Trouble At Manger
Updated: May 16
I am in the process of writing and editing a collection of my short stories to be called "Images".
I am doing the final draft of this section and (unintentionally) it is Christmas. The coincidence appealed to me and I felt compelled to share the story with you.
This section is about the involvement of Herod The Great of Judea and his Mighty Roman Emperor Augustus in trying to locate the new Messiah. It is not your normal Christmas tale. If you like it, let me know via the website, I might publish the complete short story as a stand alone now...........Happy Christmas
From the soon to be published collection of
Short Stories by Roy Merchant entitled:
“Trouble At Manger -Chapter 3"
Augustus and Herod
I was 57 years old at the end of 6BC and had done most of the significant things in my life that I was going to be remembered for, when news reached me from one of the outposts in the Levant that a prophecy was going to be fulfilled. Something about a Messiah about to be born who would come to free the Jews.
At first I was not worried about it, because in 40BC, when Herod had come to Rome begging myself and my old ally Mark Anthony’s help to get rid of Antigonus who had marched in and stolen his crown, we had decided to back him and crowned him King of Judea. It did not mean much to us, but it meant a lot to him. I remember saying to Anthony, my ally at the time that he looked a bit mad, but he would do as he was told. We did not have much choice anyway, as we had our own troubles trying to steady the ship of Rome, only 4 years after the death of Julius Caesar and us hunting down the assassins remorselessly.
I remember exactly where I was when the news of Julius’s death came to me and to the day I die, I will always remember the passion I felt as Agrippa, I and Mark, before he became besotted with Cleopatra, created the new Republic.
I was always hearing about new prophets, messiahs and sages coming up and predicting the end of Rome and although I did not pay them too much mind, I kept flashing back to the Ides Of March and feeling that had Julius had been a bit more attentive, he might have avoided his own assassination. Only trouble with that is that I would not have become an Emperor.
I told the messenger to get back to Judea quickly and instruct Herod the depressed as all his subjects called him to search for this messiah and inform me at once when he was found.
I must say that I was not worried about a messiah from the Levant, I had to get the maps out to see where Bethlehem or even Nazareth was. I laughed to myself and thought, “What could possibly come out of those places”. Me being a very very cautious ruler however, also planned to cover my bet, by keeping a very close eye on this little area and that madman Herod from now on. He was a tyrant, but he was my tyrant.
Calls himself great! Herod the Great, if he is GREAT!!, then, what in Jupiter’s name am I?
Herod had been looking for this messiah, ever since his spies in the temples had told him that the priests had been talking incessantly about the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah for a long time and that the talk had been getting more insistent since around 8BC.
For the last 2 years all he had been hearing about was the MESSIAH. Now, whilst he was not a very religious man, being king, he had quickly come to realise that the temple was a very powerful place and had to be taken seriously, or there could be unimaginable consequences.
The power struggle between the Sadducees, the modernisers, those who currently favoured the Hellenic (Greco-Roman) ways of looking at the world and the Pharisees, a very traditionalist’s sect who believed that nothing should change had basically been going on for at least 1400 years, ever since Moses got the Jews out of Egypt. Herod knew that this latest argument was just that, the latest argument. There would be more in years to come, about everything under the sun. What he had to do was to manage this one and whoever came after him, would have to deal with what they found at the time. None of them loved him anyway, he mused.
He had been looking all over the kingdom to find out who, or what this Messiah was. Some said he was the chosen one, a new Moses, who would come and get the Jews out of bondage for ever. Others said that he would be the prophet of prophets, or the King of Kings. Now, Herod was not all that worried about the prophet of prophets, but the King of Kings was something else. That meant taking over his kingdom, killing off his legacy, leaving him as a nonentity in the annals of time. Funny how Jesus’s existence, ensured that his name would last forever, instead of fading back into the obscurity from whence he came, but that is another story.
On the 25th December 6BC, his sages came to him saying that a new star had settled over the tiny little village of Bethlehem and all the Pharisees were saying that it was the sign that the Messiah had arrived. He sent his best men, the Praetorian Guards to look for this new King. They went and looked at all the places they thought a king would be staying in, or being born in, but could not find him. They reported back that there was no King born in Bethlehem that night.
The next day, I mean the next day, 26th of December, the messenger from Augustus came. He did not even knock, just pushed the guards out of the way and barged into my sleeping chamber, where I was busy entertaining a new wife and demanded that I got dressed and tell him what I knew about the rumours about some Messiah. I nearly screamed. If I heard that name one more time, I was going to kill someone. The look he gave me told me that I had better calm down. So I did.
I felt humiliated. I, the son of Antipater, the ruler of Batanea, Peraea, Samaria, Galilee, Judea, and Idumea, the one who had made Judea yield to the power of Rome was being treated as a powerless pawn by a messenger, the messenger I tell you, of Augustus.
In any other time, I would have been seen as a great leader, my kingdom was the size of David’s at its most powerful. I had made an enemy of all my kindred people to ensure that the relationship with Rome remained intact. I got more tax collected for Rome than anyone else. The Jews hate me and would kill me without any mercy, the minute I show any weakness and still Augustus treats me as just another vassal. A Roman thrall.
Survival is the greatest instinct known to man. It overcomes humiliation, it overrides bravery and courage. It leaves you incapable of doing unselfish things and I was a great survivor.
My soldiers searched high and low, up and down the hills in every nook, every cranny, and every cave from the shores of the Dead Sea right up the hill to Bethlehem and still we could not find him. We heard that Magi’s from another country had come to see him, that the shepherds had also come across to worship him, that he was circumcised and was also presented on the 40th day, but somehow he always eluded us. My soldiers killed all the first born children under 2 years old as a lesson to the Jews, but no one came forward with a name, an abode, a relative, anything that would give us a clue as to the whereabouts of that blessed Messiah. And each day the messenger from Rome took my failure more personal, almost as if he thought, I was failing to find this messiah on purpose.
I wanted to build a great dynasty, nothing like Rome you understand, even I did not have the ego, or energy to sustain the power required to build something as huge as Augustus has done with Rome, but I was absolutely fed up to the teeth with just being seen as just a satellite of Syria and slowly, but remorselessly having to be at the beck and call of a Governor or Prefect of Rome who did not even stay in Jerusalem, but had to go and be stationed miles away in Caesarea, that’s almost in Syria itself.
I do not think that Augustus ever really cared about finding the Messiah. He just wanted to tease me, to show me up, to constantly remind me of my incompetence. To show me that without him in Rome, I could not be trusted to manage a little domain such as this. I could not even find a baby in a tiny little village of about 600 people.
I heard that the Messiah and his family fled the 250 miles to Egypt and although I was embarrassed at being made a fool of, at least he was out of my hair and the mocking face of the Governor and the messenger was no longer constantly in my palace humiliating me.
It was in my 75th year in 4AD, when I had achieved all I was going to achieve and the madness and the constant pain and tiredness from my weak blood flow was making me see things in ways even I was beginning to question, that I had the vision.
I was in my sleeping quarters having just failed to satisfy my tenth wife yet again and just welcoming the quietness of sleep again, when I felt a presence in my chamber. The presence was like a spirit, only it seemed almost holy, almost divine and of a power far greater than any I had ever encountered. I had seen Julius Caesar, I had met Augustus and Mark Anthony. I had spoken to Cleopatra on one of my treks into Egypt, when Mark Anthony was playing the fool. These people had personal power and charisma that you knew was more powerful than yours could ever be, but the spirit of Yahweh’s son was a source of grace whose power was beyond comprehension.
In my quiet contemplation with him and at some time in the twilight hours, he walked with me and he talked with me and his voice was quiet. No word was uttered from his mouth, but the primordial conversation with his eyes, went on for a long while as we walked in that garden of his village house in Cairo.
He told me I was forgiven, that Yahweh, decided what was, what is and what will be and that I had no choice in the path I took to fulfill the prophecy. He said I will always be remembered for the bad things I had done, but I will also be remembered as the greatest builder in Israel’s history. He told me to close my eyes and feel no more pain. I did as I was told and the arteriosclerosis pain disappeared along with all the other agonies and the voices in my head.
I smiled, my breathing stopped and I was no more.