Chapel of the Beatitudes, Galilee, Israel
Photography by Ana Vargas
During August 4-17, I set sail with 30 Logos students on a Mediterranean cruise, “At Sea with St. Paul.”
It was a FABULOUS tour aboard Oceania’s beautiful 5-star Riviera, visiting Athens, Crete, Israel, Cypress, Rhodes, Ephesus and Istanbul. Educational. Spiritual. FUN. All with world-class cuisine and delightful companions!
For most, our three days in Israel were the highlight. It was my 53rd visit to Israel, and I never tire of going, walking in the “footsteps of Jesus.” I especially love Galilee and our visit to the Mount of Beatitudes.
I had the opportunity—once again—to teach the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-16) on location.
Check out the video!
Michelangelo Buonarroti, God in “Creation of the Stars and Planets,” fresco,
Sistine Chapel, Vatican, 1511.
For many readers the book of Joshua presents a challenge. From our childhood through this Sunday’s homily, we are accustomed to hearing that “God is love,” so it is jarring when we read in Joshua: “When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall [of Jericho] collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys . . .. Then they burned the whole city and everything in it . . .” (Joshua 6:20-24). And so the pattern continues throughout the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land, with God encouraging—indeed, commanding—slaughter.
I must say that many people are profoundly disturbed by this, and many ask: “How do we square the God we meet in Joshua with our understanding of ‘God is love’ in the New Testament?”
When we first meet God in Genesis 1: 1 he is called Elohim in Hebrew, a plural noun of majesty. In Genesis, God forms man out of “the dust of the earth,” and he interacts with him, walking with him in the “cool of the garden.” Genesis 1 & 2 portray the relationship between God and man as intimate and tender. Once sin enters the world in Genesis 3, however, God seems to distance himself from such intimate contact with humanity, preferring to stand afar and send messengers (i.e., angels: Hebrew, melech; Greek, angelus) as go-betweens. Later, as the plan of salvation unfolds, God takes on a seemingly different character as he commands the Israelites in Joshua to “totally destroy” the people who inhabit the Promised Land, and he is quick to punish with instant death any disobedience on the part of the Israelites if they fail to carry out his orders.
As our story progresses, God brings a fearful judgment on Judah for its disobedience by using Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as his instrument of punishment. In a fearful siege, the Babylonians raze Jerusalem, kill thousands of people and carry the survivors into captivity. Jeremiah, who witnesses the siege from within the walls of Jerusalem, cries out: “Look, O Lord, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? . . . You have slain them in the day of your anger” (Lamentations 2:20, 21).
As we study through the entire Bible verse-by-verse, we do not enjoy the option of reading only those stories we like or only those that make us feel good. Nor can we indulge in oversimplification and say that we have a “God of wrath” in the Old Testament, but a “God of love” in the New. Such thinking is not only sentimental, but it is incorrect. God tells us plainly in Malachi 3: 6, toward the end of the Old Testament: “I the Lord do not change.” According to God himself, we meet the same God in Joshua and the Babylonian Captivity as we meet at the foot of the cross and the empty tomb.
So, what are we to make of this God who seems at once loving and angry, patient and petulant, tender and wrathful?
As we read through the linear narrative of Scripture, we find twenty-one separate comparisons describing God, each one indicating some aspect of his character. Here’s the list: God is—
1. “A consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24)
2. “God” (Deuteronomy 7:9)
3. “Gracious and compassionate” (2 Chronicles 30:9)
4. “Mighty” (Job 36:5)
5. “Exalted in power” (Job 36:22)
6. “A righteous judge” (Psalm 7:11)
7. “My Rock” (Psalm 18:2)
8. “King of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7)
9. “Our refuge” (Psalm 62:8)
10. “The strength of my heart” (Psalm 73:24)
11. “A sun and a shield” (Psalm 84:11)
12. “Greatly feared; he is awesome” (Psalm 89:7)
13. “Holy” (Psalm 94:9)
14. “My salvation” (Isaiah 12:2)
15. “Righteous” (Daniel 9:14)
16. “Truthful” (John 3:33)
17. “Faithful” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
18. “Just” (2 Thessalonians 1:6)
19. “Living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12)
20. “Light” (1 John 1:5)
21. “Love” (1 John 4:8, 4:16)
To view God solely as “love”—his final attribute in Scripture—is to diminish radically the infinite nature of who he is. It is to turn God into a caricature of our own fancy or wishful thinking.
All people are complex creatures, and entering into an intimate relationship with another person reveals his or her complexities. So it is with God. As we come to know God in Scripture, we begin to understand the complex nature of a just, holy and righteous God who sees us clearly in all of our grotesque sinfulness, yet who sacrifices his Son that we may live. Such a God is far more than “love,” even in the highest sense of the term: he is a God of infinite holiness, of profound justice and of fathomless depths.
A very good UCLA colleague of years past, Dr. Jack Miles, published a brilliant book titled, God, a Biography (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995), in which he writes “about the life of the Lord God as—and only as—the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.” Jack does not attempt to analyze God as an object of religious belief, nor does he attempt to view God as an extra-literary reality. His perspective is purely that of a literary critic. Yet, his insights into the nature and character of God are dazzling.
In 1996 Jack’s book won a Pulitzer Prize and it has since been translated into fifteen languages. It is well worth reading for any Bible student seriously grappling with the character of God.
Biagio d’Antonio, “The Story of Joseph” (c. 1472), tempera on wood.
The Friedsam Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
I’ve been studying and teaching the Bible for over thirty years, both on the UCLA faculty and with Logos Bible Study. I’ve taught through the Bible, verse-by-verse, dozens of times. And every time I do, I find something new. That’s the joy of great literature in general and of the Bible in particular.
Recently, one of our Logos students asked a question about Genesis 37, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt. I had just taught this story in class. Here are the verses in question:
Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.
When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”
Genesis 37: 26-29
The quote is from the NIV translation, which indicates his “brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him.” And this is how I’ve always taught the story.
But a quick look at the Hebrew calls this reading into question. In 37: 26 Judah suggests to his brothers that they spare Joseph’s life and sell him to the Ishmaelites, but then we read in 37: 28–
Then there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty [pieces] of silver; and they brought Joseph into Egypt.
Notice that the Hebrew is far more ambiguous than most translations suggest. Since “they” is grammatically a masculine plural in the Hebrew, it can point to either Joseph’s brothers or to the Midianites.
I had always thought that the Ishmaelites and the Midianites were interchangeable, the result of two textual traditions merging in the text or to both groups being closely related as sons of Abraham (Genesis 25: 2). If that is the case, then the brothers sell Joseph into slavery to the Ishmaelites/Midianites, Reuben not being present when they do, and surprised when he finds out what his brothers had done.
But if the Ishmaelites and the Midianites are two different groups of people, the Midianites discover Joseph in the cistern and sell him to the Ishmaelites, who then take him to Egypt and sell him to Potiphar. If this is the case, then the brothers know nothing about it until Reuben discovers that Joseph is missing.
The Hebrew grammar allows for either reading.
If we accept the latter reading, then the implications ripple throughout the rest of the story, manifesting themselves in how we understand the brothers’ guilt regarding Joseph’s disappearance, why they cover it up as they do, Joseph’s reaction to his brothers when he first meets them, the brothers’ reaction when they recognize Joseph, and Joseph’s struggle to forgive his brothers in the end.
In the traditional first reading, the brothers’ motives are malignant; in the second reading we witness a prank gone awry.
Such ambiguity abounds throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, greatly enriching the text and opening a variety of interpretative possibilities. This is a signature of world-class literature, and it is one feature that makes the Bible so intriguing and such a joy to read.
To the east, massive black storm clouds mounted toward the sky like billowing smoke from an enormous fire. Eli felt the wind in his face, hot and scorching, as he watched the storm rise like a leviathan, obliterating the eastern mountains and shoreline. The sails snapped in the wind as the storm raced across the water. On its front edge, Eli could see a fierce, driving rain and swirling brown dust bearing down quickly.
“All hands to stations!” Julius, the ship’s captain, shouted. “Strike the sails!” As he spoke, Claudius belted himself tightly to the foredeck, bracing himself for what was about to happen.
Eli and the oarsmen rushed below deck, stationed themselves in their seats and locked in their oars. Antonius took his position and barked orders, turning the ship into the oncoming storm. No cadence songs now, Antonius beat time in order to be heard above the increasing volume of the wind, which now howled through the rigging. As the bow of the Polix ploughed into the growing waves, their impact thundered below deck as the waves crashed against the hull. Eli rowed for all he was worth, coordinating his efforts with his companions, to the beat of Antonius.
Above deck, the storm bore down hard upon the Polix, blasting her with enormous waves and howling wind. No longer blowing solely from the east, the wind swirled and battered the ship from all directions. The seas became confused, waves crashing over the Polix’s bow, and then slamming her from port and starboard.
Below deck, Antonius frantically struggled to keep the ship from being hit broadside by the enormous waves.
Less than fifteen minutes had passed since Eli had emerged topside, and the Polix was in serious trouble. The storm raged, the wind howled, and the ship lurched from side to side, up and down, as the sea hammered her. Below, in the stalls, the horses stamped and kicked frantically to free themselves from their restraints. Eli and the oarsmen rowed with all their might, struggling vainly to keep the ship headed into the wind, which kept shifting. The rain poured, beating the deck above, and the wind howled, deafening Eli and the oarsmen.
Suddenly, as Eli put his back mightily into his stroke, the Polix lurched to starboard and a sickening crunch ground from bow to stern. As Eli spun to his right to see what had happened, a gaping, thirty-foot hole opened on the port side of the ship as a razor-sharp reef tore through the hull, ripping eight oarsmen from their seats in a mass of splintered wood, blood and water. Men screamed as water poured through the gapping hole, struggling desperately to free themselves from the wreckage and climb above deck.
The ship quickly began listing starboard, and the tear that had been above the water line dropped below it. Water poured in even faster. Eli was frantic. Think! he demanded of himself. He was above water, but the Polix was sinking fast. Eli could hear the horses kicking and neighing, trapped as the water rose. On the starboard side of the ship, men vanished, either carried off by the fast-flowing water down into the stable area, or they were trying to climb the one ladder that led topside, blocking the exit as fifty men desperately clawed at each other, scrambling for light and air.
Suddenly another huge crash opened the starboard tear another twenty feet as splintered wood flew through the air and an enormous amount of water flooded into the hold. The Polix was caught, held tight by the razor-sharp reef that had impaled her, and the pounding waves were ripping at her, tearing her apart.
Eli had no time to lose. To stay put meant death; so did rushing topside by way of the ladder. Quickly, Eli reached beneath his seat and grabbed his manuscript jar, slinging it over one shoulder, hoping it may act as a float. As the water poured in through the gigantic tear, Eli took a deep breath and dove with all his might toward the gaping wound in the side of the ship, pulling at anything he could grasp to speed his movement forward. His left side took a sudden painful blow that nearly knocked the wind out of him, and then another blow struck him on the side of the head. A dark curtain seemed to drop in front of his eyes, and he felt like he was spinning downward into darkness. He desperately clawed at anything he could touch. Again, a savage blow struck him in the chest, shooting pain like a bolt of lightning through his heart and into his back and shoulders. Still, he struggled, pulling and clawing. As he kicked frantically and pulled with his hands, sharp wood tore his back and legs as he shot upward, breaking the surface of the water, gasping for breath, his lungs burning, pain stabbing his chest.
Around him the wind howled and the waves thrashed. Only thirty feet away the Polix floundered on its starboard side, impaled on the reef, the top deck all but submerged, as the waves pulled it back and forth like a dog tugging at a rope. As the wind shrieked and the waves broke over her, a sudden, horrible cracking echoed above the roar of the storm, and the Polix broke free of the reef, disemboweling herself as she did. Within moments she sank completely beneath the waves.
Eli looked quickly in all directions, swinging his head to the left and the right. He saw no one. Then, suddenly, as a wave rose toward him, he saw a man floating on the crest, clinging to a piece of flotsam. He saw Eli, too, and he weakly waved. Eli couldn’t swim, but his jar seemed to float somewhat, so he reached for the leather strap and slipped his arm through it, pulling the jar to his chest and embracing it. His side, chest and head hurt terribly, but with great effort he paddled toward the man he saw, who had now disappeared in the trough of the wave.
Eli looked desperately, and then he caught sight of him again. He paddled harder, and his chest screamed in pain. As Eli crested the next wave he plunged down into the trough, and there he saw the man. It was Maximus, his blond hair matted to his head and his pale blue eyes glazed as he clung to a plank of the Polix. He raised his hand weakly, and Eli reached out to him, grasped his hand, and pulled himself next to him.
“Are you alright, Maximus?” Eli shouted above the noise of the storm.
Maximus only gazed at Eli with glazed eyes.
“Maximus,” shouted Eli, “Hold on to your plank and on to me. We’ll be all right. We’ll get through this.”
As he pulled Maximus closer, reaching around his neck to draw him near, Eli felt the warm, slippery fluid that could only be blood. He quickly removed his hand and it was crimson.
“Oh, Maximus!” Eli cried.
As he grasped Maximus more tightly, Eli maneuvered himself to his rear and saw that the back of Maximus’ head had been smashed. Blood, bone and brain matter oozed from his skull and a clear fluid drained from his ears.
“Oh, Maximus! Just hold on to me. I’ll stay with you. I won’t let anything happen to you. Just hold on to me!” Eli pleaded.
Maximus weakly moved his hand to hold Eli’s, and his lips parted in a faint smile. The wind continued to howl, and the waves continued to thrash about from all directions as Eli tightened his grip on Maximus’ hand, assuring him that Eli was still there. As he did, the plank slipped from under Maximus’ arm and he sank beneath the water.
Eli cried out, “No, Maximus, no!
Eli desperately held on to Maximus’s hand, but his weight pulled Eli beneath the water. As Eli sank, suddenly Maximus slipped free, and Eli began to rise ever so slowly. When he reached the surface, Eli gasped for air, and a sharp pain knifed through his chest.
He clung more tightly to his jar, and he began to weep. His jar. The manuscripts. Isaiah, Daniel and the Community Rule. The memories. The community. Ezra ben Seraiah. Zechariah ben Levi. Bilhan ben Jediael. His father. His mother, with her raven hair.
As the wind howled and shrieked, Eli slipped lower in the water, his jar not enough buoyancy to keep him afloat. He tried to kick, to tread water, but each movement hurt terribly, like his heart had been cut in two.
Eli closed his eyes and tried to pray, but the words wouldn’t come. His lower lip trembled. As he struggled to keep his face above water, each breath a stab in his heart, a wave crashed over him, driving him beneath the surface. He felt the water enter his lungs, like one long inhalation. Oddly, it didn’t hurt. As he sank deeper he felt pressure on his ears, a sharp pain, and then the warm water filled his inner ears. As he looked into the distance beneath the water, he felt puzzled. And then blackness veiled his eyes and he simply slipped away.
By morning the storm had passed, and the sea once again sparkled in the early morning sunlight, sapphire blue and crystal clear. Not a trace of the Polix was left.
And Eli was gone.
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Like the ship, the man was enormous. Deeply tanned with large creases in his smooth, clean-shaven face, his head was capped with close-cropped yellow hair, and his pale blue eyes looked Eli up and down. He was Roman through and through, and he startled Eli, causing a shiver of fear to run down his spine.
“I’m, I’m looking for a man named Maximus,” replied Eli, his voice a higher pitch than he would like. “I understand he’s hiring oarsmen. Jacob sent me, the man from the city who sold him ropes.”
“I’m Maximus,” replied the huge, blond man. “And yes, I am hiring oarsmen.”
With that, Maximus placed a large hand on Eli’s shoulder and said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, son. I don’t bite.”
Eli tensed, flushed with fear at the touch of this huge Roman. Every experience had warned him to steer clear of such men. They were trouble. He fought an overwhelming urge to run as fast as his legs would carry him.
But the man simply smiled at him and said, “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? A bit on the old side, though. She used to be quite the warship. We’ve been out of service here for the past six months while I converted her to a horse-transport. She’ll carry thirty horses. In her prime 170 men pulled her oars, 31 to a side in the uppermost level and 27 in the other two. That’s why she was called a trireme, for her three levels. To make a horse transport I removed the two lower levels of oarsmen’s seats and converted the space into stalls. Now we’ll sail with 62 oarsmen at a third the speed, but we’re under sail most of the time anyhow. Besides, we’re just carrying horses. Her battle days are over, and so are her days of ferrying troops around the Empire. Can’t say I’m sorry. I’ve spent my whole career aboard her, and I’m happy to have a quieter life now. No more wars for me, just smooth seas, calm sailing—and shipping horses.”
As Maximus talked, Eli relaxed somewhat. He had never actually listened to a Roman before. He was afraid of them. But this man seemed to have a genuine affection for his ship, and he seemed to enjoy telling Eli about her.
“Would you like to see inside her, son?” Maximus asked.
“Yes, sir,” replied Eli, “I would.”
As they ascended the gangway to the upper deck, Eli’s eyes took in all the details of this fascinating ship. What distinguished the trireme from a penteconter was her outrigger, which curved gracefully outward and ran from bow to stern on the port and starboard sides, allowing a third line of rowers above the bottom two. In the penteconter, the first row of oarsmen, or thalamites, sat on benches in the hold a mere eighteen inches above the waterline, with the space between the oar and the rim of the port sealed by a leather bag to keep water from coming in. The second row of oarsmen, the zigites, sat above the thalamites—giving rise to the crack in Aristophenes’ comedy The Frogs about the oarsmen’s habit of “breaking wind in the face of the thalamite.” In the trireme the outrigger permitted a hull that accommodated three lines of oarsmen without rising significantly higher above the waterline than the penteconter, since the third row, the thranites, sat outboard of the zygites and only slightly higher, more alongside than above, with their oars pivoting on the outrigger. On a trireme, the hull from the waterline up to the thranites measured only four feet, and its draft was a little over three and a half. It was a brilliant and very efficient design.
As Maximus and Eli walked the katastroma, the top deck that stretched from bow to stern and gunwale to gunwale, Maximus pointed out the rigging for the main sail, or “big sail,” and the smaller foresail, or “boat sail.” Both were square. The deck felt immensely solid beneath Eli’s feet. Not only did deckhands handle lines here and marines man their stations in combat, but the solid deck also offered the oarsmen below protection from missiles raining down upon them when the ship was under attack.
Dropping below deck a scant three feet, Eli saw the 62 seats for the thranites, 31 on either side of the ship. “This is where you’ll be working, son,” said Maximus.
The seats were narrow, and each one had a 14-foot oar placed neatly along side of it. The oars looked new, and Eli noticed a number of spares stacked neatly and secured near the stern. The space beneath deck was cramped, but not terribly so.
“If you look down here, son, you’ll see my handiwork: fifteen stalls to port and starboard for the horses, which replace the two lines of oarsmen. I must say, it looks rather good, doesn’t it?” beamed Maximus, as he looked down into the hold. “And feel the hull over here, son. She’s made of planks fastened together by mortise-and-tenon joints. You can’t see them, but holes a handbreadth wide, are cut into the edges of the planking at handbreadth intervals, and they penetrate halfway into the planks. Then wedges are fitted into the holes and secured with a dowel. A second plank fits on top of the first; it’s hammered into place; and then it’s secured with a second row of dowels. That’s mortise-and-tenon jointing. Those planks are fitted so securely they need no caulking to keep the water out. Once the ship is lowered into the water, the wood swells and the seams are sealed permanently. The hull is built as a shell, and then the frame that you see here, the skeleton of the ship, is inserted to stiffen it.”
As Eli was looking at the ship and following Maximus intently, he noticed slackened cables running from bow to stern down the centerline overhead.
Maximus followed Eli’s gaze and said, “The Polix was built for speed, son, so the hull uses rather thin planking to reduce her weight. If you look toward the bow and stern, notice how she hogs, or droops at the ends. Out of the water her weight does that. Those cables are called hypozomata, and before we sail we’ll tighten them up, straightening her out.
The massive ship fascinated Eli. The only ships he had ever seen were fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee, and those were simple affairs, less than thirty feet long and seven feet wide, with a simple square sail and a rudder. The Polix was magnificent, old as she was and converted for carrying horses. And isn’t it curious, thought Eli, how this Roman talks about his ship with the same fondness and knowledge as Ezra ben Seraiah talked about his manuscripts.
“It must have been something to see her as a warship,” said Eli.
“It sure was,” replied Maximus. “She was one of the best in the fleet. Under sail she cruised like a dream, swift and sure. In battle we dropped the sails, stowed the rigging and switched to oars. All 170 oarsmen pulled to the beat of the keleustes, the time beater who trained the oarsmen and called maneuvers. Under full power, she could sprint at over ten knots, and she could maintain five knots over distance. To watch her in battle was a thing of beauty, son. I’ve seen her in a line of one hundred ships, facing down an enemy with just as many. In her younger days she was as quick and nimble as a young maid dancing.”
“How many ships did she sink?” asked Eli, his curiosity thoroughly piqued.
“Oh, she never sank any, son,” replied Maximus. “Look up there in the bow. You see that glint of bronze? That’s her ram. It’s nearly six feet long, three feet wide and cast of one piece. It’s a fearsome thing. She could certainly put another ship on the bottom if she wanted. But sea battle’s subtler than that. We’d dance and feint with the enemy, maneuvering to get up along side. We’d aim the ram at the enemy’s hull, move in fast, and then at the last second, quick as a thought, we’d dart along side, throw our grappling hooks and board her. We’d let the marines do the fighting. The last thing we wanted to do was sink an enemy ship. A trireme’s an expensive vessel, son. We’d capture the crew, ransom them or sell them as slaves, and keep the ship. A captain’s success is measured by how many enemy ships he’s captured, not by how many he’s sunk.”
As Maximus and Eli disembarked from the Polix, Maximus said, “I’d be happy to have you aboard, son. Rowing on this trip is a simple matter. Most of the time we’ll be under sail. We’ll just need our oarsmen to get in and out of port and to maneuver if the weather turns foul. We’re bound for Egypt, down the east coast of the Sinai, around the tip, and halfway up the western gulf. Once we deliver our horses, we’ll head back here. Your pay will be one denarius each day we’re at sea, and you’ll get a daily maintenance allowance for food. We put into shore before sunset each day, and you can buy what you need in the local villages. It should be a nice journey, I think.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Eli. “When should I come back to sail?”
“We should be ready in two more days. If you’d like to help load gear and supplies for the horses, I’ll pay you an extra denarius.”
“Sure,” said Eli. He really had nothing else to do, and besides, he wanted to learn more about this ship, the Polix.
Over the next two days Eli helped load the hanging gear: the big sail, the boat sail, and the lines for these—the halyard, two braces, two sheets, two lifts, eighteen loops of brails and eight sets of heavy ropes, along with spare hypozomata, the strong cables that ran from bow to stern, which when twisted, “tightened up” the ship. Next came the wooden gear: additional spare oars, two oversized oars for steering the ship, two landing ladders, and several boat poles. Finally, he helped haul two large anchors aboard. When that was finished, he hauled large quantities of water in 30-gallon amphorae, feed for the horses—and shovels.
Maximus allowed Eli to sleep on the solid wooden deck while the Polix was being prepared for sea, and he took his meals with Mariam and her father, paying them with the denarius he received for loading the ship. During the two days, other hands arrived at the shed, young men from Aila who had hired on as oarsmen. Maximus put them all to work. Eli learned very quickly that preparing a ship for sailing and keeping her afloat while at sea was a big job with countless details. Each hour more people arrived, and each hour there was more work to do.
On the morning of the third day, Eli awoke at dawn. As he opened his eyes and looked to the east, the rising sun painted pink and purple streaks through a light haze shrouding the distant mountains of Moab. The sea before him lay smooth as glass. A lone bird welcomed the first rays of dawn with a clear, crisp song, and the pleasantly warm air smelled slightly of salt. Eli stood up and stretched. He had come a long way from the town community in Jerusalem, from the horror of chaos, blood and death. Now, here he was, about to go to sea on this bright, beautiful morning. He never imagined he would have such an adventure. He was genuinely excited.
Eli clambered down to the floor of the shed and retrieved his jar with the three manuscripts inside. Maximus had asked him about the jar, and Eli had told him what it contained. He had also told Maximus that he would make his way to the community at Sinai once the horses were delivered. Maximus simply shook his head and frowned. He was a good man, but he would never understand these local people, these Jews. “Be sure you seal your jar with asphalt from the Dead Sea,” said Maximus. “You’ll want to keep the moisture out. There’s a quantity of it at the rear of the shed.” Eli had heeded Maximus’ advice and smeared the sticky substance around the lid of his jar, making it water tight. He then took it aboard and stowed it beneath the seat he would occupy as he rowed.
As the sun climbed in the sky, men began arriving in numbers, and soon all hands were accounted for: 62 oarsmen, twelve seamen to handle the sails and attend to other topside duties, and four officers, for a crew of 78. When the men were assembled, Maximus introduced the three officers standing with him: Julius, the kybernetes, who captained the ship; Antonius, the keleustes, or chief rowing officer, who would manage the oarsmen; and Claudius, the prorates, or bow officer, who would be stationed on the foredeck keeping a sharp lookout while the ship was under sail or oar. Julius, Antonius and Claudius had spent the past days in Aila finalizing business arrangements with the military for transporting the horses.
Julius, an older man with penetrating blue eyes and leathered skin, addressed the crew. “Men, we have a short run to make. As you know, this ship has been converted from a troop transport to a cargo ship, a vessel reconfigured for shipping horses. Maximus has done a fine job overseeing the construction and preparing the Polix for sea. I view this voyage as a shake down cruise for our reconfigured ship. It’s a short voyage, and it should be an easy one. Some of you oarsmen have not been to sea before—and he looked at Eli—but it should be a simple voyage and you’ll learn your duties quickly. I run a tight, disciplined ship, but I’m a fair man. You do your work, stay out of trouble, be attentive, and we’ll all get along just fine. Let me introduce you to Antonius. He’ll be in charge of most of you.”
With that, Antonius, the chief rowing officer, stepped forward. He was a middle-aged man, perhaps 35 years old, with close-cropped, dark hair, golden skin, and a muscular build. He spoke in a clear, even, though slightly accented voice. “Men,” he said, “I’ll be responsible for the training and performance of you oarsmen. How many of you have never rowed before?”
Eli raised his hand, as did four others.
“Well,” said Antonius with a rather sharp edge to his voice, “it’s hard work, but you’ll learn fast. I expect you to follow my orders instantly, and I expect you to put full effort into your work. Don’t think because sixty-one others are pulling that you can hide behind them. You can’t. I’ll spot you. And you’ll wish I hadn’t. That’s all.”
And with that, Antonius stepped back. Claudius, the fourth officer, simply nodded to the crew and remained silent. Maximus once again took charge and divided the men into work parties, assigning tasks to be completed before hauling the Polix from its shed to the beach. Two parties moved below deck to tighten the hypozomata, the cables that tightened up the ship, an important and dangerous job. Eli served on the second party, and Maximus supervised the task. Threading a large iron rod once through the cables, each party took hold of one end of the rod and began to twist, much as a tourniquet is tightened to its proper tension. At first the twisting was easy, but after several turns both parties strained at the rod, pushing and pulling together, while the whole ship groaned under the enormous tension. Maxcillius watched closely as the bow and stern gradually leveled and the ship no longer hogged.
“Careful, men,” barked Maximus. “Don’t let the tension off, and for God’s sake don’t lose hold of that bar! She’s almost there. Two more twists. One more. There. Lock her in place.”
And with that, the two work parties quickly—though very carefully—locked the iron bar snugly into a large S-shaped iron latch bolted to the underside of the deck.
Once the ship had been tightened, the entire crew worked together, pulling mightily, to haul the Polix over rollers from her shed onto the beach. From the beach the horses were loaded, and then the men hauled the Polix into the water and scrambled aboard. Quickly, the oarsmen dropped below deck and took their positions at the oars. Antonius barked commands and Eli did his best to obey quickly, watching the experienced oarsmen out of the corner of his eye. Outside, others pushed the ship, while inside the 62 oarsmen pulled with all their might against their oars. Slowly, the great ship began to move. As the pushing and pulling continued, Eli felt the Polix rock ever so slightly from side to side as she lifted off the sand and began to float. Antonius continued barking orders, all business.
The Polix floated freely now, and slowly Antonius’ orders diminished and were replaced by song. “I love rowing both night and day!” he sang in a booming voice, and the oarsmen repeated even louder, “I love rowing both night and day!” “This is how I earn my pay!” bellowed Antonius, and the oarsmen echoed back the phrase, only louder. Most keleustes beat time, but Antonius’ songs roused the oarsmen, invigorated them, and caused them to pull harder—
Mama and Papa were lying in bed,
Mama and Papa were lying in bed,
Mama rolled over and this is what she said:
Mama rolled over and this is what she said:
Eli smiled at the antiphonal song, as it grew louder and bawdier, and the Polix began picking up speed with all sixty-two oarsmen rowing as one to the cadence of Antonius. Eli braced his feet, pulled his oar, and bellowed at the top of his lungs with his fellow oarsmen. A sweet release seemed to free his soul that had lain in mourning for so long. The creaking of the boat, the mingled smell of the water, wood, canvas and rope, and the sensation of moving away from Jerusalem and the horrible events of the past caused his spirits to soar as his voice joined in the bawdy lyrics. Inside himself he chuckled, thinking, What would Ezra ben Seraiah say of this! And in his mind’s eye he could see his beloved friend and father look with wide-eyed surprise, and then throw back his head in a great guffaw.
As Maximus had said, the oarsmen were only needed to move in and out of port and to maneuver through tight spots. Most of the day Eli remained topside, helping with routine tasks as the ship moved slowly, gracefully under sail. Each evening the Polix made for shore and spent the night beached, while the crew purchased meals in the local village. Maxcillius wisely paid each crewmember a single denarius daily, ensuring that he wouldn’t spend his entire pay on women and drink and not return to the ship. As the days passed, Eli settled into the routine of the Polix. He enjoyed the physical exertion at the oar, and he loved the smell of the sea and the way the sun danced across the water. On his third day at sea, a school of dolphin dazzled Eli as they dashed along side the Polix, cutting back and forth across her wake. And for the first time, Eli stared deeply into the liquid-crystal sea and saw a gorgeous reef fifty feet beneath the surface teaming with parrot fish, turtles, sea wrasse, and groupers swimming leisurely among giant red sea fans, sponges, and enormous clams. As the shadow of the Polix passed over the reef, a school of barracuda darted from the far side of the reef into the open sea, sunlight splashing on their thin, silvery bodies, and Eli stared in awe.
His days at sea opened a new world to Eli, a world of wonder, a clear and clean world populated by strong and simple men, a world where the sun danced across sapphire-blue seas and warm days waned into nights of star-filled skies. Such a world stood in sharp contrast to the world of confusion and chaos he had left behind, a world peopled by dangerous and deceitful men, a world of darkness and shadows. In the scriptorium Eli had found refuge from the world in work and friends, but outside the door danger prowled the streets. All of his life, from his parents’ murder to his escape from Jerusalem, Eli had lived under a black shroud of suffering and strife. Here, aboard the Polix, he emerged from shadow into sunlight, from darkness into life. Eli began seriously to question his plans of joining a community in the Sinai, and he felt both troubled—and free.
As the sun rose against a ruby-red sky, the Polix left its night harbor and put out to sea, Eli and the oarsmen pulling hard as Antonius sang cadence. Once in open water with the sails up, Eli stowed his oar and clambered topside awaiting orders for the morning’s chores. Near the bow he saw Julius, the ship’s captain, and Claudius, the bow officer, in deep conversation, both looking east toward the rising sun.
Antonius emerged from below deck with work details in hand. “Jason, Piscus, Elimelech and Judas, you’ve got stable detail today,” said Antonius is a firm voice.
“Oh, shit!” Piscus groaned.
“You’ve got that right,” said Antonius, with barely a smile. “Now, get moving. I want those stalls so clean you could eat off the deck!”
Eli only smiled at the thought, and he elbowed Piscus, “Well, we’d better get to it.”
As they slipped below deck into the bowels of the ship, Judas grabbed Eli in a friendly headlock and rubbed his head with his knuckles. “Come on, Eli, we’ll work together on the starboard side. Jason and Piscus,” said Judas, looking up, “You fellows work the port side. I’ll bet you supper tonight that Eli and I finish before you do.”
“You’re on,” Piscus shot back, and both teams grabbed shovels and scampered toward the bow to clean the foremost stalls first, working bow to stern.
By mid afternoon Eli and Judas finished their last stall as Jason and Piscus began theirs. Judas hooted, “Victory! You owe us supper tonight!” while Eli said, “We’ll haul these buckets topside for you fellows, and we’ll see you there.” Eli loved everything about this ship, even cleaning the stalls.
When they emerged on deck, Eli stopped dead in his tracks, a look of horror on his face.
NEXT WEEK: Part 7
For ALL of Dr. Creasy’s teaching visit him at:
Eli dried his eyes, composed himself, and moved up into the western crags, back to the reservoir for a cool drink. He would need supplies for his journey. He would need a gift, some scrolls perhaps, to bring to his new brothers.
Eli washed, and then he made his way to the cave a stone’s throw from the southwest side of the compound, approaching it from below and behind, out of sight of the watchtower. Carefully, he slipped into the opening of the cave and quietly dropped six feet to the floor. The brothers had removed the ladder from the cave to protect the manuscripts from the Zealot raiders. Once his eyes adjusted to the dark, Eli looked about him and saw row after row of limestone jars, neatly arranged with their lids securely in place. There were eleven caves like this at Qumran, but this was the closest to the main compound and hence the primary storage area; it was also shielded from view of the watchtower. There were at least 500 manuscripts in this cave alone. Eli sat on the floor and opened the first jar with great reverence, for these were, after all, the work of his slain brothers. As he sorted through manuscripts, he selected three that he wished to take as a gift to his new community. The first was the book of Isaiah, a large scroll copied nearly two centuries earlier in beautiful, square script. Eli chose Isaiah because it was among the oldest scrolls, it was a complete copy of the text, and it spoke of the Lord’s Suffering Servant, a particularly appropriate figure given current events. The second was the book of Daniel. Eli chose Daniel because it spoke of the coming of the Son of Righteousness; it was one of the newer scrolls, although the source scroll dated from the beginnings of the community; and it was enormously popular: there were nine Daniel scrolls in this cave alone. And finally, Eli chose his own copy of the Community Rule that he had written and presented to Zechariah ben Levi on his first visit to the community as a novice, when he had accompanied Bilhan ben Jediael as they delivered scrolls to Qumran from the town community in Jerusalem.
Once Eli had selected his three scrolls he consolidated the remaining scrolls, freeing one stone jar, and he placed his scrolls in the empty jar, tightening its lid in place. In the corner of the cave lay strips of leather that had held several scrolls together for transporting from the scriptorium to storage. Eli measured out the strips and fashioned them into a harness that he could wear over his shoulders, with two loops holding the jar firmly against his back, distributing its weight across his shoulders, making it easy to carry. And much to his delight, Eli found a cache of dried and spiced ibex meat near the leather strips, a snack that one of the brothers must have stashed for munching during his long hours of cataloging and storing manuscripts in the cave. It was now late afternoon and Eli decided to rest until dark, enjoying the cool, dark cave, the smell of leathers, and the beautiful sight of row upon row of jars filled with manuscripts. Who knew how long it would be before he sat in such a wonderful place again?
At sunset Eli pushed the jar with its manuscripts and harness up and out of the mouth of the cave, and then he hoisted himself out. Careful to remain out of sight of the watchtower, Eli slipped on the harness, adjusted it so the jar rested comfortably down the center of his back, and moved southwest, up through the gullies and ravines of the crags. Within three hours he had a panoramic view of the Dead Sea, and Qumran lay far north in the distance, now a quiet monument to a lost past, shining softly in the moonlight. Eli paused for one last look, and then he turned southwest and moved on. For the time being he would head through the crags, moving slowly, keeping out of sight and sleeping in caves. Once he approached the secondary road leading to Hebron he would pick up his pace and move directly south through the Negev.
As Eli walked he felt a growing sense of freedom and ease, as if a huge burden were slowly being lifted from him as he placed distance between himself and Jerusalem. The troubles, the turmoil and the tragedy: they all receded with each step he took. What precious memories he had were bound up and strapped to his back, his scrolls that were so emblematic of his life in community, of his friendships, of his love for learning and writing. Nothing could change the past; nothing could bring back his parents or Ezra ben Seraiah or Zechariah ben Levi or his brothers; nothing could bring back the years of life in community, the smell of fresh, chalked scrolls, the feel of a pen in his hand, and the sight of Bilhan ben Jediael with his lopsided grin at the writing table next to him. But all could be honored in memory; all could be treasured. As Eli walked, he turned such thoughts over in his mind, pondering them in his heart. And the further he walked, the better he felt.
Days passed, and Eli slowly, steadily made progress toward Aila, moving through the hot, dry, and barren Negev, step-by-step, mile-by-mile. Finally, as he crested the hill north of Aila, he caught sight of the port. He had never seen anything like it. The blue of the Red Sea, or Yam Suph as it was called, resembled liquid crystal, glistening a deep sapphire blue as sunlight danced across the surface. As he approached Aila he saw numerous ships, including Roman triremes, those magnificent ships first built by the Corinthians that ruled the seas for over 500 years. Truly huge, some moved in and out of the harbor, while others had been dragged up on shore where they were drying while out of service. Triremes were warships par excellence, and with skilled rowers they could maneuver like dragonflies on the water. It was Greek and Persian triremes that squared off at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., a combined fleet of nearly 1,000 ships, and the trireme was the deciding factor in the Peloponnesian War, that twenty-seven year struggle, from 431 to 404 B.C., between Athens and its allied city-states and Sparta, recounted so vividly by Thucydides and Xenophon.
Eli entered Aila, tired, sore and bone-weary with his jar strapped to his back, but excitement gripped him nonetheless. Unlike Jerusalem, always shrouded in piety, torn by conflict and strife, and burdened with self-importance, Aila sparkled. Its markets elicited cheer as vendors hawked their fish, fruits, nuts and vegetables. Colorful awnings of blue, red and yellow beckoned travelers and seamen to come in and have a look at exotic wares imported from the Orient, Egypt and Africa. Women smiled and men chatted about matters great and small. Sailors from around the world walked to and fro. Here Eli saw his first black man, a handsome figure with a clean-shaven face and bald head, whose teeth sparkled like pearls and whose eyes twinkled. Eli passed a fish vendor seated at an outdoor table engaged in animated conversation with two other men, all of whom were eating fish from the vendor’s grill and drinking large cups of wine.
“I tell you,” the vendor said, “the Romans have sacked Jerusalem and razed the city. Nothing is left.”
“That couldn’t possibly be true,” one of his two companions interrupted. “Jerusalem is the holy city, and besides, why would the Romans do that? Jerusalem is worth far more to them as a place of pilgrimage than it is razed. They profit from the taxes paid by pilgrims, and it’s no mean amount they pocket!”
“Well,” said the third man, “I don’t know about that, but I do know that the priests and the Zealots hate each other, and I think the Romans are sick of them both. As far as I’m concerned, whatever they get, they deserve. Jerusalem may be the holy city, but there are precious few holy people in it. It has been a contentious city from the start. We’re much better off living under Roman law, than under the endless religious squabbling that tears our people apart and sets us at each others’ throats.”
Eli couldn’t help but be transfixed by the conversation, and he listened surreptitiously as he stood examining the fish in the market, his jar still strapped to his back.
The vendor took notice of him and said, “How can I help you, young man? It looks like you’ve come a long way.”
“I overheard your conversation,” replied Eli. “I’ve come from Jerusalem and the Romans have, indeed, razed the city. I was there, and I escaped.”
“Come over here and sit down, son,” said the vendor, and then he said more loudly to his daughter who was tending the grill, “Mariam! Bring this young man some dinner and a cup of wine!”
Eli reclined at the table with the three men, and with furrowed brow and hushed voice the vendor said, “Tell us what happened.”
Mariam brought a plate of grilled fish, bread and wine and sat it before Eli. As he ate, he told his story from beginning to end, starting with the arrival of the Roman legions on the Mount of Olives, through the burning of the city, to his own escape and journey to Aila.
The three men, as well as Mariam, listened, transfixed, and when Eli finished his tale, Mariam’s eyes glistened with tears, the vendor breathed a deep sigh and pulled thoughtfully at his beard, and the others simply stared in silence at their empty plates. It was more than they could comprehend, more than they could grasp, regardless of what each had said earlier. Jerusalem, the city of David, was gone; the temple, the center of Jewish worship for a thousand years, was gone. True, it had happened half a millennium ago when the Babylonians had sacked the city and destroyed Solomon’s temple. Surely, such a loss could not happen again? The magnitude of the disaster stunned them all.
Finally, the vendor said quietly to Eli, “What will you do, young man? Where will you go?”
Eli told them his plans, and the man to his left, an older fellow with a long beard and balding pate, said, “There’s a ship, the Polix, preparing to sail in a few days, and they’re hiring oarsmen. I believe they’re running the route around the Sinai to Egypt. It’s an older ship converted to a transport, but it’s a good ship, sound and sturdy. You’ll find the ship’s recruiting officer and paymaster, down by the shore in the line of five sheds where the ship is being refurbished and outfitted. I’ve talked with him, and I’ve sold him supplies. Several young men from the city have hired on already.”
Surprised, Eli said, “I thought slaves rowed galleys?”
“Oh, heavens no!” replied the old man. “Slaves are far too expensive for such work! If one were killed he would have to be written off as a total loss. And besides, a slave has to be fed and housed every day of the year, every year of their lives, whether they’re working or not. No, no. Hired oarsmen are paid only when they row, and they buy their own supplies out of their maintenance allowance. If a hired man dies, it costs his employer nothing. Why, a ship would go bankrupt with slaves!”
Well, that makes sense, thought Eli. Then he said, “What is this paymaster’s name?
“His name is Maximus. Tell him that I sent you. My name is Jacob, and I’m the one who sold him his new ropes.”
“Thank you very much, sir—I mean, Jacob. I’ll see him right away. And thank you for the meal,” he said to Mariam and her father as he rose from the table and set out toward the shore and the five stone sheds at the water’s edge.
After a short walk, Eli approached the first shed, and he saw an enormous, empty building with eight pulleys anchored to the ceiling through which eight ropes were threaded, each having an enormous hook on the end. On the right side of the building multiple levels of shelves were anchored to the wall to hold equipment and supplies, along with several ladders for reaching the higher shelves. The floor was made of stone, which sloped forward in a slight V-shape so that water could run out the front of the building into a drainage channel that emptied into the sea. When ships came into port for extended stays, rather than simply being dragged onto shore to dry, they would be hauled into a covered shed like this one where they could be repaired, refitted and refurbished. This shed was empty, although it appeared ready to receive a ship soon, for new sails were folded neatly on the middle shelf to Eli’s right.
In the second shed Eli saw the Polix. Measuring 120 feet in length and eighteen feet at the beam, the Polix spanned 105 feet by twelve feet on the waterline, achieving a length to beam ratio of 9 to1, a very efficient vessel. As Eli stood on the floor looking up at it, the Polix loomed above him. As he leaned to his left and looked down the length of the starboard side, the ship seemed to bend downward at the bow and stern, as if out of water it was too heavy to support its own massive weight.
As Eli looked in awe, a deep voice behind him spoke, “What can I do for you, young man?”
Startled, Eli turned and saw a huge man towering over him.
NEXT WEEK: Part 6
For ALL of Dr. Creasy’s teaching visit him at:
Four years earlier, a series of events had transpired that sealed the Community’s fate. The Sicarri, a rabid fringe of the Zealot movement, attacked and captured Masada, the massive fortress atop a huge freestanding rock twenty-eight miles south of Qumran on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Originally fortified by Alexander Jannaeus, the grand-nephew of Judas Maccabeus, Herod had brought to Masada all of his skills as a builder. Strategically located to control the lucrative spice route and naturally defensible, the massive rock boasted near-vertical sides that towered above the desert floor, deep ravines, gaping chasms and only two possible approaches, one from the east up a narrow, treacherous trail called the Snake Path, and the other from the west, an easier climb, but one exposed to the view of sentries from above. Atop the rock sat a gently sloping plateau, which Herod encircled with a high white stone casement wall. Thirty-eight towers reinforced the wall, offering a full panoramic view of the desert below and providing access to apartments constructed around the interior of the wall. Facing north, Herod built a magnificent palace which cascaded down three levels, the top level containing Herod’s private, residential apartments, the middle level including areas for leisure and relaxation, and the lower level boasting a square terrace surrounded by fluted Corinthian columns. A second, larger palace faced west which served as Herod’s official residence and included an audience hall, domestic and administrative offices and accommodations for officials and servants. The plateau itself held rich, fertile soil producing crops that could sustain an entire community indefinitely, while into its sheer rock sides Herod had hewn twelve cisterns, each holding 880,000 gallons of water, caught and channeled down the sloping plateau. Masada was said to be impregnable.
As the Jewish revolt against the Romans raged on, however, the Sicarii devised a brilliant stratagem. Having learned that the Romans were occupied with Jerusalem and had moved their forces north, they made a bold attempt at capturing Masada. Midway through the second watch on a moonless, spring night, a small band of Sicarii, dressed in black and armed only with the double-edged daggers of assassins, scaled the towering, vertical walls of Masada, slipped over the casement walls, and slit the throats of the Roman guards manning the fourth watch. Moving silently, they entered the lightly occupied camp and quickly dispatched the remaining soldiers as they slept. Not a sound was heard. From the moment the attack had begun until Masada was in their hands, less than eight minutes had passed, and by morning an entire Zealot garrison occupied the fortress. In one night the Sicarri had accomplished the impossible.
Having a large, secure base, the Zealots now faced the logistical problem of supplying their stronghold. The Romans had left only a token force at Masada and had taken the bulk of their supplies with them when they had moved their forces north. The Zealots thus faced insufficient supplies to support their own war efforts. Needing a great quantity of supplies quickly, they resorted to an intensive campaign of plunder. They first targeted Ein Gedi, ten miles north of Masada, which had served as King David’s stronghold a thousand years earlier. Now an agricultural town, built and fortified during Herod’s reign, it was a productive food source for the surrounding towns and villages, including the community at Qumran. Led by Menachem ben Judah, the Zealots launched a night attack on Ein Gedi, sweeping into the town and routing its inhabitants. Those who could flee did; those who could not were slaughtered. Nearly seven hundred women and children fell to the sword of the Zealots, who rifled their houses, seized their crops, set fire to their village, and carried off the spoil to Masada. Emboldened by their success, the Zealots targeted other villages around the Dead Sea, pushing their area of operation further north and east on each successive raid.
On 12 February A.D. 68, they hit Qumran. Already feeling the effects of the Zealot’s raids on the surrounding villages, the community braced itself for the attack it knew would come. Not constructed for agriculture, Qumran depended upon neighboring villages for its food and supplies, all of which the Zealot raiding parties had cut off. The number of community members dwindled to less than fifty as fear and the brutal hardships of war ravaged the region. Some of the brothers became militant and joined the struggle against the Romans, becoming Zealots themselves, others moved into the hills to live their lives alone, wholly given over to prayer, penance and fasting, while still others became discouraged and simply wandered away, never to be heard from again. Knowing what was to come, Zechariah ben Levi, now the mebaqqer of the Community, had removed all of the scrolls to eleven caves in the western mountains where they would not be damaged in the attack to come. Finally, only minutes after midnight, a Zealot raiding party of one hundred twenty five men slipped down from the western crags under a dark, cloud-covered and moonless sky. They saw no guard in the watchtower, and the gate to the compound stood open. Suspecting a trap, they approached cautiously. As they passed the Council chamber and moved toward the courtyard, the raiders fanned out to search the buildings.
It was deathly quiet.
Suddenly a cry broke from the area of the Scriptorium, “Over here! Come quickly!” In an instant all one hundred twenty five raiders converged on the Scriptorium, clattering up the stairs and crowding around the entryway, where they found the forty-two remaining members of the community seated at their writing tables. The shelves along the walls were empty: scrolls, jars and writing implements had all been removed. Zechariah ben Levi, now in his late eighties, his hair, beard and robe an unearthly white in the candlelight, stood before the head table.
“We have been expecting you,” Zechariah ben Levi said quietly.
Pushing through the Zealot raiders a small, weasel-faced man with thick features, a scruffy black beard, fat forelocks, filthy robe, and a large sword stepped forward.
“I am Eleazer ben Yair. These are my men. Who are you?” he said in a loud, commanding voice.
“I am Zechariah ben Levi, the Guardian of this community, and these are my brothers. How may we help you?”
Eleazer ben Yair took one step forward and looked up at the tall, thin, ancient man who stood before him. Zechariah ben Levi’s calm, clear brown eyes seemed to look into the very soul of Eleazer ben Yair. It unnerved him.
“We need your food and supplies to continue our fight against the Romans. It is your duty to give them to us,” barked ben Yair.
“You are welcome to take what you need,” replied Zechariah ben Levi softly, “but we have very little. You have plundered and killed our neighbors, and we receive our supplies from them.”
“We have plundered and killed no one,” ben Yair replied angrily. “We are in a war, you know. Those who resist us are our enemies, and those who assist us are our friends. The distinction is not difficult to make. We kill our enemies, and we liberate our friends. Which are you?”
“As I said, you may have what you need, but we have very little,” Zechariah ben Levi replied.
Eleazar ben Yair felt the rage boiling up within him, about to erupt. This man—this stupid, foolish old man—was mocking him.
“I am the leader of a revolution, a revolution that will free Israel from the evil of the Roman Empire. I have faced and vanquished many enemies. I will not be spoken to with such insolence! And you will assist us!” Eleazar ben Yair was shouting now.
Zechariah ben Levi paused long before he spoke, never diverting his eyes from ben Yair. Silence filled the Scriptorium for what seemed like a very long time.
Finally, Zechariah ben Levi spoke.
“Eleazar ben Yair, my brothers and I came to this place to seek God, to live a life of study and prayer and penance. We have lived here quietly for over two hundred years. During that time we have seen corruption in the temple. We have seen corruption in the priesthood. We have seen corruption among our own people. The Zealot party is no different from the Sadducees and the Pharasees. You are all corrupt. You blame the Romans for your problems, but you are looking in the wrong place. You, yourself, Eleazar ben Yair, murdered your own relative, Menachem ben Judah, at the temple in Jerusalem and you succeeded him as leader of the insurgents at Masada. You, yourself, have plundered and murdered your own people. And you, yourself, will come to a dreadful end, as will the rest of your followers who live in darkness. So, my brothers and I shall wait here in this quiet place for the Prince of Light who the Prophets say will come, the one who will usher in the Kingdom of God. I am afraid you are not the one we have been looking for, Eleazar ben Yair. Now, please take what you need and go.”
Eleazar ben Yair’s face grew purple with rage, swollen veins protruded in his forehead, his lips curled back and bared his teeth, and the hand that gripped his sword trembled violently. Without warning, in one sudden lunge, like a rabid dog, Eleazar ben Yair eviscerated Zechariah ben Levi, leaving an eighteen-inch, gaping and ragged tear across his midsection. As one man, the brothers drew in a sudden, horrified breath. Slowly a crimson stain spread across Zechariah ben Levi’s brilliant white robe, and a deep, guttural groan, so quiet it could scarcely be heard, escaped his lips as his intestines spilled to his feet, a moist, glistening, gray heap, flecked with red. As Zechariah ben Levi toppled forward, the men who had pushed their way inside the Scriptorium leaped forward across the writing tables, swords flashing.
In moments it was over. Zechariah ben Levi and the remnant of Qumran lay dead, slaughtered by their fellow Jews. Eleazar ben Yair and his men, panting, their blood lust satiated, crowded back down the stairs, their sandals tracking blood and gore, their sword hilts scraping the walls. Once outside they spread out, took what little supplies they could find, and quickly retreated into the western crags.
In the Scriptorium a few small candles still burned, casting eerie, flickering shadows on the walls. Hacked bodies littered the sweet, sticky, bloodstained floor. The smell of death filled the room. Slowly, one by one, each remaining candle went out as it burned its last drops of oil. Finally, on a dark, cloud covered, moonless night, the last candle flickered, dimmed and died, and the Scriptorium of Qumran slipped forever into darkness.
The sun climbed in the sky, and the limestone pillar against which Elimelech ben Ezra had been resting grew hot. All the Roman soldiers, save the man in the watchtower, remained in the refectory shielded from the heat of the day, lingering over their morning meal. With the bulk of the Roman army in Jerusalem, the skeleton force at Qumran had little to do other than stand guard, and one man in the watchtower was sufficient for that: no enemy would descend from the western crags or approach from of the Dead Sea without him seeing it, and from the watchtower the guard could see clearly for miles to both the north and south. Eli could hear the soldiers’ muffled voices from inside the refectory as they laughed at the course talk and buffoonery common to mess halls in any military camp.
Eli had no idea what to do next, or where to go. Jerusalem smoldered, the city and the temple now little more than charred ruins, and Qumran was a Roman outpost, a resupply center for the troops at Jericho and Jerusalem. Life, as he knew it, was over; his family, his brothers, his community gone. As Eli gazed down upon what was once a community of men he loved, a community of prayer, a community set apart to God, a profound sorrow gripped his heart and wracked his soul. Tears streamed from his eyes and coursed down his cheeks as he slumped to the ground, stifling great sobs torn from the very depths of his being. What would become of him? When he fled Jerusalem days earlier he left behind his beloved surrogate father, Ezra ben Seraiah, and his brothers, all slain by the Romans. He had escaped the slaughter only by sheer luck. Ezra ben Seraiah had sent him on an errand, a meeting near the Gate of the Essenes to arrange for the transfer of the town community’s manuscripts to Tekoa, a safer place south of the city, and for the evacuation of the community. But it was too late. By the time Eli had reached the gate the conflagration had begun. Eli dashed home, only to find the town community ablaze, the bodies of Ezra ben Seraiah and his brothers, dark shadows slumped on the floor amidst an inferno of ibex hides, scrolls and ink, all feeding the flames.
As he gazed at the landscape before him, so hot and bright it hurt his eyes, the tears, mirage and evaporation from the Dead Sea distorted his vision, creating a shimmering, dream-like effect. Eli looked intently east, north, west and south. The Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab blocked his path east; the remnants of the Tenth Roman Legion camped in Jericho blocked his path north; and the limestone crags behind him blocked his path west. He could only go south, and that led to Aila, the port city at the northern tip of the Red Sea, a commercial seaport and embarkation point for the Roman military. In Aila he might board a ship heading south and find refuge in one of the remote Sinai communities. Ezra ben Seraiah had told him about such communities, Essenes who had moved deeply into the wilderness, far from the corruption of Jerusalem and the stench of the Romans. Once he had met a brother at Qumran who had been to such a community near the holy mountain where God had given Moses the commandments. To reach Aila, a journey of more than 200 miles, Eli would have to make his way through the western crags southwest to Hebron, then take secondary roads south through the Negev to Elusa, Eboda, Gypsaria and finally to the port itself. There he might find passage to a new home.
Eli brightened at the idea. He had never been on a ship. And imagine, seeing the holy mountain itself! The pain, sorrow and exhaustion of the last days suddenly gave way to hope, to putting behind him the blood and gore, the stench of death and the terrible memories. Nothing of his life remained: his mother and father had been slain; Jerusalem and the town community had been destroyed; and Qumran was gone.
Yes, he would do it! He would go to Aila and board a ship. He would begin anew. He would find a new home at the holy mountain of God.
But first he needed a plan.
NEXT WEEK: Part 5
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