Chapter Three can be found here.
“I despise this filthy city.”
Having declared his opinion of Jerusalem, the City of God, Baraz coughed into a linen cloth and peered through the window lattice at the dusty streets.
“What misfortune to be struck with fever! As the others meet with King Herod, I am confined to this detestable hovel. The finest inn in all Jerusalem? Bah! A foul place. Are all the powers of heaven conspiring against me?”
Baraz’s servant chose that unfortunate moment to kick open the door and announce, “There is a visitor to see you, Master. He says he wishes to speak with you about the king of the Jews.”
A paroxysm of coughing overtook Baraz’s mocking laughter. As soon as he could speak again, he growled, “Kindly knock before entering. Are you my servant or a savage? I expect such behavior of a Scythian, but not of you.”
“Master, the king of the Jews—”
“I have no wish to speak with anyone about Herod,” grumbled Baraz. “We may seek his advice, but that does not mean we approve of him.”
“Not Herod, Master,” said the servant, fidgeting. “The king of the Jews.”
Baraz sat bolt upright. “Another king? Could it—bid our guest enter. Quickly! Do not stand there catching flies with your mouth, you simpleton! Bring in the visitor.”
The servant ushered in a man in a dark cloak. After one glance at the visitor, Baraz quietly rose from his stool and sidled behind a table.
“I am not here to hurt you,” said the stranger. “Be thankful, old man.”
Baraz instantly forgot his fear. “I am Baraz, a learned scholar of Persia,” he exclaiming, shaking a finger. “How dare you address me so impudently! Who are you to act with such brazen disrespect?”
“I am an armed man, and I will address you however I please.” Steel gleamed on the stranger’s arm as he pulled up a sleeve.
“Perhaps I spoke in haste,” said Baraz. He motioned toward a dining couch across the room. “You may recline. Do you care for wine or figs?”
Baraz studied the visitor as he filled a goblet with wine and sat upright on the couch. He had the grim, gaunt look of one to whom hardship was no stranger. More peculiar was his listless manner. The visitor’s tone was not menacing as he spoke of sicae. He sounded bored, as though threats were merely a formality.
“My servant tells me you have news of the king of the Jews,” said Baraz.
The man sipped his wine. “All Jerusalem buzzes with rumors of the wise men from the East. They follow the brightest star in the heavens, or so the tale goes. That star has perplexed all Herod’s wise men. It appeared suddenly, burning in the sky over Bethlehem.”
“What of the star?” inquired Baraz, feigning ignorance. “It is one star: a bright one, perhaps, but one of many.”
“It is not wise to bait me, old man,” said the visitor, setting down his goblet.
Baraz retreated a little farther behind the table. “I am not baiting you,” he said. “I merely inquire. Of what interest is the star to… a man in your line of work?”
“Freedom is my line of work,” said the stranger. “My name is Jehu, and I am a zealot.”
“I am unfamiliar with the word.”
“A zealot is either a revolutionary or a criminal. It depends upon whom you ask. I fight to free Israel from her oppressors. I am no rabbi, but even I have heard the prophecies about Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Messiah who will bring peace to Israel. When a sign appears in heaven over such a place, I am very much interested.”
Baraz gazed in puzzlement across the table at the visitor. “Why have you come to me? I am Persian. Forgive me—and kindly keep your weapon in your sleeve—but the peace of Israel is hardly my concern.”
“We both seek the Messiah, the true king of the Jews,” said the visitor. “Herod is a brute. The throne of Israel belongs to the Messiah of God. What I do not understand is why you are concerned.”
In spite of his nervousness, Baraz smiled. “Truth is always my concern. Ours is an ignorant world, is it not? Look out the window at the crowds kicking up dust like cattle. Everyone is a fool. You are a fool, Jehu. I am a fool. We are all fools stumbling in the dark. My companions and I are looking for truth, and we hope it may be found in this king of the Jews.”
“I once met a group of shepherds,” said Jehu, and finished his wine.
“Shepherds,” said Baraz, baffled.
“Shepherds,” repeated Jehu. “About two years ago in Bethlehem. They told me angels had proclaimed the birth of the Messiah: a baby in a manger. It was insanity, but there is something I have never forgotten.”
“What is that?”
“There was a baby in a manger that night. I saw him.”
Baraz could restrain himself no longer. “Jehu, why have you come? Is it upon this baby you have set your hopes? Do you wish for me to find this child, this boy in Bethlehem, to see whether he is the Messiah?”
It was at that moment Baraz saw tears on Jehu’s cheeks.
“I stab and slit and strangle,” said Jehu. “To what end? Rome still grinds Israel into the dust. My efforts are of no use. I am a man trying to hold back the tide of the sea. My soul is stained with blood, old man.”
“Dare I suggest taking up another profession?”
“God forgive me, I cannot stop. I must fight until Israel is free, but I cannot free her. Only the Messiah can save Israel. You are searching for him, and I have come today with one purpose.”
Baraz leaned forward. “Yes?”
“Go to Bethlehem, old man. Find the child in the manger. Help him, so that he can someday rescue Israel. As long as Israel is a slave, so am I.”
“We will find him,” said Baraz.
Without a word, Jehu set down his goblet and left.
Baraz coughed into his cloth and folded it meditatively. “We are nearing the end of our journey, I think,” he murmured. “I do not know whether the Messiah awaits us in Bethlehem, but any place is better than this vile Jerusalem!”
Chapter Five can be found here.
Not much is known about the Wise Men, so there’s lots of speculation. They fascinate me. The biblical narrative of Christ’s birth moves along smoothly, and then mysterious men arrive from “the East” in search of a king destined to rule a nation that no longer exists. In the end they deliver their gifts to Jesus, apparently oblivious to the fact that the king of the Jews is the child of peasants. Am I the only one who thinks that’s kind of weird?
Incidentally, grumpy old men are really fun to write. (I’m not much good at serious dialogue; I prefer characters with a sense of humor.) I think Baraz is my favorite character so far.