When we were in Berlin recently, we visited the Pergamon Museum. It was built in the first part of the C20th to house monumental buildings, including the Pergamon altar after which the museum is named. When we were there, the museum was being refurbished and the Pergamon altar was not open to the public. But we did see the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. It was built in 575 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar II and stands 14m (46′) high and 39m (100′) wide. What you see in the museum is constructed from material excavated in the early C20th and then reconstructed in the museum with new bricks. It’s “One of the most complex and impressive architectural reconstructions” ever and is very impressive. You can walk along the processional way, also partly reconstructed, and imagine what it would have been like to walk into Babylon in the days of Nebuchadnezzar II. The walls of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the World, until they were replaced on the chart by the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the C3rd!
The Ishtar Gate that you can see is the smaller, outer gate. Behind it would have been an even bigger, more impressive gate – too big to fit in the museum, the bigger gate is in storage.
So what would it have been like to walk into Babylon in those days? The walls and gates are covered in blue-glazed brick, shining like jewels in the sun and decorated with images of dragons and bulls, symbolizing the gods Marduk and Adad. The walls of the processional way are decorated with bulls, dragons and lions, symbolising the goddess, Ishtar.
It would have been impressive! In fact, it would have been intimidating. The bulls, dragons and lions are there to terrify you. If you were even thinking of invading our city, don’t. It’s protected by our gods and they are fierce. This, and other artefacts in this and other museums, make a very good point about gods: they’re fierce, terrifying and you should be afraid!
Is that how you see God? Terrifying?
At the weekend, we went to see Fiddler On The Roof at the Everyman in Liverpool. It was the last night but I believe they are putting it on again in June. I recommend it. The main character is Tevye, the Jewish milkman, and his family and their community in Russia at the start of the century. Tevye and his Jewish community are trying to maintain their traditions in the face of huge changes in the world around. He’s poor and has five daughters that he wants to see married in keeping with tradition. I won’t spoil the story for you but very early on we hear that Jews are being evicted from their homes. How will they be able to maintain their faith, their tradition?
One of the most touching aspects of the musical is Tevye’s relationship with his God. Tevye talks with God: God is his confidant and the subject of his complaints. Why is my horse lame? Why am I poor? And what am I going to do about getting five daughters married?
Lord who made the lion and the lamb
You decreed I should be what I am
Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan
If I were a wealthy man?
In the face of adversity, Tevye says to God:
I know, I know. We are your chosen people.
But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?
Tevye’s relationship with his God is rather different from the picture we have from Babylon. God is a friend, a companion. In the Jewish bible we read of God as Father to his people:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
Jesus takes that understanding of God as a Father to his people and makes it personal: God is our Father in heaven.
Not all of us have completely positive memories of our own fathers or families. But, in an ideal world, parents love their children and want the best for them. Jesus says that God is like that, the loving parent who wants the best for his children. Sometimes it’s not obvious. But that’s the picture of God that Jesus paints.
Reflection for Compline in Lent 2017, based on Book One, Session Two of the Pilgrim course.