We reached our destination and turned into the broad, dusty staging area where much of the caravansary business was done. Nazareth, near the crossing of three major caravan routes, has for centuries been a meeting place of traders where cultures converge, filling the market with the rich smells of faraway places and a Babel of unknown tongues. All this exotic commerce is not easily accomplished, however, and quite a number of bustling camel stables such as my uncle’s line the edges of town.
[For convenience, first seven chapters have been combined into one link: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1/ ]
Uncle Jonathan’s place, with the greatest number of loading stations in Nazareth, could feed, house and service as many as 200 camels at a time, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough to meet the demand. As we approached, he pointed to an adjacent property he had recently added to corral any overflow animals until room in the front opened up. It was a robust place, always noisy, smelly, dirty and crowded, and I loved it.
Once we arrived, Uncle Andrew quickly had his donkey and, after a hearty goodbye, was on his way back to Joseph and Priscilla’s. I badly wanted to go with him, but knew better than to bring it up again. How lucky he was, I thought, to be so close to the center of the action, to the Deliverer, if Deliverer he really was. I was sure I would be able to tell once I saw him again.
But, with that option out of the question, I tried to make myself useful around the caravansary, if for no other reason than to present a contrast to my useless cousins who were making mischief and running all about the place. I asked Uncle Jonathan for an assignment and he suggested I clean out the tack room at the back of the stables, so I dove in eagerly. I don’t think it had been done in months and there were waist-high piles of harnesses, saddles and all manner of leather goods that had just been tossed into every corner. Some of it was salvageable – just in need of a visit to the Sons of Joseph’s – but much of it was only good for burning. It was left up to me to sort it all out, and I was pleased that Uncle Jonathan trusted me enough to take on such a job without supervision.
My solitary assignment also gave me time to ponder the cascade of bizarre revelations we had encountered in the last few days. I was just one little boy of almost no consequence whatever, and yet, if the tales I was hearing held any truth at all, these were developments of worldwide – even Heavenly – import.
It was not lost on me just how inextricably linked to my own family these things were, or what an extraordinary opportunity was laid before me if the things I had learned were even partially true. I began to consider, as I swept up the straw and dusted the shelves, just how my own life’s story might be affected by Joshua the Capernaum boat-builder, and to cast about in my mind for ways to make it so.
The cleaning duty also mercifully relieved me of any chores related to the wedding. Uncle Jonathan, Aunt Martha, Mama, Papa and I planned to be in Cana for a week, and there were still final preparations to be completed before we left. We all required special clothing, and even I had been outfitted with a fine new tunic and the most beautiful cloak I had ever owned. Mama took seriously her reputation as the daughter who had made good, married well and moved to the big city, and she was not about to disappoint all of her old hometown friends if she had anything to say about it.
There were also many gifts to be made ready, not only for the bride and groom, but also for our hosts in Cana – a cousin of Uncle Jonathan’s named Malchus and his wife Johanna. In their late fifties, their children were long gone and they had more than enough room to house us. A prosperous trader in animal hides, Cousin Malchus was not only one of Uncle Jonathan’s best customers, he was also one of his primary suppliers. Aunt Martha had stressed to Mama just how important it was that our presentations be well received, and Mama had spent considerable time finding the perfect gifts. Among them was a beautifully woven and embroidered shawl from her own hand for Johanna, and a brightly-colored game set of Egyptian alabaster for her husband (that I tried to get Papa to leave at home, but it was a very brief conversation).
Putting the tack room in order turned out to be a larger job than either Uncle Jonathan or I had anticipated. I was only able to finish about half of it before the dark made it impossible to continue, but with another day to spend in Nazareth, I planned to come back the next morning and complete the task.
By the time I was ready to leave for Aunt Martha’s, only the night steward remained to care for the animals and keep a keen eye on the property, but it was far from empty. The caravan drivers, who slept with their camels, were clustered around cook fires dotting the staging area, singing songs and telling tales of their women. Their happy camaraderie lifted my spirits as I walked past, and the savory aromas from their stew pots told me just how hungry I was.
The twins and Uncle Jonathan had returned home much earlier, so I walked back alone and arrived just as the evening meal was being set out for the adults. Manna, Anna and the boys were already fed and sent to bed to give the rest of us more room at the table, piled high with Aunt Martha’s magic. She was a true artist in the kitchen, which I held accountable for her family’s spreading girth. All but Anna were sporting a little more around the middle than I remembered, and the boys were downright pudgy.
As we sat around the table, my elders spent most of the meal talking about old friends I’d never met and memories I didn’t have, so I ate in silence and thought about the day. It was hard to believe how much had happened since we had departed Aunt Tabaitha’s vineyards only that morning. It was already a far more marvelous adventure than I could possibly have imagined, and we hadn’t even made it to the wedding. I could only wonder what might be next.
I may have been at the table with the adults, but my sleeping quarters were in the crowded room where my cousins slept when it was too cold to use the roof. I found all three of the girls fast asleep and the boys still talking when I bedded down, but it didn’t matter. I was completely out in seconds.
The next morning I arose to a house of bedlam with far too many people rushing about, so as soon as I had swallowed a few bites of bread and some dried fruit, I started for the caravansary to finish what I had begun. Uncle Jonathan, who had arrived ahead of me, was surveying the tack room when I arrived and complimented me on the work I had already completed. He told me I could have a job with him anytime, if I wanted it. It was the first job offer I had ever received and it felt good even if I already knew that cleaning up after camels would not be my future if I had anything to say about it. It had only taken one afternoon for my romantic notions of the place to be undone.
Nevertheless, I still had a job to do for Uncle Jonathan, and, bolstered by his offer, I wanted to do it as well as I could. Consequently, it was already mid-afternoon by the time I finally finished. Mercifully, Aunt Martha had a plate of her tasty food waiting for me when I returned to the house, and I happily scarfed it all down in mere moments, refilled my plate, and happily scarfed it down again, all the while considering the revelations of the caravansary.
Gossip, they say, flies on ravens’ wings, but I had discovered it also grows in camel dung, and I had heard a surprising amount of talk all day about the big news, which was taken with varying degrees of seriousness and came in two versions, depending upon whether you were a local or a visitor. It was either “Have you heard the news? The Messiah is a Nazarene!” or, “How could anyone think a savior could come from this benighted place?”
By then, most of those who lived nearby had already been to the river to hear John, and the arrival of four of his most visible lieutenants in the company of such a well-known local as Joshua ben Joseph had not gone unnoticed. By mid-morning, the Galilean rumor tree was in full flower. “Could it really be true?” was the prevailing sentiment shouted back and forth over the humps of the camels as I listened from my corner.
I’ve never really known why Nazareth suffered such a questionable reputation in those years, but it was considered the ultimate irony for anything worthwhile to hail from Nazareth. For as long as anyone could remember – and with no real basis in logic – it was considered the birthplace of backwoods bumpkins, and seemed unavoidably destined to suffer a never-ending stream of condescending jibes.
“How many Nazarenes does it take to milk a goat?” is one I heard when very young and have never, somehow, been able to forget. “Five, of course” came the response, “one to hold the teats and four to move the goat up and down. It takes nine for a cow.”
My hunger finally satisfied by Aunt Martha’s largesse, but my throat parched, I walked out to the courtyard for some water, but what greeted me was much more thrilling. There, aglow in the sunlight but just sitting on the ledge by the well as if she were anyone, was my dear, dear Sela. I have already told you she was best friends with Manna, but what I have failed, until now, to mention is that she was beautiful to me – the most beautiful – and I was hopelessly in love with her. It may have been an innocent’s love, but it was love, nevertheless. She could lift my spirits in a way, and to heights, that no one else, before or since, has ever been able to do. It had been more than two long years since I had last seen her, and from Mama’s first mention of a trip to Cana, I had anticipated this moment.
I was also excited to see her for another reason. I was certain she would be able to tell me more about what was going on at her Aunt Priscilla’s house.
Sela’s eyes smiled into mine as soon as they met. We embraced warmly and it seemed to me that she was as happy to see me as I was to see her. Looking back, it is clear that our mutual love was entirely impossible and naïve in the extreme, but we didn’t know that at the time, and wouldn’t have cared. Ours was clear, unadulterated, swimmable joy.
She insisted I tell her all that had happened to me in the last two years, so I filled her in as quickly as I could. I knew I should then show her the same courtesy, but I couldn’t help myself and, as soon as the opportunity arose, launched right into my questions about the Jesus group.
Fortunately, she didn’t even seem to notice, and was as happy to talk about the strange doings in her neighborhood as I was. I think she shared my fascination with the idea of Joshua as the Messiah. Unfortunately, she didn’t have all that much to tell. The seven men had left early that morning, going in two directions. Jesus, alone, to the northeast around Mount Tabor to fetch his mother and sister from Capernaum, while the apostles traveled north to Cana. In spite of her Aunt Priscilla’s warm hospitality and willing spirit, Sela said the house was truly too small for so large a group, especially when more suitable accommodations awaited them at Nathaniel’s family home in Cana, so they had already headed in that direction.
Nathaniel, the only one of the six Apostles not then fishing for a living in Capernaum, was the youngest of seven siblings and, like Aunt Tabaitha, had found himself the last child remaining to care for elderly parents in a large and empty house. Up till then, his role was more one of assurance than assistance. His father, Bartholomew, was still an active, successful merchant and Nathaniel fully expected to someday follow him in the family business.
“The most interesting thing I have to tell you,” Sela’s look told me that she had saved the best till last, “is what happened last night.”
“Oh, Sela,” Anna, finally broke her silence, “do tell.” I hadn’t even realized she and Manna were there until she spoke.
“Well, Anna, it was the strangest thing.” Sela said. “After supper we were sitting around the hearth and talking about Jesus and John the baptizer and wondering about all the same questions that everyone else seems to be asking today, when Papa noticed the glow of a fire out back and went to check. We all followed him, of course, and there across the way was Jesus, himself, burning a big pile of wood scraps in a pit behind his house.
“At first I thought maybe he was crying. I thought I saw the glint of a tear on his cheek, and there was something about the look on his face, as if he had lost something dear, but maybe it was just the smoke in his eyes. As we stood there watching, the wind brought it straight toward us and it smelled of pine and cedar. My throat began to sting, so I went back into the house, but Papa said Jesus just stood there, by himself, quietly watching until the fire had burned up every last cinder. Then he scattered the embers with a stick and went back inside without a word to anyone.”
“What about his disciples – his apostles – weren’t they with him,” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “It was just so peculiar. He was alone, completely alone. The house was full of his companions, but we never saw anyone else. And, even stranger, he must have known we were watching, but he didn’t even acknowledge we were there. Never looked up at all, just looked into that fire and watched it burn.
“So, what do you think that was all about?” I asked.
“Well, of course, I had to know, so this morning as soon as chores were done I went to visit Aunt Priscilla. All the men were gone by then, so she could talk, and she told me the whole bizarre story.”
“Everything about this whole Megillah is bizarre,” I said.
“John Mark, I know that house really well,” she continued without losing a beat. “I’ve been going in and out of it since before I could walk. Of course, in the early days it was full to the rafters with Mary and all her children, but then five of them married all in a row, leaving her there alone with Ruth, so two years ago they moved to Capernaum to live with James, and Aunt Priscilla and Uncle Joseph moved in.”
I was looking impatient.
“I’m only telling you all this,” she responded, “so you will believe me when I say that the most outstanding feature of that house – the thing everyone remembers – has always been the beautiful collection of inscribed sayings adorning the walls.”
“Sayings?” I asked.
“You know,” she said, “sayings. Some of them scriptures, others mottoes, words to live by, whatever you want to call them; dozens of them inscribed on wooden plaques in that house, in every room. Some brightly painted and others artfully burned into the wood with a hot awl. Some even with carved flowers or patterns decorating the edges, and all written in a fine, fancy hand. Jesus made them, has been making them ever since he was a child, according to Mama. And ever since I started to learn how, reading them has been one of my favorite things to do when I’m over there.”
“I didn’t know you could read,” I said, surprised. “When did you learn to read?” None of the Jerusalem girls were taught how to read.
“Uncle Joseph has been teaching me,” she said. “He told me that when they were growing up, Jesus insisted that they all, girls and boys, learn how, and they had all taught each other. He has a double set of Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew that once belonged to his father, and we’ve been reading together every week, but, now, stop interrupting or I’ll never get to the good part.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I’m just excited that you can read because now we can write to each other.”
“I’m not that good yet,” she said, “but Uncle Joseph says I will be.”
“But, I’m sorry, Sela, you were saying,” I prompted, “about the sayings?”
“Well, if that volume of scriptures is the most valuable possession in that house, and I’m pretty sure it is, those beautiful works of Jesus on the walls were undoubtedly the most beloved – by everyone. It gave the place so much personality, made it special. Those inscribed plaques were the soul of that house, but not anymore.”
“That’s what he was burning?” I cut to the heart of the matter. It was hard not to see where she was going.
“Yes!” she said. “Aunt Prissy told me that last night after the meal was finished Jesus excused himself and, without so much as a word about what he was doing, went around to all the rooms, even the carpentry shop, and removed every last one of those plaques until his arms were nearly overflowing, then took them all out back of the house and burned them. Can you believe that?
“Uncle Joseph saw what he was doing and begged him not to, but he wouldn’t pay him any mind and only said it was something he had to do; that he was truly sorry, but he had no choice. It was the ‘will of his Father in Heaven’ or something like that. Isn’t that just the strangest thing? I just don’t see the point!”
“Well, what did they say, these wall plaques?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing very surprising,” she said. “Certainly nothing controversial. One of them was the Ten Commandments. Others said simple things like ‘Be ye patient,’ or ‘Take courage from conviction.’ Also, I remember one that said ‘Never fear those whose fear of you is greater,’ which I thought was good advice, and then there was one in the shop that said ‘be ye circumspect,’ but I have no idea what that means.”
“Me, neither,” I said. “I don’t understand what any of it means.”
“There was no reason for him to do it that anyone can think of.” Sela said. “He even burned the most special one, the one he made for his mother after his father died. I’m really glad she wasn’t there to see it. It was the largest and most beautiful, with the entire Shepherd’s Psalm surrounded by scenes of the countryside. It has always hung in the main room by the fire. What a shame. I really don’t understand.”
“He must have had a good reason,” I said, as if I knew. I was as baffled as Sela by his strange behavior, but I was already forming an allegiance to the idea of Joshua ben Joseph being “divine” as Uncle Simon had said, and I wanted to believe it. “Someday, perhaps, we will understand why he did it,” I said.
“I doubt it,” she said. “I doubt that very much.”
“John! Son! I need you.” It was my mother calling. I had escaped wedding duty as long as I could, so I looked into Sela’s eyes one more time, thanked her for her visit, promised to see her again very soon, and went to see what Mama could possibly want that was so important.
© 2015 George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved.