Solace - a story set in Biblical times
Offers readers a taste of the world into which Jesus was born
Availability: Usually despatched by return of post
Front cover: Photograph of caves in Qumran near the Dead Sea (by the author)
Paperback - 168 pages
John Owen Smith; ISBN: 1-873855-26-5; November 1997
Inside Flap . Back Cover . Excerpt . About the Publisher . Further information
In a country where physicians were rare, and a broken limb promised lifelong disability, six year-old Yedidyah breaks his ankle.
At a time when an illicit sexual relationship was punishable by death, Naftali falls in love with his half-sister Tamar.
In a community whose harsh code of conduct meant almost certain starvation for a transgressor, Rachamim breaks his vows.
Into the troubled lives of these people comes the unconditional love of One born to heal and save.
Cover photograph of caves in Qumran near the Dead Sea (by the author)
'Solace' offers readers a taste of the world into which Jesus was born. An oppressed people struggle to uphold the ancient customs, pray and sacrifice at Herod's magnificent Temple, plot against the Romans and face cruel retribution.
At Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea, the mysterious Essene sect practice their own form of worship, living the disciplined monastic life described in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and going through the land to heal the sick.
It is the world of a humble stable, and the rise of the Star of Forgiveness.
A small god
Never had earth smelled so sweet from recent rain, never had sun risen on so perfect a day, so special a day, as this the Eve of the Passover. And never had Yedidyah felt so impatient in all his six years.
After so many days of preparation! So many days of enduring his mother's endless sweeping and cleaning; their small house strangely bare as she banished the animals from the room, airing out all the familiar wintery smells. How she had scolded if the children brought inside so much as a single leaf or twig stuck in hair or clothing, how keenly he'd felt her blows when he'd touched utensils set aside for purification. He'd escaped to the roof, where the blankets and cloaks had been spread to dry, consoling himself with the odour of damp wool.
And then at last, with the preparations over, and the promise of the coming Feast, so exciting and different, to have been sent all the way to Bet-Lehem with his brother Reuven, just to bring back Aunt Rivka. It must be Rivka's fault the donkey was so slow, she was weighing him down with her heavy frame and her big bundle of provisions.
"Can't we go any faster?" he fretted, tugging at the donkey's halter.
Reuven whacked the animal's rump, sending the donkey skittering forward on the path, sharp little hooves scattering stones.
"We'll get there in good time," he laughed.
They'd been away two days; an eternity! Two days was too long. He missed Hamoud, he even missed his sister Shoshana, and tonight of all nights, he needed to be home early. For tonight at the Passover feast, he, Yedidyah, would have the honour of asking the four ritual questions. It was his right as the youngest son, and he wanted to be ready for it.
Loosing the donkey's halter, skipping along the winding path, kicking up the stones, Yedidyah chanted the first question in his high child's voice.
"Why is this night different from all other nights?"
He glanced enquiringly at his aunt, sagging solid on the donkey. "Why is this night different? Why?"
Rivka avoided his gaze, suddenly absorbed in studying her swollen ankles poking from beneath the voluminous black robe. He'll find out soon enough, poor lamb, she thought.
The little party rounded yet another curve of the narrow path, and there it was. At last! The village of Bet-Zayit, no more than a small huddle of simple houses ringed by ancient olive trees, hugged the slopes in the shadow of the great city of Jerusalem.
Whooping with pleasure, Yedidyah darted off the path. Scrambling over sun-baked rocks, he snatched up a fistful of small spring flowers and raced homewards, dusty yellow hair flying, torn tunic flapping round sturdy brown legs.
His mother was standing at the entrance to the house.
"Imi, Imi, Shalom we came!" Yedidyah panted, flinging himself at her, butting his head into her belly, where the baby was, smelling the homely smell of her dress, thrusting the flowers into her hands.
"Shalom and blessings," Leah replied, straightening her shawl. "Did you enjoy the visit to Bet-Lehem?"
"It's better at home! Mother I'm off to see the sheep now. I've thought of little else. Did Shoshana look well after Hamoud while I was gone?" He turned to race away, eager to see the beloved pet he had tended since his father entrusted the small lamb to his care. But Leah was too quick catching the boy by the back of his tunic.
"Son, not now. Not now, Yedidyah. Your father will soon be back from prayer, guests are coming for the feast; and just look at you!" She wrinkled her thin nose," What sort of a boy celebrates the Passover so covered in dust? Today you bathe. Surely you hadn't forgotten? I've prepared everything for you at the side of the house. She pushed her son firmly, "Go and see."
"But Mother, the sheep. It won't take long. I'll be back so quickly, you can't..."
"There isn't time now," she said crossly, "Yedidyah, go and bathe."
He forgot some of his disappointment when he saw the bath. His mother had placed a vat of water strewn with herbs, in the sun to warm, and the water glinted, pleasant and inviting. At the side of the vat, on a coarse linen cloth, there was even a small rare cake of soap, made with the costly oil of ripe olives. The child picked it up, sniffing at its lavender scent. And there too, was his new robe, hand-woven by his mother, to wear to the celebration. He glanced around; no one was looking! Shuddering with anticipation at this unusual treat, Yedidyah peeled off his tunic. Shielding his small manhood with his hand, he stuck one tentative foot in the water, then the other, and slowly immersed himself in the bath.
Unaware that a man had crept up and was watching him from behind the gnarled trunk of an olive tree, the boy tested the water. Sprinkling drops on his head, he laughed with delight, scrubbed at his hair with the soap, held his breath, dared to sink his face in the water. Enjoying the feel, exploring the depths, shaking his head so that the long hair flung droplets over the dusty ground, Yedidyah lingered in the bath. The parts of his body usually hidden by his tunic were paler than the rest of him. Clothes change the colour of your body, he thought, admiring the pattern on his foot where the sandal strap had been. He stayed until his skin puckered, then hopped out, dried himself quickly, and wriggled into the scratchy new robe. Perhaps there was still time to visit the sheep, he thought excitedly.
But his mother was back. "Are you ready, Yedidyah? The guests are here waiting to start the celebration. Let me see if you're clean." She scrutinised the young neck, pulling strong fingers through the damp tangles of his hair. The man behind the tree winced, but Yedidyah bore it in silence, hoping he'd make a quicker escape if he kept still; but Leah took him fast by the hand.
"Now come son," she said, "and see the festive table."
Suddenly shy in his new finery, the boy let himself be lead into the house, where he drew in his breath, "Ah!"
The room was so different tonight. Small stone lamps, set in wall recesses, held golden flames. Two candlesticks, tallow candles as yet unlit, stood on the long low board serving as a table. A ritual dish held symbols of slavery and suffering; herbs bitter as the tears of the Hebrew, captives in a strange land, and a paste of fruits, dark as the mud they used, making bricks under the Egyptian sun. There was also a pile of unleavened bread, baked in memory of those who fled with Moses to freedom, snatching up the dough before it had time to rise.
Avinoam, Yedidyah's father beamed at his guests, proud to be welcoming them tonight. Besides his wife's sister Rivka, who came every year from Bet-Lehem, there was the neighbour Daniel, recently widowed, with his pale sickly daughter, Ruhama, and old simple Jacob, eager for the coming feast.
Leah, with her small daughter Shoshana clinging to her skirts moved to light the festive candles, praying with outstretched hands and It was time for the celebration to begin.
Everyone reclined round the table, candle light flickering over listening faces as Avinoam began to recite the Passover story. Yedidyah could picture it quite clearly: the Hebrew slaves wincing under the whip of the overseers; the cries of the Egyptians plagued by the Lord with rivers of blood, with frogs and boils, with darkness; and most awful of all, with the death of their first-born children. But the Angel of Death had spared the Children of Israel and they'd swarmed out of Egypt, carrying that flat bread, carrying their living babies; going towards the desert. Yedidyah was so entranced by the story, he almost forgot it was his turn to ask the questions, until his father gestured to him, and he stood up. With the unfamiliar taste of wine on his tongue, he began; "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
His teacher Naftali had trained his young pupil well, and Yedidyah remembered the other three questions too. "Why, on this night, do we recline, why do we eat unleavened bread, and why the bitter herbs?"
Avinoam had all the answers. The whole life of the family centred around God and His ways, and the ancient stories were handed on from father to son, from generation to generation. The guests Daniel and Jacob were quick to join in, filling the ears of their listeners with stories of miracles and wonders.
The nightmare started when the meal was served.
Frozen in his mind, as in an evil dream, he saw his mother's hand, holding the ladle. An unfamiliar aroma greeted his nostrils as she poured broth, sharp with herbs, into the waiting bowls. He was aware of his sister's hot little hand, insistent fingers tugging at his sleeve, as she mouthed one word, "Hamoud." Slowly, dreadful understanding engulfed him. He got to his feet, clutching at the table covering, upsetting the wine, gaping at the stain on the whiteness. In the long silence which followed, he was aware of the compassion in Ruhama's face, of his father's guilty eyes, of Shoshana shrinking in her festive dress, the other guests staring. Yedidyah's mouth opened, but no sound came as he rushed from the room.
Reaching the lean-to in the courtyard, Yedidyah pulled open the rough barrier with frantic fingers. He knew it! Sheleg, the white sheep, dozed alone. His companion, Hamoud, who was so precious, was gone; those pale pieces of meat in the broth, all that was left of him. Retching, Yedidyah flung himself down close to the remaining sheep, and buried his face in the woolly pelt. Great sobs tore up from his belly, and his feet hammered the earth in impotent rage. All night he lay there; and in the morning, his father came.
Twisting his hands together, he stood in Passover finery, taking in his son's swollen eyes and bedraggled hair.
"It was by the Lord's command, my son," he said at last.
"The Lord told you to kill the lamb? My lamb?"
"You heard the story of the Passover. When we were in Egypt, our people were commanded by the Lord to slay a lamb, and smear the blood on the door-post, so the Angel of Death would pass over, and spare our children."
"That was in Egypt; a very long time ago. We are not in Egypt now. It isn't like that now. Why my lamb? You never killed a lamb before, so why now? Why didn't you tell me? You sent me away to Bet-Lehem, so I wouldn't see you kill him. I loved that lamb, and now he's dead."
Avinoam had never justified himself to a child before, but now he said "It's the first time we had enough money for the sacrifice. It's a great honour to obey the Lord's command. Try to understood. It's by the Lord's command," he repeated lamely.
"Then I hate the Lord!" Yedidyah burst out. Avinoam felt a stab of fear. "Son, hush. Never say that again." Relieved to be back in the parental role, he snapped, "Now come to the house and wash. We'll go together to the House of Prayer."
"No!" It was the first time Yedidyah had defied his parent, and Avinoam's compassion died. "You will come," he ordered, gripping the boy's thin wrist.
"No," Yedidyah yelled again, as silently Avinoam dragged him homewards. No child could be allowed to question the authority of a father. His son must obey, even if he had to resort to beating him. His patience was up. It was enough! Sensing this mood in him, Yedidyah let himself be lead, powerless in the face of his father's determination.
The House of Prayer stood a little apart from the village. Built by hard-working inhabitants, it was the villager's pride and joy. Men had sacrificed time and labour to build it, often going hungry as they donated hard-earned coins to pay for its simple furnishings. On this festive day, it was packed. The whole village was there, even the women, safely penned behind a trellis lest they corrupt the men with wanton eyes, and distract from the prayers. Light filtered through latticed windows, illumining thick walls and low roof beams, and a wooden podium round which the men clustered. Wearing a fringed prayer shawl of unbleached wool edged with black stripes, Simon the village elder, face and beard fresh-washed for the occasion stood swaying with emotion, as he recited the story of the Passover, punctuated by fervent shouts of thanksgiving from the worshippers.
In the corner nearest the door, Amnon swayed with a different emotion, eyes darting outside to see if he was coming. What was keeping him, the child with the pale hair? The mother was here, the fat aunt, even the small sister; but the boy and his father were absent. Surely Yedidyah wouldn't miss this meeting? Amnon ached to touch that hair. He'd planned to do it secretly today in the crowded house, but now it appeared the boy wasn't coming.
But no! Here they came at last, father and son, the son quieter than usual, chastened. Amnon studied Yedidyah intensely, shading his face with his prayer shawl. The boy seemed to be muttering something.
From his place beside his father, Yedidyah whispered to God. "I can't forgive You. You had to kill a lamb once, to save the Hebrew children. I think I can understand that. But why do You need to do it every year? This time the Angel of Death didn't come for children; he came for the sheep." He scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve. "Naftali told me that my name, Yedidyah, means 'Friend of the Lord'. But that's all over now. I can't be Your friend. Not any more; not ever." He waited, frightened by his own boldness, but no mighty arm came through the roof to strike him down. He grew braver. "Are You listening?" No reply. It seemed the Lord was listening only to the sound of people praising Him for what He did so many years ago. Yedidyah lapsed into rebellious silence.
Then he had an idea, startling in its beauty. It was obvious! The God of the House of Prayer was cruel. A needless slayer of lambs. He, Yedidyah, would invent a god for himself, a friend to be with him always; one who would never hurt an innocent sheep. Yedidyah day-dreamed through the long service, and by the time he walked out of the synagogue, he was holding the hand of Eli. His new companion was his own age, and wore a tunic of brown and white stripes. He had curly black hair, large dark eyes, and an amiable disposition. He understood everything Yedidyah said, and would always help him. Eli was to go with him everywhere he went; a god entirely to his liking. As he walked home with the family, he held Eli by the hand.
Amnon, thwarted, watched him go.
"I'm hungry," Yedidyah said quietly to the new friend as they neared the house. "Sit by me to eat, and help me. I'm dreading going back in that room. If you're there, it won't be so bad." Eli understood. It was the first of many meals they were to eat together.
* * * * *
The synagogue reeked of unwashed children. Yedidyah preferred the days he helped his father make pots, but Avinoam, proud that his son was being taught to read and write, insisted he attend school.
The boys sat on the floor in the airless room, which hummed with the interminable drone of prayers. "Blessed art Thou, oh Lord, King of the Universe, who formest light and createst darkness, who makest peace and createst all things," the class chanted. Yedidyah's lips stayed firmly shut. Still angry with the Lord, he longed to be out on the hillside with Sheleg. His blue eyes narrowed as he thought how he'd sit in the fresh air, wind on his face; free. If he could only get out on the hillside, he could find another pretty stone for Ruhama. Lately she'd been too weak to help her father in the house, and now she was forced to sit under that old tree they had in the yard, doing nothing. I'd find her a better stone than the one I brought her yesterday, he mused. Maybe there's still a flower to be found, or perhaps a feather. Yedidyah liked Ruhama; she'd understood about Hamoud. She hadn't eaten even one piece of meat; maybe he could marry her, when she recovered.
Then he saw the ant. Fat and slow-moving, it edged its way along the dirt floor, making for the line of grubby bare feet. Stretching out his big toe, Yedidyah barred its progress, and when the tiny creature started off in the opposite direction, he bent forward and closed his fingers around it. Then, as the prayers hummed on around him, he quickly slid the ant down the neck of the boy beside him, who turned to glare, ringlets tossing.
There was a beam of dusty sunlight coming through the window, and someone had stood in it, blocking out the light. Yedidyah looked up to see the teacher Naftali staring straight at him. He seemed puzzled, dark brows drawing together in the finely sculpted face. Yedidyah tried to look innocent, but Naftali had noticed. With a fleeting gleam of amusement in his eyes, he motioned his disruptive pupil to leave the room, and Yedidyah marched out in triumph. He was free! Naftali wouldn't tell Avinoam. The teacher had been very indulgent lately...almost as if he didn't care what the boys got up to.
Once out of the oven-hot room, the child darted silently home. Arriving at the lean-to, he quickly opened the crude fastening, and Sheleg was out. Then the two made for the hills. "It was stuffy in there, wasn't it, Eli?" Yedidyah chattered. "I'm tired of all those prayers. I'm going to invent my own prayer; one I like. You'll like it too, you'll see."
Amnon, lolling against his favourite olive tree, caught sight of the boy making for the hills. An unexpected treat! His scruffy angel was moving fast, talking to himself, talking to that stupid sheep. It won't be long now, Amnon consoled himself, remembering the women's conversation at the well that morning, how they'd let slip some information he could use to get closer to the boy. Now the sight of the wiry body in the dirty brown tunic, the straight hair glinting in the sun, was working its usual magic. Feeling the familiar ache, he slid his hand under his girdle, moaning. As Yedidyah passed out of sight, Amnon settled back, spent, against the trunk of the tree, to wait for the child's return. He closed his eyes, savouring the sweetness of the coming meeting.
About the Publisher
John Owen Smith was born in 1942 and trained as a Chemical Engineer at London University, but spent most of his working life designing commercial Information Systems for the paper-making industry. Following redundancy, he 'fell' into researching and recording the local history of east Hampshire, where he now lives. His own output of historical community plays, lectures, articles and books includes:-
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