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Ancient Testaments: Chapter 44: A Serpent and a Prince

In Chapter 43, 16-year-old Joseph was working in the quarry near Nazareth with his father, Jacob. They were joined by a boy named Boaz, Mary's little brother. As they concentrated on their work, they did notice not the agitated tzefa, a deadly snake of the Middle East, near Joseph's feet. Chapter 44 continues with this scene at the quarry.Chapter 44 — A Serpent and a PrinceBecause Boaz looked to see what had drawn Jacob's attention, he witnessed the entire incident. With muted terror he saw the viper preparing to strike at a bare ankle of the unaware Joseph who was facing the other direction.Then next to where Boaz sat, he saw the sudden, unreserved leap of a father, casting himself from the high ledge.He saw Jacob land in that small space between the son and the dreaded tzefa. He saw the lightening-like flash of tzefa's body, the momentary clamping and pumping of tzefa's extended mouth on a father's burly upper arm amid the groan and crash and the scraping, colliding sounds of clothing, sandals and flesh against rocky rubble.Boaz was still frozen in horror as the viper escaped in the lower shadows and as Joseph whirled around to behold his father crumpled and unconscious on the ground."Is he alive?" Boaz asked as he scrambled down from the ledge."I think so!" Joseph called out, clearing stones out of the way. He picked his father up as carefully as possible, and asked Boaz to steady the head as they laid him on the large work area. "But he is not conscious, and he has so many injuries. What a terrible fall!"It would not be easy — nearly impossible — for a terrified young boy to explain everything, especially the part about a deadly snake Joseph never even saw. But Boaz had to try, and now."He did not fall. He jumped!" Then, with a sob Boaz was not expecting, he blurted, "There was a snake!" The trauma was settling on Boaz now more than ever. He did not want to cry, but that is what he began to do."A snake? Up there? What kind of snake?" Joseph asked as he looked up to the ledge and around the quarry.The last thing Joseph wanted to hear was the very word that Boaz spoke, "Tzefa!"Joseph's mind raced to understand. He quickly stooped down to look at Boaz in the eye. "Did it bite you?" he asked with sudden urgency.Boaz summoned control and explained in broken phrases. "No. It was here. Down here, Joseph. It was going to get you. Jacob jumped, all the way down. And tzefa bit him." The boy went to Jacob's arm and found the spot, already bright red like a great swollen, spreading burn, that had already progressed to the shoulder. And there were the marks of the fangs. Tidy, distinct, real and appalling beyond words. Boaz said no more, but only pointed at the wound and sobbed. There was no need to say more.It takes time for any mind to respond to unwelcome events. But as quickly as he could absorb the truth, Joseph reacted. He removed long cords of leather from his father's sandals and tied them together for a tourniquet. A sense of futility tore at Joseph's heart as he realized that the venom, now so high on the arm, was already invading Jacob's torso.Joseph used his mouth to draw some of the poison from the bite itself, repeatedly spitting its bitterness on the ground. These measures taken, Joseph picked up his father and spoke urgently to Boaz. "Run up and tell Shayah and whoever else you meet what has happened. Maybe ... someone knows of a cure for the venom. I will have Yetsiv help me bring him home."Boaz, still crying and yet afire with energy, took the same route up as he had taken downhill several hours before, straight up through the switchbacks and somehow he went faster this time. Strangely, he was not watching for snakes now. He ran through the brush with abandon, daring any viper to come in his path. Once through the city gate, he delivered the news to Shayah and then sped to his own house at the east end of Nazareth.To Joseph, the journey uphill seemed to be the longest he had ever known, though he ran all the way. Yetsiv knew this was an emergency, and did not need encouragement to hurry. Joseph could not bear to simply throw Jacob's body across the donkey's back as if it were a corpse. He chose to sit his father upright and run alongside, holding him in place.The whole thing was, of course, like a nightmare. Jacob's head, always so fine and dignified, bobbed against his chest. His arms, always strong and graceful, were limp and dangling.Somewhere inside, Joseph wondered if there really could be a cure for the viper's strong venom. "Oh, Thou Mighty God of Heaven," he spoke out loud, "what wilt thou do for my stricken father? Remember his love for thee, his constant desire to do thy will. Have mercy upon him at this hour!" Between his prayers and his careful exertion and rushing along, Joseph wondered what new fate lay ahead for his father, and what new loneliness lay ahead for himself.As it turned out, by the time Joseph got half-way up the mountain, there were many friends, with many hands and arms to more gently carry Jacob up to his home. Such simple and hasty cures as could be offered, such as a plaster of strong herbs over the bite, were given en route. And yet, these were no match for the poison which was making it's way to the heart and from thence to Jacob's extremities.Situated in his own bed at home, Jacob lived only an hour more. Recovering somewhat from the blow to his head, and fighting the tide of delirium, he was conscious at the end. In that space of time, bruises and broken bones screamed at Jacob's mind from his legs and chest, muscle cramps gripped him in waves, and the nausea was constant. Through the confusion and pain he understood that he was dying. He knew that all this was temporary, soon to pass once and for all. And he knew he had a gift of time to speak once more with his son, and that it must be now.The home of Jacob Ben Matthan was larger than many, but only admitted a fraction of those whose admiration for him kept them in hushed and tearful groups around the house. Besides Joseph, Shayah and Tova were there, and a few other relatives were inside. Joseph specifically invited the family of Boaz to be with him as well.The fallen giant was evidently rousing in consciousness, for there were random movements of his hands, and patient groans. The cluster of loved ones moved closer, the ones in front kneeling down. Would he speak? They did not have to wonder this for long."Am I at home?" came the whisper. It was partly muffled by the swelling on one side of Jacob's face."Yes father. On your own bed."Coming up the mountain, Joseph had wondered. But now he knew that the pressing desire to get his father home was right."Thank you," Jacob breathed out. He took some moments to rest and then continued. "There are others with us?"Joseph told his father who was present."Good. ... I want them ... to hear."Somehow, the sense that Jacob was trying to speak his last words pressed new tears from the eyes of his audience as they leaned and shuffled forward ever so carefully."Joseph?""Yes, I am listening.""Joseph, ... he who fails to teach his son a trade ... is as if ... as if he taught him ... to be a thief." Jacob knew what he must say. But he needed more strength. He tried to relax, to recover."You have certainly not failed in this, Father, nor have you failed in anything else." Though they could not see why Jacob should speak of this, the listeners found themselves nodding with conviction. Surely no youth had ever mastered a trade more thoroughly than this son of Jacob had."But ... my hope ... my prayer ... has been to teach ... you more ... than this." The cramps stole into Jacob's legs and back and neck muscles and held him as with iron. In his heart, he begged for yet more time to speak. As suddenly as it came, the cramping diminished and he took his chance."Since you were little, I have sought to ... raise a king, Joseph. ... It is our lot. Kings ... true kings before God." At this unexpected statement, the minds of all were renewed in their close attention. This was not just a dying man uttering random words in his last confusion. Had they forgotten? Before them lay not only a good man, but an ambassador of the entire House of Judah, a rightful noble in long sacred history of Israel, a link between past and future.Joseph had no words. He could not take time to frame an answer, nor to wonder what the others were thinking. He had to focus. He must absorb, carefully attend to everything his father might say. He must remember every syllable. And, he prayed God to lengthen his father's time."Often have I studied ... to know, ... to know how to go about it. ... Not simply to ... be a king, but ..." Jacob took several breaths, "but to ... raise one." Jacob braced his mind for another wave of cramps. It did not come. It occurred to him that his body was too spent for cramps. So much weaker now. The nausea persisted. The fatigue was greater than anything he had ever known. But he could speak. He closed his eyes in concentration, and began again."That was it, ... to raise a true king. Every day ... great desire." Jacob's eyes opened and worked to focus, to find his son. "Ah. ... There you are. ... You are ... as Shayah says, ... a prince. ..."Finally, cramps came, but not as a surge. There was no energy for a surge. Jacob felt as if the sun were going down, as indeed it was beyond the walls of his home. It was descending, dimming — slowly, steadily fading."I have learned, Joseph. ... You too will need ... to know ... this raising of a king. You will ... raise him up ... on common things. ... Plain things, ... as the Great One intended. Raise him ... on the words ... of the prophets ... on the commandments of God. ... Raise him . ..."Jacob took a rest here, and Joseph sensed it would help if he reviewed. "Yes, Father. Raise up a king on the holy writings, and the laws of God. And common things, living humbly. The food of good and ordinary people, the clothes and home. Like we have here in Nazareth. Is that it?"Jacob wanted to nod, but his neck — his entire body — was now fully paralyzed. He whispered on. "Yes. Good. And ... to work, ... working hard, Joseph ... and to serve ... to be ever ... ever so ... generous."Joseph said aloud just what he was thinking. "I hear every word Father. I will not forget. Work, goodness, kindness." It occurred to Joseph that these things were not the way of most kings. This was not the world's notion of a glorious leader. But it was God's. His father's lifelong desire had led him to the simple and golden truth."There is more. ...""Yes?" Joseph found himself softly weeping. He knew he was about to hear his father's last words. He had avoided touching him because of the pain of broken bones. He did not know where to touch him. But now he picked up his father's hand and held it to him. "I am ready."Jacob felt the hand move, but there was no pain. He was cold. Joseph's face was dim, all was dim."The mother, ... Joseph. ... There must be ... the right mother. ... A mother ... for your king, ... for Israel's king. ... For God's king." Jacob thought of Mary, splendid Mary, the Sunbeam. But he could not see her. He could not take time. God would see to that, would see to the details. "Your wife, ... this mother. ..." Jacob rested and took another breath for his words, a last breath. "Let God chose the ... the mother ... of His king."Jacob was absolutely still. There would be no more cramps for him, no more delirium. There would be no more hot days, no more heavy stones to carry, ever again.Tova had thought to bring a lamp, already lit. Shushan had brought a candle, and she reached over and lit it from the flame of the lamp. These were the only movements for some time.Then, one by one, without words, with kind glances and nods, the loved ones withdrew from the room. Heli put a gentle kiss on Joseph's head, and signaled to his family that it was their turn to leave.Mary, daughter of Heli, paused at the curtain and turned back for another reverent look. Shayah and Tova remained with Joseph. Mary studied the scene carefully through her tears, knowing she would always want to remember it. She found Shayah smiling gently at her, as if to say that all would be well.


Notes to Chapter 44** The notes to Chapter 43 included the unequivocal assertion from James E. Talmage that, if the Jews had been politically sovereign at the time, ".... Joseph the carpenter would have been her crowned king. ..." (Jesus the Christ, p. 87). Of course, this suggests that Jacob (the source of Joseph's birthright), would have held that same role in his own time. (It seems reasonable to believe that, if Elder Talmage knew of this pivotal birthright, Joseph, Jacob and their forefathers were keenly aware of it as well.) With these things in mind, the author has adopted into this story the early death of Jacob, so that this kingly position spoken of by Elder Talmage could have fully rested upon Joseph's lonely shoulders by the time he appears in the New Testament account. This line of thought gives way to yet another supposition: that Joseph was the eldest son of Jacob, and very likely had no living mother or younger dependent siblings who would need him to care for them temporally. In other words, Joseph had no immediate family responsibilities to prevent him in good conscience from going to Bethlehem for the census (and the Birth), or to prevent him from being gone for two or more years (to Egypt) before returning to Nazareth.Read Chapter 45 in next week's Mormon Times