The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: 2 Kings 18:4)

I have approached them slowly, with reverence, with regret: Nechoshet and Asherah, the healing brass serpent and the life-giving tree. Each is an object of ultimate beauty. Each must be destroyed.

Each is ancient, sacred: the serpent Nechoshet, formed by Moses in a single night on orders from the Lord, so that those who gazed upon it might be healed; the tree Asherah, grown from the seeds of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the only things that our mother Eve could take from the garden.

Each has stood in the courtyard of the temple for two hundred years, though our people carried the serpent and the seeds for much longer. In the years that they have stood here, they have intertwined, the branches of Asherah growing to slide between and wrap around the coils of Nechoshet, the tree’s roots extended to embrace the broad base of the serpent.

Each had been created merely as a symbol, an icon, a sign, speaking silently of our one true God, who alone gives life and alone brings healing. But the meanings shifted as the generations passed, from symbol to allegory to myth and finally to being seen as gods themselves, a mother goddess and a serpent god of healing. And the people approach them in the courtyard and stop before they ever get to the true temple, praying that these two fantasies can answer them and help them, ignoring and forgetting the invisible god that they can not see or touch, but who alone can do these things for those who still believe in him.

Here, the absence of the dim new moon’s light shapes their shadow, the darkness in which I stand. I am here. I am not here. My heart, soul, and mind are hovering, distant, divided: my mind committed, my heart conflicted and breaking, and my soul lost in the chasm between the love of beauty and the love of God. They watch my body decide what I must do.

I touch Asherah’s bark. I smell, taste the last of its flowers, its fruit. I bask in its beauty, as we bask in the beauty, the tenderness, the loving kindness of the Lord. But I know, as my people seem not to know, that Asherah is not the Lord.

I stroke Nechoshet’s skin. I hear the deep ringing of air within brass in response to my caress, watch the shimmering of the new moon’s reflection as the vibrations of brass and air react to the movements of my hands. I resonate with its power, as we resonate with the healing power, the glory, the authority of the Lord. But I remember, as my people have forgotten, that Nechoshet is not the Lord.

I listen, within the ringing of Nechoshet, for the voice, coming up through the ages, of Moses, our leader, our teacher, he who crafted the serpent at the command of the Lord. I ask if we will lose his memory with the loss of Nechoshet, the last physical vestige of what he had done. But a whisper returns in the breath of the wind through the leaves of Asherah, as a modulation within the ringing of Nechoshet:

“My memory remains in my teaching, in the work of my words, not the work of my hands. Though my body is lost, my grave invisible in the heights of Mount Nebo, and though this last relic might not stand by morning, my legacy stands in the words of the Lord, as inscribed in the stones (also never seen by any but the High Priest) that I carried down Mount Sinai: that he alone is our God, that there shall be no graven images of him, that we must honor his sacred names, must honor the Sabbath, our parents, life, commitment, and people’s connections to each other, their homes, and what their homes contain. And yes, that people can not have idols. And the Lord has now learned that even if the idol is made by his command, the people will worship it instead of him, and will place their faith in objects and images, rather than in his spirit which is around us, is within us, and cannot be imagined to be locked within one object, within one place.”

I take one last step up to the Asherah, to the Nechoshet, embrace them both, my arms barely reaching across their breadth, my head bowed, weeping, nestled in the space where they meet. My tears run down the brass, the wood, leaving cleansing streaks of water that gather in a pool by their base, by their roots.

Then I step back three steps and let out one long cry, as if my voice has been possessed by the call of the ram’s horn, as if my sorrow at the end of all this beauty might cause the heavens to open, might cause the hearts of all the people to change in an instant, and might reverse the stern decree.

In the shadow, the ghost of a vision appears: the image of a child, an echo of myself when I was young, when I did not yet know that I would be king, that I would have to shoulder the burdens of a people, that I would have to make harsh decisions and live with consequence, uncertainty, and regret. The memory of the child sits in the comforting shade, sure that this is a place of safety, of security. The child draws letters with his fingers on the ground before the tree and the serpent. Then he rises, again admiring the towering icons, the greatest art made by nature and the greatest art made by the hands of man. He dances in the shadow, arms raised, eyes closed, open to the Lord, to beauty, to the joys that he expects that the world might bring. Then, with a gust of the breeze of the present day that returns my attention to my cold facts and responsibilities, the child disappears.

And now, as my long breath ends, as the reverberations of my cry cease to vibrate the wood, the brass, I stand and listen to the infinite silence of my surroundings, the pained silence within my heart, my soul, my mind, and the stark silence of the Lord as I am left, at last, to watch my body choose what I must do. I pause, look upward one more time, then mutter a curse, whisper a prayer, and raise my axe.

(Next: Samuel.)


June 8, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I was surprised when my text-to-speech program stumbled over the two key words in this post. For those reading aloud, Nechoshet is pronounced “n’khoshet”, and Asherah is pronounced “ah-shey-rah”, with the accent on the second syllable of each. Or at least that’s how I pronounce them, with my awful American accent.

    I just ran across a good commentary on the serpent here, though it might be a bit deep in Orthodox Jewish jargon to be generally intelligible. In the commentary, Hezekiah is called, as he is in the original Hebrew, Chizkiyahu.

    Comment by bookofvoices | June 8, 2007 | Reply

  2. s/apppears/appears/

    (Fixed. Thanks. It figures that the one sentence that I rewrote directly in the blog editor would have a typo… but at least I knew to look there first. –Joe)

    Comment by John Cowan | June 9, 2007 | Reply

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