Bards of Battle
War provides plenty of pain for many and plenty of profit for few. You wouldn’t think that poetry is one of those profitable by-products of war, but the Bible seems to think so, or at least so do some of the Biblical translators, who offer an odd spin on an odd word popping up in ‘Chukat’, this week’s installment of the Torah. The context is wartime, as the People Israel get closer to the Promised Land and the locals are less than thrilled. This weekly tale marks two VIP deaths – Miriam and Aaron – but also informs us of countless deaths of nameless men, women, and children – victims of the war on Canaan. One of those battles is the one with the Emorites, which began as a hostile exchange when Moses requested permission to cross through their land and King Sihon refused and launched an attack. The Emorites lost badly, their cities were taken over by the tribes of Israel, and this is where the poets come in. Or are they journalists? or official spokesmen? Somehow we get a glimpse into the ancient craft of media in action – translating the horrors of the battlefield into poetry and/or propaganda for the masses. How vast – or not – is the difference between poet and reporter? This bloody text perhaps suggests an answer.
Chapter 21 in the book of Wilderness describes the fall of Heshbon, the Emorite capitol city, and goes on to provides us with a quote from the local poetry of the defeated Emorites themselves – devoting six biblical verses to an obscure epic poem (that sounds like a tourism campaign) praising the city that by then lies in ruins. Verse 27, according to the JPS translation frames it thus:
‘Therefore the bard would recite: Come to Heshbon, firmly built and well founded is Sihon’s city’.
The word for ‘bards’ is the Hebrew ‘MOSHLIM’, translated elsewhere as ‘parable makers’, ‘they that speak in proverbs’, ‘poets’, or ‘rhapsodies’. The Hebrew stems from the word ‘MASHAL’ – that could mean parable, proverb, riddle or allegory. In this case, the poem or parable is nothing more than a taunting rhyme glorifying Emorite victory – quoted later by the Hebrews to showcase their own triumph. Maybe this is the poetic justice – the parable implied – every triumph can result in loss – beware.. Reading this in the 21st century – aware of what’s going on in Gaza, Bagdad or Darfur – to name just a few war torn regions – the ominous message of the parable is perhaps not lost, but certainly not heeded.
The bards were likely killed though their words survived, and their legacy, amazingly, lingers to tell us something about the role of truth telling in the aftermath of war. The word Moshlim can indeed by translated as ‘poets’ but it can also be translated, with creative license, as ‘rulers’ or ‘governors’. And since the winners always write history, we have here a rare usage of biblical irony – the winners using the triumphant poetry of the former winners to glorify their own story of success. The way you tell the story will determine what really happened – the poet (or media) becomes ruler.
And so, onwards the wild wild east of Sinai travel the weary people Israel, battle will follow battle, as the promised land of milk and honey will beckon closer yet. At rare moments poetry will prosper to give perspective, inspire hope, reflect and guide their journey. The fifth book of Moses, coming soon, is one long litany, and next week, the prophet Balaam will provide some of the most memorable poetic lines in the Bible. So what is it about war, strife and the emergence of poetry? And where, in today’s reality, where khaki clad media stars report live from the front line, does the poetry linger? And where, in our personal lives, does suffering inspire rhyme and parables of hope? We would like to believe that precisely from the ruins of demolished cities emerge the type of poetry that ignite a new reality in which we will all march to the beat of a different drum.