The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Jeroboam

(Context: 1 Kings 12:20)

My friends, priests, fellow leaders, people of Shechem, and citizens of the united tribes of the renewed nation of Israel: With both humility and pride, I joyfully accept my coronation as king. With humility, since you have chosen me, a workman from the lowest of families, for this highest of honors; with pride, since with this act the people have come together to throw off the yoke of tyranny and corruption, to return this nation to the role that the prophets of its god have foretold.

Yes, I have indeed come from the lowest of the people. The rumors of my parentage are true. My mother was indeed a harlot and died as a leper. I never knew my father. Like so many others, I suffered in the streets until I was arrested for stealing bread and was thrown into Solomon’s prison.

But in that prison, I decided to better myself, to learn. And I quickly learned how buildings were built, and, more importantly, began to learn how communities are built. I listened to my fellow prisoners, and I found that the blind, harsh rules of the taskmasters had them working against each other rather than to help one another. I listened and I worked to understand them, and I was able to come to the taskmasters with a plan that improved both our effectiveness and our lives and working conditions.

At the end of my sentence, I was asked to stay on, and went to work as a bondsman building Solomon’s houses, first building the walls themselves and then, more importantly, building coalitions and trust among the workers, and understanding between the workers and the taskmasters.

And I rose to be a taskmaster myself, and a leader of taskmasters. But I never forgot my roots among the lowest of the people, and I continued to walk among the workers and to listen to them, to hear their voices. And I got to see not only the splendors that the workers under Solomon created but also the darkness that lurked beneath the hammered gold: for each chair of the finest cedar at each splendid table in his palaces, a family sat in the dust, eating what crumbs they could afford; for each sacrifice that soared to heaven from his temples, a workman was laid in the earth, broken, sickened, defeated by the deathly conditions that he was forced to endure.

And in working on those palaces and temples, I came to hear an inner voice. Some have said that the Lord spoke to me. If so, it is as the god of Israel speaks to all of us. To me, it came in the voice of a simple worker, laboring in the fields. And what he said to me was so clear, so true, that I knew that it was the course that I must follow. And it is this course that has led me here to this fateful night.

People of Israel: Too long have we suffered under the hands of kings who speak of god but oppress mankind. Like our ancestors in old Egypt, so many generations ago that we have forgotten its evil pharaoh’s name, the common man is crushed under the burden of building structures for the rich. But we have learned once again to have a voice. We have learned once again to cry out to our god. And we have learned, perhaps for the first time, how to organize ourselves to speak to the people in power, how to make our voices heard.

People of Israel: we have learned that creating families of kings puts us back into the hands of oppressors. When we first asked for a common leadership, asked for a ruler to represent all the tribes a hundred years ago, Saul rose to be our leader, a good man, a man of the people, valiant and truthful.

But then David arose: unbidden, charismatic, alluring. And he charmed an army into usurping the leadership of the nation, into overthrowing Saul, defeating the people’s leader, and installing himself as king for life.

Yes, David was in many ways a great man and did many beautiful and wonderful things. Under David, the arts of the people of Israel flourished as they never had before, with music, poetry, architecture, all exploding into view, into a golden age of worship and of beauty.

But for all that beauty, under all that gold, a price was paid: we lost our own voices, failed to remain a vibrant people and fell into a repetition and emulation of David’s work. And with all that richness came an increasing poverty, a growing chasm, wide as the Sea of Reeds, between the glistening extravagance of the ruling families and the abject dirt in which the workers had been forced to survive.

And David’s riches led to corruption, and his corruption led to oppression and destruction. His own family erupted into wars between themselves, battles between factions, the roots of which we may never know. And his sons began killing one another and sowing disaster among his people.

Of those, only Solomon survived. And he became king, though the people never chose him. Never before had the leadership of Israel been handed down by sheer heredity, and never has it been true that the son of even a good king would necessarily be good himself.

And yes, Solomon, too, did some great things. He was renowned by all the other nations, with a reputation as a wise man, and a talent for getting great buildings built, creating alliances with the rich of other nations, and accumulating wealth for his kingdom.

And so it may have seemed to those who saw him from afar, to those who arrived in caravans, who were shown only the great palaces, and were kept away from the common people. But we, the people of Israel, knew what lay beneath the glory. For we were the ones that he enslaved, the ones that he forced to work in conditions of horror, that he placed under the heaviest of yokes and whipped when we could not meet his demands, could not meet his insane deadlines with the meager resources that we were allowed.

I came to learn of these things as I worked in his houses, eventually leading the workers from the tribes of the sons of Joseph. But when I came to speak to Solomon of these things, when I finally gained an audience, he responded not with wisdom but with rage, and declared that I was to be killed for daring to represent a voice that disagreed with his.

So I had to leave. I went south to Egypt, under its good king and more peaceful people. And I studied there, and I thought and I wrote and I learned, I hope, how to be a more effective leader. I always kept the people of Israel at the forefront of my thoughts. I wrote my scrolls of suggestions as to how things could be better here, and was gratified to hear that they were copied and that they were passed, hand to hand, in the darkness, among those among you who could read them, and even learned and passed by word of mouth among those of you who could not yet read.

And now Solomon is gone. But he has been replaced by his son. And while we thought that the plight of the people was as dire as it could ever be, we have discovered that Rehoboam is even worse. When I returned from Egypt under our moment of amnesty, in that moment when we thought that a reconciliation might be possible between the people and those who claimed to rule over us, I went with a committee of the tribes to meet with the new king, to present our demands.

And this new king did claim to listen, but he did so with less than half a heart. He stalled, he maneuvered, he delayed, and finally, when he could not delay any longer, gave us his answer: in addition to using a lurid metaphor that I will not repeat, especially in the presence of our dear children who have gathered here with us tonight, he said, and I quote: “My father burdened you with a heavy yoke. I will make the yoke heavier. My father chastised you with whips. I will chastise you with scorpions.”

So we left. And we have gathered together, and we have spoken, and we have listened to the people. And we have heard your voice, and your voice has been carried on the winds to all the corners of Israel, and has brought us together on this solemn and wonderful day.

People of Israel: as of this day, we declare that we are our own, independent, sovereign nation. We do not need the sons of David. We do not need Jerusalem. We, the people of Israel, now and forever declare ourselves to be the sovereign nation of Israel. We have our own voice. We have our own leaders (and, yes, if you insist on calling us kings, we will humbly accept that title, never forgetting that we are still the most common of people).

And Israel will have its own temples: I declare today that, by consent of the people, we have begun construction on new temples, north and south, in the beautiful cities of Dan and Bethel. The temples will be dedicated to the god of Israel—but those who worship their gods in other ways will not be locked out. As we did in the days of Moses (though then, too, some leaders did not understand), we are erecting calves of gold in each space, to welcome those who call their gods by other names, so that all might see that the paths of all humanity are united. As Moses said, “Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God and his name is one”—but it is only one. We believe that our god, with all his faces, has ears to hear those who worship under any name.

And the worship in these temples will be open to all the people. While we respect the good work done by the men of the tribe of Levi over the generations, we declare that the care of the temple, the offering of prayer, and the offering of sacrifices must be open to all men, regardless of whom their parents happened to be.

People of Israel, from Dan to Bethel, and (yes, even to our brothers down in the tribe of Judah who have not yet chosen to join us), from the eastern desert on west to the great sea: I welcome this coronation with humility and with pride. Whether we last a thousand years, or whether the voice of the people demands continual change, this government, this leadership solemnly swears to listen, to lead, to report, to represent, to honor, respect, obey, inspire, and be inspired by you, to strive to evoke the best in each of us in service to that which is best for all of us, in the name of the Lord god of Israel, under all his many faces and names.

People of Israel: let us celebrate our nation, our freedom, and our sacred voice. May our voices, may your voice ring out joyously throughout the world, throughout the years, to all people, to all the visions of god. In the name of the god of Israel, let us rejoice. Let us listen. Let us sing.

(Next: Pharaoh (of the Exodus))

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January 26, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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