Terah, who lived eight generations after Shem, had a son whose name was Abram,1 and on the boy’s twelfth birthday his father sent him off to sell idols.
Abram told him, “These cannot make deliverance.” He took them as he was told, but made no effort to sell them. To those who would buy them, he asked, “Do you wish to buy artificial idols made of wood, stone, and brass?”
And the people, hearing the words of the boy, passed by the idols with disdain. Returning home, Abram placed the idols on the roadside and he spoke to them, saying, “Can you deliver me bread to eat or water to drink?”
None of the idols answered him, and they remained silent. So Abram defiled them with his feet, kicking the face of one and smashing the body of another until all lay in pieces by the road, and he said to them, “If you cannot defend yourselves from harm, how can you defend me?”
Then Abram turned his face towards heaven and cried, “Oh, maker of the universe; creator of sun, moon, sea, and earth; maker of that which is seen and that which is not seen, from this day forth I will place myself in your care.”
After saying this, Abram saw a chariot of fire come into view and he was afraid, and he fell to the ground and shielded his eyes. Then he heard a voice which spoke to him and said, “Give up your fear and stand upright.”
So the Father removed fear from him and the Father placed his blessing upon Abram and said there was now a covenant between them: “I will bring down the Tabernacle of my covenant seven generations after you and your seed shall be the salvation of the race.” Then the Father spoke against the kinsmen of Abram, saying that they were worshipers of idols, and he told Abram to leave the land of his fathers and go to a new land which he would show to him.
So Abram went to the home of his father and he took his wife, Sarah, and they went forth and did not return to his father, mother, or the land of his kinsmen. But he went to the city of Salem and there reigned in righteousness, and the Father blessed him greatly, and he died an honorable man with a large kingdom of his own.
Now it came to pass that Moses, who was of the seed of Abram, was told by the Father to make a likeness of his law as it was brought down to earth. The Father said, “Make an Ark of wood that cannot be eaten by worms and overlay it with pure gold, and upon this, place the word of the law, which is the covenant written by my own hand.”
And the Tabernacle is a spiritual thing, full of compassion; it is a heavenly thing, full of light, it is a thing of freedom, and a habitation of the Father. And the work thereof is marvelous, and it resembles jasper, topaz, hyacinthine stone, and the crystal and the light catch the eye by force; and it astonishes the mind, for it was made by the mind of God. Within it are the manna from heaven that came down to earth and the rod of Aaron that sprouted after it withered, though no one watered it with water.
Moses covered the Ark with pure gold and made poles to carry it and rings to hold them, and he made the people of Israel see it and carry it to the land of their inheritance which was the city of Jerusalem, the city of Zion. When they were crossing the Jordan and the priests were carrying it, the waters stood up like a wall and did not topple or fall.
And prophets were appointed over the people of Israel in the Tabernacle of Testimony, where the priests and the people redeemed themselves from sin by placing offerings. Moses and his brother Aaron were instructed to make holy vessels for the Tabernacle. And these things were gold pitchers, embroidered cloths, candlesticks and bowls, crowns and carpets, hangings of silk and the red hides of rams, hyacinthine and purple hangings, sardius stones, sapphires and emeralds.
And all of these offerings of gold and silver and silk were to be placed in the Tabernacle of the Law, an Ark of wood uneaten and uneatable by worms, and these were to reside along with the two tablets written by the fingers of the Father, which were to have been preserved in enameled gold so that the Law might be protected and carried.
In all of this was Moses commanded on Mount Sinai: the pattern of the tent that would cover all, and how it was to be cut and the work thereof. And
Zion was revered and the Father came down on the mountain and spoke with his chosen ones; and he opened the door of salvation to them, and he delivered them from their enemies. And the Father spoke from the pillar of cloud and commanded the people to keep his law and walk with him in the ways he had set forth.
In Jamaica references to the Bible and the Kebra Nagast can be seen in the patterns of everyday life. Some say the John Canoe or Jonkonnu celebration—part dance and part pantomime—at Christmastime is Noah’s Ark and, at the same time, the Ark of the Covenant. In the Bible Jacob’s ladder refers to the pathway to heaven used by the angels as Jacob slept beneath it and dreamed. The Jacob’s Ladders of Jamaica, however, are cut into formidable cliff rock or clay, and they are reportedly used by fallen as well as risen angels. The words John Canoe may come from the Ewe language of Eastern Ghana and Togo, where dzonu kunu meant sorcerer.
The old men walking along the ziggy Jamaican roads, wearing tall black rubber boots, coming home in the evening, fierce-faced and fiery-eyed, remind Ernie that it’s better to be on the move than to be still somewhere. “For, after all,” he comments as we round the turn towards Oracabessa, where he grew up, “a man is like water; if he slows down or stops, he becomes stagnant.” He says this in patois, “Walk fe nuttin’ better than siddung fe nuttin’.” We have a large laugh over this perfect expression of truth, and how it betters the English version by far.
We drive into the little seaport town where the banana was once king and the men of Oracabessa sang original choruses of “The Banana Boat Song” while bearing green bunches on their backs; banana ferriers tossing huge bunches, from man to man, from the shore to ship.
The best of these banana carriers was Ernie’s father.
Ernie stops the car and points out the cliff edge over which we can see the old harbor where the men had once toiled, glistening with sweat.
“Look now, there’s the Jacob’s Ladder,” Ernie says, chuckling. Here on the reef-rock hill, a brave and giant fig tree has made its stand, sending cabled roots to the beach bottom far below.
“Many times,” Ernie says, “I stood at the top of the Jacob’s Ladder, waiting for my father. You see the steps carved in the hill? The men used the vines as ropes and they used the earth steps to steady their feet as they hung in the air and drew themselves up. That’s why they called it Jacob’s Ladder.”
We stare down the hill into the dappled emerald shade, and I remember the story in Genesis where Jacob dreamed of a ladder that extended to heaven, with angels ascending and descending.
Ernie continues ruefully, “My father was a devilish man. He spent his money on gambling, playing poker and bone dice on the dock when he got off work. My sister, Merline, waited all day down there, hoping for sixpence, or tuppence, from our father, who everybody knew as Brother John.”
Laughing at the memory, Ernie goes on, “But he was a trickster, Brother John. He’d sneak through the lines of men with his money in his pocket. Then he’d come up the Jacob’s Ladder before Merline could see him, and he’d sneak away. And for what? To spend the rest of the day gambling. Drinking rum and gambling. I saw him. Yes, I saw him down there, even though Merline didn’t.”
Ernie’s father’s tale is not unusual on an island where poverty destroys more families than the wars of the heart. In Jamaica, hope springs eternal but jobs are few. Ernie bears no malice, however, towards the father who didn’t raise him; for Brother John, who abandoned him along with his two sisters and three brothers.
“It happened in a day,” he explains. “In one day, we lost it all.”
Ernie drops back into patois, as he recalls those long gone days when he was a child. “Him get mix up wid obeah woman. She gi’ de mon a potion a obeah oil, what dey call ‘gone fe good, come fe stay.’ Dat lady live next door to we, so one day Breddah John him go fe her house fe live. ’Im just packed up him ting, and gone fe good. Yes, de Devil took Breddah John.”
He laughs and adds, “It’s really true because he was a John Canoe man. Brother John played the part of the Devil. I, the little boy, was the Devil’s Treasurer.”
The John Canoe is a wild street dance put on at or just before Christmas in Jamaica. It included six main characters. There was the Bosun, a big fat short man, honking and oinking and making people laugh; the King and the Queen, spurious royalty; the Horse, wearing a hobbyhorse headdress costume, rocking up a storm; the Indian, solemn; and the Policeman, foolish, helpless, always asserting his authority. All these people gesturing and dancing.
“The big star of John Canoe was the Devil, played by my father, Brother John.” Ernie says that Brother John took this devil’s work seriously; more seriously than he took his life. He played the role so well, in fact, that, as time went on, he forgot it was a role at all.
“My father,” Ernie remarks, “was really the Devil. Yes, he became the Devil incarnate. Then he didn’t need his costume anymore.”
One afternoon when Brother John got home from the dock, the obeah, or voodoo woman invited him to her kitchen for some callaloo soup. And into that hot, peppery soup, she poured a libation of obeah oil. After that, he was hers. She knew it, and so did Ernie’s family. So it was up to his mother, who had no job, to try and figure out what to do.
The road to Tank Lane where Brother John left his family more than thirty years ago is a short but steep trip up from the harbor road of Oracabessa. The earth is red there, rich and red like blood. The flowering trees that sprout from it are paradisiacal: guinep, breadfruit, grapefruit, june plum, bougainvillea, croton, pimento. The air is sweet with those good-smelling trees, and cardamom-scented, moist earth, and the bittersweet smell, somewhere, of burning leaf trash. The yards are small and clean, the dirt swept to an immaculate patina. The houses, neat and trim, come from the Victorian era. Many of them have rusted zinc roofs and yards where roosters scuttle about monitoring hens. The breadfruit trees hang with bursting fruit and the Jamaican cherries sparkle. Banana fronds, lazy and liquid in their turning from side to side, give the day an idle cast, a falsity that everything is easy.
“Brother John left us to this,” Ernie says, switching back into English. “Somewhere between the Devil and the deep blue sea.”
We laugh at this, but Ernie’s laughter soon fades.
“You don’t see John Canoe dancers like those in my father’s time. That is all gone, along with the banana men, the banana songs, and the shillings and pence of payday.”
In the eighteenth century the John Canoe dancers commemorated Noah’s Flood by transporting a representation of the Ark upon their heads. The Ark itself was a symbol of the world’s destruction and resurrection, a huge and towering commemoration of the ancient myth from the Bible and the Kebra Nagast.
Today the old Ark can still be seen at the John Canoe in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. An old man who wears it is known as “Tree” and he comes down the main street, his head and upper body all but buried in a fabulous ark of green, woven of ferns, fronds, and hibiscus flowers. Some say that Tree is the last member of an old mummer’s group, where the dancer who bore the ark of flowers was a character called Jock-O-Green. Nineteenth-century engravings show this dancer wearing a huge bower of palm leaves, which, no doubt, is something of Solomon’s Ark of the Covenant, Noah’s Ark, and the Christmas mummery of the British Isles all rolled into one.
Ernie reaches for the faded photograph of Brother John that he keeps in the visor of his car. So, here is Brother John: wearing a suit too small for him, his long arms hanging nearly to his knees. He looks awkward and odd, gangly and misshapen.
“I am glad I have this little picture,” says Ernie, smiling. “For that is all I have of Brother John.”
In spite of everything—the suffering his family had to endure without his father, the hard poverty they had to deal with each and every day—Ernie says he still owes his father a lot of respect.
“He put me on the path to Rastafari,” he says. “From the time when I first accepted my responsibilities, I was Rasta. I learned about my faith the hard way, through work and sufferation, and through the help of elders who were not my father. But even from afar, and offering no help at all, Brother John disapproved. This made me stand up for what I believed. And it made me a man, a righteous man, a Rasta. He didn’t try to understand my dealing with Rastafari. Instead, he tried to feed me pork, and other things that we Rastas don’t eat, when I came to visit him. That is what made me strong, that opposition. And, of course, my love for him.” And, in his own way, Ernie believes, Brother John loved him too.
“Would he have let me hold his purse? Would he have let me be his treasurer, if he didn’t trust me? In trust, you know, is love. Yes, Brother John did love his son Ernie. Give thanks and praise to the Almighty for that.”