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By Bodie Thoene Brock Thoene
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Bodie and Brock Thoene
All right reserved.
Chapter One Tovah found the baby early one morning in a ravine beside the road as she traveled home to Jerusalem. With her was her husband, Onias, a young rabbi who made his living teaching Torah school.
A thin, bleating cry emanated from beneath the seven-branched sage.
"Onias? What's that?" Tovah stopped and peered over the embankment. Other travelers surged past, not hearing or noticing what Tovah had plainly heard.
"Just a baby goat." Onias took her arm and urged her to press along. "The mother's nearby, no doubt. They never leave the kids for long. Come on then, Tovah! I have a meeting with Simeon and Zachariah before our course begins in the morning."
A reedy cry, so human, drifted up.
"I have to see." Tovah started down the faint track.
Onias shrugged impatiently and planted himself on the verge of the highway as she picked her way down the ravine.
The rustling of brush. Where was the creature? Had the mother hidden it?
"Tovah?" Onias called.
She waited, held her breath, listening. Pilgrims' voices, laughter, and feet crunching on gravel nearly drowned out the weak mewing of the thing.
Then, beside the boulder, the low branches of the sagebush trembled. As Tovah crooned, "Where are you, then?" the timid cry erupted into a bellow of infant rage.
This was no goat! Tovah knelt and pulled back the brush to reveal a baby girl, kicking and squirming in the dirt.
She was only hours old. The cord was uncut and still attached to the afterbirth. She was unwashed and caked with blood. She had not been rubbed with salt, anointed with oil, or swaddled in cloth.
"Onias!" Tovah cried. "Hurry!"
He scrambled down the path to her side, knelt, and gasped at the sight. Missing, for once, was his usual crooked smile. Plain enough, the infant had been abandoned, meant to die of exposure to the elements. Such barbarity was common in Rome among the poor or prostitutes. It was more unusual here in Judea, but rumor was that east of the Jordan unwanted infants were still sacrificed to the fires of Molech.
"Poor thing! Poor little thing! Who would do such a thing? Where is your mother?" Tovah unlaced her sandal. "Onias, your knife!" First tying the cord, Tovah cut it and scooped the infant up in her shawl. She cradled her.
Tiny fists flailed angrily. The back of the child's head fit perfectly in the palm of Tovah's hand. Ten toes. Ten fingers. Perfect! Perfect! And Tovah knew. She was certain. This was the child she had prayed for daily through seven years of miscarriages and stillborn sons!
Somehow the infant knew as well. She fell silent, calmed by Tovah's touch.
"A beautiful child," Tovah said in awe. "Look, Onias! She turns her face to my breast. She's hungry."
"How will she eat?"
"There's a woman on Tinsmith Street whose son is nearly weaned. She let it be known she would like work as a wet nurse."
"Yes. Zadok will be coming to Yerushalayim today also. I'll tell him we need a good milk goat, eh?" Onias put his hand on Tovah's back and gazed down at the child. "She will be fair. Look there! Her eyes are blue-like yours, Tovah. And her hair. Tovah! Golden, like yours."
So Onias and Tovah took the foundling home. They named her Menorah, because they had found her under the seven-branched sage that resembled the candlestick in the Temple.
Onias and Tovah raised Menorah as their own daughter. She thrived and grew until, by the age of four, she was reading Hebrew as well as any student among Onias' eight-year-old Torah schoolboys.
Everyone in the neighborhood forgot that Menorah had been found beneath a seven-branched sagebush. Her name took on the meaning of the golden candlestick-light and warmth and holiness before the Lord. Her hair was like finely spun gold; her eyes innocent and as blue as the sky.
"Tovah! Your little girl looks just like you," the women in synagogue remarked. "Have you ever seen a child so much like her mother?"
And, like her father, Menorah had a heart for God. She made up songs about angels and heaven as she played at her papa's feet. She spoke often and out loud to the Almighty about every concern and joy. Quick to make friends, Menorah was her father's pride and her mother's comfort.
"Such a gift," Onias remarked to Tovah on the fourth anniversary of her birth and the discovery. It was the day before Onias began his priestly duty serving at the Temple as part of the course of Abijah.
That morning Tovah counted out four new silver temple shekels that she had earned washing the linen clothes of priests. She slid the coins across the table to Onias. "Please, Onias. Take these today for the treasury for the poor ... as a thank offering to the Merciful One for every year of Menorah's life with us."
Onias and Tovah laid hands upon the head of their sleeping child and prayed, "Blessed are you, O Adonai, who heard our prayers and remembered to have mercy on us when we had no children. Blessed are you who sent us Menorah to lighten our days! Omaine!"
It was the darkest part of a moonless autumn night in this, the thirtieth year of the Roman-backed reign of Herod the Idumean over the Jewish nation of Judea. In Jerusalem there remained at least an hour until cockcrow.
It was the watch when men's souls remained connected to their bodies by the slenderest of threads. It was the season when courage often failed.
In the depths of the Kidron Valley, hundreds of feet below the Temple's pinnacle, a dog barked once, then yowled. Its wail stopped abruptly.
Absolute stillness settled again over Jerusalem.
The aroma of hot blood and charred meat from the day's sacrifices hovered about the armed men like an unseen cloud. The platform of the Temple had long since been sluiced clean and the paving stones scrubbed, but here on a platform, below the brow of the Mount, the thick odor lingered.
The charged air hung heavy around the thirteen watchers, making it difficult for them to breathe. Like the atmosphere, the quiet was oppressive. But no one spoke. Their silence was ordered by the tall, lean figure commanding the nocturnal foray.
Herod, aging king of the Jews and friend of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, stood wrapped in a hooded cloak, concealing him from ears to ankles. He was flanked by two of his personal bodyguards, Odus and Silus. These companions-in-arms were supplemented by a troop of ten soldiers from Herod's Idumean homeland.
The monarch's keen, black eyes peered into the west. Saturn had just set-one less witness to Herod's nocturnal undertaking.
The king was not superstitious. Besides, after a reign of nearly thirty years, he was powerful enough to carry out his plan in broad daylight. Both statements were lies.
Lately Herod had been troubled by dreams. In some he saw again the ghost of his wife Mariamme, whose execution Herod had ordered twenty years ago. In his sleep he heard again her ignored protests of innocence, her disregarded pleas for mercy. In some nightmares Herod himself was the target of assassination attempts. He woke panting for breath and drenched in sweat.
He shook off the memories.
Herod was glad neither Jupiter nor Saturn, or any of the gods, remained in the sky to observe him. He was also relieved that the God of the Jews, the occupant of the marble-and-gold-covered sanctuary on the hilltop, had apparently gone to sleep for the night.
Herod reckoned if he offended either the gods of the Romans or the One God of the Jews, he would just make it up by additional sacrifices.
Soon there would be plenty of gold with which to buy the lambs and the bullocks ... and the compliance of the priests.
There was another reason for the secretive nature of this expedition. It was not that Herod cared a fig for public opinion. His was an absolute monarchy, subject only to the approval of Rome.
But therein lay the rub: Herod did not want a repeat of the riots and mass crucifixions and the possibility of armed intervention by the Romans. Public outrage was certain to follow this night's proceedings. But if nothing was actually seen happening, then the reports could be ascribed to rumor.
Intimidation would take care of the rest.
However, Herod's air of satisfaction was disturbed when he turned eastward. There, newly risen over the mountains of Moab, hovered Sirius, the star the Hebrews called The Guardian.
Hundreds of years earlier the blind Greek poet Homer had written of Sirius: "Whose burning breath taints the red air with fevers, plagues and death."
Herod shivered inside his cloak, straightened his creaking back, then growled to Odus, "It is late enough. We go now."
Torches were produced from inside a guard tower, melting the mass of men and shadows into a molten pool flowing down the Temple steps. Five heavily armed men preceding and five following, flanked on either side by attendants of undoubted loyalty, Herod was at the center of an entourage of protection.
But he did not feel secure even so. Innuendo and scandal were rife around Herod's palace: half brothers at each other's throats, plots being hatched, poisonings contrived. Betrayal and suspicion were the coin of the realm.
Herod swayed briefly, experiencing that momentary dizziness from which he suffered more and more frequently as he neared his sixty-fifth birthday.
Who would succeed him when he was dead? One of his sons: Antipater? Alexander? Aristobulus? One of the others?
How many of them would willingly slit another's throat to clear the line of succession?
And would the heir be willing to wait for Herod ... or would he try to hurry things along?
And among the common people? More mutterings about their longed-for Messiah, their liberator, their heir of King David, who would set the world right.
The recent years had been lean in Judea. Roman demands for tribute grew ever heavier; so did the requirements of Herod's ambitious building projects. More payments flowed out than taxes and customs duties brought in.
Gold was necessary to purchase security. More gold than remained in the treasury. More than could be extorted from High Priest Boethus and his cadre of Temple officials. More than could be wrung out of the am ha aretz, the impoverished people of the land.
Gold would pay more Syrian archers, more Samaritan swordsmen. More gold crossing more palms would uncover more plots, purchase more allegiance.
And Herod knew where to find it.
Partway along the curving, cobbled path skirting the eastern wall of the Ophel Quarter the street climbed again, ascending the hill identifying the ancient City of David.
Halfway down the stretch of King David's capital was the shepherd-king's tomb.
Set into the side of the eastward-facing slope, fronted by granite columns, the bronze door of the crypt displayed the royal seals of both David and his successor-son, Solomon.
At a peremptory gesture from the king, four of the guards shucked their cloaks, revealing stout iron bars slung alongside their short swords. They went to work, prying out the bronze rods that sealed the tomb's entrance from their masonry settings.
Chipping and cracking sounds splintered the night. The other guards scrutinized the deserted streets, ready to challenge and disperse anyone roused by the noise.
Herod broke his own rule of silence by muttering to Silus, "Nothing to be afraid of. Hyrcanus helped himself to some of the gold a hundred years ago. Scribes claim he saw much more than he removed. Much more!"
The last rod clanged to the pavement.
Odus stepped forward. With a single heave of his shoulder he levered open the catch holding the bolt and shot it back.
The way in was open.
Herod impatiently gestured Odus and Silus onward.
The two soldiers exchanged a glance before Silus thrust his torch into the antechamber of the tomb. Fine dust covered the floor. Except for a pair of stone benches, the room was empty.
Silus moved to the next vault. Over his shoulder he said, "I see a gold-covered chair. A throne? Silver bowls. The walls are hung with bronze shields."
"And coins? Chests of coins?" Herod demanded.
"No, nothing like that."
"Go farther in!" Herod stepped past the entry to urge his bodyguards to hurry their search.
Odus drew himself shoulder to shoulder with Silus. The flames of their torches flickered in the draft coming from the outside.
The combined light revealed another inner room. Over the doorway hung a round golden shield inscribed with the six-pointed Mogen David. Around this artifact were carved representations of a shepherd's crook crossed with a scepter. On the other side was inscribed the figure of a lyre supporting a crown.
The view through the portal displayed a pair of raised platforms. On one was a bronze coffin; on the other, a marble sarcophagus.
"Burial chamber of the kings," Silus murmured.
Four narrow openings branched off from the tomb. The fitful gleams of the torches did not penetrate any of the side cavities.
"Go on!" Herod hissed. "What are you waiting for?"
Odus put his foot on the sill.
The torch flames reversed direction as a wispy breeze from inside the grave whispered out. Fiery fingers reached toward Odus' face, making him duck his head aside.
Silus stuck out his hand, thrusting his light past the doorway and into the chamber.
From floor and ceiling, from both sides of the portal, sheets of brilliant white fire, dazzling the eyes, leapt across the opening. Curtains of flames enveloped Odus and Silus. Their robes blazed upward in an instant. So did their hair and beards.
Their screams were cut off by the sound of a furnace's roar.
The inferno's heat drove the horrified onlookers back.
The two lifeless bodies fell to the floor, and the flames were snuffed out as quickly as they had appeared.
Herod screamed, then whimpered, clawing his way out of the crypt. "Drag them out! Seal it up!" he shrieked. "Marble! I will build a marble monument!" Facing the Temple, he cried, "Do you hear? A marble monument!"
There was no reply. Over his shoulder the accusing eye of The Guardian star followed Herod all the way back to his palace, where he drank himself to sleep.
Tonight I celebrate the 25th anniversary of my birth and the 5th anniversary of my appointment to serve as Chief Observer here in the capital of this northernmost province of Parthia. This is a special mark of favor for me since the court astrologers are all Zoroastrians, while I am a God-fearer-a Gentile follower of the Jewish faith. The astrologers prefer interpreting signs in warmth and comfort and daylight, so leave the long night watches to me.
With me tonight, as he is every New Moon night, is Balthasar, a venerable Jewish scholar of some seventy years, and his lone granddaughter, Esther.
Because of my personal studies, I will list the names of the wandering stars in both their common form and as they are known to the Jews.
Mercury, called in Hebrew The Messenger, remained visible for almost an hour after sunset.
It is unusual for Mercury to stay aloft for so long. Balthasar says this is significant-a portent of a message about to be delivered.
The thinnest sliver of the New Moon, which is referred to as The Holy, descended behind Mount Alvand in the west some three-quarters of an hour later.
By this time the southwest was aglow with the flame of The Milky Way.
Jupiter, The Righteous, was already well placed for viewing, being almost due south in the constellation of The Water Bearer. Balthasar commented that this was a reminder of baptism, the righteous Jewish practice of religious bathing, but did not elaborate further.
Saturn, called by the Jews The Sabbath, was southeast, in the sign of The Fish. Since ancient times The Fish has represented the nation of Israel. Balthasar says it means there is great longing in the hearts of the Jews for their Sabbath rest-the true rest that can only come with the advent of Messiah. He says nowhere is this more true than in the homeland of the Jews, anguished by the long reign of Herod the Idumean, puppet of Rome. (This I believe Balthasar got from caravan news and not from reading the sky!)
I studied the revolving wheel of night for the rest of the dark hours, till Sirius rose in the east, heralding the dawn. Balthasar noted that its Hebrew name is The Guardian, or in its compound form, Naz-Zer, as in the ones who take the Nazarite vow of separation.
Nothing further suggesting itself and sleep overtaking us, we descended the seven levels of the city to our homes in the White Ring and so to bed.
Will cast up my accounts after some hours' rest.
Excerpted from Fourth Dawn by Bodie Thoene Brock Thoene Copyright © 2005 by Bodie and Brock Thoene. Excerpted by permission.
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