Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C. – Jewish Point of View
It’s not actually a place I planned to go. I’d read about it in the news when it first opened – all bad press as I recall. My son suggested going and frankly, just about every public museum was closed in D.C. because of a pandemic that ended in this country months ago, renovations, or it was the wrong day of the week. So alright – let’s go see a museum by some evangelical Christians and say “oy vey” a lot.
This was a better Jewish museum than any Jewish museum I’ve ever been to!
Aside from some Christian murals in the hallway, a New Testament exhibit, and the gift shop … it’s basically … Jewish. It’s not only Jewish – the contents has largely been reviewed by Rabbis and it’s accurate according to Jewish tradition. The museum is about “what does the Bible say?” and “what has it’s influence on society been?” – it’s not “preachy” at all. Even in the New Testament exhibit I shouldn’t have been uncomfortable, though was preconditioning to be. The New Testament exhibit is a walk-in immersive city of Nazareth in Israel around 2,000 years ago. It’s great to see such a city rather than only read about it. The Christian part is a man talking about how maybe the messiah could come from that town … alright, people might have said things like that. Jews even today visit the Samaritans on Her Gerizim (mount Gerizim) in Israel and they’re heretics. You’re seeing “what is” and not “what you should believe.”
The highlight of museum, in my opinion, was the immersive “Stories of the Bible”. It is divided into two entirely different sections. Going into the “Stories of the Hebrew Bible” could not have been more respectful towards Jews. The sign and the person who greets you tells you that it has many names – Tanakh, Torah, Septuagint, Old Testament. You mean you’re not just going to call it the “old” testament? Going in, you move from room to room with many models and immersive video experiences, again, simply showing the stories. I’m typically critical of just about anything I see and ready to pick out the bias – there were stories from creation to Kayin and Hevel [Cain and Abel], Abraham, Yitzcok, Yaaokov, Yosef [Joseph] and his brothers, Passover, the prophets in Shoftim and Melachim [Judges and Kings], and so on. I could find only one single problematic thing. They showed the forbidden fruit as an apple. It doesn’t say apple in the Torah – it’s a King James translation and not one of the possibilities according to Judaism. I can live with that. Meanwhile, every single story they told was completely accurate to Jewish beliefs without a hint of “and this shows Christianity is true” as I had expected. The exhibit just say, “these are the stories” and presented them accurately and beautifully in an immersive and compelling environment.
We started on the top floor and worked our way down. I recommend this as well based on how the museum is laid out. The top floor has an excellent, excellent exhibit operated by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. It’s similar to the Bible Lands museum in Jerusalem and somewhat like parts of the Israel Museum in the presentation of artifacts, however, the D.C. museum was so much better. Other museums, and I’d add the Metropolitan Museum of Art and British Museum, have so much stuff and only display a small fraction of it – it’s overwhelming. I understand why they do it – however, you end up just sort of walking through at a certain point because it is information overload.
In the Museum of the Bible in D.C. the archeology section tells a story – like the overall design of rest of the exhibits in the museum. The story is chronological with hand-picked artifacts. There are things that might leave you questioning the authenticity of the Bible – the museum willing to show this was unexpected on my part. In any case, the exhibit isn’t overwhelming and you can see everything while getting the story through artifacts of what was in Israel before the Jews entered, and during different periods of Jewish history in the land (Judges, 1st temple, 2nd temple, rebellions against the Greeks (e.g. Bar Kochba).
You would have a difficult time finding any exhibit which doesn’t use Hebrew – there are, in other areas of museum, even information about the Rambam, the oral Torah, modern Hebrew words based on biblical words, and a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on a wall. Among the different publications of the Bible since the Guttenberg press are exhibits about book burnings and murder of the London Jewish community in 1190. When you see this in Jewish museums it’s usually in “oy vey” form making you feel sad. In the ostensibly Christian museum, while they don’t mention this was done in the name of Christianity, they do focus on the courage and holiness of the Jews whom all looked upon with strength.
I can see how a secular person might feel uncomfortable in the museum just as I was initially uncomfortable in the New Testament section, however, if one goes in knowing that they won’t be preached to, whether you believe in the authenticity of the Bible or not, the books are still the most impactful in the western world. There is no reason not to go in and learn especially in such a well presented museum. The Bible still explains who you are and why society is what it is – you’ll even find a wall of common phrases we use which come from the Bible including “the writing is on the wall” (get it?) and “holier than thou”.
My biggest critique of the museum would be that there are some attenuated arguments … there’s exhibits about the Magna Carta, the civil rights movements, Common Sense by Thomas Paine … and arguments that the Bible was the basis for each of these. That’s a stretch. Sure, there’s some relation … some connection … let’s not get too carried away though. These were oftentimes movements having no direct connections or were rebellions against the Bible. (The museum does make a point of mentioning that drafts of the Magna Carta included rights for Jews – because, you know, it’s really a Jewish museum in disguise.)
After spending hours in the museum until closing time, I went back to reread reviews in the media. All I have to say is … haters are going to hate. Many of the reviews in media outlets seem to be from people who have not even visited – it’s like it’s automatically some sort of crime to be positive about the Bible. Other reviews complained that the musem did not include the Koran and Book of Mormon in, you know, a museum about not those things.
Another complaint is that by ending with Protestantism it shows that they believe this is the proper end to the story. No matter what you include or don’t include someone can always complain about that choice. If I were Protestant, maybe I’d complain that the museum was too Jewish.