The next day, which was the Sabbath, when we had all awakened from a fitful night’s sleep, completed our morning ablutions, and gathered groggily around the table where our bowls of yogurt and mugs of grape juice sat, I remembered, without comment, that Michael was missing. It was over. Papa had done his best. I was convinced that I would never see him again. Simon, who must have been happy that Michael was gone, comforted me nonetheless, by patting my back and nodding in recognition, as I looked his way. To be truthful, though, I felt relieved, and returned a clear-eyed smile.
“Let us pray,” Papa said hoarsely, taking my hand.
“Make a circle,” ordered Mama reaching down to both of the twins.
Simon took my free hand and then joined hands with James. Making a face, James took Joseph’s hand, as Joseph gently placed his fingers in Abigail’s tiny palm. Martha, like her sister, took Mama’s hand, clasping Papa’s free hand to complete the circle so that he could begin his prayer:
“Lord, we live in your shadow but are guided by your light. Standing as supplicants during the Sabbath, we accept your judgment regardless of its effect. We thank you for your blessings. It’s your wisdom that guides our lives. You have entrusted Mary and I with seven wonderful children. Please watch over them in the coming days. Guide Joseph of Arimathea, who you have entrusted with Jesus, our oldest child. If it’s your will, please take charge of Michael’s troubled spirit and bring him safely back to his adopted home. Otherwise, let him live in peace. Soften the hard hearts of our neighbors and protect us from our enemies—known and unknown, who begrudge our happy house.”
“Amen,” we all mumbled.
Releasing each other’s hand, James and Joseph made comic gestures, as if they had been ritually violated by their brothers and sisters’ touch. Papa laughed good-naturedly, as did Simon and I. Mama shook her head reproachfully as she and the twins added bowels of cut fruit to the table.
“You boys should be ashamed.” She wrung her finger. “Jesus is traveling unknown lands with that strange man. Poor, confused Michael wanders hungry and alone the Lord knows where. People hate us for a good deed and resent our oldest son. And you mock Papa’s prayer with that pantomime!”
“Sorry Mama.” James hung his head, a grin still on his face.
With the morning prayers of the Sabbath spoken, we were at liberty to begin our meal and came at our yogurt and bread as ravenous wolves. In less time than it took Papa to peel a fig, we had finished, anxious to begin the new day.
Belatedly, Joseph mumbled his apology too, but broke into giggles as he and James charged out the door. Simon and I followed, after giving Mama a quick hug. I could hear Abigail and Martha tittering in the background, as Simon and I emerged in the yard. Papa and Mama could now have a peaceful meal.
“Boys, don’t go beyond the orchard!” Papa called out the window, a grin showing in his bearded face.
As Jews, we weren’t allowed to work on the Sabbath, which made it was our favorite day. One of the restrictions on this sacred day was not to travel beyond two thousand cubits from one’s house, but our property was well within that range, so my brothers and I included the surrounding hills as well. I knew my parents had been unhappy about Michael’s absence, but I noted an airy feeling of relief in Papa’s voice. Because the Roman guards had begun patrolling Nazareth, he said nothing as Simon and I ran into the front yard, exchanging questioning looks, as if to ask “Well, what do we do now?” The truth was, we had all played the same familiar games over and over and needed fresh ideas. In the distance, I heard James and Joseph talking about Papa’s treasure. The ‘lust for gold’ appeared to be infecting our older brothers, but I tried pushing that thought from my mind. I wanted to run carefree as Michael and I had done before he left. For a long while Simon had romped with my gang, until Michael began acting strangely. Now, we were playmates again, as we had been before Michael arrived, but minus my old friends.
Suddenly, however, as we loitered in the garden, contemplating the morning sun we saw Uriah, of all people, walking down the road. The moment of truth for the rabbi’s son had come. How Papa managed to talk Joachim into sending his son over here I would never know. I suspected Samuel, the Pharisee, had something to do with it, but all I could get from Papa later when I asked was a sly smile.
“Hey, Uriah,” James called, while idling in the shop, “better not come any closer to our house; you might get defiled!”
It what sounded rehearsed, Uriah replied, “To make peace, I can visit you now that Jesus is gone.”
“Who put you up to this?” Simon sneered. “It took you long enough to come around!”
“No one,” he said in quivering voice. “It was my idea.”
He was very nervous, actually frightened, as he approached our house. In malicious glee, Simon ran over and barred the gate. James and Joseph, who hated Uriah almost as much as they hated Romans, swaggered over to the entry path, arms folded and snarls on their faces, as if they would not let him enter. Considering what happened, I was tempted to tease him, myself, but Papa had asked me to make peace with him. Simon tossed dirt clods at him and James and Joseph taunted him with insults until Papa’s shouted from the window, “That’ll be enough boys. It took great courage for Uriah to come here.”
I removed the bar from its latch and silently let him through the gate. James and Joseph frowned severely at him before walking away. In comic jesters, Simon acted as if he had just made contact with a leper. I remembered my Papa’s request and realized begrudgingly that Uriah was, in fact, making the first effort at making peace, so I patted his shoulder and nodded. When Uriah followed my ritual greeting, we walked from the garden down toward the fig tree and bench in the front yard. Mama called a greeting from the kitchen window, as Uriah struggled for something to say.
“I-I’m sorry,” Uriah stammered.
“He’s a sorry piece of dung!” James shouted in the distance.
I sensed that Uriah wanted to say more. I let his apology hang in the air a moment before uttering, “All right.”
“Rabbi Joachim betrayed our family!” Joseph now hollered.
Not having to work on the Sabbath, my older brothers were descending into the orchard from the edge of the front yard, planning mischief against my estranged friend. From the back door, I could hear Mama warning them not to go into the hills. I heard Papa shouting at James and Joseph to behave. But I knew that my brothers wouldn’t make peace with Uriah, as I felt compelled to do.
“Sit down,” I told Uriah, pointing to the bench.
“Can I eat one of your figs?” he asked, looking fondly up into the tree.
“Eat all you want.” I waved irritably. “You eat everything else.”
Uriah gave me a hurt look, settled on the bench, and began peeling his fig.
“We eat those to clean ourselves out.” I studied him with contempt. “You need cleaning out Uriah, you lying sack of dung!”
Uriah’s lip quivered yet he forced a smile. I snarled at him and shook my head. I could think of nothing to say to him, so I just sat there giving him my most unfriendly look. Uriah ate another fig and then began whistling to himself as if he didn’t care. I had tried to upset Uriah, but I failed. To honor my father, I should protect him against my brothers’ wiles. I could see Simon peeking around the corner of our house. I didn’t know where James and Joseph where at this moment, but I was certain they had something planned. Before one of them flung sheep dung or rotten grapes at Uriah, I would bring him into the house, which should please my father very much.
“Come on, hurry!” I motioned rudely. “You wanna get splattered with something?”
“What’s wrong?” Uriah’s eyes widened with fear.
“Quick! I’m not kidding,” I cried, prodding him on.
Sure enough, as we ran to the house, green olives from the orchard, propelled by the sling James had made from a goat hide, came flying at my retreating guest. One of them stung the back of Uriah’s neck as we scrambled into the house. Papa had opened the door after hearing Uriah squeal. We could hear James, Joseph, and Simon laughing in the distance. Papa suspected what had happened but waited until we had sat down at the table before asking us what was wrong.
“Oh we were just playing,” Uriah chimed, though there were tears in his eyes.
“Did James and Joseph ambush him?” He looked squarely at me.
“Papa.” I looking plaintively up at him, “we don’t want to get them in trouble. James and Joseph already hate Uriah, and they don’t like me. Someday I would like to make peace with them too.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” He gripped each of our shoulders. “It took courage for him to come to our house. Do you forgive him, my son?”
“Yes, Papa,” I nodded. “I’ve done what you said, but I will not trust him—ever again!”
“Then you haven’t forgiven him,” Papa said with disappointment. “To forgive without trust, is smoke without fire. What you have done is a mere gesture, which you didn’t even do on your own.” “As a child,” he explained gently, “you say and do foolish things. Uriah, as a child, did something stupid, not evil. If he said he was sorry, forgive him unconditionally.”
How strange, now that I think about, that Jesus would say the very same thing to an audience in Galilee. Papa made me ashamed, as Jesus would one day make a multitude ashamed for its transgressions. Reaching over I took Uriah’s chubby hand and shook it, a gesture I had seen Arabs do. My old friend responded by placing his free hand on my shoulder, a Jewish custom. To complete the greeting was the point when we took each other’s forearm, which I had seen the Romans do. Without speaking, I had accepted him back as my friend and he had thanked me. I was moved, beyond words, because of my father’s goodness and for Uriah’s innocence. How could I blame my friend for what his father forced him to say?
“Uriah,” I finally spoke, “let’s go find Nehemiah. With that aunt of his, he has few friends.”
“I expect he will be visiting you today too.” Papa’s dark eyes twinkled. “Let bygones be bygones, as the Psalmist once said.”
“Jesus once said that.” I smiled brightly.
“Jesus probably knew the Psalmist.” Papa laughed softly.
Papa’s enigmatic statement haunts me even now. Did Jesus not say to the Pharisees, “Before Abraham I am?” Long after my days in Nazareth, I would come to understand that the fog Samuel had spoken of on the day Jesus left on his odyssey, had lifted much more for my parents than they let on. They had lived in denial for many years, but it was like a man I once saw, who after seeing a trained ape owned by Syrian merchant, shook his head and said, “such an animal is impossible. It can’t exist.” Deep down in their sanctified hearts my parents knew better. The plain truth, of course, was that none of us in the family of Jesus wanted to share him with the world. Such matters, however, were beyond my understanding and concern on that day.
Jesus trip with Joseph of Arimathea had shaken my parents greatly, but I was not ready to begin the long, sad journey of growing up. Uriah had returned. I wanted very much those moments to regain both of my lost friends and return to the adventuresome spirit I once shared with Uriah, Nehemiah, and Michael—the Nazareth gang.
As Papa promised, Samuel appeared on the road, holding Nehemiah’s hand. So fearful was Nehemiah of my family’s wrath, he cowered behind the Pharisee, which left no doubt in my mind, who was behind the notion to make peace. Entering the house, as Mama held the door, we stood in the kitchen, a shaft of light from the window striking Samuel’s wrinkled face.
“Peace be upon the house of Joseph bar Jacob,” he announced quite formerly. “I have in my presence Nehemiah bar Tobias, who wishes to make peace with your son, Judah bar Joseph.”
Papa bowed, suppressing a grin. Though it was the name of the patriarch, from who Israel’s Messiah would descend, I winced at hearing my formal name. It was also the name of Judah, the Galilean, who brought tragedy to Galilee because of his rebellion against Rome. James, Joseph, and Simon, who had snuck in the back door to eavesdrop on our conversation, tittered in the background, and yet Papa pushed me forward. Uriah, who was apparently on the outs with Nehemiah too, was also motioned forward.
“Come on,” Samuel beckoned Uriah, “your feud with Nehemiah is an issue too.”
By jabbing his bony fingers this way and that, Simon directed we three boys to stand facing each other in a triangle. For a moment hysterical laughter erupted between the three of us.
Papa couldn’t help laughing, himself, at the comic expressions of ashen-faced Nehemiah and goggle-eyed Uriah. Turning to the other boys, however, he made scooting motions with his hands and told them to do their eavesdropping outside. Clearly this was meant to be a light-hearted affair in Papa’s thinking, but Samuel had a grave expression on his face.
“Judah bar Joseph,” he spoke to me first, “do you forgive the betrayal of your friendship by Uriah bar Joachim and Nehemiah bar Tobias?”
“Yes, I do,” I answered, wishing he would call me Jude.
“And you Uriah and you Nehemiah!” He gripped my two estranged friends shoulders, giving them a fierce bird-of-prey look. “Do you acknowledge your betrayal of your friend Judah, beg his pardon, and swear by Father Abraham never to lie or cheat against Judah again?”
“Yes!” they both chimed with wide, unblinking eyes.
“Very well,” he intoned. “Let us pray. “
Both Uriah and Nehemiah were terrified of the Pharisee, who belonged to an order, Papa once explained, that was of higher rank than rabbis, though of inferior spirituality in Judea and Galilee. This rule, of course, no longer applied to Samuel and Joachim, after our rabbi rejected Papa’s oldest son. Now Samuel was not only of higher rank but the spiritual superior to Joachim in our eyes. Samuel’s reference to Father Abraham, Papa would tell me later, was the old man’s invention, since oaths not made to God were forbidden in the Torah. Yet this fact, and the playful manner he made Uriah and Nehemiah show repentance, endeared him to us.
The prayer he uttered after this was unrelated to this ceremony and totally unexpected.
“Lord, guide these children in the path of righteousness,” he intoned croakily. “Deliver them from the temptations of a wayward friend, yet give them the fortitude to keep a confidence if it means saving that friend’s life. When more than one soul sets upon a path, one may choose good and one may choose evil. Remind the restless spirit that friendship does not outweigh the soul. God is first; man is second—over wife, husband, brother, sister, and friend. Until the Messiah comes, make us ever watchful for those sent by the Evil One to cause us to sin. Cause, by your power, their demons to depart, but keep us save from their design. We thank you for delivering us from evil. Guide our separate paths, alone, or with friends that share the light. Amen”
“Amen,” everyone, including my brothers under the window, uttered under their breaths.
The reference to both Michael, my two friends, and myself was plain—Michael (the wayward friend), Uriah and Nehemiah (who betrayed a confidence), and myself, (who was sorely tempted by a friend). On the one hand, the religious teacher was saying be true to your friends but, above all, be true to God.
Mama, who had been eavesdropping, as were my brothers, came forward with great joy in her blue eyes. James, Joseph, and Simon peaked over the windowsill, their eyes still twinkling with mirth. With Samuel’s coaxing, all of my old gang, except Michael, grasped each other’s hand, and recited the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is One. . .”) though I don’t know why.
“Aren’t we suppose to say that at our Sabbath dinner tonight,” inquired Uriah afterwards. “Papa said in the synagogue ‘worse than no prayer is a prayer spoken wrongly, at the wrong time.”
“Uriah,” Samuel wagged a gnarled finger, “your papa is beginning to sound like a Pharisee.”
With that pun uttered, everyone, except Uriah, erupted into laughter. Without realizing it, Samuel had become part of our family, replacing all the grandfathers passing away over the years. Though his servants could create a great banquet for his private Sabbath, he chose to share this day in our humble house with us. Mama asked my friends to stay too. Uriah explained sheepishly that his father had not yet made peace with our house, but Nehemiah said his Aunt Deborah had traveled last month to Jerusalem to do some shopping, which meant he would gladly accept Mama’s offer. Everyone, including my brothers, who charged into the house, looked at Nehemiah in disbelief. The fact that Deborah had left her nephew alone for so long was outrageous. It was immediately obvious that poor Nehemiah was being neglected by his crazy aunt. On close inspection, I noticed the wrings under his eyes. He looked thinner than ever, and his skin was a pasty color. Mama saw the same signs. She embraced the emaciated boy, decrying his treatment as a sin against God. Papa, however, insisted on going over to Deborah’s house to see for himself. Nehemiah remained with us, as Uriah bid us goodbye. The smell of herbs and stew wafting in his nostrils, caused Uriah to cry out as he exited “Oh if only Mama cooked lentil stew!”
Papa and Samuel followed Uriah out the door, Papa asking Uriah to please extend the olive branch of peace to his father, the rabbi.
“Nay,” cried Samuel in a gravely voice, “give Joachim the tree to sooth his miserly soul!”
The sound of their laughter left no doubt that they were being sarcastic. Samuel despised the rabbi. I could not imagine Papa and Joachim ever making peace. I had mixed feelings about welcoming Uriah back as my friend too, but I felt great pity for Nehemiah. How could I ever have blamed him for what he said with that woman in his life?
After seeing Uriah off, Papa and Samuel visited Deborah’s house. What they found made for quite a story when they returned. Nehemiah was understandably relieved that this she was gone. With great anticipation, we waited to find out what they had found. When they appeared on the road, Mama motioned excitedly from the kitchen window for someone to unbolt the door.
“Mad as a bat!” exclaimed Samuel, looking around the room.
“And she accused Mariah of being a witch!” Papa shook his head.
“Deborah’s not behaving like a witch, Joseph,” Samuel wagged a finger, “she’s practicing the old religion. She’s a pagan. In her deranged mind, she must think she’s a priestess.”
The report provided by Papa, with Samuel’s annotations, made us all shudder at the thought. Ethan, a reclusive elder and one the chief antagonists that night Mariah’s house was set afire had shaken his staff at them as Papa and Samuel entered the house. The inside of Deborah’s house looked similar to portions of Mariah’s villa before the fire: furniture was in disarray, there was garbage in some of the rooms, but in place of the signs of blasphemy on the walls, she had built a shrine in one room, a sacrificial alter in the middle of the floor, with horn-like protuberances on each end to capture the blood. Nehemiah was shaken by this report, but also seemed relieved that he might not have to go back there anymore.
“That crazy old Ethan,” Samuel explained in a wavering voice, “raised his staff and called upon the Lord to punish us for trespassing Deborah’s house, and yet in the same breath he told us a very strange thing.”
“Yes, yes,” Papa quickly added, “he told us that she wasn’t coming back for a long time.” “You aunt became ill,” he spoke delicately to Nehemiah, “and you’ll be staying here with us for awhile.”
Jumping up and down with glee, Nehemiah hugged Samuel, as if he had just told him the best news. Samuel could not help cackling under his breath. Papa, who expected some sign of grief, was caught off guard by this reaction. As Nehemiah grinned happily around at the group, I sensed in a very grown up way, that the dark, unfriendly path with his aunt, after the death of his parents, ended here among the family of Joseph. I wasn’t sure if it was, as Jesus would say, the Lord’s will, but I knew that the Lord’s spirit filled our house. Nehemiah promised us that, unlike Michael, he would never runaway. With misgivings my brothers reached out in greeting to our new “brother.” My parents, in sincere ritual, joined in hugging the boy. Though I was happy for my friend, I could understand James, Joseph, and Simon’s disappointment that there would be one more adopted child for our parents to worry about and one more mouth to feed. More importantly was the fact that as children, themselves, they shared with me the irritation and—yes jealousy—at Mama’s willingness to take in any stray waif and call him her own.
That evening, as we ate our Sabbath meal, we understood by the polite conversation skirting the main subject, that Papa and Samuel had no intention of explaining to us what Ethan had told them at Deborah’s house, but we knew. It didn’t take spiritual illumination or revelation to understand, as Samuel extolled the virtues of the Sabbath and keeping it holy, that Nehemiah would never have to worry about his crazy aunt again. Deborah had probably dropped dead. The exact words Ethan said to Papa—she would be gone a long time—prove my hunch. Late at night, as I pretended to sleep, I heard Papa confess to Mama that Deborah had, in fact, died in Jerusalem. A passing merchant delivered the message during a stop in Nazareth. Unfortunately, he had delivered the message to the wrong person. Old Ethan, unlike Mariah was not a witch, nor like Deborah, did he fancy himself to be a priest. Ethan fancied himself to be some sort of prophet, though he was, Samuel assured him, like Deborah, as mad as a bat. Mama laughed at this characterization. The story of how she died in Jerusalem and exactly what the merchant was doing in this village outpost was garbled in apocalyptic imagery that made it sound blasphemous to Mama. “The important thing,” she replied in a less subdued voice, “poor Nehemiah will not have to go back to that awful house!”
I wondered sometimes whether my parents were deliberately candid in their conversations or simply very indiscreet. I have overheard many important secrets as I lay on my pallet feigning slumber, especially from Mama’s lips. The night before last, as I watched them moving about the kitchen before retiring for the night, I heard Mama fretting about Joseph of Arimathea’s motives for taking Jesus with him on his journey throughout the empire and unknown reaches of the world. I agreed with her instantly, and I almost cried out when she complained to Papa that Jesus was an idle curiosity to that bored, rich man. What other reason could there be? She argued. Jesus was still a child and should not be exposed to the dangers of the world. Papa, however, sensed a greater reason for Jesus’ trip, more important than any motive that Joseph might have. This was the Lord’s business, he told Mama, not ours. Joseph’s journey would prepare Jesus for his confrontation with the world. Shaken by this statement, I craned my ear for more, but my parents retired for the evening, and, when the door shut behind them, took their conversation to the next room. I know now what Papa meant by ‘confrontation,’ but he couldn’t have known what that might be. . As I write my chronicle, I recall my fear for Jesus because of his boldness against the Pharisees, priests, and scribes. When asked why he must defy both civil and religious authority, he simply replied to his disciples “it’s God’s will.” His confrontation with the world as Papa called it back then, would finally get him arrested by the Sanhedrin then condemned to the cross. As a child in my parents’ house, however, my only concern was that Jesus would remain safe on his journey and come home to us, the same, good-natured brother that had left.
Tomorrow, I knew with certainty, would be an interesting day, which was enough for me. Would James, Joseph, and Simon accept Samuel, the Pharisee’s, peacemaking ceremony between Uriah, Nehemiah, and myself? Or would Nehemiah, the new addition to our family, merely become another target for their pranks? Was Uriah truly repentant or was it simply that he had no other friends? And what about the alter they found in Deborah’s house? What would old Joachim say about this? As if anything my family did could compare with that! Tonight, as I contemplated tomorrow, I recalled overhearing my parents discuss the rabbi’s continued slander in the synagogue against their oldest son. I gathered already that Joachim was jealous of our family’s elevation through its friendship with Samuel, the Pharisee, and his famous nephew Joseph of Arimathea. A feeling of pride swelled in my chest. I had learned recently that Papa was descended from a great king and that three magi had brought my infant brother valuable gifts. Though I know better now, I found this hard to believe. Even today many Nazarenes, who knew Jesus, believe this story is a legend. Most significant to me as a child, however, was the continued presence of the Romans in Nazareth, who were protecting my family and our town. Our family had gained great importance because of its protection of a widow and the eccentricities of its oldest son. Cornelius had taken a liking to us but had only contempt for the small-minded folk in this town. All of this and more had been discussed in the kitchen late at night. Was everything I overheard a mistake or by deliberate design? I have stored up much information in my mind that didn’t seem as important to me at the time. All this time it appeared as if my inquisitiveness and prodigious memory were, as the merchant had been for Jesus’ future, merely instruments of the Lord.
From my pen to the scroll, comes the thought that Jesus great advocate, Joseph of Arimathea, as Joseph’s uncle Samuel, already suspected that Jesus was the Messiah, but it was not the Messiah I know today. Jesus has redefined this great word. Everything that was but another mystery to be solved—a wondrous game as I lay on my pallet that Sabbath—is so plain to me now. That night, however, the thoughts of Roman legionnaires galloping past our house was carried with me into slumber, all other mysteries and grand secrets being stored away, as I found myself dreaming once again of my great white horse, long flowing cape, and long sharp spear.