By Alicia Yoder
Jedaiah scanned the temple’s hall before slipping his hand underneath his white sleeve. The spots itched more each moment. That morning when they’d met to discuss the accommodations needed for the influx of pilgrims, he’d had to bite his cheek around the other priests to keep from scratching. He’d thought the white spots were merely callouses from working on his house, but then the itching had started.
He stepped onto the ladder. With people flooding into the city for Passover, they all needed to pitch in to handle the hundreds of extra sacrifices. Grabbing a handful of tongs, he balanced them in his elbow and started back down.
Jedaiah dropped the tongs, clinging to the ladder. He saw Gershom peering up at him with a raised brow. “I was just wondering if there were any more knives up there.”
Jedaiah put his hand to his head. So he hadn’t been discovered. “I’ll go up and check.”
“You’d better let me. I’d rather not have knives thrown at me.” Gershom bent to pick up the tongs.
Jedaiah descended the ladder and rushed past, not meeting his eyes.
“OK, I’ll just carry these, too. And don’t forget about the lot-casting ceremony this afternoon,” Gershom called after him.
Jedaiah stepped into the chamber nearest the entrance, untying his robe. He had to go home and wash. Maybe if he scrubbed them enough, they’d go away. He’d make sure he was back in time for the lot.
Cracking the door, he peeked around the corner and stepped out. Forcing himself to take the stairs one at a time, he pressed his lips together as he walked through the temple court. Passing the brass laver, he saw Iddo set a knife down and wipe his forehead with the back of his hand, leaving a streak of blood under his headpiece. Jedaiah let his gaze drop to the bottom of Iddo’s robes, which were speckled with red. He hoped Iddo would ignore him.
No such luck.
“Do they really think they can atone for an entire year of sins by bringing me one measly goat to sacrifice?”
Jedaiah looked up, shrugging. “Without a word from Him in over 400 years, I’m not surprised people have slackened a bit. Of course, the money changers take full advantage of people’s dedication this time of year.”
Iddo laughed, splashing his hands in the laver. “They’re only doing their jobs. Just like we have to put up with more travelers and more blood once a year.”
Jedaiah crossed his hands behind his back. “But at least we’re doing God’s work.” He thought of his brother. He’d stopped speaking to Eliashib when he’d left the priesthood to work in his father-in-law’s olive grove and become obsessed with the rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth. What would his parents say if they were still alive? Now he alone would carry on the priestly lineage, just as his sons would carry on after him. Surely God would understand that certain branches needed to be pruned away.
There were a few people milling around the Court of the Women. Determined not to speak to anyone, he kept his head down and strode toward the gate. Outside, he felt a cool hand grab at his arm and he jerked away as if he’d been touched by the end of a firepoker. The woman’s gnarled hands reached for him again, but he took another step back. “What do you want?”
The woman reached into her sleeve and pulled out a small bag of coins. “Please, I need someone to purchase a lamb for the sacrifice.” She looked past him, her eyes a milky blue.
Jedaiah crossed his arms. What made her think God would accept an unblemished sacrifice from such a blemished woman? “I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
The woman’s chin quivered, but Jedaiah turned away, trying to ignore the itching that had seized him. Callouses, or insect bites. Nothing a good scrubbing couldn’t take care of.
When Jedaiah returned a few hours later, his skin felt raw. Redness peeked above his neckline and below the hem of his robe. Gershom stood beside him, wrinkling his nose.
Jedaiah brought his wrist to his face as he watched Caiaphas reach for the Urim and Thummim. He tried to swallow, but the saliva had evaporated from his mouth. His sores carried a stench now, like the leftover sacrifice meat they burned outside the city gates. He felt like throwing up.
Caiaphas stepped toward him, and he backed up a few inches. “Didn’t you hear me?”
Jedaiah opened his lips and closed them again.
“You’ve been chosen to offer the incense for the next month. Purify yourself and be ready for the morning sacrifices.”
Jedaiah stared past him at the intricate gold and purple designs covering the walls inside the temple. He forced a nod. His sores felt alive, like beetles creeping up his arms. He pressed them to his sides. There had to have been a mistake. Was God preparing to punish him?
On his way to the temple the next morning, Jedaiah noticed people chattering together in every street he passed. Usually, there weren’t as many people out, since they stayed up late celebrating the Passover the night before.
A few hours later, he stood at the top of the temple steps watching a priest wipe up the blood from beneath the altar. Gershom came to stand beside him, munching on a hunk of bread. Jedaiah’s stomach grumbled, and Gershom chuckled, tearing off a piece of bread and handing him the rest. His smile faded as he stared out past the city gates. “So they actually did it.”
Jedaiah swallowed. “What?”
“Crucified the Healer. He’s hanging there right now.”
Jedaiah stopped chewing. The bread tasted like vinegar in his mouth. So the Healer was using up his last breaths this very moment. He’d left the house this morning before Anna and the boys could notice the sores now starting to fill with pus. Now it was too late to seek a solution from the Man he’d heard so much about. Maybe he should just confess his uncleanness to the high priest and get it over with.
Squeezing the bread between his fingers, he turned to Gershom. But before he opened his mouth, a shroud of darkness covered the sky. Gasps echoed through the temple. He dropped the rest of his lunch and grabbed Gershom’s tunic.
Gershom shook him off, but his voice was tight. “Help me light the lamps.”
Returning to the temple court, Jedaiah tried to keep from trembling as he dipped his hands in the brass laver. He needed to check on the incense. His hands shook as he re-lit a few of the wicks. The spicy cinnamon and frankincense smelled stronger in the darkness. Kneeling, he tried to recite some of the songs of praise he’d learned as a boy, but the words tasted like ash.
He shouldn’t be here in his dirtiness. Standing, he turned and strode toward the entrance. He needed to find Caiaphas and confess.
Before he’d walked five steps, he heard a ripping sound behind him. Whirling around, he tripped and fell backward, nearly knocking over one of the lampstands. He gasped as the curtain separating the Most Holy Place tore from the ceiling to the ground. Wrapping his arms around himself, he dug his fingers into his arms, trying not to scream. What had he done?
Gershom stood in the doorway, mouth open. “What happened?”
Jedaiah stumbled past him down the stairs. Candles flickered in the windows. The dusty streets were almost deserted as he wove through them, not paying much attention to where he was going. When the priests were called together and he was missing, they’d figure out the truth soon enough. He couldn’t go home. What would Anna say when she saw him in his tattered priestly garments? Why didn’t God just strike him now?
He had to get out of the city. Reorienting himself, he took off in the direction of the Garden Gate. Once outside, he saw a saw a cluster of olive trees in the distance. He sprinted toward them until he thought his lungs would burst, collapsing underneath the canopy a few minutes later. Thunder roared in the distance, and soon the rain pounded through the branches, soaking him. If only the rain could bring the cleanness he longed for. Shivering, he crawled under a rocky outcropping, listening to the echoes of thunder retreat into the mountains. He stared into the darkness for hours until he seemed to dissolve into it and fell into an exhausted sleep.
He felt the light on his eyelids even before opening them. Had it all been a nightmare? Rolling over, he looked up at the stones, each of which had been cut and smoothed. Other caves nearby had stones fit over their mouths. A chill spread through to his fingertips and toes. He’d slept outside a tomb.
Grabbing his tunic’s neckline, he ripped the fabric between his hands. Scooping up handfuls of dirt, he flung them onto his head, rubbing it into his hair. This was where he deserved to be. The wails that came from his throat made him feel more animal than human. Tearing his sleeves, he studied the sores in the sunlight. Pouches of pus bubbled up from the surface. Groaning, he raked his fingernails over his skin, opening each sore.
Covering himself in branches, he closed his eyes. He remembered that it was the Sabbath. At least he was following one command. The pain made him dizzy. One moment he felt as if he were lying on a bed of coals and the next, floating in icy water. He drifted in and out of consciousness the rest of the day and all through the next night, trying to keep warm.
Jedaiah jerked awake as the ground rumbled beneath him. He grabbed the tree branches and held his breath. When the vibrations stopped, he cautiously got to his knees. He tried to swallow, but couldn’t. He had to get water. Moments later, he found a small muddy pit that had filled with last night’s rain and plunged his face in. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he heard a rustling behind him. He whipped around to see a man in a light brown tunic.
Jedaiah put his hands in front of his face. “Please don’t come any closer unless you want to become unclean, too.” He heard the man step forward. Jedaiah fell back into a sitting position. “Are you deaf, man?”
The man sat facing him a few feet away. “You weren’t the reason the curtain ripped.”
Jedaiah’s eyes widened. Had news traveled that fast? He tried in vain to cover himself with his torn clothes.
The man kept his eyes on Jedaiah’s face. “It’s always been a symbol of what was coming.”
Jedaiah bit his lip. “I don’t understand.”
The man fingered his beard, revealing crimson scars on each wrist.
“The curtain was made to point to the Great High Priest.”
What priest? Was he talking about Caiaphas? None of it made sense. Jedaiah looked down at his clothes, now gray and shredded. “I can never be clean again.”
The man smiled, but it wasn’t a smile of amusement. “Those sores may heal on their own, but only the perfect priest can heal your heart.”
What did this man know about his heart? He’d followed the law ever since he knew what it was. Jedaiah wrinkled his brow. “Who are you?”
The man crouched before him, placing a hand on each shoulder. Jedaiah knew he should jerk away, but didn’t.
The man looked straight into his eyes. “Be clean, Jedaiah.”
Jedaiah sucked in his breath as he felt a warmth cover him. He scanned his body. The sores had vanished. He pressed his face to the ground and began to weep. When he sat up, the man was already at the edge of the garden. Looking back, he nodded before continuing toward the road.
Jedaiah fingered his torn sleeve and thought of the milky-eyed woman. Had he deserved healing any more than her? He got up and began to jog toward the city. He hoped his brother wouldn’t be hard to find.