Chicago’s Oriental Institute – Biblical Archaeology

By Wayne Jackson

Chicago’s Oriental Institute was founded in 1919 under the leadership of James H. Breasted. Breasted (1865-1935) was a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago, having been appointed Professor of Egyptology and Oriental History in 1905. He was widely known for his acquisitions of ancient treasures on behalf of the Institute (though somewhat controversial at times, due to his rather independent money-raising methods). Breasted was trained in Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic at Yale, but his interests in archaeology were focused principally in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Professor Breasted pioneered the study of ancient Egypt in two surveys made in the seasons of 1905-06 and 1906-07. Without the help of either an assistant or photographer, he carefully examined the temples and Egyptian tombs on the banks of the Nile. His celebrated exploratory work is valued even today, a century later. Several of his published works, e.g., Ancient Records of Egypt (five volumes), remain in print.

It has been my privilege to visit the Oriental Institute on two occasions and I highly recommend that anyone within a reasonable distance from Chicago, or who may be planning a visit to that area, visit this beautiful museum and survey the amazing display of treasures there (1155 East 58th Street). Admission is free.

The Institute has a collection of some 30,000 Egyptian artifacts (in addition to priceless pieces from other places, e.g., Mesopotamia and Palestine, etc.), many of which are of keen interest to Bible students inasmuch as the Hebrew people had significant contact with these nations throughout the centuries of Old Testament history. Let me comment upon just a few of these.

Egypt

Egyptian Boat — There are many fascinating items in the Egyptian hall. For instance there is a beautiful limestone relief (a picture carved in stone) from the tomb of a governor, Mentuemhat, of Thebes (ca. 690-60 B.C.). It contains a representation of Egyptian workers in boats made from the papyrus plant (remember the little “basket-boat” in which baby Moses was placed?).

There are three oarsmen in the boat and they are transporting huge papyrus baskets laden with fruit. The waters below are teeming with fish. This picture of prosperity represented the kind of existence the Egyptians longed for in their post-earth life (for this and other graphics, see: The Oriental Institute Museum — Highlights from the Collection, Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1989).

Book of the Dead — A portion of a papyrus scroll from the Egyptian Book of the Dead contains beautifully inked images of a person standing before Osiris, the god of the dead. Osiris is making a determination of judgment upon the soul of the deceased; he “judges [the] worthiness” of the departed to enter the next life.

The man was being assessed by his earthly deeds. There is also the representation of the dead person’s “heart,” being weighed on a balance scale, to determine how such measures up to truth and justice. Is it not strange that ancient pagans sometimes had a clearer concept of the value of “truth” and “justice” than some in the modern world? Note that the Egyptians saw a relationship between how one lives on earth, and his future existence.

The uncommon atheistic notion that there is nothing after death is an ideological oddity on the panoramic canvas of human history

The Ramses’ Brick — The Egyptian hall also contains a “mud brick” from the time of Ramses II (stamped with his name). Radical scholars contend that Ramses II was the Pharaoh who oppressed the Hebrews, but this view is not consistent with Old Testament chronology (see John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1971, pp. 16ff).

Nonetheless, this ancient brick is quite interesting. While the Egyptians are best known for their great stone monuments, they also used bricks extensively (as the book of Exodus indicates). This brick clearly shows remnants of the straw that was mingled with the mud (cf. Exodus 1:14; 5:7ff). The straw reinforced the bricks to keep them from cracking.

King Tut — The Institute also houses a huge statue excavated at Thebes of the famous boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, whose tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter in 1922. Tut reigned briefly (7 to 9 years), and died at the age of 18.

More than 5,000 treasures were extracted from the tomb of the young king. One of these, a small gold coffin, just over 15 inches long (containing remnants of some of his visceral organs), was valued at more than $250,000. My wife and I had the pleasure of viewing a selection of these artifacts when they were exhibited in San Francisco in 1974.

This magnificent monument is over 17 feet tall. The king’s head is crowned with the traditional cobra goddess that supposedly protected the ruler.

Assyria

From 1929-35, the Oriental Institute excavated at the ancient site of Khorsabad in northern Iraq. The city was constructed by Sargon II (ca. 721-705 B.C.). Sargon was the ruler who, in conjunction with Shalmaneser, overthrew Samaria, the northern capital city of Israel. Khorsabad was the capital of the ancient Neo-Assyrian Empire, so prominent in biblical history. The Institute contains a number of treasures from this city.

Assyrian Cruelty — The Bible portrays the Assyrians as a terribly cruel people. One ancient inscription of the Assyrian king, Asshurizirpal (ca. 883 B.C.), as cited by George Rawlinson, who was Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford, reads:

“Their men, young and old, I took as prisoners. Of some I cut off the feet and hands; of others I cut off the noses, ears, and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I built a minaret [slender tower]” (The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient World, John Murray, 1881, Vol. 2, p. 85).

At times the Assyrians led their prisoners by hooks in their noses (see 2 Chronicles 33:11; cf. 2 Kings 19:28). In the British Museum there is a stone monument, from the time of Esarhaddon, that shows two prisoners before the king with hooks in their noses (Stephen Caiger, Bible and Spade — An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology, Oxford University Press, 1944, Plate 22; see p.163).

In Chicago’s museum there is an Assyrian stone relief designed to celebrate the nation’s victory over Tell Ta’yinat. The scene illustrates Assyrian soldiers carrying off the decapitated heads of their defeated enemies. At the soldiers’ feet are the headless corpses.

Mesopotamia

Sennacherib’s Prism — One of the most fascinating artifacts in the Chicago museum is a hexagonal (six-sided) clay prism that was found in the ruins of ancient Nineveh (the city to which Jonah preached). It contains 500 lines of cuneiform writing, recording several military campaigns of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. The prism was a part of the famous library of the Assyrian ruler, Assurbanipal (688-26 B.C.).

The prism records Sennacherib’s invasion of Canaan. The Assyrian king boasts that he conquered 46 fortified cities of Judah, drove out 200,150 people. He also besieged Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13; cf. v. 17).

Regarding Judah’s king, Hezekiah, Sennacherib says: “Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage” (James Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, Princeton University Press, 1958, p. 200).

In characteristic fashion, the Assyrian king neglects to mention why he did not take Jerusalem. According to the Bible record, the Messenger of Jehovah went forth and killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night (2 Kings 19:35-36; 2 Chronicles 32:21-22; Isaiah 37:36-38). When Sennacherib heard the fateful news, he fled back to his own country.

Lord Byron depicted the incident in his famous poem:

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleeper waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still.

Conclusion

If you are interested in biblical archaeology, and you are within reasonable proximity to Chicago, you will want to visit the famous Oriental Institute. Thereby you will “treasure” up memories that will facilitate your Bible teaching for many years.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.