Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Nightwatchman

Reading a historical account concerning whaling in the 1800’s, I came across a peculiar practice among Nantucketers that sparked a thought. The thought, I admit, involves a level of imaginative stretching so my caveat at the outset is to admit my conclusion is more interesting (to me, at least) than definitive or conclusive.

Permit me to spare all the details and give a general overview, the seed of my thought. One particular captain lost his ship and spend a number of months adrift at sea with two other boats. Survival reached the point of desperation that led to cannibalism (an unspoken yet acceptable practice when necessary among early sea-men). Few men survived and were eventually rescued. Once back home, the captain returned to sea in a matter of months and in nearly the same waters as the loss of his first ship, the second was run aground and he once again returned home.

The Nantucket whaling community responded to the first tragedy with great compassion, but following the second disaster, the community was less forgiving. The captain would never again receive his own command. The only place for him in society was to serve as night-watchman, beginning each evening by enforcing curfew, then oversee the town’s safety while the citizens slept. This was the lowest rung on the social ladder for a sea-man, especially a former captain. Granted, the community did not shun him, but he was at the bottom socially. This caused me to think about how and why the nightwatchman became such a low position. Think about this: people are most vulnerable when asleep and a societal outcast is providing security.

On one hand, perhaps it is that the watchman was sleep during the day in order to do his job and remain out of contact with the general population--nobody has to look at the shameful man. On the other hand, the community has not given up all hope on the man--they do still trust him.

Here’s the stretch: consider how God thinks highly of the watchman, for the safety of everyone depends on the watchman. Many passages in the Prophets speak to this. He is the man responsible for life and well-being, for community. God exalts the lowly position. Furthermore, consider the night of the storm, when the disciples were out in the boat during the storm. Scripture records “the fourth watch” when Jesus came walking. The man posted for safety spotted the Ruler of the wind and waves.

Then there were the Roman guards, posted at the tomb. Curious to know what they did (if anything) to get THAT job, only be overcome at the expense of their life because the dead man they were to guard (to keep him safe or keep the community safe?) rolled away the stone.

Things I think about.

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