Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal Chapter 1
The angel was cleaning out his closets when the call came.Halos and moonbeams were sorted into piles according to brightness, satchels of wrath and scabbards of lightning hung on hooks waiting to be dusted.A wineskin of glory had leaked in the corner and the angel blotted it with a wad of fabric.
Each time he turned the cloth a muted chorus rang from the closet, as if he’d clamped the lid down on a pickle jar full of Hallelujah Chorus.
“Raziel, what in heaven’s name are you doing?”
The archangel Stephan was standing over him, brandishing a scroll like a rolled-up magazine over a piddling puppy.
“Orders?” the angel asked.
“I was just there.”
“Two millennia ago.”
“Really?” Raziel checked his watch, then tapped the crystal. “Are you sure?”
“What do you think?” Stephan held out the scroll so Raziel could see the Burning Bush seal.
“When do I leave? I was almost finished here.”
“Now. Pack the gift of tongues and some minor miracles. No weapons, it’s not a wrath job. You’ll be undercover. Very low profile, but important. It’s all in the orders.” Stephan handed him the scroll.
“I asked that too.”
“I was reminded why angels are cast out.”
“Whoa! That big?”
Stephan coughed, clearly an affectation, since angels didn’t breathe. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to know, but the rumor is that it’s a new book.”
“You’re kidding. A sequel? Revelations 2, just when you thought it was safe to sin?”
“It’s a Gospel.”
“A Gospel, after all this time? Who?”
“Levi who is called Biff.”
Raziel dropped his rag and stood. “This has to be a mistake.”
“It comes directly from the Son.”
“There’s a reason Biff isn’t mentioned in the other books, you know? He’s a total – “
“Don’t say it.”
“But he’s such an asshole.”
“You talk like that and you wonder why you get dirt-duty.”
“Why now, after so long, the four Gospels have been fine so far, and why him?”
“Because it’s some kind of anniversary in dirt-dweller time of the Son’s birth, and he feels it’s time the whole story is told.”
Raziel hung his head. “I’d better pack.”
“Gift of tongues,” Stephan reminded.
“Of course, so I can take crap in a thousand languages.”
“Go get the good news, Raziel. Bring me back some chocolate.”
“It’s a dirt-dweller snack. You’ll like it. Satan invented it.”
“You can only eat so much white cake, my friend.”
Midnight. The angel stood on a barren hillside on the outskirts of the holy city of Jerusalem. He raised his arms aloft and a dry wind whipped his white robe around him.
“Arise, Levi who is called Biff.”
A whirlwind formed before him, pulling dust from the hillside into a column that took the shape of a man.
“Arise, Biff. Your time has come.”
The wind whipped into a fury and the angel pulled the sleeve of his robe across his face.
“Arise, Biff, and walk again among the living.”
The whirlwind began to subside, leaving the man-shaped column of dust standing on the hillside. In a moment, the hillside was calm again. The angel pulled a gold vessel from his satchel and poured it over the column. The dust washed away, leaving a muddy, naked man sputtering in the starlight.
“Welcome back to the living,” the angel said.
The man blinked, then held his hand before his eyes as if he expected to see through it.
“I’m alive,” he said in a language he had never heard before.
“Yes,” the angel said.
“What are these sounds, these words?”
“You have been given the gift of tongues.”
“I’ve always had the gift of tongues, ask any girl I’ve known. What are these words?”
“Languages. You’ve been given the gift of languages, as were all the apostles.”
“Then the kingdom has come.”
“Two thousand years ago.”
“You worthless bag of dog shit,” said Levi who was called Biff, as he punched the angel in the mouth. “You’re late.”
The angel picked himself up and gingerly touched his lip. “Nice talk to a messenger of the Lord.”
“It’s a gift,” Biff said.
God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.
You think you know how this story is going to end, but you don’t. Trust me, I was there. I know.
The first time I saw the man who would save the world he was sitting near the central well in Nazareth with a lizard hanging out of his mouth. Just the tail end and the hind legs were visible on the outside; the head and forelegs were halfway down the hatch. He was six, like me, and his beard had not come in fully, so he didn’t look much like the pictures you’ve seen of him. His eyes were like dark honey, and they smiled at me out of a mop of blue-black curls that framed his face. There was a light older than Moses in those eyes.
“Unclean! Unclean!” I screamed, pointing at the boy, so my mother would see that I knew the Law, but she ignored me, as did all the other mothers who were filling their jars at the well.
The boy took the lizard from his mouth and handed it to his younger brother, who sat beside him in the sand. The younger boy played with the lizard for a while, teasing it until it reared its little head as if to bite, then he picked up a rock and mashed the creature’s head. Bewildered, he pushed the dead lizard around in the sand, and once assured that it wasn’t going anywhere on its own, he picked it up and handed it back to his older brother.
Into his mouth went the lizard, and before I could accuse, out it came again, squirming and alive and ready to bite once again. He handed it back to his younger brother, who smote it mightily with the rock, starting or ending the whole process again.
I watched the lizard die three more times before I said, “I want to do that too.”
The Savior removed the lizard from his mouth and said, “Which part?”
By the way, his name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua.Christ is not a last name. It’s the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed. I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him.
Me? I am Levi who is called Biff. No middle initial.
Joshua was my best friend.
The angel says I’m supposed to just sit down and write my story, forget about what I’ve seen in this world, but how am I to do that? In the last three days I have seen more people, more images, more wonders, than in all my thirty-three years of living, and the angel asks me to ignore them. Yes, I have been given the gift of tongues, so I see nothing without knowing the word for it, but what good does that do? Did it help in Jerusalem to know that it was a Mercedes that terrified me and sent me diving into a Dumpster? Moreover, after Raziel pulled me out and ripped my fingernails back as I struggled to stay hidden, did it help to know that it was a Boeing 747 that made me cower in a ball trying to rock away my own tears and shut out the noise and fire? Am I a little child, afraid of its own shadow, or did I spend twenty-seven years at the side of the Son of God?
On the hill where he pulled me from the dust, the angel said, “You will see many strange things. Do not be afraid. You have a holy mission and I will protect you.”
Smug bastard. Had I known what he would do to me I would have hit him again. Even now he lies on the bed across the room, watching pictures move on a screen, eating the sticky sweet called Snickers, while I scratch out my tale on this soft-as-silk paper that reads Hyatt Regency, St. Louis at the top. Words, words, words, a million million words circle in my head like hawks, waiting to dive onto the page to rend and tear the only two words I want to write.
There were fifteen of us – well, fourteen after I hung Judas – so why me? Joshua always told me not to be afraid, for he would always be with me. Where are you, my friend? Why have you forsaken me? You wouldn’t be afraid here. The towers and machines and the shine and stink of this world would not daunt you. Come now, I’ll order a pizza from room service. You would like pizza. The servant who brings it is named Jesus. And he’s not even a Jew. You always liked irony. Come, Joshua, the angel says you are yet with us, you can hold him down while I pound him, then we will rejoice in pizza.
Raziel has been looking at my writing and is insisting that I stop whining and get on with the story. Easy for him to say, he didn’t just spend the last two thousand years buried in the dirt. Nevertheless, he won’t let me order pizza until I finish a section, so here goes…
I was born in Galilee, the town of Nazareth, in the time of Herod the Great. My father, Alphaeus, was a stonemason and my mother, Naomi, was plagued by demons, or at least that’s what I told everyone. Joshua seemed to think she was just difficult. My proper name, Levi, comes from the brother of Moses, the progenitor of the tribe of priests; my nickname, Biff, comes from our slang word for a smack upside the head, something that my mother said I required at least daily from an early age.
I grew up under Roman rule, although I didn’t see many Romans until I was ten. The Romans mostly stayed in the fortress city of Sepphoris, an hour’s walk north of Nazareth. That’s where Joshua and I saw a Roman soldier murdered, but I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, assume that the soldier is safe and sound and happy wearing a broom on his head.
Most of the people of Nazareth were farmers, growing grapes and olives on the rocky hills outside of town and barley and wheat in the valleys below. There were also herders of goats and sheep whose families lived in town while the men and older boys tended the flocks in the highlands. Our houses were all made of stone, and ours had a stone floor, although many had floors of hard-packed dirt.
I was the oldest of three sons, so even at the age of six I was being prepared to learn my father’s trade. My mother taught my spoken lessons, the Law and stories from the Torah in Hebrew, and my father took me to the synagogue to hear the elders read the Bible. Aramaic was my first language, but by the time I was ten I could speak and read Hebrew as well as most of the men.
My ability to learn Hebrew and the Torah was spurred on by my friendship with Joshua, for while the other boys would be playing a round of tease the sheep or kick the Canaanite, Joshua and I played at being rabbis, and he insisted that we stick to the authentic Hebrew for our ceremonies. It was more fun than it sounds, or at least it was until my mother caught us trying to circumcise my little brother Shem with a sharp rock. What a fit she threw. And my argument that Shem needed to renew his covenant with the Lord didn’t seem to convince her. She beat me to stripes with an olive switch and forbade me to play with Joshua for a month. Did I mention she was besought with demons?
Overall, I think it was good for little Shem. He was the only kid I ever knew who could pee around corners. You can make a pretty good living as a beggar with that kind of talent. And he never even thanked me.
Children see magic because they look for it.
When I first met Joshua, I didn’t know he was the Savior, and neither did he, for that matter. What I knew was that he wasn’t afraid. Amid a race of conquered warriors, a people who tried to find pride while cowering before God and Rome, he shone like a bloom in the desert. But maybe only I saw it, because I was looking for it. To everyone else he seemed like just another child: the same needs and the same chance to die before he was grown.
When I told my mother of Joshua’s trick with the lizard she checked me for fever and sent me to my sleeping mat with only a bowl of broth for supper.
“I’ve heard stories about that boy’s mother,” she said to my father. “She claims to have spoken to an angel of the Lord. She told Esther that she had borne the Son of God.”
“And what did you say to Esther?”
“That she should be careful that the Pharisees not hear her ravings or we’d be picking stones for her punishment.”
“Then you should not speak of it again. I know her husband, he is a righteous man.”
“Cursed with an insane girl for a wife.”
“Poor thing,” my father said, tearing away a hunk of bread. His hands were as hard as horn, as square as hammers, and as gray as a leper’s from the limestone he worked with. An embrace from him left scratches on my back that sometimes wept blood, yet my brothers and I fought to be the first in his arms when he returned from work each evening. The same injuries inflicted in anger would have sent us crying to our mother’s skirts. I fell asleep each night feeling his hand on my back like a shield.
Do you want to mash some lizards?” I asked Joshua when I saw him again. He was drawing in the dirt with a stick, ignoring me. I put my foot on his drawing. “Did you know that your mother is mad?”
“My father does that to her,” he said sadly, without looking up.
I sat down next to him. “Sometimes my mother makes yipping noises in the night like the wild dogs.”
“Is she mad?” Joshua asked.
“She seems fine in the morning. She sings while she makes breakfast.”
Joshua nodded, satisfied, I guess, that madness could pass. “We used to live in Egypt,” he said.
“No, you didn’t, that’s too far. Farther than the temple, even.” The Temple in Jerusalem was the farthest place I had been as a child. Every spring my family took the five-day walk to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. It seemed to take forever.
“We lived here, then we lived in Egypt, now we live here again,” Joshua said. “It was a long way.”
“You lie, it takes forty years to get to Egypt.”
“Not anymore, it’s closer now.”
“It says in the Torah. My abba read it to me. ‘The Israelites traveled in the desert for forty years.'”
“The Israelites were lost.”
“For forty years?” I laughed. “The Israelites must be stupid.”
“We are the Israelites.”
“I have to go find my mother,” I said.
“When you come back, let’s play Moses and Pharaoh.”
The angel has confided in me that he is going to ask the Lord if he can become Spider-Man. He watches the television constantly, even when I sleep, and he has become obsessed with the story of the hero who fights demons from the rooftops. The angel says that evil looms larger now than it did in my time, and that calls for greater heroes. The children need heroes, he says. I think he just wants to swing from buildings in tight red jammies.
What hero could touch these children anyway, with their machines and medicine and distances made invisible? (Raziel: not here a week and he would trade the Sword of God to be a web slinger.) In my time, our heroes were few, but they were real – some of us could even trace our kinship to them. Joshua always played the heroes – David, Joshua, Moses – while I played the evil ones: Pharaoh, Ahab, and Nebuchadnezzar. If I had a shekel for every time I was slain as a Philistine, well, I’d not be riding a camel through the eye of a needle anytime soon, I’ll tell you that. As I think back, I see that Joshua was practicing for what he would become.
“Let my people go,” said Joshua, as Moses.
“You can’t just say, ‘Okay.'”
“No, the Lord has hardened your heart against my demands.”
“Why’d he do that?”
“I don’t know, he just did. Now, let my people go.”
“Nope.” I crossed my arms and turned away like someone whose heart is hardened.
“Behold as I turn this stick into a snake. Now, let my people go!”
“You can’t just say ‘okay’!”
“Why? That was a pretty good trick with the stick.”
“But that’s not how it goes.”
“Okay. No way, Moses, your people have to stay.”
Joshua waved his staff in my face. “Behold, I will plague you with frogs. They will fill your house and your bedchamber and get on your stuff.”
“So that’s bad. Let my people go, Pharaoh.”
“I sorta like frogs.”
“Dead frogs,” Moses threatened. “Piles of steaming, stinking dead frogs.”
“Oh, in that case, you’d better take your people and go. I have some sphinxes and stuff to build anyway.”
“Dammit, Biff, that’s not how it goes! I have more plagues for you.”
“I want to be Moses.”
“I have the stick.”
And so it went. I’m not sure I took to playing the villains as easily as Joshua took to being the heroes. Sometimes we recruited our little brothers to play the more loathsome parts. Joshua’s little brothers Judah and James played whole populations, like the Sodomites outside of Lot’s door.
“Send out those two angels so that we can know them.”
“I won’t do that,” I said, playing Lot (a good guy only because Joshua wanted to play the angels), “but I have two daughters who don’t know anyone, you can meet them.”
“Okay,” said Judah.
I threw open the door and led my imaginary daughters outside so they could know the Sodomites…
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Charmed, I’m sure.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“THAT’S NOT HOW IT GOES!” Joshua shouted. “You’re supposed to try to break the door down, then I will smite you blind.”
“Then you destroy our city?” James said.
“We’d rather meet Lot’s daughters.”
“Let my people go,” said Judah, who was only four and often got his stories confused. He particularly liked the Exodus because he and James got to throw jars of water on me as I led my soldiers across the Red Sea after Moses.
“That’s it,” Joshua said. “Judah, you’re Lot’s wife. Go stand over there.”
Sometimes Judah had to play Lot’s wife no matter what story we were doing. “I don’t want to be Lot’s wife.”
“Be quiet, pillars of salt can’t talk.”
“I don’t want to be a girl.”
Our brothers always played the female parts. I had no sisters to torment, and Joshua’s only sister at the time, Elizabeth, was still a baby. That was before we met the Magdalene. The Magdalene changed everything.
After I overheard my parents talking about Joshua’s mother’s madness, I often watched her, looking for signs, but she seemed to go about her duties like all the other mothers, tending to the little ones, working in the garden, fetching water, and preparing food. There was no sign of going about on all fours or foaming at the mouth as I had expected. She was younger than many of the mothers, and much younger than her husband, Joseph, who was an old man by the standards of our time. Joshua said that Joseph wasn’t his real father, but he wouldn’t say who his father was. When the subject came up, and Mary was in earshot, she would call to Josh, then put her finger to her lips to signal silence.
“Now is not the time, Joshua. Biff would not understand.”
Just hearing her say my name made my heart leap. Early on I developed a little-boy love for Joshua’s mother that sent me into fantasies of marriage and family and future.
“Your father is old, huh, Josh?”
“Not too old.”
“When he dies, will your mother marry his brother?”
“My father has no brothers. Why?”
“No reason. What would you think if your father was shorter than you?”
“But when your father dies, your mother could marry someone shorter than you, and he would be your father. You would have to do what he says.”
“My father will never die. He is eternal.”
“So you say. But I think that when I’m a man, and your father dies, I will take your mother as my wife.”
Joshua made a face now as if he had bitten into an unripe fig. “Don’t say that, Biff.”
“I don’t mind that she’s mad. I like her blue cloak. And her smile. I’ll be a good father, I’ll teach you how to be a stonemason, and I’ll only beat you when you are a snot.”
“I would rather play with lepers than listen to this.” Joshua began to walk away.
“Wait. Be nice to your father, Joshua bar Biff” – my own father used my full name like this when he was trying to make a point – “Is it not the word of Moses that you must honor me?”
Little Joshua spun on his heel. “My name is not Joshua bar Biff, and it is not Joshua bar Joseph either. It’s Joshua bar Jehovah!”
I looked around, hoping that no one had heard him. I didn’t want my only son (I planned to sell Judah and James into slavery) to be stoned to death for uttering the name of God in vain. “Don’t say that again, Josh. I won’t marry your mother.”
“No, you won’t.”
“I forgive you.”
“She will make an excellent concubine.”
Don’t let anyone tell you that the Prince of Peace never struck anyone. In those early days, before he had become who he would be, Joshua smote me in the nose more than once. That was the first time.
Mary would stay my one true love until I saw the Magdalene.
If the people of Nazareth thought Joshua’s mother was mad, there was little said of it out of respect for her husband, Joseph. He was wise in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, and there were few wives in Nazareth who didn’t serve supper in one of his smooth olive-wood bowls. He was fair, strong, and wise. People said that he had once been an Essene, one of the dour, ascetic Jews who kept to themselves and never married or cut their hair, but he did not congregate with them, and unlike them, he still had the ability to smile.
In those early years, I saw him very little, as he was always in Sepphoris, building structures for the Romans and the Greeks and the landed Jews of that city, but every year, as the Feast of Firsts approached, Joseph would stop his work in the fortress city and stay home carving bowls and spoons to give to the Temple. During the Feast of Firsts, it was the tradition to give first lambs, first grain, and first fruits to the priests of the Temple. Even first sons born during the year were dedicated to the Temple, either by promising them for labor when they were older, or by a gift of money. Craftsmen like my father and Joseph could give things that they made, and in some years my father fashioned mortars and pestles or grinding stones for the tribute, while in others he gave tithes of coin. Some people made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for this feast, but since it fell only seven weeks after Passover, many families could not afford to make the pilgrimage, and the gifts went to our simple village synagogue.
During the weeks leading up to the feast, Joseph sat outside of his house in the shade of an awning he had made, worrying the gnarled olive wood with adze and chisel, while Joshua and I played at his feet. He wore the single-piece tunic that we all wore, a rectangle of fabric with neck hole in the middle, belted with a sash so that the sleeves fell to the elbows and the hem fell to the knees.
“Perhaps this year I should give the Temple my first son, eh, Joshua? Wouldn’t you like to clean the altar after the sacrifices?” He grinned to himself without looking up from his work. “I owe them a first son, you know. We were in Egypt at the Firsts Feast when you were born.”
The idea of coming in contact with blood clearly terrified Joshua, as it would any Jewish boy. “Give them James, Abba, he is your first son.”
Joseph shot a glance my way, to see if I had reacted. I had, but it was because I was considering my own status as a first son, hoping that my father wasn’t thinking along the same lines. “James is a second son. The priests don’t want second sons. It will have to be you.”
Joshua looked at me before he answered, then back at his father. Then he smiled. “But Abba, if you should die, who will take care of Mother if I am at the Temple?”
“Someone will look after her,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”
“I will not die for a long time.” Joseph tugged at his gray beard. “My beard goes white, but there’s a lot of life in me yet.”
“Don’t be so sure, Abba,” Joshua said.
Joseph dropped the bowl he was working on and stared into his hands. “Run along and play, you two,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper.
Joshua stood and walked away. I wanted to throw my arms around the old man, for I had never seen a grown man afraid before and it frightened me too. “Can I help?” I said, pointing to the half-finished bowl that lay in Joseph’s lap.
“You go with Joshua. He needs a friend to teach him to be human. Then I can teach him to be a man.”