Jeremiah the tent maker was yelling to be heard over the noise and commotion pouring through the door of his small shop. The street outside was congested with merchants, customers and soldiers pressing past one another.
He was a slender man with a thick beard. His eyes were dark, and carried the weight of wisdom and the exhaustion of a father who had worked entirely too hard to give everything he could to his family. His hands were calloused and felt as leathery as the tents he repaired.
Unlike most others, Jeremiah found the increasing number of soldiers in the crowd was a very good thing. Soldiers brought tents with them, tents that needed mending; tents that needed mending put food on Jeremiah’s table.
It had already been a great day of business for Jeremiah, and right now, at the end of the day, his main focus was to keep the incessant stream of noisy customers moving along.
His 12 year old son Paul was learning the family’s business, and communication between he and his father was becoming more difficult as the crowd in the store front grew.
“One minute, Paul.”
“Dad!” the boy yelled in a panic, and pointed wildly behind him, “He is in a hurry, and I don’t understand what he wants!”
Jeremiah turned, and saw a soldier towering above the others in the crowd. The bristled crest on his helmet ran from side to side, instead of back to front, indicating that he was a Centurion.
Jeremiah quickly excused himself from the conversation he had been engaged in, and motioned by pointing with his hands for Paul to switch customers with him.
Centurions frequently passed through Jeremiah’s store. He would stop everything he was doing to service them. Every centurion represented at least one hundred soldiers. Taking an order from one meant taking many orders.
Business like this was the very thing that kept Jeremiah and his family in Tarsus. Jeremiah longed for Jerusalem. He missed living in the Promised Land, knowing that he was walking the same streets King David once walked. More than that, he missed living and working along side people that truly understood him and his customs.
But it was tents that put food on the table, and the people passing through Tarsus were always in need of tents and tent repairs.
Staying in Tarsus had turned out to be very prosperous.
From the earliest that Paul could remember he was captivated with the city. If a person wanted to be social, this was the perfect place. People moving everywhere, constantly, and yet it seemed as if everyone knew each other.
Although he was still young, Paul also recognized why his father had decided to stay in Tarsus, even after being allowed to return to Jerusalem.
Tarsus had become a prominent city in the corner of Asia Minor. It was located about 10 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea on the Cydnus River. The river ran out of the snowy Tarsus Mountains, directly through the center of Tarsus, and out into the Mediterranean Ocean. This made Tarsus an ideal area for trade and culture to flourish.
As business men, travelers, and armies would move from the west or the east, Tarsus served as a main crossroads. Anyone traveling by land would load wares onto ships at Tarsus, and continue on to points west located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Anyone arriving from the sea, moving to the east would dock their boats at Tarsus and continue by land.
All of these attributes also made Tarsus a crucial city to the Roman Empire, and served as a focal point for the armies as they moved to the East.
For all of these reasons, in 42 B.C., the Roman general Mark Antony had granted the city with libera civitas, or the status of free city. This allowed the inhabitants to govern themselves without owing taxes to Rome, return to their home lands if the chose, and at the same time, have all of the benefits of being a Roman citizen.
This was Paul’s home because it was Jeremiah’s way to provide for his family. Paul didn’t mind helping out with his father’s tent making. On busy days like this one, it interested him more, because he had the chance to interact with the customers, and see his father at his best.
A few hours later Paul found himself walking next to his father down an unpaved road. Once each week, Jeremiah would close his shop early, and he and Paul would take a short journey to the outskirts of town, where he would buy the goat hair from local shepherds that would be used for tent making.
Paul enjoyed this time. It was his time with his father. This was where he felt like a grown up. It helped him understand the larger picture of how communities interacted with the world around them, and the necessity of those who had made a life outside the city.
As they left the bustle of the streets, the countryside was scattered with the types of trades that were necessary to support a large city like Tarsus. There were mills for grinding flour, flocks of sheep and goats, dairy farms as well as farms that grew grains, vegetables and fruits.
“Paul, that soldier that came to the shop today was a very important man.”
“He was a centurion, wasn’t he? I saw you talking to him for a long time.”
“Yes, he wants me to make several large tents. So large that I’m not even sure that goat’s hair will be suitable for the fabric. We’ll have to order something more rugged or try a different weave. We will ask Felix when we get to his goat farm and see if he has any ideas.”
From the weekly walk across the rolling green hills of Cilician country side, Jeremiah and Paul had become familiar not only with the farmers along the road, but with several of the travelers that also made weekly journeys.
As Jeremiah was talking, he watched the way Paul’s eyes shifted constantly to take in as much as he could of the surroundings and the people walking by. He specifically noticed the way that Paul gazed with admiration at some Jews from the synagogue walking along the path heading back into the city to prepare for the upcoming Sabbath.
Paul was also particularly interested in Jason, a farmer that they had formed a friendship with from their weekly walks.
Today, is seemed that Jason was struggling with his ox. From the moment that he came into view until the point that he dropped out of sight as they crested the next hill, he struggled to make the ox move in a straight line.
Paul could almost see the defiance on the face of the stubborn animal. At one point, the ox stopped completely. Paul turned to his father to ask why the farmer was having so much trouble.
“Old Jason has had trouble with animals from the day that we first met. I can’t figure out why. He always treats them kind, but they just don’t seem to want to work for him.”
“Then why does he keep them?” asked Paul.
“Because, once he gets them working with him instead of against him, they are the best work animals anywhere”.
Paul looked back thoughtfully, and watched the farmer continue to struggle.
The time at the goat farm went as planned.
Felix seemed pleased with Jeremiah’s order. Business had been good, so the order for the goat’s hair to make the tent fabric was a little larger than normal.
They briefly discussed the concerns with the heavy tents that the centurion requested, and Felix believed that he could provide heavier material to suit Jeremiah’s needs.
They were on their way back to the city within an hour. As they crossed the hill that bordered Jason’s land, Paul started gazing across the field, amazed at the straight lines that were laid in the soil for planting the rows of wheat.
Then Paul’s eyes found Jason and the ox half way across the field, and then he watched the strangest thing. The ox was still fighting to pull the plow. Jason was using his right hand to hold the plow, but he was holding on to what looked like a long metal bar in his left hand.
The bar was attached to two thick leather straps that hung from the frame of the plow.
Every so often, Jason would pull back on the metal rod and let go of it. As it swung forward, it would ram into the ox’s rear flank and the ox would jump forward for several steps and begin to move along steady.
After doing this several times, the ox threw a strong kick backward toward the rod. When the rear hoof connected with the prod the ox let out a low rumbling sound, then jumped forward and begin moving along again.
And then the whole process would repeat itself over and over.
Paul thought to himself, “Why does the ox keep kicking that thing? If it hurts, doesn’t he know to stop?”
“Dad, how does that pole hurt the ox, and why does he kick at it?”
“That metal pole is sharpened on the business end. When Jason lets go of it, it swings forward it pokes the ox. It punishes him and straightens him out. Every time he uses it to prick the ox, the ox stops fighting and obeys.”
“I know that is the way it is supposed to work, but look at the ox now, he keeps kicking at it”.
“Well, that is the ox’s choice. He’ll learn”.
They walked along in silence for some time.
“Would you be angry, if I didn’t want be a tent maker when I grow up. I mean, I really like tent making, and I would love to become like you some day, but, well…”
“I know Paul. I also know that you like your Jewish name Saul. I know that you find the law fascinating. You would make a great student of the law and a wonderful teacher of it as well”.
Jeremiah knew that his own loyalty to the Jewish Law had created a desire in Paul to learn more of the scriptures.
“How did you know”?
“Every time we leave the temple, it shows on your face. The way you always ask questions, trying to understand the law and the prophecies from the scriptures. Since you were five your mother and I have known.
“And to answer your question, no, I could never be angry with you for desiring to serve Yaweh. You would make the tribe of Benjamin proud. Who do you think arranged your sister’s marriage with Levi, knowing that they would live in Jerusalem to stay close to the temple?
“Anyhow, Paul, you are almost 13, do you know what happens when you turn 13?
“Yes, Sir, I become responsible for myself, for my obedience to the Law”.
“That is right. It is more your choice than mine. There is also another choice that you will have to make next year when you are 13”.
“I have been writing to your sister and Levi. There is a priest that is a friend named Gamaliel that has agreed to let you study under him if you wish. If you are interested, the choice is yours. You can stay here in Tarsus, or you can live with her and begin to study with the priests and rabbi”.
“If that is what you chose”.