Anothony Esolen on the Books We Discover but Fear to Read
A page from an old primer: “See the kings of Judah. They are little boys. They play tag among the idols. The Temple is large, and has many idols. See them flirt with the whores (horz). The ladies knead their dough. They make cakes for the queen of heaven. Children, gather the wood! Women, shake the bells! Men, kindle the fire!”
What insights into a culture can an old textbook provide. No dreary life was that, beribboned and smoking with food, in the shadow of sultry Ashtaroth and bedroom Baalim. Yet one lad, King Josiah, only eight when he began his reign in Judah, turned his devotion to the Lord.
How that happened we are not told. It did not follow a tradition of royal fidelity. About most of the kings of Judah, and all of the kings of Israel, Scripture says exactly what it says about Josiah’s father: “Amon did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father Manasseh did.”
Finding the Law
No doubt everyone had a dim idea of God, and the priests had read the Torah—but as the single defining feature of Hebrew life, the Law had faded into neglect. Then Josiah, this young king with a strong sense of piety, took it into his head to repair the Temple.
That old building had long been used, by good kings and wicked, to collect monies to buy off an Assyrian warlord here or a Pharaoh there. It had fallen on hard times. Maybe rats had tunneled through a crumbled corner. Maybe grass was growing on the roof tiles.
So Josiah said to his servant, “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may sum the silver which is brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the door have gathered of the people: And let them deliver it into the hand of the doers of the work . . . to repair the breaches of the house.”
In the course of the repairs, rummaging about, Hilkiah the high priest did something a high priest should not have had to do. He found the book of the Law. Or perhaps he did not find it; perhaps he knew where it was all along, and in timid resignation sounded out its sentences now and again alone, and only used this opportunity to reveal its existence to Josiah.
It struck the king to the heart, though it did not yet strike the people. He heard the words, and rent his robes.
What follows is breathtaking. Josiah consults the prophetess Huldah (not, note, Hilkiah), who interprets the book with prophetical starkness. Because the people have abandoned the Lord, says she, paying no attention to the Judean army or gross domestic product, their great city shall fall. Yet because Josiah has returned to the ways of his forefather David, he shall be gathered to his grave in peace and shall not see the destruction to come. Enough consultation for Josiah.
He pulls down the popular open-sky shrines in the “high places” for illicit worship of the Lord; smashes the vessels of the fertility god Baal that had been kept—under Hilkiah’s own tenure?—in the Temple; levels the groves planted for the worship of said Baal, or his Sidonian cousin Thammuz; dismantles the bathhouses built for ritual sodomy with the pretty-boys; burns every stock and beats every stone to powder and pours the refuse into the Kidron, turning into a garbage dump the luxurious grove of Topheth, where tenderhearted parents would soar on narcotic incense as they charred their babies beyond recognition, making them “pass through the fire to Molech,” as the euphemism of their day put it; and razes the altars that Manasseh and Achaz had erected in the Temple courtyard—that had apparently been standing without scandal, without rousing angry zeal in the hearts of the priests, all those years.
Josiah was one busy man. I like Josiah.
Some dark ages are dark, but some are bright. Sometimes the four horsemen, Plague, Famine, War, and Death, rattle their swords for all to see, and sometimes, as in that brief heyday of the kingdom of Judah, they take up quiet and productive residence among us while we haggle at the bazaar and watch television and gnaw the fat of the land.
Judah lay near the great ports of Tyre and Sidon, at the crossroads for caravans traveling from the Euphrates to Egypt, and from Asia Minor to Aqaba. But a trade route is a war route, so Judah found itself hemmed between threats, allying with one nation, submitting tribute to another. It was more cosmopolitan than we might imagine, a New Jersey of the Near East.
Caravans bring not only goods but gods. The people of Judah sinned not by falling away from religion, but by falling enthusiastically into it. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh was a child at the circus when it came to religion: Come one, come all. He rebuilt the high places for the worship of the Lord, the same that his father Hezekiah had destroyed.
Bad enough, says the inspired author, but Manasseh worked on the principle that you can never have too much religion, nor too many ways to placate the gods or at least to try to divine what they are up to. So he dabbled in Chaldean worship of the stars, and built them altars in the Temple courtyard. And he “made his son pass through the fire” to Molech, no doubt with a heavy religious heart. He “observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards.”
He was, we may say, a spiritual person, ever on the watch to find a way to compel spiritual powers to do his will. Like the spiritual person of our own age, he had an open mind: as open and dark as the sky on a moonless night, as blank of meaning as the billboards at a Las Vegas strip, where everything may be bought but peace and truth.
Nor is there any hint that the people Manasseh ruled were of a different mind. In a land of rebellions and assassinations, he managed to reign for 55 years. The people of Judah, Temple-goers and all, did their own picking and choosing in the mall of the gods. Perhaps the economy was sound.
I wonder what it was like to be that high priest Hilkiah, as far as we can tell neither particularly bad nor particularly good. I wonder what it was like to be able to read, and not to read; to live in the illusion of peace, enjoying plenty of goods and plenty of gods, the goods trivial and the gods a cheat; to live in a Dark Age filled with light.
A Land of Books
I wonder what it was like to be responsible for the worship of the Lord, and to say—with real gladness, or as much as a compromised man can muster—“Look here, everyone. I have found a book!”
Books . . . Yes, I see books. I see a land littered with libraries. In them I see relics: wooden chairs and balustrades no one any longer has the skill to carve, and a few old books to go with them, dusty, forbidding, small-printed, filled with observation, eloquence, and sometimes genius.
Nobody reads them. Few can. I see those books packed in boxes to make room for the ephemeral. I see the boxes carted to the landfill.
I see crows pecking at the centuries.
I see schools as big as mills. The purpose of the school is to smooth the unpredictable corrugations of a forehead in thought, and at that purpose it works with great efficiency. I see history sowed with salt; geography scraped flat as if by another Ice Age, with a moraine left behind in Social Studies; the works of literary giants scorned, sent into storage, or perversely misunderstood; doses of their art administered to the young as vaccines, lest anyone catch a passion for them again. I see a lot of schooling.
I see penny sheet-music no one can read, for songs no one can sing, expressing sentiments no one can understand.
I see the traditions of man’s struggle to scratch a living from the land abandoned. Were the wheel to need inventing again, we would drag our prey behind us by ropes, could we remember how to twist a rope. I see the skill of the mason and the carpenter receding, the possession of but a few. Amidst all our wealth I see buildings at best pleasant in a sad nostalgic way, at worst dreary, crass, ugly. I know, because I have found the books to prove it, that clever boys once worked with an inventiveness that we should be pleased to find in an engineer.
I see Man and Woman, if I squint. They no longer know who they are. They do not recognize their bodies and psyches, tangled over by complementary virtues and vices, strengths and frailties. The wisdom of their grandparents regarding marriage they have tossed aside, so that each is as solitary as a pelican in the wilderness, an owl among ruins.
I see children, a few. They are sent as soon as possible to a gaily painted holding tank, a suspended animation between true childhood and the bright boxes they will later inhabit in the department of adulthood.
I see Latin and Greek textbooks on the shelf behind me as I write. They are the works of years of devotion, by men who strove to understand the empires of our past, their glories and their fall. Their title pages take me aback. “Chairman of the Latin Department at Westfield High School,” reads one. “B.A., formerly fellow of King’s College,” reads another. Sometimes the editor boasts no title, because he is an amateur, a lover. I see these, I the holder of a doctorate, and am ashamed.
How I long to see old churches, and how small and sad does this world seem from those places of shadowy might! I see the plaques on the walls and on the windows, the delicate serifs of the letters, the tracery of lead dividing the red and the blue and the gold.
I read them, I sound them out, knowing that no one knows the pastors and the benefactors they memorialize, nor what such people were really like. Much of the woodwork and masonry remains, but the reverence that moved the hearts of those who built these twilight places is now flattened in the glare of good feeling and self-celebration.
I see the gold edging on the Book, and read the prayer inside its cover, but am not stunned by that thunder-bolt of defiance, “And was made man.” Thunderbolts are few in my world, and distant. All is bright and white. There are no stained glass windows in the soul.
I kneel and pray, but do not work out my salvation in fear and trembling. I know that nothing but the Lord God will satisfy the hunger of my heart, but my heart is not that hungry. I am wise enough to know I am not the man I should be, but not so ardent to long that it be otherwise. I have hopes for my son, few for myself. I may not be lukewarm, but my range of hot and cold is narrow. I shop at the bazaar to pass the time, not expecting to be satisfied.
I know if I were born in a different age, I would be more of a man—a better or worse man, I cannot tell, but more of a man, that is certain. I pray through the noise, and the noise trickles into my prayer. I say with embarrassment and with some weak but real yearning, “I have found a book in the house of the Lord.”
That old priest Hilkiah, I am he.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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