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FIRST-PERSON: Assyrian haircut

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Last week, while I was running my traps in downtown Evanston, Ill., I stepped into an unfamiliar barbershop on impulse. I was rushed, and on foot, and my regular place was about a mile away, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I sensed something of a divine appointment immediately, for the young woman barber wore a T-shirt with the word, “Assyrian” above an image of a human-headed, winged bull.

I told her I was the pastor of a Baptist church meeting in an office building a few doors down. She picked up on my Bible focus, reminding me that the world’s first man came from her region, modern-day Iraq. I assured her I knew that, and I added that one of my sons had served in Iraq, where he’d visited sites associated with the scriptural figures Abraham and Ezekiel.

She was Orthodox, and we spent a little time talking about how difficult it can be for Christians in Muslim-majority lands. She spoke of Iraqi Christians who had been menaced and robbed by their Islamic neighbors and of her own experience in Syria, where her native tongue (Syriac, which is essentially Aramaic) had been suppressed. This wasn’t surprising, for Christians in Islamic regions are used to “dhimmi” status (second-class or worse) in one form or another.

When I told her that Aramaic appeared in the English New Testament, she was surprised, even skeptical. So I tried “Abba” on her, and she was on board immediately. (She wasn’t familiar with “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” and “Maranatha,” so I began to plan a return with a marked New Testament.) She then asked if I’d seen “The Passion of The Christ” and she was happy to report that the film was full of her language. She even quoted some dialogue.

I told her that I’d once happened into an Assyrian diner on Devon Street in Chicago, and they, too, had helped educate me. When they heard I was a pastor, they made sure I knew that Christianity had sprung from one of their own, Abraham. They also told me that Christian Iraqis identified themselves as “Assyrians” and “Chaldeans,” but I didn’t get clear on the distinction between the two. No problem; my barber was happy to help.

By her account, Khaldi and Asshur were brothers from which the two peoples sprang. Without my Bible dictionary handy, I wasn’t ready to evaluate that proposition, so I moved on to ask if the latter were connected with King Ashurbanipal of Assyria. Sure enough, she knew that one, but not King Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria. We got back on track when I mentioned seeing King Sargon Drive in Chicago; she assured me that, yes, he was family. (By the way, the winged bull mentioned in the first paragraph came from the palace of Sargon II.)

It was a good time, not unlike the one I had when I visited the Assyrian American Civic Club of Chicago. I was walking down Clark Street toward Wrigley Field when I saw their sign. Since my boy was in Iraq at the time, I particularly was interested in any background material they could give me. When I told them what he was doing, they expressed warm thanks for his service. John Nimrod (yes, Nimrod, as in Genesis 10 and Micah 5), who had served in the Illinois senate, gave me some colorful brochures to send to my Marine.

Isn’t it amazing? For years, the Assyrians and Chaldeans were giving Jesus’ kinfolk the dickens, and now they claimed Jesus as their Lord. That could make for interesting study-Bible notes:

II Kings 17:6: “In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away into Assyria …” *

II Kings 25:10: “And all the army of the Chaldees, that were with the captain of the guard, brake down the walls of Jerusalem round about.” *

* These invaders would later call themselves Christians.

It makes you wonder what people groups now tormenting Christians might one day themselves be persecuted for identifying with the Lord.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist.

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  • Mark Coppenger