Idol Smashers (Number Seven)

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

Soldiers

Day Two – The Cave

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We wish to hear it from you.”

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

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

“Then what?” Ammihud urged.

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

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

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

Joseph gave Mattan a knowing look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The men around the circle looked at one another.

“Shupham,” Caleb repeated.

The three elders looked at one another.

“Yes.  Shupham,” the elder repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” Micah said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I presumed firewood.”

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

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

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

Balek nodded.  “I agree.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The silent elder bolted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Maaz stepped into line behind him without saying a word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another stroke finished the job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fishy Story

Please read Matthew 17:24-27 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Because of the law of love, keep the law of the land.

  1. The problem as the tax collectors saw it. (17:24)

The tax collectors saw Jesus and Peter as being delinquent on their taxes.  That was the presenting issue anyway.  I suspect this was a trap set for Jesus.  The passive aggressive way the question is framed supports this view.  Also, the Gospels mention several occasions when Jewish leaders tried to catch Jesus in an error or taking sides in a hotly-debated issue.  Kind of like our media!

This event happened in Capernaum, Jesus’ usual home when in Galilee, the province north of Jerusalem in Judea.  The word “tax” doesn’t actually appear in verse 24.  It literally says “two-drachma coin,” which was the temple tax rate.

This was the only tax collected by the Jews not the Romans.  The Romans were historically lenient when it came to religious observances that did not compromise imperial taxes and/or loyalty to the empire.  Interesting fact: even after the Jewish temple was destroyed in 72 AD, the Romans continued the tradition of the “temple tax,” but they used it to find their temple to Jupiter!

We might call this a “head tax;” if you’ve got one, you’ve got to pay it.  It was commanded in Scripture: see Exodus 30:11-16.  It is also mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:6+9, where it is called “atonement for your soul.”  That sounds important!

One drachma was a day’s wage for a typical worker.  Imagine me showing up on your doorstep once a year and hitting you up for two day’s income.  It might not bankrupt you, but it wasn’t painless either.

Commentator William Barclay explains the need for the tax:

“The temple at Jerusalem was a costly place to run.  There were the daily morning and evening sacrifices each of which involved the offering of a year-old lamb.  Along with the lamb were offered flour and oil.  The incense which was burned every day had to be bought and prepared.  The costly hangings and the robes of the priests constantly wore out; and the robe of the High Priest was itself worth a king’s ransom.  All this required money.”

(The Daily Study Bible Series, Matthew, p. 168.)

  1. The problem as Jesus saw it. (17:25-26)

Jesus’ saw the problem as being the tax collector attempting to collect from Peter and Himself a tax from which they were exempt. The encounter started with the tax collectors jumping Peter at the door.  Maybe they were trying to surprise Peter and intimidate him?  Peter may’ve been intimidated or surprised and he blurted out, “YES, HE DOES,” then went inside to make sure He did.

Jesus overheard; I imagine the tax collectors made a loud accusation, trying to make Jesus look bad in front of the folks that typically gathered outside any place He settled.  When Peter came inside, Jesus commented: “WHAT DO YOU THINK, SIMON?  FROM WHOM DO THE KINGS OF THE EARTH COLLECT DUTY AND TAXES – FROM THEIR OWN SONS OR FROM OTHERS?”

The answer was obvious, and Peter got it; “FROM OTHERS” he replied.  This was true; it was the habit of kings of the day to excuse members of their family from paying taxes.  Jesus’ first point is that the king’s kids are excused from paying taxes.  This was one of many examples of the powerful oppressing the needy.

His next point is that He is Son to a much greater King; the very God who commanded the tax be collected!  Jesus’ knowledge of His unique place came early in life.  In Luke 2:49 we see that Jesus, as a 12 year-old, referred to the temple as “MY FATHER’S HOUSE.”  As God’s Son, He was not – according to usual standards – required to pay any taxes.

A third point is that if this tax really was “atonement for the soul,” He needed to do no atoning, because He was not guilty of sin. There was no separation between God the Son and God the Father. No offering was needed.  Just the opposite; Jesus IS our atonement!  In His sacrifice on the cross we find our sin forgiven and our relationship with God restored.

He turned the occasion into a teachable moment, revealing two things about Himself.  First, Jesus is LORD.  “THEN THE SONS ARE EXEMPT” Jesus said to Peter, continuing the dialogue (26).  As the Son of God, Jesus was not required to pay that tax.

When we accept the Lordship of Jesus, we accept His right to rule over our lives and offer ourselves in service to Him.  Ironically, it is in this surrender that we realize true freedom.  As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:17; NOW THE LORD IS THE SPIRIT, AND WHERE THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS, THERE IS FREEDOM.

Second, Jesus revealed that He is LOVE.  Jesus went on to say, “BUT SO WE MAY NOT OFFEND THEM…” (27).  The Gk word for OFFEND is skandalizein.  It meant to be a “stumbling block, a reason for sin, an obstruction in someone’s path.”  We must carefully guard against bringing offense or scandal if it’s at all possible.

A basic moral principle is the “preciousness of others.”  It’s based on Phillippians 2:3; DO NOTHING OUT OF SELFISH AMBITION OR VAIN CONCEIT, BUT IN HUMILITY CONSIDER OTHERS BETTER THAN YOURSELVES.  Jesus was under no legal obligation to pay their tax, but He did pay it, out of love.

  1. Jesus’ solution to the problem. (17:26-27)

The customs of the day did not require Jesus to pay the tax – the law did not apply to Him.  However, He voluntarily paid the tax because of the greater law of love.  Even though it was just tricky tax collectors setting a trap, He voluntarily paid the tax.

He performed a miracle to prove His legal exception and His true nature.  This miracle drives some people crazy.  The whole coin and the fish thing sounds like – well, like a fish story!           After all, why not just reach in His pocket and give Peter two coins?

First, pockets hadn’t been invented yet.  The French did that hundreds of years later.

Second, when we do what anybody can do, how does God get any glory out of that?  Miraculous and supernatural things serve as better evidence for God than everyday things.

Third, I picture the crowd outside waiting on the results of this confrontation and understood it to be a demonstration that will literally show them who is boss.

Jesus sent Peter out to the lake, which was probably nearby.  “Go fish” He said.  The first fish to bite would have something special in its tummy.  Peter was to take the coins he found there and use those funds to pay their taxes.

People who are troubled by these verses have not taken time to think it out or have a nutty predisposition against miracles.   Some think they are too smart – too “scientific” – to believe in miracles. Others think it depicts Jesus as misusing His divine power.

They’re both wrong.  Every Gospel miracle had a shared purpose: to show people Jesus is God’s Son.  The purpose of this miracle is no different.  Only the occasion is different.  Jesus claimed to be God’s Son and then proved He was by means of this miracle.

  1. How does this help you pay your taxes?

Go fishing – what can it hurt?  You will likely find this is a one-time event and won’t be repeated for you.  Notice that the fish had exactly what was needed, no more.  God supplies our “daily bread” without wasting any extra “dough.”

He supplies our needs, not our “greeds.”  Biblically, the ideal is that we can be self-sufficient enough to be generous with those in need and support God’s work too.

It can help with your attitude if you follow Jesus’ example of  humility and love.  Love for others is the second greatest command.  Jesus showed love by sincerely attempting to avoid causing offense to the legalistic crowd hung up on his taxes.

Because of the law of love, keep the law of the land

I’ll admit: on the outside this story reads strangely.  One commentator wrote that he’d been ashamed of the story because it felt so contrary to our reasonable and scientific culture.  It can feel silly to moderns who are so proud of their brains and have put their trust in science.

It is my prayer that we’ve looked more deeply.  With God’s Spirit we’ve seen this event through the eyes and ears of the people on the scene when it happened.   Hopefully it will make more sense and be visible to us as a time when Jesus used an unusual circumstance to teach very typical lessons on who He was and how we are to live like Him.

While it is a “fish story,” it is true and a parable of sorts that reminds us about God’s provision for us, our provision for each other, and our responsibility to see God in the details of daily living.