Skip to main content

Looking for Judas


ISSUE:  Summer 2009
Jay and I peered together at our foldout map. On it the bold-faced, introduction-unnecessary place names (Herod’s Gate, Solomon’s Stables, Dome of the Rock, Western Wall) were packed together so plentifully it invited despair of ever seeing them all. Down near the bottom of our map, however—stark and alone but for an orbiting, italicized, and differently typeset Hinnom Valley—was our destination: Hakeldama.
The Hinnom Valley, looking west from the Jerusalem’s Old City. (Ian W. Scott / CC BY-SA 2.0).

We had been looking for Hakeldama for close to an hour, wandering through deep, desertic, geological gouges stubbled with little merkins of shrubbery and low gray trees that look squashed and drained of chlorophyll. The sun did strange things to the landscape here, vivifying the dominating grays and sands, weakening the greens, and walling off thousands of hilltop and hillside houses behind shimmering heat-haze force fields. To walk along the Hinnom Valley in a certain frame of mind, for a long enough time, is to become lonely and thirsty and vaguely alarmed, forgetful that above, on the upper slopes of the valley, a fifteen-minute walk away, is the walled Old City of Jerusalem. That this remote, unfriable, tactically worthless city, many miles from the nearest meaningful river or harbor, has become the Finland Station of monotheism is one of history’s more enigmatic accidents. God would never have chosen Jerusalem and so Jerusalem chose God.Jay suggested we try yet another path, one lined by a shin-high wall of pale brown stones. This was his first visit to Jerusalem, too, but Jay was a historian, so I followed him. Some of the paths we had explored previously were blacktopped; this one was not. The path’s gravel was still loose and crunchy: not many feet had been this way. To the left was the base of Mount Zion, the southern face of which was bare and undeveloped. To the right were rocky cliffs and, above them, sandstone apartment buildings (some quite tony), that could not be seen at present due to the steepness of the cliff walls. There was not much grass and what grass there was looked hayish. Nor was there much trash. What we did see along the path were many caves; most of them were barred but a few of the shallower ones could be explored. We passed some apparent dig sites fenced off with thin wire barriers. These little excavations all had an ongoing, archaeological neatness to them, but there were no archaeologists working here this afternoon who could help us find Hakeldama.

The Hinnom Valley is thought to have spent a considerable span of time more or less continuously on fire.

It was strange that, in a city where even the alleys had sites of world-changing historical consequence (not to mention several dozen motor-mouth freelance “tour guides” who would happily leave you alone for only a twenty-dollar bribe), we found ourselves nearing one of the few places whose present-day location scholars are reasonably sure is the same place mentioned by the New Testament—and yet there were no plaques, no signs, no people, no obvious paths; just caves, mud, and bushes. From where we now stood we could see at least ten pathways through the Valley of Hinnom. All of them were empty.

According to a fairly obscure verse in 2 Kings, in the Hinnom Valley children were burned alive as offerings to stubbornly enduring Canaanite gods. Jeremiah goes further, quoting the Lord’s fulmination against those who spill the “blood of the innocent” in this “valley of Slaughter” and recording his dreadful promise of divine wrath: “I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters.” Later the valley was used as a place to dump things considered unclean (a rather overarching category for ancient Jews), whereupon all such refuse, including unclean corpses, was burned. The Hinnom Valley is thought to have spent a considerable span of time more or less continuously on fire. These fires’ greasy soot and smoke, some of it redolent of barbequed human flesh, likely blew through the streets of Jerusalem, dirtying cloaks and staining buildings. Evidently, it became a social irritant of such magnitude that its only future lay in metaphor.

In Greek, Hinnom becomes Gehenna, a word employed several times in the New Testament. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus claims it as a place the “scribes and Pharisees” will be unable to escape, while in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus refers to its “unquenchable fire.” By the first century CE the Valley of Hinnom was no longer used as an open-air furnace; certain associations, however, proved difficult for it to molt. Here was the rare religious tradition whose point mutations could be tracked virtually step-by-step. A site of child sacrifice, municipal incineration, and generally fell associations found at the base of a city becomes a fiery transdimensional prison imagined for some strange reason as being located beneath the physical world. In a pleasing swap of the usual semantics, in the Valley of Hinnom one could literally, rather than figuratively, walk through Hell.

The valley was home to another site of profound but ambiguous importance to early Christianity, though its precise location was becoming increasingly difficult to verify. Jay, far ahead of me now, jumped off a small ledge onto another exceedingly thin path that led muddily toward a new clearing. Finally, Hakeldama. A dead tree, a rampike as gray and hard as concrete, stood near the middle of the clearing, all of its naked branches pushed one way, as though arranged by millennia of wind. Exposed, unfriendly stones the shape of mandibular canines stuck up out of the weedy grass. A Palestinian woman in a white headscarf and carrying a plastic shopping bag was walking along the ridge above us. A rooster called from the vicinity of Silwan, a nearby neighborhood.

Very little of the Old City could be seen from Hakeldama. We could see the Mount of Olives, from whence Jesus is said to have ascended to Heaven, and which was now crowned with a glittering salt-white diadem of over 150,000 Jewish tombstones. Parts of the Mount’s slope were striped with tall shaggy spears of cedar and blotted with shorter, rounder olive trees, but large portions of the Mount were bare. The Romans had cut down nearly every tree in the final years of the First Jewish War (66–73 CE) and the Mount had apparently never fully recovered. Jesus was arrested somewhere on or at the base of the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the present location of which is at best an informed guess. Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ own disciples, guided the arresting party to Gethsemane, and Hakeldama is traditionally believed to be the place where that betrayer met his end.

In the various ancient copies of the New Testament texts that mention it, Hakeldama goes by many names: Akeldama, Acheldemach, Akeldaimach, Haceldama. It is a transliteration of an Aramaic word that means “field of blood.” Two thousand years later, we stood in the middle of a place that had a reasonably valid claim to being that field. Here, many believed, a mysterious and calamitous fate laid its word across the most despised betrayer in human history. Yet once the initial frisson of its notoriety had passed, Hakeldama was not only lonely but unendurably dull.

Indeed, the Jerusalem Jay and I had thus far encountered could only be described as a series of disappointments in the face of history revealed. The zonated nature of the city—the source of its many ionized tensions—is, for the first-time visitor, its most overriding feature. No one is allowed entrance to as much as a coffee shop without being passed over by a security guard’s explosive-detecting wand. This is expected, of course. Less expected are the church doors hung with signs that read: absolutely no firearms. The city’s surreal variety of faiths and people, meanwhile, lives in something short of obvious amity. Jerusalem’s crowded streets had the tight, phobic, elbowy feeling of a convention no one was particularly happy to be attending. Greek Orthodox priests in black robes and rope belts sullenly ate ice cream beside glum Franciscan priests in sunglasses and floppy hats. Hasids and head-scarved Arab women hurried through the streets as though being pursued by modernity. On David Street, vendors stepped out into the passing crowd, found someone with whom to make eye contact, offered unbidden directions, then demanded as a reciprocal favor that their new friend look inside their stores. The markets themselves were largely a gallows of shoddy merchandise: bowls of beads, body stockings, stuffed camels, plastic toy sniper rifles, pirated Arab-language copies of Toy Story. At one corner an Evangelical tour group led by a man with a thick Tennessee accent argued over the opening line of the Twenty-third Psalm while a few feet away a Roman Catholic tour group led by a young, sunburned priest stopped at one of the stations of the Via Dolorosa, which was essentially invented by Franciscans in the 1600s, while M16-bearing Israeli soldiers looked upon them all with unmistakable irritation. A little farther down the street, mouthy Palestinian school kids shouted down insults from atop the wall of the Aqsa school. Nearby, tourists gawked at the gargantuan crown of thorns around the dome of the Church of the Flagellation while others posed for photos beneath its freestanding, photo-op cross. Elsewhere, young Palestinian men manned T-shirt stands that sold “Free Palestine!” shirts alongside shirts emblazoned with “For the sake of Zion—i will not be silent!”

Before our search for Hakeldama began, Jay and I had stopped for an early lunch in what had become our favorite falafel restaurant. Near the end of our meal, three dozen pilgrims from New Ulm, Minnesota, invaded the otherwise empty restaurant, though their Palestinian guide remained outside, pensively smoking. All thirty ordered hamburgers. A large, Santa Claus-like man with a thick white nicotined beard and intensely merry eyes sat next to Jay; his short-haired, penologically thin, and nervously smiling wife sat next to me. Both were eager to chat with what they were delighted to learn were fellow Americans. They had been in Israel six days. What had they seen? Bethlehem, of course. Galilee, where they had gazed upon the very place where Jesus once trod upon water. This morning had brought them to the shore of yet another amazement: the dungeon in which Jesus had been beaten. And us? Well, as it happened, today we were planning on finding Hakeldama, which Judas supposedly purchased with the money he had earned by betraying Jesus. Husband and wife shifted, then looked at each other as carefully as bridge partners. What kind of Americans were these? Jay explained, to their noticeable relief, that he was a professional historian. And what kind of history did Jay study? His area was the Crusades, generally, but his particular specialty was the study of how Jerusalem was perceived by, and propagandized on behalf of, those who had never been there. He described how nearly all of the first travel guides about Jerusalem were written by Crusade-era scribes who routinely failed—to the frustration of modern historians—to take note of the contemporaneous reality of the city around them and instead focused on imagining they had found the exact spot where Jesus saved the adulterous woman from stoning. Jay had not said this pointedly, or snidely, or rudely, or dismissively. In fact, he had spoken with considerable sympathy. Our new friends nodded politely and for a while did not speak. Finally, the man looked up and asked, “Why the heck would you want to see where Judas killed himself?”

The figure of Judas Iscariot,” one Christian has written, “is the most tragic in all the Bible.” Another writes, “He committed the most horrible, heinous act of any individual, ever.” Yet another writes that Judas “is the greatest failure the world has ever known.” The name Judas has become an electromagnet for the negatively categorical.

Who Judas was, what he did, why he did it, and what he ultimately means have been debated within Christianity since its first decades. In the centuries since, many—believers and non-believers alike—have attempted to discern in his few scriptural appearances a personality complicated and large enough to merit the crime for which he is condemned. These myriad attempts have resulted in almost as many Judases as attempts. We have been presented with a Judas who is tormented and penitent, a Judas possessed by devils, a Judas possessed by the Devil, a Judas who is diseased, a Judas who is loyal, a Judas who does what he has to do, a Judas who wants Jesus to act against Rome, a Judas who is confused, a Judas who is loving, a Judas who loves women, a Judas who kills his own father, a Judas who works as a double agent, a Judas who does not understand what he has done, a Judas who kills himself, a Judas who lives to old age, a Judas who loves Jesus “as cold loves flame,” a Judas who is the agent of salvation itself.

Later writers who set out to imagine their own Judas were merely following the evangelists’ necessarily abbreviated lead. The greatest failure the world has ever known is mentioned a mere twenty-two times in the New Testament. The Gospel according to John mentions him the most; the Gospel according to Mark, which was probably the first gospel to have been written, mentions him the least. In Mark, Judas is little more than plot spot-welded to a name.

Mark’s story of Judas’s betrayal begins with Jesus and the disciples in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper. An unnamed woman opens “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment,” which she proceeds to pour over Jesus’ head. According to Mark, “some who were there” grow angry and ask, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?” These unnamed people begin to scold the woman. Jesus tells them to leave her alone, because she “has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you … but you will not always have me.” Immediately after this, “Judas Iscariot, who was one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.” Mark writes that the chief priests were very pleased, and “promised to give [Judas] money.” Judas then begins “to look for an opportunity to betray him.” Shortly thereafter, Jesus announces at the Last Supper that “one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me,” though he does not name Judas. Jesus then takes the disciples to the Mount of Olives, where, “deeply grieved,” he prays alone at Gethsemane and asks his father to “remove this cup” from him. When he returns from his prayer and finds the disciples sleeping, he upbraids them (“Enough!”), before suddenly announcing, “See, my betrayer is at hand.” And so Judas arrives, along with “a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.” Judas has told the chief priests that he will identify Jesus with a kiss, which he does while fulsomely calling Jesus “Rabbi!” With this, Mark’s haunting, skeletal account of Judas’s betrayal ends.

How is it that the disciples do not understand Jesus’ words to Judas when he has plainly identified him as his betrayer?

Mark leaves a number of things unclear. Why did the chief priests need Judas’s help, exactly? How did Judas know the chief priests wanted Jesus dead? At what point did Judas leave the Last Supper? How did Judas know where to find Jesus? Why, if they were so eager to capture him, did the chief priests not know what Jesus looked like? The questions about Mark’s portrayal of Judas are in many ways codicils to larger questions about the gospel itself. Most scholars believe that an oral tradition concerning Jesus existed before Mark. Does Mark’s gospel indicate a break with that oral tradition or is it its recorded consummation? Did Mark invent key aspects of the Jesus story or merely preserve them? Was Mark the first to join two separate strands of Jesus material (a “words” strand and a “deeds” strand) into what is called a gospel? Did Mark invent the gospel form by combining these two strands? In the words of one scholar, is Mark an “evolutionary document” or a “revolutionary document”?

These questions are so difficult to answer in no small part because we cannot be sure if Mark was the first gospel. Papias, a second-century Christian bishop and writer who was privy to an expanded form of Judas’s death, famously noted that he preferred hearing stories about Jesus to reading them. In that case, what, exactly, was Papias hearing? Was he talking about the familiar gospels, now lost gospels, or an earlier oral tradition, upon which Mark may have based his gospel? If an oral tradition concerning Jesus carried on into the second century, how different from the gospels might it have been? Given that Papias knew of an expanded version of Judas’s death, we can assume it may have been quite different. Papias was by no means alone. Works by Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, and Polycarp, all of whom lived around the same time as Papias, refer to sayings they attribute to Jesus that have no precise parallel in our versions of the gospels—a literary form to which these early Christian leaders make no reference. (Papias refers twice to “sayings,” documents that he attributes to Matthew and Mark, but he never calls them gospels.) The first oral stage of the Jesus story is also its most potentially revealing, and we have, at best, oblique access to it.

The Gospel according to Matthew leans heavily on Mark throughout but includes material that is not found in Mark. Did Matthew get this information from an oral tradition, a written document, or some source of purported eyewitness? Or are these departures proof of a detectable mind, wherein the author is not working off outside material at all but writing in the way we today understand that word? Whatever the case, Matthew had access to a repository of unique Judas material, and he used it.

Like Mark, Matthew begins the story of Judas’s betrayal in Bethany. Again a woman pours ointment over Jesus’ head. This time, however, it is “the disciples” who grow angry. Once more, Jesus attempts to abate their anger with instruction similar to that in Mark, after which Judas goes to the chief priests and asks them, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” The chief priests provide Judas his answer: thirty pieces of silver. Already the picture is more complicated than in Mark, for Matthew has made money Judas’s motivation rather than his reward. But was Judas adequately paid?

There is some evidence that thirty silver shekels—Matthew does not specify the coinage of Judas’s payment—was, in ancient times, shorthand for the ransom to be paid for a socially insignificant victim of kidnapping. It was also, according to Exodus 21:32, the amount required to repay the owner of an injured slave. It is not clear Matthew had either imbursement in mind, given that Jesus, during the Last Supper, tells the Twelve that they will abandon him, quoting lines from Zechariah (“I will strike the shepherd / and the sheep of the flock will be scattered”) to establish the prophetic nature of his announcement. The passage of Zechariah to which Matthew has Jesus refer is apparently intended as a broadside against the priestly community then leading ancient Israel. In this passage, one of these priestly “shepherds” narrates his own disgraceful payment of thirty shekels of silver for abandoning his flock, money he is then ordered by the Lord to throw “to the potter” or perhaps into the Temple treasury. Matthew, more than any other gospel writer, worked with various pieces of Hebrew scripture flattened out next to him, extracting from them as much exegetical serum as possible.

Like Mark, Matthew includes Jesus’ Last Supper proclamation to the Twelve that one of them will betray him, but expands it to indicate that Jesus is aware of the identity of his betrayer—something Mark does not explicitly do—and that the betrayer himself knows he has been discovered. Several early critics of Christianity pointed to Jesus’ betrayal as a powerful indictment of his divinity: “[N]o good general and leader of great multitudes was ever betrayed,” one wrote. Mark provided no protection from this criticism. Matthew seems to want to show that Jesus was not surprised by the betrayal, thereby shielding him from accusations of fallibility. Unlike Mark, however, Matthew’s Judas speaks up after Jesus’ announcement: “Surely not I, Rabbi?” (Rabbi is not a term the other members of the Twelve use to refer to Jesus.) Jesus answers Judas measuredly: “You have said so.”

When Jesus is brought before Caiaphas, the high priest asks him if he is the Messiah. Once again, Jesus answers, “You have said so.” Jesus has the same answer for Pilate. In this way, as scholar Kim Paffenroth notes, Judas is placed among Jesus’ enemies. Matthew also has Jesus address Judas during the betrayal: “Friend, do what you are here to do.” After witnessing Jesus’ condemnation, Matthew writes, Judas “repented” to such a degree that he returned his payment to the chief priests. “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood,” Judas tells them, and, in a move reminiscent of the wicked shepherd of Zechariah, casts his money into the Temple. He then departs and hangs himself. Does Matthew view Judas’s repentance as genuine? Is Jesus sincere when he calls Judas “friend”? This much is clear: Matthew’s Judas publicly and unambiguously acknowledges his sin, attempts to repudiate those with whom he collaborated, and doles out to himself the most extreme possible penalty. This is not Mark’s cipher, or a placard of evil, but a human being whose actions Matthew has at least attempted to comprehend.

Luke apparently struggled hardest with the notion of a betrayer existing among the Twelve. To account for this unfathomable turn of events, Luke opted for an explanation that would long affect Christian thinking: Judas betrayed Jesus because of Satan. This vastly expanded the reach, efficacy, and anthropological interest of Satan, hitherto an infrequently glimpsed enigma in human consciousness. Luke, like Matthew, was in all likelihood trying to counter the potent question of how the Messiah could have been betrayed by one of his own. Luke abandons the Bethany portion of the betrayal narrative, and merely notes that, as Passover in Jerusalem begins, “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve.” As in Mark, Judas confers with the authorities (now expanded beyond the chief priests to include “the temple police”), and once again is paid for his services. His motivation, however, remains demonic; money is a worldly afterthought. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the Twelve that “the one who betrays is with me.” As in Matthew, Luke’s Jesus makes clear that he knows he must be betrayed to fulfill scripture but wishes a woe, similar to that of Mark, on the one who will give him over. Judas, though, is not named. Nor does Judas, when he leads the authorities to his master, get to kiss Jesus. Instead, Jesus stops him short with these words: “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” This is the only time in the gospel tradition that Jesus addresses Judas by name and it could be read to signal some kind of forgiveness or consolation on the part of Jesus. But why would Jesus want to console the one who allowed Satan to possess him? Or did Judas allow Satan to possess him? Here, Luke is no help.

In the opening words of the Gospel according to John we learn that Jesus has existed from the beginning of time—a parsec leap beyond the claims made by the other evangelists. In fact, in John, all things exist because of Jesus. Jesus is the light, the world is the darkness, and those who believe in Jesus “are not condemned,” while those who do not believe in Jesus “are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” In John, Judas is no different from any other person who does not believe in Jesus and therefore merits no special punishment. He does, however, merit special consideration. While John contains no list-of-the-Twelve tradition, which allows the other evangelists to instantly mark Judas as the traitor, John does manage to condemn Judas upon his inaugural mention.

This occurs shortly after Jesus has informed his disciples that, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” and as a result been abandoned by a number of horrified followers. Jesus asks the remaining Twelve, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” This devil, John tells us, is “Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.” Judas is next mentioned during Jesus’ trip to Bethany, though the home to which Jesus pays a visit belongs not to Simon the leper but Lazarus, who lives there with his sisters Mary and Martha. The unnamed woman in Mark and Matthew here becomes Mary, who takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard” and applies it to Jesus’ feet with her hair. In an additional touch of verisimilitude, the house soon fills “with the fragrance of the perfume.” The scene is similar enough to Mark’s to warrant the possibility that John knew Mark, but dissimilar enough that a more likely explanation might be that the Bethany anointing was an early oral tradition that Mark and John knew in distinct forms. John also provides a crucial extra detail. In Mark, unnamed people get upset at this profligate use of expensive fragrance. In Matthew, it is the disciples. In John, Judas complains, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Is this a man of conscience? No. John writes, “Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.” John’s Judas has in fact been stealing from the common purse since Jesus’ ministry began—and yet, interestingly, money will have no place in John’s version of Judas’s betrayal.

Then there is John’s rendering of the betrayal itself, which is, of all the gospels, the most dramatically compelling. As Passover begins, we learn that “the devil” has “already” entered “into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot.” Jesus knows this, for “the Father had given all things into his hands.” As he sits down for the Last Supper, Judas’s heart roils with devilry. John’s Last Supper, which lacks the Eucharistic tradition found in the other gospels, mainly consists of Jesus talking, and one of the first things he says is, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The alarmed apostles look about the table and ask who it might be. Jesus answers, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Jesus gives the bread to Judas. The rest of the passage deserves full citation:

After [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

It is a scene of spooky, inarguable power and scalp-clawing mystification. How is it that the disciples do not understand Jesus’ words to Judas when he has plainly identified him as his betrayer? What is the difference between the earlier devil that “already” entered Judas and the “Satan” that doubly penetrates him here? John doesn’t say. And he is content during the betrayal scene to leave Judas “standing with” the authorities in silence. John has a “detachment” of Roman soldiers there to do the arresting, though none of the other gospels mentions Roman soldiers. John, turning his back on the unlovely spectacle, never mentions Judas again.

Which leaves the matter of Hakeldama, the Field of Blood, itself. In Matthew, after Judas has thrown his money into the Temple, the chief priests gather it up out of the belief that it is “not lawful” for such money to be placed in the treasury. To cleanse the sum, they use it “to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners.” Matthew writes that this “fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah.” The prophecy’s fulfillment does not, in fact, exist in any surviving form of Jeremiah. Matthew appears to be mixing various bits of Hebrew scripture, some of it perhaps from Zechariah. That Matthew cites language that has not existed in the Hebrew Bible since the second century has long baffled Christian commentators. Many early copies of Matthew saw the citation of Jeremiah either stricken or changed by attentive scribes.

Luke’s run at the prophetic fulfillment of the Field of Blood is no less puzzling. It is contained not in his gospel but in Acts of the Apostles, and comes through the voice of Peter, who stands “up among the believers” and tells them, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus—for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” Then Luke tells us that Judas “acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness.” When Peter is quoted in the English translation as speaking again, he says, “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, / and let there be no one to live in it.’”

Luke was citing scripture he believed fulfilled prophecy—apparently Psalm 69:25, which also no longer contains the words Peter cites—but he may as well have been forecasting Hakeldama’s future himself. Desolate? Lunar. Let there be no one to live in it? Neither Jay nor I had seen anyone for hours. It was the sort of hot, quiet day during which one could almost hear the faint sizzle of solar combustion. While Jay sat on a stone and read a book I filled my notepad with doodles of the hilltop Old City’s skyline. We were as mutually oblivious and silently occupied as castaways who had long given up hope of rescue. I had planned to ask all those we encountered at Hakeldama what moved them to come here. Morbid curiosity or historical inquisitiveness? Spiritual openness or angry righteousness? Sadness expressed or vengefulness savored? I imagined that some who sought out Hakeldama might be the Christian equivalent of women who, having confused pity for affection, write long, keening letters to convicted felons. As it happened, my only visitor thus far had been a small gray lizard. It approached, stopped next to my shoe, and locked into the pose of alert stillness unique to reptiles. The moment I lifted my foot the lizard shot away, a living bullet.

Our next visitors arrived a while later. Deep into my doodles—the gold-plated bowler that was the Dome of the Rock turned out to be particularly pleasing to draw—I did not notice these visitors until Jay said my name and told me to look up. On the ridge above Hakeldama, standing behind a barbed-wire fence, three sheep stared down at us with dull, domesticated half-interest. Their heads were wonderfully hybrid: the almost piscine placement of their eyes, batlike ears, and proud leonine snouts. The sheep had approached along the same path earlier used by the Palestinian woman, who remained the only human being we had seen in the immediate area. One of the sheep was adobe brown and wore a bright, many-colored collar. The other two were collarless and white, or approximately white: pendulous clumps of dirt and dung dangled from their thick wool coats. A man came up behind the sheep, speaking to them in Arabic. It appeared that he was their shepherd, an occupation that came with certain sartorial expectations, all of which he atomized. He wore dusty jeans and a green and black windbreaker with a prominent tear on one sleeve. He said nothing; neither did we. Two small children came up behind the shepherd, both carrying long wooden switches. One of the children began to apply his switch, harmlessly but repeatedly, to the backside of the brown sheep, which somehow seemed to sigh.

The shepherd appeared neither friendly nor unfriendly and I debated whether or not to say hello. Jay had already returned to his book. Without saying anything I returned to my doodles. A few minutes later, I looked up again. The shepherd, his small flock, and the children were still standing there, the cloudless sky behind them a wall of brilliant, wet-paint blue. I wondered if this man regarded us as trespassers. Was this perhaps his land? Did his children play here? Did his sheep graze here? All seemed remote possibilities. The land could have belonged to the nearby monastery, if anyone. While the children’s Muslim faith likely divorced them from any sense of this place’s infamy, the only game I could imagine being played at Hakeldama was who could run away from it the fastest. As for the sheep, there did not seem much to eat other than a few tussocks of grass, a good deal of moss, and some tiny yellow flowers. Everything else was a study in gray.

Below us, on the road that snaked along the bottom of the Hinnom Valley, a hip-hop-blaring white sedan motored toward Silwan. A historically Arab neighborhood adjacent to the Old City, Silvan had lately become the site of a considerable settling effort by Jewish Israelis. (One large Jewish development in Silwan is named for Jonathan Pollard, the convicted and still-imprisoned spy who gave U.S. military secrets to Israel.) The sedan disappeared behind a hill. When the dust raised by its passage had settled, I again reminded myself that what I was looking at was not rural Albania but the southern edge of the historic center of one of the world’s most storied cities.

The watchful shepherd was still there, and now it was my turn to say Jay’s name. When he looked over I made what I hoped was a clandestine, signifying gesture toward the shepherd. Jay nodded, closed his book, and stood. I looked up at the shepherd and waved. To my surprise he smiled and waved back. I made another, more complicated gesture that involved pointing at myself, performing a two-fingered walking pantomime, and then pointing at him. Once he figured out what I was trying to suggest (admittedly, this took a moment), he nodded and waved us up. We circled our way toward the ridge, stepping over what had to be the most half-hearted barbed-wire fence in all of Israel. It was as though whoever placed the fence here had done so as a token action, confident that obstructions more powerful than metal thorns kept visitors from Hakeldama.

“Do you know the story of this place?” I asked. “I know the story,” he said. “Yes.” To prove it, he jerked an imaginary noose around his neck.

From the top of the ridge we could see more of Silwan. I had read that parts of this neighborhood, which filled a valley and swept handsomely up its hillsides, were lovely, but that many of its muddy and squatly woeful facing buildings resembled nothing so much as a charmless San Francisco. We could see something far worse than charmless, however: a section of what the Israelis call the Separation Barrier and the Palestinians call the Racial Segregation or Apartheid Wall. In the early 1990s, during the first Intifada, the Israeli government proposed a limited barrier to separate Jewish Israelis from Palestinians. Construction on a barrier between the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv began in 1994, but when Israeli-Palestinian relations worsened and finally ruptured in 2000 with the beginning of the Second Intifada (which killed more than 800 people), the Israeli government called for a far more comprehensive barrier. The proposed and repeatedly revised trajectory of the barrier would cover 436 miles. Many have argued that the barrier’s ostensibly defensive purpose is in fact calculatedly offensive. In many places the proposed path of the barrier would effectively isolate many Palestinian villages, towns, and neighborhoods from any outside contact. Phase C of the larger barrier’s construction, approved in 2003, is called the Jerusalem Defense Plan. Its thirty-two-mile-long path is the most busily wending and spaghetti-like of any section of the barrier and will enclose three parts of the city. It has been met with numerous legal challenges, and while construction continues on some portions of the permanent Jerusalem barrier, other portions have seen work stoppages or the erection of temporary barriers while Israeli courts ponder the permanent barrier’s legality.

The majority of the barrier is found in rural areas, and in those places it was, for the most part, a militarized chain-link fence. In urban areas, however, the barrier took the form of an eight-foot-high concrete wall, which was purportedly intended to frustrate snipers. The portion of the barrier we now looked upon was of the concrete wall variety and lay close to Silwan’s southern edge. It was nearly finished. (Another proposed portion of the barrier would brush the edge of the neighborhood of Givat Hananya or Abu Tor, which is found directly to the south of Hakeldama and has the distinction of being one of Jerusalem’s only mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods. As far as I could figure from the barrier’s currently planned coordinates, Hakeldama would be hemmed in on at least two sides but would not fall inside it. On one older, outdated map the barrier’s proposed path seemed purposely altered to avoid enclosing Hakeldama—a place, it appeared, no one had any wish to claim.) However effective the barrier had been in decreasing terrorism (and it inarguably had), and however inclined one’s sympathies, the barrier possessed the hideous gray inelegance of a supermax prison. This was, no doubt, the barrier’s intended emotional effect, but then most prisons do not leave the question of who is the prisoner and who is being imprisoned quite so ambiguous.

The shepherd welcomed Jay and then me to the ridge with a handshake each, his left hand placed over his heart. His name was Nazar and he claimed to be thirty-four years old. If he had said his shoes were thirty-four years old, I might have believed him. Nazar looked at least fifty and seemed unwell in the purest diagnostic sense of the word. One of his eyes had the cloudy opaqueness of a mood ring, his widow’s peak was receding as we stood there, and his mouth was filled with the stained and broken teeth of a fairy-tale goblin. Most Palestinians were not in Nazar’s condition, certainly, but there was no question that the vast majority had access to a healthcare system and social services that, when compared to those that served Jewish Israelis, barely qualified as substandard. Every society is afflicted by some measure of inequality and the poor will always be with us. But the omnipresent discrepancies between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem seemed beyond the accounting of poverty. It seemed purposeful, systemic, and its effects were apparent down to Jerusalem’s daily microscopiae. I had ordered a Diet Coke in a moderately expensive Palestinian restaurant, for instance, and the dirty, dented can I was eventually presented with looked as though it had been interrogated. For virtually every available good and service, Palestinians were at the end of an immensely long begging line. It was not as if I were shocked by this or had not expected it. And it was not as if I believed that Israeli concerns were invalid or that the Palestinians had arrived at the doorstep of their misery through innocent ambulation. But human beings as existence-ravaged as Nazar were better met in orphanages, leper colonies, war zones, and other locales of human collapse, not in a city in which I could have turned around, walked for ten minutes, and had my pick of salves and delights.

Nazar spoke halting English. I asked him if the children with him were his. They were not. He did not know whose they were. Sometimes, he said, they walked with him while he grazed his sheep. I looked at the children. They were ten or eleven, black-haired, brown-eyed, their faces just beginning to shift from youthful roundness to preteen angularity. I said hello. One smiled, but neither responded. The smiling boy was wearing a Darth Maul T-shirt and had a large half-moon scar under his eye. The other boy shifted his gaze from me to Jay and back again in the sad way of someone who had come to take his invisibility for granted.

When I asked Nazar if many people came to Hakeldama, he did not seem to know what I was talking about. I pointed down toward the field. Hakeldama. The Field of Blood. Suddenly he was nodding. I asked, “Do you know the story of this place?”

“I know the story,” he said. “Yes.”

“Judas?”

“Yehuda. Yes. I know the story.” To prove it, he jerked an imaginary noose around his neck, then smiled. “Yehuda.”

“Do many people visit Yehuda’s field?”

“Yes, some America, some Britannia. Not many people. One day, people come. Two day, no people.”

“What do you think of the field?”

Nazar thought for a moment, though it was clear he regarded this question as odd. He looked back at me. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Yes. Nothing.”

“Do these children know the story of the field?”

He spoke to them in Arabic. The children emphatically shook their heads. “They don’t know.”

It seemed apt that of the three people I encountered at Hakeldama, one did not care two figs about its associations and the others knew nothing about it. Nazar’s brown sheep bleated irritably. One of the children hit the brown sheep on its rump with his switch. The sheep trundled along down the ridge, stopped, and bleated again. “These are your sheep?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. But I already knew that, because Nazar had already told me.

Our conversational oscillograph was flatlining. Out of this straining awkwardness, Nazar suddenly pulled a question. “How big is your stay?”

“A few days.”

“Yes? Good.”

More questions followed. Where we were from. What we did. Did we like Jerusalem.

“And how about you?” I asked him. “Do you live nearby?”

“Yes, I live.” He swept his hand toward Silwan, into which a lone red motorcycle with an unhelmeted driver was flying up a path. The low rock wall along the path hid the motorcycle’s wheels, which lent the driver’s movement a smooth naval swiftness.

“Can you see your house from here?”

Nazar did not answer. Instead he turned and pointed to the southwest, where the keg-like King Solomon Hotel rose up from the horizon. “You live?”

“No,” I said, pointing to the west. “Over there. Yemin Moshe.” This was a tiered residential complex of apartment buildings, all of them architecture-school elegant and well tended. It was, needless to say, a Jewish neighborhood.

Nazar nodded glumly, and seemed to weigh the advisability of bringing up something else he wished to address. I waited. “Before,” he said finally, “I live two houses.” He was vaguely aggrieved now and began to speak faster; his grammar quickly became a casualty. These two houses were also in Silwan, but neither was a house he currently lived in. Apparently, a Britannia had wanted to help him with one of his homes, his home, which is under the ground, on the other side, which big shot came to help, help, help, but he come now away, and no help. And three hundred, which is three hundred? One zero zero, which is this? Three hundred. Yes, Britannia help three hundred, he try but no help. And then Israelis take his home. I stood there, nodding in a careful, piecing-it-together way. (Jay and I would spend the next four days exchanging theories as to the precise nature of these described machinations.) Once again, Nazar pointed off into the distance, this time toward what he no doubt knew as the Apartheid Wall (which suddenly looked to me less like a wall and more like a dam, which, I supposed, it was). He began to say something about the barrier but did not have the words. His hand dropped. He shook his head and looked at the ground. He had said as much as he could.

“What is this fence for?” I asked him, placing my hand atop one of the barbed-wire fence’s wooden stakes.

Nazar looked up. “For small people and animal not come here. No fence, maybe big fall.”

I thanked Nazar for his time. “No problem,” he said, and again, fumblingly, we shook hands. As Jay and I started away the muezzins of Jerusalem’s many mosques began the Adhan, or call to prayer. They did not begin simultaneously. At first there were four distinct voices, at least one of which did not sound prerecorded, but they were soon joined by others, and then more after that. I had heard the Adhan in many cities of the world and had never found it anything other than an ideal of sonic beauty. The call to prayer made mornings less lonely, late afternoons more melancholy, and filled the evening with strange, silvery omens. But I had never heard a call to prayer quite like this growing gale of sound. The voices—another had just joined—lost their lovely spirals of individuality and overlapped into a formless meteorological whole, something everywhere at once but nowhere specifically. I was not sure if this sensation was due to the acoustics of the valley or the sheer number of voices or was simply caused by my knowledge of the hostility these calls to prayer both provoked and gave voice to. For a moment, it felt as though the Hinnom Valley’s every ghost had turned banshee in anger and now sang and swirled around us. Then they stopped. When we looked back at Nazar, he was using a large, flat rock to drive the fence stake I had touched deeper into the ground.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading