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The Bible in the British Museum

Julia Faire describes a recent visit to the British Museum, unpacking some of the Biblical stories reflected there.

It’s one of those wet, drizzling February days and London looks grey. But walking up those imposing steps of the British Museum, a treat awaits us. We are being taken around the museum for by Vicky Bolton and Seungjin Kim from the King’s Lodge, YWAM. We’re about to see  some amazing artefacts to help us understand the background history to the Old Testament. Everyone’s just arrived and we’ve got three hours. Let’s get started!

We step way back in time to ‘Ur of the Chaldees’, home to Abraham and one of the city-states of ancient Sumerian culture, unknown and buried for centuries beneath the shifting desert sands of today’s southern Iraq and first uncovered just under one hundred years ago. This was no primitive dwelling – in Abraham’s time (around 2000BC) Ur had already been a thriving trading city for hundreds of years. Fed by irrigated fields and lined with rows of spacious two-storey houses, this is where writing began and potters’ and vehicular wheels were first used.

We view the Royal Standard of Ur, a small box of breath-taking beauty decorated with shells, red limestone and royal blue lapis lazuli depicting scenes from the life of ancient Ur. Dated 2600BC, it was made several hundred years before late-comer, Abraham, lived there but accurately depicts the cultural achievements of the time. Indeed, in Abraham’s day, this once greatest city in the world (boasting a population of 65,000 at its peak) was in demise, attacked by marauding tribes from the north-west which may well explain Abraham and his family’s exodus and trek northwards up the River Euphrates to Haran and an uncertain future. We view the Royal Game of Ur (complete with rules), a harp and a small golden statuette of a hungry goat on hind-legs, leaning again a tree, looking for food.

So much that is the basis of our civilization began here. Indeed, glimpsing something of the story of Ur from these ancient artefacts makes the story of Abraham and his journey of faith, his life-turnaround from city dweller to nomad, more remarkable. With no land, no walled-city, no house to call a home, he had to trust God’s leading every inch of the way.

We are on a journey in time now, following the thread of the remarkable history of the Hebrews. Abraham’s great grandson, Joseph, had rescued the Egyptians from economic calamity and starvation but the well-earned status given to his descendant had turned sour and they found themselves slaves. Moses, adopted prince of Egypt, turned fugitive, returned to Egypt with a call for freedom for the Hebrews – but who was the Pharaoh that hardened his heart? The Bible never gives his name. Biblical scholars give two possible times for the Exodus – an early date c1446 or a late date c1220. Was it perhaps Thutmose 111 (c1481-c1425) or, as the movies say, Ramesses 11 (c1303- c1213 BC)? Was Thutmose the adopted brother of Moses? Whichever, both are here, both with a slight smile of benevolence on their stone-chiselled faces (perhaps not like the hard-hearted Pharaoh we imagine). How about the cobra on the sovereign’s foreheads, the symbol of Egyptian power? When we read of Moses’ stick turning into a snake and devouring the snakes of the Egyptian magicians, it was giving a clear message, often lost to us. The God of the Hebrew was a match for any Pharaoh!

Photo courtesy of the British Museum

Now the people enter Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and here is a tomb from Jericho, that most ancient of cities. We see a giant jar from the city, Hazor – a city Joshua burned down – and dating from his time, around 1400BC. We view images of those tiny Canaanite gods that were such a stumbling block to the Israelites. No wonder the matriarch Rachel could fit them inside her camel’s saddle and sit on them – they would fit in anyone’s pocket.

We can’t stay long on this whistle stop tour and, now, fast forward, to those unsettled days when the kingdom was divided after Israel’s King Solomon’s reign in the tenth century: the fast and furious charioteer – King Jehu. Here is the Assyrian two-metre high ‘Black Obelisk’ with a panel depicting this proud king, bowing, face to the floor, before the mighty Assyrian king, Shalmaneser  111. I think he got the message.

Photo courtesy of the British Museum

These Assyrians, renowned for their brilliant engineering but also for their cruelty, were growing in power. We view the enormous, ten-ton winged bulls with human heads and five legs, set to guard the royal palace and the fantastic gypsum panels depicting scenes of war and the kings’ favourite pastime – lion hunting!  Killing lions was the evidence of royal prowess. Here is a panel of Tiglath Pileser 111 along with Shalmaneser V and Sargon 11 – architects of the siege of Samaria (c725-722BC) – and all mentioned in the Bible.

Powerfully etched by these Assyrian war artists on gypsum slabs is the terrible siege of Lachish in Judah by Assyrian King Sennacherib (701 BC)  that  we read about in 2 Chronicles. On his throne is Sennacherib himself, receiving the defeated prisoners of war, his face defaced by a later opponent. No wonder King Hezekiah of Judah was shaking in his boots at this Assyrian war machine on his very door-step. Isaiah, the great hero of the hour, prophesied that Jerusalem would be saved – and so it was – a fact remarkably attested by Sennacherib’s recording of the event on a small clay prism we see (called the Taylor Prism and dated 691BC) where he states that he had shut up Hezekiah within Jerusalem, his own royal city, like a caged bird. Assyrian propaganda didn’t acknowledge defeat. You have to read between the lines; Jerusalem escaped.

Nineveh the great city, likened to a lion herself, is fallen to the Medes and Babylonians (612BC). “The fire will devour you … I will leave you no prey on the earth!” (Nahum 2:13) warned Nahum the prophet before the great city fell – and so it was.  Ugly charred marks on panels from Nineveh tell their story.

Photo courtesy of the British Museum

Nearly finished! We’re completing our Old Testament tour with ancient Persia. Here, before us, is a tiny cylinder – only 22 cm long and made of fired clay – so small but giant in terms of historical impact for the Persian Emperor Cyrus’s policy of freeing captive people to serve their own gods, to worship in their own way and return to their homeland is clearly stated. Cyrus the Persian Emperor took Babylon in 539BC and issued his edict freeing the Jews in the same year. This tiny cylinder has been described by some as an early charter of human rights and, so significant that, a replica of it can be seen in the headquarters of the United Nations.

Here on the wall is a plaster cast from the great Persian capital, Persepolis. We view the Persian king on his throne, probably Xerxes (Ahaseurus). He’s holding his sceptre, perhaps the same one as he held out to Queen Esther when she approached him, heart in mouth, to make a request on behalf of the Jews – and here is a glazed brick panel from the royal palace at Susa where Esther lived, depicting a guard on duty. I wonder if she or her uncle Mordecai once looked on what we are seeing now.

We see bowls from the time of Artaxerxes when Nehemiah was his cup-bearer. Today we have had a tiny glimpse into the Old Testament world. It certainly helps us understand the often precarious story of God people, surrounded by powerful and often very cruel nations. Certainly they needed to be people of faith, hammered, battered, often overcome, but surviving none the less and renewing their faith in the God who ultimately toppled all these superpowers. It certainly, too, adds great credibility to the ancient Biblical texts that have been passed down to us.

For more information read: “Through the British Museum with the Bible: Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson”

Published 21st February 2018 with tags: history the bible

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