Saturday, October 10, 2009

"If Fame Comes at All"

I work at a large university, and my Internet home page at the office is a screen that has, among other things, a box listing interesting campus events: lectures, sports activities, performances, and so forth. I usually give it at least a cursory glance at various points during the day… Okay, I look at it more than I should, probably.

A listing from the other day caught my eye, and I haven’t quite been able to turn loose of it since. It was a single sentence, mentioning an upcoming presentation by a visiting professor of biblical literature. The title of his lecture was “Meneptah: The Pharaoh Who Mentioned Israel.” I regret to say that I neither attended the lecture nor actually read the referenced press release in its entirety.

But the headline got me to thinking and wondering about Pharaoh Meneptah—or Merenptah, or Merneptah, as he is variously known. Turns out that this pharaoh is the only one who actually mentions the land of Israel in the carvings and monuments created during his reign. Rather a minor mention at that, the inscription is on one of the four large commemorative stelae the pharaoh had erected to memorialize his decisive victory over an army of invaders composed of an alliance between Libyans and “Sea People”—possibly Minoans or proto-Philistines. The twelfth son of the long-lived Rameses II, Meneptah was already retirement age when he ascended the throne, but the aging monarch rallied the deteriorating Egyptian military machine sufficiently to prevent the invaders’ encroachment on Memphis. Perhaps this victory accounts for his name, which means “beloved of Ptah:” Ptah was the god of Memphis.

Apparently, Meneptah was not only successful at repelling the military threat from the west, but also in putting down a revolt in the Palestinian cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yenoam. He also engaged in various feats of diplomacy.

What struck me was that of all the accomplishments for which Meneptah may have expected to be remembered by posterity, it turns out that he is perhaps most famous for mentioning a relatively minor military exploit in a territory on the periphery of his kingdom. I seriously doubt whether the pharaoh, as he was ordering the carving and erection of his commemorative stelae, would have imagined in his wildest dreams that three millennia later, scholars in a land completely unknown during his day would be referring to him as “The Pharaoh Who Mentioned Israel.” In fact, I can almost imagine the good pharaoh pausing in his voyage through the afterlife to look back and say, “After all the really important things I did… this is how they remember me?”

That causes me to wonder what unsuspected thing—if any—I might be remembered for. What minor act—by my own reckoning—have I performed that will turn out to be the most important thing I ever did?

Maybe Alexander Pope was onto something when he wrote, “Nor Fame I slight, nor for her favours call; She comes unlooked for if she comes at all.” That seems about right, doesn’t it? Perhaps Ecclesiastes 11:6 gives us another angle on the same idea: “Sow your seed in the morning, / and at evening let not your hands be idle, / for you do not know which will succeed, / whether this or that, / or whether both will do equally well.” St. Paul might have said it this way: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…”

One thing seems certain: fame is a fickle mistress, and her sense of humor seems ironic, at best. Better to focus one’s allegiance elsewhere.