Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC
Hung November 18, 2008-March 15, 2009
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York
Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum
Hung Sept. 21, 2008-Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue, Boston
When Ephron the Hittite discussed a real estate transaction with Abraham in Genesis 23:10 that would secure the late Sarah a burial plot beside Adam and Eve, what was he wearing? How had Hittite art and interior design changed by the time David secretly sent Uriah the Hittite, husband of Bathsheba, to the front lines to die in 2 Samuel 11? When Achan – the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah – stole from the booty of the decimated city of Jericho in Joshua 7:1, what color was the Shinarite (Babylonian) cloak that he poached?
These questions sound unusual, not because they are unimportant but because most readers of the Bible treat narrative details like irrelevant filler. But the Bible itself sanctions examinations of archeology and aesthetics. The book of Joshua not only specifies that the garment Achan looted was an “aderet” (loosely, a cloak) rather than pants or shoes, but also that the garment was “tovah,” or beautiful. Why should readers care if it was beautiful if they were not meant to consider its appearance?
The recently completed exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has the opportunity to merge biblical and artistic traditions. But when “Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC” did address the Bible, it did so in local descriptions of a few works rather than in the larger conception of the exhibit. By contrast, a recent exhibit of Assyrian art at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston did a far better job of contextualizing the show. In his introduction to the catalog, Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund director of the MFA, noted that British archaeologist Austen Layard, who uncovered the Assyrian ruins in the 1840s, found artifacts that showed the Lachish siege in Judah (addressed in Joshua 10) on the walls of Sennacherib’s palace and cuneiform tablets in Ashurbanipal’s library with a flood story.
“Advice to the king to stop fasting.” 4 May, 670 BCE From Nineveh. 7 cm x 3.5 cm x 2 cm. MFA exhibit.
The MFA catalog also records a variety of aspects of Assyrian culture that are particularly relevant to Jewish and biblically minded readers. The first traveler to observe the location of the ancient city of Nineveh was the 12th century rabbi, Benjamin of Tudela. Another Layard find yielded an artistic representation of the biblical king Yehu (who surfaces in 2 Kings Chapters 9 and 10) paying tribute to the Assyrian king. And the city of Calah from Genesis 10:11 surfaces in a discussion of the ninth century BCE king Ashurnasirpal II.
The MFA exhibit mentioned the Assyrian sun god Shamash (sure to relate to the Hebrew shemesh, or sun), and it turned to Solomon’s temple and its lion motifs to explain “the splendour of some furniture in the Ancient Near East.” Many of the objects in the exhibit contained texts in Akkadian, a language like Hebrew and Aramaic, and the letters aleph, bet, and gimmel appeared on several of the pieces.
The most interesting piece in the show might have been one that the exhibit did not relate to the Bible. A two-and-a-half-inch tall clay tablet with cuneiform script on it, dating from 670 BCE, offers advice to King Esarhaddon to stop fasting. Balasi and Babu-ahhe-eriba, senior court officials and astronomers, suggest that the king, who was ill, should eat after having fasted for three days. “He should be encouraged,” the catalog translates, “by the fact that Jupiter has just risen heliacally and will be visible for a whole year.”
It is interesting that the MFA, after diligently noting the biblical context to so many of the works, does not make the connection between the piece from the city of Nineveh, the fasting king, and the book of Jonah. According to 2 Kings 14:25 Jonah lived during the time of King Yeroboam, whose life scholars date to the eighth century BCE. After Jonah had petitioned Nineveh to repent, and after the king of Nineveh did indeed call for a public fast (Jonah 3:7), it would make perfect sense for a future king of Nineveh, less than 100 years later, to have kept a tradition of fasting.
Milky chalcedony, perhaps with allusions to the Song of Solomon. 3 cm (h) x 1 cm (d). Mesopotamia, Middle Assyrian, 13th century BCE Pierpont Morgan Library, NY. Metropolitan Exhibit.
Biblical references at the Met’s show are much harder to come by, and emerge only several times in the 450-page catalog. A three-inch tall milky chalcedony from 13th century BCE Middle Assyria – in the collection of New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library – shows a deer jumping in a forest, which could be an “echo” of Song of Solomon 2:8-9, where the narrator’s beloved, compared to “a roe or a young hart,” leaps “upon mountains and skips upon hills.” A 1250-1050 BCE bronze stand, about five inches by four inches by five inches, features an image of a man playing his harp, which might be King David, though it might also be Homer or Kinyras (“the legendary musician-king of Cyrpus”).
A more plausible biblical connection arises in a gold pendant found in the Uluburun shipwreck, a Late Bronze Age ship discovered in Southern Turkey in 1984. The pendants, which contain images of suns and moons, might be the subjects of Isaiah 3:18-23, where the prophet condemns the “haughty” daughters of Zion, who “walk with stretched necks and winking eyes.” God smites the tops of their heads, and also takes away “their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, the rings, and nose jewels.”
Medallion with four-rayed star and four curved rays, perhaps referring to quote from Isaiah. 10.3 cm x 11 cm x .1 cm. Uluburun shipwreck. Late Bronze Age, c.a. 1300 BCE Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archeology, Turkey. Metropolitan exhibit.
The catalog also mentions the cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), which were used to build Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 5:5-6) and the House of the Forest of Lebanon (for which the catalog erroneously cites 1 Kings 11:21 when it means 1 Kings 10:21). Another Solomonic reference might have eluded the curators. Many of the vessels in the Met show have animal imagery, including lions, bulls, ducks, dolphins, dogs, and several kinds of birds. It seems pretty likely that Hiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre who helped build Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 7, was drawing from this tradition when he created the washbasin (called yam, or sea, in the text). The basin rested upon a base, which was made of 12 oxen. The base also had lilies on it (another prominent Near Eastern form), as well as lions.
“Beyond Babylon” must be commended for gathering an important body of Near Eastern art and for its important catalog. But if the exhibit had at least entertained the possibility, as the MFA Boston show did, that the Bible could play an important role in the show’s vision, it could have not only shed more light on some of the pieces, but also brought a new awareness to biblical passages. For example, when the Israelites left Egypt after 10 terrifying plagues, they “borrowed” from their former taskmasters “vessels of gold, vessels of silver, and clothing.” Perhaps the vessels had bull horns on them or were eagle-shaped, and perhaps the clothing included caps with boar tusks woven together as armor. We can only hope that a future show will not be afraid to ask these questions.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.