By Joe Benevento
For our trip to Ain Karin to visit Elizabeth we had taken what is called the “trade route,” which goes through lots of hills and passes through Samaria. It’s a little shorter in terms of distance, but a more athletic trek. With my wife very pregnant (we didn’t know exactly how pregnant, since the Holy Spirit is a very subtle lover), I thought it best to travel the river route instead, taking us from the Jezreel Valley to that of the Jordan River, before the trek up from Jericho to the hills of Jerusalem, just a few miles north of Bethlehem. Mary agreed that less time in the steep hills made sense, and the weather in the valley might also be a little milder.
With all the craziness of so many people needing to travel (it seemed like hardly anyone in our town had actually been born there – Joachim and Anna themselves were from Sepphoris and would have to make the short trek there to be registered), Joachim could not procure a camel for us. Really, he had waited too long to try, assuming that we would not need to go. We had to settle instead for a donkey, but I was grateful that Mary would thereby not have to walk the entire way. We hoped to join a caravan for a good part of the journey, since we were headed toward Jerusalem, but the trip to the little town of Bethlehem we would be making on our own.
The benefit of a caravan of course lies with the idea of safety in numbers; opportunistic highwaymen were sure to be ready to pounce on any of the many people who all now had to travel at once, like crocodiles waiting to ambush their prey who had come to the river to drink.
But not all reptiles reside in the same river, and not all thieves await in ambush only.
One of our neighbors, someone who hated my father-in-law for having been bested by him in more than one business deal, had put himself somehow in charge of the caravan headed toward Jerusalem. This man owned a small herd of camels, and as everyone knows, camels can cover much more ground in a day than our little light-gray donkey could manage. (Mary had decided to name the beast Sarah, even though I was pretty sure he was a gelded male.) This camel king also was renting tents and other supplies to people who needed them, so no one was in a position to argue with him. No one stood up for us, then, when he refused to let us join his group.
“That miserable beast of yours, the best Joachim could do for his only child, and in such a state? I’m sorry, but I can’t put so many others to discomfort and days of added travel just so you can try to keep up with my camels.”
“And, of course,” I responded, “the faster you get to Jerusalem, the faster you can get back, to overcharge the next band of travelers.”
“Insults cost a man nothing, craftsman, but without a camel, you’ll not travel with us.”
And so it was that Mary and I had to travel all the way to Bethlehem by ourselves, with only a skinny, gray donkey to accompany us. “The Most High will be with us the whole time, protecting his son and the earthly parents he has chosen for him,” Mary predicted, with a wan smile.
“Tell that to the wild beasts, the highwaymen and the high hills near Jerusalem,” I muttered to myself.”
“What did you say, my husband?” Mary asked.
“We sure could use the help,” I answered her with a smile only someone as trusting as Mary could have believed was authentic.
The first few days of the trip, we made excellent time, by my estimation more than ten miles per day. The weather was comfortably cool, the donkey cooperative, the nights in our small tent not unreasonably cold. Still, Mary was large with child, and no matter how gentle her donkey and flat the terrain, it was difficult for her to travel at all. And of course I could not walk but so far each day, particularly since our water supply was to be preciously guarded and our traveling food – flat bread, figs, dates and nuts – not especially sustaining. Even so, being alone with Mary, witnessing her quiet faith and her cherished assurances that all would be well, could not help but make me proud of this woman I had been blessed with.
The third day we had rain. We tried walking through it, but as we traveled it got worse, both the amount of water and the velocity of the wind, so that the footing became treacherous and the donkey uncooperative, no matter how Mary coaxed him. She decided we had to stop, for the beast’s sake. This decision was made easier by the appearance of a small cave that seemed, from a distance, to be big enough to shelter the three of us, and, upon our arrival, proved to be so. I feared at first it could be the den of a wild animal, but aside from some sleeping bats hanging like dark ornaments at the top of the structure, there were no other tenants.
“You see, my husband, how our Lord provides. Just when we need more shelter than our tent offers, this cave appears, a kind of welcoming miracle.”
To me, of course, a dank, dark enclosure, which needed to be shared with a very wet donkey, whose smell combined seamlessly with piles of bat guano, hardly seemed welcoming or miraculous. Still, there was no need to badger a pregnant woman with my complaints.
“Yes, Mary. I only hope the Lord of Hosts will continue to provide when we reach Bethlehem. I’ve had no word from my brother in more than a year now and can’t be certain he will be ready to take us in when we arrive.”
“Remember, Joseph, the words of David, the psalm that begins: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,’ and ends ‘Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ Wherever we go, carrying the Son of the Most High with us, we will dwell in the house of the Lord. Like David, we need fear no evil.”
Mary was no fool. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t feeling the discomfort as I was; in fact, she was feeling it far more, all those months along with the Holy Spirit’s doings. Still, her faith did not waver. She comforted me; she comforted the donkey. The bats did not molest her as they woke up that night and began their hunts. We rested in more comfort than I imagined possible, though I could not take from my head the delay the rain had caused us and how much further we still had to travel.
The next two days, as we entered the Jordan River Valley, the weather got colder, a bit unusual for the first days of the spring season, but nothing beyond belief. And the cold spurred us on to try to walk faster, so we made good time again. The river was also a good source of water for us, though I worried about the possibility of a crocodile attacking as I filled our water receptacles. I wished I had time to do some fishing, something I have always enjoyed since my boyhood. A fish would have been a nice variant to our meals of bread and dried fruit, but time constraints and my fear of crocodiles kept me happy that we still had some pistachios.
Of course lions, wolves and bears were not impossible in the region we were traveling through. When we camped at night, I kept an ear out for any unusual sounds, including fearful complaints from Sarah, since I assumed a donkey’s hearing and instincts would be more acute than my own. I slept with one eye open, not the best way to rest on a journey.
It was Mary who first noticed the jackals. When we stopped to rest one late afternoon on the sixth day of the journey, she pointed them out to me, only two of them, resting as we were, perhaps thirty yards away. Though they have a reputation for aggression and treachery, they are not known for attacking humans, but I worried they might think our smallish donkey a slower antelope and try to take him down. The donkey itself seemed unconcerned, though, so I decided not to worry until, upon taking up our walk again, the two jackals also got up and followed at a pace quick enough to keep up with us, but not enough to gain much ground. They seemed content to follow us, and they continued into the night, so that even as I was setting up our tent, I could see them at a distance, watching us. When I pointed this out to Mary, she seemed unconcerned.
“Aren’t you worried about having these animals, famous for their cunning, following us day and night?” I asked.
“They live as God had made them to live,” Mary responded. “And remember what it says in Lamentations, ‘Even the jackals draw out the breast, they nurse their young ones.’ Perhaps this pair is like us, husband and wife; perhaps they too are awaiting a child.”
“Let’s hope it’s not our child they await,” I muttered to myself, not willing to alarm someone so comfortable in her seeming inability to be alarmed.
The night grew cold. I thought the Jordan Valley was protected from the worst weather by the hills around it, but the howling wind and dropping temperatures had not heard the same reports. It would have been difficult to keep a fire going, and since I had nothing to cook, it hardly seemed worth trying. I thought of huddling for warmth with my wife, but I knew, even under these conditions, that embracing her would kindle my desire like dry tinder to a flame, so I sheltered her as best I could and shivered a distance away from her.
I had been sleeping fitfully all night, but had managed, I think, some hours of sleep, and sensed somehow that dawn was approaching as I drifted off again. Suddenly, I awakened to the sound of our donkey. At first I hoped I was dreaming and did nothing, but the protestations grew louder, and Mary awoke too and said, “Something is wrong with Sarah; I’d better go and see about it.”
“Stay inside, woman,” I told her more gruffly than I intended, but there wasn’t any way I would allow her to endanger herself, no matter how protected she thought she was. I grabbed my walking staff and approached the lingering darkness. Even as I stepped out, I heard the sounds of animals scurrying away and heard a kind of happy greeting from Sarah. Then I stepped on something a bit warm and certainly furry in the dark. I jumped back startled, but there was no reason for fear. When I reached down to discover what I had stepped upon, I found a large rabbit, newly killed, and then another close by. Just then the first shafts of sunlight appeared in the sky. Mary had edged out of the tent by now and was gently stroking Sarah.
“I must have scared those jackals away from their kill as I came out. What luck – we’ll have meat for breakfast – meat to feed that son growing in your belly.”
“Praise the Lord, oh my soul,” Mary said, hardly in the way of a direct response. Then she quoted Moses: “He will give you meat to eat in the evening and bread to satisfy you in the morning because he has heard your complaints against him.”
What point was there in mentioning that this was meat in the morning, that we had brought our own bread, which was barley, not manna, and that these two dead animals were rabbits, not quail? She believed the rabbits a gift from the Most High; I’m sure she even believed the two jackals were guardian angels that had been sent to deliver breakfast to us, and not just a few unlucky predators scared off a kill. I was too hungry to argue with her. Even the wind had died down, so that my fire was easy to start; its red-yellow flames matching the glory of the rising sun. And we had our meat with our bread that beautiful morning. And the jackals were nowhere to be found.
A few days more, and we approached Jerusalem. Mary had begun to complain about pains we feared could mean the onset of labor but prayed were the “false labor” her mother had warned her about. It was odd to hope for something false, but the idea of having our child in a tent, far away still from any possible help, was too scary to consider, though that of course did not stop me from considering it enough to make sleep almost impossible. Of course, we now also had to deal with a very different terrain than the Jordan River Valley, with hills that were challenging enough under normal circumstances, but really worrisome for someone in charge of a wife heavy with God’s child. That little donkey Sarah, though, was surprisingly tough, capable and more patient and cooperative than any of the donkeys of my past experience. And Mary was ever trusting in the Most High’s process, whatever it would be. She seemed certain we would have our baby in Bethlehem, and the idea of it didn’t bother her even a little bit.
We arrived in the town of my birth mid-morning of the eleventh day of our travels. The plan was to get through the census-taking, then get to my brother’s house before evening. My parents had died years before, and my other siblings no longer resided in the little town, but my much older brother Heli had a nice home, and his children were grown and out of the house. Thus, I assumed he could make room for me, though I hadn’t had the chance to communicate with him about our visit, since the whole idea of actually going to Bethlehem when Mary was so far along was not anything I had expected. Still, my kind, older brother and his wife would surely be glad to see us and might even find a measure of happiness in witnessing the birth of their new nephew.
The Romans had set up a make-shift census reporting station in the town’s modest marketplace, in a building usually reserved for the sale of livestock. Many people were lined up outside the building, and I was certain the Romans were having a good laugh over treating us Jews like animals. Thankfully, they intended no imminent slaughter, but they had well-armed, brutal-looking soldiers stationed to remind us they were in command, even in David’s city.
The person behind us looked familiar; when he noticed me looking at him, at first he seemed offended, but then a sparkle of recognition flashed in his eyes, and he said, “Joseph, Joseph, son of Jacob the craftsman? Is it really you?”
“Yes, Saul, it is,” I said, as I recognized one of my father’s oldest friends. He must have been eighty years old, but there he was, forced to wait in line with the rest of us by these unkind pagans.
“It’s wonderful to see you, though too bad it’s for such a ridiculous reason, to stand in line here to be counted like sheep,” Saul said. He was old, but his eyes were still bright. He stood un-stooped, and his hair was long, full and only partially white. “I myself had to journey all the way from Hebron for this nonsense.”
“And we from Nazareth,” I reported.
“From Nazareth, and with a wife great with child? Why didn’t you just stay home?”
“This is my wife, Mary. She felt it was best to obey the law and not to start out the new child’s life with any potential trouble from these men,” I said, pointing to the armed thugs on either side of our line, “Besides, it will be a good opportunity to visit with my brother and his wife.”
“Your brother?” Saul shook his head. “I’m afraid you won’t be seeing your brother here.”
“And why is that?” Mary asked, with maybe a slight hint of concern.
“I hate to have to be the one to tell you, but your brother left yesterday, just hours after he got through this census.”
“Left for where? And why?” I asked, frantic with the thought of having no place to stay.
“Believe it or not, he is headed for Egypt, where he hears they have much need for craftsmen. After Hannah died, he had nothing here to hold him back, nothing but sad memories of better times. Plus his one son is already there.”
“My sister-in-law is dead? Why wasn’t I informed?” I asked, stunned, wondering how much of my sadness was for my brother and how much for myself.
“Who can say? I myself don’t live here anymore. I just happened to see him as he was preparing to depart.”
To be truthful, my brother and I had never been close, so I wasn’t shocked that he would leave without sending me word. Still, I had counted on his shelter and on his kind wife’s help with childbirth, and now we would have no place to stay if the child were ready to be born. Mary was convinced the Most High’s progeny had to be born in Bethlehem, but where in this town would that now be?
My distraction over the bad news Saul had delivered left us dawdling in line. The Roman guard didn’t care for any disruption of order.
“Get moving, Jew,” he scolded me, the “get moving” part in fractured Aramaic, but the “Jew” in Latin, “Iudeaus” one of the only Latin words I knew, since whenever it came from a Roman mouth it sounded more like a curse than the name of my people.
“What’s the hurry?” Saul asked, in a friendly way. “A little gap in the line won’t cause any problems,” he reasoned.
“Silence, Jew!” was all the guard responded, with a threatening gesture toward his sheathed sword. Saul and I knew better than to speak back. We moved up to fill in the small gap in the line.
After similar mistreatment and more than an hour’s wait, we finally took our turn with the census taker and were allowed to depart. But where to? I asked Mary as we headed back to where we had tethered Sarah.
“The Most High will provide. Even in this little town of Bethlehem, there must be a place or two for travelers.”
“I don’t even know where to begin to look,” I responded, trying to make my voice sound calm, but certain I was failing.
“Well, my husband, we must begin our search. I think the baby might be with us before the night has ended.”
This was Mary’s gentle way to say she was having pain – labor pain. I had to find a place for her and very soon.
Joe Benevento's stories, poems, essays and reviews have appeared in about 300 places, including Poets & Writers, Bilingual Review, St. Anthony Messenger and Prairie Schooner. Benevento's most recent novel My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son is his 15th book overall in poetry and fiction. He retired this past May after 40 years as a Professor of English at Truman State University.
'The Way to Bethlehem' is an adaptation of a chapter from Joe's new novel, My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son (Histria Books), about the Holy Family from the viewpoint of St. Joseph. The novel can be purchased here, and all author royalties are being donated in perpetuity to Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, an organisation that 'helps those in need regardless of faith, culture or situation'.