The Chaldeans at Bethlehem

In this land the Hebrews had been waiting for a long time. Some of them had gone to Egypt and returned after many years, later most of them were put on carts and taken to Babylon. Some escaped and came back soon but most did not, waiting patiently to come home, praying each year to return, getting used to their prayers to return as a part of the year's ritual. Some returned and still prayed on to return. Some forgot and lived in strange lands until a stranger came on the highroad reminding them that one would come to lead them home later. They had been waiting for this one for hundreds of years, everyone was waiting and the waiting became more difficult as time passed. But the old ones kept saying that He would come and he would be Messiah. It was just a matter of time, waiting.

As long as anyone could remember, the Chaldaeans had been coming from the East with their trains of six camels, the first three bearing old men with gray beards, the others carrying things rolled up in cloths and boxes of small objects. At each town they were well received, and the head of the most ancient family addressed them asking what month it was and what time of the day. The Chaldaeans came down from their camels and washed their hands and feet, took refreshment, and afterwards they made calculations and wrote down on the rolls in the cloths what they had calculated, talking with each other and nodding, and finally told the elders of the town what month and day it was and what time of that individual day. Someone scratched the month and day on the wall, and marks were made the following days, but later it was forgotten and time got lost again. But the Chaldaeans always returned in a year and a month and set things right again. They always refused to add up sums of money or figure compound interests, although they knew how to do this too. Their work was with the stars and minute discriminations of the moon, and it was with that they busied themselves. And so each time when they had eaten and rested a little, they mounted their camels toward evening and went off across the sands, their eyes sharpened for old things and new things happening in the sky world above. Night was their time.

Four times before in many thousands of years there had been records of a flashing trail of bright light in the sky, and the ancient ones, men long dead and their cities forgotten, had marked these times exactly. The words were written in the scrolls and those who could calculate the difficult numbers of proportion and ratio knew that the time was coming for the longhaired sweeping star to come again. Written in the scrolls were the angles of the heavens and they talked endlessly about the numbers from the old records which would tell where the place would be. They finally decided to take the camels at a certain angle to the fixed star, they would travel just so many days, and thenwait in that place for the longhaired star to appear.

Bethlehem was dark that night and they saw no stars. They stopped at a small house and asked shelter, offering to tell the date and time in return for hospitality. A man who called himself Joseph looked them in the eye, said that the the time was not important to his people who had a long history of waiting, but they were welcome to share his house. The drivers stayed with the camels, the three old men came into the farmhouse, sat on the floor and took a mouthful of wine from a flask which they offered their host. Joseph drank only water, he sat watching watching them.

Suddenly one of the Chaldaeans turned to the window, peering into the darkness, and the appeared a long tailed blaze of red light that passed across the sky. The Chaldaeans knelt near the window with their elbows resting on a low table and watched the streak of light without moving. Joseph asked them about the meaning of the light, but they did not answer. A child cried fitfully in a crib in the room but they did not hear. Thinking of the ancient writings and their years of watching and calculating, their minds were with the flaming star.

Early in the morning the light ceased and they began to return to human consideration. They stared at their host with gaunt eyes, then set up a little altar at the window with their scrolls and writing implements and carved bone and gold objects from Eastern cities, sitting there quietly for several hours. Then they rose and thanked Joseph, they blessed everyone and told the. company that they had witnessed that night the birth of the king of the heavens. They wrote in their books that the comet called The King of Heaven would come again in a thousand years, noting down in the scrolls the day and exact place of his coming.

Joseph was silent lost in thought. But his kinsmen were tired of waiting, they knew immediately that the newborn child who had been fitfully crying at the window's edge was what the Chaldaeans had been speaking of. This was their Messiah, the king of the heavens. So the rumor went from house to house, from street to street, and at last Herod who was king of that area heard the story too, and summoned the Chaldaeans to his palace. He met them as their camels filed through the gate, courteously welcoming them, and asked the exact time of the star. They understood his meaning and told him, but when he asked them to return and show him the place so that he too could go there and kneel to the Child, they looked incredulously at each other. They were speaking of centuries and vast time, of angles and proportions, and this man spoke of a child

They did not heed the commands of Herod. As evening fell they secured the scrolls in bindings on their camels motioning with gestures to the drivers, and soon they were walking easily on the sands watching the stars again, noting the little changes which they would record in the morning, going back eastward. They had forgotten about King Herod and were doing what they had always been doing, moving in the night and watching the stars.

But in Bethlehem men men knew that Herod had an evil plan to kill the child who was the Messiah. They were gathered everywhere in angry knots, speaking among themselves of times long past and the time to come. The child who had been crying by the side of the window frame was hidden and carried secretly to another place, and carefully protected from the high eye of Herod which was always searching among the houses for the child. One man wrote Aramaic letters in a book about what had happened that night, others added details which he did not know.

But these people had been waiting now for something to happen for so many years, that they believed with a perfect faith that the Chaldaeans had no other purpose in the world but to come and witness the Messiah. The Chaldaeans however had little memory of Bethlehem, for what they wrote in their scrolls was in a different kind of language with number and ciphers, and they were humble in the knowledge that what they had seen would not be seen again for a thousand years, and only then if they wrote everything about that night's happenings. correctly in the scrolls They kept the scrolls tightly lashed to the camels packs, as they went silently over the mountains and through the valleys, and back into their own country.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College