While I was trying to learn more about ancient Assyria on the internet, I chanced upon reports of a fascinating exhibit that was on display in the British Museum last year. The exhibit centred around the Neo-Assyrian King Ashurbanipal who ruled the Assyrian Empire from 668 to 627 BC. It featured numerous artefacts from his royal palace in Nineveh, Iraq (near modern-day Mosul). He is the grandson of the king Sennacherib who attempted to invade Judah during King Hezekiah’s reign (2 Kings 18-9).
The exhibit featured many slabs of bas relief artwork that once lined Ashurbanipal’s palace walls. Some of them are proud displays of his brutal prowess as a hunter. One bas relief depicts him in close combat with a grown lion. Another depicts him on horseback thrusting a spear into another lion. These are images of Ashurbanipal’s strength and virility, not unlike photos of Vladimir Putin riding a horse bare chested, or Abdullah II of Jordan in full gear on a military transport aircraft. As it was back then, so it is now: to be the autocrat of a nation or an empire requires a ferocious masculinity, an apex predator spirit, “that iron in him,” in order to keep subjects and vassals under control.
There are also vivid images of war and violence artfully depicted on bas relief. Jonathan Jones, the art journalist for The Guardian, has this to say about them: “Assyrian art contains some of the most appalling images ever created. In one scene, tongues are being ripped from the mouths of prisoners. That will mute their screams when, in the next stage of their torture, they are flayed alive. In another relief a surrendering general is about to be beheaded and in a third prisoners have to grind their fathers’ bones before being executed in the streets of Nineveh.”
These were the brutality demonstrated during Ashurbanipal’s reign. His brother had conspired against him and made himself king of Babylon to rival him. Ashurbanipal retaliated by laying siege to Babylon for two years, causing many to die of starvation. Then he entered the city, sacrificed those still alive as funerary offerings, and “fed their dismembered flesh to dogs, pigs, vultures, eagles, birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea.” Thus, is the iron required of a king: the iron of batons to heads, of swords to necks, of torture implements, of chains and shackles, of blood spilled from enemies.
When the Soviet Union began to purge its enemies in the 1920s, an apologist for the Communist regime quipped, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking any eggs.” Si vis pacem, para bellum (“if you want peace prepare for war”), as a similar dictum in Latin goes, but these sort of words are found on the lips of the conqueror, the one who wields the iron over the conquered, the one who gets the full feast of the omelette. Enemies and dissidents are subjugated not just for peace, but for a sumptuous enjoyment of that peace. Like all despots, Ashurbanipal lived in luxury, lapping up the finest that Assyrian art and technology had to offer. He lived in an imposing palace which was built to awe his subjects; his royal gardens were irrigated by canals over fifty kilometres long and contained plants from all over his empire, an architectural and horticultural marvel possibly rivalling The Gardens by The Bay (it has been argued that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were, in fact, in Nineveh where Ashurbanipal resided).
Interestingly, as tyrannical and despotic as he might be, Ashurbanipal was no vulgar brute. He was able to read and write Akkadian and Sumerian cuneiform script, a rarity even for the royalty as most people were illiterate except for the scribal class. Within his personal library, he had more than 30,000 clay tablets of every Mesopotamian literary work, including the great epics of Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh. So, it was no idle boast when he wrote of himself, “I, Ashurbanipal, learned the wisdom of Nabu [the god of writing], laid hold of scribal practices of all the experts, as many as there are, I examined their instructions.” If Solomon was the quintessential Israelite sage-king, then Ashurbanipal would have been his Mesopotamian counterpart.
Ashurbanipal had all that any man could dream of: power, riches, and knowledge. He must have been quite a figure, for even Ezra describes him as a “great and noble” king (Ezra 4.10). Ruling at the pinnacle of Neo-Assyrian ascendancy, he proudly declared in cuneiform writing: “I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.” That nearly three thousand-year-old cuneiform tablet written in his own hand now sits in the British Museum. In fact, so do most of the bas relief artwork and cuneiform tablets from his palace. Unfortunately, as great as Ashurbanipal was, his empire collapsed shortly after his demise in 627 BC. Rival claimants to the throne embroiled the empire in civil war, giving opportunistic belligerents a chance to invade and sack major Assyrian cities. The glories of Neo-Assyria were thus reduced to burnt and buried material culture for our museums.
It can be said that at around the turn of the millennium, the Jews in Judea expected their coming messiah to be a king like Ashurbanipal. They expected a mighty king to come and purge Jerusalem of Gentiles, shake off the Roman oppression, subjugate the nations of the world, and bring Jerusalem and her temple to a new height of glory. He was to “break [the nations] with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Psalm 2.9). He was to be a mighty warrior, a veritable king of kings, king of the world, king of Israel. Such Jewish expectations were perfectly reasonable, after all, that was what the prophets prophesied of, and that was what great near eastern kings like Ashurbanipal did.
However, contrary to those expectations, it was a certain Yeshua bar Yosef – Jesus – who would eventually be messiah; the son of a craftsman, born in unfortunate circumstances to insignificant parents resident in an unremarkable location. He had no martial training nor was he schooled in politics. His rag-tag motley crew of disciples who followed him around abandoned him after one of them betrayed him. When he was arrested, tried, and executed, he accepted his fate without retaliation. By worldly standards, the only iron he had in him were the nails in his crucifixion.
Yet, by his resurrection and ascension, God concretely affirmed him to be his messiah, the true king of Israel and of the world. Herein lies the radical subversion in the gospels. God’s king has come, but not as what the world expects of a great ruler – not like Ashurbanipal. Greatness to the world is coming up tops on the food chain, red in tooth and claw. It is about winning the game of nature by being the strongest, the most vicious, the smartest. However, God has redefined greatness in the person of Jesus: to be great is to love by sacrificially giving of oneself. The crucifixion of Jesus brings the world’s idea of greatness into stark contrast with God’s idea of greatness: the self-seeking viciousness and cunning of those who wanted Jesus liquidated for their own sake runs into the selfless sacrificial love of Jesus who dies for the world’s sake.
God’s image of greatness is Jesus’ flayed and bloodied frame nailed high up onto the cross. In this, we must not think that he presents the world with an alternative idea of greatness. Jesus did not come to impart “servant leadership” as an option among the many management/leadership philosophies. Adopting such a philosophy for life merely makes Jesus into yet another method for worldly greatness. No, the crucified Jesus confronts us with a question: would we kneel before such a one who appears utterly unworthy of obeisance? To a world beholden to men like Ashurbanipal, it is foolishness; for them, “servant leadership” remains a technique for personal glory. But to eyes that see, thus is the true king of the world enthroned on high in all his splendour and majesty.
Mr Png Eng Keat
December 8, 2019