Palestinian Folktale: Francesco and the Angel of Death

Today I bring you the Palestinian folktale of Francesco and Azrael, the Angel of Death. Also featuring a cameo by Jesus.

‘Death’ by Evelyn de Morgan 1881.

Francesco was a soldier of King Herod. Gentle and kind, he was loved by everyone especially children. But he had one vice: he was a hopeless gambler. And not only did he gamble, but he loved to coax others into a game. This got him into serious trouble.

You see, he would waylay anyone– anyone, including religious leaders. He was such a pest that eventually his luck ran out and Herod was compelled to discharge him and forbid him to enter the city of Jerusalem just to keep the peace.

Undaunted, he became a merry outlaw. He gathered a band from his comrades and they set up in a large cave near El Bireh, ancient Beeroth. But they were no common outlaws. Their ways were peculiar.

They never used violence. Francesco in particular was known to never fight unless the fight was fair. What they did was surround wealthy travelers and persuade them to play a game with Francesco. If he won, he kept their riches, and if they lost they would be free to go.

One day, his men reported that a group of thirteen men were coming down the road. “Thirteen, that is surely a strange number of companions. It reminds me of a teacher I saw in Capernaum. A miracle worker. I wonder if it is he?” It was.

The outlaws hastily prepared for company and Francesco himself came to welcome them to spend the night. Every hospitality was on offer to Jesus and his Apostles. The bandits listened to him all through the night.

The next day Jesus thanked the bandits for their hospitality and asked if there was anything He could do for them. “Grant me four wishes,” said Francesco. “What are they?” said Jesus. “First, grant that whenever I play dice I always win.”

“Second, that whoever I invite to sit on a stone outside our cave may not rise until I give them permission. Third, that whoever I ask to climb out lemon tree may not come down again without my permission.

“Lastly, that in whatever guise the angel of death come in I will know him and be prepared.” Jesus smiled gently. “These are very childish wishes, Francesco, yet I will grant them. When you realize your mistake I will grant you a fifth wish.”

Years pass. Azrael, the angel of death came to the bandits in the form of a wayfarer. Francesco recognized him at once and asked him to sit at the stone outside his cave. Once Azrael sat, Francesco said: “I know you!” and told his tale of entertaining Jesus.

Azrael raged but could not budge. Finally he humbly asked to be released. Francesco’s terms? That he not come for his soul nor those of his companions for fifteen years. And it was so. Fifteen years pass and Francesco is now a holy hermit in that cave.

Azrael appeared, disguised as a monk. Francesco lay on his bed, feigning illness. “What ails you, my son?” asked Azrael. “I am so fevered and thirsty. Please make me a lemonade. We have a lemon tree outside…” And so Azrael climbed the lemon tree.

Of course, Azrael found he could not get down again. Francesco laughed and told his tale. He would not let the angel down until he had promised to stay away for another fifteen years.

Azrael came to Francesco at the end of the fifteen years and said “are you going to play any more tricks on me?” Francesco promised he would not on condition that he be allowed to bring his dice into the Afterlife. Azrael took Francesco’s soul and his dice.

At the gates, Saint Peter took one look at Francesco’s dice and slammed the door in his face. Azrael picked up Francesco and took him down to the gates of Hell. There stood Iblis who welcomed him saying he was expected.

“Many who have played games with you are here,” said Satan. “And just as you would not allow them to enter the Holy City without winning your game, so too will I not allow you in until you play me.” Seven times Satan lost to Francesco.

“Get out of here!” cried Satan. “Take me to Jesus,” said Francesco. “He promised to grant me another wish.” Azrael, who had stayed to watch the game agreed to take him to Paradise again.

His one wish was to enter Heaven. Confessing that his life had been one big mistake, Jesus smiled once again and welcomed the old sinner home to Heaven. The End.

Francesco and Azrael was adapted from Folk-lore of the Holy Land Moslem, Christian, and Jewish by J.E. Hanauer. You can read more about this book here.

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