The ancient city of Ur has been in the news these days. Most Christians have no idea of the importance of Ur of the Chaldeans where the history of Abraham, the son of Terach, begins some 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Abraham is the 10th descendant of Noah through the line of Shem. According to some traditions, the father of Abraham was an idol maker. Terach named his son Abram (many, multitude, nation) but later on, God changed his name to Abraham (father of nations) by adding the letter ה (Heh) –some see in this change a hint of the Holy Spirit since Heh is a kind of exhalation– that letter was also added when Sarai, Abram’s wife, was also made a receiver of the divine promise: Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah.
The Chaldeans were masters of astronomy. Some believe they remembered an ancient revelation, perhaps from before the Flood of Noah’s time, when God explained to mankind the meaning of the many arrays of stars He had placed around our home planet. That may be true since many of the ancient cultures have named many constellations and stars in the same manner although in different languages. One example I know is a star called “the little king” our Alpha Leonis which the Romans called Regulus (the little king!) and was known in Greek as Basiliskos (same meaning) and in the Babylonian language Shah-ru. But this is only an anecdote and it may be only partially accurate. What interests us is that God started to talk to Abraham who was the son of an idol maker from a city of astronomers, star gazers.
By the time Abraham walked the earth, there lived a man named Job, from the land of Uz. Coincidentally Uz, is the firstborn of Aram (Nachor) who is Abraham’s brother. (Genesis 22:21) The Book of Job is filled with references to stars and constellations. That may be a hint to the origin of that book of the Bible, a book that perhaps Abraham knew well.
[God] Who shook the earth out of her place, and made her pillars tremble. Who commanded the sun not to rise: and covered up the stars as it were under a seal: Who alone spreads out the heavens, and walks upon the waves of the sea. Who made Arcturus, and Orion, and Hyades, and the inner parts of the south. Who does things great and incomprehensible, and wonderful, of which there is no number. (Job 9:6-10, DOUAY-RHEIMS. “Arcturus”: These are names of stars or constellations. In Hebrew, Ash, Cesil, and Cimah.)
The tenth patriarch of the line of Shem was chosen to hear the voice of God in Ur of the Chaldeans.
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3)
The promise was repeated using different metaphors.
The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring for ever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’ So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord. (Genesis 12:14-18)
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6)
The descendants of Abraham were many. Only Isaac the son of the promise was born to Sarah but many others were born of the many wives Abraham took after Sarah’s death. But no matter how numerous, we know the physical descendants of Abraham are a finite lot. We meet the spiritual descendants of Abraham — the ones that were redeemed by Jesus the Christ, the promised Messiah — in Revelation 7:9.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
Please remember that Abraham’s original name was multitude and the name he received from God was Abraham, that is father of nations. Here is the multitude that “no one could count” praising God and blessing themselves, glad to be the blessed descendants of the man who once stood on a hill in Chaldea to hear God whisper in his ear the promise of salvation.
The God of Heaven took a man from a city of pagan star gazers, from the house of an idol maker and guided his descendants all the way to Heaven where they will live with Him forever. The image reminds me of the last verses of Dante’s Inferno:
The Guide and I into that hidden road
Now entered, to return to the bright world;
And without care of having any rest
We mounted up, he first and I the second,
Till I beheld through a round aperture
Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;
Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.
(Inferno, Canto XXXIV, by Dante Alighieri, Longfellow’s translation)
From the days of Abraham, God has been working to extract mankind from this man-made hell we have fallen into. From Terach’s idol making shop to the hill where Abraham heard the Promise for the first time. From the city of the star gazers to threading new worlds even beyond the stars we can see. From Ur to the Promised Land, to Egypt and back the life of Abraham is not only the search for the Promise but also a small scale prophetic model of the vicissitudes of Israel and of every spiritual descendant of Abraham of Ur. Hidden in the often repeated promises of God is our own destiny. Look up to the stars because we are going there. God will take us from this our first home and guide us to a beautiful land through many tribulations. That is the adventure of man: ad astra per aspera (to the stars through hardships) until we arrive to our final destination and join the heavenly multitude that no one can count. There, presiding that great crowd we shall see a most perfect descendant of Abraham, the pinnacle of creation, a Mother, a Celestial Queen crowned with stars.