Idol Smashers #11

assassin

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

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

Day Three – Joppa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough!  Mercy!”

 

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

“You did what you had to to do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone started pounding on the stable door.

 

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

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

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

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

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

“P-please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idol Smashers #10

wineskin

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

Day Three – Aphek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Three – Joppa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would you suggest?”

Barek’s voice drew Ruth out of her reverie.

“What?” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Micah helped Ruth back atop her horse.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Israelite?” the guard said in Hebrew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micah and Ruth urged the horses forward.

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

A few steps later, the party was inside Joppa.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vintner looked offended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micah helped Ruth down and lead her into the shop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idol Smashers #9

bible battlers

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

Day Two – Aphek

 (Previously, in Idol Smashers: The unexpected appearance of an idol animated by demon allowed some of the Heshonibites to temporarily escape their fate.  The men of Israel quit the cave and return to Aphek to rest and recover.)

The sun was in descent by the time the weary and wounded trudged into Aphek.  Maaz’s waterskin had been slashed during the battle; he didn’t remember when.  But it didn’t matter as everyone shared freely of their supply of water.  The remainder of Micah’s wine had been poured on wounds, in spite of his sputtering about “waste.”  The city did not come into view soon enough to suit them.

Upon their return to his home, Mattan plopped himself down on cushions and reached for a little golden bell.  He rang it and waited.  Nothing happened.  He rang it again, more forcefully.  Still nothing.  He rang it loudly until Joseph sat down next to him and gently put his hand on Mattan’s, stopping the peals.

“It appears your servant is elsewhere,” he said slowly.  “I’d appreciate it if you would not ring that anymore.  It resounds like a gong in my aching head.”  He reclined against a wall and closed his eyes.

“What am I to do, master?” Mattan asked, almost pleadingly.  “Who will go to get the healer?”

Barek offered to help Micah sink into a cushion, but was rebuffed by the proud man.  He turned to Mattan.  “I will go.  My stride is long and he will be here all the sooner.”

Mattan bowed his head in response, obviously relieved.  “Very well, my master.  I regret that little dog of mine has run off.  He will be punished; I assure you of that.”

Waving away his concerns, Barek said, “Never mind.  Where is the healer?”

“Simply go to the market and ask anyone there for Sharon.  She is well known.  Anyone can direct you.”

Caleb approached Barek slowly, a little cautious of the giant who had performed so ferociously in battle.  “I’ll go with you,” he offered.

Barek merely nodded in response and the two men went out the front door.

After a pause, everyone else sat down and made themselves as comfortable as they could. Mattan spoke to Samuel in a brusque voice, “Samuel, you had better get back home.  Your parents will be looking for you.”

The youth’s face bore a conflicted, thoughtful expression.  “No, sir.  I want to stay and hear about these men and Deborah.  I am one of you, now.  I believe I have earned the right.”

Mattan’s face became more florid.  “Earned…?  Now listen, boy…”

Maaz’s eyes snapped open and he fixed Mattan with a look that would have melted bronze.  “You will not address this man as you would a servant,” Maaz said in a low voice.  “He fought beside us this day.  The LORD used his arm to vanquish many idolators.  I say he has become one of us!”  Maaz looked around the room at each of his comrades.  Joseph’s eyes were closed and he appeared asleep.  Ammihud looked for a moment as if he might offer argument, then shrugged.  The others gave their agreement.

“There you are, Samuel ben Abram.  You are a man of Israel and no longer Mattan’s lackey.  You are now one of us.”

Rebuffed, Mattan folded his arms across his chest and appeared as if he might actually pout.  It had not been his day.  For once, he kept his tongue still.

Mattan’s discomfiture prompted one of Maaz’s rare laughs.  “As Ammihud is a man of many words, he will now tell you the tale. “

Though a cubit or two smaller than Maaz, Ammihud showed him he was capable of delivering a withering look too.

He heard his own voice begin almost independent of his thoughts as he turned his gaze to Samuel.

“It began yesterday, at Yom Hakkipurim…” Ammihud said.

 

After a lengthy conversation, Mattan’s back door burst open suddenly.  The dozing merchant was startled and cried, “My masters!”

The men looked with some surprise on Barek, who strode into the room carrying a struggling form.

“Let go of me, you big bully!” a shrill, young voice cried.

Joseph opened one eye.

“Barek, what have you got there?” he asked wearily.  “It makes much noise.”

The giant Israelite shook the small person he carried as easily as others might carry a sack of bread.  “Stop squirming and squealing,” he said.  Then he nodded to Caleb who took the hint and shut the door.

“If I let you go, will you not try to run?”

The form went limp, then the hooded head nodded.

As soon as its feet touched the floor, it broke out in a sprint for the door but found Caleb waiting there.  Although Caleb was half Barek’s size, he had a few pounds on the stranger and threw him away from the door and into Mattan’s lap.

The merchant chuffed as the air was knocked out of him, but the Barek’s prisoner was soon off him and on his feet again in the middle of the room.  A knife appeared in his hand.

“This dog has teeth,” Maaz said indolently.

“Why bring it here?” Micah asked.  “This isn’t the healer, is it?”  Under his breath, he whispered to Maaz, “I thought the fop said the healer was a woman.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Barek said.

Mattan wondered who “the fop” was supposed to be.

Jezreel sighed.  “This would be entertaining if my head didn’t hurt so.  What’s going on, Barek?”

The big man laughed.  “Took Caleb’s purse,” he said, tipping his head at his prisoner.

“Tried to…” Caleb corrected.  “I’d have gotten it back in a moment.”

This prompted another chuckle from Barek.  “Got a very light touch this one.  When I got ‘im and yanked off this,” he said, untying a bronze helmet from his sash.  “I found out why he’s got light fingers.”

The small figure still crouched, still looking anxiously around the room for some means of escape. Barek said, “Put away that toy.  You’re in a room of warriors.”  When the dagger reluctantly disappeared, the form straightened.

“Pull back your hood.”

A sigh emanated from under the hood before a pair of hands came from underneath the robe and lifted the hood.

Thus unveiled was the face of a woman!  A very beautiful woman indeed!  She had the prettiest, most innocent face Barek believed he had ever seen.

Both of Joseph’s eyes popped open.  And widened.  It was as if he’d awakened to a dream.  Here was a woman of great beauty, all the more beautiful for the wild, hunted look in her eyes.  She was more comely even than Rizpah, whose love and loss had first driven him into the desert.

The boy now exposed to be a woman looked all around the room.  When she saw how Joseph stared at her, the two lace-like brows above her dark eyes furrowed.

“Have you never seen a woman before?” she sneered.  “You gaze upon me as if I were made of gold!”

The rebuke startled Joseph from his reverie.  Looking at the amused expressions on the faces around the room, Joseph’s face reddened.

“Ah.  You startled me is all.”

“The only thing wrong with her teeth are the hard words that pour forth from them,” Caleb said.  He had become wary of the creature after she landed a swift kick when he’d gotten too close.

Joseph quickly gathered his wits.  “I… I did not expect Barek to bring us a woman in a man’s guise.”

Ammihud was not above seeing the humor in Joseph’s discomfiture.  “Yes, Barek.  Tell us how you left to find a healer and bring back a heel-biter?”

Barek joined in the laughter about the room.  “I said she had a light touch.   From across the market I saw her lift Caleb’s purse without disturbing the folds of his robe.”

“I was just about to take care of it,” Caleb said, trying to defend himself.  He was regaled with hoots of derision.

“I picked the struggling boy… I thought she was a boy wearing his father’s helmet…when I picked her up off the ground, the helm came untied and out spilled a woman and all her hair besides.”

Caleb strode into the middle of the room and continued the tale.  “After I retrieved my money, I searched her own sack and found this…”  He dumped the contents of a rucksack onto Mattan’s floor.  Out spilled a sickle, a sling and bag of stones, a waterskin, some bits of food, a red robe, and four purses!

The woman fell to the floor and scrambled to get all these possessions back into the rucksack which she snatched from Caleb’s hand.  “These are MY THINGS!” she cried.  “They are all that stand between me and Sheol!  You have no right to them!”

“A red robe,” Maaz observed thoughtfully.  “You wish to appear as a man but you have a woman’s  robe to wear when the bloody days of the month come.”

Her fiery gaze tore into Maaz.  “I wear that when I want to be left alone.  Men will not try to have me or even touch me when I wear that robe,” she explained.

Maaz suddenly snapped his fingers and then pointed at her.  He did not find this amusing and now he knew why.  “The Law says, ‘A woman must not wear man’s clothing, nor a man wear woman’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this’.  She has violated the LAW!”

Joseph exhaled slowly.  He searched his own memory of the Scriptures.  Having memorized the Torah as a youth and studied it as a man, his mind went quickly to the scroll and the passage Maaz quoted.

“True,” he said, “but there is no specific punishment stipulated for this sin.”

Now Ammihud’s academic side went to work.  “That’s so, but other things that the LORD detests call for stoning.”

A sigh escaped the woman’s lips and she seemed to fold upon herself.  She sat on the floor with a thump and slowly gathered her rucksack to her chest.  “Men of Israel.  Always so eager to solve their problems with a stone.”

This sobered the men in the room and they thought silently.

Finally, Jezreel spoke.  “It is almost sundown.  There can be no stoning, for the elders at the gate have gone to their homes.  This seems to me to be a point of concern, both for the Law and the woman.  Perhaps we should think…and pray about it this evening.”

“We can’t just let her go!” Caleb protested.  “Whatever she’s pretended to be, she is a thief!”

“Would you cry for justice as loudly if it was my purse she lifted?”  Barek reproached his brother Israelite gently.

“Of course,” Caleb said definitively, but with slightly less enthusiasm.

“My masters,” Mattan said slowly.  “You cannot consider keeping her here.  A woman alone among all these men.  In my home!  The scandal…”

“I’m not concerned about the niceties of your reputation, Mattan!”  Maaz said as he stood to his feet.  He reached down and gathered up a bit of the woman’s cloak.  The cloth felt rough and was dirtied by the dust of the road.  “This one is a wanderer and a thief and the LORD alone knows what else.  She must remain in our custody until morning.  Let the elders of this city decide her fate.”

Looking around the room, Maaz saw agreement on each face.  He turned to Mattan last of all and said to him, “You will arrange a suitable chaperone.  None of us will be stained by association with this unclean thing!”

Mattan opened his mouth as if to protest these unfair demands, but thought the better of it, and shut his mouth.  He nodded, then began to think about who might be available and could trusted to protect his reputation.

Maaz returned to his seat and attempted to melt the offending woman with his gaze.

He was surprised when Micah leaned forward and with tenderness asked her, “What is your name, child?”

A defiant look returned to her perfect face.  “Ruth,” she replied, then began to plait and braid her hair.

The men looked away, as this was a private act and a woman with her hair down in the middle of all these men not her family was unseemly enough.

“Ruth.  I had a sister by that name,” Micah said wistfully.  Maaz was flummoxed.  He knew Micah well and knew of no such sister.  But Maaz did not know everything about Micah.  “She died shortly after birth,” Micah explained.  “No one is going to stone you.  But you understand why we can’t just let you go.”

“If you won’t let me go, then feed me!  I’m hungry!”

“Ha!” Barek laughed.  “So am I!  Mattan, have you nothing to eat around here?”

Startled from his thoughts, Mattan jumped to his feet, then had to be steadied by Caleb.  “Fie on that boy!” he exclaimed.  “I shall get us a supper, my masters!  I am a good cook myself and need no help to prepare us a strengthening repast!”  He gestured to the cushion he’d vacated and to the remaining place in the circle.  “Please, please be seated,” he said, suddenly eager to please.

The back door exploded and Mattan’s servant sped into the room, then stopping in an equal hurry when Mattan lashed out, clutching the collar of his tunic.  “There you are, boy!  Where have you been?” he hissed.

“The healer comes!” the boy uttered between gasps.  He pointed to Balek.  “The giant found me with friends in the marketplace and told me to fetch her!”

As if on cue, there came a knock at the door.  Mattan’s eyes narrowed.  “Go answer the door, then.”  He half-released, half-threw the boy toward the door.  He winced at the discomfort this angry action caused his wounded side.

Scrambling around Caleb and Barek, the boy ran nimbly to the door and opened it.

A crone occupied the space, attended by a young man.  “May the house of Mattan be blessed,” she said, entering.  “I am told there is need of a healer.”  Her gaze fell upon Ruth, seated demurely in the circle of men.  “Who is it that needs me?” she said.

 

Day Three – Aphek

 

Breakfast centered around a debate about Ruth’s helmet – whether on not it should be returned to her before they took her to the gates of the city.  It was decided that it would be given back to her, as the evidence was more damming in the possession of the accused.

A couple of meals and a good night’s sleep had tempered Maaz’ insistence that she be stoned immediately, and he even agreed to let Jezreel present the whole matter to the elders.  Jezreel was gifted with words; he could even read and write them!

Last night the healer had vowed her silence to Mattan after he graced her palm with some shekels.  She’d stayed the night with Ruth as chaperone and after breakfasting to an extent that rivaled even Barek’s voluminous appetite, she bid them the blessing and departed.

Though his provisions and pocket were thus lightened, Mattan was confident his reputation would survive this ordeal intact and was generous in his good humor.

“Soon the elders will arrive at the gates, my masters,” he cooed.  “Then we can dispense with this matter and return to rest and let our wounds heal.”

“Rest?” Maaz growled.  “There will be no rest.  We have but today and tomorrow before we must resolve this matter else the tabernacle itself will be threatened.

Joseph tore his gaze away from a surreptitious look at Ruth.  He arched an eyebrow.  “What?” he said.  “I thought you gave no heed to dreams.”

“I didn’t.  Until I had one myself.  Last night.”

“You had a dream?” Ammihud asked, not quite trusting his ears.

“Yes, I had a dream.  Is that so difficult for you two to accept?”

Ruth looked confused.  This was a strange topic of conversation, but she’d learned by listening there was something going on with these men.  Her ears were as sharp as her eyes and curiosity had long been a failing of hers.

“I dreamed that the figure – the stick man on the idols – became alive.  He danced about me and taunted me.  He told me I was too dull-witted to divine his purpose, and then he ran off to Joppa.”

Thoughtful faces and silence were their response to Maaz’s dream.

“So we go to Joppa.  Today.  Though our cuts may run crimson again, we cannot delay.”

“You will not be taunted, brother,” Micah said, smiling.

“No, I will not.”

 

They had scarcely prepared to leave – Joseph’s hand was on the latch – when someone banged on the door from the other side.

“Who is there?” Joseph said without opening the door.

“I am Seth.  I am here for Mattan.  Is he at home?” said a young voice from the other side of the door.

Bowing to everyone that he jostled his way past, Mattan took Joseph’s place at the door and opened it.  Outside there stood a boy who quickly touched his lips and then the mezzuzah on the door post.  “Shalom,” he said, a little breathless.

“Seth?” Mattan asked cautiously.  “Why are you here?”

“The elders at the gate have sent me.  They are calling for you… and your… guests.  There is a war band of men at the gate.  They were denied entrance and then challenged the elders with their right to blood vengeance.  They said their kin from Heshonib have been massacred and their village destroyed.”  He looked at the men standing behind Mattan.  “They say all of you did it.”

Maaz was about to growl a reply but was cut off by a gesture from Mattan, of all people.  Mattan turned back to Seth; “Tell the elders we will be there shortly.  Shalom, Seth.”

Mattan quickly shut the door and leaned against it.  “This is a disaster!  We are found out!  What will we do?  How did they know it was us?”

Caleb quickly responded, “The escaped villagers.  They must’ve quickly found someone.  Some friends.  They may have even come here to Aphek while we were still walking.”

Still scowling at Mattan, Maaz opined, “It matters not.  We have been called out before the city.  Any hope of secrecy is gone.  Let us go out and face these pigs.  Perhaps we can find out where the survivors have fled.”

Ruth stepped into the middle of the group of men, her curiosity ablaze.  “Survivors?  What have you done?  What’s going on?”  Her own troubles were momentarily forgotten.

“None of your…”

“Brother,” Micah said, gently chiding his brother-in-law, “don’t forget Ruth is a woman.  Don’t be so rough.”

Maaz was stunned by this remonstrance, so rare from his brother-in-law.

Micah turned to Ruth.  “We’ve no time for tale-bearing,” he said patronizingly.  “These men are here to kill us.”

“We must face them, of course,” Ammihud said, thinking out loud.

“I was thinking about riding out the opposite end of the city,” Mattan offered with a weak smile.

“You will get us horses,” Maaz said slowly, punctuating his instructions with a prodding finger in Mattan’s chest.  You will have them brought to the gate of the city, along with our cart and belongings.  We will deal with these avengers of blood, if that’s what they really are.  Then we will leave for Joppa.”

Ammihud grabbed Ruth by the arm.  “We were going to take this one to the elders anyway.”

Ruth was about to protest, but saw steel in the gaze of every man save Micah and Mattan.  Nevertheless, she yanked her arm from Ammihud’s small hand.

“I would be happy to go in Micah’s company!” she said, taking the older man’s arm in hers.

In spite of the occasion, Micah had to smile.  “Just like my Ruth would’ve been,” he muttered and smiling, escorted Ruth past Mattan and out the front door.

 

As a group, they walked warily up to the gates of the city of Aphek.  So intent were they on the looming threat that only Micah noticed Ruth had put on her helmet, stuffing her braided hair up into it.  “This is not her fight, but she intends to survive it,” Micah thought.

A crowd had gathered.  People gather in much the same places vultures do.  The difference between the two being, where one hopes for a meal, the other for a spectacle.

A spectacle was unfolding here.

Thirteen heavily armed men stood before their mounts outside the city gates.  This band of thugs were inadequately met by a trio of guards and a half-dozen elders.  Four slingers had mounted the walls and kept a nervous eye on the proceedings.

The self-proclaimed “avengers of blood” were obviously professional soldiers or brigands, desperate men who made their living by works of violence.  If they really were kin to the Heshonibites, it was a remarkable coincidence that they were all professional killers too.

Worried looks crossed the faces of the elders as the group strode out of the gates, the crowd parting before them as the waters parted before Moses’ upraised rod.  Deborah’s men were no strangers to battle and strode into this arena with weapons at the ready.  Arms lost in yesterday’s battle were resupplied from their cart.

“Where is Mattan?” one of the elders asked.

Before anyone else could frame a reply, Joseph spoke in a confident voice, “Mattan is of no account here.  He is merely our host in Aphek.  We are the men you seek.”

Ammihud and Maaz looked at one another with mild surprise, as if to say, “Who put him in charge?”

“Ah,” the man said and gave way to an older man who stepped around him.  “These men came this morning demanding the right to face and accuse you of murder.  They say the nearby village of Heshonib has been razed and its people killed… by you.”

“That’s right” a rough voice spoke from the middle of the line of the avengers.  A tall man with dark hair and a weather-beaten, scarred face strode forward.  “You lot have blood on your hands.  The blood of my people.  I claim yours.”  It was plain by the look on his face that he didn’t care whether anyone believed his claims or not.  He was primed for a fight and would broach no disappointment.

Maaz was, as ever, ready to meet him nose to nose.

But the elders were in the way.

“Yes.  Well.  That’s what he’s said right along.  In fact, that’s all that he’s said.  Over and over again.”  This man saw through the avenger’s subterfuge, but had the safety of the city to think about.  “We have impressed upon him that though Aphek is not a city of refuge – no place to escape legitimate vengeance – we are not prepared to just hand people over on an accusation.  You may only be guests in our city, but you are in our city.  And we have rules.”

The avenger’s spokesman showed what he thought about Aphek’s rules by spitting a bilious brown stream on the ground.

The elder sighed.  “So.  Here you are to tell us your side of this story.”

Joseph took a moment to physically insert himself between Maaz and the avenger.  Interrupting Ammihud, he said, “We are only passing through Aphek.  We have no business with a village called Heshonib nor with these idolators.  Very soon we will be prepared to leave and will take our business elsewhere.”

“But what about these men – their charges?”

“Have they any proof?”

The avenger grunted and raised two fingers.  Another member of his party came forward, pushing along a boy child, one not ten years of age.

“Tell ‘em, boy,” the ringleader grunted.

Wide-eyed, the boy child regarded Deborah’s men and told a halting, confused tale of the events at the cave.  Upon their escape, they fled to Heshonib, only to find it burned to the ground.  These men, the avengers, were poking about the ruins.

“That’s enough, boy,” the spokesman said, roughly grabbing the child and pushing him back to the man who’d brought him forward.  Giving him equally rough treatment, the man hustled the boy back behind their line and directed him to hold their horses.

“You don’t seem very tender-hearted toward this survivor,” Maaz observed drily.

The avenger was losing the little patience he possessed.  “That’s all the proof you need.  Elder, tell your men to not interfere.  This lot can try to defend themselves and let blood decide.”

The oldest of the ruling elders looked into the eyes of each of his fellows.  Without speaking, they came to a decision that let them off the hook.

“If you intend to leave Aphek,” he said to Joseph, “you may leave peaceably.  What you do afterward is none of our concern.”

“So you would leave your Israelite brothers to be hounded by these curs,” Ammihud said stepping forward.  The courage in his voice exceeded the menace of his stature.

“We who live here on the borders learn to get along.  We don’t have the privilege of choosing our neighbors as some of our other tribes do.  You who do not live on the borders do not understand.”

The warrior spoke quickly, barely restraining himself from reaching out and shaking the old city leader into submission.  “We will not stand by and let this lot just ride off.  We demand the right to combat now.  The blood of our people demands satisfaction.”

Joseph looked to his fellows.  “I think we’ve learned all we can here.  Why don’t we go get our mounts and leave?”  Cautious nods of assent were the only reply he got.

The chief elder looked from man to man and nodded too.  “It is the best way.”

“I told them being civil wouldn’t work,” the avenger’s spokesman said.  He raised four fingers and immediately in the line behind him, four men twirled slings over their heads and loosed stones.  Heads turned just in time to see a couple puffs of dust appear near the top of the stone wall and one of the guards fall just before the “Thump!” of the stone hitting flesh reached their ears.

The avengers’ leader pushed the elder into Joseph and stepped back to draw his sword.

Joseph caught the man and gently pushed him aside.  In that instant, people were scattering everywhere.

The spokesman lunged for Joseph, following the point of his sword with his massive bulk.  Joseph adroitly sidestepped his attack and delivered an ineffectual blow to the man’s armored midsection.  The leader of the avengers reared back and lunged again at the prophet, counting on the speed and mass of his body to carry the day if his sword did not.  He learned too late of Joseph’s deftness and this second assault was rendered as ineffective as the first.

Another avenger barreled through the elders and guards, scattering them.  He swung a curved sword at Maaz, who blocked the strike with one end of his goad and brought the other end smashing into the man’s throat.  He fell to his knees, gasping for air.  Seconds later, the big Isrealite’s goad swung again and knocked the man’s helmet off, crushing his skull in the process.

With a cry, Ammihud dashed around a fleeing elder and confronted another of the avengers.  His bravado made no impression whatsoever on the seasoned warrior who merely grinned evilly.  The bladed polearm the man wielded was only a blur in the corner of Ammihud’s eye as something slammed into him, knocking him to the ground.  His side felt wet and tears filled his eyes before the world went dark.

A guard stepped over Ammihud, to strike at the fallen Israelite’s attacker, but his sword strike was easily parried.

Micah drew his axe with one hand and pulled Ruth behind him with the other.  “Stay behind me,” he cautioned.

On the wall behind the melee, one of the slingers summoned his courage and his sling and let a stone loose back at one of the enemy slingers.   Unfortunately, the enemy’s aim was better and he felt the impact of a stone smash his shoulder.  He nearly tumbled off the wall, but managed to steady himself enough to see a red welt already forming.  He felt his right arm going numb and dropped his sling.

Another stone zipped over the melee.  This one struck home with a loud smack on the leading leg of one of the enemy slingers.  He managed to loose a stone himself, but his aim was spoiled and the shot struck the city wall.

His fellow prepared a sling, but before he could wield it, something struck him on the side of the head and drove him to the ground.

The third guard caught in the melee had opportunity to draw his weapon before one of the avengers was upon him.  The black-armored warrior’s blade sliced the air, missing by the narrowest of margins.

Seeing Ammihud fall, Barek let cry an angry roar.  Rushing forward, he drew his sword and charged into the melee, determined to save his diminutive friend.

Most men would have at least hesitated when beholding the giant Barek bearing down on them.  But this avenger felt only a cold resolve as he strode forward to meet the immense Israelite’s charge.  It would be his last act of bravado.  Barek’s blade had hewn him in half even as the man was congratulating himself on his bravery.

One of the city gate guardians let out a cry, clutching at his back.  An avenger of blood withdrew his sword from the guard’s back, the blade stained with life-blood.  The stricken guard slumped forward and did not stir.

The chief elder had been flung behind the lines of battling warriors.  Caleb reached out to steady the old man and with two hands full of his robe, pulled him close and yelled, “GO GET HELP!  SEND MEN TO FIGHT!”  When the chief elder nodded his assent, Caleb turned and pushed him toward the city gate.

Caleb watched him go, then turned back to the battle before him.  He reached first for the dagger, then thought the better of joining in close combat so ill-equipped and drew his bow instead.  He waited for a clear shot.

At the southernmost end of the line of avengers, a man ran forward, brandishing his spear.  Samuel’s scimitar was in his hand, and he answered the avenger’s charge with a battle cry and charge of his own.  In spite of his opponent having the advantage of reach, Samuel’s blade tasted blood first, being buried deep within the “avenger’s” abdomen.

Though relatively inexperienced in actual battle, Samuel was well-practiced in martial arts and held keen senses.  Samuel knew that an avenger rushing at him from behind.  The pagan thug’s face bore a look of surprise when Samuel spun around suddenly, the arc of his scimitar a blur that arrived first.  The thug ran into Samuel’s attack and folded in half upon his weapon.  A spray of blood came from between his wordless lips.

Jezreel’s sling was in his hand.  Faster than conscious thought, the leather strap whistled over his head and the stone flew from it.  The missile struck the man at the north end of the line of avengers.  It caught him in an armored upper chest, and nearly spun him around.  However, the powerful warrior quickly recovered.  He cracked his neck and grimaced at Jezreel.  He strode forward, drawing both a sword and dagger.

In spite of the menace of this figure, Jezreel calmly stepped backward and reached for another stone.  He hummed the tune of his favorite psalm.  With a supernatural calm settling like dew on his soul, Jezreel stepped back and prepared another shot.

His opponent was running now, and Jezreel would be blessed indeed to get off another stone before the avenger was close enough to strike.  A blessing came in the form of a slingshot that came from behind Jezreel, striking his onrushing assailant in the side.  This forced the man to break stride, stumbling a bit.  Jezreel blessed the slinger on the wall behind him, and quickly let his own stone fly.

He had hurried too much and the shot sailed over the head of the avenger.  All he had succeeded in doing was getting the entirety of the man’s angry attention.  He lurched toward Jezreel, closing the gap between them.

The murderous look in the eyes of the avenger closing upon Jezreel changed to indecision as he stopped in his tracks.  Behind the psalmist he saw armed men pouring out of the gates of Aphek.  Though they were but simple peasants armed only with tools and daggers, their numbers were a threat.  With a grunt at Jezreel, he turned to run, but his injured leg gave way when he attempted to pivot on it.

Jezreel watched him sprawl in the dirt and blinked.  Not knowing the cause of his good fortune, the psalmist was a bit stunned and undecided as to what to do next.  Moments later, several men of Aphek swarmed on the avenger.  Their enthusiastic, if inexpert, attacks soon finished the man.

Trapped in the middle of a sudden conflagration of flashing weapons, the third elder dropped to the ground and held his hands over his heads.  Prayer was his best defense, and he pursued it with all his heart.

At the other end of the line of battling men, one of the pagan thugs attacked a gate guardian who was already set upon by another of the avengers.  But the guard proved his mettle by parrying this second attack.  Confronted by two attackers, the guard acquitted himself well.  He deflected all but a slash that caught his shoulder above the round shield that he carried.

Seeing out of the corner of his eye that one of the gate guardians was beset by two attackers, Samuel rushed to his aid.  Catching the nearest avenger unprepared, Samuel hewed him down with a single slash.

From the relative safety of her position behind Micah, Ruth watched the bloody combat with wide eyes.  Where seconds earlier she had foolishly considered joining the battle, she now thought the better of it and began to back away.

Fumbling in her rucksack, Ruth’s fingers closed about the handle of her sickle.  She withdrew the farm implement-turned-weapon and continued to back slowly away from the horrifying sight of men slaughtering one another.

Micah glanced over his shoulder to see that Ruth was indeed behind him.  She was and getting further behind him by the minute!  “I didn’t say that far behind,” he muttered.  With an oath, Micah turned and rushed forward, intent on attacking one of the enemy slingers before him.  The slinger was a taller, thinner, man and he deftly avoided the Israelite’s strike.

The leader of the avengers summed up the battle field in a glance.  Half his party was already down and even the spineless fish in Aphek would overwhelm them.

“MEN!  WE ARE AWAY!” he yelled.  He backed away from Joseph, just avoiding the roundhouse kick the Israelite launched at his head.  He turned and sprinted toward the horses a few paces behind him.

One of the avengers ducked under Barek’s sword slash.  Backing away, he turned to run toward the safety of the horses.  But Barek’s giant strides covered a greater expanse of turf and his second swing took the man at the place where neck meets shoulder.  The back of the fleeing avenger’s armor was rent in two and he was driven to the ground, face first.

Caleb would have loosed his arrow into the back of the retreating leader of the avengers of blood, but Joseph was interposed between them.  Sighing, Caleb tried to step around Joseph, to a clear field of fire, but only succeeded in bumping into Maaz.

Wide-eyed, Maaz turned on Caleb, brandishing his goad.  At the last moment, he recognized his comrade and aborted his attack.  “Caleb!” he said through gritted teeth.  “Watch where you tread!”

Hearing the leader’s command, the northernmost avenger slinger turned on his heel and sprinted toward the horses.  A pair of stones slung from the wall behind him slammed into the man.  One shattered his ankle, dropping him in mid-stride.  The second stone clattered against his helmet before he hit the ground.

One of the avengers ignored the behest of his commander and sank his spear into the throat of a gate guardian.  Dropping his own weapon and clutching ineffectually at the shaft of the spear, the guardian was driven down by the force of the dark avenger’s attack.

Joseph sprinted to catch the retreating commander of the avengers.  He leapt at the man, snatching at his billowing robe, but fell short of the mark as the avenger leapt onto the waiting horse.

“TAKE ME!” the Heshonibite boy wailed, but the leader of the avengers of blood merely spurred his horse over the top of the youth, crushing him beneath pounding hooves.

When one of the dark-clad avengers turned his head to see his commander galloping away, Micah pressed his sudden advantage and stabbed at him with his sword.  The avenger recovered in time, however, to deflect the force of Micah’s blow away with his shield.  They traded swings and parries before Micah’s blade bit flesh twice and his opponent fell backward.   He cast aside both weapon and shield and pleaded for mercy as his blood stained the soil.

Maaz spun away from Caleb and sprinted into the melee.  The thick goad in his hands described a wide arc that came to a sudden end when it struck the head of the avenger.  He crumpled against a man of Aphek, who stabbed him for good measure.

The last of the avengers discarded all pretense of bravery and sprinted toward the horses.  Maaz ran up and cried, “Let us give chase!” but Barek restrained him.

“Rather let him deliver a warning to his keepers that men of Israel are not idle while their enemies spin dark webs,” Barek said quietly, a little winded from his exertions.

Maaz relaxed in the giant’s grip, glaring at the retreating rider as if a look could kill.

Caleb considered shooting the rider, but weighing the distance and his expertise against the expense of arrows, decided against it.  He grunted and relaxed, replacing the arrow in his quiver.

Picking himself up off the ground, Joseph drew in a sharp breath and said to Maaz and Barek, “Let’s see who holds the leash of these dogs.”  He strode toward one of the fallen avengers, then knelt to search the man.  Maaz had joined him when he found the avenger’s purse and withdrew it from his sash.   Shaking the contents into his hand, Joseph showed Maaz the coins.

“Philistine,” Joseph said.

Maaz spit on the inert form and muttered, “Philistines, sure.”

Behind them, Barek cried out, “Ammihud!”  A few giant strides took Barek to his fallen comrade.  He knelt beside Ammihud and roughly hauled his fallen friend’s head and shoulders onto his lap.

“Ammihud!” he cried, “Do you live?”

Ammihud groaned.  “Only in this life could a clumsy, ham-handed oaf like you cause me such pain!”

Barek saw that the left side of Ammihud’s robe was stained with blood.

“MATTAN!” the giant thundered.  “BRING THE HEALER!”

Ammihud winced.  “You are so loud,” he said weakly.

Micah turned from his felled opponent and looked for Ruth.  He saw her kneeling next to the unmoving form of one of the avengers.  With hands that were adept and obviously experienced, she quickly found the man’s purse, cut it loose with her sickle, and hid it beneath her own robe.

Standing, Ruth turned to see Micah staring at her, agape.  She saw no shame in the dead providing for the living.  Spoils of war, she would call it.

She avoided Micah’s eye and moved on to the next slain adversary.  She had to reach around the gore of the man’s insides out to try to find his purse.  She nearly had it when something strong pulled her away from the corpse and to her feet.

The next thing she saw was Micah’s steely gaze beneath furrowed brows.

“Have you no shame?!” he growled.

Samson’s Mistaken Marriage

Please read Judges 14 in your Bible.  For myself, I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Our first look at the adult Samson is in Judges 14, where Samson makes a big mistake in marriage, but God use it to get him busy about soldiering the people of Israel out from under the Philistine boot.  While the account is deadly serious, it has some comedic elements and therefore reminds one of marriage in general.  Marriage is a deep well from which those of us who have a sense of humor can draw.  In the spirit of the passage, let me offer a couple humorous takes on marriage.

The speaker at a women’s club was lecturing on the subject of marriage.  Her point was that women are to be partners with their husbands, not to mother them.  To reinforce this point, she excitedly asked the audience of women, “How many of you want to mother your husband?”

Only one woman raised her hand.  The speaker was shocked.  This had never happened before, in all the times she had given this speech.  She asked, “Do you really want to mother your husband?”

“Mother?” the woman echoed.  “I thought you said smother!”

Now, in the interest of fairness, I offer this view from the other side of aisle.

A guy was out for a walk when he saw a guy walking a dog.  The pooch was an impressive specimen of a German Shepherd.  “Nice dog!” he said.

“I got this dog for my wife,” he replied.

The man sighed.  “Sure wish I could make a trade like that.”

In today’s passage we’ll see Samson, the biblical macho man, making a number of mistakes, sinning against God.  But the big mistake, the one that gets to the heart of the matter, is Samson’s mistaken marriage.

Samson proves God can accomplish His will with our help or in spite of our helping ourselves.

  1. Samson Sin #1 = Marrying a Pagan Woman.

This was a culture of arranged marriages.  That’s why, in spite of being the strongest man in history, Samson still asked his father to arrange for him to marry her because that’s the way those folks got married (1+2).

This was “love at first sight” or “lust at first sight,” or something equally unreliable.  Samson made this decision based only on what he’d SEEN.  He doesn’t even meet or talk to this woman until v. 7, after the marriage had been arranged!

Mr. & Mrs. M. tried to get Samson to do right; they may be a little child-centered, but are otherwise not at fault.  What was the right thing to do? As we read in Deuteronomy 7:1-6, God had expressly forbidden marriage between His people and pagans.  He knew it would lead to divided loyalties and then idolatry.  Accordingly, Samson’s parents objected to his intended being an UNCIRCUMCISED PHILISTINE (3).  Samson’s folks used that phrase in the usual way – as an insult.  You can understand their resentment, as at this time the Philistines WERE RULING OVER ISRAEL (4), and had been for forty years (13:1).

Naturally, they preferred a nice local girl.  The word RELATIVES refers to the tribe of Dan.  (No jokes about inbreeding, please.)  ALL OUR PEOPLE refers to the nation of Israel.  You can almost hear a Jewish mother say, “Can’t you find a good JEWISH girl?”

Here’s the important verse of the passage, the part that proves God can do His will with or without our cooperation.  Verse four explains God’s plan was to force a confrontation between Samson and the Philistines and a feud over a beautiful woman is a time-honored way to start a fight.

Samson was selfish and stubborn.  Here again with the “love at first sight” thing; the NIV translates v. 3 to say, “SHE’S THE RIGHT ONE FOR ME.”  It literally means, “She is right in my eyes.”  This is Samson being selfish and undisciplined, disobedient to the law of God.

This attitude characterized the Israelites at this time.  As 17:6 & 21:25 elaborate, IN THE DAYS ISRAEL HAD NO KING EVERYONE DID AS HE SAW FIT.   This sounds very close to the condition of the whole human race before God destroyed them with the flood: Genesis 6:5 states, EVERY INCLINATION OF THE THOUGHTS OF THE HUMAN HEART WAS ONLY EVIL ALL THE TIME.

  1. Samson Sin #2 = Breaking t Nazirite Rules.

REMINDER = in looking at chapter 13, we learned that to be a Nazirite was to take on an additional set of rules in order to more fully dedicate one’s self to God.  Samson was supposed to follow these rules his entire life.  It is implied that this special relationship with God was the source of his miraculous strength.

Rule #1 = abstain from all fruit of the grapevine.

Verse eight tells us Samson was in a vineyard alone.  “When mom’s away, the kids will play.”  Here, in one place, at one time, it looks like he broke TWO of the Nazirite rules.

To be fair, we have to note three things.  One, we’re just observing opportunity here.  Why had he chosen to go to the vineyard alone and to meet the future Mrs. Samson there beside?

Two, this was the site where he’d had a miraculous experience of the Holy Spirit and killed that lion (5-6).  Maybe he went there to see what was left of the lion.

Three, the text does not specifically say Samson ate any grapes.  BUT if he had, it was a violation of the Nazirite rules.

Rule #2 = avoid touching a dead body.

As he traveled with his parents from Zorah to Timnah, the family walked through a vineyard (5-6).   Timnah was a town situated in the same valley as Zorah.  But apparently they weren’t travelling close together, because suddenly, a YOUNG LION (sent by the Lord) decided he looked like lunch, charging and roaring at him.

Verse six is the second time we’ve read this about Samson = THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD CAME POWERFULLY ON him.  This empowerment went right to Samson’s muscles and enabled him to tear the lion apart as easily as one would tear apart a YOUNG GOAT.

It’s a miracle.  Super strength!  (See also 14:19, 15:14 and 16:28-29.)

Samson gave Mr. & Mrs. Manoah the “mushroom treatment,” he kept mum on the subject.  That will be an important point later in the story.  Somehow, Samson is the only one who knew about the lion attack.

SOME TIME LATER (8-9), Samson returned to the site of his victory.  It must’ve been quite a while later, because some bees had taken over the rotting remains of the YOUNG LION and established a colony there.  Without ANY sense of hygiene, Samson scoops out TWO hands full of the honey from the lion carcass.  GROSS!  Worse, he spreads his germs to his parents.  WHY would you eat honey off another person’s hands?!  Because he didn’t bother to tell them where it came from, I suppose.  To my way of thinking, the fact that Samson didn’t tell his parents where the honey came from implies that his visit to the vineyard included violation(s) of his Nazirite commitments.

Interestingly, a beehive in a carcass was a widely-believed thing in the ancient world.  The Egyptians related bees to their bull-god Apis.  The scientific name of the honeybee is Apis, an keeping bees is called “apiculture,” with beehives called “apiaries.”  Modern science shows that bees will make hives in empty spaces of all kinds.  A gutted rib cage would be just about ideal.

The Law of Moses (see Numbers 19:13) forbade touching a dead HUMAN body, declaring that person “unclean.” This is a lion’s corpse, not a human’s, so does this not count against Samson?  One part of the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:6) forbid touching A DEAD BODY, not being specific about which kind.  So, to be fair, it’s iffy.  I mean, what Samson did was gross, but was it really a sin?

Rule #3 = Abstain from intoxicating drinks.

What can we prove here?  Verse ten says that they held a wedding feast, AS WAS CUSTOMARY FOR YOUNG MEN.  What happened at the FEAST?  We don’t know exactly, but the Hebrew word for FEAST is literally translated as “a drinking party.”  If this was anything like a “bachelor party” then what is CUSTOMARY in our culture is binge drinking and bad behavior.

If you import our culture’s practice of a bachelor party, that might not be an exact fit.  If we’ve learned anything about the Bible, we should learn that we do not live in the same culture.  Assume nothing.  Research everything.

So what can we take away from this chapter?  The marriage is the definitive sin, the rest is a little sketchy.  God used Samson’s sinful stubbornness to push him along a path of confrontation with the Philistines.

  1. Sam’s Sin #3 = Not Taking His Job Seriously.

The 30 companions with whom he feasted may’ve been spies.  You’ve got to wonder, did Samson think this through?  Let’s do it for him: You’re in enemy territory and the enemy  invites 30 local guys to your party; any chance at least one of them is reporting to the enemy king?

Verse eleven gives us a reason to think these 30 men were spies: WHEN THE PEOPLE [of Timnah] SAW HIM, THEY CHOSE THIRTY MEN TO BE HIS COMPANIONS.  They made these arrangements after the SAW Samson and decided he might just be a threat.  I’d guess Samson LOOKED like a mighty man.  He had the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger but the mind of Larry the Cable Guy.

My guess is that these 30 guys were the Philistine version of “protective custody,” there in case Samson wanted to make trouble.

The riddle (12-18) was a sign he wasn’t acting responsibly.  Instead, he was gambling and goofing around.  This does not seem very macho: the bet involved CLOTHES.  It’s like Samson is betting in order to get a closet full of tuxes.  Exchanging riddles was, in that culture, a typical activity.  People of that time enjoyed riddles as contests of wit or skill.

Samson shows off his cleverness with a cute rhyming couplet.  The riddle involves the honey he obtained from the lion’s carcass.  Since, as the text plainly shows us, only Samson knew this happened, the 30 groomsmen can’t begin to guess the answer, even over three days of guessing.

Desperate and about to lose the bet, the 30 feasters turn to their countrywoman.  Rather than appeal to her patriotism, they threaten to burn her and her dad down with their house (15).  Spies or not, they are not nice.

By their words in v. 15, we understand they suspected that the whole wedding thing was a ruse to trick them out of their wardrobes and they think Miss Philistine is in on the scam.  This riddle gaming thing was serious business and an unusual amount of cash.

Samson’s fiancé uses the stereotypical tricks of crying and nagging (16-17).  This is a preview of Samson’s affair with Delilah (16:1-22).  It’s amazing to think that God gave Samson this kind of warning and he STILL fell for Delilah.  Eventually, she wore him out with her tears and pleas, and he gave her the answer, which she then passed on to the 30 Philistine groomsmen.

These guys savored their victory in secret until the very last moment, when they declared the answer (18).  Samson’s retort is not at all nice, calling his betrothed a HEIFER!  As goofy as this situation seems to us, it was the means God used to provoke the first confrontation between Samson and the Philistines.

  1. Sam Sin #4 = Had a Quick & Violent Temper.

Samson killed and stole in order to pay his debt.  ASHKELON was one of the capital cities of Philistia, so Samson is striking right into the heart of the enemy.  Samson selected the 30 best-dressed men in Ashkelon, killed them, and stole their fine clothing, which he used to pay off his debt to his 30 gambling buddies.

Feeling betrayed by his fiancé, Samson was angry with her and effectively abandoned her, the woman he’d stubbornly insisted on having for his wife.  No doubt this was a problem: some practical-minded person said, “We’ve been having a wedding feat all week, it’d be a shame to waste it.  Somebody volunteer to marry this pretty little gal!”  This would also avoid disgracing the jilted bride.  As we will see in the next chapter, Samson was unaware of these arrangements.  Boy is he gonna be mad!

In Samson we have a guy with commitment issues: like that’s a new story!  This is the climax of the story of Samson; the remaining two chapters of how he took the fight to the enemy.  This chapter shows how God used Samson’s character flaws of impulsiveness, selfishness, and stubbornness to deliver His people.

Two things we can learn from Samson: one, life is much easier when we obey God.  If we follow His lead to do His will, we don’t have to end up defeated by our enemies.  Two, even people with the Holy Spirit do not have other-worldly perfection.  Even with the Spirit’s help, we still struggle against our character flaws and temptations to sin.

This chapter is more about God than Samson.  God’s will is going to be done, whether we cooperate with it or not.  Samson illustrates how our stubbornness and defiance does NOT deter the fulfillment of the will of God in that person’s life.