Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Three: Caleb

Chapter Two can be found here.

Caleb ran down the street, jostling the others, yelling and whooping and laughing. The night was dark, but the dark did not matter. They had found a light, a light to illuminate Bethlehem and Judea and all the world, a light from which all shadows must flee.

“Halt, you rabble,” called a voice. Caleb stopped and looked around. His companions did the same. They saw no one. The streets, lined with dim buildings, were lit only by faint, flickering threads of lamplight leaking through window lattices. The sky above was a black abyss, untouched by gleam of moon or star.

“Who speaks?” asked Caleb, beaming. “Come, there is no need to be shy.”

“Get inside, you fools,” said the voice, and a man emerged from the gloom. “You must be mad or drunk or possessed by devils. I neither know nor care. However, as a fellow Jew, I give you this advice: get indoors and stay there.”

“We cannot,” said Caleb, and his companions murmured their assent. “We have seen him, and we must spread the news!”

“Seen whom?” demanded the stranger. “What news?”

“The Messiah!” cried one of Caleb’s companions.

The stranger reeled.

“Come, friend, and we will tell everything,” said Caleb, advancing upon the stranger and holding out his hand. “Come with us! We will show you.”

The stranger pulled a sword from beneath his cloak.

Caleb withdrew his hand and backed away. Then, unable to contain his mirth, he burst into a laugh. “Come, come, put it away,” he gasped. “No need for weapons. We mean no harm, friend.”

“Keep your distance,” said the stranger. He pointed the blade at Caleb, but his hand shook. “The Messiah? What in God’s name do you mean?”

“The Messiah,” repeated Caleb. “I cannot make it clearer. The Messiah of God has come to Bethlehem.”

The stranger lowered his sword. “Where is he?” he demanded. “This Messiah—where is he? If God, after so many centuries of silence, has finally given us his chosen leader, I will pledge myself to his service.”

“What is your name, friend?” inquired Caleb.

The question seemed to surprise the stranger. “Jehu the zealot,” he replied.

“I am Caleb the shepherd. These are my fellow shepherds: loyal sons of Jacob. Now that we know each other, let us take you to the Messiah.”

Jehu’s hands stopped shaking, and he wrinkled his nose. “Shepherds,” he muttered. “What a fool I am to be shaken by the gossip of shepherds. I ought to have known you by your smell.”

“Are you coming with us?” inquired Caleb.

“Go to your Messiah,” said Jehu. “If you ask politely, he may give you golden scepters and linen robes to replace your crooks and filthy rags.”

“He is sleeping in a manger,” said one of Caleb’s companions, and Jehu froze.

“What?” he whispered.

“Angels appeared to us as we watched our flocks,” explained Caleb, gesturing toward the fields lost in the darkness somewhere far beyond Bethlehem.

Caleb’s companions broke the silence.

“Brighter than the heart of a furnace!”

“White robes—whiter than I have ever seen—whiter than the clouds of heaven.”

“Like bolts of lightning frozen in the sky!”

“There was one angel,” said Caleb. “Then there were many. They told us of the Messiah, the Christ, the child wrapped in cloths and lying a manger somewhere in the town of David. We found him with his parents in a cave outside Bethlehem.”

“You are fools,” said Jehu. “What of your flocks?”

“Ah, I suppose they are out there somewhere,” said Caleb vaguely. “They no longer matter.”

“They are wiser than you,” said Jehu, and sheathed his sword. “They are witless and wandering, but even your sheep have more sense than to invent stories of angels and a Messiah in a manger. Farewell, and God forgive your insanity.”

Jehu vanished into the darkness. Caleb and his companions stood for a moment, watching. Then someone laughed, and they all laughed, and into the night they ran, ready to tell Bethlehem and Judea and all the world that the Messiah had come.

Chapter Four can be found here.

Author’s Note:

Although I wrote “Zealot: A Christmas Story” a year ago, I’ve had to rewrite most of it because, well, the original was awful. (This story isn’t great, but at least it’s better.) My good intentions of working on each chapter ahead of time have failed, so this chapter, like the first two, was written in a hurry. I’d have delayed it until next week, but Christmas waits for no man. I’ve got to get at least some of this story posted before the twenty-fifth!

At the time of the Nativity, being a shepherd was not exactly a glorious career. It was a hard, cold, lonely job with few benefits. Shepherds were pretty much the lowest of the low. That’s why it was frankly weird for Christ’s birth to have been announced to shepherds. Angels gave the good news not to kings or priests or philosophers, but to shepherds. Why shepherds? I’m not sure. Christ spent much of his time ministering to lowly people—beggars, lepers and prostitutes, among others—so perhaps it’s not so strange that shepherds were the first to hear the news of his arrival.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Two: Judith

Chapter One can be found here.

Judith peered through the window and saw nothing. Moon and stars had been obscured by a blanket of clouds. Bethlehem had been plunged into darkness.

“When will Papa get home?” asked Rachel, tugging on Judith’s sleeve.

“Soon,” said Judith, and began to pray silently that her husband came home alive.

The Roman census had made Bethlehem a dangerous place. Bandits multiplied, eager to make a profit from the travelers flooding the roads. Hungry and desperate, many travelers were not above stealing anything they could to survive. It was a time for citizens of Bethlehem to bar their doors, wait and pray for God to guard them.

Judith had spent the day preparing for her husband’s homecoming: baking, cooking, cleaning and not daring to lapse into idleness. Idleness meant worry. Judith kept busy.

Someone hammered on the door, and Rachel flew to open it.

“Wait, child,” said Judith, and called, “Who knocks?”

“It is I, Benjamin, your one and only husband,” called a voice she knew. “Kindly open the door.”

Rachel threw open the door, cried “Papa!” and leapt into Benjamin’s arms. He tottered a few steps backward.

“My dear child,” he said, stroking her hair. “Judith, my love, I am home.”

“You are very late,” said Judith, and grinned. It was hard to be upset with Benjamin.

Benjamin carried Rachel inside. “We have a guest, my love.”

“Any guest is welcome,” said Judith.

Jehu stepped inside.

For an instant, Judith’s face betrayed disgust and fear. Then, speaking in a strained, quiet voice, she said, “Any guest but this one. He must go.”

Benjamin sat down on a cushion with Rachel on his lap. “My love, Jehu has come all the way from Jerusalem. We cannot turn him out into the cold.”

“Yes, we can,” said Judith.

“The night is dark, my love. The clouds covered the lights of heaven as we came into Bethlehem. I cannot leave my cousin to sleep in the streets on a night as gloomy as this.”

“I cannot allow a member of the Sicarii in my house,” said Judith. “He must go.”

Rachel looked up at Benjamin. “Papa, what does Sicarii mean?”

“You need not know,” replied Benjamin, biting his lip. “It is not a matter for children.”

“Tell her, my husband,” said Judith. “Rachel deserves to know what sort of man you have brought into her home tonight.”

Judith may not have been the head of the household, but she always had her way in arguments. Benjamin sighed, as usual, and submitted to his wife’s decision.

“You may sit, Jehu,” he said, making an effort to delay the inevitable. “There is no need for you to stand lifeless in the corner like an idol. For the moment, you are welcome here. Make yourself comfortable.”

Judith glanced fiercely at Benjamin. He held his daughter close and said, “Rachel, do you remember the stories of Joshua and David and the other great warriors of Israel?”

Rachel nodded.

“A Sicarii is a warrior who fights in secret. That is all, my daughter.”

Judith smiled. “I love you, my husband, for making the best of an ugly truth. Rachel, my child, the Sicarii are the dagger-men, murderers with sicae up their sleeves—secret blades to steal the lives of their enemies.”

Rachel stared at Jehu. “He has sicae in his sleeves?” she whispered.

“Well, Jehu?” said Judith. “She asks. Answer my daughter.”

Jehu reached up his right sleeve and withdrew a curved blade. “Just one,” he said. “One is all I need.”

Rachel gazed at Jehu, the grim stranger with a sword at his waist and a knife up his sleeve. “Papa, please let me go,” she whispered.

“My child,” said Benjamin, but stopped as his daughter squirmed in his arms.

“Please let me go,” she whimpered.

Benjamin released his daughter, and Rachel scuttled into a back room.

“Even children fear you, Jehu,” said Judith.

He scowled. “Your daughter fears the dark, dreadful dagger-men of your imagination. You frightened Rachel, not I.”

“Why have you come?” demanded Judith. “What brings you to Bethlehem?”

Jehu smiled, but his smile was darker than his scowl. “The Roman census, of course. Everyone is here for the census.”

“Do not lie to me,” snapped Judith.

“Your husband seemed an easy prey to bandits,” said Jehu. “I could not allow my cousin to travel alone.”

“Closer to the truth, yet no less a lie,” said Judith.

“Is this how you receive guests in Bethlehem, old man?” inquired Jehu. “Your child flees, your wife pries and you sit blinking like a drunkard.”

“Quiet,” said Benjamin, and a shadow of fear came over Judith. She had never heard such anguish in his voice.

“Josiah the priest was murdered yesterday,” continued Benjamin, speaking as though in pain. “A servant of the Most High, stabbed and left to die in the streets. Jerusalem erupted. Riots broke out. By the time the uproar had been quelled, the assassin had vanished. I know now where he has gone.”

“We both know Josiah was the governor’s puppet,” said Jehu, not looking at anyone. “A servant of the Most High? No, old man. A servant of Rome.”

“You killed a priest of God!” cried Benjamin, springing to his feet. He stood a moment, breathing heavily, and then sat down again on his cushion.

“I eliminated a traitor.”

There was a long silence. Judith opened her mouth to speak, but remained silent at a look from her husband. Benjamin, a soft man, seldom asserted his authority. When he did, Judith obeyed. Glaring at Jehu, she said nothing.

When Benjamin spoke, the anger had gone out of his voice. He sounded tired. “Jehu, what have you become? My cousin was not a man with blood on his hands. He was a good lad with bright eyes. Your eyes have become dull, Jehu. They are a drunkard’s eyes. You are intoxicated with blood, and it makes me sad.”

“I fight for our freedom,” protested Jehu. “I fight because I must. Rome grinds Israel into the dust. We must retaliate! What else can we do?”

“We can survive,” said Benjamin. “As we have done for hundreds of years, we can endure. It is not for us to overthrow empires. That is God’s business. We must await the Messiah who will set us free.”

“Will he come?” asked Jehu.

“What are you saying?” demanded Judith. She could not remain silent any longer.

“Will the Messiah come? We have waited hundreds of years. There are no more prophets. There are no more prophecies. The teachers of the law stoop to petty legalism, and God’s own temple is rebuilt as a political maneuver by a pagan king.”

“Do you plan to deliver Israel by murdering her priests?” asked Judith.

Jehu made no reply.

“It is best if you leave,” said Benjamin. “I am sorry, Jehu, but this is no place for you. God’s grace go with you, and may he lead you to a life of peace.”

“Get out,” said Judith.

Jehu opened the door and faded into the night. The lights of heaven had not rekindled, and the darkness was absolute.

Chapter Three can be found here.

Author’s Note:

When my old man told me about the Sicarii, the Jewish dagger-men who murdered their enemies in broad daylight and disappeared into the crowd, I was fascinated. Never mind Assassin’s Creed—this is history!

According to my old man, the Sicarii actually carried concealed blades. They would sidle up to their target in a crowd, slip the blade between the ribs, puncture the heart, withdraw the blade and slip away before anyone noticed them.

My tale of zealots and daggers may seem a bit grim for a Christmas story, but I don’t think it is. The Nativity is depicted as a bright, joyous event, but it came at a dark, dreary time in Jewish history. That’s partly why people were so excited about the Messiah. He would make everything right! He would restore Israel! In the meantime, the Sicarii and the zealots fought back. Everyone else endured, and waited, and hoped.

Nothing defines Christmas more than hope, I think.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter One: Benjamin

A stout man and a thin man walked the road to Bethlehem in silence. Above them, a full moon shone and stars blazed across the sky. Around them, dusty slopes stretched up into the night, gray in the moonlight, broken by trees and rocks and tufts of grass.

The stout man paused to gaze upward. “Turn your eyes to the stars, Jehu,” he said, puffing and wiping his brow. “Their beauty tonight is beyond compare.”

“To gehenna with the stars,” replied the thin man, looking resolutely downward. “We have no time for them. Keep moving, Benjamin.”

Panting, Benjamin spared enough breath to gasp in indignation. “You must not malign the works of the Most High. The heavens declare the glory of God, as it is written in the psalms. The skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech—”

“Not unlike a fat old man of my acquaintance,” said Jehu, scowling at his companion. “I have heard enough of your prattle. We are near Bethlehem, and I beg you to hold your tongue until we get there.”

They walked on. Wind swished the grass and made branches creak. From over the hills came the faint noise of sheep bleating and men chatting, the sounds of a shepherd’s camp. As Jehu and Benjamin plodded along, their shadows stretched out before them, sharply black in the moonlight.

Jehu brought forth a sword from under his cloak and began to twirl it. Benjamin took a few steps back. “Do not fear me,” said Jehu. He smiled, which Benjamin did not find comforting. “Whom you must fear, Benjamin, are the bandits. Like the accursed Romans, they prey upon the weak and helpless.”

“Are we in danger?” whispered Benjamin.

“You are, perhaps,” said Jehu. “Fortunately for you, I am neither weak nor helpless. Stay close to me and you may live to see the lights of Bethlehem.”

Keeping a wary eye on the sword flashing in the moonlight, Benjamin moved a little closer to Jehu.

At last, as they came over the crest of a hill, they saw the lamps and fires of Bethlehem twinkling like golden stars far ahead. Still gasping for breath, Benjamin mumbled, “God be praised.”

Jehu said nothing and did not put away his sword.

“I am not a nervous man,” said Benjamin nervously. “Nevertheless, I admit to feeling perhaps just an echo of fear on this dark, dangerous road. It is good to see lights ahead. They speak to me of food and fire and wine—God preserve us, what is that?”

Jehu held his sword before him and peered into the darkness. “Benjamin, what do you see?”

“I see a cross. Some poor fool has been crucified.”

Jehu sighed and sheathed his sword. “Your eyes deceive you, old man. It is nothing but a pillar and crossbeam of wood. There is a cave in the rock. Someone must use it for a stable or storehouse. The cross you see is a support to keep the mouth of the cave from crumbling.”

“It is an omen,” said Benjamin, clutching Jehu’s sleeve. “The Almighty gives you this sign, Jehu. Your plans are folly. Turn away from them! Abandon your dreams of revolution, or a cross will become your future.”

“That is not a cross,” said Jehu, tearing his sleeve out of Benjamin’s grip. “That is a pillar and crossbeam. Only a fool—or a poet, which is no different—can look upon it and see an instrument of death. Gather your wits and stop babbling.”

Benjamin rubbed his face, wiping away sweat and tears. “I am concerned for you, Jehu. You were once my cousin, before you forsook all ties to family. You may not value your life, but I do.”

“We have wasted time enough,” said Jehu. “Bethlehem awaits.”

As they passed the mouth of the cave, they were startled by a cry from within.

“Is that the sound of a child?” whispered Benjamin.

Jehu’s face was grim. “There,” he said, pointing.

Moonlight poured into the cave, illuminating all but the farthest corners. The pillar and crossbeam supporting the ceiling cast the ruthless black shadow of a cross. A manger stood in the shadow. A woman knelt beside the manger. A man stood nearby, holding out a lamp that flickered uselessly in the moonlight.

“By Joseph’s bones,” murmured Benjamin. “A baby in a manger. In such dangerous times as these, what spirit of madness possessed these fools to take refuge in a filthy cave?”

“The Roman census,” said Jehu. “These fools left their home and dragged themselves across the country for this, a stable reeking of manure, because Rome told them to. Why does this child have no better bed than a cattle trough? The answer is simple. Rome felt it necessary to know exactly how many people are left in this country for her to grind beneath her heel.”

“You should not say such things, Jehu.”

“Why should I be silent? Look at that child. He lies in the shadow of a cross. He will live in the shadow of a cross. Unless we rise against Rome, we too shall live in the shadow of a cross, that bloody emblem of Roman brutality.”

Having regained his breath, Benjamin heaved a long, sad sigh. “You sound more like a zealot every day, Jehu. You have certainly mastered the rhetoric of the revolutionary. No, I do not wish to hear more,” he added as Jehu opened his mouth to reply. “I do not want to be told of Rome’s cruelties or your plans to repay them. I want safety and supper and a warm bed. I want to go home to my wife and daughter. Let us leave.”

They left the cave.

Chapter Two can be found here.

Author’s Note:

I wrote Zealot: A Christmas Story about a year ago because there are not enough Christmas stories about assassins.

When we think of the first Christmas, a stable and shepherds and wise men are usually the first things to come to our minds. In our imaginations, the Nativity exists in its own little bubble. As I wrote this story, I had great fun giving the Nativity its historical context, from the predictions of ancient prophets to the struggles of brave revolutionaries. At the heart of this story lies one man, a zealot, whose life of blood and secrecy begins to change when he meets a child born in the shadow of a cross.

Zealot: A Christmas Story will be posted in short chapters, one each Wednesday, until early January. Regular TMTF posts will continue to be posted on Mondays and Fridays.

Thanks for reading!