The Murder of Asher Ben-Judah

Posted in Borges by Mike Stay on 2010 March 4

Here’s a story I wrote; it’s inspired by Borges’ collection of stories “A Universal History of Infamy.”

The Murder of Asher Ben-Judah

In the fourth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, Egypt successfully repelled the invasion by Babylon. Believing Babylon to be weakened, Jehoiakim of Jerusalem stopped paying tribute to Babylon, took a pro-Egyptian position, and promptly died. His son Jeconiah chose to continue the policy; one hundred days later, he was deposed by Nebuchadnezzar II for rebellion. The Babylonian king sacked the temple, took captive all the nobility and craftsmen who had not fled the city—some ten thousand people—and carried them off to Babylon; the prophet Ezekiel was among them. Before leaving, perhaps mockingly, Nebuchadnezzar annointed Jeconiah’s uncle Mattaniah, clothed him in the robes of kingship, and gave him the new name “Righteousness of the LORD.”

Despite the destruction, the harvest that year was a good one for farmers, and the sale of the excess bought capital for rebuilding the city. Those wise and wealthy enough to have fled Jerusalem with their property in anticipation of the inevitable response to Jehoiakim’s stupidity returned; among them was the ward boss Asher Ben-Judah. Asher was a master at organizing labor; he was often and fruitfully compared to Father Jacob’s father-in-law for having the cunning to convince a man to work fourteen years in the hope of being paid someday. However, when cunning failed, Asher was not above resorting to other motivators: he was also a master at organizing crime. If one were to speak to a particular man in the bazaar, he would recite a list of Asher’s prices:

  • Punching – 2 shekels,
  • Both Eyes Blackened – 4 shekels,
  • Nose & Jaw Broken – 10 shekels,
  • Ear Chawed Off – 15 shekels,
  • Leg Or Arm Broken – 19 shekels,
  • Stab – 25 shekels,
  • Doing the Job – 100 shekels and up.

As the armies of Babylon flooded the country, Asher came to rest in the mountains of Ararat. A generation before, the Arartian king Rusa II had built more cities than Solomon, Ramses, Semiramis and Sargon put together; the blind arches of Rusahinili and Teishebaini rivaled the fortifications of Ninevah. Asher knew there would be plenty of work for masons in rebuilding Jerusalem after Babylon was through with it.

Another household returning to Jerusalem that year was that of Asher’s second cousin “Jawbone” Ben-Samson, a merchant dealing in precious metals and a smith in his own right, having received the secrets of metallurgy from his fathers. Ben-Samson had chosen to find refuge in Egypt, where Babylon could not follow, and returned with artifacts of gold, silver, brass, and steel.

Though Asher cared nothing for working metal, he was the firstborn and had inherited the sword forged by their great-grandfather; the iron was cast down from heaven and laid waste to a forest near Damascus. Such iron was very rare and very valuable, since it was pure enough to be strengthened by forging in charcoal; iron extracted from ore already had too much of the black ash in it, and would become brittle.

It’s unclear what happened to spark Ben-Samson’s madness. He began to accuse the king of plotting against Babylon; the king, who owed his throne to Nebuchadnezzar’s grace, ordered his death, but Ben-Samson escaped to the desert. He began to forget key metallurgical processes; he sent his sons to Asher to coerce him into giving them their great-grandfather’s records. Asher turned them away, but they returned and attempted to buy the records; insulted at the prospect of selling his birthright, Asher told his men to kill the intruders. “Jawbone” Ben-Samson was not so named because he was a weakling, and his sons lived up to their name: they fought off the thugs and escaped, but in the scuffle they dropped the keys to their family’s treasury. Since neither Ben-Samson nor his sons could reenter the city to claim their property, Asher became the second-richest man in Jerusalem.

Asher, dressed in his finest, went out on the town to celebrate. He bought everyone drinks at the ward tavern and used his favorite prostitute; near the end of the third watch he stumbled out the door towards home. Asher Ben-Judah was found stripped and decapitated the next day; his sword and his great grandfather’s records were missing. Neither Ben-Samson nor his sons ever returned to Jerusalem.

One Response

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  1. reperiendi said, on 2010 March 19 at 9:37 am

    If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is about the first four chapters of the Book of Mormon.

    Mattaniah was renamed Zedekiah by Nebuchadnezzar. Jacob’s brother-in-law was named Laban. “Jawbone” in Hebrew is Lehi, and I chose the name Samson because the jawbone was his weapon. One thing that I wanted to work in (and may do so if I ever rewrite and expand the story) was a parallel between Laban’s demise and that of Urartu (Ararat).

    Urartu once captured Babylon! And Rusa II really did build all those cities; but a hundred years later, roughly five years after Zedekiah took the throne, Urartu was destroyed by the Medes. The cities were burned to the ground and the buildings toppled. It’s great from the archaeologist’s point of view: the fire sucked all the oxygen out and the meters of rubble on top prevented looting. So quite a lot of artifacts have survived.

    The Urartian language was not derived from proto-Indo-European; it and Hurrian are the only two languages in their family. Urartu never tried to impose their culture on their tributaries, and Urartian was spoken only by the elite upper class, so when the Medes conquered Urartu, the culture and language disappeared entirely. I can’t help but think of Ozymandias.

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