The Temple Clowns
By Mike Neis
2 Chronicles 20:20-21
As they were setting out, Jehoshaphat stood up and said, "Listen to me, Judah and you citizens of Jerusalem! Believe in Yahweh your God and you will be secure; believe in his prophets and you will be successful.” Then, having conferred with the people, he appointed singers who were to praise Yahweh and go out ahead of the army in sacred vestments, singing,
for his faithful love endures forever!”
Jorkum played Temple cantor. He would wrap undyed linen around himself like a priestly robe and march around the house, singing the processional psalm of Sukkot like the Levitical cantors of his family. He had to hold up the fabric to avoid tripping. He pronounced the Temple Hebrew with astonishing accuracy. His older siblings laughed to the point of tears.
Shortly after he came of age, Jorkum’s appointment to his father’s group of singers came as no surprise. King David himself had appointed his family to the company of Levitical cantors. From then on Jorkum was constantly at the Temple, singing. The priests processed around the altar sprinkling blood from slaughtered livestock while Jorkum and other singers followed and chanted psalms, mostly entreaties for help or God’s sympathy. During Yom Kippur, when tens of thousands came to the Temple to make their sacrifices, Jorkum’s father had to forcibly take him home after days of non-stop singing and processing.
Over time, Jorkum began to notice certain things. Along with the many acknowledgements of the Lord’s mercy, the psalms also spoke of embittered violence. For example:
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
When they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Jorkum noticed how Judah’s warriors usually had their place at the head of processions. The heroes of old, like Joshua, Saul, and David, seemed to spend their entire lives fighting foreign enemies or even amongst themselves. As Jorkum sang, he wondered how God’s mercy could be so intimate with such violence.
When Jorkum’s wife, Naava, was alive, he spoke to her about his duties as a Temple musician. Her responses could be brutal and pointed. “You are singing ‘Have Mercy on Me O God’ again?” she complained one day. “We have been doing that dreadful psalm for weeks now.”
“I know,” Jorkum replied. He agreed with her, which made it all the more difficult to explain the theology and politics behind song selections. “Cearney is the one who makes those decisions.”
“Well, you tell that Cearney we’re getting tired of begging for mercy. Let’s have some happy music for a change.”
“Okay,” said Jorkum. But he would not tell Cearney anything. No one did.
The pat-pat of two small feet approached him. His daughter, Rivka, with bright and expectant eyes, tugged at his robes. She gave him a thin-lipped smile, with arms stretched upwards. She did not speak, but Jorkum knew what she wanted.
“Yes, my lamb. I will stay.” He took off his shoes and sat down on the floor. Rivka wrapped her little arms around his neck. Jorkum looked up at his wife as he toppled over, barely restraining a laugh. “Go tell them I’m sick,” he said. “I can’t make it.”
Naava wrenched her face into that look normally reserved for dead rats. Doing a petty errand for her husband was bad enough. Lying for him would be intolerable. Rivka was crawling on top of her husband's shoulders, constantly on the verge of falling off. Her husband was laughing so hard he could barely breathe. Where did this doting father come from? Surely he was not the same man as the one she had met so long ago, who spent all his waking hours in the Temple, singing. Naava put on her mantle and left.
Jorkum lost his wife to a fever. She was stricken under a pile of blankets with chills and did not get better. Then Jorkum was left with his daughter.
Less than a year later, Rivka became listless. When she coughed up blood, Jorkum was so horrified that only his brother, Tovi, had the presence of mind to send for a healer.
Through the coughing and gasping for breath, Rivka fought for life with such desperation that Jorkum did not recognize his own daughter. Her eyes were dull, but they were still filled with expectation. He stayed at her side until the end.
After his daughter’s death, Jorkum sat in front of his house, watching the street. He drank more wine. His hands began to shake uncontrollably. Cold settled onto him, like dust on old scrolls. The following spring, a wall in his house collapsed, and he moved into a small room on Tovi's roof.
One evening, as he joined his family for supper, Jorkum’s mother pointed her finger at him. “You need to marry again.”
Jorkum did not look up. “Huh?”
“Don’t play games with me, son. You are only thirty-one. You must remarry.”
“I know men. And a man needs a wife. Why haven’t you found a wife yet? I’m tired of my son living by himself.”
“Or are you not a man anymore?”
He got up and left into the streets, shaking his head.
“Jorkum!” Tovi was chasing after him. “Jorkum! Don't pay any attention to Ima. She doesn't know what she's saying.”
Jorkum stopped and stared at the ground as his brother placed a hand on his shoulder. Like a wound that has become gangrene, Jorkum’s interminable grief had festered into shame.
Jorkum spaced his words. His voice came out in quavering hisses, frustrated, bewildered, harsh as a wounded cat. “Tovi. It has been—five—long—years. And I still—love them.”
Tovi drew in a deep breath and huffed it out. He took his hand off Jorkum's shoulder and came around to his side.
“I know, Jorkum, and I am sorry. You take as much time as you need. My wife and my children—we all like you. You are always welcome in my household. And pay no attention to Ima.”
Tovi returned home, leaving Jorkum standing in the middle of an alley. He was glad for Tovi's assurances, but he could not set aside the feeling that something was wrong. His grief had become the cause of increasing humiliations, and, in turn, personal rage. What could possibly be the point of such enduring agony? How could a merciful God allow him to be so stricken for such a long time?
Jorkum believed it was no accident that David, Israel’s greatest king, was also a musician. None of the kings that followed David seemed to understand a thing about Temple music, leading to its pathetic quality. Warriors and fighting dominated scripture and history, but musicians and music were swept aside with hardly a thought. The Book of Leviticus, with all its instructions on worship, did not have one word about music, leaving the musicians vulnerable to all sorts of tyranny from high priests and kings.
The only time that the Temple music got special attention was when someone powerful used it for personal objectives. The Levitical cantors sang at the presentation of Jehoshaphat’s eldest son, lending spiritual credibility to the event. In truth, the ceremony was only politics. The blasphemous management of music tore at Jorkum’s sense of reverence. Like the grief for his wife and daughter, his outrage at the poor status of music festered.
The music of the Temple had become increasingly old and traditional to the point of being brittle. No one dared to change or touch it. After his wife and daughter had died, Jorkum began to feel as withered as the Temple music itself.
Music at parties, on the other hand, always sounded fresh and energetic. When his niece got married, Jorkum danced, sang, and hollered into the night. Why could the Temple not have such lively music?
The Moabites, Ammonites, and the Meunites had united and were coming with a vast army. All of Judah had assembled around the Temple. As a Levite, Jorkum could see their king, Jehoshaphat, prone on the ground, begging the Lord for help. All traces of the arrogance regularly seen in Judah’s royalty were gone.
At the end of the day, Jorkum’s choral group spoke in whispers as they went home.
“The king is merely doing what his advisers say.”
“He does not believe.”
“He doesn't know what to do. His prayer is only a show.”
“Of course he doesn’t know what to do. Solomon was a wise man, Jehoshaphat is—not.”
“Whether the king acts on the word of his advisors doesn’t matter. The enemy will come and slaughter us all.”
Jorkum visited the graves of his wife and daughter as the sun sank. Silhouettes of evergreens waved in the gentle breeze. His hands gesticulated in broad sweeps. “So, you see,” he explained to the stones, “it will not be long before you show me the halls of Sheol. We meet our enemies tomorrow. All of Judah is afraid.”
Going to Meet the Enemy
Before first light the following morning, Jorkum sat up in his bed and took a long pull from his wineskin. His hands trembled while he ate. As commanded, he dressed in his ceremonial vestments. Then he emerged onto the street to join Tovi and his sons. Jorkum pulled his robe tightly around himself against the night’s breeze. He ached all over while cold seeped into his bones.
There was no laughter, and barely any discussion beyond the most practical of questions and directions. The men of Judah filled Jerusalem's streets, making their way south in a river of fear. The command was clear. “Take your positions and stand firm!”
The journey would take a couple of hours. Jorkum sighed. His left foot would be sore by the end of the day if he were alive at all.
The men of Judah spread out across the ridges overlooking the desert of Tekoa. As commanded, Judah’s thousands took their positions and beheld their enemies on the other side of the valley. Jorkum could just make out the insidious movements of armies, massive and terrifying.
As the sun broke over the desert hills, the Temple musicians gathered, wearing their sacred vestments in accordance with their clan and status. They glanced at Jehoshaphat conferring with his advisors on the next hillside and spoke amongst themselves.
“At least he will die with us.”
“The day is not over yet. Let's see what happens.”
A courier arrived and took note of their shofars, bells, and other instruments. He saluted. “All clans of Levitical singers! You have been appointed to go out ahead of the army to the enemy. You are to praise the Lord when you go. You are to sing:
For his faithful love endures forever!’
“Our king and our prophets say that God is with us,” the courier went on. “We will not need to fight this battle. Take courage and stand firm!” The courier saluted once more.
“How many are commanded to go?” Cearney bellowed as he advanced in broad strides, seeking any clarification the courier might offer.
“All 288 of the Levitical singers have been commanded. Assemble yourselves now.” Then the courier left.
As Jorkum figured out the consequences of the king's command, he felt the blood drain from his head, and he became dizzy. Outrage gripped the musicians.
“How can Jehoshaphat do this to us?”
“We are Levites, not sheep to be slaughtered in a hopeless massacre.”
“Ha! Are you kidding? We are musicians. We are nothing. He can do whatever he wants with us.”
Boaz, a large youth who had recently joined the cantors, spoke. “Have you no faith in the assurances of the prophets?”
The cantors looked at the ground saying nothing. A family of quail emerged from the brush, and then darted back in again.
Boaz went on. “I’m confused. Why are we going out there?”
Cearney answered this time, his voice sharp and impatient.“Because we have no choice.”
No one liked this answer, but Cearney was right. Jorkum tightened his belt.
The Levitical singers organized themselves, as if for a celebration, but Jorkum had never felt so terrified. The interminable grief that had worn him down was gone.
The singers marched together in tight formation across the valley floor, away from the hills where Judah’s thousands remained hidden. The cantors had few weapons, save for some ceremonial knives they had never used. Jorkum could smell the men closest to him. For the first time in his life, he was in the middle of a war.
“Shofars!” came the command from the front. Jorkum’s hands trembled as he reached into his pack and pulled out his horn. A lingering call sounded from the front. When it ended, the entire company of musicians responded. Two-hundred and eighty-eight horns sounded long and loud. To control his shaking, Jorkum held his horn with both hands and blew so hard his right ear popped. Then the single shofar in front sounded again, leading in repeated shofar blasts as they marched across the valley.
When the command came to halt, they were so close to the enemy that Jorkum could see their faces. Each of the three armies had their own appearance. To the left, large blocks of regimented soldiers in clear rows carried brilliant bronze shields and swords. On the far right stood a vast throng of men with uncut hair, their long spears pointed straight up into the sky, as if to defy the heavens. The most fearsome army was directly in front of them, wearing armor of red and gray. Their slouching bodies and cocked heads made a mockery of any civility. Motionless, the soldiers stared at the tiny group of Levitical musicians. Jorkum wondered if they were within range of arrowshot.
He heard three shouts from the front, the signal to begin. And so, the company sang—no—they bellowed, summoning all the power of their lungs. It sounded horrible, ugly, and defiant.
For his faithful love endures forever!”
Jorkum and the group had sung these words countless times in the Temple. This would be their last. Over and over, they sang. Jorkum drew in so much breath that his chest hurt. He took courage in knowing he would die with the other cantors, men he had known all his life. The singers looked at their enemies, directly across from them. They might as well sing.
Then Jorkum saw an arrow fly from the middle army. But it was not towards the singers. Instead, it flew to the army on the right. More arrows crisscrossed through the air between the armies. Confusion took the Moabites, Ammonites and the Meunites. Their faces were no longer focused on the singers, but on each other. Disorganized movements pulsed across the hills, gaining intensity. Shouts rose with the clash of metal against metal, and the armies set upon each other. The sounds of war filled the sky, terrifying to behold.
In a few moments, the battle built to wild levels of fury. The musicians stopped singing and grew silent, half in wonder, half in horror, trying not to call attention to themselves. Jorkum did not move or slouch.
The different groups of soldiers thrashed aimlessly, like barley being ground into meal. The throbbing movements showed no tactics or strategy, only blind slashing and killing. Behind the singers, Judah’s own regiments remained immobile in the hills.
Jorkum thought of his wife and his fear left him, replaced with a consuming wish that Naava could have been with him at that moment. Although the carnage was horrible, it was also an incredible wonder that he wanted to share with her. But that would have been impossible, even if she had been alive.
The battle raged for hours, and the singers became exhausted from standing and watching the deadly mayhem before them. Jorkum felt waves of power, divine and awesome, pulsing from the center of the fighting. Once again, Jorkum could not understand how the merciful God he sang about could also enact this deluge of death. And what would it mean for him to be so close to something so inexplicable, so gruesome?
As the fighting slowed, Jorkum drew deeper breaths. The dead lay piled up and blood gathered in pools. The shouts, the clangs of weapons faded. Finally, the noise died out altogether.
The cool breeze of early evening blew across the backs of the singers. It carried the sweet smell of lavender. Then Jorkum felt something he could understand.
It was Naava, his wife.
She was with him. He could perceive her in a way that he trusted more than his eyes or ears, or even his sense of touch. Rivka was also there, holding her mother's hand. And Naava was speaking to him. He recognized her voice, deep and raspy, with clipped consonants and a pitch that inflected downwards at the end of her statements. Her words were clear and peaceful as the evening sky.
“It's all right, Jorkum.
“It's all right.
“You can let us go now.
“It's all right.”
The breeze kicked up and Jorkum's robes flapped. The smell of lavender surrounded him. The oppressive heat of the day had eased, giving way to the refreshing cool of twilight.
And Jorkum felt his agonized grief leaving him, like the breath of a sigh.
The singers looked at each other as the joyous shouts of Judah reached their ears. Then they broke into their own shouting.
“We won! We won!”
“No! The Lord won! We didn’t have to do anything!”
Jorkum disagreed. The singers had performed their duty with singular courage and fortitude.
At the command from the front, the musicians advanced towards the hills before them. Jorkum and the singers trod with caution as they reached the killing fields, watching for any attack, any trick, any movement. Bodies and limbs covered the ground, making it difficult even to find footing. Like sour milk, the smell of blood filled Jorkum's lungs. He collapsed onto his hands and knees and vomited. The men of Judah began to collect a vast supply of weapons, clothes, and armor.
Jorkum strapped three large brass shields to his back, and then walked home with his brother as dusk turned to night. His left foot did not bother him at all. When he arrived home, he tossed his robes to the floor and collapsed into his bed, depleted. He thought he would spend another wakeful night, thinking about the horrors he had witnessed that day. Instead, he fell into a dreamless sleep.
His eyes slowly opened to shouting and the sounds of horns. The morning sun leaked through the cracks of his door. Jorkum’s nieces and nephews burst into his room and carried him outside as he shouted, “Wait! Wait!” He was wearing almost nothing. They ignored him. The celebrations had begun.
The streets were mobbed and raucous and the noise was still building. Amidst the shouting and rejoicing, Jorkum and the singers took their places at the head of the procession. Women draped olive branches and flowers over their shoulders. An old man thrust a wineskin into Jorkum’s hands. The cantors were breathless with elation as they danced, sang, and stumbled their way through the city. People pressed into the streets from all sides. Jorkum walked arm in arm with singers, soldiers, and a great many people he did not know. Everyone was wild in an ecstasy, glad to be alive.
“This day will be remembered forever!”
“Praise the Lord who has saved us!”
“The cantors shall be remembered forever!”
Jorkum doubted that anything the singers had done would be remembered. Who thought about Temple musicians?
As he passed in front of the king’s palace, Jorkum saw Jehoshaphat and the high priest, along with their advisors. Were they grateful for what the cantors had done? Jorkum knew the answer to that question, and his rage flamed inside of him. His grief was gone, but his ongoing fury continued to burn. He stopped shouting and separated himself from the procession.
Jorkum slipped away from the crowds and walked back to his room at the house. He picked up his robe from the floor. He brushed it off and put it on. He walked with broad strides through the quiet alleys.
He suspected the Temple would be empty, and his heart began to pound with an opportunity. Other than two guards at the massive doors, he saw no one. The smell of incense filled his nose. He walked through the vestibule to the Greater House and the noise of the celebrations faded. Alone, he stood in the middle of the Temple and sang.
Jorkum’s years of intense grief had ended only the previous day. He drew from his vast knowledge of the psalms.
I am sinking in the deepest swamp
and there is no firm ground…
He thought about his frustrations as a Levitical cantor.
Yahweh, how countless are my enemies,
how countless are those who rise up against me…
The psalm progressed, and Jorkum remembered the shame and anger that grew from his grief. His life as a faithful cantor, husband, and father had been repaid so unjustly.
I am worn out with groaning,
every night I drench my pillow
and soak my bed with tears…
Jorkum held his arms forward, his fingers tightening into claws. He wheezed in large quavering breaths as he bellowed.
Why, Yahweh, do you keep so distant,
stay hidden in times of trouble?
The guards, ignorant of Temple Hebrew, only heard the usual cadence of chant. They hardly noticed how Jorkum’s voice grew from dog-like whimpers to ragged and accusing blasts as he sang and sang.