|WHO KILLED THE PROPHET ISAIAH?
(There should be a very large, color-coded map of the Ancient Near East so that the TEACHER can indicate the areas involved with the history. The TEACHER will have to be very careful with saying and indicating “Syria” and “Assyria.”)
TEACHER: About one thousand years before the common era, David became king over all Israel and Judah. He conquered the walled city of Jerusalem in between, and set up his capital there. Under Solomon, the united Israelites built the magnificent stone palace and Temple. But Solomon's ambitions put a strain on the people. And when his son Rehoboam declared, “My father punished you with whips, but I will whip you with scorpions,” the northern kingdom broke away. The ten tribes of the northern kingdom set up a new capital in the walled city of Samaria, while the tribe of Judah in the south remained faithful to the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. Over the next two hundred years, the two kingdoms antagonized and occasionally attacked each-other. But a common threat emerged from the north, the neo-Assyrian empire, a nation of conquering warriors. These were the inventors of the battering ram and chain-mail armor, experts at besieging walled cities and enslaving populations. Northern Israel sought alliances of mutual protection with Syria, Judah and Egypt, but king Ahaz of Judah refused, instead offering protection money to the Assyrians. Assyria responded by crushing northern Israel and Syria, deporting their populations into slavery. When the rule of Judah passed on to Ahaz's son Hezekiah, he rebelled against Assyria, refusing to pay tribute or obey their customs. Assyria's response was swift. Forty-six cities of Judah were destroyed, the country-sides burned, the people dragged away in chains...Until only Jerusalem remained. King Sennacherib of Assyria sent a hundred and eighty-five thousand soldiers to surround it. Our play takes place during this siege, the time is Seven hundred and one years before the common era, and our setting is the city of Jerusalem.
ACT I :
(Within the walled city of Jerusalem, during the Assyrian siege of 701 BCE. The main gate is offstage right. The wall is battered and cracked, and the characters have soot on them – the siege is a constant in this play, and should be suggested by sound-effects of rumbling and bombardment. The characters should be constantly aware that they could be crushed at any minute by projectiles or falling debris. MARA walks on from right, visibly distressed by the situation. URIAH walks on from left, his priestly robes covered in ash. Neither has slept in days.)
URIAH : Good morning.
MARA : ...That's a joke, right?
URIAH : Not at all. If this is to be the last sunrise we see, the final dawning over Jerusalem...shouldn't it be a good one?
MARA : You're awfully certain the city will fall. Have you been reading sheep-guts again? Against the king's orders?
URIAH : What? Of course not.
MARA : Of course not...
URIAH : They only confirm what everybody knows, anyway. Please don't tell King Hezekiah.
MARA : Your secret's safe with me...as safe as anything in this city...
URIAH : And whatever may be the position of a lamb's liver, we've got recent history as our guide to the future. The fall of northern Israel...
MARA : I was only a little girl when the Assyrians took Samaria. They sacked every town, gradually surrounding the capital. My mother and I slipped out with some other refugees. My father died defending Samaria... As my husband died last month defending Lachish...
URIAH : And tomorrow you'll die defending Jerusalem...
MARA : Maybe.
URIAH : How many soldiers defend these walls?
MARA : A couple hundred. And every day more escape the city. But they all look back, their severed heads...stacked on pikes, anyway...
URIAH : And how many Assyrian soldiers surround us?
URIAH : Never go home to harvest...
MARA : Every one of them, a warrior born. And Sennacherib their king is twenty-five miles southwest with three hundred thousand more...he could have them here in a day and a half.
URIAH : And what will you do if they decide to attack?
MARA : Defend. As my husband did, to the death.
URIAH : You could surrender, you know, and survive.
MARA : Getting dragged naked to another land with my head shaved and a hook in my nose is...not my idea of survival. I'll die by the sword, thanks.
URIAH : I had my doubts about a woman leading the army after your husband died. Now I only regret that a soldier as fine as yourself will suffer such an awful fate.
MARA : But what I can't understand is...why?
URIAH : I can think of a hundred and eighty-five thousand reasons...
MARA : No, I mean – why would God do this to us? The Northern kingdom was full of shrines and idolaters. But here, after King Hezekiah destroyed the hill-shrines and sacred poles, even the brass thing! Shouldn't God be pleased?
URIAH : I would think so. But the King's wise decision that all worship be done in the Temple was not at all popular outside the city. Maybe it's God who wants to see the unbelievers dragged away.
MARA : But what if there are good people with them?
URIAH : The ways of God are mysterious. The way of Assyria is not.
MARA : I just hope Egypt sends the reinforcements they promised.
URIAH : Samaria had the same hope. Before Assyria broke through the city walls.
VOICE OFFSTAGE RIGHT : General, a man approaches the gates!
MARA : Assyrian?
MARA : Let him through.
URIAH : Are you crazy? He could be a spy! You know, undercover!
MARA : (Looks offstage) ...Far as I can tell, he isn't interested in covering anything.
URIAH : You don't know what he conceals! The Assyrians are always skinning people – there could be six infantrymen sewn up in there, using that skin as a costume! They could emerge in the night and throw wide the city gates!
MARA : You couldn't fit half a soldier in that bag of bones. Go, get him something to wear.
URIAH : I will. But don't look upon his nakedness. You might not live to repent. (Goes off left, returns with a burlap sack that he brings to the figure offstage right. Leads MICAH on wearing the sack, mumbling.) He's speaking but his voice is gone.
MARA : (Examining him) Then get him some water.
URIAH : You may be general, but I am high priest of Jerusalem. If you need to order someone, get a soldier.
MARA : If I take one more soldier down from the walls, there will be no more Jerusalem. Forget it. I'll get him some water. (goes off left.)
URIAH : I can see now you're no...skin-bag full of Assyrians... But it'll take more than that for me to trust you...
MARA : (returns with water) Here. Drink this. Regain your voice and prepare to explain yourself.
(ISAIAH enters, dragging a crate)
URIAH : It'll have to wait. Isaiah comes...and perhaps he will tell us why God, the God he knows so well, has sent the most massive and brutal army this land has ever seen...to destroy this holy city. Why God would send the last remnant of His own people into oblivion.
(RACHEL enters from left, stands off to the side to listen. HEZEKIAH enters from right about half-way through the oracle, also standing off to the side to listen.)
ISAIAH : (Drags the crate to center stage and stands upon it.)
(ISAIAH steps down from the crate.)
URIAH : Right, great. Shame on everyone who's anyone. But who's blessed, then? The meek? The mournful? The merciful? Perhaps God's told you everything except what everybody else here knows! The sacred city is surrounded by a hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrian soldiers! What do you and your God have to say about that?
ISAIAH : The Assyrians are here. The Assyrians will be gone. But when this nightmare is passed...will there be justice in Jerusalem?
URIAH : Of course! Always! This is God's sacred city.
ISAIAH : You believe that God resides here so the city is sacred. But I tell you this city must first be sacred, filled with justice, and then God will make it his residence.
URIAH : You blaspheme against God and this city? At a time like this?
ISAIAH : If this were God's city in deed and not only in words, maybe God would not have sent a hundred and eighty-five thousand soldiers to surround it.
RACHEL : But God wouldn't do that!
RACHEL : ...Is there hope for us?
ISAIAH : I don't know. Is there hope in us? (Pause. Looks over at HEZEKIAH, who departs from the stage. Looks at MICAH.) You've traveled far to be here. What would you tell Jerusalem?
MICAH : (Steps up onto the crate. Begins weakly, but his strength gradually comes to him)
MARA : ...No wonder the Assyrians let him through...
URIAH : Oh great! This one's even worse – you've got us all sounding like pagan cannibals!
MICAH : If the sandal fits...
URIAH : Perhaps you're not aware, boy, that you are speaking to--
ISAIAH : You speak to those who need to hear you. Thank you for your words. I will consider them. (Exit stage left.)
MARA : Yeah...thank you... I'd better go reassure the soldiers. (Exit)
URIAH : I've got fleecing to catch up on. (Exit)
MICAH : No.
RACHEL : It's me – Rachel! We grew up together! Don't you know me?
MICAH : Wait... Maybe there's a glare in my eye... Hold still. (Reaches out and removes her jeweled headband, drops it to the ground. Does the same with her veil, necklace, fine cloak, armbands, bracelets, rings, sash and anklets . Leaves her basic garment on and nose-ring in.) Rachel. I can see you now. But I don't remember this. (The nose-ring )
RACHEL : Yes, I married after you left town. A wealthy landowner from Jerusalem came to repossess my family land, and my father...
MICAH : A proud man.
RACHEL : Yes, he said our ancestral lands could remain in our bloodline. By giving me in marriage to the new owner.
MICAH : Then I wish you joy.
MICAH : This city doesn't have much time. You should spend it with the one you love. (Turns to leave.)
RACHEL : Wait. (Removes the nose-ring, drops it in the pile.) He's dead. He was out collecting debts when the Assyrians took the countryside.
MICAH : I grieve with you.
RACHEL : It was a brief marriage, not even a full moon. I guess it's funny...now that he's gone, I'm the rightful owner of my family land...except that it's been taken by Assyria, given to their Philistine colonies. Why did you leave?
MICAH : Why did I leave? Because my ancestral land was swallowed by some rich cannibal like your husband!
RACHEL : But I told you! My father would have employed you every day! You could have stayed in Moresheth.
MICAH : As a day-laborer. For another farmer about to lose his land. No, there was nothing left for me there. My land which was my past, my daily bread and my future was torn from me. One bad harvest and some stranger took it away...
RACHEL : But how can you tell me there was nothing for you in Moresheth?
MICAH : Whatever plans we may have dreamed up as children...were torn from me with my land. Was your proud father going to give his daughter to a dispossessed day-laborer?
RACHEL : He knew you were a good man...
MICAH : He knew me as a farmer. But what is a farmer without a farm? No-one. So I went where no-one belongs. Nowhere. And in the wilderness I sat forty days until the Lord came to me as a whirlwind. And I knew that violence would spiral toward the focus of His anger, Jerusalem. And I dropped my clothes and turned my face toward the city, shouting that it soon would fall.
RACHEL : You walked here? But what about the army outside?
MICAH : They parted like the sea. Many flee the city everyday with everything their arms can carry. I suppose the soldiers didn't know what to do about one naked man walking in.
RACHEL : Micah, this could be our last day alive. What we dreamed of as children...could be real for a moment here and now.
MICAH : What we dreamed of as children was a future. Together. There's no future here.
RACHEL : The name of our God is not “I will be” or “I was” but “I am.” The present is all we ever have.
MICAH : No.
RACHEL : Micah...
MICAH : No. Go home.
RACHEL : I am home.
MICAH : What, this city of corruption and lies?
MICAH : Your husband's bedroom.
RACHEL : Now it's mine. It could be ours. (Steps up, puts her arms around him.)
MICAH : (Evades her embrace) I want no part of this doomed city. And I need no childish fantasies to keep me from my mission. I wish you all the best....which, under the circumstances, is still pretty terrible. (Walks off.)
(RACHEL looks down at pile of finery on the ground, leaves it and walks off. There's five big knocks at the gate. MARA and URIAH walk on.)
MARA : It's the Assyrian ambassador.
URIAH : The head eunuch?
MARA : ...I can't tell from here. Maybe you should ask.
URIAH : No. Hezekiah says only to listen.
MARA : Open the gate!
(RABSHAKEH enters, wearing elaborate near-eastern dress, which includes very high platform shoes, broad shoulder-pads and a big, boxy helmet – we should have the impression at first that she is a very tall man.)
RABSHAKEH : Thus says the great king, Sennacherib of Assyria – Whatever confidence you have is a delusion. Whatever prayers you have are a cry unheard. Whatever promise of help you may have from Egypt is empty. Egypt is a splintering staff that will pierce the hand of any who lean upon it. And if you claim to rely on your God, then I wonder why Hezekiah destroyed so many shrines where people were worshiping Him! Is it without your God's consent that we surround Jerusalem, poised to destroy it?
URIAH : Please, speak to us in Aramaic – we understand it. If the soldiers on the walls hear you they--
RABSHAKEH : Are my words for you and your king only? Won't these soldiers also soon be drinking their own urine and eating their own filth? (Shouts to the top of the wall) Hear the word of the great king, Sennacherib of Assyria! Hezekiah is a liar and a fool if he says he can deliver you. Only your God can deliver you...and your God can only deliver you into the waiting hand of the great king! Has any god of a nation ever rescued so much as an acre from Assyria? Where are they now, the gods of Hamath, Arpad, Hena, Ivvah and Philistia? Where was the god of northern Israel when we plundered Samaria? Where was your God when we captured Zaanan, Beth-ezel, Maroth, Lachish, Moresheth and Adullam? Your petitions are useless if you direct them toward an uncaring God, and not the merciful Sennacherib. Make your peace with the great king, and each of you will eat of your own vine and drink of your own well. Then you will be led to a land like your own, of grain and wine, olive oil and honey, where you will live in peace and promise.
URIAH : Just so we know, might there be a land...better than our own? Israel isn't exactly an earthly paradise...
RABSHAKEH : I've said all I...came...
(RABSHAKEH notices ISAIAH, who's been standing at the edge of the stage since she began listing the nations, watching her with a bemused expression. He smiles knowingly at her.)
RABSHAKEH : Even you, village idiot, may know mercy from the great king Sennacherib.
ISAIAH : Then my title would be well deserved.
RABSHAKEH : Who...are you?
ISAIAH : One who awaits deliverance.
RABSHAKEH : Village idiot, then.
URIAH : Something on the shores of Dor, perhaps? Or Damascus?
RABSHAKEH : I've said all I came to say. I'll expect an answer when I return. Now please open the gate, the stink of fear here makes my skin crawl.
MARA : Yes... Open it.
RABSHAKEH : (Loudly) Oh, and one more thing. Hezekiah is a coward and a liar and a fool! And your God is a breath of hot air and nothing more! Witness, citizens of Jerusalem that they do not come to their own defense! You'll all be fools too if you expect them to come to yours. (Exit)
HEZEKIAH : (enters) ...Is he gone?
MARA : I'm...not so sure it was a 'he,' my king.
URIAH : Certainly not, but some seraph or beast, likely with a face so terrible the sight of it would have killed us...
MARA : I mean it might have been a woman.
URIAH : Oh! Because it frightened the high priest it must be a woman!? Nonsense.
HEZEKIAH : It's the message and not the messenger that concerns me.
MARA : Well, she...it...said you were a--
HEZEKIAH : I heard that part.
URIAH : Let me then give you a general sense of the message by being the first to...tear my garment in mourning for a Jerusalem obliterated completely, unless...we accept terms of surrender..?
MARA : Tear it then, coward, we'll never give up!
HEZEKIAH : All my life I've prepared for this. The Philistine cities I besieged in my youth. The army I trained, the aid I negotiated with Egypt. The grain I've laid up in storage, water I've siphoned and pooled within the city. The reinforcement-walls...all in preparation for the moment I could throw off the yoke of Assyria that my father took on... So why do I feel so unprepared now? I cleansed the Temple of idols, closed down the country-side shrines--
URIAH : And crushed that...brass thing...
URIAH : ...Where do you feel like God is?
HEZEKIAH : Where is the prophet Isaiah?
MARA : Nearby, we saw him a moment ago.
HEZEKIAH : Please bring him here.
MARA : Yes, my king. (Exit)
URIAH : Your wisdom is great and your judgment sound, but... Do we really need his help?
HEZEKIAH : You've torn your garment already, high priest. What more are you going to do – dig a hole and lie in it?
ISAIAH : (Entering with MARA) ...You mean dig a hole and lie in it?
URIAH : Well what kind of fantastical advice can we expect from you, Isaiah?
ISAIAH : Do not fear the Assyrians.
URIAH : I rest my case! Let all Jerusalem know that in this moment of our greatest peril...Isaiah has outdone himself with the most idiotic counsel possible! I thought you might say we should stand on our hands or shave our backs but I never expected--
HEZEKIAH : (pulls his sword) Uriah, I will trim your beard if you do not calm yourself. Is that understood?
URIAH : Yes, my king.
HEZEKIAH : I believe you speak with authority from on high. Have you anything else to say?
ISAIAH : The Lord has heard all that the Assyrian lackey said. And as those arrogant words are carried away by the wind, so will the siege be lifted. The only question now is...when the danger has passed...will we remember, and will God remember, that we shook like trees in the wind? Or that we stood firm in faith?
URIAH : But how do we know it isn't your arrogance, telling us not to fear? Your words that won't fade in the air?
ISAIAH : I speak the word of the Lord. With a word He called this world into being. With a word He sent the Assyrians and with a word He will take them away.
MARA : Is there anything we can do? Besides not fear?
ISAIAH : I said not to fear the Assyrians. But one you must fear is the Lord. Why do we fear the Lord?
MARA : Because He's vengeful and violent?
URIAH : You're so close with Him, Isaiah. You tell us.
ISAIAH : Because those who fear the Lord need fear nothing else. Now enter the Temple and direct your fear where it can help us. Wrap yourselves in sack-cloth and ashes, sit in the dust and listen. Let the Lord tell you about a city worth saving. A righteous city to stand as an example to all others. And when the siege is lifted, be prepared to show that city to God.
URIAH : Excuse me, Isaiah, but it seems to me you had your chance to oversee Temple practice and you--
HEZEKIAH : Do as he says, Uriah. Mara, any soldier on the wall has the king's permission to go pray in the Temple courtyard. Tonight the city feasts as one. There will be mirth within these walls, and by our merriment we will show the Assyrians and our God that we are not afraid. Go, I'll be there shortly.
URIAH/MARA : Yes, my king. (They turn to go.)
HEZEKIAH : Isaiah, if I could have a word...
ISAIAH : Speak.
HEZEKIAH : I am not your king. This is why I often feel that you're the only person I can trust.
ISAIAH : You and I are servants to the same king. And to the king's people.
HEZEKIAH : Yes. And you know I've done my best for both. My father... My father could not have been called a righteous man. The idols he raised, the son he sacrificed, the Syrian altar he installed in the Temple... And yet in his days there was never a threat like this...
ISAIAH : In his days Jerusalem was besieged by Syria and northern Israel. My advice to him was the same I gave to you – do not fear. And yet he did, declaring the Assyrian king his Lord and father, paying a man for protection that God would have given freely.
HEZEKIAH : But I've spent my years in an effort to be a more righteous king than him. Yet still I find myself punished. The sickness in my skin that I thought would be the end of me , the stripping of my kingdom, now the soldiers encamped around my city... What is my crime, Isaiah? For what am I being punished?
ISAIAH : ...You don't know?
HEZEKIAH : Tell me.
ISAIAH : You are an idolater, Hezekiah.
HEZEKIAH : ...No. That's impossible. I had the idols removed from the hillsides and Temple, even the brass thing!
ISAIAH : I've known kings, and you're by far the most intelligent. Don't disappoint me now by pretending that idolatry means kneeling before a statue. Accept, rather, that you have entrusted the safety of this city to the work of mens' hands – the weapons of your soldiers, the gold in the Temple, the stores of provisions, the walls you've strengthened...the chariots of Egypt. You may tell yourself that these objects will spare you from kneeling before the Assyrian king... I tell you now, and you know in your heart, that you've amassed these objects to spare you from kneeling before the Lord.
HEZEKIAH : ...No...
ISAIAH : Pride is your idol, Hezekiah. A pride you have crafted and shaped and polished like a golden statue. A pride to which you give the honor you should reserve for God alone.
(MICAH enters from right, listens)
HEZEKIAH : What can I do?
ISAIAH : You have been blinded, but now you can see. In the Temple, you must now look beyond your pride, look for God. God will protect you.
HEZEKIAH : The city will be saved?
ISAIAH : The city is safe from the Assyrians. But no city is safe from a king who is blind and thinks he can see.
HEZEKIAH : Thank you. (Exit stage right)
MICAH : 'You were blind but now you can see.' 'The city is safe.' I misjudged you.
ISAIAH : I would say we always misjudge...when we pass judgment.
MICAH : You know, someday somebody should write down all your little...nuggets of truth. So that the whole world can read how pointless your little platitudes really are. And that one, 'the city is safe,' that should be last in the collection. As a reminder of how wrong you were.
ISAIAH : I wish someone would read you a scroll of the things I said at your age. So you could know how young you sound to me.
MICAH : All my life I've heard about the great Isaiah – you called Jerusalem the new Sodom! And now I find you, nothing more than a lackey to the king. Telling him the lies he wants to hear. Saying all is peace when there's only peril. Lying to these poor fools and directing them to the Temple to be lied to some more.
ISAIAH : My counsel to the king was for him alone. If you and I are to talk about my advice, let it be my advice to you.
MICAH : I carry no coin to pay a fortune-teller.
ISAIAH : The only payment I would ask is your attention. Your anger burns bright, as does the anger of the Lord at times. And while anger burns, it consumes everything within reach. And when it's consumed all it can reach, it dies. But there's another fire, which burns but does not consume, a fire that can be sustained for all eternity. And that fire is love.
MICAH : 'That fire is love.' Another little...nugget for the dung-heap.
ISAIAH : Clearly you've lost something that gives your life meaning. And you want others to feel as you feel.
MICAH : You've read my mind! Hey! I'm thinking of a number. What is it? Or could it be that everybody has lost something? Look around you!
ISAIAH : I appreciate your sarcasm. My sons are about your age and I miss them.
MICAH : Soon you can have a family reunion in the dust where the dead wander. They're outside the city?
ISAIAH : With my wife, yes.
MICAH : Oh, that's right! The prophetess! With whom you'd...name sons and then conceive them in front of the priesthood and king.
ISAIAH : Those were the days when I spoke of the destruction of Israel and Judah. When I believed all that could be saved was a single green shoot rising from a charred stump.
MICAH : Then pull up a chair and wipe the dust from your eyes, old man. This whole tree of Israel, mulched with flesh and watered with blood, will soon be chopped up and burned. It's ironic, I think, that your beloved king Hezekiah demolished every pagan hill-shrine...except the one he lives in! And now God sends Assyria to finish the job. This hill with its giant stone idol, raised by the pagan king, Solomon, who brought the revolution full circle, back to tyranny and slavery... Who knows? Perhaps your sprig from the embers will be the revolution born again. But you and I will only participate as dust and bone.
ISAIAH : I wouldn't miss it.
URIAH : (Entering from right) People of Jerusalem! By the decree of King Hezekiah, we dine tonight as one! Come, join together at sunset – eat, drink and be merry...for tomorrow we die.