Friday, June 26, 2009

Egypt in Philadelphia

I had the most extraordinary experience the other day! I was in Philadelphia, retrieving my middle child, Emil, from his dorm room at Drexel University, where he just finished his first year. That took less time than I expected—which is itself amazing, in that he had enough in his dorm room to furnish a three bedroom house—and then we spent the afternoon in Philly because we had tickets for the Tutankhamun exhibit at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia's Science Museum. Like many of you, I'm sure, I saw the forerunner of this exhibition thirty years ago at the Metropolitan Museum here, but this version includes about twice as many artifacts as the previous one and is absolutely worth seeing even if you did see the earlier one. I hoped that would be the case, at any rate

The whole thing was amazing. The remnants of the boy-king himself, plus the artifacts they found in the tomb—including furniture, jewelry, pottery and statues of various sorts—were just amazing...and absolutely worth the effort. (I'll attach a picture of an alabaster bust of King Tut in which he looks peculiarly like Michael Jackson, but the other efforts to depict him make him look entirely different. There was even a computer-generated reconstruction of what might really have looked like based on a CAT scan of his mummified remains. I'll attach that too, just to be fair!) But there was one thing I saw that just blew me away: a wooden box that looked almost identical to the various attempted reconstructions I've seen of the Holy Ark as described in the Torah. It even had staves in rings on the bottom to facilitate carrying it. It was smaller than the Ark itself would have been, but, as far as I could remember, the proportions were about the same as in the Bible. And the wood was pieced together in much the same way I've always understood the text of the Torah to be describing. I couldn't take my eyes off it.

It's an old thing. (Nothing in the exhibit, the guidebook says, is less then 3,500 years old. I suppose that makes it a very old thing.) It's a whole exhibit of old things, but nothing in the place spoke to me the way this box did. And to think that this box—not a model of it, or something like it, but this specific thing I saw yesterday in Philadelphia—that that actual thing existed precisely in the days of Moses and Aaron when the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt was just amazing. Who might not have seen it? Did an Israelite slave make it? Or serve the master artisan who made it as a servant? When Moses learned the details of the Ark he was commanded to have built to hold the Tablets of the Law, did he immediately think to himself, "Wow, that's just like that box I saw in the palace when I was growing up!"? Who knows? But I couldn't stop thinking about it for the length of our visit to the Franklin, and then for most of the ride home as well.

When we consider the ancient stories we read in Scripture, we often get sidetracked by picayune questions about the accuracy of specific details in the larger narrative...and, since these are generally details no one could possibly ever corroborate, we end up coming to no firm conclusions at all. But we forget that these stories, independent of their details, are about real people who lived in real places. We forget that Egypt wasn't just the backdrop to a story in the Bible, but a teeming kingdom filled with people who did all sorts of things, some of whom were master artisans who made beautiful furniture out of wood...and some of whom, apparently, also made boxes like the one I saw in Philadelphia yesterday. It's easy to think of the ancient Israelites as basically alone in the world, but nothing could be further from the truth: they lived in the middle of a teeming universe filled with all sorts of peoples who came from dozens of different lands, who spoke dozens (if not hundreds) of other languages, who worshiped hundreds of different gods and who ate all sorts of different kinds of food.

Almost none of the peoples mentioned in the Bible still exist today as they did then, or even at all. (Today's Egyptians don't worship the gods of ancient Egypt, nor do they even speak or read the ancient Egyptian language.) But we, somehow, keep on shlepping forward from generation to generation, tottering (always) on the brink of assimilation and collapse, but never actually succumbing to what any rational outsider would describe as irresistible forces. As I walked through the exhibit, I was visited with a deep sense of the antiquity of the Jewish people...but also with a sense of our eternal nature. And therein lies just a bit of irony: the nations of antiquity that thought they were indestructible all eventually vanished, or their civilizations and religious cultures did, whereas we, who were and remain so wholly obsessed with the fear that we might disappear from the stage of history at any moment—and who generate more and more sociological studies predicting that we can not possibly survive another decade, let alone another century—we have somehow managed not only not to vanish, but to move forward through history as though God in heaven were watching over us. You think? I do! (June 15, 2007)

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