Saturday, December 21, 2013

To Museum Island, The Pergamon Museum and some Biblical Archaeology!

The walk from Hakesher Markt station to the Pergamon Museum is a great start to a remarkable visit. Sights on the way include not only the Cathedral, but also the  DDR museum with its lovely Trabant in the window, and some nice sculptures by the river. Whether the naked bathers statues are themselves a tribute to the former East Germany and its penchant for naturism, I do not know.

The Museum Island on Berlin has a cluster of world-class exhibitions all gathered together in once corner of the city. There's enough here to fill many, many days; so we chose the Pergamon Museum which contains many interesting finds by German archaeologists in the 1800s from the Ancient Near East.

The outside of the museum is (like so much of Berlin) a building site; however once signs are followed around the fences, diggers, pipes and cranes; the museum is quiet astonishing. The main entrance inside is dominated by the Ishtar Gate; which was Nebuchadnezzar IIs main entrance into the ancient city of Babylon. Enough of the glazed bricks of the original city were recovered from the deserts of Iraq to reconstruct the whole gate by adding newly cast bricks to fill in the gaps. This 47ft high front gate has been completely reconstructed, while the pieces of the larger inner gate are stored. It was King Nebuchadnezzar II who features in the Old Testament of the Bible as the ruler whose successful campaign against Judah lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of most of the inhabitants. 

It was 'by the rivers of Babylon' that the Jewish people 'wept as they remembered Zion', but one of their first sights of their captors city would almost certainly have been the great Ishtar Gate. These would have included great characters from Bible stories such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The reliefs on the side of the gate represent the array of Babylonian deities, whose worship formed the structure of the Babylonian City. Whilst the common assumption of the time would have been that these gods had triumphed over YHWH as His people had been captured; one of the main messages of the Old Testament history tellers is to refute that interpretation of events.

The Processional Way, a great walled street running up to The Ishtar Gate, was similarly decorated, and played an essential role in the main celebrations of The Babylonian religious calendar - centred around the worship of the idol, Marduk. While this 'conflict between gods' was common currency in the ANE, as a way of interpreting battles and their outcomes; the Old Testament writers rarely use such a framework. While Israel's victories are accredited to YHWH, these are usually described as victories against Israel's enemies themselves, rather than over their gods. The victories are intended not to demonstrate their overthrow but the inherent falability of idols as sources of strength and objects of worship. Likewise the Yahwhistic interpretation of losses does not suggest the victory of the idol; but of YHWH's displeasure with his people and the withdrawal of His protection from them. Of course, the thing which was the cause of this displeasure was idolatry; repeated introduction of which into Israel and Judah is defined as the root cause of the fall and exile of the two Kingdoms. 

This statue of the Babylonian god Uruk, stands tall and proud in the Pergamon Museum behind the Ishtar Gate. It is typical of the kind of idols carved in this period, which the exiled Jews would have seen being worshipped. If the Old Testament's Yahweh focussed interpretation of history doesn't view these epic political struggles as competitions 'between gods', that does not mean that there is no sense of a spiritual battle between good and evil. The Bible-writers view of this struggle though is that it is not primarily played out between YHWH and the Babylonian gods on the battlefields of the ANE, but in the hearts, minds and affections of the Jewish people in Israel and Judah. That is to say the Old Testament presents YHWH, not as a regional, or national deity; but as the creator and ruler of the whole world; who had a special relationship with one people. These people's success, basically centred on the state of their relationship to Him.

Having studied these Bible-stories for many years, to see the Ishtar Gate, and the artefacts from Babylon is quite simply staggering!

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