Monday, February 4, 2013

Shrine of the Book

“‘Is not my word like fire,’ declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’”~Jeremiah 23:29

In this passage from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, God discloses to Jeremiah the extraordinary power of His authentic word. But then the question arises, how do we know if it is truly God’s word? The Lord answers this question in Isaiah 55:11 by saying: “[My word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” In other words, we will know it is God who speaks when we see what is said completed.

Yet as powerful as that authentic word is, when it is written down, God’s word becomes remarkably fragile. Originally written on parchment, or processed mammal skin, the early Scripture scrolls would eventually tear, wear out, or become brittle and break. To give you some idea of how rare such manuscripts are today, before 1947 no Hebrew texts of the Old Testament prior to the tenth century CE were known to exist.

That changed in 1947 with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Found by a Bedouin boy looking for his lost goat in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea, the Scrolls have given the scientific and faith communities the most ancient Biblical texts to date. Such a discovery’s effect on the Jewish people at the time is hard for us to comprehend. As “the people of the Book”, such a find bolstered and intensified Jewish identity and patriotism at a time so close to Israeli independence and the first Israeli war in 1948.

While we had visited Qumran (where the Scrolls were found) and the Dead Sea more than a week ago, our trip today took us to see a sampling of these scrolls kept in the Israeli museum called “The Shrine of the Book”. Inside, photography and talking are prohibited; photography because of the destructive effects it has on the scrolls, and talking out of reverence for their sanctity.

A lesser known but also important book on display is the Aleppo Codex, considered by many the most accurate Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament available even though it is now incomplete. Although limited space prevents the telling of its more than 1,000 year history here, its creation and survival amid events ranging from the crusades to being smuggled back into Jerusalem during the 1950’s reads more like fiction than fact.

But perhaps in this history of Biblical manuscripts we can know the power of God’s authentic word. We see it enduring not only on the brittle, written page, but also in the hearts and minds of believers transformed by its fire and strength. Without their belief that God was speaking to them and fortifying their spirits with these texts, nothing would have been saved for us discover, whether we find it in the arid caves of Qumran or in our daily reading of God’s Holy word.