Idol Smashers – Part Four

caravan

“Idol Smashers” is a work of fiction set in the biblical era of the Judges.  Apart from persons mentioned in the Bible, it is entirely fiction and presented here in serial form strictly for the entertainment of my readers.  “Idol Smashers” is an original work, copyright Brett Best, 2011.

Day  One – Shiloh

(Previously in Idol Smashers: Judge over all of ancient Israel, Deborah addressed the men the Lord has chosen by lots.  She described a secret mission she needed them to undertake, to assess what she feared might be a  dangerous supernatural threat to their nation’s security.)

Each man silently gathered himself up and left the tent.  Immediately outside, in the path between the tents, Deborah’s servants had assembled a caravan presumably equipped with essentials for a short journey.  It was about fifty miles to Aphek, a journey that would, with the blessing, take a few hours to complete.

A donkey was provided for each man to ride and one more to pull a small cart that was covered with a cloth.  Jezreel marveled at the swiftness of these preparations.  As far as he knew, Deborah did not have an armory or storehouse, but all this material came from somewhere.

Maaz strode to the lead donkey and mounted up.  Micah was right beside him.  It was clear the two of them were used to one another, but how would all of them, strangers to one another, get along?  Jezreel shook his head to clear it of discouraging thoughts.  Now was the time for faith, not doubt, and he purposefully shouldered the pack that held his lyre.  Clambering aboard the nearest donkey, he set his eyes and his heart on the road ahead.

Deborah’s servant was clearly eager to get the caravan underway and did everything he could to get each man on a donkey and get the caravan moving, short of actual nagging.  It would have been unnecessary to goad these men anyway; the need for haste had already been impressed on them.  The giant, Barak, hesitated for but a moment as he was clearly too large for his mount.  He straddled the beast anyway and chose a position at the rear, riding behind the cart.  Caleb volunteered to take the cart donkey’s reins in one hand and his own with the other hand and said, “Let’s go.”

In a prayerful tone, Joseph said, “Let us go with God.”

The group started their journey.

Day One – Aphek

            With the festal days being observed in Shiloh, there was very little traffic along the road and all of it going in the opposite direction.  As they journeyed, there was little small talk among the men.  Discussions of the situation were discreetly left unsaid and absolute silence was observed while other travelers are met or passed.  With all this talk of intrigue and mystery, Jezreel felt an unsettling kind of paranoia descended on him and he surprised himself by the degree to which he was suspicious of others on the road.

Ammihud muttered to himself and was apparently rehearsing the facts of the situation as Deborah had presented them.  Presently, he regarded the back of Maaz with a doleful look.  “I wonder who he thinks he is?” he whispered.  “Deborah chose me to bear the scroll.  Was this not a sign that she had chosen me to lead this expedition?”  Being of short stature, Ammihud had too often been left a place in line behind taller men.  He resolved to assert himself among this group, to not be relegated to the rear.

“I think we should stop for a moment,” he said aloud, in his most commanding voice.  All eyes turned to him.

“To…ah.. allow the animals a respite, and…for us to take council together about our next step,” Ammihud offered.  Inwardly, he regretted his choice of words.  Thinking on his feet was not necessarily his best skill.

Maaz turned and regarded him with an intent look.  “Why stop?  We and the animals can be rested at Aphek, when we meet this Mattan.”

Ammihud took this as a challenge.  “True, but we’ve had no opportunity to take stock of our situation.  This is highly unsual.  Better to be well-planned.”  Ammihud looked around at the rest of the men.  Micah’s face bore a look of disinterest or perhaps he was prepared to follow Maaz’s lead.  The rest were noncommittal.  “Besides, I could do with a bite to eat.  There must be some food and drink under that tarp,” Ammihud said, pointing to the cart.

“I don’t like to tarry in the LORD’s work,” Maaz said flatly.  His eyes locked with Ammihud’s.  Neither man backed down for several seconds.  Finally, Maaz shrugged his shoulders, turned forward, and drove his donkey off the side of the road.

When they had dismounted, Barek patted Ammihud lightly on the shoulder and said, “A bit peckish myself.”  He untied the tarp and they men looked over the contents of Deborah’s provisions.  There were several jars of water, and baskets filled with flat loaves of bread, fig cakes and other provender.

Caleb took it upon himself to open the lone chest and found it contained a sack of silver coins.  He weighed it in his hands and said, “I’d guess there’s forty silver here.”  His eyes had a glitter that Ammihud disliked.

“Better keep that on the cart and under cover,” Ammihud advised.

Joseph looked over the small amount of trade goods and the shelters.  “Deborah is wise.  She has seen to our every need,” he said.

“Brothers,” said Jezreel, “Let us offer a psalm of thanks and have a meal while we talk.”

“A short meal,” Micah added.

Jezreel nodded, then led the men of Israel in a psalm of thanksgiving to their God.

The men sat in a circle and one of the jugs of water was passed around.  Then a loaf and a fig cake for each, as he wished.

They had eaten in silence for a few moments when Ammihud became aware that Maaz was looking at him.

“Well?” Maaz said.

“What?” Ammihud replied.

“He wants to know what you had to say that was so urgent we had to stop,” Micah explained.

Ammihud reached for another fig cake.  Taking a bite was an excuse to consider his words.  “I was wondering what you men thought we should do with these Heshonibites when we solve this mystery, determining their guilt or innocence.”

“I have already determined their guilt,” Maaz said.  “They are idolaters and idolatry is punishable by death.”

This was something the men had not wanted to think about.  Killing a whole village, particularly women and children, was not something they were eager to do.

“Yes…” Ammihud said, “but that’s something we all must decide together.  After all, Deborah did not designate any one of us as the leader.”

Maaz merely folded  his arms across his chest.

“But she did give me the scroll…” Ammihud said.

Micah snorted.  “That doesn’t make you chief.”

Joseph poured a portion of water onto the ground.  “Thus shall all pride disappear.  The LORD has chosen all of us.  We shall decide all together and work together to protect His people Israel.”

Barak said, “That is wisdom.”

A moment of awkward silence hung in the air, then Ammihud and Maaz nodded to one another.

As if he were unaware of anything untoward passing between them, Jezreel said, “So, once we’ve gone to Aphek and met this Mattan, do you suppose we’ll have time today to interview these Heshonibites?”

Caleb looked around at the sky gathered above them and observed, “The wind comes up.  What time does not prevent us from doing, weather may.”

“As the Lord wills,” Jezebel added.

“As the Lord wills,” Jacob agreed.

“I can see no other counsel we can keep here, until more is known,” Maaz offered.

“I agree,” Ammihud said.

In spite of his earlier irritation, Maaz found the little man amusing and he smiled.  “Good.  We can strategize more on the rest of the journey.  I propose we decide whether to see the village or the villagers first.”  With that, he stood to his feet.

The other men showed their agreement by also standing.  Caleb bound the tarp back on the cart after the supplies were returned to it.

Ammihud made a little bow to Maaz, “Shall we…?” he asked, gesturing to the road.

Maaz clapped him on the back, “After you, brother!”

With a laugh, each man mounted and they were off.

After a few moments, Barak said, “I vote for seeing the village first.”

Micah said, “Me too. How can we know their guilt without seeing the evidence?”

No one could offer an argument to that, except Joseph.  “The eyes of the villagers will offer a different kind of evidence.  The eyes are the windows to the soul.  We will be able to see the truth, no matter how they try to shutter it.”

Caleb ventured his opinion, “Perhaps that kind of insight comes to those with a gift of prophecy.  But for the rest of us, solid things reveal more.”

Some of the men murmured their assent.  Ammihud considered all this.  He started to say, “Then we will go to the village first,” but glanced at Maaz, riding beside him, and said aloud, “Are we agreed, then?  First to the village, then to the villagers…?”

Each man voiced his approval of this shape of a plan.

Micah and Maaz began to chat comfortably about one of Maaz’s children, a son he hoped to have soon matched and married.  Ammihud tired quickly of a conversation that included no one he knew and purposely reigned in his mount a bit until he fell back to ride alongside Joseph.

“Deborah said you came from the desert,” he stated in a leading tone.

“Are you asking or reminding me?” Joseph said, giving Ammihud a blank look he had perfected with years of practice.

Ammihud did not allow the look to deter him.  “Neither.  What I am wondering is if it was in the wilderness that the LORD gave you the wisdom with which you speak.”

Joseph sighed and considered the path ahead of them for a few moments before answering.  “It is both a gift and a burden.  The desert does open a man’s eyes to other sources of truth.”

“So you can look into a man’s eyes and see his soul?”

Joseph regarded Ammihud candidly.  “Yes.  But no one needs an oracle to see that you think you should lead this group.”

Uncomfortable and feeling a bit exposed, Ammihud said, “Deborah did give the scroll to me.”

“Who’s to say why a prophetess and judge does as she does?  Those who follow the will of Adonai can be as inscrutable as He.”

Ammihud drew himself up with a big inhalation.  “I pray your gift serves our mission when it is needed.”  When Joseph made no reply, Ammihud let the conversation lapse.

Jezreel began to sing a traveling psalm, his clear baritone voice carrying across the empty space.  One by one, these men of Israel joined him in the song.  Presently, Ammihud felt a lightening of his spirits.  It seemed to him as if this group of men, apparently hastily thrown together, might just be used of God.  Surely the One who directed Moses and Israel for forty years would direct them too.

They sang the psalm several times until Jezreel fell silent.  Joseph looked at Ammihud and smiled.  Ammihud returned the greeting with a nod of his head.

“There lies the city!” Maaz called out.

Ammihud spurred his donkey ahead.  “Remember,” he said to the men, “we are traders, bound for Joppa.  We seek out Mattan as a trade contact.”

They agreed to this contrivance as a necessary mask for the face of Deborah in this journey.  “Maaz, you will do the talking for us,” Ammihud said, too late in catching himself in giving an order.

Maaz laughed.  “You are the better talker, but I will do my best.”  Relaxed by the psalm they’d sung, the men readily laughed at the joke made at Ammihud’s expense.  His only reply was to reign in his donkey and line up next to Barak.  “I prefer your side, should a fight ensue,” he whispered up to the giant.

Barak was puzzled.  “Why would there be a fight?”

Ammihud’s tone became more conspiratorial.  “Because that abrasive man is always trying to start one!”

Barak returned his attention to the city’s gate.

As always, men stood outside the gate, gossiping, laughing, and arguing.  The city elders sat in shaded shelters, holding an informal kind of court.  This was very much the usual scene at the gate to a walled city.  It was a place where civic and commercial concerns were dealt with.

Men at arms sat atop the city walls, largely indifferent to what was below them.  Their eyes were instead on the approaching caravan.

A guardian of the gate set down a flask from which he’d been drinking and put on his leather helm.  He walked out to the middle of the road and waited for the caravan to stop.

Maaz held up an open palm and reined his donkey to a halt.  The others slowed and stopped their mounts too.

“Hail to the gates,” Maaz said, greeting the soldier and the men assembled.  It was the usual sort of greeting, a balance between enthusiasm and disdain.

“Hail travelers,” the guard replied.  “Do you mean to enter Aphek?”

“We do,” Maaz said.

“What is your business, stranger?” one of the elders asked loudly.  The guard rolled his eyes in disgust.  This elder was meddling in his business, but the guard had no means of redress.  Elders were to be respected; tolerated if necessary.

Holding forth as if he had not noticed the gate guardian’s reaction, Maaz merely said, “We are traveling to Joppa, to do some trading.  We mean to get some horses to ride on our return.”

“Your accent says you are an Ephraimite,” the elder ventured.

“Just so,” Maaz said.  “My partners and I met only this morning at the sacred tent.  We offered our sacrifices early and journeyed from there straightway.”

The soldier seemed satisfied with this, but the elder persisted.  “What is your business in Aphek?”

“We seek Mattan.  He was made known to us as a trader who ventures into Philistia on occasion.”

The elder’s wrinkled face betrays derision.  “Mattan.  He is within.  And a trader he is.”  The old man laughed a wry laugh, a sound not unlike stones scraping.  “One of Aphek’s finest.”  He made some kind of signal to the guard, who walked through the caravan to the cart.  When he made to loosen the rope holding it down, Caleb jumped down from his donkey.

“Let me assist you, brother,” he said.  Loosening only a corner of the cover, he showed the guard a bolt of cloth and a sack of household items.

“Thank you – brother,” the guard said.  A look passed between him and the elder.  He resumed his previous place in the middle of the street, ahead of the caravan.

“You will find him on the street named Crescent,” the suspicious-eyed elder intoned.  Waving at the other gate guardian on duty he said, “Move aside, Carmi.  Let them in.”

With a bow to the elder, the soldier returned to his shaded spot and removed his leather helm.

The way clear before them, the caravan passed into Aphek, greeting men at the gate as they entered.  To a casual observer, it was business as usual.  They found that Crescent Street received it’s name for the half-circle shape it took as it followed the city wall.

They had not gone far when a man suddenly appeared and stood in the street before them.  Maaz stopped his donkey and glared at the man.  Before Maaz could form a word of rebuke, the man said,   “Follow me, please, masters.  I am Mattan, your humble servant.”  With that, he turned off Crescent street, passing between two sizable homes.

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