There were a number of routes that Joseph and Mary could travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The straightest would bring them along by the River Jordan, down to Jerusalem and then the last few miles to the City of David. But this road would be overflowing with fellow travellers, all struggling in the heat of the valley roads, all filling the inns and taverns, and all seeking hospitality from fellow Jews along the way. The other route would be harder, but less busy; along the mountain pathways, close enough to Samaria, which most Jews would avoid like the plague. There would be much less welcome and hospitality, but the days would be cooler, and the opportunity for work for a talented stone-mason and carpenter would help provide for them along the way. Mary’s parents agreed that this route, though longer would also be safer, as the eyes of the bandits would be firmly fixed on the fresh pickings of the more popular lower roads.
It was difficult to say goodbye, so much had happened in recent months, and all of them knew, but never mentioned, that it could well be some months before the new family could return to Nazareth. Bitter tears were eased by a time of familiar prayers led by Joseph and his father-in-law. Hugs and hasty farewells sent them on their way, only for Mary’s mother to come running after them, a scribbled note on a piece of parchment with the name of a cousin of hers who lived in Thamna which they would pass on their way through the foothills of the mountains. Their son-in-law too was of David’s descendants, if it worked out they might even travel together. She didn’t add that he was a successful trader and might soon be elevated to high office in Jerusalem. Maybe, just maybe, he might share some of his wealth and accommodation along the way.
And so they were on their way, slow steady steps along the road through the hills. Always heading south, Mary and Joseph took their time. The census was being spread over many weeks and with Marys less than a month from her time to deliver her baby, it was important not to be hasty. Whatever about giving birth in Bethlehem, which seemed inevitable, neither of them wanted the boy to be born along mountainous pathways.
For much of the first two days there were few fellow travellers. Even with the donkey the going was slow. Joseph insisted on frequent rest-stops claiming the weight of the tools he had to carry was slowing him down. Mary knew her husband was more than strong enough; the rest-stops were for her, and she was glad of them. It felt like an adventure as they journeyed south, stunning views from the narrow mountain roads, plenty of fresh water to drink, and generous hospitality from the villages they passed. This began to change as they approached the border with Samaria. Long had division and resentment afflicted the relationship between the former children of Israel who had abandoned the worship of Almighty God in the temple for quasi-pagan shrines in the hillsides; and their ‘holier cousins’ who would claim superiority by merits of their still faithful temple worship. There were some Samaritans who gave generously to a much-needed carpenter and his heavily pregnant wife, in return for small jobs long overdue.
It was nearly five days later that the weary travellers arrived at Thamna, in the foothills of Mount Gaash. They quickly found Mary’s mother’s cousin, who was indeed preparing to travel south. As it happens, he and his wife were also expecting their first child and following a hearty welcome and a refreshing night’s sleep on a comfortable bed of fresh rushes the two families set off for the town of their shared ancestor, David, the town of Bethlehem.