Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ninveh and Jerusalem - Yom Yerushalayim Part III

At one of my classes this morning the lecturer, a gifted man who is Bible scholar, historian and local tour guide, was talking about ancient Jerusalem in the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Not the most joyous of periods. The most striking concept I took away from that talk was his idea about Isaiah's prophecies in that bleak period.

A new world order was developing thoughout the region, Assyria ascendent was a new power bent on military and cultural domination on a scale not seen until then.

Assyrian kings like Tilgat Pileser and Sanheirib marched across the ancient Middle East sweeping the smaller ancient kingdoms and city states before them, relocating vast numbers of people in what was effectively cultural genocide, erasing historic cities, nations, faiths and languages in their wake, uniting the region under a cruel regime, one language and by default, increasingly one culture emanating from Ninveh. 

Alone in this tide of destruction Jerusalem managed to survive, even as Sanheirib's forces laid waste to the northern kingdom of Israel and the other major cities of the kingdom of Judah, most famously Lakhish. Jerusalem herself suffered siege, waves of refugees flooding the city, but at the end of the day whether one calls it divine miracle or luck, Sanheirib was forced to retreat in disgrace, the walls of Jerusalem unbreached, a lone beacon of resistance.

This was the backdrop for Isaiah's famous prophecies of peace, brotherhood, the wolf and the lamb and swords in to ploughshares, an ideological resistance to the crushing militarism being broadcast from the Assyrian capital Ninveh, its palaces adorned with images like the famous Lakhish frieze depicting in gruesome details the destruction of that Judean city, the torture of captured Judean officers and the pitiful Jewish refugees fleeing the scene. Isaiah's response was to respond with a rival vision for the region, embodied by emphasising the message of Jerusalem as a city of peace, compassion and the humanity.

The modern day ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital Ninveh are adjacent to the modern Iraqi Kurdish city of Mosul. It sits on the frontline of the regional war between the forces of the Islamic State (ISIL) and those Kurds, Shiites and Iraqi government forces opposing their advance. Modern Mosul and the nearby Assyrian ruins have been sacked by ISIL, the proud remnants of Assyrian power, their idols, temples and friezes, laid waste by ISIL weaponry because of their heretical pre-Islamic character. Were the Lakhish frieze not safely ensconsed in the Assyrian gallery of the British Museum it too would have met the same fate.

Jerusalem stands in stark contrast to the flames whipping around our region. Despite the conflicts and tensions, occasional acts of violence, its message is one of people who on a daily basis are managing to live together, to make the city work, whether by accident or design the closest emodiment of Isaiah's prophetic vision in the Middle East today. Jerusalem is far from perfect, but one of the messages of Yom Yerushalayim is very much this voice of Isaiah, an Israeli ruled Jerusalem which is open to all faiths and all peoples, a message that we can live together in this most sacred of cities.

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