A major Bible museum officially joined other large museums along and near the Mall on Friday morning, with faith and political leaders offering sometimes-passionate prayers for the institution to bring people closer to God and the text.
The $500 million, dramatic-looking Museum of the Bible will be one of the largest institutions focused on religion in the District, considered one of the world’s major museum draws. Its arrival as the country becomes more polarized about issues around religious diversity and religious freedoms has made the museum — and its evangelical board — a flash point for debate, skepticism and inspiration, depending on one’s view.
But Friday, the mood inside the private dedication ceremony at the museum’s state-of-the art theater was one of joy and worship. While organizers have said for months that the content of the museum will be shaped by an academic, nonsectarian and open approach, Friday was about Judeo-Christian evangelistic hopes for the eight-story, 430,000-square-foot project.
The free museum opens to the public Saturday.
For visitors, may “their ears, hearts and minds be open to the good news that pours forth from its pages,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, told the crowd in a message from Pope Francis.
“Hallow this moment, open this door to reveal how active and alive your word has been through the centuries,” Adm. Margaret Kibben, the Navy’s chief of chaplains, prayed before the audience of nearly 500 people.
“It has had a positive impact on their lives in so many different ways. Hopefully [visitors will] be inspired to open it, get to know it better. Have you read your Bible today?” asked Steve Green, the chairman of the museum’s board and president of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, who became one of the founders of the museum after forming a major collection of biblical artifacts.
The ceremony began with “Amazing Grace,” sung by gospel star CeCe Winans. After that, the 10 speakers prayed, sermonized and told stories about the Bible’s impact on their own lives, on American politics and law, and on Christian and Jewish history. That impact was presented reverentially, and almost always positively, but at times also aspirationally — as though some speakers were praying for the institution to somehow highlight the most unifying aspects of the Bible in a country where religion seems increasingly used as a scythe.
“Are there any passage or words more uplifting than: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself;’ . . . ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue;’ . . . ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’. . . ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,’ ” asked Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Potomac, president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. “May people come here and grow and be inspired,” Weinblatt told the crowd.
Other speakers included longtime Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a Seventh-day Adventist; museum Director Tony Zeiss; museum President Cary Summers; and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who said such a museum was “appropriate” for a bustling global capital.
“I thought the word of God and everyone who can express it and bring those words alive [are] God’s gift to all of us,” Bowser (D) said.
Of the 10 speakers, two were Israeli government officials — Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.
The museum hosts a key exhibit of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, and several prominent Israeli experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls advised on its exhibits. The Green family, which has lent thousands of items of its collection to the museum, also owns many thousands of Torahs.
Dermer’s talk was a hearty endorsement of the perspective of the museum’s conservative founders — and many Americans, particularly religious conservatives — that the Bible should be reemphasized in 2017 as a core part of American culture. He said the same of Israel, linking the two nations.
“As the Bible has always been the most prized possession of the Jewish people, the Bible has always been cherished by the American people . . . [your] monuments surely testify to that,” he said.
Many biblical scholars have expressed skepticism about the museum’s ability to offer a wide-ranging image of the Bible, a text whose compilation and characters remain mysteries and which has been used as a rallying cry for war and slavery as well as forgiveness and humility.