To fully appreciate this story, it is helpful to review a few historical facts.
In the year 597 B.C.E., the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, which resulted in the conquest of the city and the destruction of the first Holy Temple. The Babylonians took the young King Jehoiachin into Babylonian captivity along with the aristocracy.
After several decades of captivity in Babylon and the Persian conquest of Babylonia, Cyrus II (his successor was Artaxerxes) had permitted Jews held captive in Babylon, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
A number of Jews consequently returned to Jerusalem in 537 B.C.E and began the rebuilding of the Jewish community and the Temple. The inauguration of the second temple was in 516 B.C.E.
Judah was ruled as Yehud province under the Persians.
The economic and social gap within Judean society widened, partly as a result of heavy taxation imposed by the Persian governors of the province. The poor were forced to take costly loans, mortgage their property and even sell their children into slavery. The Temple’s standing suffered as well. The prophet Malachi blamed the Priests and Levites for not respecting the House of the Lord.
This was the situation which Ezra and Nehemiah encountered in Judea when they arrived in the middle of the fifth century BC.
Nehemiah arrived in 445 B.C.E. which was the 20th year of the reign of Artaxerxes. He had been an important member of the Persian court. When he requested permission to return to the land of his fathers to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem, the King made him governor of the province and authorized him to carry out extensive social reforms: remission of debts, restoration of property confiscated for debts and abolition of the tribute to the governor. All these greatly improved the economic situation of the people of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah was also in charge of rebuilding the walls and fortifications of Jerusalem.
Ezra the Scribe
Artaxerxes commissioned Ezra, a Jewish priest-scribe to take charge of the religious and civil affairs of the Jewish nation.
Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in 458 B.C.E. He campaigned for the expulsion of foreign women from Jerusalem and sought every other measure to prevent the assimilation of the Jews.(Many men married foreign women in Babylon and brought them back to Israel.)
Between 456 and 444 B.C.E. Ezra, along with 70 scribes, set to work - writing down and editing the ancient scriptures of the Jewish people.
After Ezra and the scribes had completed the writing, Ezra gathered the Jews who had returned from exile, all of whom belonged to Kohanim families.
Ezra read them an unfamiliar version of the Torah. This version was different from the Torah of their fathers. Ezra did not write a new bible. Through the genius of his ‘editing’ he presented the religion in a new light.
The story begins in the hilly countryside, beyond the gates of the New City of Jerusalem.
It was the month of Tammuz, Year 445 B.C.E. a time when the Israelites lived under Persian occupation.
Three Persian soldiers, carrying spears and wearing metal helmets, were standing watch. One of the soldiers leaned against his post, trying to escape the hot sun. The other two paced around on the ridge where they had a clear view of the mountains around. Watching over the Israelites was uneventful since the local population had no intention of starting an uprising.
The only other people in sight, on a valley below the Persian soldiers, were four twenty-something Israelite men, sitting on stacks of hay, speaking together.
The four men were Ido, Ba’ana, Yair and Ariel. They were young writers belonging to Israelite families who were not exiled to Babylon. They lived in villages outside the walls. Their life was simple and usually content.
The four writers were hired to write documents - which Jewish officials gave to the Persian Empire. They would also be hired to write stories.
Since their income was modest, they would occasionally work in the fields and were given crops in return.
Ido had been avoiding the field work in past weeks, as he had particular interest learning about King Ramses II, who had been one of the most powerful pharaohs in Egypt. Ramses II had lived about 800 years before Ido.
King Ramses II led expeditions north into Israel. The early part of his reign was focused on building cities, temples and monuments. He established the city of Pi- Ramses in the Nile Delta as his new capitol and main base for his operations in Syria. He was the first King in history to sign a peace treaty with his enemies, (the Hittites) ending long years of wars and hostility.
Ido was not interested in the influence of the neighboring Empire on his people, but rather in their use of tobacco. He found out that during the prosperous time of Ramses the Great they would grow the plant.
“How did they use it?” he wondered. “Chewing tobacco tastes awful.” He then experimented at rolling tobacco in leaves and smoking the concoction.
It usually fell apart, leaving burn marks on his pants. This infuriated his wife Attalia, who had to mend his clothes. He told her the tobacco experiment was just historical research for a story, but she didn’t buy it.
Ido’s latest experiment was mixing tobacco with cannabis and smoking it. Some days, he would forget to add tobacco and returned home with bloodshot eyes. Attalia would be so angry that she would sometimes take their daughter and sleep in her sister’s house. Ido didn’t mind, since it gave him more time to experiment.
The young writers’ favorite pastime was hanging out with one another on the haystack, discussing world issues.
On this day, Ba’ana held a scroll and read to the others from it.
“Listen to this,” Ba’ana read passionately, “According to the prophet Jeremiah, God promised the fall of Babylonia. He would make them drunken, so they may rejoice and sleep a perpetual sleep. Then, God sent in enemies who destroyed the Babylonians.”
Yair was looking over Ba’ana’s shoulder as Ba’ana read aloud, and he took up where Ba’ana left off. “That night, the Medo-Persians conquered them,” read Yair dramatically. “King Belshazzar was killed.”
Yair stopped reading to add his comment: “The Babylonian empire fell into the hands of its enemies while their men were drunk!”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Ariel. Ariel and Ba’ana raised their cups of wine in a toast.
Ido took a drag from his cannabis leaf-cigarette. He inhaled and held the fumes in to get the full effect. While exhaling the smoke, he said, “The Persians will fall in the same way, only they will be drugged instead of drunk.”
“The only one who’s wasted around here – is you!” said Ba’ana, making the others laugh.
They stopped laughing when a messenger arrived. The messenger was a neatly dressed man in his fifties. He projected haughtiness; as though the four Jewish “hippies” were beneath him. The messenger asked, “Which one of you is Ido-ben-Tzivon?”
“I am,” answered Ido as he quickly put out the cigarette.
“Ezra the scribe wants to see you.” The messenger said to Ido.
“Why?” asked Ido.
“Ezra is planning to hire seventy writers to write a book called ‘The Bible’, it is based on the old scriptures.” The messenger explained.
“So what does he want from Ido, to polish the writer’s sandals?” Yair asked jokingly.
“No, Ido will be one of the seventy writers.”
The four men stared at the messenger with disbelief.
“He wants me to write for him?” Ido asked, dreading the thought of working for Ezra, a priest-scribe and leader of the Israelite people.
“Ezra will explain. You are to be at the gates of the city at sundown,” said the messenger. “Tell the guard that you are there to see Ezra the scribe.”
The messenger started to walk away. He then suddenly stopped and turned to face Ido, he said, “I suggest you take the hay out of your hair before you see him.”
Ido self-consciously ran his hands through his hair searching for strands of hay.
Ido waited until the messenger was at a distance. He then said to his friends, “It’s all because of the poem Ezra ordered me to write. The poem I gave him was actually written by Attalia.”
“Did Ezra like Attalia’s poem?” asked Ba’ana.
“Apparently he did,” answered Ido. “Why else would he send for me?”
“So, what are you going to do?” asked Yair. “Have Attalia write ‘the Bible’?”
Ariel and Yair tried to keep straight faces, but they couldn’t. The thought of Ido or his wife writing for Ezra made them laugh uproariously.
“I have to go,” said Ido. “I’ll see you later.” He walked away from his friends and headed home to get ready for his meeting with Ezra.
Ido dressed in his best clothes for his meeting with Ezra. He put on a white shirt and a clean pair of sandals. He tied his long hair back so that it would be neat-appearing. He was not comfortable being dressed up and couldn’t keep from fidgeting and appearing nervous.
The city wall surrounded the second Temple and the living quarters of the Hebrew elite.
Ido arrived promptly at the curved wooden gate of the new city. He walked up to the guard and said, “Shalom, I am Ido-ben-Tzivon. Ezra the scribe sent for me.”
“Wait here. Ezra will come out to meet you.” The guard said in response. He then sent a messenger to let Ezra know that he had a visitor. The gate opened for a moment. Ido saw the messenger running up a hill.
“What a glamorous city.” Ido thought, “This is probably the way Pi- Ramses looked like.”
The guard closed the gate. The elite did not want peasants or Persian thieves sneaking into their city.
Ido waited next to the wall that was colored by golden light as the sun set over Jerusalem.
A while later, the gate reopened and Ido saw Ezra the scribe walking hastily down the hill, holding a scroll. He appeared to have a lot on his mind. Ezra was an elderly man with a gray beard.
Ido introduced himself, and then he and Ezra shook hands.
Ezra pointed to a woman kneeling in front of a carved stone statue. Her hands were clasped together in prayer. Ezra said, “Look at that.”
Both Ido and Ezra looked in the direction of the woman. She was covered with bright scarves. Her hands were rough and her skin was dark from working long hours in the fields. Her glossy black eyes were fixated on the statue.
“Crazy woman, she thinks that statue (of a human with a bird’s head) is her god.” Ezra said as he pointed to two other statues placed next to each other.
“The larger statue is named ‘Baal’, and the one next to it is named ‘Ashra’. Do you know why they were placed side by side?” Ezra asked.
“They are married,” said Ido. “Baal is the ‘husband’ and Ashra is the ‘wife’.”
“That’s right! These two pieces of stone are supposedly married to each other!” said Ezra. “Not only do the Israelites worship them, they sacrifice animals to these stone gods and ask for favors in return.”
“They imitate the neighboring tribes.” said Ido.
“…and hold on to ancient idol worshiping stories,” said Ezra. “Our people are very stubborn. Kohani-Moshe haven’t succeeded in changing their beliefs, but I have found a way to make them understand that only one God exists, a spiritual force that does not need sacrifices, and does not want us to bargain with him. He just wants our true devotion. He wants us to take the highroad in life - the road of the spirit rather than the low road of greed and desires.”
“I don’t understand. What do plan to do?” Ido asked.
“I will change the traditional stories,” replied Ezra, “and replace their idols with one God.”
Ido found Ezra’s remarks ludicrous. No one had everchallenged the beliefs of the idol worshipers among whom he had grown up. Animal sacrifice did appear gruesome, and crying for rain before stone Gods did seem absurd.
But this, to Ido, was something that had gone on from time immemorial, and would never change.
Ezra looked intently into Ido’s eyes and said, “We also need to create a hero for them, someone they can admire. The hero of the Israelites will be King David. You will present his life in a new light.”
“King David?” asked Ido.
“Yes, when he ruled the Israelite people, they were free,” said Ezra. “He believed in one God, and his throne was right here in Yerushalaim. Besides that, he was handsome and a celebrated poet.You are going to turn him into the most famous King who ever lived! Through your words, King David will live forever!”
Ido was taken aback by what Ezra said. He was not ready for that responsibility and he really wanted to be back on a haystack with his buddies, smoking cannabis, rolled in leaves.
“I am honored that you chose me,” said Ido, “but I’m not that talented. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”
Ezra was barely listening to this. His attention was completely occupied with a woman who was burning incense for her stone god.
“You couldn’t disappoint me any more than these people have,” said Ezra. “Artaxerxes allowed us to return to Yerushalaim so that we could develop our culture and rebuild the temple. We must prove that we are worthy of this sacred temple. We want Our Lord to dwell among us. In order to deserve His holy spirit, we need to elevate our spirit. But these peasants’ minds are so corrupt that if we continue on this path, we will descend to a level lower than the beasts.”
Ido looked as though he didn’t understand one word Ezra had said. He wondered how he had gotten into this mess. “Attalia must be a real genius if Ezra chose her to write ‘the Bible’,” he thought to himself. Ido was intent on getting himself out of Ezra’s ridiculous project.
Ido then said enthusiastically to Ezra, “I know just the man for you. Ba’ana is the greatest of writers. He can quote any man in history. I’ll go to the village right now and send him to you.”
“Don’t bother,” said Ezra. “The greatest writer is standing right in front of me. Don’t be so insecure.”
“This isn’t working,” Ido said to himself, as he became increasingly agitated. “If you don’t get out of this now, you can say goodbye to the haystack and you will have to obey their laws. They’ll force you to cut your hair, and you’ll be their writer slave forever.”
“I wasn’t completely honest with you,” Ido said to Ezra.
Ezra looked at Ido, curious to know what kind of secret Ido was keeping.
Ido continued by saying, “my wife Attalia wrote the poem I gave you. She is the talented writer in our family. Since you don’t want a woman rewriting the old scriptures, you better give the story to another scribe.”
Ezra took a look at Ido. (trying to figure out Ido’s motives.)
“You don’t need to try to make up excuses, Ido. An illiterate woman couldn’t possibly have written the poem that I read. Besides, women do not have insight,” said Ezra. “Most writers beg me to hire them, and you want to give up this opportunity to influence your nation?”
“I’m just being honest,” replied Ido.
“Young people have a strange way of thinking,” Ezra thought to himself, “but that is precisely why I need Ido as a writer.”
Ezra remembered overhearing young men discussing shadows. They said that, one day, beauty will be judged by a person’s shadow. Ezra was fascinated by their obscure way of thinking. “The older writers have a calculated, dull style of writing,” Ezra thought, “This rebellious young man is just what I need to create a national hero”.
“What do you have to lose?” Ezra asked Ido. “If you don’t write, you’ll stay exactly where you are. If you complete the story within one year, you will be rewarded. I will give you and your family a new stone house inside the walls.”
Ezra placed a heavy scroll into Ido’s hands and said, “Here are the instructions. Read them carefully.”
Ido expected Ezra to be upset with him and send him away but somehow, unexpectedly, he had won Ezra’s trust. Embracing the scroll, all he could think of saying was, “Thank you.”
“Good luck.” Ezra said as he shook Ido’s hand. He then walked toward the gate of the new city, as Ido descended to the village.
Both Ido and Attalia were naturally beautiful. Attalia had fair skin and long wavy brown hair; Ido was tanned and well-built.They had a baby daughter named Noa.
Attalia was far from illiterate, but she had been forced to teach herself. For years, she had secretly read any scroll she could get her hands on.
Ido and Attalia lived in a humble dwelling which was little more than leaves, branches and reeds covered with layers of bricks made from mud dried in the sun. They lived in the village below the new city.
Attalia did the best she could under the circumstances and took pride in keeping the house clean. The interior of the house contained a few improvised decoration pieces. Scarves hang on the wall, to cover patches of the wall that fell off.
There was an old wooden table and two rectangular wooden stools.
On the day Ido met with Ezra, Attalia had received a visit from her cousin Bosmat. Bosmat, a mother of two was overweight and older than Attalia.
Bosmat tied her hair back and covered it with a head scarf.
The two women sat around the wooden table on the only two chairs in the house. They spent the time knitting, while Baby Noa slept in her crib.
When Ido came home after his meeting with Ezra, the first thing he did was to pull off his white shirt and throw it carelessly onto the bed. He eagerly picked up his scruffy looking shirt and put it on. He walked over to where Attalia was sitting, put his arms around her and kissed her.
“What did Ezra have to say?” Attalia asked him.
“Ezra wants the life of King David written.” Ido said as he placed the heavy scroll on the table in front of Attalia. “If you write the story according to these instructions, we will get a new house inside the walls.”
Attalia gave her husband a look that she is unhappy with his behavior. Once again he was dumping all of his responsibilities on her shoulders. Ido didn’t care. He didn’t want to live in the new city and obey their strict rules. “If she wants the house, she can write the story, I have better things to do”, he thought.
“While you are reading over Ezra’s instructions, I’m going over to see Ba’ana to celeb … uh … I mean tell him about this.” Ido said to his wife. He didn’t want to write for Ezra, but thought that being courted by the elite was a cause for celebration.
Attalia went back to her knitting, while her husband retrieved a package of cannabis he had carefully hidden away. He tucked it into his pocket and left.
“Did you see that?” Attalia said to her cousin, “He wants me to write for him, while he’s out ‘celebrating’ with Ba’ana.”
“Who cares! Did you hear what he said? You’ll get the new house you dreamed about!”
“And I’ll be sharing the house with a loser!” Attalia replied. “I have to do every stinking thing around here and now I’ll be writing the scriptures that only men are allowed to read. Then, when the Temple is completed, they won’t let me attend the services. I hate these men!”
Bosmat smiled at Attalia. She understood. A few years earlier she had gone through a phase when she wanted her talents to be recognized, but she overcame those feelings.
She walked over to Attalia, hugged her and said, “Come on Attalia, it’s not that bad; at least Ido is handsome. Imagine if you had to sleep with my pumpkin-shaped of a husband?”
Attalia laughed at the thought. She sighed, looking at her daughter and said, “Imagine Noa growing up in the new city?”
Bosmat picked up the scroll enthusiastically and handed it to Attalia. “Come on Attalia! Open the scroll. Let’s see what Ezra wants you to write.”
Noa woke up and started to cry. Bosmat walked over to the crib, lifted the baby and held her, so that Attalia could concentrate.
Attalia sat close to the window. Moonlight illumined the scroll she was reading.
Attalia was surprised by what was written in the scroll. The assignment Ezra had given her husband was much more demanding than what she had expected; it would have a great impact on her nation. And it was all in her hands, the hands of a simple woman, to transform the way the leaders of her nation think.
She gathered sheets of papyrus and a writing instrument and then sat down to write the story of King David and his wives.
Seven months later, she signed the manuscript and handed it to Ido. During this time Ido had been giving serious thought to the assignment and its reward. That is why he became displeased with Attalia when he opened the scroll and read the following story.
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