"…and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees…" (Gen. 11.31)
Werner Keller's sterling tome, The Bible As History, provides extensive evidence bolstering the biblical record on several fronts (e.g., archeologically, historically, etc.). Though the author yields to modern prejudice on occasion, it is nonetheless a most worthy work.
Keller's section on Abraham's hometown, Ur of the Chaldees, is rather riveting. For many centuries, Keller explains, Ur was a
"name as mysterious and legendary as the bewildering variety of names of kings and conquerors, powerful empires, temples and golden palaces, with which the Bible regales us. Nobody knew where Ur lay" (31).
Due to this lack of archeological confirmation, the biblical narrative — which skeptics invariably regard as guilty before proven innocent — was held in error and rejected as spurious.
Yet, beginning in 1843, with the finding and excavation of what is now known as Khorsabad on the east bank of the Tigris River (northern Mesopotamia) — the site which demonstrated the Bible's accuracy concerning Sargon, king of Assyria (cf. Isa. 20.1) — a long series of archaeological excavations led to the finding of a number of ancient cities, names of kings, and civilizations to which the Bible refers. Ur, however, except for a few shards of pottery, remained largely undiscovered.
Nearly a century later, during the first world war, British soldiers encamped at a site in southern Mesopotamia that is now called, Tall Al-Mugayyar ("Mound of Pitch") — about 140 miles south of Bagdad, Iraq.
There, they discovered an inscription, written in the 6th century B.C. by Nabonidus, king of Babylon. That ancient king also served as archaeologist and restorer of antiquities.
In his time (2500 years ago), the ziggurat (shrine-complex) found at the site was already dilapidated due to age. In the process of restoring the building, he was able to identify its original builder.
His name? King Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.). Intrigue naturally piqued. Could this be the same Ur to which Genesis 11.31 makes reference?
Excavations began. Sir Charles Leonard Woolley headed the entire expedition. After years of meticulous labor in the heat of the middle-eastern sun, the entire site was finally awakened from its sand-covered coma in 1929. Ur of the Chaldees had been found!
In Abraham’s time, the city was powerful and wealthy — a centre for commerce. Its people had developed
“an elaborate system of writing, advanced means of mathematical calculations, religious records, refined art, a school system, etc.” (Jackson, 10).
Keller himself observes:
“how well its citizens lived, and in what spacious homes! No other Mesopotamian city has revealed such handsome and comfortable houses…the citizens of Ur were living in large two-storied villas with thirteen or fourteen rooms” (40).
This provides a deeper dimension to Abraham’s divine calling.
When God instructed the patriarch to leave this ancient metropolis to live in a foreign land, to which he was not then privy, dwelling in nomadic tents, it surely must have tested his faith. Yet, obeying, he launched out into the unknown, trusting not in the comforts of this world, but in the God of timeless bliss (Heb. 11.8-10; cf. Isa. 51.11-12). His bags remained ever packed and ready to go whenever and wherever the Lord directed him, even if that meant leaving behind the luxury and refinement of such “handsome and comfortable houses” and the modernity of a sophisticated city.
Northern or Southern Mesopotamia?
A few scholars have objected to Woolley’s location of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (cf. Gordon, 28-31). Even Keller questioned whether Abraham, a nomad, could have ever lived in Woolley’s metropolis, since “he is a tent dweller” and “does not live like a citizen of a great city” (42), as Woolley had discovered.
Yet, Keller’s reasoning is a non sequitur. The fact that he lived in tents after he left his “father’s house” (Gen. 12.1) has no bearing on whether or not he was raised in a “great city.” Keller seems to think that city-dwellers can never become nomads, or vice-versa. The absurdity of this is palpable.
Besides, Abraham’s nomadic life did not stem from some preferential taste for tents; it was a decision made by faith. In other words, Abraham did “not live like a citizen of a great city” not because he never lived in one (or did not prefer them), but because God instructed him to sojourn, that he might live in anticipation of a more permanent dwelling place in the heavens.
Others object to the southern location on the basis of Genesis 24.4ff, when Abraham sent a servant to fetch a wife for his son in northern Mesopotamia (‘Aram-Naharaim’) which he calls his “country,” his “father’s house,” and “the land of my family.”
Yet, Genesis 11.31 indicates that Abraham’s family moved from “Ur of the Chaldees” to “Haran” (in northern Mesopotamia) and “settled there.” The Greek translation gives us the term, katokesen, to settle down as a permanent resident (cf. Mt. 2.23; 4.13). Hence, Haran became his new “country,” where his “family” and his “father’s house” now resided. In fact, Genesis 12 verses 1 and 4 clearly identify Haran as Abraham’s new “country,” from which he eventually disembarked for Canaan.
Hence, while Ur of the Chaldees (in southern Mesopotamia) was Abraham’s original country, when his family moved to the north, he had no reason to send his servant to Ur, since that was no longer his country—no longer the place where his family resided, and thus no longer the location of a potential bride for Isaac. No objections to a southern location of Ur, Abraham’s original country, can therefore be made on this basis.
Another objection to the southern location stems from Joshua 24.2f, where God says that Abraham and his family came from “beyond the Euphrates.” Since Woolley’s Ur was discovered just on the western side of the Euphrates and not beyond it (from the Palestinian perspective), Woolley, allegedly, could not have discovered the Biblical Ur.
However, the previous point should suffice to answer this objection too. Neither Genesis 24 nor Joshua 24 are actually discussing Ur, Abraham’s original homeland. Instead, Haran, which is “beyond the Euphrates” (that is, east of it), had become Abraham’s new “country,” and it was from this secondary location that God “took…Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan” (v. 3). Stephen corroborates this:
“Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, he moved him to this land in which you now dwell” (Acts 7.4).
Since neither Genesis 24 nor Joshua 24 are describing Ur at all, they cannot be used to object to its location in the south.
Conversely, most Bible scholars view the archeological findings of Woolley’s excavations, as well as the Bible’s own description of Ur as belonging to the region “of the Chaldees” (Gen. 11.28; cf. Acts 7.4) — a southern Mesopotamian region — as confirmation of Ur residing right where Woolley discovered it, near Tall Al-Mugayyar.
It should be observed that Werner Keller was by no means a theologian. Still, in the light of his archaeological studies of Bible lands and Bible times, and contemplating the strident
“skeptical criticism which from the eighteenth century onwards would fain have demolished the Bible altogether,”
he stunningly admits to having a single sentence “hammering” on his brain:
“The Bible is right after all!” (24).
Indeed, that is a sentence which every honest seeker of truth comes to utter when they actually study its contents with a fair mind.
Gordon, Cyrus. “Abraham and the Merchants of Urfa,” Journal of Near-Eastern Studies, XVII, 1958. Halley, H. H. Halley's Bible Handbook. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965. Keller, Werner. The Bible As History. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1981. Jackson, Wayne. Biblical Studies In The Light of Archaeology. Stockton, CA: Apologetics Press, Inc., 1982. Orr, James (et al.). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986. Pfeiffer, Charles F. Baker's Bible Atlas. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2005.