Faith from a British Museum

In 2019, I visited the British Museum, taking a tour of exhibits with a connection to biblical events. Viewing physical objects tied to events described in the Bible offered color to the Scripture’s black-and-white words. I marveled at the different items in the museum collection—items like a six-foot black obelisk depicting King Jehu and a large silver bowl possibly handled by Nehemiah. The artifacts and information were abundant, but I found myself mesmerized by an opulent piece called The Ram in the Thicket. It helped me reflect on the great sacrifice and faith required for Abraham to leave his homeland and follow God’s call.

I found myself mesmerized by an opulent piece called The Ram in the Thicket. It helped me reflect on the great sacrifice and faith required for Abraham to leave his homeland and follow God’s call.

Ram in the Thicket

The small statue is one of a pair of figures excavated from the Ur dig site in modern-day Iraq. Scholars estimate its date of origin to be 2500 BC, before the time of Abraham. Standing only 18 inches tall, the statue depicts a horned goat on its hind legs, peeking out over a bush. It was probably used as a support for a pedestal or a table.

The Ram in the Thicket. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Archaeologist Leonard Woolley named this pair of figures The Ram in the Thicket as a reference to the account of the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1–19) by Abraham, a native of Ur. However, it’s unclear if this depiction of a horned animal has any connection with the patriarch or the ram described in Genesis 22:13.

Regardless, I was fascinated by the statue’s intricate detail and the diversity of its fine materials. Its tiny base features a mosaic of minuscule red limestone and shell. The bush is covered with fine gold leaf as are the goat’s face and legs. The goat’s fleece was fashioned from mounted shells on a wooden core, its ears from copper alloy, and its eyes, horns, and upper fleece from lapis lazuli, a blue precious stone.

I can only imagine the hours of painstaking work that went into this small piece that was likely built to support something even more opulent. The precious materials and meticulous elements reveal the affluence and craftsmanship available in the ancient civilization of Ur.

Transient Life, Permanent Faith

Abraham lived in Ur when the Lord called him to pick up and move. Setting out for a foreign land, he left everything familiar to him. Sometimes in my haste to read the Genesis account, I gloss over what Abraham gave up following God’s call: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).

The Ram in the Thicket reminds me that the father of God’s people and of our faith didn’t merely move to a new house. He made a significant sacrifice. Abraham’s original home was not a backward and primitive village. Ur was a prominent metropolis with skilled artisans and advanced infrastructure. Abraham left behind an advanced, educated, skilled, and privileged society. On the surface, his act of leaving for an unknown land appears utterly foolish.

Hebrews reminds us that when Abraham left Ur, he went to live in tents. The patriarch provided only transience for his son and grandson. But in going, Abraham kept his eyes on a greater stability:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Heb. 11:8–10)

Ur had skilled artisans, but Abraham looked to a greater Designer and Builder, our powerful and trustworthy God. Abraham trusted God, and he expressed his faith through obedience. He sacrificed the treasures of Ur because his eyes were set on an even more secure place. He saw something greater than luxury and education. He saw the promise of God.

Ur had skilled artisans, but Abraham looked to a greater Designer and Builder, our powerful and trustworthy God.

When we discuss faith in our churches, let’s remember that our faith is only as valuable as its object. Christians can be tempted to put our faith in riches, technology, education, and skill. And when we choose Christ over society’s values, our decisions, like Abraham’s, appear foolish. But Abraham’s faith was vindicated because God kept his promise. Our obedient faith will be as well. The object of Abraham’s faith made his faith valuable—and thus he was included among the model saints in Hebrews 11. The patriarch’s faith is the kind the author of Hebrews wants his hearers to have: an active conviction that stands on God’s promises, a faith that wisely values the security our trustworthy God offers over the fleeting values of this world.

D. Eng

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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