Aug 5 2011

Living History

Neo-Assyrian soldiers stretch out naked foes on the ground, preparing to flay them alive. Captive children witness the gruesome display.

One of the highlights of my trip to Israel this summer was visiting the site of ancient Lachish, about thirty-five miles southwest of Jerusalem. This Judahite city was the last to fall to the mighty Neo-Assyrian army before it set its sights squarely on Jerusalem (701 B.C.E.). King Sennacherib was so proud of this conquest that he had scenes from the siege of Lachish etched into the walls at his palace at Nineveh. Now displayed in the British Museum in London, these reliefs depict (among other things) the execution and torture of Judahite soldiers and dignitaries as well as the forced migration of the city’s inhabitants.

Neo-Assyrian troops impale citizens of Lachish on long poles while archers and soldiers armed with slings ascend the siege ramp.

Neo-Assyrian troops in a siege engine attack the fortified gates of Lachish. Torches and boulders rain down on the attackers, but to no avail.

I visited Tel Lachish late in the afternoon on a scorching day in July. Except for the birds and the occasional lizard that skittered by, I was completely alone at the site. It was eerily quiet. And as I stood atop the tel, I let my historical imagination run wild.

One can still see very clearly the huge earthen ramp that the Neo-Assyrians built to surmount the city’s walls. It is massive and an impressive feat of engineering even now. I imagined the dread that the citizens must have felt looking down from the walls to see below the greatest fighting force that the world had ever known. As Sennacherib’s troops slowly assembled the siege ramp rock by rock, the city surely knew what was coming. Once the ramp was finished, there could be no repelling Sennacherib’s raiders.

Remains of the Neo-Assyrian siege ramp leading up to the city walls.

Sennacherib resting comfortably on his throne in his camp outside of Lachish.

As I saw this historical drama playing itself out before me, I could picture the Neo-Assyrian soldiers in full armor, with a taste for blood and a lust for loot. I imagined a smug Sennacherib munching some grapes in his plush camp just out of range of Lachish’s archers. Why did he have to come all the way from Nineveh to wreak so much havoc here? Looking down on the site of Sennacherib’s camp, I had the urge to utter a curse against those damn Neo-Assyrians. And suddenly, quite unexpectedly, I felt a new kinship with old Jonah, who certainly had no love lost on these people (cf. Jonah 3-4). The memory of violence, even violence from thousands of year ago, can still have profound and disturbing effects.

Another very different highlight of my trip was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I wasn’t really planning on visiting the church, intending instead to focus on the numerous Old Testament “places of interest” in and around Jerusalem (like Lachish). Yet when I happened upon the church, I just couldn’t resist going in.

I have to admit that once inside I found the people far more interesting than the architecture, relics, and this or that shrine. As I navigated the various holy sites within the church, I realized I was walking alongside people from all over the world. It struck me powerfully that millions of Christians over hundreds of years had travelled to this very building and had walked on these very stones.

Why had we all come? Was it curiosity? Devotion? Adventure? And who were we exactly? Pilgrims? Or tourists? Or worse, crusaders? Or were we something in between, some mixture of all three? I couldn’t tell, but walking through the church gave me the sense that I was participating in something that was far bigger than me. To be sure, that something was very messy and complicated and rife with contradiction, but also somehow profoundly true.

Crosses etched into the walls by pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Of all the images from the church that day, what most struck me was seeing the thousands of crosses cut in the stone blocks on the stairway down to the crypt of St. Helen. Those simple etchings testified to the presence and faith of so many who had come before me. Even in the few minutes I stood at the steps there taking it all in, scores of new pilgrims walked by.

- Dr. Joel LeMon

 

Dr. LeMon is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Candler and will be teaching OT501 this year.  His research focuses on the Psalms, Hebrew and Ugaritic poetry, and (as you can tell) ancient Near Eastern history, literature, and art. He is the author of Yahweh’s Winged Form in the Psalms (Academic Press, 2010) and the co-editor of Method Matters (with Kent H. Richards, Society of Biblical Literature, 2009). LeMon is an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.