Six corpses, entirely nude, hung rotting in the morning sun. They had been there three days, but the last of them, the strongest, had expired just hours ago, at daybreak. The grass about the low crosses had been trampled flat by Roman boots.
“Why do they have to put them so close to the road?” Herodias asked querulously. The height of the crosses was little greater than the height of the men hanging from them. The feet of one were perhaps a cubit above the ground, eighteen inches. The feet of the others would have dragged the ground but for the iron spikes driven through the lapped feet and into the post. Despite her words and her tone of disgust, she leaned closer as the royal chariot passed by the crosses, the stench of decay, of voided bladders and emptied bowels, filling her nostrils. “All Jews,” she said. “Of course they would be.”
Crucifixion was a cruel death, never inflicted on citizens of Rome.
“It’s needed as an object lesson to would-be revolutionaries,” Herod Antipas said. He, unlike his wife, had no interest in the circumcisions of the dead. Using his teeth, he pulled the stopper from an amphora of wine. He drained half of it, gulping repeatedly without drawing breath. The flies were thick, and buzzards perched on the crossbeams of the crosses within easy reach of the vulnerable eyes. God, these Romans were brutes, Herod thought.
Neither Herod nor Herodias said anything for perhaps a mile. The silence was broken only by the jingling harness of the horses, the creak of the chariot, and the tramping feet of King Herod’s military escort.
“Did you know about it beforehand?” Herodias asked him.
“Know about what?” He had finished the jar, and droplets of wine hung in his reddish, square-cut beard and stained his tunic. “Oh, the crucifixions. No.” Though nominally a king, he was more accurately a tetrarch, a satellite prince without the same royal dignity. Perea was his province, as was Galilee, but the two provinces constituted only a fragment of his father’s kingdom. Just as his father had held his kingdom at the pleasure of the emperor, so Herod Antipas held his tetrarchy. The emperor’s legionnaires would rarely consult him before inflicting the penalty for insurrection.
“They should always consult you,” Herodias said. “You should insist on it.” Her hair was dark and straight, jewels glinting from the hanging tresses.
“Maybe I will.”
“And maybe you won’t.” Her anger showed in her eyes, so dark as to appear utterly black.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means don’t merely talk about it this time. Do it.”
He regarded her sourly. It was hard for him to believe, sometimes, that he had ever been in love with her, but he had been. There was a time, especially in Rome, where he had come to know her little more than a year ago, when he could hardly get enough of her.
“You shouldn’t drink in the mornings,” she told him as he tucked the empty ceramic jar beneath the seat on which he sat.
He belched and grinned with satisfaction at her expression of distaste.
“You’re not nearly as civilized as your brother,” she said.
“So you should have married my brother.”
She had, of course. It was his brother Philip she had left for him, and, though Philip (also a tetrarch) had made an early show of mild hostility, Herod had come to believe that Philip was very much content to have inflicted her on him. He reached again under his seat for the last of the jars he had stashed for the journey.
He, for his part, had given up a Nabataean princess, and it was doubtful he had heard the last from her father, Aretas.
“Do you intend to swill wine all the way to Jericho?” Herodias asked him.
“All the way to Jerusalem. I’ll have to restock in Jericho.”
She made a sound of disgust.
“After the spectacle we just witnessed, I intend to become as drunk as possible.” He bent toward her to bestow a sloppy kiss, and she pushed him away.
“I’d suggest you do the same,” he said. “Wanton.”
Her eyes narrowed, but her lips curved in a smile. “Beast,” she said. The sun shone in her black hair, emphasizing its luster.
Peace restored, he held out the wine jar to her, but she shook her head.
He shrugged. “Perhaps it’s just as well.”
“What’s as well? Why?”
“This is my last amphora,” Herod said, taking a short pull on it. “I’d hate to have to split it with you.” He wiped his mouth with his forearm.
The preacher — the wild man, some would say, being skeptical even of his sanity — stood in the Jordan River at the Hiljah Ford. Though the day was warm, and the air, beneath the overcast sky, was humid, the water itself was cold. The ford was several miles upstream from the Dead Sea, but the water, nonetheless, was brackish. John’s camel-hair robe was bound at his waist with a leather belt, and the swift current rose high enough to keep it wet.
A boy splashed out toward him, struggling against the current, the water rising as high as his chest. Good, the preacher thought. He’d been watching that one.
He gripped the boy’s arm. “What is your name, son?”
It was Seth.
“Ah,” said the preacher. “The child of promise. ‘God has appointed for me another child.’ So said Eve.” One hand on the boy’s chest, the other behind his head, the preacher pushed him down beneath the surface of the water and drew him up again, his hair streaming with water.
“Go,” the preacher said. “Go and live a life that is pleasing to God.”
“What shall I do?”
“Eh? What’s that! What shall you do?” One hand gripping the boy’s shoulder with the strength of a pincer, the preacher looked up at the crowd. “Do you need me to tell you how to live a life that is pleasing to God? Are you completely numb in spirit?” Sometimes he thought they were; it was enough to make him despair.
“If you have food,” he said, “then share it with someone who has none. If you have two coats, give one of them to someone without any coat at all. Is Judea devoid of those who are poor and afflicted so that there is no good you can do?”
Still their faces were blank, uncomprehending. The preacher looked again at Seth. “Ask God, son. Ask him, and he will tell you what you should do.”
The boy nodded.
“Go on now.”
There was the rumble of distant thunder, and, casting a nervous glance up at the dark clouds, the boy floundered toward the bank.
A man reached out a hand to help him to shore, lifting him easily onto the bank. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “The Baptizer was preaching to all of us, not just to you.”
The man had a dark beard, a straight nose, and warm brown eyes, almost golden in color. The boy smiled up at him, and the man squeezed the boy’s shoulder. Then he entered the river himself, wading out to the Baptizer.
“Would you too be baptized!” John said to him, taking his arm. “You are conscious of the sin in your life?”
“All have sinned, have they not?”
“A strange answer.” There was something odd about the man, something familiar and yet unsettling—unsettling even to John, who was rarely unsettled.
“You have not been to hear me before,” he said. “How is it that I know you?”
John drew him close, staring into his face with an almost maniacal intensity. He did everything with an almost maniacal intensity; it was one of the reasons he attracted crowds.
“Don’t I?” he said.
The man smiled, his teeth straight and white against his dark beard. “We met as children.”
“We played together on the streets of Jerusalem when the two of us were only twelve years old.”
John searched his eyes.
“Try to imagine me without the beard.”
“Jesus. Mary and Joseph’s boy.”
The man nodded. “Your cousin Jesus.”
Jesus’ woolen robe and tunic floated on the water, swirling about his hips. The current about them was swift, carrying the mud and sand from beneath their feet, and several times each had to shift his feet to find purchase.
“Why do you hesitate?” Jesus said. “You are known as the Baptizer, are you not?”
“So I am.” John scooped water from the river with his hands, but as he raised them, the sun broke through the lowering clouds, forming a halo about his cousin’s head. John blinked, temporarily blinded. From close by came the flapping of wings, but, though John jerked his head, he could see nothing. It seemed to his sun-dazed eyes that the people and the shrubbery along the bank were all in shadow, and he felt disoriented, dizzy.
Jesus’ hand, which years of carpentry had hardened into oak, was at his elbow, supporting him. His face seemed unnaturally bright.
“It’s you,” John said. “You’re the one who is to come.”
Jesus smiled, a little quizzically. “I hardly see how I can be, as I’m here already.”
John ignored the play on words. He scooped up water and held out his cupped hands to Jesus. “Take it,” he said. “I need for you to baptize me. Please.”
Jesus pressed John’s hands back against his chest. “No, John. You are the Baptizer. It is I who have come to you.”
“It would be a sacrilege. You have no need of the baptism I offer.”
Jesus extended his hand to the crowd on the bank, still little more than a forest of shadows to John. “Do you see them? They have need of the baptism you offer.”
“And today I accept baptism on their behalf.”
“My… my work is over, then.”
“Very nearly,” Jesus told him. “Very nearly.”
Herod and his party heard voices as they approached the Jordan River, long before the river itself was visible. More accurately, they heard a voice. When the chariot topped the rise that overlooked the Jordan, a crowd of people was visible on the far bank¾peasants, most of them, though here and there was the gleam of gold or the flash of a brilliant hue that marked the clothing of a rich man. The speaker was a wild man, hair to his shoulders, beard full and unkempt on the breast of his camel’s hair robe.
Herod held up a hand. “Halt,” he cried softly, and his captain echoed the command.
The tramp of feet and the jingle of armor and harness ceased, and, in the relative quiet, the words of the preacher could be distinguished: “Today I have seen the one spoken of by the prophet: ‘I watched in the night visions, and behold with the clouds of heaven there came one like unto the son of man. He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him…”
“What’s he saying?” Herodias asked.
“Hush! It’s from the Book of Daniel.”
Though the day had been dry, the hair of roughly half the crowd was plastered to their scalps with dripping water, and their cloaks were spotted. All eyes were intent on the speaker.
“…all people, all nations, all languages should serve him…”
None of the crowd had yet noticed Herod’s party. “It’s a Messianic passage,” Herod said, softly enough to be audible only to Herodias and to the guards closest to them. “He’s preaching the overthrow of earthly kingdoms and the foundation…”
“He’s a revolutionary then.”
“Perhaps, but not necessarily. It’s a matter of theological interpretation.”
Herodias shot her husband a look of withering contempt.
One of the men nearest to the preacher, one of the better dressed among them, said abruptly, “Who are you to say such things?” His voice was loud enough to carry easily across the river valley. “Who are you that we should listen “
Herodias said, “You mean a man accused of treason can save himself by means of a fine theological distinction?”
“Hush,” Herod whispered, gesturing vigorously.
“You say the day of the Lord is upon us,” said the well-dressed man. “Are you then the Messiah?”
The shape of the crowd shifted subtly, though it was not clear to Herod whether in support of the preacher or his questioner. The well-dressed man stood in a crowd of six, all with phylacteries strapped to their left arms, three with another of the black leather boxes strapped to their foreheads as well. Herod was familiar with the phylacteries: each contained four passages of scripture. Moses had commanded the people of Israel to keep God’s law always before them; there were some who took the injunction literally.
“Are you the Messiah?” the well-dressed man said again.
“I am not the Messiah,” the preacher said.
“Who are you then? Are you Elijah?” Elijah, generally acknowledged as the greatest of the prophets, had never tasted death¾at least, not according to scripture. At the conclusion of his ministry, he had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. Many Jews¾and Herod as well, though he was of Idumaean extraction¾half expected Elijah to descend again from heaven one day to announce the end of time.
“I am not Elijah.”
“Are you the prophet the Lord promised Moses?”
“I am not.”
Another of the scribes said, “Who then? How dare you presume to baptize God’s own chosen people?”
“I preach a baptism of repentance, in preparation for one who is already among you. The hearts of God’s people must be cleansed of all unrighteousness.”
“Who?” said a member of the crowd. “Who is among us?”
“We are sons of Abraham,” said the scribe. It was the Gentiles who needed cleansing, the Gentiles who had to undergo ritual purification in order to become one of God’s people. The Jews were His already.
“I will tell you the worth of being a son of Abraham.” The preacher hawked and spat the phlegm against a rock outcropping. “Out of that stone God can raise up sons of Abraham.”
The graphic insult to their race—to Abraham—left them momentarily speechless. The preacher said, “You have asked me who I am; let me tell you who you are. You pretend to be righteous and holy, wearing your religion on your sleeves as you do, but you are merely politicians. Pharisees and Sadducees and…You there¾do I recognize in you a member of the ruling Sanhedrin? What a nest of snakes!”
“But I can. And one is here among you who is more powerful than I, one whose sandals I am not fit to carry. I warn you to flee the coming wrath, for the one who is to come is here. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering up the wheat into his barn and burning the chaff in an unquenchable fire.”
“Who? Who are you talking about?”
Herod leaned forward to prod his driver. “Advance,” he said. “Advance.”
Several members of Herod’s guard trotted ahead of the chariot and several behind. The bulk of Herod’s fifty men flanked him, and Herod’s captain rode a charger on the far right. By the time they reached the river, they had the attention of everyone on the far bank. The silence was total, the faces sullen. Herod Antipas was no favorite of the Jews.
His men formed a column to cross the ford. There was no bridge. The road led down into the water at the Hiljah Ford and up again beyond it. The chariot rocked precariously across the paving stones laid across the river bottom in the middle of the ford, the royal couple holding their feet up to keep their slippers dry. The water had a salty smell to it, a stale, unpleasant odor.
With a jolt the wheels of the chariot regained the road on the other side of the Jordan River.
“Herod Antipas.” It was the preacher, the wild-looking one in the camel’s hair coat. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“Are you John?” Herod said, sounding a little breathless. “The one they call the Baptizer?”
“I am John.” His face was gaunt and deeply lined. He was an ascetic who had subsisted for years in the desert on a diet of locusts and wild honey.
“And how is it you have been expecting me? Are you a prophet then?”
John laughed, the sound mocking. His dark eyes seemed to burn in his head like smoldering coals. “Oh, yes. A prophet indeed! Yesterday I saw the king’s men laying these paving stones on the river bottom so that your chariot could more easily navigate the ford, and I prophesied to all here, ‘The king is coming.’“
“So you are not a prophet?”
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the paths of the Lord.”
“The words of Isaiah,” Herod said. “What do you mean by them?”
“I mean that the day of the Lord is at hand. Even now the ax is at the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear fruit pleasing to God will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
There was something about his eyes; Herod felt the hair rise at the nape of his neck.
“Do not think that you yourself will escape unscathed,” John said. “Already a fox has been in your brother’s henhouse.”
“What do you mean?” Herod said. “Do you speak of treason? Treachery?” Treachery had always been a constant worry, both for him and for his father before him. Of all his father’s sons, only he and Philip now ruled any part of their father’s kingdom.
“Treachery indeed. Philip’s own brother has lain with his wife and rides with her now in the royal chariot.”
There was some general laughter in the crowd, though Herod’s darting eyes failed to detect a specific culprit. He flushed.
“You will find impudence most imprudent, Baptizer,” he said.
John bowed elaborately. “My apologies to your wife, the queen. Or should I say your niece?”
Herod’s face had become the color of clay. “You should not,” Herod said.
“Have I been misinformed then? She is not the daughter of your deceased brother as well as the wife of your living one?”
“Aristobulus was my half-brother.”
“I see it now. Your sister-in-law is half a niece and wholly a wife. A talented woman indeed with so many roles to play!”
“This is intolerable,” Herodias said sharply. Her narrow face was pinched in anger. “Why do you banter words with this wild man? Guards! Arrest him.”
The captain wheeled his horse toward John, a half-dozen of his men falling in behind him. A stone rang off the captain’s helmet, and he wobbled in his saddle.
Herod stood upright in his chariot, his expression disbelieving, his heart hammering in his chest. The boy responsible stood just a little way from John. It was Seth, his hair still damp from his baptism. Already he had fitted another stone to his sling, and he twirled it casually at shoulder-height, his eyes watchful, his narrow face unsmiling.
John held out a hand palm-downward to the boy. “No,” he said. “I will go peacefully.”
It was too late. One of Herod’s soldiers launched his javelin in an over-the-shoulder throw, and it hit the boy just under the breastbone and hurled him backwards.
Cries of anger and astonishment sounded here and there among the crowd. One Jew drew a sword from a scabbard beneath his cloak, and a stone, thrown from somewhere, caught Herod in the shoulder, sending him sprawling backwards onto Herodias.
“Dolt!” she shouted, pushing at him and kicking at the driver. “Move.” The soldier at the reins, ducking his head, spurred the horses.
“Protect the king,” the captain shouted, turning his horse after him, and the soldiers retreated in tight formation.
When the soldiers had passed over the rise to the west, the crowd, which had scattered, huddled tightly around the fallen boy. John the Baptizer stood looking at the man who had drawn his sword.
“They won’t be arresting you today, Baptizer,” the man said grimly. His complexion was dark and smooth, his black beard trimmed close to his face.
“Who are you?”
The man didn’t answer immediately, and John turned aside. He had the boy Seth to attend to.
The boy was lying on his back, the javelin running through his body, pinning him to the ground. He felt no pain, only a mild dismay that he didn’t seem to be breathing. He felt as if he were drowning in a warm bath. When the face of the Baptizer appeared above him, the lines of his features wavered disconcertingly.
Seth opened his mouth to speak, but his words, which had a garbled, underwater quality to them, were unintelligible.
The Baptizer’s words likewise were unintelligible. Seth found himself looking through John’s wavering image at a river valley greener and richer than he remembered it. John faded, and Seth found himself alone in the far country.
Several miles up in the sere hills northeast of Jericho, Jesus stood with his face turned in the direction of the Jordan River. He had heard no sound¾he was too far away for that¾but he had sensed something, and it troubled him. “Dear God,” he said, softly. “Dear God.”
He stood for some time, watching and listening. A crow cawed in the distance, a harbinger of death. Jesus sighed, deeply. “How long, Father, how long?” he murmured.
If an answer came, no one but Jesus heard it. He turned to climb higher into the barren hills.
John closed the boy’s eyes and eased him onto his side. The crowd pressed closely about them. He stood and looked at them, his eyes settling on the dark-skinned man, who by now had sheathed his sword.
“Judas,” the man said. “Of Kerioth.” He looked down at the boy, and, as if moved by sudden feeling, gripped his cloak by the collar and tore it down the front.
It was a gesture of mourning, and it reflected how all of them felt. Another man tore his cloak, then another.
“He was a brave young man,” said someone. All around, men scratched dirt from the earth and ground it into their hair. More cloaks were torn. Some removed their shoes, and some sat upon the ground. A tunic was removed, and a pallet prepared from it for the body.
“How long must we stand for this?” someone said.
John shook his head. “Not long,” he said. His eyes focused on Judas. “The day of the Lord is upon us, a day when we will be delivered, not by human hands, but by the hand of God.” He looked around at all of them. “On that day,” he said in a growing voice, “the Lord with his cruel and strong sword will punish the fleeing serpent. On that day a song will be heard in the land of Judah.”
A wailing went up from the crowd, beginning with a single voice and growing.
“On that day Israel’s dead shall live; their corpses shall rise. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon it and will no longer cover its slain.”
The boy was lifted up on his pallet. John started through the crowd, moving toward the river, and those he passed turned to follow him.
“On that day,” John said, holding up his hands. “On that day the trumpet will sound. The earth will give birth to those long dead.”
The crowd waded into the river en masse. John cupped water in his hands and let it drain through his fingers onto the hair and dripping beards of those around him. He pushed some down totally into the water and with his hand drew them up again.
“The trumpet shall sound. The dead will be raised.”
A hysteria had gripped the crowd. Each one plunged down into the river and came up again, his hair and his clothes streaming water.