I feel my world has been turned upside down.
Jesus had been going on and on about wanting to go and see this famous exorcist, so after breakfast this morning I packed some bread and water while Jesus saddled up a donkey, and we set off for Capernaum. This was my chance to show my support for Jesus and his mission, and it sounded like a good day out too.
No one quite knows how Eleazar travels around, or where he goes to between appearances. He had drawn massive crowds at Caesarea Philippi several weeks ago but had not been seen since. People say he lives in a secret cave in the mountains, fasting and praying, and then sends out his helpers to spread the word when he is ready to hold his next event. I have to say I’m impressed at how so many people had turned up on the strength of what were little more than rumours.
There must have been well over a thousand of people waiting to witness the great man at work. I tied the donkey to a post and moved towards the front so I could see better. Jesus said he wanted to move around and watch how it was done and how people reacted, so after a quick break for bread and water we agreed to meet up at sunset to travel the few miles back to Magdala.
The day went by in a flash. Eleazar certainly looked the part. He had a long straggly grey beard, filthy skin, a pronounced stoop, flashing eyes and torn clothes. He sounded the part too, with a booming dramatic voice. With a good deal of noise and flamboyant gestures he cast out demons from one person after another. Sometimes a person had more than one. Sometimes they came quietly, sometimes they made the victim cry out loudly or have a fit or writhe around on the ground as Eleazar almost seemed to wrench them out.
When someone had several demons, they might all leave together in a mad flourish, or one would leave but it would be obvious that the person was still possessed. Then Eleazar would exorcise another, and another, until the sufferer was left in exhausted but demon-free.
For some demons, a command to leave or an appeal to God to drive them out was sufficient to do the job. Sometimes he addressed demons by name and they answered back, making the afflicted person speak in a completely different voice, occasionally even using a different language, which really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. For others, Eleazar had a special ring on his finger that he would put under the possessed person’s nose. The reaction was usually the same: the demon would leave in a sudden rush through the person’s nose, making them cry out and clutch their face as it left. If that didn’t work, Eleazar might grapple with the person to help the process, sometimes shaking or hitting them, sometimes even wrestling them to the ground. Nothing was too much trouble to get the job done.
To make it even clearer what was happening, for a time Eleazar had a cup of water set up on the ground, which the exorcised demons would knock over in their rush to get away. Time after time the cup would be sent flying and rolling across the ground, and soon the earth around it was soaked with the spilt water. Every time it happened, the crowd, who were already in a state of great excitement, would let out an extra loud cheer.
The whole thing was exhausting to watch, so it was difficult to imagine how Eleazar must feel. After two or three hours he took a short break and sat down for a rest and a snack and a drink, but the break didn’t last long.
“Eleazar, save me! Save me! I am a man possessed by many demons,” cried a voice I recognised. The ragged, dishevelled form of Tom’s father, Daniel, pushed through to the front of the crowd and threw himself in front of the exorcist. I couldn’t see Tom anywhere, so Daniel must have come on his own. “I am blessed in that I hear voices and see visions, but I am also cursed by demons that plague me and never let me rest. Save me! If anyone can, you can!”
Eleazar rose to his feet and to the challenge. He used his full range of talents and techniques. Demons left singly, in groups, quietly, noisily, easily and with great resistance. Tom’s father provided a one-man demonstration of what Eleazar could achieve and what demons could do to a man. Eventually Eleazar identified one last demon, which announced itself as ‘Antigod’ and made Daniel cry out in a terrifying unearthly voice I had never heard before. Eleazar tried everything he knew to expel this fearsome monster but it continued to taunt him in its fearsome voice, giving Daniel convulsions as it refused to come out and eventually making him throw himself on Eleazar and claw at his throat.
Some bystanders stepped forward to help but Eleazar told them to step away and not put themselves at risk; only he had the knowledge and power to provide deliverance. The two men wrestled in the dust, rolling over and over, releasing blood-curdling cries and making me fear for both their lives. The strength and ferocity the demon gave Daniel was awesome, but eventually Eleazar appeared to be getting the upper hand. He managed to extricate himself, then stood up and pulled Daniel to his feet. He raised both arms high, roared like an angry lion, pointed both hands at Daniel and cried, “Out!”
Daniel collapsed in a heap, yelled, “It’s over!” then went limp and lay spread-eagled and still on the red dusty ground, covered in bruises and wounds from his battles with Eleazar and the demons, his clothes more ragged and his hair more tangled and matted than ever, but silent and at peace.
Eleazar was in much the same state, lying there panting, physically and mentally exhausted. Even part of his beard had been torn off in the struggle. But at least he had won. Daniel was clean at last, spiritually at least. The crowd was silent for several minutes. Eventually Eleazar rose, first to his knees and then to his feet, wiping the sweat and a good deal of grime from a pale forehead underneath, before reaching down and helping Daniel to his feet. Daniel put his arms around Eleazar and the two men hugged. The crowd cheered. It was a fitting end to an exhausting day.
Daniel opened his mouth to speak. Eleazar smiled and waited for the quiet, sane words of thanks.
“Hello!” boomed Daniel. “Antigod speaking! I’m still here! Ha! You don’t get rid of me that easily!”
Eleazar slumped back to his knees, bowing his head in defeat, holding his head in his hands. I wondered if he was sobbing. What would happen now?
Nothing at all happened for a minute, then I became aware of one man pushing through an otherwise immobile crowd. It was my husband. Not the dreamy, awkward Jesus, but a poised, serene, clear-eyed, authoritative Jesus.
“Come to me, Daniel,” he said in a loud, vibrant voice. Daniel was only two steps away but he obeyed anyway. Jesus lay his hands on Daniel’s head, closed his eyes and moved his lips as if in silent prayer.
After a minute he said, “Antigod, when I give the command you will come out of this man and leave him in peace. Do you understand?”
“I understand, but I yield to no man,” said Daniel in Antigod’s voice. There was a pause.
“In the name of God, be gone!” commanded Jesus.
To everyone’s surprise, the voice replied, “OK, the game’s up. I know when I’m not welcome.”
Then Daniel shook his head, blinked, looked up and said, “Hello Jesus, what are you doing here?” He was absolutely fine, and as lucid as I have ever seen him, the only apparent problems being that he could recall nothing of the day up to that point and that he was ravenously hungry.
Eleazar was back on his feet and was shaking his head.
“How on earth did you do that?” he asked.
“Only prayer can drive out that kind,” said Jesus solemnly.
“I have never seen such authority in my life, and I have been delivering people of demons for many years. I am the great Eleazar, but you are greater still.”
“I know who you are,” announced Jesus, and I almost thought I saw him wink.
Jesus then turned to the crowd and said that it was only their generosity that helped Eleazar to continue to do his great work, and any coins they could spare before they went home would be gratefully received. But one after another they came up to Jesus and pressed money on him instead, saying that holy men like him deserved to be supported by the people. Jesus thanked each one in turn and told them to say nothing about what they had seen. He was given so many coins that he had to take his hood off to hold them all.
At last we were alone: a small group comprising Tom, Daniel, Eleazar, Jesus, me, and our donkeys. Tom hadn’t said a word since he arrived at his father’s side, which was most unlike him. Jesus turned to Eleazar and offered him the hoodful of money.
“No, you keep it,” said Eleazar. “You deserve it.”
“At least take a share,” said Jesus, “and come back for a meal and somewhere to sleep for the night. “You taught me well.”
Cyrus smiled back at Jesus. The stoop had gone and he looked years younger. His disguise had been excellent but the torn beard and the soft skin under all the grime had made me suspicious. And he had never quite managed to disguise his Samaritan twang.
“You have learned more in two weeks than most people manage in two years, or even two decades,” said Cyrus. “I can teach you no more. Go and spread your message. You are ready.”
After more discussion everyone agreed to come back to Magdala to eat and sleep. Dusk was upon us and Tom would just have to get up before dawn to go to work, hoping the extra hours he had put in recently would make up for a late start. The exhausted Cyrus and Daniel each took a donkey, and I rode mine, while Jesus and Tom walked behind, deep in a conversation of their own.
On the way back Cyrus told me of his double life, his work as a trader supporting his family and enabling him to do the thing he loved, which was helping people by relieving them of their symptoms of possession. The double life also helped to maintain the air of mystery surrounding Eleazar, who almost literally disappeared in between appearances.