziggurat' of Ur ‑ the best preserved of any of the hundreds of such in Iraq today ‑ was first excavated in the late 19th century but much more thoroughly and scientifically in 1930 by Leonard Woolley. Sacred to the moon-god, it consisted of a series of seven stages surmounted at the top by the idol sanctuary. Abram and Sarai, in their walks through the city, or as they went about their business or met their friends, must often have stopped to gaze upon its magnificence. If as is probable, they were followers of the true God, it is not likely they set foot in its precincts. But its worship and its ceremonial must have been very familiar to them, and on the great feast days they might have watched their friends and neighbours setting out to join in the services and climb the great Tower that dominated the Temple area. They might have stood and watched the people thronging the Sacred Road that led up to the double gateway straddling the outer court. Through that gateway they might perchance catch a glimpse of the two sanctuary buildings, both built in the honour of Nannare, the Moon-god, both closed, their inward mysteries concealed from the public gaze. On feast-days the people were not concerned with the priestly ritual and priestly service; they pressed through the portals of Dublal-makah, the Great Gate, gaining access to the elaborated terrace on which stood the 'Hill of Heaven' the great brick 'tower', two hundred and fifty feet square and seventy feet high, planted on all its terraces with trees and flowers, and at its top the gleaming gold and silver of the holiest shrine of all.
The internal appointments of the residents' houses were in keeping with the prosperity of the city. From the relics found by Woolley, lying where the owners left them when the city was deserted and buried in sand millenniums ago it is evident that luxury was the keynote. The furniture in Terah's house might well have been made from tropical woods ‑ sandalwood and teak from India and mahogany from Africa. He would possess chairs and tables, strikingly like our modern ones, elaborately carved and ornamented, the work of craftsmen. At night the family took its repose on beds formed of cord networks stretched across wooden frames, covered with cushions and having raised ends decorated with pictures or designs. Specially shaped receptacles of earthenware held clothing and household linen, weaving was a well understood art and was employed for the making of clothes as well as carpets and cushions further to advance the comfort of the home. The majority of household utensils were of pottery or copper; if Terah was a reasonably wealthy man, tableware such as forks and spoons would be of silver or gold. Knives were made of copper, for the people of Ur, like all the ancients, held the secret, lost for thousands of years afterward and only rediscovered during the twentieth century, of so tempering copper that it could be used for cutting edges as today we use steel. Elaborate musical instruments, libraries of clay tablets containing literary works, religious exercises, commercial documents, even medical treatises and school lessons, all betoken a civilised and knowledgeable people replete in this world's goods and loyal in their devotion to their Deity.
It was in this city and this kind of house, and in this way of life, that Terah and his family lived. And they were all idolaters. That this was so is demonstrated by the names of the members of the family. They are all idolatrous names connected with one or other of the many gods of Sumer, There is also the testimony of Joshua, speaking to the people of Israel at the time of the entry to the land, when he told them "Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood (river) in old time, even Terah the father of Abraham and of Nachor, and they served other gods!" (Josh 24.2). In addition there is a passage in the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees (150 BC), which declares that Terah, his father and his grandfather were all idolaters (Jub.11.4-16). But the real evidence lies in the names, all of which are recorded in their Hebrew form in Genesis, although it has to be remembered that they were actually Sumerian names.
"Abram" is the Hebrew form of the Sumerian "Abu-Ramu", meaning "Ramu, my father" (The Hebrew language normally omitted the final 'u' when translating Sumerian words, or else replaced it with 'a' or 'i') Ramu or Adad was the storm-god. 'Sarai' is Sarratu', a name current in the country of Haran for the wife of Nannar the Moon-God. Her sister 'Milcah' is 'Malkatu', also a name in Haran for the goddess Inanna or Ishtar (Venus). 'Nahor' is "Nakhur", Nannar the Moon-god; "Haran" is "Hurranu". "An, my mountain" probably "An (the supreme god) is my strength"; "Terah" is "Tarakhu", the sacred gazelle of the Moon-god, and "Lot" son of Haran, is "Lu-utu", "man of the sun-god". The names are mingled Sumerian and Semitic and most of them resemble the local names of the gods current in the northern town of Haran (also dedicated to the Moon-god) rather than the purely Sumerian town of Ur, from which fact it has been suggested that the family originated several generations earlier from Haran.
From all this it is clear that Joshua was correct; Abraham's father Terah was an idolator and named his family accordingly. (At a later date in Canaan God changed the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah to remove the pagan stigma). Terah's father and grandfather must have worshipped idols also, but that is as far back as the apostasy would have gone, for the grandfather, Serug, lived at the time when paganism had its rise. It follows therefore that the true faith was preserved in the family to within two centuries of the birth of Abraham so that quite reasonably the old writings, the stories of Eden, the Flood, and Babel, as we have them in Genesis - and probably much more -were preserved and handed down until they came into the possession of Abraham himself: so the early Bible history was saved. Jewish tradition has it that Terah was in business as a manufacturer of teraphim, the miniature idols used in private homes to protect the inhabitants. It may be remembered that in later years Rachel his great-grandaughter was involved in some rather shady business concerning the theft of her father Laban's teraphim to the displeasure of her husband Jacob, (Gen 31.30-35) so the legend may well rest on a basis of fact.,
The conversion of Abram and Sarai to the true faith and renunciation of idolatry must have been at an early stage of their lives. There is some evidence that his brother Nahor shared in that conversion (Gen. 31.53). Various legends existed in later times purporting to tell the story of that conversion but they are but legends. In practice it is tolerably certain that the line leading from Shem to Abraham was faithful to the true God for the major part of its existence; the preservation of the early Bible stories is evidence of that. It is probable that Abraham, accustomed from youth to those stories, saw more in them than did his father and grandfather, and glimpsed something in them of an outworking of the Divine purpose which led him to realise that this was indeed the very Word of God, and set himself to follow the light he thus received. So the Lord looked down and saw the man who would be the man of his choice and in the fullness of time revealed Himself.
It was about this time the name of a new god began to be made known among the people. Marduk the god of Babylon had not been one of much consequence in past times but Ur was now becoming increasingly dominated by Babylon and the claims of Babylon's god were being pressed. Marduk was not like the other gods, a personification of one or another attributes of the Most High God; he was a personification of a famous man of nearly a thousand years earlier, Nimrod, the celebrated hero who had taken the lead among their ancestors of early days. Now the priests and scribes got busy extolling his praises and writing epic poems about his mighty deeds. At first he was claimed to be the son of Nannar the Moon-god; later they gave out that he was the son of Enlil the son of the Most High and then they went further and made him the son of An the Most High himself, and wove wondrous legends about his becoming man's redeemer by dying and going into the grave and then rising from the dead and returning to the earth with gifts for men, all of which causes one to wonder how much early man, in the days of Eden and the Flood, did have revealed to them something of God's purpose of salvation, for that is where it must have come from at the first. An elaborate ceremony lasting a week was held every year in Babylon in the month Nisan to picture this legend. Eventually Marduk came to supersede all the other gods, as the hero of the people. The cult of Marduk became a kind of national obsession; the poets and scribes began to weave his personality into their epic poems and he became the symbol of all that was great and spectacular in the national life. More than any of the other gods Marduk was the most prominent god of Sumerian paganism and set the pattern for all paganism in all the world since. Under his Semitic name of Bel he became Baal to the Canaanitish nations and so was worshipped by Israel in her more decadent days. The greatest of all Sumerian epics, the "Enuma Elish" written two centuries or more after Abram left Ur, is a long recapitulation of all his alleged mighty deeds, among the gods and among men. In the end the identity of Utu, the sun-god, became absorbed into that of Marduk. It might well have been the rising power of this cult which led Abram to welcome the opportunity the Lord gave him to abandon Ur with its paganism and go to the new land which He promised to show him.
So, at last, the word of the Lord came to Abram "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation" (Gen. 12. 1-2). And Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him.
(To be concluded)