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Ancient Testaments: Before His Manger: Chapter 21 -- Crossings

In Chapter 20, Tova, wife of Bethlehem's Rabbi Shayah, instituted a little tradition which she wishes to call Shat Sippur — Story Time. She spoke of the first mother of mankind, and of the future birth of God's Son into a special lineage. While Tova told of those things, certain men of that very lineage were traveling northward through Samaria toward Galilee. They hoped to find a place of refuge for their families. In Chapter 21, these men have now entered the Jezreel Valley, with the hills of Galilee some 15 miles straight ahead.

Chapter 21 — Crossings

By the time Herod discovered that a clan in Bethlehem was preserving the line of Jewish kings, he was already experienced in crushing rivals. He had been king of Palestine for five years. Before that, he was governor over the northern end of Palestine, the area known as Galilee. Through this careful, self-protective career, he had proven himself a determined butcher of human life.

The names of his many victims are mostly forgotten to us. Whoever they were, Herod made certain that their lives were cut off amid unthinkable tragedy and even torture — so that people might fear him. Of course, each of those lives is well-known to the Creator. And each life is precious in the great scheme of things — far more significant than the combined achievements of King Herod the Great. This simple truth seems to have eluded Herod in mortal life, though he has given it careful thought for some 2000 years since.

One thing this king of Palestine did come to see in the days of our story was that murder was not always to his advantage. Though not yet a 40 year-old butcher, he was becoming a shrewd one. He was learning that bloodshed tamed people to death, whereas the mere threat, if that threat were deadly serious, could tame them into cooperation.

The threat usually worked. But not always.

A large, expansive fig tree grew along the rugged road leading into the Jezreel Valley. Under its shade, Eleazar, Matthan and Addi waited while an attachment of Roman soldiers passed from east to west through the valley.

It was now mid-morning. The three travelers had some fifteen miles to walk before reaching the commanding heights opposite them in the distance. The last of those miles would be slow ones, for three inevitable reasons: they would be traveling fatigued, in the dark, and uphill.

So they and their animals would use this break to their advantage. Already the incident just minutes before, in a cove of boulders inhabited by a cranky desert lynx, was receding into the past. Their minds had re-focused on the unknown future, which now drew nearer with every mile.

Eleazar in particular was not only conscious of the looming future, but of the dangers of the present. Ahead to the north was a hope for safety, though still shapeless and unproven. Behind them to the south was the sword of Herod. Exposed to that sword, even now, were their families, whom they had left almost defenseless in order to attend to this errand.

On the other hand, the errand was not a selfish one. Indeed, it was essential to the very purposes of God. Eleazar knew that at such times the Great One would see to the needs of those who did his will. Thus, in his heart was a faith-born certainty that their families were not defenseless at all, but only appeared so to the natural eye and the anxious mind. Really, they were in the best of care.

When the three donkeys had been relieved of their burdens, they immediately laid down for a much needed rest. Eleazar, running short on energy, longed to do the same. However, something in Isaiah's words came to mind, and it was accompanied by that sacred pressure he had come to trust. So he went to his loading, removed the long wooden cylinder containing a copy of Isaiah's writing, and pulled out the scroll.

The search began quickly, his fingers rhythmically turning the rolled ends as the familiar words quickly glided across his field of vision. He slowed the turning as he knew he was getting close, and at last stopped at these words:

"He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young."

If anything at all is true of the Messiah, Eleazar thought, it is this: he was and is and ever will be a shepherd, aware of each in his flock. In fact, the very impression that had drawn Eleazar to the scroll only minutes before, personal and gentle, surely was the Messiah leading him. It was a thought too wondrous to grasp, really. The Messiah himself, for whose coming this weary Davidic man was trying to prepare . . . the Messiah was personally leading that man down Jezreel's slope, inviting him to consider certain words of scripture that just happened to be among his belongings.

Eleazar looked up from the scroll and glanced at his young companions asleep against the base of the old fig tree. Addi, a descendant of David's shepherds, would understand this side — the personal, tender, watchful side — of Messiah's divine character.

Then Eleazar's eyes found his place again, and continued:

"Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?"

So Isaiah was asking a question. Who is so inconceivably mighty as all that? The answer was, again, Messiah. Who else? Eleazar looked through the boughs of the fig tree at the far side of the valley, and tried to imagine those colossal hulks of stone — the Galilean hills — being put in a merchant's balance to be weighed!

This particular shepherd is also a king, Eleazar reasoned, the grand sovereign of heaven and earth. Who can be at risk in the hand of such a king and shepherd?

Hand? Ah yes, these words spoke of Messiah's hand. He read them again.

"Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand ...."

If the seas and rivers, so awesome in their size and force, are small in the palm of Messiah's hand, surely we are safe there.

In the hollow of his hand .... Eleazar's eyes marched along past these words, but his mind kept savoring that thought. Yes, he realized, our job is simply to follow his gentle leading. If we do, we will be secure in the hollow of his great hand.

At length, his mind caught up with his eyes, and he slowed down for these words:

"Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket ...."

Eleazar thought immediately of Rome, and smiled. If the vast waters of the earth are held so easily in the hollow of his hand, what is Rome? A drop of water. No more.

He looked out at the valley, scanning for those soldiers passing through, and realized two things. First, the threatening forces of Rome or any other nation are but a little attachment passing through, they are, as Isaiah would say, "the small dust." Seen from a distance, those soldiers were in perfect perspective — dust specks. He hoped to remember that the next time he might face them up close.

The second thing Eleazar realized was that those soldiers were not only small specks, but they were getting smaller. They had now passed the line of his travel. It was time for the pilgrims to move on.

During their long day of walking — made so much longer because they had now been walking the better part of two days and one night — each man knew it was best to speak only of courageous and comforting themes.

If Tova had been along, she would have suggested stories of their forebears — stories of persistent faith in a living God. As it was, Eleazar did his best to quote the words of Isaiah to his young companions. He reminded them of Messiah, who is both the great shepherd and the great king. He repeated his conviction that they and their families were perfectly safe in the hollow of Messiah's hand.

But, despite these truths, each man was weary. In the silent courses of thought, each was conscious that this was an uncharted journey. In repeating cycles, each was reminded of a hatred burning in the heart of a powerful and ruthless new enemy named King Herod. And each man longed to know that his family was still safe back in Bethlehem.

During a mid-afternoon stop near a road crossing in the valley, Eleazar at last said, "Look, you two. I think we each have some strong feelings here. One feeling is that the Lord God is with us and our families. But the other is that a great danger hangs over our families. Am I right?"

They nodded.

"Well then, these feelings must fit together somehow. Surely we do not have to choose one or the other."

"Father," Matthan said, "are you saying that both feelings are right?"

"Yes," Eleazar said with a firm nod, "and I think they fit together in one guiding principle." He smiled and added, "Can I tell you what it is?"

The two men nodded again, as Addi spoke up for both of them. "Please do," he said.

"God will be with us and our families," Eleazar began, "if we will do two things. One is to keep his commandments, of course. But the other is to get on with this, to keeping moving as fast as we can."

"You mean," Matthan ventured, "tired as we are, we need to hurry, right? Push ourselves?"

"Exactly, son," Eleazar said. "That is my feeling. We are a tiny flock in an emergency. His hand will move the flock quickly. The pace will try us. But if we will just keep up with his hand, we will be safe."

"You have reminded me of a great event, in the days of Moses," Matthan put in. "Do you know what I'm thinking of?"

Eleazar nodded. "Sure. The one our family used to act out together at Passover time."

"You mean the Passover meal?" Addi asked.

"No," Matthan explained, "something we did on our own. Father would take us to the brook below town, in the east pasture. It would usually be full of water in the spring. He would look back over his shoulder at the cliffs below Bethlehem, and tell us that the armies of Pharaoh were coming. For us children, it was easy to imagine. Even as we got older, when I knew we were only acting out a story, I could imagine the fear that was in the hearts of our fathers, facing the Red Sea and wondering how we would survive. And my little sisters — they would see the look on Father's face, and the look on mine, and year after year, they would start to cry. I'll never forget that, how the children of Israel must have felt in that impossible situation."

"I get it," Addi said. "The Lord would open the way, but still you had to hurry, right?"

"I had to hold them back," Eleazar chuckled. "After all, I was Moses. They weren't supposed to cross until I gave the word. Sometimes they would start crossing, and I would say, 'Wait, I haven't parted the waters yet.' So they would come back and I would command the Red Sea, and we would hurry across."

"For the people of Moses," Matthan said, "it was maybe ten miles or so. You can imagine how they hurried along that miraculous pathway. For our family down in the pasture, the brook was just ten steps. But even then, we hurried."

"So, here we are at a crossing," Addi announced, "and we too need to hurry." Addi looked off to the right and then to the left at the famous highway that travels the length of the valley. "But, ... which way?"

"Well," Eleazar said, "I've been assuming that after this rest we would go east. But ..."

The highway went west as well, of course, but that direction led away from Galilee. Their only other path was straight ahead, along a smaller, unmaintained road. It seemed to lead nowhere except to a desolate canyon north of them.

They considered these choices as they readied themselves and their animals to move again. In each heart was the same prayer, that he who had thus far led them would make known the way to go.

On one hand, a highway is the obvious choice at a time like this. There was certainly no good reason to risk hours exploring an unpromising canyon at the foot of a mountain. But on the other hand, each man somehow felt that the rough course to the north was waiting just for them. Instead of expressing this thought, however, they stood staring quietly in that direction for a minute or so. The donkeys stood waiting for some voice of direction, and the men seemed to be doing the same.

Suddenly, a voice did sound. All of them, even the donkeys, took note of it. It was faint at first, from somewhere far off. It was not giving them direction, however, nor was it the gentle voice a person of faith listens for at such a time.

The voice was, in fact, an unfriendly one, gruff and angry. And if they were not mistaken, our friends from Bethlehem could just make out a few of the words — profanities and cursings.

To be continued next week on Mormon Times

Note to Chapter 21

** Isaiah 40:11-15.