Idol Smashers Number Thirteen

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

tabernacle

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

Day Seven – Shiloh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somebody shouted, “LET HER GO!”

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

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

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

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

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

Day Eight – Mount Gerazim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Samuel agreed.  “As he said.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idol Smashers #12

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

israelite soldiers

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

Day Four – Joppa

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.  She will return with help.”

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

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

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

The company fell silent.

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

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

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

The men of Israel stopped and looked to the door.

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

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

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

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

The eyes reappeared and narrowed.

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

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

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

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

The Black Cat laughed at this futile display of bluster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day ? – Joppa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day ? – Joppa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth stuck her head through the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barek growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Seven – Between Aphek and Shiloh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idol Smashers – 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.

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.

Idol Smashers

“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.

Installment One – Worship Delayed

cohen

Day  One – Shiloh

No matter how many times he attended the Day of Atonement sacrifice at the tabernacle, Jezreel still found himself humbled by the experience.  At dawn on the tenth day of Tishri, the seventh month of the year, the high priest personally selected the bullock, sheep and goat for sacrifice and the scapegoat to be released into the wilderness.  He then withdrew to bathe and don his ceremonial garments.  Emerging from his tent, the high priest Ulla seemed to take on a supernatural glow as the morning light glinted off his ceremonial headdress and breastplate.  Jezreel felt the glory of the LORD radiate from within the twelve stones on the breastplate Ulla wore.

Surely the LORD Himself was powerfully present in this moment.  He was at hand to forgive the sins of his people, restoring them to Him.

The men of Israel, including Jezreel ben Ebed, moved closer. They were eager to see the sacrifices, to hear the words and be comforted in knowing that Israel was once more firmly in the hand of their God.

But on this Day of Atonement, this Yom Hakkipurim, the traditional words, the familiar words, were not spoken by Ulla.  Instead, expressions of surprise broke upon the faces of the worshipers as Ulla began, “Men of Israel, children of Abraham, heirs of Isaac, descendants of Jacob – before we begin this sacred moment, before the sacrifices, I have been prevailed upon to seek the LORD and ask Him to reveal seven of you whom He has chosen for a special act of service.”

Some were immediately indignant and cried out angrily, “What is this?  Is today not Yom Hakkippurim?  Why do you delay this most important moment?  Who orders such a thing to be done?”

Not bothering to hide the disdain in his voice, Ulla merely said, “The Judge over Israel…Deborah.”  It was no secret that Ulla believed Deborah had outlasted her jurisdiction in the time since Barak’s death.  Many gossiped about the arguments fought between Ulla and Deborah.  There was speculation that Ulla’s motive was more than the usual prejudice against women; it was his desire was to extend his own authority over the tribes of Israel.

An undercurrent of murmuring and growling conversations arose around Jezreel.  Ulla silenced them with a wave of his hands over his head.

“Deborah’s servants walk among you now with baskets filled with clay tokens.  Let all true-hearted men of Israel draw one token from the basket without looking.  Let all those who draw forth a white token hold it over his head.”

This strange request produced a new round of complaints and arguments, but Ulla only glowered in the direction of Deborah’s tent.  As a woman, she was not allowed to attend the sacrifices herself, but stood beside her tent, staying at a respectable distance.  The banner flapping above her tent depicted a palm tree, her symbol.  This standard identified the place where the Judge over all Israel currently resided.

Contrary to the high priest’s command, some men refused to draw a chit or even to touch the basket.  Their faces betrayed outrage at this break from tradition. They folded their arms across their chests to make their defiance even more clear.

Seeing some of his elders act this way, Jezreel hesitated when a servant approached, holding the basket high.  A look passed between them and the servant understood that Jezreel also refused to draw.  He moved away, holding out the basket to other men who did draw from it.  Jezreel instantly regretted his indecision, even though it seemed to him that he’d hesitated only for a split-second; the speed at which thoughts fly between hurried heartbeats.

Ulla raised his hand to indicate recognition of the first, second, third and fourth men to raise a white token over their heads.  As the servants continued to distribute the chits to all who would take one, Ulla motioned these four men to come to him.

Some minutes passed as the servants worked through the crowd of men.  A fifth hand was raised, bearing a white chit.  This man too was beckoned to Ulla’s side.  Nearly all of the men had been offered a chance to draw a clay token when the sixth hand went up.

Minutes later, the servants made their way to the front, bearing their baskets.  One of them conferred with Ulla in whispers.

Anger rising in his voice, Ulla shouted, “I have not made myself clear.  The sacrifice will NOT proceed until seven men have been chosen in this fashion.  Refusal to draw is NOT an option!”

Jezreel only half-heard Ulla remonstrating them as “stiff-necked fools, reeking of their own stubbornness” as he stepped forward.  Smitten by his earlier missed opportunity, Jezreel was resolved to do the right thing.  He shouldered his way past the men ahead of him and said, “I will draw.”

Chagrined by the interruption, Ulla fixed him with a look.  Speaking with clear irony he said, “At last, here is a true son of Israel.  One who knows how to obey the leadership of the LORD’s people.”

With a hurried wave of his hand, Ulla gestured one of Deborah’s servants forward.  The man stepped up and held the basket high enough to prevent Jezreel from looking within.

Drawing in a breath, Jezreel reached inside the basket and took the first token he touched.  Withdrawing it, he looked down to the palm of his right hand.  He held a clay token that had been painted white and bore the imprint of the palm tree.  Tomer Deborah.  The emblem of the palm tree under which she had judged Israel for more than a generation.

Jezreel had been chosen!  He raised the white token aloft in a gesture of triumph.  With a cry, the men of Israel rejoiced.

Ulla sullied the moment by angrily grabbing the baskets from the servants and throwing both the baskets and their tokens high into the air.  The small clay tokens scattered over the assembly.

“The LORD has spoken!” Ulla shouted.  “Let these men be removed to the tent of Deborah and may the LORD Almighty give strength to their right arms!”

The chief of Deborah’s servants, thus relieved of his basket, moved to Jezreel’s side and spoke softly to him.  “Man of God, please accompany me,” he said.  Repeating this to all those who bore the white tokens, the servant lead the group away from the worshippers.

A sudden pain of regret shadowed Jezreel’s heart as behind him Ulla intoned, “Let the faithful of Israel gather.  Our bodies having been cleansed, let us now be cleansed in our hearts.”   With these tradition-laden words the Day of Atonement ceremony began.  Jezreel realized that though the cleansing would include him, he would not, for the first of many years, not be a witness to the Yom Hakkipurim.