by Rosemary Davis
Miriam stood outside her white stone, mortar and brick house, holding her one-year-old son, Matthias. She gaped at the impressive and colorful entourage of the Magi with funny pointed hats and slippers and their soldiers, slaves, camels and horses as they proceeded hastily down the rocky, southeast road away from Bethlehem. What could they be doing here? she wondered, a slight frown creasing her forehead.
“Good riddance!” bellowed a voice behind her.
Miriam started, then turned her face toward her husband who was watching their departure with disdain.
“I didn’t hear you come up behind me, Joses,” she said, agitated. Turning her attention back to the caravan, she asked, “Who are these men?”
“Filthy dogs,” he growled, his face clouded in hostility. “How dare they pass through our village!”
Miriam sighed and then said, “Oh, Joses, why can’t you be at peace?”
“Me be at peace?” he cried. “There is no peace!”
Joses’ voice and hands became animated as he dove into his familiar diatribe of complaints. “As long as the Romans continue to impose their armies on us and allow no representation at their capitol, we will never have peace. Where is peace when they build roads and open the nations to our sacred land? Where is peace when we have to suffer incursions by these people over and over again? Where is peace when they impose Roman law upon us? I’m telling you, Rome will destroy Judah… and soon!”
Miriam stood quietly for a moment and then said, “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think, Joses. They’re improving the quality of life for…”
“Listen to me, woman,” Joses interrupted, speaking sharply. “Herod is a murderous traitor and is enslaving us all to this empire. If we don’t resist, there will be no Israel.”
Miriam thought of the magnificent temple in Jerusalem which Herod had built, but held her tongue. No use arguing, she thought. She then pulled her son more closely to her. She was relieved to see her cousin Simon fast approaching from the house. Perhaps he would calm Joses down.
“Say, what’s all this loud talk I hear?” he asked Joses, smiling.
“See for yourself!” Joses said, turning with a deep frown.
Simon followed Joses’ gaze and squinted, studying the fast-moving caravan with a number of stately men in white garb on camelback. He turned to Miriam and asked, “Did you see clearly the men on camels?”
“I believe so.”
“Were they wearing crowns?”
“No, but they conducted themselves like kings. I imagine they were either Parthian noblemen or wise men.”
“Parthian noblemen…” Simon’s voice faded away as his thoughts began churning. These Magi were to have reported back to Herod with the whereabouts of the young child-king foretold by the prophets. Instead of heading north to Jerusalem, however, he was sure that they were going south, back to their home country. He thought of Herod’s foul temper, and a look of panic crossed his eyes.
“What is it, Simon?” asked Miriam, noting his panic.
“I’ve got to tell Herod that they’ve left. I was instructed to keep an eye on them. I’m sorry but I have to go.”
“But Simon, little Matthias and I…” Her words fell on deaf ears as Simon ran to his horse and galloped off.
Miriam knew Simon had to report to Herod, but for the first time, she wasn’t very happy that he was a unit commander in Herod’s private army. She hardly ever saw Simon anymore, and she missed him terribly. So did Matthias. It seemed that Matthias loved his young, brave cousin more than his own father.
Matthias began to cry, so Miriam took him into the house to nurse him. She noted that Joses had already disappeared into the stables. Better for him, she thought. He needs to keep busy with the animals and servants.
It wasn’t that she wanted to stay away from her husband, but he was so much older than she and tended to bully her. Not that she was an ungrateful wife. He was wealthy and generous to a fault, and he provided her with a veritable palace with enormous fields and stock at the south end of town. She had everything she needed and then some. But she was only 18 years old, and Joses was 36. They had nothing in common except for their firstborn son, Matthias.
Matthias drifted contentedly off to sleep as Miriam rocked him gently in her arms. She thought of Mary and Joseph’s baby, Jesus, who had been born the same night as her son. She remembered how strange everything had seemed that night, and how she had felt a supernatural peace and joy despite all of her pain. She recalled that the skies were alive and glowing with an unnatural radiance, giving her a extraordinary sense of hope. She used to think she had been delirious from her pain, but now…
The cry of her son momentarily distracted her. When he had settled back into a deep sleep, she thought again of Jesus.
Surely, the wise men had come to visit Mary’s child. Who else could it be? Mary had spoken about her son becoming the next king. Or was it the women in town who’d said it? Miriam couldn’t remember. At any rate, she recalled that rumors had flown around Bethlehem about Jesus being Israel’s Messiah. Some said that he was born of God, not man, to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. The rumors finally subsided after about six months as the town’s skepticism about Jesus turned to disbelief.
Not that anyone really believed Jesus was the Messiah in the first place, Miriam thought. After all, Mary and Joseph lived in a hovel fit only for beggars. How could a king come from that? Not only that, they only had one goat. One goat!
Still, Miriam remembered the shepherds insisting that angels had announced the Messiah’s birth to them. They’d boasted of having visited the newborn king of Mary shortly afterwards. They also said the angels in the night skies had proclaimed a new era of peace on earth.
Probably myths and imaginings, Miriam thought. And yet, these powerful magi had come to pay homage to him. That was no small thing. She wondered what the Scriptures said about the coming of the Messiah. Wasn’t the Messiah to be born of a fleshly king from the line of David? She couldn’t remember and vowed to ask her rabbi. Still, there was something different about that baby and his parents, and she couldn’t ignore the feeling that all those signs were indeed from Jehovah himself.
I will not kill my cousin’s son! thought Simon, his fists clenched. He envisioned Miriam’s devastated expression and, in his mind, heard her weeping for little Matthias.
Simon continued pacing around his tent, deep in thought. Had Herod spared his life so that he should murder his little cousin and the other children of Bethlehem just to allay Herod’s own political fears? It was an ironic thought, a terrifying thought.
Simon recalled Herod’s rage when he had told him about the magi’s escape. Herod had placed the blame on him and then ordered Simon’s beheading. The Almighty spared his life, however, by causing his army superior, Asyncritus, to come to his defense. Herod then relented, but for what purpose?
“Better off dead,” Simon said aloud, falling to the ground, his eyes looking up to heaven pleadingly.
Tears welled up at the thought of going with his unit to Bethlehem to slaughter each and every baby boy under the age of two. How could he face Ruth, Salome, Anna, and the others again? He could not. Yet it was either his life or their child’s, wasn’t it?
The bath water for the baby had finally reached room temperature, so Miriam filled the large clay wash tub with the well water she had heated. Matthias splashed and twisted in the water, jabbering and laughing in delight. As Miriam began gently washing his arms and back, her thoughts turned to the events of the past five days, beginning with the conversation she’d had with several women in the synagogue the day after Simon’s departure. She’d learned that the magi had brought expensive gifts to Mary and Joseph in honor of their child and that they’d recognized him as the prophesied king of the Jews. Everyone agreed that these gentile priests had studied the prophecies of Daniel and that they believed they had found the king who would unite the world in peace.
But then Mary and Joseph had left Bethlehem as suddenly as the magi. She couldn’t understand it. The gifts from the magi had provided them with riches enough to buy a house, fields and livestock of their own, but they chose to leave in the middle of the night without a word to anybody—and on the eve of the Sabbath! Not only did they break the Law, but they gave up any and all chances of becoming an influential family in Bethlehem.
Matthias tried to escape out of his tub, bending dangerously over the edge. Miriam set him upright and quickly finished washing him. She then placed him on the table to dry him off. As she was patting Matthias dry, she heard a cacophony of piercing screams, shouts, and wails in the distance intermingled with the sound of dozens of horses’ hooves.
Where’s my husband? she thought, terror gripping her as she listened to the sound of pain and death, fear and helplessness, slaughter. She picked up Matthias and held him tightly, unable to move. What should she do?
As if in slow motion, Joses entered the kitchen where she stood holding her son. His head was covered with blood from a blow he had received, and he was wild-eyed and breathing heavily from running.
“Miriam! Miriam!” he cried, bounding over to her and gathering her and Matthias in his arms. He held her tightly, almost suffocating them.
“Joses,” she managed, grateful to feel his protective arms around her.
“You must run, Miriam!” His voice was gruff and insistent.
She looked into his eyes and saw fear. “Oh, Joses, what’s happening?” she asked, beginning to tremble.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said with a mixture of anger and bewilderment. “The soldiers, they…all the babies are…” He stopped himself and looked deeply into Miriam’s eyes. “You must run to the caves and hide with Matthias. I’ll gather the servants to fend the soldiers off.”
Joses became resolute and commanded, “Go now!”
Noting Miriam’s fear and hesitancy, he begged her, his voice almost in a whisper, “Please.”
Suddenly, Miriam’s head was clear. She must save her child. Silently praying for the Lord’s help, she ran out of the back entrance of the house, crossing their land toward the nearby caves. Little Matthias kept quiet as he bounced in his mother’s arms, sensing that something was wrong. Behind her, the shrieks of mayhem from the town grew louder. She then he heard the sound of hoof beats coming in her direction. Turning her head to look back, she saw a soldier from Herod’s army galloping toward them, wielding a sword. Miriam screamed and stumbled on a rock, nearly tumbling forward. She caught her balance and stopped briefly, then continued running. But it was no use. The horse and rider were soon alongside her.
“Stop!” he commanded.
Miriam kept running, avoiding his attempts to get in front of her. Finally, he came alongside of her and snatched Matthias out of her arms.
“No, I beg you!” she screamed. She looked into his cold, implacable eyes. He then galloped away with Matthias screaming loudly in his grasp.
Miriam collapsed on the ground, crying loudly. Her soul had died when he took her son away, and darkness and horror now enveloped her. It was too much to bear.
Through her grief, she heard Joses running after the soldier, screaming curses at him. When she finally looked up, she saw him off in the distance on his knees, tearing his tunic and sobbing.
“Joses!” she managed to call out through her tears.
Her husband turned toward Miriam, then hung his head down and turned away from her, weeping quietly. Miriam got to her feet and half ran, half stumbled, to him. She fell on him as she enclosed her arms around him. They both wept together for what seemed like an eternity.
It was the sound of a fast-approaching horse that caused them both to look up. Perhaps the vile soldier had come to his senses and was returning their son. Please, Lord God, my son, Miriam found herself praying somewhere in the recesses of her mind.
But it wasn’t their son, only another wicked and hateful soldier. Joses stood up and wiped his eyes. When the horse drew up beside them, he let out a torrent of epithets and began attacking the soldier, nearly pulling him off of his horse.
“Calm yourself! Wait, I tell you! Joses, it’s I, Simon!”
“You, you traitor!” yelled Joses.
“No, hear me, cousin,” Simon said, trying to fend off his blows. “Matthias is fine. He’s fine. Do you hear me?”
Miriam found her voice and said, “My Matthias, he’s all right?”
“Yes, yes,” Simon said gently. “We’ve taken him to Obed’s tomb. You must go there quickly and stay until this is over.”
Miriam and Joses looked at each other in disbelief.
“I must go,” Simon said. “They’ll be looking for me. Hurry, you two!”
At that, Simon galloped off toward the town.
It was as Simon had said. When they finally reached Obed’s tomb, they found a kindly old shepherd guarding the entrance.
“My son…” began Joses.
The shepherd motioned for them to enter, and they quickly went into the cave. After their eyes had adjusted to the dimness, they were able to make out the familiar form of Matthias as he played happily on a woven mat. Two other toddlers played nearby under the care of a young shepherd.
“Matthias!” Miriam called out, her arms outstretched. Matthias looked up at Miriam and smiled brightly. Miriam ran to him and scooped him up. She then showered him with kisses. Joses smiled as he watched his wife and son. He then joined them and gave his son a lingering kiss on the top of his head.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Joses said gruffly, turning to look at each of the shepherds. “We are indebted to you for life.”
The older shepherd who had entered the cave and was watching their joyful reunion said, “It is God who has spared your son’s life.”
Joses’ eyes narrowed, and he countered, “God… where is he in this slaughter, this…”
Miriam grabbed her husband’s arm and said, pleadingly, “No, Joses, you mustn’t. The Lord has spared our son and the lives of these two other children. We must be grateful.”
“Yes, Jehovah be praised,” agreed the shepherd. “Joses, did you not know that your cousin Simon and four others have chosen to fight for many other children? There are other caves, other shepherds.”
Joses hung his head in an attempt to conceal the kaleidoscope of thoughts and feelings that threatened to erode years of pride and hatred. He finally lifted his head and spoke. “Simon is a brave man, a good man. But I don’t understand why God would allow this to happen to his people. We have done nothing wrong.”
The shepherd replied, “It’s the Messiah. Herod is trying to destroy him because he’s the prophesied king, but he doesn’t know the child is no longer in Bethlehem.”
“The Messiah?” Miriam’s eyes became alive with excitement and she asked eagerly, “Who is he?”
The shepherd turned to her and asked, “Do you not know him? It’s no secret in Bethlehem that the child Jesus is the Messiah. Do you not believe he is the Christ?”
Joses interrupted quickly, his voice agitated, “Of course, she doesn’t believe such nonsense. The real Messiah will restore the line of David and will defeat the Romans. He will establish his kingdom in Judah and bring us peace, not this. Not this death.”
“That is not what I have been teaching you,” said a voice from the shadows of the cave.
Joses turned in surprise and exclaimed, “Rabbi Nathanael!”
A middle-aged man wearing shepherd’s robes emerged from the darkness and slowly approached Joses. His small stature seemed to fill the cavern.
“Were you not listening when I read Isaiah 40 last Sabbath?” he asked sternly.
“I… What. How is it the Lord has brought you here?” Joses stumbled, his eyes darting nervously toward the rabbi.
“Yes, I see you did not hear,” the rabbi said with a sigh. “The prophet declares that before God ‘all nations are as nothing; they are regarded by Him as worthless and less than nothing.’ Even Israel. No, the peace God has promised to us comes through the forgiveness of our sins because of the tender mercy of our Lord. It is because He has sent his Word, his Arm, his Right Hand named Jesus to pay for our sins and bring us peace that we are no longer enemies of Jehovah if we repent and accept his salvation. And why wouldn’t we? Isaiah says, ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.’”
Joses glanced quickly at the shepherd and then turned back to the rabbi. “But that murderous Herod, and Caesar… God has promised us a king from the line of David who would deliver us from our enemies!”
“You are stiff-necked and blind, Joses,” the rabbi scolded. “Jehovah’s kingdom is spiritual, not worldly. The peace He promises is not as you believe it to be. Just as there can never be peace through a tyrannical world empire, neither can there be peace through a political messiah. This child, our King, will defeat these evil forces with supernatural weapons, not weapons of the flesh. No, the Christ comes to turn the heart of men to peace—peace with the Father, peace with others, and peace with themselves. If you trust Jehovah God, Joses, you will know salvation and God’s true peace.”
Joses opened his mouth to counter the rabbi, then changed his mind. What mattered was that his son was alive and cradled safely in his wife’s arms. Nevertheless, perhaps he had been ignoring the prophecies and miracles pointing to Jesus as Messiah and Savior, just as he’d failed to see the miracle of his son’s rescue. It was possible the shepherds were right all along when they’d announced Jesus’ birth to everyone in Bethlehem. Perhaps someday he would seek this young Messiah… or even follow him. Perhaps, even, the Messiah would forgive him and bring him peace.
Miriam touched Joses’ arm softly. “Joses,” she said.
He looked into her pleading eyes and then down at the outstretched arms of his son, who was now clamoring for the embrace of his father. Miriam said his name again and added, seeming to read his mind, “It’s not too late.”
Rosemary Davis is a retired educator and curriculum writer who has self-published a suspense novel entitled Death in the Skies. In addition to her novel, her poetry has been published in Piano Magazine, and she writes unpublished Christian articles which are used as sermons in various denominations.