This is a strange and wildly ahistorical tale. It speaks of three Jewish temple workers, one identified as a priest, who are upon a battlement looking over the army of Pompey surrounding the city. They have made deal with Pompey to purchase a temple sacrifice. They let down the money in a basket. The Romans mock the Jews and claim that Phoebus is a true God. The basket become enshrouded in a mist, indeed the entire world outside the city walls seems enshrouded in mist.
While they wait, they moan that they shall lose their positions and their service. Finally, something of weight is felt on the basket and they begin to haul.
They pull up the basket and cannot make out what it is until it is quite close. They at first each think the Romans have provided something wonderful. Only at the end do they realize their error, they have been hauling up “a hog of no common size”:
Now, El Emanu! slowly, and with upturned eyes, ejaculated the trio, as, letting go their hold, the emancipated porker tumbled headlong among the Philistines, “El Emanu — God with with us — it is the unutterable flesh!”
The historical details are all wrong. The Jews of the city have nothing in common with the actual human beings of this time — who would have been far more sophisticated and understanding of Romans and their customs. The men speak of a world 1,000 years old (for the most part), the Romans are not even contemporary with Rome of the time (beyond their contempt). The Romans come across as powerful and crass.
Yet, that “fault” actually helps to make the point of the story: First, the men of the City are described as extraordinarily outwardly pious. They seem obsessively so as a matter of pride. Their concern as they wait for the basket is for their own position.
The men are then abused of their hope: they are to be put out of their positions. Their poker is “emancipated” (which is a nice comic touch in this instance).
The effect of the story is a parable how the prideful men — who gave the temple money to their enemies — are then surprised that their enemies have treated them so. They consider whether the Romans (“worshippers of Baal” among other inaccurate descriptions), are generous, fickle or merely conducting good business.
In the end, it is a story of foolish men who misplace their trust, waste their treasure, and are rewarded with injury.
The tale is a parody of a popular novel from 1828, Zillah, a Tale of Jerusalem, by Horace Smith (1777-1849). Poe incorporated whole phrases and sentences from Smith’s story: “Poe’s story is more than a parody; it is literally a collage of snatches of the Smith novel, cut out and pasted together in a new order. Read immediately after Zillah, it is very funny. Read without Zillah it is merely a puzzling and even offensive anecdote” (Levine 352).
I have not read Smith’s story, and so I cannot comment on the parody.
For the text of this short story and notes on the allusions and references in the story, see here.