The tale begins with an account of Jesus humble birth, the adoration of the infant by three sages from the East, and the child’s delivery from the hands of King Herod. Several years following Jesus’ birth, Judah Ben-Hur was one day on the streets speaking to his childhood companion, Messala.
Messala had grown up in Judea, but five years earlier had left to study in Rome. He had changed considerably in those years, and since his return Judah had found it difficult to speak with him. A wall had been cast up between them. Now, while Messala bragged, Judah grew more and more angry at his friend’s new arrogance. Finally he erupted: “You have given me suffering today by convincing me that we can never be the friends we have been – never!” Thus they parted.
Alone in his room, Judah brooded. Although Messala’s attitudes were insufferable, there was some justification to his pride. At least Messala now had a military profession; Judah had nothing. After much thought, Judah concluded that he himself would go to Rome, learn the arts of war, and return to drive the Romans out of his land.
He would tell only Tirzah, his sister, of his plans. Days later, Judah and Tirzah climbed to their rooftop to watch as the new – and much hated Procurator of Judea, Valerius Gratus, passed with his region on his way into the city. Jews lined the road to hurl insults at Gratus. As Judah leaned out to catch a glimpse of the Procurator, his hand accidentally displaced a loose tile, and he lunged out, trying to catch it.
This act made it look as though Judah had pitched the tile like a missile – which unerringly flew to its mark. Gratus “fell from the seat as though dead.” . In seconds, Roman soldiers had forced their way into the house and pinned the youth to the floor. Then Judah heard a familiar voice: “That is he!” Messala, dressed as an officer of the legion, pretended not to recognize Judah. “You have him,” he sneered. “And that is his mother; yonder is his sister.
You have his whole family. “Judah watched as the Romans led his mother and sister away and confiscated their property. As the soldiers moved on toward the coastal village of Nazareth, people wondered at their youthful, half-naked prisoner. When the Romans finally paused at the town well, “The prisoner sank down in the dust of the road.” A young man stepped forward to offer the prisoner a drink. As the stranger laid his hand upon Judah’s shoulder, Judah looked up – into “a face he never forgot.” His vengeful spirit “melted under the stranger’s look and became as a child’s …. And so, for the first time, Judah and the son of Mary met and parted.” Three years later, Judah was an oarsman on a Roman galley commanded by the respected and able Arrius, who was leading an armada to rid the Mediterranean of pirates.
As a “connoisseur of men physically,” Arrius enjoyed descending below deck to watch the rowers. On this voyage, he was immensely impressed by one young man among the exhausted, emaciated slaves. The youth was tall, and “his limbs, upper and nether, were singularly perfect.” Moreover, he rowed with a certain “harmony.” When Arrius queried him about his background, Judah revealed that he was the son of a prince and merchant of Jerusalem, from the house of Hur. Arrius could not fathom that such a youth would attempt to assassinate a Roman official.
Presently the Roman ships overtook pirate vessels and the battle began. Ben-Hur could hear the clamor above deck and could smell the smoke of flaming arrows and “the scent of roasting human flesh.” Pirates had boarded the battered ship and water was flooding the cabin. After finally escaping his chains, Ben-Hur made his way out to sea. As he swam desperately away from the turmoil of death and destruction, he paused to help a drowning Roman – Arrius. As the two men – slave and master, Jew and Roman -awaited rescue, Arrius promised Judah, “If . . . we get well out of this peril, I will do thee such favor as becometh a Roman who hath power and opportunity to prove his gratitude.” And, indeed, when the two returned from sea after being rescued by a Roman ship, Arrius adopted Ben-Hur as his own son. Two years later, Ben-Hur returned to Judea in search of his mother and sister.
Trained in the arts of combat, he now appeared as strong and as fierce as anv Roman warrior. He began his inquiry at the he, use of Simonides, who had been a servant of his father. But Ben-Hur’s new Roman dress and manner aroused Simonides’ suspicions, and he revealed little. However, as Ben-Hur left, Simonides ordered his servant, Malluch, to follow him and judge his intentions. Ben-Hur came upon a great coliseum. There he watched as chariot racers prepared for competition.
He took particular notice of an Arab man who scolded a Roman driver for whipping his horses. Then, as the chariots lined up for the race, Judah turned to look at this same driver, now singled out in his resplendent chariot by the crowd’s cheers and he “stood transfixed … his instinct and memory had served him faithfully – the driver was Messala!” After the race, won by Messala, the servant Malluch approached Ben-Hur. As they walked together, Ben-Hur quizzed Malluch about the chariot races and trustingly revealed his budding plan for revenge against Messala as well as his quest for his family. Malluch then returned to report to Simonides. Upon learning that the Arab sheik, Ilderim, was interested in employing another driver, Ben Hur offered his services.
He proved to be so well trained in horsemanship, that any fears Ilderim may have had were satisfied. The day of the race finally arrived. Ben-Hur gave one searching look” at his “cruel, cunning, desperate” opponent. “At whatever cost, at all hazards, he would humble this enemy!” The trumpet sounded and the chariots strained forward behind their steeds.
Ben-Hur kept abreast of Messala as they rounded the first turn, but suddenly, Messala gave Ben-Hur a savage glare and lashed Ilderim’s horses, “a cut the like of which they had never known.” Ben-Hur lost ground, but then regained it. Messala and Ben-Hur ran together at the front through the first six turns. Then, on the final lap, Ben-Hur, just inches behind, with a “cunning touch of the reins by which, turning a little to the left, he caught Messala’s wheel with the iron-shod point of his axle, and crushed it.” Messala’s chariot splintered into the ground, sending its driver head over heels into the path of the onrushing chariots behind. Ben-Hur was declared the victor. Remarkably, Messala lived, but he would never walk again.
Shortly thereafter, he hired two brutes to murder Ben-Hur, but the Jewish rebel escaped and renewed his search for his mother and Tirzah. It so happened that at this time the new Judean Procurator, Pontius Pilate, had ordered a review of all prisoners’ penalties. Tirzah and BenHur’s mother were unearthed from deep in an underground cell and set free, both women leprous and near starvation. When they approached their house, the mother caught sight of someone asleep in the doorway. After a closer look, she cried, “As the Lord liveth, the man is my son.” But as Tirzah ran to kiss her brother, her mother restrained her: they were “unclean” outcasts. The women left the city, eventually to enter a leper colony.
It was better that Judah remember them as they had once been. On the following day, Ben-Hur and other Jewish zealots made their way to Pilate to protest a recent tax edict. When the demonstration turned violent, Roman centurions pushed through the crowd swinging clubs. Challenged by a soldier, Ben-Hur found himself forced to fight.
But his single sword thrust hit home and the Roman fell to the ground. Ben-Hur became a hero in the village. Believing that his family was dead, he now turned his attention to another goal: the elimination of all Romans from Judea. Spurred on by Simonides’ insistence that a “deliverer” would soon coi-ne to lead the Jews to victory against their oppressors, he secretly raised and trained three legions of Jewish soldiers.
Then one evening Ben-Hur received a letter from Malluch in Jerusalem. It told of the arrival in that city of a “King,” a Savior, who was the one to lead the Jews out of bondage. Ben-Hur was stunned; he must go and discover for himself if this man was indeed the long-awaited “King of the Jews.” When Ben-Hur finally found this man, the Nazarene did not look at all like a king; his “calm, benignant countenance, the very idea of war and conquest, and lust of dominion, smote [Judah] like a profanation.” He stared at the figure. “Faintly at first, at last a clear light, a burst of sunshine, the scene by the wall at Nazareth that time the Roman guard was dragging him to the galleys returned. . . ” At once he fathomed the truth: “this is the SON of GOD!” That same day, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister were also seeking out this prophet, who was said to have the power to heal the afflicted. Amid a mob of admirers and curiosity seekers, they were finally able to approach him. All he asked them was if they believed. “Thou art he of whom the prophets spake. Thou art the Messiah!” they responded.
Then Christ’s “eyes grew radiant, his maniier confident. ‘Woman,’he said, ‘great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”‘ Immediately, each woman “felt the scourge going from her; their strength revived; they were returning to be themselves.” Soon thereafter, these two were reunited with Ben-Hur and his bride Esther, Simonides’ daughter. They were reunited in their love for one another – and for Christ. Commentary Wallace’s mixture of adventure, melodrama, period language, and accurately-depicted intercultural relations make Beti-Htir an amazing blend of history and intrigue.
Wallace also revels in lengthy descriptions of ancient architecture and customs. At times these devices help pull the reader closer to the action, and, at other times, they produce fatigue. Ben-Hur chronicles a man’s triumphant rise not only out of the depths of slavery but also out of the depths of anger. Perhaps Ben-Hur’s greatest victory came when he ultimately put off vengeance and chose instead to celebrate love, and to forgive his enemies as Jesus had taught.