Fred and Charlie are mere fictional creatures drawn from within my fevered brow, writes their creator Michael Lee, an experienced Freemason from Wiltshire. Their relationship, if any, to known human beings is entirely accidental. If inadvertent identification has been alleged then the parallels about monkeys randomly typing Shakespeare come easily to mind.
When trying to discuss many Masonic themes there is rarely a Stygian black or a pure Snow White – there is just a palette of shades of grey (considerably more than fifty, I might add!). In a monochrome one-person-me-write-your-read type of article discussion tends to be wordy and, frankly, often unconvincing. I decided many moons ago that to hold the attention of my Lodge of Instruction I needed to devise a dialogue format. In Masonic brotherhood sharp opposites aren’t appropriate so a complementary pair had to be envisaged. What better way than to make the protagonists two masons with which my Lodge of Instruction could identify – enter stage left a Past Master who doesn’t know it all but knows where to find it and, enter stage right, an enthusiastic younger mason who has an enquiring mind and a thirst for knowledge.
The choice of names – Fred and Charlie – came straight from an article written in another lifetime about the C13 builders of Salisbury Cathedral. Fred’s been a Freemason for a couple of decades; Charlie’s much younger and newer to it. They’ve struck up a friendship, and this series will allow us to eavesdrop on their Masonic communications. This month: ‘What is the significance of the 72 elders?’
It was Wednesday. The phone rang. Fred’s wife whispered ‘Charlie?’. And as Fred nodded, she went off the brew some coffee. She knew those calls took their time – and they say women can talk!
After the usual pleasantries and then the shopping list Charlie turned to his current problem – a wish to get a better handle on the Royal Arch. There were so many questions. He was particularity confused about the part where Zerubbabel rewarded the Candidate.
‘Fred, I can just about understand the robes, badge, jewel and ribbon – all seem pretty Masonic. The staff of office would seem logical too if the Candidate was actually going to be given an office – although in our Chapter he never is – but what’s all this gobbledegook about “you’ll always be permitted to bear [the staff of office] unless 72 of your elders are present”. Why? Is it perhaps something to do with a multiple of the twelve tribes …?’.
Fred laughed. ‘A brave try, Charlie, but the number 72 only makes sense if we know our Old Testament. A C18 Mason attending three church services every Sunday wouldn’t have asked the question!’
The coffee having arrived Fred took a long and steadying sip: ‘Look, Charlie, although the Royal Arch is non-religious it relies heavily on the Old Testament to tell its story. Remember, early Jewish history was not written down, it was passed on by word of mouth. In speech the Jewish number ‘seventy’ did not just mean a value between 69 and 71 but, confusingly for us, could mean any large number.
‘I believe the first mention of our 70 elders is actually in Exodus (*). It comes when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses and the Twelve Tribes at Mount Horeb. Jehovah had ordered Moses: “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel”
Charlie broke in: ‘Were those the Commandments on the scroll found by our Exaltee?’
‘Fred nodded: ‘Yes, just so. The next reference is in Numbers (**) and gets to the very heart of your question, Charlie. When the Twelve Tribes were in the wilderness, they were an absolute pain – rebellious and virtually ungovernable. They gave Moses a very hard time. In fact, he was so disenchanted with it all he wanted out and quickly at that. He had a bleat to Jehovah:
“I am not able to carry all this people alone for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you [Jehovah] are going to treat me, put me to death at once if I have found favour in your sight…
Jehovah well knew the score and was merciful (***):
“Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel…and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself”
Charlie interrupted: ‘But that’s only 70, not 72′.
Fred smiled: ‘There’s nothing wrong with your arithmetic, Charlie. Remember He said “along with you”. Moses and his priestly brother Aaron had both been leading the Tribes. Add them to the 70 and you get your 72? In our Royal Arch story in their place you can insert Zerubbabel and Joshua to make our 72’
Charlie, sharp as a tack, added: ‘And what about Haggai?’.
‘Well done, Charlie! Prophets, like Haggai, were excluded. They were spokesmen for the Lord and never involved in the administration’
‘Well, Fred, I can follow all that. A most helpful tour through the Old Testament – but what ‘s all that got to do with the price of fish? How is that in any way relevant to a new Exaltee?’
‘Listen and learn, young man. A Chapter is organised rather like a Monastery. Everyone has to earn his keep and there are no passengers. Just like Moses’ 70 Elders, every Companion is expected to play his part in keeping it all going. When you join a Chapter, you are one of the 70 Elders. You roll your sleeves up from Day One and help in anything that needs doing – acting as a steward, setting out the Temple, welcoming visitors, stepping into a vacant chair – its all grist to the mill. No ifs, no buts …and you don’t wait to be asked. Your Chapter will then value you’.
Charlie protested: ‘And what about ‘unless 72 are present’?’
‘Charlie, it’s unlikely that any Chapter will have a regular membership of over 72. When it does then take comfort in the knowledge that if Jehovah thought Moses could manage all Twelve Tribes of Israel with just Aaron and his 70 other helpers, He wouldn’t rate any Zerubbabel asking for 73 in office to run just one Royal Arch Chapter!‘
Charlie chuckled. He’d enjoyed a very useful daily advancement in his Masonic knowledge.
* Exodus 24 vs. 1-4;
** Numbers 11 vs. 14-17
*** Numbers 11 vs.16-18