Twilight of the Gods: The Call Out of Ur

Terah the father of Abraham, was a Semite (of the line of Shem), an Aramean originally of north Mesopotamia in modern day Syria. Scholars tell us that Arameans migrated south into the ancient city states of Sumer and Akkad toward the end of the 3rd millennium B.C. When Ur III fell in 2000, it may have been that in the turbulence of the times Terah decided to move his family from this famous city Ur to Canaan (Gen. 5:31). Why he choose Canaan, and why he never got there, but settled in the Haran, an ancestral Aramean city, the text does not explicitly say. What we do know is that the Sumerian city of Ur is associated with Ham and his progeny Nimrod, founder of Babel, Erech (Uruk), and Akkad in the land of Shinar (10:10), the whole of which eventually became known as Babylon. The Semite Terah is therefore contrasted with Hamitic Babel, its city and tower. The text therefore assumes a spiritual reason for Terah’s move from Ur, and that he failed to complete his journey to Canaan. It may be that he was used to a relatively sophisticated urban life in the high culture of Ur, and rather than go to the cultural backwater of Canaan, he remained in the comfort of his ancestral Aramean city of Haran, an important caravan center in northern Mesopotamia.

Of Terah’s religion we do not know. His name is derived from the word yareaḥ which means “moon.” It is known that the moon was particularly worshipped in Haran. Moreover, his Aramean kin were associated with idols (31:19). As for his son Abram, however, we know two things. First, he was monotheistic, probably not in the well developed Mosaic sense, or in the even grander sense of Isaiah, but in the sense that he worshipped El (God) the Creator, revealed historically as YHWH in Israel, in contrast to Babel, its magical cosmic mountain with its pantheon of nature deities. Second, his God was a relational God, one that cannot be manipulated by magic as we find in pagan cultic rites. This relational God encounters humanity in history and enters into covenant with them.

The great primeval era ends with the story of Babel; evil crescendos to this false, man-made temple mountain that is an imitation of the Garden in Eden. Humanity will do all it can to get back to lost origins, but on its own terms, by its own rules. He creates gods in his own image. Babel is the story of the gods’ seeming cultural victory and its fall. In the aftermath is the call of Abram, one of those who, like Melchizedek of Jerusalem, priest of the most High God (14:18), worshiped God Almighty. (There always were those who worshiped El, the transcendent Father-God and Creator. For the identification of El with YHWH in contrast to the gods of the cosmic pantheon and territorial spirits, see F.M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic.) It is with Abram that God will give what fallen humanity strives for in his own power, a land that is reminiscent of the lost Garden, a step towards the ultimate fulfillment of God’s creation plan to spread the Garden throughout the whole world. This is the beginning of the end of pantheism, animism, the occult and the snake in the garden, and what will inaugurate the twilight of these pagan gods.

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