Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lament for Ur

Tablet containing
 Lamentatin for Ur
Wikipedia Commons
I have recently been considering several interesting comparisons of historical events in ancient Chaldea. It occurred to me that the events described in the first part of the book of Abraham, as well as the destruction of the Tower of Babel, the scattering following the confusion of tongues, and the events deplored in the Lament for the Destruction of Ur, might all be talking about the same historical event.
For those of you not familiar with the Lament for Ur, let me explain. A number of cuneiform clay tablets have been found dating to the Sumerian period in Mesopotamian history that contain the same, or similar, doleful descriptions of the destruction of the city-state of Ur. The Lament tells how the gods have turned against Ur and decreed its destruction. It is devastated by wind, sun and storm until the city lies in ruins, its people dead in the streets, and its temple destroyed.
Although it is difficult to date this event in Sumerian history, most scholars have assigned it to a late time period when the Sumerians were conquered by their enemies the Elamites, an event that ended the Sumerian civilization. However I would suggest that these laments were referring to a much earlier event that was subsequently remembered in retrospect for generations. The laments don't seem to mention armed conflict or invasion. They don't talk about battles or conquering armies. They emphasize the wrath of natural forces decreed by vengeful gods.
What might this lamentable event have been? I suggest that it is referring to the same event that is described in the first two chapters of the book of Abraham.  It is describing the events surrounding the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Tongues. This was a time of great destruction, a time of famine and suffering, an event that forced mass migrations of the inhabitants out of Mesopotamia. The separate accounts do not give the complete picture, but combining them, we get a clearer view of these horrific events.
Let us start with the account from the Book of Abraham. Abraham has been sentenced to death because of charges brought against him by his father (see the Book of Jasher Ch. 11). He is bound and placed upon the Egyptian altar that is near Potiphar's Hill in Ur, and the priest is in the process of killing him. The Lord intervenes, kills the priest, and destroys the altar and the idols. We read:
"Behold, Potiphar’s Hill was in the land of Ur of Chaldea. And the Lord broke down the altar of Elkenah, and of the gods of the land, and utterly destroyed them, and smote the priest that he died; and there was great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh ...
Facsimile 1 Bk. of Abraham

"Now, after the priest of Elkenah was smitten that he died, there came a fulfilment of those things which were said unto me concerning the land of Chaldea, that there should be a famine in the land.
"Accordingly a famine prevailed throughout all the land of Chaldea, and my father was sorely tormented because of the famine, and he repented of the evil which he had determined against me, to take away my life (Abr. 1:20, 29-30).
"Now the Lord God caused the famine to wax sore in the land of Ur, insomuch that Haran, my brother, died; but Terah, my father, yet lived in the land of Ur, of the Chaldees (Abr. 2:1)."

Here we read that God destroyed the altar and the pagan idols. Could this altar have been the actual Tower of Babel? Why would priests come to Ur from Egypt to practice their rites, if not on an altar atop the famed tower. Following the destruction of the priest, idols and altar, “there was great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh.” Such mourning surely resulted from more than the death of one man and the loss of several images and a simple bedstead. Could it not have been a result of the destruction of their years of effort in constructing the tower and the culture and rites that surrounded it?
Then there follows a severe famine in Ur. The above scripture glosses over the extent of the famine, but the Sumerian laments give a more detailed picture.

For the gods have abandoned us
like migrating birds they have gone
Ur is destroyed, bitter is its lament
The country's blood now fills its holes like hot bronze in a mould
Bodies dissolve like fat in the sun. Our temple is destroyed
Smoke lies on our city like a shroud.
blood flows as the river does
the lamenting of men and women
sadness abounds
Ur is no more
Farther on in the lament we read:
Behold,) they [the gods] gave instruction that the city be destroyed,

(behold,) they gave instruction that Ur be destroyed,
and as its destiny decreed that its inhabitants be killed.

Enlil called the storm. The people mourn.
Winds of abundance he took from the land. The people mourn.
Bood[?] winds he took away from Sumer. the people mourn.
Deputed evil winds. The people mourn.
Entrusted them to Kingaluda, tender of storms.

He called the storm that annihilates the land. The people mourn.
He called disastrous winds. The people mourn.
Enlil -- choosing Gibil as his helper --
called the (great) hurricane of heaven. The people mourn.
The (blinding) hurricane howling across the skies -- the people mourn --
the tempest unsubduable like breaks through levees,
beats down upon, devours the city's ships,
(all these) he gathered at the base of heaven. The people mourn.

(Great) fires he lit that heralded the storm. The people mourn.
And lit on either flank of furious winds the searing heat of the desert.
Like flaming heat of noon this fire scorched.

The storm ordered by Enlil in hate, the storm which wears away the country,
covered Ur like a cloth, veiled it like a linen sheet.

On that day did the storm leave the city; that city was a ruin.
O father Nanna, that town was left a ruin. The people mourn.
On that day did the storm leave the country. The people mourn.
Its people('s corpses), not potsherds,
littered the approaches.
The walls were gaping;
the high gates, the roads,
were piled with dead.
In the wide streets, where feasting crowds (once) gathered, jumbled they lay.
In all the streets and roadways bodies lay.
In open fields that used to fill with dancers,
the people lay in heaps.
(Enlil, Gibil, Nanna, Kingaluda are Sumerian gods.  This is only a small portion of the total lament. Source:

Hugh Nibley, in his book Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Ch. 2, Departure), gives several interesting references relating to this event:
[The Sibyl tells us] "when all men were of one tongue, some of them built a high tower so as to mount up to heaven, but God destroyed the tower by mighty winds."
Theophilus of Antioch gave a fuller version of the story, quoting the Sibyl in verse: "After the cataclysm [flood] cities and kings had a new beginning, in this manner. The first city of all was Babylon, . . . and one by the name of Nimrod became its king. . . . Since at that time men tended to become scattered, they took counsel of themselves and not of the Lord, to build a city and a tower the top of which would reach to heaven, so that their own name might be glorified. . . . Thus speaks the Sybil ... They all once spoke the same language and wanted to mount up to the starry heavens. But forthwith the Immortal One laid great stress upon the blasts, so that the wind overthrew the mighty tower, and drove mortals to strive with one another. And when the tower had fallen, the languages of men were divided up into many dialects, so that the earth became filled with different kingdoms of men."
The Book of Jubilees ... tells how "the Lord sent a mighty wind against the tower and overthrew it upon the earth, and behold it was between Asshur and Babylon in the land of Shinar, and they called its name 'Overthrow.' "
The zealous and learned Persian antiquary Tha'labi ... records the report that the people were scattered from the tower by an awful drought, accompanied by winds of such velocity as actually to blow down the tower.

From these accounts we get a much different view of the destruction of the tower and the scattering of the people. If my interpretation is correct, then Abraham's attempted sacrifice on the altar at Ur was the precipitating event which brought on this great cataclysm.

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