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King Jesus, Page 3

Robert Graves

  This is the story of Miriam’s birth. Her mother, Hannah, had been married ten years but continued childless, to her grief and shame, and found little comfort in the riches of her husband, Joachim. Every year at the appointed day he rode up to Jerusalem from Cocheba to offer a donation to the Temple. There, because of the nobility of his birth and the riches of his estate, he usually took first place in the line of gift-bringers, the elders of Israel dressed in long Babylonian robes embroidered with flowers. It was his custom to say, as he dropped his gold pieces through the slot of the chest : “Whatever I give of my earnings is for the whole people ; and here I give it. But these other coins, which represent a diminution of my estate, are for the Lord—a plea for his forgiveness if I have done anything amiss or displeasing to his eye.”

  Joachim, a High Court judge, was a Pharisee—not one of the Shoulder Pharisees, as those are called who seem to wear on their shoulders a list of their own good actions ; nor a Calculating Pharisee, who says : “My sins are more than counterbalanced by my virtues” ; nor a Saving Pharisee, who says : “I will save a little from my fortune to perform a work of charity.” He could well be reckoned one of the God-fearing Pharisees who, despite the sneers of Chrestians who hate to be in their spiritual debt, compose by far the larger part of that humane sect.

  This year, the seventeenth of Herod’s reign, as the elders of Israel stood waiting for the hour of donation, Reuben son of Abdiel, a Sadducee of the old school, stood next below Joachim. Reuben had recently gone to law with him about the possession of a well in the hills beyond Hebron, and lost his case. It irked him that Joachim should be devoutly offering to the Treasury, as his own gift, part of the value of the well, which would water a thousand sheep even in the height of summer.

  Reuben cried aloud : “Neighbour Joachim, why do you thrust yourself to the head of this line? Why do you boast yourself above us all? Every one of us elders of Israel is blessed with children—with sons like sturdy plants, with daughters like the polished corners of a palace—everyone but only you, and you are childless. The Lord’s displeasure must be heavy on your head, for in the last three years you have, to common knowledge, taken three lusty young concubines, yet still you remain a dried stock without green shoots. Humble your heart, Pharisee, and take a lower place.”

  Joachim answered : “Forgive me, Neighbour Reuben, if I have offended against you in the matter of the well, for I suppose that it is this memory, rather than some notorious offence of mine against the Law, that prompts you to reproach me. You surely cannot be gainsaying the verdict of the Court of Disputes ?”

  Reuben’s brother, who had been a witness in the case and who stood further down the line, spoke up for Reuben : “Neighbour Joachim, it is ungenerous in you to triumph over my brother in the matter of the Well of the Jawbone, and unseemly not to answer him fairly in the matter of your childlessness.”

  Joachim replied meekly : “The Lord forbid that I should dispute with any man on this holy hill, or harbour evil thoughts.” Then he turned to Reuben : “Tell me, Son of Abdiel, were there never found honourable men in Israel who remained childless to the last ?”

  “Find me the text that mitigates the force of the Lord God’s commandment that we should increase and multiply, and you may keep your place with good courage. But I think that not even the ingenious Hillel will help you over this gate.”

  All who stood in the line were now listening. A low laugh went up and a soft hissing ; then, for shame, Joachim lifted up his two bags of gold from the pavement and went down to the lowest place in the line.

  The news of his discomfiture ran quickly through the Courts of the Temple. The Doctors, when asked for an opinion, gave it in the same words : “He did well to yield his place ; there is no such text in the Scriptures, blessed be the name of the Lord !”

  Joachim offered his donation with the accustomed words, and the Treasurer pronounced a blessing on him ; but it seemed to him afterwards that the elders avoided his company as if he were a creature of ill-luck. He was about to return home with a sad heart when a Temple servant saluted him and said softly : “The word of a prophetess. Do not return to Cocheba, Benefactor, but remain here all night in prayer. In the morning ride out into the wilderness, towards Edom. Take only one servant, and as you travel abase yourself before the Lord at every holy place, eat only the locust-bean, drink only pure water, abstain from ointment, perfume and women, and continue southward until you are granted a sign from the Lord. On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which will be forty days from the beginning of your journey, be back here at Jerusalem. It is likely that the Lord will have heard your prayer and shown his mercy to you.”

  “Who is this prophetess? I had thought that her race was extinct in Jerusalem.”

  “A Daughter of Asher, an aged and devout widow, who waits in prayer and fasting for the consolation of Israel.”

  Joachim sent his servants home, all but one, and spent the night on his knees in the Temple. At dawn he rode out towards the wilderness with only the one servant at his back : he took no food with him but a bag of locust-beans, and no drink but pure water in a goat-skin bottle. On the morning of the fifth day, as he passed over the border into Edom, he fell in with a company of tented Rechabites, or Kenites, a Canaanite tribe with whom the Jews had been allied since the days of Moses. He saluted them civilly and was for passing on, but the tribal chieftain restrained him. “You will not reach water before nightfall, my lord,” he said, “unless you ride throughout the heat of the day, which would be cruelty to your beasts, and this evening the Sabbath begins, when it will be unlawful for you to travel. Be the guest of Rahab’s Children until the Sabbath has ended.”

  Joachim turned aside, and presently the Rechabites, who were of the smith-guild, pitched their tents in a valley where there was a little water. When the chieftain saw the face of his guest, which until then had been covered up against the heat and dust, he cried out : “Aha, well met! Is this not Joachim of Cocheba to whose corn-lands we come yearly in the winter with our lyres to sing praises to the Lord? Our young men and women tumble about on your rich plough-land together and offer up prayers that the grain may sprout sturdily and be heavy in the ear.”

  Joachim answered : “And is this not Kenah, Chieftain of the Children of Rahab? Well met! Your craftsmen repair the mattocks, sickles, pruning-hooks, cauldrons and kettles of my labourers, and your work is excellent. But the annual invitation to perform your rustic rites on my land comes from my bailiff, not from myself ; he is a Canaanite, I am an Israelite.”

  Kenah laughed. “Since we Canaanites have the more ancient title to the land, it is only reasonable to suppose that we know best which rites will please the Deity of the land. You cannot complain of your harvest, surely ?”

  “The Lord has been most bountiful to me,” said Joachim, “and if your intercession has carried any weight with him, I should be ungrateful not to acknowledge it. But how am I to know whether I stand in your debt or not ?”

  “Your bailiff has rewarded us well with sacks of corn from your bins, and though you may be unaware of your debt to us, we are well disposed towards you. By the same token, most noble Joachim, it was only three nights ago that I had a dream of your coming. I dreamed that you freely presented to my people the Well of the Jawbone, near Cushan, the same well that your neighbour Reuben grudges you : you gave it to us for a perpetual possession. And in my dream you called it a gift well bestowed, for your heart was dancing with gladness. You would have given us seven such wells had you possessed them, and all the sheep that watered there besides.”

  Joachim was not pleased. He replied : “Some dreams are from God, noble Kenah, but some from God’s Adversary. How can I tell what reliance to lay upon your dream ?”

  “By waiting patiently.”

  “How many days must I be patient ?”

  “It still wants thirty-five of the appointed number, or so I was assured in my dream.”

  Here evidently, thought Joachim, was the promi
sed sign. For how, except in a dream, could Kenah have learned of the forty days’ journey ordained by the prophetess?

  That night, in the black goat’s-hair tent, Joachim had no need to excuse himself from wine-drinking, for the Rechabites themselves are forbidden either to own vineyards or, except once a year at their five-day festival, when they also shave their heads, to consume any part of the grape—juice, seed or skin. But when he refrained from the tender mutton prepared for him, and from the little honey-cakes enriched with pistachio, and from the scented junkets, Kenah asked him : “Alas, most noble Joachim, are you sick? Or are you used to daintier food than ours? Or have we unwittingly offended you in some way, that you refuse to eat with us ?”

  “No, but I have a vow. Give me locust-beans and I will eat greedily.”

  The servant fetched him locust-beans. As they sat in peace together after they had eaten, a young man, Kenah’s sister’s son, seized his lyre and sang to it in a loud voice. In his song he prophesied that Hannah, the wife of an Heir of David, would presently conceive and bear a child, a child famous for many ages. Hannah would be one with Sarai of the silver face who had been long barren and laughed to hear the angel’s assurance to Father Abraham that she would presently bear him a child. Hannah would also be one with Rachel of the crisp curls, who likewise was barren at first, yet became the mother of the patriarchs Joseph and Benjamin, and through them the ancestress of countless thousands of the Lord God’s Israelitish people.

  The spirit of the lyre stirred in the singer and he seemed to swell before their eyes as in a changed voice he chanted of a certain mighty hunter, a red hairy king, whom three hundred and sixty-five valiant men followed into battle : how he rode in his ass-chariot over that very border in the days gone by and drove out the usurping giants from the pleasant valley of Hebron and from the Oaks of Mamre, beloved of Rahab. His garments were stained red with wine, and panthers bounded by his side, sweet of breath. The shoes on his feet were of dolphin-skin, a fir wand was in his hand, and a fawn-skin mantle covered his shoulders. Nimrod he was called. And another of his names was Jerahmeel, the beloved of the Moon.

  Then the Kenite sang over and over again : “Glory, glory, glory to the land of Edom, for the Hairy One shall come again, breaking the yoke to which his smooth brother, the supplanter, has subjected him !”

  He ceased singing but continued to thrum the strings meditatively. Joachim asked : “This Nimrod whom you celebrate, he is surely not the same Nimrod of whom the Scriptures tell ?”

  “I sing only what the singing lyre puts into my mouth.” He prophesied again : “Nimrod shall come once more. He shall soar aloft upon his eight gryphon wings, he shall make the mountains smoke with his fury—Nimrod, known to the three queens. Cry ha! for Nimrod, who is named Jerahmeel, and ha! for the three queens, each with her thrice forty maidens of honour! The first queen bore him and reared him ; the second loved him and slew him ; the third anointed him and laid him to rest in the House of Spirals. His soul was carried in her ark across the water to the first queen once again. It was five days’ sail in the ark of acacia-wood across the water. It was five days’ sail from the Land of the Unborn. To the City of Birth it was a five days’ sail ; five sea-beasts drew the ark along to the sound of music. There the queen bore him, and named him Jerahmeel, the Moon’s beloved.”

  He was singing a parable of the Sun, who turns about in his sacred year through three Egyptian seasons of one hundred and twenty days apiece. At midsummer he burns with destructive passion, and at midwinter, enfeebled by time, comes to the five days that are left over, crosses the gap, and turns about again ; when he becomes a child, his own son Jerahmeel. Both Jerahmeel and Nimrod were titles of Kozi, the red hairy Sun-god of the Edomites, but a smooth-faced Israelitish Moon-god had long usurped his glory. This usurpation was justified in the myth of Jacob and Esau, and also plainly established in the calendar of the Jews —who now let their year turn with the Moon, not with the Sun as in ancient days.

  Joachim said : “This child born to Hannah, will it be male or female? Prophesy again.”

  The Kenite, still radiant with the spirit of the lyre, answered : “Who can prophesy whether the Sun or the Moon was first created? But if the Sun, then let him be called the Sun’s name, Jerahmeel ; and if the Moon, then let her be called by the Moon’s name, Miriam.”

  “Is the Moon named Miriam among you ?”

  “The Moon has many names among our poets. She is Lilith and Eve and Ashtaroth and Rahab and Tamar and Leah and Rachel and Michal and Anatha ; but she is Miriam when her star rises in love from the salt sea at evening.”

  Joachim was seized with a doubt. He asked : “The lyre which you have in your hand is made from the branching horns of the clean oryx, but what of the strings and the pegs that secure them? What reliance is to be placed on your prophecy ?”

  “My lyre is of oryx-horn, made by the lame craftsman. The strings are fastened with the triangular teeth of the rock-badger, and are themselves the twisted guts of the wild-cat ; both of which you call unclean beasts. But this lyre was so stringed and pegged when Miriam played on it in the days before the Levitical laws were uttered. It was clean then, and it is clean now, in the hands of the Children of Rahab.”

  Joachim asked no more, and when the young man laid down his lyre he cried : “Be witness, poet, that if the Lord blesses my wife’s womb —for I am an Heir of David and her name is Hannah—and if a child is born to her, then I will make a free gift to your clan of the Well of the Jawbone, according to your uncle Kenah’s dream, and as many sheep as my wife and I together have lived years, which is now ninety. But the child I vow to our God as a Temple ward, whether it be Jerahmeel or Miriam, and I shall call you to witness in that also.”

  Cries of acclamation and astonishment arose. Kenah presented the young man with a jewelled quiver. “You have brought us all delight with your sweet song,” he said.

  Kenah himself took the lyre. He played and sang the lament for Tubal Cain. “We are of Tubal, alas for Tubal Cain! He was hornsmith and carpenter ; he was goldsmith and lapidary ; he was silversmith and whitesmith. He ordered the calendar, he codified the laws. Alas for Tubal the mighty, of whose sons only a remnant is left! It has gone hard with us since the day that the hairy male Sun went down behind the hills and a smooth male Moon rose again without him. Yet still we honour Mother Rahab with scarlet, purple and white ; all is not yet lost, nor are we the doomed folk that we seem. Is Caleb not of Tubal? In the likeness of a dog he minded the sheep of his uncle Jabal ; in the form of a dog he discovered the purple-fish for his uncle Jubal. Caleb is the perfection of Tubal. He reigned, ceased, reigned again, and will reign once more. When the hour comes, when the Virgin of the Moon conceives, when the Sun Child is begotten again in Caleb, when Jerahmeel puts on cloth of Bozrah scarlet and all the valiant men of Edom shout together for joy, then we will be a great people again, as in ancient times.”

  Kenah’s ecstatic words fell so wide of the Jewish Scriptures that Joachim piously stopped his ears against them ; yet wagged his head out of courtesy. He continued with the Kenites in their slow wanderings northward until the appointed forty days were nearly done ; then parted from them in friendship and hastened hopefully back to Jerusalem.

  Chapter Three

  The Birth of Mary

  MEANWHILE Joachim’s servants had returned to Hannah at Cocheba, but without any message from him. They said : “Our lord ordered us to return home, all except the groom ; our lord appeared to be resolved on a journey.”

  When she pressed them, they told her the Temple rumour of Joachim’s humiliation at the gate of the Treasury. She grew heavy-hearted and said to Judith, her little maid : “Bring me my mourning garments.”

  “Oh, mistress, is one of your kinsfolk dead ?”

  “No, but I am mourning for the child that will never be born to me, and for the husband who has left me without a word and gone, I fear, to search for a likely concubine, or it may even be for another wife.”

bsp; Judith tried to comfort her. “You are young yet and beautiful, and my lord is old. If he should presently fall sick and die, then it would be his brother’s duty by the Levirate Law to marry you and raise up children in his memory. Your husband’s brother is the younger by twenty years, and a hearty man with seven fine children of his own.”

  Hannah said : “The Lord forbid that I should ever look forward to the death of my husband, who has never stinted me in anything and is a just and devout man.” She cut her hair close to her head and continued to mourn while four Sabbaths passed.

  Judith came to Hannah early one morning. “Mistress, do you not hear the shouting and music in the streets? Do you not know that the Feast of Tabernacles is already upon us? Take off your mourning garments and let us ride up together to Jerusalem in the company of your neighbours to lodge with your sister there and celebrate the season of love.”

  Hannah said angrily : “Leave me to my grief !”

  But Judith would not leave her. “Mistress,” she cried, “your kinsfolk will be coming to the Feast from all the villages, and if you miss their gossip you will grieve for a twelvemonth. Why heap misery upon misery ?”

  “Leave me to my grief,” Hannah repeated, but in a gentler voice.

  Judith stood there boldly, arms akimbo and legs straddled apart. “There was a woman,” she said, “in the days of the Judges and she was childless like yourself, and of the same name. What did she do? She did not sit at home, mourning to herself like an old owl in a bush. She went up to the Lord’s chief sanctuary, which was at Shiloh, to welcome in the New Year, and there she ate and drank, concealing her misery. Afterwards she caught hold of one of the pillars of the Shrine and prayed to the Lord for a child, silently and grimly like one who at the sheep-shearing wrestles for a prize. Eli the High Priest, my lord’s ancestor, saw her lips moving and her body writhing. He took her for a drunkard ; but she told him what was amiss, how she was childless and how her neighbours taunted her. At this, Eli assured her that all would be well if she came to the Shrine to worship early in the morning while it was still dark. She did so, and nine months later a fine child was born to her, and a fine child indeed, for it was Samuel the prophet.