Listening Across Time

The brick in front of me was 4,475 years old.  Jill, Lucy, and I were at the Louvre Museum in Paris this past May.  And before heading to see Leanardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, I went to check out an exhibit on ancient Mesopotamian artifacts.  On a placard next to the glass case was a translation of the Sumerian symbols into French.  I just needed to put those words into my phone’s translation app.  Once I did, voila—I was reading in English a message from someone who lived five millennia ago.

On this brick, a Sumerian ruler named Eannatum proclaims his victory over the cities of Elam, Urua, Umma, and Ur.  He also tells of the construction of a brick well in front of the temple of Ningirsu.  Some historians believe this is the first written record of empire.  It details how one conquering ruler in ancient Mesopotamia expanded and consolidated power by having his forces invade neighboring cities.  Before my eyes was written evidence of one boastful emperor’s exploits.

I heard an ancient warning carved on this brick.  It brought to my mind words written sometime later in history, “The Lord of hosts expects justice, but sees bloodshed; righteousness, but hears a cry! Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you” (Isaiah 5:7-8).  I thought of the ancient Hebrew prophets and their warnings to Israel and Judah not to mimic the violent and oppressive proclivities of empires in their day – empires like Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria. I found the description of just such an ancient superpower carved on this brick.  It was a cautionary tale of greed etched 1700 years before Isaiah’s public ministry began. Reading a voice from nearly 5000 years ago, I thought of the lure of empire in my time.

Since that museum visit, I have often reflected on the invitation that brick represented: to listen across time.  I thought of the powerful daily and weekly practice we Christians engage in by reading and reflecting on Scripture. Voices from ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic-speaking peoples can reach our eyes and ears. With English translations of the Bible in hand, we can hear divinely inspired voices from thousands of years ago.  And those voices can fill us with the knowledge and love of God.  They can warn us against the greed and hubris of empire.  And they can equip us in our time to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). What an extraordinary gift such writing represents – a wonder so immense we call it the Word of God written.  

I give thanks to God to be on this adventure with you all of listening across time.  And grateful that together, we can live out the call of Christ in our day.

~Pastor Matt