The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is an Ancient Egyptian story about the relationship of Ma’at to justice. Written sometime during the Middle Kingdom in the 19th century BCE, it relates a story about an incident that occurred during the chaotic First Intermediate Period.
The main character is a farmer from the arid and desolate Wadi Natrum named Khun-Inpu, who loaded up his donkey with most of his barley and set off for an urban marketplace in the Nile River valley where he intended to trade the barley for goods to take back to his wife and children. Along the way, he came to a place where the path narrowed down to the width of a loincloth bordered by a stream on the low side and a wheat field on the high side. A wet cloak lay across the path.
Khun-Inpu stopped when he reached the cloak. A man stepped out of the wheat field and warned him not to move or touch it. He said his name was Nemti-Nakht and he claimed to be the overseer of the wheat field.
Khun-Inpu asked him to remove the cloak so that he could resume his journey, but Nemti-Nakht refused. Khun-Inpu then stepped into the wheat field pulling his donkey behind him intending to go around the cloak and resume his journey. The donkey flattened some wheat, however, and then decided to stop and eat some grain, notwithstanding Khun-Inpu’s entreaties to to the contrary.
Nemti-Nakht started screaming in protest. He accused him of trespassing on his master’s land, destroying part of the crop, and stealing grain to feed the donkey. Then he assaulted Khun-Inpu with a tamarisk and beat him unconscious.
When Khun-Inpu regained consciousness, Nemti-Nakht was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the donkey nor the load of barley.
Khun-Inpu decided to find the owner of the wheat field and plead his case for the return of the donkey and his barley. Upon reaching the next town, he soon discovered that Rensi, son of Meru, owned the land and he found him down by the riverside in the city.
Addressing him with praises according to the customs of the day, Khun-Inpu told him what had happened and respectfully asked for the return of his donkey and the barley. Rensi referred the matter to his judges, but they denied Khun-Inpu’s request because, according to the law, they could not grant it unless he presented witnesses to verify his claim against Nemti-Nakht.
Although he was a mere peasant and outlander lacking a formal education, the judges were greatly impressed by his presentation, which was not at all what they expected from a person from such humble origins. His honesty and passion for justice and his fearless yet polite and earnest way of expressing Ma’at, or good speech would have been exceptional, even if expressed by one of their own. Believing pharaoh might be also be impressed, if he were to hear Khun-Inpu’s literally divine speech, they convinced Rensi to refer the case to the pharaoh for his consideration. In short order the pharaoh agreed to hear the case.
Pharaoh listened politely but appeared unmoved. Nevertheless, he agreed to allow Khun-Inpu another opportunity to argue his case. And so it went. Hee prepared and argued eight successive petitions, but pharaoh remained unmoved. Finally, in desperation he prepared a final petition in which he really let it all hang out speaking truth to power. He told pharaoh that if he denied him Ma’at, he would seek it from Inpu himself in the Hall of Two Truths in the Duat. In pertinent part, he said the following:
nn sf n wsf(There can be no yesterday for the do-nothing)
nn xnms n sX mAat (There can be no friend for one deaf to Right)
nn hrw nfr n awn ib (There can be no festivity for the greedy hearted)
Pharaoh was so moved after reading Khun-Inpu’s three fundamental truths that are so essential to any understanding of Ma’at, that he ruled in his favor and ordered the donkey to be returned to Khun-Inpu and for him to be compensated with all of Nemti-Nakht’s property, including his job.
The Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Rule of Law manifest our fundamental values and principles. Together they form the basic structure by which we define and should conduct ourselves. They are not mere words on a piece of paper. They are sacred. They are our Ma’at.
One of the most fundamental ideas expressed throughout those documents is the principle of equal justice under law. In other words, no matter who we are and what we do, we are all equal and entitled to the same rights and privileges as everyone else.
No one is entitled to special consideration, much less a lifetime exemption from having to comply with the laws and the unlimited use of a get-out-of-jail-free card to avoid suffering the certain consequences that any of us would suffer for the same misconduct.
Yet, despite this fundamental and defining principle of equal justice under law, we are witnessing and experiencing a different reality in which race, wealth and economic class increasingly set us apart and undermine our faith and trust in our laws and institutions to treat us fairly and protect us.
Ma’at is breaking down and like Khun-Inpu did 3,500 years ago in Ancient Egypt as recounted in the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant when a law was being used to wrongfully deprive him of his property and deny him justice, we have to speak truth to power to reclaim what we have lost and restore our faith.
We must give voice to Ma’at and together we shall overcome.
Please consider the following question:
Have we not been summoned one at a time from near and far by our empathy for Trayvon Martin and our desire to do what we can to restore justice in his case?
I believe there is a spirit that moves us and I choose to call her Ma’at as the Ancient Egyptians did.