Jerusalem, Kingdom of Judah, 622 BCE
For the third time in as many minutes, Hananiah coughed violently; but this time he found himself spitting blood to the stone floor from which the dust of excavation was still either being kicked around or blown with any welcome breeze passing through the catacombs. ‘Here,’ he heard a voice behind him, ‘take this. I think you need it more than I.’ Hananiah nodded as he turned and took the water from the younger man.
Baruch, the man who had offered the water, was an educated scribe who did not belong down in this level of Sheol to which the High Priest had sent him. But for some reason which remained graciously beyond Hananiah, the unassuming, dark-eyed scribe enjoyed being part of these renovations. In particular, he relished being so close to the ancient library, despite the High Priest keeping him on a short leash. Hananiah, whose education did not extend beyond the harsh realities of a life spent serving, was approaching his fortieth year; and despite being muscular and strong to the external observer, it was invariably seen as more than portentous that someone his age might be so inflicted by internal decay. Jerusalem was far from the Sea and the cosmopolitan cities inviting the most learned practitioners of medicine from the likes of Egypt and Greece, and Hananiah needed to earn a lot of money to make such a journey and know that his family would be provided for should he fail to return.
‘When did you visit a Priest last?’ Baruch asked him. ‘Someone who could help with your ailment?’
‘No Priest in Jerusalem can help me, Scribe,’ replied Hananiah, smiling to reveal his rotting teeth. ‘But I thank you for the water.’
Baruch shook his head and leaned in, smelling sweat and dust from the older man. ‘I’m not talking about here in Jerusalem,’ he said quietly. ‘There are Levites out in the lands who have…other ways.’
Hananiah looked at him for a moment. He had heard enough of King Josiah to know that the man did not favour the priests of the countryside. Was this a test of the old man’s loyalty? ‘I should return to work,’ he said eventually, pointing to the other men farther down the tunnel. ‘I’ve left them long enough.’
Baruch met his eyes and understood. There were so few people one could truly trust these days. Yet still Baruch wished to assure the man that all was well: ‘You can be calm with me. I am no enemy of yours.’
Hananiah nodded, but Baruch was sure the man remained unconvinced. The older man turned away and joined the other workers while Baruch watched him go. It was unclear what the tunnel was for, or even at this stage if it would be a tunnel upon completion, considering that no one was working at it from an opposite direction. It was difficult to fathom the decisions and decrees of the King, and it was rumoured that the man was bordering madness. He had a close circle of advisors, calling themselves the People of the Land, and it was said that they heard every opinion voiced about the King. In the outer reaches of Judah, where territory was gradually being appropriated by Josiah’s city-state, some went so far as to say that the People of the Land could listen to people’s thoughts. Despite Baruch’s relative worldliness, such talk made him shiver. At only eighteen years old, he had learned much and forgotten more, for the world of knowledge into which he was being initiated was a place of complexity beyond anything he could have imagined.
In just over a year since he had started serving the King’s Scribe, Baruch had witnessed a flurry of scribal work carried out behind closed doors. Baruch’s only input up until now had been to catalogue old texts pertaining to the activities of the kings of Israel and Judah; as well as new ones containing stories being shared amongst the common folk of both kingdoms now living together in this land. Yet the stories in which the Scribe, Shaphan, had shown the greatest interest were the ancient tales of nameless ancestors going down to and coming back up from Egypt. It was strange, for these tales varied depending on whether the people telling them were the descendants of Israelite refugees, Judahite farmers, or Edomite nomads; but the one thing they agreed upon was the name of the man who had united their people in an escape from Egypt – Moses. Now it seemed to Baruch that a singular story was being woven from these disparate tales; for in these days of living in the fluctuating shadows of Assyrian and Egyptian dominance of the Mediterranean seaboard, a story of escaping from a mighty power to start a new nation would surely bring a smile to many a beleaguered face. Baruch had heard, however, of numerous groups around Judah who considered their individual histories to be under attack by this blending of sacred pasts, and tempers were beginning to flare.
As he moved farther away from the workers, Baruch began to hear the hushed tones of a heated discussion. Through the closest shelves of the Temple Library and the dusty scrolls thereupon, he saw three men in the depths of the library, arguing as quietly as they possibly could. The man on the left – sporting long, dark curls falling over his shoulders and wearing the richly-coloured robes of a Prophet of the Beit-Melek, the King’s House – Baruch had never seen before. In the middle was the High Priest, Hilkiah, a hawkish-looking man with a fiercely pointed nose and braided hair. He looked as if he were mediating between the Prophet and Shaphan, the Royal Scribe, who was waving an accusatory finger at the curly-haired man. Shaphan was slender and handsome, and his oiled hair hung straight and heavy down his back. With his lips curled back in anger, however, he appeared decidedly less attractive. Baruch heard the words ‘Egyptians’ and ‘slaves’ amongst others, but he was too far away to make any sense of the argument.
His curiosity piqued, he set about pretending to sort the dusty scrolls on the outer shelves, knowing that they were the least read of all writings kept down here. As he continued his pretence, he saw Hilkiah turn and take what appeared to be a large scroll from a desk behind him. He placed a hand on the Prophet’s chest in a gesture intended to silence him. The Prophet’s chest rose and fell with undisguised discomfort as Shaphan was handed the scroll. The Prophet hung his head and shook it as Hilkiah spoke to Shaphan. And then the Royal Scribe departed, heading to the steps leading back up into the Temple proper. Baruch was rapt with wonder, and he accidentally knocked a number of scrolls to the floor, drawing attention from the hidden men as he scrabbled to gather them up.
Both the Prophet and the High Priest were now approaching the young scribe, but Baruch pretended not to have seen the exchange. ‘Ah, Baruch, there you are,’ the High Priest called. ‘I was hoping you might be down here.’
‘You were?’ asked Baruch, his eyes flicking to the Prophet, who managed to place a smile upon his face as he inclined his head by way of greeting. Hilkiah pointed to the Prophet, whose eyes were seen in the candlelight to be a pale blue. ‘This is the Prophet, Jeremiah,’ said Hilkiah. ‘He has heard the voice of Yahweh and the King has chosen him to take the word to the people. I have chosen you to be his personal scribe and travel companion. You are most blessed.’
Baruch had, of course, heard of Jeremiah, and he felt something new as his eyes met those of a man who looked infinitely wiser than his years. For despite his misgivings about the many prophets attached to the Temple or endorsed by the Crown, this one radiated an affability often diminished by the arrogance of the rest. Hilkiah nodded and, following a brief and clearly unwelcome hand placed upon Jeremiah’s shoulder, he left the two men to get better acquainted. ‘Have you been out amongst the people, Baruch?’ the Prophet asked, as Hilkiah ascended the rough-hewn staircase to the upper levels.
‘No, Master,’ Baruch replied. ‘I’ve been sequestered here since I was eight years old.’
Jeremiah nodded: ‘The same age as our glorious King when he first sat on the throne, if I’m not mistaken.’
Baruch took a moment. Was the man mocking the King? ‘You’re not mistaken, Master. Although I find it hard to believe he did much ruling in those early years.’
Jeremiah held Baruch’s suddenly frightened gaze as both men realised what the scribe had just said. But Jeremiah gave a surprisingly warm smile and replied, ‘I think we’ll get along very well, Baruch. And don’t call me Master, please. Jeremiah will suffice.’ He turned to look up at the staircase with trepidation, before taking a deep breath and saying to Baruch, ‘Now is an appropriate time to leave, Baruch. Sometimes words have more power than even a finely-crafted blade.’
Baruch wondered what could possibly have been written in the scroll taken by Shaphan, but the Prophet interrupted his musing: ‘We have a lot of preparations to make, young scribe. The people we will encounter don’t live in as…safe an environment…’ he forced a smile, ‘as you and I.’
Baruch knew that something was wrong. It was almost as if the air had changed. Yet here in this moment, Jeremiah was right. In the ever-growing city of Jerusalem, one could keep one’s thoughts to oneself and remain relatively safe. But in the countryside, people were presumed guilty of heresy unless they could prove themselves otherwise. Baruch realised that words alone would not protect them once they left the city, no matter how mighty one considered the pen.