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Viewing Archeological Treasures in European Museums

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Archives / 1958 / January

 

 

Viewing Archeological Treasures in European Museums

Siegfried H. Horn

Siegried H. Horn, Professor of Archeology and History of Antiquity, SDA Theological Seminary

 

Visits to museums can be tiresome, and there are not many people who go to museums for pleasure. Yet, cultured individuals consider it their duty to visit museums occasionally, especially if they are in cities they have never visited before. For this reason travel agen­cies usually include visits to museums in their tour schedules. Our Guided Tour to Western Europe and the Bible lands was no exception. We also paid visits to many museums, sometimes repeatedly. However, our purpose was not so much to see famous paintings, illustrious sculptures, or precious jewelry, but rather to become acquainted with ancient objects, which, after having recently been discovered in the sand and debris of the ancient Orient, have shed light on the Bible, strengthened the faith of many people, and helped to defeat skep­ticism of the truth of God's Word.

In the British Museum

Every visitor to the British Museum stands in awe before the huge winged bulls and lions that formerly protected the gates of palaces and temples in ancient Assyrian cities. Yet these tremendous figures have no direct bearing on the Bible, although they and other monumental sculptures cause us to marvel at the mastery of stone carving achieved by the ancients. Also the famous Rosetta Stone, in which every visitor of the museum shows a keen interest, has shed no light on the Bible, although it provided the key to the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and thus made it possible to understand the queer picture writing of the Egyptians engraved on stone or inscribed on papyrus, which the dry climate of Egypt has kindly preserved for us.

The student of Biblical archeology stops only briefly to view these objects and many others of similar great value and interest, and hurries to some that have a direct bearing on Biblical history. There is the Black Obelisk discovered by Henri Layard more than a hundred years ago in the ruined palace of Shalmaneser III at Nim­rud, the Biblical Calah. This perfectly pre­served monument depicts the payment of tribute by King Jehu of Israel and shows him kneeling before the Assyrian king, fol­lowed by his Israelite tribute carriers (The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 2, opposite p. 49). Since this is the only contemporary picture of a Hebrew king, a study of this monument is certainly of great interest to every student of the Bible.

Then there are the large Lachish reliefs, huge stone slabs that formerly covered some walls of King Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh. These reliefs, many yards long, present a number of scenes that depict the siege and conquest of Lachish, a stronghold in southern Judaea, of which records are also found in three books of the Old Tes­tament (2 Kings 18; 2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36). The reliefs depict the city of Lachish with its walls and towers, showing the As­syrian battering rams pounding against its walls and the fierceness of the attack. An­other scene depicts the surrender of the city and the torturing and slaughtering of many unfortunate Jews, while others were driven into captivity. Sennacherib, sitting on his throne, is shown as watching this scene of horror with pleasure, while the leaders of Lachish, brought before him, kneel at his feet and implore mercy (ibid., opposite p. 64).

Not many visitors to the British Museum notice a medium-sized statue, which is, however, of great interest to informed Bible students. This Assyrian statue of the god Nabu bears the inscription: "Trust in Nabu, do not trust in any other god!" Since it was erected in the time of King Adad­nirari III, a contemporary of the prophet Jonah, it seems that we have in this statue evidence of the temporary conversion of the Ninevites from polytheism to monothe­ism, as a result of the successful preaching of Jonah's message.

As we turn to the smaller objects ex­hibited on the second floor of the museum, great interest is aroused in every visitor by the clay tablets written in cuneiform script by the ancient inhabitants of the Mesopota­mian valley. First of importance among these tablets is one, broken into many frag­ments, which contains the Babylonian de­scription of the Flood. Its discovery by George Smith in 1872 created a great sen­sation, since it was the first time that a Biblical story had found a close parallel and also confirmation in an ancient text. Although better copies of the Babylonian flood story have come to light since the dis­covery of this first broken tablet, none is of greater interest than this one, which showed for the first time that the nations of antiquity also had a recollection of that great catastrophe which destroyed the whole world.

We also saw the annals of King Sen­nacherib, which tell in proud words of his military campaign against King Hezekiah of Judah in 701 B.C., recorded also in the Bible. Among the tablets, which only re­cently have come to light, are some of the Babylonian Chronicles. One of these, pub­lished for the first time in 1956, tells of Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Jerusalem, and provides the exact date of the city's fall, March 16, 597 B.C. This is the earliest Biblical date gained from ancient docu­ments, which pinpoints an event described in the Scripture to the very day on which it occurred.

In another showcase is the famous cyl­inder of King Cyrus of Persia, the con­queror of Babylon (ibid., vol. 3, opposite p. 64). The inscription of this ancient document, containing a proclamation to the Babylonians, provides a close parallel to the decree of Cyrus given to the Jews (Ezra 1). As this generous king returned to the Jews the cult vessels of their temple stolen by the Babylonians, and allowed them to return to their homeland and re­build their temple, so he treated the people of other nations. We learn from this cylin­der that Cyrus permitted other exiled peo­ple to return to their homelands and re­build their temples, and that he returned to them their gods, which the Babylonians had carried away to Babylon.

It would lead too far to describe in this brief article the numerous other objects that are of great interest to the reader of the Bible. We would have to stop at a showcase showing the famous Lachish Let­ters written on pieces of broken pottery at the time of Jeremiah, or the Nimrud ivo­ries, which were found in an Assyrian pal­ace, but originally had probably decorated King Ahab's palace at Samaria. We would also have to stop in the marvelous library of this British Museum, which possesses among its treasures two of the earliest Bi­ble manuscripts in existence, the Codices Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus. These two famous manuscripts, which are exhibited side by side in one showcase, have done much to show that the Bible text has been faithfully transmitted to us.

In the Louvre

The Louvre is a former royal palace in the gay city of Paris. Most visitors to the "City of Light" who visit the Louvre do so to see the famous Mona Lisa of Leonardo da Vinci, the Greek Venus of Milo carved in the fourth century B.c., or the winged Victory of Samothrace, and, of course, the Regent, the most beautiful diamond in the world, estimated to be worth $1.5 million. Our group also briefly viewed these illus­trious objects. However, as Bible teachers and ministers of the Word of God, we were more interested in other objects that are not usually sought by many tourists. To these belong the Moabite Stone, the loca­tion of which even the guards did not seem to know. I asked one of them about it, since I could not find it at the spot where I had seen it before, but met only ignorance until I learned that it had been temporarily re­moved to be exhibited in another city. Hence we could not see the famous monu­ment discovered in 1868 in Dibon in Moab, which carries the longest monumental He­brew incription in existence (ibid., vol. 1, p. 121; vol. 2, pp. 864, 865).

Another monument that aroused our keen interest was the famous Code of Ham­murabi, a seven-foot-high black diorite column, that shows in relief King Ham­murabi standing before his god and receiv­ing his laws. When this monument was discovered underneath the ruins of Darius' palace at Susa in 1901/02, it created quite a sensation among Biblical scholars, because it proved that the liberals among them had been wrong in claiming that the laws of Moses as found in the early books of the Bible could not have been written at the time of the Exodus, since such laws according to their views did not exist at that early age. The discovery of the Code of Hammurabi changed all this, and proved that regular law codes had existed even before the time of Moses (ibid., vol. 1, pp. 616-619).

In one of the rooms of the Louvre, ma­terial is exhibited that comes from Ras Shamra, a seemingly inexhaustible mine of antiquities since excavations were started there in 1929. The material discovered there has especially shed much light on the religion of the ancient Canaanites, of which little was known from any sources but the Bible. The Ras Shamra documents have shown that these people lived in such a degraded state of immorality that they deserved annihilation like the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah before them. We saw some of the religious alphabetical texts of the Canaanites, a stone stele de­picting the god Baal, so frequently men­tioned in the Bible, and gold amulets car­ried by Canaanite women with the nude figure of the goddess Astarte engraved on them.

Another interesting object is a bronze model of an ancient "high place" made several thousand years ago. It gives us a good picture of a typical open-air sanctuary of the ancients living in the Bible lands. It shows worshipers kneeling before sun pillars and praying to stumps of trees, and contains also in model size an altar, vessels of incense, and other paraphernalia that belonged to a pagan high place.

The Louvre is especially rich in objects found in the palace of the Persian kings at Susa, Biblical Shushan, of Queen Esther's fame. We saw large sections of wall cov­erings consisting of beautifully colored tiles. They show whole processions of Persian and Median soldiers, and other exquisite decorations such as multicolored sphinxes. There is also a column of the Festival Hall of King Xerxes with its original capital consisting of one lion body with two heads facing in opposite directions. This column stood originally in the festivity hall, in which Queen Vashti was asked to appear before the drunken participants in her royal husband's feast (Esther 1).

The few objects mentioned will give the reader a little foretaste of what he can expect to see if he visits the British Mu­seum and the Louvre, and the rich experi­ence gained by an intelligent study of the objects exhibited. One should not forget that all the objects mentioned in this brief article, and many more, have been dis­covered during the last hundred years. They were hidden under sand and debris for ages, preserved for our day, and have come to light in the providence of God in order to perform a valuable service in these last days of this world's history. They illus­trate the historical sections of the Bible, corroborate its truth and veracity, and pro­vide background material that helps every reader and student of the Bible to gain a better understanding of that wonderful Book.

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