Read in May 2009
This was the first book of historical fiction I ever read. It was also the first Christian fiction I read. I can attribute my fascination to ancient history, particularly Roman, to this great story. I also can’t remember if I read the book or saw the movie first – although I’ve read and watched both multiple times over the years.
Judah Ben-Hur is the son of a wealthy merchant who is also friends with Messala, a Roman soldier/politician in occupied Jerusalem. Messala returns to Jerusalem as it’s new tribune and there is a bittersweet reunion between the two. During the parade, a loose roof tile falls from the Hur household, striking the tribune and injuring him. The house of Hur is arrested, the women thrust into a dungeon cell and forgotten, and Judah sold into slavery, chained to an oar on a Roman Naval galley.
Dark dreams of revenge keep Judah alive in what most often is a short brutal existence on a Roman galley. During a naval battle, which the Romans lose, Judah saves the galley’s Roman commanding officer, prevents the Roman from committing suicide, and eventually returns him safely to the Roman Navy. In return, this Roman officer frees Judah and adopts him as his son.
Now that Judah has the means to pursue his vengeance, he finds Messala and decides to compete against him in the great chariot race. Judah befriends a sheik, the loving owner of four swift and beautiful Arabian horses. Judah trains them for the race. The chariot race culminates in Judah surviving Messala’s deadly tricks and eventually running over Messala with his chariot. But his revenge turns frigid as Messala’s dying words tell Judah that his mother and sister are still alive but lepers from their long confinement in the dungeons.
Judah finds his mother and sister, who lead him to a great teacher. Jesus was in the background of this story throughout Judah’s travails. Jesus even slaked Judah’s thirst during his trek across the desert with the rest of the galley slaves. Where Judah searched with revenge in his heart, others would speak of the Rabbi who taught of love, forgiveness and peace.
As Judah moved his family away from the leper colony, they were caught in the storms and earthquakes which occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus. His mother and sister were miraculously healed of their leprosy by the blood of Jesus washed from Golgotha by the rain. Finally, Judah comes to terms with the hollowness and futility of his vengeful hate. He forgives his enemies and receives forgiveness and peace himself.
It’s no wonder, to me at least, that this story inspired many attempts to theatrically recreate it on stage, as a silent film and finally as one of the greatest motion pictures ever filmed.