The Book of Elisheva
You’ve heard this story before but never from this point of view. Elisheva, an old woman living in the Roman-occupied territory of Galilee, is consumed by anger for those who have beheaded
her only son. When her best friend’s son begins preaching a radical new message of love and inclusion, Elisheva feels compelled to follow him, all the way to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. There she finally finds the courage to speak in the Temple, daring the powers that be to take her life as well.
The Book of Elisheva, though a glimpse into the first-century life of a Jewish woman, still speaks to the human condition today in a world where beheadings, religious fanaticism, rule by tyrants,
and the marginalization of women continue to our shame.
The bitch asked for his head on a platter and her stepfather the king gave it to her.
There isn’t a night that I don’t lie down and imagine it. She takes off the lid...my son’s head in a sauce of his own blood on a platter.
What human being would not be horrified by such gore?
I weep afresh every night.
He was such a good boy. Oh, I know, every mother says that about her son. Every mother has memories of holding her infant in her arms and comforting him, of her child growing up and needing her less and less until he becomes a man and doesn’t need her anymore.
But Yochanan was very different. Right from the beginning he was someone special. In the old days, he would have been a prophet, the chosen one of God. What am I saying? He was a prophet! He was chosen by God. So, of course he felt it was his duty to denounce Herod for marrying the wife of his still-living brother. In the old days, kings had to listen to prophets because they spoke the Word of God. In these evil times, the kings are the puppets of Rome. Even the Temple leaders failed Yochanan because they too are dominated by that foreign power.
Woe unto you if you are a prophet today! You may find your head on a platter too, a dish fit for a king’s step-daughter.
In the old days, prophets were respected and revered. People didn’t laugh at them and gawk because they were wearing camel’s hair and a loincloth made of skin. Prophets were supposed to be different. If you were receiving the Word of God, how could you not be different?
Sure, there have been false prophets in the past that have tried to lead people astray. But you can always tell if someone is a false or a real prophet by the message they preach. A true prophet praises good and condemns evil. It’s as simple as that. And if you don’t know what is good and what is evil, then shame on you. We have the Law of Moses to tell us that. My son Yochanan always preached the Law of Moses and condemned the evil of Herod.
I asked him, as a mother does, “Why do you have to live in the desert? Come home. Why do you eat locusts and honey when I make perfectly decent food at home?” I said, “Why do you wear a hair shirt, Yochanan? I’ll make a soft cloak to wrap your body in.” A mother’s always thinking of her chubby little baby with his tender skin.
And he said, “Leave off your temptation, Mother. I do what I have to do. I do the Will of God.”
“Do you hear his voice?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he answered.
“And is it always loud and clear, or do you doubt sometimes?”
He looked at me with those eyes-- he had powerful eyes, sometimes wild, but sometimes, as he did then, soft and full of questions-- and he said, “I doubt sometimes. Sometimes I long for peace and sometimes I long for power. It doesn’t help, Mother, when you come and offer me creature comforts. I must obey the will of God, but sometimes I don’t want to.
“Get thee behind me, Satan,” he said. That’s what he said, to me, to his own mother!
It used to be in the old days, the king would be anointed by the prophet. Today he is appointed by the Romans. Galilee is ruled by Herod Antipas from his capital of Tiberias, and the Romans have sent a governor from Rome to rule over Israel. He lives in his palace at Caesarea, where he and his wife and children enjoy the luxuries of heathen Rome and amuse themselves with the blood sports of Rome. The governor Pontius Pilatus does not fear our God: he fears the lesser god named Caesar.
I cannot sleep; I wake up some nights after a bad dream in which Yochanan’s bodiless head speaks to me. “Mama. Save me.” I think it is the residual cry of his pain just before they killed him. Then I lie awake plotting ways to break into Herod’s castle and poison him, his mistress and his step-daughter. I will be a discreet and humble servant. I will bow and scrape to them as I am plotting my revenge.
And then I remember that vengeance belongs to God only, and I cry in my sorrow. “God, you have cheated me again of my only solace.”
And I feel wicked, as evil as the ones who killed my son, and I am ashamed.
Forgive me, God.
But even God’s forgiveness brings me no solace, so my mind goes on churning out its evil plans. I do not sleep but a few hours on those nights and I get up to make the daily bread the next morning feeling every one of my years. I feel like an old bent-over woman as I roll out the dough with a little stick that’s wider in the middle so it makes perfectly rounded flat patties. I toss them on the griddle and they rise in flaky bubbles. The smell of quickly crisping bread warns me to flip them over, wait briefly and then place them in a stack, the golden brown bread with its streaks of black.
My husband Zecharya sits down and picks one up, holding it with the ends of his fingers because it is so hot. I shake my head and “tsk” at him in a good-natured way, as if to say I disapprove, but a woman does not dare deny her husband anything.
He eats it, devours it in one mouthful, and then smiles and says, “You’ve burned the flat bread again, Eli.”
He always says that. It’s our private joke. When we were first married, I was so young and he was so stern that he made me nervous. Of course I knew how to make flat bread. Every girl learns that at her mother’s knee. But if I got distracted and left it too long, my mother was there to pluck it off the grill for me. The first time I made it for him, well, I was so afraid that I might burn it that I took it off the grill before it was done.
“Look,’ he said with his disapproving frown. “It’s still pale white and flimsy.” He held it out to show me how it sagged. “I like my flat bread crisp.”
So I put it back on the grill and left it till it flamed up and by the time I got it off with a stick, it was nothing but ash.
“You’ve burned the flat bread, Eli,” he said with disgust. “What a waste. I do love my flat bread in the morning.”
Then he went off to his work, and I was left to mourn my failure.
Every morning that first week, I tried to make him flat bread the way he liked it. I was so terrified of undercooking it that I’m afraid I burned it a few more times. And every day he said the same thing: “You’ve burned the flat bread again, Eli.”
Finally there came a morning when I made it just perfectly, and I could feel it. The bread was crisp with those black grill marks.
Zecharya took one bite of it and said, “You’ve burned the flat bread again, Eli.”
I wanted to scream, but then he smiled and his smile told me that that it was just the way he truly liked it.
After that, there was never a morning that Zecharya didn’t say, “You’ve burned the flat bread again, Eli,” and smile. I won’t say I never burned it again. I did, many times, especially when Yochanan was a child and I got distracted more often. But most mornings I made it perfectly and most mornings the words were only a private joke between us. And on those rare occasions when what was said was actually true, well then it really was funny and we both laughed.
It is a woman’s job to please her husband. You might ask, Is she not worthy of pleasure too? Oh yes. Her pleasure is in pleasing her husband.
Cousin Miryam came to visit me yesterday. She was greatly concerned about her eldest son Yeshua. Since Yochanan’s death, he has been acting strangely. He has taken to wandering around Galilee, making friends with fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, zealots, and all the scum of the earth, she said. He is indiscriminate in his friendships, and he has taken to speaking in strange little enigmatic stories.
“He has not become a prophet?!” I said, feeling worried. Yeshua always followed Yochanan around when they were boys. He looked up to his cousin and often imitated him. He was one of Yochanan’s followers and his closest friend before he died. “I don’t want him to end up like Yochanan,” I said.
“No,” she said, circumspect. “He’s not like Yochanan,” she said. “I think he uses parables to hide his message so that he does not offend, and his message is not the same. It’s not as hard as Yochanan’s.” She looked at me then as if she had misspoken.
“Forgive my saying that.”
“No,” I said. “You are right. Yochanan could be blunt and his message was hard, like the prophets of old.”
“Different times call for different methods,” she said, and I responded, “And different methods suit different people.” I always thought Yeshua was a good influence on his cousin. In some irrational way I blame him for not saving Yochanan, though how he could have when I couldn’t either, I don’t know.
Yeshua was always softer than Yochanan. He never wore a hair-shirt like Yochanan did. He didn’t fast and flog himself and his eyes were never wild and threatening. He would smile a lot and, if he thought Yochanan had gone a little too far, he would chastise him. He’d say, “Our Abba loves you, Yochanan.”
It wasn’t the first time Yeshua had called God his father. The first time was when they were boys. Yochanan was always an eager scholar and he wanted so much to be a priest like his father when he grew up. So, when he was twelve, we took him to Jerusalem when he was old enough to make his first sacrifice at the Temple.
Miryam, Yosef and their family were also going to the Temple for the Passover and for Yeshua’s first sacrificial offering that year. So we went with them and with all the other Galileean pilgrims. We walked to Jerusalem. It was a long and dusty trek through Samaria. The boys ran up ahead. One time we caught up to them and found them deep in conversation with an old Samaritan.
Zecharya called the boys, and as we continued on our way, he chastised them. “Haven’t I told you before that Jews have no dealings with Samaritans?”
“Why not, Uncle?” Yeshua asked, all wide-eyed innocence.
Zecharya always found it difficult to deal with Yeshua. Yochanan would never have challenged his father in that way. Zecharya did not answer, which only encouraged Yeshua to continue. “The Samaritan told us that there is a well near here that Yaakov used to drink from. It is sacred to them. I should like to see it some time. Uncle, if the Samaritans are descendants of Avraham as we are, then they’re our brothers. Why are we not permitted to speak with them?”
Zecharya said impatiently, “Because they worship God at a well instead of at the Temple in Jerusalem. We are going to Jerusalem, not to see some old-womanish well. Now you get back to your parents while I have a talk with Yochanan. Get away with you.”
Zecharya turned and spat into the sand. The gob congealed into a ball of mud. I looked at it a long time after Yeshua was gone, while Zecharya had his “talk” with Yochanan. Zecharya never spared the rod lest he should spoil the child.
At the Temple, we had to make a sacrifice to God on the altar. You could buy any number of animals, the most expensive being a pure white lamb, but we could only afford turtle doves. They could only be purchased with Temple money, however. So the first order of business was to exchange our money. As we entered the Temple, we came to the Court of the Gentiles where the tables of money changers were. They charged an outrageous exchange rate, and, of course, Zecharya mumbled under his breath about it. I could see Yochanan watching his father, but saying nothing.
Then we went into the larger Court of Women. This was as far as the women were allowed to go. So Miryam and I and her little ones stood up on the raised gallery from where we could glance over a balcony to see the ceremonies in the Inner Court.
We watched as Yosef and Zecharya and the two boys exchanged the temple money for two perfect fat white pigeons, which they handed to one of the priests. Almost faster than the eye could see, he slit their throats and the red blood gushed out onto the solid stone of the altar.
Remembering it now, I can’t help but think of my son Yochanan’s death. I should be grateful that he was accepted as a sacrifice by God, but I am not. A long time ago, God told Avraham to sacrifice his son, and Avraham obeyed. He had the knife at his son’s throat, and then God provided a lamb, and Avraham’s son was spared. That’s how the story goes, and it’s a good story. Why couldn’t my story have a happy ending like that? Why were you not merciful to me, O God? Why did you not spare my son?
At Jerusalem, we took part in a Sedar meal, and the next day, our group left Jerusalem to walk back to Galilee. We did not see Yochanan all day, but that was not uncommon. On our way to Jerusalem, he was often with Yeshua’s family, so we assumed that he was with them again. When we stopped that first night in Ephraim, Yochanan did not come to join us for our evening meal, so we went to find Yosef and Miryam. Imagine our surprise when we found they thought the boys had been with us, so they had no more idea than we did where the boys were. We spent the next hour walking from one family to another asking, but no one had seen the boys all day. We had to conclude that they had stayed behind in Jerusalem.
Yosef and Zecharya were really angry. Miryam and I were too upset and worried to feel anger.
Zecharya said, “They’re men now; let them find their own way home.”
Miryam was beside herself. “No, no. It would be dangerous for them to pass through Samaria on their own. Anything could happen to them.”
I had to agree with her, and Yosef, even though it meant another two days’ walk, agreed as well. He would never argue with his wife Miryam. There was never a kinder, gentler husband and father than Yosef. Perhaps that is why Yeshua was softer than Yochanan, and why Yeshua always thought of God as a loving father.
So Zecharya and Yosef walked all the way back to Jerusalem the next day while I stayed with Miryam and helped her look after her younger children. It made me appreciate that Yochanan was an only child. I really didn’t have Miryam’s patience, being much more advanced in years than she.
Finally, at the end of the second day, Yosef and Zecharya arrived with the two well-chastened boys. At least I could tell that Yochanan was well-chastened. I’m quite sure that Zecharya would have beaten him with a branch for his behavior. I’m not so sure Yosef had done the same. Yeshua seemed still pretty cocky.
When his mother asked him, “Why did you worry me so?” he replied, “Didn’t you know I would be doing my father’s business?”
Well, we all knew that his father was a carpenter, so he must have meant his father God.
Cheeky lad! But Miryam and Yosef said nothing about it, and the next morning we set off again for Galilee.
It was after that trip that Yochanan told us he had changed his mind about becoming a priest. The boys had asked the priests a lot of questions while they were at the Temple, and they were bitterly disappointed by the responses. Yochanan said the priests were mere puppets of the Roman occupation and were more concerned about keeping their rank and privilege with the Roman government than they were about the Jewish people. Yochanan said they were ignorant about the law and the prophets.
That was the time when Yochanan began to set his sights on being more than a priest. He was going to be a prophet and he was going to denounce the Jewish leaders and the Roman occupation. Oh, how I wish we’d never taken him to Jerusalem.