The spear flew straight and true. It whistled over the heads of the men who still stood firm, defending the most precious of their possessions. It missed them by a hand’s breadth. But they were not its target.
The spear-thrower was strong and accurate. He was, perhaps, the most experienced of the army’s spearmen and it was unknown for him to miss his mark. This time, the spear struck its target with a dull thud.
It was not a noise one would expect to herald the events which unfolded at speed as a result. But the effect of the spear’s accuracy would ripple down the ages and fill hearts with sadness and wonder.
The spear split the target in two and the blazing torch was hurled out of its bracket in flaming fury, sparks flying in all directions, some landing on the stone floor without harm. But others were more destructive as they settled on curtains and soft materials and flared into life in an instant.
Ravenous, the flames consumed all they touched. The defenders, intent on the fight, did not notice the events unfolding behind them, until smoke drifted over them, filling their lungs, making them cough, and their eyes sting.
Alarmed, they swung around. The scene filled them with horror. Even as they watched the curtains disappeared in fire before their eyes. Smoke thickened. Men began to appear through it from the interior of the building, clutching their throats, coughing and gasping for air.
The men backed away from the heat of the blaze. The glare was intense in the early evening light, the whole scene lit by the setting sun behind them. Details stood out. The tablecloth on a small table smouldered as sparks landed upon it then burst into flame. A pair of heavy curtains crashed to the ground, smothering the unfortunate few who stood too close.
The noise was deafening – and horrible. The fire roared, crackling and spitting; men bellowed orders and screamed for help. Animals bawled in terror, imprisoned in their pens. The stench of burning wool, wood and flesh was overpowering.
Even the attackers were stunned by the swiftness of the fire.
Ira stood surrounded by the friends from his childhood, at a distance from the flames, mesmerised by the sights and the sounds as the building, where they had spent most of their lives, was consumed.
But then Ira heard a voice. Not the screams and shouts of his companions, but a voice in his head, in his heart.
“Ira, go into the building. Fetch the scrolls and bring them out to safety.”
He looked around in fear. What was this? It was bad enough the Temple was burning, but to run into the building, into the fire, would be madness. What was he thinking?
But there was a deep sadness in his heart. The scrolls! How could he let the scrolls burn? They were so precious to his people. Yahweh had given them as a blessing. They were instructions on how to live. Scholars had worked long hours on them. How could he let them burn?
It would be risking his life. He knew that. How would he manage to carry them all? They were bulky things, and heavy. He stood rooted to the spot.
“Ira, go. Take Biel and Eleazer to help you. I will be with you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze, for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”
Ira leapt forward.
“Biel, Eleazer, come with me!”
Not waiting to see if they hesitated or followed, Ira ran towards the flames, dodging men who had managed to escape. The battle had eased as every soldier and guardian of the Temple had stood, overawed by the speed of the destruction; but now arrows and spears began to fly again, as those fleeing the fire, running towards the attackers, were targeted.
“Ira! What are you doing? Where are you going? Are you mad? Stop! Stop!”
Biel had caught up with him and clutched Ira’s sleeve, pulling him to a halt and spinning him around. Eleazer grabbed his other arm.
“No, Biel! Yahweh has spoken. He has commanded us to go into the fire to rescue the scrolls of the Law. We have to go. We have no choice. He has promised he will protect us. Come, there’s no time to lose. Biel! Eleazer! Please! If you won’t come with me then let me go alone. I must obey. Please!”
The two boys looked at one another and then back at their friend.
Eleazer nodded once.
“I’m with you. Let’s go.”
Turning, the two young men ran towards the fire. For a moment Biel watched them go then shrugging, he followed them, his steps faltering at first, but then gaining speed as he saw the determination of his friends as they followed the orders of Yahweh. He knew he would rather die than have to live with the death of his friends and the knowledge he had ignored them – and Yahweh.
Men fell around them, struck by arrows, or overcome by heat and smoke. But Ira, Biel and Eleazer ran, gasping for air at the exercise, but not hampered by smoke or flame. It seemed as though they were continually in a bubble of pure sweet air which filled their lungs, giving them the energy they needed.
They raced down the corridor, around the corner and clattered down steps, worn with age. On ordinary days, they would have accompanied a priest and walked slowly down these steps as part of a holy procession. But now, holiness did not seem to be required. What was needed was speed. Ira was concerned about the solid cedar-wood door at the far end of the next passage. It was the thickness of a man’s palm. He knew it was always locked to safeguard the precious scrolls. Ira did not have a key.
“Yahweh, help us, please. If we are to save the scrolls, we’ll have to open that door.”
As they reached the bottom of the steps and turned into the passage, the smoke cleared a little. Ira stopped, horror drenching him like a cold shower. The old door was a mere skeleton of what it had been when he last saw it. The frame was smouldering, as the ashes lay thick on the ground where the sturdy wood had once been.
Were they too late? Had the scrolls already burned?
“Yahweh, please, let us be in time.”
Ira breathed a prayer as he went forward, his steps hesitant. His feet sent up clouds of hot ash into the corridor. Behind him, Eleazer was coughing from all the smoke and ash.
“Eleazer, is all well with you?”
“Yes, Ira, all is well. I swallowed some ash, I think. I could do with some water, but I am well.”
Ira slowed as he approached the door, the others crowding behind him as they peered into the room which held the treasures they sought.
It was untouched.
Not a document was out of place. The covers on the tables were as smooth and spotless as they had always been. Surrounded by gritty smoke, billows of ash and tongues of flame, the little room was a haven of peace.
“Yahweh, what should we take? There are so many scrolls. Which ones are important to you?” Ira prayed aloud, his urgent voice more fitting to the maelstrom they had just run through, than the silence of the little room.
“Take these.” The voice came again, unhurried and calm. Ira swung around to the table Yahweh was showing him. It was piled high with scrolls, too many for them to carry.
“Yahweh, help us to pick up the ones you want us to rescue. We can’t carry them all.” Turning to Biel and Eleazer he urged them forward.
“Quickly! We need to take these. Carry what you can and let’s go.”
The three boys started gathering scrolls, tucking them in their tunics, and filling their arms with as many as they could. To their amazement, they picked up all but three. How could they carry so many?
“Wait!” Ira called as Biel and Eleazer turned to go.
“Yahweh, what about these three? Can we leave them? How can we carry them?”
The answer came.
“Pick them up with your mouths and carry them between your teeth.”
“We must carry these in our mouths, my friends.” Ira bent forward and picked up another scroll.
“Oh no, we’ll look foolish coming out of a burning building with scrolls in our mouths. What will people think?” The words were out of Biel’s mouth before he could stop them.
“I’m sorry. I take those words back. If Yahweh wants me to make a fool of myself for his sake, then I will do so.” Following Ira’s lead, he too bent over the table to pick up another scroll. Eleazer did the same and the three boys turned towards the doorway leading out into the passage.
They stopped in horror. The passage was burning fiercely, but it was their only way of escape. Surely they could not perish here when Yahweh had brought them this far and given such explicit instructions.
Then Ira remembered the words of his God when he heard his first command.
“Ira, go. I will be with you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”
Ira straightened his shoulders, looked at his two friends, then turned and stepped into the passage. He heard their grunts of protest, but he was determined to follow Yahweh’s orders. Was he not the One God, the Holy One of Israel? If he was not, then Ira did not want to live to follow a god who was powerless as well as a liar.
As he stepped into the flames they parted.
He could see the flames ahead, and feel the heat all around, but, he was in a cool space in the middle of the fire. He kept walking, but was unable to check on his friends, or call out to them because of all the scrolls they were carrying.
Step by step, Ira climbed the worn stairs, following the passage, finally emerging into one of the large covered walkways in the courtyard of the Israelites. But the walkway was no longer there. The very stones smouldered and glowed. His heart ached as he remembered the beauty of this building. All gone now. What would become of the people of God?
Ira moved away from the blazing passage and turned around in time to see Biel and then Eleazer appear, unharmed. Their robes were clean. Their hair and skin untouched. Their arms and mouths full of scrolls.
“Thank you, Lord. Where do we go now?” Ira’s silent prayer rose to God.
“Go to Simeon’s house.”
Ira knew Simeon. He was a priest in the Temple, a gentle man who loved his people. There was no arrogance or pride in Simeon. Still, with their mouths full of the final scrolls, Biel and Eleazer followed Ira through the ashes and out of a small door to the side. It was a struggle to get out as the boys had to bend almost double to squeeze through the little opening. Somehow each of them managed. From there it was a short journey to the priest’s house.
Ira wondered if he would be there. The city seemed to be deserted. But as their footsteps echoed off the walls which surrounded them, Simeon opened his door.
“Oh, there you are! I’ve been waiting for you. Let me take some of these scrolls from you.”
And taking great care, he took the scrolls from their mouths.
“Thank you, Simeon. It was becoming difficult to swallow with all that vellum in my mouth.” Ira said, panting for breath.
“Make haste, now. Come in, come in. We must hide these away before the soldiers get here.”
“You don’t seem surprised to see us, Simeon,” Biel said.
“No. Yahweh warned me this morning that I would have visitors, carrying a precious load. He told me I must wait for you. I must admit, there were times when I wondered if I had heard him correctly, and once or twice I nearly left and ran. But I was certain the words I had heard were true, so I waited. I am amazed and delighted to see the scrolls you have carried. But we must be quick. Darkness is falling so we need to hide these and get away ourselves.”
Ira glanced around him.
“But where are we going to hide them? There are so many. Perhaps we should take them with us?”
“No, my son. There is a place here where they will be safe. Yahweh has said so.”
Ira nodded, accepting Simeon’s reassurance. If Yahweh had said the scrolls would be safe here, then that was good enough for him.
Simeon went to the back corner of the room and hauled on a stone which seemed to be set in the floor. It was heavy, but he managed to lift it and pull it to one side.
“Down here,” he said, as he stepped onto a sturdy ladder. “Give me a few scrolls at a time Ira, and when your hands are free please help me to carry them down into this cave.”
One by one, the precious scrolls were handed over. Simeon took great care stacking them in the secret space. Ira helped him once his scrolls had been taken from him. Then the three boys heaved the stone back into place, where it slotted into the floor, hiding all evidence of its existence.
“Now, my sons, you must remember where the entrance to this safe place is. These scrolls contain the Law which is Yahweh’s gift to us. They have been lost before, for generations, and were only found by King Josiah who shared them with the people. You have to make sure they are not lost again. God will guide you to the man to whom you must deliver them when the time comes.
“We will all leave Jerusalem in the next few days and I will not return.” Simeon held up his hand to silence Ira as he began to protest.
“No, I know I will not come back here.” For a moment the older man’s eyes filled with tears as he thought of leaving his beloved city and the Temple which had been the centre of his life for so long.
“But you will return. It will be up to you to present these scrolls to those who lead you home when the time comes. They will be the cornerstone of the continuation of our people and will be the guidelines for life in Yahweh’s holy city once again. Our people will forget when they are in exile and will need to be reminded. As a result of your obedience and bravery today, they will be blessed by these words of Yahweh, the One God, the Holy One, the Saviour of Israel.
“Thank you, my sons. Today Yahweh is well pleased with you.”
The boys bowed their heads, together with Simeon, for a moment of silent worship.
“Come now, let us go to meet our fate. And may the hand of Yahweh be over the three of you so you can restore his people here again in due time.”
The four men joined their people and were taken into exile for many years. The boys were old men when they returned. But when Ezra came back to the city to rebuild the Temple, and Nehemiah joined him to build the walls, the three remembered where the secret room was. They went there together, with some younger men and a few donkeys. They emptied the secret room and took the scrolls to their leaders, as Simeon had told them to do.
The scrolls were read to the people during days of feasting and celebration when there was much laughing and dancing and crying as the people were restored to Jerusalem, the City of God, once again.
The three friends died in Jerusalem, in peace, knowing they had obeyed their God. Yahweh had blessed them with long life and their people with a new beginning to follow him in the way he decreed.