A Sower Went Forth To Sow - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

A Sower Went Forth To Sow - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

A Sower Went Forth To Sow

Let us imagine two of the Wise-men meeting in the streets of Jerusalem and conversing. That is easier proposed than effected: bold words, to be followed by small performances. For the outlines of ancient Jerusalem are none too clear, and again in what tongue shall our Wise-men converse? In ancient Hebrew or in modern English? Modern English from their lips will seem incongruous, and Hebrew is not so widely known as it deserves. Before we can make so much as a beginning we are compelled to compromise: let them talk in Hebraic English. But the difficulties need not discourage us overmuch, for in this case even a half-done task will be worth the doing, and there are some circumstances in our favour.

The topography of old Jerusalem may be uncertain, but our knowledge of the influences, events and tendencies of the period in question is considerable. Therefore although the conversation between the Wise-men must be imaginary, it need not be fancy-free. We can make them say such things as can be inferred from the historical situation, and the talk can be so directed as to help our immediate purpose, discovering what were the dominant fears and ambitions of the Wise. Moreover, however imperfectly this aim be realised, the picture can hardly fail to help us across the gulf which divides the abstract or general conception from the concrete or particular embodiment, a matter of vital importance for the comprehension of these Jewish proverbs. It is not sufficient to imagine the Wise as a class.

Doubtless most Wise-men conformed to a type, and they were a class in the community in that they shared a general attitude towards life; but this bond of union was loose enough to leave room for great variety of interest, beliefs, and moral qualities. And just this diversity within the unity is the point on which stress should be laid; for it explains the individualism of the Jewish proverbs, and is the secret of their broad humanity.

It is the month of June in the year 203 B.C. Ptolemy Philopator, the ruler of Egypt, has died the previous year, and is succeeded on the throne by Ptolemy Epiphanes, a child of four years old. The situation points to the renewal of warfare between the great Empires. Embarrassed by the weakness of its young king, Egypt is in obvious danger from the restless ambition both of Philip of Macedonia and of Antiochus III of Syria. But although the East is uneasy, the storm has not yet broken. Palestine is still controlled by the Egyptians, and a garrison of Ptolemy’s soldiers lives at ease in the citadel of Jerusalem.

Zion is at peace; her harvests of barley and wheat have been gathered in; the first-ripe figs have fallen and already are on sale in the markets, and there is prospect of a plentiful later crop. Imagine that we are watching the city, as the day is about to break. The last hour of the night is ending. Low down in the Eastern sky a faint tinge of blue appears, with shades of purple and pink above it, fading upwards into the dark of the night sky overhead. Soon the horizon flushes into red, changing swiftly to deep yellow as the first rays of the sun rise over the hills.

The guard of the Levites on duty at the Temple stands watching for the dawn, and as soon as the sunlight touches Hebron, just visible to the south, they raise a shout, heralding the day and summoning the people to hasten to the celebration of the morning sacrifice. From the citadel the trumpets of the soldiers take up the sound and call the garrison from sleep. Soon the whole city is astir. Day has begun, and its hours are precious before the sun grows hot beyond endurance. The gates open, and first the cattle-dealers and money-changers begin to pass along the narrow lanes, hurrying ahead of the people to the Temple-court. Shopmen appear and busy themselves preparing their booths in the bazaars.

From his house in one of the narrow streets a dignified man of rather more than middle age, Judah ben Zechariah, comes out and, turning in the direction of the Temple mingles, with the stream of worshippers who purpose to be present at the offering of the sacrifice. Let us keep him in sight. When the ceremony at the temple is ended, he makes his way without haste through the tangle of streets towards the Northern wall and the Fish gate. There in the open space near the gate, just inside the city, he stops, and stands watching the passers by. A company of Tyrians, pagans all of them, files in through the gate, bringing fish for Jerusalem from the Phoenician markets.

They are followed by a long caravan of forty or fifty mules laden with wheat from the north, and their drivers, like the Tyrians, are also pagan. Judah is Hebrew of the Hebrews, and the sight does not please him. After a while as he stands there a friend approaches and gives him greeting—Joseph ben Abijah, one who, like Judah, had reputation as a Wise-man. “Peace be to thee, Judah.” “And may Jehovah bless thee, my brother,” answered Judah, “and may He increase thee to a multitude; for truly there be few this day in Israel such as thou, who keepest faith before God and before men. Behold now this long time stand I here, Joseph, to see them that pass by, and I swear unto thee that for one man of Israel there be nine from the ends of the earth, worshippers of strange gods.

Men call this city Zion; but where are Zion’s children? From end to end the streets are full of these Gentiles. Moreover, look yonder!” (a company of the garrison came swinging down to change guard at the Gate)—“these soldiers of Ptolemy! Mark well their heathen insolence, their pride and their contempt for us. Are we not the bondservants of Egypt, even as our fathers were? I tell thee, Joseph, it is not well with Israel.”

“Nay! thou art over-anxious, Judah. The land is at peace. The harvests are good, trade prospers and extends; we and our wives and our children dwell in safety. None hinders us in our worship. Why then take so sore to heart these Gentiles? They are the slaves, who in their folly worship dumb and senseless images. Is not Israel free in her God? Moreover—a word in thine ear—how thinkest thou, Judah? Will Ptolemy much longer lord it over us in Zion? Or are his times come near to an end?”

“Hush! see that none hear thee. I also think his day is at an end. But for what then shall we look? For the dreams of the prophets? For the Day of the Lord? Ah, would that the Lord might rend the heavens and come down, but I, for one, do not look for these things to come to pass at this time, Joseph. And except the Lord deliver us wherein shall we hope? Nay, Zion, is still far from salvation. We shall change the bondage of Egypt for the yoke of Syria, and her little finger will be thicker than the loins of Egypt. Antiochus is ten times more Greek than Ptolemy. Verily, the whole world becometh Greek. Traders and talkers, how they throng in our streets and multiply in our midst! And whether they be rich and noble or poor and the servant of servants, behold how they despise us and make mock of us, the people of the one true God! And how with their vainglory and their wicked wisdom—for, as the Lord liveth, ’tis not the wisdom of God—they do bewitch fools and entice them away.

Thou sayest, ‘Israel is free in its God’; but I say ‘How long shall God find faith in Israel?’ If then Ptolemy be cast down and Antiochus be lifted up over us, wherein is our advantage? How wilt thou save this people from following wholly after the thoughts and customs of the Greeks? Again, thou speakest of peace and good harvests, but how long shall peace and prosperity be permitted us? If that whereof we speak should come to pass, it shall not be without war and desolation. Who knows but that Jerusalem shall soon be a besieged and captured city? As for the Day of the Lord, the prophet hath said ‘The Lord will hasten it in His time’ and his word is good; but alas! I fear that ours is better: Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.”

Said his friend, “I also—thou knowest it, Judah—am not of the dreamers, and know well that they who in our days see visions are prophets in name and not in truth. And the true prophets did not live for ever. Nevertheless their word liveth; and have not we that are Wise learnt from them that fear of Jehovah which is to turn from evil and do good, so that in measure their mantle is fallen upon us and we are become their successors, and according to their commandments so we teach? Yea, I say that their word hath overtaken this people, not for evil but for good; since of all the Jews who is there that doth not from the heart know that the Lord our God is one God, and that the gods of the heathen are nought and their images wood and stone? Wherefore, Judah, I fear not the Greeks so much as thou.

For if a Jew from among us go forth unto them and learn their skill and follow their fashions, yet he will not reverence their gods. Moreover, remember, Judah, those that fight for us in the strife. If God hath not raised up a prophet in Israel these many years, are not the Priests and Levites become a strong tower of defence? In all their interpretation of the Law of Moses, they do well: for they seek to establish justice and mercy between a man and his brethren, and to confirm the fear of Jehovah’s Name. It is written, The Law of the Lord is perfect, making clean the heart; and these men love its statutes wholly. Thou dost not think that they will become Greeks?”

“Not all of them, Joseph; yet of the great priests many are evil. They live for place and power, not for the pure service of their God, and if the day come when it shall profit them these would surpass the Greeks in the fashions of the Greeks. But concerning the Levites and the Scribes thou sayest right; for they truly have set their hearts upon their work: albeit zeal for the Law will not save Israel. If only the ritual be observed and the services in the Temple maintained, if the feasts be duly kept, they deem all things are well. They would have all men more Levite than themselves. But what answer is that to the young who crave for fortune, favour, and fulness of pleasures like the unbridled heathen?

Some it may satisfy, but thou knowest that more turn empty away; and all of them understand that the Greeks will feed their desires full. Come now: tell me, I pray thee: this very year how many are gone hence to seek fortune in the markets of Ptolemais? How many to the court of Antiochus, aye! from the noblest of our families? How many to be made captains in his armies and in Ptolemy’s? Perchance it is well for thee, Joseph, whose son is a scribe well spoken of and one day will be counted a Wise-man and a fearer of God even as thou, his father, art: but my son, my son, is in Alexandria, though I besought him with tears that he would not go.”

“Judah, I verily knew that it was for this cause thine heart was sad. Nevertheless I would comfort thee, my friend. Hear now my words. They are not all lost to Zion that are gone forth from Zion’s gates. Thou knowest there is no evil in thy son. Take heart. Are not the families of our people there in Egypt many and prosperous? Thy son will be a loyal Jew in Egypt, not forsaking his father’s faith. I am persuaded he will send his tribute to the Temple when the time comes round. Aye! and thine eye shall see him again ere long returning to keep the feast at Jerusalem and to make glad thine heart. My brother, hear thou the thought which the Lord hath given me concerning this thing. It is written that all flesh shall come to worship before the Lord in His holy hill; but how shall this thing come to pass?

They chant in the Temple of His outstretched arm and His mighty acts. What if the stretching out of His arm is in the going forth of these His children unto the ends of the earth; seest thou not how that already praise is offered to His Name in many lands, and His glory is exalted among the heathen? In the Temple they sigh for the day when all peoples shall come crouching to Zion; but what if thy son, and others even as he, have gone to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His paths, and in Alexandria, Babylon, and Antioch are beginning the victory of our God, a victory which shall be (as saith Zechariah) ‘not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ saith the Lord? So shall thy son’s going be turned to God’s glory, and perchance it hath happened in accordance with His will. Saith not Isaiah that His ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts as our thoughts? And when thou sayest of the priests and scribes that all their care is for the Law and the Temple, and that they know not how to speak unto the heart of these young men, in truth thy reproach is just. But herein is our work. We have the answer for this need in Israel.

Have we not counsel for success in life with allegiance to our God; so that our words are from the Lord, though we praise not the Law daily neither make mention of the prophet’s hopes? If then we be found faithful and our task well done, none in Israel shall reckon that Wisdom is of the Greeks only, but rather that their Wisdom is found folly in the latter end. Honour, long life, and riches are in our words and they that hearken unto us shall find them and yet shall not depart from justice nor hate mercy. He that heareth our words and learneth our Wisdom shall even dwell with the Greeks and be wiser than they, being delivered from the snares of their iniquities and the vanity of their faiths.

So shall it be with thy son, my brother. He will not forget thy instruction. And like him there shall be many who, though they go forth from Jerusalem, will yet give diligent heed unto our precepts, and with them shall go Wisdom to be a guide unto their feet that they shall not stumble. Yea, even of those that in Zion seem to heed us not, some perchance shall remember in a distant land, and so be saved from falling. But, come, thou knowest this even as I, though sorrow for a moment had hidden it from thine eyes. With the blessing of God we do not labour in vain.”

“Friend, thou comfortest well; and in my soul I know that these thy words are true, and that our work is of God, and that our children’s children shall see the reward of all our labours. But as for this generation many there be that scorn and few that hear.”

“Be our zeal the greater then!” responded Joseph, “What saith the prophet?—Precept on precept, line upon line; and for us therefore ‘Proverb on proverb,’”

The older man smiled at him gently, pleased by the words and spirit of his friend: “Thou art a true friend and wise counsellor, ben Abijah. And now let us leave this place, and, if it seem good to thee, let us pass through the streets and take note of them that buy and sell; for the heat is not yet upon us and the markets are full this day. Comest thou with me?”

“I come gladly. Thou shalt see—we shall find one here, one there, that hath need of our wisdom; and perhaps to-day we shall even catch the ear of the multitude, and many will give heed both to hear and to receive our teaching.

Excerpt From Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs By W. A. L. (William Alexander Leslie) Elmslie