The Word of the King
The Lost Scroll of Ashmonai
Demand the faith of word and deed only of one who is not joined to the divine ocean like a stream.
—Rumi, the Masnavi, Book V
I: The King and His Kingdom
The king spoke.
In haste his generals scattered to act on his orders, leaving him in his chambers to weigh his thoughts alone.
His rule had lasted no more than one night and already the House of Ashmonai was rotting from within, falling prey to the disease and decay of the Pharisees. Like the plague that they were, their stench filled his lungs with hate, and his revulsion at their presence in his court was enough to keep him from his morning meal.
He knew not the words to rid his palace of their filth.
He knew only the means and strategems of war.
And so it was in the first year of his reign that the king Jannaeus scoured the land for every man and boy whose hands a sword could hold and under the thickest cover of night did he set his fledgling army on a desert course with no moon or star to guide his way save for the fires of his own making.
He marched his troops from the City of David and over the shifting sands until the armies of Ptolemy the Grasspea stood camped across the dunes in number and force that far exceeded his own. There the two kings convened between encampments to decide their soldiers’ fate. The Grasspea, though stronger, was yet relieved when the king Jannaeus turned to him in his rugged Aramaic tongue and said,
I seek not war. I have no wish to prolong the mindless feuds of my father. Although my presence may be hostile in appearance, the gathering of Judean troops at your border is easily explained, for the City is a dangerous place for a King. I have many uncles and brothers who would gladly poison my dinner or slit my throat if ever they had the chance and those chances are many. A strong Kingdom needs strong allies, for only then will my enemies know that to rid Judea of Jannaeus would be also to destroy it.
The king continued his speech at length, and when he had finished he offered that in one month’s time, his ally should attend the New Year’s feasts in Jerusalem.
The Grasspea looked to his generals and said with a welcoming smile,
No blood will be spilt on these sands.
Once the two kings had parted and were well on their way to the camps, an eager general leaned into the ear of Jannaeus and addressed him by his childhood name. Yannai, he said, This alliance will make you powerful.
It was then that Jannaeus turned to him and said, Alliance?
The King then gazed off into the distance. Prepare the men for war.
It was not even two days before the Grasspea’s scouts informed him of this betrayal. In righteous fury he turned his armies to meet the Judaean soldiers, who still marched forward not yet knowing the certainty of their deaths. By numbers alone Ptolemy crushed and trampled the traitorous armies of Jannaeus, letting no man retreat, and many were the Judean soldiers who rushed ahead in the vanguard only to meet their fate at the edge of a foreign blade. In their final moments, they lurched to the ground with their cheek pressed against the sand and their eyes still open in horror.
Of the twenty thousand dead whose corpses still resembled the humans they once were, the Grasspea ordered that they be gathered and cleaved, limb from limb, and boiled in a broth and eaten so that all the kings of the world would know the terrible cost of betraying Ptolemy the Grasspea. He would crush Judea. He would erase their history. He would watch the blood of Ashmonai congealing in the sand.
Patiently, the king Jannaeus waited.
The Grasspea could not foresee his role as victim in an unthinkable calculus. And once his troops encroached too deep into Judean soil, they collided with his mother’s armies in surprise—Cleopatra, far from Egypt, unhappy with the sudden aggression of her exiled son. With ease, her legions decimated his troops and sent the surviving soldiers scampering across the desert, left to die the slow death of hunger and thirst, or at best to find the good fortune of murder at the hands of roaming Bedouins.
Enraged by his own retreat, Ptolemy had all his generals hung, wondering how his mother amassed her troops with such rapidity, so deep within Judean borders. His anger approached nausea as he realized that she must have known he would be there.
Jannaeus had not lied when he spoke of strong allies, only the allies he sought were of a kind much stronger than the Grasspea.
When a month had passed, the king Jannaeus returned to the City of David and to his royal palace for the feasts of the New Year, his parade impeded by throngs of men and women and children who had come to greet him at the gates, playing music and offering flowers and handing him cups of overflowing wine. Once in the royal palace he sat ahead the table in his banquet hall, and the victory was celebrated with feasts and drink and merry vigor the likes of which not even the oldest among them could remember. And yet, when the king Jannaeus motioned for silence and raised his glass, the fervor and chaos of the bacchanal died down to a respectful reverie. The king surveyed the jubilant faces each staring at him in silence, and with satisfaction he noted that his queen’s snake of a brother, Shimon ben Shetach, for all his supposed power and influence, had decided not to attend. Indeed not a single Pharisee was there.
This wine is for our old friend the Grasspea, he proclaimed. We all know how the poor man wished to be here.
With that, he tipped his drink to his lips until wine driveled through his beard and when he slammed down the empty cup, the palace once again erupted in fever and bedlam and uproar.
His kingdom was secure.
II: The Sage and His Law
In the coastal hills of Ashkelon, a mule plodded along a dirt road, pulling an old unsteady cart whose wheels creaked and ached with every step. In it sat two sullen men who exchanged neither words nor glances. The first was a man widely known to be of great influence and wisdom, Shimon ben Shetach, and the man beside him was Yonatan ben Shimon, his son. Of their appearance, nothing remarkable could be said, yet a crowd of people followed them all the same, intent on bearing witness to the events that would soon befall the pair. Together, cart and crowd, they travelled along the path, rolling humbly towards the House of Worship, where stood a freshly erected gallows.
When the two had nearly arrived at their destination, Shimon ben Shetach broke the long held silence to ask his son a question of hopeless simplicity.
Are you guilty of this crime?
No, Yonatan said.
Ben Shetach nodded, as though this was an ordinary fact that had been inquired out of trivial curiosity. He continued as before, riding up to the steps of the courthouse, exiting cautiously from the wagon cart, and guiding his son up to the gallows. As ben Shetach met the hangman, he provided him with Yonatan as if party to some marketplace trade, in which the old sage was surely the poorer. He then took his seat facing the crowd, and observed as the hangman tied together the hands of the miserable prisoner and brought him to the board on which he would stand and pulled the noose around his neck and tightened it to ensure no risk of accident. The crowd was full of whispers as the hangman returned to his post, placing his hands on the lever which would soon end the life of the young man. Shimon ben Shetach remained still.
But before the hangman could make an irreversible mistake, two figures emerged from the crowd and laid themselves at the feet of the sage—the same two witnesses who had condemned poor Yonatan to his death just the night before. But on this day, in the light of the Judean sun, their eyes filled with tears and they pleaded,
Honorable Shimon ben Shetach, we beg you not to do this! We cannot bear the weight of our own actions. Your son is innocent!
The crowd bristled with mumbled jeers as the two men continued,
He never lifted a hand against our daughters. He never dishonored them in any way! Rather, when we brought our charges against your son we wanted nothing but to revenge ourselves against you for the judgments you passed on our families in the spring. We wanted to expose you, to prove you unjust in the favor and pardon of your own child. But instead you have proven yourself wise and just beyond your reputation. Beyond any possible measure! Choose for us whatever punishment is fitting, so long as you do not let your son’s death rest on our shoulders!
Speedily the hangman began to untie the hands of Yonatan, and the crowd seemed to draw back from the steps as though making room to welcome his return into their midst. Many in the crowd began to smile and cheer knowing they would not see an innocent man put to death. Then it was that the sage Shimon ben Shetach stood from his chair and spoke out in a blunt and commanding tone, No.
He ignored both the crowd and the two men lying at his feet, addressing himself instead to the hangman, and spoke with a cold distance in his voice.
Once a witness has made testimony against the accused, it is permanent and cannot be retracted. A witness who withdraws a statement is not to be believed, so that none can profit from the sale of their oaths after a legal trial has been held. To change this law is not within my power.
Nonsense, the witnesses cried desperately. How could it not be within your power? You are the Nasi of the Sanhedrin! Only The King is more powerful!
No, repeated Shimon ben Shetach. Of all the beings in this world there is but One who can be called powerful. The rest hold influence solely inasmuch as He allows. In this case as in any other, I have no license and no authority with which to challenge His decrees, despite any titles I may possess. So is the Law written.
Having thus spoken, Shimon ben Shetach again took his seat and awaited the inevitable. The crowd, the witnesses, even the hangman stood motionless in awe of the sage’s severe wisdom, unable to fathom the depths of his justice, and they remained so until Yonatan finally cried out to them,
If you desire that the welfare of Israel shall be strengthened by thy hand, then consider me a beam on which you may tread without remorse!
The hangman considered this an adequate ratification and pulled the lever.
Yonatan dropped and writhed and swung back and forth on the rope, and the crowd was surprised by the swiftness. Many chose to look away from the sight of the dying young man. But Shimon ben Shetach was not one of those many. He eyed his son with fatherly pride and regretted only that Yonatan had not yet completed his studies of the Ketuvim. This incomplete schooling was only natural, however, as the boy had been but fifteen years old.
In their histories the Israelites recalled an old king whose name meant Beloved and who governed by the Right and Grace of God. It was often that this king would welcome patrons with his childhood lyre in hand, sharing the songs and rhythms of his youth that he had always loved but never truly understood. But on one journey’s eve he played a tune for a Hittite general, and after was unguarded upon seeing the soldier’s wife. Too late, he clutched his hand to his chest and fell into longful delirium. In a single glance his heart was lost, and with it all the trust he’d ever known from god or country.
It was not long before the lustful king had the soldier killed and took his wife for his own.
III: The Assertion and the Trial
On a warm summer night in the second decade of his rule, the king Jannaeus sat on his massive throne, gritting his teeth while his vast palace hall swayed in the torchlight. He gazed across the far end of the passage, where a single man in somber dress approached, advancing by row after row of pillars that seemed, to his eyes, two hundred cubits long. As the man walked, his heels pressed against the tiles of the floor, exquisite mosaics that stretched everywhere he looked, and when at last his legs had carried him to the feet of the king, he looked an insignificant wretch, utterly dwarfed by the immense figure of gold and regal majesty.
This was how Jannaeus wanted him to feel.
The king looked down from his seat at the mere shadow below him and called him by his Hellenic name.
You wanted to speak with me, Simeon, after all this time?
Shimon ben Shetach scowled.
You would do well to address me proper, Yannai.
Jannaeus leaned forward in his throne, And you would do well to remember that this entire discussion is made possible only by the privilege of your sister’s marriage to myself, a marriage which you claim as an abomination. Does that not also render your presence here such an abomination?
Yannai, ben Shetach said, must we exchange blows before discussing the matter at hand?
Blows? The king laughed. So then, discuss.
The king waved his hand, and ben Shetach proceeded.
I came here to advise you. You know well that the people object to your marriage to my sister, and even more do they object to your doubled title of King and High Priest.
You speak on behalf of the people, Simeon? The King interjected.
I speak only to act as your aide. There have been rumblings. Rumors. You must—you absolutely must allow the Water Libation.
And why is that, my brother? You are the scholar. You know that nowhere is it commanded in the Law of Moses.
It is important to the people, ben Shetach said. They consider the ritual communion both necessary and holy. Thereby Justice demands it. The Law demands it.
Jannaeus paused, then continued, And I had believed the Pharisees sought to defend knowledge from ignorance, but here you accommodate it. Besides, is it truly so important to the people, Simeon? Or important to the Pharisees?
The two are one and the same.
The king laughed again, Yes I am certain, but which people? I cannot help but ponder your many visits with foreign emissaries.
The king continued, And in any case, for what earthly reason should I grant you this concession?
Why, said Shetach, for Reason itself. You have no grounds on which to deny the people this one gesture. You have a thousand other worries with which to occupy yourself. The people have never wanted a Sadducite king. And their support has waned in the years since your great victory over Ptolemy. They hold their tongue as you hand down decrees of which they do not approve, as you stamp your name on their coins, as your court is slowly consumed each day by Rome. They grow poor and hungry while you advance your armies to all known corners of the map and ignore your daily duties as the so-called High Priest. And now comes the Feast of Succoth, and this year of all years you would dare deny them this one trivial compromise? Just because it is not commanded in the Law of Moses? Yannai, it is only asked that you pour water into a basin. If you do not, it could be the final straw. It could lead to open revolt.
You threaten me, Simeon?
No. I am your brother. I merely offer advice.
So you say. Your advice shall be weighed, and you will receive your answer at the Festival itself.
The Feast of Succoth was opulent, the temple square filled with subjects from every province of the kingdom, from the Negev to Caesarea to Ituraea. They numbered in the tens of thousands, and the multitudes who could find no place in the grand courtyard spilled over into the streets and intersections of the City, blocking all the travel and commerce of Jerusalem. In the temple square itself, any movement was impossible, for every pilgrim who could contrive to wedge their way inside did so, and many still who could not then chose to climb the ancient walls. All were present to offer their sacrifices at the altar of the holy temple and perform the seasonal rites of devotion for the higher being under whom they served. In one hand each held the myrtle, the willow, the date palm frond—in the other was held the citron. And above them all, in the forefront of the square, surrounded by his Syrian guards, stood the high priest, the king, Jannaeus.
The pilgrims watched and gaped in angst as he stepped forward, two golden cups in his hands, one each for the bronze basins at his right and at his left. Two libations. Wine and water. Blood and rain. Health and harvest.
Jannaeus raised the first cup and paused to watch the people hold their breath, and a thousand eyes widened as he turned his wrist, the glistening red juice flowing into the basin to the sound of sigh and murmur. It was a muffled ecstasy, for the second cup had not yet been offered. Wine. Then water. And so Jannaeus raised the other cup high above the basin and paused again, this time longer, holding in the balance of his fingers the wild emotions of whole villages and towns, as if in his hands were not a cup of water, but the seasonal rains themselves, the torrent and the downpour and the forthcoming harvest, the grains and the tilling and the cultivation of the land, the lives of a nation and a people. He tipped the cup, pouring out a stream of the crystal liquid, and those thousand eyes—the selfsame thousand who had journeyed for days through the deserts and the fields, by wagon, by horseback, by foot, who had risked life and property to pay their tribute and their offering—watched as The King let the water fall past its basin to spill instead over his own feet. He smiled.
When the cup was empty and overturned, the king dropped it to the slab stone floor, and the jangle of gold against rock echoed in the silence of the Temple courtyard.
For but an instant, nothing followed. All remained still.
Then, from the rabble below, one yellow citron flew up from the crowd, careened past the king, and struck the wall behind him. Another citron then followed behind it. And then another. And another and another until soon the air was filled with the flying fruits, soaring with the shouts and cries of the now rioting masses.
Death to Yannai, they chanted. Death to all kings!
These cries of pain were lost on Jannaeus.
He sneered. Amidst the hail and flurry of the citrons, he walked patiently to his seat, preparing his mind for what was to come.
He looked to his Syrian guards and signaled them with a wave of his hand and then once again took a seat on his throne. Expressionless, the soldiers pulled arrows from their quivers and drew their bows taut.
On the king’s word, they fired.
In his dreams Jannaeus remembered an old king whose name meant Father of Peace and who governed by the Right and Grace of God. It was often that this king would pace the fringes of his palace grounds with a glass of northern wine in hand, enjoying the sight of the city which had seen its schools and markets grow under his rule. But one night on his idle walk, the old king did not taste the foreign grains laced within his drink. Too late, he clutched his hand to his chest and fell convulsing on his back. With open eyes he saw the sky and stars of Judea, beholding for the last time all he thought his God had given him in this world.
It was the next day that the young and ambitious Jannaeus took the old king’s wife for his own.
The civil war was long and brutal. That first day alone, in the middle of the Feast of Succoth, Judean blood filled the cracks along the stone cobble streets of Jerusalem, as six thousand were slaughtered by the king’s men in and around the temple courtyard. In the ensuing years, fifty thousand followed. The fields of the North were burned and scarred, the cities of the South were razed. And in all of Judea, blessed and rare were the families in which any son survived.
At its beginning, the length and bitterness of the struggle had been expected by none, for it appeared to all that Jannaeus would have no trouble maintaining his throne. Thus in the early years, his victories were swift and easy, stamping out the rebellious soldiers wherever they emerged. The rebel numbers grew, but were beaten back again and again, and thereby they earned no improvement. Years of this intermittent strife passed, before the Pharisees, desperate to better their fortune, sought aid from foreign hands. And so it was that they found support from the Seleucid king, Demetrius, who had long looked upon Judea with hungry eyes. At the Battle for Shechem, together with the Seleucid forces, the rebels managed their first outright victory in all their years of dispute. Jannaeus fled to his mountain palace in the north, and not since those first days of his rule had his throne been fraught with such fragility.
But this foreign allegiance proved fatal to the Pharisaic rebellion.
Desperate to forestall his imminent ruin, the furious Jannaeus spent his exile plotting a counterthrust. But while he vainly drew the movements of his troops on a map, and while he hopelessly redrew them again and again—the nightmare acquitted itself on his behalf. One by one, the rebels slowly defected to the side of the king, choosing to fight for a Judean tyrant rather than leave their nation vulnerable to the whims of a foreign power. And soon, without having lifted a finger, the king Jannaeus found under his command all the rebels who, just months before, had wanted to see his head displayed on a spit in the streets of the capital. United under the flag of Judea, this new army sent Demetrius hastening back to Antioch, and afterward Jannaeus was again able to return to Jerusalem. But upon his homecoming, there was neither parade nor festival nor wild and tumultuous celebration, only the barren streets and unnatural silence of a city ravaged by war.
Peace had been struck, but the nation was destroyed.
The King had returned to his palace for less than a week when Shimon ben Shetach, who had also returned from his exile, requested an urgent audience by way of his sister, the queen.
They met under the same circumstances as they had six years prior, on a warm summer night under the glow of regal torches. But this time, though the hall was the same hall, the throne the same throne, and the sage the same sage as before, the king somehow seemed less imposing. They had both grown older, and tired.
Look at us two men, the king spoke in contempt. Returned from our summer travels, well rested from the many days spent in repose. Could you imagine how aged we might have looked had we spent six years in a senseless conflict?
I did not imagine you would be so embittered, replied ben Shetach. I had thought without a doubt that you would be laughing at our defeat. Have I been misinformed? Did you not win the war?
The civil war, yes. But that is not the war I wanted to fight. While we have been holding our little squabble, a great power has been growing in the West. And now, of the time we have to build our own strength, six precious years have been wasted.
Then you should never have begun this ugly strife, ben Shetach snapped.
Me? Was it not you who came to my palace, parading under the guise of brotherly advice, offering absolutely nothing while threatening revolt if I did not cave to the demands of the Pharisees, if I did not in effect surrender my crown to you?
And was it not you who denied the Water Libation out of pure malice?
Malice! The king laughed again. Do you not understand your own actions? You came to my palace and threatened a rebellion over a ritual. But I did not believe you. I could not bring myself to think the people were that stupid. The whole affair was meant as a measure of your influence, as a trial. But it was a trial in which, I must admit, I failed. I did not correctly gauge the cunning of your poison, whatever may have been its nature.
Nevertheless, ben Shetach said. Here we are, and much is left to be settled.
So, the king said, let us settle it. Tell me why you are here.
I have come to request the pardon of the prisoners still held in the city’s dungeons. The war is over. I beg of you, let them return home to their families.
The king Jannaeus shook his head.
If you had ever known a single thing about rule and politics, you might have seen the absurdity of such a request. I cannot release them.
But why? The People have made their peace with you.
Where is this people upon whom you constantly call? The rebels have made their peace with me, but the Pharisees have done no such thing. You still protest my every breath. And every man still held in my prisons is a Pharisee. A leader of the rebellion. Only your sister, my wife, has saved you from their predicament. As I have already said, I cannot release them.
Yannai, I implore you to hear my words. There must be some way I can convince you. The last six years have been trying. If, before, the people held for you a meager disapproval, now they share a bitter hatred. Every surviving citizen in this nation knows a brother or father or friend who met their death at the feet of your mercenaries. Your only hope of reconciliation is to show yourself not to be so wicked as they believe. Give them a gesture of goodwill. You will never have a better opportunity than this. Release the prisoners and show your people that your heart is not so hardened as to ignore all their cries. Can your ears be so deaf to Reason? At the very least, you cannot keep all these men in chains forever. They number in the hundreds.
Eight hundred, Jannaeus conceded.
Eight hundred, echoed the sage. Why would you keep them from the sunlight, why would you feed these eight hundred men every day in captivity, when you could easily release them to praise and fanfare?
The king shifted in his throne, reluctant to admit the sound argument of his rival.
I will need sleep for this decision, he said. Come to me in a week’s time in the light of morning, and I shall give you my response.
Upon leaving his dwelling that morning, Shimon ben Shetach declined his carriage, electing instead to walk to the Royal Palace. He loved nothing more than the crisp morning air of Jerusalem, which, even at the height of summer, provided a cool refreshment. He had spent many years in exile since he last enjoyed this simple pleasure, and so on this morning, he did not let his appointment with the king keep him from it.
As he walked along the passageways of Jerusalem, he passed a marketplace, and was pleased to see that it was regaining its regular vitality. The vendor’s stalls were full, bright voices sounded in the street, and playful children chased around through all the narrowest corridors. Ben Shetach quickened his pace, satisfied in the knowledge that the City of David was slowly beginning to show the signs of its former glory.
When he had walked the length of the city and approached the gates of the palace, he began to take note of a peculiar smell. Somewhere, it seemed, a vendor had allowed his produce to rot. But when the sage turned and stepped into the royal courtyard he was gripped by an immediate shock.
He collapsed to his knees, overcome, vomiting uncontrollably upon the street. He remained in this position for some time, immobile, slowly gathering the strength to look ahead and gaze at the horrific sight before him. The smell of rot had not come from produce.
When he finally raised his head he saw a mass of Roman crucifixes. He did not count them, but he knew their number. Eight hundred. On each was nailed a corpse, naked and decaying, whose wrists and feet bled from gaping holes into a puddle of red below. Their faces. The smell. The sight of them was overwhelming, and Shimon ben Shetach could not help but void his stomach a second time.
He had known many of them. Fathers. Teachers. Honest men.
As the sage pushed himself up from the ground he noted that his hands were trembling, and he began to wander aimlessly, as if there were somewhere for him to go where he could undo this horrible thing, this terrible deed. He walked swiftly among the dead, disgust and outrage and hatred and dread filling his lungs.
And still the horrific gravity of the moment had not fully become clear, for soon he saw that not all of the men were yet deceased. Some betrayed their sickening endurance with a sorrowful moan. Others, with no recourse, were forced to urinate and defecate while they hung, their excrement falling below them into puddles of their own blood. Still others cried while subjected to an even more despicable torture, for as they hung dying, the king’s soldiers brought their whole families before them and slit the throats of their wives and children while they watched in pain and agony.
Surely, the sage thought, this was some hellish dream. No man could tolerate such atrocity.
Then, the sage saw him. The king. Jannaeus, seated at the forefront of the eight hundred crucifixes, surrounded by concubines, eating merrily from a plate of fresh fruit, watching the awful spectacle as if he were a patron at a theater.
The King called out to the wretched sage.
Here he is! The Speaker of Smooth Stones. What do you think of my answer, Simeon?
Shimon ben Shetach lunged towards the king in a wild dash without thought or logic, and when he had been subdued by guards, he cried, Savage!
What a wonder, laughed Jannaeus. Even the lowly Shimon ben Shetach is capable of action when pushed beyond his Reason! Release him, he said to his guards. This man is no longer a threat. He now speaks for no one.
This is unconscionable, the sage cried, but no amount of indignation seemed sufficient.
He gathered himself and regained his composure, before pointing a finger at Jannaeus and proffering condemnation.
For this, you will endure an eternity of suffering in the World To Come.
So you say, the king responded.
With that, the sage turned and marched swiftly from the king, walking through the rows of bodies still sagging from their crosses, past the mounds of women and children whose throats had been cut, and out from the miasma of the courtyard.
He vowed never to speak with Jannaeus again.
VI: An Epilogue and a Post Mortem
In the last year of his rule, while besieging a fortress to the east of the Jordan, the king Jannaeus was struck down with a terrible sickness. Despite his presence on the field of battle, he was confined to a bed at the rear of his camp, where he intended to take his convalescence while the siege continued nearby.
But as his condition continued to worsen, the best physicians of all Judaea proved useless, and it soon became clear that Jannaeus would not recover.
Upon hearing of the king’s illness and imminent death, Shimon ben Shetach set out hastily on the daylong trip to the site of the battle, in order to speak with Jannaeus for a final time. He would break his vow in the noble hope of redeeming the king on his deathbed, wicked though he may have been.
Ben Shetach arrived at the siege and was shown to the king’s tent, and upon entering, he saw Jannaeus as he had never imagined him. Withered and sallow, the king sat upright, and when he saw his old enemy before his bed, he reproached him with a dull question.
Why are you here, my old friend? You have no more favors to ask of me. And even if you did, they would never be granted.
I am here to ensure that my sister’s affairs are in order, said Shimon ben Shetach.
No. I know why you are here. You are here for our final battle. A conversation! Jannaeus laughed, then coughed.
I will admit that I had hoped to discuss our—the sage paused while searching for the correct word—history.
So, here I am. Ask me the question that has been burning in your chest ever since we last saw one another.
Ben Shetach shuffled in his seat before speaking.
I want to go back to that night when we finally first spoke, face to face.
We cannot go back, you fool. We have already held the trial and execution.
And still, the sage confessed, I must know your reason. I must know why you did what you did.
The king gazed into the eyes of ben Shetach, savoring the anguish of the sage as he answered.
When the limb of a body is afflicted with gangrene, it must be amputated. This may be painful, but it is also necessary.
A deep sadness overtook ben Shetach.
If you had ever understood a single thing about Law and Reason, you would know why that is not an acceptable justification.
It is the only one I offer, the king muttered.
Shimon ben Shetach saw that he would gain no ground, and he sought to steer the discussion to matters of higher immediacy.
I understand that you have named my sister as the regnant queen. Is this true?
Yes. None of my sons are yet suited for the throne, and all my efforts have been wasted. It makes no difference now, so Shlomtzion may as well be allowed to rule. The Peace of Zion. It is a fitting name for her.
Yes, said ben Shetach. And that is exactly what she will bring about. A period of peace across all Israel.
I agree, said the king. But it will be the kind of peace from which this nation will never recover. You still do not understand what you are, do you Simeon?
And, Yannai? What is that?
In the words of a tyrant. A senseless tyrant who inflicted misery on all of Israel without any rhyme or reason except his own trivial passions.
The sage’s boldness grew as he began to orate, Yes. There is no doubt that your unending disdain has sealed too many fates. Far too many. But you will not be the one who writes our history. That responsibility will rest on our shoulders. And we will ensure that your atrocities will be remembered. For five hundred years it will be said you were a wicked king, until the Messiah comes and relieves you of your name and reputation.
So you say, said Jannaeus. But that does not make it so. The truth is that I will not be remembered at all, and that is due precisely to the nature of your failure, not mine. For in five hundred years Judea will no longer exist.
Now listen to me, Shimon. And listen closely. For what I am about to say will be the last words I speak to you, and I will say them not to argue or to convince you of anything, but simply for my own personal satisfaction.
Shimon ben Shetach opened his lips to speak, but with his hand the king Jannaeus motioned for silence, and the sage obeyed. The king calmly reached to his table and seized his cup of wine and sipped from it, before returning to the discussion at his sickly leisure.
You call me a wicked king, despite knowing that I have made Judaea stronger than it has ever been, stronger even than in all the old legends. I have extended our borders further than those enjoyed under Solomon, and further still beyond those of his father, the greatest of men, King David. He slew a Goliath, yet I made us stronger than all Goliaths. All this I did in spite of you, but still it was not enough. It was not what it could have been.
Judaea should have been the only power in the region, and should have been in a position to wield our influence without fear of equals. But no. You could not stomach this success. You could not help but infect the people like the disease that you are and whisper poison in the ears of all who would listen. So you incited the people against me and sparked the civil war which has now consumed our nation’s innards. And what were your grievances against me? That I had placed my name on our coinage. That I had consorted with Rome. That I refused to pour a cup of water into a basin.
And now, for these pitiful reasons, fifty thousand are dead, and Judaea is a withering shadow of what it should have been. We could have been the equals of the rising empire in the West, but instead we will soon be their vassal. And I am the wicked one? No. It is you, Shimon ben Shetach, who is wicked. My only sin, my only mistake, is not having respected the severity of the sickness coursing through my veins, through the veins of Israel. My words could not carry out my will, though still I know not why. But it is you who continues to speak of the World To Come. And it is you who fails to comprehend the ugliness of your deeds.
O, your deeds, they are truly terrible. But you pretend as though you have not committed them. You pretend as though all that has ever mattered is your words, your reason, your sentiment. But it is not with words that the Great Temple was built. And nor will it be with words that it is torn down. And when that inevitably happens, you, in all your idiocy, will stand in the rubble crying like a child, wondering why it came to be. But it will not be because you have sinned against God. It will be because you have sinned against the Earth. It will come to pass only because you, the Pharisees, will stand idly by and let it. And as you watch the walls of our Temple crumble, in your hands will be neither sword nor shield, only the papyrus on which you write your own miserable history.
You say that my name will be remembered as wicked, but you see, Shimon, what has been important has never been my name, but rather the language in which it is spoken—the surface on which it is written. Is it spoken in our Aramaic? Or is it spoken in a Latin tongue? Is it written on our parchment scrolls? Or one of the square codices of Rome? These are the battles we should have fought, not against each other, but side by side. And it is because of you, Shimon Ben Shetach, that we have almost certainly lost. You have worshipped at the altar of a golden calf, the altar of the Word and not the Deed, and because of your ignorance our nation will soon be forced to wander aimlessly through all the deserts of this world – not for forty years, but forty generations. Our people will forever be the victims of history, all of us trapped in your delusion for centuries to come, suffering for your sins.
Do you still not see your actions? First, you murdered your own son without cause, and now you have done the same for your own people.
Do you not understand? Do you still not know what you are? You are a rooster in bright feathers who imagines himself a peacock. You are a street performer who believes his own tricks to be sorcery. Yes, you are these things. But above all, you are a disease, a parasite which lodges in the minds of men and inflicts them with paralysis, and makes them unable to take any form of action against the dismal tide.
Now, go. Leave me. Allow me to die in peace. And with me, all the forlorn hopes of Israel.
The King’s speech was lost on Shimon ben Shetach. He signed, then looked upon Jannaeus with sorrowful contempt, judging that the bedridden King was well beyond redemption. Without a word he stood from his chair and left, knowing he had broken his vow for nothing.
In the north there was a farmer who remembered the famines from her youth, ruthless droughts that cared not for the Right nor Grace of God. It was often that this farmer would pace among her rows of grain, pondering the grief and loss of those cruel years best forgotten. But one day during her walk she stopped by the old willow on the hill. The winds of Israel stirred within her. She would journey to that ancient city, Jerusalem. Like her father and her mother before her, she would make her pilgrimage.
It was time. This much, she knew.
— yoav golan