Idol Smashers #11

assassin

“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.

(Previously in “Idol Smashers,” the group had no choice but to take Ruth with them.  They found the shop of the man who had constructed the idols at Heshonib.  His name was Kanab, and he was instantly suspicious of persons speaking Hebrew interested in that city.  When Kanab attempted to escape, he was instantly captured outside his shop and drug him away to a nearby stable.)

Day Three – Joppa

            When next he poured something on Kanab, Micah did not waste even the poor wine they’d purchased at the bazaar.  Instead, it was with water that Micah doused him.

“Utter not a warning, or cry aloud, on pain of your life,” Barek breathed into Kanab’s ear after he awoke with a start.  His massive hand was clenched over the Philistine’s mouth.  The giant’s grip was sufficiently tight to back up his threat.

Kanab’s eyes darted around the stable.  He saw six other figures huddled around him.  He flexed his hands, only to find they were bound behind him, his arms wrapped around a stout timber.  Though thoroughly evil, Kanab’s mind worked quickly.  He saw he was helpless and nodded as best he could with the giant man’s hand nearly crushing his jaw.

One of them stepped forward, holding the flickering light of an olive oil lamp in Kanab’s face.  The man’s face was also illuminated in the pool of light as he regarded Kanab.

“You can let him go,” the man said.  “He knows his life hangs by a thread.”

Kanab smelled wine but didn’t remember getting drunk.  He remembered a man and a woman in his shop.  They were Israelite spies!

Joseph saw Kanab’s eyes flicker with awareness.  He nodded at Barek, who slowly withdrew his hand and placed a cold dagger-point at Kanab’s throat instead.  Kanab’s eyes hardened and Joseph knew that this man would be hard to intimidate.  He decided to try to imbalance him rather than threaten him directly.

“By now the Black Cat is at your shop,” Joseph said evenly.  “How do you think he will interpret your absence and the signs of wine and broken shelves?”

Kanab said nothing, but he was clearly steeling himself against Joseph.

“Will he think you’ve gone off on another drunken binge?  Will he be angry because you have summoned him without cause?”

“Heh,” Kanab sputtered.  “You know nothing.  You grope in the darkness for pearls of truth but you will find only pebbles!”

In response to the defiant look on Kanab’s face, Joseph nodded to Barek, who increased the pressure of the sharp blade against Kanab’s exposed skin.  A trickle of blood flowed from the parted flesh.

“We know the Black Cat moves against the tabernacle of Israel!”  Joseph snarled.  He was pleased to see Kanab’s defiance fade as his eyes widened.  That had been a stab in the dark in more ways than one.

“Impossible!” Kanab started, then caught himself.  “You know nothing about the Cat.”

As planned, the others kept silent.  In the darkness of the stable adjoining the inn, only Kanab’s face and Joseph’s were well-illuminated.  Barek’s face was barely lit, but he maintained a fierce expression, his eyes devoted entirely to Kanab.

“I know he plans to move before the next Sabbath!” Joseph said in a rage that was not entirely a pretense.  That broke another piece of Kanab’s defiance away.  “The LORD has revealed to us your plans, idolater!  We have seen your deceit at Heshonib!”

A bit of worry crept into Kanab’s expression, then he considered something.

“If you know so much, why do you need me?”  Emboldened by his realization of Joseph’s bluff, Kanab pushed back.  “Why threaten me?  What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

Joseph pressed in so close that there was a danger the flame of the lamp would light Kanab’s turban or beard.

“We want your fellow conspirators.  We want the surviving Heshonibites.  You – will –  deliver them to us!”

“You know nothing.  You are bluffing.”  Kanab’s clever face was resolute again.  “I will tell you nothing.  Nothing.”

Kanab’s cheeks puffed only a bit before he blew out the lamp.

In the darkness, the other six heard the blows of the giant’s massive hands on Kanab’s body.  While Joseph felt his way back to the door to find a light, he heard the breath driven from Kanab’s lungs.  He heard the ribs break.  When the latch was finally in his hand, he heard the Philistine cry out in pain.

“Enough!  Mercy!”

 

Barek said nothing as they sat in a circle not far from the idol-maker.  Kanab was seated on the floor but leaning forward, held up only by the ropes the bound him to the beam.  Ruth reached out and put her hand on his.

“You did what you had to to do.”

The giant Israelite regarded Ruth with a blank stare for a few moments, then moved his hand away from Ruth and continued eating.

“I didn’t think he was gonna talk,” Caleb said, putting down his bowl.

“It wasn’t courage that stayed his voice,” Jezreel said, “but fear.  When his fear of Barek outweighed the fear of his fellows, he found his voice soon enough.”

For his part, Joseph was still a bit sickened by the interrogation.  This was a new and unwelcome experience for him.  He was familiar enough with violence; it was the way of the world, after all.  But violence against a bound foe with nothing more to be won than information, that was new.

“Let’s review what we found out,” he said.  “Heshonib was used as a staging area to prepare a covert force that would strike a target deep in Israel.  This force is to be disguised, probably as a caravan of Phoenecian merchants bound for Shiloh.  Once there, they will destroy the Tabernacle and all its contents.  They will leave clues to make it look like Moabites have committed this sacrilege and retreat into Moab.”

Maaz threw down his bowl in disgust.  “By means of this – cowardly artifice – they hope to cripple the worship of our God and also cause a war between Israel and Moab.  Then, when Israel’s strength is focused on her eastern border, the kings of Philistia will marshal their armies and attack on the west.  In fact, this strike team left Heshonib the very day the idols were destroyed.  It is likely that they are already in position to attack the tabernacle and destroy it.  Kanab’s idols were placed in the village to give the power of the Philistine gods Baal and Zebub to the strike force.”

“We don’t know where the invaders are now, Kanab wasn’t told that,” Caleb pointed out.

“But we know where they will be,” Ruth answered.

“We can’t chance them getting to the Tabernacle and causing any damage to the holy site,” Maaz countered, clearly frustrated.

“We have four days to find them,” Jezreel said, “and the LORD is with us.”

Before anyone could add anything more, the stable door parted slightly, and the stable boy slipped in.  He ran quickly into the circle of light.

“Masters,” he said quietly, his eyes wide with a fright.  “You paid me to tell you if someone came looking for you.  There is a man in the inn, asking after a man and woman seen with Kanab!”

Someone started pounding on the stable door.

 

“You were supposed to give us a warning, boy!” Maaz spat the words at the youth as if they were darts.  He rose to his feet, the stout ox-goad in his hands.

When the door flew open, Maaz was ready to meet any threat.  But no threat presented itself.  Instead, the doorway was vacant – no one was to be seen.

At Maaz’s side in the next heartbeat, his ax unslung, Micah wondered aloud, “What’s this?”

Cautiously, the head of the innkeeper appeared on one side of the door.  The rest of his stout, short frame slowly joined the head.

“P-pardon,” the head uttered in Hebrew.  “Some men from the – an unintelligible word or two in Philistine – are here for you.  Go you must.”

“P-please.”

Joseph sighed as he stood.  “I agree.  We want no trouble here in the middle of the enemy.”

“What about our prisoner”” Caleb hissed, striving to keep his voice low.  “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble here and have little to show for it!”

Barek got to his feet.  “I’ll carry him,” he volunteered resignedly.  Clearly the role of interrogator troubled his conscience.  Though he had no love lost for Kanab, treating any human being in the way they had treated the idol-maker went against the giant’s strict moral code.  They were simply too desperate for information about the Philistine plan.

Troubled by his own thoughts. Jezreel shared Barek’s offense.  So when worked at loosing Kanab’s bonds, he did so gently, determined to inflict no more injury on the man.

Jezreel had scarcely begun pulling at the knots when the side door of the stable burst open and dark-clad armed men sprinted through it.

Samuel immediately burst into action.  With a shout, he drew his scimitar and ran toward the first intruder.  Samuel had to step between the center post that supported the roof of the stable and their own wagon, but he went nimbly, without a misstep.

With sword raised over his head, the intruder charged at Samuel. In an instant, the distance between them was lost.  The man loosed his own war cry and swung his weapon at Samuel.  The young Israelite parried the sword stroke easily enough with his shield, but the intruder was nearly twice his size and the man followed the sword strike with a shoulder block that sent Samuel sprawling backward.

The youth flew several feet until Samuel’s head struck the wooden door of the cattle stall behind him.  His vision blurred and the wind was driven from him as another Philistine landed on top of him.  Part of Samuel’s mind observed his scimitar flying from his grasp and skittering across the straw-strewn floor.

This was more fierce combat than Samuel had ever known; panic welled up, distracting his already sundered awareness.  He saw a huge fist flying at his face and narrowly avoided it.  He pushed against his assailant’s seemingly immense weight, but to no avail.  Too late he saw the edge of the soldier’s shield rise toward him.  Samuel ben Abram felt as if his head must have surely been sundered by the edge of the round wooden shield, but darkness overtook him too quickly to be certain.

Whirling to his left, Maaz saw the men shouldering their way through the narrow side door.  “WE ARE BETRAYED!” he shouted.  Their cart stood between Maaz and his enemy.  In an instant, he was around it and confronted a Philistine attacker.  Battle was at hand and it was in the midst of battle that this divine warrior felt most keenly the presence of his Lord.

Maaz’s adversary was a man of considerable size himself.  He was also apparently a tested soldier, for the sight of the Israelite bearing down on him did not deter the man at all.  In fact, the opposite.  He raised both shield and sword and charged ahead.

When he reached Maaz, the intruder concealed a sword-thrust with his shield.  Maaz was not caught completely unaware by the tactic, but he only succeeded in parrying part of the blow; the sharp blade cut deeply across his left bicep.

The ox-goad swung and clattered harmlessly against the shield.  Anticipating this block, Maaz let the long stout wooden pole rise over the shield.  Then he pivoted, throwing his weight and full strength behind a strike that arced across three hundred sixty degrees until it impacted explosively against the Philistine’s left knee.  The joint broke with a loud crack!  With a cry of agony, the unbeliever went down.

Micah was on his brother-in-law’s heels, but had fought with him often enough to know to give the ox-goad a wide berth.  Micah and the third intruder through the side door faced each other more warily.  Neither man committed to a full-blown charge, but stepped cautiously, looking for signs of weakness, calculating a plan of attack.

Wearying quickly of the standoff, Micah brought his ax into an overhead strike while stepping into the intruder.  This strike was blocked by the Philistine’s shield, followed by a sword slash behind the shield.  Stepping nimbly back from the sword’s point, Micah grinned at his enemy.

“This will be fun,” he said with wild joy and drew his dagger with his left hand.

Maaz assumed his brother-in-law was holding his own when the other of the two main doors flew open.  Then inkeeper fled the melee to make room for two similarly-armed and garbed men who moved into the six-foot wide opening.

“SURRENDER OR DIE!” the one of them shouted in Hebrew.

Maaz described several circles in the air, executing a series of intricate steps, blocks and thrusts.  In his hands, the stout goad was a blur.

“I will do neither” Maaz growled, and then motioned for the hated Philistines to come and meet his goad.

Joseph whirled to see Samuel dashed to the ground by a black-clad soldier and then beaten with a shield edge as the two grappled on the floor.  He did not, however, wait to see the outcome of the melee, but instead ran to the younger man’s aid.

By the time he got there, the deciding blow had been landed, but Joseph summoned his own training and concentration, focusing it into a single blow.  His right heel impacted Samuel’s assailant beside his left ear.  It connected with such force that, in spite of the man’s size, his body spun around to try to stay connected with his head.

The big man turned two and a half times across the floor of the stable before coming to rest in a supine position, mostly covering Samuel’s scimitar.  He did not stir from that spot.

Realizing they were under attack, Jezreel stepped back from the post and left Kanab’s bonds tied. He paused a few heartbeats to calm himself, then sought out his staff and began singing a psalm of battle.  When he found it leaning against a nearby stall door, the psalmist walked deliberately to the place and picked it up.  Holding it aloft and thinking a quick prayer, he sung more loudly and rushed after Joseph toward the dark-clad men still rushing from the side door.

Time slowed for Caleb when he heard the noise of battle being joined.  He turned to his right to see Ruth concealing herself in the stall to his right.  He heard himself tell her to stay down.

Bending over to pick his bow up off the floor, Caleb straightened up and nocked an arrow as quickly as he could.  He stepped forward to look for a target and saw the boy who had come to warn them.  He told the boy to stay down.

Caleb saw Maaz in a melee in front of the main door and Micah locked in battle further away.  A black figure stormed through the doorway, and Caleb loosed his arrow.  The Philistine would not know in this life what hit him as Caleb’s shot pierced his right eye.  Then penetrating shot drove his already-dead body spinning to the ground.

Barek was struggling with himself when the sounds of the struggle in the stable finally penetrated his consciousness.  Like a man awakening from a dream, he tore his gaze from Kanab and looked up to see Caleb’s back.  He was loosing an arrow at an unseen target, then grunted with satisfaction.

Swiftly, the soldier’s mind took over the giant’s body and Barek reached for his immense sword.  It was in his hand and raised when he stepped up next to Caleb, who was reaching for another arrow.  Barek’s trained eye took in the situation in an instant.  He saw to his right and a half-dozen paces away that Maaz was engaged with two of the enemy and more were pouring through the wide-open stable doors.

Barek knew where he needed.  He paused a few seconds while Caleb loosed another shaft, then raced around him.  The big man’s strides ate up the distance between himself and his first target.

Joseph did not hesitate to appreciate the results of his well-aimed kick, but ran forward to the next foe.  Meeting a night-clad man almost at the feet of his prone comrade, Joseph launched a flurry of punches at the Philistine soldier.  What blows the man did not dodge, he blocked with his shield.  Joseph felt no pain from the blows that impacted on the wooden shield; his training and the red haze of combat kept him from the sensation.

Joseph saw the sword strike before the intruder attempted it and easily stepped out of the way.  He threw more punches and stepped into a kick.  A feint diverted his attention before the sword took Joseph’s leg out from under the kick.

He hit the ground hard.  Breath driven from him, agony from his stricken limb, Joseph struggled to get to his feet when the second blow struck him in his right side and knocked him down for good.

Jezreel watched in horror to see his fellow Israelite struck savagely by the Philistine’s sword strikes.  Enraged, the psalm fell from his lips but the staff in his hands did deadly work.  Intent on Joseph, the swordsman did not see Jezreel coming.  The psalmist’s staff caught him on the left temple.  The sickening sound of his skull shattering did not deter Jezreel nor stir his heart to any feeling except the righteous zeal for more battle.

As he watched the dead attacker fall in his peripheral vision, Jezreel was aware that another night-black figure rushed at him.  He barely had time to right his footing, put his staff in the ready position, and recommence the song when the Philistine fell on him.

Jezreel’s blow clattered off the man’s shield but did succeed in knocking it into the path of the man’s stabbing sword, making him deflect his own blow.  Jezreel managed to turn a second vicious blow at the cost of severing his staff.  The shield then swung around and over the sundered staff and caught Jezreel on the side of his head.  For a heartbeat or two he felt his feet leave the floor.  When he hit the stable wall behind him, the bricks did not yield, but Jezreel did.  To unconsciousness.

The Philistine who had loudly commanded surrender pretended not to be intimidated by Maaz’s bold reply.  The challenge of the Israelite’s summons was irresistible to one with a warrior’s heart.  After nodding to his companion to enter with him, the dark-clad pair stepped across the threshold, advancing on the tall Israelite.

Maaz waited them out, baiting the two intruders into rash action.  He was fearless, utterly convinced his God would deliver him.  So, when the commander’s companion, the one on the right, struck first, Maaz easily parried the sword strike with the butt of his goad, keeping the metal-shod tip pointed right at the commander.  The commander’s stabbing attack was more subtle than his companion’s but just as ineffective.

“My turn,” Maaz breathed, and jabbed a two-handed thrust of his polearm around the commander’s shield, bashing in his windpipe with the heavy metal tip.  Dropping both his sword and shield, the commander fell backward, clutching at his throat, desperate for air.

With a curse, the other black-garbed Philistine launched a series of slashing sword strikes, driving Maaz backward until he was up against their cart.  To be pinned thus was a disadvantage for a man trying to swing a reach weapon.  Even though it was behind him, the cart prevented some of the uses of his staff.  To purchase some room, Maaz swung savagely at his adversary.  The blow crashed against his opponent’s wooden shield.  It caused him no harm, but gave Maaz an opening to side-step to his left, away from the cart.

As he executed this maneuver, Maaz spared a momentary glance at the open doorway.  A third intruder pulled the commander out of the stable while a fourth entered, with more men behind him.

Of course, the possibility of retreat never even occurred to Maaz.

Both Micah and his night-clad opponent were fiercely enjoying squaring off against an opponent of mettle.  Leading with his shield, the intruder raised his sword and charged forward, putting his weight, muscle and hope into one overpowering strike.  Micah shifted his feet and his grip on his ax-haft.  Holding it loosely, he used the weight of the ax-head to direct the force of the blow away.

His attack carried the man to Micah’s right, across his path, so Micah struck at his relatively exposed right flank.  The tactic was sound, but the Philistine’s leather cuirass turned the blade in Micah’s hand and he dropped it.

Now he was angry – at himself and the Philistine.  Micah threw himself at his attacker, whose footing was still a little uncertain from the powerful attack he’d attempted.  The two sprawled on the floor and Micah resorted to punching the man with his now-freed left hand.

The Philistine struggled against the Israelite, the two of them rolling on the floor, each striking indifferent blows, the combatants too close to effectively wield the weapons they carried.  So the Philistine dropped his sword and shield and sought purchase with this hands around Micah’s throat.  Micah lost his axe when his hand smashed against the wall. Neither man was able to hurt the other, flailing limbs and armor getting in the way.

The two men were so intent on smashing or choking one another that Micah did not see the other intruder’s dark-colored form against the shadows of the stable’s uncertain lighting.  When the sword strike pierced his side, pain surged through him.  When he arced his back, the Philistine beneath him lashed out with a blow to Micah’s face that knocked him into darkness.

Barek had barely stepped over the wagon tongues and around the central timber when he was confronted by the Philistine who’d dispatched young Samuel.  Their swords clashed in mid-swing, but Barek’s sheer size gave him a slight edge over his smaller opponent, and Barek forced him to backstep.

The Philistine gave him no quarter however, and lithely stepped into a short sword-thrust that skittered off the side of Barek’s blade, then was knocked away by the guard on Barek’s sword hilt.  Barek turned the parry into a thrust that scraped the top of the intruder’s shield.  But the size and weight of the giant-sized weapon worked to it’s advantage as the point was driven home deep into the throat of the intruder.

With a choking sound, the man dropped to his knees.  Barek drove the sword home the rest of the way, nearly severing the man’s head.  Barek pulled his weapon free of the body before it hit the floor.

One of the intruders avoided the melee in the middle of the room as he searched the rest of the stable.  His eye came to rest on Caleb, standing twelve paces away, just after Caleb loosed an arrow at him.  The shaft was wide of the mark, however, and buried itself in the lintel of the door.

The Philistine launched himself at Caleb, closing the distance between the two of them, roaring something in his heathen tongue.  Watching the man rush toward him, Caleb knew there was no chance of getting off another shot, so he dropped the bow and grasped the handle of his dagger with his right hand.  When he got close enough, both hand and dagger flashed at the Philistine, but Caleb’s slash was premature and the warrior was in no danger.

Caleb was, however, in more danger than he knew.  The night-black warrior’s sword struck underneath Caleb’s slash, the blade sinking deeply into his right shoulder.  Caleb felt the dagger fly from his now-useless right arm.  When the Philistine shield-bashed his right side, the smaller Israelite went flying.  With a thud, Caleb landed bodily at the feet of Kanab, who was still bound to the post.

Struggling just to breathe, Caleb lay his head down on Kanab’s legs and was still.  He knew the fight was no longer his.

Maaz had no opportunity to make use of his unobstructed location when two intruders set upon him in concert.  The two warriors fought together flawlessly and Maaz’s ox-goad could simply not defend against two attackers flanking him.  Where the stout wooden staff flashed to defend against one slash, it simply could not defend against the other.  The point of the Philistine’s blade struck home between the overlapping layers of Maaz’s armor.

Forced to lean against his weapon to remain standing, Maaz folded under the assault of multiple stab and slash wounds.  The fierce Israelite did not surrender even to unconsciousness.  He merely lost his grip on the staff as the darkness claimed him.

Barek saw Maaz go down.  He raced at the nearest Philistine and with a divine oath and swung the massive blade with both hands.  He very nearly succeeded at hewing the man in half.

Confronted by the sight of the giant man and his deadly effect, the dead intruder’s partner hesitated, fixed by his horror.  The look of surprise remained on the man’s face when Barek separated his head from his shoulders.

In the next instant, two more black-armored figures raced through the doorway and set themselves upon Barek.  The big blade deflected both strikes before coming ’round again to draw blood on one attacker’s leg.

When a third soldier entered the fray and they had him surrounded.  Three more of the hated heathens poured through the stable door.  Within seconds, Barek was completely disadvantaged.  He looked around the stable quickly and saw none of his companions still standing.

With a savage motion that made his six assailants flinch, Barek buried his sword in the floor of the stable.  A weary sigh escaped his lips and a wary look crossed his face as he knelt and clasped his hands on the hilt of his sword.  Oddly, Barek’s mind was on Maaz, wondered what the herdsman would think of his surrendering.

Idol Smashers #10

wineskin

“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 Three – Aphek

 (A group of armed men appeared at the gates of Aphek, claiming to be blood relatives of the slain Heshonibites and demanding their right to vengeance.  The elders of Aphek offered Deborah’s men little in the way of protection, legal or otherwise, and a battle quickly ensued.   The avengers of blood retreated in the face of determined opposition, the men of Aphek drawn in when the avengers foolishly included them in the battle.)

Later, back at Mattan’s home, the healer finished her ministrations on Ammihud.  She had cleaned the freshly-stitched wound and was now putting away her instruments.  As she washed her hands with the water Mattan’s boy servant supplied, she pronounced, “This one cannot be moved.  His wound is not deep, but it is long.  He will tarry here and heal or bleed to death if he travels.”

There was no strength left in Ammihud to protest.  He didn’t know which was worse, the stark pain of being slashed or the lingering ache of the woman’s needle and thread.  Staying here was fine for now, if only they’d let him sleep.

From his pillow Mattan quickly offered, “I will stay with him, my masters!  Mattan will keep your friend safe!”  Given the carnage at the cave yesterday and again at the city gates today, the merchant had evidently had his fill of violence.  This job had fully tested his stomach’s resistance to gore as well as his loyalty to Deborah.

“Will the elders allow him to stay, given the trouble we’ve caused them?” Joseph inquired evenly.  His own heart was getting weighed down by the ephahs of blood spilt.

Mattan did not need long to consider his answer.  “Most of the men of Aphek are loyal Israelites,” he directed at Maaz, not Joseph.  Then he added, a bit more quietly, “A few coins will ease the concerns of the few who are less loyal.”

Casting a dark look at Mattan, Maaz’s impatience surged again.  “Then we waste daylight.  Mattan has our mounts.  Let us away!”

Barek crossed the room to pat Ammihud’s shoulder, but the small man was already asleep.  He left silently and the others followed him out the back door and into the courtyard/stable.

Day Three – Joppa

Travel and trade between Israelite and Philistine cities was not uncommon, but a group of armed men thundering down the road would attract attention in any circumstance.  Joseph urged a cautious pace of travel and an intemperate Maaz only agreed with him after he cited the fact that seven was a good number for a stealthy incursion but wholly inadequate for laying siege to a walled city.

“Yes,” Caleb had agreed.  “We need a reason to go into the city, he added, “for casual visitors and travelers without a particular purpose will be immediately suspected as spies.”

“We need to concoct some kind of story that will explain our presence in Joppa,” Micah announced.  When Maaz gave him a challenging look and opened his mouth, Micah continued, “I believe it is called a ‘cover story’.”  It was not exactly what he said, but the way he said it, that stifled any rebuttal from Maaz.

The party traveled in silence for a few paces, considering what fiction might cover their sudden appearance at the gates of the city.  It would take an elaborate fiction indeed to cover the appearance of six fighting men and a woman.

Ruth spoke first.  “I would say…” she started, weighing her words, “that some of you could ride in as slavers and the rest as slaves.  There’s a brisk trade in slaves on the docks of Joppa.”

Micah’s eyes narrowed as he turned to Ruth, “And just how would you know what happens in Joppa?”

Her chin jutted out defiantly as Ruth answered, “I’ve been there before, of course.”

Maaz snorted.  “Yet another reason not to trust this one.”

But Joseph waved him off, saying, “Hold on now.  If none of the rest of us have been in the city, a guide would be a valuable asset.”  Drawing his horse back to walk next to her, Joseph asked Ruth, “Tell me directly.  Can you guide us around Joppa?”

“Directly?” she mimicked.  “I tell you truthfully, I have spent several days in Joppa.  In spite of their suspicious natures, Joppans are easily… parted from their money.”

“I do not care for this one’s attitude,” Maaz said flatly.  He glared over his shoulder at Ruth.

“Nor do I,” agreed Joseph.  “But if she has seen the city, then both Ruth and her attitude may yet serve the LORD.”  Seeing himself in her eyes, Joseph became suddenly aware that he’d been staring at Ruth.  She was beautiful.  Too beautiful for him to behold for long.

For her part, Ruth was aware of the discomfiture she caused Joseph.  She understood it as a tool she would use to bend his will and one day make her escape from these men and their divine mission.  Ruth knew the best way to defend her freedom was to keep on the move.  It was also her passion.  An arranged marriage drove her from her father’s house to a life on the road, but it was her passion for travel, to see the world, to experience it firsthand, that kept her on the road.

“What would you suggest?”

Barek’s voice drew Ruth out of her reverie.

“What?” she replied.

“What would you suggest we do?” Barek patiently repeated.

Ruth turned to look at him.  She regarded the giant only for a heartbeat and replied.  “A slaver.  One or two of you should pose as slavers who bought our servitude for debts.  It’s a common enough occurrence.”

“I will be no slave,” Maaz muttered.  “Nor will I pretend to be one.”

Smiling quietly, Ruth decided to press her luck.  “No one would believe you to be a slaver, noble man of Israel, so a slave you must be.  But Joseph here, he could pass himself off as a slaver.  And I shall pose as his beautiful wife?  A pretty face distracts the guard’s eye, don’t you think, Joseph?”  Ruth could play a coquette when the occasion warranted.

Joseph’s face reddened.  “No…” he objected.  “That role is not for me.  Perhaps… Jezreel.”

The psalmist was startled by this and nearly dropped his lyre.  “What?”  Jezreel’s face took on a coloring similar to Joseph’s.  “No, I could not…”

“I will play at being your husband,” Micah declared.  “That way I can keep my eye on you, girl.”

That was settled immediately.  No one challenged Micah for a role they didn’t want anyway.

“This is stupid,” Maaz said in a surly tone.  “Who’s going to believe you two are leading a set of armed slaves into the city?  Even Philistines aren’t that dense.”

“Your weapons and armor will be stowed in the wagon,” Ruth said.  She met Maaz’s eye when he turned suddenly to glare at her.  “You are right, of course.  You should look like road-weary and helpless slaves.”

The conversation had to be ended abruptly as another party appeared ahead of them on the road.  There had been little traffic that day, but as they neared the city it would naturally increase.  A caravan was apparently leaving Joppa.  After the travelers passed by them, the company fell into the conversation again.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I think she’s onto something,” Caleb pronounced.

Jezreel nodded his agreement, relieved to have Micah take the role of Ruth’s husband.  “As the proverb says, ‘Leave duplicity to those who practice it’.”

“It is too much to bear,” Maaz said resignedly.  “But if the rest of you agree with this mad plan, I ask only that I be bound to my goad and then loosely.  I want my weapon in hand when trouble starts.”

“Done rightly, this duplicity should steer us clear of trouble,” Ruth averred.

“We are agreed, then?” Joseph asked, his eyes searching all the members of the company.  Only Maaz did not consent.  “It is decided then.”

“Do we want to enter the city this late in the day?” Barek asked.  “I do not fancy being in Joppa after dark.”

“Joppa is but a little ways off,” Ruth said, surveying their surroundings.  “Just ahead and to the right is a gully that is nearly invisible from the road.  We can stop their to prepare our disguise or spend the night.”

“How…?” Micah began to ask, then stoppered the question behind his lips.  He’d decided the less he knew about Ruth and her travels the less he was discomfited by her.

“It is enough that I must endure this humiliation; must I also spend the entire night dreading it?” Maaz asked.  “No.  I will accept no more delays.  We have the tabernacle to consider.”

“Hmmm,” Ruth said, considering their options.  “Arriving late in the day will seem more… natural than showing up at first light.  And the gate guardians will be wearied by their day’s work, less sharp of eye, more impatient.”

“That seems reasonable,” Jezreel said, agreeing with Ruth.

“Then let us depart the road for a bit,” she said, goading her mount into a trot with her heels.  She passed Maaz, then veered off the dirt-packed road, angling off the right side.

 

Moments later they returned to the thoroughfare, with most of the horses tethered in the gully and the “slaves’” weapons and armor concealed under their goods in the wagon.  Everyone but Micah and Ruth were bound with a rope.  At his urging, Maaz had been bound with his staff across his shoulders, his hands tied to it.  The position was uncomfortable, but a fair trade for having his weapon at hand.  Their robes had been dirtied, their hair and beards disheveled.

Before she mounted her horse, Ruth instructed the “slaves” tied to the back of the cart.  “Now remember.  Look no one in the eye.  Endure all insult.  You’ve just been marched miles with no food and little water.  You’ve been mistreated and have no hope.  Act your parts as Micah and I act ours.”

Maaz rolled his eyes and grunted.  He had never seen the inside of a hated Philistine city and had only seen Philistines shortly before he killed them.  The herdsman and warrior was not about to accept too many limits to his right to defend himself.

It was about the level of cooperation Ruth had expected from Maaz.  She inspected the group of faux slaves.  The five men, even the giant Balak, had a haggard look.  Perhaps this might work.

Micah helped Ruth back atop her horse.

“The LORD forgive us this deception.  Adonai give us victory!” Joseph prayed.

All the men uttered prayers and Micah mounted his own horse.  “Let’s be at it, then” he said quietly and urged his mount forward.  Taking the lead of the horse pulling the cart, he watched as Ruth took a comb from her sack and worked it repeatedly through her long, lustrous hair.

She had scarcely completed her ministrations and rebraided her hair when Joppa appeared below them.  Beyond the large walled city lay the blue waters of the Great Sea.  Even now the wind carried the scents of the ocean up to them.  Ships crawled along the water’s surface, staying in sight of the shore.  The heathen Philistines knew their sailing.  Joppa was a busy port.

At their feet, the road snaked down the hillside to the North Gate of the city.

“I won’t have to pretend to be thirsty, my throat is bone dry,” Caleb complained.

 

The company approached the gate alone.  Normally, this late in the afternoon, only a few would arrive and fewer would leave.  Most prefer the security of the city walls to the uncertainties of the wilderness outside them.  Ruth had expected the gate’s guardians to be made indolent in the heat of the day and this close to the closing of the gates.  Instead, the whole squad of guards rose to meet them.  Three advanced to meet the company in the road.  Three remained near the gate, spears in hand.  To her eyes, they seem to be at a heightened state of alert.

“What’s your business here?” one of the guards demanded of Micah.  He spoke in Philistine and the tongue was foreign to Micah’s ear.

“We bring slaves to sell,” Ruth replied.  She’d picked up a bit of the language on her visit to the city.  It was not her place to speak, being only a woman, but she didn’t want the guard to be irritated by Micah’s lack of response.

“Israelite?” the guard said in Hebrew.

“Yes,” Micah replied, casting a big smile, pretending to be delighted to hear his language on the tongue of the Philistine.

“We are here to sell slaves.  We bought them from a debtor’s prison.”

The guard grunted.  “You Israelites.  You sell your mothers for bronze.”

Though Maaz was several paces behind him, Micah practically felt his brother-in-law stiffen with rage.  He kept his face downcast.

“We cannot sell them in Israel, so we come here,” Ruth said in the Philistine’s own tongue.

He scowled at her.  “You talk too much.”  He looked at one of his companions, then tipped his head toward the cart.  The man knew from constant repetition what this simple gesture meant, and he walked around to the back of the cart.  Jostling the “slaves” out of his way, he lifted the tarp and looked under the cart.

“You’ve got provisions for a long trip,” he said, eyeing the contents.

“We have a long way to go back,” Ruth offered.

The leader of the guards addressed Micah in Hebrew, “How long do you plan to be here?”

“Overnight,” Micah said.  “We will sell them in the morning and then leave.”

The third guard regarded Ruth with an obviously lecherous interest.  She returned his gaze for a brief moment, then dropped her eyes demurely.

At a signal from Ruth, Micah took from his belt the purse they’d prepared.  He held that out to the leader of the guards.  The purse was accepted, and then the lead guard looked back to his commander who lounged in the shade of a lean-to at the base of the wall.  He conferred with a civilian sitting next to him, then indicated his decision with an upraised thumb.

Turning back, the guard said to Micah, “Leave at this gate tomorrow morning.  Do you understand?”

Micah appeared to be entirely cowed and nodded without a word.

The guard shook his head and muttered, “Former slaves sellin’ slaves.”  He regarded Micah intently, looking for any sign of provocation.  Seeing none, he bore a look of disappointment and then stepped aside.  When he growled something in the Philistine tongue, the third guard was started and tore his gaze away from Ruth.  He stepped off the road, too.

Micah and Ruth urged the horses forward.

The spearmen parted for them to pass, but only barely.  One of them flashed the butt end of the spear and nearly succeeded in tripping Balek.  They laughed at the big man’s apparent clumsiness and swore at him in their tongue.

A few steps later, the party was inside Joppa.

 

“I don’t like the way they’re looking at us,” Maaz said in a voice that was, for him, a whisper.

“They do seem a little more edgy than when I was here last,” Ruth said, looking discreetly around her.  “But these people are more suspicious than most.  They need to be, for this city is full of cutthroats and is run by cutthroats.”

“I don’t like depending on this woman,” Maaz complained.

“Aha!” Micah cried, and for a moment, Maaz thought his brother-in-law might be agreeing with him.  Instead, the reason for Micah’s satisfied cry became apparent as he lead the party over to a vintner’s tent at the edge of the market street.

When Maaz started to utter a warning to Micah, Caleb silenced him by turning the larger man’s goad and thereby his head.  “We’re supposed to be slaves, y’know,” Caleb breathed.

Maaz grunted his assent but turned back to watch Micah anyway.  Micah was too weak-willed where drink was concerned; this encounter looked dangerous to Maaz.

Respectfully picking up a wineskin, Micah tried to gauge the vintage by the condition of the skin.  The vintner eyed him suspiciously and said something in the Philistine tongue.

But Micah only nodded.  He held up two of the Philistine silver coins they had taken among loot.

The vintner looked offended.

Wordlessly, Micah placed the two coins and added four more, one at a time.  The vintner finally nodded.  But when he reached out for the coins, Micah put his hand over them.

The vintner looked confused and then cross.  Micah drew in the dirt between them with the toe of his sandal.  He’d scratched the figure they’d found on the bottom of the terraphim at Heshonib.

The vintner regarded him with a newly suspicious look.  Micah added six more coins and a single word, spoken in Egyptian: “Where?”

Whether the money was speaking a universal language or the vintner possessed some Egyptian of his own, he seemed to understand Micah’s question well enough.  He pointed to his left and held up six fingers.

Micah looked around.  The six fingers certainly didn’t mean six paces, for there was no sign of the dancing figure anywhere in sight.  He may have meant six stalls or six doors down.  They’d have to find out as they walked that way.

When Micah turned back, the coins had already disappeared.  He gave the vintner a little bow and then kicked dirty over the drawing Micah had made.  Taking up the wineskin, he turned back to the party.

The first face he saw was Maaz’s and it bore a look of disapproval.  Micah knew why.  He shrugged.  “You didn’t want to spend the afternoon wandering around, did you?”  When Maaz did not return his smile, Micah shrugged again and headed back to the front of their column where Ruth awaited him, the picture of a patient wife.

Pulling the plug on the wineskin, Micah handed it up to Ruth, who still rode her horse.  She took it gratefully, parched from the dust of the road and the heat of the afternoon sun.  She took an unladylike long pull of the wine within.

“Is it any good?” Micah inquired.  “I wouldn’t trust these heathen to make a decent wine or even a beer worth drinking.”

Ruth shrugged her shoulders, “It’s wet.”

Micah laughed and took the wineskin from her.  Taking a long pull, he agreed with her opinion.  He’d paid a good deal for wine and simple information, so he carefully stowed it in the wagon, hoping to avoid any more cross looks from his brother-in-law.   Taking the reins of his mount and the donkey pulling the wagon, Micah lead the company in the direction indicated by the vintner.  They had passed five stalls when they edged out of the tented marketplace and into a section of respectable shops.  Above the door of the first shop on their right was a wooden sign with the dancing man carved into it.  Micah could not read the Philistine script across the top of the sign.  This did not surprise him, for there were few Hebrew words he could make out.  There was simply too much to do in life to bother with frappery like letters.

Lowering his voice to speak to the company, Micah said, “Ruth and I will go inside.  You five stay out here and keep a good watch.”  All five looked like they’d already had all they wanted of the life of a slave, but made no complaint.

Micah helped Ruth down and lead her into the shop.

Several aromas greeted them.  Hot metal, burning wood, stone dust, and wood shavings all hung in the air, undercurrents to a layer of incense burning as an offering to a large teraphim that took up all of the space in one corner.  The shop was probably a half-dozen paces long and wide.  It was lined with shelves and the shelves adorned with household gods of various kinds.  This idolater was a craftsman in varied materials and didn’t seem to care which gods he crafted.  Micah and Ruth examined a few of the idols, turning them over.  Each showed the other that the mark of the dancing man was underneath every idol they turned over.

The curtains at the opposite side of the room parted and a short, stout, dark-colored man entered.  He executed a broad, practiced smile and he made a bow in the Philistine fashion.  He greeted them with a string of Philistine words.  When he saw Micah’s confused expression, he stopped and regarded them with curiosity.

“We are Israelites from Tanaach,” Micah said in Hebrew.  “We don’t speak your tongue.”

The little man nodded, and holding up his hands for a moment, started over – this time in Hebrew. “Greetings, friends!  Welcome to the shop of Kanab, finest maker of teraphim in all of Joppa!  What gods do you serve and how may I help you serve them?”

Anger flared briefly in Micah.  This man knew their language, but apparently nothing about their faith.  The one true god was not represented in this shop, nor could He be.  Setting aside an angry retort, Micah  turned his attention to the man himself.  To Micah’s eyes he seemed rather young to be endowed with such skill and reputation.  But he was eager to help – or at least to make a sale.

Thinking quickly, Micah drew on his admittedly limited knowledge of idols.  “We have been told that you, Kanab, are most gifted by the gods.  We would like to… pay you… to make an Asherah pole for us.  A big one.  To put on a high place near our home.”

“Ah,” the little man began, searching for words.  “You are mistake.  I am not Kanab, but his brother Chenith.  Kanab is away and has left me to watch the shop.”

Micah stole a glance at Ruth.  She made a circular motion with her hand, encouraging him to keep the conversation going.

“That is too bad,” Micah said.  “When will… Kanab return?”

“No worry,” Chenith said, patting Micah on the shoulder.  “Kanab leave me in charge.  I show you little Ashorehs, you tell me which you like.  Kanab make big.”

When Micah looked at Ruth, she nodded discreetly.  Evidently she thought it best to keep the little man talking.  Well, perhaps this Kanab would show up while they were striking a deal.

Micah merely nodded, eager to avoid saying the wrong thing.  He let Chenith lead him from one idol to another.  They all looked alike to him, but Micah made a display of showing them to Ruth.  She disapproved of each one, pointing out something she’d prefer to be different.

After several minutes of this, Chenith’s stores of patience and Hebrew were beginning to run low.

Ruth turned the latest idol over and made a show of discovering the mark on the bottom.  “The dancing man,” she said, showing it to Micah.  “This is the man we are looking for.  He crafted the teraphim in our friend’s house.”

“Friend?” Chenith asked, sensing an opening.  “Who is this friend and where does he live?” he inquired eagerly.

“Heshonib” Micah blurted out.  When he saw the look on Ruth’s face he immediately wished he could take it back.  Apparently telling the truth was not always a good strategy.

For his part, Chenith looked disappointed.  “Heshonib?  Heshonib.  This place I do not hear of.”

Before Chenith could add another word, the door to the street flew open and someone called out Chenith’s name and, in an angry tone, asked what must have been a question, couched in the heathen tongue.

“Ah.  Kanab,” Chenith said to Micah and Ruth.  He gestured to the man who stepped into the shop and shut the door.  Noticing Chenith first, the man’s eyes narrowed a bit as he turned to take in Micah and Ruth with a practiced eye.  Micah felt surely that his gaze penetrated their feeble disguise.

“Chenith,” the man said, then more Philistine rolled off his tongue.

Chenith responded in kind, his tone of voice eager.  Kanab nodded as his brother described the conversation to date, his eyes never leaving the couple. When Chenith said the name “Heshonib” in the midst of some guttural rumblings, Kanab’s eyes narrowed further.  Then a thought passed and his countenance softened considerably.  With an annoyed wave, Kanab dismissed Chenith.  The younger man sighed loudly and disappeared behind the curtain, going into the back room.

Kanab’s smile was clearly disingenuous, as wary and off-putting as a snake’s grin. “So,” he began in halting Hebrew, “You have friends in Heshonib, do you?  Been there, have you?  Recently?”

Before Micah could answer, Kanab thrust another question at him.” Who do you know there?”

Ruth’s eyes were on Kanab and Micah looked for some assistance.  A plain man and a man of God, lying did not come naturally to him.

“Husband,” she said to Micah, “Shall I go to the wagon and fetch the idols of our…friends?  To show Kanab what happened to his handiwork?”

“Ah..” was all Micah could blurt out, glancing from Kanab to Ruth and back again.

“I’ll bring them all in, shall I?” she said sweetly.

Micah was still uncertain of what her tone implied, but nodded and said, “Sure,” smiling at her.  Ruth bowed and regarded Kanab with a fetching smile.  She left the room, returning to the street.

When the door closed after her, Micah turned back to Kanab.  The idol-maker’s eyes had apparently never left him.  “I don’t believe Chenith told me your name,” Kanab said as he moved closer to Micah.  His words were deferential, but his tone dripped menace somehow.

“Ah… I am… Micah,” the Israelite blurted out, then chastised himself inwardly for using his own name.

“Micah,” Kanab repeated.  “Such a typical Israelite name.  So many of you Micahs aren’t there?”  Without allowing Micah a moment to answer his rhetorical question, Kanab pressed on verbally and stepped closer.  “And the name of your friend in Heshonib?”

“Shunnam,” Micah blurted.  It was the first name that came to mind.

“Shunnam,” Kanab repeated.  “I know no such man.  Heshonib is such a small village.  I know all persons in Heshonib!”

With a throaty cry, Kanab produced a curved dagger from his sash and slashed at Micah!  The blade cut through Micah’s cloak easily enough, but was turned by leather cuirass he wore beneath it.

Micah grabbed Kanab’s knife hand as the arc of his slash passed, and the two men grappled momentarily over the weapon.  They were about equal in size, but Micah possessed the greater strength and girth.  On a sudden inspiration, he swung Kanab around, and pushed him toward the door.

“What are you doing?” Micah demanded.  “Are you mad?”

“Not so mad as to believe you know anyone in Heshonib, Israelite dog!” Kanab spat the Hebrew words out and them added a string of Philistine words, probably curses.  “You have come here seeking information, but you shall only find death!”

Kanab threw himself at Micah.  In mid-stride, the blade switched hands as the idol-maker hoped to catch Micah off-guard.  But Micah knew a treacherous knife-fighter when he saw one, and he grabbed for Kanab’s left wrist.  This only succeeded in deflecting Kanab’s blow, and he stepped away again.

“You made those idols in Heshonib,” Micah said flatly.  “Why?  What happened there?  Who are those people?”

Switching the blade back to his right hand Kanab sneered.  “May you die in ignorance.”

Folding his arms across his chest, Micah said in a calm that belied his racing heart, “Tell me what I want to know, and I may persuade the man behind you to spare your miserable life.”

Kanab’s eyes narrowed to slits as he held the knife point out to Micah.  “I am not so easily deceived,” he muttered.

The blow from Maaz’s ox-goad knocked the idolater across the room, smashing into a shelf of small teraphim, sending them flying in all directions.  Kanab slid down the wall, unconscious before he settled onto the floor.

Maaz grunted at the inert form of the idol-maker.  “I hope I didn’t hit him too hard,” he said.

Ruth was through the door right behind Maaz, her own dagger drawn.  When she saw that Kanab was already out of the fight, she shut the door behind her.

“You made enough noise to bring the whole city down upon us,” she said, chastising Maaz.  Crossing to Micah, she sheathed her dagger and then reached out to finger the slash in his cloak.

“Are you all right?” she asked, genuine concern touching her voice with gentleness.

It was as if Micah had not heard her question.  “What just happened here?”

“When Kanab arrived, Chenith told him we had friends in Heshoib.  Kanab was immediately suspicious.  He sent Chenith out, telling him to summon the ‘Black Cat,’ whoever that is,” she hurriedly explained.

“Well… the sneak,” Micah said disgustedly, eyeing Kanab’s crumpled form.

“He was trying to detain you until help arrived.  It’s a good thing he took no notice of me.  I brought Maaz in to help you, but I should’ve known the big lug would make a racket.”

“Listen here, woman…” Maaz started, but Ruth silenced him with a gesture.  “We must get out of here,” she said.  “This Black Cat will probably be more trouble that we can handle and certainly more attention than we can afford!”

Micah held up his open-palmed hands and said, “She is right, brother.  We must get out of this place soon.”  He slapped his hands together and said, “Wait here a moment!”  Over Maaz’s protest, Micah hustled out of the shop and moved out of sight as he moved away from the open door.

Maaz turned back to Ruth.  “You presume too much, girl.  You may have these others bewitched, but your charms do not hide your black heart from me.”

Laughing, Ruth put her hands on her hips and a defiant smirk on her lips.  “You are too wise for me,” she said mockingly.

The butt of the ox-goad came down hard on the floor.  “I do not yet know your tale, but what I do know reeks of a child-woman who has not learned her place!”

Ruth shook her head.  If only she had a shekel for ever time a man told her that.

Micah burst back into the room before the exchange could go any further.  Without a word, he sped around the two of them and went to Kanab.  He unstopped the wineskin and turning Kanab over, poured away the blood on the man’s right temple.  Micah poured a bit of the wine down the Philistine’s throat.  Kanab coughed a bit, but did not otherwise stir.  Pouring the remainder on Kanab’s hands and feet, Micah dropped the wineskin on the dirt floor and stood.

Making a hurried gesture to Maaz, he said, “Brother, carry him out the back door.  Ruth, guide Maaz to the closest inn.  If anyone asks, tell him Kanab is drunk.  We will follow you at a distance.  Get a private room if you can, or the common room for all of us.”

For a moment, both Maaz and Ruth stood there in silence, looking a Micah, then one another.  It was stunning that Micah had concocted this device on his own – and so quickly!

“Why are you just standing there?!” Micah demanded.  He hurried to them and pulled Maaz toward Kanab.  “Go, go!”

Maaz glared at Ruth.  “You have corrupted him.”

Thrusting his goad at Micah to hold, Maaz picked up Kanab, who now reeked of wine, and threw Kanab’s right arm over his shoulder.  Holding the slight and limp man upright with his left arm, Maaz took his goad back from Micah.  Striding toward the curtained exit, he paused only long enough to glance over his shoulder and say, “Come on then, woman.  Show me to an inn.”

Smiling at Micah, Ruth turned and sprinted through the curtain, Maaz dragging Kanab, close behind her.

Idol Smashers (Number Seven)

“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.

Soldiers

Day Two – The Cave

 (Previously, in Idol Smashers: Our heroes destroyed the abandoned village Heshonib, attempting to erase all signs of the idolatry that had taken place in Israel.  That night, through a set of dreams given to some of the men, it became clear that the threat to Israel was greater than a single remote village; the Tabernacle itself was the object of some evil plot that merely included the idolatry of the Heshonibites.)

Before leaving his home, Mattan counseled them to lift their countenances.  “You have the look of deadly business on your faces,” he said.  “And though we are among countrymen, it is not always good to cast the lot on the table where all may see it.”

Jezreel nodded and made a sign against evil with his hands.

Joseph managed half a smile and said, “Let us be iron on the inside but lamb’s wool on the outside.”

 

As they had done the day before, the party was led sharply off the road by Mattan at a point only his eye could discern.  For the most part, the only sound the travelers made was intermittent conversation and a travel psalm sung by Jezreel.  The LORD used the words of the song to fortify their spirits, preparing them for the difficult and brutal task that lay ahead.

After a few miles, a ravine appeared on the horizon, one that had been invisible to their eyes before.

“It is an ideal hiding place, is it not?” Mattan queried.  “Along the sides of the ravine there are natural caves, some of them quite large.”

“How did you find this place?” Maaz asked, a little edge to his voice.  Like Barek, he suspected Mattan was more than the effete merchant he seemed.  What tempered Maaz’s suspicions was that Mattan was Deborah’s man and she was not likely to be easily fooled.

If he noticed Maaz’s tone, Mattan betrayed no reaction.  “It has been used by my family for generations, my masters.  A prosperous merchant sometimes needs a safe place to store his goods while awaiting a better price.”

Maaz wondered if Mattan’s ancestors had engaged in smuggling or banditry in addition to trade, but kept his suspicions to himself.  He merely grunted and nodded a kind of approval.

The party stopped at the edge of the trail down into the ravine.  There were several children playing out in the sun, being patiently watched by a young man wearing armor.  The scene was both typical and surreal – children playing under the care of an armed guard – this was not something seen in Israel.

Joseph asked, “Shall we leave some bowmen or a slinger here at the top in case some escape when the melee starts?”  Joseph himself carried neither bow nor sling, nor weapon of any kind.  This was a curiosity and Micah wondered how he had not noticed it before.  Before he could ask Joseph about it, Maaz spoke.

“I have considered this,” he said slowly.  “But my heart tells me that all of us should enter the cave, all of us sharing the responsibility for what we must do.”

Joseph considered the herdsman’s reply and said, “So be it.”  He urged his mount down the path with Mattan close behind.

“Mind your footing, for this path is narrow,” Mattan instructed, fussing because Joseph went before him.

At the sound of approaching hooves, the guard leapt to his feet.  He put his helmet on and picked up his shield, standing at something resembling a stiff military posture.  The children stopped playing and chattering at one another in a tongue bearing bits of Philistine and Hebrew, then hurried around the guard and into the mouth of the cave.

“Samuel ben Abram,” Mattan called, “have you kept your guard?”

The young man’s soldier-like deference to Mattan would have been comical under less serious circumstances.

“Yes, sir!”

“Good, good.  These men of Israel have come to finally resolve this matter and relieve you of your lonely duty.”

He had been playing at soldier, Ammihud thought, studying Samuel.  “And now he does not want to stop,” he thought, considering Samuel’s disappointed expression.

Micah noted that Samuel’s hand sat upon the handle of a scimitar, an unusual choice of weapons in Israel.  More common in Egypt.  Micah hated Egyptians.  Yet there was no sign of the pagan race in the young man’s features.  Micah would keep an eye on him anyway.

Caleb was the first to dismount.  He hurried to the mouth of the cave and peered into the darkness.  “Are they all in there?” he quizzed Samuel.

“Yes sir,” Samuel replied slowly, looking to Mattan for a cue as to how much he should say before these strangers.

Nervously fingering his dagger, Caleb muttered, “I suppose we’d better get at it, then.”

Dismounting, Joseph said, “A moment, brother.  Remember, we decided to speak to them first, getting what information we can out of them.”

Caleb nodded his assent.  “Shall we speak with the elders, then?”

“I shall fetch them for you, my masters,” Mattan said.  But before he could reach the mouth of the cave, three white-haired but rough-looking men emerged from the darkness.

“Mattan,” one of them said, squinting against the sunlight, “what is this?  Who are they?”

“These are the men whose coming I have been promising.”  There was no deferential manner in Mattan’s tone now.  His voice and face took on the inscrutable look of a master trader, betraying nothing.  “They have been sent by Deborah.  They are to judge in her stead and bring an end to your… confinement.”

A second Heshonibite elder, shorter in stature than the first, snorted derisively and said, “’Bout time.”

“We would parley with you a moment,” Joseph said, stepping forward.  “Before meeting the rest of the village, we have a few questions.”

“Speak then,” said the first elder.  “We long to get out of the darkness and stench of that cave.  It is most unnatural for a man to live thus.”

Ammihud impatiently stepped before the smallest of the elders, someone he could almost look in the eye.  “What happened in your village?”

The elder, undaunted, pointed to Mattan.  “Has not that one told you our tale?”

“We wish to hear it from you.”

The elder sighed.  “One night, just before sunrise, we were each of us awakened by a clap of thunder.  We were startled to see our… our…”

“Terraphim,” the first elder finished.  “We were stunned to see our household gods had been suddenly destroyed.  We each ran from our houses.  In a fright, we abandoned our village, afraid it had been cursed by the gods we worshiped.”

“Then what?” Ammihud urged.

“We decided to head to Aphek to seek shelter and answers there.  Though after many days in this hole, I wish we’d have gone elsewhere.”

“It was there on the road, at first light, that we came upon this man,” the second elder said, giving Mattan a disparaging look.  “We let him sweet-talk us into coming here.”

Maaz held his tongue for the moment and made a signal to the other men.  They slowly moved to encircle the three elders.  This strategy was not lost on the silent elder, who looked around nervously.

Joseph gave Mattan a knowing look.

Mattan understood immediately Joseph’s thought.  “That is the essence of what happened, though it was later in the day, according to my recollection.  My masters know that I am not an early riser.”

“Why were you near Heshonib that morning?” Micah asked Mattan.

“To conduct business.  It is my habit to stop at the village on the way to Joppa to trade.”

These words were launched like sling stones by Micah; “You trade at Joppa?  With Philistines?”

Mattan paused a moment to frame his answer to Micah’s unstated accusation.  Many Israelites felt that to have any dealings at all with pagan peoples was something akin to treason and blasphemy.  Usually they dwelt in the interior of Israel – as Micah did – and not on the borders as Mattan did.

“I trade with those who have goods or coins and a mind to barter,” Mattan said flatly.  It was a rare moment of candor.

Maaz ignored this exchange, his attention fixed on the villagers.  “Why do you have idols in your homes in the first place?” Maaz demanded, his indignation flaring both his temper and his nostrils.  He had fought and killed too many Philistines to consider trading with them, but Mattan was not the object of this interrogation.  The Heshonbites were.

The first elder sighed.  “We are – were – of the tribe of Dan.  Our kinsman had your attitude and disowned us when first we took the gods into our homes.  Forced out, we made a new home for ourselves in that little valley and called it Heshonib, after the consort of Marduk.”

Everyone knew that Heshonib was located just north of the territory allotted to Dan.  And they knew that the city of Joppa lay within those borders.  There had been too much intermarriage between the Danites and the Philistines over the years.  On the face of it, the story was at least plausible.

“Even the name of your village is an act of idolatry” Maaz breathed.  He felt Micah’s hand on his arm, steadying his fury as Micah had done on occasions previous to this.

The silent elder eyed Maaz with an expression between wariness and fear.  His counterpart continued, “We meant no one any harm.  We believe in all the gods and give our worship to those who give us prosperity.  In this way, we were able to start a new life and are in the fourth generation.  We would like to return to our village, but if it is cursed, then we shall have been made homeless once again.”

Caleb spoke, and as they turned to look at him, all three elders became aware they had been encircled by these strangers and Samuel.  “None of us are of the tribe of Dan, so we cannot corroborate your story.  But do tell us – of what clan were you?”

“Shupham” replied the second elder, slowly pronouncing the word as if to make it sound right.

The men around the circle looked at one another.

“Shupham,” Caleb repeated.

The three elders looked at one another.

“Yes.  Shupham,” the elder repeated.

Reaching under his belt, Micah withdrew a small wineskin.  Smiling a predator’s smile, he offered it to the elder who spoke.  “You look like a man who has not had a proper drink in quite a while.  Here.”

The Heshonibite was taken aback by this offering, but greed overtook caution and he accepted it.  He tasted it hesitatingly, then, smiling, took a long draught.

The first elder jostled him and with a complaint about his selfishness, took a drink of his own.  “This is a fine wine.  Thank you.”

Micah bowed slightly.  “I am an amateur vintner.  Enjoy.”  To his comrades, Micah said, “Brothers, let us stand off a few paces and confer.”

When they had huddled a few steps away from the Heshonibites, Joseph said, “That was well-played, Micah.”

“Thanks,” Micah said.

“I wonder how you had the foresight to bring along a skin of wine, brother-in-law?” Maaz said, his eyebrows clenched in a suspicious look.

“I gave it away, didn’t I?” Micah retorted.

“Enough about the wine,” Ammihud said impatiently.  Are we agreed?  These men are guilty of idolatry and lying.  Shupham is a clan of Benjamin – Shuham is a clan of Dan.  Whoever these men are, they have never been men of Israel.”

Balek’s massive arms crossed on his chest.  “I say it’s time to pronounce judgment and do the deed.”

Joseph raised a hand to quiet the voices of assent.  “Hold on a moment.  Don’t you think we should give any who will a chance to turn to God and repent?  The LORD is gracious and kind – surely he will forgive idolatry and lying if they will turn to Him.”

Maaz turned his attention away from suspicions about his brother-in-law to respond to Joseph.  “How could you trust any sign of repentance?  These people are heathen swineherds.”

Micah was quick to agree.  “Yes, and besides that, the message from the LORD was very explicit – ‘All must die’ is what it said, wasn’t it?”

Samuel was confused.  “What message?  Who must die?”

Standing next to Samuel, Jezreel explained, “Pardon us, brother.  Through miraculous means, the LORD God Almighty left us a message in the village of these people.  It instructed us to kill them for their idolatry.  And I’m afraid Micah is right.  The message left no latitude for mercy.”

“I can tell you this,” Samuel offered, “having watched these people for several days.  They will scorn any offer of mercy.  They would rather cling to their idolatry than follow the LORD.  Why, just the other day, they put up such a fuss I had to fell a tree and bring it to them.”

“A whole tree?” Ammihud asked.  “What did they want that for?”

“I presumed firewood.”

“Have they been worshiping idols while they are here?” Mattan queried Samuel.

“Yes, the whole time, near as I can tell,”

“There – you see?” Maaz said, his eyes on Joseph.  “Pleas to the one true God when the blade is at their throat could hardly be good reason for showing these dogs mercy.”

Balek nodded.  “I agree.”

Caleb looked at the three elders finishing the last of Micah’s wine.  “How is it to be done, then?  We should kill these three without raising an alarm, then go inside and dispatch the rest as quickly as possible.”

“Agreed,” Ammihud said, his hand going to his dagger.

“Barek, Micah and I will take these three,” growled Maaz.  “Then we will all go inside.  Samuel will guard the entrance and take care of any who get away.”

The youth objected immediately.  “Let it not be so!  May the LORD judge me severely if I do not take up my arms in this holy act of vengeance!  I am a man of Israel and faithful!  I will…”

Mattan had heard such speeches from Samuel before.  He held out both hands to interrupt and silence him.  “Enough, Samuel.  You raise your voice and alarm those three.”  To the seven who came from Deborah he said, “Let me guard the entrance, my masters.  Alas, I am not a warrior and would only be in the way.”

Maaz’s eyes narrowed as he regarded Mattan.  “Fine.”

Caleb turned to Joseph and said, “I notice you are unarmed, brother.  May I loan you a weapon?”

Joseph cupped one hand in another and answered, “I already have all the weapons I need, surely as the LORD lives.  I will do my share.”

“Let us pray,” Jezreel said.  Each man lifted his face and hands toward heaven as Jezreel prayed, “LORD, give us strength this day to do all your will.  Give us wisdom to know it is right.”

The other eight men agreed.  Then, putting hand to weapon, they once more encircled the Heshonibite elders.

“We represent Deborah, judge over Israel, and we exercise her authority,” Ammihud intoned as Barek, Maaz and Micah readied their weapons.  “Do you wish to confess before we pronounce judgment?”

The silent elder bolted.

With a blur of motion, Joseph did something that none of these men of Israel had witnessed before.  He struck with his foot.  The Heshonibite was knocked backward by a sweeping kick that connected with this forehead.  Before any of them fully realized what was happening, Joseph dropped to one knee and dealt a second blow to the man’s head with the heel of his hand.  The Heshonib elder’s head slammed violently into the earth.

Maaz was the first to recover from surprise at Joseph’s melee.  But he hurried his blow and the metal-shod staff swung wide of the mark.  His intended target turned away from Maaz, attempting to break out of the circle, but he found Micah waiting, sword in hand.  He backpedaled just enough to avoid Micah’s slashing sword, but the dirt gave way beneath his feet, and he fell backward with a thud.

Turning his staff over his head in a whistling circle, Maaz dealt a deadly blow to the prone Heshonibite.  He crushed the man’s skull with a single, powerful downward stroke of the iron-shod end of his staff.

Barek’s long dagger was already in his hand and in an eyeblink was stuck in the folds of the second elder’s robe.  The man grunted with surprise, and attempted to push Barek away, but the much bigger man did not budge.  He held the dying man tightly so he could not pull himself away from Barek’s blade.  Blood came between the two men.

The elder felled by Joseph muttered an oath to the gods of Philistia and drew a dagger as he spun to his feet.

Samuel’s scimitar appeared in his hand and with it, he slashed at the man.  The curved blade cut deeply across the small of his back and loosened a gout of blood as the idol-worshipper fell face forward to the ground.

From not far away, the men heard a startled cry.  They looked up to see a boy standing in the entrance of the cave.

Eyes wide with terror, he turned on his heel and disappeared into the darkness.

 

Samuel shouted after the boy and was about to sprint after him when Mattan laid a lightly restraining hand across his arm.  “There is nowhere they can go.  You know this, Samuel.”

“But now they will be ready for us!” he protested.  “We cannot surprise and subdue them as easily as these,” he said, pointing to the three inert figures at their feet.

“Without surprise, we need strategy,” Maaz said.  “My concern is that they shall block the entrance.  Fighting in the corridor will be cramped – not at all to our advantage.”

“We shall alternate bowmen and swordsmen.  The bowmen shall fire into Heshonibites who may be in the way, then step aside to let the swordsman pass into the cavern,” Micah offered this stratagem, looking into each of their faces as they spoke.

Barek put his dagger into its sheath and replaced it with bow and arrow, which he hastily nocked.  “Let me be the first,” he spoke with his usual quiet intensity.  The tallest among them, Barek would have to stoop to enter the cave.

Maaz stepped into line behind him without saying a word.

Ammihud rushed into line behind Maaz and then put away his dagger.  Drawing his smallish bow and arrow, he readied himself to rush into the cavern.

Micah took his place behind Ammihud, his sword readied for the gory task.

Caleb drew an arrow and took a deep breath as he nocked it.  He took a place in the line behind Micah.

Joseph stopped Jezreel from taking the next spot in line.  He tipped his head toward Samuel.  “Let Samuel’s scimitar speak next.”

Samuel eagerly took his place behind Caleb.  His eyes flashed with the youthful excitement of combat, the heady eagerness that swordplay brings to a man.

“After you,” Joseph said with a bow.  Jezreel’s staff was not a ranged weapon, but it did have a longer reach than Joseph’s fists and feet, so he stood behind Samuel.

After they had assumed their places at the end of the line, Joseph instructed Mattan, “Draw your dagger, brother.  All the fish who escape this net are yours to hook.”

Mattan swallowed the dry knot in his throat.  “As you command, my master.”  The look of determination in his soft face gave Joseph no confidence he would perform his rearguard duty adequately.  It was then that Joseph decided to stay as near the cavern exit as possible.

Seeing that the line behind him was fully formed, Barek plunged into the mouth of the cavern.  His steps were guided by the torchlight issuing from within the cavern.  The big man’s normally large stride was moderated by the confines of the passage to the cavern, so it took him a little longer to speed inside than he would’ve liked.

Stepping inside the interior of the cavern, his training as a warrior took over.  Barek ignored the surroundings and focused on the most immediate threat.  The boy who’d witnessed their attack on the elders stood next to a man, explaining in earnest tones what he’d just seen.   Though forewarned, the man was still startled to see Barek’s giant form burst out of the corridor.  The bow in Barek’s hands was leveled at him and faster than the Heshonibite could react, Barek’s arrow flew.  But the arrow merely grazed his left arm.  Barek quickly shuffled aside to allow Maaz to enter.

With a shout, the man of Israel who’d fought with Judge Ehud surged into the cavern and chose the same man as his opponent.  The metal-shod staff swung down and the man’s skull exploded in a splash of gore.  The boy who’d attempted to raise the alarm fell down in fright.

Ammihud entered next, and where Barek had sidled left, he went to the right.  A young man some thirty paces away had risen from a mat and drawn his dagger.  Ammihud’s arrow flew and then bit into the teen’s thigh.  He fell to one knee, clutching at the wound which stained his robe a dark crimson.

Though with not quite the same intensity as Maaz, Micah’s roared an oath no less intimidating.  His sword struck down the nearest enemy; a woman who happened to be close to the entrance.

Rushing through the opening, Caleb followed Barek and moved to his left.  He’d decided long ago that if it came to battle, he wanted to be near the giant.  It seemed to him a safer place to be.  Aiming, he let his arrow fly at a man who was striding toward them, long dagger drawn.  His shot, however, was wide of the mark.  He heard a crack as the arrowhead harmlessly struck the ceiling of the cavern, well above and behind his target.

Samuel, however, was right behind him and he met Caleb’s onrushing Heshonibite head on.  The man expertly deflected the worst of Samuel’s blow, but the weight of the scimitar and the headstrong power behind it knocked the dagger from his grasp.

Thus disarmed, the man rushed at Samuel, hoping to wrestle the young man’s weapon away from him.   Samuel was too fast for him, however, and instead of grabbing his sword arm, the Heshonibite assailant’s last sight was the curved blade coming around and cutting his throat with a backhanded stroke.

When he ran into the room, Jezreel found the little informant lying on the dirt before him.  He swung wildly with his staff and smashed the child’s chest.

To his right, Jezreel saw an older boy rushing at him.  The whole scene slowed to a crawl in the prophet’s perceptions.  The world now included only him and the young man with the angry expression who was shouting and attacking him with a dagger.

Hours of practice took over.  Jezreel reacted reflexively and drew his staff back in time to deflect the knife and then shoulder the youth away from him.  His thrust parried, the young man found himself stumbling into the path of Joseph.  A blur, Joseph reached out and grabbed the youth, throwing him forcefully against the wall of the cavern.  Joseph knew at least a half-dozen ways to take the assailant out of the fight.  He had decided upon which one to use when something the size of a mountain smashed unexpectedly into the back of his head.  A mountain fell on him and blotted out the world.  He saw lights, then blackness and fell into the darkness.

Jezreel was alarmed to see Joseph felled by a sneaky swing of an iron pot.  Waiting not a moment, Jezreel breathed a wordless prayer and bore down on Joseph’s assailant.  The staff smashed against the youth’s back and drove him down to the ground.  The pot flew from his hand, landing harmlessly at Ammihud’s feet.

To his right, Barek saw a man advancing on him.  He answered the man’s stealthy approach with a menacing growl.  Thus discovered, the assailant decided the better of it and threw his knife rather than advance any further.  His aim was poor and Barek easily deflected the missile with his bow.  The blade clattered against the wall of the cave and fell to the ground.

On Barek’s right, Caleb quickly drew another arrow and shot the dagger-thrower.  This time his aim was true and the arrow took the young man in the shoulder.  He spun on the axis of the impact, falling down.

A villager threw down a small child he’d been holding and drew a long dagger.  He was large and scarred, obviously a man who’d seen some fighting.  Maaz spotted the threat and rushed to meet it.  With the longer reach of his staff he had an advantage and pressed it.  The staff met the man before he could close to strike with the dagger.  Maaz’s blow to his shoulder staggered the big man, but he shrugged off the pain and smiled at Maaz.

“The defiant dog!” Maaz thought, and his rage increased.  Maaz now saw and heard nothing but the enemy before him.  The blade switched hands as the idolater charged, but the attempt at deception did not avail him as Maaz sidestepped, burying one end of his staff in the ground.  The Heshonibite fighter tumbled over this immovable, unexpected obstacle.  Before he had a chance to rise from the dirt, Maaz whipped the iron-shod end of his staff down with implacable force.  Crashing on the back of his head, the deadly instrument bade the man to fall and rise no more.

Ammihud sidled as far to his right as the wall of the cave allowed, in order to get a better shot around Micah.  He saw someone getting to their feet and let the arrow fly in that direction.  It struck home in the back of the retreating person and knocked them down.  A part of Ammihud’s mind may have noted that he did not know the age or gender of his target, but it was a part that was very far from his consciousness.  He was merely aware that the bow was in his hands, the arrows in his quiver, and that various targets presented themselves.

Micah fell upon a Heshobite who was struggling to free a knife from the loose folds of his robe.  It tore free when Micah’s sword cut deeply across his chest, but fell from the man’s limp fingers as he hit the ground.

Someone grabbed the fallen knife and used it to stab Micah.  He struck with the swiftness of a snake and Micah was bitten, the blade striking his right shoulder just beside the leather armor he wore.

Emboldened by this youth’s success, another rushed forward to try to wrest Micah’s sword from his grasp.  A rage of blood now clouded the vision of the soldier of God and he backhanded the boy with his free hand, sending him sprawling backward.

Ammihud saw that Micah was being assailed on both sides.  The arrow was in the bow and away before he judged whether or not his comrade in arms needed assistance.  The arrow appeared again in a Heshonibite’s right hip.  The blow of the weapon caused his leg to fold beneath him and the villager dropped to the cavern floor.

Micah’s remaining opponent had drawn blood.  Eager for more, he stabbed again at Micah, but the Israelite parried the attack with his sword.  Wheeling upon his opponent in the same motion, Micah’s sword whistled through the air until it cut a line across the young man’s chest.  His face bore a startled expression but no sound came from his lips.  The knife fell from his hands.  The villager dropped to his knees and then to the floor, making gurgling sounds all the while.

Sighting down his arrow, Caleb let fly at someone rising from a mat near the wall to his left.  The arrow struck the cave wall above the person, but made such a clatter they let out a cry and fell forward, their hands covering their hooded head.

Staggering under a sudden weight of flailing youth on his back, Samuel twisted forcefully to dislodge his small attacker.  He did not hesitate to cleave the small form that fell on the ground before him.  Such was his certainty that the LORD’s will must be carried out.

Barek strode deeper into the semidarkness of the cavern.  Loosing his sword at the nearest villager, Barek slashed across his attacker at chest height.  The edge bit into his opponent’s left shoulder.  While the wound itself was not bad, the strength behind the strike drove the thin young man into the wall of the cave, where he slid to the floor, whimpering and grasping at the wound with his right hand.

Another stroke finished the job.

His opponent thus dispatched, Barek turned and for the first time, assessed their surroundings.  The cavern was dimly lit by torches, lamps and cooking fires, but he could see that it was a sizeable place.  The shadowed roof was supported by a massive column of stone in the center.  What might be other passages leading further into the earth were open on the wall opposite him.  There was something leaning against the pillar…Barek peered at it, indredulous.

Panic replaced surprise among the villagers as they realized that these intruders were taking out their defenders with deadly efficacy.  Ammihud’s arrow missed one of these frightened women, but it was effective at increasing her terror.  She clutched at an awestruck child and drug him away from the melee.

Someone else picked up the pot that had been wielded so effectively against Joseph and came at Ammihud from the left, swinging his improvised but effective weapon.  The pot struck Ammihud’s left shoulder with sufficient force that he dropped his bow and staggered away.  Fortunately, the cave wall was there to support him and the prophet stayed on his feet.

That particular cooking implement had caused quite enough trouble, Jezreel decided.  He intended to hurdle both Joseph and his unconscious assailant and then strike this new pot-wielding punk with his staff.  The psalmist was not exactly lithe, however, and caught his toes on the robe of the fallen villager.  Seconds after he sprawled on the ground, Jezreel’s mind noted the musical tone the pot made as it struck something solid and then his world went black.

A village man near the pillar of stone in the center of the cavern left something he’d been working on and rushed at Maaz.  The mallet in his right hand swung with great force, but the warrior of God easily parried the swing and directed the blow harmlessly away.

Caleb’s heart rose to his throat as he watched the miserable melee unfold on the other side of the cavern.  Joseph was gone, and Ammihud and Jezreel were being dealt with by a young man armed only with a pot!  Caleb vowed that this insult would be met with a greater force.  He nocked an arrow and shot, but the shaft buried itself in the ground away from the Heshonibite.

Samuel charged at the next opponent he saw, a man who was trying to shield himself with a woman and child.  The task they were commanded to do made no allowance for pity, so Samuel swung his scimitar.  The deadly curved blade tore mother and child from the grasp of the cowardly man, and he fell backward, scrambling to avoid the Israelite’s next attack.

Wearing a savage grin, the young man wielding the cooking pot turned back to Ammihud.  “The goddess gives me victory, though I am armed only with this!” he taunted, brandishing the pot.

To his credit, Ammihud did not flinch.  He dropped his bow and withdrew his dagger.  “Let us see, boy, whose god shall triumph this day!”

Caleb’s second arrow found a more worthy mark, burying itself in between the pot-wielder’s shoulder blades.  He dropped the pot, then fell face forward before Ammihud.

“I guess that settles it, then,” Ammihud said.

Idol Smashers – Part Five

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“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 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.

Hugh Otter B. Fruitful

(Read Acts 2:42-47.)

        A woman in Alabama was to bake a cake for her Baptist Church ladies’ bake sale, but entirely forgot about it until she awoke on the morning of the sale.  Rifling through her cupboards, she found an old angel food cake mix and threw it together.  While it baked, she dressed for work.

        When she took the cake from the oven, the center had dropped flat and the cake was horribly disfigured.  There was no time nor resource to bake another.  Not wanting to lose face among the church ladies, she hurriedly looked around for something she could use to build up the center of the cake.

        She settled on a roll of toilet paper which she put in the droopy center of the cake and then covered the whole thing over with icing.  Standing back to admire her handiwork, she pronounced it “Beautiful!”

        Before leaving the house to drop the cake off at the church on the way to work, she woke her teenage daughter and told her to be at the bake sale precisely when it opened at 9 am, buy t cake & bring it home.

        You may be surprised to find that the drowsy daughter didn’t make it to the church exactly at 9 am.  When she did arrive, she found that her mother’s cake had already been sold!  She called her mother to deliver the horrifying news.  The woman spent the entire day and a sleepless night worrying about who had purchased the faux cake.

        The next day an elegant bridal shower was being held at the home of a fellow church member.  While she wasn’t particularly friendly toward the hostess – she considered her a snob – the woman felt obligated to go.

        She was horrified when her cake was presented as dessert!

        She was about to take the hostess aside and confess when one of the other guest exclaimed, “What a beautiful cake!”

        The snobbish hostess grinned with pride and said, “Thank you, I baked it myself!”

        The woman thought to herself, “God is good.”  She sat back and watched as her hostess grabbed the cake knife…

        We naturally think god is good when the other person gets their “just desserts,” but are less likely to think that way when it’s us.  Getting what we deserve is what Jesus called the “fruit” of our character.  Decisions made repeatedly become character and the outcome of all that reveals the character within each of us.

        What’s true on an individual level is also true on a church level.  What we look like on the outside does not determine what fruits we bear, it’s what really exists under the icing. We must choose Christ to bear Christian fruit.

(George Goldtrap, as quoted in The Joyful Noiseletter, Vol. 27, No. 4, July-August 2012.)

THESIS = The First Church enjoyed fruitful ministry because they were faithful followers.

Vs. 46-47 (NIV) = Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

WHERE they met reveals a lot about the First Church.

        They met publicly in the TEMPLE.  Because the temple courtyards provided a large open space where their mega-church could gather.  The courtyards were accessible to Gentiles and frequented by Jews.

        Originally they saw themselves as practicing the Jewish faith completed by Jesus.  Therefore the temple was still God’s house; it was still sacred in their lives, their faith and practice.  They shared the pride godly Jews felt about the Temple and all it represented.

        It was a familiar place and a physical focus of their faith. When in Jerusalem, a godly Jew went to the Temple three times a day to pray.  Living elsewhere, a godly Jew faced the direction of the Temple to pray.

        The courtyards of the Temple were the customary place to meet for teaching.  Later, as the Church was dispersed from Jerusalem, they took this practice with them and met in the local synagogues.

        They also met privately in their HOMES.  They held services in courtyards  of private homes (see Philemon 2; Colossians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 16:19).  This was a practical solution and good stewardship.  Buildings require resources.  the practice kept the local churches smaller & more personal, like our “cell groups” today.  It was customary for Jewish feasts (i.e., the Passover) to be observed in homes.

        This “multi-site plan” is a comprehensive approach to ministry we can find useful and worth copying.  The temple gatherings were primarily evangelistic in nature, but also met worship and service goals.  The “living room” gatherings in private homes had a primary purpose of discipleship, but also met worship and fellowship goals.  Of course, the extraordinary stewardship exhibited in the First Church empowered both.

WHAT they did AS they met reveals more.

        The text informs us they BROKE BREAD and ATE TOGETHER.  BROKE BREAD refers to both a meal and the Lord’s Supper: the eucharisto.  This Love Feast was THE means of worship and service, & feeding the underclass.

        They were PRAISING GOD daily.  Every activity of the church should be a service of worship, celebrating God before all people.  If not for God we wouldn’t be here!

        They enjoyed THE FAVOR OF ALL PEOPLE.  I wonder what that feels like.  It might mean that people know where we’re located, at least!  This was a church full of joy: because they spread it about, they enjoyed wide favor.

HOW they did it sets an example for us to follow.

        They met EVERY DAY.  Any mention I make of daily worship falls on blank stares and deaf ears.  “Not realistic,” people inform me gravely.  Both clergy and lay people alike think the notion of daily worship is as quaint as togas.

        Let me provoke your thinking on this subject with two questions.  Is it possible that we are over-invested in our personal, private lives?  If we restore balance by investing more in God will it result in a better blessing?  If the answer to either of those questions is “Yes,” we’ve got to re-prioritize.

        They had GLAD and SINCERE HEARTS.  Every Christian ought to have a GLAD heart.  When done right, the Christian faith is fun.  Joy is an inevitable result of true discipleship.  If church is boring, uneventful, or unfulfilling, the fault is not with God.  In the original language, the word  SINCERE means “without stones to trip on.”  With nothing false in their character, they gave no excuse to trip others up.

WHY did God do this?  Simple: to build His Church.

        The phrase THE LORD ADDED TO THEIR NUMBER is a needed reminder that it is God who saves.  Our part is to create a space where God is made known.  If we are faithful, God will make us fruitful.

        This is also a way God shows His approval of a church.  If a church is worthy of His trust, He will place new believers in their care.

        It also reinforces the necessity of true faith being the qualification for membership. This phrase summarizes New Testament teaching that makes a distinction between those who are converts in appearance only & those who are a new creation.  Human eyes can’t always telling the difference, but God knows.

        I hope I’ve clearly placed an emphasis on the sovereignty of God.  That doctrine is no excuse of inactivity or even passivity, however.  God calls us to be more than consumers.  We are to be producers as well.  One part of discipleship is producing fruit.  The outcomes of a faithful life are two-fold:

  • See Matthew 28:19, where Jesus identifies disciple-making as our mission. That includes producing new converts and maturing existing ones.
  • See John 15, where Jesus teaches that LOVE is both a means and an end to discipleship. Real disciples love more often and more deeply. 

        OK, I admit to being guilty of making this word my soap box.  Don’t miss the word DAILY in the text. Does anyone really think it is a coincidence that they met daily and the Lord added to their number daily?  I’d suggest we are seeing a spiritual principle at work: “Whatever you sow, you shall reap.  If you sow sparingly, you shall reap sparingly.”  The greater sacrifice opens the door to greater blessing.  That’s biblical.

        Who was the Lord adding to the First Church?  THOSE WHO WERE BEING SAVED.  “Being saved” is a curious phrase.  What’s that imply?  A Greek word for “church” means “the called-out ones.”  Who is doing the calling?  God.  We don’t  call ourselves.  So again we are reminded that salvation is 99.9% an act of God.  It is not by any work that we are saved, but only by a faithful acceptance of the work of God.

        I believe that phrase is also meant to throw us back upon our dependence on the Holy Spirit.  It is God’s Spirit who empowers everything we do that is godly.  For a wonderful and unique description of this, see Judges 6:34, where it is written, THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD CLOTHED HIMSELF WITH GIDEON.  The Bible also says that the Spirit is within us, but I prefer this reading because it places the emphasis squarely on the Holy Spirit.

        While we may be assuming too much from a single portion of a sentence, I believe this oddly passive-voiced verb without a clear temporal reference is also meant to remind us that salvation is a life-long process.  BEING SAVED is like saying, “Under Construction.”  Kind of like the streets and highways of our land during the summer months…

        “A wealthy lawyer walked along a crowded sidewalk in London when he felt a hand slip into his pocket.  He whirled around and seized the thief by the wrist.  ‘Why did you try to rob me?’ James Henderson demanded sternly.

        “‘Because, sir,’ the would-be pickpocket said, ‘I am out of work and hungry.’

        “‘Come along with me,’ Henderson said.  He took the penniless man to a restaurant and ordered two meals.

        “When they had finished eating, the man told how he had been in prison and found it difficult to obtain a job because of his bad name.  ‘I have no name,’ he said.  There is nothing left to return but to return to the old life of crime.  What can a man do without a name?’

        “The man’s story and question greatly impressed the lawyer.  After some thought, he said, ‘For forty years I have borne the name of James Henderson unsullied.  You say you have no name?  I’ll give you my name.  Take your new name out into the world and keep it clean and honorable.’

        “‘Do you really mean it?’ cried the thief brokenly.

        “‘Of course I mean it,’ said the lawyer.  ‘And to prove it, I’ll recommend you, in the name of James Henderson, to a manufacturing firm with whom I have some influence.’

        “The lawyer found a job for the former thief and kept in touch with him for many months.  However, through travel and a change of residence, he lost contact with his namesake.

        “Fifteen years later he was told a visitor awaited him in the reception room of his office.  He was startled to read the name ‘James Henderson’ on the man’s business card.  Entering the reception room, he met a tall, strikingly handsome man dressed like a gentleman. 

        “As they shook hands, the visitor said, ‘Sir, I have called to tell you today I have been made partner in the firm to which you recommended me fifteen years ago.  All that you see me to be, I owe to your noble generosity; and above all, to the gift of your name.  The name of James Henderson is still unsullied.  God bless you, sir, and reward you!’

        “The thief was offered a new name and made a new start in life.  We, too, have been offered a new name – Christian.  And it is the plan of the One who has given us this new name that we make a new start in life.”

(Desmond Hills, Signs of the Times, June, 2004.)

Proud Papa

I tell you, fathers don’t get any respect…even on Father’s Day!

Mothers get the red carpet treatment on their day, with fabulous brunches and beautiful bouquets. For the fathers, however, retailers have cleverly priced almost everything under $9.99!
Case in point: the Talking Fly Swatter. It’s a lime-green fly swatter with a little speaker that says stuff like “Hasta la vista, baby!” “Flight canceled!” and “Die sucker!” every time you try to use it.

I tell you, fathers don’t get any respect…

The children begged for a hamster, and after the usual fervent vows that they alone would care for it, they got one. They named it Danny. Two months later, when Mom found herself responsible for cleaning and feeding the creature, she’d had enough and promptly located a prospective new home for it.

The children took the news of Danny’s imminent departure quite well, though one of them remarked, “He’s been around here a long time–we’ll miss him.”

“Yes,” Mom replied, “But he’s too much work for one person, and since I’m that one person, I say he goes.”

Another child offered, “Well, maybe if he wouldn’t eat so much and wouldn’t be so messy, we could keep him.”

But Mom was firm. “It’s time to take Danny to his new home now,” she insisted. “Go and get his cage.”

With one voice and in tearful outrage the children shouted, “Danny? We thought you said Daddy!”

I tell you, fathers don’t get any respect…

A Father’s Day Poem

Dad, Dad, Dad. The dear old worthless geezer. 
Oh the fusses I have had, with that old patient teaser. 
He lacks the spirit of a mouse, most anyone can ‘down’ him. 
We let him hang around the house. Its cheaper than to drown him.

I tell you, fathers don’t get any respect…

According to the “Almanac for Farmers & City Folk,” The largest number of collect calls are made on Father’s Day.

Fortunately, dads have a good sense of humor. Most of them. Today we want to highlight six biblical virtues that dads are supposed to have. You know they were intended for dads because these six virtues spell out the word “FATHER.”

F” is for FAITHFUL (Hebrews 11:6).

AND WITHOUT FAITH IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PLEASE HIM, FOR WHOEVER WOULD

DRAW NEAR TO GOD MUST BELIEVE THAT HE EXISTS AND THAT HE REWARDS

THOSE WHO SEEK HIM. (ESV)

Faith that pleases God consists of belief in two things: that God exists and that His existence gives this life consequence.

Believing that God is real is the easy part, as proven by the fact that 90% of Americans believe it. However, when it comes to acting in ways consistent w/t reality of God, I suspect the number of participants drops off dramatically. Popularity not withstanding, real faith results in an increasingly God-centered life; real faith makes changes.

Belief that God rewards seekers follows naturally if you accept the first point. In other words, your life has consequence. Daily decisions are important. The writer of Hebrews expresses it positively to encourage believers, but the negative side is just as true; God’s wrath will be poured out on the unbelieving and wicked.

Without faith it is IMPOSSIBLE TO PLEASE God. If we want the rewards and not the wrath, then we must start with faith. Men, we must be full of faith.

Faithful fathers relate to their family in a way that pleases God. Men, treat your family in a way that recognizes God is present and that one day you will account for every word and deed. Since you’re going to eat your words, make ’em sweet. Don’t make family relationships the least holy; make them as holy as every other relationship you have. Holy relationships are marked by love, respect, positivity, and grace.

A” is for ACTIVE or AMBITIOUS (James 2:18-20).

BUT SOMEONE WILL SAY, “YOU HAVE FAITH AND I HAVE WORKS.” SHOW ME

YOUR FAITH APART FROM YOUR WORKS, AND I WILL SHOW YOU MY FAITH BY

MY WORKS. YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS ONE; YOU DO WELL. EVEN THE

DEMONS BELIEVE – AND SHUDDER! DO YOU WANT TO BE SHOW, YOU

FOOLISH PERSON, THAT FAITH APART FROM WORKS IS USELESS? (ESV)

Faith and works are not opposing approaches to God, they are two sides of the one approach that is real. Belief in the one true God is a starting point, not the finish line. With a little bit of irony, James notes how such belief is something that even DEMONS believe – only they shudder in fear at the thought of it.

The finish line is death. The balance of the race that is this life is finding ways to WORK OUT the consequences of our decision to accept the truth about God. A half-faith is no faith at all, just as a coin with only one side is not legal tender. If you’re going to have a saving faith, you’re going to have to be ACTIVE with it. No half-measures.

Men can be very ambitious in their vocations and avocations; they need to bring a similar ambition to their work within the home. “Active” fathers take an active faith into their home. The easy part of fathering is two-fold.

One easy part is to provide for their family’s material needs. Godly fathers take on more than just physical provision for their family, they actively make emotional and spiritual provision too.

The other easy part is to be proud of their family. Ask the average person what they value most and most of them will reflexively say “family.” The more difficult thing is to give your family reasons to be proud of YOU. ACTIVE fathers promote respect for the family name and forge a godly identity.

The more difficult thing and the thing most needed, is for fathers need to have a full-featured faith that is useful for godliness. Fathers are not the only leaders in the home, but they need to actively and ambitiously work to lead the family in God’s direction.

T” is for TENDER-HEARTED (Galatians 6:2).

BEAR ONE ANOTHER’S BURDENS AND SO FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST. (ESV)

This portion of the New Testament book of Galatians deals with how Christians are to relate to one another. It’s one of many places where human nature and spiritual nature interact to form our way of life.

It’s a common experience of life that you find out who your true friends are when you are in moments of greatest need. True friends will come alongside to provide help and support and encouragement, false friends will make themselves scarce. That’s human nature.

But Paul identifies something more important than human nature being operative here. Bearing one another’s burdens is one way we fulfill the LAW OF CHRIST. Remember Jesus’ law? “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” JHN 15:12. This means following Jesus’ example in love. Including our sins, Jesus bore every burden on the cross. The ultimate solution to all our problems is found atop Golgotha. Following His example and being joined in His Body, the Church, means that burden-bearing is standard behavior for followers of Jesus. Love is true when it seeks what is best for the beloved.

The ruin of the tender-heartedness expressed in this verse is selfishness and impatience. Selfishness can blind us to the burdens others carry. We’re too wrapped up in our own situations to take notice and thereby miss opportunities to help. Impatience takes many forms and is, in my opinion, the root of many problems. For example, impatience will cause a man to try to “fix” things when he needs to listen. It will show up when he says, “Not again!” or “Aren’t you over that yet?”

Tender-heartedness can be a difficult virtue to achieve because you have to really want it. You have to seek it, cultivate it, actively work to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It requires listening, watching, waiting, and apologizing – things for which men aren’t known for being naturally good. BUT, as we said, this is based on Jesus’ nature, not human nature!

H” is for HOLY (Romans 12:1-2).

I APPEAL TO YOU THEREFORE, BROTHERS, BY THE MERCIES OF GOD, TO PRESENT YOUR BODIES AS A LIVING SACRIFICE, HOLY AND ACCEPTABLE TO GOD, WHICH IS YOUR SPIRITUAL WORSHIP. DO NOT BE CONFORMED TO THIS WORLD, BUT BE TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWAL OF YOUR MIND, THAT BY TESTING YOU MAY DISCERN WHAT IS THE WILL OF GOD, WHAT IS GOOD AND ACCEPTABLE AND PERFECT. (ESV)

To be “holy” is to be different from the rest of the world – set apart to God’s glory and purpose. These two important verses describe the reason and the method of holiness.

The reason for holiness is to give God the kind of worship He accepts. Self-sacrifice is the kind of worship God accepts. Worship that costs us nothing is worth nothing. To be meaningful and effective, worship is a little more death to self. This is done in view of God’s MERCIES. In other words, Jesus made Himself a “living sacrifice” on the cross, as His follower, you’re to do the same on a spiritual scale.

The method of holiness is resisting the world’s pressure to conform, choose transformation instead. Transformation is achieved by changing your mind! Unlearn the world’s definition of manliness and substitute Jesus’ example in it’s place. Unlearn all worldly values – resist the pressure to conform to them. Choose the life-long process of transformation into a reproduction of Jesus Christ.

Holy men make the best fathers. By this I mean “men that are holy,” regardless of their vocation.

Our culture does not make good fathers. In fact, we’ve seen fatherhood become something of a quaint institution, with record numbers of women left to care for children alone. The masculine values of our culture are promiscuity, independence, wealth, power, and pride. The sacrifice of these foolish things is a form of spiritual worship.

The masculine values of our faith are strength, commitment, love, and godliness. Becoming like Jesus enables a man to stand with his family, leading by serving.

E” is for ENCOURAGING (Hebrews 3:13).

BUT ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER DAILY, AS LONG AS IT IS CALLED TODAY, SO THAT NONE OF YOU MAY BE HARDENED BY SIN’S DECEITFULNESS. (NIV)

Encouragement is not optional; it’s a requirement. ENCOURAGE is the same Gk word used for the Holy Spirit; it’s also translated as “Comforter.” This isn’t mere positivity; it’s also translated as “exhort.” To exhort someone is to urge them to do the right thing. DAILY shows that encouragement is something we require. Encouragement serves an important purpose; to keep our soul from being HARDENED BY SIN’S DECEITFULNESS. Sin hardens our conscience and makes us insensitive to the will of God and incapable of loving others.

One of the important reasons God puts us together in families and in churches is so that we can encourage one another. The need for encouragement is not a sign of weakness; its simply human nature. While everyone needs different amounts of encouragement and favors different types, it’s as necessary for the health of our souls as food is for the health of our bodies. Encouragement is the “daily bread” of the spirit.

An amazing thing about family relationships is the strength of a child’s desire for dad’s approval. I don’t claim to understand it, but I have observed it often enough to know that there a powerful desire at work that is part of our very nature.

It stinks, then, that men are so often so poor at encouraging. For whatever set of reasons, we don’t seem to know how to do it and too often choose not to. Unfortunately, teasing and anger come more easily, so we can be guilty of unbalancing our input to the negative side. Fathers who are not active encouragers neglect an essential aspect of family life at the peril of their families.

R” is for REASONABLE (Isaiah 1:18).

COME NOW, LET US REASON TOGETHER,” SAYS THE LORD; (ESV)

The OT prophets spoke for God and made many appeals to the people for Him. The prophets appealed to the people on the basis of their emotions, striking fear of wrath and the promise of reward. They appealed to them spiritually, describing the majesty and power of God. And they appealed to their REASON, trying to get them to stop and think about what they were doing, the consequences of their actions.

This passage is obviously an appeal to REASON. Had we read the rest of vs. 18-20, we would have learned that God was trying to reason with them to repent and obey His Law. In the book of Proverbs especially, there are many biblical appeals to reason. God gave us each a brain so we would use it to think about ways we can do the right thing, not to plot evil or devise excuses for our sin.

Remember what we read in Romans. Transformation happens through the renewal of our mind. It is by thinking and reason that we see God’s way is best for us and follow it. It is by thinking and reason that we read, understand, and apply the word of God.

“Reasonable” is one of the virtues at which men like to think they excel. Male and female brains typically have physical differences that make logic and practicality more appealing to men, emotion and sentimentality more appealing to women. That’s science, not a value judgment. It simply explains typical preferences.

However, reason is only a tool. It can be correctly used to do good and be godly or it can be misused to make excuses for sin and selfishness. Part of being “reasonable” is using your head in the right way, not the wrong.

Another part of being “reasonable” is to be open to reason. Being confident is a virtue, but taken too far it becomes close-mindedness and that’s a vice. Reasonable men listen.

A third part of being “reasonable” is being patient. As James wrote, QUICK TO LISTEN, SLOW TO SPEAK, AND SLOW TO BECOME ANGRY (1:19). Patience is a virtue, men.

An article from a British newspaper, the Telegraph, was published last December, but applies to Father’s Day. Here’s an excerpt: “When it comes to Christmas, it might be safe to assume children will ask Santa for an extensive list of toys, games and treats …. A study of 2,000 British parents found most children will put a new baby brother or sister at the top of their Christmas list, closely followed by a request for a real-life reindeer. A ‘pet horse’ was the third most popular choice …. Despite their material requests, the tenth most popular Christmas wish on the list was a ‘Dad.'”

Wow. That must mean that dads are becoming as scarce in British culture as they are here in America. We need to call men to accept their responsibility to be a father at all, then to be the kind of father God wants them to be.

The title of this message is “Proud Papa.” Generally that refers to a father who is proud of his family. In this case, however, I want to turn that around. I’ve been advocating for a papa of whom the family is proud. I’m calling the fathers, grandfathers, uncles, mentors, teachers – all the men in this virtual room who have families to be the kind of leaders who earn the pride of their family by being the kind of man your family needs you to be.

The Bible calls us to a high standard in all our behavior and relationships, and fatherhood is no exception. In fact, given the extraordinary influence of fathers and their general scarcity in our culture, you might say that fatherhood is a priority. Something to think about. And, after a day of celebrating, to act upon.