Instead he's captured and taken to King Herod. Now, let me side track and talk about Herod for a second. Now, if you remember your Bible verse, you know Herod is not a good person. He's not a benevolent ruler. This book takes it to a whole new level. He is a villain of…well, biblical proportions. Here is a withered old man who is firmly off his rocker. He thinks he has leprosy, but it's syphilis. But his insanity doesn't give him a pass, or any sympathy, since he got syphilis from raping a 12 year old. Oh, it's his favorite past time, raping. Now, it should be pointed out that this was a different time. Mary is depicted as only 15, and that's probably fairly accurate. That's not to say the rape part is ok. Never. But the age is what I'm talking about. Presumably, the life span was much shorter, so once you were fertile, you could bear children, and therefore an adult. Still, it's icky and it's meant to be. In one scene, Herod rapes another young girl, telling himself she's supposed to resist and really loves it. Then he kills her in a fit of rage, of which she had no part in. Then, he has sex with her body. Yeah. Feel free to take a moment to comprehend how repulsive he is. He's egomaniacal, unbalanced, and violent. Not a great combo.
I'll come back to why, but let me keep laying this out for you. So, he and his companions are on the run again, and head to a small town called Bethlehem. There, they head to a stable to hide their camels and what do they find?!? Gasp! A woman and a baby! Never saw that one coming did you? The "wise men" threaten Joseph and Mary to keep them quiet despite assurances the holy family is hiding from Herod's men too, and the thieves leave in the morning.
Overall I was glad the author didn't romanticize the time - Herod wasn't the only brutal figure. I think people tend to think about it as a time when people were...holier. Were true to their word. That kind of thing. They forget women were possessions, slaves abounded, children could be raped, there was little/no justice for the weak and the poor. Only the powerful could ask for justice. The whole book shows the brutality and...helplessness of the time. The idea of the elite Romans fat and happy - and corrupt - while the rest of the empire scrapes by. Jews, hated and persecuted wherever they go. Balthazar is from Antioch, Syria, and is the perfect example of this. When the Romans take over Antioch, the native Syrians are relegated to the slums. While thievery is harshly punished, its the only option for many Syrians. That, or dangerous jobs in the mines, where Balthazar's father was crushed.
Another decision I really appreciated was to not have Balthazar convert. They all survive the flight to Egypt - even the other 2 wise men who betray the fugitives. And though Balthazar lives to old age, marries and has children of his own, follows Jesus' life and what he teaches. But doesn't actually "follow his teachings;" he doesn't convert. In fact, he doesn't seem to change much at all. When his wife dies, he fulfills her desire to burn Rome to the ground, never giving much thought to the families who live in the buildings that burn, or the shops, of if someone dies in the blaze. They're just Romans after all.
The book raises questions of faith, of why God lets bad things happen. I think the answer (as far as the book goes, beyond that, you'll have to judge for yourself) is sometimes they have to happen to put you in the place you need to be. Had Balthazar's life been easier, he would not have had the skills necessary to get the holy family to safety. I think the message of the book is about acceptance. Accepting others. Not judging them. Because you don't know what they've gone through, and you don't know why. The thing you judge them for today may be the thing you need them for tomorrow.
Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith