An imaginative but entirely believable recreation of the life of Jesus (Yeshua), from a new and unique perspective, placing the charismatic Jewish preacher in the political context of that turbulent time when Messiahs sprouted like mushrooms after rain! This extraordinary tale holds many surprises. We meet on terms of great intimacy the people who fashioned his mind and personality:
CHAPTER 1. Rabbi David
It was spring. The hills and valleys were a sparkling green. Trees and bushes were ablaze with the colours of their blossoms, reds and mauves and yellows and soft creamy whites. Vast stretches of the countryside were carpeted with fields of golden dandelions. The air was fresh and clean after the winter rains and filled with the fragrant scent of brushwood.
It was spring and the Galil sang with the season. More particularly, it was but ten days to Passover. One could listen to the tramp of Roman feet on the holy soil with a lighter heart for it was the time to remember how the Almighty, blessed be His Name, delivered His people from the yoke of another oppressor. He could do the same again. Perhaps this year in Jerusalem the Messiah would reveal himself and rally the people to drive the heathen Romans, those uncircumcised idolaters, from their shores. Perhaps this year God would establish His Kingdom and the righteous would rise from their graves, the blind would see, the deaf would hear and the lame would walk. The gentile world would acknowledge the God of Israel as the one true God and they and their kings would bow down to Him in the World to Come.
In the synagogue at Nazareth, the Sabbath before the caravan left for Jerusalem, Yeshua sat by his father's side chanting the prayers with a light heart. In two days, he would be setting out for the Holy City and soon he would be in the Temple, that glorious edifice the late King Herod, the one called Great, had built for his people. The prospect stirred his young emotions and lifted his spirits. Oh, to be so close to the Name, blessed be He, to stand upon the ground where even King Solomon had bowed his head, to be within the portals of the House of his Father in heaven!
It was said that, of the ten measures of beauty given to the world, nine were allotted to Jerusalem. Herod had seen to it that Jerusalem's claim would not be unjustified. The Helenization of the city started before his reign, Herod had continued with a magnificent flourish. Spectacular palaces rose on the heaps of hovels. A theatre, an amphitheatre and a hippodrome, all three of which drew large crowds (to the chagrin of the chief priests and elders) added a further elegance to the Jerusalem scene. But it was the Temple, of polished stone and coloured marble, of gold and of cedar wood, with large courts and graceful pillars, with imposing towers and enormous gates, where within its Sanctuary, its Holy of Holies, the Presence could be felt, that was the crown of Herod's achievements.
At first the priests had viewed the project with disfavour and engaged in much controversy that the Idumean tyrant should construct the shrine. But when Herod made a point of consulting the priests and elders before permitting the work to begin on his plans, when he would not allow a stone to be laid or a beam to be erected without their consent, they relented and the people rejoiced as the magnificent edifice, richer even than Solomon's Temple, took shape.
The thought of being within the walls of Herod's glorious Temple filled Yeshua with elation. At twelve years of age, Yeshua was the eldest of seven children. They lived with their parents, Miriam and Yoseph, in a simple mud house on the village outskirts. The house served also as a carpenter's shop for his father, now in his fiftieth year, though toil and the burden of the times made him look a decade older. His mother was not yet thirty, but her round, rather attractive face already bore the lines of care and responsibility. Yoseph encouraged his son's interest in the Holy Books and the carpenter glowed with pride every Sabbath in the synagogue when Yeshua read and discoursed with the most learned of the community.
More than two years previously, the aged Rabbi David had left his Judean home in Bethanya to spend his remaining years in the relative peace and quiet of Nazareth. He had noticed Yeshua in the synagogue arguing with the elders and had been impressed with the knowledge the boy displayed. He had approached Yoseph one Sabbath morning. "Is that your boy?" The Rabbi was held in awe. Rarely did he speak to anyone.
Yoseph answered with deference: "Yes, Master."
"What is he called?"
"Send him to me after sunset tonight." With that he turned away and returned to his seat in the front pew.
At the far end of the Street of Lights stood the singular house of the Rabbi. Built from the stones of the mountain and standing a little apart from its neighbours, it had an aura of simple grandeur. Yeshua entered it with a thudding heart. He did not know what the Rabbi wanted of him. Emerging a half-hour later, his excitement too great to contain, he ran all the way home. He burst in upon his parents and his brothers and sisters grouped around the table together with some of their neighbours come to learn of the outcome of Yeshua's talk with the Rabbi. Breathless, his eyes shining, and with great effort to control his voice, he announced: "He wants to teach me! He wants me to learn Torah through him!" Soon the whole village buzzed with the news.
A small village, Nazareth, but not an unimportant one. It was situated on one of the few trade routes through the Galilean mountains. Camels and asses loaded with silks and other fine cloths from the East, ornaments and adornments from the West, pungent spices and fragrant oils, often passed through the village and a flurry of excitement gusted up with the coming of every caravan. Letters were received and the latest news about the country was passed around. You could enjoy entertainments in the form of storytellers, camel rides, dice games and games of skill. You could watch, if you could overcome your scruples, a trial of strength between two nude muscular giants in Greek-style wrestling. The religious frowned upon this heathen sport but the amme ha'aretz, the non-practicing masses, who were generally illiterate, who neglected the donning of phylacteries, who omitted the ritual fringes from their garments and for whom the laws were too numerous to remember and too onerous to keep, enjoyed the spectacle, cheering wildly to see their favourites win. At night, there was the thrill of joining the singers round the flickering red-gold of the campfires in the market square or on the hillsides.
Nazareth was perched on the top of a hill bordering the Jezreel valley. The south side that faced the valley was a sheer rock cliff. The neat cultivated plots below stretched out in a beautiful patchwork design as far as the eye could see. Toward the south rose Mount Gilboa where King Shaul and his son Yonathan had lost their lives in battle with the Philistines. To the east stood Mount Tabor, queen of the Galil rising regally alone from the valley floor in all its symmetrical splendour to a small round plateau at the top. No wonder Rabbi David had chosen this spot to end his days.
From the start the Rabbi had been amazed at Yeshua's quick perception and his ability to absorb. He could memorize passages with the greatest of ease. The boy was fervidly interested in the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets. Even more incredible was his determination to live according to all the precepts he was learning. He was able to grasp the inner meanings of the written word and the subtleties of a passage, sometimes suggesting different and novel interpretations. The Rabbi would often catch himself staring quizzically at the boy and wondering... wondering. This was an age when all men looked skyward, praying for the coming of the Messiah. How long were they to be ground under the heel of their oppressors? How long were they to continue paying tribute to Rome? How long must their eyes alight on the writhing, agonized figures on crosses? Surely it was time the yoke was lifted from off their necks. Could it be that this boy...? He dared not finish the question let alone answer it. It was ridiculous, the son of a Galilean carpenter! Was it not said nothing good comes out of the Galil, only cutthroats and robbers?
Situated in the north, Galilee was cut off from Judea, the heart of Judaism and the centre of Jewish thought and learning, by Samaria, land of the profaners of the name of God. Inhabited by the heathen Samaritans, who claimed to be Jews but who accepted only the five books of Moses simplified to their own taste, who refused to accept the Temple at Jerusalem as the House of God and had built one of their own, Samaria and the Samaritans had been damned and no Jew would willingly set foot on Samarian soil. Their hate for each other had reached such proportions that already much blood had been spilt. The Galileans, being thus cut off, were never taken seriously by their sophisticated Judean brethren and were indeed looked down upon. Still, the boy Yeshua intrigued the old Rabbi and he wondered...
Yeshua went to see Rabbi David the evening before his departure for Jerusalem. He knocked on the door and being bidden to enter, kissed the mezuzah and went in. The old Rabbi was seated in the comfortable chair that Yoseph, Yeshua's father, had made for him. Two braziers were lighted and, for Yeshua, the heat in the room was oppressive. "Peace be unto you," said the old man and held out his hand.
"Shalom, Master," responded the boy, taking the aged hand and kissing it. He sat on the rug by the Rabbi's feet.
"I hope it is not too hot for you, my son, but the blood does not pump so strongly in my veins and the cold is an implacable foe of my old bones."
"It does not trouble me, Master," said Yeshua with a twinge of pity.
"So, you leave tomorrow for the Holy City." The Rabbi stroked his thick white beard thoughtfully as he regarded his pupil. He observed the excitement, the shining eyes as the boy replied simply: "Yes, Master."
"This then is a special occasion. You must drink a cup of wine with me. You will find a bottle and goblets in the cupboard by the wall. Light another taper. We could do with more light. Then come and sit by me again."
Yeshua lit the taper and set it on a high shelf. He poured out two goblets of wine and handed one to the Rabbi.
"Only our Carmel grapes can produce wine of this delicate flavour," said the old man as he took the cup from Yeshua. "Sit down, sit down." He waved his hand to indicate that Yeshua seat himself as before at his feet. Yeshua took his place and looked up into the kindly eyes of the venerable old man. He watched as the Rabbi blessed the wine and sipped. He waited for him to speak but the old man remained silent, deep in a reverie. Finally the Rabbi turned to him and Yeshua was looking again into eyes that reflected the understanding age brings to a sensitive and intelligent man, one who not only knew the law but also understood how it should be applied. How lucky! How lucky indeed, was he to be seated at the feet of this good man. The Rabbi began to speak.
"Tomorrow my son, you will be embarking on an exciting adventure. Although you are soon to be Bar Mitzvah, you are not yet a man and tomorrow you make a man's pilgrimage. The caravan will take you through Perea into the great depression, south along the banks of the Jordan river, up over the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem. A new world will open unto you."
The Rabbi paused and sipped his drink. Yeshua, his attention fixed upon the old man, remembered his wine, drank hastily and found himself coughing and spluttering with embarrassment. The Rabbi leaned forward and patted him on the back. "There, there!" he smiled. "Control yourself."
"I am sorry," said Yeshua abjectly as the spasm passed.
"My dear Yeshua," said the Rabbi leaning back and running his fingers through his beard, "I know exactly what you are feeling and what you expect. The Holy City! The city in which God dwells! A city of heavenly beauty, throughout which a pious atmosphere pervades. Jerusalem is all these things my son, and more. It is the city of tentmakers and cheese-makers, of candle-makers and winemakers. On its streets you will rub shoulders with Jews and gentiles, merchants and thieves, rich and poor, clean and unclean, good... and bad."
The Rabbi paused. As he put his cup to his lips he was thinking that ten years ago - was it as long as that? - with the death of his only son, all that had been left to him in the world, he had lost the power to love. This had frightened him, for with this lack of feeling came a complete deadening of responses, even at the sound of the Holy Name. What worth all his knowledge without the spark of love? This boy, Yeshua, a carpenter's son in a remote village in Galilee had set the flame alight within him and brought him back to his God. He wondered if the boy knew he engendered such emotions. He had observed that in the village, for the boy's peers, it was a matter of personal pride to be a friend of Yeshua ben Yoseph. Now he must continue and strike a hard blow.
"Yeshua, do you not see me, a Pharisee and a servant of the Temple, living here in Nazareth? I left my home near the Holy City to come to this little village to find God. I have discovered God dwells here just as happily as he does in Jerusalem -- even in the Temple." This brought a startled look to his pupil's face. "Have I shocked you, Yeshua? Do you think Temple sacrifices are so important? Do you believe God really needs them? Not a whit! Remember the words God put into the mouth of the prophet Isaiah --
'Your countless sacrifices, what are they to me?
I am sated with the whole-offerings of rams
and the fat of buffaloes...........
The offer of your gifts is useless,
The reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me.'
Good deeds, the pursuance of justice, help for the oppressed -- and there is no dearth of the oppressed in these terrible times -- these are the things the Lord requires of us. It is we who have need to offer sacrifice. They give direction and purpose to our faith." He looked into the boy’s wide eyes and continued. "Do you imagine a house made of pure gold would make God happy? To Him, we, His children are more precious than all the world's gold. And do you think Mount Moriah is big enough to encompass the Almighty whose mansion is the universe? I believe He prefers to dwell in the hearts of men. I believe He is happier at your table on the Sabbath with your parents, your brothers and sisters and you, than He is in the seclusion of the Holy of Holies." Yeshua gasped, made as if to speak but the Rabbi interrupted. "No, Yeshua, not till I have finished." He drained his glass, waited for Yeshua to take a shy sip before continuing.
"Pesach is a dangerous time in Jerusalem. A wonderfully gay and joyous feeling runs through the city but there is an undercurrent of hate, distrust and suspicion. The Romans become the Egyptians in the minds of our people and everyone looks at his brother's face to see if, perhaps, he is the Messiah. For it is true, Yeshua. The prophecies are being fulfilled. I believe the Messiah will soon be among us. I pray I may be alive to see him. But...," the Rabbi raised his finger to emphasize the point, "...the people expect a king who will victoriously battle the Romans to establish the Kingdom and usher in the New Era. It is possible he will come as a warrior. We have read together many passages that indicate he may. Consider the psalm that describes him accoutred for war in royal armour and sword at his side. But I prefer to believe the psalmist had in mind symbolic armour, for is it not also written:
'...his mouth shall be a rod to strike down the ruthless
and with a word he shall slay the wicked.' ?"
The Rabbi creased his brow searching, as Yeshua knew from long intimacy, searching in his mind for prophecies to bear out his belief. When he spoke a thrill ran through Yeshua. It was as if the prophets were speaking through him. . " '...he shall not put his trust in horse and rider and bow
nor shall he multiply unto himself gold and silver for war...' "
And again --
" 'Behold, your king is coming to you humble and mounted on an ass...' "
The Rabbi looked down at Yeshua. "Be that as it may, a great many of our people expect a warrior king and, because of the very nature of the feast we commemorate, feelings run high and a great number of Messiahs declare themselves. They all have their followers: brave, desperate men, ready to dare anything to rid the land of the heathen oppressors, anything."
Yeshua heard a strange note creeping into the Rabbi's voice. As the old man continued with rising emotion, he knew he was seeing the Rabbi stirred to his very soul. The Rabbi raised his eyes and seemed to speak to the ghosts of those heroes.
"Ah! Poor misguided fools! Wonderful, beautiful fools! What do they achieve? Certainly their own destruction by the most barbarous of executions, lingering painfully on their wretched crosses, attacked by vultures and wild beasts if left alone and dying more often than not from a cruel thirst. You turn your face, Yeshua. How will it be when you see the poor wretches? For you shall, you shall. And if you find my words distressful, do not go to Jerusalem. It will prove too much for you."
Truly, Yeshua was alarmed at the Rabbi's words but more so because the old man looked so tragic. His voice had shaken and quivered. Yeshua steeled himself to look up at the Rabbi's face, promising himself not to turn away no matter what the Rabbi had to say.
"You have brave eyes, Yeshua. I am proud of you. I was saying," the old man continued, "they do achieve something, these foolhardy sons of ours." Without warning the Rabbi lost control. Tears coursed down his bearded cheeks, his voice shook with emotion. "They keep alive the spirit of the Messiah; they keep alive the hope of our people; they demonstrate to the Romans that no matter how hard they grind us down into the mud, we can still rise up to throw some at them." He strove to gain control. "I am sorry for this outburst, Yeshua, but you see -- my son, my only son was crucified by the heathens."
"Oh, Master!" cried Yeshua, the tears rushing to his eyes in sympathy.
The Rabbi, with an effort, regained some measure of composure. He took a kerchief from the sleeve of his tunic and wiped his wet face. "It was God's will, Yeshua. Who am I to question Him? However, a torn soul is not easily repaired. I still grieve. I have not told you this to have you weep for me. You have the makings of a fine teacher, my son. I would be sorry to have you fall under the influence of the Zealots. Do not believe you cannot be swayed. Their appeal is directed at youngsters like you, in the name of God and they strike hard at your idealism. The younger you are, the more easily you can be trained in the tough wilderness and in the hill country. They took my son shortly after he was Bar Mitzvah. He was crucified two years later."
The quiet in the room was deepened by the quiet outside. The sound of chirruping crickets seemed to enhance rather than break the silence. The Rabbi smiled and stroked his beard and somehow it was not so heavily quiet as before. The urgency was still in his voice but, with it, his usual gentleness. "Heed what I say, Yeshua. Pay no mind to words of treason. Do not join groups of people who stand together in the Temple Court of the Gentiles. The Romans will be keeping a sharp watch from the Antonia Tower and the Temple Police will not be asleep. On no account, neither in the caravan nor in Jerusalem, are you to break bread or seek the company of gentiles or amme ha'aretz. They can only lead you astray. Keep close to your parents and, as always, hearken to their words. Finally, take joy that you will be in the city of our ancestor, King David. I did not kindle in your young breast the fire of love for this wonderful city only to stamp it out. Jerusalem is indeed 'the paragon of beauty, the pride of the whole earth.' I wish I could be going with you to see it again." The Rabbi leaned back and closed his eyes. Yeshua did not trust himself to break the silence so he waited. "Have you finished your wine, Yeshua?" The Rabbi sounded tired.
"Yes, thank you, Master," replied the boy.
"Go, then. Eat a light dinner and sleep early. You have a hard journey ahead of you tomorrow." The Rabbi lay back in his chair with closed eyes, gently stroking his beard until his hand was still. Yeshua rose quietly, set his empty cup on the table alongside his Master's and tip-toed to the door. From his corner the Rabbi chuckled. "I am not asleep yet. Go and God go with you, my son."
CHAPTER 2. Trouble in the Market Square.
It was night when Yeshua closed the Rabbi's door and stepped out into the street. The moon, almost full and shining in a cloudless sky, was so dazzlingly bright that the way was clear before him. The stars were so many jewels flung across black velvet. Yeshua was too preoccupied to notice them. When he pulled his woollen homespun robe about his shoulders against the brisk cold of the night air, it was an unconscious gesture for his mind was in turmoil.
A sharp breeze stirred the dust of the street which was almost deserted. Those not at their evening meal were down by the market square where the caravan, come from the coastal town of Ptolemais, was settled for the night. There would be camel rides and horse rides; perhaps a story-telling Rabbi from across the sea, journeying to Jerusalem for the festival, who would relate to the never tiring ears of the children how Moses led the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, through the Reed Sea that swallowed up the pursuing Egyptian hosts, and thence into the promised land of Canaan. Musicians and dancers would entertain while the men drank wines and spirits. Women, who had avoided the daytime crowds, would bargain for what was left of the trinkets and baubles brought all the way from Greece and Rome.
Yeshua walked toward the market square but his feet, not his mind, were taking him there. The Rabbi had quite startled him and he was not sure he had understood his master correctly. Was the Rabbi saying the Temple was not the House of God? Could it be God neither wanted nor needed sacrifices? His twelve-year-old mind wrestled with the questions. Had not God demanded Abraham sacrifice his dearly beloved son, Isaac? He recalled to mind the chapter in the First Book and repeated it to himself as he walked along.
"And the time came after these things that God put Abraham to
the test. 'Abraham!' He called and Abraham replied: 'Behold, here
I am.' "
What was this test? An exercise in obedience? A cruel test, hardly worthy of the Most High. He let the chapter run through his mind till he came to the words of the angel sent to stay Abraham's hand.
"Raise not your hand against the lad, do not touch him: for now I
know you are God-fearing, seeing that you have not withheld your
son, your only son, from Me."
There it was, clearly before him. Not a test of obedience but of respect and of love. God, indeed, had not needed the sacrifice but had Abraham measure the extent of his love for the Almighty, blessed be His Name. He had taught Abraham and through him, all his descendants, to value nothing, not even an only son, above the Creator.
A child's wail of terror broke into his thoughts. A woman's anguished pleas above the murmur of many voices. A horse's excited whinny. A loud, coarse laugh. Yeshua's mind snapped into the present. He had long since left the Street of Lights and now between the rows of dirty mud huts on the narrow street, he could see the market square. People stopped in their tracks, peering fearfully into the night to ascertain the cause of the commotion. One man on his ass struggled to hold it still. Yeshua felt the atmosphere of terror around him and it gave him a queasy feeling in his stomach.
Again the child's cry. As suddenly as it had come, the nausea left him. Holding on to his talith, he ran forward. The curious followed him at a discreet distance. Yeshua pushed through the gathering at the entrance to the square. One half of the square was empty but for a boy of eight whom he recognized at once as the blacksmith's son, David. Between the boy and his mother was a young Roman soldier astride his horse, sword in hand, laughing drunkenly at the boy's terror and the mother's anguish. Behind Sara, the mother, were the people of the caravan and the village, from whom issued the murmuring. Camels with their feet tucked under them, sprawled around lazily chewing the cud and turning nonchalantly to view the proceedings.
"Mama! Mama! Mama!" cried the boy and the woman wailed, burying her face in her hands. The boy made an attempt to run around the horse but the soldier anticipated him. He trotted the animal forward and pulled on the reins immediately in front of the boy. The horse reared and his forelegs pawed at the air. The boy backed away screaming. Another Roman also in the saddle, was watching his friend's game with amusement. He called out in Latin: "Careful, Caius! You don't want to kill him."
Yeshua felt a rising rage within him. With a whispered prayer: "God of my fathers, with Your help I can overcome them," he ran toward the blacksmith's boy. "David, I am coming!" he cried. "Do not be afraid."
A gasp went up from the crowd to see another boy, not many years older, rushing to the aid of the hapless lad. Yeshua took hold of the boy's hand. He faced the Roman with fierce defiance. "Leave us to pass," he said in bad Latin.
Only the Roman's bleary eyes revealed he had been drinking heavily. His clean-shaven, handsomely square features wore a mocking smile. He was in the mood for sport.
"Why do you twist your tongue around a noble language, boy?" His speech was slightly slurred but his Aramaic was perfect. "I have been in your godforsaken country long enough to pick up your filthy language."
"Let us pass," repeated Yeshua in Aramaic without shifting his eyes from the Roman's face. His grip on David's hand was firm and reassuring.
"Come, little puppy," said the Roman, waving his sword. "Try! With one swipe I will cut off both your sweet little earlocks and the top of your head too."
There was no sound but for the panting of the restive horse under the Roman. The people waited, hardly daring to breathe. The other soldier wore a worried look. His mind had not quite cleared from the carouse he had shared with his friend earlier that evening. He wondered if he should interfere.
"Come little mongrel. Come for your haircut," taunted the Roman, swinging his sword menacingly.
Yeshua stood his ground. He was conscious of feeling no fear.
"Please let us pass," he repeated.
"Ho!" said the Roman, turning to the crowd. "Brave and polite! He's had a good upbringing."
From the crowd, only a hushed stillness. Yeshua selected his words carefully. "Politeness I learned from my parents; bravery...from the Romans."
An immediate breathless response from the crowd. With the moon and the firelight to see by, it was not difficult to observe the flush on the Roman face.
"You insolent brat!" The Roman was on the defensive.
"Insolent, sir?" A touch of artless surprise. "Are not the Romans brave, sir?"
Not for a moment did Yeshua turn his eyes from the face of his adversary. The Roman's cheeks were blazing with rage and embarrassment. The crowd, now muttering against him, made his discomfiture more acute. A village boy! The son of a peasant! A Hebrew! Outsmarting a Roman! His drink-befuddled mind told him he must punish the boy and save his face. But how?
"Come on, Caius. You've had your fun." His friend had ridden up to him.
"By all the gods, I'm going to kill that boy, Tullus. Did you hear what he said?"
"We can't afford to make a scene," replied his friend. "You know our orders: no fraternizing, no insulting their invisible God, and all the rest of it. They're a crazy lot. As it is, we've gone too far tonight. We don't want to be sent home in disgrace, do we? Come on, Caius. Let's go."
Short of killing the boy, he did not know what to do and the consequences of that action before so many witnesses would certainly not be to his taste. He was not too drunk to realize the dishonour of being stripped of his rank and sent home in ignominy. The resulting shame on himself and his family would not be worth it. He allowed himself to be persuaded. Tugging at the reins and with a last look of implacable hatred directed at Yeshua but meant for the entire Hebrew nation, he turned his horse and trotted out of the market square followed closely by his friend.
As soon as they disappeared into one of the narrow streets, a spontaneous cheer resounded in the square that the Romans could not have failed to hear. David ran into his mother's arms while tears of joy streamed down Sara's cheeks. She clasped her son to her bosom repeating over and over: "Oh, my son! My son!"
Yeshua was surrounded, patted on the back, congratulated. He steadfastly refused to accept the credit. "God," he said, "put the words into my mouth."
Sara, her face pale and tear-streaked, approached him holding her son by the hand. The people made a path for her. Yeshua felt shy before the trembling emotion on the face of the woman. Unable to speak, she impulsively embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks. Yeshua stiffened in embarrassment. The feel of her warm lips and hot tears were like a brand upon his skin. The woman found her voice.
"Blessed is the womb that bore you," she said. "Thank you, oh, thank you, Yeshua!"
"Do not thank me, thank God," replied Yeshua, wishing he were elsewhere.
"With what joy," Sara continued, "will I care for your mother's children when you are away in Jerusalem. I am so proud she turned to me. I will watch over them like my own."
How Yeshua finally escaped the backslapping and embarrassing praise he could not remember. He was running through the cold, brilliant night, running to the security of home and family.
However, news of the happenings in the market square had preceded him. From outside the door he could hear the excited talk within. For a brief moment he contemplated not entering but he was tired and cold and there was no certainty whoever was in there would leave shortly. Then there was the concern and worry he would cause his parents if he stayed out much longer.
The house before which he stood was a rudimentary affair -- a lime-washed mud structure a little larger than most village dwellings. The door opened into a large room which served as kitchen and dining room and a place for receiving guests. For most, an elevation at the back served as their sleeping quarters. However, because business had been good for Yoseph ever since it had become known among caravan leaders that he was the best mender of wheels and axles, he had been able to build two extensions, a small room where he and Miriam had their cots and a larger room for the children, who did not mind being cramped to enjoy the luxury of a separate bedroom. Yoseph had added also a lean-to where he did his carpentry and where Yeshua, as a child, loved to sit among the shavings and sawdust watching his father at work and enjoying the clean fresh smell of wood. For more than a year now his father had been teaching him the trade.
The first thing he noticed on entering was that, besides the two oil lamps on the high shelf, the Sabbath lamps were lit using up the purer and more expensive oil. Everyone in the room had stopped talking the moment he entered. Simeon, the blacksmith, David's father, seemed on the point of leaving. He was regarding Yeshua with the strangest of looks. Gaunt Abigail, the tanner's wife, was there too, she who was effusive in her protestations of friendship to all the women of the village, gossiping to one about the other, and who was sure to be found wherever there was something worthy of note so that she could, with intimate knowledge, repeat it to all her friends. Three other women were present and the husband of one, neighbours of theirs. These four, Yeshua subsequently learned, had been at the market square during the incident and had separately hurried to Miriam and Yoseph to relate the story. Abigail had rushed in shortly thereafter, having heard the whole dramatic tale, embellished by one of her cronies, and was terribly put out to find someone there ahead of her. Simeon followed close on her heels.
A broad-shouldered man of medium height, Simeon's undistinguished face bore the traces of his anxiety. Informed that his wife and son were being escorted home safely, he had decided his first duty was to seek out Yeshua and personally thank him before going to meet them. Calling down God's blessings on Miriam and Yoseph and their children and all that was theirs, he was turning to leave when he was startled to see the boy, who had entered noiselessly at the door.
Yeshua was uncomfortable. Everyone, including his family, was regarding him as one might a stranger. In the moments before the tableau was broken, Yeshua noted that Simon and Naomi, the two youngest were not present, undoubtedly asleep in the adjoining room. The seven years old twins, Yehuda and Rachel, were standing shyly together holding hands gazing at him. Yacov, ten and next in age to Yeshua, glared at him sulkily. Yossi, the third after Yacov brought everybody back to life. He shut the mouth that had fallen open at the sight of his brother, then let out a whoop of delight and hurtled himself at Yeshua, almost knocking Simeon off his feet.
"Is it true what happened? You were not afraid? Did the Roman try to kill you? Was he drunk?"
Everyone began to speak at once and Yeshua wanted to hide. Miriam noted her son's discomfort and acted. "Yossi!" she called sharply. "Leave your brother alone." The command was effective; all were silenced. "Come sit, Yeshua," she said gently. "You must be hungry."
Simeon said: "I cannot tell you how grateful I am."
Yeshua felt again the sting of embarrassment. "Be grateful to God, Simeon," he replied. "He spoke through me."
Yeshua sat at the table. Simeon repeated his farewells and left. Miriam went to the stove to fetch food for her son. Yossi stayed close to his brother, adulation scribbled all over his face. The twins, unmoving, kept their eyes on their eldest brother. Yoseph, wood-shavings clinging to his beard, sat quietly at the head of the table looking fondly and with pride at his firstborn. Abigail's eyes darted hither and thither, now on this one, now on that one, not wishing to miss a thing. She was already relishing the prospect of retelling to all those willing ears the intimate happenings of the household on this important night.
"Anyone could have done what he did." This from Yacov, a serious child, brow permanently furrowed and now scowling from his place at the table. His resentment against Yeshua for the privilege of journeying with his parents to Jerusalem was compounded by the fuss being heaped upon his elder brother. "I could have helped David just as easily," he averred.
"God gives the opportunities to all," said Yoseph," but few have the courage to take advantage of them. But of my children I am sure. Not only you, son, but Yossi too would have gone to David's help."
Yossi grinned and stuck out his small chest.
"Why was I not there?" groused Yacov.
"Do not worry, my son," Yoseph consoled. "God does not place courage where it can be of no use. Your opportunities will come and I know you will do bravely."
The man among the visitors intervened. "I think it is time we said goodnight."
"And Miriam," his wife continued, "do not be concerned about the children while you are away. We will all give Sara a hand."
After an exchange of greetings, they left; Abigail too, for she could find no excuse to linger. She promptly went to Edna, the fishmonger's wife, in spite of the hour. She knew Edna would be only too glad to receive firsthand news.
Yeshua ate quietly. Yossi, hovering beside him, was impatient beyond words.
"Well," he said, unable to contain himself, "are you not going to tell us what happened?"
"You have heard it fifty times already."
"Let your brother eat in peace," said Miriam.
"But we want to hear it from you," persisted Yossi.
"But, but, but!" said Yoseph. "Time you were in bed."
"Off you go," said his father sharply. "You too, Yacov."
"Yes, abba," said both boys moodily and shuffled away. Miriam was already leading the twins to their beds.
Father and his firstborn were alone. Neither spoke for a while. Yoseph respected his son's reticent nature. He remembered he had been exactly like that as a lad. He had sought solitude and often found it. His son seldom did. Something always brought him to the fore. Yoseph was not clever but he was a sensitive man and was aware of the boy's magnetic quality. He could turn out a leader of men but he would be an unwilling one.
"Why did mother light the Sabbath lamps?"
"Because she believes God protected your life and that made this day holy for her."
There was another long silence as Yeshua ate.
"I wish it had been Yacov instead of me," he said.
CHAPTER 3. The Message.
The first light of dawn was in the sky when the caravan started out. The camel drivers were shouting and those on asses were urging them forward. The villagers had assembled to witness the departure, calling and waving to their friends and relatives.
"Give my regards to the Messiah," cried a facetious one.
"Be quiet! The Romans are about."
"You take care now, Shmuel."
"Kiss a Temple Torah for me."
"Give my love to Rachel. Tell her she must come with the children to visit this summer."
Yeshua was impatient. His mother, sitting on the ass, was giving Sara last minute directives. "Yacov is difficult with his food. He should not trouble you in any other way. I am worried about Yossi." Miriam turned to her third son. The six children with Sara's son David were grouped around the blacksmith Simeon and his wife. "If you are mischievous and trouble Sara, I will punish you severely when I return."
"Mother! We will be left behind!" cried Yeshua, eager to be on the move. Miriam apparently did not hear.
"The twins rarely give trouble but Simon and Naomi..."
Sara interposed: "Do not worry, Miriam. They are like my own. Have a nice Pesach."
"Bye, Simeon," said Yoseph, embracing the blacksmith. "Take care!"
A significant look passed between them.
Yoseph led the ass forward and the three of them moved away with the caravan. They headed south toward Nain, then east to the great depression - that rent in the earth from just north of the Sea of Galilee, through which the Jordan waters first tumble and then meander to the Salt Sea. The rift extends southward, cutting across the desert to the gulf. Some said this rent was a sign of the wrath of God, when the earth opened up and swallowed the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The caravan would journey into the depression, down to the Jordan River and travel along its western bank to Jericho. By traversing this route, they would avoid the dangers of passing through Samaria. It did not take long for the caravan to reach the plains and they journeyed on until an hour past noon when the sun was at its zenith, stopping by the roadside to partake of their afternoon meal in the cool shade of the trees. Most of the travellers took the opportunity to nap. By sunset, they had descended into the depression and had reached the bank of the Jordan. Night fell swiftly but the chill air did not follow as it did in Nazareth. It was warm and still. Swarms of mosquitoes and insects plagued the pilgrims when they camped for the night. Few could get much sleep.
Yeshua was not too mindful of the discomfort. For him it was a journey full of wonders. He was seeing the Land for the first time. His eyes could not devour enough. The fields of the plains were familiar for he often ventured down to the villages and farms with his companions to find new friends and play. He had taken to helping his father when there was a yoke to be delivered or perhaps a cupboard or table and chairs. The tall waving wheat-fields, the vineyards and citrus groves, the orchards of gnarled and stunted olive trees, the clumps of terebinths or turpentine trees, the lone oak, the shepherds with their flocks of bleating sheep grazing on the open meadow, all these sights, though familiar, gave him a strange sense of exhilaration for he was seeing them now as a traveller. They made him feel he would not like to spend his days cooped up in a carpenter's shop.
And then the strange silent world of the Ghor depression, through which the life-giving waters of the river snake down to the Salt Sea; this wilderness, this almost desert, with its twisted shrubs and cacti, with its weird shapes that winds and sudden squalls fashion from the brown barren earth. This dramatic canvas of Nature! And so unexpectedly does one come upon this wide rift in the earth that one must catch one's breath, for the forests run to the very edge of the depression. Only on the banks of the river, twisting and turning through the brown barrenness, does one perceive any vegetation. Not far in the distance, rising out of the depression, are the smooth brown hills of the Decapolis which the setting sun washes with a soft pastel pink.
The Ghor is lonely and therefore dangerous. Insurgents, robbers and the like find excellent refuge in the silent crags and deep gorges. It was with considerable relief and not without irony that the travellers observed a battalion of Romans policing the area.
About two hours after midnight, Yeshua was awakened from a fitful sleep. Someone was shaking him by the arm. As he opened his eyes, a hand went across his mouth. "Quiet! Not a sound!"
The moon, seemingly near enough to touch, was so bright Yeshua could clearly see the face of a man no more than twenty years. Loose curly hair surrounded a strong determined visage. The eyes, so close to his, were dark and fierce. Panic seized him. The man must have sensed this for he whispered urgently: "Do not cry out. I mean you no harm. I have brought you a message."
The tension lightened within Yeshua's breast. Slowly the man withdrew his hand from Yeshua's mouth and eased the pressure he was applying to Yeshua's shoulder. He helped him sit up. Yeshua's brain was clouded. He was conscious of an itch and he scratched his leg.
"I have a message," the man repeated.
Although he was dressed like a poor farmer, the young man's chest was powerful and the muscles of his arms, free in a sleeveless tunic, were certainly not those of a tiller of the soil. He was a fighter and, with a thrill of fear, Yeshua knew he must be one of the mysterious and terrifying Zealots, rebels who espoused nationalism.
"A message?" Within himself, Yeshua was trembling with a sense of awe.
"My master bids me tell you that your courage has not gone unnoticed," said the young man, still whispering cautiously. "My master bids me say he has need of you to do God's will. My master bids me advise you to be ready to meet him when you return from Jerusalem. He wishes you a safe journey." His cultured voice and Judean accent belied his peasant clothes.
"Who is your master?" asked Yeshua. The message could have come from any one of a hundred leaders of Zealot bands all over the hill country.
"Yehuda," answered the man and Yeshua felt a chill run through his bones.
"Yehuda the Galilean?"
"Yehuda the Galilean," the man confirmed at once.
"But.. but how will I get to him? I have n.. no idea how to.. to find him," stammered Yeshua.
"That is not your concern. A way will be found. I must leave now. The Romans are patrolling and may return at any moment. Forget you ever saw me."
With these words, the young man rose and noiselessly, through the sleeping bodies, moved into the night. He was soon hidden behind the crags.
Sleep was out of the question for Yeshua. He lay back and looked up at the stars. A mosquito buzzed about his head and he brushed it away. He turned toward his parents; they were fast asleep. The ass, tethered to a stake pegged to the ground, was sleeping on its feet, head drooping. Their saddlebags lay close by. A little apart from the caravan circle, he could see one of the leaders standing guard. He heard the sound of horses' hooves. In the distance, he could distinguish six or seven silhouetted horsemen approaching. They drew rein and engaged the guard in conversation. Another group of horsemen approached from the opposite direction. The sleepless ones in the caravan raised themselves on their arms or sat up to observe the goings on. The caravan guard was shaking his head and gesticulating emphatically. But the Romans were insistent and eventually the guard, with a resigned shrug, woke his colleagues with vigorous shakes and appeared to be giving instructions. They scattered about calling everyone to rise. Yeshua gently shook his parents awake. The leader of the Romans guided his horse into the centre of the caravan circle. With a shock, Yeshua recognized him as the one called Caius, whom only yesterday he had confronted in the market square in Nazareth. He spoke first in Aramaic and repeated himself in Greek.
"We have reason to believe there is a rebel in the vicinity," he said. "Well you know that the sicarii and baryonim make no distinction between Roman, Greek and Jew, killing anyone who does not give in to their demands. It is in your own interest therefore, to tell us if you have seen anyone suspicious entering or leaving the camp in the past hour."
When he had finished repeating himself in Greek, someone in the circle said something in the same language and pointed at Yeshua.
As the Roman turned to him, Yeshua felt the blood drain from his face. Crooking a finger at him, the Roman said: "You, boy, come forward."
Yeshua forced his leaden feet to move. He stepped into the circle and faced the Roman. Instantaneous recognition, but the Roman gave no indication apart from the lift of an eyebrow. "This man says, not half an hour ago, he saw you whispering with someone. Who was it?"
Yeshua made no reply.
"Was it someone from the caravan?"
Yeshua made no reply.
"You'd better answer my questions, boy, if you know what's good for you."
Miriam and Yoseph were shocked beyond words to think Yeshua could be implicated with brigands. It surely was a mistake. The next moment they heard the frightening confirmation.
"It was not someone from the caravan," said Yeshua.
"Then who was it?" snapped the Roman.
"What did he want?"
Yeshua did not answer. The Roman made a shrewd guess. He was aware that boys of thirteen -- the age Jews enter upon their manhood -- were being recruited to rebel bands. This one was of age, a Hebrew devil if ever there was one, cunning, crafty little bastard.
"Which way did he go?"
Still the lad was silent.
"My patience is running out, boy. Which way did he go?"
Yeshua knew he must answer or be taken away for 'further questioning' by the Romans. It was no secret that torture of the most bestial sort was used to extract information. Should he tell the truth or a deliberate lie? He tried to imagine what Rabbi David would have done in his place but that confused him further. The Rabbi was desperately loyal to Israel but a fanatic for the truth.
The Roman made a sign to his soldiers and two advanced their horses. Miriam, terror-stricken, let out an involuntary cry.
"Tell them, son," said Yoseph.
At the sound of his father's voice, Yeshua immediately pointed out the direction the man had taken. It was a quick, sudden gesture, almost a reflex action. The Roman raised his hand to stop his soldiers approaching further. He looked straight into Yeshua's eyes. The boy was conscious of a terrible shame; he had betrayed his fellowman. He turned away from the Roman's gaze.
"I knew it," thought Caius. "The little bastard is lying."
Yeshua had pointed west, which was one of the logical directions the man would have taken. The other was north. The Roman distrustfully regarded Yeshua who was staring moodily at the ground. He moved the horse out of the caravan circle and joined his men. With a wave of his hand he led them north.
Yeshua watched dumbfounded as the horsemen galloped away into the night.
"He thought I lied," he said to himself. "The truth was God's weapon against them."
He felt tremendously elated. Miriam and Yoseph were staring at their son, wondering if they really knew him. Yoseph asked: "Who was it, Yeshua?"
Yeshua decided that the lesser of evils was to reveal nothing and save his parents the worry they would surely feel if they knew that none other than Yehuda the Galilean had summoned him. Besides, he remembered the young man's injunction: 'Forget you ever saw me.'
He said: "No one of importance, father. Do not be concerned. I am in no danger."
Miriam turned fiercely on her son. "What do you mean, do not be concerned? We are concerned. Tell us at once. To whom were you talking?"
"Let him alone," intervened Yoseph. "He will tell us when he is ready."
Yeshua's face burned with shame. His mother's anger was visible to the strangers around them. He was intensely grateful to his father for his understanding. As his parents moved away, he heard his mother remark: "You indulge the boy too much."
A short while later the camp was quiet again as everyone tried to ignore the mosquitoes and insects and snatch a little more sleep. They would rise shortly to continue their journey to Jerusalem.
The heat was oppressive as the caravan wound its slow way through the depression. There was a marked depletion in the water skins for the travellers suffered an unquenchable thirst. The monotony of the journey was relieved by the magnificent vistas unfolding before their eyes: on either side, brown hills rose like awesome mountain ranges in the dramatic shapes nature had sculpted them. The smaller foothills, over the centuries, had been wrought into the noble architecture of vast uninhabited palaces. The silence was like a great, great weight pressing down upon them. It was frighteningly beautiful.
Yeshua, however, was unable to give his attention to the beauty around him. He was thinking of the strange young visitor of the night before and the message he had brought. Yehuda the Galilean! The name sent a chill of fear through him. Who had not heard of this warrior-zealot, this militant Rabbi? A legend in his own lifetime, he and Zadok the Pharisee were the two most wanted men in the country. Both were leaders of bands of desperate Zealots who would not tolerate the payment of taxes to Rome. Their allegiance, they claimed, was to God alone and they fanned within their breasts the flame of undying hatred for Rome and her Idumean vassals.
Yeshua had heard how Yehuda the Galilean trained a large body of men and, shortly after the death of Herod the Great, had daringly attacked the King's armoury at Sepphoris, not an hour's journey from Nazareth, seizing all the weapons and a vast sum of money. There had been no stopping him and his men. The fear his name evoked led to his attacking Roman cohorts with impunity. It was seldom any Roman escaped alive. He attacked with equal vengeance those Jews who opposed the idea of freedom, and the six-pointed Star of David, expertly scratched on the victim's forehead, became a symbol of dread.
So seriously did Rome take this matter, Quintilius Varus, Imperial Legate of Syria, was despatched to put down the rebellion. He marched against Sepphoris with a strong army, reinforced by divisions from Beirut and Arabia, burning the city to the ground and selling most of its inhabitants into slavery for aiding the insurrectionists. He burned all the villages and towns where he heard even a whisper of suspicion they may be in hiding. Finally he marched to Jerusalem. Before he left the country, he had ordered the crucifixion of over two thousand men. Yehuda himself escaped. For a while nothing was heard of him. Then suddenly, about two years ago, a Roman soldier was found murdered with the Star of David scratched across his forehead. And then another. And another. Then a traitorous Jew. Yehuda the Galilean was back. Not quite as formidable, perhaps, but he was back.............
Of this, Yeshua was certain -- he had no wish to get involved with the Zealots. He disliked the Romans of course, but he was too absorbed in his studies to feel the bitter hatred that the rebels had made the core of their lives. He knew he was caught up in something bigger than he could contend with. He must discuss the matter with Rabbi David as soon as he returned. He drew comfort from the knowledge that the Rabbi would advise him and, in the meantime, he would keep before him the old man's injunction to disregard words of treason against the Romans.
Jerusalem was only a day's march away. The thought set Yeshua's heart pounding in anticipation. They would be staying with his mother's cousin Elisheba and her husband, Zacharia, at Ein Karem. He had often heard his mother speak of the beauty of this little village nestling sleepily in a valley close to the Holy City. He would see his cousin Yochanan again and they would renew their friendship during this brief holiday. Yochanan had been up every year for the past three years to spend his summer vacation in Galilee. Their mutual love for the Holy Books forged a strong bond between them. Although Yochanan was four years the senior, he had found Yeshua's intellectual attainments equal to his own and had come to admire his young cousin. Yeshua, for his part, respected Yochanan more than any of his peers. He looked forward to sharing this wonderful experience with his cousin, who knew the city and could take him to places of interest, and acquaint him with Temple conduct, of which he was woefully ignorant.
Night seemed forever away yet it came. He slept and it was morning. The caravan moved on. Later that same morning, they arrived at Jericho. They stopped for their meal and afternoon rest. There was not enough time to explore the town but Yeshua was struck by the profusion of date palms and the abundance of fruit on the market stalls in the square. Yoseph bought a few dried dates to supplement their diet and after their meal, they dozed.
So began the last stage of the journey to Jerusalem. Slowly they wound their way up the dusty mountain road, ascending out of the depression. The air became cooler and by sunset they found it necessary to don woollen garments. That night they camped in Bethanya, the village where Rabbi David once lived, the houses colourfully dotting the eastern slope below the summit of the Mount of Olives. Next morning at sunrise, they would make the final ascent and Jerusalem would lie at their feet.