What Happened to Ephraim and Menashe?
by Rabbi David Hartley Mark
Scene: The Marketplace of Thebes, imperial capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom. It is as crowded as American malls were in their heyday: merchants all noisily calling out about their wares. The air is full of the smells of fresh meat, cheese, old leather, spices, wine, and other items.
Standing by a coppersmith’s shop and looking at an ornamental shield is Menashe ben Yosef, Joseph’s younger son. He wears the off-duty dress of a Royal Cavalryman, and it is clear from the patterns of his sunburn that he has been wearing body armor, serving on desert patrol duty. Deciding he wishes to purchase the shield, Menashe calls out to the smith, who, bowing low, comes forward and begins to bargain with the young officer.
Suddenly, rushing through the crowd comes Ephraim, Joseph’s older son, his arms laden with rolls of papyrus, and a sack of soft clay tablets, ready for taking notes, hanging from his belt. He is hard-pressed to make way through the crowd, and the tall stack of papyri he carries makes it impossible for him to see in front of himself. Inadvertently, he bumps hard into his brother, who spins around, hand on bronze sword, ready to defend himself.
Menashe: Aroint thee, Varlet! Wilt lay hands on a Royal Officer of the Mighty Pharaoh Ramesses II? Defend thee, or I’ll have your guts in the dust of the street!
Ephraim: So sorry, Commander (seeing Menashe’s rank on his sword-belt). The fault is entirely mine. I was late for an appointment, and—
Menashe: You seem familiar. Did we serve together in B Troop, named “Horus the Hawk-god,” during the Mitanni Campaign last year?
Ephraim: No, I have never served, though I honor those who carry our Eagle-standard to defend our sacred lands against the invaders, be they Hebrews, Nubians, or others. I—
Menashe: My Brother Ephraim, is it you? By Ra, how many years has it been?
Ephraim: Menashe? My baby brother Menashe?
Menashe (bowing, half-mockingly): The same. (They embrace.)
Ephraim (looking in his brother’s eyes): You haven’t changed—
Menashe: Just a few scars earned in battle for the honor of King and Country. I began in the Royal Infantry, but then, when our Royal Ordnance Dept. was able to develop and improve upon the chariots brought to us by those accursed Hyksos, I switched to the cavalry. I am now Major, “Osiris god of Death” Troop, in charge of guarding the northwestern boundaries of our holy soil against Canaanite invaders. One more important battle, and I could be looking at a Lieutenant-Colonel’s wings on my belt.
Ephraim: How wonderful! Papa would be so proud—
Menashe: I have no father.
Ephraim (whispering): How can you deny the Grand Vizier Joseph, our honored father? He gave you the best upbringing and education; he sustained our homeland Egypt in its hour of need; he—
Menashe: Brother, Brother. Keep your voice down. These shops have ears, and I am a military officer of—of—Hebrew blood. Let us go into a tavern of which I know, where the barkeep is proprietor, and a friend. We will choose a quiet corner booth, and speak as freely as we can—(speaking more loudly) in public, under our new Pharaoh, Ramesses II, Ra bless him!
Ephraim (as they walk along, arm-in-arm): Well, Baby Brother, it is still so, so good to see you, after all these years!
Menashe: You know that I am wed to the army; how have you been supporting yourself, for all these years?
Ephraim: Well, now I know that you, as a soldier, are privy to secret information from our War Department, and must be careful what you say and do. However, my own profession cannot be said to be disloyal, not in the slightest. I am a sculptor, in clay, wood, and or any other medium. Graven images are my life.
Menashe: How wonderful, Dear Brother! I do recall how artistic you were, back in the Pharaoh’s Palace, when Papa—Joseph, I mean—took us with him to work. I would be fidgeting in my chair, and you would be scribbling—I mean, sketching—away. I am glad that you are able to make a living at it.
Ephraim: Yes: I can proudly say that, when notable Egyptians are laid to rest, their sarcophagi, even their little wooden servant-shawabtis, are often the products of my studio. I employ six young men whose talents, while not equal to mine (Menashe smiles), are sufficient to pass muster with our clientele. When I bumped into you, I was between work appointments, and was rushing back to the studio to assign new tasks to my workers.
Menashe: Am I keeping you from something?
Ephraim: No, I try to urge them on, to always be one or two days ahead of schedule, so I can spare some time to speak with you, O My Brother.
(They enter a tavern on a side street, cool and dark. The barkeeper, seeing Menashe, greets him:)
Barkeep: Ho Major Menashe, what news? How many Assyrian scalps have you brought triumphantly home on your chariot-prow? Did you bring me any gold or precious jewels from the loot of the slain?
Menashe (laughing): Semrep, you know that I am on temporary duty this day. Even a mighty warrior needs some time off.
Barkeep: You break my heart, O Great Soldier. What can I serve you, and this other gentleman?
Menashe (to Ephraim): What is your pleasure, Ephraim? Barley beer, the soldier’s drink?
Ephraim (to Barkeep): Have you any light-grape wine?
Barkeep: Of course. Sit, sit, gentlemen, and I will wait upon you myself. (He sings:)
Why then, let the cannikin clink, clink, clink,
Why then, let the cannikin clink.
A soldier’s a man,
A life’s but a span,
Why then, let the soldier drink.
Both Ephraim and Menashe (applauding): Well done! S[DM1] emrep, I did not know you could sing. Why, this barkeeper ought to enter the King’s Competition for Best Singer, etc.
Barkeep: I thank you, Gentlemen. That is an old song, taught me by my grandfather, who carried a sword and shield into battle against the Hittites, long ago, during the reign of the Great Horemheb, who married a sister of our Beloved Nefertiti. He was a quiet, but altogether military, man, who cared only for the glory of Our Egypt, not his own, personal fame and taxing the people, and building like a fiend—all that this this current fellow does, the blowhard—but I speak too much. (He brings the drinks.) I will leave you to your personal business; doubtless it is high affairs of state, seeing you are both Hebrews. Ha! (He leaves.)
Ephraim (sipping the wine): What did Semrep mean by that last remark? Yes, we are Hebrews, and I have never denied it, but why did you not challenge him?
Menashe (whispering): One must know when to speak up, and when to stay quiet, Brother. Why, haven’t you heard that Hebrews—I do not say, “We Hebrews,” since I consider myself an Egyptian, born and bred—that Hebrews are being singled out, one at a time, and impressed into a Labor Corps under Pharaoh Ramesses II? Whom do you think is building the pyramids your art is filling?
Ephraim (shrugging): I had heard some words to that effect, and my oldest apprentice—I trained him myself—quit on me the other day. When I asked him why, he looked me in the eye mournfully and said, “Don’t you know that you’re a Hebrew, Master Ephraim? Everyone else does.” But I thought nothing of it. What shall we do, Brother, in light of this new, anti-Hebrew policy of the Pharaoh’s?
Menashe: I will continue to do my duty, to defend Ra and Country. And if any man, royal or lay, challenges my loyalty, I will draw my sword.
Ephraim: But what if your commander orders you to arrest Hebrews? To whom are you loyal? To your country or your tribe?
Menashe: To my—to my—I cannot say. Not yet.
Ephraim (draining the rest of the winecup): You may have to decide, soon. My own position, as a middle-class sculptor, is, I believe, fairly protected, but who knows when the Pharaoh’s Secret Police will come for me?
Menashe: We will stay in touch, the best we can. I will try my best to protect you, with my contacts and clean record in the army. I have served for ten years; does that not prove my loyalty? Osiris, my god! Damn.
Ephraim: May the gods of our land protect us from all harm!
Menashe: Amen! Well, I must go….
Ephraim: One more question, Brother?
Menashe: Anything. I have—had—a wife and two sons, but have not been in touch. Too many top-secret assignments, you know.
Ephraim: I, the same: an ex-wife, son and daughter, but gone from me. (Sighs) No, my question is, why did you disown our father?
Menashe (sadly): Don’t you see? Had he not brought us down to this wretched place, causing us to be born here, we would be free, free in our lands today. Goodbye.
Ephraim: Goodbye, Brother. May the gods protect you!