Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Whatcha Got in the Bag, Joe?
After their escape from Egypt, the priesthood of the wandering, theocratic confederation of tribes collectively known as the Hebrews or the Jews decided to build a cedarwood box.
Building such a container is not that big a deal, but this one had a gold lid, and the best Hebrew artisans were contracted to fabricate two golden angels to sit facing each other on top of the vessel. The priests put out that the box contained the stone tablets God had handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. The singular provenance of this petroglyphic code of behavior, sent direct from God's finger to the Jews' eyes, as it were, was the primary instrument of social coercion the priesthood used to control the behavior of their subject population, and anchored their authority. The rabbis carried the Ark of the Covenant with them as the tribes wandered, and it was later placed in the center of the temple at Jerusalem.
The religion of the Hebrews was singular in the ancient world in that it was a monotheism, but otherwise it was like all the rest: a theocratic priestly class ruled through intimidation, and were able to do so because they convinced those under them that their authority proceeded from the deity himself. You can't argue with God, or the gods in the cases of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus River civilizations which were similarly construed.
Of course, nobody but the highest among the priests knew what was actually in the box, and no one but them was allowed to look. For all we know, it may have been empty. But the aura of fear of The Lord which surrounded the Ark would be fatal to any lay person who got too close.
"Don't go any closer, Schlomo; you'll catch fire."
The Ark of the Covenant eventually disappeared, both from the world of tangible, verifiable objects and from Old Testament scripture. Following the Babylonian King Nebudchadnezzar's destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE, the Ark was never mentioned by Jewish historians again. Speculation as to its fate is endless. I've wondered if the Jews themselves destroyed it, rather than see it fall into Nebudchadnezzar's hands.
As I idly watched a documentary about the Ark last night on the Learning Channel or Discovery or one of those veshches, I was for some reason reminded of Joe McCarthy's briefcase. In 1950, the new, junior senator from Wisconsin made a speech in Huntington, West Virginia which gained him national attention, when he held up a briefcase and thundered, "This case contains the names of 149 communists who are at this very moment in the employ of the U.S. State Department."
The exact number of "communists" has been forgotten and is disputed (I just pulled 149 out of the hat), and there is no record of any reporters present asking to actually have a look inside the briefcase, which was destined to become the Ark of the Covenant of anti-communism. I suspect it contained nothing more than a bottle of supermarket gin.
You know, the human race could save itself a lot of problems by asking simple questions, and making simple, reasonable requests.
"Whatcha got in the bag, Joe?"
"Could I have a look inside that box, Rabbi?"