Y e s h u a
Yeshua reached down and scooped up a handful of dark, rich soil. Standing, he allowed the warm earth to sift between his fingers. An east wind distracted him, whispering through the sagebrush. It carried the sweet scents of lavender and sage, and it ruffled his linen tunic against his legs.
A rabbit darted past, and then another, weaving an erratic path through the bushes. Yeshua watched them until they disappeared over a nearby hill.
Before him lay the freshwater Sea of Galilee, reflecting the oranges, pinks, and reds of the descending sun that was dropping slowly behind its surface. No fishing boats were left bobbing on the sea’s surface tonight as Shabbat, the day of rest, would soon begin. Already Yeshua could see one star twinkling in the dusky sky, and he knew that when three appeared, the shofar would trumpet the start of Shabbat.
“Yeshua!” He turned at the sound of his friend running toward him, out of breath.
“We have to hurry! Did you find it?”
“No,” Yeshua shook his head. The errant arrow shot from twenty-five yards away seemed to have disappeared.
“Maybe you hit it?” Shim’on suggested.
“Maybe.” Yeshua shrugged, “I don’t see any blood, so I’m not sure.”
Once again. he scanned the foliage and ground around him for signs of blood or rabbit fur but saw neither.
“It’s almost time for the shofar to be blown. We need to get back.” Shim’on paused for a moment, then flashed a mischievous grin. He turned and ran, his words caught in the wind, “Race you home!”
Yeshua set off after Shim’on, their course undulating in the hilly terrain. Puffs of brown dust rose from their sandaled footfalls. Breathing hard, Yeshua tried to keep Shim’on in view. He knew it would take all his energy simply to keep up with the other boy’s pace.
While fifteen-year-old Shim’on was tall and lanky and built for running, fourteen-year-old Yeshua was shorter and more muscular. His frame and additional weight did not aid in speed. The differences between the boys did not end with physical appearance. Whereas Shim’on was loud and passionate to the point of being hot-headed at times, Yeshua had a steady and quiet demeanor, which gave him an unspoken air of wisdom beyond his years. Despite their differences, they were like brothers to one another.
The sun was ducking below the horizon as Yeshua descended the final hill. He could see the town of nearly fifteen hundred residents in the dusk. Although it was evening, the village of Capernaum still showed vigorous signs of life. Through open doors and windows, he could see women lighting the customary Shabbat candles. Soldiers stood at their posts or walked through the town in cadres, mixing with travelers and residents of Capernaum.
Shim’on halted his run just before the entrance to the village and stood cockily, hands on his hips. Laughing breathlessly, Yeshua knew his friend was teasing. He threw up his arms in false protest and Shim’on laughed.
Running past him into the village, Yeshua jibed, “Now you’re tired? You may be faster, but it’s obvious who has more endurance.”
Two soldiers who were standing nearby watched them with disinterest, clearly bored and ready for their evening meal.
Shim’on grinned back, “I didn’t want you to feel too outpaced brother.”
A group of families on their way to the synagogue approached, and Yeshua watched as Shim'on suddenly flushed. Yeshua knew the reason for his friend's reaction was the pretty brunette who smiled at him shyly.
"Shim'on?" Yeshua teasingly prodded Shim'on. When his friend failed to respond he jabbed him with his elbow.
"Ow!" Shim'on glared at him and flushed again as the girl passed by.
Yeshua laughed, “I’ll see you at the synagogue.”
With the sky growing darker and the heat in the air refusing to relent, he wiped the sweat trickling down his forehead. Per Hebrew law, he needed to perform his ritual mikvah bath before the start of Shabbat. There were mikvahs available in town, but the best source for cleansing was the Sea of Galilee. Yeshua hurried to the shore and disrobed.
The cold water refreshed as he submerged himself once, twice, and three times reciting the customary blessing:
“Blessed are You, O Lord, our Adonai, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion.”
Ceremonially clean, Yeshua hastened to the black basalt dwellings of Capernaum.
“Yeshua!” immah clucked her tongue as he entered the u-shaped compound of dwellings where he and his parents, siblings, and extended family lived. “We’ve been waiting. Where have you been?”
“We need to leave now, Son.” Abba looked him over sternly, yet Yeshua noticed a twinkle of relief in his eye.
The shofar rang the customary notice that no further labor could be done until the end of Shabbat, tomorrow evening.
Yeshua fell into step beside his abba as they left home for the synagogue, trailed by his immah and two younger siblings.
“Did you get anything tonight?” Bin-yamin asked.
“I may have hit a rabbit, but I couldn’t find it,” Yeshua answered.
“Well then, it’s good your immah already has dinner prepared,” his abba winked at him, then smiled as he nodded his head in greeting to a neighbor. Everyone in Capernaum knew Bin-yamin Bar Joicha. He was the rabbi of the town’s synagogue school and was respected by most who knew him.
Bin-yamin was also a tekton, skilled at working with wood and stone. As customary, Bin-yamin was teaching Yeshua to be a similar craftsman, just as his own abba had taught him.
Many in Capernaum and towns nearby lived in the homes Bin-yamin and Yeshua had helped to construct.
Yeshua’s abba was a lover of peace and encouraged those under his teaching to fight with words if necessary, but never weapons. His perspective stood in sharp contrast to the members of the violent Roman resistance movement, the Zealots.
Men, women, and children stood in groups outside the synagogue and many greeted Bin-yamin and Yeshua with respect as they entered the courtyard. The rabbi and his family were considered among those most righteous in town, and Yeshua couldn’t help but enjoy the attention.
Glancing around the courtyard, Yeshua saw Shim’on standing beside his abba and brother. Bin-yamin good-naturedly joked that the family of fishermen were never hard to find because of their height and volume. It was true. Many times, Yeshua could hear Shim’on before seeing him. Yitzchak, Shim’on, and Hanoch were cut from the same cloth. Passionate, loud, and fiercely loyal, Yitzchak was liked and respected by most who knew him. Though simple fishermen, Yitzchak and his family were religiously devout, and kept the law nearly as adamantly as Bin-yamin and his family. While Bin-yamin adhered to maintaining a peaceful coexistence with the Romans, however, Yitzchak tended to be rebellious, refusing to pay taxes to Rome. He showed no respect to their oppressors, holding fast to the belief that doing so would mean breaking Adonai’s law. Shim’on shared his abba’s passionate beliefs.
Not surprisingly, Yitzchak’s deep voice could be heard across the courtyard as Yeshua’s family drew near, but Yeshua couldn’t quite make out his words. When Yeshua caught a glimpse of Shim’on’s face, it was flushed with anger.
What’s going on with him? he wondered as he climbed the steps to the synagogue. But there wasn’t time to find out before the assembly began. The building, which Bin-yamin and Yeshua had helped to construct, was made of black basalt like the rest of the structures in town and was neither beautiful nor pretentious. Bin-yamin often said that no one could judge the value of what lay within a man’s heart simply from looking at the exterior, and the same was true of the synagogue. While the outside of the building was unassuming, what happened inside had eternal value to those who worshipped there.
The doorway opened into a large area. Columns on either side of the room were spaced approximately ten feet apart and supported the roof.
The design lent the interior an air of understated grandeur. Four windows were cut from each of the synagogue’s walls and allowed light and airflow into the space. Three large black stone steps descended from one of the walls. During the week, students sat on these steps during school, listening, discussing, and memorizing whatever the rabbi, his abba, taught.
On Shabbat, these steps were reserved for upper-class Hebrews, and commoners sat on mats on the floor. In the center of the room was a small platform where those leading the assembly stood, and a chest containing numerous parchments sat nearby. Bin-yamin Bar Joicha was the teacher of the synagogue during the week, but other religious elders in Capernaum took turns leading the community spiritually on Shabbat. Yeshua and the rest of the family stood and recited the opening Shema with the other worshippers gathered.
The words poured out beautifully, each unique voice lending depth and passion to the verses.
“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our Adonai, the Lord is One. Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.
“You shall love the Lord your Adonai with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
The prayer was handed down from the time of their ancient leader, Moses, and reminded them of all Adonai had promised and commanded during their escape from Egypt hundreds of years prior. After reading from a portion of the Torah, specifically from a teaching given by Adonai to Moses, and passed to the Nevi’im, the elder blessed them and the villagers dispersed to their homes.
From the top of the synagogue steps, Yeshua could see Shim’on’s curly head in the street, surrounded by his family. The evening air was still hot, and Yeshua slapped at a mosquito.
His friend glanced his way, but shook his head and mouthed the word, “later”. Bin-yamin passed him on the stairs and Yeshua watched as he spoke with Shim’on’s abba, Yitzchak, who still looked upset. It was odd. Just hours ago, Shim’on was fine. What had happened since then to merit such bad temper? Yeshua wondered if Yitzchak’s uncompromising beliefs had caused another altercation with the Romans.
Bin-yamin soon rejoined the family and they turned toward home. As they walked, they passed six Roman soldiers marching toward the barracks. They walked in formation, their red capes slung over one shoulder and their iron armor glinting with the reflection of the fiery torches they carried for light. Their swords clanked by their sides and the gravel crunched loudly beneath their feet, exuding fierce pride and arrogance. The soldiers posted in Capernaum were a mix of Romans and mercenaries from nearby areas, and had been hired by Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee.
After they passed, Yeshua listened as his abba spoke softly to his immah.
“Yitzchak was visited by a group of soldiers collecting taxes this afternoon. He refused to pay. Miriam was afraid and finally brought them the money, but by then they were demanding more than the standard tax. A penalty, they said. Of course, Yitzchak doesn’t have that amount.” Bin-yamin’s voice was grim. “They forced them to give up their donkey and made them promise to fulfill the tax with interest.”
Sarai murmured softly.
Yeshua now understood the anger on Shim’on’s face. His abba was extorted while they were at target practice. He felt a flash of anger for his friend.
Bin-yamin continued, “I pray Yitzchak will quickly realize the danger he puts his family in.” He turned to Sarai. “Let Miriam know they can have use of our donkey whenever they need him. Adonai has given us what we have to share.”
They reached home and Sarai nodded in agreement as Bin-yamin closed the door behind them. Turning away from the rest of the family, his abba lowered his voice so that only Yeshua and Sarai could hear him, “Also, I am afraid that Yitzchak may be meeting with the Zealots.”
"Oh no," Sarai sounded concerned. "I wish he would realize that violence is not the way of Adonai."
Bin-yamin shook his head, “Amen, but even the Torah says a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye. There are those who use those words to justify vengeance on our enemies. I believe Yitzchak is beginning to feel that way as well.” He looked sad. “Although I don’t take their side, I can understand their anger. Adonai knows this Roman oppression is taking its toll on our people.”
“Adonai help us,” Immah said softly.
Signaling that it was time to end the conversation, Bin-yamin walked across the room with a smile, “Let’s pray and eat!”
Parents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents prepared for the customary Shabbat meal, reclining on mats around the meal. The ground in the center of the group was soon filled with platters of food previously prepared by the women in Yeshua’s family so as not to break Shabbat law. Bin-yamin held up a clay cup of red wine and the rest of the family lifted their cups of wine for the adults and grape juice for the children as he recited the Kiddush, for sanctification.
“Praise to You, Adonai our Adonai, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. Praise to You, Adonai our Adonai, Sovereign of the universe who, finding favor with us, sanctified us with mitzvot. In love and favor, You made the Holy Shabbat our heritage as a reminder of the work of Creation. As first among our sacred days, it recalls the Exodus from Egypt. You chose us and set us apart from the peoples. In love and favor, you have given us Your Holy Shabbat as an inheritance.”
The family drank from their cups as they celebrated Adonai’s gift of a day of rest, and the table grew cheery and loud as they talked and served themselves from the dishes of warm challah, sweet and eggy, the hearty kugel, and savory lamb. Normally, Yeshua enjoyed the relaxed dinner and time with his family, but tonight his mind was on other things. He needed to talk to Shim’on. Did he know that his abba was meeting with the Zealots? An idea came to him.
Once everyone was asleep, he would sneak out to Shim’on’s home and talk to him about all of this. If Bin-yamin found out he would discourage the idea, but Yeshua knew that he would not be breaking Shabbat law.
After the meal was finished and everyone was in bed, Yeshua rolled off his mat. He walked carefully toward the door. His home was simply a series of rooms with dirt floors, and a hearth in the corner of the largest communal space. When the day came that Yeshua found a bride, his abba would help him add another room to the home.
The fire that Yeshua’s immah had added logs to before going to bed cracked suddenly, a pocket of sap popping in the heat. Yeshua paused, hoping no one would wake up and see him at the door. The orange light that flickered on the faces of his sleeping parents, sister, and brother showed no signs of wakefulness.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he simultaneously pulled the door open noiselessly and closed it behind him in one quick movement. There! He was out and on the street.
The full moon bathed the dirt around and the stone dwellings on either side in a pale bluish light. Yeshua walked briskly in the direction of Shim’on’s home. He hoped that no soldiers were out in the area at this time of night. It would be unpleasant to try to explain why a Hebrew boy was out this late, especially on Shabbat. The crunching of gravel under his feet sounded loud in the stillness and he started at the sudden bark of a dog. Yeshua was slightly nervous, aware of the foolhardiness of this plan. Of course, he had snuck out before and for much less serious reasons.
One time several years ago, he and Shim’on had met in the late hours of the night to observe a regiment of Roman soldiers from the hills above. They had pretended they were David of old, spying on King Saul and his troops. But he was a foolish youth then, unaware of the real risks of being caught by soldiers.
Tonight was different. He and Shim’on were young men now, and the Roman occupation had been in effect their entire lives and beyond, over five decades ago. They were no longer children who were unable to grasp the reality of their life circumstances.
Yeshua reached Shim’on’s home and knelt in the darkness beside it. He knew Shim’on would still be awake after the events of the day, and he knew the mat that he shared with his brother was against this wall. He lightly tapped on the mud and stone with his knuckles and then waited.
After several minutes Shim’on emerged and gestured to Yeshua to follow him. The young men moved quietly down the street, and Yeshua was relieved not to hear any more dogs barking. The homes dwindled and they came to a short rock wall.
Finally, they reached the sea and Yeshua breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no soldiers here at this time of night. Together, the young men walked to Shim’on’s family boat.
The vessel was pulled part way onto the sandy shore, and they climbed over the railing, their nostrils enveloped in the scent of brackish water mingled with the pungent smell of fish. They wouldn’t push out tonight as it was Shabbat, and the action of effort was not allowed.
Enjoying the warm air, Yeshua could hear the gentle lapping of the Sea of Galilee against the shore. The stars, bright-white needle pricks against the blue-black sky, reflected off the surface of the water which gently nudged the boat back and forth. A night under the star-studded sky was a fisherman’s busiest time. Except for Shabbat when the fishermen and the rest of Capernaum’s Hebrew population rested.
“Hard to believe that there could be such evil in our land when I’m on the water.” Shim’on said, looking out on the sea. A stiff wind blew across the water’s surface, flattening his tunic against his legs and kicking up whitecaps that rocked the boat. “If only we could live out here, away from them.”
Yeshua knew that his friend meant the Romans and those who served them. He nodded and Shim’on glanced at him darkly.
“You heard, then?”
“Yes. I’m so sorry, Shim’on. I wish that we weren’t in the hills when they came.”
“I feel the same way, but really, what difference would that have made?” Shim’on sat heavily on a pile of fishing nets. “It’s not as though I could have stopped them from taking our donkey. But I wish I could have kept Immah from giving in to them.”
“But if your immah hadn’t given them the money, it could have been even worse for your family.” Yeshua reasoned.
A flash of anger crossed Shim’on’s face and then departed, leaving behind a look of defeat.
“I suppose.” The look of anger reappeared. “It just feels as though our lives are not our own anymore! Is this my future? Spending my days fishing just so I can pay all that I earn to Herod? I would rather die!”
Shim’on stopped talking and sat, clenching, and unclenching his fists and looking at the wooden decking beneath his feet.
“I don’t like them either,” Yeshua said.
“Don’t like them?” Shim’on snorted. “You’re just like your abba.”
“What does that mean?” Yeshua asked defensively.
“Don’t you see, Yeshua?” Shim’on threw his hands up. “They demand the place and honor that rightfully belongs to Adonai! They demand that we worship Rome! You don’t like them. Well, I and my family hate them. And we refuse to give them what they want, unlike your abba.”
Shim’on’s words hurt, but Yeshua struggled to formulate a response. It was true; Bin-yamin taught tolerance of their enemies. But that didn’t mean he worshipped Rome. He didn’t know how to communicate this to Shim’on, though.
“If you hate them so much, why aren’t you doing something about it, then?” Yeshua asked angrily.
“I am.” Shim’on said, lifting his head and looking at him.
“My abba has been meeting with the Zealots, and I’m going to too.”
So Shim’on did know. “How? Where do they meet?” Yeshua asked. The Zealots were well known for their passionate hatred of the Romans and the violence they used to strike back against them, but who the members were and where they met was not common knowledge.
“Probably in the hills late at night.” Shim’on shrugged, “There’s lots of places to hide out there.”
Yeshua let out a long breath. “How does he keep the other fishermen from noticing when he’s gone?”
“He told Hanoch and I, but we’re the only ones who know. Well, except for you now. We have to tell lies to the others,” Shim’on answered, an edge of defensiveness in his voice.
Yeshua shook his head, “This is dangerous, Brother. If he were caught by the Romans, they'd likely kill him. You, Hanoch, and the hired men are in danger too.” He felt safer playing this role of friend. “Do not murder” was one of the ten commandments handed down by Moses. A man could only justifiably kill another if commanded by Adonai.
Shim’on surprised him by looking up from the planking beneath his feet and uttering a short laugh, “Yeshua, don't you see? What does your abba teach every day? That Adonai hears us, that He sees all, that He is going to send the Mashiach. We’ve all waited for the Anointed One to save us one day soon! But where is this Mashiach? How could Adonai allow these Romans to treat us this way? They rob us at best and destroy us at worst!” He flung his head up proudly. “What if Adonai’s will means that we defend ourselves and strike back at Rome? What if the Zealots are the means that Adonai uses to bring about His restoration of our people? The Creator has given us arms as well as eyes. He has chosen us, not them.”
Yeshua sucked in his breath. He was grateful that they were alone on the vessel. Such talk was dangerous, and both boys knew it.
“Just think of our forefathers,” Shim’on continued, clearly passionate. “King David, or even Saul before him. They fought anyone who stood against them. They killed thousands in the name of Adonai. And what happened? Adonai blessed them with authority over the land and abundance.”
“Yes, but they did those things because Adonai specifically told them to. He spoke through the Nevi’im,” Yeshua replied, “but there are no Nevi’im telling us to revolt against the Romans. There is only the prophesied Mashiach.”
“Yes,” Shim’on nodded, “And what if the purpose of the Zealots is to demonstrate our trust in Adonai’s promise of a Mashiach by preparing the way for him? It is prophesied that he will lead us to conquer our enemies and restore the glory of our people. We can begin that effort!”
“What do you plan to do?” Yeshua asked.
“I'm not sure yet,” Shim’on replied, “I just know that I am done doing nothing. I’m going to follow Abba to a meeting of the Zealots and find out what they’re planning.”
A tingling energy tightened in Yeshua's chest. Despite his conflicted thoughts he said slowly, “Let me know when you go, I may go with you.”
“Go with me to a meeting of the Zealots?” Shim’on echoed his surprise, “Why? What if your abba found out?”
“Do you think that I am not also weary of Roman rule? What happened with your abba today has made me angry also. What's the harm in finding out what the Zealots are planning to do?” He didn't say the other reason he wanted to go; that he was intrigued by the idea of being in control of their freedom.
“All right,” Shim’on said skeptically, “But I would think carefully about it, Yeshua. You’re not like us. At least my abba is already going to their meetings. Your abba would never approve.” He glanced up at the sky trying to determine the time, “I should be going.”
“You don’t have a right to tell me what I can or can’t do.” Yeshua felt an uncharacteristic flash of anger.
Shim’on turned to face him. “Yeshua. You’re my best friend, but you know that we’re different. You may not be a rabbi, but your father is. My family follows the law, but we're willing to fight and die for it. Your abba teaches peace. I just don’t think that you could kill another man.”
As if mirroring his feelings, a gust of wind whipped at Yeshua’s shoulder-length hair. He felt like shouting. Who was Shim'on to tell him what he could or could not do? Both of their families were passionate for Adonai and His law, but they had each come to different conclusions as to what Adonai wanted of them. His family believed Adonai's will was to follow the law and comply with their enemies' demands, doing their best to live a life of peace. Yitzchak's family, however, believed that serving Adonai meant defying any other power that set itself up as their authority. And they were willing to shed blood over their beliefs. Despite knowing their differences, Yeshua resented Shim'on's judgment that he didn't have what was required to be a Zealot.
He simmered as Shim’on jumped from the boat. The boys walked back up the hill to town and separated to their homes without speaking.
Yeshua closed the door softly and went to his mat, sliding under the blanket. He wasn't tired though. His heart thumped quickly in his chest and his mind was fully awake.
The more he thought of spying on a meeting of the Zealots with Shim’on, the more uncertain he felt. The excitement and danger of it intrigued him, yet he felt guilty even considering it. His anger toward Shim’on lessened, but he felt disoriented by his friend’s words regarding their differences. It was the first time that he felt distant from Shim’on.
Yeshua lay awake for what seemed a long time considering the distinct directions awaiting his future and that of Shim’on’s. Finally, moments before dawn, he fell asleep.