Book Two, Chapter Three
Some say killers and their weapons like to gamble with each other over the next victim’s name. And that once the wager has been placed, they grow impatient to see whose blood will be made to redden next as it is brought naked to face the air.
In this empire, the suspense never lasts long. Executioners in palaces keep their weapons unsheathed by their bedsides, because in the passion of night, lives can be spent so casually. And in the morning, the names of the dead are passed between rulers like coins that gradually wear away until no one can remember if they first represented a slaughtered man or city.
In this empire the crucifixions litter the roadsides, advertising the constancy of rulers who bind the world together through daily death and pain.
So why does the king tremble when he gives the order for John’s execution? And when his wife, in her unabated anger, lifts the head from a platter to the end of a pike, which she keeps guarded in the square as a warning to those who mock royal blood, why do John’s dead eyes give the king such bad dreams?
No one risks his life trying to take the head down, but at night some disciples recover John’s body. They wrap it in a camel’s skin and they bury him in an unmarked grave in the desert, where they can still feel God speak. Then two of them turn back and find Jesus on a road not far from Tiberius.
Though public funerals for the murdered prisoner have been banned by royal decree, in a village not far from Herod’s capital, Jesus speaks of the dead.
“What did you go to the desert to see?” he asks. “A man like a reed who would bend back and forth in fear of every storm?”
“Let me ask you again,” says Jesus. “What did you go out to see? Was it a man who hides from hard truths in soft robes?”
“No—you went to the desert, not the palace,” he says, and though they’re in mourning, the people can’t help but laugh. “You’ve lost faith in the king and were ready for a prophet. And is a prophet what you found on the banks of the Jordan?” Some people shout in agreement, while others start to look nervously around.
“Let me tell you something: you saw more. Isn’t it written, I’ll send my messenger before your face, and he’ll prepare the way?”
The crowd gets quiet.
“If you’re afraid, then pretend you’ve heard nothing today. But if you have ears to hear, I’ll tell you this: God’s kingdom is coming down the path already, and as is written, it will break to pieces all the kingdoms of the earth. And I’ll tell you this: the shameful things this king has done to John won’t be done even to the lowest criminal in the kingdom of God.”
And the people shake with fear and longing at the things they’ve heard today.
Indecisive as Herod can be, it’s hard to imagine that if he finds out, he’ll let this speech pass without violence.
“We’re ready to die for you,” say Salome’s sons. “And to kill, if you need us to.”
“Is it time to rise up?” says the southern Simon. “I have old friends who will help.”
“Is it the time all our ancestors waited for?” asks Judas.
“Let’s go back to the boat,” says Jesus. “Let’s sail out of Herod’s kingdom before his men come looking for us.”
In the boat, the southern Simon frowns. Wherever you flee, he thinks, there’s no real escape. He’s left the rule of the south’s new governor, a man who honors dead and living emperors as his gods, who uses their soldiers as his laws. He’s sailing now from the north’s so-called king, a Jew who killed a prophet and pitches his tents toward Rome, who never seems embarrassed to rely on the same imperial soldiers as his foreign southern counterpart. On the east side of the lake, they’ll reach the ten cities, where Greek settlers outnumber both Syrians and Jews, where Roman soldiers rule each town without any king or governor at all.
Yes, the real rulers of this world are shields, swords, javelins—and the constant threat of death.
Simon looks across the water toward the shore. A large herd of pigs attests that they’re safely in ten cities territory, but a sprawling graveyard below reminds him they’re never really safe.
And it’s just past the graveyard Jesus tells them he wants the boat to land.
As they leave the boat, they hear someone crying. Somewhere in the graveyard, there’s a living man who’s mad with grief, as if he’s just buried his wife and his only child. But there are no signs of a funeral party anywhere, nothing other than this one man’s cries to tear at the lakeside calm. And as Jesus and his apostles get closer, they can see: there are no fresh graves near where the man lies naked, wailing; his tears fall on hardened earth.
Jesus walks to the edge of the cemetery and calls out to him. The man rises, and John looks away in shame. Though they’ve come to a land dominated by Greeks and Syrians, the naked man is a Jew.
His hair is long and uncut, as if he’d taken vows like Samson’s—vows he can’t possibly have kept. The dirt and filth that cover him cast shadows that serve to highlight the strength and size of his body, but his arms and thighs are covered with scars and fresh cuts. In his hand, he still holds a sharp stone.
He shouts out at Jesus like a war-cry, then blasphemes loudly and rushes forward. Jesus starts to command the evil spirits to go out of him, but stops when the man falls to his knees and begs like a frightened child. “Don’t hurt me,” he says in a voice that sounds strange coming from a man so large. “Please don’t hurt me.”
“What’s your name?” Jesus asks him.
All at once, the child in him is gone. He looks up at Jesus with wild, threatening eyes and spits out the words: “Our name is Legion.”
But Jesus sets his jaw, and the man turns childish again. “Don’t make us leave,” he says, or else the spirits say through him. “It’s so hard without a body. Let us go into the pigs, at least. It hurts too much to be alone.”
“Go then,” says Jesus.
And the man’s body falls from kneeling so that he lies completely prostrate at Jesus’ feet. He inhales like a drowning man who by some miracle manages to break the surface of the water. “They’re gone,” he says, “they’re finally gone.”
And then he weeps again.
“You couldn’t have fought them,” Jesus says.
“But I should have,” says the man.
“There’s been fighting enough here,” says Jesus.
“But no vengeance and no justice,” says the man.
“Have you forgotten so soon?” says Jesus, and he recites: “He who makes peace in the heavens, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel.”
The man sits up slowly and stares at Jesus. “I was too angry,” he says. “I never said the mourners’ prayer.”
“If a son came to his father’s house at midnight,” says Jesus, “Would he stand outside in silence—or call out, and be welcomed in?”
“May His great name be magnified and made sacred,” whispers the man, “in the world He created according to his will.” And as the apostles lean in to listen, he prays for the dead Jews of his city.
“What happened?” Matthew asks after the man finishes praying.
“A Greek child grew sick and died,” he tells the twelve. “A rumor spread that our people had been jealous of the family’s wealth and that our envy caused their misfortune.” The twelve nod. They’ve heard stories like this one before. “They bribed some soldiers to let them into our quarter one night, but they didn’t need a second bribe to get other soldiers to come with them. They robbed and killed and did shameful things to both women and men.
“When I asked for justice, they chained me. When I broke the chains, they chained me again and again. And how could I fight? They were always so many.”
In the field above, the pigs are acting strangely. The boys paid to tend them get nervous and back away.
“When they sent me away, I came to the tombs. I swore to avenge the dead: because I couldn’t cut the killers, I cut myself.”
In the field above, the pigs begin to turn against each other. Two thousand animal bodies churn as if a storm has swept off the lake onto the land.
“When I slept in the dirt of the tombs, I felt I was where I belonged. A graveyard only makes you unclean if you’re still supposed to be alive.”
The pigs above begin to run off a cliff. The boys who tend them run back toward the town.
Jesus interrupts the man’s story. “Have you said the mourners’ prayer for the Greek child?”
When prayers have been said for the dead child and for his living parents, they go into the lake to wash the healed man. They bury his scarred and bloody body beneath the surface of the water and bring him up feeling whole again. From the boat, they fetch him the largest of the spare clothes Matthew brought. On the shore, they share some fish and a little bread.
While Jesus and his companions eat, a delegation from the city arrives. The men from the city first survey the pigs’ field and see for themselves that it’s empty. Then they turn to the group on the shore and see the possessed man calmed, clothed, and healed.
And how should these men weigh signs of terror against signs of hope?
“We respectfully request you to leave our shores,” their leader says.
Jesus tells them he and his followers will do so within the hour, and the men go back to their city satisfied.
“Remember this,” says Jesus to the twelve, “we are not like the princes of this world: the kingdom of God doesn’t come as an occupying force.”
“Take me with you,” the healed man says. “Let me follow you until the day I die.”
“No,” says Jesus. “Go back to the survivors in your city and tell them what the Lord has done. When the night falls, whisper to those who know how to listen that the kingdom of God is here, and that sooner than they know, it will come to them.”
The healed man doesn’t waste any time or spare any effort. He goes from town to town, from host to host, carrying Jesus’ name on his lips. He shows people his scars. Tells them about his demons. Says in what way he was freed and cleansed. If people’s eyes grow wide, then mist up, he whispers Jesus’ words. Soon whispers start to echo through the Jewish homes scattered across the region east of the lake. What great exorcist, what powerful magician, has come to them?
One day a traveler from the north end of the lake chances to hear their whispers about Jesus. But he, too, has a whisper: Jesus has cast out evil spirits in his town as well, he says, and the spirits obey because Jesus has made a pact with the prince of demons. So the people whisper about this whisper, too: what dark exorcist, what sinister magician, has come?
In Bethsaida, just north of the ten cities and east of Herod’s kingdom, Jesus and the twelve are bewildered. They haven’t heard this new rumor, so they don’t know why it’s become so easy for them to sleep in peace, don’t know why the people who wait for healing in the day tend to leave so quickly as soon as the night begins to cast its spell over the world. They don’t know why even the students hesitate with their questions lately, why no one asks to walk with them until morning anymore. When one young man says he doesn’t want to know their secrets, they assume he’s talking about the kingdom of God. It’s only when scholars traveling from Jerusalem share their accommodations for a night that they learn what people have been talking about.
At first, the scholars simply seem abnormally curt, giving short answers and avoiding the long, lively scriptural discussions and debates that set apart Jews from the rest of the world. As it grows darker, though, the scholars keep their eyes on the door and behave as if Jesus and his disciples all carried long knives beneath their robes.
“What’s the matter with you?” asks Nathanael, forthright as always. But the scholars don’t speak up for a while because it takes time for curiosity to bore its way through protective layers of fear. When they look at Jesus, they can see he keeps secrets, and their fear gains strength. Then they look at Nathanael, whose face is not that of a secret-keeper, and they wonder until they can’t stop themselves.
“We’ve heard . . .” they begin, and then struggle for words. How do you politely ask thirteen men if they’re in league with the devil? “What we mean is: everyone talks about your power . . .” and they tell him. They admit they’ve been afraid to stay the night because they’re at once frightened of and tempted by what Jesus and his associates might do after dark. They admit that if Jesus has made a pact with Satan, they’re impressed by how well it works. Speaking in strictly theoretical terms, say the Jerusalem scholars, does Jesus possess, or have reason to believe one can possess, a special incantation that would use the cryptic names of superior demons to cast out inferior ones? And, again purely theoretically, if one did possess and use such an incantation, what would be the cost?
Jesus laughs—though they can’t be sure in the lamplight and the long shadows if the laugh should be frightening, exciting, or relieving. “What sort of prince do you think Satan is?” he says, “What king appoints a son as his heir and then welcomes his rebellion? Don’t you remember what happened when the first Herod died? A kingdom divided against itself never lasts long.
“Let me tell you a story,” Jesus says, and leans forward. And when Jesus leans forward, everyone leans forward to listen.
“The strongest man in any town does whatever he wants,” says Jesus, “because no one can stop him.” Then he tells about one city’s tyrant, how he makes himself rich off plunder and bribes and sets such a fear in the people’s hearts that not even the thieves dare disturb him—they don’t want to be discovered and killed. After some time, though, the strong man has terrorized the city so much that every widow prays for deliverance, and God, hearing their prayers, sends a stronger man to the city to rescue them.
“What do you think the stronger man will do—sit down at a table with the tyrant and strike a bargain? No, he binds the strong man in stiff cords and takes back the people’s goods over the strong man’s objections!”
It’s quiet for a moment as the twelve and the travelers alike puzzle the story out. Are they correct in understanding that Jesus has no secret incantation? the scholars from Jerusalem ask. And his position, even from a theoretical standpoint, is that it wouldn’t work to somehow play the evil spirits against each other?
Yes, says Jesus, against evil spirits the only recourse is the Spirit of the Lord.
But they press him further. Isn’t there some way around that? they say. If, for instance, the afflicted is too unclean for the Spirit of the Lord to reach, shouldn’t there be another way?
Don’t go down that road, says Jesus. “Speak ill of me,” he says forcefully, “if you still believe that rumor to be true. But if you close your eyes, all that’s left is darkness. And if you shut out the Spirit of the Lord and look to demons for deliverance, the unclean can never be restored.”
It was just a question, say the scholars. A purely theoretical question.
And since the need for nervous glances toward the door is gone, they put out the lamp and drift off to sleep.
In the moonlight, Judas waits and hopes and yearns.
“Master of the Universe!” prays Judas, “Has he done it yet, has the strong man been bound?”
And though God doesn’t answer, Judas still wonders what it will look like when Jesus utterly spoils the strong man’s house.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.