A Novelist Looks at the Nativity Story
In the last several weeks, we have been evaluating "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" from a writer's and journalist's standpoint. When can fiction techniques be used? How can they be used honestly? We've also taken a look at fiction genres, seeking standards for their use of fact.
Now it's your turn. In honor of Christmas Eve, we are presenting a fictionalized account of the Nativity story, based on the research of Claire and Stephen Pfann. While you read it, refer to "New Light on an Old, Old Story," compare it to your own knowledge of first century Jewish culture, and let us know: is this honest historical fiction?
"Accuracy is essential," writes Joyce Saricks of Booklist. "Many readers, myself included, derive a great deal of our knowledge of history from historical fiction because we don't respond to the often-dry style of history textbooks or biographies." She adds, "even though we know we're not consulting primary sources – and suspect that the authors have, by necessity, taken some liberties in telling their tales – we trust these novelists to do so responsibly, that is, without falsifying facts as they are generally known."
Read, evaluate, and enjoy.
I made a dash across the wet stone courtyard, arms full of extra bedding. The sound of rain drumming on the roof grew louder and louder as I swiftly climbed the stairs and entered the large guest room which took up the entire upper story of our home. The floor was covered with rows of mats, some occupied by small, napping nieces and nephews. Several clay lamps set in wall niches relieved a little of the late afternoon gloom, while in the far corner of the room a small charcoal brazier fought unsuccessfully with the pervading cold and dampness. I disposed of my armload in the large cupboard set into the thickness of the wall, then bent over the cradle of my newest nephew, baby Noam. To my surprise, his round brown eyes stared back at mine, and he let out a lusty wail for attention. I snatched him out of the cradle, but it was too late. Little Naomi, Yoav, Abigail, Tamar, and Shammai awoke. Within moments, they began laughing and running around the room. Their mothers – my older sisters – would be furious!
Then I heard Aunt Dvorah's voice on the stairs, and her round cheerful face appeared in the doorway. "Is that the children I hear?" she exclaimed. "Oh, it's been so long since I've seen them! Let me take the baby, Hava," she said to me. Nodding at the three girl-cousins behind her, she added, "I've got plenty of help. You go on, dear. You've had your hands full for days, getting ready for our arrival, and it's time you had a rest."
With a grateful smile, I kissed Aunt Dvorah's plump cheek. As I descended the stairs, a wave of warm air laced with the aroma of garlic, simmering lentils, and baking bread rose up to meet me from the lower floor. To my right, the cooking area was crowded with chattering women: my sisters and aunts and cousins. Some were tasting broth, some slicing vegetables, some grinding barley into flour, some pouring out wine into pottery cups and mixing it with water. Like a queen, my mother presided over it all, while the firelight etched the laugh lines in her face and touched the silver in her hair.
To my left, uncles and brothers-in-law and cousins lounged on low couches around a large brazier, the men talking, the boys listening with sparkling eyes, and all facing my white-headed father who sat with his back to me. "Roman subjects, Roman taxes," he was saying now. I frowned. I wanted to think of this time as an unexpected family holiday, not the result of the Roman emperor's command. So we were now a Roman province; so we had to register in our hometowns: at least that brought everyone I loved most to stay under the patriarchal roof. "The family inn," my father liked to call it, but that's just our way. When we travel, we stay with family. And home, real home for an Israelite – no matter how old – is in his father's house.
Now only two were missing from the family circle. One was Yosi, my older brother, the only son in a large family of daughters. The other was Nathan. An orphaned distant cousin who had grown up in our house, he had come to regard my father as his own. It was only natural, then, that I'd recently been betrothed to him. My father was overjoyed to have his youngest child's future settled so well, especially since at fourteen, I was well on my way to old-maidhood. Now, during our betrothal year, I was learning all my mother could teach me. Meanwhile, Nathan had joined my brother in the relatively new Jewish settlement in Galilee. There (unlike our changeless ancient hometown) he found plenty of work as a stonemason and carpenter. It was only three days' journey to the north, but it might as well have been Spain for how far away it felt. Sending letters was only for the rich, or for those with connections to the Roman military, so I had no way of knowing when Nathan would come. Still, I could get ready for his arrival.
The upper room was already filled to bursting, but there was still the storeroom, a natural cave beneath the house which my father had enlarged by cutting into the terraced hillside where he grew grapes and tended his olive grove. I made my way carefully down the ladder, breathing in the warm scent of hay. Now that it was winter, a pen in the corner of our cave-room sheltered the lambs and kids from the cold and rain. Most of the spacious area, though, was filled with huge clay jars of wine, grain, and oil. Near these I piled a thick cushion of hay and spread a sheepskin over it to make a bed. Lying down to test its softness, I stared idly at the bunches of herbs and strings of dried figs dangling overhead and drank in the quiet. The bustling world upstairs seemed far away.
A breeze billowed the thick goat’s hair curtain over the original cave entrance, fitfully allowing sound to reach me inside the storeroom. The thrumming rain had died down to a few scattered drips and drops. I heard sheep baaing in the distance, then the rattling of a few stones, the rustle of approaching footsteps, and the low hum of voices somewhere outside.
"What?!" I heard my father roar in surprise and anger. Someone murmured a reply.
"Doesn’t he know that his failure is my failure?"
"But he didn’t do it!" It was a man’s voice, blurred and unrecognizable.
My father ignored him, adding, "For the rest of his life, he’ll be known as the man who couldn’t wait."
The other voice persisted softly, "I tell you, he didn’t do it."
There was a pause, and then my father groaned, "Why, oh why did we ever think that a Galilean girl would make a proper wife…"
"How can you slander a daughter of Israel? She is innocent. I know her and I can tell you this much."
Again there was a long pause. Finally, I heard a heavy sigh, and my father said, "Well, if I believe that, then I must I doubt my own son."
My heart contracted. His son? My brother was in trouble?
"Sir," the other voice said eagerly, "Your son is an honorable a man as was Boaz when he spread the protection of his name over Ruth."
"Is he indeed?" my father said heavily. Then he added in a brisk tone, "Come inside and get warm. I must at least discuss the matter with the other men." The voices were drawing nearer now, and my father lifted the curtain. A ray of weak sunlight shot through the gap as he entered my cave-refuge and dropped the flap behind him.
"Abba!" I said, and my father peered at me through the gloom
"Hava," he began sharply, but stopped as the flap was lifted again. There, hair and clothing alike dripping, was Nathan. He lowered his head and shook like a dog, saying, "If I could just borrow a cloak, sir, I’ll wait outside with them."
"I’ll get it!" I said, winning a surprised smile from Nathan. My father said nothing, only rested a heavy hand on my shoulder for a moment before I turned to get the sheepskin from the bed.
Thanking me, Nathan donned the heavy makeshift cloak and hurried back into the wavering daylight. I ached to go with him, to see my brother, but I was left alone with my father.
Uncomfortably aware that I had been eavesdropping, I stood with head bowed as the silence deepened around me. When I risked a glance at my father’s face, I saw that his eyes were closed and his lips were moving soundlessly.
At last, a lamb bleated from its pen in the corner, and my father, shoulders slumped, turned toward the ladder that led to our home.
"Abba," I blurted, "Yosi is here... May I please go out to him?" He did not turn, but I thought I saw him nod slightly.
Ignoring the knot in my stomach, I hastily lifted the curtain and saw that the rain had stopped completely. Above the red disk of the setting sun, the cloudless sky reddened innocently as if there had never been a storm. I rushed to the courtyard gate. There, beside a loaded donkey, stood a dripping young man, red mud splattered up to his knees. It was my brother, Yosi. Leave it to the Romans to arrange a census during the rainy season, I thought wryly. The plains would be cubits deep in mud, and the roads in the hill country treacherously carved up by flash floods. No wonder Yosi looked so travel-stained.
But who was that on the donkey? A woman thickly swathed in sodden layers of clothing, whose body drooped heavily, as if each limb was filled with stone. With infinite care, Yosi lifted her off the donkey and set her gently on the ground, where he continued to support her with one strong arm. Turning to me, he said quietly, "This is Miryam."
Though slightly taller than I, she was just my age. Her large dark eyes, glowing with some sort of excitement, were in curious contrast to the rest of her face, which was drawn with weariness and - was it pain? Now that she was standing I saw why: she was heavy with child.
My mind began racing. A child? I couldn't believe this of my beloved brother. I knew he'd been betrothed at about the same time as Nathan and I, to a distant relative whom I'd never met, but I hadn't expected that he would choose this kind of girl.
Wait! My thoughts flicked back to the conversation I had overheard. The "Galilean girl" my brother was protecting was this Miryam, and the thing he "did not do" was father this child. Or did he? I studied his weary face, wondering if the rougher life in Galilee had really changed my upright brother so much. As if in answer to my doubts, Yosi smiled at me, his brown eyes warm and steady.
I stood there irresolutely, looking from my brother to this girl and back again. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to see Nathan looking at me pleadingly. "Don't you realize that I could easily take your brother's place of honor in the family if he is discredited?" He took a deep breath, adding, "So why would I defend him if I believed him to be wrong?"
"And," added my brother quietly, "Why would I marry Miryam if I believed her to be unfaithful?" Unbidden, a picture came to my mind: this girl waiting, her life hanging in the balance while Yosi made his decision. Betrothal, after all, was a contract so binding that if he refused to acknowledge the baby, she could be stoned as an adulteress. But if he claimed the baby, he'd be marked as a man of weak character.
There was another option, of course. Since some rabbis allowed a man to put away his wife for reasons as small as burning his food, Yosi could have divorced her quietly, saying only that he had changed his mind. Miryam, then, would have been cut off from her home, and forced to take refuge with distant friends. Somehow I couldn't imagine my brother weak enough to take the easy way out. Instead he'd risked his reputation – because he loved her.
I heard a slight moan, and looked up to see Miryam pressing a hand to her side. Evidently the arduous journey had brought on early labor pains, and here she was, miles from her own family, and about to deliver a baby.
"Yosi, why are you just standing there?" I scolded. "Can't you see she needs help?"
Yosi was laughing at me now, but he whisked Miryam into his arms. "Is that better?" he asked. Then he grew sober, adding, "I'd like to speak to my father first." My father. Now here was an obstacle indeed. If Abba accepts Yosi, then so must we all, I thought. But with so many hopes invested in his only son, would my father accept him so easily? At best he could only conclude that Yosi had made a foolhardy decision in marrying this girl, in his love for her forgetting his own family: forgetting that in covering her shame, he involved all of us.
Well, I could only try.
Inside, the men were engaged in a heated discussion."The honor of our family is at stake," my uncle Micah was sputtering, his patrician face flushed with anger, his lip curling with distaste. My father's face was equally flushed, but his eyes softened as I approached. "Abba," I whispered in his ear, "Please will you come talk to Yosi?" He looked directly into my eyes for a moment, and then nodded as if satisfied. Rising and excusing himself, he went quietly outside.
Bustling into the room, my mother directed Avner, my brother-in-law, to replace the brazier with a low table. Turning to me, she said, "I'll need your help serving supper, Hava." So, while the older women carried food to the men, I presided over the children in the kitchen, doling out the flat loaves, which they used like spoons to scoop lentils from the communal pot. I snatched bites of bread from time to time, but my mind was outside with my father and brother, and with Miryam, who so desperately needed a bed in which to rest.
Clearing the table in front of the men, who had subsided into disgruntled silence, I saw that my uncle Micah had risen and was staring toward the front door in disbelief.
Turning, I saw that my father had returned. He stared directly at me – or through me – with flaming eyes. Behind him was Nathan, who turned to pull the door open wider allowing Yosi to carry Miryam inside! Immediately, aunts and sisters and cousins came running, and after one look, my mother took charge. "Lydia, get some clean rags! Sarah, heat some water. Hava, go tell your aunt Dvorah to bring the children downstairs: we'll need the upper room."
The upper room? I made a swift decision. Pushing my way through the knot of women around my mother, I said quietly, "No, mother, the guest room is too full! Let Miryam have Nathan's spot: he won't mind."
She looked at me keenly, and then nodded. Turning to Yosi, she said, "You can take her downstairs where there'll be more privacy."
With swift steps, uncle Micah approached my father and laid a hand on his older brother's arm."What is going on?" he demanded.
My father appeared not to have heard him. Instead, he seated himself in his chair, and the men again sat down around him. After unrolling a yellowing scroll on the table's scarred wooden surface, my father beckoned me to join them. As I knelt on the floor beside him I saw that it was our family's generation-book, one of our most valuable possessions. It formed an important part of each marriage negotiation and birth in the family – as it did for every Jewish family, but especially for ours. Because of our ancient heritage, it was my father's ambition to marry each of his children to another member of the poor, obscure, but still honored house of David.
"Look, Hava," my father said, pointing at the oldest entries. "Here it says, 'Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.' And do you know who Tamar was?"
I pursed my lips and pretended to think deeply, recognizing a game I'd been familiar with since my childhood. Every father teaches his children by asking questions, and as the youngest, I had come in for more than my share of questions. Even now as a young woman, I still loved every minute of it.
"Tamar," I said deliberately, "was Judah's daughter-in-law."
My father nodded, and asked, "And who was Rahab, the mother of Boaz and grandmother of our beloved king David?"
My little cousin Daniel let out a small sigh and vibrated with excitement. Obviously, he knew the answer, but my father kept his eyes fixed on me.
"Rahab was a prostitute and a Canaanite," I replied.
"And who," my father growled, "was the wife of Boaz and king David's own mother?"
"A Moabite daughter of pagans," I answered. "Her name was Ruth."
Suddenly my father became animated. With a flourish, he ran his finger down the list of names on the scroll, stopping at last on his own. "And who is the daughter of such an august line?" he asked, his eyes twinkling at me.
"I am," I said.
"Daughter of David," he demanded gaily, "Do you suppose that God was wise to choose a king whose mothers were dishonorable women?"
Now I understood. Looking straight at Yosi, who now stood uneasily by the door, I said, "God is so wise that He looks at the heart, not the appearance."
"Well done," my father replied.
My uncle Abner shifted uneasily in his chair, his face now red with embarrassment. "So you believe your son's story – and accept the woman and her child into our family?"
"Precisely," my father said calmly. "And if we, as the elders of the family, do nothing to fuel the fire, the rumors will soon die down."
In the little silence that followed, I heard several stifled yawns. Most of us had been up since daybreak, and those of us who weren’t weary from a journey were exhausted by preparations to receive those who had come.
"And now," my father said, "To bed!"
Only the children grumbled, while the weary fathers and mothers climbed the stairs to the gigantic task of arranging places for so many people on the floor of the upper room. I kept busy running up and down stairs with more bedding, with drinks of water, and with stray children. At last (it seemed like hours later) the upper room was still – except for a quiet chorus of coughs, cries, and snores.
Bundling up in my cloak, I sat by the kitchen fire, waiting for my mother’s call. The fire crackled quietly and but for a few stifled moans and low murmurs, all was still below. Growing drowsy, I pillowed my head in my arms and soon fell asleep.
A baby’s cry awoke me. It was a thin, newborn baby’s cry, and I jumped up, my heart racing with excitement. "It’s a son!" I heard my mother exclaim triumphantly, and there was a jumble of voices. Then scraping footsteps hurried up the ladder, and Aunt Dvorah’s head appeared in the opening in the floor. Pulling her up the last few rungs, I asked, "Can I see him? Can I see him?"
Aunt Dvorah, panting with the exertion, smiled while she caught her breath, then demanded in a loud whisper, "Are there binding cloths in the house?"
"Of course: there, in the chest by the front door."
"And a cradle?"
"Yes!" I said. "Well, no – I mean, baby Noam is using it."
"Well, then, I’ll see what I can find!" Aunt Dvorah bustled toward the stairs, then turned, saying, "Your mother wants you. Oh, and take the salt!"
Taking the binding cloths and a wooden box of salt, I stumbled quickly down the ladder. In a pool of lamplight, my mother bent over the bed I had made earlier. Over her shoulder she said, "Hava, take the baby, while I tend to Miryam."
Miryam. I expected to see a white, exhausted face on the pillow, but as I came closer, her face flashed forth joy so brightly that I froze and stared at her in wonder. What does she know, to look like that? I thought, following her gaze to the tiny, naked newborn, still blood-smeared, lying in her lap.
Taking him gingerly in my arms, I turned to the basin of steaming water standing near a flickering brazier and washed him clean. After rubbing his skin with salt for health, I wrapped him in wide strips of soft cloth so he would feel as snug and secure as he had while tucked away in Miryam's womb. Then, my task done, I cradled the baby gently in my arms and gazed for the first time at his small, crumpled red face. He stared back unwinkingly, one tiny hand gripping my outstretched finger. The jewel-like depth of those two clear eyes, still looking into mine, was like a well of fresh, clear water, so deep it could never be ruffled by storm.
What do you know, little one, to look like that? I thought, feeling an answering bubble of peace in my heart.
I started as feet thudded down the ladder, and looked up to see that it was Aunt Dvorah. Reaching the bottom, she threw up her hands in defeat. "I hadn't the heart to take a cradle from a sleeping baby," she said, "and I don't know what else we can use... unless it's the kneading trough, and that's full of dough, rising for tomorrow's bread."
"We could use the stone grinding bowl," I chuckled. "But that's full of grain. Or the manger, but that's..." I stopped, realizing what I was about to say. "That's full of hay! It will be soft and warm, and just the right size for a newborn baby."
"It's the strangest bed I ever heard of," my mother said thoughtfully. "What do you think, Miryam?"
Miryam smiled as if at some secret joke. "That will be fine," she said as her twinkling eyes met mine.
"That will be fine," my mother repeated, a little surprised. "Is there anything else you need?"
"I would like to see Yosi," my new sister said softly.
"I'll get him!" I said. "Where is he?"
"Up on the roof," my mother replied.
After bounding up the ladder, I let myself quietly out the front door into the crisp night air. A narrow flight of stone steps led to the flat roof, where my father and brother had spread their beds and sat talking.
"Yosi!" I exclaimed, "You have a son!"
A candle lit in his eyes, he sprang down the stairs and was gone.
My father said nothing, so I stood there, staring at the stars. I saw one, huge and bright, which hung low in the sky, so low that it seemed I could reach out and touch it.
At last my father turned to me and asked solemnly, "Daughter of David, do you doubt the promise of Messiah through David’s line?"
"No sir," I replied, wondering if we had returned to our earlier game, "I do not doubt what God has promised through His prophets." I sat down beside my father and wrapped a cloak around me.
"What would you think," he went on, "if an angel announced the approaching birth of Messiah to his mother, before it was even conceived?"
"Gideon's mother knew of her child through an angel," I said.
"What if, in fact, it was impossible for this child to be conceived?"
"Our father Isaac was conceived by a barren woman and a man so old he was almost dead."
"What if a man received directions in a dream to protect the child Messiah and his mother?"
"God gave our father Joseph dreams," I replied, "And he protected the children of Israel."
My father leaned forward, intense questioning in every line of his body, his eyes blazing as they had when he returned from talking to my brother. "What if I told you that our Joseph has been called to protect the infant Messiah himself? Would you believe that? Would you?"
I froze, but inwardly my heart echoed the words like a clanging bell. "Would you? Would you? Would you?"
A shout rang out in the clear night air. "Shalom, shalom! Is anyone there?" I leaped up and leaned over the parapet. Below, at our front door, I saw a bunch of ten or twelve shepherds clad in rough cloaks or thick sheepskins. One had a kid slung over his shoulders and another carried a tiny lamb in his arms. The leader lifted his torch and stared upward at me.
"Shalom!" he repeated.
"Shalom," I replied, wondering what sort of errand they could possibly be on in the middle of the night.
"Is there a newborn baby in this home?" He paused a moment, and then added quizzically, "A baby in a manger?"
A baby. In a manger. My face must have shown my astonishment, because the shepherd laughed out loud.
"Y-yes," I stammered at last.
"May we see him?" he demanded eagerly. "We have a message. We have a message from some angels!"
My father was leaning over the parapet beside me. "What message?" he called.
"A message to us in David's town," the shepherd shouted back. "From heaven, shalom! Messiah is born! We have a son!"
My father and I stared at each other."What's his name, Abba?" I asked.
My father laughed, his voice echoing merrily from the stone walls of our home. "His name is Salvation."
"I believe it," I said.