Edgar Allan Poe - Tale of Jerusalem

2022-10-25 @Literature

Three or four times I’d read the tale. Laugh every time. I see it as a kindred to Four beasts in one: satirical, darkly humorous, packed with intriguing references: both to Ancient Roman and Jewish history. And as we often find with Poe, it’s short and sweet.

The little I’ve read about the tale of Jerusalem, it appears Poe heavily leveraged passages from a historical novel (by Horace Smith). Sure. And so had Shakespeare in select plays, and much of the Renaissance dramatic canon. Don’t let the idea of borrowing, multi-authorship, retelling, restaging (however you view it) influence your take.

But owing to the above and the heavy density of references, obscure to many, it’s easy to discount the tale as an extraneous effort. You’ll not find it but in a complete anthology. Again, all rubbish.

Let’s briefly address the tale and highlight a few bits.


the tenth day of the month Thammuz, in the year of the world three thousand nine hundred and forty-one

gate of Benjamin, city of David, and overlooking the camp of the uncircumcised;

Essentially we’re in Jerusalem in the first century BC during the Roman occupation - specifically that of Pompey (106-48BC), later on mentioned.

The main cast:

Abel-Phittim to Buzi-Ben-Levi and Simeon the Pharisee

… were the Gizbarim, or sub-collectors of the offering, in the holy city of Jerusalem.

The Gizbarim are the subcollectors of the Temple’s treasure, here in charge of collecting a sacrifice (a lamb) for the Temple ceremony to later take place.

In the following passage, ‘worshippers of Baal’, a pagan deity, is used in a derogatory sense in reference to the Ammonites, the antagonizing Semitic race:

“Verily,” replied the Pharisee; “let us hasten: for this generosity in the heathen is unwonted; and fickle-mindedness has ever been an attribute of the worshippers of Baal.”

In the next passage people of Adonai refers to the Jews, Pentateuch being part of the Torah:

“‘That they are fickle-minded and treacherous is as true as the Pentateuch,” said Buzi-Ben-Levi, “but that is only toward the people of Adonai. When was it ever known that the Ammonites proved wanting to their own interests? Methinks it is no great stretch of generosity to allow us lambs for the altar of the Lord, receiving in lieu thereof thirty silver shekels per head!”

Here Poe exercises healthy imagination:

“Now, by the five corners of my beard!” shouted the Pharisee, who belonged to the sect called The Dashers (that little knot of saints whose manner of _dashing _and lacerating the feet against the pavement was long a thorn and a reproach to less zealous devotees-a stumbling-block to less gifted perambulators)—“by the five corners of that beard which, as a priest, I am forbidden to shave!-have we lived to see the day when a blaspheming and idolatrous upstart of Rome shall accuse us of appropriating to the appetites of the flesh the most holy and consecrated elements? Have we lived to see the day when—“’

Here the Gizbarim overlook from atop the climbed tower upon the multitude:

“Verily,” sighed the Pharisee, as he peered dizzily over the precipice, “the uncircumcised are as the sands by the seashore-as the locusts in the wilderness! The valley of the King hath become the valley of Adommin.”

Conflating the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, and referring to the Philistines in an anachronistic sense:

“And yet,” added Ben-Levi, “thou canst not point me out a Philistine-no, not one-from Aleph to Tau-from the wilderness to the battlements—who seemeth any bigger than the letter Jod!”

Phenomenal dialogues such as this are numerous:

“Lower away the basket with the shekels of silver!” here shouted a Roman soldier in a hoarse, rough voice, which appeared to issue from the regions of Pluto—“lower away the basket with the accursed coin which it has broken the jaw of a noble Roman to pronounce! Is it thus you evince your gratitude to our master Pompeius, who, in his condescension, has thought fit to listen to your idolatrous importunities? The god Phoebus, who is a true god, has been charioted for an hour-and were you not to be on the ramparts by sunrise? Aedepol! do you think that we, the conquerors of the world, have nothing better to do than stand waiting by the walls of every kennel, to traffic with the dogs of the earth? Lower away! I say—and see that your trumpery be bright in color and just in weight!”

The catalogue and conflation of Semitic deities, juxtaposed next to the Greek (ie Phoebus, used curiously by the Roman soldier):

“El Elohim!” ejaculated the Pharisee, as the discordant tones of the centurion rattled up the crags of the precipice, and fainted away against the temple—“El Elohim!—who is the god Phoebus?—whom doth the blasphemer invoke? Thou, Buzi-Ben-Levi! who art read in the laws of the Gentiles, and hast sojourned among them who dabble with the Teraphim!—is it Nergal of whom the idolater speaketh?—-or Ashimah?—or Nibhaz,—or Tartak?—or Adramalech?—or Anamalech?—or Succoth-Benith?—or Dagon?—or Belial?—or Baal-Perith?—or Baal-Peor?—or Baal-Zebub?”

Teraphim, for the record, refers to something disgraceful.

Here the Gizbarim seek to identify the offering loaded onto a basket by the Roman soldier:

“Booshoh he!—for shame!—it is a ram from the thickets of Engedi, and as rugged as the valley of jehosaphat!”

“It is a firstling of the flock,” said Abel-Phittim, “I know him by the bleating of his lips, and the innocent folding of his limbs. His eyes are more beautiful than the jewels of the Pectoral, and his flesh is like the honey of Hebron.”

(Possibly anachronistic) references to musical instruments:

“It is a fatted calf from the pastures of Bashan,” said the Pharisee, “the heathen have dealt wonderfully with us——let us raise up our voices in a psalm—let us give thanks on the shawm and on the psaltery-on the harp and on the huggab-on the cythern and on the sackbut!”

Questions, comments? Connect.