Rabbel the Nabatean Trader

Rabbel the Nabataean

Have you ever ridden a camel across the desert at night?  The stars seem so close you could reach out and grasp one.  We who travel at night in the desert use the stars to guide us.  And the quiet of the desert at night is profound, only the soft-muffled sound of the pads of the camel’s feet in rhythm on the sand of the desert.  Allow me to introduce myself, I am Rabbel a trader of Nabatea.  I have come tonight to share with you a story of long ago of a special night, when even my trader’s heart was touched by a child.

Petra Bulletin CoverWe Nabateans are a fierce desert people.   Perhaps you have heard of our Capitol City, known as Petra, truly one of the wonders of the world, carved out of red rocked cliffs.  Even your Indiana Jones borrowed our treasury for one of his movies.

We are traders and caravan drivers crossing the desert with costly spices and silks from faraway India and Cathay, frankincense and myrrh, from southern Arabia.  We mine for turquoise, copper and gold in the mountains of Arabia and the Sinai.  We are expert camel-drivers.  Our trade routes span from Babylon to Damascus, Gerrah to Gaza, Aden to Alexandria.

My family lives in Avdat in the wilderness of the Negev a small  way station on the caravan route to Egypt.  My father, blessed be his memory stored water, and he gathered fodder and fire wood for the caravans that stopped in our town.  A trading mission carries as little food and water as possible to maximize the trade goods carried by the animals.

When I was twelve, my father, apprenticed me to Malichus, the caravan master, so I might learn to be a trader.  My first job was camel boy, hard and dirty work.  Camels are marvelous animals.  They can travel for days without food or water, but it requires a firm and determined hand to discipline the animal –stubborn they are very stubborn.  And while you may imagine me riding a camel across the desert, you would be wrong.  The goods that we carried rode on the backs of the camels while we walked beside the animals keeping them in line.  Only occasionally was there an empty camel to ride, for an animal without a load represented opportunity wasted.  We carried spices, silks, incense to the Roman markets in Alexandria, or Gaza, or Damascus, and we brought back the trade goods of the West across the desert, salt, balsam, glass, salted fish, olive oil, wine.  We had to make trade both ways to make a living.

I was in my fourth year working for Malichus, and he had begun entrusting some of the trading to me learning how to buy cheap and sell dear.   Such is the life of a trader.  We were making the desert crossing from the Arab Sea to Damascus, when one clear night I looked up to the stars to check our direction and I noticed a new star in the sky.

“Malichus,” I asked, “have you seen that star before?”

“No,” he answered, “perhaps it is a sign of something new in the heavens.”

“But what could it be?”

“A new war perhaps, or the birth of a ruler, time will tell.  The astrologers of Babylon could probably tell us.  By the way we will be journeying to Jerusalem on our way to Damascus.”

We took the trail on the west side of the Great Salt Sea and stopped at the Oasis of En Gedi.   Malichus sold some of the spices we were carrying for a good price, and then he purchased a load of Balsam he could sell in Damascus.  Then we began the ascent up the escarpment to the highlands of Judea.  It is a hard climb and one of the camels became lame, so Malichus determined we would stop short of Jerusalem in a little town called Bethlehem.

The caravanserai was located on the East side of the town, where a rather poor overcrowded Inn provided what food and shelter was available for travelers.  We Nabataeans made camp outside the City Gate, buying a little food for ourselves and our animals.  Malichus with my help doctored the lame camel, removing a splinter from its left front foot and treating the wound with wine and olive oil, all the while the animal complaining.

Malichus determined that the camel needed rest, so he would send me on ahead to Jerusalem with a load of spices for the court of King Herod.  We Nabataeans hate Herod, but business is business.

While Malichus was giving me instructions at the camp fire for the next day’s journey, I noticed a poor man and woman approach the Inn.  The woman seemed to be groaning in pain and the Inn Keeper simply shrugged his shoulders.  Finally in response to their pleading the Inn Keeper pointed over toward our camp fire, and the couple started moving down the hill side to a cave, where animals were kept.  In the fading light I could see the woman clutching her bulging belly, and she moaned.  Her time had come.

I was struck with sympathy for these strangers forced to give birth to a child in the cold with no warmth or protection from a fire.  So I asked Malichus, if I might take some wood and kindle a fire at the mouth of the cave.  He gave me leave.

The man spoke Aramaic, and so he understood gratefully, when I offered to make a fire.  I also shared some of my bread with them.  As the fire began to warm the cave, I heard a baby’s cry and smelled the scent of blood and sweat.  The odor of blood would attract wolves, so I hunted up extra wood for the fire at the mouth of the cave as well as our own fire protecting our animals.   The man thanked me and said his name was Joseph a carpenter of Nazareth.

In the middle of the night we were awakened by shepherds who were crowding into the cave.  “What is this?”  I asked one of them in Aramaic.

With a dazed look on his face, he said, “Angels.  Angels appeared to us in the field over there — beautiful beings of light.  Said this baby is the messiah they did.”

“Messiah?”  I asked.  “What’s that?”

“Important, but don’t tell.  Don’t tell the King.”  With that the shepherd drifted away into the night.

Allow me to pause here to feed my camels.  I will return in a few minutes.

Early the next morning I took one of the camels with a load of spices and headed for Jerusalem five miles to the Northeast.  I arrived in the morning and arranged for the delivery of the spices at the Palace of the King.  At first the Steward of the palace did not want to pay the agreed upon price.  I assured him we could get a better price in Damascus – business is business.

While I was in the courtyard of the Palace, a caravan of foreigners arrived.  I could tell these were not traders because these men rode their camels.  They were richly dressed, seemed almost like nobles.  This was interesting so I sat down to watch.  They were announced as ambassadors of Babylon, and they entered the Palace.

I walked over to one of their camel boys and struck up a conversation.  “Who are your masters?”

“They are three of the greatest Magi of Babylon.”

“What’s a Magi,” I inquired?

“They are great and learned men, who can read the stars.  They come representing the Emperor of Persia to greet the new King in Jerusalem.  They saw his sign in the sky, and they have come with gifts.”

“What sign?”

“The new star, perhaps you have seen it?”

“Yes I have,” I replied, “but how does that bring them to Jerusalem?”

“Ah, they can read the stars like a scroll.  They say this star tells them that a new world conqueror like the Great Alexander has been born here in Jerusalem.  They have come on a mission from the Emperor to offer friendship and peace.”

That was news indeed, and I needed to return to Bethlehem.  So I took my camel and started back to share this important message with Malichus.   A new world conqueror could have consequences for Nabatea.

When I arrived in Bethlehem, I gave Malichus the gold from the sale of the spices.  I also told him of the arrival of the Magi.  “Yes,” he said, “I have seen such star gazers in Babylon.  Let us hope this conqueror will bring peace.  Our trade depends upon it.  I think the camel will be well enough to move day after tomorrow.”

During the night we were awakened by the arrival of another caravan.  It turned out to be the Magi I had seen in Jerusalem that morning.  They set up camp next to us.  So sleepily I sought out the camel boy I had talked with in the morning.

“What brings you to Bethlehem,” I asked?

“There was no child in Jerusalem.  My masters created quite a stir.  The King called for his advisers to ask where this new ruler was to be born, and they said in this small out of the way town.”

My mind began to race.  I wondered could the baby born in the cave be the child these Magi were seeking?  “Maybe I know where such a child has been born,” I said to the camel boy.

A few minutes later I found myself standing in the presence of the Magi.  “What do you know about this child,” one of them asked me?

“When Yousef, your camel boy, told me the child you seek is to be born in this town, I remembered a child born only last night in a cave not far from here.”

The three Magi whispered to one another and then said to me, “Take us to this child.”

I led the three men down the hill to the cave, and went inside.  Joseph looked sleepy and alarmed until the three Magi knelt before him.  Then it was my turn to be surprised.  The three dignitaries began asking Joseph questions and I heard him describe an angel who had appeared in a dream to him.  And then I remembered the Shepherd who had told me of a vision of angels.  Could it be I wondered that this baby born in a cave used for a stable, could it be a child destined for greatness?  I looked at the impoverished parents and the small fragile infant lying in a manger.  The gods are forever surprising us.

I followed the Magi out into the night.  The star was shining overhead.  The great men turned and thanked me and then asked if our caravan had any goods worthy to serve as a royal gift.  We have costly Frankincense and Myrrh from Arabia I offered as well as spices from the farthest East.  “That will do,” they said.

Excuse me I must take a moment to tend to my animals.  I will return shortly.

Sometimes God is at work right under our noses and we don’t even know it.  I had seen the star, when we were traveling in the desert.  I had watched the Magi arrive in Jerusalem, but I had never guessed that the child born in the cave for whom I started a fire that night might be connected to the star.

Early in the morning the Magi went back to the cave taking with them gold, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and mace.   I followed them to catch another look at the child.  After presenting their gifts they told Joseph that they must leave and not return to Jerusalem.  An angel had appeared to them as they slept, and told them that Herod would seek the life of the child.

“But what should we do,” pleaded Joseph?

“Flee! Any way you can,” advised the Magi.  “Do not stay in Herod’s realm!”

I saw the look of worry on Joseph’s face as he turned to me.  “I am a humble carpenter, unaccustomed to great journeys.  You are a trader, a desert traveler, where should we go and how do we get there?”

I found myself torn.  I owed nothing to these people.  They were Jews.  I was a trader of Nabatea.  Business is business, but life is more than buying and selling.  Sometimes God appears right under our noses, and I sensed that in their need God was present to me.

“Wait here,” I replied, “I will talk to Malichus and return.”

I found Malichus getting up.  “Malichus, Master,” I began, “the Magi are leaving, but they have told Joseph that Herod will seek the life of the child.”

“Sounds like Herod,” he replied.

“I would like to do something to help them,” I began.  “The Magi believe the child will be a new world leader – a ruler of justice and peace.  They have seen it in the stars – the star that guided them to this place, the star we saw in the desert.”

“So, what business is that of ours?”

“I can lead them to Avdot,” I began.  “That is far enough outside Herod’s domain, they will be safe.  Then I will ask my father to help them find a caravan to accompany them to Alexandria.  There is a large Jewish population there, and they can easily hide.”

“And what am I supposed to do without your services?” Malichus demanded!

“Avdot is a two day journey,” I began, “lend me one of the donkeys, and I can catch up to you before you reach Damascus.  I believe this child is important.”

“I don’t know why, but I do too,” Malichus, replied.  “Perhaps the Magi’s gold is proof of that.  You have my leave to help them.”

I took the fastest of the donkeys and went to the cave, where Joseph and Mary were packing .  “I have leave to lead you to Avdot, where my father will help you find a caravan you can accompany to Alexandria.  We should leave soon.”

For the first time I noticed that Mary was no older than I.  She had given birth only days before, and she was preparing for a journey into the desert into the unknown.  She was young and vulnerable but brave.   She turned to me and said, “Joseph, Jesus and I thank you, Rabbel.”

We loaded the baggage on Joseph’s donkey, and we placed Mary and the baby on Malichus’ donkey.  As we left Bethlehem later after sun up we saw a cloud of dust approaching from Jerusalem.  We left the road so we could not be followed as we set out into the wilderness.  The desert is a place of testing where character is forged and people are transformed.  Joseph, Mary and Jesus would need the spirit of the desert.  We walked most of the day, ate, rested, and then journeyed on into the night.  I became weary and afraid we were lost.  And then I noticed the star, the star of the child, was in the southwest.  It was pointing our way home.

My father, God bless his memory, found a caravan to accompany Joseph and Mary to Egypt.  I learned in those days that great things often happen in small and quiet ways.  Miracles are all around us – the stars in the sky, the wind in the desert, babies born in the night — right under our noses.

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