The Apocrypha: The First Book of Esdras – Listen to and Learn from Reason (The 3 Guardsmen Story)
This year, I am coaching my co-ed, non-competitive league softball team for the first time. As coach, I have a number of things to consider when it comes to our 20-person roster, many of whom are playing for different reasons (just to have fun or to try and win) and come to the team with different ability levels. If I were solely focused on winning, I would play the “better” players more and squeeze in the lesser skilled players as little as possible. This might win us a few more games but it would also weaken the team, as those marginalized players have just as much right to play as every other player.
So, I have to balance the players who deserve to play with those who are driven to win. As it turns out, this balance is not as difficult to maintain as I had thought, for softball (like baseball) is a funny sport, where just about anything can happen, and even a player you might not think of a major contributor can tag the ball through a hole in the infield defense or make a great catch just when you need him or her to. The point is not that you sideline your best, strongest player, but by not allowing everyone have a chance to have at least some impact on the game, you might let a victory slip through your fingers (or glove).
So, the trick is to field your team and let the pieces (or balls) fall where they may, for the more you try and control the outcome, the less control you end up with.
I was looking forward to this first book included in the Apocrypha, in part because it handles Ezra, one of the people whose story I enjoyed the most in the Old Testament (and its theme of religious tolerance). I wanted to delve deeper into his story, and this book offers more details, although it doesn’t develop Ezra the way I expected. I was also surprised, for as I read, I couldn’t ignore that this was a book cut from the standard Bible, which to me means it wasn’t doing its job, contained redundant material, or didn’t serve the purpose of the person (or people) doing the cutting. Perhaps, from a certain perspective, all three. Which is a shame, for if Bible readers have not read this excised book, they’re missing out on a story that stands to inspire at least one reader.
This book covers events in the end of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and part of Nehemiah. In that sense, there’s not much new material (which perhaps explains why it was cut–superfluous, given the three other books that handle the same/similar material). So what, if anything, is new? The story of The Three Guardsmen.
During a Gatsby-style banquet thrown by King Darius, the king over-indulges and needs a nap. The three guardsmen protecting the sleeping ruler hatch a plan: let’s devise a contest to see which of us can come up with an answer as to what is strongest, which the king will judge, and then shower the winner with gifts and prestige. They each write their answer on a scroll, seal it, and then place it under the king’s pillow–when he awakes, he will decide.
Who doesn’t love a good contest, especially one that is basically a riddle? It’s also fun how this particular riddle unfolds within a engaging story. When the king learns of the contest, he convenes a heavy-duty council of nobles, etc. in the council chamber and calls the men in to provide their answers. What will the men have decided on? Who will win? And what will he earn as a prize?
The first guardsmen states that wine does not discriminate, that it makes everyone happy–or at least forget their problems, leads minds “astray,” levels the mental playing field between adults and children, and even turns friends against one another in the moment. Therefore, wine is the strongest thing (3:19-24).
The second guardsmen suggests that the king is in fact the strongest. Perhaps playing up the earliest form of brownnosing in literature, this answer suggests that men control everything (wage war, build, levy taxes, etc.) but the king controls men; therefore, the king is the strongest (4:2-12). Too bad this guardsmen did not think to include the king’s alcohol tolerance, as that detail might have made for a better case
The third guardsmen is the most skilled speaker of the bunch, as he begins his answer by validating the first two; however, he contends that although the first two are in fact strong, he wonders who controls them? Answer: women. They give birth, command attention, and inspire men to do anything (4:14-32). But he’s not done. Truth, he says, is actually stronger than all of it, in part because, unlike everything else that has flaws, truth does not; it endures and plays no favorites (4: 39). His drawn-out explanation earns the adoration of the crowd and the king then asks him what he would like for his winning answer.
Although it’s unclear why he feels this way, but the third guardsman wants the king to respect his promise and rebuild Jerusalem. The King agrees (4:47). Perhaps the king obeys the faith of the contest but perhaps he also understand the point of the answer: truth equals what is right, just, and since he had said he would, so should he be bound to his word.
So what is so interesting about this story? First, it shows a rather bold person who takes a chance to ask a person in power–in this case, the king—to stand by his word. Darius could have very easily taken offense to his guard suggesting he had not kept his word. Instead, he does what I would hope any ruler would do: listen to reason, which was the point of the answers in the contest. He allowed himself to learn something. Someone may say that similar stories cover this life lesson in the Bible, but I would argue that none do in this way—or at least they don’t resonate as well for me. This might be a lesser known story within the Bible of which it used to be a part, but if it functioned to turn someone closer to the Bible in general and Christianity in particular, isn’t that the point of the Bible? Who loses by keeping it in?