Friday, February 1, 2013

Nehemiah and the walls of Jerusalem

By the flickering light of a small clay lamp Benjamin made his way through the silent palace. During the day time, it was a wondrous display of colour. The floors were beautiful mosaics, and the walls adorned with rich tapestries with brightly painted statues standing in niches between them. Even at night, the palace was bright long after the sun had gone down, as lamps and torches made the palace as bright as day for one of King Artaxerxes many feasts or parties.

But it was too late even for one of those and the shadows cast by Benjamin's little light seemed to reach out at him, rearing up like monsters from behind every beautifully carved pillar. He scolded himself again for making this foolish late-night journey. But he had woken suddenly in the night with the words 'my master's cloak' ringing like a bell in his head and he knew he would not sleep again until he had dealt with this task. Wine had splashed on the fine garment of rare silks and intricate embroidery during the feast earlier that night. Benjamin had meant to clean it once his master had retired for the night. But the banquet had gone on and on, later even that the usual very late hour and in his weariness he had forgotten. Forgotten that is until he had woken in the darkness and remembered his neglect. The longer the stain was left, the harder it would be to get out. By morning the expensive cloak might be ruined. And so Benjamin rose, determined to rectify his mistake.

He did not abandon his bed out of fear of punishment. He knew that Nehemiah would not blame him. He sacrificed his sleep out of love. He still remembered the day that Nehemiah had found him in a back-alley of Susa, the capital city of the Empire. He had been fighting with three others boys. They were bigger, older, and stronger and he was losing, and losing badly, but still he fought on. He was on the ground with the largest on his chest, being pounded unmercifully, when suddenly there was the sound of steel on stone.

All fighting stopped and the eyes of the boys turned towards the sound. There in the ally stood a tall, slim young man, dressed in regal clothes that marked him out as someone rich and important. In his hand was a sword, with a wicked looking curved blade. Idly, he ran its point along the cobble stones again, the metal squealing and sparking.

'I think this fight is over,' he remarked in an amused tone. The three bigger boys took to their heels in a moment. But as Benjamin scrambled to his feet and turned to run also, a strong hand took him by the collar.

'Not so fast, little one,' he said.
'What do you want?' Benjamin said, struggling. He thought of trying to bite the hand, but remembered the sword and thought better of it. He later thought it was one of the better decisions of his life. 
'Just a word,' said the man. 'I'm going to let you go now. Run if you want. But I mean you no harm.' He released Benjamin's collar, and the boy fell back against the wall, hugging himself tightly with his arms. But he did not run. The man smiled. 
'Good. Now, what was the fight about?' 
'Food,' said Benjamin. He pointed to the ground. There lay some rotten looking fruit and a piece of far from fresh bread.' 
'Hardly worth fighting for, I would have thought?' 
'It was all I had!' 

The man stroked his trim beard thoughtfully.
'But there was three of them.' 
'So? ' 
'And you were losing.' 
'You were losing badly!' 
'I can take a punch. He would have gotten tired eventually, and then I would have taken him!' 
'I think when he got tired,' said the man, 'he would have let one of his friends take a turn. By the time they were all tired there wouldn't have been much left of you.' 
He laughed. 

'Still, you're a game one. You have spirit. And am I correct in thinking,' he said peering closely at the boy 'that you are a Jew?' 

'So if I am?' said Benjamin defensively. The man sighed. 
'We need to teach you more words. You can't use 'so' for everything. And you need not take offence at my asking. I am also one of the children of Israel.' Benjamin's jaw dropped. He knew that many Jews had grown rich and powerful since the days, many generations before, when their ancestors had been taken prisoner and brought to this land in chains. But he had never met one like this man, who looked as if he wouldn't look out of place standing by the side of the king himself. 

'Now, boy, answer some questions for me. First, what is your name?' 

'A good name. Next, where is your family.' 
'I have none.' 
'None? But who looks after you?' the man said sharply. 
'I look after myself. I do all right.' 
'Indeed. I noticed how well you were doing earlier. If I hadn't come along I think you would have needed to dig your own grave as well.' The man fell silent, and stood there looking thoughtfully at Benjamin. At last, he spoke again. 
'I am in need of a servant. You are in need of food, shelter, a bath, and a little looking after. Perhaps we could help each other out.' 
'A servant?' said Benjamin in surprise. 'But one such as you could surely buy many slaves. Why would you need a servant.' The man made an impatient gesture with his hand. 
'Too many of the children of Israel were slaves themselves. I have no taste to do the same to others. So which do you prefer – the street or the palace?' 
'The palace?' 
'Yes. I am Nehemiah, cup-bearer at the court of the king.' 
'King Artaxerxes?' 
'Has the empire another king?' 
'Well, no,' admitted Benjamin. 
'Then king Artaxerxes it must be.' 
'And you live in the palace?' 
'Yes. As will you, should you accept my offer.' 

Benjamin thought it over.
'Will I be fed every day?' he asked. Nehemiah raised an eyebrow. 
'Every day! You drive a hard bargain. All right then. I promise to feed you every day.' He held out his hand to Benjamin. Benjamin took it and Nehemiah led him out of the alley to a new life. A life where he discovered that to be fed every day was not thought a luxury; where clean clothes and water to wash in was the norm; where you could lie down to sleep each night in the same place and not worry about the weather, thieves, or worse. 

That had been three years ago. He had grown to love Nehemiah in that time. He was more than a master to him, he was like a father. He expected hard work and loyalty, but what he gave in return was beyond price. The child from the ally discovered that the young courtier was more than fine clothes and an easy smile. Behind the smiling face of a courtier was a sharp mind, wise in the ways of the empire. To be a cup-bearer at the court of the king did not mean he waited at table; it meant he was one of the king's trusted men, trusted enough that he would be allowed to hand a golden goblet to the king; a task entrusted to few in a world where so many kings died by poison in their food or drink.

The king trusted also Nehemiah to help him rule his empire. And Nehemiah trusted Benjamin to help him keep up the appearances necessary for one who served at the court of the king. And so Benjamin helped keep his clothes neat and clean, his shoes and sword highly polished, his hair and beard trim and elegantly styled, and his quarters in the palace clean and tidy.

But he did not do this alone. He discovered that Nehemiah had other servants, many of them children that he had saved from the streets like Benjamin. Enough that he also hired a tutor to look after their education. When fellow courtiers asked him why he did this, he shrugged and said:

'A smart servant makes his master look smart. And a stupid servant …' and he would look at their dull-witted slaves, smiling ' … well, need I say more?'

Those children who were Jewish he made sure they were instructed in the faith.

'One day we may all return home,' he would say. 'We would not want those who are still in Jerusalem to think we had forgotten who we are. We may live in the palace now; but where ever we are, we are always the children of Israel.'

And so Benjamin was willing to give up his sleep out of love and loyalty to the man who treated him so well. But the moment he entered his master's quarters all thoughts of clothes and wine-stains were banished by what he heard. From the darkened sleeping chamber, where he had thought to hear nothing more than deep breathing, or perhaps even a few snores, came the sound of weeping.

Benjamin froze. Who could be crying in his master's chamber? Then he realised it was his master himself. Forgetting himself, forgetting that it was dark and late and that he wasn't supposed to be there and that he certainly wasn't supposed to enter his master's chamber in the middle of the night, he flung open the door to Nehemiah's bedroom and exclaimed breathlessly:

'Master, master, what is wrong?'
The weeping stopped. For some moments there was silence. Then: 
'Benjamin? Is that you? What are you doing here?' 
'Forgive me master. I forgot a small task. I heard you weeping. What's wrong master? Is it something terrible?' 

Benjamin's little lamp did not pierce the darkness of the vast room. He could not see his master. He stood in a small circle of light surrounded by darkness. After his question there was a long silence. Then Nehemiah answered: 
'Yes, Benjamin. Something terrible indeed.' 
'What master?' 

Nehemiah did not answer at once. Standing in the doorway with his flickering lamp, Benjamin began to tremble. Perhaps his master had lost favour with the king. Perhaps he was to be executed: he had heard of such things happening. He did not worry for himself, that it would mean the loss of his own ease and comfort. He had lived on the streets before; he could do so again. But the thought that Nehemiah might be in danger brought a coldness within his heart.

His master gave a deep sigh.
'Bring that lamp closer, Benjamin.' The boy obeyed. Nearing the bed, he saw his master's tear-drenched face. In his hand he held another small lamp out towards Benjamin. He lit it and placed it on the table next to him. He gestured to the table. 

'Your hand trembles. Put your lamp down before you drop it. The last thing we need is a fire.' He smiled and Benjamin put his down next to the other one.
'Bring me my robe.' Benjamin did so. Nehemiah wrapped it around him and walked over to the window and stepped out on to the balcony. Benjamin followed him out into the starry night. For a long time they stood quietly staring at the twinkling lights. It was the boy who broke the silence. 

'What is it master? Is it the king? Have you displeased him?'
'No, child.' Nehemiah sighed. 'I would rather that was what it was. Not that I would ever wish to do anything to offend the king or cause him any pain. But I would rather face his wrath, be cast into prison, face exile or even die on his gallows, than have had this happen.' 
'But what has happened?' Benjamin couldn't even begin to imagine what was wrong. Was there a plot to kill the king? Did some vast army of barbarians march on the army to destroy it?  Was some terrible plague sweeping in from the East, killing all it touched? 

'The walls of Jerusalem have been burned.' Benjamin said nothing. He didn't understand. The walls of cities were always being burned. Walls were what made a city strong. A strong city was the last thing an enemy wanted. So when a war came, the victor would always do their best to destroy the city walls. His master was cup-bearer to the king; he knew this. Why did he weep for Jerusalem?

As if reading his thoughts, Nehemiah spoke
'Jerusalem is not just any city. It is our holy city. The holy city of God's chosen people. When Jerusalem is strong, it shows that we have pleased God, that we have done his will. And when her walls lie in ruins it means that we have failed; that we are stubborn, rebellious children who will not do what their father wants.' 
'And is that why you weep?' 
'Yes. We are Jews and we have failed God. That the walls have been burned prove this.' 
'Can we not rebuild the walls? You are rich; the Jews of the empire are rich. Could not money be sent to make the walls strong again?' 
'It could, but money would not be enough. If the people are not faithful to God then the walls will simply fall again. The people's hearts must first return to God.' 
'And can not that be done master?' 

Nehemiah smiled. 
'You are a good boy, but how would that be done? The people would need a leader – a great leader. The people are scattered, enemies surround them, the walls of Jerusalem are in ruins. Where would a leader come from? One with the money to build the walls, the strength to fight off the enemies that circle our Holy City, the authority to order such a thing to be done. It would take king Artaxerxes himself to do such a thing – and he is not a Jew.' 
'But one at his court is.' 

There was a long silence after this. Benjamin could hardly believe he has suggested such a thing to his master. Would Nehemiah be angry for saying such insane things to him? But then in the starlight he saw his master's face. And he was smiling. 

'You are right,' he said. 'It is as it says in scripture – 'and a little child shall lead them.' That day when I found you in the ally, I thought it was I saving you. But now I know it was you saving me – saving me, our holy city, and all God's people.' 

'And will the king send you?' 
'Oh yes. I sit at his table. I am the bearer of his cup. I am the man he trusts most in all the empire. If I were to ask to go Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, he would send me.' 
'So when will you ask him?' said Benjamin, excitedly. 'Tomorrow?' 

Nehemiah laughed.
'Steady, boy. These things must not be rushed. The time must be right. The moment will come when I sit at table with the king when he asks me if there is any favour I want. And I will have my answer ready. And having asked, he will not refuse me.' 
'When will that moment be?' said Benjamin impatiently. 
'Who knows. Weeks? Months? But it will come, if God wishes it to. And if God wishes it, then we can not fail. But do not worry – how could God not wish to see his people faithful to him once more, living in the city that is holy to him. And while we wait for that moment, there is much to do.' 
'What? Buy horses? Weapons? Tools?' Again Nehemiah laughed. 
'No. Those will come when the king has agreed to send me. And then he will pay for them out of the royal treasury.' 
'So what do we do now?' 
'We fast and pray … we ask God to guide us as to his will on this … and for the strength and the courage to obey him.' Nehemiah, cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes, fell to his knees on the balcony before the railing, and facing the city over which the sun was only now beginning to dawn, began to pray. Slowly, silently Benjamin joined him. 

Years later, Benjamin, cup-bearer to Nehemiah, governor of Judah, sitting at table at the governor's court in Jerusalem, thought back to that night in the palace; the night when Nehemiah mourned and wept for the destruction of the walls of Jerusalem. And he thanked God for the wine stain on an expensive cloak that had taken a small boy from his bed in the dead of night; he thanked God for the faithfulness of a courtier living in the midst of wealth and luxury to do the will of God; and he thanked God for the guidance and strength he had given them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls of God's holy city.

 ©  Fr Levi 2013 (all rights reserved)

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