by Joyce Arthur
(sample chapter of a novel)
@ copyright, November, 1994
Over two thousand years ago, a band of Jewish rebels established an isolated religious community near the shores of the Dead Sea in Israel. In 88 BC, their leader, the Teacher of Righteousness, was crucified with hundreds of other dissidents by the country’s leader, Alexander Jannaeus. For almost two centuries after the death of their Teacher, the followers of the Way clung fiercely to their hope that a Messiah would soon liberate Israel from oppression. This is the story of their struggle and the rise to power of the man who preached the Messiah.
It would be another two hours before they reached the Essene community, but Saul’s thirst was greater than his caution. In his eagerness to leave Jerusalem, he had forgotten necessities for the journey and now he began to feel light-headed from heat and thirst. He reached again for his wineskin, and wiping the sweat from his brow, greedily gulped the last of his water. From a distance, one could see the mist hanging low and brooding over the Dead Sea, but no moisture or breeze from the far off sea came to cool the small band of travellers on their camels. The sun beat down relentlessly, baking the rocky desert and slowing their passage across the desolate landscape. Bleached limestone cliffs towered beside them, their dry crumbling outcrops jutting out like hostile sentinels.
Saul glanced at his companions, four strong and hardened soldiers, given to him by Ananas himself, the Jewish high priest. They would give him their water, when he demanded.
Musing in secret pleasure for awhile, he replayed in his mind the impassioned speech he had made to Ananas and his council of elders. They had listened to him – had given him the respect he deserved, not like those self-righteous Jewish teachers, the Pharisees, who thought he didn’t deserve his status. Now that Saul was working for the feared high priest himself, he would never again beg for scraps of approval from the Pharisees.
He thought with relish of the coming confrontation. What an opportunity he had created for himself! He had discovered that several Nazarenes, including their leader, James the Just, were visiting the Essene community at this moment. Far from the protection of the city and their followers, they were vulnerable. And with luck, the Essenes would not dare to protect their visitors from Ananas’ soldiers, for fear of retaliation. A satisfied smile curved Saul’s thin lips and his eyes gleamed with anticipation. Yes, the capture and arrest of these insurgents should go smoothly. Not only would a strong blow be struck against their dangerous movement, but he could perhaps parlay his success into a high position in Ananas’ armed guard.
His confidence ebbed a bit as he considered his chosen enemy. It could not really be said that James was a foolish or evil man, and certainly not a coward. Saul had heard him preach about the Way and the revered Teacher of Righteousness. He had seen the respect that James commanded amongst his disciples and followers. It angered him. How could an uneducated, low-born Jew like James attain a position of such power and leadership, when he, Saul, a highly placed citizen of Tarsus, had worked and studied so much harder? It was he who had the real gift of oratory – the ability to sway men’s minds. His speech to the council had proved it.
A wave of momentary dizziness washed over Saul and he took several deep breaths in an effort to clear his head. Two of the soldiers were speaking in low tones to each other, but their voices seemed far away and he couldn’t make out their words.
Suddenly, inexplicably, a brilliant pool of light filled the air around him. An incredible burning pain pierced his eyes and they snapped shut involuntarily. He could feel himself slipping from the camel’s back, and began to lose his senses along with control of his limbs. He fell to the ground in a heap, his body twitching, his legs and arms jerking spasmodically. The soldiers stopped and hurriedly dismounted, but Saul was unaware of their exclamations and their rough hands as they seized him and tried to hold his body still to stop the terrible shaking. He could still see the bright blinding light, even though his eyes were tightly shut. And then he felt it – a presence, right above him. He tried to look but there was only light.
“Saul!” a voice called out. It was strong, deep, authoritative. It seemed to be coming from all around him, echoing through the light. Saul tried to speak, but all that came out was a frightened whimper.
“Saul!” The voice was louder this time, angrier. “Why do you harm me?”
“Who – who are you?” Saul’s question was unspoken, but the presence answered him.
“I am the Promised One. Believe, have faith.”
“The Promised One?” thought Saul in terrified bewilderment.
“My death is salvation. Go, and tell everyone. You will be with me in heaven…”
The voice began to fade rapidly and Saul’s mind cried out to it. “Wait! What should I do? Help me!” The light disappeared, slowly at first, then quickly. When all was black, Saul felt a heavy pain enter his limbs. It seemed as if his body was tied down and bricks were crushing his chest. Every muscle was stiff and sore. He heard voices as if at a distance, but with each passing second, they became clearer and closer.
“Demons inside him!” exclaimed one. “I’ve seen it happen before. They can get inside a man and tear him apart.”
“Yes, the shaking!” said another. “It must be the evil spirits trying to break his bones.”
“It’s all right,” said a third voice, close and reassuring. “They’re gone. See the froth coming from his mouth? It brings out the demons – he’s himself again.”
Saul opened his eyes to see the soldiers bending over him, looks of fear and revulsion on their faces. He paid no attention to their words.
Struggling to sit up, he cried out, gasping in excitement, “Did you hear it? Did you hear it?”
The soldiers stared at him. “Hear what?” two of them said in unison.
“The voice! It was him! The Teacher of Righteousness! He spoke to me from heaven! And the light! It was shining directly from heaven itself! Did you see the light!”
The soldiers gaped in astonishment but Saul babbled on, oblivious. “I’ve had a wonderful vision. He picked me to bring his message to the people! Me!” He stopped and gazed unseeingly past the soldiers, wonderment dawning on his face. “Someday I’ll sit beside him on the throne of heaven. He said so!” He started to laugh wildly, and the soldiers drew back uneasily. “I’ll be greater than all of them, even greater than James the Just!” Leaping up, Saul began to caper madly, dashing to and fro amongst the camels.
The soldiers looked at one another and shook their heads, a mixture of fear and pity in their eyes.
Before the communal meal, James went to the prayer room to give thanks and to worship. This would be the last meal with his Essene brothers and sisters, for tomorrow morning, he and his party would leave the community and return to Jerusalem. In spite of their differences, it had been a good visit, one that strengthened the political and spiritual bonds between the two groups. The Essenes, in their secluded desert compound, didn’t approve of the Nazarenes’ efforts to teach the common masses about the Way, and they doubted the visions of the Teacher that many Nazarenes had experienced. But together, the two communities shared in the hope and preparation for the Messiah, the one who would lead them in the fight to free Israel from Roman oppression.
James sat as if in a trance, his eyes closed, his expression peaceful and still. In repose, his face was a picture of noble forbearance, a quality that tended to arouse feelings of respect and loyalty in his followers, although he didn’t realize the effect himself. Finally, he stirred and rose gracefully to his feet, adjusting his long cloak and brushing the dirt from its folds. As he left the prayer room, he noticed Simeon bar Jonah, the community leader, descending the spiral stairway from the lookout tower.
Although his gray beard and heavily lined face gave away his age, Simeon still had most of the strength and agility of his youth. He was not a large man, but his sharp mind and authoritative manner had long ago earned and held the respect of the Essene community. For a moment, James’ glance went past Simeon to the hidden upper reaches of the tower. He had seen several locked rooms in the tower earlier and he wondered what was stored there. The Essenes had a forge and he knew they manufactured not only tools and implements, but weapons, which they were secretly stockpiling in preparation for the great battle.
Simeon saw him and smiled in greeting, his dark eyes friendly. “Lunch is almost ready, brother James,” he said. “Since it’s your final day here, I’d like it very much if you would share Communion with us.”
James looked at him in surprise. “I’d be honoured, brother Simeon,” he replied. As the two began to walk towards the large communal dining hall, they conversed in friendly tones. James was glad that he and Simeon had been able to put aside their differences for now. The long, heated discussions of the last few days had not led either of them to change their views, but their respect for each other had increased.
Inside the dining room, which was beginning to fill with people, they made their way to a smaller adjacent room. Here, most of the community leaders stood waiting at a long, roughly hewn stone table, upon which rested a large clay jar and a heavy plate filled with portions of dark bread. When Simeon entered the room, the men moved towards the table’s bench and knelt on the hard dirt floor before it.
Simeon directed James to follow their example and when all were kneeling and silent, Simeon led them in prayer. “Oh Lord in heaven, your name is hallowed. As we eat the bread you have given us today, forgive our sins. Deliver us from the yoke of evil which surrounds us. Let the words and deeds of our Teacher of Righteousness sustain us as we await the One you have promised. Guide us in the preparation of your kingdom here on earth, where you will reign forever in glory.”
In silence, the men rose and seated themselves as Simeon, standing at the table’s end, took a piece of bread and held it before him. “Brothers,” he said. “The bread we eat and the water we drink are symbols of the Lord’s mercy and bounty. As he brought Moses out of Egypt and fed the people with the manna of the desert, so he feeds us, and will send the Messiah to liberate us from oppression.” Simeon raised the bread to his mouth and began to chew slowly and carefully. When he had swallowed the last crumb, he raised the jug of water to his lips and drank. He passed the plate of bread to the man next to him, who took a piece and handed the plate down the row. As each man took bread and began to eat, Simeon passed the jug of water along to be shared by all.
When they finished the sacred meal, Simeon offered a final blessing, and they rose to join the others for lunch.
Afterwards, Simeon escorted James and his companions on a tour of the grounds. “We’ve been so busy talking and praying together in the last few days, we’ve hardly had time to show you how we live,” said Simeon apologetically. “But you were curious about our water system and I’d be proud to show it to you.”
As he spoke, they began to climb a rugged path that meandered through the cliffs overlooking the compound. The sun was hot, but now and then, a slight breeze whipped up puffs of white dust, coating their tunics and leather sandals. Finally, when they were some distance from the compound, James detected the welcome sound of rushing water. At the top of a rocky promontory, they stopped to catch their breath and looked down into a narrow rocky ravine.
Cool, clear water from a deep underground wadi bubbled up and flowed over a large rock, worn smooth from the water’s passage. A few feet away, a large clay-lined conduit met and captured the water’s flow. The adjacent rocky hillside had been laboriously hollowed out, leaving a two-foot wide tunnel which directed the water away on a downward slope. On the other side of the promontory, the conduit swept the water down the cliff and across a wide expanse of scrubby semi-desert. Along the way, smaller channels snaked off into several fields, where the dry, marly soil had been reclaimed and enriched. All manner of foodstuffs were grown here, enough to feed the entire community of some two hundred people, including their livestock. James scanned the fields and noticed many brothers and sisters hard at work weeding and harvesting. His eyes followed the path of the main conduit until it reached the compound, where, Simeon explained, the water emptied into several cisterns, a large one near the kitchen, and several smaller ones scattered throughout the buildings, used for bathing and purification rituals. Every precious drop was carefully conserved, for the water slowed to a trickle during the dryer months.
“The water channels have been here since the time of the Teacher himself,” said Simeon. “They say he designed them and helped build them with his own hands.” Simeon paused and the group was silent for a moment in somber reflection. James recalled the community’s early history. The terrible fate of the Teacher had not quelled the faith of the Essenes. For several decades after his death, they had carried on doggedly until the King Herod invaded and destroyed them. Forty years ago, after Herod died, a new community had returned to begin afresh.
“Most of the buildings were destroyed by fire in Herod’s vicious attack and had to be rebuilt,” Simeon continued. “But the water system, with God’s grace, needed only minor repairs.”
James gazed admiringly at the handiwork. “Everything you need has been provided for, even in this desolate place. Praise the Lord for his bounty.”
Simeon turned and gazed off into the distance, shading his eyes with his hand. “Someone is coming,” he announced quietly.
“That’s strange,” commented James, “You said you rarely get visitors.” He peered in the direction that Simeon indicated, and noticed a small cloud of dust on the edge of the horizon.
“Maybe it’s a new recruit, hoping to join the community. Or it could be a messenger with news.” Simeon began to walk quickly back to the compound, and James and the others followed.
When they arrived, Simeon instructed one of the brothers to climb the watchtower for a better look. If there was any danger, he would blow a horn to alert the community.
Only a few moments passed before the horn sounded. Simeon cast a concerned glance at his visitors before rushing to the foot of the tower. The lookout was descending the staircase in leaps and bounds.
“Armed soldiers!” he cried in alarm. “Five of them, wearing the uniform of the high priest’s armed guard.”
Simeon barked out orders to men nearby, and James watched helplessly as some of the brothers rushed up the tower steps. They soon descended carrying knives and spears.
Suddenly, a brother shouted down from the tower, “They’ve stopped! No, wait – four have stopped, but one’s still coming, alone.” There was a pause, and then the brother cried out in a shocked voice, “He just gave the signal of brotherhood!”
A stunned murmur swept through the growing crowd of people, who milled about in confusion. James met Simeon’s eyes, and saw they were filled with alarm. “What?!” cried Simeon in disgust. “A soldier of that Roman puppet Ananas, pretending to be one of us? What kind of trick is this!”
With Simeon leading, the group spilled out the doorways and joined the armed brothers standing guard outside. James motioned to his companions to follow. Fifty yards away, he could see a figure approaching on a camel. Even from that distance, recognition was instant. He could not mistake the slight, arrogant figure for anyone else.
James strode through the crowd and placed his hand on Simeon’s shoulder. “The soldier’s name is Saul,” James said. “He’s dangerous, one of our worst enemies in Jerusalem. He ordered the stoning death of my disciple Stephen.”
Simeon’s eyes widened in horror. “What else do you know about him?”
“He’s a converted Jew, and for a little while, he was a Pharisee. They couldn’t stand his lies and backstabbing and banned him from teaching in the synagogue. So he turned against them and joined Ananas and his armed thugs. But he only pays lip service to the laws of Moses and the temple rituals – he was raised a pagan – his parents were Mithraists.”
“Mithraists!” Simeon spat out. “Those degenerates and frauds – with their virgin-born gods and crucified saviours. Ridiculous!”
As Saul neared the group, he raised his arms as if in triumph. “Friends!” he called out. “Friends and brothers! I’ve come in peace!”
A hush fell over the crowd as they watched his approach. The brothers holding weapons readied themselves for some kind of treachery.
Saul continued to advance with his hands raised and James was taken aback when he saw his face. It was transformed, radiant almost beyond recognition. His eyes had a wild light and an ecstatic smile was spread across his face from ear to ear.
Saul dismounted in a rush, almost falling, and bowed down to the assembly. The crowd murmured in bewilderment. Saul’s hair was dishevelled and his uniform, a well-made, medium-length tunic with colourful braiding and official insignia, was torn and badly soiled. Raising his eyes, Saul spotted James watching him distrustfully.
“James! My brother!” Saul cried out joyously. “I’ve met him! I’ve met your great Teacher of Righteousness! He cured me of my sins! I’m one of you now!”
Stunned, James and Simeon stared aghast. “You’ve met him!” James sputtered. “You’re one of us! What are you talking about, infidel!”
Saul didn’t hear the insult. “I had a strong vision in the desert. I saw the Teacher – he spoke to me! He told me he’s the Promised One! The Messiah!” Saul’s eyes glowed. “His death was necessary – a sacrifice for us all! And now he has become one with God!” He gazed triumphantly at James. “He’s made me his favoured servant, spreading his message of salvation. Let’s all praise him in holy worship!”
The crowd gasped and the armed brothers moved closer. Both Simeon and James were transfixed for a moment in utter shock and horror. “Blasphemy!” Simeon screamed out suddenly. “Seize him!” The brothers rushed forward, grabbed Saul, and roughly hauled him inside amid his shouted protests.
James followed and watched in consternation as Saul was thrown into a small room near the tower steps. There was a sturdy bolt on the outside of the door, which one of the brothers securely fastened.
Shaken, Simeon turned to James. “This heathen and liar, how dare he? The Teacher is the Messiah? To be worshipped as one with God? It’s sacrilege!”
“I’ve never seen him behave like this before,” said James. “Maybe he went crazy in the desert.”
Simeon shook his head, doubt and disgust on his face. “If he’s crazy, then maybe a little solitary confinement will bring him to his senses.” He turned to the brothers who stood awaiting his orders. “Leave two guards at the door. He’ll stay the night, and we’ll decide what to do with him in the morning.” Motioning to several of the armed brothers, he said, “Go and tell his soldiers that he’s ill and we’ll release him in the morning.” As the brothers turned to carry out his bidding, he added, “And make sure they don’t come within a hundred yards of the compound. They’ll sleep in the desert tonight.”
Saul rubbed his arm where it had scraped the floor during his ignominious arrival. It was bleeding a little, but he could feel no pain. In spite of his ill reception, feelings of ecstasy and wonder flooded his whole being. His desert vision still overwhelmed and captured his senses.
What they said didn’t matter. The power of truth was in his hands. He must preach – he must tell others about his vision and all that it meant. No more useless waiting for the Messiah. The Promised One had come and gone and no-one had recognized him! The Kingdom of God was beginning and it was up to him to convince people of its reality.
Lost in rapturous reverie, Saul slipped slowly into a dream state, and then eventually, into a fitful sleep.
Hours later, muffled cries and a loud thud outside the door awakened him. His senses were instantly alert. He heard the sound of the bolt being drawn back, and then the door was open. His soldiers gazed in at him; one held a bloody knife. “Hurry,” said one. “Before someone comes.”
They slipped out into the silent desert night and rode swiftly to Jerusalem.