2. The Old Man in the Temple

He was hidden below the crest of the hill just out of sight of those below.

He lifted his head slowly, careful to keep the scrub brush in front of him so that he wouldn’t be seen against the desert sky.  It was filled with a thousand lights and the moon was in her glory.  It was only the desert itself that was full of darkness and death.

Jubal noted the position of the guards.  In true Roman style they were in plain sight and in numbers.

A show of strength would not be enough, not tonight.

“We are prepared to die for our freedom.  Is Rome ready to die for our slavery?”  Jubal chanted to himself.  “Our hunger for freedom is our strength.”  Fear and excitement raced through his veins in their haste to be heard above his litany of courage.

“The Jewish flea has become a wasp and the sting will be felt in Rome herself.”  Jubal grinned as he waited breathless and tense in the darkness.   It was almost time to go back.  For months they had harassed the Roman legions that had come down from Syria to put down the rebellion.

The Romans have been sloppy, but any advantage was a good advantage.  They had twice driven off their horses.  They had attacked with slings and arrows from the dark hills every night with loud noises and shouts so that the Romans leapt to defend themselves over and over again until they were exhausted.  To engage them in open battle was no part of their plans so they disappeared into the darkness after every encounter like the spirits of the night.

They had followed three scouting parties trapping them and destroying them to a man.  There would be no chesed, no mercy.  They had led their pursuers into narrow, rocky defiles where stones were thrown down on them, killing and maiming those unlucky enough to be on the edge of the march.

“The Lord will send hornets before you to drive them out.” Jubal quoted the Torah.  An ancient promise was about to be fulfilled.

There was movement in the camp below and Jubal lifted himself up to see better.  Immediately he felt the loose skree under him start to move.  He froze, every muscle tense with the expectation of disaster, holding his breath and praying that he would not start to slide.  Stones and pebbles bounced down the hill behind him.  The soft echo from the walls of the cliff worried him.  He wasn’t afraid of falling.  It was the sound that was a danger to him now.

He was perched on a steep slope where no man could walk.  It had taken him a long time to crawl into this position to see into the enemy camp.  He moved a hand upward to grab the base of the bush above him but he felt himself start to go.  Another slide of pebbles and stones bounced away into the darkness below as he hugged the heat of the desert sand and dug his toes into the earth.  With his fingers he got hold of a piece of solid ground and held on.  For the moment it was working.

He relaxed his cramped muscles for a moment.  The rivulets of sweat running down his back chilled him in the cool of the desert night.  Finally he worked his right foot onto an outcropping of sandstone and reached up again to grab the scrub brush above him.  Slowly he pulled himself up, desperation and caution in fierce competition.  He had to find out what was happening.

As soon as he looked down into the enemy camp, he knew he was in trouble.  They were coming.  Already they were half way to his position with swords drawn.  He could see others circling around behind him.  There was no more need for stealth so Jubal leapt to his feet, sliding and scraping down the skree slope in a desperate race for safety.

He skipped down the rocks in the darkness like a mountain goat.  What he had seen in that last quick glance into the enemy camp, had given him wings to speed him on.  His commander had been right.  The Romans were breaking camp in the middle of the night.

They needed to attack now, without delay.  He had to get back.  There was no time to lose.  Jubal whooped and ran like he had never run before.

*****

The Temple grounds were filling up with the faithful, the unexpected victory making believers of even the most callous.  Gamaliel looked down on the excitement, the fevered celebration, and his heart was heavy.  He and Benjamin were about to start the homeward leg of their daily pilgrimage just after their noon prayers.

“They expect the Maschiach to save them,” Gamaliel muttered softly as he turned to go.

Benjamin had heard him.

“Yes,” he said, but made no further comment.

There is a mystery here.  Whenever mention of Maschiach, the Messiah, was made, Benjamin was more guarded, less enthusiastic.

Still, what better time than this for the Maschiach to come?  What better time than this for the prophecies of a true warrior-king to be fulfilled?  But the prophecies had their own way of choosing the time of their fulfilling, he knew and his heart was filled with dread for the coming years.

Was he the only one who remembered that Vespasian, one of Rome’s greatest generals, was in Egypt with his legions?  The Second Legion was stationed at Luxor and could be mobilized quickly.  According to Gamaliel’s sources, General Vespasian was a hard and ruthless man and no lover of the Jewish people.

 “And what about Vespasian?”  Gamaliel said, not for the first time.

“Do you really think he’s a threat?”  Benjamin said.

“What makes you think he’s not?”

“He wants to be the next emperor, they say.  He will be too busy consolidating his power, gathering his strength, building his alliances to bother with us.  That is our opportunity.”  Benjamin spoke with the words of others, without conviction.

“Or he may want to make an example of us to prove his worth to the Roman Senate.”  Gamaliel said.

Where was the God of Avraham, Yitz´chak and Ya´acov?  Where was the God of Elijah? of Simon bar Maccabaeus? Where was the Maschiach that was promised?   They had gone too far.  Only the Maschiach could save them now but that promise seemed a hollow and misdirected hope.

He stumbled with weariness and Benjamin grabbed his arm and looked at him sharply to see that he was all right.

It was for the young that Gamaliel feared, in truth, it was for Benjamin.  But Benjamin seemed to have found his own source of courage in these troubling times.  Benjamin literally glowed as if he had a wonderful secret that he wasn’t telling.  But Gamaliel was determined that he would.

In time.

They rounded the last corner before arriving home and Gamaliel was ready for a rest.  But his heart began to beat harder when he saw the donkey tethered before his door, the pack still on its back, its nose deep into a hastily thrown pile of straw.

Onkelos was back.

*****

The report left no room for doubt.  General Vespasian had spoken with him personally, unusual though it was.

“What’s your feel for the man himself?”  Gamaliel said.

“He will do it, without question.”

Gamaliel was aware of the fixed look from his friend, Onkelos, willing him to believe it, to take the report seriously, difficult though it was.

“He is not a man to play with half measures,” Onkelos said.  “They say he will be the next emperor.”

“And you are alive because of it.”  The truth of it sobered them for a moment.  A lesser man would have sent Onkelos back as a corpse.  That was also a clear message.

Onkelos had given his report as the evening sun dwindled in strength and the shadows stole into the corners of the house.  The library, with its parchments and the musty smell of learning, was Gamaliel’s haven from the outside world.  His writing desk was close by the large window looking out upon a sea of green garnished with red and yellow flowers.  The garden was another oasis that was best savored in the early evening when the chic-a-dees invited him with their call to come away for a while and rest.

With an effort he tore his mind away from the garden back to Onkelos, back to the guilt.  The royal scent of jasmine and thyme came to him on a gentle breeze as they sat together on the couch, two old friends filled with grief.   Onkelos had given the message he was to bring back from the Roman general in return for his life.  He had been found out, his questions not always falling on friendly ears.

Gamaliel fought his guilt with practicality.  They needed to know.  The Roman legions being mobilized in Egypt were stirring like an awakening lion behind them while the people celebrated their victory over the governor of Syria.  Vespasian was not one to be taken lightly.  They needed to know his intentions.

“No one will believe it,” the old rabbi said quietly.

“No.”

Gamaliel heaved a great sigh, not for the first time that day.

“Will he accept terms of surrender?” he said.

“No, there will be no chesed.  He went to great pains to make that clear.”  Onkelos shifted in his seat adjusting the folds of his robe to cover the raw stub that took the place of his right hand.  Gamaliel looked away, his eyes unable to look at the evidence against him.

“Then what does it matter?” Gamaliel said.

It wasn’t really a question but Onkelos answered anyway.

“He wants us to suffer the knowing.”

Silence greeted the thought, stretching it into agony.  Gamaliel’s face seemed to sink in on itself, his eyes hollow and staring, seeing nothing but darkness ahead.

“Yes.”  It was obvious once spoken, and so painfully true.  Could it be so?  The HolyCity destroyed, the Temple razed to the ground?

“Adonai Elohim will not allow it,” Gamaliel said. Was it a question or a statement?  Even Gamaliel didn’t know.

Onkelos was silent, his eyes on the ground, sitting quietly, at peace.

There was something strange here.  Onkelos had not told him everything that had happened on his journey.  There was both a sadness and a joy in his eyes that had nothing to do with the dire events they were discussing.

But Gamaliel had no time to ponder what it meant at the moment.  His mind was filled with a whirlwind of questions and concerns for his people.  Still, the look on the face of his dear friend was as mysterious and glowing as the look on the face of his grandson.  And neither one had a right to be so happy.

Not now.

*****

The next day they arrived at the house of the High Priest just as the afternoon sun began to wane in strength.  There were discussions among the leaders almost every day as new reports came in from their forces in Galilee.

Gamaliel climbed the marble steps one at a time, lifting first one foot and then the other and pausing for breath before attempting the next one.

This was no house, it was a palace, as cold and hard and difficult as its inhabitant.  There was no love lost between Ya´acov, the High Priest, and the Rabbi Gamaliel, though they hid it well.

He leaned heavily on Benjamin’s arm, his breath short and gasping.  Benjamin would help him to his seat in the council chamber and then return to the courtyard until he was summoned to bring Gamaliel home.  Too bad Benjamin could not stay there with him.  He had more sense than most and would see the danger.

Gamaliel had decided to make his report immediately, whether they believed him or not.  Onkelos had confirmed his worst fears but he knew they would not accept it at face value.

Still, he had to try.  Too much was at stake not to.

*****

 “Jubal.  Jubal.”

Jubal looked around and saw that it was Benjamin.  He should not be seen here in the courtyard of the High Priest.

Benjamin strode up to him with a bright look in his eyes.

“How are you, my friend?”  He grabbed Jubal’s forearm in the soldier’s grip and clapped him on the shoulder.  “It’s good to see you.  How goes the war?”

Maybe it was Benjamin’s obvious pleasure at seeing him.  Maybe it was his own sharp remorse at what he had to do but his voice was harsh just the same.

“What do you want?”

“Hey, it’s me, remember.  Why the long face?”

The look on Benjamin’s face ignited something in Jubal.  He could not talk; he could not even look Benjamin in the eye.  His eyes on the ground, he opened his clenched fists and flexed his fingers.  Akbar had warned him not to give Benjamin or his grandfather, Gamaliel, any warning.  He forced himself to smile and he looked up.

“It’s nothing,” he said, touching Benjamin on the arm briefly.  Then he walked away abruptly into the crowds outside the gate, leaving his old friend in his wake.

No, not his friend, old or otherwise.  At least, not anymore. 

*****

“I believe him.  His report is true,” Gamaliel said, not for the first time.

“But that is not the issue at stake,” came the conciliatory reply.

Then what is at stake, if not the very existence of Isra´el as a nation?  No matter how many times he explained it to them, they refused to listen.  The Sanhedrin had other matters to discuss and wanted to get on with it.

“Can you not see that our whole way of life is at risk?”  Gamaliel said, his voice rising.  “The city will be destroyed; not one stone left upon another.  Our temple will be desecrated, the sacrifices will end – “

The shouts and questions that erupted in the small chamber startled Gamaliel half out of his chair.

“We have thrown the Romans out –”

“God has vindicated –”

“– does he think he is to doubt Adonai Elohim now?”

Ya´acov, the High Priest, raised a gnarled hand to command silence and then looked directly at Gamaliel.  “Do you mean to tell me, my old friend, that you believe Adonai Elohim will allow His Temple to be destroyed and His Holy City to be overrun by these pagans?”

Gamaliel’s silence was answer enough.

How could he say that Adonai Elohim had allowed it more than once before?  How could he doubt the protection of his God upon which the whole fabric of their lives depended?  But he did.  They could see it in his eyes.  The great Rabbi Gamaliel had lost his faith.

Gamaliel slumped in his seat as the talk turned to other matters.  He sat in a stupor, lost in the reflections and memories of a lifetime of walking with God that tumbled through his mind.  He didn’t even hear the discussions that condemned followers of Yeshua of Nazaret to imprisonment and severe beatings if they were caught teaching that heresy during the Passover a few days away.

*****

“Was it bad, bubba?”

“They did not believe me,” Gamaliel said.  “I have failed.”

They were silent as Gamaliel shook his mind loose from the short, painful meeting.   He had not expected it to go well, but he hadn’t expected it to be such a disaster, either.  He turned his attention to Benjamin, his despair making him reckless, and he asked Benjamin a direct question.

“What is this secret you are hiding from me, my son?”

Benjamin trembled visibly, his face turning pale as he looked at his grandfather and then quickly away.

Gamaliel raised his eyebrows.  Was it so important?

Benjamin was quiet for a long time as they threaded their way slowly through the streets and Gamaliel respected his silence.

“Bubba,” Benjamin finally said, his voice tight, “I am a follower of Yeshua of Nazaret, the Maschiach.”

He went on rapidly. “The Maschiach has come and his name is Yeshua bar Joseph, descendent from David.  He was a marvelous Rabbi, but more than a Rabbi, although he was no Rabbi at all.”

Gamaliel could not help himself.  He turned away, unable to look Benjamin in the eye.  Benjamin grabbed his arm, trying to turn him around but Gamaliel freed himself and made his way to a stone bench where he could sit for a moment.

Bubba, you have to understand. . .”

But Gamaliel sat with his hands in his lap, his head bowed, his shoulders slumped forward and he would not look at his grandson.  This was the end.  He could take no more.

Benjamin took a deep breath.

“Grandfather, Yeshua of Nazaret is the Maschiach and he died for the sins of the world.”  It sounded like a creed he was reciting.  No doubt it was.

With his eyes tightly closed, Gamaliel sat in utter darkness as he heard his beloved grandson tell his story.  And his heart died a little more at every word.

*****

Benjamin loved Yerushalayim.  He truly did.

It wasn’t just the beauty of her walls as they reflected the light of the morning sun or the quiet tranquility of the Temple mount – a place of holiness and peace for him still.  It was something deeper.  The ancient poetry of his people said it best:

Yahweh is great and supremely to be praised

in the city of our God,

the holy mountain, beautiful where it rises,

joy of the whole world;

Go through Zion, walk around her,

counting her towers, admiring her walls,

reviewing her palaces;

Then tell the next generation

that God is here,

our God and leader, forever and ever.

 

Benjamin had been aware of a yearning in his heart ever since he began to study the Torah at the feet of his grandfather, Gamaliel.  He thought of the moisture in his grandfather’s eyes whenever he spoke about the holy city.

One day he began to read some of the forbidden manuscripts circulating among the followers of Yeshua of Nazaret.  He tried asking subtle questions of his grandfather in order to confirm the stories but received only vague answers in return.  It was dangerous to even speak about these heretics so he had to be careful and indirect in his discussions with his grandfather.  But, even so, it was not enough.  Benjamin decided to seek the followers of Yeshua out.

It took a few days.  He was the grandson of the Rabbi Gamaliel, after all.  But Natan´el, one of the original disciples of Yeshua, firmly convinced the fellowship to allow this young man full of holy curiosity to be a part of them, an observer if that’s all he wanted.  Even though it was dangerous.

There was something about Natan´el.  He had been with the Rabbi Yeshua and Benjamin had a difficult time leaving his side.  He wandered through the streets with him, feeding the poor, encouraging the faint hearted, discussing and arguing gently over the stories about Yeshua.  Always itseemed to be about Yeshua.

Although these people were simple and had no great book learning, they had something that Benjamin wanted with all his heart.  But what it was exactly, he couldn’t put his finger on.

One night, Natan´el finally told him the story of those last days, that final Passover, the shame and horror of the cross.  It was all true.  He wept.  Yerushalayim had been visited by her God and had rejected Him.

Natan´el paused in the telling of his story, but finally he raised his head.  “Benjamin, the story is not yet at an end.  The best is yet to come, and your life will never be the same.”

“What -?”

“You will complete your mission in Yerushalayim and then you will be sent to another place to speak of the things you have heard this night.”  Natan´el’s eyes looked off into a far distance as he spoke into existence Benjamin’s future.

“You must follow the Yerushalayim oracle[3] through the dark and dangerous days ahead for that is your path –”

“The Yerushalayim oracle. . .?”

“– and at a time and in a moment not expected, you will enter the gates of the new Yerushalayim and all your yearning and sadness will be turned to joy.”

Benjamin sat upon the hard dirt floor.  What is he talking about?  What is this all about?  Then he heard the rest of the story, of what happened after the cross and, before the night was through, Benjamin was a new creature, reborn and alive like he had never been before.

Shalamar and his brothers celebrated with great, but quiet, joy in the holy city, as Benjamin gladly entered the spiritual battle for the soul of his grandfather, Gamaliel.

He began to pray and cry out to God earnestly and he was heard in the throne room of the Almighty.

*****

The Temptations of the Cross   by Bert A. Amsing
Copyright © 2012 by vanKregten Publishers.  All rights reserved.
http://www.desertwarrior.net    info@desertwarrior.net
Footnotes and references included in original manuscript.
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The Desert Warrior
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