Three Testaments by Brian Arthur Brown


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PROLOGUE

LIGHTS RISE ON THREE BIRDS STANDING DOWNSTAGE

HOOPOEE
Welcome to our theatre for birds. I am Hoopoee. You know me from the
holy Quran, where I engaged in debate with King Suleiman. I told him,
"I have comprehended what you have not comprehended, and I have come
to you from Sheba with certain tidings." Long ago I provided enlightenment
for him, just as I hope now to do for you, for I know full well that religion
continues to be a major source of conflict in your world, despite God's will for
peace on earth.

As you may know I am a theatrical bird, having appeared as the King of
Thrace in The Birds, a Greek comedy by Aristophanes. But comedy is not
proper here, for the quest for peace and understanding based on
scripture is serious business, and so we will treat it. Although I
cannot "depict" Muhammad, not looking or sounding anything like
him, I can stand in for him in this play in order to express his views
as I heard them from my perch on a tree nearby.

FIREBIRD
And I am Firebird, guised in the persona of Salman, a beloved
Companion of the Prophet. From our vantagepoint in the heavens, we
birds have long heard of wars and rumours war among humans in various
times and places, but also of gestures of peace which could be of
benefit to you in your own quest for peace. So we convened a
"conversation of the birds," similar to the one in a famous Sufi
poem a thousand years ago. It was decided that three of us should
descend to earth to find out what was happening in the wagings of war
and in the prospects for peace.

My two feathered comrades and I begin each act with a scene presenting
what we saw and heard around the campfire with Muhammad (Peace Be Upon
Him), or what we imagine he and his daughter and his companion might
have said and done in such a scene. Our friends, the other actors,
will help us present what scholars now believe Jews and Christians
might have said or done in certain moments of inspiration and
enlightenment, and Zoroastrians too. They may be new to you but they
were influential in ancient times, according to recent research.

NIGHTINGALE
And I have assumed the persona of the Prophet's daughter, Fatimah.
Like our medieval Jewish brothers and sisters, who avoided depicting
the human form in their Birds' Head Haggadah, we too refrain from
creating idolatrous images, especially of the holy prophets. In the
play which we perform for you today, Firebird will fly back in time to
places like Babylon and Jerusalem to check the roots of this
investigation, and I will leave seventh century Arabia to fly to Spain
to see how it all turns out at the end of the first millennium CE.

In the final act, I will fly further into the future to see how things
might yet unfold in Jerusalem after the turn of the second millennium
... your times. Although we caught brief glimpses of peace during the
Prophet's early days in Medina, which excited Hoopoee so much, and
again in Spain, such moments have been rare. More often the world has
been beset by hostilities and strife, tensions and war. Our hopes for
justice and peace in the future will rest with you. We will try to set
the stage for the real drama, in which you will be the actors in the
years to come.


ACT I

SCENE 1

(Three brief preludes in dark before lights come up: a chorus of
Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, a brief NYAO selection, and a line of
Handel's I Know that My Redeemer Liveth. Evening. Fatima stokes a
campfire. Muhammad staggers in, supporting Salman, wounded and
hobbling.)

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
Fatima ... daughter ... give us some help!

FATIMA (NIGHTINGALE)
Stretch him out by the fire; I'll get some water for him to drink,
and to clean him up. He's bleeding; I'll need some bandages. I
have some cloth. (She goes to one side to get a bucket of water and
some cloth in white strips.)

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
I am glad I was around to break up that fight, my dear Salman. Those
guards are new. They mean well, but they took you for a spy because of
your Persian clothes. Are you in much pain?

SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
My pride is wounded, Muhammad, and I'm bruised and bloodied, but you
intervened before they did much damage. I'm shaken up, but not badly
hurt. I'm not usually bested so easily. I'll be ready for them
next time and I promise, the results will be different.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
Please understand, that should not happen again. I did announce that
you are my house guest. Most of our people realize that you are the
engineer whose moat saved our lives at the Battle of the Trench, and
that you are teaching me about Persian life. Those guards must be
new.

FATIMA (NIGHTINGALE)
I hate to tell you, Father, but that's not exactly true. Your
Muslims are not as virtuous as you might wish. They beat up Salman not
because they thought he is a spy, but because he is Persian. They are
jealous, and they don't want him around here. Arabs and Persians are
always fighting, and maybe they always will be.
(Washing Salman's wounds from a bucket and wrapping an arm and a leg
in bandages.)

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
Salman, I'm so proud of this young girl! Ever since her mother,
Khadija, died, she's been running the household. The two of them
shared my devotion, and now she is educating the other women in our
faith. Like her mother before her, she writes out the revelations God
gives me.

FATIMA (NIGHTINGALE)
I think Father is trying to distract you from your injuries, my
friend! (She laughs.) Father feels honored that God would communicate
with an illiterate person like himself-but he is also proud that
Mother and I have been able to keep notes of the divine revelations.
Like many Christians, Mother was taught to read and write. She taught
me, and I teach other women. Father's Jewish wives, Rayhana and
Safiyya, already know how to read and write. My husband, Ali, is also
literate, but he's too busy defending us from our enemies to devote
time to his pen. It is we women who are the scribes among those who
Father calls "The People of the House."

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
I know that before joining us, you were a Christian, Salman, but as a
child you were raised Zoroastrian. Tell me, how did Zoroastrians so
long ago come to believe in one God and a messiah, and other things
that God is also now revealing to me, and commanding me to share with
the Arab people?

SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
When Zoroaster was a young priest in Scythia, he received a personal
vision, a direct revelation from God. Since Zoroaster had grown up
among the exiled Israelites living there, it's likely that he had
heard of similar divine revelations as reported by their visiting
prophets. Some even say that the great prophet Jeremiah preached
there.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
I've heard that many of the Israelites exiled to Persia eventually
intermarried and adopted the religion and culture of the majority
there. But this was not the case with the Jews in Babylon. They stayed
faithful to their traditions until they were allowed to return to
Jerusalem to serve God there, as Jews had been commanded to do in
their Torah.

SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
I've been to Jerusalem many times. There are more Christians than
Jews there these days, and lots of other people, too, from all over
the world.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
Jerusalem is especially sacred for Jews, but not for them alone. I
myself was once transported by God's spirit to Al-Quds, as we call
the city, riding on the back of my horse, Al Buraq. It was from there
that I was elevated through the seven heavens and beheld all the
prophets.

SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
And how did Jerusalem affect you?

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
It was there that I began the practice of uttering, "peace be upon
him," at the mention of any of the prophets' names: Ibrahim, Musa,
Yusuf, Yahya the Baptist, even Isa, Jesus, peace be upon them all. To
me, Jerusalem, whose very name contains the word, "shalom," or
"salaam," has always been associated with peace. I often pray that
there will be peace, some year, in Jerusalem.

SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
More pressing is to bring peace to Medina here and now! Jews are
certainly your greatest challenge in doing so. They remain a people
apart, among the most motivated, enterprising people in the city. It
looks like they intend to keep their separate identity, even though
you would like them to join our new faith. I say you may have to fight
them to keep them in line.
FATIMA (NIGHTINGALE)
The Jews are a challenge, but they are an interesting case. By
maintaining distinctive tribal identities such migrant groups usually
flourish. They need to do better than others just to survive.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
And the opposite can happen with a majority population, especially
when they have a state religion. Such people can become
non-competitive and resentful of successful outsiders. We see this
among Christians in Europe. We need to guard against this happening
among us.

SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
Yes, Muhammad, keep an eye on your new religion! Wherever your people
struggle, they will invariably excel. This applies to new sects among
Muslims as well; that's when trouble starts.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
You are constantly warning me to be on guard, Salman, and the
revelations from God make it clear that we must be ready to defend
ourselves, as you have already seen. But the revelations that take
precedence speak of peace as the priority. Daughter, I am sure you can
recite a verse.

FATAMA (NIGHTINGALE)
Of course, Father. "The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who
tread gently upon the earth, and when the violent address them, they
reply, 'Peace'!"2

SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
That's fine, but when they approach in battle array, we'd better
be ready to fight ... sometimes even pre-emptively. If we know their
intentions, Muhammad, we must strike the first blow.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
But we need to be just as ready for peace, and seize the opportunity
if it comes. It may not be human nature to extend your hand in peace
to those who have been your enemies in the past, but there is another
revelation that comes to mind which speaks directly to that. Fatima?

FATAMA (NIGHTINGALE)
"But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou also incline
towards peace, and trust in God: for He is One that heareth and
knoweth all things."3

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
You'd never know it by the empires of war in Rome and Greece, but
even the Christians know this is true, at least those who read their
book. According to the Christians in my first wife's family, the
Bible says, "Whoever lives by the sword shall die by the sword."4


SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
I suppose the Jews know that too, since God spoke to them through
their neighbors in their book, saying "These men are peaceable with
us; therefore let them dwell in the land, and trade therein: for the
land, behold, it is large enough for them."5 But do you know what
happened? The Jews tricked them into circumcision and then slaughtered
them, perhaps for good reason. The neighbors had raped a daughter of
Jacob, and so it goes, round and round, and it will never stop.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
There may be some truth in what you say, Salman, but for any group to
permanently endure and really flourish, it must accept God's peace
as revealed to them. They may appear to succeed for some time through
warfare, but the Jews have always known better. That is why their
greeting is "Shalom." We, too, must accept what has been revealed
to us. Ours is not a new religion, but a revival of truths revealed by
God to all people, and we say, "Salam."

FATIMA (NIGHTINGALE)
Arab pagans, Christians, Jews, Muslims-do such distinctions matter
any longer, Father? Your new constitution for Medina takes us beyond
tribe and race, even beyond religious differences. Everybody is
offered a secure place where people can live in harmony and peace.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
That'ss our goal, daughter. And our constitution has been adopted by
all the tribes, by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, even by pagans, both
slaves and free. This constitution was not revealed to us; it is just
how I see the revelations are to be applied, and I have high hopes for
this.

FATIMA (NIGHTINGALE)
(aside to Salman) At least, we've written down the constitution,
even if it is not revealed. I wonder if we can make it last. When
Father is gone, or even before, this Medina constitution could fail.
Somewhere, someday, Muslims will help make it happen, but I don't
know if these people will achieve it.

(Muhammad helps Salman to his feet. Salman dances around the fire,
punching up into the air)
SALMAN (FIREBIRD)
You may think your followers will understand that the society you're
building is regulated by a constitution, which is aligned with the
Quran, free of the prejudices of blood and kin. I say we have to be
ready to fight.

MUHAMMAD (HOOPOEE)
The Quran is the foundation for everything. That is why it too must be
written down, in order to be available to all. All of our actions are
to be guided by the Quran. The basis for everything laid out in the
new constitution is found in what has been revealed. That is the
foundation for peace.

FATIMA (NIGHTINGALE)
Just as you recited in your most recent revelations, Father, which I
continue to record. Everybody is memorizing these verses that God has
given you. I don't suppose that people in the future will remember
that women first wrote these things down. Sometimes I picture
campfires like this one, long ago, around which Zoroastrians, Jews and
Christians received their own revelations, while their women listened
and took notes.
(Wistful music from NYAO)
ACT I

SCENE 2

FIREBIRD
(Flitting across stage) We are going back a thousand years to visit
Israelite exiles by the Black Sea, gathering around an evening
campfire.

(Near fire. strumming guitar, someone sings four stanzas from Leonard
Cohen's Hallelujah)

I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
Its a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

CAMPFIRE HOST
(Addressing the audience too) Welcome to our weekly community
campfire.Tonight we have a guest from Jerusalem, the City of David,
with news of our cousins there. The young prophet Jeremiah has an
impressive following in Jerusalem as he challenges the mores of the
times, particularly in political circles. He confronts those who would
forget the special destiny of our people to be a holy nation,
different from other nations. Many believe we were exiled here by the
Assyrians to punish us for a lapse in this understanding by Israelite
leadership in our Northern Kingdom many years ago. Jeremiah, meet
Israel in exile. Few here have ever returned to what was the Northern
Kingdom of Israel, from whence our ancestors came, or ever visited the
Southern Kingdom of Judah, but we have memories of our grandparents
and their stories.

ZOROASTER
Uncle, don't forget to introduce those of us of Vedic faith to your
guest. My tunic tells him that I am in training for the priesthood,
almost ready to be ordained. Many of our Eastern faith tradition have
come this evening to hear how Israel's God fits into our pantheon,
though I personally question that such a thing is possible.

CAMPFIRE HOST
Yes indeed, Zoroaster. Jeremiah, your audience is mainly of Israelite
descent, but we have those of other faiths among us, including my
beloved upstart nephew from a mixed marriage. Friends, this is
Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple. He
comes bearing a special scroll, and to deliver a special message, a
word from the God of Israel.

JEREMIAH
(Large scroll in his arms) Thank you, Eliphaz. You are perhaps the
only person here who is known by my father. Thank you for welcoming me
to your home when I arrived, and for the opportunity to address the
campfire this evening. Some of the communities I passed through also
have Israelite residents, as this one does, but few have as many, and
none live so far from home. It was to you that I was called to
prophesy by my God and yours, and at the prayer of my father.

The word of the Lord came to me: "Before I created you in the womb,
I selected you;
Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet
concerning the nations."
I replied, "Ah, Lord God! I don't know how to speak, for I am
still a boy."
And the Lord said to me: "Do not say, 'I am still a boy,' But go
wherever I send you
And speak whatever I command you. Have no fear, for I am with you to
deliver you.6"

Yes, I am young for a prophet, but the people of Jerusalem have become
used to my preaching. My father, Hilkiah, has been High Priest for
many years. About the time I was born it was he who discovered an
unknown scroll of the Teachings of Moses during a renovation of the
Temple under the righteous young king, Josiah. I know you possess an
old scroll of Israelite history, but in my hands is a copy of the
Second Scroll, found by my father. It contains the speeches by the
great lawgiver Moses, which were memorized by generations of Levites,
most of whom came to Jerusalem from your own communities in Israel.
Since I was a child, it has been studied and copied and even made
available beyond the Temple precinct. My father believes it important
for you to have your own copy of this Scroll of Teachings, and felt
compelled by God to have me deliver it to you. Unless you have
forgotten, you know some of its words already:

Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God is one. Love the Lord your God
With all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.
Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.
Impress them on your children and recite them when you stay at home,
When you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up.7

CAMPFIRE HOST
Let those of us who still remember these words recite them together,
slowly for the sake of young Israelites here, and for our neighbors
who might like to know that our God is One, and that each person is to
love and serve God. Please follow me line by line.

(Gesturing to engage the audience)

Hear, O Israel.(all repeat) / The Lord our God is one. (all repeat)
Love the Lord your God / with all your heart, ...
With all your soul, / and with all your strength. ...
Take to heart these instructions ...
With which I charge you this day. ...
Impress them on your children, ...
Recite them when you stay at home / and when you are away, ...
When you lie down, / and when you rise up ...

JEREMIAH
I am called to prophesy to the nations, including Israel and Judah
wherever our scattered people are found: in the Northern Kingdom and
the Southern Kingdom, in Assyrian exile, in Babylon, and in Egypt,
even in Jerusalem, wherever our people are in danger of forgetting
God. God calls us to serve Him in Jerusalem, but also in this foreign
place. Each individual is responsible to God. The commandments of God
are found in the ancient scroll in your possession, so you have no
excuse. And the most precious commandments of all are eloquently
summarized in this Second Scroll that I bring to you from the Holy
City. The commandments are addressed to you as individuals. You cannot
hide behind community failures or take refuge in communal worship.

ZOROASTER
(Rising from his place near the fire) We Vedic people have worshipped
the divinities in many forms, from time immemorial, in our communities
and at our shrines. Spiritual forces, good and evil, are all around
us, and we lift up our voices together in fear and supplication. We
have begun to include Israelites in our rites, especially since so
many of our families are intermarried now. But you have come to sow
dissention and to have Israelites return to their old ways that never
worked for them anyway. Is there truly but one God above all
divinities? Does this God know each of us? Does your God expect things
of mere individuals? I challenge your nonsense and I resent what you
are doing here. Let these people become part of our community and
adopt our ways. People like you always bring strife, and the next
thing you know we are fighting. Can't you leave us in peace?

JEREMIAH
Your protests go to the heart of the matter, Zoroaster! There are many
spiritual forces, but only one God. To bestow on these other spiritual
influences the status of gods is to put ourselves at the mercy of
false gods. The God who made heaven and earth has a plan for the world
and also a purpose for each person in it. As a people, we are
obligated to perform certain communal religious duties, which we have
striven to maintain, not always successfully. But God also expects
individuals to take personal responsibility in the fight against evil.

ZOROASTER
If I understand what you mean, the Great God is the only God, whom
other divinities must worship and individual people must obey. This is
either nonsense or it changes everything. If you stay around here for
awhile to talk, don't engage just with Israelites like Uncle.
You've got me thinking, so I'll be available, but we Vedic folk
need to keep our eyes on you before you drive a wedge between us and
our neighbors. We are living at peace here, and we don't want
trouble.

JEREMIAH
In the days and weeks ahead, I hope to meet with many of you,
Israelites and Scythians alike, you especially, Zoroaster. Together we
will study the Second Scroll and respectfully consider the needs of
Vedic people also. We will consider what each person must do to serve
God, and also what communities must do to be at peace among the
nations, since that is your concern.

Maybe there's a God above
But all I've even learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
It's not a cry you can hear at night
It's not somebody who has seen the light
It's a cold and it's broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah


[end of extract]




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