Idol Smashers – Part Five

terraphim

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

Day  One – Aphek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy executed a sloppy bow and ran out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day One – Heshonib

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As can I,” Jezreel added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micah made a sign against evil with his right hand.

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“My thoughts exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caleb did some figuring on his fingers.

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

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

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

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

“What does it say?” Maaz asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Cursed,” the giant Israelite said tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idol Smashers – Part Four

caravan

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

Day  One – Shiloh

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group started their journey.

Day One – Aphek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A short meal,” Micah added.

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

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

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

“Well?” Maaz said.

“What?” Ammihud replied.

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

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

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

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

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

Maaz merely folded  his arms across his chest.

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

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

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

Barak said, “That is wisdom.”

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

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

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

“As the Lord wills,” Jezebel added.

“As the Lord wills,” Jacob agreed.

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

“I agree,” Ammihud said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There lies the city!” Maaz called out.

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

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

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

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

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

Barak returned his attention to the city’s gate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We do,” Maaz said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idol Smashers – Part Three

Israel

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

Day  One – Shiloh

(Previously, in Idol Smashers 1 and 2: Deborah, Judge over Israel, has introduced her seven champions chosen by drawing lots, yet foreseen by her.  Now they will learn what the Lord wants of them.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idol Smashers (Part Two)

“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.

token

Day  One – Shiloh

Previously: The ceremony of Yom Hakkipurim was mysteriously delayed by the Judge Deborah to select seven champions for an as-yet-undisclosed mission.

Jezreel and the six other men were hurriedly ushered into the tent beneath the banner of the palm tree.  This was the sign of Tomer Deborah, the place where Deborah has judged Israel for thirty-seven years.  With the Blessing, they had been years of peace and prosperity following the defeat and death of the Canaanite King, Jabin.

The faces of the six other men bore signs of concern mixed with lingering surprise.  Silently, Jezreel took his place in a council of eight, with Deborah herself standing at the head of the circle.  The honor of sitting at her right was not one that Jezreel sought for himself, but watched as she gestured for another of the seven to occupy that spot.  Surely Deborah knew best which of them was most worthy of the honorific.  The rest shuffled into place, the deciding of order being made silently and selflessly, not the usual way of men who are strangers to one another.  Jezreel felt this was a good sign.

Deborah bowed, and gestured for all to sit.  Remaining on her feet, she greeted each of the seven by name, then gestured for her servants to bring bowls for washing.

Amid those moments of hospitality, Jezreel looked about the circle.  Noticeably absent are any tribal elders.  Each of these men were younger, like himself.  Wondering at this unusual circumstance and why the LORD willed such a thing, Jezreel took in Deborah herself.  She looked burdened and tired.  There was little joy in her face, more so the kind of weariness that is truly known by those in leadership.

An uneasy silence shrouded the room as Deborah’s servants washed the men’s feet and anointed their heads with aromatic oil.  These typical acts of hospitality generally comforted travelers, but today they did not cut the apprehension of the room.  The familiar contrasted too strikingly with the unfamiliarity of this morning’s events.  Food and drink were served, all in the austere style that rumor said to be typical of Deborah.

After these acts of hospitality had been offered, Deborah conferred briefly with her chief servant.  Waving all the other servants and bodyguards from the tent, he carefully backed out himself.  The dismissal of the servants was also surprising, for Jezreel had never heard of councils taking place in such secrecy.

Deborah waited for the bustle to subside.  The seven men looked to one another, each face betraying bewilderment, seeking an explanation.  Jezreel certainly had none to offer.  His experiences as a shepherd in his father’s house and as a psalmist’s apprentice at Kodash had not included political intrigue.  Meetings of the council were secret to most Israelites, a reality that rarely affected their daily lives.  Authorities figures better known to the common Israelite were the heads of his family and clan.  Tribal elders were the highest level of authority, except for the times during which the LORD raised up judges.  Though the heathen nations around them had strong central governments, the people of God enjoyed decentralized authority.  The system worked because it was what the LORD had decreed and it kept Him as the sole King of Israel.

Finally, Deborah spoke, “Men of Israel.  I have summoned you to council wearing a robe of secrecy that I must ask you to don as well.  There must be no words taken from this tent until the matter is resolved.  I will now have your word on this.”

Again the seven look to one another.  Then Ammihud, the oldest-looking member of the group and the man at her right hand, said, “I so swear.”  Others around the circle give their oaths and Jezreel offered his.  Deborah looked upon each of them intently, as if she were able to peer into their hearts and judge their sincerity.  It was rumored that a prophetess had such an ability.  Deborah was recognized as a prophetess of the LORD and her God-given insight had no doubt aided her in the commission of her office as judge over all Israel.

She looked at the man to her right.  “Ammihud ben Elishama, man of Shuthelah and Ephraim.  You served Barak on occasion.  Your prophetic insight has aided our people.”  Ehud’s round face bore a look of great pleasure.  His eyes revealed intelligence and power within his short, stout frame.

“Maaz ben Zophar, man of Beker and Ephraim.  Your iron-shod goad,” she pointed to the staff-like weapon he had leaned against the wall of the tent behind him, “has served other judges over Israel. Adonai has shown his wisdom in choosing you.”

Gesturing to the man to Maaz’s left, Deborah asked, “Micah ben Shema, I understand you are something of a brewer and vintner.  Is this wine to your liking?”

Micah was obviously pleased to receive this kind of attention from Deborah.  “Well, ma’am,” he began, “I find it to be a little dry.  I wonder if the grapes were picked a bit before their maturity.  You see…”

Beside Micah, Maaz cleared his throat.  Interrupted, Micah fell silent.  Shrugging his shoulders a bit, he said “It’s fine.”

At this, Deborah laughed aloud.  “Micah, you allow your brother-in-law to lead you thus?  It is a man of true humility who follows a worthy man.  You are of the clan of Beker as well, are you not?”

Micah merely nodded his assent to this question and took another sip of wine.  It appeared that on subjects other than vine-dressing, he was a man of few words.

Deborah looked further down the circle.  “Barak ben Caleb.  You have come to us from Hanoch.  You are a man of stature in the tribe of Reuben.”  At this, there was muted laughter, for Barak was a giant of a man, over four cubits in height.

“I am honored to be chosen,” he said simply and bowed his head in salutation.

Deborah’s gaze turned to Jezreel next.  “This man is apprenticed to a musician.  Jezreel ben Abraham is studying to be a psalmist.  I have heard one of your compositions.  It is good you left the fields.  Adonai bless you.”

“I am told that Joseph ben Joseph, of Carmi in Simeon has emerged from the desert to demonstrate his own gift of prophecy.  Speaking with the voice of God is a great responsibility.  You must take this responsibility very seriously to still be unmarried at your age,” Deborah said with a wry grin.

Joseph did not take the bait.  He appeared to be one who had secrets and kept them.  He said tersely, “I am ready to serve.  The LORD is with us.”

“Blessed be the name of the LORD,” Deborah replied.

Finally, Deborah’s gaze fell on the man to her immediate left.

“I am Caleb ben Jeremiah, clan of Beker and tribe of Ephraim,” he blurted out.

Deborah’s smile helped to allay some of his tension.  “Yes, I know.  All of you had been revealed to me in a dream.  Although you,” she said pointing at Jezreel, “gave me a bit of a start when you at first refused to draw a token from the basket.”

“Um…” Jezreel began.

But Deborah waved away any further comment.  “Say no more, please.  Each of you has been chosen by our LORD.  Yet each of you must in turn choose to stay and hear His will.  Your courage and faith will be sufficient for this task, but you must choose it.”

Jezreel considered each face in the circle, mentally joining them to the names he’d heard spoken.  He observed the cross-section of tribes.  The nation was well represented in this group, though Ephraim had been favored, for some reason known to God alone.

Come back again for the next installment in this serial.