Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lachish in London

Given the degree to which Jewish people are involved with the Bible--with reading the Torah in shul, with studying the commentaries, with keeping a calendar studded with festivals designed to commemorate biblical events, with revering the text of Scripture as the foundation upon which the entire Jewish edifice rests--it comes as a bit of shock to many people to learn that there are almost no pictures (or physical depictions of any sort) of ancient Israelites. There are plenty of portraits from the post-biblical period--including very details paintings of Jewish people from Roman Egypt, from Israel, from what today are Iraq and Iran, from Rome--but, from the biblical period itself (stretching, roughly, from 1200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., there is more or less nothing at all.) But not entirely nothing. Almost...but not absolutely nothing.

I've always wondered what those people looked like. The famous works of art--Michelangelo's David, for example, or Caravaggio's famous depiction of the Binding of Isaac--are stunning and famous, but they are, of course, just the result of two great artists' fantasies about what their subjects may have looked like. The same could be said, I suppose, for most great works of art depicting ancient scenes, but I've always wondered what the people whose life stories we know so intimately really did look like. Here and there, the Bible reveals a detail or two--that King Saul was unusually tall, for example, or that King David had red hair (unless the word admoni at 1 Samuel 17:42 really means that he had ruddy skin)--but the great heroes of our biblical past are mostly left undescribed physically. And it's not only the great heroes that draw me in this regard--I find myself very curious what the average Israelite looked like. Did they look like us? If you took a few citizens of ancient Jerusalem and dressed them up in modern attire, could they sit unnoticed in our midst? Or would they look wholly unlike us? (And, if so, then what exactly would they look like?) There are all sorts of things to wonder about in this world!

So it turns out that there is one mother lode of images of ancient Israelites that has survived from antiquity and that it is housed, free of charge for all to see, at the British Museum. Joan and I, having planned out our trip in advance, headed there our first day in London. And right there, amidst the untold treasures of the place--beyond the Elgin marbles and the Rosetta stone and all the rest--we found the gallery we sought, the one in which the Lachish reliefs are on display. Lachish isn't a famous place these days, but it should be--in its own day, it was the second largest city in Judah, right after Jerusalem. And it was the city that Sennacherib, king of Assyria, chose to attack in 701 B.C.E. as a way of intimidating his vassal, King Hezekiah of Judah, and discouraging him from attempting to shuck off Assyrian domination.

This whole incident is special because it became the sole event in the history of ancient Israel to be described in detail both in the Bible and in ancient non-Jewish sources outside the Bible (the whole story is told in detail in Assyrian in different cuneiform documents, including the famous Prism of Sennacherib), but it also merits our attention because of the most amazing series of reliefs that were produced to decorate the walls of Sennacherib's throne room.

These are the Lachish reliefs, originally housed in the king's palace in Nineveh, now in London. And they are filled with ancient Israelites, including very touching scenes of captives being marched out of the city. Other panels show the naked bodies of the dead being displayed impaled on Assyrian spears, and still others show other scenes of torture and murder. There are also reliefs that depict citizens of Lachish begging for mercy from their Assyrian captors.

I was transfixed. So was Joan. These were our people--not the heroes, not the famous personalities that would be painted over and over by famous artists, but the regular folk, the average citizens, hoi polloi as they really looked. I myself thought they looked familiar, like people we might meet anywhere in a Jewish setting. Joan was less sure.

In the meantime, I have posted two pictures on our website for you to look at. To see them click here and scroll down to the bottom of the screen. On the left you can see some men with pointy hats who are obviously enemy soldiers, but the men with the round heads of curly hair are just as obviously the Israelites. At the bottom of the picture, there is a full family: two women leading two girls, and two other children on an ox cart being led by, presumably, their father. You can see the ribs of the oxen too--even the animals must have starved during the siege of the city. On the right you see three other men also with curly hair who are clearly the Israelites. At the bottom of the picture, you can see an Assyrian soldier stabbing an Israelite in the shoulder while he holds his head in place with his other hand. What do you think? Are they us? Are we they? Sort of, we are. More than "sort of" too, I suppose--these are the sole unambiguous portraits of our ancestors from the entire biblical period. Look at them, wonder about who they were, what they were like, what they would have made of us...just like Joan and I did in London a few weeks ago. It was a peculiar experience, but also an exhilarating one and one I heartily recommend to you all. You really never do know when life is going unexpectedly to hold up a mirror to your face and force you to say whom you think is looking back! (March 7, 2008)

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