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Great Lion of God
A Novel About Saint Paul
By Taylor Caldwell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Taylor Caldwell
All rights reserved.
"He is very ugly," said his mother. "My brothers are all handsome, and my mother was celebrated for her beauty, and I am not, myself, unprepossessing. How is it possible that I gave birth to so repulsive a child?"
"Be thankful we have a son," said her husband. "Did you not give birth to dead girls before this? We have a son."
"You speak as a Jew," said the child's mother, with a flick of her white and delicate hand. "But we are Roman citizens also, and our conversation is conducted in Greek and not in barbarous Aramaic." She contemplated the child in his cradle with increased melancholy and some aversion, for she had Hellenic pretensions and had written some poetry in Grecian pentameters. Her father's friends had remarked on her taste and had mentioned Sappho. Her father, a scholar himself, had been gratified.
"We are still Jews," said Hillel ben Borush. He stroked his fair beard and looked down at his son. A son was a son, even if hardly beautiful. Too, what was beauty in the eyes of God, blessed be His Name, at least physical beauty? There was considerable controversy, especially in these days, as to whether a man possessed a soul or not, but had there not always been this controversy even among the devout? A man's function was to glorify God, and whether or not he possessed a soul was irrelevant. Hillel found himself hoping that his newborn son had a lovely soul, for certainly his appearance did not inspire his nurses to raptures. But, what was a body? Dust, dung, urine, itches. It was the light within which was important, and it was not significant if that light endured after death, or if the soul was blinded eternally in the endless night of the suspired flesh. Let the old men ponder uneasily, and hope.
Deborah sighed. Her exquisite auburn hair was only partly concealed by her veil, which was of the lightest and most transparent silk. Her large blue eyes, as vivid as any Greek sky, had both an innocent and a discontented expression, seeking and restless, and fluttering in thick reddish lashes. Everyone but her husband considered her very cultured, and an impressive matron. Hillel ben Borush was a fortunate man, said his friends, for Deborah bas Shebua had brought him a magnificent dowry — and he only a poor scholar, and his wife was famous for her grace, charming smile, learning and style, and had been educated by private tutors in Jerusalem, and was the delight of her father's eyes. She was tall and winsome and had a lovely bosom and the hands and feet of a Greek statue, and her garments draped themselves about her figure as if grateful for the lovely opportunity. She was nineteen years old and had given birth to three children, the first two dead at birth, and girls, and the third surviving, a son, now in his cradle.
She had a very pale and oval face and her complexion was like marble and her mouth was a folded rose, her chin firm and dimpled, her nose daintily carved. Her stola, arranged in the Roman fashion, was blue with golden embroidery, and her feet were shod in gilded leather sandals. She seemed to carry about her a veritable aura of beauty, a shadow of lucent light. A young Roman of great family and of a rich and ancient house had sought her hand in marriage, and she had desired him also. But tiresome superstitions and prejudices had eventually intervened, and she had been bestowed on Hillel ben Borush, a poor young man famous for his piety and learning, and of an old and honored house.
Alas, thought Deborah, that even her cosmopolitan father had let dead traditions prevail. How most unfortunate for the young! The old refuse to believe that the world changes and the musty gods die, and the temples fall in on themselves in rubble and the altars are overthrown and the names upon them obliterated, and the worshipers are no more. She, herself, was a victim of tradition and arcane ideas now rejected. She had been born before her time. But it was possible that her son would live in a new world of urbane laughter and enlightenment, in an environment where man's sole preeminence in creation was established, as the cultivated Greeks now asserted. The very idea of a God was tedious and absurd in these sophisticated days, and embarrassing. It could not be reconciled with objective phenomena. She, Deborah, was determined that her son's mind would not be filmed over with superstitions, like an old mirror clouded with antiquated dust and the smearings of unwashed hands.
"Saul," said Hillel ben Borush.
"Eheu!" cried Deborah. "Saul! It is not a distinguished name, to our friends."
"Saul," said Hillel. "He is a lion of God."
Deborah considered, her ruddy brows drawn together. She hastily relaxed them, for frowning brought wrinkles which even honey and almond meal could not lighten. She was a lady, and ladies do not dispute violently with husbands, no matter how foolish. "Paulus," she said. "Surely there can be no objection, my husband. Paulus is the Roman translation."
"Saul ben Hillel," said the father.
"Paulus," said Deborah. She smiled musingly. It had an aristocratic sound, Greek as well as Roman.
"Saul of Tarshish," said Hillel.
"Paulus of Tarsus," said Deborah. "Only barbarians call Tarsus Tarshish."
Hillel smiled, and his smile was gentle and winning even to his young wife, for it was filled with tenderness as well as amusement. He put his hand on her shoulder. One must humor women. "It is the same," he said. He thought Deborah enchanting. He also thought her stupid. But that, regrettably, was doubtless due to having been born to Sadducee parents, who were very shallow and unlearned in the matters which were pleasing to God, and to please God was the reason a man was born and lived and had his being. There was none else. He often pitied the Sadducees, whose lives were firmly fixed in a secular world and who accepted nothing that could not be proved by their five senses, and who mistook mere learning for intellect, and sophisticated prattle for knowledge. It must be, he thought, like a man being born unable to detect the infinite hues and colors and tints of the world, and so had been robbed of mystery and delight and the endless joy of conjecture and meditation, and the majesty of wonder. He often marveled how men could endure a world without God. Such a world was populated only with animals, whose lives are meaningless.
"Of what are you thinking?" said Deborah with suspicion, for she disliked her husband's expression when he was communing with himself. It made her uneasy and too conscious of her youth in comparison with his thirty years.
"I am a Pharisee," he replied, "and we believe in reincarnation. So I was comtemplating our son's former existence, and from whence he came, and why he is here with us now."
Deborah arched her pretty brows in scorn. "That is nonsense," she said. "He is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, and spirit of our spirit, and there was none like him before, nor will there ever be again one like him."
"True," said Hillel ben Borush. "God never repeats Himself, no, not even in a leaf or a blade of grass. All souls are unique from the beginning, but that does not deny that if they are eternal — as we assert — their lives must be eternal also, moving from flesh to flesh as God wills. The acquisition of knowledge never ends. Its imperative is not ended in the tomb."
Deborah yawned. Tomorrow she must go to the Temple for the presentation of her son, and the thought annoyed her. It is true that the Sadducees also obeyed the ancient law, but they laughed at it secretly, though honoring it as a tradition. How could she explain the ceremony to her Greek and Roman friends in Tarsus? They would be amused. She discontentedly smoothed a fold in her stola, and looked with a small resentment at her son.
Hillel knew why she had been bestowed upon him. The Sadducees might not believe in any life everlasting, or even in a God, and were purely secular and worldly, but they were often insistent on their daughters marrying a pious man. They were like men who prudently invested in what they sheepishly considered might eventually prove a good investment. Or they gave their daughters as hostages to a God in Whom they did not believe, but Who might astoundingly exist, and Who was rumored to be wrathful.
Hillel had large and shimmering brown eyes, a white and ascetic face, a prominent nose like the Hittites, a golden beard and golden brows, and a domed forehead from which rose the gilded crest of his hair, partly covered now with the skullcap which exasperated Deborah. He had broad shoulders and strong white hands and sturdy legs, but he was not so tall as his wife. This also made her discontented. Had not a Grecian gentleman bowed to her once and quoted Homer: "Daughter of the gods, divinely tall, and most divinely fair!" Hillel also wore those foolish curls in front of his ears and invariably his prayer shawl — or so it seemed to young Deborah — for he was constantly praying. The ceremonies of Judaic life were profoundly baffling to her, as well as almost completely unknown. Times changed; the world moved; the truths of yesterday were the laughter of today. God was a quaint hypothesis, interchangeable with the gods of Greece and Rome, with a slight flavor of Babylon and Egypt. It was a serene and laughing household in Jerusalem, where Deborah had been born, a cosmopolitan household. She regretted leaving it for this household where Pharisees moved and debated gravely and looked at her with covert disapproval and averted eyes, almost as if she were a member of the Ionian courtesans, like Aspasia.
Once Deborah had said to her husband, "Do you consider me another Aspasia?" She never understood why he had burst into the wildest laughter she had ever heard, and had then embraced her tenderly and had said, "No, my darling. I should never call you an Aspasia."
A peacock screeched furiously outside. He was very jealous of the black swans in the spring-fed pond in the garden, for he knew that they were greatly admired. Hillel winced; he had sensitive hearing. He said with an absent sense of caution, "That creature sounds like an ill-tempered woman. He has awakened the child."
Deborah felt a thrill of unkindness toward her husband for this remark, which denigrated her sex. She lifted her head with hauteur and said, "Then I will remove my disturbing presence also, so you will not be reminded of women."
"Deborah," said Hillel, but Deborah could move like a child and she was gone in an instant through the light and shadow of the columns outside, which guarded the outdoor portico. Hillel sighed, and smiled. He was always offending Deborah, who was an adorable small girl — he never thought of her as an adult woman. He had heard from his bookshop that a little known manuscript of one of Philo of Larissa's earlier works had been discovered a year ago, and copies were expected in Tarsus. He would send for one tomorrow; it would please Deborah, and, alas, it would flatter her. She would not understand a single word, poor pretty child. On the other hand, she had admired a necklace of fiery opals she had seen in her jeweler's shop, though had prudently caviled at the price. Which should it be? Philo of Larissa or the opals? Hillel, in mercy, decided on the jewels. Two heavily laden ships had made their way from Cilicia to Rome without encountering the enthusiastic and ubiquitous Cilician pirates — who had not been entirely destroyed by Julius Caesar and his successors — and Hillel had been heavily invested in those vessels and their cargo. He had made a handsome profit. Therefore, Deborah would have her fine opals.
The peacock screeched again, and the child in his ivory and ebony cradle complained. The nursery was filled with the newly awakened scent of the night-blooming jasmine, though the sun had not yet set and its reddish light struck on white marble wall and on the white and black marble floor. The shadow of a palm tree blew against the wall nearest the young child, and he quickly turned his head and gazed at it, and Hillel marveled. A child so young, so newly born, and he saw! It was said that an infant did not truly see anything but light and shadow before he was two months old, but of a certainty this child not only saw but comprehended. Hillel did not in the least feel fatuous and too fond as he bent over the cradle and clucked at his son. "Saul," he said, in the softest voice. "Saul?"
The boy had not yet been named in the Temple, but a man held his son's name in his heart before that. Hillel and the infant were alone in the large and gleaming nursery. Hillel's face and golden beard shone as if the light of his own spirit illuminated it. He felt a passionate love, and immediately murmured a prayer, for above all one must love one's God with all one's heart, mind and soul, and that love must surpass any human love for any human creature. Hillel hoped for a moment that he had not offended his omnipresent God nor incurred His wrath, which could fall upon this innocent morsel in his cradle.
The child turned his head quickly again and looked up at his father, who leaned over him. As Deborah had said, he was not beautiful; he was almost ugly. He was smaller than the average baby, even at his age, yet he had a broad and sturdy body, naked except for the cloth about his loins, and that body was not fair as were the parents' but slightly ivory in tint as if he had been exposed to the sun. The nursemaids had mentioned a young Hercules, which had pleased Deborah, but Hillel thought of David, the warrior king. The muscles of the little chest were strong and visible under the sweating skin, like minute plates of armor, and the arms were the arms of a soldier. The legs, equally strong, were, however, bowed like one who has ridden a horse since childhood. The toes flexed vigorously and with a kind of rhythm, as did the square little fingers. They seemed to move with purpose, and not aimlessly, thought Hillel.
He had a round head, virile and solid, but overlarge for his body, and big red ears. Unfortunately, his hair, thick and coarse, was even redder. It was not a charming tint, as was the hair of Deborah. It was that particular shade of raw and audacious color which usually aroused mistrust among superstitious Jews. Moreover, it grew far down the wide powerful cliff which was the child's forehead, and this gave him a pugnacious appearance, like an irritable Roman.
The effect of irritability was enhanced by his most peculiar eyes. They were round, huge and commanding, under the red brows — which almost met across a nose even more suggestive of a Hittite's than Hillel's. (At least, thought Hillel, it is not a cherry of a nose like a peasant's.) But the startling impression of the eyes lay mostly in their color, a curiously metallic blue, like the glitter on a polished dagger. The blue was concentrated as well as intense, and the auburn lashes, long and shining, did not diminish it. There was a strenuousness and force in the eyes, not childlike, not wholly innocent, but aware and stern. Hillel, though a Pharisee, did not entirely believe in the transmigration of souls, but he wondered now, as he had often wondered lately. Saul's eyes were not an infant's eyes. They met his, he was certain, with conjecture and recognition. "Who are you, my son?" he whispered, with uneasiness. "From whence did you come? What is your fate?"
The child stared at him, but not blankly. The mouth, the wide thin mouth like an exasperated man's, stirred, but no sound came from it. Then it set itself tightly, and the child looked away from his father and contemplated the dance of vivid light and shadow between the columns of marble. He seemed to be reflecting. Hillel felt a little awed. What moved in that infant brain, what thoughts, what dreams, what determinations, what memories? The small chin, firm and dimpled and puissant, appeared to gather itself together with resolution. Saul withdrew himself.
Gaia, the little Grecian nursemaid who was Deborah's own servant, came briskly through the farther bronze door into the nursery, her sandals clattering quickly on the stone. She was hardly more than a child herself, but very competent, with her flowing light brown hair and pale eyes and merry face and lilting step. She wore a long thin tunic of a rosy cloth, bound with blue ribbons about her slender waist. She bowed to Hillel, who raised his hand in automatic blessing though the girl was a heathen, and he greeted her kindly.
Excerpted from Great Lion of God by Taylor Caldwell. Copyright © 1970 Taylor Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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