From Assyria to Iberia

From Assyria to Iberia

Even in prophetic period, Israelites were part of the larger world, local Assyriologist says

Relief of a striding lion; glazed and molded brick. Babylon, Processional Way. Neo-Babylonian, 604″“562 B.C. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum. Berlin/Vorderasiatisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/ Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Olaf M. Tessmer.

We Jews are used to thinking of the ancient land of Israel as set in the middle of vast stretches of desert, and of the Israelites as living more or less alone there, relatively unaffected by their neighbors.

Yes, there were skirmishes with neighbors, occasional raids down from the hill country, some fights over borders, but on the whole Israel was separate, the undisputed center of its world.

Well, that’s not really true, according to Dr. Ira Spar of Suffern, N.Y. Dr. Spar, who is a professor of ancient studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah, is also the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s research Assyriologist. (Isn’t that the most wonderful job title?) In that capacity, he is part of a team that put together “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age,” an exhibit on display at the Met until January 4.

Dr. Ira Spar

Dr. Spar is also an active member of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, where he will talk about the exhibit on December 3. (See box, page 28.) Although he is a student of the entire Middle East and all its peoples, his most intense focus is on the Israelites and their land; his section of the exhibit catalogue is “Bible and Babylon.”

A striking man – six and a half feet tall and thin, white-haired and white-bearded – Dr. Spar describes many of the objects in the display cases to a visitor, casually reading the cuneiform inscriptions on some of the tablets as if they had been written in English.

The exhibit shows ancient Israel as part of an intricate cat’s cradle of relationships; trading, borrowing ideas, lending ideas, a nation among many others. Idiosyncratic, yes, but not isolated.

“The show basically tries to use art to illustrate the effects that major powers have when they trade and export to areas they’ve conquered, or where they travel,” Dr. Spar said. In this case, the major power was Assyria, which expanded from its small core around the Tigris River to reach from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean around the seventh century BCE.

Assyria was threatened by the Phoenicians, a seafaring nation that blocked the Mediterranean. “They were the big gorilla in the neighborhood,” Dr. Spar said. “With their ships, they established an empire, from Lebanon all the way across the Mediterranean to Spain.”

Around the end of the second millennium BCE, there was a sudden catastrophe, Dr. Spar said. “It overwhelmed the whole Fertile Crescent area and the Aegean with the collapse of civilization – a political, social, and cultural collapse.

“It was so overwhelming that the Greeks” – the Greeks! The civilization that refined poetry and art, and that wrote everything down – “actually lost the ability to write. Ninety-five percent of their knowledge was wiped out.”

It was sudden climate change that did it, he said. “There was a long period of dryness – about 20 years – and then wetness.” There was famine during the dry period, and fungus-ridden disease during the second one. “That was the period of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt,” Dr. Spar said. “They were able to leave because there was no one there to stop them.”

When the climate change stopped and normal life resumed “after the tremendous destruction, people still kept the symbols of second-millennium cultural identity,” Dr. Spar said. “Depictions of animals, scenes that represent power and sovereignty, and the icons of kingship, even though kingship itself had totally changed. People understood the meaning of the symbols. They kept them as heirlooms. They copied them.

“And we find them in Israel.”

We have similar impulses today, he added. “Look at our dollar bill. Why do we have Roman symbols? Why do we have Latin on it? It’s because our founding fathers knew the Roman symbols by heart.” Those words and symbols represented the “greatness of empire” to the founders of our republic, and to us as well.

“If you are a nascent society,” as the 13 colonies were, “you look back to greatness,” Dr. Spar continued. “You don’t look back to failure. The past inspires you, and you want to emulate the past.

“The difference between modern and ancient societies is that ancient societies always looked back. There was no concept of progress until the scientific revolution.” That’s why ancient founding figures are believed to have lived such long lives, and essentially to be something other than human. “The stories accrue and the legends grow, so you don’t view them as people, with the same sorts of needs that you have,” he said.

Another theme of the exhibit, “the one that I emphasize, the one that is subtly behind everything else, is that when you come into contact with another culture, that has a significant effect on you,” he continued.

“The example I like to use is the Philistines.

“The Philistines arrived from the Aegean Islands during this period of catastrophe. They are not Semites – they are also not Greeks, but they are part of that culture – so when they come and settle along the coast, they transfer their main god, who is a sea god, to a land-based god.

“So they adopt a new chief god, Dagon, who is the father of Ba’al, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon. To the ancient mind, you can never have too many gods. Gods are capricious, unstable, and they don’t travel with you,” so when you move, you adopt the gods who are there already.

“They wanted to be like the Canaanites. It’s just like people who move to America and want to be like Americans.

“It is the same thing in Israel.

“When Israel comes into the land, they settle into the hill country. There were very few settlements. It was sparsely inhabited at the time of the catastrophe, but then suddenly the hill country became the refuge. People were fleeing there.

“So who were the early Israelites? They were the refugees from Canaanite cities, as well as the people who worshipped Yahweh. It is a pluralistic society, because you” – the Israelites – “are the small guy, and the new people have moved in, to escape the civil war in the Canaanite cities, the catastrophe there, the invasions that followed. You are a center for refugees. That has a huge impact on biblical thought, because you are concerned with poor people who are escaping disaster.

“The ethics of Israel probably emerged from this period.”

This period, Dr. Spar said, was the time of the biblical books of Joshua and Judges.

“So when you build the Temple” – during Solomon’s reign, as told in the Book of Kings, written not much later – “what images are you going to use?

“You are going to use the Canaanite images, the ones that say power and kingship. Images of bulls and lions, and of cherubim. These are images that have come down from the Canaanites – and you see them throughout the show.

“The underlying theme here for Jews is that it offers a much more realistic understanding of the ancient Israelites, acting with all the forces around them. Instead of looking only at the acts of God, we also are looking at the acts of people, as they create their community using symbols of the past.

“I call this the fluidity of culture. We view the Bible from the perspective that Israel exists alone.” That view, he said, is encouraged by the way we read the Prophets, the biblical books written at the time. We read the haftarah – those prophetic writings – piecemeal, to accompany the Torah reading on Shabbat and holidays. We read bits chosen to point out something in the Torah text, and so we rarely get a feeling for the Prophets as a flowing narrative in itself. Because of that, Dr. Spar said, “We don’t understand that Israel is a small nation, caught in a web of larger powers, and we don’t understand the effect that those powers had on Israel.”

Really, it is all about economics, Dr. Spar said. Economics and power. The Temple in Jerusalem, for example, is not about religion but about power, in this reading. “It is the private chapel of the king.

“The chapel is tiny, the size of a three-car garage. It’s not as big as your house. And the king uses the Temple as a storage house. When Israel is attacked, the king goes to the Temple. The priests don’t control it. The king does. It’s right there in the text. The king has the right to hire and fire priests. He is coronated in front of the Temple, where you have those big pillars.

“It is about domination and strength. It is all about power.”

Dr. Spar came by his worldview logically. He was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., but after earning his undergraduate degree – it’s in international relations – at American University in Washington, D.C., he went to Michigan State University to work toward a Ph.D. in economics. That field once had leaned more heavily toward the social sciences, but by the time he got there, in the late 1960s, it relied heavily on statistical models. “I was terrible at it,” he said. “I couldn’t do the mathematics.”

He had three choices, he said. “One was to get a job. No way! I’d have to work! Forget about it.” (Yes, he was joking. Earning a doctorate is hard work. It’s just largely unpaid.) “The second was to join the Peace Corps. My cousin had; I got an application and it was sitting on my desk. I was considering it.

“The last one was to stay in school forever.”

That, more or less, is the option he took. Dr. Spar, who always had been a reader, realized that the books he most loved to read were about “the ancient world, archeology, and biblical-related stuff.” His depth of knowledge impressed the heads of the department in Michigan, and he not only was offered admission, but a fellowship to fund it. Because the best scholar in his field was at the University of Minnesota, after two years he transferred there.

Dr. Spar was very lucky – although men of his generation were being drafted and sent off to Vietnam, he was not. He had deferred his meeting with his draft board – he was in the upper Midwest and it was in New York – until “finally I got an induction notice to show up in Detroit,” he said. “There was no way out of this one. I was really getting nervous.

“And then, just two or three days before I was supposed to go, I got another notice, saying that the draft quota had been filled. So that was that. I wasn’t drafted.”

Dr. Spar worked on an excavation in Tel Hadar in Israel for 10 years, as this paper chronicled years ago. He has excavated in other parts of the ancient near east as well.

After he graduated, Dr. Spar had a few job offers; he chose to go to Ramapo College of New Jersey. “It was new, and it seemed like it would have a future,” he said. “I could help the college. I could be one of its founding members.” He has been there ever since, as a professor of ancient studies.

A few years later, Dr. Spar began his work at the Met, where the department of ancient near eastern art held an unpublished collection of Assyrian cuneiform. Dr. Spar since has published the text in four volumes.

Dr. Spar juggles his work as an Assyriologist and his life as an active Conservative Jew with apparent ease; instead of those two different worlds colliding, knocking the balls out of his hands, they fly around each other with grace.

Above, from left, Statuette of a griffin; bronze with traces of gold foil. Toprakkale, Urartian, 8th”“7th century B.C. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin/Vorderasiatisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/ Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Jürgen Liepe. Male protome; ceramic. Cádiz, Punta del Nao, beach of La Caleta Phoenician, 6th”“5th century B.C. Museo de Cádiz Bruce White Helmet; bronze. Karmir Blur; Urartian, 8th century B.C. History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan. Photograph by Armen Ghazaryan Statue of a seated couple; basalt. Tell Halaf, Lower City, “cult area.” Syro-Hittite, early 9th century B.C. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim-Stiftung, Cologne Berlin/Vorderasiatisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/ Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Olaf M. Tessmer.
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