Friday, January 03, 2014

Sling & Cliff

What follows is a proposed 'chapter' in a fiction work about John the Baptist. The working intent is to re-introduce John to the church as a real human being, with the thought that we have lost him as such in the history of the Messiah and the church. John discipled at least four of the original twelve apostles before baptizing Jesus, and may have been related to them as he was to Jesus. He was an extremely important spiritual leader in first century Judaism and in the early church. He was the only Jewish prophet who saw in Christ the coming of the new covenant promised by Jeremiah several centuries before him.

In the spring when the boys were ten, Joseph, Mary and Jesus visited John's family as they did from time to time. John and Jesus quickly found an opportunity to run off into the rocky hills and fields around the village. The late morning sun warmed the earth and scruffy plants of the Judean hills, filling nostrils with the tang of sage and caper berry, the loamy fume of vineyards and the grassy, fertile odor of pastures covered with grazing sheep.

Further up a ridge, John pulled from a shoulder pouch of woven cord a long thin piece of soft leather like a belt with a wide spot in the middle. “Have you used a sling before?”

“I’ve seen the shepherd boys throw with them but I never tried one.”

Smiling, John encouraged him, “Come on, I’ll teach you to bring down the bear and lion, just like King David,” and he proceeded to make a small piles of earth and gravel on top of a large flat boulder. Jesus made some too and then they retreated back about twenty paces.

“Round stones work best, they fly straighter.” From his pouch he produced a smooth rock the size of a small fig, “I got these from the wadi on the other side of the village.” Quickly he set a stone in the middle of the sling, whipped it up over his head and extending his arm gave the sling three more revolutions a little faster each time. On the third one he released an end of the sling. The stone streaked toward the boulder and kicked up dust as it grazed the side of one pile.

“Got it! Look, you grab one end with your thumb and finger like this and the other end you hold between your fingers. When you’re ready, let go with your thumb to release this end of the sling.” He handed Jesus a stone and the sling. Jesus repeated what John showed him but every time he began to swing it, the stone fell out at his feet. John grabbed the sling and showed him again, “You have to start the swing back a little, then when you whip it forward the stone will stay in it,” and he handed it back. Jesus tried again and was able to whip the sling around but his fingers slipped off one end and the stone went flying at John. “Watch out!”

But John was standing well back to stay clear of the sling’s arc and was able to just dodge the stone. “Ah! You’re trying to kill me.” They both burst out laughing. “Your fingers are dusty and slipped.” He gave Jesus another stone. “You were doing fine, try it again just hold on tighter.” Then he ran off. “Wait until I get behind this tree.”

Gripping with white knuckles Jesus started up the sling again, rotating faster and faster. Now he could feel the timing of the stone and the movement of his forearm, similar to throwing. He released an end of the sling and the stone flew far over the boulder and into a nearby gully, scaring up a small cadre of crows.

John ran up, “Let me try a shot.” And before Jesus had any idea what John was about to do, he snatched the sling, seated a stone in it and wound up. Off to one side of the boulder a crow had landed on a close juniper branch. John gave a mighty heave as he sent the stone flying at the bird. The stone crashed into the branch and the crow flew off to another nearby tree scolding the boys with its noisome squawks.

Startled by the sudden harmful intent of John, Jesus warily queried “Why did you do that?”

 “I didn’t hurt it.” John replied defensively.

“You could have. The crow has done you no harm.”

“Stupid crow!” spat John and he fired another stone at the bird. This time he was on the mark and the crow fell in a burst of feathers to the ground. Struggling to its feet, it tried to fly away. It was clear its wing was injured.

Jesus started to walk toward the crow and turned around. John skulked off. “John, wait!” but John kept going. He tried to pick up the crow, thinking to take it back to his father, but it huddled back, threatening him noisily with its large black beak. Jesus slowly rose fearing it was doomed if it did not recover the use of its wing.  

He found John perched on a small cliff and sat next to him. With their feet dangling over the edge, they looked across the nearer reaches of the Judean wilderness. Out of the corner of his eye, Jesus noticed John staring hard at the barren wasteland, a small crease between his eye brows. Jesus scanned across the wide space of brushy wadis, dusty plateaus and successive treeless ridges disappearing into the haze as they wore down and east towards the Dead Sea.

Jesus: “What do you see?”

John: “I’m sorry. Maybe I can take it home and help it get better.”

Jesus: “Maybe”

John: “What do you see?”

Jesus: “Not much” with a smirk.

John: “I see this” and he held up a hand full of pebbles and earth.
They both chuckled. “It’s making me hungry… and thirsty.”

His smile fading quickly, Jesus resumed a concerned gaze, “More than that.”

John: “Boring?”

Jesus: “Exposed.”

They were quiet a few minutes  and then Jesus began reciting from the prophet Isaiah:
“Let the wilderness and thirsty land be glad,
let the deer rejoice and burst in to flower.
Let it flower with fields of asphodel,
Let it rejoice and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon is given to it,
The splendor too of Carmel and Sharon;
These shall see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.”

John continued,
“Strengthen the feeble arms,
Steady the tottering knees;
Say to the anxious, ‘Be strong and fear not.’
See, your God comes with vengeance,
With dread retribution he comes to save you.”

“Then shall blind men’s eyes be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap like a deer
and the tongue of the dumb shout aloud;
for water springs up in the wilderness,
and torrents flow in dry land,
The mirage becomes a pool,
The thirsty land bubbling springs;
Instead of reeds and rushes, grass shall grow
In the rough land where wolves now lurk.”

“And there shall be a causeway there
Which shall be called the Way of Holiness
and the unclean shall not pass along it;
it shall become a pilgrim’s way,
no fool shall trespass on it.”

Then they recounted together the last stanza:
“By it those he has ransomed shall return
And the LORD’s redeemed come home;
they shall enter Zion with shouts of triumph,
crowned with everlasting gladness.
Gladness and joy shall be their escort,
and suffering and weariness shall flee away.”

A large flock of blackbirds crossed their view in the distance, rising and falling like a speckled cloud. Jesus dropped a fist sized rock. It broke the stillness of the morning air with an almost rhythmic crack as it skipped down the cliff face until it joined the rubble pile at the edge of a rushing creek.

John: “Let’s flee!”

John started loping back across the ridge and Jesus jumped up to chase him. When they reached the slope that led back to the village road they both ran faster and faster down the increasing decline.

Back in the village Zacharias and Joseph strolled along to stretch their legs. As they passed the last house they could see in the distance a small cloud of rising dust descending the hill that rose where the path swerved east to go around it. A large flock of sheep crossed it at the foot of the hill. The shepherds and their dogs herded them toward the pastures along the west side of the ridge where the olive orchard provided some shade near a spring.

Zacharias’ old eyes could make out little detail, “What is that coming down the hill?”

“All I see are arms and legs flying about but I believe that’s our boys,” Joseph replied. “I’ll be surprised  if they don’t end up crashed on one of the boulders they are leaping over.”

John and Jesus recklessly let gravity pull them down the slope ever faster, jumping over  rocks and bushes, dodging trees and clefts in their trajectory. Almost every step required some subtle re-direction to avoid disaster. They smashed through thorny clumps of acanthus brush and acacia trees, leaving welts and scratches to tend later. Some footfalls fell square on a boulder requiring them to leap from it, not knowing how to manage the next landing. It felt as though they could launch into flight if only they had wings. They laughed and yelped out of sheer exhilaration. Nearing the bottom of the hill they headed for the trail and realized too late that dozens of sheep blocked their way back to the village. Slowing not a bit John plunged into the flock now frantically scattering in every direction before him. Jesus chased him right through the pandemonium.

Dogs barked furiously not knowing which way to direct the sheep, shepherds cursed waving their arms wildly, and the sheep leaped all about with wide-eyed baying. John continued to race to the village but Jesus stopped, becoming aware of the mess they had made. He began to herd some of the scattered sheep back toward the shepherds. In a little while with the help of the dogs the shepherds once again gathered together their flock.

John, no longer hearing Jesus behind him, turned and watched. Then he continued on toward his home and encountered the two men.

Zacharias: “John, do they need your help?” Zacharias found that John responded to this gentle form of remonstrance more positively than a direct comeuppance.

John: “Yes, father” sighing he turned and went back.

After they had collected the flock and moved it to the spring the shepherds counted off the ewes and lambs. Staring at John one of them angrily shouted, “There is a lamb missing.”

One of the shepherd boys John had seen previously with the flocks pulled Jesus’ arm and yelled at them both, “Come on we’ve got to find it!”

They looked for a long time and were getting worried. Then Joseph and Zacharias walked up to the boys. Joseph carrying the lamb asked, “Is this what you’re looking for?”

The shepherd boy yelped in delight and took the lamb in his arms and ran back to the flock, “Father we found Gideon!!”

The shepherd still irritated nodded to Joseph and then glared at John and Jesus.
“This lamb fell off a small bluff into a stream a week ago and the water carried him into a small canyon. I knew he was going to die. Jacob, my son here, jumped in struggling downstream toward the rapids. When the water took him under, I thought I was going to lose him too. I lost sight of both the lamb and the boy. I can’t swim, neither can Jacob…” his voice broke a bit and he paused, “I had to climb out and go around the wadi. When I got to the other end I climbed down to the stream and there he was wading to shore with the lamb in his arms. The lamb’s mother was killed by a wolf when it was a new born. Jacob was able to get it to drink milk from a small pouch and kept it alive.”

John said, “I’m… I’m sorry. How can I repay you?”

The shepherd was quiet, surprised by this turn of heart. He looked at John and Zacharias, who had come up behind the boy and put his hands on his shoulders, and realized this was the son of a priest.

“You can teach my son the Torah. We observe the Sabbath when we can, attend synagogue even less, but he has no time for the lessons. You’ll have to teach him in the fields”

Zacharias smiled and squeezed John’s shoulders gently, “He’ll be there tomorrow. The Lord blesses those who believe His word.” They left and with Joseph and Jesus returned to the village.

“John, when we get back to the house your mother needs your help.”

“Yes, father, but I must go to the miqveh first. Come on Jesus,” and the two of them scampered off.

Joseph gave Zacharias a quizzical look as they proceeded back to the village.

“John has not brought uncleanness into the home since he was old enough to understand. Which means he visits the miqveh almost every day.” Zacharias smiled and rubbed the back of his neck, “I used to worry a lot about him, like you do about Jesus, but he is strong and seems invincible. I think his angels must be fierce, he is always outdoors. He is a bright boy, too. He respects the Law and studies hard.”

“Yes,” Joseph replied, “as does Jesus when there is time. There is much to do in the shop and he’s become a very productive helper.”

“They are good lads, Joseph. Would that I could live to see their day.”

“We have our time Zacharias. We have our time with them.”