Friday, October 4, 2013

What You Can Learn From a Piece of an Old Pot

All of you know that I am a life-long student of Jewish history. And mostly that is a good thing—studying history brings us all closer to the past, makes personalities from distant centuries seem familiar and alive to us, and gives us a stronger and clearer sense of who we ourselves are by drawing a picture of who our own ancestors were. But there’s also a downside that attends the study of history in that all those people we learn about when we read about the past tend to become lumped together in our minds as though “History” were a place that all these people lived in rather than a man-made construct invented solely to help us organize the events and personalities of time gone by.  We even speak that way, talking about “people in history” as though by virtue of having lived and died all those so-called “historical” personalities somehow posthumously acquired some relationship to each other…including people who would never have heard of each other, let alone actually known each other, in their actual lifetimes.

And then, every so often, some artifact surfaces that reminds us—or at least that reminds me—that the individuals whose names we know from ancient books were not merely names…but people like ourselves who had whole lives of which we generally know either nothing or almost nothing. To us they mostly are just names in a book, but in real life they were people whose lives were characterized, just as are our own lives, by disappointment and success, by achievement and setback, by fulfilled and unfilled hopes, by reasonable and unreasonable plans. People who lived and died not as historical personalities but as men and women who didn’t think of themselves as men and women of “history” any more than we—for all we know that in ten thousand years some few of our names could possibly surface in some aqua-archeologist’s underwater archeological excavation of long-submerged Long Island—any more than we ourselves find it possible to think of ourselves merely as some future generation’s historical personalities. Surely, we kid ourselves into thinking, our destiny is to be more than just names in a book! (And that would actually be the good news, the alternative to not being names in some book—if they still have books—to be published in the 31st century.)

All these thoughts came to me last summer as I read a press release from the Israel Museum regarding the discovery of some artifacts deemed to be about 2,700 years old in the City of David excavations in Jerusalem. Undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the area of the Gichon Spring to the southwest of the Old City, these excavations have yielded a treasure trove of artifacts from the First Temple period, which began in the days of King Solomon and lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the early years of the sixth century BCE.  That’s a long time ago! Anything that old would almost ipso facto be interesting, but even in the context of Israeli archeology these finds were remarkable.  And among them was a bowl with a man’s name on it.

Not a whole bowl either…just part of one. Nor a whole name. Just part of one…but somehow the words and the clay speak to me and that’s why I’m writing today: to tell you what I hear them saying.
Some details are clear. The inscription was made before the bowl was fired, so was clearly not etched into the clay later on by someone who merely acquired it. It’s in ancient Hebrew script too, so not that easily readable today even by modern Israelis. And some letters are missing in the beginning of the name. But archeologists Joe Uziel and Nahshon Zanton feel reasonably certain that the name on the bowl is Zechariah ben Benayahuan individual who, or at least whose name, appears in the Bible. There are a lot of if’s in all of this. If they’ve read the name correctly.  If the man whose name was inscribed on the bowl was the same man whose name appears in the Book of Chronicles. If the bowl “goes” with the other datable artifacts found at the site and didn’t wind up there through some now unrecoverable turn of events that now suggests a context that didn’t actually exist historically. If all of that is true, or if some version of all of it is…then what we have here is the physical remnant of a remarkable era in Jewish history, one as obscure as tantalizing. And of a man who, heretofore a mere name in a book, who lived…and who owned (no doubt among other things) a bowl.
King Yehoshafat (not the “jumpin’ Jehosaphat” of 19th century American slang, but the fourth king of ancient Judah, the son of King Asa).  What we don’t know about King Yehoshafat is a lot. He was thirty-five years old when he became king, probably in 873 BCE, and he reigned for twenty-five years.  History remembers him as a pious man and as a reformer, but the specific incident I want to tell you about is recorded only in the Book of Chronicles, which was probably written half a millennium after King Yehoshafat lived and died. Still, it’s a good story! The Jewish kingdom was being threatened by an alliance of Syria and several hostile kingdoms across the Jordan. (Does this sound at all familiar?) The king, a religious man, proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer to focus the national will on the crisis at hand and to seek God’s help in defending the homeland. The king’s prayer, beautiful in its own right, is preserved at 2 Chronicles 20:6-12.  And then, as if to confirm that the nation’s prayers had been heard and answered, the spirit of prophecy came over a Levite, a man named Yahaziel, the son of Zechariah ben Benayahu, who confirmed that the nation would be safe and remain secure. And that is what happened. The alliance crumbled. The allies ended up fighting with each and killed each other in such numbers that the survivors simply fled and all the armies of Judah had to do was to collect the booty where it lay on the ground in the enemy’s abandoned camps. And then “they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, and Yehoshafat at their head, to Jerusalem with joy for the Eternal had made them rejoice over their enemies. And they came to Jerusalem with lutes and lyres and trumpets to the Temple.  And the fear of God was on all the kingdoms of those countries, when they heard how God had fought against the enemies of Israel” (2 Chronicles 27-29).

It’s not a famous story. Even in the context of not famous stories, it’s an obscure one. But it’s there. And Yahaziel is mentioned front and center as the prophet through whom God promised the nation victory. But it’s not Yahaziel whose bowl survived…it was (possibly) his father’s. Because that’s whose name is on the bowl: Zechariah ben Benayahu. The dates are right. The name, assuming Zanton and Uziel have reconstructed the writing correctly, is right.  The script and orthography are right. There’s no way to know for sure…but I’d like to think that this piece of broken clay was once a bowl owned by Yahaziel’s dad.  He was, after all, a Levite…and Levites did work in the Temple and probably lived in the City of David, precisely where these excavations are taking place. So why couldn’t it have been he?

This is exactly what I meant about individuals stepping out of the history books to become real people. Suddenly, they’re there…not as names in some book even people like myself only really read in Graduate School but as a real man. With a bowl. Did he sit in his backyard working on a new psalm eating walnuts out of his bowl? Or dates? Or perhaps he served his son, the prophet, and his daughter-in-law figs in that bowl. Or maybe he used it for some other purpose entirely, something we could never guess at. I suppose it could have been his chamber pot too! But somehow looking at this…this thing…makes me think of the countless millions of people who didn’t leave parts of their chamber pots behind, who simply vanished into the mists of history, as will almost all of us too, at least eventually.

Is that thought chastening or annoying? Does it make you feel humbled or angry? I suppose the truth is that it brings some combination of the above emotions to me personally. But it is an exceptional find, and you can actually go to see Yahaziel’s dad’s bowl, or what’s left of it, in the Israel Museum the next time you’re in Jerusalem, then let the experience remind you about some of life’s more provocative truths: that life lasts but a moment, that if you are supremely lucky you may get to leave behind some piece of a bowl with part of your name on it, that history itself may not be a place but the people who lived and died and whose spiritual descendants we are—those people actually lived and died, and left importantly behind not pieces of broken terra cotta but us ourselves who carry on their traditions and their faith, and through whom their civilization continues to evolve even in our own day.

And now I’ve saved the best for last. There are almost no pictures from ancient times of regular people. (The pictures of Israelites in the Assyrian wall carvings depicting the destruction of the city of Lachish northern kingdom of Israel are the exceptions that prove the rule. Click here to take a look!) There aren’t even any contemporary portraits of our most famous kings, only the odd reference to physical characteristics that appear in the biblical narrative. So we know that King David had red hair (1 Samuel 16:12) and that King Saul was exceptionally tall (1 Samuel 9:2), but not much else.  But in the same excavation at the City of David were uncovered a few female figurines…who are ancient Israelites looking across the millennia to invite us to imagine who they were and what they were like. And here they are, along with some other broken shards:

Do they look like us? Are they us? They look happy enough…but so would you be if you managed to survive for more than three and a half millennia buried under the earth only to re-appear in your great x 1000-grandchildren’s day to smile out again at the world and leave your descendants free to look into your eyes and ask the questions that all will pose and none be able to answer. Who are you exactly? And what have you traveled through time to say?

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