Amenhemeif shifted in his chair, desperately trying to get comfortable in this peasant chair the King had set out for him on the southern end of the central fire-pit. It was a petty slight on the part of a ruler seeking to assert some semblance of autonomy, but as Envoy to Egypt’s King Psamtik, Amenhemeif was clever enough to know that allowing these barbarians a small taste of power from time to time helped to keep them in check. And with everything that was happening right now, the last thing Egypt needed was a rebellion from a goat-herder king.
Josiah was a handsome man, square-jawed, lean and strong, and his oiled, black curls glistened in the sunlight streaming in from the high eastern window. The palace – similar, Amenhemeif knew, to those in the Phoenician coastal cities – was still being expanded and beautified around them, with some finishing touches being made to the fire-pit, but Josiah’s throne and the dais upon which it rested at the northern end of the King’s Court was one of the earliest features brought to completion when the Israelites had executed their purge of Judahite political rivalry. Amenhemeif considered the throne to be somewhat crude, but he admired the detail in the wooden carvings on either side, depicting ancient tales of ancestors which would likely have been forgotten were it not for the Israelites. Of course, Amenhemeif took particular interest in their tales of ancestors descending to Egypt and making fools of nameless Pharaohs, and could not help but wonder if these tales were only as old as the throne itself. As backward as these people appeared, their lore-keepers were shrewd interpreters and manipulators of the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Josiah clapped his hands once and the fifty or so courtiers, scribes, prophets and priests fell to silence around the circular chamber. Amenhemeif’s retinue, standing in an arc behind him, had been silent all along, knowing their place even in the throne room of a foreign king. With so many people gathered in this relatively small space, Amenhemeif was perspiring heavily. It was not the heat, for the day was close to an end and Amenhemeif was a man accustomed to the deserts of Nubia. Rather, it was a sense of mounting oppression which gripped him, as he imagined the smells and sounds of these people depriving him of his perfumed calm. Beads of sweat trickled down the back of his neck as Josiah, King of Judah, stood and gestured towards the Egyptian Envoy, seated directly across from him at the opposite side of the graciously empty fire-pit. ‘My good friend, Amenhemeif,’ Josiah began with a warm smile, his eyes sparkling in the sunlight still finding its way through a western window, ‘tell us what great news you have travelled so far to deliver. Egypt is always welcome in my humble domain, as are all who submit to our new and rightful Overlord, the Great King Sinsharishkun of Assyria.’
Amenhemeif suppressed a grin of admiration even before the Court translator leaned in and spoke. The king knew precisely why he was here, and had positioned him earlier in the conversation than the Egyptian had expected. The Envoy stood and bowed, and as he straightened, he replied, much to the chagrin of the translator, in perfect Hebrew: ‘I am your humble servant, good King Yoshayahu of Judah. You honour me with your welcome, and state rightly our position in the Great Scheme of the world.’ He saw the faces of those to the east and west of the pit, waiting for him to say it, knowing he had to say it, else his journey would be wasted. He took a deep breath, and held Josiah’s knowing gaze across a void which seemed at that time somehow welcoming. ‘But I am a mere speaker of words come from the mouths of greater men,’ he continued. ‘And the Great Scheme leads us where it will.’
Josiah sat back in his throne. ‘Indeed, it does,’ he agreed quietly. ‘So tell me, Amenhemeif, where has it led your Lord and King, the noble Psamtik? Has he spoken with the Chaldeans? Or perhaps the Lords of Media?’
The room was getting cooler, it seemed, but Amenhemeif was not feeling the benefit. ‘I believe that emissaries of many eastern states have come to the King of Egypt, but no alliances have been made. Despite having ascended the throne under the auspices of Ashurbanipal of Assyria, my Lord Psamtik is tired of sharing these lands with his squabbling successors. I understand that King Sinsharishkun has no interest in enforcing his will in the Palashtu region.’ The throne room started to whisper, fifty voices as one. Even the tall and wiry Court Prophet, Zephaniah – a man usually coy and hard to read who stood always to Josiah’s left – could not disguise his interest as he turned to look at his King.
Here it was, then, Josiah knew. The beginning of the end, as Jeremiah had foretold. Yet there was so much more of which the Prophet had not spoken, and Josiah looked up to Zephaniah as if he, too, might be holding back. The King took a deep breath and directed his attention once again to the Egyptian. ‘I find it hard to believe that you misinterpret Assyria’s reasoning, my good friend,’ he observed. ‘I understand that Sinsharishkun has enough to deal with in his homeland without concerning himself with his western frontier.’
Amenhemeif nodded. ‘You may be correct, good King. Yet as I said, I am here merely to convey a message. I trust you will take no issue with yielding to my Lord and King, Psamtik of Egypt, from here on?’
‘As always, wise Amenhemeif, your trust is not misplaced.’ Josiah smiled. ‘After all, one oppressor is as majestic as another, is that not so?’
Amenhemeif responded with an equally diplomatic smile, saying, ‘And as always, my good King, your wit is as…majestic…as it is colourful. Tributes have remained low in these lands since your grandfather bowed to the Assyrians. As a result, you are considerably less…oppressed?…than your neighbours. Egypt has no wish to alter this arrangement once our new covenant comes into effect.’
‘I shall be sure to convey this triumph to the beggars on my streets, dear Amenhemeif. They will be quite overjoyed, I’m sure.’
The Egyptian held the King’s gaze for a moment, before conceding with a nod. There was no point arguing the finer points of a Vassal Treaty at this precarious stage in Egypt’s assuming power over the region. Amenhemeif noticed a scribe behind the throne, undoubtedly recording everything that was being said. The Egyptian would have had the same done for him, but that was not to be. A Prophet of the Great House had warned King Psamtik not to make any record of his dealings with the Judahite King, but had elaborated only by mumbling something obscure about a meeting at the Mount of Invasion. Amenhemeif had long been in awe of the Prophets, but the older he got, the more he resented their cryptic words and esoteric ways.
Josiah was about to continue his monologue of malcontent when a disturbance arose and a man pushed his way through from the back of the gathering. It was Shaphan, the Chief Scribe, and it was quite out of place for him to disturb the King’s Court. Shaphan glanced pointedly at the Egyptian Envoy, who felt a chill run through him as the long-haired scribe moved hurriedly around the central pit to prostrate himself before the King. Amenhemeif rose from his chair, his curiosity piqued, and he saw the man placing a scroll on the stone surface of the dais. Josiah raised a hand to calm his Court, before leaning forward and saying quietly, ‘Shaphan, my friend…you may rise.’ But Shaphan stayed as he was.
‘My Lord,’ he began, his voice wavering, ‘I fear that you may never have me rise again upon hearing the words we have found in the Temple.’
‘We?’ Josiah stood, and every man in Court shuffled closer. ‘Who is it that has left you alone to present something of such great concern?
‘I…’ Shaphan’s mind reeled as he raised his head. ‘We were working on the restorations, my Lord. Money was divided as you instructed, but…other things came to light. The…the High Priest, Hilkiah. He gave me this scroll to give to you, saying that it was discovered in the oldest part of the library.’
‘The oldest part?’ Josiah mused, his eyes scanning the gathered prophets and priests to his left and managing to take in the concerned glare of Zephaniah as he pointed down to the scroll: ‘Read it, Shaphan.’
Shaphan came up only to his knees, reaching forward for the scroll. Hilkiah had instructed him as to where to begin, for the scroll was voluminous and weighty in more ways than one. The Scribe found the point from which he had been told to start reading, and as his eyes scanned the text, he felt his heart pounding in his throat as if it might leap from his mouth and bloody the words. ‘Yahweh our God made a Covenant with us at Horeb,’ he began. He spoke quietly, but the silence allowed his voice to carry. The words reached at least to the Egyptian Envoy, who shifted uncomfortably in his chair. What is this? he thought.
Josiah glanced down at Amenhemeif, but simply asked that Shaphan continue. ‘It was not with our fathers that Yahweh made this covenant,’ read Shaphan, as he rose and turned to face the Court, ‘but with us, the living…’ his voice rose slightly, ‘every one of us who is here today!’ Amenhemeif began to feel as if the room were shrinking, but he was so intrigued that his fears lost out to curiosity as the Scribe kept reading: ‘I am Yahweh your God, who brought out of the land of Egypt, from the House of Slavery. You will have no other gods before me.’ At the centre of the room, with a number of heads turning towards him, Amenhemeif felt the temperature once again rise. But as the Scribe continued, his voice brimming now with the confidence of the righteous, the Egyptian realised that there was much more happening here than a perfectly-timed reprimand of his homeland: ‘You will not make for yourself a sculptured image, any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the water below the earth. You will not bow down to them or serve them. You will not abuse the name of Yahweh your God, for Yahweh will not forgive anyone who abuses His name.
‘Keep the Sabbath day holy, as Yahweh your God commanded you. You will do no work, nor will your slave or the stranger in your settlements. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Yahweh your God set you free with a mighty hand. Therefore, Yahweh your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’ Shaphan paused and looked around the room, seeing that all were rapt with the wonder of these words. He turned back to Josiah, choosing only now to offer him the scroll. ‘There are many more laws, my Lord,’ he assured him, ‘but Hilkiah thought it wise that you should consider them yourself before delivering them to the people.’
‘Wise, indeed,’ Josiah agreed sharply, snapping the document from the scribe before looking at the writing. ‘But it is a shame he did not extend such wisdom to the scroll in its entirety, would you not agree?’ The King felt his body go cold as he realised what exactly he was reading. And he said quietly, through tightening teeth, ‘Particularly as we sit here with the Envoy of King Psamtik, our new Tribute Lord…who is waiting for us to sign a treaty of vassalage.’
Shaphan nodded, swallowing nervously. ‘It is, indeed, a shame, my Lord,’ he conceded. ‘Perhaps I should have been more discerning.’
‘With my heart, I agree, Shaphan. Yet such a hurry you found to bring these words to my attention at such an auspicious moment.’ Shaphan said nothing, returning once again to his knees before the dais. Josiah looked beyond him and locked eyes with Amenhemeif, who would be only too aware of the difficulties posed by this scroll. And who was, of course, obliged to report all he had witnessed to the King of Egypt. Yet like Amenhemeif, Josiah was no fool, and he knew that learned men had ways of leading others along their path. ‘The King’s Scribe, this man Shaphan, son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam,’ he all but dragged Shaphan to his feet as he addressed the Court, ‘has brought to me words said to have been spoken by Moses himself…’ again he looked to Amenhemeif, ‘following his escape from Egypt with our ancestors!’
The Egyptian could contain himself no longer, and he snapped upright, pointing at Shaphan. ‘There is no record of any man of this kingdom being held as a slave in Egypt!’ he spat, ‘let alone any group of Judahites. And I can assure you, my people are meticulous record-keepers!’
Almost everyone in the room disagreed with this, and passionately so, and Josiah once again clapped his hands to silence them. This time, the silence took longer to arrive. ‘My dear Amenhemeif,’ Josiah spoke above the dying voices, ‘we will continue our discussion tomorrow. And we will do so at a time and place which suits you best. Is that acceptable?’
Amenhemeif was shaking, and two of his attendees came to him, holding his hands and helping him to remain calm. Eventually, he nodded: ‘I appreciate your graceful dealings, my good King. These…matters…are for your people alone, and I am an unwelcome presence at this time. May I take my leave?’
‘Of course,’ Josiah replied smoothly. ‘Given the circumstances, I think we will forego tonight’s meal.’
‘A wise judgement, my good King.’ Amenhemeif turned and, with his retinue fawning all over him, he left the King’s Court and the Palace. If it were his decision, he would leave Jerusalem immediately, but treaties needed to be signed. And these negotiations would now take considerably longer than he had hoped.
‘Everyone will be SILENT!’ Josiah roared as the voices rose again. He returned to sit in his throne, his head pounding, only looking up when a short man, his brown hair flecked with white, approached him and bowed. ‘My dear King,’ he began, with a warm smile to which Josiah had always responded with affection, ‘I have a suggestion which might help to answer questions of the…authenticity of these words.’
‘You dare question the words of Yahweh?’ snapped Hilkiah, only now pushing into the room and precipitating a surge forward of the political vultures on either side, as they began arguing amongst themselves. The King gestured to Shallum to continue. The man had been his most trusted advisor since he was a child. ‘My wife and I live close by, as you know, my Lord,’ Shallum explained. ‘I know you have many prophets here…’ he looked at them as the squabbling died down to hear the conversation, ‘but this is a time for…balance.’
‘Your wife is Huldah, the Prophetess,’ the King stated, merely for the sake of everyone listening.
‘Yes, my Lord. Her words have been verified many times. Yet she is also known for her wisdom and knowledge of our past days. She will know if this scroll is the means by which you should judge the people.’
Hilkiah stepped forward, making to rise to the dais, but Josiah sprang from his throne and roared, ‘Not another step, Hilkiah!’ Next to Shaphan, the High Priest stopped, frozen in shock, a sentiment echoed around the now silent chamber. ‘While I am grateful that you have chosen to finally attend us here,’ Josiah admonished, ‘you will be silent while your King decides our course.’
Hilkiah inclined his head respectfully, but his burning glare was firmly fixed on Shallum as Josiah made his judgement: ‘We will consult with the Prophetess Huldah, whose wisdom will reveal to us the truth of these words.’ Despite some mumblings of discontent, many agreed that an impartial interpretation would be welcome. Shallum left with others hot on his heels, including Hilkiah and Shaphan. They were not about to be excluded from this momentous event. Josiah looked down at the scroll again, knowing that something was wrong. The oldest part of the library dated back to the days of Solomon, and yet this scroll contained writing in a more recent script. As the room emptied, with many following the group sent to consult with Huldah, some of the Israelite Elders turned back to the King and caught his eye. He nodded respectfully, recalling everything they had done for him, and knowing that he would need to play this dangerous game with wits greater than those capable of insulting an absent Egyptian king to a man who was not even writing things down. For despite writing meaning so much more these days than the words of a Prophet, the Egyptian King’s treaty would likely be thought meaningless in the face of a covenant with the one God.