Journey of the Magi
Melchior stretched and stiffly turned in his camel’s qatab, or saddle, and groused lightly to Gaspar, “I’m too old for this long on camelback. Every trip it takes me longer to get my ground legs back. The emir once thought I was drunk when I went to his audience room upon my return from a long trip, until his nose caught whiff of the beast, not the flask, about me.”
His old friend chuckled over the favorite memory, then gasped, “Look! We’re here!”
They were just cresting a ridge. (the desert had suddenly turned to rocky hills the day before, shortly before they crossed the Jordan River and into Israel. Balthazzar, the youngest, and originally from the sands of Arabia, hadn’t been thrilled with the change to hard rocky ground.) Suddenly, they caught a glint of the noonday sun reflecting off of gilt buildings hugging a hill a few stadia and several more ridges ahead.
Melchior snorted, “I’d say we’re nearly there. It looks like it will take most of the rest of the day before we actually are there.” But he did sit in the qatab straighter and lean forward a bit in eagerness. The camels, sensing the anticipation sped up a gait.
He was right, they entered the Jerusalem gates about an hour before sundown. Balthazzar’s eyebrow quirked at the sight of the Roman guards on one side of the gate and the Hebrew guards on the other side. It was quite the contrast, in addition to the surprise of the Roman occupation this close to his homeland. The Romans were crisp and proud in their armor and red trim, and wore bored arrogance as naturally as a peacock his plumage. The Hebrew guards, in their uniform tunics, were also sharp, but there was a lack of sophistication to them that the Romans’ mere presence seemed to highlight. The defiant deliberation with which they ignored their conquering counterparts was a study indeed.
Even though the Jewish capital was used to elaborate entourages, their arrival did generate attention. The magis’ procession was dressed richly, even down to the servants, but the length of their journey proclaimed itself in the wear of their clothing. Melchior looked over the train while Balthazzar spoke to the guards.
It had started out with close to one hundred camels, sixty of them for baggage when they left Babylon. There had been one hundred fifty soldier guards, another one hundred three servants of various rank, two dozen nobles, and twelve of the magi. Perathenor, their eldest and beloved head of their order had been too old to travel, yet insisted on coming anyway. They buried him in a cave overlooking a wadi three days before reaching the Syrian border.
About a fourth of their party were lost (including two other of their brothers) to various bandit raids. Once a tribe of Bedouins started to attack, until they realized the magi were leading the caravan, at which point they made peace, but begged for someone to come and be their healer. Jerumor volunteered. He was the best of them with herbs and his grandfather had been a nomad. Three more were lost to a disease that swept through the group from bad water. Riertazzar and Daalgior had merely come along for a chance to visit the areas in which they were born, and would make their own way back to their study center. All that remained of their proud procession were the three magi, seven nobles, forty eight servants and seventy two guards, and thirty one camel, a large merchant train, but not the royal honor procession fit for their mission.
Finally, the caravan began moving into the city. He saw two of the Hebrew guards run ahead. All three magi swiveled their heads taking in the fabled city. Balthazzar commented to his colleagues, “Good thing we got here when we did. I was informed that at sundown, their Shabbat, or day of rest, begins and everything would be closed. The guards assured me they would give the king (Herod is his name) enough notice of us that all should be ready to receive us by sundown. Otherwise, we might well have had to camp outside the city until tomorrow night.”
Gaspar shook his head wearily, “Newborn king or no, this journey has taken my strength, and I had set great hope upon a royal welcome and a royal bed tonight. Heaven has blessed us indeed with our timing.”
Herod’s palace was a sight, but it held not quite the grandeur of the Mesopotamian palaces of their home. As they entered the courtyard and groomsmen ran to help them off the camels and start moving their gear, to be done before Shabbat, the magi stretched, attempting to uncoil their locked muscles with dignity and decorum. Balthazzar looked through a gateway to the gardens and smiled wistfully. “Shaneiria would love this place. She has a fondness for gardens and green things.”
Many of the magi came from across the area encompassed by the ancient Assyrian empire. Melchior was Babylonian and groomed for his job from birth, including the castration ritual when he was a year old. Gaspar, a Persian, also was a eunuch. However, Balthazzar, from Arabia, had come to Babylon after puberty, and was given the option. He chose not to become a eunuch, had married some years ago, and Shaneiria was expecting their firstborn. Indeed, it was likely she had already given birth, as she was near term when the heavenly sign appeared and this pilgrimage organized. Balthazzar was struggling with being so far away.
The chief steward of the palace came out as the sun was touching the horizon, followed by servants bearing wet cloths and drinks. “Welcome, my lords. Come in and refresh yourselves.”
They entered the palace where more servants waited to wash the dust of their journey from their feet. Upon completion of that, they were led to a feast hall where a great dinner was laid out. The steward of the feast, one Yakov, bid them to recline and begin. Melchior asked in puzzlement, “where is my lord, King Herod? Is he not here to greet us himself? We have come from Babylon for the express purpose of honoring the king newly born here in Israel, and yet, I see no signs of the blessed event, and my lord the king does not appear himself.”
At the mention of a newborn king, all of the palace servants froze and went pale. A couple dropped what they were holding. Concerned, Gaspar asked urgently, “What is wrong? Is the child well?”
Yakov stammered, “Child, my lord? Newborn king? What is this tiding you bring us? We know nothing of this? As for our lord the king, he is preparing for the Shabbat, and will see you when he has finished his worship.” (This was untrue. Herod was only as devoted as his office required. He would deliberately insult guests by not greeting them upon their arrival, but listen to see if their discomfiture would cause them to reveal more of their business than they would if he followed the demands of hospitality.)
The magi resumed an appearance of serenity, but they looked at each other and volumes communicated through their gazes. Melchior was stunned. “Has no one seen the proclamation in the heavens, the star that declares his birth? We have followed it all the way from the East to here, and you know nothing of it?”
In the next room, Herod was even more astonished. He instantly sent for his advisors, then entered the feast room, greeting them with an appropriately apologetic and welcoming expression on his face. He didn’t like being blindsided, and he was going to get caught up as fast as possible and then decide what to do with these foreign strangers who were disrupting his court. When rumours of this got out, it would only feed the unrest lurking under the surface. He would not share his crown! Any threat to his power must be eliminated, even if they were foreign dignitaries. He was convinced even Yakov eyed his crown with a view to more than keep it polished.
“My guests! Welcome! Come under my roof, and share my food. We delight to offer the shade of hospitality to strangers such as you.” The feast began. Herod questioned them carefully on the purpose for their visit, the timing of the star’s appearing, their journey, and what all they knew or thought on the subject. His scribe wrote down every word said in that room. Herod even led them to a balcony so they could point out the star. He seemed interested but unimpressed. Melchior wasn’t even sure he really saw which star they pointed out. The small entourage of advisors seemed more interested, and the whole display was probably more for their benefit than the king’s.
After the feast was over, Herod commended them to their quarters and bid them to use the Shabbat to recover from their journey, while his scholars sought answers about the location of the child.
Afterwards, once they were ensconced in their chambers and had insured that they were alone with no eavesdroppers, they discussed their amazement. Melchior was simply floored. They had no idea when the star appeared? Granted, it wasn’t some blazing torch that any casual observer would note, but this was Israel, it was Jerusalem. His order’s greatest mage, Belteshazzar, was from here! He’d even prophesied this event 500 years ago! Melchior has assumed that the Jews were all renowned scholars and prophets, or at least had a higher percentage of great ones than anyone else. It was one reason why he’d been so eager to make this journey, to visit Belteshazzar’s homeland and see the land that produced such a wise man. He reflected that his anticipation was something akin to hero worship and he found his idol wanting. Maybe there was something the Divine was trying to teach him through this.
As he expressed these thoughts, Gaspar replied, “I asked one of Herod’s counselors about this while we were on the balcony after pulling him aside. He replied that all of Israel’s prophets, including Belteshazzar, whom they call Daniel, all receive their power and knowledge directly from the hand of their God, whom they do not name aloud, nor have any images. He sadly admitted that God has been silent for 400 years, even through traumatic times for the nation. He is afraid God has abandoned them. I’m not sure, but he mentioned something about an expected Saviour, and there was an undercurrent of hope that the child we’ve come to see is indeed this Messiah, but he seemed afraid of being too open about it as a servant of Herod.”
This all made sense to Melchior. Many of the order studied the Jewish Holy Scrolls, and some even followed its dictates, a lasting legacy of Belteshazzar. Melchior himself was a nominal observer of Jewish customs and morays, as were his two companions, one key reason why they interpreted the star as a Jewish king, and had come. No, he thought, more than a king. The star’s path screamed more than a mere king and indicated something divine, and a holy messiah would fit the bill, and foretold of great things. His recollection from the Jewish worship book, the Psalms, declared the coming of a King of kings. Great things were coming, indeed. Which made it all the stranger how the Jews were so ignorant.
The next day stretched into two, then three. They were feasted and honored, but did not see Herod at all. The rest was welcome though, and they began to feel more normal and less a mobile part of the desert.
Finally, they were quietly summoned into the king’s presence late one afternoon. Herod looked smugly pleased. He gestured to his advisors, who spoke up. “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” They then gave directions, Bethlehem being only five miles south of the capitol
Herod instructed the magi, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage,” then dismissed them.
Having suspected they would get the information they needed from this audience, they had instructed their servants to prepare to leave afterwards. Climbing into the qatab one more time brought no joy to the older men, but Balthazzar seemed nonchalant. “At least,” quipped Gaspar, “this is a short ride.”
It took them about ninety minutes to reach the small village. As they paused at the base of its small hill, they wondered aloud about lodging for the night. While there were inns in the town, something made Gaspar uneasy. So they bid their caravan to make camp outside of town, while the magi and their personal servants went on into the town.
By this time it was dark enough that the star they had followed was now visible in the sky, and wonder of wonders, it was still leading them, moving as they moved until it stopped when they came even with a humble carpenter’s shop with living quarters above in the poorest part of the village. It was late enough that the streets were deserted, but lamplight still burned in most windows, including those above the carpenter’s. They looked at its humility and then at each other. This had not been a normal pilgrimage by any stretch of the term, but it partially explained why the palace and temple had been caught flat-footed by their arrival. Their servants gathered the gifts they’d brought.
Balthazzar, being the most limber, dismounted his camel first and his servants rapped on the door. The closer they’d gotten to this place, the more a strange glow filled the dark Arab’s eyes. He was a very big man, especially for an Arab. Melchior suspected he had some Nubian in his heritage, but never asked. He’d been their main speaker as he was most familiar with the spoken Hebrew tongue, so letting his more youthful impatience take the lead over the customary age etiquette did not arouse too much objection from the elder magi.
They saw a light appear in the slats of the shop’s shutters as a lamp descended the stairs. The door opened to reveal a man in his late 20’ or early 30’s. He was an average, unremarkable Jewish peasant. His yarmulke was simple linen. He was muscular as befitted his trade, and his robe was old and worn, but clean, the mark of someone in great poverty but who took pride in taking care of the little they had. Melchior instantly took a liking to this obviously honest and devout man. When the carpenter saw the nature of his guests, his eyes popped, and he was speechless.
Balthazzar spoke gently. “Sir, we are travelers from a great distance, from Babylon. We have seen the signs in the heavens telling of the birth of your son, and we have come to honor him. May we come inside?”
The shock on the man’s face only increased, but he had his wits about him by then, and bowed, “My lords, you speak of great things, but please, enter, and what hospitality we have to offer is yours.” Another man of similar age behind him ran upstairs at this. He continued, “My name is Yosef ben Heli. My son, Yeshua, was born about eight months ago here in Bethlehem, though we are originally from Nazareth. We have nothing to offer lords such as yourselves, but what we have is yours. We were just beginning to eat. Please join us, and as long as you are here in Bethlehem, our home is yours, please remain as our guests, if it pleases you.” Apparently not used to speaking so many words at once, especially to strangers, he ended his invitation almost abruptly, and said no more as he led them upstairs.
Almost miraculously, there were six new places at the table. It was now an extremely crowded room, that served as dining, living and communal bedroom when the weather did not allow them to sleep on the roof. In addition to the low table now in the middle, there were colorful rugs on the floor, faded and worn, but again, clean. All of the furniture was of wood, sturdily made, not fancy but of very good quality. An olive oil lamp shone in each window, surrounding the room in light, the flames discouraging insects from coming into the home. It was obvious there were two families living in the cramped space, four adults and three children of various ages.
Thus, it took them a second to find the young girl holding a large infant to her breast shyly in the corner. Balthazzar’s eyes shone with unshed tears. Upon their arrival, the girl ended the boy’s meal abruptly. The child whimpered once, then fell silent.
The magi fell to their knees and prostrated themselves as much as the room allowed, while their servants bowed holding out ornate chests. Melchior, the oldest, rose first, took his servant’s chest, opening it as he laid it at the girl’s feet. “Gold I offer you Lord, as befits the King of kings.” He backed away.
Gaspar smoothly took his place, kneeling as he proffered his open chest. “Frankincense is my offering, as to the one true intercessor between God and man.”
Balthazzar took his turn, kneeling as the others. “Myrrh is my gift, to anoint, solace and comfort.” Before he could rise, the baby twisted suddenly in his mother’s arms straining to reach the Arab. Balthazzar started instinctively to reach for him, his eyes darting to the mother’s in concern and hope. She smiled uncertainly and reached out.
The father who had yet to meet his own son of the same age took the child and clasped him close, and the child returned the embrace. Balthazzar’s eyes closed in joy and tears ran freely from them down his dark cheeks. No eye was dry in the room.
Time stilled. Finally, the young mage pulled the child away and gazed at him. For his part, the child returned the gaze, then reached out, grabbing his beard in his tiny fist. Balthazzar laughed heartily, and all of the pent up emotion in the room released in great laughter. Gone were the class distinctions, mage and peasant, servant and lord. They were all human beings enjoying the blessings of a new life.
With the walls broken down, the families lost their uncertain shyness. Introductions were shared. They reclined at the table and gave thanks to the Most High and began to eat. The simple fare was, as you might expect, delicious, all the more so because of the fellowship that arose among them. Everyone shared their story.
Yosef and Miriam told of their unusual journey to Bethlehem for the census and the humble delivery room of the stable. The day after the birth, Yosef had gone to the market to find food, and had met Malachi the local carpenter, who instantly took them in. They had set up shop together. With the town bursting at the seams from the census, work was coming in faster than Malachi could handle it, so Yosef was a godsend. Malachi’s oldest son was just learning crude woodworking, and the youngest was too young to do more than sweep shavings and sawdust. His daughter helped Miriam care for the infant.
They visited late into the night, each mage getting time to hold the child, but none so long or often as Balthazzar. Miriam insisted on him holding the baby as much as he wanted when she learned of his own son. Finally, the magi gratefully accepted their invitation to join them in sleeping on the roof.
Some hours later, both Yosef and Balthazzar woke suddenly with fear and determination in their eyes, which met with shock and unspoken agreement. They quietly roused their respective parties. Each had received warnings of Herod in a dream. The magi were to leave and return to Babylon immediately, bypassing Jerusalem entirely and by a wide swath. Yosef was to take Yeshua and his mother to Egypt that night. As all prepared to leave, Melchior put a blessing on Malachi for his hospitality, which each of the others reinforced.
As they prepared to part ways, Balthazzar dismounted his camel and presented the reins to Yosef, holding Yeshua while Miriam climbed on. He gave the baby a final hug and handed him up to his mother.
After returning to the camp and rousing everyone, they set out east to the Jordan, intending to follow it north until they got to the Babylon road. As they moved away from the village, Melchior sighed. “This was more incredible than I could have imagined. I just wish I didn’t have to finish it with three more months in this accursed qatab.” Gaspar and Balthazzar roared with laughter as they switched their mounts to a trot.