1000 BCE. The Royal Scriptorium, a writing-office/warehouse more pretentious in name than reality, in King David’s Palace, Jerusalem: it is a cavernous room chock-full of clay tablets, animal-skins in various stages of tanning-preparation for writing, clay jugs ready for inscribing with the names of their contents, rolls of papyri stacked in every conceivable corner, and even a stack of stone plaques next to several hammer-and-chisel sets, which will be used for more-permanent legislative displays.
In one corner badly-lit by a flickering olive-oil lamp, two Royal Scribes, Tsuribaal and Kuttav, are having a quiet chat over some herbal tea, during a break from sharpening their reed pens, which they will dip into vegetable-dye-ink and apply to parchment-scrolls. They are, as Hebrews have done since time immemorial, discussing vigorously—that is, arguing over—the content of the Blessing of Jacob, this week’s Torah portion, but, back then, merely a section of prose-poetry recording the pre-monarchical tribal saga of the Israelites.
Tsuribaal: Kuttav, you have it all wrong. Reuven was Jacob’s firstborn, way-back-when, and there remain large numbers of Reuvenites still living in this tribal portion. See here (flourishing a chart which he plucks expertly from a pile in the corner): the Royal Census of the first year of King David’s reign, peace be upon him! I know there was a Census, for, my word upon it, a plague followed. Plagues always follow any reckoning. That is why I have never given the Chief Scribe, Pedahtzur (whispering)—that fat, oily fish of a bureaucrat, who talks more than he will ever write, and leaves the minute recording to us lowlier souls—an exact count of the fresh papyri and the bags of clay we got two months ago from Ashdod.
Kuttav (speaking with exaggerated patience): I cry you pardon and mercy, Master Tsuri—Judah is the biggest tribe. I am a Judahite, as is our King, God preserve him! And that is what I will write Jacob’s Blessing to mean. Now, leave me, Tsuribaal; I work better on poetry when I am left alone. You go count the bags of hops in the other storeroom; there’s a good fellow. Where’s my Text on Poetical Parallelism--?
Tsuribaal: Not so fast! Did you forget that we were both assigned to write the Blessing? It is most important that we show the smooth transition in leadership from Reuven to Judah. And what shall we do with Shimon and Levi? You can’t just have two major tribes disappear like that.
Kuttav: Hmph—where are your mighty Tribes of Shimon and Levi today? I saw a Levite-worker at the Offerings-Tent here in Jerusalem where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, and he was covered with soot and blood, hardly impressive—not to disparage the Ark itself, though why David is not allowed to build a Holy Temple, I am not sure. For me, it all comes down to that business with Dinah and Shechem, back in the Jacob-Saga. Even given that she was a very, shall we say, sheltered young girl, was it a—and please, Tsuribaal, forgive me for speaking so bluntly—seduction, or something other than that?
Tsuribaal: Goodness—you’re going to have to clean that up—there may be small children reading this Book! Can’t have any goings-on like that in a Holy Book, Kuttav. And it’s a Royal Chronicle, to boot.
Kuttav: I write what I see—that is, in my Mind’s Eye. We are not mere record-scratchers on clay lumps, Lord Tsuri; we are the Royal Historians, and, as such, are obligated to record our People’s History, as well as their Interactions with the Dweller-Between-the-Cherubim.
Tsuribaal (shaking a finger in Kuttav’s face): Don’t get all High-and-Mighty with me, Master Kuttav. I sat next to you during Scribal Arts Class, and even slipped you some answers on the Phoenician Language Short-Answer part of the Final Exam, when the Proctor was nodding off. In fact, Kuttav, were it not for me, you would be a mere Royal Customs Clerk, sizzling beneath the hot sun on the docks there in Yaffo, counting barrels of olive oil and Mei Raglayim naphtha being sent off to Hodu and Kush, instead of sleeping on cool marble and fresh linen in the Palace Dormitory and canoodling with that little kitchen-doxy of yours from Lower Issachar! (He stops, fuming)
Kuttav (soothingly): Now, Tsuribaal, calm yourself. I’m sure we can work something out about Dinah. You certainly cannot argue with the long-standing Tradition that Shimon and Levi took up arms and attacked the men of Shechem when they were—shall we say—indisposed.
Tsuribaal (tapping his lip): Yes, that’s true.
Kuttav: Nor that Reuven made his move on leadership by claiming Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah, and that Jacob was—was—(hesitates)
Tsuribaal: Can we not say, “Jacob heard of it”? Meaning, he did nothing. We play the entire incident down.
Kuttav: Yes, that is a fine compromise; I agree to settle for that language, vague though it be.
Tsuribaal (smiling triumphantly): Agreed, as well. This is a Royal Chronicle, after all, not some Arabian Nights Harem Tale.
Kuttav (writes): Done and done. Now, how are we to leave in no uncertain terms the unassailable fact that Judah, the Royal Tribe of our Awful Sovereign and Liege Lord, David the Most-High-King, Peace be Unto Him! And his Progeny (whosoever that Progeny may be; there are so many of them, but who am I, a mere Scribe, to criticize?), may reign forever?
Tsuribaal: I am there, M’Lord Kuttav, once again, ahead of you, with a nice bit of poetry I recall from our late Writing-Master Achikam, in Scribal Arts Class, you may recall: “The scepter shall not depart from—what’s that tribe, again?—Judah”—yes, Judah.
Kuttav: To which I will add, “…Until Judah reaches Shiloh.”
Tsuribaal (suspicious; he gives up nothing without a fight): “Shiloh”? What’s that?
Kuttav: A nice distinction. We may understand it many ways—it can be Shelah, one of the Judahite clans, and the one to which I myself belong—I consider it an honor, and a bit of poetic license, to insert myself into the text—sort of an echo of my—I mean, our—own labors on this royal-tribal-memorial project. Or, it could be “shai lo,” meaning, “until a tribute is brought to him,” that is, to the ruler at the time, that ruler being a descendant of David, which will help to shore up the Davidic House against any rivals—one never knows; remember the tussle David had, seizing the Throne away from Saul and the Benjaminite Tribe? Beyond that, David and his descendants will solidify their hold on power, so much so that the other tribes, indeed, all the tribes and nations of our known world, extending all over the Back of the Land-Turtle and from one corner of the Firmament to the Other, will bring him tribute, and all Humanity will pledge their loyalty to him.
Tsuribaal: Hm. A nice bit of poetry, that. (Puts down his reed quill and says, half-mockingly) I defer to your poetical and political skills, Master Kuttav.
Kuttav: Thanks; couldn’t have done it without your assistance (Tsuribaal narrows his eyes and glares); I mean, help. Any more of that herbal tea left—or, if we’re done, my mind and throat are dry. M’lord Tsuri, the workday’s almost done. Could I interest you in a mug of barley beer?
Kugel, James. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then & Now. NY: Free Press, 2007.