1 Sivan, 3754 ..May 29, 7 B.C.E.
The early morning sky over Sippar was perfect for stargazing. The skies were clear and there was no night chill to aggravate Caspar's aging joints. The mosquitoes that swarmed from the stagnant marshes along the nearby Euphrates often made Caspar's routine reading of the stars a very unpleasant task. Thanks to a brisk breeze, The pests were not active this morning.
Caspar was the Chief Astrologer and Magus at this famous School of Astrology situated near the juncture of the great Euphrates River and the canal which connected it to the Tigris. Caspar had recently reached his 55th year. He was a tall man although slightly stooped from years bent over ancient clay tablets and scrolls that recorded the movements of stars. His long hair and beard, once a fiery red, was now as white as new parchment. Caspar was a Jew whose male ancestors had been khokvim, star seers, since the time of the great Patriarchs. His family had been deported to this land by Tiglath-Pileser III in the first Assyrian invasion of Israel, over 700 years ago. His ancestors had advised all the great kings of Israel until the great deportation. Since that time, their talents were used by the Mesopotamian kings. The importance of star reading in Israel had declined and his line elected to remain in Babylonia which had become an important center for Jews rivaling Jerusalem itself.
This night was Rosh Hoddesh, the beginning of the month and the festival of the New Moon. The new crescent moon was visible over the trees near the river. Caspar read the stars each month at this time. The rooftop upon which he stood had been used for centuries to observe the intricate wanderings of the celestial bodies and to interpret the meanings behind their movements for the coming month. Very few of the kings of the eastern empires made major decisions or waged campaigns of warfare without first consulting him. The reliance of so many of the world's powerful leaders on Caspar's predictions has given him considerable influence and power. Pondering this, he smiled, sipped some hot cinnamon tea and looked out over the rooftops of Sippar, thinking about the ancient city's past glories. Once the ruling empire of the world, the Land of the Two Rivers was now governed by Rome through an appointed legate, Sentius Saturninus. Caspar could still hear the raucous laughter of partying Roman soldiers over in the western quarter. They were still celebrating yesterday's lavish welcome that Saturninus gave to honor the arrival of the hero of the Homanadensian war, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. Now that the war was over, Caesar Augustus wanted to make use of the available manpower for an unusual registration. In Sippar, it was the month of Daesius and the emperor wanted Quirinius to make sure that the census was completed before the middle of Hyperberetaeus. There had never been a Roman registration in Judea before this. All taxes had been collected by Herod as a client king of Rome, but Caesar had grown angry at Herods excessive and malicious behavior. He has threatened to treat the aged and sickly king as a subject rather than a friend. Heaven only knows what this will mean. It is an important time to read the portents of the stars.
Caspar settled himself into his special rooftop chair and extinguished the flickering oil lamps whose light would overwhelm his view of the heavens. He looked up to orient himself to the familiar constellations, those patterns of stars that for nearly five decades had revealed to Caspar's vigilant eyes, portents of the future. The stars that formed these pictures in the sky were always in the same place in relationship to one another except for a few wanderers that traveled from one constellation to another. It was the wanderer's visits to the various celestial houses that foretold events to come. Intuition, honed by years of observation, suddenly made Caspar aware of something out of the ordinary. Something was different, the Magus' eyes flashed from one star house to the other looking for....what? There it was, in the House of the Jews, a new star! The House of the Jews was a constellation that looked remarkably like a fish, in fact, the Romans called it Pisces. It was also the place where the sun ended its old cycle and began the new. The traditions of his Jewish ancestry raced through his mind. Caspar turned his head slightly to capture the light of the star in the corner of his eye, a technique used by astrologers. He looked closer and longer. The "new star" was really two old familiar wanderers, Jupiter and Saturn, that had moved together. Jupiter, Zedek to the Jews, had moved from its former location in the Roman House of Aquarius and was now in the twenty-first degree of Pisces, nestled right next to Saturn. The conjunction of these two large wanderers was so close they appeared to be one big and brighter star. Caspar could feel his heartbeat. He knew that Jupiter was the royal star of his Jewish ancestry and Saturn was the protecting star of Israel...the "Messiah's star." This phenomenon could mean only one thing to Caspar - the coming of the Messiah, the hope voiced by Haggai and Zechariah, the hope promised by Isaiah and disappointed by Zerubbabel. From the seed of David is to come another king whose dawning, like the sun in the House of the Jews, will bring a new age of promise. As Caspar gazed at the celestial omen, his mind recounted a portion of the scroll of Daniel.....
"I kept looking in the night visions,
And beheld, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And he came up to the ancient of days
And was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations, and men of every language
Might serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And his kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed."
During the two hours that the "new star" was visible, Caspar busied himself with challenges to his conclusions. Like any thoughtful seer, he tried to think of alternatives, but there was no other conclusions to draw from this heavenly event. The sun was now rising with a dawn that now held new significance to Caspar. Was it the dawn of a new age? To believe less was to make his life's work a mockery. He rushed down several flights of stairs to the library rooms, skipping some of the marble stairs with a youthful agility that belied his age. His nostrils burned with the mustiness of the ancient rooms which held many hundreds of clay tablets, ancient and new. There were also shelves upon shelves of papyrus rolls, parchments and scrolls of leather and copper. Some of the tablets were from Ebla and were written over a hundred generations ago. He spent all day pouring over the dusty records for some mention of a past precedent. This library was the finest in Syria, compiled from records in Rome, Athens, Alexandria, Damascus and all great cities where men of his profession had recorded the movements of the stars.
At last, he found an obscure reference by the chroniclers of Jehoash that was 805 years old. The "new star" had preceded the coming of the great Uzziah and a resurgence of Israel and Judah to heights of power unknown since the time of Solomon.
Caspar noted that the event occurred three times that year and calculated that this was the first time for this appearance. He calculated that the second time will be in the month of Tishri and the third time will be the middle of the Jewish month of Kislev. He knew that these events always happened on exact cycles, the stars were always predictable! If this happens every 805 years, he thought, he need only add another 805 years to the time of Uzziah for a date even older and compare it with the history of the time. "Let's see," he mumbled. Caspar calculated as he read...another 805 years places the next oldest occurrence.......Lord of Hosts! The time of Moses. It's true, a new deliverer is coming, and on 10 Tishri, on the day of Yom Kippur!. Is this new king coming to lead Israel back to its former greatness? Can the Roman hold on Syria and Judea be broken? Caspar decided that he must go to Jerusalem. The greatest event in the history of his people was about to take place and he has been given advance warning. There must be a purpose and whatever that purpose was, known only to God, Caspar knew he must go. He dispatched letters to his old friends and colleagues, Balthazar in Persepolis and Melchior in Nippur. They too were sons of the Diaspora and would be anxious to join him. The letters were sent by the fastest runners for there was much to be done. They should leave before the first of Elul for the six week journey to the Holy City.
9 Tishri, 3755.......Friday, October 2, 7 B.C.E.
Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior reached the gates of Jerusalem a little before dawn. Summer had passed but it was unseasonably warm. Shepherds, who would bring their flocks in one month hence, grazed their charges in the sparse greenery that still grew begrudgingly in the ravines of the hilly approach to the Holy City. This was not their first visit to the great city of their forebears but the sight of the temple never failed to astound them. The gleaming white marble and flashing silver and gold plating, brilliantly reflecting the first rays of the sun, could be seen for miles from the east. The doors of the temple were as tall as the temple itself but for the massive lintels. Enormous veils of embroidered cloth hung from solid gold cleats embedded in the marble lintels. The veils were embroidered with representations of the pillars, named Jachin and Boaz, that had been carried off by Nebuchadnezzar over 5 centuries before. The embroidered pillars, 18 cubits in height, were decorated with elaborately creweled vines and bright purple flowers. As the three approached along the old Jericho road, they felt that chill of awe in the hollow of their chest that all Jews feel as they gaze on the magnificence of this holy spot. Just beyond the doors was the veil covered Kodesh ha Kodeshim, the Holy of Holies.....a cube of 20 cubits wherein once rested the Ark of the Law and where the great Ha-Shem, the Lord of Hosts himself, takes residence.
They went around the fortress of Antonia and entered the Upper City by the Gennath Gate between the Hasmonean Palace and the Palace of Herod. They turned right along the North Wall easement and could hear the din of the hawkers setting up their booths on the other side of the wall along King David's Road. Near the gate of Herods palace, the Tower of Miriamne loomed like a giant stone sentinal. Caspar had chosen this early hour to avoid the possibility of running into Quirinius who was now in Judea overseeing the first Roman census registration in Palestine. Augustus was not altogether satisfied with Saturninus' performance as provincial governor. Levying taxes in this troubled area of strange customs and religious zealotry would call for all the diplomatic, political, and perhaps military skills of this experienced Roman senator. Caspar knew Quirinius personally and wouldn't want to be spotted by him or any of his officers and have to answer embarrassing questions about why he was in Judea.
Quirinius had just put down a revolt by the barbarian tribe of Homanadenses over the Cilician border. This opened up all of Galatia to the building of Roman roads. The war had taken nearly three years so the famous senator was in the area and well equipped with manpower. The consul was anxious to get this task completed before going home to Rome for a much deserved rest and insignia of triumph. Understandably, Quirinius was not in the best of spirits. If Quirinius knew Caspar was in Judea to investigate the advent of a great Jewish king, the entire region could fall under Roman siege.
The three men were granted an audience with Herod for the fourth hour which gave them time to have breakfast and change clothes at the inn near the palace. "What kind of man is Herod?" asked Balthazar as the men ate. "He's an able administrator," answered Melchior, "but he's suspicious, ruthless and cruel. He's not a Jew, you know, but an Idumaean, very vain and superstitious."
Caspar nodded. "We're going to have to be careful. If we question the temple priests about this thing we need Herod's permission and the high priest is Herod's father-in-law. We have no choice but to go through Herod. We want to find out if there's some prophecy in the Writings where the king is to be born. Jerusalem doesn't have a school of astrology, so we have no colleagues here. Most of our homeland brothers place all of their confidences in the written prophecies and consult the sages of the law. Herod will not be aware of this star-sign and what it means. We'll make Herod believe we are his allies in finding this new king. When we do find him, we'll go back home without seeing Herod again."
"But we'll never be able to come to Judea again," complained Melchior. Caspar nodded agreement, "Only while Herod is king but he's over seventy years old and sick. He doesn't have too long, by my judgment." As they made their way to Herods palace, they moved through the morning crowd of barking merchants and temple pilgrims. The bright purple cloaks of the wealthy elite moved along with the dreary homespun of peasants in a sea of people going their different ways for the days business. A variety of odors filled their nostrils. There was the aroma of fresh baked bread as bakers prepared for the days business. The sweet smell of incense surrounded the Temple Mount, mixing incongruously with the acrid odor of caged animals. The magnificence of Herods palace was suddenly before them as they emerged from a crowd of vendors and their customers. They identified themselves to Herod's guards at the palace gate, but before entering, Caspar nervously surveyed the streets for any of Quirinius' entourage that might recognize him.
The three men were escorted by the palace guard to an opulent room adjacent to the court and told to wait. Herod always liked to make a grand entrance for visiting dignitaries, using just that amount of tardiness that protocol demanded from a king. The men studied the magnificent tapestries and ornately carved wooden trim of the room. The marble floor was blanketed in rich, multicolored rugs from the east. When enough time was judged to have passed, the anteroom door swung open and Herod strutted in. He was flanked by two alert and obviously capable bodyguards who surveyed the visitors carefully before stepping aside. Caspar discretely looked at Herod with a curiosity peaked by many years of tales and rumors regarding his sinister activities. Dressed in rich apparel of fine color and heavily perfumed, Herod struck an impression that confirmed his reputed vanity. His grey beard was artificially curled in tiny ringlets after the Persian fashion and his lips and cheeks were rouged in a futile attempt to cover the ravages of age. His eyebrows grew thick and untamed over dark eyes that seemed like two black agates, sparkling as they suspiciously surveyed the three scholars. On every finger were rings set with precious stones. Although he was of medium height, his obesity made him seem more a caricature than a king. In all appearances, he looked very much like one of the aging catamites that plied their distasteful trade near the seaside wharfs of Tyre.
His voice, however, was still strong and deep and carried the tone of confidence of a man who had boasted the personal favor of Caesar himself, but that favor had suffered greatly in recent times. It was also the probing voice of a suspicious man who had been married ten times and had many sons, all of whom conspired and competed for the power they hoped would be theirs when the old king died. Caspar thought about how Herod had ordered the assassinations of wives and sons for supposedly conspiring against him. He even ordered the execution of the innocent Princess Mariamne, the granddaughter of John Hyrcanus II. Herod married her to elevate his social and political status but actually fell deeply in love with her. This did not prevent him from assassinating her and grieving over her the rest of his life. Even the prudish Augustus himself was shocked but not surprised. Herod is a complex man and Caspar knew he must be dealt with very cautiously.
"What can I do for the distinguished Magi from the Land of the Two Rivers?" asked Herod. Caspar straightened from his exaggerated bow, "We have come in search of certain knowledge from the temple scholars. We have been observing an event in the skies that may have great portent. At this very moment in the Star House of the Jews may be seen what appears to be a new star. This star is formed from a coming together of Israel's Protector Star and the Star of the Royal House. We believe that this event foretells the coming of a mighty king." Caspar uttered this pronouncement with obvious apprehension as Herod's brow raised.
"I am not a pure Jew, but half Idumaean," said Herod. "This star may foretell the coming to power of my three favorite sons who will divide my kingdom when I am gone. They are, after all, part Jew."
Caspar feigned a thoughtful expression for diplomacy's sake, "This is probably true but we would like your permission to confer with the High Priest concerning written prophecies on the birthplace of this great king...uh...or kings." Since Herod obviously knew where his sons were born, Caspar called on his extensive diplomatic talents, "Perhaps the stars foretell that one of your sons will rise above the others." Caspar could see by the lessening of tension in Herod's face that he pulled it off. All of those years of dealing with pompous and vain aristocrats were suddenly worth it.
Herod strutted about the room, limping on a gouty foot. "I respect the ancient traditions of my subjects, even though my personal tastes tend toward the Greek way of life. When I built the Great Temple a dozen years ago, I agreed not to set foot in its interior even though it was my greatest achievement. Jewish law forbade that I go past the Court of the Gentiles and I respected that law."
Caspar knew that Herod was being patronizing and that this altruistic motive was not entirely correct. The fact was that Caesar ordered Herod to abide by the Jewish law to avoid trouble and enhance the pacification he expected for allowing the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple. Rumor had it that Herod did indeed secretly enter the temple dressed as a priest, his vanity not being able to resist seeing what he had caused to be built.
Herod continued, "My father-in-law, Simon, is the High Priest. He should be informed of this sign in the heavens. He can confirm that the omen applies to my own family which is the greatest in Judea."
Simon had just finished his morning prayers when the palace messenger knocked at his door with a summons from Herod. "What does that old reprobate want now?' thought Simon. He knew that when Herod made him High Priest, though the more qualified Matathias had expected the appointment, it was not for his personal piety. Herod wanted someone he could trust to interpret scripture and prophecy to his liking. The old king also wanted someone to keep him informed of Temple activities. Simon could tolerate the king's vanity and temper tantrums for the advantages of being his father-in-law, even if he was younger than Herod. His daughter was a third Herod's age when she was taken by Herod as wife. His grandson could be king when Herod died. A grandson who is king could make life very comfortable for an old man in his waning years.
The High Priest's residence was close enough to the palace that Simon walked the distance in a few minutes. He walked into the audience room and was impressed to see three regal looking men, foreigners by their dress, and obviously important.
The King rushed through a feeble introduction, "Tell the High Priest what you have seen,"
Caspar told Simon what they had observed and what they thought it meant. Herod did not overlook the color leaving Simon's face and the fact that the Magi's story had a visible effect on the priest.
"According to your written prophecies," concluded Caspar, "where is the new king to be born?"
Simon sat down, breathless with this news. Forgetting to fabricate an answer to appease Herod's presence, "By what you have told me, the Bar-Nash, the Deliverer, is coming. At last, the throne of David will be restored." Herod remained quiet, although furious over the reference to the house of David.
"What is to be the birthplace of this king?" asked Caspar, mindful of Herod's discomfort.
Simon continued, "It is foretold in the writings of Micah in the Scroll of the Prophets..." Simon was still unaware of Herod's anger. ".....But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting."
"What are you talking about?" boomed Herod. "What ruler?" Simon, awakened from his revelry of thought, suddenly realized that he had not, in his excitement, considered Herod's presence. He knew that he could do nothing to retract his words. "According to the Covenant, great king," he replied, nervously, "a great deliverer will appear whom the P'rushim call The Meshiach. He is to begin a new age for Israel and he will be greater than David or Solomon."
"But this messiah nonsense is just rumor spread by zealots and traitors," sputtered the king.
"Perhaps you're right," said Simon, trying to defuse the obvious agitation of Herod. "This doctrine is not held by the Tseddikim and the Covenanters look for two messiahs. Who knows who is right, if anybody is?"
"This Bethlehem," interrupted Herod, "is only two leagues to the south. Do you Magi know where it is?" "Yes," said Caspar, wishing they had gone elsewhere for this information. Herod was now clearly distraught. Apparently he places a lot of credence on Simon's unbridled pronouncement in spite of the priest's feeble attempt to recant his words.
"I want you magi to go to Bethlehem right away," ordered the king. "See if you can find this meshiach and come back and tell me where he is so I can...uh...worship him." Caspar knew that Herod would not feel secure until this infant of destiny, wherever he may be, was on the end of a lance. "We will do as you wish, Sire," Caspar flashed glances at Balthazar and Melchior to leave while Herod still trusted them. The king didn't trust anyone for very long.
Herod dismissed the Magi and the relieved priest and sat alone for a while thinking about how he would handle this alleged "king" when the magi returned. He knew that he himself would never be able to find out where this infant was. He had so many spies throughout Judea that the people wouldn't talk to anyone. The magi, however, would not be suspected, in fact, the people would be anxious to talk to them.
After the three astrologers took their leave of the Palace, Herod paced on the balcony of the anteroom overlooking the city. This was the first time in 40 years that he was genuinely worried over his hold on the throne. As a client king of Rome, Judea had never been directly taxed. His brutal and excessive behavior toward the people had finally angered Augustus, who had grown very prudish in his old age. Herod still winced at the rumor that Caesar himself had said he would rather be Herods pig than one of his sons. Three months ago, he received a very angry letter from Augustus stating that he would no longer be considered a friend but a subject. Herod knew that this registration was in preparation for making Judea a prefecture rather than a client kingdom. He needed time to regain Augustus good graces. This was no time for some newborn, mystical messiah/king to rouse the passions of an already incensed people.
The three men went back to the inn to get some early sleep for the nights journey to Bethlehem. "If we find the one we seek," asked Melchior, "what do we do to keep Herod from assassinating him? After all, he does know that he is to be born in Bethlehem."
"We will warn the family and continue south through Hebron and take the King's Highway back home." replied Caspar.
The three men began their trek to Bethlehem immediately since the Sabbath was approaching when long journeys were forbidden. They rode their beasts south along the Hebron road toward Bethlehem.
Bethlehem - Yom Kippur -10 Tishri, 3755.......Saturday, October 3, 7 B.C E.
The three men reached Bethlehem before the wailing of the shofars that signaled the advent of the Sabbath. They took lodging at an inn by the road well within the distance required by law. When they arose, the first rays of dawn began to dissipate the mists that formed a halo over the promontory of the City of David. The three men gazed over their left shoulders and down into the valley to see hundreds of small fires heating the still sleeping shepherds. The road meandered and climbed along the western side of the valley and the overhanging rocks to their right were barely visible as a mere infancy of dawn's light danced across craggy shadows. The Magi were encouraged by the reappearance of the double star which was now in the eighteenth degree of the House of the Jews and, since that constellation was visible in the southern sky, was directly in front of them.
"The star will continue to move ahead of us as we travel," said Balthazar. "If we continue to follow it, we could wind up in the land of the Edomites. How will we know when we have reached our destination?"
"We will follow this path into Bethlehem and continue until the dawn erases the double star," replied Caspar. "Just at the time the star disappears, we will be near Him."
The distance to the gate of Bethlehem was brief since the inn was less than the required Sabbaths Day Wak to the center of the village. The star was still visible as they entered the north side of town. They pressed on through the town which was beginning to stir with the movements of the gentile merchants anxious to open their shops before dawn. They passed a contingent of Roman soldiers marching in formation, all carrying papyrus scrolls for the days' registration. They were near a promontory on the south side when the sun's arc rose over the horizon and washed away the light of the stars. Before the double star disappeared, it seemed to hover over a modest traveler's inn just ahead. The inn was one of many along the Hebron road for the humbler pilgrims on the way north to the Holy City.
"Could the hope of Israel come into the world in such meager surroundings?" asked Balthazar.
"Wasn't Moses plucked from a muddy river, cast adrift to escape a slave's death?" replied Caspar. "Wasn't David a poor shepherd's son who came out of the fields in homespun clothes and reeking of sheep? Didn't this ragamuffin slay the mighty Philistine giant while Saul and his army trembled in fear?"
"God has always chosen his elect from among humble circumstances," added Melchior.
Along the edge of the hillside, just to the east of the inn, was a cave from which the warm glow of lamplight flickered on the cobblestone street. Bales of hay stacked near the entrance seemed to sparkle with the yellow light.
"I don't believe it," said Balthazar, still incredulous of the surroundings. "Surely not in a stable!"
Yosef and Miriam had just awakened after a much needed rest. Miriam was surprisingly strong considering her ordeal of the early morning hours. Fortunately her labor had been short and seemingly without pain. The innkeeper's wife, who had midwived the delivery couldn't believe the absence of pain. How could she know that this was a birth different from all others. This was a little mother born free of the yoke of Eden, the vessel from which would flow the hope of mankind. Miriam was a petite young woman who, at 16, was still in the bloom of her youth. Her long, raven black hair was covered with a light blue mantle. Her face was finely sculptured. Her nose was straight and her skin that light shade of olive, all features that hinted of her noble Semitic forebears. Her full lips still had the pout of youth. Yosef was tall and lean but well muscled from years of manual labor. His beard was full and beginning to show a peppering of grey. His hair was a chestnut brown and naturally curly. He glowed with pride at the tiny figure lying awake but quietly on blankets stuffed into an unused feeding trough.
Miriam was preparing to feed the newborn and was carefully washing her breast with a bit of wine. The magi walked to the entrance of the cave and Caspar bade the others to wait as he announced himself. As he entered the cave, his eye caught the figure of a tall man about middle age kneeling by a young girl. In a wooden trough, usually used to hold fodder for the animals, lie an infant whose soft skin still bore the bloom of birth. A tiny hand raised with a whimper that even he, a bachelor, recognized as a signal of hunger. The tall man lifted the infant and lovingly replaced the hand in the loosened swaddles and handed him to the young mother.
"Excuse me," said Caspar. The man was momentarily startled and the young woman modestly rearranged her mantle to cover the suckling child. Caspar was embarrassed to have intruded at such a private moment but the weeks of travel, the momentousness of the occasion and the anxiety over Herod had instilled a sense of urgency.
Yosef was younger than Caspar and, although humbly attired, carried himself with great dignity and an air of what seemed like aristocracy. His arms were very muscular which, with his sun-darkened complexion, hinted of the years of work in the open sun.
Miriam had a calm and peaceful look, unusual for the wife of a humble Jewish artisan. Her black hair was very long and too opulent to remain within the confines of her mantle. Tresses that escaped along her brow cascaded about her shoulders. She looked up and smiled, her dark eyes sparkling with the lamp light.
"Shabat Shalom, I apologize for my intrusion," said Caspar in eloquent Aramaic, "But I and my friends have traveled long to find you."
"Find us?" asked Yosef, regaining his composure. "How did you know of us and what business could such distinguished men have with a builder and his family? My wife and I have only arrived in Bethlehem last evening. We came from the Galilee to enroll for the census and my son was born only a few hours before sunrise. Perhaps you mistake us for someone else?"
"I assure you that there is no mistake," said Caspar, "and I see you're puzzled by all of this. I'll explain if you would allow my friends to enter."
"Surely, and welcome," said Yosef as Balthazar and Melchior stepped inside. "I am Yosef bar Yaqub and this is my wife, Miriam, who has just given birth to our firstborn. We have named him Y'shua."
"I am Caspar," said the magus, "from the School of Astrology in Sippar and these are my friends Balthazar and Melchior. We have reason to believe that the stars have foretold the birth of your son and that he is destined by those stars and the written prophecies to rise to greatness."
Yosef glanced at Miriam to measure her reaction to the stranger's words. He felt too insecure still to reveal to these men the unusual circumstances of his marriage and Miriam's pregnancy. Yosef never doubted that the voice in his dreams was God, nor did he question that the child was not of another man. Yosef decided that he had better weigh his words very carefully until he knew these men better. Yosef turned toward Caspar and said. "Gentlemen, about an hour before you came, we were visited by two shepherds who claimed an angel appeared to them and announced the birth of our son. I am a builder. I work with wood and bricks and plaster. I know little of prophecies and dreams and stars."
"Dreams and stars should not be taken for granted," said Caspar, "If we pay close attention to them, they tell us much."
"Although I'm not as familiar with these things as I am the scrolls of the Writings, said Yosef, I am interested. Just what do your stars tell you?"
Sensing Yosef's caution, Caspar answered...."They tell us that this child, your Y'shua, is the one long awaited by our faith. Just as the cycle of the sun begins anew in the star house of the Jews, your son will begin a new time for our people. He is the fulfillment of Isaiah's hopes. Even his birth in this small shepherd's town was foretold. Many generations of our suffering people have looked for his coming and its been that hope that has helped them endure." Miriam looked up and smiled.
"My wife," said Yosef, "is more mindful of these things than I but she keeps things to herself. In spite of all the strange things that have happened to us this year, she remains silent as if she knows more than we realize. It can be irritating at times, but I could never get mad at her."
"I understand," said Caspar, "your wife has been chosen by the most high who has whispered to her heart. What value are words? We get our information from the stars, she talks to God. That is why we are here, just to look at the child and live out our lives with the happy knowledge that he has come. As a remembrance of this visit, we have brought some gifts which we beg you to accept." Melchior and Balthazar placed three small chests before Miriam and the child. Miriam smiled and opened the first two. Immediately the small cave was bathed in the sweet aromas of frankincense and myrrh, resins from Africa that are valuable medicines. Yosef opened the third chest and was astonished by the softened yellow glitter of gold. "Why there's more here than I could earn in years," he said. "I am afraid you're going to need it," said Melchior, "because we also must bring some bad news. We have to warn you that Herod also knows about the birth of your son and suspects that he threatens the rule of his house. We are supposed to return to Jerusalem and inform him of your whereabouts, but don't worry about that, we intend to take another road and return to our countries. You, however, must leave Judea altogether, at least while Herod's still alive." "....and that might not be too long," added Balthazar, "judging by his age and health. Do you have somewhere to go?"
"My wife has relatives in Egypt," answered Yosef, "her cousins are the caretakers of the balsam and herb gardens at Mataria. I guess we could go there until this thing blows over but we cant leave until our son is circumcised and Miriam's purification is completed. Only then can Y'shua be dedicated to God at the temple."
"That will take almost six weeks," Caspar mused, his brow furrowed with concern, "you have to leave Bethlehem today! Is there anywhere you can stay in Jerusalem until the presentation?"
"I have a sister, also called Miriam, who has a fine house in the upper city," answered Yosef. "My father had celebrated Pesach there when I was small. They have an upper room where we can stay comfortably and discreetly. After the presentation, we can go to Miriam's cousin in Mataria."
"Mataria is about 60 parasangs from Jerusalem," said Caspar. "I suggest that you use the gold to stay at fine inns throughout your journey. Herod's men will not search them for a poor Galilean family, no more than he'll think to look for you in Jerusalem. Take the road to Hebron and then to Raphia. Follow the Old Philistine Road directly to the reed sea. There you can get a river ferry to Heliopolis. Mataria is only several Sabbath Day walks to the north. I see you only have one ass. I will give you one of ours."
"We will never be able to repay you," said Yosef.
"Let us hold the child for a moment," asked Caspar, "That will be payment beyond measure." Miriam smiled approval and handed the swaddled child to Yosef who laid him gently in Caspar's eager arms. A tiny hand struggled free of the wrappings and grasped a lock of Caspar's beard while Melchior and Balthazar anxiously awaited their turn.
"In this baby's sweet face," said Caspar, "I see a new destiny for our people. I wish I were a younger man so I could witness whatever will come." A tear traced a glistening path down his cheek and disappeared into his beard.
After each of the Magi, in turn, held little Y'shua, they gave their farewells and set on their way back to the inn to rest until after sunrise and the end of Sabbath. Then they would begin their journey back to Mesopotamia. Yosef was grateful to the Magi for the gold without which, the arduous trip to Egypt would not be possible. The wages that Yosef had earned while making cabinets for a merchant in Caesarea was exhausted. There were only a few mina left to pay the innkeeper for the use of the cave. It was now midmorning so Yosef began packing their belongings and the three small chests on one of the asses. Miriam should be able to ride carefully on the other.
"I'm worried about you traveling so soon after the delivery, sweet one," said Yosef. "After all, it's only been about eight hours now. Maybe we should go back to Nazareth instead." Miriam rose, hugged her husband for reassurance, and answered with no small measure of determination, "No, Yosef, we just can't take the chance that Herod's men won't come for us. I know it doesn't make sense, but I am stronger now than I was when we left home. For our baby's sake we have to follow the sages' advice. As long as we're together, I'm just fine."
Yosef waited until the 12th hour and Sabbath had passed. He walked up the hill and paid the innkeeper over the objections of the innkeeper's wife who wanted Miriam to rest longer. Yosef then led the two beasts with Miriam, holding Y'shua close, astride the first. They headed north, back to Jerusalem, passing the township boundary marker in only half an hour. The gentle rocking movements of the ride quickly brought sleep to the little infant. While they rode, Miriam's thoughts went back to the middle of Tebeth last and how shocked Yosef was when she told him that she was with child. They had not been betrothed for long. She remembered her dream of the angel and the look on Yosef's face as she explained the angel's message. She smiled as she contemplated how much Yosef must love her to accept what would have been unbelievable and unacceptable to most men. Yosef had later had a dream in which God told him the truth. She looked into her sleeping son's face and pondered about the miracle that brought him into the world.....angels visiting their dreams, shepherds coming in from the fields, soothsayers from distant lands with expensive gifts, and now....a frightened King Herod.
It was dark when they reached Jerusalem and entered the gate near the towers. The streets were still crowded with merchants and bureaucrats that they passed unnoticed through the small streets for the short distance to the home of Miriam and her husband Simon. Simon, as his father before him, had the inheritable office of supplier of water of purification to the temple. Simon and Miriam were overjoyed to see the family and give them hospitality. Miriam doted over her new nephew. Their own sons, Eleazar and Yo'el, were young men now and were away at education, Eleazar at the temple school...he would someday succeed his father...and Yo'el was with his younger cousin Yosef bar Naba on the island of Cyprus. The upper room of Simon the water supplier was spacious with a warm hearth and comfortably furnished. Yosef and Miriam enjoyed the opportunity to relax and put the troubles of Bethlehem and Herod aside for a while. Six days later, Y'shua underwent the solemn rite of circumcision in the upper room. Both Miriams, though sisters-in law, formed a genuine sister-like bond that would last the rest of their lives. Yosef, normally a quiet man, found in Simon a friend with whom he could talk ebulliently about his plans for the future. "I am one of the best masons in the Galilee," he told Simon, "and there is a lot of work in the north with all of the building in the `ten cities.' I'm going to set up a builders shop in Nazareth. It's a small village and a nice place to raise children yet it's close to the main roads."
"But Miriam says you are going to Tamera instead of Nazareth, how come?" asked Simon.
"Miriam wants to visit her cousin Yachobel to show off little Y'shua. You remember how close they were as children? Yachobel is now married to Mesha ben Neriya whose family has been tending the Balsam gardens of Mataria for generations. We're going to visit them for a while and then go straight to Nazareth to set up business and housekeeping." Yosef didn't want to burden Simon with the necessities of flight and thought the information might also be dangerous.
"Don't forget to come back and visit us every time you come to the Holy City. The upper room is always available to you for Pesach at the Temple just as it was for your father. Remember some of those Seders we had as children, sitting next to each other?
We would look at each other with a frightened expression as we pondered the angel of death lurking outside."
"We will always look forward to seeing you when we venture south," replied Yosef, "and certainly when Yosef celebrates his first "man's Pesach" at the temple.
Four weeks and four days had passed since Y'shua's circumcision and today he would be presented to the Lord. Yosef had spent most of yesterday going from merchant to merchant in search of the perfect, unblemished turtle doves for the sacrifice of dedication. He had thought long and hard about using some of the gift-money of the magis to purchase a perfect lamb but decided that a fine sacrifice by a poor Galilean might attract attention. Herod had many spies at the temple, not the least of which was the high priest himself.
The dedications of newborns were conducted at the top of the stairs at the Golden Gate where the priest could hold the child up to the direction of the Kodesh ha Kodeshim after one of the many serving priests took the sacrifice to the rock. Yosef and Miriam patiently waited their turn in line as the long queue of proud new parents handed their infants to a bored priest who took each child and rotefully chanted a prayer. Their turn finally came and the priest glanced down disdainfully as the young temple server accepted Yosef's humble sacrifice. The priest took Y'shua in his arms and was about to rush through a cursory prayer of dedication when they were all startled by a shout of "wait!" All heads, including the priest, turned to see, standing by the pillar of the gate, the aged and venerable holy man, Simeon.
No one knew how old Simeon was. Even grandfathers spoke of seeing the priest when they were young and he was old even then. The story that was told was that Ha-Shem himself had spoken to Simeon because of his righteousness. The Lord told Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. Simeon was as revered in Jerusalem as was Jeremiah nearly six hundred years before. Wherever Simeon went, he was followed by a group who hoped to be on hand when Simeon's eyes fulfilled the prophecy. They knew that they too would see the Messiah if they but followed Simeon. It is for this reason that all around had a startled expression when the old man called. The crowd stepped aside as the enfeebled old man approached the priest and held out his arms to take Y'shua. Tears that had not been shed for two generations flowed down the wizened and wrinkled cheeks. His countenance seemed to glow as if their was a presence other than his own. "Blessed art thou, O Lord of the universe, who sends us our salvation, "he shouted in a voice so loud and strong it belied his advanced age.
"Lord, now let your servant depart in peace because, according to your words, spoken so long ago, my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all the people; a light to shine on the gentiles and the glory of your people, Israel."
Yosef and Miriam were awe-struck as well as apprehensive over the attention this pronouncement would attract.
Simeon looked down at Yosef and Miriam and, sensing their apprehension, he said, "May the Lord on high bless you both as the vessel and protector of the saviour of his people." He then looked to Miriam and said, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against; yes and a sword shall pierce through your own soul so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed."
At that moment, the aging prophetess, Anna, approached. Anna, like Simeon and equally revered, could always be found at the temple where she served God day and night. Her great age, like Simeons was the seed of legends. "Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts, who has this day revealed the salvation of all nations," she shouted, tearfully touching the swaddled infant's cheek as Simeon handed Y'shua to Yosef.
It took no small amount of guile for Yosef and Miriam to make it back to Simon's house while avoiding the crowds of messianic hopefuls. Miriam gathered their belongings while Yosef retrieved the two asses from the stable down the street. They packed hurriedly, including the three chests and bid a hasty shalom to Simon and Miriam, thanking them for their hospitality and promising to visit again. It was the fourth hour, still early enough to set out.
Yosef and Miriam reached Hebron by the tenth hour. At the same time in Bethlehem, Herod's palace contingent arrived to carry out terrible orders from the profligate ruler. It had been six weeks since the Magi's visit and Herod was now convinced that they had betrayed him.
Miriam suddenly felt a chill course through her body. What a strange feeling, what could it mean?
While Miriam rested and fed the infant at the traveler's inn in Hebron, Yosef bought what supplies could be carried by the asses. There weren't many hostels on the road through Idumaea to Raphia but there was an old barracks once used by a company of the tenth Roman legion. It was now used as a traveler's rest stop. If they left before the twelfth hour, it would be well into the night by the time they reached it. Miriam would be able to sleep late in the morning and they would set out for Raphia before noon. Herod may have soldiers and spies still looking for them in Bethlehem but Yosef doubted that the king would think to look in his own homeland.
At dusk, Yosef and Miriam were near the Idumaean border and about one hour from the shelter when they were surprised by four men who appeared suddenly from the hills. Yosef knew that bandits often lurked along this road to prey on merchants with rich goods but hoped they wouldn't accost a poor family. Apparently the extra beast and supplies purchased in Hebron made them a more inviting target. One of the shabbily dressed men, obviously the leader, approached to the front of them to block their way while the others lurked to the rear.
"We are only poor travelers and have no money," said Yosef, worried about the store of gold coins and costly balms that the Magi had given them. The chests were nestled under a blanket on the ass that Miriam rode.
"You won't mind if we have a little look now, will you?" said the man with a deep Idumaean accent. "If you don't have any money, we'll take your animals. They can be sold to raise a little money for our trouble." The man was menacing and looked all the part of an assassin. He was blind in one eye which really wasn't an eye but more of a hollow under a large scar, probably inflicted by a potential victim's sword. Yosef wished that he had a sword right now. One of the other bandits held a knife and leered menacingly at Yosef. Miriam clutched Y'shua closely. The one-eyed man roughly pulled the riderless ass to him and began searching through the pack. Yosef braced himself and tightened his grip on his walking staff in preparation for what he knew would be a hopeless resistance. As Yosef was about to launch what would have been a suicidal attack, the sound of many footsteps prancing in harmony and the clatter of horses hooves on cobbles approached from the road ahead. A mounted Centurion appeared over the rise of the road, followed by a contingent of soldiers. The centurion immediately recognized what was happening ahead and called his men to advance. The one-eyed bandit abandoned his search leaving articles scattered on the road. He and his cohorts started to run back to the hills with the soldiers in swift pursuit. The bandits were no match afoot for the mounted centurion who quickly dispatched them with his short Roman sword. Miriam gasped at the sight of the one-eyed bandit falling with a gruesome wound to his head.
"May the Most High forgive them and accept them," she whispered to Yosef. "I would rather they had the money than lose their lives."
"Miriam," said Yosef, "I am always amazed at your lack of anger, even at people like these. Don't you realize that these men would probably have murdered us and perhaps sold little Y'shua?" "I don't think that would have been God's will," said Miriam confidently.
The centurion rode back to the couple and asked if they were harmed.
"We are well, centurion," said Yosef, "and grateful for your rescue."
The centurion dismounted and was wiping blood from the side of his saddle. "These hills can be very dangerous for travelers," he remarked, "you are fortunate that we were near. Where are you going?"
"We are on our way to Egypt," answered Yosef, "to visit relatives. My wife is anxious to show off our new son."
"I am Cornelius Gallo," said the soldier, "a centurion of the sixth legion. We are on our way to Jerusalem as replacements to help with the tax roles. You are apparently Jews, have you registered?"
"Yes," answered Yosef, "I registered my family in Bethlehem," Yosef said the words before he realized that he should have held that information. He was so grateful for the rescue that he had momentarily forgotten the need for secrecy.
"I will send an escort with you to the old barracks," said Gallo, "and the men can catch up with us later. Normally, we Roman soldiers can't play nursemaid to wandering Jews but I don't like the idea of our Pax Romana being violated, and there's the lady and baby to consider. Roman roads should be safe for all travelers, regardless of their station."
Yosef was relieved but realized that they should leave the traveler's station early in the morning. These soldiers would be in Bethlehem tomorrow and may learn of Herod's search for them. He wished he had not mentioned Bethlehem. The two Roman soldiers escorted them to the old barracks where they spent the night in relative peace and solitude. The only other travelers at the barracks were a spice merchant and his Nabataean bodyguards. At least they wouldn't have to worry about bandits again.
Yosef and Miriam slept well that night. Miriam needed the rest, not having had a good nights sleep since leaving Jerusalem. The trip had to be uncomfortable for her at a time when she should have lots of rest, but she hadn't complained. Yosef awoke frequently and checked on her during the night, reaching over and stroking her hair occasionally. Little Y'shua hadn't stirred all night and was very hungry when they awoke at first light. Yosef prepared a quick breakfast from their packs while Miriam nursed the baby. After eating, he packed the asses, being careful to hide the small chests from view. He helped Miriam mount and handed her the baby. Still anxious over the slip of the tongue to the centurion, Yosef was impatient to get to Raphia. He figured the soldiers probably stopped in Hebron for the night. They would be in Raphia before the soldiers got to Bethlehem and perhaps made aware of a search for Y'shua. Maybe he was worrying for nothing. Without the Magi, Herod wouldn't know who to look for. Maybe Herod wasn't looking for them at all.
They reached Raphia before sunset which made Yosef feel more secure. Raphia was a crowded city on the coast of the Great Sea and they would be among many other travelers in this ancient port city. Raphia was the southernmost port of Palestine and the gateway to Egypt. It was a very strategic city and the site of many battles. It had been captured over the centuries by the Egyptians, Sargon, Ptolemy IV, Alexander Jannai, and now by the Romans. It was still a very important strategic location as well as a bustling trade city and held a large contingent of Roman soldiers.
Heeding the advice of the Magi, Yosef hired a room at a very elegant merchant's inn. He and Miriam spent a very comfortable night on luxurious beds. A real cradle for little Y'shua was encouragement for the reluctant Miriam to endure the unfamiliar luxury. Miriam was taught by Hannah, her mother, to share what little they had among the less fortunate. Many of her relatives had small fishing businesses in K'far Nahum on the Sea of Galilee so Miriam's parents were often recipients of part of the day's catch. The family rule was that any largess that came to them by the will of God must be divided with the poor. Miriam also acquiesced to the lavish surroundins in order to escape detection for Y'shua's sake.
Yosef rose early and went to the clothing shops just as they were opening. He purchased very fine apparel for himself and Miriam. These clothes would make them look like a rich merchant and his family rather than poor Galileans. He wished he would have thought of this in Hebron in order to have thrown the centurion off guard. Yosef took his purchases back to the inn where he and Miriam changed clothes. After a lifetime of wearing either homespun or inexpensive garments, this finery felt very strange to them. Yosef could not help but feel a bit of pride in how beautiful Miriam looked in fine clothes. They ate breakfast in a private room served by the innkeeper himself. Yosef was beginning to be affected by the feel and appearance of affluence. He was thinking that perhaps he should have pursued another vocation than that of a stonemason and carpenter, after all, wasn't he descended from royal blood? Didn't he and his family still own interest in properties in Bethlehem? That was the reason that he had to register on the Bethlehem roles rather than in Nazareth. Seeing Miriam in such fine clothes in such elegant surroundings made him wish he could always provide her with this life. Miriam, sensing the reason for Yosef's somber silence, spoke out.
"Yosef, you are thinking of this type of lifestyle, aren't you? I love you because you are a good man, your honest and you keep the Law. This kind of luxury rarely follows honest dealings and the good and simple features of our life together mean more to me than all the fine clothes and precious gems in the world. If our son is destined to be a king, than so be it. If not, I will be happy to watch him grow up to be just like his father, a builder who loves God. I'm wearing these clothes only because you believe it will help to keep our baby safe. Once we're in Mataria, we're going to sell them and give the money to the poor."
"You're a remarkable woman, sweet one," said Yosef, "you never complained once through all the hardships of this trip. Even though El Shaddai has spoken to me about these things, I don't quite understand everything, but I do understand why he chose you. Little Y'shua is my son for the worldly things that he must do. We have to get ready now. It's at least 180 Sabbath day journeys on the Philistine Road to Zilu. That's where we take the ferry to Heliopolis. Once were on it, we'll be safe."
The journey along the Old Philistine Way took them along the coast of the Great Sea on the northern edge of the Wilderness of Shur. Although tiring, they were able to make better than six parasangs a day and made the trip in five days without incident. The road was heavily patrolled and there were many inns along the way to accommodate the heavy merchant traffic. Once in Zilu, they went directly to the river ferry that crossed the Reed Sea, or `Yam Suf' as it was known to his people. Yosef was thinking how ironic it was that at the very spot where Moses once led his people from Thutmoses' army, he and his family were now crossing the other way to escape Herod. Is this a coincidence?
Once on the ferry, their animals tethered safely, Yosef pondered little Y'shua comfortably nestled in Miriam's arms. "You're safe now, my son," he thought, "in a few hours, we'll be in Mataria."
Egypt - 1 Kislev, 3755 .......December 1, 7 B.C E.
The ferry tied up at the wharfs of Heliopolis, once the great Egyptian city of `On' situated on the east bank of the Nile. Mataria was only two leagues to the north. Once they made their way through the crowded riverfront streets, they were able to reach Mataria in about two hours.
The gateway to the gardens was flanked by large columns covered with the strange Egyptian picture writing. The garden was used to raise rare and exotic plants from foreign lands, mostly for the production of aromatics and medicines. The aromatic resins were harvested and sent to the great temple in Heliopolis. The most important harvest of the garden was balsam, descendants of trees grown in the vicinity of Jericho and given by Herod to Mark Antony and Cleopatra over 40 years ago. No Egyptian ever knew the secrets of successfully growing and propagating the plants so Galilean gardeners, in the employ of the great temple, have tended them ever since. Miriam's cousin, Yachobel, was married to Mesha, the present caretaker.
Yosef and Miriam led their beasts up the winding path that led to the house. The air seemed thickened by the sweet and pungent aromas that filled the garden. As they approached the small caretaker's house, Yachobel caught sight of them and rushed to greet them. "Miriam! Yosef!" she shouted, "What a surprise! Oh my, isn't he beautiful?" she continued, discovering the baby in Miriam's arms. "You just couldn't resist coming all this way to show me your baby, could you?"
"We had to come," said Miriam, "Things are not well at home and there is danger for us right now."
"You're safe here from whatever it is," said Yachobel, "I'll call Mesha from the garden and you can tell us what this is all about." She blew on a ram's horn hanging on the porch, "That will bring Mesha real quick," she said, "He's watering some Balsams on the north plot."
Yosef and Miriam touched the small prayer capsule on the lintel of the door as they entered and reverently kissed their fingertips. Miriam's own father, Joachim, had carved the mezuzah when she and Yachobel were little girls in Nazareth. The prayer of Shemah, written on the parchment inside had been inscribed by the priest Zechariya, Miriam's uncle. Yachobel seated them in the small kitchen and set about gathering some refreshments. After a few moments, Mesha came storming in. "What's wrong, Yachobel?" he puffed, out of breath from running.... "Yosef! Miriam! When did you get here? What's that your carrying there? That baby's so well swaddled I can't tell if its a boy or girl."
"It's a boy," answered Yosef, "and we have named him Y'shua, we call him Yisu."
"Yosef and Miriam are in some kind of trouble, Mesha," said Yachobel, "Now tell us all about it. What is this trouble?"
Yosef related the entire story to their cousins who sat wide-eyed at the stories of dreams, Bethlehem, the three visitors and of Herod. "You must stay here with us where you'll be safe," insisted Mesha. "Herod can't send his guards or assassins to Goshen without the permission of the Roman governor and that's not likely because the Governor hates Herod. He's still ridiculed here for losing the entire sea coast to the Egyptians, not to mention Jericho. You remember the story, don't you? Cleopatra tried to trick Herod into a love affair so she could blackmail him but the crafty fox, for all his lust, was too smart for that. He knew how dangerous it was. He was scared to death of Mark Antony and knew what Antony would have done to him. In any event, Herod turned her down. Cleopatra got so mad, she told Antony that Herod seduced her anyway. Herod had to bribe Antony with the temple treasure and the entire sea coast of our country. Antony gave the land to Cleopatra along with the city of Jericho. They had set Herod up and everybody knew it. I guess in a way, that's why we're here. Those balsams are from the plantations of Jericho and go back to seeds that the Queen of Sheba gave to Solomon. The Egyptians never had the knack of raising them so our family has been doing it ever since. Anyway, there's still bad blood between the Egyptians and Herod, You'll be safe here.
"This certainly seems to be the year for strange happenings," said Yachobel. "I still can't get over old Aunt Elizabeth having a baby. How is she now and how's the baby?"
"Naturally the birth was harder on her than a younger woman," answered Miriam, "but she's doing fine and the baby is very healthy. They named him Yohanan. You know, Uncle Zechariya said that an angel came to him too, but he wasn't sleeping. His turn had finally come up to tend the altar at the Holy of Holies and the angel talked to him there. He couldn't talk until after the boy was born, struck dumb, he said, by the angel Gabriel. Yohanan and Yisu are cousins, but I get the feeling that these unusual things connect them in some other way."
Cornelius Gallo marched his troops into Bethlehem. As soon as he had them quartered, he reported to the Praefectus Castorum with whom he had served in the Homanadensian war. The commander, Quintius Aemilius Secundus, was the head of Quirinius' personal entourage and was delegated to oversee the census registration. Aemilius was also married to Quirinius' niece and did not yet know that his firstborn son was already nearly two weeks old. Rome seemed so far away.
"Hello, Gallo," greeted Aemilius, "It's been about six months since I left you in Galatia. What have you been doing?"
"Captain," replied Gallo, "When the roads in Galatia finally got underway, I was assigned to patrol along the Idumaean border, nothing exciting, just playing nursemaid to a bunch of rag tag hill people and dispatching a few bandits here and there. It hasn't been the kind of duty we sixth legionnaires are used to." Aemilius shrugged his shoulders, "If you think that's something, the other day Herod's chief of guards came down here and asked me to send out my men to kill all the male babies in this rotten town. Can you believe that? I told him to tell Herod that Rome didn't become the master of the world by killing babies. If I had my way I would have set my first phalanx on Herod's stooges who came later and slaughtered a couple dozen babies...right in front of their families, mind you."
"Great Jupiter, why didn't you?" asked Gallo.
Aemilius threw his hand up in dismay, "Quirinius' specific orders from Caesar are not to interfere in Herod's handling of the province as long as it doesn't make trouble for Rome." Gallo grunted in resignation, Aemilius continued, "Quirinius is pretty prudish about this sort of thing. He's on his way to Jerusalem right now to confront that old dung heap about this baby thing. I wouldn't want to be in that barbarian's shoes right now."
Gallo remembered the little family on the Nabataean road, "At least there's one Bethlehem baby that wasn't killed. Yesterday we rescued a Bethlehem family from a bunch of hill thugs not far from the old tenth barracks. Why is Herod murdering other people's sons? Is he tired of killing his own?"
"Some nonsense about a king being sent by their Jewish god," replied Aemilius, "you know how superstitious that old degenerate is."
"I don't think the baby we saw was a king," laughed Gallo, "this was anything but a royal family."
"Regardless," murmured Aemilius, "we had better send some men to bring back that family, at least until we get this thing cleared up. If they were the ones Herod was after, they have to be found or there could to be a lot more bloodshed. We can give them Roman protection while we sort this out and maybe nip this whole nasty business in the bud. Caesars main concern is to keep this area peaceful and most of the trouble seems to be around this god-king business."
"Two of my men escorted them to the old barracks," said Gallo, "I'll send them back after them but believe me, Aemilius, after serving Rome in Gaul and Africa and with you and the Consul against those crazy Homanadensians, after all those victories for the Emperor and Rome, here I am in this forsaken corner of nowhere chasing down Jewish babies. It's damn embarrassing."
Aemilius shrugged, "I know what you mean Cornelius, but Augustus knows what he's doing. This forsaken corner, as you call it, is the main pathway of Rome's tribute from the east. Roman citizens expect their free panem et circenes and its expensive. This area has to remain pacified at all costs. These Jews are always fighting among themselves and sprouting rebellions here and there. They're a crazy lot."
Quirinius stormed unannounced into Herod's courtroom, "Herod!" he fumed, "What in the name of your ugly hill god are you doing? Why the hell are your cutthroats running around the countryside killing babies? Have you finally gone totally insane?" The tall senator, unlike other highborn Romans of middle age, had a lush, full head of reddish-brown hair and the physique of a man half his age. He was dressed in a leather breastplate and tunic and had obviously ridden hard. His face, still weathered by three years in the Galatian sun, was flushed, his blue-grey eyes reddened by the irritation of road dust.
Herod, taken aback by Quirinius' mood, replied, "Your excellency, you must believe that this step, as drastic as it must seem to you, was necessary to preserve the peace."
"How does a dozen or so little babies threaten brave Herod's peace?" asked the consul, making no attempt to hide the contempt in his voice.
Herod tried to look calm, "Your excellency is certainly aware of the sedition among the Am-ha'Aretz that a new deliverer is coming to wrest Judea from the hands of Rome. A rumor has spread that this deliverer was born about a fortnight ago in Bethlehem. If the people are allowed to believe that this new deliverer really exists, there will be new rebellions like there were under the hammers ...but if the people think that this so called messiah was killed, they will give up this foolish notion of a new Jewish empire and go back to their business. A few dead Jewish brats are small enough price to avoid widespread anarchy."
Quirinius threw his hands up in disgust, "Herod, only you can make the brutal murder of innocent babies sound logical. I'm going to overlook this incident this time and accept that it prevented rebellion and greater bloodshed but there will be no more baby-killing, do you understand?"
Herod was relieved that he had once again talked himself out of a difficult situation. "As you wish, Consul, the matter is closed. In time I think you will approve of my actions for the sake of the Pax Romana."
"I doubt that," barked Quirinius, "This whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I've wasted enough time on it already. I want to get this tax registration finished and get back to Rome. I haven't been home in the five years since I was made Consul. I have a triumph waiting for me. I don't want any more trouble nor do I want you taking names off the census as fast as I put them on."
"You have my assurances as a friend of Caesar that there won't be any more trouble," said Herod. "I would hope that this misunderstanding is too trivial to include in your report to Caesar."
What gall, thought Quirinius. "Don't worry about that, Herod, I wouldn't think of disturbing Caesar's appetite with this business. As for being Caesar's friend, let me remind you that the Emperor's still mad about that war you declared on the Nabataeans. Caesar no longer considers you as a cooperating partner but as a subject. If I were you, I'd keep my nose clean." Quirinius turned and left the room. Herod felt smug after the consul left the palace. He had weaseled his way out of another confrontation with the Romans. He remembered years ago how he went to Octavian, as Caesar was then known, after Antony's defeat at Actium, and convinced Caesar that his former cooperation with Antony was just a ruse. Years before that, Herod cooperated with Cassius and Brutus against Antony and still wound up as a friend to Antony after the battle of Philippi. It was often said that Herod could sell sand to desert nomads.
Gallo's two legionnaires returned to the old barracks in search of the family they had rescued from the bandits. A spice merchant and his bodyguards were packing their wares on asses for the trip to Hebron. The senior soldier, a veteran named Scamander, and Lucius, a junior enlistee, approached the merchant. "We're looking for a Jewish family that we left here a couple days ago," Scamander said.
"They left here the next morning, in a real hurry too," the merchant answered. "I heard them talking about Egypt, probably taking the Old Philistine Road."
Scamander turned to Lucius. "Gallo said not to come back without them. We know what they look like so lets keep going, we'll probably spot them on the road. If they kept moving though, they're in Egypt by now. There's a lot of Jews living in Alexandria and some more in Heliopolis. They have to be at one of those places because they always stick together. We'll split up when we get to the river. I'll go to Heliopolis and you go to Alexandria. Remember, we're looking for a builder and his wife and baby. They shouldn't be too hard to find. There's always somebody who's tongue you can loosen up for a few coins. We'll send a message to Gallo from Raphia that we're going on with the search."
The mounted soldiers covered the distance from Raphia to the Zilu ferry in much less time than it took Yosef and Miriam on their small onagers. Scamander took the road south to Heliopolis while Lucius headed west to Alexandria.
"I'll meet you back in Bethlehem," shouted Scamander as they parted.
Miriam was in the garden with Yachobel while Yosef and Mesha were in Heliopolis to buy lumber. She was cradling little Yisu in her arms while Yachobel was cutting the balsam stalks to make the precious juice run. After Yisu was asleep, Miriam would help Yachobel gather the small beads of resin that would dry in the sun. Miriam was sitting under an enormous sycamore tree that Yachobel said was there since the time of Isaiah. It certainly looked as if it was that old, its gnarled trunk was all of a reed and a half around. The base of the tree was hollowed out like a small cave and its branches spread out for a great distance offering shade to some of the more delicate herbs. Yachobel and Miriam chatted about home, relatives and the strange events involved with Yisu's birth. They talked about Yosef's plans, how he wanted to move back to the Galilee when it was safe. Yosef wanted to buy a builder's shop on carpenter's row in Nazareth. Miriam's sister, Salome, lived nearby in the fishing town of K'far Nahum on the north shore of Lake Gennasaret. She told Yachobel about Salome's new little baby who she named Yaqub after their father. "My sister's husband, Zebedee, has a fishing business and is doing very well," Miriam went on. Yachobel was eager for all the news from home. "There are many building projects in Caesarea and Sepphoris," Miriam continued, "We hope we can get back so Yosef can get work on them. He was working in Caesarea when we met and he asked my parents for my hand."
Yachobel and Miriam chatted about how lucky they were to have husbands who didn't treat them like property. The garden was calm and soothing as gentle breezes carried the many different aromas.
Suddenly, the barking of the garden dogs aroused the ladies from their reminiscences and Yachobel saw a movement at the gate. The gate was visible from their vantage point on a small rise and they knew the dogs wouldn't bark at Yosef and Mesha.
"It's a Roman soldier," whispered an alarmed Yachobel.
"What will I do?" asked Miriam, "He must not see Yisu."
"Hide in the hollow of that tree," Yachobel pleaded, "I'll walk down and talk to him." Miriam slipped inside the hollow at the base of the old tree and cradled the infant. "Please, don't cry," she whispered.
Yachobel got up, lifted her mantle to her head, and walked down to the mounted soldier who was trotting toward the house. "How can I help you?" she asked Scamander who had stopped about a chain from the old sycamore. "I am on an errand to Heliopolis," replied Scamander, "and would like to get a drink for me and my horse." Scamander dismounted and walked his horse towards the house. Yachobel followed closely. She drew a draft of water from the well as the Roman led his mount to the trough. Both soldier and horse drank while Yachobel glanced nervously at the old tree. The soldier drank his fill and was about to leave when he turned and asked, "By the way, have you seen any strangers of your race around here? I am looking for a Jewish family who would have passed here a few days ago, a man in his thirties, a young wife and a newborn baby. Have you seen them? Maybe they stopped for water too,"
To be continued
Jack Kilmon (1996)