During the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, the people of the small town of Nazareth are persecuted by Syrians—soldiers conscripted into the Roman army and who despise the Jews. Hasid, a particularly cruel deputy commander, never misses an opportunity to torment and mock them.
In that town, young Mary is engaged to Joseph, but their happiness is threatened by seeming infidelity on Mary’s part. As Joseph contemplates what to do, the truth becomes clear to Rabbi Asa—a wise man, and Joseph’s friend and confidant. Reading the writings of Isaiah one day, Asa realizes that what is unfolding is the fulfillment of a prophecy. But lurking in the shadows is Zaddu, an ancient witch who has given her soul to the devil, and Zillah, the venomous town gossip.
What evil rises to thwart Mary in her role as mother and protector? Is she truly favored by God?
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Read this excerpt from the prologue and become wrapped up in the story!
It was the last quarter of the first century B.C. In a small town in the Middle East, Zillah, who had been married to a habitual drunk for the past five years, sat by her fire pit, adding thorn branches to the hungry flames. The masked sun was about to set on this chilly March day. The slate-gray sky began to darken even further as the young woman’s labor pains intensified. The latest one was so painful that she moaned.
Zillah turned away from the God of Abraham two years ago. In His place she had begun to worship Asherah, the goddess of fertility. She made an idol and burned incense to it every night. If the Jews in her town found out what she was doing, they would have her stoned to death. Jewish law forbade idol worship, sorcery and witchcraft. The woman promised the goddess that if she became pregnant, she would dedicate the child to the spirits of the air and of the netherworld. All Zillah wanted was a child to love and cuddle, and then she wouldn’t care if her husband was ever sober again.
The soon-to-be mother was the type of person who found fault with everyone. She had a vicious mouth and loved to start rumors. That’s probably why no one who passed by that evening paid any attention to her. Soon the only light she could see came from the dancing blaze before her. Taking a stick, she held it over the leaping flames until it caught fire. The pregnant woman shielded the struggling flame with her hand, for a cold breeze now blew in from the north, chilling her to the bone. Zillah entered the house and lit the night candle. The severity of her labor pains caused her to lean on the wall as she moaned much louder this time.
Seven houses away from Zillah’s, Jacob and his pregnant wife, who was a month from term, ate their evening meal. “The baby is really active tonight,” the young carpenter said as he watched his wife’s tunic move. “Must be a boy!”
“Girl or boy, whichever God gives us, as long as it’s healthy,” his wife replied with a smile.
Jacob rose from his place and went toward his wife. He knelt by her side and kissed her abdomen. “Be good tonight; let Mommy get some sleep,” he said to the child within her womb. Then he added, “…son!” His wife laughed.
About midway down the hillside in the same vicinity, in a stand of scrub oaks, an old hag named Zaddu walked from her cave to her fire. A pack of rats trailed close behind. One rotting brown incisor was the only thing that kept her mouth from caving in over her gums; it distorted her mouth in a hideous fashion. Her weather-worn skin was as wrinkled as a prune, and her bloodshot eyes, sunk deep into her bony head, only amplified her ugliness. The rat that nested in her tangled, matted gray hair began to squeak loudly. She grabbed it with her long, dirty nails and put the rodent into her filthy, ragged tunic, near her shriveled bosom. Tonight, she had to hear everything clearly. Zaddu then sat down by the fire.
It appeared she was talking to herself, yet two separate, eerie voices came from her mouth. A hoarse, gravelly male voice dictated instructions, while the witch’s shrill, high-pitched voice sought clarification of the orders. As soon as the conversation ended, the sorceress reached for her staff. She supported herself with it as she rose slowly. The hag then hobbled off toward the town. Her back was hunched so badly that she could only see the ground in front of her when she walked. No one knew how old the witch actually was. The great-grandparents of the town’s younger residents said that Zaddu must have been over a hundred years old when they were children.
While the two voices still emanated from the witch’s mouth, Jacob laid next to his wife. With his arm around her he said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think this marriage of ours is going to work out.” Her eyes opened wide as she looked at him, shocked. His statement startled her. “Yep, something’s come between us,” Jacob said as he lowered his hand to her abdomen, and began to rub it and laugh.
“Silly goose!” his wife said. “You frightened me there for a moment. You sounded and looked as if you were serious. I thought I was going to lose you.”
With his hand still on her belly, Jacob brought his face up against his wife’s, and rubbed his nose against hers as he snickered. He kissed her on the cheek and said, “Do you really believe I could live without you? Now tell me who’s the silly goose, huh?” She put her hand under his arm and began to tickle him in his most vulnerable spot. He laughed so heartily that she joined in too. Jacob tried to roll away from his wife as he said between chuckles, “Stop it, you’re gonna kill me, please!” They laughed so hard they cried. When there was no laughter left in them, Jacob snuggled up next to his wife once again. With his hand still resting on her abdomen, the young couple fell asleep.
Zillah’s husband, in a drunken stupor, laid no more than an arm’s length above her head as she pushed with all her might to force her baby out. She felt as if she were being split in half. Her nerve endings were overstimulated, and the receptors in her brain kept warning her she was near the breaking point. One last push, she told herself as she bore down one last time. Zillah heard the pop! as the baby’s head was delivered; a few moments later she was tying off the umbilical cord and cutting it. She held her little son, whom she named Joshua, in her arms, and suckled him as she passed the afterbirth.
He nursed gently at his mother’s breast while Zillah, filled with contentment, kept touching her newborn son with her free hand. When he finished nursing, she checked him over thoroughly; all his parts were where they should be. The new mother swaddled the babe and set him in a reed basket she had previously padded with a quilt. Zillah took the afterbirth and her idol, and went to the fire pit. She threw the useless tissue onto the flames as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the goddess. She was told to do so by the followers of Asherah. After adding more kindling to the fire, she tossed the idol into the roaring flames and said, “Bye-bye, sweetie! I guess I won’t be needing you around anymore, will I?” The flames licked at the idol as Zillah walked back into her house and finally fell asleep. She didn’t bother to lock the door from the inside.
As Zillah suckled her son, the witch reached the opening between the last house that formed the town wall, and the rocky hillside. There was just enough room between them for a child to slip through. The old hag was extremely thin. By facing the hillside and sidestepping, she managed to get through without too much difficulty, despite her hunched back. Once she reached the street, she knew exactly where to go.
Click, click, click, went her wooden staff as it struck the pavement and echoed through the frosty night air. The battened-down window coverings in the homes emitted shafts of candlelight every time the wind blew. The flapping sound intensified the eeriness of the dark night. Zaddu loved it! She finally arrived at Zillah’s house to do Satan’s bidding.
As Zaddu approached her destination, flames from Zillah’s fire shot high up into the air. The witch slowly opened the door, and saw the newborn lying in the basket. His mother was sound asleep, weakened by her ordeal. The sorceress picked up the basket and laid it on the low table close to the door. Because the frame of her body was so bent, her face was now directly over the infant’s. She turned the basket so that the baby’s head was perpendicular to her face. Zaddu then lifted her head and expelled all the foul-smelling air from her lungs as she faced the western horizon, the direction that stole the light. The old hag then placed her gaping mouth over the newborn’s nose and mouth. Her rotted incisor scratched the baby’s face, and the infant began to stir. She clamped her mouth more tightly over his and sucked the breath of life right out of him. She held it within her lungs until they ached, and the baby stopped moving.
Zaddu shook from head to foot; the child’s innocent life-breath was now captive in her lungs. She couldn’t wait to rid herself of the sweet innocence that now filled her. When she broke the seal formed by her mouth, her long, ugly nails clicked as she rubbed her hands together in glee. She was overjoyed; the baby’s lips were turning blue, and his chest no longer rose and fell. She expelled the infant’s breath of life from her and didn’t stop exhaling until her lungs ached and were clear of the goodness that had filled them. Zaddu watched with amazement as the breath of the innocent seemed to sparkle in the air above her like sunlight on rippling water. She continued to watch it as it drifted upward, and eastward to where light is restored.
The minute the witch entered Zillah’s house, Jacob’s wife awoke. Her baby was so active now that she couldn’t fall back asleep. She placed her arm under her head, looked down at her belly, and whispered, “What, are you doing somersaults in there?” Though her husband was a sound sleeper, she worried the constant activity of their unborn child would wake him. So she gently raised his hand from her abdomen and put it over his hip. The young mother-to-be then raised her petticoat and watched as her belly moved. “Your father will have to chase after you,” she said. “He can run faster than me. From the look of things, though, he’ll always be out of breath.” The baby just wouldn’t stop moving that night.
Zaddu unwrapped the swaddling cloth from the lifeless baby, then took out a small dagger from her waistband and made a slit on the edge of her thumb. She cursed under her breath at the stinging pain. She faced west again and breathed in the cold night air that contained the acrid smoke from the now-smoldering idol. Her lungs burned. The hag placed her mouth over the lifeless child’s nose and mouth once more and breathed her fetid breath into him until his lungs filled with the pungent, foul-smelling air. Her bloody thumb pressed up and down over the baby’s heart. The infant’s eyes popped open; he stared at her and then seemed to look at his surroundings. Zaddu put her dirty, bloody thumb in his mouth until her gnarly fingernail went down his throat. He sucked on it, then clamped his gums around it so tightly that she cursed the baby and the resulting pain. The witch tried to swaddle the baby again, but her long, curving nails thwarted her efforts, so she left and went toward Jacob’s house.
Jacob’s wife gently rubbed her abdomen in the hopes that it would calm the baby within her womb, but the child was still restless. As the mother-to-be lay next to her husband, she thought she heard a child’s voice calling for help.
“Please come and help me,” the voice said. “It’s so cold, and I haven’t had anything to eat today. Please help me!” Her motherly instincts wouldn’t let her ignore the child’s plea. Jacob’s wife left the bed and went to the door. She opened it but couldn’t see anyone, so she decided to step out into the night and find the child. The moment that she did, her bare foot touched the cold slippery stone, and she slid. Her legs flew out from under her. The poor pregnant woman landed with a loud thud. Her head struck the grease-covered threshold and she was knocked unconscious. A dark-red spot began to spread on her fresh white petticoat. The young woman was hemorrhaging. Jacob’s wife would never live to see the beautiful son she would deliver.
Zaddu cackled under her breath as she watched Jacob’s wife fall. She couldn’t resist saying, in a childlike voice, “I’m not hungry or cold anymore, you gullible fool!” The witch had accomplished all that her master had told her to do. She returned to her cave, wiping her grease-covered hand in her ragged tunic as she hobbled along.
Zillah woke as her baby screamed at the top of his lungs. She crawled out of bed and picked up her son. The woman wondered how he could possibly have kicked himself free from the swaddling cloth she had tied so tightly around him. She thought he might be wet or hungry. Carrying the baby to the low table, she placed him nearer the night candle and loosened the cloth. That was when Zillah noticed the small scratch-like mark near her son’s mouth. “Did my widdle wuv scwatch himself?” she asked in baby-talk. “I’m a bad mommy. I should have bound you tighter so those little nails wouldn’t scratch your tiny little face.” When the swaddling cloth was completely opened, Zillah noticed a blood spot over her son’s heart. “I think I missed a spot when I cleaned you up earlier, my dear,” she said. The new mother took a washcloth and began to dab at the bloody area. The cloth turned a rusty red color, but the red spot still remained. “You, my little one, have a birthmark that looks just like a thumbprint. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it before. Don’t you worry; no one will see it there.”
Zillah changed and re-swaddled her son. She held her baby close to herself to suckle him once again. Joshua took hold of his mother’s breast and clamped his gums down on it so tightly that Zillah recoiled in pain. She tried to force him to let go by pulling away, but he wouldn’t release no matter what she did. The new mother realized her baby wasn’t interested in nursing. He was just interested in biting her with his strong gums. Joshua opened his black, eerie eyes and stared at her. She sensed her son enjoyed inflicting pain. Zillah saw his evil eyes gleam even brighter in the candlelight as he bit down even harder. The babe wouldn’t release until his mother passed out from the unbearable pain.
John Fuja and his wife Mary Ann live in West Chicago, Illinois. His interest in Jewish culture and tradition, especially during the time of Jesus, seeks to answer a common question: How was Jesus able to live in relative obscurity for 30 years without being recognized by His fellow townspeople as being heaven-sent and divinely commissioned? And what battles might have been fought to preserve His life for His coming mission?
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