Old words

Consider: writings so old, no-one can begin to imagine when someone first read them.

Ideas and stories so ancient, they are presupposition in any reasoned argument or discussion.

The romance of the written word never loses its charm. Every now and then I like to potter off to the British Museum and stand in awe in front of a very big black stone.

The Rosetta Stone is, according to museum lore, the most visited object in the whole of the myriad, eclectic collections held by this illustrious establishment. And with good reason. For it is a key to languages old and older, and has proved a cypher which would translate the written legends of the vast colourful, flamboyant Egyptian civilisation.

It did this, simply, by laying out the same text in three languages: Ancient Greek; Egyptian demotic script; and Ancient Egyptian heiroglyphs. King Ptolemy issued a tri-lingual decree in Memphis, 196 years before that baby was born who caused such ructions throughout the known world.

The stone is thought to have lived in a temple in Lower Egypt, until those pesky mediaeval Christians upended it to use – astonishingly – as a piece of building material in a fort.

But what goes around comes around, and first the French, and then the British discovered it, as they explored and conquered this most ancient of new lands, around the turn of the nineteenth century. They seem to have been the first to see the cypher in the stone. And the rest is comparatively modern history.

Two hundred years before Christ: that’s old. But my chief concern is a text that is a great deal older than that. It seems to come from four sources, one of which may even stretch back as far as 1,000 years before Christ was born.

Have you ever had to leave a place in haste? Fleeing is mercifully a rarity in this day and age. The nearest I can even begin to envisage are those plans I laid ready for leaving to have my children: the bag I packed, the lists I made. The uncertainty: the waiting for the right time.

When I was very little, we would travel in a three-wheeled Reliant Robin for five hours in the dead of night.

My father rightly felt that journeys are longer and more laborious in the daytime. The traffic is light or non-existent in the hours which precede dawn. My parents would wake us in those dark prescient hours, and bundle the four of us, aged two to eight, in the back of a car laden with luggage.

It was a long journey: but it was always laced with adventure. The air was cold and the rest of the world was wrapped in slumber. We were stealing a march on the whole world, and we would be at our destination in time for breakfast.

It is this feeling: a pent-up excitement, a certain knowledge that change is on its way; that I feel, whenever I hear the story of a cornerstone religious holiday: not my own, but one which captures my heart and soul with its daring audacity.

For this escape plan, they wrote three thousand years ago, you need angels; but angels alone will not do.

No: by the time the story reached my ears, an intricate set of beautifully crafted rules and rituals had surrounded the story for millennia, and must be observed before the Israelites could flee their Egyptian tyrant captors.

Two men were listening to YHWH: name so great and full of awe the old storytellers did not even say it. The two men were already proven leaders, and they knew the slavery of their people could not go on forever.

The call had come to let the people go. Nine nasty plagues had not secured their freedom, but the last would be so terrible that in his shock and grief, the Pharaoh of all Egypt would drive the slave-people away.

But he would recover, and in the rage that swept over him, he would saddle horses, and send out chariots to pursue those he had banished.

So: well-organised, meticulous haste was the order of the day. This, said YHWH, will be a new beginning for you. Make it your first month. And on the fourteenth day of that first month, you shall have a meal designed for haste. A meal which will exempt you all.

The lamb to be the centrepiece must be a perfect, year-old lamb: and the doorway of each slave household must be marked so that the Angel of Death will pass on, leaving the son in the household safe, and the family ready to flee.

The lamb must be roasted with bitter herbs and eaten with unleavened bread, and if any was left it must be burnt. And everyone must eat in haste, with their cloak tucked into their belt, their sandals on their feet and their staff in their hand.

We know the rest of the story so well: our peoples have had three thousand years to learn it, after all. The story of how they readied to leave, the detail of the flight to freedom: they are the stuff of a wondrous religious holiday all these years later. The next passover feast begins at sunset on April 14th, 2011, as always on the night of a full moon, and lasts for eight days.

It has its familiar rituals and symbols: the selling of everything which might be leavened , or chametz; the matzo, or unleavened bread. Families pause for eight days to celebrate and meditate on the redemption of a people.

How strange that flight should form part of another story and another festival: this time, two thousand years old. This story is about a King who got wind of a child who would usurp him.

But he didn’t know who that child would be, exactly: just that was to be born in little town called Bethlehem.

For a psychopathic megalomaniac, there was only one thing to do. He sent soldiers to slaughter every child under two years old in the town.

Before the troops could reach Bethlehem, however, an angel came in handy once more, appearing to the child’s father. Take the child and his mother, the angel said, and flee to Egypt.

What goes around, comes around.

Angels, flight, haste and tyrants: binding elements in two festivals, in two compelling stories, in two pieces of writing written a thousand years apart.

Writings so old,Β no-one can begin to imagine when someone first read them.

(Written in response toΒ ViewFromTheSide‘s Weekend Theme: Religious Holiday. But I got a bit carried away.)

18 thoughts on “Old words

    1. Beautiful post, Kate!

      As always, you flow along from one fascinating observation to another ending where you began on a high note. (We traveled at night too ~ sleeping in the back of the station wagon while my parents enjoyed the peace and quiet up front).

      I agree that Herod was horrid but, then again, the God portrayed in the Old Testament seems rather a hateful villain as well ~ smiting people down left and right. πŸ˜‰

      1. He did seem very vengeful at times, didn’t he? I was deeply moved reading of the Pesach rituals: each plague is read out, and a drop of wine is spilt: to remind the Jews that their liberation was tinged with sadness at the suffering of the Egyptians.

  1. Reminds me of two hymns from my Presbyterian hymnal “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” and “We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations” Are you familiar with these or are they basically American?

    1. Tell Me The Old, Old Story makes an appearance now and then πŸ™‚ I’ve not heard of your second hymn, though, Carl…. that book is full of the most amazing stories: a storyteller’s dream.
      Have a good Sunday….

  2. great writing, kate. And a great story, too. I love a book called “the living world of the Old Testament ” – of which we have a copy.
    And I too have considered Herod and his doings just after he spoke to the wise men / kings.

    What do they mean, these men who come,
    Bearing gifts, travelling far
    What do they mean, they seek a king
    Following after a rising star
    Look over your shoulder, Herod
    At the rising star

    I am the king around these parts
    Man in control, man of power
    I worked hard to get where I am
    Future assured and place secure
    Look over your shoulder, Herod
    At the rising star

    Nobody takes away from me
    I fight for everything I have
    If the rising star is a new born babe
    I’ll track him down to an early grave
    Look over your shoulder, Herod
    At the rising star

    Men of power, give it away
    Back to the Lord who owned it first
    In struggling for the upper hand
    If you kill love you will come off worst
    Look not over your shoulders
    At the rising stars

  3. That’s exactly the spirit of the theme, seeing how different people tackle the same ‘theme’. I love just how different people are.

    That was the best version I have heard of how passover came to be. No repeats of “what we do now”, but how it all happened. As though it would make a tense movie!

    Unfortunately in many parts of Africa, people still have to flee for their lives. It’s a dangerous continent, with megalomaniacs running around as ‘warlords’.

    1. Thank you, Sidey πŸ™‚ Your themes are always rewarding to write around. Every time I read the story of the Passover, I get tingles down my spine. But what got me off the beaten track is the four voices wrote it. And we will never know who they are: only how they shaped one of the most important texts of all time. Astounding stuff.
      Of course, time lends romance to flight. It helps to know the ending. Flight today, as you say, is as terrible as it ever was. Humans can be inhuman, as Herod proved….

  4. Just catching up after some busy days and nights. What a joy to find this lovely post waiting for me to ponder. Such stories that are as old as we can remember man to be, it seems, and such a horrid theme of slaughter when one does not get one’s way. Ach! I love the way you wove in the angels and the night travel, Kate, as yet another post unravels in a most wondrous way.

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