Moments in Jewish History series kicks off with a trip to ancient Babylonia

By Stephanie Goodling
HAKOL Editor

On Nov. 9, a seven-part “Moments in Jewish History” series kicked off, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley and the Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University.

Aaron Gorodzinsky, director of campaign and security planning for Federation, opened the evening by marking the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht.

“Today we are getting together to study the history of the Jewish people, ready to learn,” he said. 

Dr. Hartley Lachter, director of the Berman Center, introduced the 40 Zoom participants to the evening’s speaker, Dr. Dustin Nash of Muhlenberg College. Nash is currently an assistant professor of religious studies and the interim director of Jewish studies there. He earned his doctorate in Near Eastern studies from Cornell University, and he is an expert in many ancient languages and focuses on assyriology, the study of the culture and history of ancient Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia covers what is in large part modern day Iraq, as well as Turkey, Eastern syria and the western edges of Iran. 

“You may wonder why a civilization admittedly so removed from Israel is important to a discussion of Jewish history,” Nash said. “That lies in the region’s cultural prestige and political dominance. Long before Israel arrived, the Mesopotamians had invented writing, geometry, astronomy, empire and urbanization. It had already spread its influence as far afield as Egypt, the other superpower of the time.”

By studying ancient Mesopotamian texts, Nash said that we can gain insights into ancient Israel. 

“Regardless of the geographical distance, the relationship between Israel and these cultures was actually quite close. They shared a cultural world,” he explained.

Going on to compare passages from the Hebrew bible with those from Mesopotamian prayers and political propaganda, Nash pointed out similarities between them that give clues to better understanding the bible.

“Mesopotamian sources allow us to reexamine biblical material from another perspective. This provides a window into assumptions and biases of the biblical authors in a way that otherwise would just not be possible,” said Nash.

One such topic is that of scribes. 

“Who are these scribes? How did they learn to write?” Nash asked. “The Hebrew bible remains frustratingly quiet in that regard. But there is a wealth of education about scribes in Mesopotamia and evidence Israel would have been very similar.”

Audience members had an opportunity to do a Q&A session with Nash at the end of his presentation. 

Additional programs will take place on Nov. 23, Dec. 8, Feb. 16, March 24, April 21 and May 4.

To sign up for the series, click here. Cost is $54/household, and recordings of past talks will be available.