In Mark 5, the Gospel tells a strange story, often glossed over by sermons. A demon-possessed man, living among tombs and showing signs of self-mutilation is liberated by Jesus. Cast out by his family and neighbors to live in the wild, the story rings of the Jewish rite of the Scapegoat as told in Leviticus 14. When Jesus exorcises the demon, he/they identify themselves as “Legion,” for they are many. While other demons in the Gospels seem to disappear into the mist, these are given a new host in a massive herd of pigs grazing on a seaside cliff. The pigs throw themselves into the sea.
I have always wondered, how did the man find himself in such a situation? Why the pigs? Why is this our introduction into the infamous “Decapolis,” the Ten Greco-Roman cities on the edge of Herod’s Jewish kingdom? As I studied the story, paired it with the Levitical laws surrounding the Scapegoat, I began to see in it a thoroughly modern story. A story of how we find outcasts to carry our cultural sins. A story of how we heap shame on those who are different in the hopes that we could find comfort in staying the same. And, finally, a story of Jesus who would not settle for the freedom of one man, but set out to break the system of oppression that had destroyed him.
This work of gospel imagination is my retelling of that tale.
The Wild Goat: The Introduction
The bacon business was strong. It’s always best to start a story with bacon. In my hometown of Gerasene, just south of the Chorian Bluffs, the Syrian locals have been making craft smoked pork for nearly 100 years. From the moment the Jewish kings fell and Ptolemy’s muscle-bound centurions cleared the hillsides of rebels, the whole place was high on the hog. The Syrians subjected the wild boar to domestic husbandry with skill and drive. Some say there was a pig out on the grazing cliffs for every person in town, and I’m not the one to question them.
I’m not really the one to question anyone.
I want to start at the middle because it’s better than the beginning. My story, my life, is broken into the first part: what made me, and the second part: when I was remade. Remade into myself again, if such a thing can be said.
In the middle was Jesus, Yeshua ben Josef as he in known to my people. But since we are speaking in the common tongue, I will try as much as possible to use the common names. Jesus was to some degree a local, though like many during the Herodian years, his family had traveled far and wide. The word on the street was that he trained briefly under Rabbis in Jerusalem and even lived for a time among the diaspora in Egypt. But it was the Galilean hills that he called home, and where he made base camp for his traveling apprenticeship.
Being on the outskirts of the Herods’ grip and within a day’s walk of the holy waters of the Jordan River, we were a common pit stop for itinerants, messiahs, and various end-times evangelists. Jesus was not the first, nor would he be the last. Years back, when word came that a new messiah was doing miracles in and around the League of Ten Cities Gerasenes responded in the familiar way: a mix of eye-rolls from the Emperor’s Enlightened and gritted teeth from the Judahites living on the margin.
The Judahite neighborhood, once Gerasene’s bustling village center, was now on the far southeast of town, supplanted and exiled to the edges by the Emperor’s Temple and Town Center farther toward the sea. Despite the economic depression this displacement had caused, the Judahites, my father’s family and his parishioners, were pleased to be farther away from the debauchery and the bacon. To men like my father, men of the old ways, the two were one in the same.
To tell this tale with such a clear mind is unsettling. It has been something more than a fog which has clouded me these recent years with every corner of everything thought tormented by chaotic sea storms. It has felt as if the very monsters of the deep waters crawled to land in and into the crevices of my being, making their home by the thousands.
Being the third son of the local priest is nothing to speak of. My brother Hashim will be village priest when my father is dead, my second brother, Casen taking over the family butchery. My family has been selling smoked beef and goat’s milk here on the western side of the Jordan River for nearly a thousand years. It is said the Ancient God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and he loans them out to those he likes best which has been good news for my family. Unfortunately the wilderness god Azazel seems to own the pigs, and this has presented a problem. I have heard that to some Judahites our mixing of commerce and religion is frowned upon, even to the point of inviting the suffering of the pig dilemma we are now in. They believe in the old ways where clergy should live off the scraps of the faithful. Problem is, there are so few faithful left up here on the eastern hills, not even Jezebel’s dogs could live off these scraps.
My father, Gershom ben Keshet, has always said utility is the child of necessity and; the Ancient God never looked down on six days work. I want to believe that he would have said this no matter who his sons became, but I couldn’t help but hear within the sloppy judgments of me. Long before I went mad—I should get to that story eventually—my flaws were mostly of the aesthetic variety: too weak, too ruddy of skin. The ultimate insult, I suspect, was when I requested one of my mother’s veils to protect me from the sun. When I was a child, the summer heat burned inside me, radiating from within even as I slept under a sea of stars. I longed for the comforts of the indoors, the manageable tasks of the house. I abhorred the rugged impossibilities of the smokehouse and the fields.
But all of that was many years ago. When I was young and porcelain. Today I sit at the edge of the sea. My forearms are striated with a weaving of fuchsia scars, sun-soaked muscles, and interlocutor veins. My hands are knots of callus, the tips of my fingers dyed mauve with layers of dried blood. I am dark and wild, unmanicured from my years here in the tombs. The frailties of my adolescence are a long-lost memory buried under the mammalian hunger for my own survival. I am what I was made, not who I was born.
And yet, in this unfamiliar form, this hunk of dried meat and dust, I am finally free. I am somehow liberated from the eternal tempests of my mind, watching Jesus sail off on quiet water, wishing more than anything I could be wherever he may go.
I don’t suppose libraries exist to hold the stories of those who have come bolting out of madness so there’s no verifying if my experience is normal or good. When I walked out of Gerasene for the last time, with the familial cries of “Ransom! Ransom! Ransom!” ringing in my ears, something in me finally snapped. The last thread of my humanity shredded under the weight of their atonement. Their poverty, spiritual and economic, expiated onto my body, my mother’s weeping a mix of hope and horror.
My family was losing a war between their Nameless God, the Ancient One, and the Azazel. The wild boar that had been domesticated by the Syrians into all too much bacon was covering the city they loved with iniquity and economic genocide, and someone had to take the sin out of Gerasene. No one knew what the sin was, but everyone knew who should be the one to carry it.
I understand now. When I see it and them through His eyes, it all makes sense to me. When Jesus knit the strands of my consciousness back together and the liberation of his kindness rushed through me like a cloudless gale, I—for just one moment—saw the world as he saw it. I remembered who I was before the madness, the sadness and the shame. I saw the true insanity of all our mammalian self-preservation. I realized that the stones were crying out for beauty and not blood.
I am Tragen Antiochus to the Syrians I chose to love. I am Sayir ben Gershom to my family who sent me into the wild to save them from their sins.
But we have been speaking in the common tongue.
To you, I am the Son of Exile, the Wild Goat, the madman of Gerasene, friend of Jesus, and this is my story.
Friends, I’ve never written anything like this before. Should I continue? I have a plot in my head as to where Tragen’s story goes, how he came to carry the shame of his family, how he came to represent the rejection of an entire community, and how he found redemption in speaking his truth. Would you like to hear the tale?