A Woman Who Loved
Mary Magdalene: A Woman who Loved
Published by Steve Copland at Smashwords
Copyright 2011 by Steve Copland
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Thanks to Cindy R for her proofreading skills.
List of Characters
Mary Magdalene: The central character as portrayed in Scripture.
Abdeel: Merchant connected to Mary through the death of his wife.
Gaius: Personal assistant of Pontius Pilate.
Barabbas: The zealot freed by Pontius Pilate. His story continues in Book 3.
Nathaniel: The leper healed by Jesus in Matthew 8.
Millicent and Hamish: Slaves who were bought and freed by Abdeel.
Artilius: Roman soldier involved in Mithraism. His story continues in Book 3.
Lucius: Roman soldier. Husband of Vita. His story continues in Book 2.
Eleazar: Pharisee in opposition to Jesus. His story continues in Book 2.
Raisa: Eleazar's wife. Adulterous woman. Her story continues in Book 3.
Simon the Pharisee: Leader of the synagogue in Magdala.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus: Secret supporters of Jesus.
Reuben: The blind man healed by Jesus in John 9.
Simon Peter, John, and Judas Iscariot: Disciples of Jesus.
It was perhaps two hours ‘till dawn. She had been lying awake listening to the distant howl of a wolf somewhere near the cliffs of Arbela. She turned to look at the man lying next to her. Who was he really? She carefully lifted his arm off her shoulder and slid off the bed. His intermittent snoring continued in rasping grunts as she dressed, slipped a piece of dry bread into her mouth, took a sip of water, and unlatched the door. She peered out, as was her habit, usually to be sure the street was deserted before her patrons ventured into public. A cool breeze off the sea caressed her face. It smelled like freedom. It beckoned her to go somewhere quiet, somewhere she could be alone with her thoughts. She lifted her shawl over her hair and stepped out into the semi-darkness of the predawn light. The flickering light of oil lamps shone from a few high windows, casting moving shadows on the trees near her small house.
Turning left and towards the cliffs, she walked silently through the town center, past the well, and up the slight rise towards the fork in the road, her sandals making soft padding sounds on the Roman cobbles. Behind her a voice called out somewhere on the sea, a fisherman giving orders to lift a trammel net out of the water. Fishermen always worked in the deep waters during darkness and, as she continued her journey towards the mountains, Mary stopped and looked back at the small bobbing lights of lanterns fastened to the masts in the center of the boats which were bringing the ends of the net together. She crossed the Roman road that branched beneath the dark shadow of the cliffs. To the south, a few miles away, lay the new city of Tiberias established by Herod Antipas only seven years ago and named in honour of the Caesar.
Leaving the road she carefully made her way upon a narrow goat track towards the cliffs, climbing past outcrops of rock, being careful not to touch the briar thorns which grew on either side. Dew from the dry broken grass dampened her feet, and the smell of sage reached her, as she wound her way towards a low shelf of rock facing the east and across the Sea of Galilee. She stepped off the beaten track and through the grass until she was beneath the shadow of the cliffs. Choosing a flat rock, she sat and gazed out over the water as the gray light of dawn began to illuminate the world. Beneath her lay the small fishing village of Magdala, its streets, houses and inns nestled together against the shores of the freshwater lake that contributed so much to its economy. A thin sickle moon ran from the sky as if chased by the rising sun and began to drop beneath the cliffs behind her. Deep within her heart she felt a stirring of joy, or was it just a fleeting memory from long ago when life had its happier moments? They seemed few and far between these days.
From the corner of her eye Mary spied a young female deer - a roebuck, its yellow-brown coat making it almost impossible to see against the stark landscape. It was watching her as it chewed the damp grass, seemingly unafraid, and then suddenly it leaped away, bounding over small rocks and plants, pursued by a pack of wolves which appeared clumsy in comparison. They paid her no mind in their pursuit, and within a few seconds all were out of sight. The scene brought contrasting thoughts.
If only life were so simple; if only I could have such freedom. To run, to jump, to escape the dogs that chase me.
She watched the sun begin to rise above the hills on the far shore of Galilee. As it rose, a golden path stretched across the waters and seemed to lead directly to the port of Magdala. A cock crowed to announce the new day, its cackling voice echoing off the cliff walls behind her. The town was coming to life - people moving about, drawing water, loading carts, and walking out to the fields to harvest the first crops of grain which were a few weeks late in the middle of May. The scene before her looked so idyllic, so peaceful, and yet even where she sat she was reminded that many souls had fallen to their deaths, their bodies broken on the rocks below.
Few people visited this lonely place. It was considered bad luck by those who held to superstitions or had lost loved ones on that dreadful day almost a decade ago. The caves above her had witnessed the end of many lives. Herod’s military elite had been lowered in baskets to slaughter the families and rebels hiding in the cliffs. Some say that wolves or jackals never lived in this land until the scent of blood, the blood of Jews who were dashed upon the rocks, drew them to the cliffs of Arbela. Judas Galilaeus, their leader, a man who considered himself a true patriot, had convinced his followers that paying taxes to Caesar was a violation of Moses’ Law. The Romans couldn’t have cared less and Herod cared more for currying favor with Romans than for the covenant of the Law.
Mary rose to leave. With darkness gone she had begun to feel exposed. She wanted to be back indoors and out of sight. Her guest would have placed coins on the table and left by now; it was time for the blessed silence of sleep. She turned and looked up at the cave mouth, that same mouth that had seemed to spit its inhabitants out like something distasteful. She bowed her head for a moment and shuddered against the memory, squashing emotions with habitual control, the survival instincts of a woman who had learned to live with pain.
If only you had listened to me. If only you were here. You trusted in a fool and a fool’s God, and drove me to be what I have become.
She shook her head quickly, stifling the thoughts, gathered up her robe and started down the hill.
Abdeel was used to waiting. The journey from Thessalonica to Joppa was often interrupted by storms and unscheduled stops. Last night there had been such a storm and the captain of the merchant ship had taken down the sails. The loss of time meant they were now sitting beyond the fabled reef at Joppa waiting for the tide. The sailors were impatient to be ashore and enjoy the many entertainments the old city had to offer travelers with little or no moral restraints. The captain was a bearded Greek with a raucous voice, protruding belly, pleasant nature and reputation for honesty, not to mention a love of good wine. Abdeel had known him for many years and, between them, they had dozens of stories to tell about storms, mermaids and the demons which lurked beneath the waves of the Great Sea.
For five hours they had waited in the dark at the southern end of the natural port, judging their distance by the lantern which was hung on the three-meter rock splinter that protruded from the reef. Legend had it that Andromeda had been chained to this rock in order to be devoured by a great monster of the sea to appease the wrath of Poseidon; however, he had been rescued from the very jaws of death by Perseus. Alexander the Great had established a coin mint here, but this ancient city had changed hands violently many times since his death.
At the captain’s orders the anchor was cranked on board, sails were hoisted, and the old ship creaked into motion, slowly crossing the reef through the narrow strait and entering the port. The sailors raised a cheer to the gods of the sea, and Abdeel said a silent prayer of thanks to the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
He was a godly man, a Jew circumcised on the eighth day according to the custom and raised to know the Torah and Prophets. He was tall for a Jew and, with his short gray hair and trimmed beard, had the look of a scholar rather than a merchant. He always kept the Sabbath, or Shabbat in the old tongue, and his love for the Scriptures was legendary. His father had been a merchant and had taught him the ways of trading, but of all the places he had seen throughout the empire there was nothing to compare with the beauty of his native Galilee. His employees waited on the docks ready to load the camels and head for their destination. They were going up to Jerusalem, the City of David. As a boy Abdeel would count the thirty-five mile stones from Joppa, but this day they would travel only as far as Modein, staying in the safety of the Roman outpost situated about sixteen miles from the Holy City.
The ship moved against the side of the dock and lines were flung, orders barked and a gang plank secured to the side. The sailors began to unload the cargo from the hold, eager to finish their work, leave the ship, and partake of the many taverns that offered nocturnal entertainment. The captain moved toward Abdeel and, clasping his wrist in the fashion of a Roman soldier, smiled affectionately at his friend.
“Thank you for the wine, my friend, and, as always, for the pleasure of bringing you to your native land.”
Abdeel held his wrist tightly and placed his left hand on the captain’s shoulder. “It was a good wine and a waste to see this land lover spill half a glass over his chest,” Abdeel replied, his dark eyes sparkling.
The captain laughed in genuine joy at the memory of Abdeel trying to make a toast at the height of the previous night’s storm.
“We are here! Neptune will have to do better than that to bring me to his watery jail, or Sheol as you Jews call it. I will see you in a month or two, or are you really serious about giving up your traveling ways? In any case, enjoy your beloved Israel, my friend.”
“I shall, and perhaps I will be back. Shalom,” Abdeel replied as he stepped across the gang plank and onto the dock.
It was good to be back. He always felt a deep sense of peace whenever his feet felt the Promised Land. There was nowhere like home, especially for a people whose history was so closely tied to this beautiful country. Once the camels were loaded, Abdeel and his small caravan joined a larger group who were also making the journey up to Jerusalem. Although the traveling was slower, there was safety in numbers, safety from the bandits who found the caravans with their foreign goods too tempting to pass by. With fifteen mounted mercenaries protecting the travelers, they would have second thoughts. Merchants were one thing; armed professionals quite another.
Abdeel rode alongside his trusted friend Gaius, a young but experienced Roman citizen with a natural instinct for administration. Gaius served the Roman governor until Abdeel had requested his services from the recently appointed Pontius Pilate. Now he served both. Although the procurator himself had little more than contempt for most Jews, Pilate’s wife had distinctive tastes in cloth and perfume, tastes which had made Abdeel a welcome guest in her husband’s presence; however, Gaius was still duty bound to report to Pilate himself.
“What news from Judea?” Abdeel asked.
“We Romans are looking towards Britannica while you Jews look for a Messiah, my friend,” replied Gaius with a warm smile. His dark, short-cropped hair, stocky build, and broad face betrayed the possibility of Spanish blood. He was a lively character, and his friendly countenance made him a man who found it easy to make friends.
“So nothing has changed in the past year and a half,” laughed Abdeel, as he turned in the saddle to observe the camels following them.
“Actually, we have a new prophet in the region. He seems to have come down from Galilee. Perhaps he is the one you are always reading about. He’s been causing a bit of a stir lately, insulting Herod in public places,” replied Gaius.
“Insulting Herod? Who is this prophet and how is he insulting Herod?” asked Abdeel.
“He is a wild man from the desert, totally unsociable and uncouth at first impression. He dresses like a beggar and roars like a lion. He’s called John and spends his time calling people to repent. He lives along the Jordan and sometimes comes within walking distance of Jerusalem.”
“So how has he insulted Herod?” Abdeel enquired again.
“He called Herod an adulterer, challenged him about taking his brother’s wife while Philip is still alive.” explained Gaius.
“And what has Herod done about it?”
“Nothing as yet, but you know Herod cannot let something like that go unchallenged. I can’t see Herod either repenting or allowing this prophet to embarrass him in public,” he laughed. “A man like his father is our esteemed Herod, not in name only.”
“Well, whoever he is, according to the Law of Moses this John is right. A man can only marry his brother’s wife after the brother is dead and Philip still lives.”
“I am sure Herod prefers Roman law when it comes to such matters,” chuckled Gaius.
“So what else can you tell me about this man John?”
“Well”, continued Gaius, “they say he has attracted quite a following further north and that he baptizes people in the Jordan, indeed, he is also known as ‘the Baptist’. But I know what you’re thinking, my friend, and he is not the one. He's often heard to say that he's not the Messiah, but that he has come to prepare the way for this King.”
“Have you heard him speak for yourself?” asked Abdeel
“Actually, yes, but only for a moment. We were taking a small shipment to the garrison at Tiberias a few weeks ago and saw a large crowd near the Jordan. He was standing on a rock. He looked like a crazy man; staff in hand, long wild hair and beard and dressed in camel’s hair cloth. We stopped and listened for about twenty minutes. He is a powerful speaker, passionate.”
“Sounds like he made quite an impression on you,” said Abdeel, smiling with amusement.
Gaius hid a wry smile and answered in a serious tone. “To be honest, he seemed like someone not of this world. There was an air of power and authority about him that belied the way he looked. There was a moment when his eyes met mine, a moment when he was saying something like ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare your heart for the Lord’ or words to that effect.”
“He was quoting Isaiah,” explained Abdeel. “‘A voice of one crying in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'."
“Yes, that was it, I remember now. So, tell me scholar, what does it mean?” chided Gaius.
“It is a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah who will bring good news to Zion, to Jerusalem. He will come with power and as a shepherd.”
“With power, you say?” asked Gaius. “Powerful prophets are not usually welcomed by Rome, Master Abdeel, and shepherds are not welcome anywhere,” laughed Gaius.
The older man was quiet for a moment, pondering what had been said. The steady clipping sound of shod hooves on the cobbled stones declared the promise that he was coming closer to home. Gaius kept watching the progress of the camels as they trod the well-worn track at the side of the road.
“There is other news also, my friend,” said Gaius, interrupting Abdeel’s thoughts. “While we are on the subject of long-haired prophets, there is another I should mention. No doubt you’ll hear about and see him soon enough.”
“Really?” enquired Abdeel, “and why is that?”
“Because he is causing quite a sensation in Galilee and Jerusalem; according to rumor he is doing miraculous deeds, healing the sick, driving out demons, and some say he even healed a leper.”
“A leper, you say? Only God can heal a leper,” Abdeel replied, his voice seeming to break slightly.
“You are too serious, my friend,” said the Roman, smiling. “A friend of ours from Cana went to a wedding where this man was; it must have been a few months before you left. He told me a ridiculous story about the wine running out and this Nazarene ordering the servants to fill about sixteen jars with water. When they served the water it had turned into the best wine he had ever tasted. I think he simply had too much,” he said laughing.
“A Nazarene you say?”
“Yes, Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter’s son by all accounts, but certainly becoming popular for more than making tables and chairs, eh? A handy man to bring to a wedding,” chuckled Gaius.
Abdeel also smiled. “We shouldn’t believe all we hear, my friend, but this story of a leper being healed is worth looking into.”
“He is not so popular in Jerusalem. He was there for your spring festival, the one you call Passover. He caused quite a scene in the temple. I was speaking to our mutual friend Joseph who said that this Jesus got very upset about the merchants trying to earn a living under Solomon’s Portico. According to witnesses he drove them out with a whip; sheep, goats, cattle and money everywhere. In any case, I am sure that you’ve said this Messiah of yours must come from David’s city, from Bethlehem Ephrathah, not Nazareth, or am I wrong?”
“No, you are right. The Messiah must be born in Bethlehem; however, the Scriptures don’t tell us he will grow up there.”
“Well, I am sure you’ll hear a lot more when you return to your hometown, my good friend. Perhaps you will get a chance to see this Jesus for yourself. Speaking of home, Abdeel, did you wish for my personal escort to Tiberias, or will you make other arrangements?”
“There'll be no need to escort me, thank you, Gaius. Most of the produce will be staying with my people in Jerusalem. They'll take care of the details. I am looking forward to getting home and seeing my beloved Galilee and Magdala,” he said with a sigh.
They traveled on towards Modein. Abdeel was deep in thought about the conversation. It had been hundreds of years since anyone reported the healing of a leper. According to the best interpretations of the Law only God could heal a leper. For this elderly Jewish man that was a personal issue. Leprosy didn’t discriminate between the good and the bad, the righteous and unrighteous, although lepers were seen to be cursed by God for those who considered themselves righteous. He had known a good woman, a very good woman, a woman who had longed to be a mother, who had long sought the face of God to change her barrenness, a woman who had discovered the dreaded disease had chosen her. She had died amongst lepers, unable and unwilling to be held by the man she loved for fear of infecting him. She had taught him to accept God’s will, to understand that ‘the Lord gives and the Lord takes away’, and to continue saying ‘blessed is the name of the Lord’. Abdeel’s heart was heavy as he thought of her, the woman who had tried to bear his children, a woman who died not knowing a dark secret he held in his heart.
Gaius moved back and forth through the caravan, ever watchful over his charges, ever thoughtful that the governor would not be pleased if this ageing Jewish merchant and his produce were not safely delivered to Jerusalem.
It was almost noon. The sun was shining on a bowl of water near the shuttered window, creating beautiful patterns on the ceiling of the small room. Mary watched, like a little girl, spellbound. She had slept throughout the morning as she often did in order to avoid those who shared the courtyard outside. The sneers of the wives and sniggers of teenage boys angered her, but she had only a small house with no private courtyard of her own. All of her cooking could be done indoors, as she had an adequate oven with a brick chimney, but she still needed to venture to the common well to draw water.
Today she needed to visit the market on the outskirts of town. Nowadays the markets sold most things, even common goods such as flour. Times were changing. In years past everyone harvested grain, or gleaned in the fields, but the Romans had brought commerce and even wealth to some. Mary sometimes went to the fields to glean, but usually in the heat of the day when others were resting. Having the money to buy grain wasn’t a problem, it was the feeling of open fields that she liked. The gleaning was merely a good reason to go, a reason to do a chore which was a handle on reality, a lifeline to an ever-pressing darkness to which she was slowly succumbing.
Life in a small town wasn’t easy. She was a woman despised, but also feared, especially by those who saw her brazen attitude as a threat. Often she would refuse to cower beneath her shawl; she would walk in public with her brightly braided hair sparkling in the sun, turning heads and raising comments. But more often than not, she hid in the darkness, ashamed and dirty, a woman longing for love, longing for sincere human touch and drowning in the memories of a broken past. At times she would leave her house in the middle of the day with a ‘devil may care’ attitude, only to have her courage betray her, fear grip her, shame overtake her, and a compelling desire to hide carry her home.
The stares and mumbled criticisms of her neighbors were nothing compared to the voices which invaded her mind without welcome or warning. They knew her intimately, her private thoughts, her troubled past and pathetic hopes. Her wrong choices had opened the door to them, a door labeled anger, rebellion and ultimately, sin. Sometimes they mocked her, sometimes they encouraged her to hate, sometimes her thoughts were as old as time itself; the thoughts of those who lived before time, who had rejected perfection and embraced evil. She felt their evil, and without invitation, their hatred became hers, their blasphemy her blasphemy, their disgusting thoughts, her thoughts.
But when their voices were silent her self hate came back to haunt her. Did she enjoy their lust; enjoy the insatiable evil which filled them with hatred towards the Creator? Perhaps she did. Perhaps they had chosen her because she was so evil in herself. And yet a small and screaming part of her longed to feel freedom, to feel clean, to feel the arms of her husband, strong and tender, to feel like a woman that she could respect. Those days were gone. The present often found her as a broken child cowering in the corner of her room, an adult in body, but child in mind, a woman who could not see herself as a woman, as a widow; those memories were buried beneath a mountain of pain and regret. The child longed for a new life, the life of a child with a laughing, loving father bouncing her on his knees, kissing her cheek, tickling her and making her laugh. Oh, how she missed her father, missed love, real love. There was one who loved her as a daughter, but she was too afraid to let him love her, afraid that what she was would somehow spread and contaminate him.
She crossed to the table and studied her reflection in the small silver mirror which had been given as a gift. She was naturally beautiful, as men count beauty. Her high cheekbones, olive complexion, and deep brown eyes complemented her full lips and long neck. She had a natural grace when she moved, and the sight of her thick long hair moving as she tossed her head had turned many an eye. She covered her hair, grabbed a small leather purse, and left the house. Few people were about. She turned right and started down the narrow cobbled street beyond the courtyard to the edge of town and the docks.
Magdala was a thriving village, although much of the traveling trade had shifted to the new town of Tiberias a few miles away. Northern travelers often stayed at the many inns and enjoyed the fresh fish and produce of the rich Galilean valley. Mary could not imagine a more beautiful place anywhere in the world, albeit this place had witnessed many horrors of human cruelty in the past and had taken the lives of some she had loved dearly.
A warm afternoon breeze touched her face as it reached out to land from the sea. It threatened to take away her shawl, to expose her. She came to the market. The smells of drying fish and fresh fruit tempted her, but she only gave a casual glance to the many wares on display in the seller’s tents. She purchased a small vial of olive oil, half a seah of flour, and one medium sized tilapia, her favorite Galilean fish. She handed over a silver denarius, that which held the image of Tiberius Caesar, and received twenty copper putrot in change. An expensive meal with fine wine could cost a traveler one denarius, or 190 putrot, in Magdala these days, almost the equivalent of a day’s wages.
She had once been offered three hundred denari as a widow’s bride price, three times the normal amount, but she would be no man’s slave, never again. She had learned the power of Eve, the power to seduce and coerce. Men were so easily controlled by their lust, were so quick to whisper words of love which evaporated with their passion. Mary knew the ways of men and she had promised herself to never willingly submit to their control again.
Speaking of which, it was the fourth day of the week, dies Mecuris, or Mercury day by the Roman calendar, and she had a regular guest in the middle of the week. In truth, she despised him. He had frequented her house for nearly two years, a man with one wife and two sons, a man who took his turn to teach his children in the synagogue, who was welcomed in Simon the Pharisee’s house and who lived a double life. She placed her goods in a small basket and turned away from the market, heading back towards her house and the local synagogue. She used to visit the synagogue, years ago when life was simpler, when she was but another woman from Magdala, but now she hated the place. She hated the hypocritical ideas that taught that she was forbidden to enter such a holy place whilst those who made her unholy were welcomed. She hated the teachings that claimed a married woman who slept with any man was an adulteress, that she should die for the offence, and yet a married man could share the bed of any unmarried woman without committing a crime.
Man-made religion disguised as righteousness; hypocrites who teach that a woman is the legal property of a man and able to be disposed of at a whim.
As she passed the synagogue on her way back, she heard the voice of a local man instructing the young boys in Torah. She paused, and as she heard him expounding the Levitical Law, her thoughts reached down into a well of unhealed pain and exploded inside her head.
What kind of god created such laws? A male god perhaps? What kind of god made life unbearable for one gender while rewarding the other merely through an accident of birth? What kind of god created societies which oppressed and destroyed the lives of women and then cast them out like filthy dogs for choosing the only way of life in which they could survive? I have chosen to live, I have risen above their man-made rules and now they submit to my power, my rules and my price. They can have their pretty synagogue and their religious laws; my law is real, it is the law of nature, the power of Eve, the power of survival.
And there were other thoughts as well.
And what of love, Mary; what of real love? What about that idea, that dream you so often seek to crush beneath your pain? Don’t lose your heart because of what you have seen and experienced. There is goodness, Mary; there is hope; there is real love.
Mary drew her shawl tightly around her shoulders and hurried up the cobbled path towards her house and security. She must prepare. She would pour water into a basin and bathe, she would burn incense, comb her hair, and leave the small wooden handle on the door latch adjacent to the dark-colored knot in the wood - the sign that all of her customers recognised, the sign that said she was alone, she was open for business. She would act her part for the money, play with him as a cat toyed with a mouse; she would play him for a fool like actors in a twisted Greek tragedy. She would play her part; she would play the harlot.
Abdeel awoke to the sound of raised voices in the courtyard outside his room. Someone was cursing a camel which didn’t wish to be loaded. By the amount of light pouring through the high window on the east, he judged that he had indeed overslept. Sleep had eluded him for hours. Words from prophetic books bounced around in his head. He was a good scholar, a man who could have been a leading theologian but had chosen a life of travel instead. This news of a leper being healed was something which could not be ignored, and for such a healer to appear immediately after this desert prophet was cause for further investigation. He was excited, and at the same time a little sad. For years he had spent hours in the synagogue asking God for mercy, asking that his wife be healed. Last night he had dreamt of her, a ghastly dream of darkened caves and clothes like rags, of covered faces and rotting flesh. How cruel life could be.
It was she who had taught him to be humble. He had allowed his prosperity to make him arrogant, independent. He had become increasingly bitter towards God when his wife could not conceive. He wanted an heir, for what was the point of a fortune without an heir.
He rose and washed his face with water from a bowl on the small table. There was fruit, cheese, some barley cakes, and watered spiced wine. Abdeel turned towards Jerusalem and spent a few moments in prayer before he satisfied his hunger and stepped out into the sunlight. The dew on the acacia trees had almost gone, yet a few small droplets sparkled in the early morning sun as the trees gently swayed in a light breeze. He loved the smell of these hardwoods; however, even the most discerning nose would struggle to catch their scent with thirty camels kneeling nearby.
They left Modein some fifteen minutes later and began the sixteen-mile journey up to Jerusalem. He had turned down Gaius’ invitation to arm himself with a Roman sword, the younger man’s insistence ceasing only after showing him the short dagger he kept within the folds of his robe. Sometimes Gaius seemed over-protective of him, like a hen with small chicks; however, all travelers knew it could be a dangerous road. The journey to Jerusalem climbed into the hills, through rocky valleys that offered ample hiding places for bandits. At this time of year it was a road well traveled and regularly patrolled by groups of mounted soldiers, so Abdeel had no doubts that their short trip would be uneventful.
The road from Joppa to Modein was very straight, a typical characteristic of Roman roads, designed to get legions from one point to another in the shortest possible time. They were mostly built by the legions themselves and needed little maintenance when government engineers were supervising construction. Without supervision, the soldiers were tempted to take shortcuts, omitting the important first layer of large stones at the bottom of a trench which was notoriously difficult to dig in Judea. The second layer was packed with sand, and only then were the cobbles cut and fitted together with lime and broken tiles as cement. The centre was always slightly raised to shed water, and drains lay on either side.
For much of the journey they would travel on the sandy track beside the road, a safeguard against damaging the large callous soles of their camel’s feet upon the Roman cobblestones. The sixteen miles to Jerusalem wound through the valleys. Trees grew wherever life-giving water gurgled to the surface, and small villages provided a place to rest and water animals along the way.
They arrived in Jerusalem in the middle of the afternoon and approached the city by the Eastern Gate, sometimes referred to as the Joppa Gate by the locals. Outside the walls were street merchants and villagers selling their wares - everything from live animals and fowl, to fresh fruit and vegetables. Dozens of tents lined the road and the sounds of haggling buyers, bleating sheep and crowing roosters filled the air, the former standing impatiently in hastily erected pens behind the tent, the latter in cages or sitting on roosts with leather cords attached to their feathered legs.
Closer to the gates were the beggars. The blind and crippled sat on mats, dry thin hands extended to the passers-by, hopeful of enough small coin to survive. Abdeel dismounted, and after letting his fellow travelers pass him into the city, gave to each in turn, as was his custom, enough to keep each soul for at least a week. Many grunted their thanks to him, others were too anxious to count the coins, dismissing the giver with a nod of their heads. Gaius waited under the arch of the gate, watching this man he deeply respected share some of his blessings with his fellow man. He knew that neither race or color, creed or religion made any difference to the old merchant’s generosity. He saw Abdeel bend down and touch the hand of a blind man, placing several coins into his hand. The man was smiling and speaking with the old merchant. Gaius guessed that Abdeel knew the beggar from past experience.
The two men said farewell and Gaius took both mounts and left to supervise the delivery of the goods. Abdeel stood in the centre of the road, a soft basket on his shoulder bearing gifts. He gazed to the end of the street and the walls of the temple before him. It was a truly magnificent structure covering almost a quarter of the city. From where he stood he could see the Southern Stairs which led up to Solomon’s Portico with its 200 Corinthian columns. As he walked towards the temple he passed the densely populated area of houses on his left, the homes of tradesmen, laborers and widows. People were going about their business on the busy street, and young boys were returning home from studies.
When he reached the stairs he climbed, and passing under the columns, which rose some fifteen times the height of a man, he entered the Court of Gentiles. Groups sat under the portico discussing theology, trade and politics. To the right was something of a market area where the unscrupulous profited through the selling of essential offerings for various sacrifices. The haggling over prices threatened to destroy the sense of awe, replacing it with a marketplace mentality. To his right, a group of schoolboys fidgeted and took notes as a rabbi expounded the Law of Moses. They were eager to finish for the day, eager for play. He turned and left, not willing to venture closer to the holy place without first visiting one of the many public baths to purify himself.
Abdeel descended the stairs and turned right towards Herod’s Palace on the west side of the city. Although he owned a small house in Jerusalem, tonight he would stay with one of his oldest and dearest friends, a man who was a respected member of the ruling council in the city, a member of the Sanhedrin. The Jewish ruler, Joseph by name, had come to live in Jerusalem years before, leaving his native Arimathea, a small town some twenty miles east of Joppa. He had been a leading member of the synagogue there, and his reputation for integrity, knowledge of the Law, and position of wealth, had opened doors for him in the Holy City.
The presence of Roman soldiers on the streets was significant for this time of year. There were no major festivals or holy days at this time as Passover had finished two months earlier, so Abdeel wondered why there seemed to be so much tension in the air. He arrived at a small bathhouse which was frequented only by Jews. After disrobing, he entered the tepid water, and wasting no time washing, dressed and left, walking through the narrow street towards the west. There were no beggars here, the rich had them removed as a rule, and Herod would not allow them to stay close to his palace.
Abdeel arrived at Joseph’s home and entered the small courtyard. It was a beautiful place with trees and hanging flowers. In the centre was a small, freshwater pool, the piped stream coming through the city system from the Gihon Springs located on Jerusalem’s eastern slopes. Bright colored carp moved lazily about, and small birds began their evening song in the branches above him. A servant had witnessed his approach, and moments later Joseph appeared. He was a man of average height and slight build, with rather hawk-like features.
“Shalom, my friend,” greeted Joseph, clutching Abdeel’s shoulders and kissing his cheek. Abdeel returned the greeting and the kiss, holding his friend tightly.
“It is good to see you, my traveling pilgrim, good to see that the Lord has kept you safe on your many journeys. Come, let’s raise a cup together.”
They entered the dining area of the large house. A low wooden table sat in the centre surrounded by various mats and cushions, some bearing distinctive designs of foreign tastes. The two men reclined, and a servant bearing a large bowl of water proceeded to untie Abdeel’s sandals and wash his feet. He said a word of thanks, a thing not required of him, but such was the character of the man.
Joseph clapped his hands and a servant appeared carrying a tray of glass cups, wine, and a selection of fruit and nuts.
“You look tired, my friend,” enquired Joseph. “A difficult trip perhaps?”
“The trip was uneventful, Joseph, just a restless night and nothing a good night’s sleep won’t cure. The city is quiet and there are too many soldiers. Is there trouble?”
Joseph let out a sigh. “You know that Pilate ordered an aqueduct built from Solomon’s Pools near Bethlehem to the city some months ago?”
Abdeel nodded as he sipped his wine.
“A week ago he appropriated a hefty sum of money from the temple funds in order to finish the project. Of course the water will be brought into the temple area, and Pilate believes he is justified to use the money because of that fact, but his actions have caused much discontent, and we fear that riots may break out.”
“Surely Caiaphas can settle things down with a word to the people,” suggested Abdeel.
“Caiaphas! He is the main instigator of the riots. You know how legalistic and stubborn he can be. He is not one to compromise. He sent a delegation to Pilate protesting against the use of temple funds although, in principal, he agreed with giving the money. Pilate sent back word saying that if our Jewish God wants water in His temple, He can pay for it with His own money.”
“Pilate will not stand for any rioting or anyone trying to sabotage the work. If there is rebellion there will be bloodshed. He has a point you know,” said Abdeel, a look of concern on his weathered face.
“Yes, I agree with you, and I said as much to Caiaphas. I see no problem in using temple funds for the project. The problem is that Pilate didn’t bother to ask, and that has injured our beloved high priest’s pride. He has organized citizens to slow down the workers by standing in their way, but I fear the zealots will use this to cause trouble. In the past Caiaphas has often been accused of being too supportive of Roman policies, but if his pride is bruised he can be hopelessly difficult to work with.”
Abdeel nodded. “Why is it that such men so often seem to get themselves into places of authority? On another topic, I have the items you asked me to get for you.”
The merchant reached into the basket he was carrying and brought out several packages. They were wrapped in silk for protection, and as Joseph opened the packages he smiled and looked back at his friend with thankfulness. There were two vials of expensive ointments and a beautiful white burial shroud.
“The work on my new tomb is almost finished, my friend. With these items you have brought me I can feel ready to meet my end. I know that you insist on giving me these as a gift, but really Abdeel, this is the most exquisite quality cloth I have ever seen. These gifts are fit for burying a king, indeed, a king of kings.”
Abdeel reached out and held his friend's arm. “May you not need them for many years, and may the Lord grant you to exercise your wisdom in the council for a long time yet. We need you there.”
“How long will you stay with us?” asked Joseph.
“Only for tonight I’m afraid; I'm anxious to get back to Magdala so I’ll be leaving in the morning.”
Later that evening Abdeel knelt in prayer beside his bed in the guest room. He prayed for Jerusalem, for its people, he prayed for the leaders of Israel and for Pilate, and he prayed for a woman he loved as a daughter, a troubled woman he was longing to see again. Then he slept.
Within the walls of the room fifteen men sat quietly listening to him outlay his plan. They had come from all over the province at the call of a man considered to be something of a leader. After the meeting they would return to the small groups waiting for them, and then join the crowds of people who were protesting near the temple area. Pontius Pilate had made a political error; one that they hoped would trigger a wave of nationalism that the Roman Governor could not quash.
Barabbas sat on a wooden stool and addressed his fellow zealots. They listened to his stifled rhetoric with respect, for they knew that he had done more for the movement than most, and of course, he was the son of a famous zealot who had given his life for the cause. He wore a short tunic, cut off at the shoulders and tied with a wide leather belt. From the belt he wore a sicae, the trademark weapon of those who were often referred to as the sicarii, the ‘dagger men’. He was a powerfully built man with well-muscled arms and tanned chest. His chiseled features were highlighted by a trimmed beard, and he wore his hair pulled back and tied with a thin leather thong. His men loved him, albeit some had the opinion that he was slightly overzealous on occasions, especially when dealing with those Jews he considered to be Roman collaborators.
He had ordered the death of a wealthy Sadducee and his family, and when no one had volunteered to carry out the killing, he had done it himself without so much as a hint of remorse. The man had a wife and three children. 'Victims of the cause for justice' he had called it, but many thought he went too far. This night he was in good form and obviously excited by the hoped-for outcome.
“Ever since our brother, Judas of Galilee, stood against the Roman dogs, we have fought for the cause of God. My father died in that war, and we are all ready to die now. The puppet of Rome has stolen sacred temple funds to build his aqueduct, and this time, he has made a grave mistake.”
Heads nodded as the other leaders grunted their agreement.
“The people are out there. They are angry; they want justice. They want to see God act, and God waits for us to lead them. Tonight the Romans will learn that they cannot steal from our God. We will bring His wrath upon them. You know the plan, and you know exactly where to place yourselves. When the people begin breaking down the stones, the Romans will act. When they act we act. Tonight roman blood will run in the streets; tonight we lead Israel into a glorious future.”
They rose and left. Barabbas quietly cursed himself for forgetting to lead them in prayer. How often did he forget? Prayer! He had all but given up on it. He often lay awake at night wondering if he wasn’t fooling himself and those who followed his leadership. His father had taught him to be zealous for God, but he sometimes felt that his passion was only for the cause, for Israel, for independence. He hated the Romans, hated being under their rule, obeying their laws. He hated watching a Jewish man carrying a Roman’s bag the legal mile, when ordered to do so, and his hatred had brought him to a place where he enjoyed the sensation of warm blood flowing over his knuckles when his dagger had penetrated the neck of his enemy.
Within the hour the zealots were scattered through the crowd of protesters, but where were the Romans? A few armored auxiliaries stood on the perimeter of the crowd; however, Barabbas could see less than twenty. They wouldn’t stand a chance against the hundred freedom fighters who had come to lead their brothers in the revolution. He gave the signal to the group near the building works. Several men climbed onto the foundation stones of the aqueduct and began to shout over the noise of the crowd. They shouted about money, sacred money stolen by the Romans. They shook their fists. And then, bending down, they took iron hammers and began to smash the well-cut stones to pieces.
Barabbas couldn't understand why the soldiers did not look overly concerned. In his long experience there was usually swift action, violent and bloody. And then the strangest thing happened. A horn blew, a Roman horn, and suddenly dozens of men in the crowd threw off robes and showed themselves as Romans armed with clubs and sheathed swords. They began clubbing those nearest the instigators. The zealots were slow to respond at first, confused at the appearance of the disguised men. The Romans clubbed people to the ground. Many fell with bloodied heads. People were screaming. Barabbas signaled to his men, and with a shout of ‘down with the Romans!’, charged at a club-wielding soldier and plunged his dagger into the unprotected neck.
But the anger that had motivated the religious crowd dissipated in the disorder and fear. There was total confusion everywhere. Less than half of the zealot leaders had reacted in time to cause much damage, and all could see that this was not going to end well. They signaled their men to retreat with the people, to make themselves disappear, but Barabbas found himself surrounded by Romans who had dropped their clubs and unsheathed their swords, as one of their own fell to the ground, his life’s blood draining from his body. He dare not be taken. Charging towards an auxiliary, he slipped sideways as the soldier tried to plunge his sword into his belly. Roman soldiers could almost always be counted on to thrust first, a habit of training. The last thing he remembered was spinning around with his dagger in hand, and then everything went black.
Abdeel woke to the sound of shouting. He rose and moved to the door as Joseph knocked and entered.
“We have a riot out there, my friend. I knew this would happen, and I warned Caiaphas. I have sent for Gaius and an armed guard, as some may be angry that I was seen to be against the High Priest’s actions.”
“You think that our fellow Jews may attack this house?” asked Abdeel, surprised.
“I hope not, but there are zealots and extremists in the city who will use every opportunity to attack the Romans, or anyone who tries to work with them. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t agree with Pilate’s tactics, and he can be a very brutal man, but in this business with the pipeline I think the temple treasury should have contributed.”
Abdeel moved closer to his friend. “We must all live by our conscience. Come, let’s pray.”
The two men stood together with hands upraised and asked God for protection and wisdom. The sound of sandaled feet and clinking armour interrupted them, and they moved out to find Gaius and six armed Romans standing in the courtyard. Gaius greeted them in the Roman fashion and asked Joseph’s pardon for entering the outer courts of the house uninvited. Outside the walls of the house screams could be heard, along with the sound of shod horses galloping through the narrow streets towards the home of Pontius Pilate.
“My dear Gaius, welcome. Can you give us a report?”
Gaius bowed his head and, after motioning his troops to stand nearer the door, came closer to the two elderly men.
“Tonight I am somewhat embarrassed to be a Roman,” he said in a low voice. “I learned today that our esteemed governor dressed Roman soldiers in civilian clothes and stationed them at various places throughout the city, concealing swords and clubs. The rioters were led by a well-known zealot by the name of Barabbas who was being watched by Pilate’s spies. The rioters were vocal, but non-violent until this Barabbas stabbed a Roman auxiliary, killing him. The act instigated the Jews…I’m sorry, I mean the rioters standing there. Confusion broke out and Pilate’s men arrested Barabbas and then started beating and stabbing the rioters. There are many lying dead or wounded in the streets”.
“I feared something like this might happen,” Joseph replied. “Pilate will not allow riots. It’s not so many years ago that some of our people protested outside of his palace in Caesarea, after he had his cavalry carry standards with carved images of Caesar into Jerusalem. That was a peaceful protest, and yet Jews died before he relented.”
“Our governor has much to learn about the people of this province,” admitted Gaius.
Joseph called a servant to bring food and refreshments and the three men moved to a small table. The noise outside was beginning to abate; the riot had lasted only a few hours. The efficiency of the Roman’s military might crushed the resistance, and those who escaped being beaten or stabbed had fled to their homes when the violence erupted.
“There is other news, Abdeel,” the young Roman began. “You remember our conversation about the Baptist, the wild man, John by name?”
“Yes, of course,” replied the merchant, “what news of him?”
“He has been arrested by Herod just as you suggested would happen. I understand he is being held in the fortress at Machaerus. He is charged with inciting the people against Herod, or some such thing. I am sorry to bring you such news, my friend.”
“You know of this man, Abdeel?” asked Joseph.
“Only what Gaius has told me, but I have been meaning to ask you what you have heard of him.”
“He is quite the mystery man, that one,” began the Pharisee. “Caiaphas sent a delegation out near Bethany just a few weeks ago to question him. It is the responsibility of the Sanhedrin to question any who seem to be spiritual leaders, or are attracting such a following. The report was both strange and disturbing.”
“In what way?” asked Abdeel.
“He was asked who he is. He said that he was not the Christ, nor Elijah or a prophet, but he quoted your favourite prophet Isaiah, saying ‘I am the voice of one crying in the desert, make straight the way for the Lord.’”
“Is that all he said?” enquired Abdeel, hoping to hear more from his learned friend.
“No, he said some very disturbing things as well. Some of the Pharisees asked him why he is baptizing and he told them that there was one coming after him whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. Tell me, my friend,” he asked Abdeel, “have you also heard of this Jesus of Nazareth?”
“Yes, indeed. Gaius has told me a little of him.”
“Well,” continued Joseph, “the next day this Jesus was also near Bethany. According to two witnesses, John called this Jesus the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. John said that he came to reveal this man to Israel.”
“Interesting,” interrupted the old merchant.
“Wait, my friend! That is not all. John claimed that the one who sent him told him that he would see the Spirit of God come upon a man as a dove, and that this man would be one who would baptize with fire. He claims that Jesus of Nazareth is this man and that he saw this anointing of the Spirit. He even called Him the 'Son of God'.”
“The Son of God?” asked Abdeel, astonished.
“As I said, this John said some disturbing things.”
“Come now,” chided Gaius, “we Romans have new sons of gods all the time. Why so serious?”
Joseph looked a little annoyed at the remark and turned to Gaius. “We Jews believe that to call someone the 'Son of God' is paramount to claiming the man is divine. Israel has only one God, as you know, so to claim a man is God is blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under Mosaic Law.”
Gaius bowed his head. “My apologies, Joseph. I meant no disrespect.”
“There’s no need to apologize, Gaius.” Joseph was watching Abdeel and said with a smile on his face. “Look at our merchant scholar; I swear I can see passage and verse flying through his mind like carp through water. Tell us what you are thinking, my dear Abdeel.”
The old man smiled. “Who am I to teach you, but since you asked...”
“Micah, when he prophecies about the birth of the Christ, says his origins are of ancient times, eternal times, and Isaiah says of him that he will be called, amongst other names, Immanuel, Mighty God, and Eternal Father. Is the Almighty Himself going to visit us in human flesh?”
“Ah…we are back on this debate again. Come, it is too late in the night for a theological discussion. It seems quiet now, so I suggest we get back to our slumber.”
“If you don’t mind, I will leave two of my men here until morning,” suggested Gaius. “Pilate would be upset if something happened to one of the few members of the council who tolerate him.”
“As you wish, Gaius, but I doubt it is necessary,” replied Joseph as he rose to leave.
Gaius bowed slightly to the two elderly men and, after leaving instructions with two young soldiers, left the home.
“Quite an evening, my friend,” said Joseph as they stopped beside Abdeel’s door. “Why is there always so much violence? I can never understand why it seems to be so difficult for peoples of different races to live together. What is it about human nature that makes us want to dominate each other?”
“Perhaps the Prince of Peace has finally come,” said Abdeel.
“Still quoting your blessed Isaiah,” chuckled Joseph to himself. "How does it go again? Ah yes… 'For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace'.”
“You know your Scriptures, my learned friend,” said Abdeel with respect. “And Isaiah goes on to say that he will reign on David’s throne with justice and righteousness forever. Could this Jesus of Nazareth be the one we are waiting for? It would seem that this Baptist thinks so.”
Joseph placed his hand on his friend’s shoulders. “Go to bed, my dear Abdeel. Everything will be revealed in the Lord’s good time, but right now we need our sleep. By the way, I have documents and reports for Jairus and Simon if you wouldn’t mind taking them with you, mostly signed reports for their respective synagogues.”
“Of course. I will be seeing both of them in the near future. How is Jairus’ daughter? She had fallen ill before I left, and the doctors were puzzled as to the cause of her condition.”
“I am afraid to say she has become very ill. The doctors seem to be able to find no cure for her. I am so sorry for Jairus. He is a godly man, and he has been a wonderful synagogue ruler in the region.”
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Everything is in His hands,” said Abdeel, a look on his face that showed he was no stranger to losing a loved one.
They parted and Abdeel went and knelt beside his bed. He prayed for those who had lost loved ones on that night, he prayed for Jairus, his wife and daughter, he prayed that God would reveal himself to Israel, and he prayed that God would no longer be silent. It had been over four hundred years since a prophet’s voice had been heard in Israel, the same length of time the Almighty had been silent while the chosen people were enslaved in Egypt.
The next morning he ate breakfast with his guest and went to the merchant’s guild in the north of the city. As he passed the square near Pilate’s house he saw women dressed in black, kneeling and wailing beside dark red stains on the cobbled stones where the riot had taken place the night before. They faced the temple, lifting hands and hearts to God, crying out for justice and answers to unanswered questions. Soldiers stood nearby, their impassive faces unmoved by the sight. Life under Roman occupation was often brutal, death was common, human life was often bought and sold at a cheap price throughout the empire. Abdeel arrived at the guild and found a group who were traveling north. He hired a camel, although he preferred mules and horses, as it was best to blend in.
They left Jerusalem mid-morning, climbing the Mount of Olives overlooking the Holy City, taking the road to Jericho. Abdeel was reminded of a prophecy that suggested the Messiah would enter Jerusalem via this old road. According to the calculations of learned men, that prophecy was due to be fulfilled, even within a few years. But men were often wrong. Presumption, wishful thinking, and misinterpretation had fooled many before.
Soon they were passing through the dry hills of white rock and bleached grass towards the junction in the road to that ancient city where Joshua had begun the conquest of the Promised Land so many years ago. He would not turn left to Jericho on this trip, although many of his party would leave them at that point. As they traveled he observed shepherds moving their flocks of sheep and goats about, seeking feed on the slopes. Sometimes he saw small groups of wild donkeys grazing in the valleys, and the scent of brush and sage wafted to him on the morning breeze, the smells of Judea.
Abdeel was deep in thought about the events and news of the past few days. He was glad to be heading home, glad that tomorrow he would be beside his beloved Galilee. Although he was loathe to admit it, this life of traveling was becoming tiresome to him. He had made arrangements in Thessalonica to have goods shipped regularly to his people in Jerusalem, and the experience of his buyers meant that he was scarcely needed for his business to function efficiently. He had also made arrangements for a friend to receive regular payments and for this same friend to inherit a third of his business after his death.
She would not be happy about the inheritance, but he knew that her love for him was such that she would not refuse an old man his request. He smiled in expectation of her reaction. She had a fiery temper and was disliked by most, but Abdeel saw beneath her dark exterior to the broken child within, a child he loved as the daughter he never had. He knew she had dark secrets, and he knew that she fought against powers that sometimes controlled her moods. He was determined to see her free, to see her happy. He had lost one dear friend, impotent to change her fate, a wife who bolstered his flagging faith as her life slipped away. Now it was his turn to help another. The money would help, but she needed help of a kind that he could only hope to find in one with the power of the Almighty.
The small leper colony was situated in two of the lower caves in the hills of Arbela, a respectable distance from the road that wound through the Valley of Robbers to the north and the ancient city of Hazor. The valley was so named for its steep hills and cliffs which afforded bandits ample opportunities to ambush caravans traveling through. The Roman