Gamaliel’s voice was harsher than he had intended. Why was it that he could never talk to Saul without getting upset?
“Yes, it is. You said that Isra´el would be better off without him and his kind.”
“I didn’t mean for you to have him killed.”
“What then? Did you want me to scold him and tell him to go home and mind his own affairs?” Saul’s voice was low, insistent, but still respectful.
“No, no. I don’t know what I meant.” Gamaliel waved his hand in the air and turned to walk away but the problem would not go away so easily.
Saul followed him deeper into the shadows, away from the crowds that were already gathering in the Temple to witness the morning sacrifice. He would follow him until he got his answer. He was stubborn that way.
Saul was the son of a dear friend who had made his fortune in Tarsus on the coast of the GreatSea, trading in silk from China and wheat from Egypt among other things. But his son wanted to be a Rabbi. He had already learned a trade as all teachers must do and had come to Yerushalayim to continue his studies under the Rabbi Gamaliel.
But it was too late. He was already spoiled by a fanaticism and distaste for everything different that marked some teachers of the Law. He was no moderate, his personality was too intense, his passions too wild. He thought of refusing his friend and giving the boy over to someone else but he couldn’t. Four years now he had been trying but his words fell on deaf ears.
Except for once.
Gamaliel snorted in disgust and Saul looked at him curiously. Gamaliel half-turned in the shadows to glance at his pupil. He was a desert falcon, lean and hungry. His lanky frame was nothing more than a place to hang his clothes. It was the mind that mattered and Gamaliel had to admit that his young student was formidable in that area. But he lacked something essential. Gamaliel tried to put his finger on it. What was it? Integrity? Understanding? Not quite. More like compassion – that was it. Compassion. He was a bird of prey that had no tolerance for the weaknesses of others. Which was why Gamaliel felt powerless as a teacher. He simply would not listen.
Except for once.
In a moment of weakness, Gamaliel had said something that he had not really meant, and Saul had listened very well that time. Too well.
“Well, what is your answer?” Saul said again, his eyes glittering.
He had never succeeded in getting to know his student, not really. There was no path to his heart, no sharing of his soul, only strict obedience and unbridled ambition. He was respectful with his words but his whole manner suggested something else. He had gotten a taste of it. What was it? Power? Revenge? Self-righteousness? Gamaliel wasn’t sure what to call it but Saul wanted more of it and would get it. It sickened him to think of what Saul was planning, of what he had become, of what he, Gamaliel, had made him into.
Was that true? Was he at fault? He had been trying to cast the blame onto his overeager student but that wasn’t entirely fair. He was the master, his was the responsibility.
But who could control a wild stallion such as this?
Never mind. It was his place to know his students and to guide them in their actions.
Saul obviously had the permission and support of powerful friends in the Sanhedrin or it would never have gone so far.
Still that was no excuse. Gamaliel had been moderating the excesses of his fellow Pharisees for many years already. That was his mission. Saul had taken his words as permission or, at least, as an unstated desire to deal with this heresy once and for all, and he had acted accordingly.
No, the blame was just as much his own, perhaps more so than Saul, and he could not avoid the guilt. He would put a stop to this right now.
“No, Saul. It stops here and now.” His voice was clipped and hard. “You will leave Yerushalayim and return to Tarsus. Do not pursue this further.”
“No, do not say anything more. Just go. You have done enough.” Gamaliel turned away but Saul still stood there.
“I will go to Ya´acov and he will give me permission.”
“Ya´acov is not the High Priest.”
“No, but he will be. He will sponsor me in my holy cause if you are too weak to do so.”
The words themselves, spoken as they were to a respected Rabbi, showed how deep the break was between them. If anyone else had heard him, he might have been whipped with the forty lashes less one. But Gamaliel only sighed as Saul strode away to begin his mission.
What surprised Gamaliel the most was the vividness of his memories. Every word, every gesture and nuance of the encounter was engraved on his mind as if it had happened only yesterday. They say that it is a sign of old age when life is lived more in the past than the present.
The words still hurt, and his guilt had mounted almost daily after that encounter as he watched Saul dragged the Christians before the Sanhedrin to be ridiculed and whipped and even put to death. Not everybody agreed with Saul and they looked to him to put a stop to it.
Everybody remembered his words to the Sanhedrin only a few months before when Ya´acov and his lackeys had tried to have those Galilean fishermen put to death. Now Saul, his own student, was at Ya´acov’s right hand doing all his dirty work and he could do nothing about it.
The heresy would die out by itself. They couldn’t persecute their own people. These were simple Galileans whose hope was in the Maschiach. Who could fault them for that?
But it was more than that. It was the look in the eye of Stephen that had unnerved him. After that, he could not fight them nor protect them. His guilt would not let him.
And now Benjamin was one of them.
Gamaliel shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the story of Benjamin’s secret meetings with this strange sect unfolded. The whole world was going crazy. Everything was changing. Everything he ever loved was being destroyed – Yerushalayim, his beloved city, the Temple and now Benjamin. But Gamaliel hid his thoughts and sat quietly upon the cold, hard bench as he heard the boy out.
“Bubba, have I offended you?” Benjamin slipped to the ground in front of him and took his hands in his own, stroking them. But Gamaliel did not respond.
“Forgive me for keeping this secret from you.” Benjamin said. “I wanted to tell you a thousand times, but I was afraid.”
Gamaliel saw the teardrop land on the back of his hand, spreading over a white spot on his skin and then traveling swiftly down and away, leaving a trail of grief behind it. The tear belonged to Benjamin.
He swallowed with difficulty and lifted his bent fingers to pat the hand of his grandson. “You were afraid, Benjamin?” He spoke softly. “That is perhaps the saddest thing of all.”
He took a deep shuddering breath, raising his head and looking up at the ancient walls of the Temple in the distance, at the fortress of Antonia towering opposite it, anywhere but at Benjamin. What was he supposed to do now?
Without thinking, he glanced at Benjamin, thankful that he did not catch his eye. He saw him with his head bent low, lost in thought, the silence thickening between them. For the first time Gamaliel did not know what to say. Benjamin was slipping away, following a path he could not take.
Closing his eyes tightly for a moment, he pressed and rubbed his gnarled fingers into them, pinching the bridge of his nose. He let out a long, low breath carefully, thoughtfully.
He made his decision. He couldn’t very well turn in his own grandson after all. Gamaliel clutched at Benjamin’s hand and gripped it hard as if to stop him from going on that journey or, perhaps, to take him along. Anything to close that empty distance between them.
“You and I are to have no secrets from each other.” The rebuke was firm. “We shall keep this between the two of us, Benjamin,” Gamaliel said, finally looking at his grandson, “and you shall tell me the whole story, every detail. No more secrets.”
The next few hours passed in deep discussion with Gamaliel probing the boys’ understanding of the commitment he had made to this radical sect, this new heresy – that word seemed too strong now that Benjamin was involved. The years of training had not been wasted for the boy was thoughtful and penetrating in his new beliefs. But this sect was much stronger than he had believed. It was no mere extension of the old faith. This was a transformation.
He found beneath it all a core of faith in this man Yeshua that he could not understand. Benjamin admitted that Yeshua had died as a criminal on a cross outside Yerushalayim more than thirty years ago, but he treated him as if he were still alive and in constant contact with him. He had heard the stories, of course. But, until now, he had not given them much thought. Stories and truth are often far apart. And these stories were more difficult to believe than most.
So they talked and argued quietly with heads bent close together as Rabbis do and the hours slipped by.
“You are not enough a sinner to find righteousness in the Maschiach.”
“Not enough a sinner? What nonsense is that? I have followed the Law my whole life.” Gamaliel looked at the young man before him. He was deadly serious. He decided to press ahead.
“For us right living will mean this,” he said, quoting from the Torah, “to keep and observe all these commandments before Yahweh our God as he has directed us.”
The crowd nodded in agreement at the way that Gamaliel was handling this young man. But the crowds, fickle as they were, also leaned forward to see how Stephen would respond.
Rumors followed him everywhere. Miracles and healing and great signs seemed to cling to Stephen tenaciously, though he denied that the power was his. Gamaliel had friends in the Synagogue of Freedmen in Alexandria and they swore that he was nothing but a troublemaker. He had come from Cyrene for the festivities but had stirred up so much trouble that Gamaliel was asked to investigate. So far, he wasn’t sure who had the upper hand in this discussion.
The people crowded around to hear every word. Gamaliel could have wished for a quieter place away from the crowds to question this young man. He wasn’t sure how much was being said for their benefit and how much he truly believed. He was certainly a follower of Yeshua, the carpenter from Galilee, but he had such an aura of certainty and power about him that Gamaliel felt the student rather than the teacher.
Still, this last bit was going too far. What nonsense to say that he was not enough a sinner.
“When you discover your sin, you will discover your salvation,” Stephen said, looking directly into Gamaliel’s eyes.
“Now you dare to call me a sinner? First I am not sinner enough and now I am a sinner after all. Which shall it be?” Gamaliel managed to keep his tone light.
“Are we not all sinners?”
His words were smooth, gentle but they could not cover over his meaning. This was intolerable.
“Name my sin,” Gamaliel said. “Name it here and now.”
“All sin is one and its name is not unknown. Search your heart and you will find the name written there.”
Gamaliel leaned forward and soundly slapped Stephen’s face. Then he took off his sandal and shook the dust from it in front of the people and rose without a word and walked away.
Saul was at his side, almost running to keep up, imprecations exploding from him every few steps. Gamaliel strode through the crowds, his mind aflame, his pace a pounding step. He raced down the steps and out of the porticos of the Temple.
“Isra´el would be better off without him and his kind.”
“What did you say?” Saul touched his shoulder and Gamaliel stopped abruptly in the street, half-turning toward him.
“I said that Isra´el would be better off without him and his kind.” His words were clipped and hard. This was another Gamaliel, a hidden side come to light, buried beneath the exterior of righteousness.
Saul just looked at him with those piercing eyes and Gamaliel hesitated for a moment and then turned to go. He would talk to no one about this. He would leave the city for a few days. He needed to think. He would go to his family home in Beth-lehem and sort it all out there.
As he walked away, Saul stayed rooted in his place. He stood there a moment longer and then strode away, back into the Temple to put his plans into action.
Every morning Gamaliel and Benjamin went to the Temple to pray for the peace of Yerushalayim as the morning sun scattered the last vestiges of night to the far corners of the earth.
The celebration of the Passover had come upon them again and the bustle and noise of the preparations filled the city streets and the Temple courtyards. But with the familiar sounds came the eerie sensation that this Passover would be his last.
It came upon him while he prayed, the prayer shawl over his head and his strong baritone voice lifted in the singsong sounds of early morning prayers. It would be his last. He would not see another. He groped for the solid reality of the Temple wall to steady himself.
He looked upon his beloved city with tear-filled eyes that blurred the harsh corners of reality. His heart seemed to encompass the entire city of brick and stone, cattle and people and all that it represented down through the ages. Yerushalayim, with her great walls of stone tarnished and rubbed smooth with the brush of passing civilizations; her towers and ramparts ablaze with the purple hues of the morning sun; her streets and Temple courtyards busy with the sacred work of her people and priests. Yerushalayim, the beloved city. The city of God.
Oh God, where are you now when we need you most? Why have you abandoned your people?
Gamaliel felt a kinship here upon the TempleMount with David and Solomon and the prophets of old. He felt the glory and the failure of his people, the blessing and the curse of being the chosen of God and not able to bear it.
Armies would come to lay siege to her walls once again. It had happened many times before. The land of Isra´el was a crossroads for the great civilizations and they came to conquer and be conquered, for what they took from his land also changed them. The Jewish people were found throughout the Roman Empire, faithful to their God and their ways – a beacon of light in a dark world, the chosen people, guardians of the Torah and the Temple worship. But not for long.
A soft groan escaped from deep within him, the sound of it echoing faintly from the rock around him. Onkelos had told him what the Romans planned. It was madness, madness, but no one could stop it now but God himself. Gamaliel no longer believed that he would.
Yerushalayim would be destroyed.
He faced it finally. He formed the words with his lips but still he could not say them aloud. He tried to believe that it would not happen, that Adonai Elohim would not allow it, that the Temple would be safe, the city would be spared. But his body did not believe him and his knees threatened to give way. He began to slump backwards, no longer caring, but Benjamin was there immediately with an arm around his skeletal shoulders, holding him erect until he finished his prayers.
“Oh, Yerushalayim,” Gamaliel cried out, “most holy of cities, would that peace be your inheritance and hope your message to the nations. Oh, Daughters of Yerushalayim weep and cry out in sorrow for your destiny is come upon you.”
His words became prophecy as a strange conviction took hold of him.
“Yes, your destiny is come upon you. You will survive, O Isra´el, but you will be changed, never to be the same again.” Benjamin eased him into a sitting position on a nearby stone bench.
We seem to know a great deal about pain and suffering. From slavery in Egypt to oppression in their own land, Isra´el played the role of victim to perfection. But this was more. Now, on the eve of the destruction of Isra´el, he wanted nothing more than the simplicity of clear answers and a straight path.
Gamaliel shook his head slowly from side to side as if to shake off a heavy burden. He would celebrate this Passover like he had all the others – in his home surrounded by his family and telling the ancient story. Someone else would have to take the burden for the beloved city upon their shoulders. His pilgrimage was almost done. There was little more he could do for his people.
Gamaliel sat exhausted and pensive on the hard stone bench with his back to the wall of the Temple, thinking and brooding over his beloved city until, finally, he drifted off to sleep in the warm sunshine like men of great age do the world over.
“They’re using your name.”
“Are you sure?”
“Saul is claiming that he has your permission. They have already arrested him. He will be put to death if you do not return immediately. You could be there by nightfall.”
Gamaliel paused to think. Beth-lehem was only a few hours away from Yerushalayim if he could get a ride in one of the carts that were constantly going to the market in the city. But could he do anything now? He doubted it. It was too late. The damage was done.
“Why did you come to tell me this?”
Onkelos just looked at him. He was a Greek, a proselyte who wanted to study the Law. He was a gentle and good man.
“I am sorry. Thank you, my friend. Rest tonight and we will go in the morning to see what can be done.”
Onkelos looked at him a moment longer, unwilling to say what both of them were thinking. Tomorrow may be too late.
Shalamar watched as Benjamin sat quietly beside his grandfather, Gamaliel, smiling and nodding to the other Rabbis who hurried about their business in the Temple. He watched the people start to gather with a rustling of robes and murmured greetings as they sat at the feet of the great Rabbi.
These were the common people, men and women alike, even children. They sat in subdued silence, huddled together and leaning forward as Benjamin began to speak in whispers of the Rabbi Yeshua and the miracles he had performed and the salvation that he brought to all people.
For weeks already, Benjamin had been teaching the people every morning while Gamaliel slept. When the Rabbi began to stir and open his eyes, he would see the people around him with eyes full of love and understanding for his old age, waiting for him to speak. Gamaliel would compose himself, clearing his throat and shifting his robe into a more comfortable position and then begin to teach them until it was time for noon prayers. The people loved his simple and heartfelt teachings – although not all ears were friendly.
Benjamin would have a simple meal ready for them of flat loaves of unleavened bread and cheese and a small flask of wine to quench their thirst and later they would pray once again and then return to their home. It was a routine that they were both comfortable with.
The old sleep lightly, as Benjamin obviously had forgotten, and for the last few minutes Gamaliel had been awake, though with his eyes closed and his breathing deep, listening to the teaching of his grandson.
He began to stir as if he had just awakened and all the eyes of the people turned to him, even Benjamin who had stopped in mid-sentence.
The look on Benjamin’s face was worth it. So few real pleasures are left in life but that was one to treasure.
But he saw alarm on many faces in the crowd. They didn’t know if he was angry or not. Benjamin had used his presence as a cover for his own teaching, authenticating it by having him near, even if he was asleep. As Benjamin stumbled to give a mixture of apology and explanation, Gamaliel waved him to silence.
“Did you know,” he said, “that Peter spoke right over there on those steps with the Temple full of people from all parts of the world? The colors and pageantry of so many cultures and languages were especially high that year. It seemed that the whole world had come to Yerushalayim. It has never been quite the same since. I was there. That was more than thirty years ago. A lifetime.”
Benjamin was wise enough to let his grandfather carry on with the story. The crowd shifted and murmured for a while but settled down as Gamaliel began to speak.
Gamaliel was not a total fool and he spoke about that day without teaching, without commentary. He merely told the story. What harm could come of that? No one would be able to accuse him of heresy. He was too old to change his ways, anyway.
It was a weak argument. There was danger even to be associated with a follower of the Christ, especially a teacher of the heresy, as Benjamin so clearly was. This would be no exception.
Perhaps it was his old age that made him heedless of the danger, or perhaps it was this new hunger for some truth he could cling to while his world fell apart around him. Gamaliel didn’t know. His heart was sick and that was all. And yes, there were the people, he couldn’t forget them. They, too, needed answers.
“And now,” Gamaliel said, as he ended his story, “it is time to rest. You must all go now and leave this old man to make his way back home. I may arrive just in time to come back for the evening sacrifice.”
The people smiled at his humor for he would shuffle very slowly with many stops before he would reach his home. This daily routine in the Temple was a true pilgrimage for the old man and the people loved him for it.
Jubal slipped out of the crowd. This was the proof they needed. This would be the end of the Rabbi Gamaliel and of Benjamin. He grit his teeth.
I am not the betrayer. They have betrayed us. They have shamed us.
He made his way to the palace of the High Priest where he was to meet with Akbar again. Benjamin had not seen him. He had made sure of that. Benjamin had been a friend but no longer. They had talked of the war just that morning and Benjamin had seemed normal. But Akbar was right, he had changed and for the worse.
They needed to be dealt with immediately before they spread their poison even more. How could the Almighty God bless their battle against Rome if there was sin in the camp? It must be removed.
There is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. Another ancient truth about to be fulfilled.
The Temptations of the Cross by Bert A. Amsing
Copyright © 2012 by vanKregten Publishers. All rights reserved.
Footnotes and references included in original manuscript.
The Desert Warrior