The Bible and the British Museum 1

The Great Court, British Museum

I was over in London last week and I had a couple of hours to spare. No better way to spend them than in the magnificent British Museum which houses the most fantastic collection of treasures looted collected from all around the world in the days when Britain assumed the natural right to cherry pick the best stuff lying around archaeological sites of the ancient world.

I had fun tracking down some of the Bible related displays. Here’s a taste of some of the Assyrian stuff:

The Black Obelisk of Shalmameser III, which among other panels, shows Jehu, successor of Omri, bowing and giving tribute to the victorious Assyrian king (c. 841BC). The inscription above the panel says, “Tribute of Jehu the Israelite–silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] hunting spears I received.” This event is not mentioned in the Bible, but the date fits and it was customary that kings paid tribute to far more powerful neighbouring empires.

The Stele of Shalmaneser III, celebrating his military campaigns and naming King Ahab as part of a loose coalition of 12 kings opposed to Shalmaneser. This is the earliest artefact to mention an Israelite king.

A large relief of King Sargon, the Assyrian king in charge after Shalmaneser V at the time of the fall of Samaria and the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17:3). In an inscription, Sargon boasts of capturing the city, deporting 27,290 prisoners to Assyria, and then populating it with other people. So while not mentioned by name in the Bible’s account of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, (he is mentioned in Isaiah 20:1 as defeating the Philistines at Ashdod) Sargon was the king who oversaw its end. The descendents of this mixing of populations would be the Samaritans of Jesus’ day.

Two huge winged bulls from Sargon’s palace  – one of which has an inscription which mentions Hezekiah as paying tribute to Sargon. The Bible talks about Hezekiah’s father paying such tribute and his son many have continued this for a while before rebelling.

The most imposing Bible related artefact is the wall relief of Sennacharib’s siege of Lachish in 701BC (2 Kings18 and 19) when Hezekiah was king of Judah. (See also 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 36-37.) This rejoices in the violent, warrior culture of the Assyrian Empire. You can see prisoners being lined up to come before the king, to give tribute, worship and/or be slain, as well as the big ‘siege engines’ built to scale the walls (reminded me of the orcs storming the walls of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers).

Upstairs you find Sennacharhib’s cylinder (or Taylor Prism). Here the king boasts that he conquered 46 cities in Judah and shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.”

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