They awoke to a busy day of making sure all provisions were secured for the long trip. Water, dry food and supplies were all soon bought and they were ready to leave. Then Ayo spoke to the traders: “We must offer sacrifices and gifts unto the gods, for a safe trip. There is a place by the river where we may seek protection against the sands of death!”
“Oh, no, not me”, replied Beida. “There is no God! Son, this world is a hell. People live, die and enjoy a little along the way. God troubles a person, makes him ashamed and guilty. I’ve been everywhere from Rome, Greece, Jerusalem, Alexander and Carthage. Everyone worships hundreds of gods. I consider it all a waste of time and energy. Look, a little wine, a beautiful woman, wealth, power, you can feel these things! It gives you something- but, oh, no, not the gods. The best religion I found was in Athens where in the temple the women offered themselves to the men for the god of pleasure- that’s my kind of religion!”
Ayo shook his head, “You are wrong, there must be a God; but we believe He is too big and mighty to know about each of us, so He has selected smaller gods to look after different things. Just as a king has administrators, so the lesser gods look after us. They are very demanding and easily offended. That’s why we must please them, and oh, there are so many! It takes much time to seek to please the gods of death, sex, rain, forest, harvest, sickness, pain, hunting, etc., but without it the evil spirits will affect us or destroy us in pain. I seek to please the gods, yet I know something is not in me. Please come along with me!”
Beida said, “I will sell images that people worship as gods, but I will not worship them. If there is a God. He must be more than I’ve seen. I trust he will make Himself known. My theory is this: If the world is the evidence of God, if the heavens declare the glory of the God, then we should worship Him alone and not the creation. The religion of the Hebrew prophets and kings tells of this and tells of one who is to come. For me, I don’t care, but for you, I’d seek to know who this one is!”
“Who is he?” replied Ayo excitedly. “Where is he to come? I must see this one!”
“Oh well, I don’t know, but the people in Israel are looking for him. They say he will be the true king and through him we can have peace with God, but maybe it’s just like all the rest. Yes, oh yes, there is a book that tells about it. Maybe some day you will find it.”
Ayo’s heart was thrilled with excitement. He continued to ask Beida questions about the religion of Israel. He learned about the mighty King David and the most honored King Solomon to whom came the wise and powerful people of the world to learn from him about the true God and see his great wealth and Holy Temple. Beida finally said, “I’ll tell you more in the desert, get going and be off. We must leave soon!”
Ayo rushed to the market and bought a small lamb, some wine and perfume. Then he went to the huge rock overlooking the winding river with the sandy hills beyond. There were many people there also bowed before the altar of steel. This was the mighty god of strength. He bowed low and spoke to a nearby priest, presenting him with his gifts. After talking briefly he was commanded to pour the blood from the lamb upon the rock at the base of the idol of steel. He poured the wine all around the idol, then the priest poured the perfume over Ayo. The priest took the small leather pouch Ayo wore around his neck that was filled with a special potion made by the priest at home and dipped it into a pot of hot boiling substances to grant protection from the sun and desert sands. Ayo then replaced it around his neck, slipped a piece of gold in the priest’s hand and climbed down the rocks. He felt better now, knowing he had made peace with the gods and had their protection.
When Ayo arrived he saw a huge gathering of camels, horses and carts loaded with produce, a few donkeys and crowds of men, women and a few children. Beida told him that they and other small caravans had joined together for protection as they crossed the vast desert. There were over two hundred camels and several hundred people. It was an exciting moment as they started off across the river. The sky was hazy, brown from the flying dust of the Sahara sand. There was farming land along the river, mostly on the south side irrigated with the flowing water. Then almost suddenly they were in the desert. The almost total absence of trees and grass was shocking to one directly from the dense forests of home. They trudged forward for days. The desert seemed like a vast unending expanse of dull brown sand. Often it was with little ripples like waves upon water, yet at times it piled high and seemed to threaten to engulf you, but the regular travelers said it often stayed that way for years. It was up and over and through a valley of sand and on and on under blistering skies. Truly this must be the hottest place on earth as the daytime temperature soared to unbelievable heights and at night plunged down, down until the body shook with cold. It was almost terrifying to experience such a change in a matter of hours. They continued on often walking for great distances in a deep basin with high banks of sand. Words cannot describe the awesome feeling Ayo felt standing atop one of the great pyramids of sand. If anyone walked even a few hundred feet out of the way, often they would be lost beyond hope, as the sand covered the footsteps very soon. Once in a while you could see a small herd of addax, the desert antelope, its large hoofs keeping it from sinking into the sand, and its long crooked horns sticking up high. Being nomadic it is able to go without water for long periods of time. The addax is one of the few large animals in the desert. A few fox and desert cats could be seen. Their hairy feet assist them in running in the sand. Huge flocks of migrating birds could be seen flying high overhead. Yellow Sahara scorpions seemed to be the most abundant life, some snakes, frogs, toads.
Wild and nervous, the gazelle seemed right at home in the desert. But the most exciting time was at the oases where most of the animals watered and dashed away at the arrival of man. Beautiful date palms were often around the oases, some grass grew about and there were great gatherings of thousands of birds. The oases differed from open pools of fresh water to wells that were dug to tap the subterranean streams of fresh water flowing just underground.
Some days they passed salt water that of course, they could not use. Sometimes they would camp under a tenebirth tree or under a large acacia tree growing around a pool. The singing birds and the vastness of the desert expanse filled with the smell of roasting food, made these moments memorable. Often the oases were a day apart but once they walked several days without finding one to water the animals. The big humps on the camels’ backs had shrunk small as the fat was used up. Their own water had run short, yet they arrived at a beautiful pool of water before death struck.
Days ran into weeks and life went on in its hot and struggling way. They stopped to rest a few days after they had entered a range of bare high mountains. There were great ravines where sometimes rivers flood during the few times it rained in the highlands during the year. Huge jagged rocks stuck up high into the sky, swept clean by the blowing dust of the desert wind in front; then could be seen a huge valley of rocks. It was magnificent! – like it had rained big stones from heaven yet the wind had blown away the sand leaving the exposed rock for as far as the eye could see!
During their stay there they hunted and killed fresh game for food. The nights were filled with music, laughter and dancing, long hours of story telling and drinking fresh date palm wine. He was learning his languages well and was talking with other people who spoke many languages. It seemed as if almost everyone in the caravan spoke several languages. There were far more men than women but at night the women entertained them all with dances and songs. As Ayo observed the others he realized that Beida was by far the richest trader yet he carefully concealed his wealth and acted very poor, often complaining about his poor trip as a waste of time.
Late one night, the day before they were to leave, Beida leaned over to Ayo and said softly, “Now I want to tell you the rest that I know about the one who knows God as the prophets say!” Ayo was shocked into reality. For days, he had gone on and on without so much as thinking about his purpose. He now eagerly listened to Beida. “As you know, I am now getting old. I have traveled the world, as I told you before, to the great cities around the sea. Well, about thirty years ago I was in Jerusalem, a splendid city, son, and so religious. It has been conquered by the Romans and was ruled by Herod, a tough king. I was there doing some trading with some eastern traders from the Far East, a land where they say there is great wealth and riches. Well, there were old friends and we were in their splendid home having a party. I was almost drunk, had my arms around two girls and the place was stilled in utter silence, a calm of death fell on us, for standing just inside the doorway were men from the east. They were dressed in splendid clothes and their markings were that of royalty. Their eyes were piercing and their faces set as iron. There was an air of strength and mystery about them as they spoke.
‘Dear Brothers, we have come to see the new King, the Saviour and Redeemer. We just came from King Herod’s palace but he knows nothing about it. We shall now go on to Bethlehem where the young child is. Do any of you want to come and worship him, too? We have brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is the Holy One of Israel, the one spoken of by the prophets, the seed of Abraham, Joseph and David. His name is Emmanuel-God with us! We are in a hurry. Will you come along?’ Big tears slowly rolled down the cheeks of this strange spokesman, and I dropped my head to keep from being revealed by his stare. There was no more, not another word was spoken as the three kings, accompanied by their servants, turned and walked from the room into the night.
I tell you I have never felt such shame as I looked at the empty bottles of wine, watched the musicians start up a song and thought of our wicked greed and jealousy, and I want to tell you the truth, I have never been the same since; there was something supernatural about it all. I have often thought about that night and cried in my heart that I did not go with them to worship Him.” Ayo looked at the old trader across the firelight and said, “Have you heard more?”
“Oh yes, it was awful,” he said sadly. “Herod the King, that worm of a man, had every male child in Israel under the age of two years murdered… killed by the sword. It was a slaughter too awful to want to remember. I was there when it started and soon left. Every home was raided, children slaughtered on the spot, many girls also. Most soldiers didn’t check to see whether they were boys or girls. There was blood in the streets everywhere and all Israel was in mourning. I could not bear to stay there in that terrible time of death-I constantly kept wondering if they had killed the child.”
The old trader looked into the fire and from the sparkling on his cheeks, Ayo was almost certain he could see tears. Neither spoke for a long time. Ayo sat with his head on his knees, pondering the story over and over in his mind and shocked that Beida, who had always seemed so cold and godless, had this deep emotion in his heart for a child he had never seen. He wrapped himself in a blanket and lay looking at the star filled heaven above and whispered, “If this child is alive, let me see him before I die!”