The apocryphal book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) contains a hymn to the ancestors of the Jews. It starts in chapter 44
Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves in their valor;
Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory, they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.
But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten. (NRSV)
And so I thought I would write a letter to those Jewish ancestors of whom there is no memory. Some of the scenes might have slight similarities with scenes in the book Daughter of Lachish, but that is because I wanted to portray life characteristic life situations both in the book and in this letter.
We want to remember you today, though we do not know your names, do not know what family you belonged to, do not know your life story. We may have excavated your house, but do not know it was your home. However, we do know that you lived, we can imagine your stories and we can give thanks for your lives.
We remember you, the farmer, who in December, when the early rains have softened the ground, leads the oxen out to plough the fields. You loosen the soil without turning the ground cover over. You have worked in the cold from the first light to dusk to grow food for your family. You worry that there will be no late rains. You worry that the wheat and barley, on which your family relies, will not grow. You fear that locusts will decimate the crop. Laden by the worries for your loved ones, the responsibility for your family, you work hard each day. And yet, when you come tired from the fields, you assemble your children and tell them stories of deliverance, sing psalms your father taught you and strain your eyes in the flickering light of an oil lamp to read from the only parchment your family possesses.
We remember you, the mother of five children, as you rise early in the morning to grind grain. You move the handstone back and forth in rhythmic motion as you have done most of the days of your life. Your arms, your knees have long been strained by the repeated pressure, your back bent. But you continue to wake early each morning to provide bread for your family. You teach your daughters the many household tasks; you teach your sons the care of animals; and you continue to love and advise all your children as they grow. You tell them of the great wonders the LORD has done, you teach them in the right ways.
We remember you, the head of your household, as you plead once more for the debt repayment to be postponed. You know what refusal will mean: the loss of the land that the LORD has given to your ancestors and which you intend to pass to your sons. But it is not to be. You are evicted, many of your possessions confiscated. And so you set out to seek a new existence – somewhere – far away from the support of your clan. Will you be able to feed your children? What future will there be for them? Can you still praise your God? And yet your call for justice is taken up by the prophets, echoes across the centureis and has inspired many to work for a just world. You should know that as you load the remaining possessions of your family on the back of an old donkey.
We remember you, the grieving mother, as you sit beside the still form of your child and see her life slip away. You cannot do anything against the sickness that is snatching your children, first the baby and now this one. The days of joy are past and only an unending time of lament seems to stretch before you. Who can comfort you? Who can ever dry your tears? You hear the faint breathing, you fell the hot forehead. You stay even though you know you cannot do anything more for her. You are with your child and try to give her the comfort that no-one can give to you. Was it you who spoke the words to God about flooding your bed with tears at night? Or did someone else say the words you could not say?
We remember you, the young defender of Judah, as you walk out of the vanquished town and lay your sword at the feet of your enemies. You know you have failed and you wonder whether your God has deserted you or was unable to protect you against the great gods of Babylon. You do not know what horrors you will face, whether you will be tortured here in this land or be taken into exile to a place you do not know. If this is Gods’ judgment, why this town, why you? You do not understand.
We remember you, the slave girl, who was carried from your home in Israel to the land of the two great rivers. Here you suffer the abuse of your master. You are disconnected from your people. And you know that you will never see your parents, your brothers or sister again. Any children you might have will be those of the man you abhor. And yet, you continue to hope, you continue to pray that you may return to the land of your birth, that the LORD will hear your cry and the cries of your people.
Yes, we remember you, our ancestors in the faith of whom there is no memory. And we believe that your lives have been gathered up in the love of our God. We believe that your lives counted on this earth. And across the millenia we want to thank you for your faithfulness.