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In the beginning

The need to learn, teach, write, and promulgate the words of the Bible is as old as the Bible itself
Library of Congress Ceiling (Bill Slott)
Library of Congress Ceiling (Bill Slott)

During my sabbatical in the US, I visited the Library of Congress, the world’s largest collection of books with over 130 million archival items (not exactly an “undiscovered gem” and it’s not in Israel, but humor me for the moment). In addition to being the National Library of the United States, and having a ceiling that rivals that of the Sistine Chapel, the entire building is a homage to the written word, with art, sculpture, murals, and decorations that tell the story of Western civilization and written communication. At its center is the most important book in their entire collection: the Gutenberg Bible.

Treated with the reverence of a sacred relic, this first printed book is as clear and legible as the screen you are reading right now. Johannes Gutenberg, a 15th-century German goldsmith, was looking for a new way to make money when, over the course of three years, he printed 300 Bibles, a feat that would have taken medieval monks centuries. Widely regarded as the most important technological development of the last thousand years, Gutenberg’s introduction of moveable type helped fuel the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and ultimately the Scientific Revolution.

So it’s no wonder that one after another, visitors approach the display of the Gutenberg Bible (one of only two complete copies on vellum) with an awe verging on spiritual veneration. The printing press made possible the works of Shakespeare, Galileo’s Dialogue, the Communist Manifesto, and the New York Times. There was something strangely familiar about the feeling that I had, facing the Gutenberg Bible. The reverence, the sense of viewing a moment in human history, the line of hushed tourists uttering a Babel of languages while perusing patterns of print on parchment all conjured a deja vu from my work as a guide.

It occurred to me that a similar aura permeates the Shrine of the Book, the repository of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scrolls, discovered in a cave behind Qumran by the northern shore of the Dead Sea, include texts from every book of the Old Testament except the Book of Esther. The Shrine of the Book disposes of pretense. It is no mere “homage,” but rather a secular temple to a sacred text. It can be viewed as a debate (or a compromise) between science and religion.

The structure itself is built to replicate the ancient jar in which the first scrolls were discovered; and the 55-foot parchment of the Book of Isaiah is wrapped around a giant “Etz Chaim” handle, just like a Torah scroll.  It shouts “Science!” even as it displays the word of the Almighty. To get to the center of this shrine, one must walk through a “cave” in which archaeological finds are displayed amidst historical explanations. The architects wanted to emphasize science, history, discovery, and research, setting a tone of somber yet intellectual reflection. But the word of Isaiah trumps all. As the awed visitor finally reaches the epicenter of the building, he sees the perfect letters, still legible in their original Hebrew after 2,000 years: “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amotz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem…”  The excitement is palpable, and the prophet speaks to us, leaping across the millennia.

The Israel Museum is not the Library of Congress; Washington DC is not Jerusalem, and Johannes Gutenberg was not a member of an ascetic first-century cult. But the need to learn, teach, write, and promulgate the words of the Bible is as old as the Bible itself. Separated by 15 centuries, languages and religions, the German goldsmith and the Dead Sea scribes shared a need to get the ink on the page, the letters in the correct order, and the words of the prophets to the souls of the world.

As we recently read in Bereishit, God created the world with words, not from the corpse of a deceased god, as in the Norse creation myth, nor from the shell of a mystical bird as in Greek mythology. Six times the Creator says “Let there be.” Six times, the text repeats “And there was.”  We are created in God’s image. We have words, unlike any other animal. With our words, we create, as did He. We create poetry, literature, and songs. With these words, we can build up or break down. Words can be used to comfort those in distress, or to gossip and slander. Perhaps as we wait in those long lines, speaking many different languages, waiting to see the Gutenberg Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can come closer to that which binds us together as beings created in God’s image, and learn to use words to create, and not to destroy.

The Shrine of the Book (Times of Israel)
About the Author
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.
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