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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Bible within Its Myriad Contexts: The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem

Since the founding of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem in 1906, the community that eventually became the State of Israel has been obsessed with the arts as an instrument of articulating the cultural personality of the Jewish people, so many aspects of which were suppressed through the previous fifteen centuries of exile and dispersion. The return to the Land brought with it a renewed urge to return to visual, aural, and kinetic self-expression. The establishment of the Bezalel School was accompanied by the initial shaping of the first museum that would gather together comprehensive statements of Jewish experience across time and space.

The foundations of that experience were set in the lands of the Near East and east Mediterranean in the several millennia that preceded the dispersion, and they are verbally articulated in the text of the Hebrew Bible. It is fitting that next door to the descendant of the Bezalel Museum, the Israel Museum, stands one of the more recent and most fascinating of the array of museums that have come to populate the landscape of Israel between 1906 and the present day: The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem (BLMJ; http://www.blmj.org/Main/Main.html), which opened its doors in 1992.

Based almost entirely on the 4,000 objects collected over five decades by its founding director, Elie Borowski, the BLMJ brings the narrative of the Hebrew Bible alive by connecting the details of place and circumstance within that narrative to artifacts of the material culture of those places. Borowski (1913-2003) was a distinguished Polish-born, Italian- and Swiss-educated Sumerologist, who began his career as a collector and antiquities dealer with the acquisition of a cylinder seal in the autumn of 1943. That seal —inscribed with the Hebrew letters representing the name "Shallum," perhaps referring to Shallum, son of Yavesh, briefly king of the Northern Israelite kingdom (in 741 B.C.E.)—is one of 1,400 seals now in the collection. The varied artifacts that Borowski and his wife, Batya Gamiel Weiss Borowski, have organized in twenty-one galleries concretize the story of human-divine and human-human relations that begins with Abraham and ultimately yields the foundation stones of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The museum covers a sweep of cultures and civilizations that extend from Nubia and Egypt to Anatolia and Mesopotamia. By introducing each of its galleries with quotes from the Bible that set the context for the place and key materials or images, the museum encompasses peoples that are literally referenced and also those merely implied through a midrashic perspective that is more inclusive than a narrower view of "Bible Lands" might imply. Maps placed in each of the gallery spaces help clarify further the interconnections among ideas, events, and objects that bring the world of and around the Bible to life.

Thus, the introductory gallery, devoted to a broad vision of the family of humankind, is introduced by a quote from Gen 10:32 referring to "the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations; and of these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood." By construing the three sons of Noah as ancestors of Near Eastern, African, and Indo-European peoples, the museum is able to offer a rich and broad spectrum of art and artifacts reflecting both the inner and the outer circles of peoples revolving around the Hebrew-Israelites. Greeks, Bactrians, Sabaeans, and Urartians are represented by exquisite objects, in addition to those associated with the Egyptians, Assyrians, Syrians, Babylonians, and Canaanites.

After such a broad introduction, the museum follows a course that is both chronological and geographic. The first gallery following the introductory space traces human development from hunter-gatherer to urban-dwelling phases by tracing a course of history in the lands of the Near East and east Mediterranean that sweeps from 10,000 to 3,000 B.C.E. The second moves toward the beginnings of civilization in the Early Bronze Age — with the passage from Gen 11:2-4 as a theme: "As men migrated from the east they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly....Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky.'" Clay pots, figurines, a stunning lion-shaped amulet, and charming seals are among the myriad items that exemplify and illuminate the general concepts of how humankind arrived at cities — and where they first did so, in Mesopotamia and Egypt — while connecting such general ideas to specific biblical reference points.

The following two galleries illustrate communication, the cornerstone of civilization, along both visual and textual lines: symbols in art and the beginnings of writing. Neither of these enterprises is limited to an overt focus on the biblical text. But this is precisely the midrashic beauty of the BLMJ: its galleries carry beyond the overt and obvious to the implied and contextually enriching. Thus, the discussion of pre-written communication considers both the oral and visual expression of ideas and offers the sort of interactive computer program that can keep both adults and children fascinated for hours while implicitly wrapping its educational message within a medium that underscores the message: that modes of communication have continued to evolve to our own day. So while playing with the computer, the visitor is learning about specific kinds of communication and their significance for (and connection to) passages in the biblical text.

The reference in Gallery 4 to Moses making "an end of the writing the words of this Torah in a book until they were finished" and commanding the Levites to "take this book of the Torah" (Deut 31:24-26) is part of the implied statement within the Bible itself regarding how important writing is to its evolving narrative. But the broad context of that importance is then explored from Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs to Phoenician to Neo-Hittite and Sabaean. Many of the objects, of course, also demonstrate how images become text, how writing systems emerge from pictograms including those, like hieroglyphs and Neo-Hittite, that combine pictographic and abstract elements.

As visitors are irresistibly drawn through the galleries that follow, they are led through the narratives that move from the period of the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs through the experiences of their Israelite descendants in and out of Egypt. These are interwoven with foci on particular places and peoples who can be understood as associated with the key characters and experiences of the biblical text. Thus, Gallery 6 focuses on aspects of Sumerian culture, centering on the Sumerian religion and its temples — the culture whence Abraham may be said to have derived and the religious tradition from which he diverged. Gallery 11 is devoted to the Sea Peoples by way of a quote from Gen 10:4-5, with its reference to descendants of Javan and their "dispersal to the islands of the nations."

The larger context is the disruption in the eastern Mediterranean toward the end of the Bronze Age and the invasions of the southeast Mediterranean coasts by a group variously referred to by the Egyptians as the Sea Peoples, by the Tyrians as Keretu, Peletu, and Peleshet, and by the Bible as the Philistines. But the gallery cases expand that discussion by encompassing peoples and objects from as far away as Sardinia, offering them as the segment of the Sea Peoples known as the Sherden. Exquisite bronze work from Sardinia to Cyprus raises the dynamic issue of international styles and the crisscrossing of culture and commerce in an age that, biblically, culminates with the establishment of the Israelite kingdom.

The following gallery recapitulates the same period of the Late Bronze Age in order to present the background of the various groups that had such an important impact on the Israelites in the aftermath of the break-up of the kingdom shortly after the death of Solomon (ca 930 B.C.E.): the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. The complex interweave of sites and groups, from Mari to Susa and from the Kassites to the Mittani, is expressed by stone fragments and bronze figurines, by pottery vessels and ivory plaques.

This background yields to the more direct biblical foreground in the four galleries that follow. Thus Galleries 13 and 15 continue the far-reaching narrative by offering overlapping groups of biblical texts and spectacular objects that carry into the first millennium B.C.E. On the one hand, we follow (in Gallery 13) the fate of Anatolia and Northern Syria from the fragmentation of the Hittite Empire and its transformation into post-Hittite kingdoms such as that of the Luwians, which is illustrated by stone orthostats and funeral stelae and an exquisite bronze Syrian ritual bucket. On the other hand, the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire — "Assyria, rod of my anger, in whose hand as a staff is My fury" (Isa 10:5) — is sketched, together with its fall before the Chaldaean Babylonians. This gallery includes an unusual cylinder seal showing the ruler of the Arabs riding a camel out of the desert to meet an Assyrian god. The image on the seal relates to the earliest mention of the "Arabs" as a group in Assyrian texts.

Sandwiched between the intertwined story lines of these two galleries is the Israelite narrative from the point at which, in 1 Sam 8:19-20, the tribes argue to the prophet that "we must have a king over us, that we may be like other nations," to the Assyrian debacle and the disappearance of the northern ten tribes and their kingdom from the stage of history. This gallery (number 14) is strategically placed to fall at the center of the museum and is dominated by a model of the Ophel, the highest point of Jerusalem during the First Temple period. Against that cyclopean visual context are scores of impressive small pieces, from seals with Aramaic and Ammonite inscriptions to Assyrian and Syrian ivory plaques, of which perhaps the most renowned is one depicting the "woman at the window." A ninth-century Syrian work, this fascinating motif has a history leading back to the Phoenicians, where she represented a temple prostitute. In the context of this narrative, the piece is utilized to help the viewer visualize Jezebel, Tyrian (Phoenician) bride of Ahab and priestess of Ba'al, with whom the prophet Elijah battled spiritually and who would make her last appearance at such a window, before being tossed to her destruction below.

The sixteenth gallery is devoted to the Persians in their Achaemenid efflorescence and carries the Hebrew Bible toward its chronological conclusion with the return from the First Exile as explained (and quoted in the gallery at length) in the last chapter of 2 Chronicles. A stunning gilded incense altar from sixth-century Persia is displayed, together with silver bowls from the late Achaemenid and early Parthian periods (ca 350-100 B.C.E). Two great relief blocks from the palace complex at Persepolis offer a counterpoint to tiny, minutely detailed stamp seals and to the papyri and ostraca whose texts contour our sense of everyday life in the Judaea of the Achaemenid period.

As several galleries present developments and contexts that are preludes to elements within the biblical narrative, the last four galleries extend the storyline into the aftermath of the biblical era in the narrow sense, carrying through and beyond the Second Temple period. Stunning Hellenistic coins and gems, together with a beautiful funerary stele from Anatolia and a miniature painted coffin from Egypt, punctuate a gallery (number 17) that is introduced by quotes from the apocryphal book of I Maccabees.

In turn, gallery 18 follows the merging of the late Hellenistic world into an extended geographic and cultural identity of the Roman world. Here the chronological and geographical viewpoints remain simultaneously expansive and centered on Judaea and its capital: "For the sake of Zion I will not be silent, for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still, till her victory emerge resplendent and her triumph like a flaming torch," are the words from Isa 62:1 that introduce it. Among the more marvelous pieces are an ossuary from the first century C.E. carved as a stylized Ionic temple and a second ossuary with a carefully wrought Aramaic inscription.

This gallery emphasizes not only the relationship with Rome — the loss of Judaean independence (after Herod's death in 4 B.C.E.), the first (66-70 C.E.) and second (Bar Kokhba, 132-35 C.E.) revolts, together with the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) — but, in the midst of these external events, also the internal shaping of the Judaean tradition as both rabbinic Judaism and early patristic Christianity. Thus, objects include various representations of the Temple menorah in diverse sizes and media, as well as mosaics that connect the Roman penchant for colorful floor decoration with the visual symbolism that marks the gradual change of Rome in the fourth century toward a Christian Empire. In this latter context, the spectacular sarcophagus of Julia Latonilla (ca 330-340 C.E.) offers a dynamic contrast both with the ossuary mentioned earlier and with the simply inscribed yet elegant silver Byzantine Eucharistic beaker from the late fifth to early sixth century.

One can recognize the beginnings of Christian painting, and in particular the eastern Orthodox tradition of icon paintings, in the haunting encaustic funerary portraits on linen and wood from Roman Egypt of the first through fourth centuries. These dominate the penultimate gallery, together with other textiles that derive from the Coptic tradition as well as objects that demonstrate how extended the struggle was with the entrenched pagan traditions throughout the empire and particularly in Egypt. Thus, references to Dionysius and images of (and late hieroglyphic inscriptions referring to) the goddess Isis share space with their Christian counterparts and derivatives.

One might say that the last gallery in the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem simultaneously returns visitors to where the biblical narrative began and leads away from its aftermath toward the next fifteen centuries of Jewish history and tradition. In being presented with Sassanian Mesopotamia, the home of the Babylonian Talmud, we are led back to the land from which Abraham derived — twenty-five centuries after the time of the patriarch, in its last pre-Islamic, pre-medieval political iteration. By then, the intellectual center of the Jewish world was shifting back to the place from which many Judaeans had chosen not to return after the first exile.

Sassanian silver bowls and coins, together with incantation bowls inscribed with extended Aramaic passages, as well as tiny, marvelously formed Parthian ornaments and large mosaic panels, all underscore the rich and diverse world of Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Christians, and Jews. This world, rising from its biblical foundations, became the first of several to culturally, intellectually, and spiritually center an increasingly dispersed archipelago of Jewish islands, interconnected yet afloat in pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian, and Muslim seas. The physical and political loss of Eretz Yisrael would be counterbalanced for nearly two millennia by the spectacular possibility suggested in the quote from Isa 49:6 that sums up this gallery: "I will make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth."

The return to Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem by the descendants of Isaiah's audience, after centuries of dispersion and exile, would be marked by a refocus on the biblical past, of which the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem is an extraordinary and exquisite example. The unique light that the museum offers to the nations includes not only the permanent installations that visitors from around the globe have enjoyed, but also a dynamic array of temporary exhibitions. Pathbreaking combinations of objects and constructions, such as "Royal Cities of the Biblical World" and "Sacred Bounty, Sacred Land: The Seven Species," have drawn further thousands of visitors to museums from Germany to Japan, where they have been installed during the past decade. Truly, the BLMJ has been an exemplar of dialogue between the Bible and Israel in its historical identities and also between Jerusalem, the ancient Israelite and contemporary Israeli capital, and the peoples of the world.

Ori Z. Soltes, Georgetown University, orisoltes@aol.com

Citation: Ori Z. Soltes, " The Bible within Its Myriad Contexts: The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=416

 
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