Jerusalem 70 A.D.
“You can’t stay. It’s just too dangerous now.”
My husband, Ethan, stands firm, like David before Goliath, and I know I’ve lost the battle. Maybe if I had phrased it differently. Maybe if I hadn’t said those words—“we are all going to die”—maybe then he wouldn’t be standing before me now with his hand on the hilt of his dagger as though drawing courage. But too late. My tongue has already betrayed me.
“Any day now, that jackal will be here with his siege works, for what’s left for him to conquer but Jerusalem?”
“Vespasian? I thought he was in Alexandria.”
“Yes, but his son, Titus, continues his push through Judea.”
This time the words drive me to the bear of a man I have loved for twenty-six springs. My head finds its familiar resting place on his chest. He smells of sweat and Temple incense. His beating heart thunders in my ear. And amid this thunder, I hear shuffling, and know, without seeing, that the footfalls are made by our sons.
I pull away and glance at the four young men behind Ethan. All are tall and strong and handsome. Any mother would be proud. But when my eyes drift to the blue tassels that trim their tunics, my stomach clenches. I have come to hate that trim. It’s the same trim that hangs from Ethan’s tunic, “to remind him of the commandments,” he says. Does he think I’m simpleminded? Does he think I don’t know that Zealots wear blue fringe?
When I look at my sons, I see my little boys in those faces, faces I have kissed and scrubbed and tended. But I also see the fire. Ethan says it can’t be helped, this fire which leaps from their eyes, for the blood of the Maccabees runs through their veins.
Ethan is a priest of Hasmonean lineage.
He has told me I should understand this fire, being the daughter of a priest myself, for Rome’s authority is in conflict with the Law of God. But I don’t understand. To me it’s madness. Yes, madness. I will call it by name. For what else would compel men to hurl themselves into a fight they cannot win? My voice has cried out against this fire. God is my witness, it has. I’ve told Ethan it’s one thing to revolt against that dog, Antiochus, King of Syria, as the Maccabees did nearly two hundred years ago, and quite another to disrupt Pax Romana.
Oh, why can’t he see it’s folly to fight the Roman Empire?
“Come now. Get ready,” Ethan says with discernible tenderness in his voice.
“No! I won’t go!” a voice wails behind me.
Without turning, I know it’s Esther. “You’ll do as your father says,” I respond, forcing my voice to sound stern, for my heart is not in my words.
“I won’t leave my husband. I won’t leave Daniel! He’s already paid the bride price and we have drunk from the same cup. He has only to prepare the bridal chamber. Once it’s finished and we . . . well . . . maybe after that if . . .”
I glance at Ethan, and though I try not to, I know my eyes plead. Can’t we stay?
“There is no ‘after’ or ‘if’,” Ethan says, ignoring me, but answering my question too. His strong muscular legs erase the distance between himself and Esther. “You know what Vespasian has done to every Jewish settlement from Galilee to Judea. The man is a beast. Can we expect any better from his son?”
My daughter does not cower beneath the shadow of his massive frame. “It’s you who claim that God will deliver Rome into your hands. That your army will destroy Vespasian’s legions. What are you saying now, Papa? That Vespasian will win? That God has abandoned you?” Esther comes alongside me, her hair, soft as flax, frames a flushed face.
Sweet Esther. So headstrong. But she’s right. Ethan cannot have it both ways. All these months of blustering in the face of certain Roman retaliation, and now this? My arm encircles Esther’s shoulder which quivers, I think, with disappointment and anticipation both. But I say nothing. It is for Ethan to say. It is for Ethan to make his case for sending us away.
Ethan knots his broad forehead. “Nothing has changed. God is still on our side. But it remains to us, to us Zealots, to defend Temple and Torah. To return holiness to unholy Jerusalem. Will you make that task more difficult by staying? Must we worry about you and Mama?”
“Oh, this is too much,” I blurt. “Are we not living stones, living stones, temples of living stones?”
Ethan avoids my eyes. This is the argument he knows all too well, the words he has heard me say over and over. They are Paul the Apostle’s words. Words that used to burn in Ethan’s heart before this new strange fire took hold. Are not living stones more important than quarried stones? Are not living stones worth fighting for? Worth protecting? I love the Temple. The Shekinah once dwelled there. Though the Temple still stands on the mount like a giant pearl, it is a pearl without luster. The Presence . . . the Divine Presence is gone. And the Temple is not alive. It’s not made of living stones. It does not breathe. Well . . . yes . . . once, once I did see it breathe. I actually saw it shudder, as if in a sigh. Though no one believes me. But that was long ago, the day they say the great curtain covering the entrance to the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom.
The day Messiah died.
“Maybe Daniel can come for me early?” Esther says, plaintively. “Maybe he doesn’t need to complete the bridal chamber.” Her face is a swirl of emotions. Like the young, she lives both as if there’s no tomorrow and as if she were never going to die.
Oh, Esther, Esther! Can’t you see the city is perishing? Can’t you see there’s no time for building bridal chambers? Even so, my heart aches for her. I know what it is to yearn for my bridegroom. Wasn’t I even younger than Esther when Ethan’s father chose me to be Ethan’s bride? And hadn’t I eagerly counted the days after the mohar, the bride price, was paid for Ethan to come and claim me?
“Ask him, just ask Daniel to come for me today.” Esther’s eyes are large, imploring. “Tell him it’s time to take his lawful bride.”
But when Ethan shakes his head without even glancing at either of us, and without uttering one kind word of understanding, I feel compelled to intervene. “Ever since Nero cut his own throat, confusion has riddled the Empire. Even Vespasian ordered his army to stand down for a time. Perhaps he’ll do so again since Rome still riots and tears herself apart while searching for her new Caesar. Who has not heard how even their shrine of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill lies in ruins? ‘The Deliverance of Zion!’ How many of our coins have you seen with that inscription? Everyone believes God has stayed the hand of Rome on our behalf. In light of that, what difference can a few more days make? Or perhaps seven days? Enough time for Esther and Daniel to complete their marriage week.”
Ethan’s eyes narrow. “This is unworthy of you, Rebekah, you who don’t believe Zion will be delivered at all. You who have been telling me that God has forsaken Jerusalem and our Temple. That our sin and corruption have forced Him to lift His hand of protection from us. And now when I wish to send you to safety, you want to remain?”
I look away. I can’t have it both ways either. “The armies of Simon and John, and even your precious Eleazar have carved up our city like cheese,” I say in a near whisper. “All this in an effort to gain control. And now they fight to take each other’s slices. Every day our streets run red with their blood, as well as the blood of the innocent citizens they kill. Inside Jerusalem or outside? What is the difference? There’s no safety anywhere, except perhaps Masada. If only we had all left with Josiah.”
“It’s too late to think about what we should have done. Titus’s legions camp only twenty miles away. They’ve finally cut Jerusalem off from the north and utterly destroyed Hebron in the south. Time is running out. While Jerusalem tears herself apart, that jackal is slowly flanking us. You must get out while you can.”
This is so far from what I want. In spite of a tongue ever quick to speak my mind, I’ve failed to say what is really on my heart. I don’t fear death—and the stories of rape and pillage and slaughter coming from Galilee, Peraea, Idumaea and, now, Judea, make me understand how horrible it can be. But what I fear is that I may now have to face it alone. All these months I’ve believed that when death came, we would face it together. My husband, my sons, my daughter, and I.
“But a new Caesar, once chosen, may call off the war. There’s always that chance.” I throw my final argument into the air as if winnowing wheat to see where the wind takes it.
“A new Caesar has been chosen. Our spy has just brought the news. And, no, Rebekah, he’ll not call it off.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because Legate Vespasian is the new Caesar.”