Bethlehem of Galilee, 4 BCE
Word of strange omens circulated among the people of Galilee that year. Mary had heard about flashes of light in the starry skies; showers of shooting stars; trembling earth underfoot. Only yesterday, women at the well said their husbands told of a strange wind blowing that sounded like women singing hymns. Someone had seen a white ship on the Sea of Galilee with no one onboard. Lambs were born with no eyes. Birds hatched without wings.
Mary lay on the straw mattress staring at the soft light from the oil lamp on the opposite side of the small burlap tent. Earlier, when her water had broken, her sister-in-law, Lydia, had gently led Mary to the tent to await the child’s birth. Mary’s mother, Anne, sat in a chair near her, but neither woman spoke. Anne thought of her grandchild soon to be born and hoped the birth would be easier than Mary’s had been for her. She wondered what Mary was thinking, but chose not to interrupt her daughter’s thoughts.
Mary tried to think about the child who would soon enter her life, but her mind kept returning to the omens. What could they mean? The white ship, the flashing lights, the shooting stars, and the hymn-singing wind, sound like good omens. The trembling earth, the blind lambs and wingless birds can’t be considered good portents. It’s such a strange mixture, what might they be telling us? Mary wanted to ask her mother, but she appeared to be deep in thought.
They were both jolted from their musings by Lydia, the midwife. She had come to check Mary’s progress. Mary wanted to ask her about the omens, but Lydia hurried through her tasks and left, only saying the birth was not imminent. Mary looked at her mother, but Anne had already drifted off to sleep. She settled back down to wait. A cool wind fluttered the flap hanging over the entrance to the tent. The wind carried familiar early night sounds of cattle in the nearby stable and the low muttering of a dove perched above the door of the tent.
As Mary became drowsy, a cramp seized her lower abdomen. She opened her eyes, realizing she was going into labor. The birth of her child was drawing closer. Several minutes later, another pain drew her attention back to the baby. Not too uncomfortable yet, she thought. Mary knew from the talk of the other women in the village that the pain would get worse as the birth approached. Should I wake mother? Probably not, I’ll wait until it becomes too uncomfortable to keep quiet.
Mary’s mind returned to the meaning of the omens. Was she going to have a son of great importance, as the blonde visitor had predicted? If so, was he going to be a ruler, maybe take Herod’s place as Procurator of Judea? That could only be done by force, which meant there would be an uprising, war, rapes and bloodshed. She shivered and tried to think of something more positive. Perhaps, he will be a High Priest at the temple, teaching the people and performing sacrifices to Yahweh. That might be the meaning of the good omens, but what about the trembling earth, the blind lambs and the wingless birds? Does that mean he will die, either at birth or, later, as a child, during one of Herod’s raids?
Growing more uneasy about the omens, Mary decided to wake her mother. She might be able to suggest an interpretation of them.
“Mother, please wake up?”
“Yes, my daughter. Are you in pain?” Anne asked.
“No, Mother, Lydia said I have more time before the pains begin. I need to ask you the meaning of the omens. I’ve heard so many and they seem to conflict. I know the meaning of the shooting stars, the flashing lights and the white ship. I think they’re good omens. But what about the deformed animals? That frightens me, Mother. What could they mean?”
“I’m not sure, Mary. We don’t know that these things have happened. Those are the talk of men who have not come forward. The stories have been repeated over and over many times. They could be just rumors. Don’t worry about such things. Everything will be all right. Lydia has delivered many babies and no mothers were ever lost. Try to rest while you can. I’ll be here beside you.”
“Alright, Mother. I hope my baby will be born without deformity.”
“I do too. I’m looking forward to having a grandchild.”
Unsatisfied by her mother’s answer, Mary began to think over her life and things that her mother had told her of the times and events before her birth. Her mother had never mentioned any omens during that time.
“Mother, were there any omens before I was born?”
“I don’t recall hearing of any. Your father spoke of one he and his co-conspirators interpreted as being bad for Herod’s rule,” Anne said, “But none that could have had any meaning for me.”
Perhaps there were none or maybe she was so absorbed with worry about her husband’s involvement in the insurrection she didn’t pay attention to the talk of the women at the well, Mary thought. Then she started to think about the stories she’d heard from her father about the past.
Herod (73-4 BCE) was the pro-Roman king of Galilee, a small Jewish state in the last decades before the Common Era.
Chapter I. Herod’s Palace
No, no, a woman screamed….then silence. Heavy footsteps echoed through the hall. Doors opened and quickly slammed—not an uncommon event in Herod’s palace.
“She’s got to be removed before he gets back,” one voice said.
“What are we supposed to do with her?” asked another.
“Bury her where we put the other one, Herod doesn’t care. Just get rid of her like we did her son,” the first voice answered.
As they prepared to haul her body away, the guards paused to look at her. “Mariamne was such a beautiful woman. I thought they were in love. They were together so much,” observed one of the guards. “Why did he want her killed?”
“Herod’s sister and mother despised her,” said another. “They told him long, false stories of her infidelity and that she treated them worse than she treated the palace servants. I guess Herod heard those stories after each of his trips abroad. Finally, he couldn’t stand to hear any more and instructed us to dispose of her before he got back,” explained the leader of the three.
“Hummm,” replied the other two guards.
“Hope he gives us a good reward for this. A waste of a good woman, if you ask me,” said the third guard, as they carried the body away.
The horrors of Herod’s home were in stark contrast to the splendor of his palace. Flames of candles and wall torches flared against the gloom. A rainstorm pounded hard on the walls as residents and guests began to fill the dining hall of Herod’s palace. Tables were placed across one wall then extended down to the right and left, creating a large open space in the middle of the room for entertainment, later. These were the years of royal splendor. Although Herod was a Jew, he was dressed in a Roman toga. He situated himself at the middle of the longest table. To his right were two of his most trusted guards. At Herod’s left, sat two of his sons, Archelaus and Antipas. Educated in Rome, both men were clad in red robes, obvious gifts from Caesar. Other palace residents, men and women, primarily relatives of Herod, sat on either side. Guests and visitors took their seats last, at the ends of the tables. Among them were three Jewish merchants from Galilee, Joachim, Levi and Timothy, Joachim’s brother-in-law. They settled into chairs at the end of the table, hoping not to attract attention. All three men wore dark brown homespun robes with no adornments.
Servants set huge wooden trays of roast lamb and a whole, roasted pig before Herod. Then they brought trays of various fruits, figs, dates and olives followed by baskets of bread. Next, they poured wine for each diner and placed the pitchers within reach. The candles flickered, as the storm grew louder. At last, Herod rose to address the diners and a hush settled over the room.
“I have met with the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. First, he wishes me to extend his good tidings to all of you. He is much impressed with our building projects. He especially approves of our plans to build a port city. When it is dedicated, I will name it Caesarea in his honor. The harbor will be named Sebastos, which is Greek for Augustus. It will rival Alexandria in the land trade with Arabia. We will import quantities of spices, perfume and incense. It will not resemble Jerusalem in design; rather, it will be laid out on a Greek grid plan, with a market, an aqueduct, government offices, baths, villas, a circus and pagan temples. The most important of these will be the temple dedicated to worship of the emperor. The port will be a masterpiece of engineering; its piers will be made from hydraulic concrete, which will harden underwater, and the harbor will be protected by unique wave-breaking structures.”
Herod continued to speak on about the wonders of Caesar’s hospitality and his palaces. He was clearly in awe of Caesar and Rome. Caesar’s appointments and approval buoyed him. He tried to govern Judea and Galilee with Caesar’s style of government in mind. However, to keep the peace in the Jewish provinces, Herod also tried to appear sympathetic to his Jewish subjects. At this, he failed miserably.
Herod’s praise and effort to please Caesar made it clear to everyone he was not a Jewish king, but a Roman king. Herod had become the ruler of the Jews with Roman help and he boasted about being philokaisar, ‘the emperor’s friend’, entertaining Agrippa, Augustus’ right-hand man. On top of the gate of the new Temple, Herod had a golden eagle erected, a symbol of Roman power in the heart of the holy city of Jerusalem. All pious believers resented this symbol.
“He’s no Jew,” Joachim whispered to his brother-in-law and fellow trader, Timothy.
“No, that roast pig is a flagrant violation of Jewish dietary laws. We have to be careful what we eat here.”
“I’ll stick to eating the fruits and bread and skip the meat altogether,” Levi whispered.
“Good thing we’re at the end of the table. We won’t draw too much attention,” Joachim said.
“The wine’s terrible, too. They could use more of our wine. I hope we can strike a deal for that tomorrow morning,” Levi commented.
“On another matter,” Herod was saying, “Caesar wants more revenue from the provinces. Trade in the seaports must increase. Therefore, I am raising taxes from eighteen to nineteen percent.”
Herod finally finished his account of his visit with Caesar. Many clapped while most of the guards hooted and stomped their feet in approval.
“And now,” Herod said, “let the entertainment begin.”
A dozen women whirled through the open doors of the hall in time to the clicking of tiny finger castanets made of seashells. Several musicians followed them, providing the music and tempo to the dancers who performed their seductive moves. The dancers each wore a gossamer veil of red, blue, yellow, green, violet or turquoise with a matching piece of cloth to provide the illusion of modesty. As the lewd dancing progressed, some of the guards rose and caught the dancers as they whirled by, snatching their veils or their bodies as they passed. More hooting and stomping filled the room. Women of the palace hastily left the dining hall, while only some of the men remained. The dancing deteriorated into fornication and the satisfaction of lust.
“This is no place for us,” Timothy said, wiping sweat from his brow and brushing back his curly brown hair with his left hand.
“No, it isn’t,” Joachim agreed, “the entertainment is what the guards and soldiers were waiting for.” He, too, was sweating from the heat and the discomfort of the dining hall.
“That’s Herod’s way of rewarding the guards for their loyalty while he was gone,” Levi put in, as they left the dining hall. “His wife was missing at dinner. Did you notice there wasn’t a place set for her? He knew she wasn’t going to be here tonight.”
“Shhh,” Joachim cautioned. “Let’s discuss it when we get back to our quarters.”
The three men entered an enclosed area behind the palace, which was a long, low set of rooms reserved especially for traveling merchants and caravans. Stables nearby housed the asses, camels, horses and mules of the travelers. The rooms were small, but serviceable, with straw sacks on pallets for beds, a table, small chairs or stools and an oil lamp. Each room was designed to accommodate four people.
Closing the door behind him, Joachim walked toward his fellow merchants. “Now, Levi, I think you’re right. Mariamne wasn’t there tonight, nor was she expected. No one seemed to notice, or at least, I didn’t hear anyone mention her.”
“They didn’t dare question Herod,” added Timothy softly, looking around as if he expected to see someone in the shadows of the tiny room.
“That’s true and we shouldn’t either,” replied Joachim. “When we meet Herod tomorrow to sell our wares and try to negotiate further deals, we must not give the slightest indication of our suspicion. It’s Herod’s affair and we can’t do anything about it. Let’s stick to business or we won’t be able to come back here and it will spoil our plan.”
“You’re right, Joachim,” said Timothy. “But I have a bad feeling about this. Maybe this business venture of selling directly to Herod is a bad idea. It’s too risky.”
“If you want out, that’s all right, Timothy,” Joachim said.
“No, I’m in. How about you, Levi?” Timothy said, looking sideways at him.
“You’re the nervous one, Timothy, I’m in. The wine was terrible. Herod needs some of our good wine from Sepphoris,” Levi answered.
“That’s true, but you’d better not tell him how bad the wine was,” chided Joachim.
“Now he’s going to raise taxes again, another one percent.”
“Yes, that’s the real reason why we must come back. We have to know what he’s up to. The men in the village need to know taxes are going up again. This is the only way we can find out and maybe stand against it.”
“We need more fighters if we’re ever going to make a difference,” said Timothy.
“I think this tax increase will help more men make up their minds to join us,” said Joachim. Being older by ten years, Joachim led the local Nazareth rebel group with reasoned logic and facts. He wasn’t trying to be a hero, just make a living for his wife and the new child who would arrive soon.
To peasants and craftsmen alike, taxes in money were more onerous than taxes in kind, because they had to borrow in case of a poor harvest or sale. Besides, any Roman coin would bear an image of the goddess Roma or a legend saying that the man represented on it was the Divine Emperor. This was a violation of at least two of the Jewish Ten Commandments. Rome would not allow taxes to be paid using the local Judean coin without images, which was the only money Jews were allowed to use, according to Jewish law. Worse, Augustus ordered the Jewish priests of the Temple to sacrifice twice daily on behalf of himself, the Roman Senate and the people, and then paid them for violating their religion. The Jewish populace believed the rumors that their pagan ruler had violated Jewish graves and stolen golden objects from the tombs of David and Solomon.
All of this provided fertile ground for the seeds of insurrection. A large rebellion had taken place in Jerusalem, which Herod quelled immediately, killing all of the Jewish rebels. However, smaller units of resistance smoldered in the villages of Galilee. Joachim was a leader of the local pocket of resistance in Nazareth. Timothy, also of Nazareth, and Levi, from Sepphoris, were members along with about ten other men, most were craftsmen and herders. It was dangerous, because Herod’s men attempted to control the citizens and interrupted any large gathering of people. As a result, the resistance went underground.
“We’re to meet Herod at the side of the courtyard in the shade of the fig trees. That’s his favorite place to talk business,” said Joachim, the next morning.
“I’m prepared to pour a taste of wine as a sample for him,” added Levi, removing the cask of wine from his shoulder.
“You can use one of my cups I brought as a pottery sample,” offered Timothy.
“My cart is here, so we’re ready. Now, we just have to wait.”
And, wait they did. Herod was notoriously late to meet Jewish merchants. He felt they had little to offer. He preferred to deal with Roman and Greek merchants because they sold products, at least mimicking those adorning Caesar’s palace. He dealt with the local Jewish merchants only to placate the population, whom they represented. He also used the meetings to provide reports to Caesar later, showing his skill at keeping the peace in Judea.
At last, they heard voices of men approaching from the back of the courtyard. At first, the words were indistinguishable. Herod’s usual booming voice was lowered to a barely audible mumble. Two ministers and half dozen guards accompanied him. They walked slowly, conversing as they came. Suddenly, they stopped and the guards took up positions at the corners of the courtyard. Only then did Herod, and his ministers, approach the waiting merchants. The ministers were years older than Herod, with graying hair and beards. They were dressed in simple brown robes. Herod, on the other hand, wore a dark green robe with a gold mantle attached at the chest, with an elaborate gold brooch. He wore bejeweled gold rings on all of his plump fingers. On his head was a leather band studded with jewels, a crown of sorts, displaying his kingship.
“Now, who do we have here?” Herod asked as he settled his rotund bulk into a chair. His introductions typically were abrupt.
“I am Joachim, a builder. This is Timothy, a potter and Levi, a vintner. Timothy and I are from Nazareth and Levi is from Sepphoris,” said Joachim.
“And what brings you here?” Herod asked, not bothering to acknowledge the introductions.
“We have come to show you our wares with the hope that you will find local products of use to you,” Joachim said. He tried to be as formal as Herod was, though Herod’s non-congenial stare was disconcerting.
“Well, I’m not very interested in what you people from Galilee have, but tell me anyway. I’m in a good mood this morning.”
“As a builder and carpenter,” said Joachim. “I make carts of all sizes. They’re useful for transporting goods and…”
“I know what carts are good for,” Herod interrupted. “Get to the builder part.”
“I am a builder. I’ve worked on the synagogue in Nazareth.”
“They have a synagogue in Nazareth?” asked Herod, interrupting again.
“Yes, we do,” answered Joachim, irritated at Herod’s insolence, but he tried to maintain a businesslike manner. “I’ve also worked to build the Temple in Jerusalem.”
This got Herod’s attention. The rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem was one of Herod’s shining examples of the rebuilding of Judea. He had received praise from Caesar for this project because it was aesthetic and it helped to keep peace in the province.
“Do you work with mud plaster, stone, wood, what?” asked Herod.
“Wood. Do you have any projects on which I can work?” asked Joachim. He needed the work but almost hoped Herod didn’t have anything. Working on Herod’s projects sometimes forced Jewish builders to construct images of the false Roman gods.
Herod leaned over to one of his ministers and whispered briefly to him. Then he turned again to the three merchants.
“What about you?” he asked, looking at Timothy.
“I’m a potter. I make jugs, cups, plates and other ceramic vessels.”
“Why do you think I need your vessels?” Herod asked, with a sarcastic smile.
“Everyone needs a vessel of some kind at some time.”
“There are many potters. Why should I buy from you?”
“My vessels are made with extreme care, are fired in the hottest kiln, and seasoned before sale.” At this point, Timothy felt intimidated and lost his ability to speak further about his wares. Instead, he withdrew from the conversation.
“I’ll think about it. And you?” Herod asked, pointing at Levi.
“I am a vintner. I make wines from the finest grapes grown around Sepphoris.”
“Wine from Sepphoris, eh? I’ve heard the wine from Galilee is rather dull.”
“Oh no, this wine from Sepphoris is dry. It is aged properly in specially made crocks.”
“Well, do you have some along?’ asked Herod.
“Yes, do you have a cup I can use, Timothy?”
Timothy promptly produced a cup from his bag. “Use this; it is a sample of my vessels,” said Timothy, as he emerged, momentarily, from his withdrawal.
Levi poured wine into the cup and handed it to Herod.
Herod accepted the cup in a meaty hand, rings glistening, and passed it to one of his ministers to test. The minister returned it to Herod, who sipped too delicately for his size. He then passed the cup back to his ministers, who, in turn, tried a sample. Both ministers nodded and passed the cup back to Herod, who finished the wine in one gulp.
“Not bad,” he said in his usual noncommittal style. “Come back after the summer heat has passed and we’ll talk again.” Herod’s dismissal was brief—cool, but not altogether unfriendly.
The merchants gathered their things, bowing to the royal entourage, prepared to leave the courtyard. Two guards ushered them to their quarters and sent for their ass from the stable. Joachim hitched up the animal, while Timothy and Levi loaded their bundles into the cart. Then they were ready to begin their five-day trip home.
At first, the men felt as if they had wasted nearly a week in Jerusalem, time away from work and family. They walked in silence until they were well away from Herod’s compound. Then they began to talk in low voices.
“What did you think of our meeting with Herod, Joachim?” asked Timothy.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t surprised that he put us off about our wares, but I was glad he invited us back.”
“Do you think he meant it?” asked Levi.
“I don’t,” Timothy said, before Joachim could answer.
“Oh, he meant it. Herod doesn’t make idle statements; besides, his ministers were there and heard it, too,” answered Joachim.
“I don’t trust him,” said Timothy.
“No, one should not trust him. I don’t think he invited us back to be social. I’m just not sure why he invited us,” said Joachim.
“Maybe he suspects something,” suggested Timothy.
“I doubt it. I think he was impressed with the wine even though he didn’t admit it at the time. Did you see how greedily he finished the cup?” said Levi.
“I agree, Levi. I don’t think he suspects anything. He’s difficult to figure out. He seemed somewhat impressed by my building credits, too; but I don’t think that’s why he invited us back. I really don’t know,” said Joachim.
With that, they lapsed into silence, each man thinking about the encounter with Herod and the possible implications. They continued walking until nightfall, when they stopped to make camp.