THE MESSAGE – A Romance in the Days of Ezra

The Message - Days of Ezra

CHAPTER ONE

Josh’s face hit the dirt. His mouth was half open as he slid into the sandy clay.

Small pebbles and sand covered the left side of this face and mouth. Thankfully his eyes were shut as he landed. He lay motionless.

He didn’t want to spit, in case of noise. He lay there for what seemed an eternity. Then he slowly raised his head, just a fraction and let saliva run from his mouth in a feeble attempt to rid it of the sand. He could feel the burn of gravel rash on his bare left arm.

He hadn’t expected to see a soldier here. Who was it?

He slowly raised his head to just the level required to see over the ridge he lay behind. There was a guy there all right. Josh dropped his head again. What was the guy doing? He didn’t seem to be walking – or moving. Josh slowly raised his head yet again. The guy seemed to be in amongst some shrubbery. Josh got a better look.

A grunt. A foot soldier. Josh could tell. He saw that the clip holding the tunic was leather. In an officer it would have been metal. The beard was square cut but not curled. A commoner – low class.

He seemed to be squatting in some sparse bush, pulling up his tunic.

‘Oh’ Josh whispered to himself. ‘The guy’s taking a pee or something.’

Josh’s hand tightened on the staff by his side. He could be up, cover the twenty or so paces to the guy in less than four seconds, all while the guy has his tunic knotted about his waste, he could smash his brains in. But why? That would drop this guy’s armed forces from one hundred thousand to a mere ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine; and he would leave a trail. They’d hunt him down.

No – better leave him be.

He would have expected a Persian soldier, but this guy looked Assyrian. Josh wondered what an Assyrian was doing here. They had been defeated a couple of hundred years ago, first in Nineveh and then at Harran. The conquering Babylonians hadn’t fared much better, having fallen to the Medes a handful of decades later. Now his beloved Judea was ruled by Persians. He figured that the Assyrians must be surveying Samaria for a possible tilt at re-establishing their former glory. Maybe the inhabitants of Samaria were trying to make a connection with the few remaining Assyrians to challenge Persia. Fat chance. One of the proverbs of ‘The Preacher’ came to his mind and he added an ironic ending of his own. ‘… the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…but that’s the way to bet!’ He didn’t think the Assyrians had much of a chance. Anyway, this one could live another day.

As he lay in the sand, waiting for the Assyrian to leave, his mind flew to the words of one of their holy prophets, Isaiah who has said ‘Egypt are my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’ What was that all about? Not what the leaders has always said at the Synagogue at Shabbat. They always proclaimed that Israel was God’s people – no room for anyone else. Weird.

He had left his home in Bethany to travel north-east to Mt. Gerizim. He loved his home village. Best place on earth he figured. ‘House of dates’ – such a cool name. He loved date cakes. There were date palm, fig and pomegranate groves growing in lovely loam soil, but it was also just a stones throw from Jerusalem, where all the action was. He had seen the yearly dedication re-enactment of Zerubbabel’s Temple and although it was impressive, he was happy to observe it from a distance. He liked the ‘action’ around the Temple, but also liked to retreat to Bethany, to his home. He was thankful for Zerubbabel’s reinstatement of the festivals; the festival of booths with its required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day, and the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of Adonai, as well as free will offerings. But Passover was best of all.

He enjoyed Passover at Jerusalem. So much blood and guts. Priests covered in blood from slain animals, merchants selling their wares to those who didn’t have an animal to sacrifice, exchange desks where you could exchange a gold Persian daric or a silver siglos for silver shekels. Josh reckoned that the exchange rates were a rip-off. But there was so much action. Temple guards sorting ‘the sheep from the goats’. Jews from Samaritans. Samaritans were considered goyim and excluded. But Jews from far flung lands were welcome, so that they could be fleeced on the accommodation and food prices.

People from Egypt, Carthage, Babylonia, Cilicia and even Elam would flood in with their strange clothes and customs. All united in the faith of Passover. Hawkers would patrol the streets, selling their wares; leather goods, trinkets of gold and silver, lapis lazuli and jade. It was bazaar time. Fun time.

Street food. The prescribed Passover lamb was reserved for the High Shabbat, the Passover Seder, and for the seven days after, the time of yeast free cooking, there were street vendors. Also, for the days before the festival as well, visitors would swell the ranks of the population. Lamb marinated in exotic spices, on skewers, served with yeast free flat bread. Paste made from sesame seeds, chic peas, garlic, cumin, coriander and lightly salted. Finely chopped aromatic herbs. What a time to be alive! How wonderful was Passover.

Josh wondered if any of these people ever stopped to consider the saving hand of Adonai as He brought His people out of Egypt. To the crowds it was just a holiday without meaning. Although Ezra the scribe was painstakingly transcribing the Hebrew texts into Aramaic, the people seemed as yet unaware of what the Torah spoke.

But it was all such fun for a young man.

Girls too. Pretty girls from exotic places, some with braided hair, some with head and face coverings showing only their flashing black eyes. Some with nose rings and forehead adornments, unknown to the girls of Judea. Josh knew that his parents would select a girl for him, but there was no harm in looking.

He cheekily mused that maybe he could resurrect the concept of a concubine. They had been a big part of the culture of Israel, ever since Abraham. The great judges kept them. Gideon and Shamgar. Kings like Saul and David. It had reached its crescendo with Solomon’s three hundred! But then, after king Rehoboam, concubines were never referenced again in all the chronicles of the kings of Israel and Judah which Ezra, the scribe, had so painstakingly mapped out into the Babylonian script. Maybe he could start concubines again. He’d have two of the girls with the flashing black eyes, and maybe two of the raven-haired girls from the land of Ephraim. He had luxuriated in the thoughts for a while.

He also looked forward to the contrast of the festival of first fruits which culminated fifty days after Passover. It was a joyous conclusion to the festival. Happiness, and a certain serenity filled the air. He loved the noise and bustle of Passover, but he loved the quiet thanksgiving of Pentecost. Such joy in the air. No one seemed to care that the walls of Jerusalem had not been rebuilt. Many buildings still lay in ruins, but people just skirted the fallen stones to go about their parades of thankfulness. Many of the ‘foreigners’ who stayed on after Passover but now began returning home. Street crowds thinned. Merchants disappeared. Life fell back to normal. Jerusalem seemed to be almost deserted after Passover and Pentecost. The city still lay largely in ruins with few people willing to stay within its broken walls.

Josh had decided to travel this year. His career was decided. He would have to follow in his father’s footsteps and be an oil merchant. The family business was to buy oil from the farmers with their olive groves, refine, grade and bulk store the oil until olive harvest was past and the oil became a more precious commodity. Much was sold to travelling caravaners who took the oil to far flung places and in exchange gave spices and silk for his father to on-sell. It was a good business, and he was expected to continue it, even though he was the second son, there was room enough in the trade for the two boys.

He had taken leave from the family, at the age of eighteen, with his father’s blessing, to travel a little. Explore the land. He knew that his mother was a little worried, but he assured her that he just wanted to see the history of his land. Where had Goliath fallen, where had Barak come down with his ten thousand men? Where had the beautiful Jael planted her tent peg? Where had the ark rested in Shiloh? His parents had accepted that these were questions a young man should ask. But Josh felt a twinge of guilt, as this was not the real reason he wanted to travel. Yes, he had a curiosity about all those things, but that was not at the foremost of his mind. He wanted first to seek out the Samaritans. He had heard that they had built a mock Temple on Mt. Gerizim *1   – a blasphemy of the true temple. His heart was full of hatred for them. How dare they duplicate the one true temple and pretend that Adonai dwelt there. They were dogs, the unclean of the earth. He wanted to see for himself. But there was another desire within his heart. Cyrus, the great Persian King, had been magnanimous to the Jews in allowing the return. A magnanimity followed up by Darius and his support for the building of the temple. But Israel was still ruled by a foreign nation. He wanted independence – like in the days of David and Solomon when the Kingdom of Israel stretched from the Euphrates to the Nile. His passion was to see how this could possibly happen again. Not in his days, but he wanted to see the possibility and dream of a future.

Travelling north-east took him to Jericho. What a history. The first of all the cities to fall to the Israelites. It would always stand in Israel’s folklore as a symbol of Adonai’s blessing on his people and as a symbol of his severity in the curse on Achan. He stood outside and looked for massive walls that once surrounded the town. Gone. Fallen at the command of Adonai. Now it was just a bustling but small town quite close to ‘the river’. But it contained a quandary for Josh. He had so many questions, about the Torah and no one seemed to be able to answer. Hadn’t Adonai instructed Moses to tell the people to destroy all the inhabitants of Canaan. No mercy! These goyim deserved nothing but condemnation and death. Four hundred years they had had to repent and come to Adonai. Four hundred years from the time of Abraham to the time of Moses. Four hundred years to turn, to listen to the message of Melchizedek. But did they? No; they rejected Melchizedek and Adonai. They deserved death and destruction. No mercy! This was what Adonai instructed Moses. He knew it by heart:

‘I will bring you into a land of seven nations larger and stronger than you, and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them’. 

Clear enough. And yet they had immediately broken this command. It almost seemed as though they had set out to defy Adonai. The Israelites, under Joshua, had shown mercy to Rahab and her family. Exactly what they were told not to do. And they were blessed for this disobedience. Not only that, but Salmon had married Rahab, is exact disobedience to the command not to marry the Canaanites. But here was the rub – not only did Salmon disobey – but he was blessed by Adonai is that his line led to the great King David, and the greater son of David to come. How could Adonai allow a goyim to be the progenitors of King David? This was one of myriads of questions which Josh had posed to the Levite teachers in his hometown. No answers.

Jericho has suffered the same fate as Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. The city had been destroyed by the Babylonians and was now a smaller and poorer version of itself. It still served as an administrative centre for Persian rule while Jerusalem lay waste. But as Jerusalem repopulated, Jericho became second rate. Josh only stayed a couple of nights.

He waited in ‘the town square’ for a kindly soul to offer hospitality. He was offered a room by a single Levite man, and he was happy to accept it. They spent a pleasant time discussing Tanakh before bed each night and during the two days Josh helped with chores. On the third day he bad farewell and headed north again. He crossed the Samaritan border, although it was unmarked, and bedded for the night in the open. He travelled along the Jordan valley where he could access water without asking for peoples help. He had left his prayer shawl and other Jewish trappings behind, wondering how he’d fare if they knew he was a Jew.

*1 A Temple to YHWH was built by the Samaritans, on Mt Gerizim, in mid 5th Century BC.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Gerizim

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