‘The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you… Abram… took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan. . .” (Genesis 12:1-5).
Have you ever wondered exactly how Father Abraham and his entourage got from Haran in Mesopotamia to the far away Promised Land? Did they ride on camels? Or would they have traveled in style – perhaps in a comfortable carriage?
You can find the answer on a visit to Jerusalem’s unique Jerusalem Bible Lands Museum, where you are taken on a fascinating voyage back in time to the people, countries and cultures of the Bible. You’ll learn how ancient customs and traditions influenced our forefathers, and provided the backdrop to the Jewish religion, the Jewish spirit and the Jewish homeland.
Archaeologists believe that Abraham’s family may have traveled in a bull-driven cart exactly like a model on display in one of the galleries. Made of bronze, the model is an original that dates back to somewhere between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E. What makes it so exciting is the fact that it was discovered right near Haran, the city where Abraham was living when commanded to “go to the land”. Possibly, people residing in the Middle East long ago made models of their carts and left them at home, in the belief that this would protect them on their journeys.
A second gallery hosts a large display of knives made of flint. Despite its strength, flint may be flaked to give it a very sharp edge – making it easy for a skilled tool-maker to turn it into knives. The ancient Egyptians, who circumcised upper class teenagers, performed the surgery with knives made of flint.
But why did Joshua use flint to circumcise the Children of Israel en masse, when iron was already in use? Perhaps as a gesture of respect to Father Abraham, who would have performed the earliest circumcisions with flint? Besides, iron, still rare in any case, would have become dull after only a few circumcisions and would have had to have been constantly sharpened. Flint was preferable for another reason, too: according to legend, at least, the stone contains a natural anti-biotic, highly useful for mass circumcisions.
Strange looking clay statuettes in yet a third gallery are household gods that played an important role in the ancient world. After working for Laban for 20 years, Jacob took off for Canaan with his two wives, children and flocks. Laban spent three days hunting him down, frantic because someone in Jacob’s household had stolen his idols (it was Rachel, and she sat on them so they wouldn’t be discovered by her father).
Why did Rachel take them – and why were they so important to Laban? Small idols like these were believed to look after the household, and to intercede with the chief gods. But when their owner died, whoever possessed them apparently became the heir to the household. Rachel, no dummy, may have desired protection for their journey into Canaan. But she was also thinking about the future, perhaps, for she (and Leah) had bitterly – and rhetorically – Jacob: “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us…” (Genesis 31:14-15).
Rachel’s son Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous half brothers, eventually became second in command to the Egyptian Pharaoh. When he died, at the age of 110, his brothers embalmed him and placed him into a casket suitable for upper class burial that would have resembled the elaborate coffin in another of the galleries. Belonging to a man named Tjetu, this Egyptian coffin is typical of those used for nobles and other aristocrats.
Coffins of this sort were prepared in advance, filled with precious items for use in the next world, and covered with pictures. This one is decorated with two very large eyes. They belong to the god Horus, who was shaped like a falcon and had unusually keen eyesight.
As he contemplated his eternal resting place, the Egyptian would wonder how to keep robbers away after he died. Painting Horus onto the casket meant that even after death they would be able to see a potential thief – and to send him a message: “Watch out, for I see you! And when your turn comes, I’ll get you for this!”
David’s first wife was King Saul’s daughter, Michal, and at one time they may have been very much in love. But obviously, that changed – on her part at least. On one occasion, the Philistines had just returned the Holy Ark to the Jews. And as it was “entering the City of David, Michal… watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.” (2 Samuel 6:16).
Could a stunning ivory on display at the museum – a window with a woman’s disgusted face gazing outwards – be showing us how Michal felt about her husband’s dancing? It was crafted in the Middle East and dates back to about 850 B.C.E. – not too long after David’s rule. Or is it, actually, a representation of Jezebel who “painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out of the window.” (2 Kings 9:30).
A large, broken vessel, dating back to the sixth century B.C.E., stands on a ledge in a different gallery and helps clarify a passage in Jeremiah: “King Zedekiah then gave orders for Jeremiah to be . . . given bread from the street of the bakers each day until all the bread in the city was gone…” (37:21).
Perhaps used before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, and discovered among ruins of the city south of the Temple Mount, this jar could have carried wine, or oil – or flour for the bakers who baked the bread. The building in which it was found served as part of a royal administrative center, in the storage area. Its inscription reads “Belonging to the minister of…” Perhaps it belonged to the Minister of the Bakers…
During the First Temple period, Jews who passed away were generally buried in family caves, their bones later gathered into large pits. In the Roman era, however, a thousand years later, they were laid to rest in personal sarcophagi (“flesh eaters” in Greek) that they had often prepared before their deaths. One sarcophagus, dating back to Jerusalem in the late Second Temple period, tells a fascinating story. For an inscription in Aramaic, the language written by Jews of that time, reads, “Close this up, and don’t put anyone else inside!”
This sarcophagus was prepared while the owner was still alive, yet it was forbidden to bury two people in the same casket. Perhaps the owner wanted to get a message to his wife – the only person who might insist on joining him some day despite the ban. So what he was really saying could have been this: “Wifey, I got enough of you while you were alive – after you die, find some other arrangement.“
The museum is completely wheelchair accessible. Currently, the museum is hosting an exciting exhibit called By the Rivers of Babylon, on the lives of the Jews exiled to Babylon who rebuilt their lives in a town called Al-Yahudu (the City of Judah).
This article is adapted from chapters in Aviva Bar-Am’s book Jerusalem EasyWalks.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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