Tales of Absolute Morality

A discussion on another blog about culture and morals has led me to want to explore what it means to be human in a very alien historical context. Morals are shaped by culture, but the fact that we can even engage in this sort of exercise below would suggest that morals, to some degree, transcend culture.  

Please excuse the amature style, fiction was never my thing.

Nathan the Benjaminite, c. 580 BC

Work is my life, my refuge. No longer do I labor in the sweet smelling vineyards and barley fields of my father’s house, with a good pair of oxen before me, my brothers beside me: now a stylus is my plow, a wax tablet my field, here in the storerooms of of Labashi the Chaldean, my owner.

Another man’s drudgery is my identity. My function is my being.

Labashi is proud of me: today, after seven years of service, he deigns to speak well of me in the presence of his friends as we tour the wine cellars (it helps that he is a little drunk): “What a bargain this Judean turned out to be! I bought him on the cheap thinking that if he survived that pike wound he could be a gardener. Back then, he didn’t speak a word of Chaldean or even Akkadian! Now he runs my warehouses, gets good prices on the grain and keeps my tenants in line!”

Unheard of condescension; I must be careful: “My Lord is too kind; I am but my master’s slave.” He brags about me as I once might have bragged about a strong ass I had haggled off an arab trader. All I do for Labashi is work as my father taught me, as the hardscrabble  Judean hills demanded of me. All I do is arrange and count his stores, deal honestly with his debtors and creditors, and let no one cheat him.

“Come, Nashaan!” He attempts to use my Hebrew name, mangling it. He is very drunk. “Rejoice with me in my good fortune! Sing us a song of rejoicing from your homeland. Your favorite song! Be glad with me!”

And suddenly I am twenty years old. My father had sent me to visit his brother Hanani to collect on a loan of  thirty sheep Father had given him some four years before. “Hanani is a good man, so expect to collect interest on the sheep, but don’t insist on it, he is family!” So I went down to Hebron to see my uncle about the sheep. When I arrived Hanani invited me to sit with him under a sycamore and take refreshment while I gave him news of my father, the farm, the doings of my brothers. His daughter Rebecca, the only child of Hanani’s second wife and the delight of his old age, brought wine and a roasted sheep’s head in earthen bowls. I had never met her before, a girl of about twelve, too sunburnt and wiry to be pretty, but quick to serve, and with a country girl’s sturdy, quiet grace.

“Rebecca!” Hanani cried, “Sing a song for Nathan, your cousin. You have such a lovely voice, let him hear you sing!”

“But Daddy!” she whispered, looking away bashful, then glancing back at me from under her long lashes.

I couldn’t help but to stare. “Sing, Rebecca,” I heard myself say, “I would like to hear you sing.”

And staring at the ground she chanted the procession hymn: I rejoiced when they said to me: let us go up to the house of Yahweh…

Two weeks later I returned home with the thirty sheep for my father, a yoke of oxen and three chests of dyed wool for a dowry, and Rebecca for a wife. Both my father and uncle were pleased with the deal they struck behind my back: a strong and dutiful boy, an obedient and helpful girl, and a chance to keep the dowry in the family.

At first Rebecca only sang when she thought I was out of earshot, but as her virgin shyness passed she would let me overhear her as she worked the loom, or drew water from the cistern. Later, she would sing as I led her to bed: You are the fairest of the sons of men! (Giggling) Gird your sword upon your thigh in your glory! (More giggles).

After we buried our first born, a year-old boy, dead of a fever: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The night before I went off with my brothers to fight for Jerusalem against Nebuchadnezzar, leaving her alone with my aged parents and the women and children of the household: Yahweh is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? Yahweh is my stronghold; of whom shall I be afraid?

And where are you now Rebecca? Are your white bones strewn about the thickets and ruins where an orderly and fruitful farm once stood? Or were you taken captive too, passed from soldier to soldier, tent to tent, swapped first for a bottle of wine, then for a side of mutton before being sold to a slaver and disappearing into the vast world?

Sometimes when I go to the city I see Judeans, bemoaning their exile. Nobles all, and architects of the pro-Egyptian party, they remain unpierced by spears. They’ve kept their wives, been given government jobs and even a degree of freedom. We, the farmers’ sons who fought, and were unlucky enough to have been captured, not killed; we whose families and homes were carelessly crushed by the passing army; we keep quiet and speak no Hebrew around them.

I cannot sing. I cannot speak. I choke on my words, and in my dismay I dare to look into my master’s eye; a grave violation. He is instantly annoyed: “What, slave, forget how to speak?” His friends look uncomfortable.

I stare at the ground and croak out an apology: “Alas, the songs of my homeland would sound rough and barbarous to such ears as my Lords’, and I have no skill in singing.”

“Yes, and too much work seems to be dulling your wits. Bring us more wine and then be about your business.”

I scurry away. Labashi  is angry, but I am lucky. Even though I deserve a beating, Labashi is a wise enough man to recognize that he had been too familiar with me, putting us both in a difficult position.

When he sobers, he will fear that I will start taking advantage of his weakness, so I will have to work all the harder to regain his trust. I could do worse than Labashi: he once joked that he bought me only because he felt sorry for me. Did he refrain from beating me just now because he felt sorry for me?

Or was it because no one beats a slave in polite company?

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4 comments

  1. Missing a ‘the’ I think? ( the bane of proof reading)

    <blockquote<…and uncle were pleased with deal they…

    This is very well written. I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks for catching that. It is fixed.

      1. I understand the dreadful feeling of deflation after a draft has been given a publishers Final Seal of Approval and printed only to pick up such errors on the first read.

        ..but the fact that we can even engage in this sort of exercise below would suggest that morals, to some degree, transcend culture.

        This sentence intrigued me. Care to elaborate?

      2. I am against arranged/child marriage in contemporary America, but I can imagine a time and place in which it would make sense. This is moral relativity. I can also recognise, even within an alien context, what love between a man and his wife looks like. This is something that goes beyond a mere cultural arrangement.
        Slavery is different: it may have had some kind of internal logic, but I cannot see how it is justified. But then, someone living in a slave culture cannot be expected to understand that. But I can still recognize, even within an objectively inhumane situation, flashes of mutual respect.
        It is as if our concrete cultural expressions of morals are reflections, more or less adequate, of universal aspirations to goodness.

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