The two families were still many days from their destination, but already the village of Bethlehem was filling up with ‘Sons of David’ who were reluctantly gathering to register their existence, thereby making it easier for the cursed tax collectors to come calling in future years. That these tax collectors were fellow Jews who had sold their souls to the dreaded and despised Romans was particularly galling. Already there were reports of skirmishes along the road that made its way along the Jordan river. This wasn’t just bandits but fierce knife wielding zealots who sought to disrupt the travesty of an imposed census. Roman troops mingled uneasily with the soldiers of King Herod the Great, a necessary alliance as both emperor and king were equally despised by the people they oppressed and ruled over.
Registration booths were already set up across the village, where Roman officials took note of the details of each traveller, watched carefully by Herod’s spies who had been chosen specifically because of their local knowledge. These collaborators would be well rewarded, as indeed they would need to be, for their future survival depends on their ability to set up new lives far from unforgiving former neighbours. As the lines of people began to form, rich and poor side by side, one of the most renowned censuses in history began. It was a slow tedious task, very few had any verifiable evidence of their ancestry, but Roman efficiency demanded that as much information as possible be put on record; this census was, after all, going to lead to a steady source of income for the Empire for many generations to come.
Every detail was parsed out, negotiated and debated with collaborator neighbour cheek to jowl with those who were registering. Tempers flared in the hot day, fist fights and shoving were quickly quelled by nearby soldiers, who weren’t afraid to remove a couple of names only freshly registered by killing them to make an example.
Dark mutterings over hung evening fires, greeting long lost cousins paled in excitement against the frustration and futility of bureaucracy. Those who finally were registered, went home quickly, pockets lighter from the exorbitant registration fees and the bribes needed for successful men to get to the head of the queue to the annoyance of those who just couldn’t afford it. Soldiers stood guard over the Inns and Taverns where the officials and collaborators were staying. Extra guards were placed over the secret location where the registration files were stored in sealed stone jars.
Such were the numbers of those born of the House of King David, that it was taking days for those newly arrived to Bethlehem to get anywhere near the heaving village. Meanwhile Joseph and Mary made their way down the slopes of the hills into Jerusalem; dusty, weary beyond words, and increasingly worried by the rumours of long delays getting into Bethlehem. Their new-found friends, another Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife Sarah, agreed that they would all need to rest for a few days, to catch up on sleep, and food. The other Joseph manged to get an expensive shared room in the outskirts of the already overcrowded city. They all sank gratefully into dry and brittle beds of stale rushes and slept for hours.
Meanwhile in the heavenly realms, plans were already in place for the next stage of God’s plan and it was going to be truly spectacular.