“Why would the Elohim want to work outside of an already miraculous creation?” – Essene quote concerning the virgin birth
“Now it happened, that during the time of the high priesthood of this Matthias, there was another person made high kohein for a single day, that very day which the Jews observed as a fast. The occasion was this: This Matthias the high kohein, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed, in a dream, to have conversation with his wife; and because he could not officiate himself on that account, Yosef, the son of Ellemus, his kinsman, assisted him in that sacred office.” – Flavius Yosefus, “War of the Jews”
The Semitic tribes of the middle orient have always been patriarchal in nature and Hebrew society of the second Mikdash period was no exception. Like the Greeks, and to a lesser extent Romans, they held that women had no legal or religious rights in their cultures. Worse however, was that under the laws of the Torah, women and children were chattel; objects to be owned and used as the male patriarch saw fit. The Hebrew word for husband was “ba’al”, which meant master. “The relation of the wife to the husband was, to all intents and purposes, that of a slave to her master,” – Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.
Levirate law decreed only males over age thirteen had legal rights within their society. “A man may sell his daughter, but a woman may not sell her daughter.” – Babylonian Talmud. Ancient clay tablets describing legal contracts, clearly recorded those children who were bought and sold, the child’s tiny footprint impressed into the clay attesting to its status as property.
Hebrew society was polygynous and as such, the Israelite did not proscribe marital fidelity on the part of men. However, according to Levirate law, adulterous married women and adulterous betrothed women were to be punished with death by stoning. Male accomplices could also be punished by death, but this punishment was typically reserved only for those who had offended the wealthy elite by indulging their sexual appetites with their wives or daughters.
While Jewish women of that time were not typically subjected to the indignities of being sold among their own people, they were still wholly dependent on men for their survival. Thus, it was of the utmost importance for a woman to have some legal attachment to a man, such as a husband or a son might provide. Without this legal bond, the Hebrew woman would almost assuredly be reduced to prostitution or begging, and a short hard life; not that life was easy for married women.
Rabbinic literature is filled with contempt for women. The rabbis taught that women were not to be saluted, or spoken to in the street. They were forbidden to be instructed in the law or to receive an inheritance. A woman walked six paces behind her husband and if she uncovered her hair in public, such as on the street or in the bazaars, she was considered a harlot. Within the confines of the Mikdash, females were allowed to observe the ceremonies from a raised gallery along three sides of the court, but were never allowed to participate.
By contrast, the Hebrew male became a legal citizen in his thirteenth year. This limitation was developed from various accounts of thirteen-year-old biblical male figures. Abraham turned thirteen when he broke the idols that began his conversion to the concept of one God. Obeying God’s commandment, Abraham circumcised Ishmael when he turned thirteen; an act that apparently turned Ishmael into a renegade. Abraham’s grandsons, Jacob and Esau, studied until age thirteen. After that, it was written that Jacob devoted himself to further study of the Torah, while Esau worshipped at “foreign shrines”.
Like Ishmael, two of Jacob’s twelve sons, Simeon and Levi, wreaked havoc when they turned thirteen, decimating the male population of the city of Shechem in retribution over their sister Dinah’s alleged rape. Later, thirteen-year-old Betzalel was chosen as chief artist/architect for the construction of the portable desert Mikdash called the “Tabernacle”. Centuries later, the menacing giant Goliath was felled by a thirteen-year-old David. According to the Midrash, his son, Shlomo, became king when he was thirteen. The bar mitzvah tradition, granting this legal status to boys on their thirteenth birthday, began during the second Mikdash period. Boys completing their first Yom Kippur fast, were blessed by Jewish elders. At that point, a boy was granted legal rights. He could now be a member of a Jewish court, buy and sell property and his vows were considered binding.
The Essene however rejected this heavily slanted patriarchal tradition and while Torah jews more or less mimicked the Greeks in their treatment of women, the Essene elevated women to a status even beyond that of Roman society where woman held citizenship. As the Essene sages would say, “The sight of God in woman is the most perfect of all” and “beautiful women are divine works of art”. They recognized that human beauty as being connected with divine reality and so they celebrated the perfection of the maiden that, taken in the correct perspective, stood for a deeper reality. Their idea was women, like men, have the capacity for development and refinement beyond the base human nature that drive the bestial human consumed by conflicting emotions and desires.
The ability to see this connection however was denied to the self-serving, patriarchal, kohanim. They were never able to perceive both the beautiful woman and the divinity in the same form. For this reason, the kohanim never suspected that a woman might hold the solution to the terrible economic burdens they had imposed upon their people.
Mariam was barely five years old when her father delivered her to the Mikdash. As a kohein, Mariam’s father Joachim had little use for a daughter for only a firstborn son held any value or significance to the Kohanim. For this reason, Joachim offered up his five year old daughter to the temple in sacrificial tribute instead of the traditional animal sacrifice required for redemption of a child. Under the old Abrahamic tradition, the child would have had her throat slit, her blood drained and her body burned upon the alter, but by this time the priesthood found it more advantageous to use sacrificed children as slave labor to work in the Mikdash.
Before the age of six, Mariam had begun her training as weaver. Over the years, she worked her young, tender, fingers bloody, weaving the veil for the “Bet Ḳodesh ha-Ḳodashim” or “Holy of Holies”. Due to its exacting nature, the work was grueling for little Mariam. The kohein would harshly reproach and often strike the children weavers, demanding that each thread in the veil had to be placed as if by the hand of YHVH himself. Mariam often worked long into the night and more than once had to unweave a major area of the veil after a minute imperfection was noted by a kohein inspecting the cloth.
It wasn’t long before a kohein named Zechariah took a personal interest in Mariam. More than once, he had been sorely tempted by her innocent beauty and as it was not unusual for kohanim to take certain young girls and boys under personal tutelage; nothing would have been said had he done so, but Mariam was different. Zechariah somehow could not bring himself to despoil such a young beauty. Instead, he became her guardian, making sure she remained chaste and unmolested by the other kohanim.
Mariam’s bloodline originally came from Canaanite beginnings, but generations before her family had married into the Davidic bloodline. During their research, an Essene sage had discovered Mariam’s special bloodline and after speaking with her, felt she might serve as a perfect mate to attract a kohein and sire the male child needed for their plan. On her tenth birthday, an Essene sage and a member of the Mikdash went to Yerushalayim to redeem Mariam’s sacrificial ransom. It was standard practice among the kohein to pay a sacrificial tribute to acquire desirable children who would then serve the kohein’s sexual pleasure or as domestic servants in their home.
After ransoming Mariam the two returned to the small, monastic, village of Natzret located at the foot of Mount Carmel. Here Mariam would be taught new skills that would insure her marketability as a wife. A bargain was struck with a local hairdresser to teach the young girl hair and cosmetic skills, which was highly unusual, for women were not typically apprenticed and at best, were only taught simple domestic skills by their mothers. In Mariam’s case however, the special intertwining of her bloodline qualified her as a candidate for the Essene conspiracy. Certain blood relatives were made aware of her purpose and in time, she too came to understand the pivotal role she would play in bringing down the Mikdash’s oppressive sacrificial system.
Mariam was twelve years of age when an Essene sage took her to the remote desert region of Qumran to begin her formal education. Early in her training, her tutors had realized that among the girls being trained for the task, Mariam alone would by far be the most likely candidate to successfully seduce a kohein and produce a son eligible to become a member of the kohanim. She would be groomed for one purpose only, to entice a relationship with a kohein that would lead to the birth of a son.
A bright girl, she quickly took to the Essene’s training where she was carefully tutored in those skills that would make her highly desirable, not only to men in general, but to a Mikdash kohein in particular. She was schooled in Levirate law, math, writing and social skills as well as special sexual techniques. She learned to hold herself erect, spine straight, head high and walk in a manner that made her hips sway with a certain provocative subtlety. She was taught how to sit and how to rise from a cushion or a sofa and how to serve refreshments along with the other manners requiring graceful comportment among various social settings.
By the age of eighteen, Mariam’s beauty was rare and arresting. She was unusually tall, a statuesque figure that stood out among her peers. Her auburn hair, shaded to almost copper, fell to her waist. Her complexion was like that of the olive. She had well formed hips for bearing children and round, firm breasts, shaped like new spring melons, but her piercing eyes of deep green were most unusual of all as the other girls all had dark brown eyes. Although a regal beauty, she was a formidable young lady with knowledge of ancient laws that exceeded that of many within the kohanim. It wasn’t long before her tutors deemed her the one most likely to assume a lead role in the conspiracy. Eventually, Mariam was inducted into the Essene mystical tradition and a small group of women, with expertise in such matters, performed certain rituals and incantations believed to at least enhance, if not ensure, Mariam’s chances of bearing a son. Like the kohanim, this son would be legally imbued with the power to forgive sin in the name of YHVH.
Already an exceptional, natural beauty, every effort was made to enhance Mariam’s features and desirability to the fullest extent possible. She was dressed in a manner that, while attractive and subliminally alluring to a modest degree, was neither garish nor ostentatious as might be expected from a local prostitute or highborn woman. Although her hair was styled in the manner of women of the higher classes, her slim fingers were devoid of any jewelry that would detract from the delicately feminine nature of her hands. Every step of her preparation was carefully designed to subliminally attract while not drawing undue attention, or worse, give even the slightest hint of a woman actively seeking the affections of men. By now, many seasons had turned and after years of training, Mariam was ready for introduction into Jewish society.
It had been decided that Mariam’s best opportunity for encountering a kohein would be found in the closest possible proximity to the Mikdash. This meant nearby Yerushalayim, so arrangements were made for her to find lodging in that city. She and three carefully chosen companions began their journey to Yerushalayim at the beginning of the month of Shevat. The plan was to have Mariam settled in Yerushalayim before the season of Nissan so she would be present for Yom Kippur. Leaving for Yerushalayim now would allow her sufficient time to integrate into the community and then perhaps meet a kohein during one of the many Mikdash celebrations or observances.
Qumran was located northwest of the Dead Sea in the wilderness of Judea. The journey East to Yerushalayim took travelers from the west side of the Northern, uppermost portion of the salt lake. The distance, about twenty two milliarium, required no more than a day’s travel. The Essenes assembled a small caravan comprised of two men and another woman to accompany Mariam. Two camels, along with a few sheep and goats were readied for the group’s departure.
The following day, the caravan made its way slowly up from the wilderness of the valley, taking a winding path up into the Judean Mountains towards Yerushalayim. The first indication the travelers had of nearing the city were the forests of almond, olive and pine trees surrounding the religious capital. It was mid-afternoon when the caravan passed through the gate known as “Sha’ar Shechem.” שכם. Mariam marveled at the bustling market bazaars, for she had only briefly witnessed such colorful activity during religious celebrations. The people of the bazaars took little notice of the small caravan for such travelers passed through the gates on regular basis, bringing trade goods to market from the surrounding regions.
The small caravan wound its way through the city until it came to a prearranged location, the house of a certain trusted Essene merchant. There they dismounted and almost before their feet had touched the ground, a young boy sprang from an alleyway beside the house. Taking command of the small party, the boy directed the two women to the front of the house and then led the two men and their animals to a nearby shelter. The house was neither a wealthy house nor a poor one, but typical of those merchants who prospered in the city’s bazaars. This was the house of and Mariam’s grandparents, Shaphan the rug merchant, and his wife Peninnah.
A middle-aged woman met the two at the door and graciously bade them entry into the house. The floor was covered with thick, intricately woven, Persian rugs. Pillows had been placed around the room to provide supporting comfort for guests. Peninnah swept her hand across the room, indicating the travelers should make themselves comfortable upon the rich rugs and pillows placed carefully around the spacious room before exiting to an adjoining room. Mariam and her companion then removed their outer robes and veils, sat on the rugs and adjusted themselves upon the pillows.
Peninnah returned with a jug of water, a basin and two cups. Passing the cups to the women, she poured out the cool water and then poured more water into the basin. She then knelt and began washing Mariam’s feet, “So you are the one who was chosen! And such a choice they have made, for yours is truly a rare beauty to behold! No doubt you will do well in your mission and we will assist you in every way possible. You and your servant will stay here in our house. We have many clients in Yerushalayim and my husband has arranged for us to meet with the wives of those clients who desire the services of a hairdresser. I will set up these clients and assist you until you have established a reputation.”
Mariam’s professional skills were unique in that she had combined her weaving with her hairdressing skills. She would soon become renowned for her skill in weaving intricate patterns into her client’s hair using gold and silver thread, ribbons, beads and other special, more personal objects. The effect was quite astounding and the woman of Yerushalayim soon recognized Mariam’s special talent, for until her arrival, none had ever even imagined such splendid hair preparation. Beyond the newness of hair weaving itself, was the fact that Mariam performed it with the utmost delicate and intricate skill. Her slender fingers would deftly weave her wealthy clients hair into the most spectacular patterns designed to turn heads
In the ensuing months, Mariam found her skills in great demand, even among the women of lesser royalty. Before long, other hairdressers began mimicking Mariam’s technique and designs, but none could match her skill. For a woman to be seen at an exclusive party with one’s hair prepared by Mariam was a statement that she had employed the services of the very best artisan in the land. Mariam’s own stunning beauty enhanced this effort to an even greater degree, as her clients felt that one who could attend to her own beauty with such skill could scarcely be less successful in attending to their needs.
As word of Mariam’s hairdressing skills passed throughout the city, her clientele grew. Before long, wealthy men of stature began taking notice of Mariam. Some men began to grumble that it was unbecoming, nay, even sinful, for a woman to have her hair woven in such a manner, but the wives made it known in no uncertain terms that they would not tolerate any talk of returning to plainer hair styles. Mariam’s designs had in fact exceeded the most stunning hairstyles of Rome and it wasn’t often that one in the outer provinces could outshine the wife of a visiting Roman dignitary.
As the days passed, word of Mariam’s skills became renowned not only in Yerushalayim, but throughout all Judea. She often had woman from as far away as bethphage, bet Lahm, beth ′anya and even Amasa seek her out when they visited Yerushalayim. When a woman of higher social status had a special occasion or wanted the proper cosmetics and most appropriate perfumes, others would counsel her saying, “you need to seek the services of Mariam, for only she can weave hair finer than cloth and only Mariam knows the innermost secrets of true beauty and allure. Why just a glance would make one wonder how a woman of such appearance could not be steeped in such secrets.”
Mariam visited the Mikdash on a regular basis to pray and offer sacrifice and it wasn’t long before the kohanim began noticing the statuesque young woman attending the religious ceremonies. The kohanim took special note of the girls and women attending the Mikveh, or ritual bath. The Mikveh, before it was known as such, had originally served an integral purpose for the kohanim in marking the end of a sacrificial cycle by cleansing the blood marking of atonement. This ability to supervise the cleansing of blood from sinners was considered so important that the community was required to go to the extreme of selling Torah scrolls or even a Mikdash if necessary, to provide funding for the construction of the bath. However, by the second Mikdash period, the original intent of the Mikveh had been modified and now the ritual immersion emphasized not physical, but spiritual, cleanliness.
Once bathed, sinners were ready to begin anew the cycle of atonement. By the time Mariam began entering the Mikveh, it had become little more than a ritual purification bath to relieve the woman’s state of “niddah” or separation from purity during menstruation or childbirth. However, it served a second, secret purpose as well for the kohanim would frequently peep at the bathers from a special, clandestine, niche cut into the back of the bath’s wall. Women disrobing to enter the Mikveh were unaware of the scheming eyes and drooling lips drinking in the view of their nude bodies. There was one young kohein in particular who was always present at the peeping niche when Mariam came to bathe. As the robes fell from her body, it seemed to this kohein as if this woman was a living incarnation of a Greek statue he had seen as a child. The statue was sculpted with the robes falling in almost the exactly same manner has he had seen Mariam drop her robe just before stepping into the bath. As a child, he had been entranced by this statue brought to Judea by the Roman Procurator. To see that statue now come to life aroused a passion that was almost too much for the young kohein to bear.
It wasn’t long before Mariam’s patrons began inviting her to various social functions as by now, she had become a known attraction in her own right, especially among the eligible young men of the community. During these social gatherings, men would cluster about her, awkwardly fawning and sparing with each other over her irresistible attraction. She was quick of wit and always ready with a smile and kind word and this, more than exceptional beauty, drew the attention of men. In fact, much of Mariam’s enduring attraction was due to her conversational ability. While never overtly demonstrating her educational training, Mariam well understood the various political and economic topics discussed by men.
While the other women conversed among themselves about matters of home and hearth, gossiping about various indiscretions committed by the better-known members of the community, Mariam would speak to the men about Roman policy and law along with Jewish religious issues. She was an excellent listener and as the men would go about displaying their knowledge, she would insert a small question here or an agreeable word there and before long, they would feel like they were communing with a soul mate. While they found her knowledge intriguing, she was always ready with a clever, witty comment and never spoke in a biting, condescending or haughty manner. Men of various stations began slyly approaching Mariam with their proposals. In private moments, some would brazenly proposition her in the most open manner, while others, especially those who were married, would be more circumspect in their advances. But all were coyly rejected by the lovely young woman who had now developed the ultimate skill of weaving the hearts of men as deftly has she wove a woman’s hair.
Usually such attention from men would garner jealously and hostility among women, but Mariam was just as ready to speak to women about the secret matters of cosmetics and beauty tips as well as those problems associated with being little more than chattel in their male dominated society. More than once Mariam had quietly stepped in to assist a woman with those problems that arose from their affairs with men. More than once, she had assisted with a birth as a midwife or administered hyssop to intervene with an unwanted pregnancy. She lent money to young girls in need of certain medical procedures that required the utmost discretion. However, Mariam had been taught not to gossip and that which she learned about the affairs of others, was never mentioned in idle conversation. This trait above all others gained her the greatest respect of both men and women alike. This engendered the trust of the women of the community and many did indeed take her into confidence about their affairs.
It happed in the Mikdash one late afternoon during the tenth day of the month of Tishrei. Mariam was attending the Ne’ila and the Shofar had blown. The Mikdash had emptied out but Mariam remind behind in steadfast prayer. As she prayed, a shadow suddenly appeared at her side. A furtive glance confirmed an imposing figure standing close beside her. Mariam could tell by the hem of the robe that this was the kohein gadol. She said nothing, but continued her prayer supplications without the slightest acknowledgment of his presence. After a time she heard a voice beside her say, “Mariam, I am most impressed by the piety of your supplications, but this piety pales in comparison with your beauty.” Mariam continued to pray even as she felt the kohein’s rough hands begin exploring her body.
Suddenly, she stood up and in full fury, turned to face the kohein. Delivering a fiery look, Mariam’s flashing green eyes instantly froze the his advances. Addressing him in the harshest, most biting manner, she spat, “Has my lord somehow mistaken me for a Mikdash prostitute? Does my lord think me a morsel of shewbread upon his holy table? Perhaps his lordship considers me a juicy cut of meat, like one might expect from a tender Paschal lamb? Does he deign to consume me after which he will no doubt sit back to belch with satisfaction over my spent delights? Nay my lord, nay, retreat from me at once my lord for this is a holy place where the kohein gadol dare not desecrate either himself, nor those who serve ELOHIM!”
The young kohein was so taken aback by this biting response, he fled in terror from the young woman. In spite of the harsh rebuke, Yosef would not forget Mariam, nor would Mariam forget the handsome young man temporarily serving the role of kohein gadol.
Several months passed before Mariam saw the young kohein again. The occasion of a wedding party served as the setting for their next encounter. On this occasion, he came as a guest and therefore had not been called upon to officiate the marriage ceremony. During the Seudas Mitzvah, he spied Mariam conversing with several other women and quickly moved to her side with a cup of celebratory wine. As Mariam turned from her conversation, he offered her the wine saying, “I have not forgotten your beauty, you are even more radiant tonight than I remember.”
With a cold shrug, Mariam replied, “Nor have I forgotten your indiscretions within the holy Mikdash.”
Once again, taken aback by her frosty response, the kohein tried recovering slightly from the rebuff with an apology, “My lady I must apologize for the indiscretion, but I was overcome by your presence to a point where I could scarcely restrain my own actions.”
Again, Mariam rebuffed the kohein, “No doubt; how could one possibly expect a mere kohein gadol to have any more control over his actions than he might maintain over ELOHIM’s actions! Pray you have sufficient control over your actions that I might learn your name?”
Still spinning over this new rebuff, the kohein spluttered, “Yosef, my name is Yosef”
In softer tones, Mariam now asked, “And how is it you have come to the Mikdash in this city of Yerushalayim?”
As she spoke, she took Yosef by the arm and led him into the nearby garden where they could speak privately. Walking though the garden with Mariam on his arm, Yosef began to feel comfortably lightheaded. Although the wine had produced a certain portion of the effect, Mariam’s presence was far more responsible for his heady condition than the wine.
Yosef explained that he was the son of Ellemus and a nephew of the acting kohein gadol Matthias. On the night before Yom Kippur, his uncle had suffered nocturnal emissions during a dream. This event made Matthias ritually impure and therefore unable to officiate in the Mikdash for the Yom Kippur ceremony. For this reason Yosef, had been selected to officiate over the ceremony. As the evening wore on and the celebration waned, Yosef and Mariam spoke of many topics, but Mariam was always careful to guide the conversation back to Yosef and his life.
The young kohein was quite arrogant and easily led by Mariam’s soothing demeanor to talk about himself and the kohanim. From their conversation, Mariam learned much about the inner workings of the Mikdash, especially which kohein was indulging in what activity and with whom. She discovered that along with his religious training, the kohanim had also trained Yosef as a carpenter. The law stipulated only kohein could enter the Mikdash, therefore only kohanim could fill the role of construction worker. It was in his role as a carpenter that Yosef served his primary function for the kohanim, participating in the final phase of Herod’s construction of the Mikdash. His actual time serving as a kohein had therefore been quite limited. Had he been older and more experienced in political matters, he would have no doubt been far more circumspect in his approach to Mariam. The kohanim knew the world of Judea belonged to them. Among the Jews they held a power beyond kings and believed all the wealth of this world was theirs for the taking.
Had he fully realized his power as a kohein, Yosef might well have used those powers much differently in arranging clandestine relationships with women of the community. He would have had ample opportunity for such dalliance, as his carpentry work had left him ruggedly fit in appearance. There were few young women in the community who had not cast their eyes upon the young kohein as he shouldered a heavy load while plying the less spiritual side of his trade.
Had Yosef been more experienced in such affairs, Mariam’s attitude and cleverness might have put him on his guard; he might have even passed by Mariam altogether out of a sense of danger, but Yosef was young, inexperienced and impetuous. He had never tasted love and this first taste left him driven to fully satiate his burning desire to carnally consume Mariam’s charms.
For the kohanim, the desires of the flesh were all too common. Whether it was the flesh of a woman or the flesh of a beast, theirs was an overwhelming desire to dominate and consume all. Only YHVH had the power to stop them and the kohanim spoke for YHVH.
Although Yosef had long since been smitten by Mariam’s charms, he now became obsessed with the thought of her. He sought every means available that might chance another encounter with the beautiful hairdresser. He found excuses to visit the houses where he heard she might be found in attendance to a lady. He visited those shops where various materials used in cosmetics and perfumes were sold. He walked along the paths he knew she favored. He searched for things he thought might interest her. Finally, he visited the house of Shaphan with an excuse to examine the rugs in which the merchant dealt.
He spared no effort in his pursuit of Mariam, for he could think of little else but her. For her part, Mariam had detected a certain tenderness in Yosef, a certain innocence that belied his initial boldness. While she had discussed the possibility of Yosef as a likely candidate with Shaphan and Peninnah, she began to have feelings for Yosef that went beyond those of duty to her mission. What had begun as a lustful desire on the part of Yosef, and cold, calculated, intent by Mariam to fulfill her mission now blossomed into a love that would lead to the most profound change in man’s history.
The Mikdash contained three outer courtyards. The easternmost of these courts was known as the “Court of Women”, so called because women could not pass beyond this area. This court contained the Mikdash collection points for its treasury, a place where people tithed their monies. With an area of almost 200 square feet, it featured ornately carved, gold trimmed, colonnades encompassing its perimeter. Nestled against the walls of the court were thirteen chests designed to receive a sinner’s tribute. These thirteen chests were shaped like trumpets, being narrow at the mouth and wide at the bottom. Each “trumpet” had the specific object of tribute inscribed on its side. Nine of these trumpets were for the receipt of what was legally due by worshippers and the other four were for voluntary gifts. Such tribute was removed daily and the corresponding number of sacrifices would then be offered. This not only saved the labor of making numerous individual sacrifices, but spared the modesty of those who might not wish to have the occasion or the circumstances of their sacrifice to be publicly known.
It happened during the time of the evening sacrifice that Yosef spied Mariam leaving the courtyard of women. After dropping the monetary equivalent for a turtledove sin offering into Trumpet III, she was hurrying through the gate called “Beautiful” when Yosef approached her from behind to encircle her slim waist with his bronzed, muscular arms. Startled, Mariam gasped and spun around to find herself looking straight into the dark, smoking eyes of her beloved. Yosef said nothing, but put a finger to his lips and led Mariam off to a secluded area and when finally shielded from the eyes of the other sinners, he tried kissing her. Mariam fended of this amorous advance, whispering excitedly, “Yosef this is the Mikdash, we cannot be seen embracing and kissing here, you know it is forbidden!”
Having seen her tribute, he held Mariam at a slight distance and replied to the chastisement, “My sweet turtledove, you would blush endlessly with shame if you knew what went on behind these walls. Come let me show you something”.
Taking Mariam by the arm, he led her out of the courtyard to a door defining a passageway cut into the wall. This passageway led deep into the bowels of the Mikdash. The two lovers descended into the depths until Yosef finally stopped their progress in front of an elaborate tapestry covering the wall. The weaving in the tapestry portrayed Moses receiving the tablets from YHVH. Yosef pulled the tapestry aside to reveal another small door. Holding her by the hand, he began leading her through the opening, but Mariam hesitated. In hushed tones she pleaded, “Yosef where are you taking me, this is forbidden. You know women cannot enter into the inner sanctuaries of the Mikdash!”
Yosef gently pressed his finger to her lips and then quickly pulled her through the opening. The dark passage was lit only by a single, small, oil lamp. First down one passage and then into another, Mariam marveled at the realization the Mikdash was a labyrinth of secret passages. She was fascinated how a small oil lamp provided just enough light to allow one to make out the end of a passageway. As the two came to yet another intersection, they heard low voices coming down the connecting passage. Yosef pulled Mariam into a small alcove in whose dark shadow the two disappeared from view. Two kohein, discussing the daily take of the offerings, passed by the adjoining corridor and then receded into the darkness. Mariam whispered vehemently, “Yosef, what are you doing? Where are you taking me? If we are caught we will be executed!”
Yosef replied, “we are going to visit a place few humans will ever see. In fact I have only been there once myself.” I have been working in the Mikdash for years and I know these passages like the palm of my own hand. The hour is late, few kohein will be around and none will be where we are going.”
Mariam pleaded, “Where? Where are we going Yosef?”
“Come my beloved, I’ll show you.”
Once again, he led Mariam by the hand of down a dark passage. The journey through the inner recesses of the Mikdash seemed to take an interminable time and she lost track of how long it took before they emerged from the dark passages to arrive at the base of a stairwell lit by a series of bronze, oil-burning torches. Again, Mariam pleaded with Yosef to tell her their destination.
Yosef just smiled, “My love, we are going to see YHVH!”
Urgently pulling her by the hand, the two began the long ascent up the stairwell. Reaching the top, Mariam found herself in a large foyer facing two ornately carved, massive wooden doors flanked by two pillars with similar carvings. The carvings on the door were of the various animal sacrifices of the Mikdash and a blood red sash fastened with a complex knot draped across the entrance. Mariam gasped in panic as she realized they were standing in front of the entrance of something terribly sacred. As she stood gasping in awe, Yosef undid the complex knot in the sash and then engaged an even more complex set of levers set into the doors.
Taking a taper from within the folds of his robe, Yosef lit it from a nearby torch and began opening the ornate doors, but Mariam backed away, hissing vehemently. “Yosef you are either insane or a complete fool! If we are discovered, we will be executed; our bodies will disappear; no one will ever know what happened to us!”
Grabbing her hand he whispered, “Perhaps my love, but know that more than one kohein gadol has sired offspring within these sacred confines. Come let me show you how YHVH lives”, and with that, he pulled her into the utter depths of blackness.
Mariam felt disturbingly disoriented after passing through the doorway and the effect only worsened when Yosef released her hand to bring light to the blackness. Moving around the room, he reached up with his taper to light ornate, oil-fed, sconces placed at intervals along the wall. With the additional light of each lit sconce, the room increasingly came into view until Mariam finally became oriented to the new surroundings. In the soft, gently flickering light of the shielded flames, Mariam marveled at what her eyes beheld, a breathtaking amount of gold, silver and precious jewels had been used in detailing the room. It looked much like the descriptions she had heard of Heaven.
The vaulted ceiling was at least fifteen cubits high. The floor was covered with luxurious carpets, blood red in color and woven with mysterious patterns. Several plush couches, also covered in blood red fabric, were placed against the walls on either side of the room. One end of the room was covered by a veil of pure white trimmed with gold that ran from floor to ceiling; a curtain embroidered with a panorama of the heavens. The veil was woven from blue, purple, crimson and white thread, depicting fierce cherubim. It was two hundred square meters of the most valuable fabric in Judea, requiring three hundred kohanim for washing. Its purpose was separating the holy place from the most holy, to screen from view the ark of the covenant and the chariot throne.
Instantly recognizing her work in the veil, Mariam’s breath drew short. Terrible memories came flooding back at the sight of the cloth. She had only been nine years old at the time when blood from her fingers had soiled that material. She remembered how the other girls working with her looked on in terror as a kohein came up behind her with his olive branch and whipped her mercilessly for leaving those traces of blood. She remembered the long, tedious, hours spent in unweaving the entire section and then replacing it with new thread. She did not know then what she was weaving, but now she stood directly in front of the final result of her hard labor – the veil covering the Holy of Holies
Yosef closed the doors behind him. Turning to Mariam, he grabbed her hand and like an excited child urged her on, “Come! Come my love; let me show you the marvel that lies behind the curtain!”
Mariam snatched her hand away, “Yosef, why have you done this? You will get us both killed by this foolishness. Surely this place is guarded and just as surely a guard or a kohein will soon arrive and discover the sash undone and that will be our undoing.”
Taking both her hands into his, Yosef looked deeply into Mariam’s eyes. “My love this is the most well guarded place in all Judea; but fear not, no guard is allowed to come through the main entry into the stairwell, let alone climb the stairs to enter here. The kohein gadol comes here but once a year on Yom Kippur pray to YHVH on Israel’s behalf. Other then that time, no one is allowed to enter. There is only one exception made when the kohein gadol has a maiden brought to this special place of immense power to sire a special son for the kohanim. Then a virginal maiden is blindfolded and brought here and after servicing the kohein gadol on one of these couches, she is escorted back blindfolded. I happen to know my uncle is not in the Mikdash, but is holding a private audience with the wife of a certain official this evening. Therefore, I know there is no chance of our being discovered. Come now, let me show you the true marvel that lies within”.
Holding Mariam’s hand tightly, he led her around the edge of the curtain. There behind the curtain, for the first and only time in her life Mariam saw the Ark of the Covenant. It was a box constructed of acacia wood. Plating the wood was a kapporet of pure gold. Attached to this were two solid gold figures. These were the Cherubim, servants of YHVH, which knelt facing each other with bowed heads. Their outstretched wings enfolded their heads and shoulders with the tips just touching over the exact center of the Ark. On the bottom of the box were four gold rings through which two poles could be inserted so the family of Kehath could carry the ark on their shoulders. The dimensions of the box were a mere one-and-a-half, by one-and-a-half, by two-and-a-half cubits, making a total internal area of about 19 square feet.
Mariam had never seen so much gold in her life. Looking at the gold box, she thought about the poor families she had known in the villages and how the requirement for sacrificial tribute had impoverished them to the point of starvation. She thought about the massive wanton slaughter of animals to feed the system that held this gold-plated box in the highest esteem. So intense were these thoughts, she did not even notice Yosef spreading a soft, white cloth over the couch beside them.
As she gazed upon the golden Ark, Yosef interrupted her thoughts, “The Torah lights, the Torah shines, but only money warms”, he intoned. “It is said the Ark contains the first tablets of the Ten Commandments, broken by Moses himself. Some say the second tablets are in there as well; but what this box actually contains is the entire wealth of the Mikdash. This Ark is why the Mikdash exists! This is why the kohanim exists! The power held in this Ark is the power of the kohanim, the power of the Mikdash, the power of YHVH! For it is gold that truly rules the lives of men. That is why it is said the people who carry the Ark before them are assured of victory; they have YHVH’s wealth to fund the armies that carry them to their victory.”
“But what about the stories of the ark containing the broken stones on which were written the commandments; what about the hyssop branch, were these just lies?”
“My love, what better way to hide the true contents of the ark? What better way to dissuade thieves and schemers than to spread rumors the ark contains nothing but useless dross?” Who might steal a box containing nothing more than old pieces of stones, branches of a bush and dust?”
As he spoke, he gently led Mariam to a broad couch positioned directly in front of the Ark and sat her gently down upon the soft, pure, white cloth that he had spread over the velvet cushion. Yosef began kissing Mariam’s neck and while nibbling gently at her ear whispered, “it is written there is no better sex possible than that which is consummated in this place of immense sacred power”, and in the intoxicating danger that precise moment held, Mariam finally succumbed to Yosef’s advances. No longer able to restrain her own desires, she began eagerly returning his kisses. Hardly able to separate long enough to disrobe, time now faded into eternity as the two bodies merged in the contrasting rock-hard and soft yielding of coital lust. The two lovers indulged repeatedly in the mutual pleasures found in the combining of their flesh and only when fully spent, did they finally separate.
As Mariam began donning her robes, the still naked Yosef took the bloody covering from the couch and held it to his face. Breathing deeply the scent of the virgin’s blood, Yosef shut his eyes and spun round and round in heady lust holding the bloody cloth to his nostrils. He continued spinning in ecstasy until Mariam grabbed his arm to stop him. She waited until his eyes began to focus and then, gently taking the cloth from him, carefully folded it so her blood would not show.
Yosef stood by dumbfounded as she finished folding the cloth. Mariam quietly told Yosef to get dressed, but still he did not move. She paused momentarily to admire the hard, tanned, body sculpted to muscular perfection from years of physical labor, seeing in his body the same perfection she had once beheld in a Roman statue, spotted during her travels to Caesarea. Suddenly Yosef jolted from his daze and taking hold of her shoulders, he looked into the depths of her emerald green eyes and cried out, “my love, my dearest love, there can be no doubt that this child will truly be a son of YHVH.”
Finally, Yosef began dressing in an almost careless manner, but after casually adjusting his robes, he began attending to the smallest detail; making sure everything was left in exactly the same order as before their arrival. Finally, with everything restored to perfect order, he opened the door and while Mariam waited without, he snuffed the sconces. The two retreated from the Holy of Holies for what would be the first, last and only time in their life. Facing the door, Yosef reset the complex latching mechanism and then refastened the red sash with its intricate knot. He had almost finished tying the knot when Mariam asked, “How is it that you know how to do these things so perfectly?”
Yosef replied, “These are secrets of the Mikdash that certain kohanim are privileged to know. Since I served as kohein gadol for that one day of Yom Kippur, I was made privy to the secrets of entry into the Holy of Holies. It takes some time to learn how to tie the knot and how the latching mechanism works. The mechanism is quite clever in that if one is careless and works the mechanism out of sequence, it sets the lock to where it can only be opened by two kohein using special keys. My work in the construction has provided me with every detail of the labyrinth of passages running throughout the Mikdash.”
One by one, Yosef snuffed each of the torches. First, the ones beside the doorway and then, as they descended the stairwell, he extinguished each torch in succession, leaving a long, black, trail of darkness behind. As the couple emerged into a bright, starlit night, Mariam smiled to herself in the realization she could not have chosen a better specimen as the father for her son.
After this encounter, Yosef began pursuing a formal courtship, for he now realized that by becoming the mother of his child, Mariam had become far more than a sexual conquest to satiate his lust. In turn, Mariam’s love for the young kohein had blossomed. People began noticing that the two were seldom apart, now living in their own world that focused on each other. In time, Yosef offered his betrothal to Mariam and she consented; this however would be no ordinary marriage, but one that would echo throughout the millennium.
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The sun burned Babylon as it had for countless centuries. Its intense heat lay like a bright death shroud upon the city as two men, one tall and one short, wearing flowing, spotless, white robes, made their way through the narrow passageways formed by the city’s tenement walls. Centuries later, this maze of man-made canyons would be called streets. While the two brothers gave no outward sign of their agitation, their blood boiled hotter than the sun burning the rapidly shrinking Seleucid empire. No one held the sun to account however, for it wasn’t the sun that desiccated the empire, but the dreams of men that shriveled it towards demise.
This region had once been unified as part of Alexander’s expansive empire, but after his death in 323 BC, it was ruthlessly dismembered by greater and lesser leaders of other nation states. The true test of man’s power is what remains after his death. Alexander’s power was as ephemeral as all dreams from which one must awaken. Romans, Indians, Macedonians, Parthians – collectively served as crowing rooster for Alexander’s great dream. However, the Jews of Babylon were not truly roused from their slumber until Seleucus’ younger brother, Antiochus IV Epiphanes seized the throne.
He was referred to by his contemporaries as “Epimanes” or “The Mad One”, a pun on his title, Epiphanes. The sobriquet lent itself well to Antiochus’ treatment of Jews under his dominion. In 168 B.C., Antiochus was leading his second attack on Egypt, but before he could reach Alexandria, he found his path blocked by an old Roman ambassador. Gaius Popilius Laenas, stood firm that day to deliver a message from the Roman Senate, a challenge that would survive history as “a line in the sand”. Popilius demanded Antiochus either withdraw his armies immediately from Egypt or consider himself at war with the Republic.
According to the Roman historian Livy, “After receiving the submission of the inhabitants of Memphis and of the rest of the Egyptian people, some submitting voluntarily, others under threats, Antiochus marched by easy stages towards Alexandria. After crossing the river at Eleusis, about four milliarium from Alexandria, he was met by the Roman commissioners, to whom he gave a friendly greeting and held out his hand to Popilius. Popilius, however, placed in his hand the tablets on which was written the decree of the senate and told him first of all to read that. After reading it through, he said he would call his friends into council and consider what he ought to do. Popilius, stern and imperious as ever, drew a circle round the king with the stick he was carrying and said, ‘Before you step out of that circle give me a reply to lay before the senate.’ For a few moments he hesitated, astounded at such a peremptory order, and at last replied, ‘I will do what the senate thinks right.’ Not till then did Popilius extend his hand to the king as to a friend and ally. Antiochus evacuated Egypt at the appointed date, and the commissioners exerted their authority to establish a lasting concord between the brothers, as they had as yet hardly made peace with each other.”
“Mad” though he may have been at times, Antiochus was quite sane when faced with the prospect of war with the rapidly expanding Roman Empire. Understandably, the Greek king deferred to the demand. Antiochus returned home, his soul burning from the nasty sting of ignominious defeat by a simple circle drawn in the sand, but even as he struggled with Rome’s rude, iron-fisted diplomacy, the Jew’s seized their chance. While Antiochus was busy dancing in the sand, rumor spread of his death. Shortly before, the High Priest Onias III had been replaced by his brother Jason. For financial reasons Antiochus supported Jason and his reform party. In return for a considerable sum, he permitted Jason to build a Greek style gymnasium in Jerusalem, where the Greek mode of education would be introduced to Jewish boys. Jason’s tenure as high priest, or kohein gadol, came to an abrupt end when he sent Menelaus to deliver an even larger tribute to Antiochus. Instead, Menelaus used the money to buy the priesthood for himself. The predictable result of this subterfuge was Antiochus’ confirmation of Menelaus as High Priest. Jason quickly fled Jerusalem to find refuge among Ammonites. Hearing the rumor that Antiochus was dead, the deposed High Priest gathered a force of 1,000 soldiers to launch a surprise attack on Jerusalem.
Enraged at the humiliation of defeat by a single Roman envoy, Antiochus now vented his wrath on the Jews by furiously attacking Jason’s forces in Jerusalem. After the battle, Menelaus was reinstated and resumed his priestly duties while Antiochus executed Jason and his followers. Second Maccabees describes the event in the usual horrific tradition of Biblical accounts.
“When these happenings were reported to the king, (Antiochus) he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.”
To consolidate his empire and strengthen his hold on the region, Antiochus had sided with the Hellenized faction of Jews. He outlawed Jewish religious rituals such as the Sabbath and circumcision. Worse, he defiled the HaMikdash by opening the shrine to non-Jews and erecting an altar to the Greek god Zeus. Ordering the worship of the Greek god opened the Mikdash to sacrificing pigs, a true horror to traditions kept by observant Jews. The new order was blasphemous anathema to Jews. When they refused to comply, Antiochus sent an army to enforce his decree. Because of their resistance, Jerusalem was destroyed. This account is again described in Second Maccabees.
Antiochus however, was merely another supporting actor in the grand, historical play of the Jews. The Maccabean Revolt was the beginning of the civil war between orthodox and reformist parties forming the main factions of Jewish religion. The revolt of the Maccabees, or “hammers” in Hebrew, was a break between traditionalist Jews in the country and urban, Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem. Traditionalist Jews, with Hebrew/Aramaic names like “Onias”, contested the Jewish Hellenizers sporting Greek names like “Jason” and “Menelaus” over who would ascend as the “Kohein Gadol” or High Priest of the Jews. Of course, it would be far too simplistic to ignore both the social and economic motives that lay behind the religious fervor fueling this civil war. More than religion, ultimately a nation’s wealth and power was at stake – and it was winner take all.
War between the two dominate factions escalated when the Hellenistic kingdom of Syria sided with Hellenizing Jews. It was during this escalation that Antiochus sided with the Hellenizers by prohibiting the religious practices upheld by the traditionalists. Banning traditional religion of a whole people was a radical departure from traditional Seleucid practice, but among these warring Jews, it was imperative if order was to be restored. Unlike their traditional country cousins, the cosmopolitan, Hellenistic Jews were rapidly assimilating into Greek culture. It was only natural for Antiochus to support the friendlier of the two factions.
Though many Jews had been seduced by the virtues of Hellenism, persecution by Antiochus had temporarily united the two factions in a common front. When a Greek official tried to force the priest Mattathias to sacrifice to a pagan god, the Jews murdered the Greek. Predictably, Antiochus began harsh reprisals, but in 167 B.C., the Jews rose up behind Mattathias and his five sons to fight for liberation. This family, commonly known as Hasmoneans, soon became known as the Maccabees. Antiochus, underestimating the resolve of his adversaries, sent only a small force to put down the rebellion. When his troops were annihilated, he led a more powerful army into the battle only to be defeated.
After the death of Antiochus in 164 B.C., Jerusalem was recaptured by the Maccabees and the Mikdash was purified. This triumph is celebrated with the observance of “Chanukah”. Perhaps the most gruesome legend associated with this Jewish holiday is that of a mother and her seven sons. No one knows her actual name, as it was never provided by the authors of the Maccabean book, but the name assigned by popular Jewish culture is “Hannah”.
The story is told that a woman named Hannah had seven sons who refused to eat the pork sacrifice as ordered by Antiochus. Hannah’s eldest son spoke up for the others, telling Antiochus that he would die rather than violate God’s law. These words angered Antiochus who then ordered all the pans and cauldrons be brought out and put on the fires. The story alleges that as the cookware was heating, the king ordered his men to cut out the boy’s tongue and to amputate his hands and feet. His mother and brothers looked on in horror as the boy was mutilated. The king then ordered the boy to be fried alive. Hannah and her sons knew refusal meant death, but were willing to suffer and die for their piety. Each, in turn, proclaimed that while the king might deprive them of their life, in the afterlife they would be raised up by the King of the world, and that they were willing to die for the laws of that King.
After watching six of her sons suffer torture and death, the mother was given the opportunity to persuade her youngest to eat the pork or perish like his brothers. According to legend, Hannah told her youngest to follow the example of the others, for it was better to die, than to break the Torah’s strict, dietary commandment to avoid non-kosher meat. Hannah then kissed her youngest son and whispered, “When you die and see the great patriarch Abraham, tell him not to feel too proud he built an altar for the sacrifice of his only son, because I have sacrificed seven sons! While Abraham’s sacrifice was God’s test, my test was real.” In the end, not only were her seven sons martyred, she too suffered the same fate. The message to pious Jews was clear – meat was an issue to die for.
It took two more decades of Maccabean revolt before the Seleucids finally retreated from Palestine. By 143 BC, the Maccabees had fully established their independence. After 500 years of subjugation, Jews were now their own masters. When Mattathias died, the revolt was taken over by his son Judah Maccabee. Jonathan, or Apphus “the wary”, the youngest of Mattathias’ sons, succeeded Judah, whose defeat and death left Maccabean leadership in a deplorable state. It was left to Jonathan to reunify the Hasmonean dynasty. He would do this by warily calling for aid from the various rivalries competing for the Syrian throne. Manipulation of these rivalries resulted in sixty-five years of independent rule by the Hasmoneans. It was only a short time between the fading Greek rule of Syrian kings and the newly established Roman empire rule enforced by Pompey.
By the end of the war, the kingdom had regained boundaries not far short of what had been reputed to be Solomon’s realm. Most notable among these events however, was the Hasmonean claim to not only the throne of Judah, but also the critical post of high priest or “kohein gadol”. This assertion of religious authority conflicted with the tradition of the priests who claimed to be descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron and the tribe of Levi. The rivalry developing between these factions threatened the kingdom. Ultimately, the internecine rivalries, along with the appearance of Rome’s imperial power, put an end to Jewish independence. However, the original break between the Jews had led to other schisms among the increasingly fractured religion.
Babylon had long been a residence for Jews, an occupation that began with their expatriation from Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar. Now part of the Seleucid empire, the city lay at the nexus of the western termination the silk road on an ancient Nabataean trade route. From here, caravans of Far East traders took their wares to points north like Nineveh, South to Ur and Gerrah and further west to Damascus. Many merchants and traders made their way through what even then, was a thoroughly cosmopolitan city. Jews found this atmosphere much to their satisfaction, for many had enriched themselves as middlemen in the bustling trade.
For some fifty years, Jews were held in Babylonian captivity. Over the years the kohanim, like many of their tribesmen, had become comfortable with their captivity. Thus, while many of their members returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and re-consecrate the defiled Mikdash, others remained in Babylon. Many Jews believe the Torah took its final shape during this exile. According to the Torah, about one hundred years after being sent into exile, the scribe Ezra returned to Jerusalem bearing the law books of Moses. Here he reportedly read the law aloud to the Jewish community. Jewish tradition credits Ezra with the compilation of the books of the Torah. An ancient, apocryphal account called second Esdras claims the Torah was actually “channeled” by him. What Ezra had written down was a hodge-podge of religious traditions and cultic practices the Hasmoneans called the “Law of Moses”. It was this version of the Torah the Essene rejected.
“The Nasaraeans . . .They acknowledged Moses and believed that he had received laws – not this law, however, but some other. And so, they were Jews who kept all the Jewish observances, but they would not offer sacrifice or eat meat. They considered it unlawful to eat meat or make sacrifices with it. They claim that these Books (of Moses) are fictions, and that none of these customs were instituted by the fathers. (Panarion 1:18)
By fifty B.C., this story was ancient history to the two brothers wending their way through the narrow alleyways of Babylon. These were Essene priests, members of a splinter faction of Jews that held even greater quarrel with both traditionalist and Hellenistic jews. The fundamental break lay in their opposition to the traditional priest’s highly profitable blood sacrifice. The schism stemmed from the Essene veneration of all living creatures and opposition to the slaughter of animals. Such opposition was considered even more egregious than the break between traditional and Hellenistic Jews as this presented a direct attack on the priest’s livelihood. The pace of the two brothers quickened for they were making their way to a midday meeting with members of the traditional Hasidim priesthood. The plan was to present their grievances and call for an even more profound reform than either traditional or Hellenized Jews would tolerate.
When the brothers arrived at the tenement in the upper city, they found the place opulent by the standards of the day. They knocked on the door and waited impatiently, but there was no reply. They knocked again, this time with more fervor. Finally, the door was opened by an imperious servant who asked, “What is your wish”?
The taller of the two brothers replied, “We have come to meet with the kohanim, they are expecting us.”
The servant cast a jaundiced eye on the two, as if suspecting some form of foul play was hidden within the request. As he surveyed the white robes of the men, a voice from within said sharply, “Allow the brothers entry, we are expecting them.”
The servant stepped aside allowing the two brothers entry into the cool, dark interior of the dwelling. As their eyes adjusted from the bright sun, to the gloom within, the two realized that seven men stood in a semicircle within the room. All seven were dressed in the traditional regalia of the priesthood, white robes covered by bright blue tunics overlaid with prayer shawls and held fast by wide, ornate girdles around the waist. While their heads were topped by softly crushed turbans that would one day resemble a butcher’s cap, their feet were bare. There could be no doubt these men were kohanim, only the ephod breastplate was missing that would denote a kohein gadol.
The shorter brother began the interchange, “We have come to discuss the matter of the sacrifice.”
“We have made our position clear on this matter. There can be no discussion.” Retorted the tallest priest standing central among the seven.
“Why is it you are intractable on this matter? Can you not see this issue fans the embers of hate between Jews and Greeks from both sides?
“So you have come to ask for an end to our sacrificial tribute? Are you mad? Even Greeks offer sacrificial tribute!”
“True enough, but consider they are lesser men unwise in the ways of the true god. Were we to renounce the sacrifice, would not this be the mark of the greater God of greater men?”
“It would be the mark of an idiot! How then might we atone to God for our sin? Do you propose to absolve sin by dancing and singing like children? How would Greeks view our faith in God then? Without sacrifice, Judaism would be the butt of Greek jokes. Enough! This is nonsense! There can be no rhetoric concerning God’s demand for sacrificial tribute to atone for our sins. This is the fundamental law of our sacred Torah!”
“Levirate law is written to enrich the kohanim as much as to atone for any sin. Do you not demand ten percent of the sacrificial offering?”
Withdrawing the symbol of their power from under his robe, the kohein shoved a crude hammer in the brother’s face and hissed, “Enough of this blasphemy! If you or any of your members are within the walls of Babylon when the sun rises, we will smash you along with the evil Greeks and all others following their sacrilege! The meeting is over, BE GONE! Tarry not, lest you fall under our wrath!”
The brothers looked at each other; the taller of the two asked, “Where are we to go? Is this not our home as well?” “We care not where you go. Perhaps the sheol would be best, and to the darkest pit of the underworld is where we will send you if you remain. Have we not been clear enough on this matter? Remain here and not one of your members will be alive when tomorrow’s sun sets upon the walls of this city.” Still standing beside the brothers, the servant motioned towards the door, “This way”.
Before exiting, the shorter brother turned to face the seven scowling faces, “This is not the way, your way only leads to greater strife and suffering for our people. Your greed will be your undoing!”
Wielding his hammer, The kohein moved menacingly towards the two yelling, “Be gone! NOW! Or you will find yourselves passing through the gates of sheol before you pass though our door!”
The brothers turned and left. Moving into the empty alley, they could hear a sharp report from the hammer hitting the door that had just closed behind them.
That evening the brothers met with the other ten members of their group. After reporting their encounter with the kohanim, a decision was quickly reached to depart Babylon that evening. The Essene owned nothing outside their collective body and the collective itself owned very little. They made ready with a few animals and scanty provisions for a journey to an unknown destination. Departing the city that evening, they made their way towards the hostile desert regions once claimed by ancient Edomites. As they walked, little conversation was made among the group. At last a member asked, “Where are we going? Are we to travel aimlessly until we perish in the desert?”
Without turning or missing a step, the taller brother replied, “We will return home to the remote region of HaGalil; to the holy mountain called Carmel. There, we will establish a community at the foot of the mountain and reside in peace, far from the strife created by the false traditions of our brethren.”
The journey would take the small band of brothers 435 Gallic leuga west, across the farthest northern regions of the great Arabian Desert. It would not be an easy journey as the region between Babylon and Jerusalem lay vast and desolate. The brothers chose a trail of commerce well known among travelers. This path took them Southwest from Babylon to a small, bustling, oasis called al-Jwaf. The route avoided the harsh, unforgiving, desert sands to the south, and likewise, the less passable terrain of Wadi al-Sirhan to the north.
Located at the edge of the northern curve of Arabia’s great Nafud desert, Al-Jwaf was where trade routes converged, linking Mesopotamia, Persia and Syria with Arabia. It was here Sumerians erected the great temple of Ishtar. However, the first business of al-Jawf was business. Fertile soils made the oasis a virtual breadbasket surrounded by drier, harsher lands. For centuries, merchants met here to buy, sell and exchange goods. The steady flow of commerce was further enhanced by Pilgrims drawn to Ishtar’s temple.
By this time, the oasis had become a wealthy city, renowned throughout the region. When the brothers entered the city, they were amazed at what they saw. While they had been made aware of its existence, they were unprepared for this bustling desert community. To the brothers, al-Jawf seemed almost as great as Babylon and just as corrupt. Caravans moved through the oasis lined with merchants and vendors hawking their wares.
As they walked the road, baked hard by an unrelenting sun, the brothers pulled their cowls, now khaki colored from the dust, over their shaved heads to hide from the penetrating rays that seemingly sought to expose even the tiniest shadow of darkness. A nearby vendor implored passersbys to look at his fine carpets. Another voice droned rhythmically about fresh fruit for sale. The brothers marveled at the energy of this great hive of activity that equaled the markets of their native Babylon.
“Why is it we flee?” A brother mumbled to no one in particular. “Are our differences so great that we cannot agree to live in peace with our brethren following Mikdash law?” The brothers walked on in contemplative silence for a while before another answered, “There are fundamental differences in our view of this world. First is our approach to the material desires encountered in this world. We shun this material world for we know these things attracting our physical body only serve to distract one from the spiritual path. However, we know this is by design. These things are here to be recognized for the impediment they present to one’s enlightenment. Our brethren in the Mikdash work only to obtain the material wealth of this world. Their only interest is how much wealth and comfort can be gleaned from this life. This is the fundamental difference between false religion and the true spiritual path.
“We seek to be of service to others on this material plane, while our brethren seek only to be in service to themselves. Worse, their efforts are usually achieved at great expense to others. We believe all men to be equal in the eyes of God, while our brethren of the great Mikdash believe they are set above and apart from others. Those outside the Hebrew bloodline are considered unclean; naught but beasts to be used and consumed, even as they use and consume their sacrificial animals. We abstain from slavery while the Hasidim employ them.
“Our differences are as of night and day. These men have a certain darkness of the soul, while, like the sun overhead, we seek to enlighten others and ourselves. As men of light, we therefore stand in opposition to those seeking the darkness of this existence.”
The brothers passed through al-Jwaf as they passed through life, simply observing without partaking of its pleasures. From al-Jawf, the Essene brothers followed the trade route northwest to Bostra, the northern Nabataean capital located in southern Syria. By this time, the Romans had annexed the Nabataean Empire and Bostra was now made capital of their new province, Arabia. This change in Roman trade routes had led to the shift of the capital city from Petra to Bostra, now Petra began to die.
This move however also provided an unusual advantage for traders. Bostra’s location to nearby lava beds was said to aid and abet smugglers avoiding Roman revenue agents. When approached by authorities, smugglers would quickly dissolve into the hardened crevices of the forbidding lava flows. As fitting for a capital, Bostra had many fine public buildings including a bathhouse, theater, forum and temples. The city was noted for a form of Nabataean pottery prized for its delicate, egg-shell-thin construction. Once again, the brothers passed quickly though the city, partaking of none of its pleasures and never noting its resemblance to Petra, the former Nabataean capital that lay 120 Gallic leuga southwest.
Heading north toward Damascus, the small band took an abrupt left at a bend in the road and walked west into the wilderness.The brothers squinted into the rays of the setting sun spiking the horizon. The days were longer now that spring had arrived. This was a time of year known to Jews as Nissan. In more ways than one, the Essene brethren had embarked upon a lesser traveled path. While their spiritual path would take them through time and space, their corporeal path would take them fifteen Gallic leuga to Adraa, then to the small village of Capitolis and finally to the larger city of Gadara, the focal point for Gadarine society. Situated on a small plateau, the city overlooked Lake Gennerasset, which lay to the northwest. A thoroughly gentile region, Gadera was noted for its large heard of swine, an animal declared “unclean” by the Torah. As pointed out by Hanna and her sons, these were animals to die for. Considering Hanna’s ghastly abhorrence of swine, some might have thought it odd that Gadera was also home to a small, Jewish graveyard featuring sepulchers first described in the story of Abraham’s burial of Sarah.
Sepulchers served as housing for the dead. Those in Gadera were fashioned from small caves carved by nature into the plateau’s rock face. Inside, shelves had been cut into the walls. These recesses were smoothed slabs where a body would lay in state until the flesh rotted from its bones. As with swine, Jews considered the dead body ritually unclean. Their law described a corpse as “the most unclean thing of all.” A kohein was required to purify himself for seven days for simply being under the same roof as a body. Thus, like swine, graveyards, and the bodies therein, were considered unapproachable. The brothers passed Gadara with nary nod before continuing their journey westward to a small village called bet lehem.
The agrarian culture of the Galil region was largely closed in nature. People traveled little, often living out their lives without ever seeing another village. Since there was no post or overriding political structure, it was not uncommon for villages to have the same names. More than one village in the north had a sister namesake in the south and so it was for the village of bet lehem. The northern village of bet lehem was located a few milliarium north of the great plain of Megiddo. The name means “house of bread” or in Arabic “house of meat”; the ancients often confused the terms. As the village was located at the Southern end of the verdant bet Netofa Valley where grain crops flourished, it is likely the name alluded to the former. It was here at the northern village called bet lehem the Essene brothers took a brief respite to establish contact with the community with those whom would soon become their neighbors.
After a few days respite the brothers left bet lehem, spreading out to scout the region in search of a suitable location for their monastery. It took several weeks before the brothers reconvened at the village to make their final decision. The brothers chose a small, level, plateau situated atop a chalky ridge nestled in the bet Netofa valley. As they stood atop the remote plateau, the brothers breathed the delicate spring scents of honeysuckle and jasmine permeating the valley. Surveying the sight one spoke, “It is decided; this is where we shall establish our monastery. This will be a place where truth shall be found by those who seek.” The brothers set to work.
The monastery of the Nazarene brotherhood was a small place and true to Essene tradition, quite humble, consisting of only a few small mud and stone huts surrounding a central fire pit and water well. From here, the brothers would go out among the surrounding communities to help those in need. Primary among the assistance provided by the brothers was that of healing. Essene were noted healers and through their service, gathered many followers. As Flavius Josephus wrote of them in the first century, “They are ardent students in the healing of diseases, of the roots offering protection, and of the properties of stones.”
Traveling among the locals of the region, the brothers could not help but note the grinding poverty and privation encountered along the way. The Galileans were mostly fishermen and farmers. Agricultural production was primarily grain and vegetable crops. Part of their economic problem lay in the fact that fish were excluded from the sacrificial system. The other part lay in the fact that even though grain was an acceptable sacrifice, it was a poor second to the animal sacrifice. The precedence for the blood sacrifice had been set long ago in the story of Cain and Able. Cain, a farmer, murdered his shepherd brother Able over God’s preference for Able’s blood sacrifice. Once again, meat was something to die for.
Galil was a part of Rome’s Judean Tetrarchy. Herod, both unwelcome and unpopular among the Jews, had been appointed king by the Roman overlords. Barely tolerated by the people, Herod might never have maintained his power over the Judeans but for one reason – the priesthood. It was the priests, or kohanim, who truly commanded the people for they were God’s chosen intercessors. It was the high priest, the kohein gadol, who wore the ephod holding the magic stones known as the Urim and Thummin. These semi-precious stones were cast to divine God’s words that, in turn, were delivered to Judea’s faithful followers.
The problem for the Hasmonean usurpers was although they had won their bid for power over the priesthood, many among the faithful refused to accept their authority. Those Jews refusing to pay the tribute proscribed by Levirate law were considered outcast by the kohanim. Thus, while Canaanites and Samaritans sacrificed to God, they denied the priesthood their cut of sacrificial meat. The denial was held as sacrilege, for the laws of Moses brought forth by Ezra during Babylonian captivity, demanded this tribute for the Mikdash.
Because of their weak authority and resulting division among various groups of Jews, the kohanim needed a symbol that would amplify their claim as God’s chosen power and authority. No better symbol could be found than a magnificent Mikdash consecrated to God. It was decided the magnificence of this new structure would exceed the Torah’s description of Solomon’s Mikdash. While no physical trace of Solomon’s Mikdash had ever been found, the scale alone of the new Mikdash would leave no doubt of its existence. The only question remaining for the kohanim was how to fund the immense project.
Herod the great had been a builder. Like many leaders throughout history, he was a king who loved the grand structures marking his reign. Even so, it took some effort to convince Herod to expend the necessary money and resources required to build what would become the largest structure in his kingdom, a structure far exceeding the scale of his royal palaces. The agreement was simple, Herod would build the Mikdash to the kohanim specifications; in turn, the kohanim would deliver their followers to unquestioning authority by officially recognizing and sanctioning Herod’s Kingship. Herod would also receive credit for the largest single structure marking his reign; it would hence be known as “Herod’s Mikdash.” The cozy agreement strengthened the power and authority of both parties weakened from the outset by a general lack of recognition and acceptance.
For the two usurping parties, it was a winning agreement all around and they couldn’t have been happier with the deal. Only the people would suffer from the continual demand for the sacrificial tribute that paid for both the Mikdash and its administration. For poor Judeans, the price far exceeded even the grandiose physical dimensions of the Mikdash. It was a price impoverishing people to the point where they cried out in agony and grief for a savior to deliver them from their sins, for it was sin alone that imposed the onerous, sacrificial burdens weighing heavily upon them. What was needed was a savior, a messiah, who would willingly shed his blood as final sacrificial atonement to God’s Mikdash. The Jews gnashed their teeth and rent their garments in anticipation of the savior who would offer himself as the final Paschal lamb.
The immensity of the problem was not lost on the Essene brothers. They dealt daily with the suffering caused by the Mikdash demands. More than once they would hear the refrain, “We work a day to pay the rent, a day to feed our families, a day to pay Rome’s taxes and the rest goes to the Mikdash.” The people were quite literally being bled to death. However, it wasn’t their blood being shed, but the blood of their sacrifice.
By now, other Essene brethren had filtered in form the east, making the journey from their former captivity. These new brothers joining the small monastery, swelled its numbers to the point they became a noted asset to the surrounding communities. Daily, brothers moved in and out of the monastery, sharing all work. Some lived abroad while others maintained the community. As brothers returned from their healing ministrations among the community, they would discuss the joy and grief encountered along the way. Here a son was born, yet there a daughter had been handed over to a kohein in lieu of a sacrifice.
One evening at the communal fire, a brother addressed the others sitting around the circle, twelve in all. “This has gone too far. These Hasmonean thieves are the whores of Babylon. They have written a false account of the law. Their Torah is naught but lies enticing people into a deadly liaison with promises of religious ecstasy. Yet they serve only to deliver ever more misery and suffering to our people. Not only have they stolen our homes. They have driven us from our land! They bleed the very life from our people. They care nothing for the people and less for their suffering. The Mikdash’s corruption is so blatant the kohanim often no longer even attempt hiding their criminal activities.”
The brother took a stick and stirred the remaining coals among the dying embers. “The laws have been written to sanctify their illegal actions and protect them from prosecution. They steal the wealth of the Israelites with their ever-increasing demand for sacrificial tribute, not to mention the vast array of fees for a myriad of useless services. Every jar of wine must be blessed and every blessing requires a fee. The purification services of the mikveh are now reserved for the wealthy, for only they can afford to bathe in those holy waters overseen by the kohanim. Every jot and tittle of their law must be observed, lest onerous penalties be invoked far in excess of any crime. With their wily financial machinations, they steal houses from widows, leaving them destitute.”
The brother carelessly tossed the stick into the fire before continuing. “With no home or family, how many of these women have become prostitutes? Worse, how many have been found dead; how many have died from their grief? How many loved ones have been taken to the sepulcher while still breathing only because a priest pronounced them dead in an effort to extort yet more tribute for imagined sin?”
A tear glistened on the brother’s cheek. “And these are but a few of the horrors these sons of Satan wreak upon the innocent to feed the Mikdash coffers! The kohanim have amassed so much wealth, even Rome and her kings come to them for loans! How much longer will this be allowed? What can be done to alleviate this terrible suffering? There must be a way to end this sacrificial madness. As son of Adam, the first man, we are tasked in finding a way to help our people!”
Another voice replied, speaking slowly and distinctly, “So be it, let seven among us decide what must be done to alleviate the pain and misery of those suffering under Mikdash law.” Seven heard the voice. Yet there hadn’t been a voice, for no one had spoken. The seven nodded once in mutual agreement.
In the following days, these seven met in secret and proposed different ideas for possible solutions. After some deliberation on the matter, all twelve met at the communal fire.
After lengthy meditation, one of the seven rose and spoke. “Here is the design to alleviate the suffering of the Jews. First it has been decided the Mikdash must be destroyed, for anything less will fail to root out kohanim authority. This is made clear by observing their actions in seizing the priesthood and by their close ties to Herod. Furthermore, due to their strength, their system must first be weakened. The only possible way to achieve this is to work within the Mikdash. A priest must be found who is willing and able to challenge their authority with his own. To succeed he must have unquestionable blood ties to the house of David and he must be well versed in both Levirate law and religious customs. He will also be trained in the art of healing as well as the esoteric knowledge of our brotherhood.
A second among the brethren stood and spoke, “The problem is our members are recognized by the usurpers; therefore, an attempt to recruit a priest from their ranks would undoubtedly lead to the discovery of our design and quick destruction. It has been decided that several young women of marriageable age will be chosen from among our families. These women will be trained in the art of seduction. Each will seduce a priest we have chosen as candidates most likely to sire a son. Our brothers working secretly within the Mikdash will research the linage of each candidate to assess this potential. Of those sons born, we will choose the best and brightest. He will be trained intensively for this mission. When the time is right, he will begin his ministry with the brotherhood providing assistance as needed. The brothers and this design will be unknown except to the chosen candidate. The assistance will be provided beyond the sight and knowledge of outsiders. The candidate will appear as one who is sui generis, our hidden support will make his actions appear divine.”
The first spoke again, “Thus, by both teaching and action, our candidate will be perceived as the messiah, the new YHVH of the Jewish people. Of course, the kohanim will be outraged at the claim and never permit him to continue in this role. Again, this will be to our advantage, as we will use their dark hatred and corrupt laws to our own end by turning these things against them. Our kohein shall become the final blood sacrifice, the last paschal lamb. We are aware the Romans have long been at odds with the Mikdash. Rome’s administrators are constantly manipulated by the threat of yet another revolt or general uprising by the kohanim and its militant followers. If anything, the Romans are even more disgusted and sickened by the corruption than our people. Therefore, we will collaborate with the Romans in whatever manner necessary to achieve our ends. Although we will work entirely outside the Mikdash, the system will provide it’s own destruction. We are then, a conspiracy – the conspiracy of man!”
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