Reading history through objects…
Last year there was a cracking radio series entitled ‘The history of the world in 100 objects’, which concerned itself with objects chosen from the thousands in the British Museum. It was impossible not to be reminded of this as we walked around the museum last week.
What I loved about the series was the way that the presenter (Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum) was able to use each object as a time capsule, or some kind of window into where we came from.
Most people who read the Bible find an extra frisson of fascination around objects that have some connections to Bible history. Two of these objects had me thinking again about the way that we use history not just like a distorted telescope lens, but more like a kaleidoscope. The light we see at such distance is bent by all sorts of assumptions and overlaid constructions- never more so than when the Bible is involved.
The first object (or set of objects to be more accurate) is this one- the Lachish relief.
This relief is from a time of around 3000 years ago- and this too was a time of war. (It is estimated that there were only around 50 Million people in the world then, but still there was an the urge to fight!) In this instance, the fighting recorded was the great siege of Lachish in Judea, 701 BC by King Senacherib.
Lachish is first mentioned in the Bible as one of the cities taken by force from its existing inhabitants by Joshua. In Joshua 10, it is recorded that the King of Lachish started out as an ally of the Israelites, fighting alongside them, before ‘God gave Lachish to Israel’, who ‘took it in two days and killed everyone’. Despite this, somehow Joshua remains our hero. He was establishing Gods promised holy nation…
Jump forward around 4 centuries or so, to around 1000 BC, the kingdom of Judah had more powerful neighbors in the form of the Assyrian Empire, stretching Iran to Egypt, and maintained by the all powerful Assyrian war machine.
Good King Hezekiah, who seemed to get all the worship purity stuff right, made some rather bad political decisions and defied the Assyrian King Sennacherib.
In 2 Kings 20 there is a story of one of Sennacheribs men delivering insulting blasphemous words about the lack of power of the Jewish god when faced with the power of the sword. Here Hezekiah cleverly pays off the Assyrians, and eventially God kills first most of their army, then Sennacherib himself gets his comeuppance.
The story from the Assyrian records are rather different;
“In my third campaign I marched against Hatti. Luli, king of Sidon…fled far overseas and perished…In the continuation of my campaign I besieged Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banai-Barqa, Azuru, cities belonging to Sidqia who did not bow to my feet quickly (enough); I conquered (them) and carried their spoils away. The officials, the patricians and the (common) people of Ekron - who had thrown Padi, their king, into fetters (because he was) loyal to (his) solemn oath (sworn) by the god Ashur, and had handed him over to Hezekiah, the Jew (and ) he (Hezekiah) held him in prison, unlawfully, as if he (Padi) be an enemy-had become agraid and had called (for help) upon the kings of Egypt (and) the bowmen, the chariot(-corps) and the cavalry of the king of Ethiopia, an army beyond counting-and they (actually) had come to their assistance. In the plain of Eltekeh, their battle lines were drawn up against me and they sharpened their weapons. Upon a trust (-inspiring) oracle (given) by Ashur, my lord, I fought with them and inflicted a defeat upon them…I assaulted Ekron and killed the officials and patricians who had committed the crime and hung their bodies on poles surrounding the city…I made Padi, their king, come form Jerusalem and set him as their lord on the throne, imposing upon him the tribute (due) to me (as) overlord…As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered (them) by means of well-stamped (earth-)ramps, and battering-rams brought (thus) near (to the walls) (combined with) the attack by foot soldiers, (using) mines, breeches as well as sapper work. I drove out (of them) 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered (them) booty. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were leaving his city’s gate. His towns which I had plundered, I took away from his country and gave them (over) to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Sillibel, king of Gaza. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the Katru-presents (due) to me (as his) overlord which I imposed (later) upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually. Hezekiah himself, whom the terror-inspiring splendor of my lordship had overwhelmed and whose irregular and elite troops which he had brought into Jerusalem, his royal residence, in order to strengthen (it), had deserted him, did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches (inlaid) w3ith ivory, nimedu-chairs (inlaid) with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood, box-wood (and) all kinds of valuable treasures, his (own) daughters, concubines, male and female musicians. In order to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance as a slave he sent his (personal) messenger.”
Ancient Near Eastern Texts – Relating to the Old Testament edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1950, quoted here.
The next scene in the relief is the aftermath of battle- people fleeing burning city. This is seen as the first ever depiction of that all-too-familiar modern phenomenon; mass refugees. Why did the Assyrians want to show this in their propaganda? Was it a warning to all those who would challenge the powers of the great king? Note however that the exiles were not all murdered, they travel with their livestock and belongings. The Assyrians showed a degree of humanity that Joshua seems to have lacked.
The great king Sennacherib was assassinated by one of his sons however as described in the Bible- the cycle of war continued.
One of the other objects I wound myself staring at was this one- the Cyrus Cylinder.
This is one of several such cylinders that have been found in the walls and buildings of ancient Babylonian cities and palaces- it seems that the builders of these places wanted some kind of record to remain in the foundations of what they made.
The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus, sets out his genealogy and portrays him as a king from a line of kings. The Babylonian king Nabonidus, who was defeated and deposed by Cyrus, is denounced as an impious oppressor of the people of Babylonia and his low-born origins are implicitly contrasted to Cyrus’s kingly heritage. The victorious Cyrus is portrayed as having been chosen by the chief Babylonian godMarduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians. The text states that Cyrus was welcomed by the people of Babylon as their new ruler and entered the city in peace. It appeals to Marduk to protect and help Cyrus and his son Cambyses. It extols Cyrus as a benefactor of the citizens of Babylonia who improved their lives, repatriated displaced people and restored temples and cult sanctuaries acrossMesopotamia and elsewhere in the region. It concludes with a description of how Cyrus repaired the city wall of Babylon and found a similar inscription placed there by an earlier king.
Again, readers of the Bible will remember Cyrus-
His treatment of the Jews during their exile in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem is reported in theBible. The Jewish Bible’sKetuvim ends in Second Chronicles with the decree of Cyrus, which returned the exiles to thePromised Land from Babylon along with a commission to rebuild the temple.
‘Thus saith Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath Yahweh, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people – may Yahweh, his God, be with him – let him go there.’ (2 Chronicles 36:23)
This edict is also fully reproduced in the Book of Ezra.
In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the king issued a decree: ‘Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the temple, the place where sacrifices are offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained, its height being 60 cubits and its width 60 cubits; with three layers of huge stones and one layer of timbers. And let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. Also let the gold and silver utensils of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be returned and brought to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; and you shall put them in the house of God.’ (Ezra 6:3–5)
As a result of Cyrus’s policies, the Jews honored him as a dignified and righteous king. He is the only Gentile to be designated as Messiah, a divinely appointed leader, in the Tanakh (Isaiah 45:1–6). Isaiah 45:13: “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says Yahweh Almighty.” As the text suggests, Cyrus did ultimately release the nation of Israel from its exile without compensation or tribute. Traditionally, the entire book of Isaiah is believed to pre-date the rule of Cyrus by about 120 years. These particular passages (Isaiah 40–55, often referred to as Deutero-Isaiah) are believed by most modern critical scholars to have been added by another author toward the end of the Babylonian exile (ca. 536 BC). Whereas Isaiah 1–39 (referred to as Proto-Isaiah) saw the destruction of Israel as imminent, and the restoration in the future, Deutero-Isaiah speaks of the destruction in the past (Isa 42:24–25), and the restoration as imminent (Isa 42:1–9). Notice, for example, the change in temporal perspective from (Isa 39:6–7), where the Babylonian Captivity is cast far in the future, to (Isa 43:14), where the Israelites are spoken of as already in Babylon.
Here we have a king from outside the chosen people, appointed by God, showing the kind of tolerance, respect for human rights and concern for peace that had been a scarce commodity.
And this very object remains as a testimony to who he was.
Human history; the rise of power, or the journey towards love?
I am interested in understanding who we are, why we are, what we are becoming- in the light of the fact that we are more than flesh that just becomes dust- we are people who have been travelling for millenia towards a deeper encounter with God, however we understand this.
I look at all this through my own distorted set of lens- but I do so consciously. So rather than co-opting history to glorify our own slice of empire (which was the origin of the British Museum after all) perhaps we can understand history in the light of who Jesus was.
In this way, small thing, small people, voices from the margins- these things become important. Great powers less so- they come and go, empires rising and falling like epidemics.
In-groups are broken- we are set free from narrow religious/geographical/ethnic boundaries. Now we can look for the marks of grace and love wherever we find them.
And we can learn to value above all the fruits of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, justice, compassion.
Even when looking back.