catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 24 :: 2010.12.31 — 2011.01.13


The soldier’s story

Editor’s note: “The soldier’s story” is the final installation in a series of three stories.  Read part one, “Heli’s story,” here.  Read part two, “The woman’s story,” here.

Let me say in my own defense that I thought I was doing the right thing for my people. Oh, I know that joining the army of the occupying forces looks like a betrayal, but really, what else could I do? Every time my people tried to resist the rule of these invaders, every time we sabotaged their attempts to rebuild infrastructure, every time we refused to cooperate with their troops there was more death and destruction for my people: more civilians killed, more women raped, more young men thrown into their torturous prisons. In the end it seemed as though the only way to save my family, save my village, save myself would be to join this army that would win in the end. I had seen where resistance led, and I could not bear to have that happen to me.

And so I ran away to join the army. It wasn’t really a betrayal. After all, Herod is a Jewish king, and in joining him I was merely trying to bring peace to my people. It didn’t seem that hard to understand. Don’t resist Herod and the violence will stop. Assist Herod and life will improve for us all. Even a peasant boy from Bethlehem can understand that logic.

At first, the logic made sense. I had joined at a good time. Aside from a few rebel leaders in the mountains, the towns were peaceful. The rebels provided a need for occasional force, but it was easy to feel good about capturing and killing men who attacked anyone with money, whether Jew or Samaritan or Roman. And I had also realized that this career was one with advancement opportunities. No more ghetto life for me. What with wages and training (and of course, a few valuable items taken in raids), I was set for the rest of my life. The army was truly good news for this poor boy from Bethlehem.

Of course, there were occasional rumours about Herod and unreasonable violence. But they didn’t worry me. You see, Herod was only concerned about men who would challenge his rule. So a lowly soldier like me wasn’t worried. I left the anxiety to his sons, or at least, to those of his sons that he hadn’t yet killed. In fact, we Jewish soldiers had a little joke about that. Since Herod does follow the food laws, at least as far as the public is concerned, we’ve concluded that it’s better to be Herod’s pig than his son! Get it? Well, maybe you have to be Jewish to get it. Anyway, as long as I didn’t go thinking that someday I wanted to be king of the Jews, I knew that no violence would ever affect me.

There was one close call with possible violence, though. It happened at the time of the census. Herod had stationed us in our hometowns, figuring that we would be able help the officials track down those who were evading registration. Man, that was crazy. The town was full of peasants who had left after losing their lands, all come back to register. And, of course, they had no land or family left, and so the traveller’s huts on the edge of town were packed. More came than we had expected; I guess the threat of crucifixion for avoiding this registration had proved effective. We had our hands full, I tell you. All those dispossessed people, back in their hometown, complaining against Herod and Rome, hatching plans for resistance. Not that we heard them outright; around us soldiers they were pretty tight lipped. But sneak in behind any of the tents and you could hear the whispered conversations, you could hear them telling the stories about God’s liberation of old, you could even hear some of the psalms celebrating how God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.

A few days after people had started to arrive things got really bizarre in the early hours of the morning. We had heard quite a commotion on the very outskirts of town. Turned out a girl was giving birth in a cave out there with the animals. Well there’s no law against that, and we continued with our rounds. But then an hour or so later this group of shepherds comes sneaking through. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust shepherds further than I can spit at them. Before we could get to them, they disappeared into the cave where this birth just happened. We listened just outside the entrance but there was so much rustling, and they were speaking so quiet like, on account of baby, I guess, that we only managed to hear a few words. “A savior…and then, angels…peace on earth,” we heard in snatches. And then, before we could even realize what had been said, they were on their way out again, slipping quietly through the tents and melting into the darkness.

Well, we didn’t quite know what to do. By rights we should have reported the conversation, but my partner, he was from Bethlehem, too. He could just imagine the troops bursting in, the searches, the arrests of those not quick enough to hide, the torture of others who knew nothing. Herod would not be satisfied until all of Bethlehem had been so humiliated that no one would ever dare whisper the word “savior” again, unless it was connected to him. So we promised each other that we would say nothing.

Now, we should’ve spread the word, we should’ve reported this at the end of our watch, but we thought that maybe this way we could avoid the violence. It isn’t as though the words of some shepherds are ever gonna be taken seriously by anyone, and it didn’t seem to us that any child born in a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem to some poor landless sod who had nothing — well, it didn’t seem like that was ever gonna be a threat to Herod. So we figured that if we kept our mouths shut no one would be the wiser and maybe there would be peace.

I tell you, we sure thought we got away with it. The census passed and we continued our posting in Bethlehem. Many of those who returned found or built themselves housing. The couple who had the baby moved to a small house on the edge of town, and I breathed a little more freely. There were no more whispers, I felt sure, of a savior. Bethlehem returned to normal.

And then, after more than a year, we heard about the fortunetellers. They had come from the east, following some star, and were inquiring in Jerusalem about the whereabouts of the new king. I tell you, I’d heard that fortunetellers were kinda ditzy and these three sure fit the stereotype. Imagine walking into Jerusalem and asking Herod — Herod! — about the birth of the new king of the Jews! Talk about naive. If there was one thing that Herod had ensured it was that there would be no new king of the Jews born, ever! But Herod didn’t let on. Apparently he got the chief priests and the scribes in there and demanded an explanation: were they planning something he didn’t know about? And they coughed up that old prophecy from Micah, the one about Bethlehem being the hometown of a new ruler. Really, it was a brilliant move. It took the attention away from Jerusalem, and it did so in a way that suggested that any new ruler was God’s work, not the result of plotting on the part of the Jewish leaders. And, what Herod didn’t know, was that that bit of Micah is all about how God will overthrow oppressive rulers. In one move they deflected attention away from Jerusalem and challenged the authority of Herod so subtly that he didn’t even know it had happened.

Well, we expected Herod to deal with the fortunetellers right away, but he didn’t. For some reason he let them go on their little pilgrimage to Bethlehem. He even seemed quite happy. We couldn’t figure it out, until a few weeks passed and one of Herod’s own guards came to question us in Bethlehem about where the fortune tellers had gone, and where they were staying. We looked at them blankly. Staying? Why they had left weeks ago. They hadn’t stayed long, seeming in a hurry to leave the town. The guard was insistent.  Well, which house had they visited? Who was supposed to be this king of the Jews? It was then that I noticed how his hand twitched upon his spear. We led him silently to the house. And when he kicked open the door, it was clear that no one had been there for some time. The ashes in the fire were cold, and there were signs that the family had left in some haste.

That’s when it all fell apart. Herod was furious that the family was gone; he insisted that the townspeople were hiding them. He ordered us to do a house-to-house search. He ordered us to kill every boy under the age of two. And it was then that I saw him for what he really is. In our history one other ordered all Hebrew boys killed at birth. That one was Pharaoh. And here was Herod, revealing that his true goal, like that of Pharaoh, was not peace but brutal oppression. Some of those boys under two, some of them were my nephews, still toddling along after their mother’s milk. Some of them were the sons of my cousins. How could I look at their mother’s faces as their sons were taken from them? How could I watch their joy turn to a grief that would have no healing?

I received my order. I heard myself say, “Yes, sir!” And I turned on my heel and walked away. I walked to the end of the village where I was supposed to begin my search and I kept going. I walked past the village limits, but I didn’t walk fast enough. As I went, I heard the wailing begin. “That could be my sister Rachel,” I thought, but I didn’t stop. I kept walking. I was hoping to meet a rebel who would welcome a repentant soldier into the struggle for the kingdom.  

your comments

comments powered by Disqus