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excerpt from Chapter 1 "They Would Not Die"

An old man held the gaze of several dozen boys, lit by the steady glow of oil lamps on golden stands. Arching his bushy eyebrows, Simeon looked at each boy in turn over his bristly beard.

"And after Moses led our people through the Red Sea, a plague of venomous SNAKES came upon them!" Simeon nearly shouted, jumping up a little from his stool and wriggling his fingers. The youngest boys shrieked in fear.

Standing behind them, a tall, wiry man of twenty smiled. Nicodemus remembered how Simeon’s stories had scared and exhilarated him as a young boy in the Temple. Now, he knew Simeon’s renditions well enough to run through them in his head, as he sometimes did during mealtimes or while running errands for his father. For Nicodemus, hearing them in Simeon’s deep, melodious voice was like walking a well-traveled road.

Simeon smacked the floor with his walking staff, and Nicodemus took note that his 11-year-old brother Andrew jumped. As a future teacher and scholar of the Law, Nicodemus had decided to make Andrew his first student. Nicodemus brought his brother to hear these stories nearly every day, despite Andrew’s occasional protests at being his older brother’s project in moral education.

"One bite from those snakes would kill a man!" Simeon pointed his staff at Phineas who sat next to Nicodemus. He was shorter than Nicodemus and had a slight paunch. Only two years younger than Nicodemus, he sat with the boys hoping to impress one of the priests with his diligent participation in Temple life and involvement with the community’s youth. His bulging brown eyes and cross expression always unsettled Nicodemus. Phineas leaned close to Nicodemus and whispered, "I’d rather listen to Rabbi Shemah than crazy old Simeon."

"Simeon is very wise," Nicodemus replied.

"Yeah? I heard he says God told him he would see the Messiah before he dies."

Nicodemus looked up at Simeon. Simeon's wild white eyebrows nearly merged with his beard and tufts of hair that escaped his blue and white head shawl. His creased hands trembled as he gestured to the boys, making the tassels on his robe shake.

Phineas smirked. "The Messiah might not make it in time."

"Maybe he will. Shush!"

Simeon admonished them with a glance and Nicodemus turned red with shame.

Simeon said, "Nicodemus, why were the snakes sent?"

"Because our people had sinned against the Lord." Simeon nodded sadly. "The people came to Moses and told him to beg the Lord for mercy, and Adonai, he is full of mercy..."

Simeon paused and raised his hands above his head. Nicodemus closed his eyes and chanted with all the boys, "Adonai, the Lord, is full of mercy."

Simeon continued, "The Lord told Moses to forge a snake and raise it up on a rod." Simeon stood up stiffly and held up his walking stick. "Phineas, why?"

Phineas looked up coolly from his folded hands. "If someone in the camp was bitten by a snake, they could look upon the bronze snake, and they would not die."

"Yes. They would not die." Simeon leaned hard on his stick wincing slightly. He looked up to heaven for a moment and then smiled at the boys. "That is all for today," he said. “And look out for deadly snakes!” Some of the boys laughed. Phineas rolled his eyes at Nicodemus as they got up to leave.

Andrew followed Nicodemus out into the large open courtyard where they were assaulted with the heat and noise of the fevered last minutes of business in the Temple bazaar. A dry breeze stirred the sharp tang of spices and the earthy aroma of tightly-packed people and animals. The late afternoon sun spilled out from behind the sanctuary, casting a square shadow across one side of the courtyard. As the boys crossed to the other side, the sanctuary wall became a gleaming visage of white marble and gold, lighting up the flat paving stones.

Herod's fortress, the Antonia, loomed over the north-west corner of the Temple Mount. Its base stood among the sprawl of the city, which lay at the feet of the Mount. The Roman soldiers looking down from the Antonia’s stone wall were silhouetted against the sun that had not quite dropped behind the rolling hills that surround Jerusalem.