Starting the Passover Over

Please read 2 Chronicles 30:1-31:1 in your Bible.

Starting Over (1)Image by James Best, (C) 2020,https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

“A story surfaced from Operation Desert Storm about a soldier who got a ‘Dear John’ letter from his girl; she wrote that they were through. Worse than that, she was getting married to someone else! Adding insult to injury, she wrote, ‘Will you please return my favorite photograph of myself? I need it for my engagement picture in the paper.’

“The poor guy was devastated but not defeated. From every corner of the camp, soldiers handed over extra photos of their girlfriends. There were hundreds of photos. The jilted soldier put all the photos in a shoe box and mailed it home with a note. ‘Please find your picture,’ he wrote, ‘For the life of me, I can’t remember exactly which one you were!!’”

How’s that for making the best of a bad situation?  When we think about the Passover, that’s a time when God turned evil into good. And as we’ve seen, at the center of the Passover is the lamb.  In the centuries that would follow the first Passover, lambs had died for the sins of the nation.

“Inside the walls of the Temple, two lambs died every day (Exodus 28:29-31), one at 9 a.m. and the other at 3 p.m. It had been a sacrifice marked by blood, for the literal meaning of ‘sacrifice’ in Hebrew is, ‘to slit the throat.’

In addition to the twice-a-day sacrifice of lambs, there would have been countless lambs dying on the major Jewish holidays.”  (Andy Cook, Lifeway.com)

So our identification of Jesus as the Passover Lamb is an important, even essential biblical image.

Rediscovering the Passover revived the devotion of God’s people.

  1. A quick history lesson.

Hezekiah served as king over Judah from 715-686 BC.  His reign ended 100 years before the Babylonians conquered Judah.  2 Chronicles 29:1-2 tells us he took the throne at age 20 and ruled for 29 years.  He had not been on the throne for a month when he reopened the temple (29:3).  He brought back the priests and their assistants, the Levites, whom he commanded to purify the temple.

The temple was closed because King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, was an idolater and a very bad king.  He had ordered the temple’s furnishings removed and its doors shuttered (2 Chronicles 28:24-25).

Finally, after purifications, consecrations, and preparations, worship in the temple was restored (29:35).  The Passover would be the first sacred day to be observed in the reopened temple

  1. What we can learn from it.

Worship is supposed to be a unifying act. (30:1, 5-11)  Hezekiah invited all the tribes of Israel, even though the northern 10 tribes had already been conquered by the Assyrians and dispersed. Hezekiah may have hoped the unification of the tribes in worship would have political benefits too.  Having a secondary motive in no way diminishes Hezekiah’s loyalty to God or what was accomplished in this Passover observance.

We should be eager to worship. (30:2-4)  God commanded the Passover be observed on the 14th day of the first month. However, they did not have things ready at that time (the priests were not ready and not enough people had returned to Jerusalem).  Rather than wait until next year, they agreed to hold the Passover in the second month.

God directed them to worship. (30:12)  THE HAND OF GOD gave them UNITY OF MIND, FOLLOWING THE WORD OF GOD.  Unity of mind is something to which all church folk should aspire, and it will only come as we jointly follow Jesus, the Word of God.

Worship required them to purify themselves according to the will of God. (30:13-17)  Offerings were made in accordance with the Law and almost everyone complied with ritual purity.  The response of the people was so enthusiastic, it made the priests and Levites feel ASHAMED at their relative apathy.

Worship brought healing. (30:18-20)  Not everyone kept the Law as they should.  Some of the Israelites from the north (30:11) came late and did not undergo the ritual purification. Hezekiah offered a wonderful prayer for their forgiveness and God HEALED THE PEOPLE.  This shows us that sometimes ritual needs to be set aside to meet people where they are.  After all, the ritual was made for the people, not the other way around.  A sincere heart is a more important qualification for worship than ritual purity.

Worship requires follow-through into daily living. (30:21-22, 31:1)  Those who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover followed up with the week-long observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread too.  They worshiped the Lord every day of that week. When the time of worship ended and they returned home, they continued the program to get rid of idolatry.

Worship ought to be something we enjoy and want to do. (30:23-27)  THE WHOLE ASSEMBLY (23), THE ENTIRE ASSEMBLY (25) found such joy in their worship they wanted to continue it another week!  There was nothing in the Law to require or even advise this; their decision to stay together was entirely voluntary.  Part of their joy was the knowledge that God was pleased with their worship (27).  King Solomon is mentioned here, the builder of the temple.  Hezekiah, the temple rebuilder, is compared with Solomon.

Rediscovering the Passover revived the devotion of God’s people.

In 1998 Ray Boltz recorded a song entitled “Watch the Lamb.”  It recounts the story of Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha.  Here are the lyrics of the latter half of the song:

At first I tried to resist him then his hand reached for his sword.

So I knelt and took the cross from the Lord

I placed it on my shoulder and started down the street

The blood that he’d been shedding was running down my cheek.

 

They led us to Golgotha.  They drove nails deep in His feet and hands.

And yet upon the cross I heard Him pray, “Father, forgive them.”

Oh, never had I seen such love in any other eyes.

“Into Thy hands I commit My spirit.” He prayed, and then He died.

 

I stood for what seemed like years.  I’d lost all sense of time

Until I felt two tiny hands holding tight to mine.

My children stood there weeping.  I heard the oldest say

“Father, please forgive us.  The lamb ran away.”

 

“Daddy, Daddy, what did we see here?

There’s so much that we don’t understand.”

So I took them in my arms, and we turned and faced the cross

And then I said, “Dear children, Watch The Lamb.”

(Ray Boltz, 1998, Gaither Music)

 

RESOURCES:

Zondervan Bible Commentary,

1 & 2 Chronicles, J. Kier Howard

The Daily Study Bible Series,

I & II Chronicles, J. G. McConville.

Andy Cook at https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/sermon-easter-passover-lamb-jesus

http://www.higherpraise.com/lyrics/superduper/b/ray_boltz/watch_the_lamb.html

Idol Smashers Number Thirteen

“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.

tabernacle

(Previously in “Idol Smashers:” Judge Deborah’s operatives were rescued from imprisonment in the Philistine city of Joppa and race to Shiloh, where the Tabernacle, the meeting-place with God was erected.)

Day Seven – Shiloh

            The remainder of the journey went quickly enough, but when they arrived, the sun hung low in the sky.  The Sabbath was nearly over.  A sliver of doubt lodged in Caleb’s resolve.  Had they misunderstood the portents?  Had they misinterpreted the signs?  Had the Philistines lied or changed their plans?

They were met on the road by the captain of the guard, known to Jethro as Gershon.  He looked wearied.

“The day is nearly closed,” Gershon said.  The last day had apparently allowed him no rest and he was ready for the threat to be over.  “We’ve seen no Moabites, no cart as was reported to us.”  He gestured to the tailings of worshipers who were lined up on the road to the tabernacle hill.  At the close of the Sabbath, the evening sacrifices were beginning and the last of the day’s worshipers served.  All around the hillside, encampments were set up as the worshipers planned to spend the night before journeying home at dawn.  The familiar smells of the sacrifices burning on the altar offered some reassurance, a smell of normalcy.

In all, it was a scene that belied their panicked escape from Joppa and hurried journey here.  Ammihud looked around anxiously, concerned that all may have been for naught.

“Has there been no trouble at all, none coming to the tent that look suspicious?” Maaz asked Gershon.

“None,” came the wearied reply.  “It has been a Sabbath as all others.”

Members of the group reluctantly dismounted.  They looked at one another with puzzlement.  Perhaps their concern had been misplaced.  Could the enemy have been alerted somehow that their plans had been betrayed?

“I don’t…” Micah started to say but was interrupted by a disturbance in the line of worshipers near the tabernacle.  A donkey attached to a small wagon was braying loudly.  It made hoarse cries, as if in pain.  A man tried vainly to calm the animal, but somehow it broke free of its tack and began to jump and kick.  All around, people hurried to either get out of its way or help corral it.  The path was suddenly thick with people shouting and some cursing.  A fistfight broke out, and then others were shouting angrily at one another.  The ruckus seemed to spread like a sudden fire.

Gershon called to his men, “Come!  Let us put an end to this!  Call out the guard!”  He and the four tabernacle guardsmen ran from the adventurers and toward the growing melee.

“This must be the distraction they planned!” Samuel said excitedly, remounting and drawing the short sword he’d been given by Deborah.

A horn sounded.  Gershon had blown on it as he ran toward the sudden riot.

“Look!  The guards and Levites are pouring out of their tents!” Ruth yelled, pointing to the structures next to the Tabernacle.  In her excitement, she forgot to use her “man voice.”

Maaz squinted, following her gaze.  “Guards.  Guards?  They are not coming from within the tents, but from behind it!” he shouted.  “There is the enemy!”

“We ride!” Micah ordered.  He scrambled back on his horse and the rest quickly followed suit.  Spurring their mounts on, they left the road and skirted the melee, riding around the riot to the opposite side of the Tent of Meeting.  There they saw men dressed like tabernacle guardians slashing at the outer curtain of the tabernacle with curved swords in one hand and attempting to set it ablaze with torches in the other hand!

Caleb dismounted on the run as he distrusted his skill to shoot effectively from horseback.  Nocking an arrow, he prepared to fire.

At a corner of the tabernacle one of the false guardians set his torch at the bottom of one of the posts supporting the rods from which hung the curtains that boundaried the court of the Tent of Meeting.  Clearly, he hoped to set it on fire.

But Samuel attacked the nearest enemy.  From his mounted position he held the advantage.  The sword flashed true, striking the man’s left arm and the torch he carried.  The torch went flying and the man cried out as blood blossomed from the wound Samuel inflicted.

One of the would-be saboteurs swerved to go around to the north side of the tabernacle, out of sight from the oncoming horsemen who had suddenly appeared.  Jezreel rode north following the man, but he did not dismount.  Instead, to inspire and assist his mates, he raised himself as much as possible on the horse’s back and started to sing a psalm of victory.  Exerting himself to be heard about the din of the distraction and the battle, the psalmist’s voice nevertheless rang clear.

The north side of the tabernacle was opposite the opening at the other end of the rectangle.  There other treacherous enemies were already wielding their torches to set the curtain on fire.

Having had to resort to thievery on more than one occasion, Ruth preferred to meet an opponent from behind, or at least sideways.  Head-on combat was for persons more powerful and experienced than her.  Therefore, she rode to the west side of the tent to attack the enemies that she had seen turn to the north side of the sacred Tent.

Riding around to the west side of the Tent, Ruth surprised a pair of enemy combatants who were about to slash holes in the curtain of the Tabernacle.  They looked up at her, eyes wide with maniacal intent.  “HOLD!” she cried out in her most commanding voice.  The man closest to her advanced, holding sword and torch out before him.  His companion returned his attention to the curtain and used his torch to set it afire!

“How I wish I had a man’s voice!” Ruth muttered as she drew the sickle from her belt.  She pointed her horse at the oncoming attacker and slipped off the side of the animal opposite her opponent.  She let the beast come between them briefly, then struck out with the sickle as soon as the horse had passed her.  The sickle blow struck the distracted man on his helmeted head.  The blade did him no harm, but the impact stunned him a bit.  Ruth gave no quarter and followed her slash with a kick Joseph had taught her; he’d called it a “roundhouse.”  Her heel caught him in the neck and temporarily took his wind.  The man staggered backward and dropped his torch to clutch at his throat.

While he recovered from her kick to his throat, Ruth had her best chance to vanquish her opponent. She slashed hurriedly at him with her sickle just as soon as both her feet were under her.  The edge of her weapon caught his right forearm with sufficient force to create a deep and long wound, flinging his arm and his weapon away.  Out the corner of her eye, Ruth saw the other man go through the curtain and set it afire from within.  She stepped around her opponent to run after the other man, the one who was, for the moment, the greater threat to the Tabernacle.

Barek, Maaz and Micah spurred their mounts and rode around to confront the biggest group of the enemy, saboteurs in disguise who flowed between the barracks.  They were quick to put the false guards on the defensive.  Maaz rode straight at an enemy and the iron tip of the goad flashed, striking the enemy’s left hand.  A shout of surprise escaped the man’s lips as the torch he’d held there flew away from him.

Barek dipped low in his saddle to swing the two-handed axe with his powerful right hand only.  The blade turned a bit upon impact, but the handle still hit solidly on a man’s leg, staggering him.  His momentum carried him into Balek’s horse’s flank and the false guard bounced off the large animal and was thrown to the ground.

Riding around the melee involving his brothers, Micah achieved the north end of the tabernacle in time to see an enemy slash a hole in the curtain from the rod to the ground.  He disappeared through the slit, entering the sacred space inside.  Micah drew the horse in to a sudden stop and quickly dismounted, drawing his sword.  Without regard for his own safety, Micah stepped through the hole in the curtain created by his enemy, who was sprinting south, presumably to go to the open end of the Tent of Meeting.  Every footfall of this pagan infuriated Micah more and he ran after the man.  Upon reaching the corner, the man hesitated enough to turn.  That was the instant Micah overtook him.  Bull-rushing his hated enemy, Micah eschewed the weapon in his hand and slammed bodily into the man, driving him into the ground and knocking the air out of him.

Scarcely aware that he held a sword, not a club in his hand, Micah instinctively sought to bash his opponent’s head in with it, but the short stroke had too little power or leverage behind it, and the blow merely glanced off the man’s helmet, the blade burying angling off to bury itself in the turf.  For his part, the would-be destroyer of the Tabernacle pushed and turned to try to get Micah off him, to no avail.  Micah had an advantage of strength and mass to match his fury and he used it to keep his opponent pinned.

Letting go of his sword, Micah grabbed both sides of his opponent’s head with his hands and slammed it into the ground.  He did this repeatedly until his enemy was dazed.  When he felt his adversary’s strength slacken just a bit, Micah jerked the man’s head around suddenly until he heard his enemy’s neck snap.  It was a sickening noise, but Maaz had it heard before; when his brother-in-law had done something similar to dispatch a dying animal.

After taking a moment to catch his breath, Micah shambled to his feet and tugged his sword from the earth.  He carefully put the point underneath the layers of the prone man’s armor, just over his heart, and leaned on it to thrust it into the man’s chest.  Every remaining sign of life pooled with the blood collecting under the body.

Micah sighed as he pulled his sword from the body of his enemy.  He looked around and saw Ulla standing not too far off.

“That was disgusting,” the high priest commented, using both hands to hold up what was left of his ephod.

Letting out a long breath Micah replied, “There’s gratitude.”

Having wounded his opponent, Samuel chose to dismount and swung at him again.  This time, his momentum took him a bit too far away and the slash missed.  Though wounded, the man was a soldier and he kept his wits about him enough to lunge and strike at Samuel.  His aim was better than Samuel’s but the blow glanced off Samuel’s shield.

Caleb chose as his target an enemy who ran forward to flank Samuel.  His bow ready, Caleb let the arrow fly.  It flew true, an unseen hand directing its flight.  The arrow suddenly appeared in the middle of the running man’s chest.  He broke stride and fell forward, bowling over his mate who had been entirely occupied with Samuel.  The young fighter snapped off a kind of salute to Caleb in thanks for his timely assistance.   Samuel delivered a coup de grace, nearly separated the man’s head from his body.

Ammihud huffed as Caleb had shot the very man he’d intended to shoot.  Switching targets, his arrow also found its mark in the right shoulder another opponent.  The man cried out and dropped his sword.  Ammihud dropped his bow and drew a knife from his belt.  He intended to finish the man he’d shot, but as he stabbed at him, the enemy managed to roll away and Ammihud’s blade only grazed his right side.

Sensing the battle going the way of his Israelite companions, Jezreel sang more loudly and passionately.  He sang to the LORD, but fervently hoped the words of his psalm were inspiring his countrymen.

For his part, Caleb nocked another arrow and cautiously moved from the melee which Samuel and Ammihud seemed to have in hand.  His bowstring as taut as his nerves, he moved cautiously toward the south end of the Tabernacle.  There he saw men engaged in deadly battle, swinging weapons and limbs, grappling, fighting to attack or defend Israel’s most sacred object.  From within, he heard a cry of “NO!” that sounded like Ulla’s voice.  When he’d rounded the corner and saw into courtyard, Caleb beheld the high priest and an enemy fighting for possession of the ephod Ulla wore, the ceremonial breastplate that held twelve stones that symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel.  He raised his bow but had no shot that safely took the enemy and spared the priest.  Caleb hesitated.

Jumping off his horse looked deceptively slow because of the big man’s size, but Barek quickly crossed to his prone foe and with an overhead strike, buried the axe blade in his enemy’s chest.  In spite of the man’s armor, the blade went deep.  Blood gurgled out the man’s mouth instead of a scream.  Putting a foot on his foe’s chest, Barek tugged his axe free from the body of his mortally wounded enemy and looked around for other opponents.  To the north, he saw a youth holding a horse’s reins.

“Hold!” Balek roared, pointing his axe at the young man.  The youth was understandably startled by  the giant before him.  So much so, his eyes grew wide with fright and he turned to leap atop the horse!

“I wish I could command people like Sara,” Balek complained.  He whistled at his horse, with only a vain hope it would respond.  Balek reasoned that the youth might be a messenger, charged with delivering a report of the battle to someone.  The giant man of God resolved to capture the youth and find out what he knew.  The horse did not exactly come to Balek, but it came near enough he could gather up the reins and throw his long legs over its sides.  He heard someone call his name and wheeled the horse around to face them.

Ammihud and Samuel stood astride one another over a fallen enemy.  “Where do you think you’re going?” Samuel called.  “Yes,” Ammihud added, “there’s plenty of fight right here.”

Balek nodded in the direction of the young man who’d fled on horseback.  “One got away,” he said, and spurred his horse in that direction.

Maaz brought his horse around and adroitly leapt off its back, pointing the iron-shod tip of his goad at his opponent.  “You shall now die, defiler!” he said as he advanced on the enemy soldier.  The man looked from Maaz to the tabernacle and swinging his sword, pierced the veil and tumbled through it.  A sigh escaped Maaz’s lips then he shouted, “YOU CANNOT THAT EASILY ESCAPE JUSTICE!”

Stepping through the breach created by his enemy, Maaz saw his opponent desperately hacking at the hide-covered wall of the Holy Place.  AS the herdsman stepped through, the man turned suddenly and swung at Maaz instead!  The hurried attack missed Maaz but caused him to smash the iron tip of his short staff into the ground instead of his opponent.  The two men circled each other for a moment, then the saboteur swung his sword over his head and attempted to cleave Maaz in two, but the herdsman dodged the blow as easily as he might’ve avoided a butting ram.  Side-steppeding his adversary’s slash, Maaz brought the goad down hard, smashing both the swordsman’s arms.

A surprised look crossed the man’s face just before Maaz’s goad slammed into his abdomen on the upswing of a second blow.  He fell to his hands and knees, vomited, and fell face forward into it, groaning piteously.  Maaz had no pity for him however, and he brought his weapon down on the man’s head with a fury, splitting both helmet and skull.  Pausing for a moment to collect himself, Maaz smelled smoke and looked up to see a spit of flame atop the Tent itself!

As he could see no opponents at hand, Maaz’s lust for battle suddenly left him and the survival of the Tent took precedence.  Dropping his goad. he leapt to find purchase for both hands and hauled himself atop the tent, which swayed precariously under his weight.  He saw a torch in the midst of a section of the hide roof that was smoldering and threatening to burst into flame.  Heedless of any danger except to the Holy of Holies beneath his feet, Maaz snatched at the torch and threw it over his shoulder and far away from the Tabernacle.  With his own hands he beat at the coverings to the sacred space, putting out the embers by swatting away glowing embers.  In his single-minded devotion to the task of saving the structure, the big man did not see the place where the skins had parted until he fell through it.  With a thud, Maaz landed in the middle of the Most Holy Place!

Having made quick work of dispatching the two men at his feet, Samuel looked up in time to see another enemy hacking off the rods attached to the corner post of the Tabernacle enclosure.  One panel of curtain fluttered to the ground.  Samuel’s feet found purchase as he raced to prevent further blasphemous damage.

Somehow Samuel’s enemy sensed his coming and turned to throw his torch at the young Israelite.  Samuel swatted the flaming projectile aside and rushed his opponent.  Samuel’s sword stabbed out from behind his shield, but his enemy was ready and side-stepped the attack.  He delivered a blow of his own but the strike was not strong enough to part the hardened leather of the wristband Samuel wore on his sword hand; it merely parted some of the strings holding it on, and the wristband flopped about on Samuel’s sword arm.

Several more thrusts were made but parried or dodged.  Samuel had the advantage having both shield and sword, but the advantage of arms was negated by the youth’s comparative inexperience in martial arts.

The two stood apart a moment to catch their breath.  Seeing his opportunity, Ammihud, standing some paces away and with his bow readied, let the arrow fly.  The shaft buried itself in the swordsman’s middle, finding a mark just underneath his leather cuirass.  He dropped his sword, then dropped to his knees, attempting to break the shaft.  A heartbeat later, Samuel relieved him of all worldly concerns by plunging his blade through the stricken man’s neck.

Caleb made his decision.  He carefully aimed and shot his arrow.  The shaft struck with lethal effect, piercing his enemy’s chest.  His grip on the high priest relaxed instantly and he turned to face Caleb.  When he bent over to retrieve his sword and attack the archer, he fell to his knees, then to his face, where he laid still as breath and life abandoned him.

Ulla was furious.  He advanced on Caleb even as he held the damaged ephod to his chest.  “You FOOL!” he cried.  “How could you take such a shot?!  You might’ve hit ME!!”

Startled out of watching the man die, Caleb replied off-handedly, “Oh, I had that all figured out,” he said.  “I aimed at his legs.”  A confused, angry look crossed Ulla’s face.  “I figured if I missed, neither of you would be badly hurt.”

While his companion dealt with Ruth, a pagan soldier slashed through the outside curtain of the Tabernacle.  He paused only a moment to set the breach on fire and then turned to hurl his torch atop the Tent itself.  Steeling himself to stop anyone from extinguishing the fire he sought to start, he gripped his sword all the tighter and looked around, waiting for an Israelite to come.

He would not wait long.  Ruth launched her slight form through the slash in the curtain that formed the court around the Tabernacle.  She stumbled a bit as her foot caught on the torn curtain and she fell to one knee.  Ahead of her was the infidel who dared step through the veil.  He was a big man.  Too big, for Ruth’s taste.

With a sneer, he set the torch down where the flame licked at the fabric wall of the Tabernacle.  “Come save your sacred tent,” the dog growled.  “Sacrifice yourself, man of Israel!”

Inspired, Ruth stood slowly and removed her helmet, dropping it to the turf.  She loosed her hair and let the long tresses fall around her neck.  “In Israel, we sacrifice animals, not people” she said, taunting her enemy.  She shouted, “Know that today the LORD has strengthened a woman’s arm to spill your blood and defend His holy tent!!”

As she’d hoped, the enemy soldier was temporarily stunned by the sight of a combatant suddenly becoming a beautiful woman.  She charged the big man, swinging her sickle with both hands, throwing her entire person at him.  It was an attack of faith, what to an experienced soldier might seem a fool’s hope.  Her slashing scythe found it’s mark as the big man’s left arm came up too late to intercept blow.  The blade bit deeply into the base of his neck, the curve of the scythe completely disappearing in the place where throat and shoulder met.

Behind the blade was Ruth’s flying body; she had to leave her feet to even strike the blow.  The impact sent them both sprawling.  Scrambling to her feet, Ruth reached for the torch, the flames threatening to set the curtain afire.

Before she could reach it, a powerful hand grasped her ankle and hauled her away from the torch.  Though blood spouted from the wound Ruth had inflicted, the pagan’s massive hand held her ankle like an iron manacle.  Struggling to his knees, the man drug Ruth toward him as easily as anyone might tug a child.  Breath was knocked from Ruth’s lungs when she’d landed bodily on the ground, her feet yanked from beneath her.  Ruth’s attempts to get away seemed especially pitiful and she felt his hands virtually climb up her body.  He hauled her close and clasped her throat in one of his incredibly large hands.

Her airway closed, Ruth struggled vainly, failing with hands and feet.  Terror made her blows even less effective.  Every thought was focused on dying at this monster’s hands.

His breath reeked of some food or spice Ruth did not know.  “Molech take your soul!” the man rasped.  “I will not be killed by any mere woman!”  His blood flowed over Ruth as he muttered what must have been curses in a pagan tongue.

A long dark tunnel appeared before Ruth.  A wan light illuminated its end.  She wondered how this might be, what the vision might mean, but she was not prepared to die.

Suddenly, his eyes fluttered and his last breath escaped his lips.

Somebody shouted, “LET HER GO!”

The man’s hands went slack and with a violent twist, Ruth pushed herself away, falling down and gasping for air.

When she was able to get her wits about her again, Ruth looked to see Caleb running to get the torch away from the veil.  He quickly slashed at the curtain, cutting away the part that had caught fire during the melee.

Ruth’s body shook uncontrollably and part of her mind wondered why men loved war so much when it was so vile and brutal a thing.  After a bit, her vision cleared and so did her mind.  She looked up and saw Caleb above her.  He held her head on his lap, kneeling beside her.  Something nearby smelled like vomit and smoke.

He stroked the hair from her face tenderly, and said, “Here now.  We can’t have you running about with your hair down, can we?”

Samuel turned to Ammihud.  “Let’s go check the tents,” he said.  “In case there are reinforcements.”  Ammihud took a moment to ready his bow and said, “After you.”

Day Eight – Mount Gerazim

            The next day the heroes stood at the summit of Mount Gerazim.  A man of Israel had discovered that an Asherah pole had been recently erected and there were signs of a recent encampment.  He’d reported this offense against the land to the high priest.  He had passed the information along to the group.

“They made prayers and sacrifices here,” Maaz said, poking the remains of a fire pit with his goad.

Caleb’s eyes darted over the scene, an angry look upon his face.  “They no doubt sought a boon from their gods before infiltrating the camp and setting their scheme into motion.”

The youthful Samuel threw himself against the idolatrous pole, exclaiming, “This cannot be allowed to stand a moment longer.”  Righteous anger was not enough to augment his slight frame and he was unable to pull it out of the ground.

Balek made a theatrical sigh.  “You cannot use a twig to remove a log,” he said, and pushed Samuel aside.  Contrary to his verbal objections, Samuel stood aside.  The giant knelt and wrapped his big hands around the base of the Asherah.  Using his shoulders and legs to lift, he drew it out of the hole and dropped it to the ground.

Ruth, once again in her masculine garb, cleared her throat and spit on the carved pole.  Her friends watched for a moment, mild surprise on their faces.

Micah broke the silence when he clapped Ruth on the back, nearly knocking her off her feet.  “Well done, Joseph,” he said mirthfully.

“Here is the same craftsman’s mark we discovered under the idols of Heshonib,” Ammihud observed.  “It is the mark of Kanab, the Philistine idol-maker whose shop we visited in Joppa.”

The captain of the temple guard scratched a curse sign in the loose soil.  “It is an appalling desecration of the sacred site of Mount Gerazim,” he opined, “the place where the division of the Promised Land between the twelve tribes was accomplished by Joshua by casting lots.”

“We must destroy it with fire” Jezreel said slowly, his voice conveying a solemnity they had not heard from the young psalmist before.  “We must scatter the ashes and bury all the bones.  This mountain must be made holy again.”

“Yes,” Samuel agreed.  “As he said.”

A feast was arranged to celebrate the victory of the Lord and His people, with Deborah’s Eight (as the heroes of Shiloh had come to be known) the guests of honor.  A tent had been erected and savory smells infused the camp as several ovens were set to work.

Ruth had to be persuaded to remain.  On the road, she had learned attention and scrutiny were unwelcome as they threatened to expose her.  Her dread of being drug back to be stuck in a loveless marriage was so strong, she wanted to forsake her new companions and return to her vagabond ways.

Everyone was shocked when Micah offered an alternative.  “You could be my daughter.  For a night,” he suggested, his usual gruff appearance gone and a tender countenance in its place.  “Joseph may leave to reappear elsewhere.  Tonight you could be Dinah.”  As the gathering was a feast and not a “holy convocation” even Maaz gave his approval to this deception.

Some appropriately feminine festal robes were obtained and Ruth shed her disguise in private.  When she appeared again in clothes appropriate to her heaven-bestowed gender, Micah explained, “You look like a Dinah!”

Their tent fairly roared with laughter as “Dinah” was welcomed to their fellowship.  They roared again when Samuel offered to act as her husband.  Their laughter had barely died off when the tent flap was thrown aside and the high priest Ulla stormed inside.

“It’s Deborah” he cried in genuine panic, “she’s gone!”

Idol Smashers #12

 “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.

israelite soldiers

(Previously in “Idol Smashers,” the Israelite adventurers were betrayed and captured while in the Philistine city of Joppa.)

Day Four – Joppa

 

As it turned out, Barek had only to wait for Maaz to awaken to find out exactly what he thought about Barek’s surrender.

“You did WHAT?!” Maaz thundered.  Then he winced.  Then he coughed up some blood.  That bit of bluster cost him dearly in pain.  He shut his eyes until it subsided.  When he opened them again, he threw visual daggers at Barek.

At usual, the over-sized Israelite was unmoved.  At least on the exterior.

“There was no point in all of us ending up like you – or him,” Barek turned and gestured to the far wall of his cell.  There lay a body, partially covered with a sheet.

The sight sobered Maaz instantly.  When he tried to sit up, Barek restrained him.

“Do not exert yourself.  Joseph is in Abraham’s Bosom.  There’s nothing you or I can do for him now,” Barek said.  Grief had removed all animation from his face.

Angrily, Maaz batted away the giant hand and slowly sat up, holding his head the entire time.  He looked around the small room in which they were held.  Caleb, Micah, Samuel and Jezreel were looking back at him, each of them lying in a similar position.  All of them were bandaged, bloodied, bruised and broken in some way.

The room, presumably a dungeon cell, was not much wider than the men who were stretched out along its length.  A feeble, flickering illumination shone around the door.  The odors of human waste and blood assaulted Maaz’s nostrils.

His head throbbed and seeing nothing better to do at the moment, he lay back down again.  Maaz felt a little relief when Barek swabbed his head with a wet cloth.  The water had an odor all it’s own, but it felt cool on Maaz’s brow.

There was a long period of silence where the only sound was their own breathing and the cries or groans of other prisoners.

Suddenly, Micah’s eyes popped open and he turned to face Barek.  “Ruth!” he exclaimed.  “Did she…”

“No,” Barek answered quietly.  “She escaped.”

With a grateful sigh, Micah laid down on his back.  “That is good.  Then we have hope.”

Samuel coughed.  “Hope?  What hope is she?  A mere woman and a thief beside!”

“She will come for us, get us out of here,” Micah said flatly.

It was Maaz’s turn to be skeptical.  He snorted derisively.  “What foolish talk, brother.  She abandoned us, made good her escape.”

“No.  She will return with help.”

“What help?” Maaz argued, though the pain in his head bade him to silence.  “Who will she bring?  Ammihud?  He is short and fat and wounded!  Mattan?  We have seen his prowess in battle!”

“Mattan is no warrior,” Samuel said, agreeing.

“We made a mistake coming here,” Caleb said weakly.  His ribs ached, but he couldn’t remember getting hit in the ribs.  The whole scene in the stable was lost to his memory, somehow.  He only knew the aches at different places in his body.  “We have no weapons, no money for a bribe…Hopeless.”

The company fell silent.

Unable to think about anything else, Jezreel began a psalm of worship.  One by one, the men of Israel joined him in praising God.  In contrast to the desperate nature of their predicament, they availed themselves of an opportunity to thank the Lord of Life for their lives.

Before the psalm had been completely sung, the door to their cell banged suddenly and violently.  A face appeared in the upper slot of the door, a pair of feet behind the lower one.

“Do you SING?” a voice on the other side of the door shouted.  In Hebrew.

The men of Israel stopped and looked to the door.

The eyes peering back at them bore an expression of utter malice, but were otherwise dead.

“You people astound me.  The world will be a better place when you’re dead or enslaved.”

Barek stood and moved slowly to the door, never taking his eyes from those looking through the slot.  When he got close enough, he smacked the door with a mighty punch.

He grinned when the man on the other side flinched and jumped back.

The eyes reappeared and narrowed.

“You weren’t this feisty back in the stable,” the voice sneered.

The low ceiling of the cell prevented Barek from straightening up his full height, but his bearing was proud nonetheless.  He chose not to dignify that insult with a reply.

“Speechless before me,” the voice dripped with irony.  Then the man outside the door sighed.  “No matter.  I am the man you sought.  I am the Black Cat.”

At this, Maaz emitted a low growl and turned on his side to face the door.  Looking into the lively gray eyes of the Black Cat, he said, “Open that door and I will skin you, Cat.”

The Black Cat laughed at this futile display of bluster.

“You are too ridiculous,” he said lightly.  After a few moments, he added, “You must wonder why I’ve asked the king to spare your lives.  Well, that’s simple enough.  I want you to live until your precious tabernacle is destroyed.  I want to see the look on your faces when I give you the news that your Most Holy Place has been desecrated, then burned.”

Jezreel groaned.  The thought of the Sanctuary being lost to the Philistines was too much.

The Black Cat picked up on his reaction and seemed energized by it.  “Yes, I may even let you live until the day Israel marches to war against Moab.  We’re going to make them think the Moabites did it, you see.  I may even be so kind as to let you go on until the day we mount our attack against Israel.  With their forces thrown against Moab, Israel will be exposed and I will… ravage her.”

Tears flowed from Caleb’s eyes and Maaz pounded the floor in frustration.

“But not a moment longer than that!  I will lead the invasion alongside my king, and you will be dead before that happens.  I assure you of that.  By then, you will undoubtedly plead for death.”

“The LORD will deliver us from you, you filthy heathen!” Micah said with a vehemence that surprised both his brother-in-law and even himself.

“Now you’re being stupid.  Your god, deliver you, here within our borders?”

The Black Cat waited for a rebuttal.  When he got none, he sniffed dismissively.  “All this bluster.  I’d think you’d be more worried about how you’ll die.  Why don’t you ask me about that?”

Samuel rolled away, turning his back to their tormentor.  “Spare us,” he said with no small amount of irony.  Who knew the youth was capable of such subtlety?

This amused the Black Cat.  “No, I believe I will tell you.  It’s just too delicious.  You will be hung on ropes and dipped in garbage.  Then rats will be released to crawl down the ropes to eat the garbage – and you along with it.  That was my idea.  The king loved it, of course.  Will you be strangled before you’re eaten?  An interesting question.  In either case, your deaths will make a pretty effective demonstration of the futility and folly of opposing Philistia, the rightful rulers of Canaan!”

The Black Cat’s laugh was a very unpleasant thing to experience.

Day ? – Joppa

Barek’s eyes were glazed; he was either deep in thought or buried under the combined weight of despair, boredom and malnutrition.  Caleb could not tell which.  Time had become meaningless to all of them, with disorienting effect.  In the dungeon, without any sign of sun or moon, or regular meals there were none of the usual markers of the passing hours.  The men of God did not even know for certain what day it was.  Sleep came and went in fits and starts, but it brought neither rest nor solace.

Worry was a physical presence in their crowded cell and it harried all of them.  It nagged at each heart, the unspoken thought on each of their minds.  They knew time was passing.  They were all aware the danger to the tabernacle and to themselves had grown every time they awoke.  But, as everyone but Barek was recovering from the wounds suffered in the ambush back at the stable, falling and rising out of consciousness was the only way to know for certain that some time had passed.

Barek cared for them with tender hands but few words.  None of them felt much like speaking.  Failure dogged them when they were awake and aware.  Thoughts accused them, inflicted wounds of doubt that were no less severe than their physical ones.  In sleep, nightmares assailed them, Deborah and other accusing them of failure.

And the body of Joseph lay among them.  Stilled, discolored, and the source of a rising stench, the body was a weight on their souls.

Everything about this place was nightmarish, out of proportion, utterly alien.  But a strange apathy also gripped their hearts.  Where zeal or anger had previously burned and fueled their actions, a cloying sense of defeat smothered them like a wet cloth.  If they entertained any thoughts about escape, those thoughts soon disappeared under a tide-less wave of despair.

Their resignation was layered so deeply, that when their captors, even the Black Cat, came to taunt them, the men of Israel offered no reply, no resistance.  Eventually, the Philistines tired of their cruel sport and merely shoved bowls of gruel through the slot at the bottom of the door with half-hearted insults and no patience to wait for a reply that would not come.

Caleb slipped back to sleep while he looked on Barek’s pensive face.  Sleep was no refuge, but it was marginally better than wakefulness.

Day ? – Joppa

It was the clattering of the wooden gruel bowls that woke Caleb.  Barek was hastily sweeping them out of the way of the door, which was opening!

“Shhh!  Not so much noise,” said a dark-cloaked small figure that stepped around the door.  “Do you want to bring the whole place down on us?”

Hands reached out from beneath the folds of dirty black cloth and flipped back a concealing hood, revealing the face of Ammihud!

“You said we were to hurry,” Barek protested.

Ammihud sighed.  He turned his attention to Caleb and said, “Caleb, can you help Barek awaken the rest?  We have but a few breaths before someone comes down here and discovers the slain guards.  We must get everyone up and moving!”

But Caleb was too stunned.  To his benumbed mind, it seemed Ammihud was a dream, like the figments of the fevered nightmares he’d seen during their imprisonment.  He did not move, but stared at his comrade, wide-eyed.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Ammihud breathed.  “Are you not awake?  Must I do all myself?”

Caleb watched as the Barek and Ammihud figments set about waking the others.  Like him, they were stunned at the sudden appearance of their comrade and at the prospect of escape, a thing that had seemed so impossible when last they were aware of any sensation.

Maaz recovered more quickly than the rest, and he was indignant.  “How is it YOU, of all people, come to our rescue?”

Ruth stuck her head through the door.

“Because he had my help, that’s why!  Can’t you big strong men more any faster?!” she added in a garrulous tone.

This was too much.  Maaz’s yaw dropped open, agape at the sight of the beautiful thief.  He’d given up on her entirely, and now here she was, the instrument of their deliverance?  It was too much.  A groan escaped his lips.  “I will never forget this.  Nor live it down.”

Micah pushed past his brother-in-law and embraced Ruth, though the greeting was very improper.  His despair turned to delight at the sight of her pretty face.  With great relish, he turned back to Maaz and said, “I told you she’d come for us.”

“You are a bigger fool than I,” Maaz growled.

At last Caleb struggled to his feet.  “What day is it?” he asked Ammihud as he clapped him on the back.

“That’s why I’m trying to get you fools moving!  It’s nearly dawn of the Sabbath morning!”

Micah only just managed to clap a hand over Maaz’s mouth before he roared, “WHAT?!!”

“How can it..?” Jezreel said wearily.  “Have we passed only a few days in this place?  It felt like years.”

Samuel gathered himself up and drew a look of iron on his wearied, stubbled face.  “Then there is still hope.  We can yet triumph!”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Ammihud said, frustration evident on his face.  “We must leave this place and ride for Shiloh.  This no time for talk!  Only moving!”

Nodding silently, Maaz took Micah’s hand gently from his face.  Turning to Ruth, he said, “Lead the way.”

The men began to warily shoulder their way out the narrow doorway.  Caleb turned to see Barek bend low and pick up the stiff, inert body of Joseph.  “Hadn’t you better… leave him?  Hauling a body around will only slow us down.”

Barek hauled the cumbersome, unclean burden to his chest.  “We will not leave one of our own to a people and place such as this.  He will go with us and receive a hero’s burial.”

This was more words than Caleb had heard Barek string together in the entire time he’d know him.  And the determined look on the giant’s face silenced the reply in Caleb’s throat.  He merely nodded and patted Barek’s forearm.

Ducking, the giant and his burden were out the door and down the corridor to the right.

Caleb hesitated for a moment, he looked around the room that had been such a miserable place.  He called down a particularly virulent curse and shut the door.

Ruth lead the party of prisoners down narrow halls until they came to a stinking pit.  “Down here,” she said, but her voice sounded odd, as she was holding her nose.  “We’ve got to go down here.”

Before anyone could protest, Ammihud surged forward and added, “This is a refuse chute.  It leads to a dung pile, a dump on street level.  Mattan is waiting down there for us.”

“This is your escape plan?” Samuel protested.  “What about fighting our way out?  I want my family’s scimitar back!”

“You young hothead!” Micah snapped.  “We’ve no time to fight and the tabernacle to save!  We’ll take our escape and be thankful!”  Shoving Samuel toward the hole, he added, “You go first!”

Weary resignation crossed the youth’s face, making Samuel look older than his years.  Without any further comment, he sat on the floor, dropped his legs in the hole, and said, “The LORD be praised!”  Pushing off the floor, Samuel disappeared down the chute.

Barek lowered Joseph’s body and followed closely behind, trying not to let their comrade’s seemingly fragile body crash at the bottom.  He himself barely fit the opening.  It was a good thing the sides were slick with filth or he might’ve gotten stuck.

One by one, the Israelites dropped through the hole.  Ammihud went last, doing what he could to restore the metal grate before he fell the way down.  Given his considerable girth, he feared getting trapped in the stone chute, but slid down almost as quickly as the rest.

As promised, Mattan waited for them at the bottom.  But not only Mattan.  There was also a grizzled, bent, form of an old man dressed in rags and holding the reins of the donkey at the head of an empty cart.  He regarded the Israelite prisoners with one wary eye – the other eye was completely white, scarred and lifeless.

“Ah, masters.  The Almighty be praised,” Mattan said quietly.  “This is Arrut… an… associate of mine,” Mattan said, choosing his words with greater care than usual.  “He is the man who is known in Joppa as the ‘King of Muck.’  It has been his unhappy duty for these many years to be the one to cart the… refuse… from the city.  His familiar face will allow you to pass safely out the gates of the city.”

“How so?” Maaz asked, clearly suspicious and dreading the answer he supposed Mattan would give.

“Ah.  Well, it is… unpleasant, but necessary… for you to be covered with the refuse of this place.  You will lie face down on the cart and we will… cover you with the straw… and other things.  You will breathe through the slats of the cart’s bottom.  We will head for the dump… and once there, you will be… uncovered, and we will…”

Arrut spoke, interrupting Mattan’s instructions.  His voice was low and gravelly.  His speech was halting and his tongue Philistine.  What he said was, for all these reasons, incomprehensible to anyone but Mattan, who listened intently.

The merchant’s fat face took on an unhappy cast and he looked at Joseph’s body.  “He… Arrut, that is… says that if we put… the body, that is, on top, the soldiers are even less likely to stop and search the cart.”

Barek growled.

“He means no disrespect,” Mattan explained anxiously.  “I’ve paid him well, but he has no more desire to be caught at this than we do.”

Ammihud moved next to Barek and looked up at the giant’s eyes.  “Let it be so,” he said quietly.  “Please.”

Setting Joseph’s body gently down on the cobblestones, Barek climbed onto the wagon without a word.  He laid himself face down and found a place between the rough boards where his nose and mouth had room enough to breathe, more or less freely.

The cart was not over-large; the party had to alternate head and toes to find room for all of them to lie prone on the floor and find a breathing-space.  When it was done, the rest quickly piled on the straw and refuse.  The smell and the weight and the dust all challenged the prisoners to simply breathe.  But they did breathe, they inhaled lungs full of putrid air and exhaled in ragged gasps.

The old man muttered something else indecipherable.  Mattan bent to the bottom of the cart and said slowly, “He says, ‘Don’t be so noisy.’  The Holy One be with you, my masters.”

Mattan, Ammihud, and Ruth hurried out the narrow alleyway.  They retrieved their mounts and a string of goats Mattan had purchased at a king’s ransom to make their disguise as simple traders more convincing.  As she’d done on the way into Joppa, Ruth was there to distract the guards with her beautiful face.  Despite her masculine disguise, Ruth knew very well how to strike a pretty pose.  In fact, her life on the road had taught her how to play both masculine and feminine roles to effect.

The three of them passed through the gate with not much more notice than they had received going in.  They rode down the road at the relaxed pace appropriate for traders with a long journey ahead of them.  When the gate to the city was out of sight, they veered off the well-traveled road and turned south to circle around to the city’s massive dump.

As expected, when they arrived they found the poorest of the poor there, scavenging the city’s leftovers for scraps of food or clothing – anything useful.  The city’s lepers were also turned out here.  They managed to eke out a semblance of life until the dreaded disease took them away.

With a heavy heart at such a loss of revenue, Mattan turned the goats over to the wretched folk of the dump.  The animals would only slow the party down and… well… Mattan knew well that God looked favorably on those who were generous to the poor.  This group needed all the divine favor they could curry to succeed on this desperate day.

The people of the dump were elated and carried the goats off to their caves, a feast to prepare.  Their cheers and thanks had long died away as the trio of divine adventurers awaited Arrut and his dung wagon.

Finally they spied the “King of Muck” making his way on the hard-scrabbled path, coming toward them.  They were relieved to see Arrut’s cart was piled just as high now as it was when they’d parted company within Joppa!

Arrut mumbled something to Mattan and a small sack of what must be coins changed hands.  Mattan mentally tallied the cost of this little adventure, adding the bribe to the total.

Untying some leather thongs on the tongue of the wagon, Arrut stepped back suddenly as the cart tipped backward.  Straw, garbage and waste tumbled off the cart, revealing the men underneath.  Miraculously, all five of them still alive, though gasping for breath.  They were covered in filth, but alive and free!

Ammihud helped each man to their feet, but Ruth stayed on her donkey, fanning away the smell and covering her look of displeasure with a fold of her cloak.

“On your feet,” Ammihud said impatiently.  “We’ve got mounts hidden nearby, but we must hurry!  Remember the Tabernacle is in danger!   War may be already upon us!  We must move!”

Barek waved Ammihud off and searched amid the refuse for the body of Joseph, which he quickly retrieved.  Shouldering the burden, he said, “Now we can go.”

 

It seemed that Mattan, Ammihud, and Ruth had thought of nearly everything.  While they hurried their mounts, there was water for drinking and washing off at least some of the filth that covered the escapees.  There was food to eat and golden amulets that bore Deborah’s palm tree symbol.  These had been provided by the judge’s other servants, the ones Deborah had sent to Aphek with supplies and an urgent request for a report.

With the help of these men and Mattan’s connections in Joppa, the plan to free them had been forged.  Deborah’s men returned to report and to raise the level of wariness among those guarding the tabernacle.  It appeared that the plans of the enemy would be thwarted.

The only thing missing was a shroud for Joseph’s body.

But still, a feeling of dread hung over the party.  Without saying it in so many words, they were all convinced that the preparations to defend the tabernacle were for naught if they were not there to defend it.  It was clear that the Almighty had chosen them as His champions.  This sense of destiny somehow grew more real as they slipped Deborah’s amulets over their heads.  They had to hurry.

At Aphek they traded their tired donkeys for fresh horses.  Even Mattan insisted on riding with them.  Maaz openly suspected it was to see to the safe return of the horses he’d hired, but Mattan said only that he must “see it through.”

Barek had reluctantly conceded to allow the body of Joseph to be taken to Mattan’s house.  It had slowed them down enough on the trip from Joppa to Aphek, and no more delays could be broached.  “When we get to the tabernacle,” Barek said tiredly, “We cannot enter.  For we five are unclean, having been with the body.”

Micah glared at the big man.  “If I have to defile the tabernacle to save it, I will,” he vowed.  They mounted up and rode for a distance in silence.  Although Micah preferred things he could see, touch, taste; things he could control, the tabernacle was part of his nation’s identity.  He would sooner sacrifice a limb than let it be destroyed.  As usual, he was as good as his words.  Micah abruptly mounted and rode on ahead, not even looking back to see if the others were following.

Day Seven – Between Aphek and Shiloh

Dark clouds crept across the sky, as if the Almighty Himself judged this to be a dark day, a moment for evil to have its malicious way.  The clouds, however, bore no rain and nothing appeared to impede the progress of Deborah’s warriors until they neared Shiloh.  At the last crossroads before the road divided, the east branch leading to the tabernacle, a small party of men awaited people on the road.  When the nine riders approached, the five men stood.

“What’s this?” Maaz growled, speaking low enough to be heard only by Micah.

“Be on your guard, brother,” Micah replied.

“Hail, Jethro,” Mattan said, urging his mount between Maaz and Micah to take the lead.  He reigned his horse to a stop before the leader of the dismounted group.

“The LORD be with you, Mattan,” the man now known to them as Jethro replied.  “And to you all.  “Guardians of Israel!” he said, in greeting.  Jethro looked around the group as he spoke, making unseen assessments as he delivered a practiced message; “As I see from the amulets you wear, you are in service to Deborah, Judge over Israel.  The Lord told her that you will soon be His instruments against the Philistines.  He told His servants to bring you items that you will need for the remainder of this conflict.”

Jethro turned and gestured to a small cart that sat just off the road.  When the adventurers seemed wary, he added, “Come and receive these implements of judgment.”

Balek, of all people, was impatient.  “We don’t have time for presents,” he said.

Jethro did not answer, but went to the cart and loosed the covering.  Pulling it away, he said, “Not presents, large one, but armor and weapons.  You must go into battle prepared.”

Caleb was the first to dismount and attend to the cart.  He picked up and ran his fingers over leather armor that had been boiled to a stiff hardness and reinforced with metal scales and rings.

“Such fine workmanship,” he said admiringly.  Caleb quickly found a cuirass, gauntlets and helmet that fit him snugly and put them on, presumably to give Deborah’s men no chance to change their minds.  Sacred symbols had been tooled into the metal and leather, which Caleb supposed offered spiritual as well as physical protection.  “These are generous gifts,” Caleb practically purred.  He picked up a bow and quiver of arrows.  “Ha!” he shouted, fully equipped to make battle for the tabernacle.

The others wasted no further time dismounting and searching through the martial equipment.  Except for Barek.  “There will be none there in my size,” he muttered.

Micah threw him a helmet.  Laughing, he said, “I believe that will cover even your big head, Barek!”

Not yet convinced, Barek slowly fitted the leather helm on his head.  It fit easily.

“Just a helmet won’t do much good,” Barek said disconsolately, but he dismounted and moved to the cart.

Jethro eyed Ruth, who had already donned her masculine disguise.  “Are you Joseph?” he queried.  Jethro’s instructions were to provide arms for only seven of the eight men because Joseph eschewed any weapons save fist and foot.  But this little one, surely more a boy than a man, already had a helm and a sickle hung from his belt.

Ruth wanted none of this man’s scrutiny and recognized suspicion when she saw it.  “I need no more,” she growled in a gruff voice.  “Let’s hurry,” she added, and rode down the road to escape Jethro’s frankly curious gaze.

Jethro conferred with one of his fellows briefly in a whisper, then gave up on it.  When he turned back to the cart, he saw that the seven had sorted their equipment out.  Mattan, of course, was not provided for.  His presence in the rescue party might have surprised even Deborah.  Instead, Mattan looked on and silently calculated the value of all these implements of war.  A bounty of generosity indeed.

Maaz swung the great iron-shod goad tentatively.  “Not as good as mine, but it will do,” he said.

Deborah’s messengers helped the seven suit up, as most of them were not warriors and the way to don armor was not immediately clear to them.  With help, all of them were ready to go.  As the men of God mounted up, Jethro and his partners gathered their donkeys and mounted them.  “We are to accompany you and offer introductions to the captain of the guard.”

“Then ride on,” Ammihud said, “May Adonai go on before us!”

Jezreel started a travel psalm and the group felt their hearts rise, lifted on the wings of praise to their God.  Surely He strengthened their arms and girded them for battle!

Idol Smashers (Number Eight)

asherah

“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 Two – The Cave

 (Previously, in Idol Smashers: Though they are idolators, liars, and pagans, the Heshonibites put up more of a fight than expected.  Two of our heroes are out of the fight.  Those still standing struggle to execute God’s will.)

A moment of clarity intruded upon the fog of war that dominated Maaz’s conscious thoughts.  He was aware, in that moment, that the battle was going in their favor.  Wounded and frightened villagers were retreating to the opposite side of the cave.  For the first time, he heard their screams, the cries of their children.  His assessment of the situation was interrupted by Barek bellowing from behind him.

“THEY HAVE MADE AN IDOL!!”

He pointed to an unfinished Asherah pole hastily erected in the middle of the cave.

Samuel would have turned to look at it, but two of the villagers were moving to flank him.  They were about his age and in another circumstance, might have been competitors in an athletic contest.  Now they intended to attack Samuel from both sides, trying to gain an advantage in a contest with a more deadly outcome.

Waiting, Samuel bade his time.  They attacked, rushing the Israelite from both sides simultaneously.  Samuel fell to one knee and swung his scimitar at the one on his right.  The arcing slash caught the onrushing youth diagonally across his side.  The fighter’s momentum and sudden wound made him stumble away from Samuel.

He’d hoped that by dodging and attacking, Samuel could make his attackers miss him and run into one another.  However, the villager coming from his left was more adroit than that.  He side-stepped to avoid his falling comrade, and slammed into Samuel’s back.  The two tumbled to the ground.  There they grappled, each holding aside the blade of the other in his off hand.

It was in rough form to be sure, but the wooden column before Maaz was surely an Asherah pole.  Righteous indignation stirred within Maaz, adding more heat to the flame that battle had already ignited.  Any pity he might have felt was now replaced with an implacable rage.  These people, even in their captivity, had constructed another foul idolatrous image.  The grotesque multi-breasted female figure was lewd and foul, the very antithesis of all that was right.

Maaz hefted his staff and turned toward the remaining villagers.

A man fled before Micah, retreating from the flashing arc of the Isrealite’s sword.  The fight was clearly gone from him and he instinctively sought the imagined safety of numbers.  He would never know safety again, as Micah’s sword swung and cut the villager nearly in half.

Caleb rushed forward.  He gaped at the idol, then shook his head in disbelief.  “Where did they even get a tree trunk that size?” he wondered aloud.

Seeing no nearby opponents, Ammihud knelt to check on Jezreel.  The psalmist was unconscious, but seemed to be breathing.  Ammihud prayed.  His experiences in life had not prepared him for this kind of melee and his mind was awhirl.  He earnestly prayed that the younger man would be fine.

Barek tore his gaze from the idol, noticing Samuel grappling with one of the villagers on the cavern floor.  Barek strode over to them.  After only a moment’s hesitation, he reached out with his free hand and plucked Samuel’s attacker off him.  A swift stab with his sword dispatched the young man.  He let the body fall.

Samuel hustled to his feet, the excitement of the battle boiling his blood.  “What’d you do that for?” he queried Barek angrily.  “I had him!  I had him.”

Barek smiled and said, “It looked to me like you had each other.”

The big man’s friendly banter stood in contrast to the bloody, furious action they’d just seen.  Samuel sighed, a sudden weariness in his shoulders.  He returned Barek’s smile.  “That’s so.”

Barek put his free hand on the younger Israelite’s shoulder and said, “Well done, then.”  He cocked his head in Maaz’s direction.  “Have you seen the idol?”

Samuel turned to look where Barek was indicating.  The two men warily beheld the idol as they walked toward Caleb.

Caleb turned his attention turned to Maaz.  “Brother!” he called out to the older Israelite.  “Hold!”

Maaz continued his slow advance on the Heshonibites, apparently oblivious.

“MAAZ!” Caleb called out.

Stopping and then turning to him, Maaz said with irritation, “What?!”

“A moment, brother.  We have them in retreat, most of their fighting men dead.  Let us finish this in a coordinated attack.  Again, archers first.”  Caleb held up his bow, as if Maaz needed reminding what archers attacked with.

He considered Caleb’s advice briefly, then breathed, “Fine!”  He turned back to face the enemy, but did not advance.  The staff was a restless thing in his hands, turning slowly.

Ammihud turned Jezreel over and lightly slapped his hands.  “Awake, Jezreel.  Awaken.”

The psalmist’s eyes fluttered, then blinked once and snapped open.  Jezreel sat up much too suddenly and felt the pain the pot left behind.

“My head!” he groaned, running a hand over the back of his head.  “Is it still of a piece?”

Ammihud steadied Jezreel.

“You’ll be all right, I suppose,” he offered uncertainly.

“Is the battle over?”

“No,” Ammihud replied, looking around.  “There’s a lull.  The rest of the village is huddled as far away from us as they can get.  You have a moment to get your wits about you again.”

“Not too many moments,” a voice behind them said.

Jezreel and Ammihud turned their heads to see that Joseph had sat up.  He was in some sort of meditative pose.  His eyes closed and he was breathing deeply, marshaling some inner strength.  Or praying.  Maybe both.

“Heh,” Jezreel laughed, “for all your art, you fared no better against the pot-boy than I!”

Joseph opened one eye and regarded the psalmist solemnly.

“How’s a man to meditate with a strutting crow cawing at him?”

A sigh escaped Ammihud.  He failed to see how this was a time for levity, and was about to say so when Joseph stood.

“No matter.  The rest of this task remains undone.  May the LORD deliver us from any more pots until we are concluded.”

Jezreel would have nodded in agreement if his head weren’t already swimming.  Ammihud helped him stand, then retrieved his bow.

“Now you two,” he said.  “Let’s go see what the plan is.”

The three men strode purposefully to the middle of the cavern and regarded the unfinished idol.  Ammihud made a hand sign against evil.

It was Barek who spoke first.  “I count barely a dozen remaining.  They are cowed with fear.”

“Let’s have a couple volleys of arrows,” offered Caleb.  “Then the rest can move in to finish…”  His suggestion went unfinished as he stared at the surviving villagers.

Fewer than thirty paces away, each man saw something so horrible they would take the memory to their graves.  The Heshonibites were praying before their rough-hewn idol.   The two men who survived the initial melee wrested babies and children from the grip of distraught mothers and spilled their blood, offering their own children as sacrifices to Ashoreh.  They killed their children in a desperate gambit to save their own skins!

Fighting bile rising in his throat, Micah said in a low voice.  “Archers, then.  We kill these pigs.  These vile pigs.”

Caleb, Barek and Ammihud quietly nocked arrows while the others prepared their weapons.  When the three archers raised their bows and sighted targets, their aim was disrupted by a loud, unearthly screech from behind them.

“NO!  NOT MY CHILDREN!  YOU WILL SLAY NO MORE!”

As one, the men of Israel turned to see who it was that screamed at them.  The Asherah pole was no longer leaning against the pillar.  Instead, it was standing on two stout wooden legs!  With a cracking sound, two pairs of arms separated themselves from the body of the now-animate idol!  With a shrill shout that sounded like a thousand tortured souls, the immense head twisted and pulled itself up from the body.

Wooden lips issued a bone-chilling scream and vowed, “MEN OF ISRAEL!  YOU SHALL NOT LEAVE THIS PLACE ALIVE!!”

With that oath, the idol flung itself at the fighting men of God, wooden arms flailing, wooden claws slashing.

Out of reflex, Ammihud loosed his arrow at the onrushing idol, but his shot flew wide.  Guessing that the giant strides would gobble up the distance between them in seconds, he threw down his bow and reached for his dagger.  Though only God knew what good either weapon would do against such an adversary.

Indeed, with only a couple strides of it’s legs, the false god was upon Samuel.  The youth had the presence of mind to duck under the assault of wooden claws and they scratched the air harmlessly above his head.

A sulphurous odor assaulted Jezreel’s nostrils as he moved in to attack the creature’s flank.  His staff struck the formerly inert object in its side.  But instead of merely striking the idol, his staff stuck to it!  More amazingly, his wooden weapon seemed to melt into the wooden body of the idol.  As Jezreel watched in horror, his staff became an extra limb on the idol’s body!

Charging from the other side of the creature, Maaz did not see the result of Jezreel’s attack.  He only knew that an unholy foe was waging war on them and he must strike!  He gouged the wooden giant with the metal tip of his staff and it let loose an unearthly cry, turning on him.

With the bow and arrow in his hands, a thought came to Barek.  He ran to a nearby torch stuck in the wall of the cave.  Setting the bow and arrow down, he cut a strip off his cloak with his dagger and bound it around the tip of the arrow.  Setting it aflame in the torch, he nocked the arrow in his bow and turned to face the idol.  It was leering at him.

Standing apart from the melee, Joseph looked at the scene differently than the rest of his comrades.  Somehow he knew that this immense adversary was not really made of wood.  It’s true nature was spiritual evil.  A demonic host animated the idol.

So Joseph knelt to pray.

The idol turned and screamed at him, but Joseph did not waver.  He knew that prayer to the Almighty One was the best weapon to wield against such a foe.

Micah saw what Joseph was doing but it did not occur to him to battle with prayer.  He was too experienced a warrior to think of any solution that did not first test his sword.  Swinging above Samuel, his blow did little to parry the creature’s own savage strike, which sent Micah sprawling.

He stood and threw his sword into the ground, burying the point and standing it up.  Micah took the axe from the leather strap looped over his shoulder and readied it saying, “I guess chopping down a tree requires an AXE!”

The idol’s attention to Joseph indicated it saw him as the greatest threat.  It turned and reached for him.  Sweeping him off the floor in its claws, it shook Joseph like a child playing with a cloth doll.  Years of training in concentration paid much-needed fruit and Joseph continued to speak aloud his petition to the God of Israel.

The wooden claws closed about him like an iron vise, nearly cutting off his breath.

Joseph still prayed.

Now free from the idol’s onslaught, Samuel stood and attacked the creature’s flank.  His scimitar bit deeply in its wooden body, but the idol seemed oblivious to all else save crushing the life out of Joseph.

When the creature turned on Joseph, Jezreel had to move quickly to avoid being knocked over by what had just been his staff.  A grin spread across his face as he realized what Joseph was doing.  Summoning from memory a psalm of victory, Jezreel’s strong, clear voice competed with the screams of the idol.

Maaz saw Samuel’s blade slash a furrow across the body of the creature, but it had little apparent effect.  Undeterred, he ran forward to wield his staff again.  This time his blow landed just below the iron-shod tip of his staff.  The wooden part of his weapon stuck to his hellish adversary’s wooden frame.  Maaz tugged vainly at his staff and saw, to his horror, that his weapon was becoming part of the creature!

Ammihud realized that he held a more potent weapon than the puny dagger clutched in his hand.  He was aware of Joseph’s fervent prayers and Jezreel’s psalmistry.  His voice joined with his fellow Israelites.  Dropping the dagger, he lifted his hands and head in prayer.

The creature bellowed.

It raged and shook Joseph violently.

Joseph did not waver.  He petitioned the Almighty for deliverance from this evil, for the power to smite it, for the defeat of all the enemies of God.

The words of his prayer reached Caleb’s soul and he shook slightly as he was suddenly aware of something other than the terror of that creature.  The bow and arrow, which had slackened in his hands, was now an instrument of divine power.  He prayed aloud as he sighted in on the evil thing’s immense head.  His arrow flew true and buried itself in the side of the horrible hate-gripped visage.  It howled in pain and terror.

Ammihud wanted to shout to his brothers that prayer was needed to defeat this foe, but he dared not stop praying.  “Let the others inflict damage on the thing’s body,” he thought.  “I will strike at its dark soul.”

The creature flung Joseph to the ground with all its might.  He hit the floor, tumbled into a heap as if a discarded rag.  No more prayers issued from him and the creature turned on Samuel and Maaz.

Like branches whipped by a fierce wind, the wooden limbs flailed at Maaz, but he rolled underneath them.

Samuel took advantage of the opportunity to strike at the limbs that had once held Joseph in a crushing grip then flung him to the ground.  The scimitar struck the lower limb and severed it.  Once it fell to the ground, it became an inanimate stick.

Emboldened by this success, Samuel shouted, “Go for the arms!”.

Jezreel sang with all his might.  Faith swelled in his heart and he directed his powerful voice at the creature, wielding it as a spiritual weapon.

He succeeded in getting its attention.

Growling in rage, Micah only half-heard Samuel’s advice as he rushed up beside the youth and swung at the idol.  His axe struck one of the stout legs supporting the idol, driving the blade deep into the wood.

The creature tottered on its injured leg.  It reached down and swept Micah away, knocking him back a dozen paces.  Micah sat up, but the cavern swung around him and he felt blood running down his eyebrow and into his left eye.

The idol snatched up Maaz and held him in a crushing grip.  Rearing back, it threw Maaz across its body, with Micah the intended target.  The big man smashed into his brother-in-law, knocking him to the ground.  Maaz tumbled in the dirt, finally coming to rest, laying on his face.

Looking down, the idol reached down with its remaining right arm and yanked the axe from its leg.  The wooden handle of Micah’s weapon melded with the fingers of the hand and it became part of the giant limb.

Seeing all this over the end of his flaming arrow, Barek prayed, “Adonai, guide my hand.”

The flaming missile embedded itself in the middle of the idol.  Its flailing limb actually helped spread the flames and it was becoming engulfed in the fire.

Ammihud strode toward his demonic adversary, seeing by faith its true nature.  “BY THE LORD OF HOSTS, YOU MUST FALL!” he shouted.

The spreading flames instantly engulfed the entire apparition.

With a final spirit-rending scream, the idol fell to its knees and then face forward to the ground.  The thump of its impact resounded in the cavern.

Something black and viscuous seemed to drain from it into the earth, receding down a crack in the ground, and then was gone.  What remained was a brightly burning, roughly carved log with branches sticking out of it at odd angles.

Jezreel began a song of praise as the men of Israel moved to examine the thing.

“Is it dead?” Caleb asked.

“It was never really alive,” Barek answered, striding over to the burning remains.  “I would guess a demon animated it.”

“I concur,” Ammihud added.  He sheathed his dagger.  “I saw the thing in it.  It was an evil creature, sent from the Abyss.”

Samuel was bent over Joseph’s still form.

“I think he’s alive.”

“That is well,” Barek said.  “It was his quick thinking that saved us.  He was the first to pray.”

Ammihud nodded his agreement and joined Samuel in caring for Joseph.  They turned the man over and Ammihud poured some water from his flask on his face and into his mouth.

Joseph sputtered, spraying water.  His eyes came open and then closed again.  “Leave me alone,” he said in a small voice.

Near the far wall of the cavern, Maaz shouted, a cry of frustration.

Everyone but Joseph turned to look at him.  Jezreel even stopped singing.  Maaz knelt above the unmoving form of Micah, cradling his brother-in-law’s bloodied head on his lap.

Caleb spoke first, but low, “Is he…?”

Maaz’s gaze focused on Caleb.  “What?”

“Is he dead?  Did it kill Micah?”

Maaz was annoyed.  “What?  No.  Micah will be fine.  I’ve seen him hurt worse.”

Ammihud shrugged.  “Then what are you…?”

“THE VILLAGERS!”  Maaz yelled in frustration.  “The idolators have got away!”

Like a sudden blow, it hit them.  They were alone in the cavern!

“They ran while we were fighting the demon!”  Ammihud exclaimed.

“Maybe Mattan…” Jezreel said.  He turned on his heel and ran for the corridor that led out of the cavern.

Maaz snorted at the psalmist’s retreating figure.  “Mattan.  I doubt it.”

“He’s right.  Mattan is no warrior,” Samuel said.  “Chances are, they overran him and have fled to the horizon.”

Ammihud told him, “It doesn’t matter where they run.  They cannot hide from the Lord’s vengeance.”

“Yes,” Barek agreed.  “Besides, I have a pretty good idea where they’re headed.”

Caleb looked at him quizzically.

“Joppa.  There is a trail of guilt that leads from Heshonib to Joppa.”

Caleb thought about that, but said nothing.

Moments of silent consideration of the day’s events was interrupted by Micah, who moaned softly.  Maaz withdrew Micah’s “secret” wineskin from his sash and measured out a few drops into his mouth.

“You deserve this, warrior.”

Micah coughed on the liquid, then licked his lips.

“I deserve that and more.”

Maaz laughed, a short, forceful bark.  He sat Micah up and handed him the wineskin.  “Follow your own conscience,” he said.

Micah took a long draw on the skin and then rubbed his forehead.

“What hit me?”

“I did.”

“You?” he said slowly, looking up at his brother-in-law.  He sighed heavily.  “Not again.”

“It was not my fault,” Maaz protested.  “The… thing… the cursed idol flung me at you!”

Jezreel entered the cavern suddenly, half-carrying Mattan.  He guided the dazed trader to the rest of the group and unceremoniously dumped him near the burning idol.

“Guess who let the Heshonibites run over him in their haste to escape.”

“I need no guess,” Maaz said derisively.

“This is a nice fire,” Mattan said, sounding a little distracted.  “What is it that…?”  He recoiled from the fire and jumped to his feet.  He pointed to it with a fluttering finger.  “My masters!  Is that what I think it is?”

“Yes, it is an idol,” Ammihud said.  “Where would they get a log this size here in a cavern?”

“Ah,” Samuel said remorsefully.  “The LORD forgive me.  They said they needed wood for making braces to shore up the caves.  And fires against the cool of the cave.  I gave them the wood…”

“And I gave them the tools,” Mattan added.  “Ah me.  My masters, a thousand pardons.”  Looking again at the idol aflame, Mattan asked, “What… what did happen here?  The villagers surprised and overwhelmed me.”

“We’ll tell you about it on the way back to Aphek,” Barek said without facial or tonal expression.

“There will be plenty of time for explanations on that trip,” Jezreel said, his arms crossing his chest.  His gaze was directed at Mattan.

“Ah.”

“What do you mean?” Caleb queried.

Jezreel only cocked an eyebrow at Mattan.

“They took the horses,” Mattan said.  “A thousand pardons on my humble head.  I am bruised,” he said, pointing to his disheveled pate.  “I am bruised, to be sure.  I bear the marks of their vicious assault.”  Opening his cloak, Mattan was as surprised as anyone to find the side of his robe stained with blood.  “There…” he squeaked.  “You see?”

Jezreel reached out to steady him.  “We need to give thanks for our victory, pray that it will be completed, then return to Aphek to get a proper healer for our… warriors,” he said, giving Mattan a doubtful look.

“Yes,” Joseph said, sitting up.  “That is what we must do.”

Idol Smashers – Part Five

terraphim

“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 – Aphek

(Previously on “Idol Smashers:” A party of divinely-selected men of Israel set off from Shiloh on a secret mission for Deborah the Judge over Israel.  They arrive in Aphek where they are met by Deborah’s associate, Mattan.)

After the men of Israel followed Mattan into a courtyard and stable that abutted the city wall, their contact gestured to a rail where their animals could be tethered.  He poured water into the manger that ran beneath the rail.

Watching him closely, Ammihud observed that though he was a big man, Mattan seemed oddly delicate, even effeminate somehow in his mannerisms.  Ammihud had little time to consider this when Mattan turned to them suddenly and said, “My masters, let us retire to my humble home, where we can deal freely.”  Mattan spoke in a voice clearly intended to carry beyond the courtyard.  It seemed that Aphek held many listening ears.  He gestured silently toward a door held open by a young man who had the look of a servant.

In an unusual circumstance, Ammihud made no comment at all, instead quietly tied his donkey’s reins to the rail and went inside the cool brick home.  Food and drink had been set out.  They were obviously expected.  When his duties as doorman were concluded, the servant boy went back to chasing flies off of the food.  Savory and sweet smells greeted Ammihud.  In spite of their earlier snack, he found his appetite quickened by the aromas.

“Bothersome little pests, flies.  I hate them,” Mattan said, swinging at the swirling insects with a horsehair switch.  “One wonders why Noah did not deign to swat them when he had only two of them aboard the ark.”  Mattan chuckled at his little joke, but these men were all so serious-looking, he quickly left the attempt at humor and gestured to the pillows on the floor.

“Please, my masters.  Sit down.  Enjoy the hospitality of my humble home.”

Each of the men, in their turn, greeted Mattan and blessed his household.  After being seated, they were served by the boy.  Micah tasted the wine and even gargled it a bit in his mouth.  When the party looked at him in surprise, he murmured, “Excellent vintage.”

Mattan smiled broadly at this, and bowed his head.  “And now, just so we know that we can deal honestly, please to show me the scroll.”

Ammihud hesitated.  Did he mean to open it?  Deborah had specifically said that he needed only to examine the seal.

Barak, seated next to him, patted Ammihud on the back.  “Give him a look.  He won’t open it.”

Was the giant a mind reader too?  Ammihud hated to be so transparent.  He reached within his sash and withdrew the scroll, handing it to Mattan.

Looking only at the seal and comparing it to an amulet he withdrew from the folds of his robe, Mattan checked the seal carefully.  He nodded and then held up both his amulet and the scroll for all the men to see.  They had both clearly been imprinted by the same seal.

“All is well,” Mattan concluded and handed the scroll back to Ammihud.  “Perhaps now this unfortunate incident will be resolved.  We all serve our LORD and His Judge Deborah, so may wisdom guide us.  You do well to be cautious with that scroll, master.  It may bring you ease from Deborah’s allies and ill from her enemies.  It is not a device to be displayed overmuch.”

Mattan swatted the boy with his switch and he started.  “Keep your eyes and your tongue in your head my boy, and leave us.  Go out and tend to our master’s beasts.”

The boy executed a sloppy bow and ran out.

Mattan sighed.  “Good servants are so hard to purchase these days.  So, my masters, where to begin to tell the tale of this business at Heshonib?”

Each man tried to simultaneously speak above the other.  Mattan’s face showed his pleasure at being the center of attention.  “Please, my masters.  One at a time.  I have only one tongue, after all.”  He pointed to Micah.  “You with the excellent taste for wine.  I shall answer your question first.”

“Who are you and how do you have a role in all this?” he asked abruptly.

“I am a trader, the only one in all of Aphek who will do business with Heshonib.  Most of the people in Aphek prefer to ignore Heshonib, hoping it would disappear.  Now it appears their hopes are not in vain.  For myself, I trade with the people of the village though I find their idolatry abominable.”

A look of disgust crossed Maaz’s swarthy face but as it looked as if he would make a comment, Mattan pressed on.  “A few days ago I left Aphek to go to Heshonib.  Business as usual; nothing but business.  On this day, however, I was met on the road by the villagers who were streaming out of Heshonib in a panic. As I am known to them, I asked what was amiss.  They told me a tale nearly unbelievable.”

“It is a tale I have thus far only related to Deborah in a scroll written by my own hand.”  As few can write anything but their own name and a few numbers, this was intended to impress.  Mattan even held up a set of ten pudgy, soft digits, but noted these were men of Israel who were hared to impress.

“Now I tell it to you.  They said that early in the morning, as they were beginning to awaken, there was a loud noise like thunder, and a flash like lightning.  This happened in each of their homes.  They fell to the ground in fear, offering prayers for their lives.  After a few moments, they realized there was only silence, and all seemed as it was before.”

“Looking about their simple homes, their eyes naturally fell on their family altars.  In each home, the altar was in disarray.  The teraphim were all destroyed.  There were only splinters of wood or broken stone or bits of melted metal left where their household gods had been.  And – on the wall behind the destroyed altar – a word had been burned.”

Mattan paused to roll his eyes at the memory.  “These simple-minded villagers.  They know nothing of writing.  Not like Mattan does.  I went to the village while they waited nearby.  I have seen these words.  I recognized them as the language of our fathers.  There is a different Hebrew word burned into each wall in each home.  Is this not the manner in which the hand of God wrote the Ten Commandments?  I had no tablet on which to record them – or time to memorize them – but I have seen them, with my own eyes.”

He let that sink in, then continued to spin the tale.  “And that is not all my masters.  The cursed Asherah pole on the hill overlooking Heshonib had also caught afire.  It was still burning when I left.  Somehow I knew – perhaps the LORD Himself instructed me – that word of this must not pass forth until Deborah herself had a chance to see and judge what had happened here.  The Almighty One made me very persuasive as I convinced the villagers to gather in a secret place and there to pray, awaiting forgiveness.  I told them their village was accursed and all who remained there would be under a curse as well.”  Mattan regarded them seriously.  “These villagers are idolaters and superstitious rabble, after all.”

Suddenly, Mattan patted his chest and smiled broadly.  “It was my finest moment, I swear upon my beard.  I have kept them in a nearby cave for nearly a week, awaiting word from Deborah.  They have grown more restless daily, and I have had a hard time quelling rumors in Aphek.  But now you are here in Deborah’s name and you will bring an end to this trial.  I will take you to the cave or to the village, my masters, for there is daylight enough to reach either and return. You, my masters, will decide what is to be done, at the Lord’s bidding.”

Pointing to Ammihud, Mattan said, “The answer to the question is this: the village is presumably untouched.  As I said, none from Aphek bother with it, save I and the villagers are all rounded up.”

All the men were thinking furiously on this curious tale.  Jezreel’s mind ran in swift channels and he asked, “What is the history of this village?  How does such a blight exist within Israel?”

With a shrug, Mattan said, “I have no idea who founded this village, only that those who lived there are within a generation or two of the founders.  They are reputed to be men of Israel, but they do not worship as we do.”

“Then they are neither men, nor are they of Israel,” Maaz said, grimacing.

“Our friend is quick to make up his mind,” Joseph said.

Caleb quickly spoke up, “I, for one, should like to relieve myself and then, as you say, make a trip to the village.  The rest of our questions can be answered along the way, can they not?”

Maaz’s wrath was not so easily put off, but it appeared to Ammihud that he would say no more for the moment.  He must have been as eager as Caleb to see this place for himself.

Ammihud stood and said, “Yes.  As soon as we are all ready, we can depart.  Mattan, may we leave our cart here?  I see no reason to pack it along.”

Mattan also rose and made a half-bow.  “Yes, your belongings are perfectly safe here.  My man on the roof keeps a steady eye on things whenever I am away.”  Moving to the door, he held it open for them and said, “Shall we away, then?”

Day One – Heshonib

            Riding out of the city aroused less interest among those at the gate than riding in had done.  A word from Mattan to the Guardian of the Gate was sufficient to allay their mild curiosity.  His senses honed by his time in the wilderness Joseph observed among the elders of Aphek some disgust for Mattan.  Joseph wondered about the wisdom of Deborah’s choice of agents.  However, since he was the first to encounter the mystery, he may have been Adonai’s choice, not Deborah’s.

After having ridden out of earshot of the city, Mattan continued to discourse about Heshonib, but there was little in the way of important information.  The man is clearly enamored with the sound of his own voice and the cleverness of his business dealings.

Even Joseph began to be impatient with Mattan when he suddenly rode ahead of the party and veered off the road.  The path he took was scarcely noticeable.  “This way, my masters.  The route is little-used, but familiar to my eyes.”  This fact implied that Heshonib has been a fairly isolated village, just as Mattan has repeatedly said.

Riding up to the village gave Joseph a chill down his back and an unsettled feeling in his heart.  He looked at his companions and noted they were similarly discomfited.  It was quickly apparent that the village had been abandoned hastily – doors were left ajar, articles of clothing and personal belongings littered the ground, left where they had been dropped.  A few sheep wandered among the scene, bawling plaintively.

“What do I smell?” Maaz asks.  He lifted his ample nose and drew in several more draughts of air.  “WHAT DO I SMELL?!” he shouted.  Goading his donkey through the group, Maaz rounded a home a little further up the path.  Stopping there, he pointed to the east.

“PIGS!” he called out.  “Pigs!  These are no men of Israel!”

Micah rode forward for a look.  “Cursed is a swineherd,” he added, shaking his head in disgust.

“In case there were any lingering hope about the faith of these people,” Joseph commented as he rode through the village to look upon the sty, “that pretty well settles it.”

Ammihud tethered his mount at a trough near the well at the further end of the village.  Looking down the shaft, he said, “They’re not cursed by lack of water.  This well is nigh full.”

Jezreel stepped off his donkey and tethered it next to Ammihud’s.

“Then we should draw some off for our beasts and ourselves,” he says, pulling on the rope suspended by a long wooden limb over the simple, crude well.  The skin bucket held the water well enough and he filled the trough with several draws.

“Who among us can read more than his name?” Ammihud asks.

Barek tied his mount’s reins to the tether.  “I can,” he said, after helping himself to a drink.

“As can I,” Jezreel added.

“Very well,” Ammihud said, drawing up his belt.  “The rest of us should take a look around while you two read the words the LORD has carved into the walls of these idolaters.”

Maaz appeared reluctant to even set foot on the village.  “Micah and I will ride up the hill and look at their evil Asherah pole, may that name be cursed.”

The men rode up the nearby hill to the charred remains of the wooden pole that hade once been mistakenly worshiped as a goddess.  Unwilling to suffer the stump to remain in the ground the two men of Israel worked to pull it out of the earth.

For his part, Mattan seemed uncomfortable returning to Heshonib.  He seems to sense that something profound has forever changed if.  “Masters, may I remain here – keep an eye on our mounts?”

Joseph clapped him on the shoulder.  “Be of good courage, Mattan.  The LORD will give us wisdom in sorting all this out.”  Turning to Ammihud and Caleb, he said, “Gentlemen, let’s take care of these animals and release them.”

Caleb hesitated.  “The sheep could be herded back to Aphek.  They could fetch a decent price there…”

Joseph waved off his comrade’s objection.  “No, that would be stealing them from the Heshonibites.  If we give them a bit of food and water, then release them into God’s care, we are guilty of no wrongdoing.”

Ammihud sighed.  “I object to doing a shepherd’s work,” he paused in the hope of receiving some support.  When none was forthcoming, he continued, “But I suppose the better we deal with this, the more help we can expect from the LORD.”

“That’s the spirit!” Joseph said.  “Let’s find their feed and then herd them out here for water.  What they do after that is the LORD’s will.”

“Agreed,” Ammihud said.  He turned and strode toward the pen of pigs.  “Let’s get the worst over with first.”

“Agreed,” Caleb seconded, following Ammihud.  Joseph busied himself scattering feed from a spilled sack of grain abandoned near the well.

Micah made a sign against evil with his right hand.

Maaz noted this and nodded.  “I couldn’t agree more.”

What once had been a pole half again their height, was now more like a stump.  The unburned portion was only a couple hand-breadths from the ground, the whole thing no more than a cubit and a half tall.  None of the carving remained.

“Take a look at this, Maaz,” Micah said from his position at now-exposed bottom of the idolatrous pole.

“What is it?”

After his brother-in-law had come round to look, Micah pointed to a carving on the bottom.

“What does that look like to you?” Maaz queried.

“Like a man dancing, I’d say,” Micah replied.

“I don’t know my letters, but I’d say you’re right.  It’s a picture, not a letter.”  Maaz sighed and shook his head.  For once, words failed him.  There was a sense of evil in this spot, a sens that permeated the village.  It made Maaz’s stomach churn with anger.  He lifted his gaze and looked around the hillside.  “It is strange how the nearby brush and grasses escaped burning.”

Micah looked about them, then nodded. “As if the LORD wanted only this thing to be destroyed.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

Maaz stepped around the remains of the Asherah pole one more time.  “I have seen these things before.  They are profane and perverse.  It makes me happy that there’s one less of them in the world,” Maaz declared.  He abruptly remounted his mount and headed it down the path.

“Let’s go” he said over his shoulder, as if that were not obviously his intent.

Micah took a drink from a skin hanging beneath his robe, then mounted and urged his donkey down the path.

Jezreel and Barek made their way quickly through the Heshonibites’ homes.  The smells of rotted food joined the animal odors, but the olfactory assault was nothing compared to the oppressive spirit both men sensed.  The LORD had done something miraculous here, but it did nothing to relieve the evil that resided in the place.  There was something more than idolatry being practiced here.  Both men sensed it and remarked about it.

In this the homes were all very much the same.  It was a tangle of overturned furniture and left-behind belongings.  Halt-eaten meals were still on tables.  Each house was a scene of instant, hurried flight.

These details paled in comparison to the nooks in the walls where the household teraphim had been enshrined.  Whether the idols were made of wood or stone or metal, all had been burned and cast to the dirt floor.  On the blackened wall behind each, a Hebrew word had been carved – burned – into the brick.

Barek collected some of the idols – one of each type of material – lining them up on the wall of the well.  Together, he and Jezreel took a stick and copied the words from wall on the ground outside each home.  The rutted path that wore crookedly through the center of the village now bore several words, writ large in the dirt.

Ammihud walked into the center of town and took in their handiwork.

“Well, while you scribes have been copying your texts, the rest of us have been working.  All these animals – even the unclean ones mind you – have been saved from starvation.”

“When can we let them loose?” Joseph asked as he joined them.

Caleb did some figuring on his fingers.

“That’s a lot of money to just set loose,” he said at the conclusion of his calculations.

“Caleb,” Joseph said.  “I thought we agreed.”

“Unwise is the man who does not count the cost before building the barn,” Caleb quoted.  “That’s all I’m saying.”

Before Joseph could phrase a reply, Maaz and Micah rode up.

“What does it say?” Maaz asked.

“We’re just about to figure that out,” Jezreel replied.

Micah asked, “Is it a message from the LORD?”

“Yes,” Jezreel replied.  “That much seems obvious.  However, the words don’t appear in order, no matter which way you go round the village.  Unless…” he stopped, looking around.  “Unless you pick the right place to start, not assuming the path through town marks the beginning.”

“We can’t help you with that until you tell us what they say,” Ammihud said, a little impatiently.

“Right,” said Jezreel.  Casting a sidelong glance at Barek, he began with the home to their immediate right.  Proceeding along to his left, Jezreel read aloud each word as he came to it, “killed I the Lord Almighty, have…” turning back to Barek, Jezreel said, “Barek, what did we decide this word was?”

“Cursed,” the giant Israelite said tersely.

“Oh yes.  Right.  ‘Cursed’… it is an old version of the word, not widely used today.”

Moving to the next house, Jezreel began to read aloud again, “This place for their idolatry all must be.”

“Must be…?” Caleb asked quizzically.  “That doesn’t sound like the end of a message, but somewhere in the middle.”

Maaz slapped his thigh.  “If this is a message form Adonai, wouldn’t it make sense for “I” to be the first word?  Start over again, from there.”

A little to excited for words, Ammihud merely nodded his agreement and waved to Jezreel to start over.

“Start over here,” Barek urged, getting caught up in the moment.

“Very well,” Jezreel said, hurrying over to a house to the left of the one at which he’d formerly started.  “Let me try this again.  See how it sounds.”

“I – the – Lord – Almighty – have cursed – this – place – for – their – idolatry – all – must – be – killed.”

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.

Idol Smashers – Part Three

Israel

“Idol Smashers” is a work of fiction set in the biblical era of the Judges.  Apart from persons and places 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 1 and 2: Deborah, Judge over Israel, has introduced her seven champions chosen by drawing lots, yet foreseen by her.  Now they will learn what the Lord wants of them.)

“Very good” Deborah said,  “You are all aware that I am in my thirty-seventh year of judging over Israel.”  She sighed.  “There are many who say I have overstayed my welcome.  That my arm grows short, my grip weakens.  The death of Barak four years ago has added to these rumors, given false courage to my critics.”

Taking a moment to look at each of the men in the council circle, Deborah smiled at a private thought.  It is a smile utterly without mirth and Jezreel felt a chill.  “I see from the half-concealed looks on your faces you have heard these slanders too.  I tell you – the Holy One is still with me.  I am still HIS judge over His people.”

Reaching for something behind her, Deborah showed the council a map that had been hand-tooled into an animal skin mounted on a frame.  She set it down in the middle of the circle so all could see it.

“Heshonib is a frontier village west of Aphek,” she said, pointing at an unnamed spot on the map.  The place is evidently just inland of the Great Sea, very near the Philistine city of Joppa.  It is an unremarkable village, a kind of melting-place where the border between Israel and Philistia blurs.  It would still be an unremarkable, unnoticed eyesore except for recent events that I shall now relate to you.”

Deborah paused and sat back.  Taking a sip from her cup, she continued, “These fools put Philistine idols in their homes and an Asherah pole on a hilltop overlooking them.  Where these idols came from, who is responsible for their being there, is knowledge no one is willing to admit having.  Just six days ago, something happened in this village, home to about sixty souls. Their home idols, their teraphim, burst open, burned and melted.  The Asherah pole caught ablaze.  All this happened in an instant.  The people fled, superstitiously believing that the gods of Philistia were expressing anger at them.  I believe the One True God has exposed their sin in this miraculous way, but more needs to be known before my judgment can be rendered.”

A slender index finger was raised and pointed around the circle.  “That is why I have called for men from the assembly, men whom the LORD has chosen.  You will go to Heshonib for me.  You will find out all you can, discern the LORD’s will, and, if necessary, act accordingly.”

Reaching behind herself again, Deborah handed Ammihud a leather scroll that bore her seal, the palm tree insignia indented in the clay.  “Here is your authorization, should any elders challenge you.  Bear this document as secretly as possible, however.  Reveal it only when you have exhausted all other options.  It is best for all that my hand in this matter be concealed until all is known and my judgment rendered.”

With a conspiratorial look, Deborah continued, “I chose this moment and this means of summons.  The elders will be occupied with the Yom Hakkippurim and the Feast of Tabernacles.  You may even be able to resolve the thing before the Feast is over.  This timing allows you to act and not the elders over you.  Had I summoned them to a council in the usual manner, many would know and be alerted to this incident.  Holding council with the elders of Israel is like telling secrets to the wind – what is said here is soon borne aloft for all to know.  You men of Israel have sworn yourselves to secrecy and I trust you.”

Jezreel felt a determination come over him, such as he had never felt before.  He resolved to serve the LORD and Deborah, his appointed Judge.  But still, her remarks about the elders were somehow disconcerting.  The inexperienced youth was idealistic, unaccustomed to the notion that elders could be self-serving in their leadership.

As if sensing the men’s mixed emotions, Deborah immediately added, “I can tell what some of you have questions.  Perhaps you are wondering, ‘What of the villagers of Heshonib?  What has kept them from telling this fearful tale and spreading this news all over Israel?’  Thanks to the Almighty for this gift – my man in Aphek saw the potential for trouble and has kept the Heshonibites in a remote place.  He has sheltered and fed them and told them that I myself am coming to see them about this incident.  However, if I leave Shiloh during the feast, suspicious elders will send men to spy where I have gone.  I remain to keep their attention on the festival.

“As for the Heshonibites, food and promises will placate them only so long.  That is another reason why haste must be made.  I have prepared a caravan: it is ready for you to depart this instant.  To all who ask, you are travelers bound for Joppa.  Traders in horse flesh or whatever seems best to you.  Of course, you are not bound for Joppa.  Stop instead at Aphek.”  Deborah pointed to another dot on the map, this one labeled as “Aphek.”  It is further inland from Joppa, more or less due east of it.

“In Aphek, seek out my man Mattan, who awaits you at the city gates.  Show him only the scroll and my seal, but not its contents.  The seal alone is sufficient to assure him that it is I who have sent you.  He will assist you in your investigations into this matter.”

The man called Micah objected, “But what about my family?  They have traveled with me here to Shiloh.  What will become of them when I leave?”

Deborah held up her open palm to silence him.  “I will see to all.  They will be under my protection and thereby under the wing of Adonai Himself.  Do not worry about a thing.”

With surprising force of personality, Deborah said intently, “My friends.  This is an opportunity for me to demonstrate to Israel that the Lord is truly with me; that His Spirit makes my hand strong as ever to judge over Israel.  If I am able to tell the elders how I have solved this miraculous mystery even as I tell them it has occurred, this will restore some of my stature in their eyes.  We all know how our people are quick to leave the Lord our God and seek after false gods, how they fall away when there is no strong Judge in Israel.  Do not do this for my sake, but for the people; to defend them from their own worst nature.”  Gauging each man’s resolve by the look in his eyes, Deborah concluded, “Have you any questions?”

This day has already held many surprises.  The stunning effect of Deborah’s words and their vows to secrecy seem to bind the men’s tongues.  None uttered a word.

Standing, Deborah indicated that they should rise too.  “Let us pray for your success – for wisdom from the Almighty.”

Each one, tentatively at first, but with growing intensity raised his voice in prayer.  Each offered different words, but hearts were attuned to the Lord and to one another.  Deborah began the recitation of the Shema and the seven joined their voices with hers.  “Go in haste but go safely,” she said and concluded with a blessing.