Who Takes Away
[This is a short story written in February 2013 for the Tuscany Press fiction contest. Alas, it did not win, but we were rather happy with it here at Traditium and are re-printing now in its final form. Enjoy.]
John wondered which of them looked worse. The man lumbering along the path to the city was most likely a farmer. He looked strong but stooped, ragged and older than his years, and his skin had been worn and hardened by the sun. The cart behind him clearly contained just a few days of provisions and the animal. The animal looked energetic and curious, glancing all around—it had no idea of its fate. John knew though.
John, meanwhile, was covered in hair: His twisting salt-and-pepper beard, his itchy coat, and his weathered hands. He’d always been hairy, but this was pretty bad. Almost as much as the animal, he amused himself by thinking. His seriousness quickly returned. There was a job to do. He watched the man walk along a bit then John turned and headed back toward the river, trying not to lumber so much himself.
The man continued toward the city. He had been traveling since the afternoon before, and looked it. It had been so hot he could barely think, so he just kept walking. Life was an endless list of things which had to be done, and this most certainly had to be done, so on he went.
Once in the city, the gleam of the towering white marble temple dominated his view. As he approached he saw that the crowd was not so bad. He slowly weaved between the people coming and going. As it is in the city, few looked up as they went about their ordinary business. Some came up to him with quick words, holding up pottery or other item for sale, but he simply shook his head without glancing at them and they went on to the next person. They knew that they would get nowhere with this one.
He did a ritual cleansing in the mikveh bath, and climbed the stone steps to the Court of the Gentiles. There were booths everywhere selling souvenirs, food and pottery. There were people changing Roman currency, which was of course unacceptable at the Temple. There were priests among the crowd advising them what animal was appropriate to buy for the type of sacrifice they needed. Then there were people selling animals for sacrifice, and the man felt some pride in having brought his own from his farm. An unblemished lamb, which was more suitable than any he saw for sale. He made his way to the Court of the Israelites. Here the smell of charred meat was prominent, though pleasant-smelling oils were also in the air from the temple itself.
He waited his turn, then passed the animal to the keeper who took it to the Court of the Priests, which he could see easily. It was brought to the priest, a short distance away at the altar. He looked over the animal. The man knew it would be acceptable: the lamb was perfect, unblemished. as it had to be.
The schochet, there with the priest, took it and lifted it onto the altar. The priest, acting as the man’s surrogate, placed his hand on the lamb’s head, pushing much of his weight down onto it. The animal shifted, but the schochet kept it in place.
The animal was simply frozen, as if it was unsure what was going on. The schochet stood ready if it tried to move, but this one did not. Both the priest and the schochet thought that perhaps the lamb knew of its duty, its sacred role. Regardless, the lamb was still as the man called to mind his sins.
The priest passed the man’s sins to the lamb, and turned to see the schochet pull out his knife. It was the knife he always used for lambs—a dull metal color, but perfectly straight and precisely sharpened. The blade was tall, thin, medium length and squared off at the end. It was held with certainty. The schochet’s eyes were focused—there were many rules to be followed in the seconds ahead, and they required careful attention.
The priest fell silent and stepped back from the altar. The schochet reached out his arm, putting the knife under the standing animal’s neck. He pulled the knife back toward him smoothly and quickly and slit the lamb’s throat. It was one precise movement: no tearing, no piercing, the knife never disappeared completely beneath the lamb’s skin. In just seconds, the lamb went from an unblemished specimen to a lifeless offering. The speed and careful actions of the schochet were a part of the respect for the animal, and also an important part of the process. If done incorrectly, the sin offering to the Lord God would fail.
And then the blood came. It was the priest’s turn to act quickly. He took a deep earthen vessel and began collecting the thick crimson liquid, all of it. He spoke softly to himself the prescribed words as he acted. The blood came in fits, then in a stream from the neck. The schochet held the head to keep the wound open, with his other hand under the belly of the animal, to keep the blood away from the top of the altar. They worked for what seemed to the man to be an unusually long time.
The blood collected, the priest rounded the altar to the front, dipped his finger into the blood and placed it onto the outer two corners of the altar at the horns. As he did so, the schochet, as the ritual butcher, dismembered the lamb, checking each part of it carefully to make certain it was also unblemished internally. The priest then poured out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. Finally, the meat was taken away and the fat and certain organs of the lamb were left atop the altar.
The priest started the fire. The air filled again with the sweet smell of charring meat. There was something timeless about it. Something that connected the man to his ancestors and the traditions they shared. Pieces that had only moments ago been a part of this life, a part of living creation, were now an offering. The lamb had died for the man’s sins.
While he had been stoic until now, the smoke and the memories somehow awoke the man’s emotions, and thoughts rushed to him as he watched his sins burn up before him as an offering to the Lord God. He was now pure once again, and somehow, though he felt little anymore, he felt it.
Surprising, even to him, he thought about Adam in that moment—the first man, the man who had lived in paradise with his wife and together, with the Lord God. Had Adam not eaten of the fruit of the tree, perhaps all this would not have been necessary. He looked around him—all of this. But Adam did disobey, and as punishment man could not live alongside God, and had no choice but to taste death. Moreover, as punishment during life, man would have to toil to make the earth produce. This kind of toil the man knew very well.
To set some of this right, Moses had set forward the law. And that law required the man’s act today to address his sin. It required an offering. Not for God, but for the man, to address his sins and reconcile him with the Lord God. Forever, he thought, people would have to do this, forever they would have to sacrifice because of their sins, and the sins of the past.
Thinking of the future like this, the man’s thoughts drifted to his son, back at his farm. He had left his son in charge while he was away. While still young, his son was strong and would–he was sure now–take over the farm when the man died. Farming was hard work, and involved great expense. The lamb that had been slain before him was expensive and difficult to part with—particularly because of its unblemished nature. But, he thought, it was just a lamb. Abraham had been asked to give up his son. God had sent him to the mountaintop to sacrifice Isaac, his long-awaited heir, only stopping Abraham, knife in hand, at the last moment. A son was too much for anyone to have to sacrifice.
All he had to give up was a lamb, and so he should be grateful, despite the expense and effort. The people of Moses’ time, he had been told, had kept returning to their old ways, the barbaric ways they had learned in slavery in Egypt. There they had worshiped animals and images of animals. The Lord God did not favor this, and He had made them sacrifice these animals over and over in part to pay for their worship of false gods.
Would it ever end? As far as the man could see, sacrifices would never end because sin would always be, because death could never be defeated. He watched the blood, now brown from the heat of the fire, still dripping down the corners of the altar. Forever, these small sacrifices of the unblemished would have to be made to atone, to fend off sin, to live a holy life. But the man could imagine no sacrifice perfect enough to address all of the sin.
Moses, of course, wrote of the Passover. God killed all of the firstborn of Egypt to show them they must release Abraham’s descendants. His people were spared from the slaughter only because each household slayed a lamb, and wiped the blood over their entranceways with a hyssop branch. The Lord God then knew that the lamb had been sacrificed, and the people inside were to be spared. He passed over these homes. And eventually the people were free.
The smoke tapered off, and the priest quieted and nodded to the man. The ceremony was over.
He let the next person by, gathered his items and left. He did not stop in the city, and instead the man began his long trip home. Again his thoughts stilled for the journey, though he moved with a little more life in his step.
After some time he came back to the spot where he had seen the hairy man who had watched him pass. He knew who he was, of course, many did. He was John, the one who had rejected the Temple and left the city, drawing many away with his teachings at the riverside. The man did not understand the teachings, and really had not been interested in them, but having seen John in person raised his curiosity.
Still, though, this John represented a new way, a challenge to the law. He pulled people away from the Temple, the very center of the world. He cleansed the people who came to him in water in order to, to what? The man did not know. But it was known that John could be found by the waters of the Jordan.
Suddenly the man was shaken from his thoughts upon noticing the group coming rapidly toward him on the path. They were led by a tall, bearded man in the middle, flanked by others walking with him. He exchanged looks with the tall man for just a second–his features were gentle but his eyes were purposeful. He did not know this man, he knew none of them, but he watched as they turned in front of him and toward the river, toward where John must be.
The man paused a moment, watching them go. Then he found himself following them, curious about this John who had attracted so many people to him. After a bit, the group rounded a curve down the path from him, and passed behind some bushes. The man then heard a voice that must have been John’s—the tone sounded like a greeting. He couldn’t have heard the words right, though. He’d been so trapped in his own thoughts, he was so tired, he had the events at the Temple so much in his mind, that he just could not have heard him right.
“Behold,” he thought he’d heard John say, “the Lamb of God.”
The story continues here: John 1:29.