This book came out of that kind of critical inspiration that came to me very often as a child, when I would watch or read something and wish that the story had gone another way, done something different. Experiences of that kind eventually led me to the conclusion that if I wanted to see a story turn out a certain way, I would have to write it myself. So I became a writer, and so I became the writer of The Devil Left Him.
About a year ago I happened to watch the film Last Days in the Desert, in which Ewan McGregor portrays both Jesus of Nazareth and the Devil who tempts him. It did not tell the tale of the Temptation, as described in the Gospel of Matthew, but rather a story not found in Scripture about a family making their way in the desert, whom Jesus tries to help and the Devil tries to corrupt. The idea of one actor playing both main characters intrigued, so I rented it.
Unfortunately, intrigue is all it managed to do. The actual scenes of conflict between Jesus and the Devil are relatively few, and they are largely anti-climactic. The film has a meditative narrative to play, and it plays it. This disappointed me, but I understood it.
What bothered me was an exchange between Jesus and the Devil in which Jesus asks the Devil what it is like to be in the presence of God. The Devil’s answer is both sincere and suggestive, but the question annoyed me. In the scene, Jesus asks like someone who has no concept of what God’s presence is like. As a Catholic, and as a teacher of Apologetics at a Catholic high school, this flew in the face of what I have understood Jesus to be. In fact, it qualifies as heresy.
Back in the 4th Century, there was a Christian priest named Arius who believed and taught that Jesus was, like everything else, a creature of God. That is to say, he did not exist until he was conceived in the Virgin’s womb, and his Divinity was on a par with a pagan hero of semi-divine parentage, like Heracles. The Council of Nicaea was called specifically to debate Arius’ theology, known as Arianism. The Council not only rejected the teaching but condemned it as contrary to essential Christian teaching - heresy. Anyone who has ever in church said the Nicene Creed (which was written at the Council) is, among other things, specifically condemning Arianism as false.
The Trinitarian teaching, accepted by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants of all varieties, is that the Son of God existed from the beginning, as did the Father and the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Son had an eternity of divine life before he became flesh and was born to a virgin. Jesus would never ask anyone what it was like to be in the Presence of God. He was the Presence of God.
But it’s easy to criticize, to summon the nerd’s answer and cast aspersions on someone else’s creative venture. I am not blind to why such a choice might be made in a work of fiction. A protagonist, in order to be relatable, has to solve a problem, sure, and that problem has to be related to a need the character has. Luke Skywalker joins the Rebellion and saves the Princess because he’s an orphan and wants something to belong to. But a human who is also God has no needs, instantly understands everything, and cannot be defeated. In the parlance of our times, he is the ultimate Mary Sue.
So it makes more sense, in the context of Last Days in the Desert, for Jesus to be ignorant of his Father, because the conflict between father and son is the plot that’s going on around him in the family he and the Devil watch. It’s theologically nonsense, but fictionally necessary. One cannot have a protagonist who has no problems. It simply will not work.
Or will it?
This book is an attempt to tell the story of the Temptation as close to the Trinitarian conception of Jesus as possible. It is an attempt to avoid the Arianism-by-default that we find not only in Last Days, but in The Last Temptation of Christ, and in others. As a writer, I wanted to see if a work of fiction can accommodate the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels, the Jesus who is God from God, Light from Light. I made use of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth to inform me of the deeper meanings in the exchanged between Jesus and the Devil found in the Gospels. I took those exchanges as they are and expanded upon them, adding flesh to the bones, as it were. I did not intend that the reader would need a great knowledge of the Bible to enjoy the book, but that will not hurt. At any rate, here it is, my literary-theological experiment. I hope you will enjoy it.
Final Note on Languages: Jesus and the Devil are referred to in their Hebrew names. Jesus will thus be called “Yeshua” and the Devil “the Satan”. “Devil” is derived from the greek diabolos, and “Lucifer” is Latin. Hebrew is the language of origin for these persons.
Andrew J. Patrick
Yeshua was fourteen days in the desert when the Satan came to him. He had reached the point where the hunger inside of him could no longer be fooled by the drinking of water - for water had to be consumed in the desert, daily. It was no longer an experience that his tall, lean body underwent without protest. His very muscles were screaming at him to eat.
He considered the pain as a reality, as the raw nerve transmitting the signal - this is wrong, this is wrong - and did not deny it. He could understand the way hermits sought to transmute this pain into pleasure. That was a way to allow the brain to survive the pain, the monotonous stab of it. But it was a lie. Yeshua had no patience for lies.
He watched a desert hawk drop from his lazy figure-eight and plunge to the ground below. Yeshua smiled at this. Perhaps this would divert him. It was always pleasing to see a creature do what it was meant to do. Taking a deep breath, he stood, stretched, slipped his feet into their thongs, and set off toward the horizon where the hawk had descended.
The desert floor was yet cool. In a short time the sand and the basalt would take the heat of the sun and become a furnace. Yeshua had perhaps time enough to find water, and shelter in a crevice in the rock. He willed his steps to be lighter than they wished.
At last he came upon a trickling wash, in the center of which the hawk was pecking and chewing with vigor. Careful not to make a sound, he circled around so as not to be downstream of the hawk. Then he stepped down into the wash, opened his skin, and began to fill it. As the water filtered gently in, Yeshua looked up and caught the hawk's eye.
It had noticed him and stopped eating. Its head came up and it regarded Yeshua with narrowed eyes, waiting for him to show threat. But Yeshua simply looked back at him. The sun climbed higher in the sky and he could see what the hawk was eating: a snake.
"Blessing on you, little brother," said Yeshua, "No easy prey for you. That serpent might have had you for a meal."
The hawk lowered its head slowly, in distrust, before returning with quick, thrusting pecks, to the defeated serpent. Yeshua returned to his skin, and the two went about their business without minding each other. When the skin was full, Yeshua looked up just in time to see the hawk dart into the sky. It spread its wings with a joyous shriek and was gone.
Yeshua tied off the water skin and walked over to where the hawk had enjoyed its meal. A few bits of gore were all that remained of the snake. The hawk had been hungry.
Yeshua felt the pangs of hunger return to him with increased force. "Hunger is a great force, Father" he said to the desert.
"Does he answer you?" Came a voice to his left. Yeshua turned and saw the Satan.
He was pale and bald, with deep blue eyes set in a sharp, bony face. He wore a black cloak of many folds and his hands rested gently amid them.
"He always answers," said Yeshua. "But rarely how I wish."
"That sounds familiar."
"Have you been here long?"
"Define your terms," said the Satan with a smile. "If by 'here', you mean 'this dead creek bed', or even 'this desert', then not very long, no. But if you mean 'the earth', then I have walked it before anyone else ever did. Far longer than you, Yeshua bar Yusuf. Of course, that further depends upon..."
"...what I mean by 'long'" replied Yeshua.
The Satan grinned with white white teeth. "A prophet with a sense of humor. How novel. I will enjoy you more than most. Certainly more than that sour cousin of yours.”
Yeshua walked over to the Satan, and sat down beside him.
"Of course," he continued, "even the Baptist is a madcap compared with others. Elijah, for example. Oh, the hours I spent listening to that man pray. I was never happier to see someone gain his eternal reward, even with the preposterous display of it. I mean, an actual fiery chariot descending from heaven, with a seraphim driving it. Vainest thing I ever saw. Still, glad to see be rid of him. At least Elisha would summon angry bears to devour those that annoyed him. That made me laugh."
Yeshua took a swig of water from his skin, then he offered the Satan some. The Satan looked at it, and him, and laughed. His laugh made the sun shine brighter and the water glisten like fine rays spun of silver and the earth itself glow. When he was done laughing, he pitched forward and somersaulted into the wash.
Yeshua laughed, too. "Pardon me," he said, "I forgot you never touch the stuff."
"Do you know what would happen if I did?"
"Nothing. It would pour right through me, and I'd stand there like an old man pissing himself."
Yeshua and the Satan looked at each other for a moment. Then the laughter burst forth from them. They laughed long and hard. The Satan rolled in the wet wash and even splashed a bit and that was even funnier. Yeshua wiped tears from his eyes.
Yeshua could not tell if the Satan’s remark was really that funny, or if his hunger made mirth come easier. He decided it did not matter.
The Satan sat in the water and slowly recovered himself. "I get it," he said at last. "You're a new sort of prophet. I guess you'd have to be. No more scolding, dirty men. No more terror miracles - pillars of fire, rivers of blood. Now you'll come at their cheerfulness, such as it is. Now he wants to inspire them to Joy."
Yeshua noticed that the folds of the Satan’s cloak were not wet from the wash. He closed his water skin.
"It won't work."
"Won't it?" said Yeshua.
"No," said the Satan, drawing himself up, "it won't. Oh, you'll bring in a few. But the majority of them will do exactly as they always have - sweating and stealing and putting the onus on others. That's what they do. It's what they always do. And of the ones you do inspire, most of them will revert once the initial glow fades. Once it stops being easy. And the rest will die and become fodder for the rest to have arguments about. The very thought of it benumbs me."
Yeshua started walking. When he had gone five steps, he turned to the Satan and said "Are you coming?" Instantaneously the Satan was at his elbow, with a wry look on his face.
"Good," said Yeshua, and he started walking.
"I know your game," the Satan said, "you want to show me that you aren't afraid of me. Big brave Yeshua, the Son of God, treating the Devil as a joke. Too good and pure to take his temptations seriously."
"Go on," said Yeshua.
"You've lived a simple life, Galilean. You think because you work with your hands that your life has been hard? You've had food in your belly and a roof over your head all your born days."
"No, not today, nor for two weeks. What of it? An artificial gesture, taken for no purpose other than you think it will please Him. He does love empty gestures, doesn't he?"
Yeshua began to lose interest in the Satan's conversation. The mention of food had set his belly boiling. He was inhaling deeply and trying to think past the pain when he felt something hard and sharp slam into the side of his head.
He fell through oceans of time, crimson swirling streams of emergent possibility. Choices made and unmade and abandoned and desperate prayers of a thousand dead civilizations flooding the narrow causeway of his awareness. He saw himself in gold and cloth and paint representing the likenesses of every race of Man.
He sat up from the ground with his head aching and the Satan with red red eyes was standing over him with a rock. He held it out to Yeshua.
"No bigger than this," the Satan said, "The rock that Cain used to bash his brother's skull in. I saw it. I was there. Abel took the first blow and sat there, just as you are, with that same stupid look on his face. I was at Cain's elbow. I saw what he wanted. He was terrified - they always are - but he wanted to do it. I gave him what he needed.
"And why? Because of Him and His love of gestures. Burn an offering to me, He says. Give me the best that you have. What did He need it for? He couldn't eat Abel's firstlings or Cain's oats. It was all a gesture. It didn't even prove what it was supposed to prove. Did Abel love God, or just disdain his own work? Was Cain to be mocked because he valued what he had spent his sweat to bring forth more than he loved a pointless command from On High?"
Yeshua listened to this, and he put his fingers to the sore spot on his head. It hurt. When he pulled it back, there was red on his fingers.
"Yes, Yeshua, you bleed. You might think because He made your mother’s belly quicken that you are special. That He loves you most. But He will abandon you. He will leave you to die in the fields, like Abel. He will not lift a finger."
"I do not expect Him to."
"Then you should know better than to mock me," said the Satan, and then he took the rock he was holding and threw it into his own face. It disappeared and flew behind him and clattered amid its brothers on the desert floor below.
"Do not think us equals, son of Adam" said the Satan. "However miraculous your birth, you were still born. You are a creature that breaks. That is broken. Never forget that."
Yeshua stood up, but in the passing of that instance he found himself alone. He walked over to where the Devil had stood. In the place where his black robes had skirted the earth, Yeshua found only a thin black snake crawling amid the small crumbly stones. He felt dizzy and slightly sick.
He looked at the snake intently. “I am not so easy a meal as that,” he said.
The sun burned through the sky and left stars in its wake. Yeshua sat in a cool notch in the stone. He had sat there all day, feeling the pain of his stomach vie with that of his head. It was almost diverting, to weigh these separate pains, to consider which hurt worse. They hurt in different ways: one nagging, persistent, the other in throbbing waves. Each represented real damage to his body. But only one of them was by his choice.
His water skin lay on the rock floor at his feet. It was full. He'd had no thirst. The thought of drinking water made him feel sick.
He was all right. The pain would subside. He would get better. Not for this death had he been born.
As the stars stepped up from behind the sun's passing glamour, Yeshua became again aware of the Satan's presence. He was sitting behind him. Yeshua could feel a pressure to speak, but did not.
"I should not have done that," said the Satan at last.
"Struck you. I should not have struck you. I'm not even sure how I did it."
"You must have been angry."
"I was. Your presumption made me angry, and yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of that position. In fact, that may have made me angrier."
"No, you don't see, Yeshua." Suddenly the Satan was before him, his eyes grey and full. "I encouraged Cain, and all who defy your Father. I discouraged Elijah - or tried to - and all those who would obey Him. But I act upon the will. I act upon the reason."
Yeshua smiled. "You do not throw rocks."
The Satan frowned, and in that frown Yeshua saw the agony of self-conceit failing. "Believe it or not, but even I have rules. I have never been so angry at one of his prophets that I wanted to directly, physically hurt him. I have been trying to determine why I was so angry at you."
"You said it before. My presumption."
The Satan shook his head. "All the prophets are presumptuous. All of them from Moses on down. Moses was the perhaps the most presumptuous man I ever knew. There he was, child of a palace, perfumed and princely, and he thought a few months herding sheep wiped that away. He never stopped believing himself a prince, did you know that? Your Father himself tired of it in the end. He died in a ditch, a stone's throw from his goal. I enjoyed that."
Yeshua looked down at his knees while the Satan talked. His knees seemed strangely foreign to him. But they were his knees.
"There I go again," said the Satan, "babbling and not coming to the point. Yeshua, I wish to examine your injury."
Yeshua returned his gaze to the Satan. He raised an eyebrow.
"I will not have you carried off to Heaven now, and deny myself the full opportunity to shatter your will. For a moment, our interests do not cross. Will you permit me?"
"There is no need," said Yeshua. "The bleeding has stopped. I lost awareness only on my way down to the ground. I will survive."
"You think I mean you harm."
"It doesn't matter if you do or not. I will survive."
"I understand," the Satan said. "How can you trust me? Even if I mean what I said, I mean it for my own purposes. Best not to listen."
"Now I'm really suspicious," said Yeshua.
The Satan smiled ruefully and they watched the night sky. It grew darker and darker as the last pale glimpses of illumination fell over the horizon. The stars were cold and distant and the moon a skinny sickle.
Then Yeshua's angry, empty, gaseous bowels let loose a steam of flatulence. It hurt like fire on his backside. But it did not hurt so much that the reverberations off the rock walls were not funny. He chortled softly to himself.
"You know, it's very hard to take humans seriously when they can do that," said the Satan.
"They think the same of you," replied Yeshua, "and for the same reason."
"Bosh. They think nothing of me. They prefer me not to exist, save when they lay their misfortunes at me feet."
"I know," said Yeshua. "And it's because you do not eat. They can understand things that eat, things that defecate. Such things are real to them. You don't and so you are unreal."
He looked where the Satan had been, but he was not there.
"A shame," Yeshua said, over the pain of another emission, "I was enjoying that."
"Were you?" said the Satan, sounding like he was right behind him, close enough for Yeshua to feel breath on the back of his neck. Which was absurd. But he turned around anyway.
There was only darkness.
"This is a poor trick," Yeshua said, "I am not fooled by it."
"You do not convince me," said the voice, just off to his right. Nothing there either.
"Just what you'd say if you were convinced," Yeshua said.
"Father of lies..." said the voice. The statement echoed throughout the rock, then down along the dry wash and across the desert befor coming back. "Father of lies."
"Yes, Father of lies," said Yeshua. "And none of them amuse me. So why don't we pick something else to talk of, if you want to divert me from my hunger."
"Your hunger..." said the voice, echoing the same as before. "Your hunger"
"Yes, let's talk of hunger," said Yeshua. "I could describe it to you, but you would not understand. Another thing you can never know. All these experiences that you cannot share.”
"I do not need to share them," said the Satan, off to Yeshua's left. Yeshua could see him now. "I do not hunger because my life does not break down and collapse if it isn't constantly pricked to continuance by ingestion. My life is complete and whole, and always has been. I do not need these petty 'experiences' as you call it. They are but doorways for animals to teach them things that I already know."
"What do you know?"
"I know that men die and go into the earth and wait there with me. I know they are tormented by the same thing that torments me. Your Father may hate me, but he's completely indifferent to them. Oh, sure, occasionally he rouses himself and makes a big show of this plague and that miracle. But that's just so the world doesn't forget him. He's maniacal about reminding them of his existence, even as he does nothing for them. It's depressing and sad. He was something, once."
Yeshua clicked his tongue, which set his throat and belly roiling again.
"And I know that you're hungrier than you've ever been in your life, and you hate it."
Suddenly the Satan was right before Yeshua's face, his green green eyes piercing into him.
"Now tell me, Yeshua bar Yusuf...am I lying?"
Yeshua clenched his teeth. He cast his eyes down, "Now you want credibility for stating that a man who has not eaten in two weeks is hungry?"
"No, I want credibility for stating that it has not given you the insights you had wanted. That the wisdom that comes from suffering has not been granted you as it was Elijah. That all you have found here is hunger and pain. Tell me I lie, and I'll leave you. Go on, Yeshua. Tell me."
Yeshua kept his eyes down, and said nothing. He heard a long, cruel laugh echo off the rocks, down the wash, and back at him with fuller force. This laugh did not make anything glow, or dance, or seem fuller. Rather, it seemed to cover the earth in the thinnest of shrouds.
"A gesture," said the voice, "an empty gesture. Be hungry and sweating and cold for no purpose. Suffer and seek death because you can, and therefore your puny will is engaged for longer than it takes to scratch your hairy selves. Stupid. Mindless. Yet here you are."
Yeshua took a deep breath.
"It's not necessary," said the voice. "You have the power to stop it right now..."
"Stop what?" said Yeshua, under his breath, his eyes closed. He was sweating in the cold. Suddenly he felt the Satan's presence at his left again, closer, almost right next to his face.
"You have the power," the Satan said, his breath sulfurous and yet somehow sweet. "He gives it to all his favored ones. He gives miracles to those he tortures longest, and so testifies to his own glory. But say the word, and the hunger would end instantly."
Yeshua felt again the pain of his wound. He concentrated on it. He could feel the blood and pus comingling, the infectious dirt battling with his own system for dominance. The wound was healing. But if he became much weaker, it might stop. His system might break down. The risk of it was real.
"Command the stones," whispered the Satan into his left ear, "and they will become bread."
"Others have fasted in the desert," said Yeshua. "They survived. I am, as you say, a Son of Adam, and I will suffer as the rest of them do. There is no justice in using My Father's gifts to feed only myself."
"Then do not feed only yourself. Feed them all. Walk the earth for the rest of your days, bringing food at your word. Feed the world, and men will call you Redeemer and Savior. Command the earth to become bread, bread flowing from bread, enough to satisfy every man that will ever walk the earth. Make yourself the last man to go hungry, and give meaning to your suffering."
Yeshua considered this. He considered a world of bread, of bread from bread, of bread growing on bread in tendrils and loaves and pieces reaching up to the sky. He put himself in such a world, biting everything he could touch, stuffing it into his face, falling down on it with his mouth wide open and laughing as he spit some bits out and stuffed some up his nose and ate it that way. It did not matter even to vomit it up because everything around him was bread.
He would sleep on bread. He would piss on bread. He would wipe himself with bread. Bread would be all things and all things would be bread. Men would think no more of bread than of the air they breathed or the dirt under their feet. It would amount to the same thing. There would be no purpose to rise with the dawn and learn of the world as the sun illumined it. There would be no purpose to giving bread to another; he would already have all he wanted. A man need not open his mouth to speak or even his eyes to see. He would be a mouth and nothing more.
There would be no place for hawks in such a world. Or of snakes.
He laughed as the air grew cold around him, as the Satan tried to present himself in the wound in Yeshua's head. He laughed and knew the next step. The Satan did not understand. He could not understand yet. It was not yet time.
Rising, he saw the cold flame that could not bee seen with the eye but only known. He called upon that cold flame in the name of his Father. It burned his eyes and throat to see the flame and speak into it but was nothing compared to the hunger inside of him. He heard a gasp in the recesses of his mind and the Satan flew across the rock. He landed without a sound and blinked at him, with a strange look on his face.
"Man does not live by bread alone," said Yeshua. "But by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The Word, and the whole world it made."
The Satan did not answer. The Satan only stared. Then Yeshua was alone.