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
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
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
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
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 http://www.srjc.org/030708 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