“There is the mark of Sin on this child!” declared the Rabbi. His bony finger pointed at the crescent on Miri’s forehead. Yohanna reflexively drew the baby away from the Rabbi.
“It is my opinion,” he said, “That we cannot bring this child into the village without retribution from Our Holy Father. This woman-” he now pointed at Yohanna, “is undoubtedly a witch, and this child-” his hand opened, “the spawn of unholy concourse with one of the Watchers!”
“No!” Yohanna stood up fiercely facing the Rabbi. “You are a superstitious old fool!”
The villagers crowded into the synagogue gasped.
“You know nothing! What I have told you is true! The child is not mine! You can destroy me as a witch, but this child is not mine! She is innocent!”
“Innocent!” screamed the Rabbi, “Innocent! This child was found in the lair of a leopard unharmed! What magic is this? What blasphemy is this! The child is obviously more than just a child to be suckling from a she-cat! What about our children as she grows and desires meat?”
“You are an idiot!” shouted Yohanna. “Who are you to pronounce the will of God? Does he come from the heavens and talk to you personally?”
“This is preposterous!” declared the Rabbi indignantly “I refuse to speak of religious matters with a woman!”
“You haven’t the brains to talk to a woman!” shouted back Yohanna.
The voice of Yusef boomed through the synagogue. He stood at the doorway, his hands on his hips. David and Joseph stood behind him. Yusef strode into the centre of the building.
“You all know me,” he said in introduction, “It is I who paid the wages for the masons to build this synagogue. There is none who have more faithfully attended readings here. There is none who care so deeply for the well-being of my fellow man!”
He scanned the room, his dark eyes challenging those around him. ”Whether she is a witch or not, I, Yusef of Arimathea, still owe her a debt. She saved the life of my son, David! If the child is hers, then I owe her the life of that child in return for mine!”
“But your son was almost killed trying to save her!” challenged someone in the crowd. One of the prisoners who had escaped with Yohanna and Naña stepped out of the crowd. “She bewitched him!”
“So you say!” said David.
“Do you deny it?” asked the prisoner, “Are you not enamoured of this woman?”
David was at a loss. “I - I love her,” he said weakly. He looked up at Yohanna guiltily, but as he stared deeply into her eyes his resolve hardened and he stood taller, and faced the crowd.
“I love her more than Life itself!”
Yohanna was taken aback. For a brief moment, David and Yohanna were locked together, entranced, and the entire synagogue and the proceedings around them ceased to exist.
“Ha!” cried the prisoner, his piercing voice barely breaking through their enchantment with each other. “You see how she has charmed him! Just as she enslaved her captors with her magic! She is a witch!”
Several in the crowd cried out “Witch! Witch! Witch!”, and one brave soul shouted “Stone her!”
That shout sobered everyone, and the crowd fell to thoughts of a stoning.
Yusef held his hands up for silence. “There has never been a stoning in this town for witchcraft. By which authority can we convict this woman?”
“She has a child and is not married!” shouted someone.
“Adultery!” shouted another.
The crowd was rationalizing itself into a frenzy. If it got out of control, Yohanna would be stoned, and the child with her.
“And if the child is not hers,” added the Rabbi, “Then it is the offspring of a leopard, an abomination which cannot live! Surely, Yusef, you can see that dark forces are at work here. Whether we can explain them or not is irrelevant!”
“The child is only a few days old,” countered Yusef, “and as the baby is also a girl, the woman is unclean and will be for another sixty days, twice the time as for a son! By bringing her in here, you have defiled the synagogue, and thus this building must be ritually cleansed before any judgements can be made here before God!”
“Then she and the child must be incarcerated until such time!” declared the Rabbi.
“And you, Samuel,” asked Yusef, “Will go from Arimathea, and ask that Herod’s men come to our little village to care for our prisoner?”
Rabbi Samuel bit his lip. Soldiers would be needed to take charge of the prisoner, but their presence would bring the attention of the regional commander on their small village. The attention of the regional commander would bring the secret police. With secret police in the village, people would disappear one by one, and much of the material wealth of the village would vanish into the coffers of the police and Herod’s treasury.
“Send her away!” cried the crowd, “Send her away!”
“Stop!” shouted Yohanna, glaring at the crowd, “Enough! I have had enough!”
“It is time to end this charade,” she said menacingly. “The child is mine!”
The crowd gasped.
“I was sent by the Great Queen Astarte!”
The perimeter of the crowd shrank back from the centre where Yohanna stood. “She is not happy with the people of this village! She sent the child through me to bring blessings to you all, to protect you through the coming years of drought!’
“But you, the very people she sought to protect, have rejected her gift!”
The crowd was very nervous, and shifted constantly, trying to avoid Yohanna’s direct gaze.
“I fear I must return to the wilderness from whence I came, bearing sad tidings to the Queen of Heaven, Mother of the Gods. Must I tell her you have rejected her generosity? Must I tell her that you consider her daughter unworthy of your village? Must I return as a messenger must, my head hung low in shame? I fear that her blessing will not be forthcoming this season! I fear that the smile of the Mother Ishtar will not bring forth the clothing of Mother Earth. No grain shall grow! The vines shall wither without her beneficence! The Earth will shrivel and crack! The Queen of Heaven will not come to a place where she is not welcomed! She will exact a price for this affront to her sacred name, unless-’
She cast her gaze across the frightened faces of the villagers.
“Name it!” cried a desperate voice from the crowd.
Yohanna relished the power of the silence. She could feel the presence of Ishtar welling within her and knew that the Goddess was speaking through her. She had waited all her life for this moment, to become one with the Queen of Heaven. Her face shone with inspiration.
“I must take one of you with me!”
“This is preposterous!” declared the Rabbi, “You are no more a witch than I am a-” He stopped, realizing he had been caught in a contradiction.
“Yes?” prompted Yohanna, “Am I not a witch? Have you changed your mind?”
Samuel bristled, but held his tongue. He glared a Yohanna.
Seizing the moment, David stepped forward. “I will go with you,” he said quietly.
“No!” cried out Yusef.
“Father, for the sake of the village, I will go!”
“But you are my first born!” protested Yusef.
“I am.” replied David firmly. “All the more fitting that I, your first born and most beloved, your yahid, should give myself for the people of this village.”
He turned to the villagers.
“I shall give myself to become the husband of Asherah, but I shall do it in the unspoken name of our Father in Heaven and you his chosen people. This sacrifice I shall make gladly in the example of Isaac, who rose from the ashes of his immolation. What greater holocaust can be offered in his name?”
David’s eyes pierced the heart of Yusef and grasped his soul with an iron grip.
“I have already redeemed your life by building this house,” protested Yusef, “Our Lord has been paid for your obligation!”
“What price is the lifetime of a first born son?” countered David, “How much is enough, Father? How much would you give to redeem me?”
“I would give everything to keep you with me.”
“Yet you did not,” said David softly, “and now I must truly give up my soul for God!”
He offered his hand to Yohanna and she took it.
The furrows on Samuel’s brow softened and he smiled sagely.
“It is in God’s hands,” announced the Rabbi, “We must purge the synagogue and cleanse it with new sacrifice. Under the face of the full moon tonight, David and the priestess of Ishtar must be married and sent away. All those who have transgressed the Law of God and not made amends must pass those sins to David and Yohanna with a gift, and they shall carry our sins away into the wilderness with them, and God will decide their fate! The son of Yusef of Arimathea is given to the goddess, and he shall take the child with him and dedicate her life to the Lord. Thus, our God shall reinforce the blessing of the Goddess seven fold, and the bounty of the Earth confirmed as our right!”
“Amen!” declared Yusef.
“Amen!” echoed the crowd
Yohanna and David surrepticiously squeezed each other’s hands.
The full moon shone down and Yohanna tilted her head back to embrace its light. Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, shone beside Sin, the Father Moon. Yohanna had been washed and anointed with perfumed oils by the maidens of the village. A garland of wildflowers crowned her head, and the scents rising from her body as she sat upon her throne beneath the bridal canopy filled her with joy.
“It is time!” announced Rabbi Samuel as he took his place beside her. Smoke surrounded them both, rising from the sceptre of burning incense held by a small boy beside him.
Yohanna glanced sideways at the Rabbi. “I know that beneath the Laws you use as a shield, you have the makings of a good man.“ she said in a low voice none other could hear. “Remember me, Rabbi. I am a lesson for you to learn; every woman you meet from now on will speak for me. There is no witchcraft and there is no deceit. Learn from what I have to say and there is nothing for a man to fear in a woman!”
The Rabbi’s eyebrows furrowed and he cast his eyes at the ground for a moment. “We shall see!” he whispered back, then turned his attention to the approaching procession.
Erect, David walked before the circle of villagers huddled beneath the protective glow of their torches. They approached the canopy with fear, for they were convinced of Yohanna’s divinity. Dressed in white linen cloth, cleansed by ritual baths and ablutions of fragrant oils, David too was adorned with flowers and walked proudly toward her. She held out her hands and he clasped them in his. Their fingers intertwined and David took his place on the empty throne beside Yohanna.
Yusef smiled benignly at them from one side, gently bouncing baby Miriam in his arms.
Four young boys carried an ark from the synagogue, and when they came before of the wedding party, the Rabbi held his arms up for silence.
“My friends!” he cried. “We have come together for the marriage of David ben Yusef and Yohanna bat Ishtar. We hold this marriage as sacred and eternal. You all know of the child, and I shall say no more of her. It is this marriage that will sanctify the life of the child.”