Every town needs a carpenter

Nazareth was lucky to have had in its midst a great Carpenter — one who shaped raw wood into beautiful furniture. But that Carpenter was so unique that He was able to turn the human heart from sin to righteousness, from folly to holiness, from citizens of a fleeting world to harbingers of glory to God’s heavenly home. Every town needs a carpenter, but every heart needs the real Carpenter.

Zadok,* my friend! I am blessed to see you again. I feared that it might never be, for my days are now numbered. But when I heard that you had moved back from Crete and settled again in our old hometown, I sent my eldest, James, to bring you, so that we might confide in each other again, as we so often did as childhood friends.

It has brought me great joy to hear of your children. You, of course, remember my four eldest sons: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. They were but children the last time that we were together. Remember? It was on that last Passover before you were forced to flee from the City of David. With that vile Edomite on the throne, no one of the house of David could be safe, especially in the city of David. Just think of it! In better times, you or I might have rightly occupied the throne of David! Actually, that was one of the reasons my family had left Bethlehem and moved to Galilee.

It all began, as my grandfather Matham told me, when the Parthians invaded Judea. The holy city, Jerusalem, was taken and the temple plundered. Both Hyrcanus, the high priest, and Phasael, tetrarch of Jerusalem, were taken captive. When Roman troops recaptured Jerusalem three years later, they placed “the great hero” on the throne. But what a miserable hero Herod was! To inaugurate his reign, he massacred 45 of the leading brethren and all of the members of the Sanhedrin, save one. No, with an avowed enemy of the Jewish nation in power, it was not a good time to be of royal blood!

Six years later, the great earthquake rocked the countryside, leaving thousands dead and whole villages destroyed. Then, after a breath of only a few years, the dreadful three-year famine descended upon us. Oh, how the people cried out for the Messiah to come! It would just inflame us how Herod would sit in his palace, surrounded by his 10 wives and sons and daughters, feasting and making merry, while the rest of the nation starved to death. And all the while, believing himself to be our Messiah. The thought was revolting!

The invasions, the earthquake, the famine, and that bloodthirsty Herod — it was just too much. My parents felt that we had to get away. So we moved to Galilee, along with several other families from our hometown. I was heartbroken that your family was staying behind. How I looked forward to those yearly visits to Jerusalem for the Passover. At least we could spend a few days together and remember the times when as lads we explored the hillsides surrounding Bethlehem.

I well remember the last year that we were together at the Passover. I was alone again, the dear wife of my youth having been laid to rest. And you were fearing for your life, and the lives of your wife and children. It seemed that Herod’s jealousy knew no limits. After all, he had now murdered one of his wives and her aged father, and two of his own sons. And he had also drowned Aristobulus, the high priest, in the royal pool at Jericho. No wonder the people referred to him as “Satan incarnate.” Behind closed doors, of course! No, it was not a good time to be living in Bethlehem.

Now, some thirty Passovers have gone by....

Zadok, I must also tell you of my life during these years. There have been many things upon my heart. Matters that I have told no one, for I feared that no one would understand. Now that life’s journey is nearly over, I will once more confide in you — for our hearts are one.

Betrothed to Mary

Some months after that last Passover, I became betrothed to a young woman of Nazareth, Mary, also of the house of David. You may remember the two sisters who used to come down each year to the Passover. Well, one of the two had married Cleophas, and I was engaged to be married to the other. We had taken our vows, and I had signed the document and paid the price of betrothal. Now, but twelve months must transpire before we married.

One day Mary came to see me. She told me that she had received news concerning her relatives in the hill country of Judea, and wished to go and visit them. I bid her Godspeed. She was away, though, for nearly three months.

On her return, Mary came to see me right away. She told me that she had stayed in Judea for so long because one of her relatives, Elizabeth, of the daughters of Aaron, had finally borne a son in her old age. It seems that her husband, Zacharias, was officiating at the temple. That week, the lot had fallen upon him to offer the incense at the morning and evening services. As Zacharias was nearing 70 years of age, I am sure that it must have seemed to be the culminating moment.

As he was standing before the altar of incense offering up the prayers of the people, an angel suddenly appeared on the south side of the altar. The angel spoke to him, and told him that he would have a son, that he should call his name John, and that this child would become a mighty prophet. Now, the priest had indeed been praying for many years for a son, but long since had given up all hope. When he asked the angel how this could ever be, the angel, who said his name was Gabriel, replied that Zacharias would receive a sign: that he would not be able to hear nor speak until the child was born.

When Zacharias came out from the holy place to pronounce the benediction of Aaron, he could not speak a word. Moreover, his face shone like the face of an angel. It was all very mysterious, but quite wonderful. As you know, the benediction includes the words, “May the Lord make His face to shine upon you.” Well, it had happened that day.

Mary, however, knew nothing of this. Then one day the angel appeared to her here in Nazareth and told her that her relative, Elizabeth, was already six months with child. That is when Mary came to tell me that she wished to go and visit her extended family living in a city of Judah, south of Jerusalem toward Hebron. I was not aware, however, of the angel’s visit.

Mary stayed there until the child was born. When the friends and family wished to name the child after his father, Elizabeth told them that his name instead should be “John.” So they made signs to Zacharias, asking him what he wanted to name the child. The priest asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name shall be called John.” Immediately, Zacharias regained his speech and hearing. It was all quite astounding!

Then Mary said something that left me dumbfounded. She told me that she was also pregnant, about three months along, in fact. She said that an angel had told her that she would have a child, and should call his name “Jesus,” and that God would give Him the throne of David forever.

I didn’t know what to say…. It was all so unexpected! One thing I knew for sure: this was not my child. As I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that the whole matter sounded just too strange. She was a sweet and pious girl, but nobody in their right mind would believe this. And I had my own children to think of. If I went ahead and took Mary as my wife, in the condition that she was in … well, it would seem as an admission to everyone that I had not conducted myself with propriety. And how could I expect my sons to remain upright after their father had acquired such a reputation? It just didn’t seem to be worth it.

The best thing to do would be to send Mary away, back to her relatives in Judea, or wherever. I admit, it was a hard decision to make. I did care greatly for Mary, and decided to put her away privately, rather than put her through the embarrassment of a public trial.

That night as I slept, an angel appeared to me in a dream. He instructed me, “Do not be afraid about Mary. Go ahead and marry her. She’s still a virgin, despite what you may think. She was made pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. When the boy is born, I want you to name him Jesus.” And I awoke….

It suddenly struck me that I was to name him. As you know, the naming of the child has always been a paternal responsibility. His name was to be “Jesus: Jehovah is salvation.” For, the angel had said, he would save His people from their sins. I didn’t quite understand it all, but when God speaks, I will obey.

So on the morrow, I finalized arrangements to take Mary as my wife. And it was just as I had thought. You know how the rumor mills churn in these little towns. Worse still, there was really no one with whom I could talk….

The birth of Jesus

As the time drew near for Mary’s delivery, suddenly all Palestine seemed to break into chaos. Caesar Augustus had ordered that a census be taken throughout the empire, and Herod decided that everyone in Palestine must report to their city of origin. Everyone was upset! As we rightly guessed, a new tax would not be long in coming.

With Mary, however, I was in a perplexing situation. Should I leave her here in Nazareth and register for both of us, as one was allowed to do? Or should I take her with me, so that we might be together at this important time?

I suppose that I shouldn’t have worried about it, though, for Mary seemed to have already made up her mind that she would accompany me to Bethlehem.

The trip took us quite a few days, traveling through the Jordan valley. The highways were thronged with people! Finally, we made the climb to Jerusalem, and then pushed on to Bethlehem. Bethlehem: the city of Boaz, Jesse, and David, more than a thousand years ago. Bethlehem: the site, another thousand years before that, where Rachel had died and was buried, having given birth to her son Benjamin.

Wearily, we climbed the hill of Bethlehem. How we looked forward to finding lodging and getting some refreshing sleep. But it was not to be. The city was packed and overflowing. We inquired to see if any of our relatives still lived in town, but there were none. Vainly, we traversed the entire street from the gate to the eastern extremity of town. At the boarding house, I inquired to see if there might still be a room. Perhaps if we had been wealthy and honorable, it might have been different, but we were clearly peasants, and from Galilee. So we were informed that there was no room.

The innkeeper, however, noticing my wife’s condition, took pity on her and offered to let us stay out in the stable. It wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for, spending the night in a rough place with the beasts, but ... it was the best that there was.

I spread clean hay on the floor, and we tried to make ourselves comfortable. And it was there that the baby was born.

We washed him up, rubbed him down with salt, and wrapped him in the swaddling cloths that Mary had brought along. I took one of the feeding troughs, and we made it into a cradle. I really wished that it could have been better. After all, it was her firstborn child, and I was a carpenter by trade. But Mary didn’t seem to mind.

Toward morning, we heard shuffling feet outside. Peering into the darkness, I made out the forms of some men and young boys. Breathlessly, one of them informed me that they had come to see the baby. Quickly, they crowded in and surrounded the infant. They just stood there, gazing down.

I asked them how they knew that a baby had been born in the stable, and they all started talking at once!

It seems that they had been out on the plain, watching over their sheep, when they began to notice a strange glow in the sky. Suddenly, an angel stood before them. They were frightened beyond belief! But the angel told them, “Fear not, for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” The angel then explained that they would find this baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Suddenly, the angel was surrounded with a host of angels, praising God and exclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill, toward men.” The plain lit up as if it were midday!

When the light from the angels faded away, the shepherds determined that they must find the child. They concluded that a baby lying in a manger would most likely be in the stable that belonged to the boarding house. After spending a few more moments with us, the shepherds departed, praising God.

Jesus’ dedication

Once the census was over, Bethlehem returned again to its peace and tranquility. Mary and I talked it over, and decided that — at least for the time being — we would remain in Bethlehem.

Mary seemed to think that it might be best for Jesus to grow up in Bethlehem. I agreed that it was definitely a more reputable town than Nazareth. Furthermore, there seemed to be good prospects for setting up shop. As you know, every town needs a carpenter.

When Mary’s days of purification were complete, we took the baby to the temple. There we must present Him to the Lord, pay the redemption of the firstborn, and offer the sacrifice.

We were in rather straight circumstances — what carpenter isn’t! And so we brought two turtle doves, as the law provides for the poor.

After the blessing, as we were preparing to leave, an elderly man came up to us and asked if he might hold the child. His name was Simeon — you may remember him. He is the one to whom the Lord had promised that he would not die until his eyes had seen the Consolation of Israel.

He took the child in his arms and began to praise God. Suddenly we became the center of attention. People began to gather around. Then out from among the crowd stepped Anna, the prophetess of the tribe of Asher, by then over 80 years old. She also glorified God, announcing to everyone that the Lord had sent the Redeemer.

As Simeon gave the child back to Mary, however, he spoke to her strangely, about this child bringing about the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and about a sword piercing her soul also. It was all quite mysterious.

Visit of the wise men

Back at the house in Bethlehem, however, everything seemed to be quite uneventful. Curious visitors had ceased to drop by; actually, nobody important had ever visited. I guess that the priests and rulers, if they heard about the child, didn’t give the story much credence. That is, until one night nearly a year after the child’s birth.

We had already retired, when we heard footsteps out in the street and a muffled conversation in front of our door. I arose to see who it might be. Imagine my surprise when I saw a number of richly-attired travelers, surrounded by their bodyguard. They told me that they had come to see the child, who had been born king of the Jews.

As they entered, I could see that these men were not Israelites, although they spoke our language quite well. They told me that they were scholars — magi from the East. They explained that they had been studying the ancient writings, and had found the prophecy of a Hebrew named Daniel, who had served in the court of Babylon. The prophecy, when interpreted, pointed to a notable event that should occur within their lifetime: the birth of a prince.

One night, as they studied the heavens, the sky seemed to glow with a strange radiance. Near the western horizon, a new star appeared — a star more magnificent than any of the heavenly bodies. Upon consulting the writings, they discovered that one of their own wise men, a man by the name of Balaam, had centuries before spoken of a star which would arise out of Jacob. And that another Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, had described a deliverer who would be a “light to the Gentiles.”

They concluded that they should travel to Judea and render homage to this newly-born king of whom the ancients had spoken. As they traveled, the star had remained steadfastly in the west each night for several months, just above the horizon. As they approached Jerusalem, it appeared to hover just over the temple on Mount Moriah. Then it vanished.

In the city, however, no one seemed to be aware of the birth of a Hebrew prince. Indeed, when the magi inquired if anyone knew where they might find the king of the Jews, people would look the other way. As you know, it would have been foolish to have seemed too interested in a new “king of the Jews.” Herod had his spies everywhere! I can imagine, however, that the arrival of this group of rich and learned foreigners asking for the “king of the Jews” caused no small stir behind closed doors.

The wise men told me that they were about ready to give up in discouragement and return home, when a messenger arrived from Herod’s palace. There, in a private interview, Herod asked them many questions about their mission, about when the star had appeared, and about what they thought it meant. Then he told them that the ancient prophets also foretold that the prince should be born in Bethlehem, and that they should search there diligently for the child.

The wise men departed from Jerusalem, most grateful to Herod and hopeful once again. Night was falling as they left the city gates, and they again saw the star. This time, however, it lay toward the south, in the direction of Bethlehem. And that is how they ended up at our home.

Upon seeing the child, they bowed to the ground and worshipped Him. Then they brought out their gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I could hardly believe my eyes — gifts, indeed, for a king! They stayed the remainder of that night at the boarding house. I gathered, from what they said, that they would be returning to Jerusalem on the morrow.

Early the next morning, however, they were gone. The innkeeper said that they had arisen before dawn with haste and had left town. I walked around in a bit of a daze that day. What did all this mean? What was I, a poor carpenter, to do with these royal gifts? Was anyone in town aware of what we had received? I lay down that night to a troubled sleep.

Flight to Egypt

As I slept, I dreamed that an angel suddenly appeared and commanded me, “Joseph, take the child and Mary, and flee into Egypt, and be there until I tell you. For Herod will attempt to destroy the child.”

I awoke in a cold sweat; it was all so very clear. If Herod had told the wise men to go to Bethlehem to search for the child, and if they had returned to Jerusalem, they would most assuredly inform him of their success. And Herod would tolerate no rival, infant or otherwise.

I awakened Mary. “We must leave immediately!” I whispered. Long before dawn, we were headed down the road to Hebron, then on to Beersheba, and finally into Egypt.

That was when Herod slew all of the infants two years old and under in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside. It seems that the wise men did not go back to Jerusalem, after all, but returned to their country by another route. Herod was furious, sure that a plot was underway, and ordered the massacre. The ruthless old man! We had escaped, just in time....

Down in Egypt, the gifts of the magi were our principal means of support. In fact, I am not sure how we would have survived without them. Then one night the angel appeared to me again and told me that Herod was dead, and that it was safe to return to the land of Israel. We decided to return to Bethlehem at once. After all, what better place to raise the heir to David’s throne?

But it was not to be. As we neared the borders of Judea, I began to pick up more details of what had taken place.

It seems that shortly before his death, Herod had murdered his own designated heir to the throne, Antipater. I don’t know, a disagreement or something. I tell you, that despot Herod was sick!

Yes, indeed, it was a relief that the 34 scandalous years of Herod’s reign were over. That is, until I heard who was the new ruler of Judea.

It seems that Herod had changed his mind once again just hours before his death, and divided his kingdom among three sons. As you know, Judea fell to Archelaus, his son by Malthace, the Samaritan. Now, not only was the Edomite hatred of the Jews coursing through our ruler’s veins, but the bitterness of the Samaritans as well. Perhaps that is why he started off his reign with a mass murder of 3,000 Jews in the temple courtyard. I tell you, he was Herod all over again — only worse!

I just didn’t know what to do. Should we try to settle in one of the other towns of Judea? Again the angel came to me and directed me to return to Nazareth.

The childhood of Jesus

So we came back to Galilee, to the land of Zebulon. To this little town nestled among the hills. I know, this little village is not much to brag about. Indeed, Nazareth is quite notorious and despised — proverbial for its wickedness and licentiousness, even here in Galilee.

But at least Herod Antipas, the “fox” who rules Galilee, is less violent than his brother. I agree, he is rather vain and degenerate. I suppose that you heard how he discarded his wife, the princess from Petra, and is now living with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias.

Well, as I was saying, this town didn’t really offer a lot, except that there had been no carpenter here since I had left. And, as you know, every town needs a carpenter. Although the humblest of trades, I have always been content, though obliged to live here in the poorest section of town. So I set up my shop again.

Jesus at the temple

Oh yes, there was one more event. It happened the year that the boy Jesus turned 12. For the first time, he would be able to attend the Passover. I remember how excited I was when I turned 12 and was counted as a son of Abraham, a son of the law.

We traveled down in a great company — with our friends from here in town and our relatives from over in Cana. It was quite a grand and festive affair.

Once in Jerusalem, Jesus spent most of the days at the temple, reflective. He seemed to be studying out some great problem. We never worried about him, though, for he was such a fine lad. Actually, we hoped that he might come in contact with some of the great teachers of Israel, perhaps even the honorable Gamaliel.

At the end of the week, before starting out for home, we went one final time to the temple for the morning blessing. After the ceremony, we left in great confusion. I had been talking with some of the neighbors about the newly-appointed governor.

You see, the emperor Augustus had finally exiled Archelaus to Gaul the year before, and Judea had become a Roman province. Nothing like falling out of the kettle and into the fire! Roman centurions with their troops, new taxes, and patriots turned traitors as tax collectors.

You heard about the bloody tax revolt led by Judas of Galilee? Well, it had taken place that very year. And to top it all off, we now had a Roman governor in Jerusalem who insisted that he had the right to appoint and remove even the high priest. Intrigue, bribery, and assassination.… There was plenty to talk about! And, of course, Mary and the women were up ahead, as we usually traveled.

That evening, we had made it down to Jericho. As we started to set up camp, we suddenly realized that Jesus was not with us. At first, we thought that he might be with some of the other boys — you know how boys are. But he wasn’t. Nor was he with any of our neighbors or kinsfolk. In fact, no one in the whole company had seen him since morning prayers.

We became frantic! Where was our son? Dark forebodings filled our hearts, and we reproached ourselves bitterly. The night seemed endless.… We were worried sick!

The next morning before daybreak, we scrambled back up the rocky road toward Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, we hurried to the place where we had stayed. Surely he would be there waiting for us. But he was not. We searched the streets from one end of the city to the other, and again spent a sleepless, agonizing night.

The following morning, we renewed our desperate search. About midmorning, we saw people gathering in one of the temple courtyards. As we neared the edge of the crowd, we suddenly heard his voice. We pressed into the crowd and caught a glimpse of him. It nearly took our breath away. There he was, surrounded by the most learned teachers of Israel, asking and answering questions.

I didn’t know the boy had it in him! The questions that he asked, the answers that he gave … even the doctors of the law seemed stunned.

Finally, Mary got up the courage to tell one of the rabbis in the outer circle that we were his parents and desired to speak with him. Presently, during a pause in the conversation, they informed Jesus that we were there. Obedient as always, he pressed through the crowd toward us.

Once we were by ourselves, Mary addressed Jesus, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have sought you sorrowing these three days.”

He looked at her lovingly and said, “How is it that you sought me? Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?”

We were dumbfounded! Jesus had just disclaimed me as his father. I mean, it was obvious that Jesus was not talking about me — my business was back in Nazareth.

Mary just couldn’t understand. We had told Jesus about the visit of the shepherds, about the wise men, and the flight to Egypt. But we had never told him that I was not his father. In fact, everyone assumed that I was — although a bit remiss in propriety, as it was rumored around. But how did he know?

Back in Nazareth

Since we arrived back home, though, things have been quite as usual. Well, there have been a few delicate moments — like when the rabbis came and tried to have us enroll Jesus in the synagogue school. Something about the fact that while Jesus might know the Scriptures, he didn’t understand the importance of the traditions of the elders.

Jesus, however, didn’t seem interested. He replied that we must obey God rather than men. That, of course, did not set too well with the delegation, and Jesus, in fact, has never attended the rabbinical schools. He just reads the scrolls of the prophets in the evening and spends the early morning hours out on the hillsides. It’s really amazing, the ideas that he comes up with, after he has been out there alone.

After the rabbis came, my own sons began to find fault with Jesus, particularly because he would not abide by all the rules of the scribes and Pharisees. He never became upset, though. He just kept saying that we must follow all the words of the Lord, and not the traditions of men.

Actually, I think that the problem was not just about the phylacteries or the rabbinical ceremonies. My sons were irritated because Jesus would not take part in some of their activities. Well, my older sons haven’t always been spotless. Jesus, however, always seemed to have such a keen discrimination between right and wrong.

Son of the carpenter

Yes, Jesus has been a good son, obedient and honorable. Every Sabbath, he is in the synagogue. And every day during the week, he works in the carpentry shop and helps support the family.

In fact, of all of my sons, he is really the finest carpenter. He is careful, faithful, and hard-working. His work is outstanding — well-designed, with the parts fitting exactly. And he is always willing to learn. I truly believe that he will be a master craftsman.

Not only that, but he seems to truly love people. He always has a kind word, a comforting touch, a cheerful smile. In fact, he will do a job for free when someone is too poor to pay. I just wish that there were more people like him.

Yes, every town needs a carpenter. But my days as the carpenter are over now. God knows that I tried my best. That I have tried to follow the law with all my heart. Even when life turned out so differently from what I had planned.

As for Jesus, well, things seem to have returned to normal. No more heavenly messengers, no more startling events. I guess that I am just not sure what it was all about.

In my heart, although I have never told anyone besides Mary, I believe that he is the Messiah. But I don’t understand how he will ever sit on the throne of David.

They say that his cousin John, the one who was to be the prophet, is living a reclusive life out in the desert of Judea.

Sometimes I just don’t understand the acts of God. But I guess that I don’t need to understand everything. Only remain loyal to the God of Abraham.

Yes, Zadok, Jesus will be a good carpenter for Nazareth. A good carpenter.…

Every town needs a good carpenter.

John Wesley Taylor V serves as associate director of education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He is also an editor of Dialogue. He may be reached at taylorjw@gc.adventist.org. Miriam Louise Taylor serves as executive assistant in the secretariat of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

*The presence of Zadok is used as a literary device.