The Substitute Campaign: David and Bathsheba, Part II

Over two thousand baskets of food sent out, one to every wife of a soldier, just to provide cover for giving Bathsheba a pressed orchid. This was ridiculous. He had to stop taking next steps.

The next day, David was determined not to give anyone any reason to wonder about him, question his actions, or speculate about what might be going on in his mind, so he gathered all his advisors and finally dealt with all the people hanging around the palace looking for favors or decisions. He received messages from King Hiram of Tyre and King Nahash of Ammon and dictated measured responses in return. He made a decision on a land dispute between two villages, and eleven other disputes among village elders. They didn’t even break for the midday meal, but had food brought into the throne room and ate while they worked. He received reports on his fields, his flocks, his storeroom of taxes and gifts, and the level of water in all the pools and cisterns. By mid-afternoon, they’d managed to clear all available business.

David leaned back on his throne, his face glazed with sweat, feeling a sense of accomplishment he hadn’t in days. “Why don’t you all go home and rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, or even the day after that, if nothing comes up.”

His advisors barely had energy to smile at the idea that nothing might come up. The shuffle and scrape of their sandals on the floor was louder than their conversation, but David managed to hear one man say he was going home to pour a bucket of water over himself.

That’s all it took. David had thought about Bathsheba only two or three — or four — dozen times over the course of the morning. His mind produced a perfect image of her tipping a cup over her head, the water rolling over her skin. He gripped the armrests and tried to keep himself in the throne room, but it was futile. He somehow managed not to race to the roof.

She wasn’t there.

Of course she wasn’t there. It was the heat of the day. Only crazy people were up on their roofs where there was no shade. Disappointment knifed through him. He needed to see her again.

He scraped his fist against the stone of the parapet. He either had to stop looking for her, stop imagining her, or stop fooling himself.

Stop fooling himself, it was. He swept over to the guards at the tower and asked them to have Ahithophel and Abigail and his kitchen manager brought to him in his throne room. He waited, in a daze, in his private rooms until a servant told him everyone was assembled.

David smiled and held his arms open as he entered the room. “Thank you all for coming. Especially you,” he turned to Ahithophel. “After you left such a short while ago, I was thinking back to the good advice you gave me about the issue in Bethel. I thank the Lord for you, Ahithophel.” David had to clear his suddenly thick throat. It made him sound overcome, which his audience seemed pleased by, but he knew it wasn’t with gratitude: it was with guilt at bringing the Lord’s name into this mess. He swallowed hard and forged ahead. “You and your family have been faithful to me since before I was king of Judah.”

“My lord,” Ahithophel said. “It has always been our honor to serve Israel and her rightful king.”

“Now you have three generations involved. You at the palace and your son and the husband of your granddaughter in the Thirty. I’d like to bless you and your entire family by inviting you to dine with us at our family meal this week. Abigail, do you think we can handle a few more?”

Abigail was always ready to extend hospitality — a trait David was counting on. She smiled with genuine pleasure at him and then at Ahithophel. “Of course. So long as you understand that the king’s table at family dinner is different than it is for official business.”

David managed an easy-sounding laugh. “That’s an understatement. With all the talking and laughing and singing—”

“And bickering amongst the children,” Abigail added.

“Can’t forget that.” David winked at her. “My six wives will be there, along with around twenty of my children, so any number you bring will fit right in. How many is your family here in Jerusalem?”

“I’m overwhelmed, my lord.” Ahithophel bowed his head.

“Let’s not play the game of you refusing because your family is not ready or not worthy, and then I insist, and you refuse, and I insist, and finally you agree.” David clapped him on the shoulder, and let his hand rest there. “Let’s just get straight to the part where you tell me how many extra people to expect so my kitchen manager can plan accordingly.”

Ahithophel sighed. “With the army away, our number in Jerusalem is small. It’s just myself and my wife, Elias’s wife and three younger children, and Bathsheba, my granddaughter.”

David grinned. “We’ll expect you all here tomorrow evening.”

The next day, David flitted from one room to the next, ducking in and out of the servant’s hallways, practicing all possible routes. He took a bath, oiled his skin and hair, and changed his clothes four times, finally settling on his first royal robes, made after he became king of Judah. The red embroidery had faded, but the linen itself was so soft and smooth, it flowed like warmed olive oil over his skin. Then he warmed up his voice twice, hung about the kitchen to taste the food and had them changed three dishes, and fussed with the scented water bowls on the low table.

When the servants began filing in from their hallway with the food, he hurried back to his room. The king shouldn’t be the first one there. He waited, his back flat against the inside wall next to his door, and counted to two hundred before sauntering back to the dining room.

The room was in barely controlled chaos, which was good. He wasn’t prepared for the jolt of seeing Bathsheba this close. She was even more … everything in person. Her skin glowed and her hair was as dark as the night sky.

He didn’t know how long he’d stood there when Abigail walked up to him, put her hand on his upper arm and steered him towards his place at the middle of the table. She leaned close and whispered, “She’s beautiful.”

David frowned. “What? Who?”

Abigail gave a low chuckle. “I’ve been married to you long enough to know that look. Will we have to make more room in the family wing soon.”

The back of his neck burned as he shook his head. “She’s married.”

Abigail gave him a sharp glance. “You are an honorable man, my king.” She pinched under his bicep and squeezed until it stung. “Remember that.”

That took some of the bloom off his mood, enough that he could function like a normal host and father for most of the meal, although he couldn’t taste any of the dishes he’d been so obsessive about earlier.

Then one of the little ones put a lyre in his lap and asked him to play something pretty. He smiled at her and snuck a glance at Bathsheba, who was looking at his daughter with hunger and longing in her eyes. Hadn’t Ahithophel said something about Bathsheba complaining about wanting a child? He snorted. He knew exactly what his advisor had said about his granddaughter. His storeroom of information about her was small, so he’d gone over and over every item he had.

He strummed a few notes, but then his fingers stuttered. What could he play? He couldn’t sing his normal repertoire. They were all songs for the Lord. Seducing a married woman by singing about the Lord’s faithfulness was wrong. All he had left were silly kids’ songs and bawdy soldier numbers. His wives wouldn’t stand for the army material, so it had to be the other.

Bathsheba clapped and sang along. David played wilder and wilder songs, hoping she’d get up and dance with the children and two of his wives, but she didn’t. When two of the younger ones cracked their heads together, Abigail suggested he bring it down. He sang a song that was usually a lullaby, but all the words about letting go of your cares, about surrendering to the night, about laying down twisted in his mind and became about other things. He closed his eyes and sang for Bathsheba.

The youngest children were almost asleep when he finished and looked around. The mothers of the little ones picked them up and carried them away, ushering everyone under ten to the family wing. His guests looked like they were getting ready to go.

No. The evening couldn’t be over yet. “Now it’s tour time,” David said. He turned to Eliab’s wife. “My oldest two boys would love to lead your children on a tour of the secret passageways and we adults can have a more sedate tour of the palace. How about it?”

It turned out that they weren’t comfortable having their children running amok in the palace, so Bathsheba offered to go with them. In the end, David wasn’t sure how he’d managed to do it or whether he’d managed to do it gracefully, but he and Bathsheba were with the children, and Abigail was taking the adults away.

David let his oldest, Amnon, lead the way to the pillar closest to the table. The children grasped hands in a line and slipped into the dark behind a banner. David maneuvered so he was second last, his left hand clasped with a child and his right reaching out to Bathsheba.

She hesitated. “It’s dark in the hallway.”

“Put your trust in your king.” The children were yanking and yelling for them to come on, pulling him farther into the hallway. He gave it one more shot. “It’ll be fun. When’s the last time you did anything just for fun?”

She grabbed the ends of his fingers and let herself be dragged into the hallway. It got darker and darker as the boys snuffed out the lamps until there was nothing to see but slivers of light where the hidden entrances were. After that, it was a small matter to detach himself from the children and lag behind.

“Uh oh,” he said. “We’ve lost them.”

Her fingers tightened on his.

“Don’t worry.” He took her hand and tucked it under his forearm. “I know these passages as well as they do. It’s my palace after all.” He slowed his pace and edged her closer to his side. “You smell beautiful, like new rain.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

In the depths of the hallway, hemmed in by two walls of stone, it seemed like a different world, different enough that he could say, “Must be from all those baths you take.”

She stumbled. “My lord?”

His heart was trying to leap out of his throat. “Your roof is visible from my private rooms.”

She pulled her hand free and halted. He stepped towards her and she stumbled back, her breathing loud in the narrow hallway.

“You have nothing to fear, Bathsheba.” It was the first time he’d said her name out loud and it rolled off his tongue like a caress. “Let’s return to the others.”

“But.” He could barely hear her horrified whisper. “But I’ve bathed up there every day this week.”

“It has been the highlight of my evenings.”

“I was just doing my purifications,” she said. “I never thought—”

“Bathsheba.” David spoke gently and didn’t reach out to her, as much as he wanted to. “Do not be ashamed that the Lord made you beautiful.”

Her breathing quieted. “You won’t tell my husband?”

David lowered his voice. “It’ll be our little secret.”

She whimpered, so he acted like it was no big deal, grabbed her hand and pulled her down to the next entrance, where he made a big show of surprising the children there and making them scream. Then those children wanted to scare the other children, which David happily encouraged, as long as Bathsheba’s hand was nestled in his. Too soon, the other adults returned. The children were gathered and good-byes were made.

David glanced at her. She was giving him one of those sidelong looks with a little half smile. It set off a sandstorm inside him. He knew a welcoming look when he was on the receiving end of one.

He managed to keep his dignity, but that only lasted until he returned to his room. He summoned the guard who’d first found Bathsheba for him and told him to bring her to him at the kitchen courtyard door. It only took a moment to change into a plain dark brown tunic and travel through the servant’s hallways to wait in the shadows. He didn’t think he drew a complete breath until he saw her face in the moonlight. They didn’t speak to each other or to the guard, although David pressed some silver nuggets into his palm.

David took Bathsheba’s hand and waited as long as six steps in before he cupped the back of her head with his palm and kissed her. The wine and figs they ate earlier tasted even sweeter on her breath.

Stuck in the Palace: David and Bathsheba, Part I

[David is king of the united Israel, living in his palace in Jerusalem. His uncle Jonathan is one of his advisors.]

David stared, unseeing, straight ahead. He’d already passed through “pretending to listen” and had gone into “not listening,” but someone kept saying his name in a harsh whisper.

He blinked several times and turned his head toward the sound. It was Uncle Jonathan. “What?”

“Do you have anything to say to the messenger?”

“Oh. Yes.” David rotated his shoulders and tilted his head. No more letting his mind drift off. “Does Joab need me to send reinforcements?”

“No, my lord,” the messenger said. “This month’s rotation of tribal units is waiting a day’s travel away, and Joab hasn’t even called for them yet.”

David gouged a groove in the arm of his throne with his thumbnail. “So his message is that he has everything under control?”

The messenger glanced left at Jonathan and then right at nobody before repeating his spiel from earlier. “The siege at Rabbah is continuing. We don’t have a lot of experience with a long siege, but the commanders—”

“I was listening earlier,” David lied. “What do you think?”

“Think, my lord?”

“Yes.” David slid forward a bit. “Unless my nephew has sent a fool to run his errands, you will have an opinion, your own analysis of how the siege is going. I served in the ranks myself, at one time. I know how soldiers talk. So?”

The messenger looked to Jonathan again.

When had it gotten so David couldn’t talk with a fellow soldier?

“I asked a-” David smacked his palm on the throne, “simple question.” Even as the words came out of his mouth, he knew he was overreacting, that the messenger wasn’t the one frustrating him, but he couldn’t stop.

“My lord.” The messenger’s face turned red and he dropped onto one knee. “Forgive me.”

David addressed the linen banner hanging on the opposite wall. “All I wanted was the opinion of a man on the ground. Is that too much to ask?”

Uncle Jonathan cleared his throat. “King David has always listened to and learned from even the least of his soldiers. It’s one of the things that makes him such a great king.”

“Of course, of course.” The messenger stood. “It’s going as well as can be expected. Some of the foreign soldiers have experience with sieges so they’re always in with Joab and Benaiah.”

“And running off their mouths to the rest of you, I bet.” David quirked an eyebrow.

The messenger blinked rapidly and swallowed hard.

David somehow prevented himself from sighing. Everyone thought they had to be so dignified around him now. There was a time a soldier would’ve bust out laughing at such a dig against the mercenaries, and maybe shared a story or two. Those were good times.

“We’re learning so much.” The messenger sounded like an overeager child. “The outlying garrisons are sending us plenty of supplies. And there’s a water source a short walk away. The men feel confident. The Ammonites can’t outwait us.”

“Sounds like you don’t need me at all,” David muttered. He squeezed his temples. Of course they didn’t need him. He’d chosen each commander because of his expertise, ability to lead, and wisdom on the battlefield. Chosen them precisely because they didn’t need him. It’d be worse if they did need him. Wouldn’t it?

Jonathan stood. “Thank you for your report and your opinions. We’ll get a food bundle made up for your return trip tomorrow.” He ushered the man out of the room, but threw one questioning frown over his shoulder at David.

David wandered over to the wine table and poured himself a cup. His uncle returned and they circled each other at the table. With the rim at his lips, he said, “I should be there.”

“So that’s what this is all about.” Jonathan tugged the corner of the linen covering of the table.

“I should be in the field with my soldiers.” David drained the cup. “Not stuck in my palace, on my comfortable bed in my clean clothes, dealing with petty arguments and disputes and granting royal favors to rich people.”

“Do I need to tell you the story of–”

“No,” David said. “I know it was smart strategy to put the garrisons in the north and it shows trust in my men that I don’t have to be there for every campaign—”

“But you’re itching to go, like when you were fifteen.”

David swirled the dregs in the bottom of the cup. “Guess I haven’t changed that much.”

Jonathan humphed. “You’ve changed plenty. Why else do you think you’re here instead of there?”


It used to be that doing his duty meant being in the thick of the action. Now it meant sitting around. Uncle Jonathan was right, he was itching. In fact, his skin was crawling at the idea of spending the rest of the day in careful conversation. “Call off the jackals and the foxes for the rest of the day. I’m done.”

His uncle said some stuff about David needing to do something constructive, but he wasn’t listening. Maybe he’d visit one of his wives. That’d put him in a better mood. He clasped his hands behind his back and headed towards the private quarters.

Of course, being with one of his wives would mean being subjected to complaints about the other women, or sly requests for privileges, or pointed observations about how he didn’t see her as often as he used to. Except Abigail. But she wanted to have real conversations about how he was doing, especially when something was bothering him, and she could always tell when someone was. He didn’t need that kind of pressure today.

A nap? If he could sleep now, during the heat of the day, when he awoke in the cooler early evening, things would be better, clearer.

When he got to his room, he unwound his mantle, took off his robe, his armlets and his crown and curled up on his side on his mat. His room was stifling. He got up and threw open his shutters. No breeze. He opened his mouth top bellow for a servant to fan him while he slept, but he didn’t want even that much company. Instead, he pulled his tunic over his head and lay down, spread-eagled, on his mat in just his loincloth.

It was so quiet. The army wasn’t in town, so there was no noise of soldiers marching or training, no officers trash-talking each other and boasting about their unit’s prowess. No Joab galumphing around the palace.

The farmers and merchants had packed up after the morning’s business, so there was no haggling to be heard, no cart wheels rolling, no donkeys braying. Even the birds must’ve been resting in shady spots. There was nothing to keep him awake.

Except all that silence. It was distracting. He kept cataloguing all the things he wasn’t hearing.

He flipped over onto his stomach. In the field, he’d always been able to sleep, even on the night before a battle, when his heart would be pounding and his blood churning and his mind going over and over the battle plan. Even then he’d always been able to get rest.

The only time he hadn’t been able to sleep was when King Saul had made him play all night long because Saul couldn’t sleep. Lack of rest had to be part of what had made Saul so paranoid and volatile. That’s why David lived  as righteous a life as possible: so there was nothing to keep him awake. “Adonai, give me rest. Don’t let me wind up like Saul.”

When David was conscious of himself again, the sun was blasting through his western windows, beaming on his face and chest. He awoke covered in a film of sweat, wrinkling his nose at his own scent and at the sour taste in his mouth.

He rolled onto all fours to avoid the glare of the sun and then staggered to the bench that had a bowl of cassia water on it, soaked a cloth with the liquid, and swiped it over his exposed skin.

Air was what he needed. Maybe the early evening breeze had sprung up.

He glanced at his tunic and robe but rejected them. The idea of putting on even those thin and fine linen clothes was abhorrent. The chance of anyone looking up at the palace roof at the exact moment he was there and recognizing him was slim.

There was slight movement of air on the roof, very slight. Not enough to cool the skin, but just enough to feel like the stroke of a soft hand.

He leaned against one of the taller pillars of the parapet, holding his hair off the back of his neck, looking down over Jerusalem.

People were still not out and about in the streets, for the most part. Wisps of smoke curled up, so some women must be at their ovens. Groups of people were huddled under the broad atad trees near some of the threshing floors outside the walls. Snippets of a woman’s voice drifted up to him; it sounded more like melodic sighing than like any song that David recognized. It was entrancing.

Where was that singer? He searched the rooftops below him until he saw her. Maybe it wasn’t her, but the song was suddenly the last thing on his mind. This woman was bathing on the roof of her house, lifting her hair off the back of her neck, just like David was. Her back was turned to him. Now she was squeezing water from a cloth onto her skin. Her skin that was naked.

David stalked across the length of his roof until he was as close to her as he could get from the palace. Who was she? If he got the layout of the city right, the house was in the professional army section. So she’d be alone and lonely without her soldier.

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. Those were not the kind of thoughts he should have.

His eyelids popped open.

She was still there, except she had turned. Now he could see her from the side.

He gripped the parapet with both hands, the stone scraping his skin. It felt like his heart was trying to leap out of his chest towards that woman, that beautiful woman. He needed the rough stone digging into his palms, needed the pain to interrupt the direction his imagination was taking him.

He pushed himself back and walked resolutely down the stairs to his private quarters. He had to put his clothes and his royal items back on. That would remind him who he was and what kind of thoughts and what kind of behaviors were expected of him. The fabric was rough against his sensitized skin, but that punishment felt right.

He headed for the door, but the south facing windows caught him. He couldn’t stop himself from looking out. Her arms were stretched to the sky. All of her was exposed to his gaze and his breath flew away.

He tore himself away from the window and walked in a daze toward the lower, public areas of the palace. Halfway down the upper hallway, he came across two of his guards with their heads half out a window. A south facing window. They were so engrossed that he snuck up behind them and clapped, startling them into cracking their heads together.

He couldn’t bring himself to yell at them, because he was just as guilty. “You were watching her, too?”

The taller one blinked hard and shook his head and denied knowing what the king was talking about, but the shorter one gave David a curious look. He was the one David took aside.

“Do you live in the army section of the city or in the barracks at the fortress?” David asked.

“In the barracks, my lord.”

David glanced at the solid wall in the direction of the woman. “Do you know who she is?”

“No, my lord.”

“Find out. She must be in the household of one of my officers. Beautiful as she may be, I don’t want anyone to bring dishonor to my forces.” How David managed to say that with a straight face, he didn’t know. His order had nothing to do with avoiding dishonor.

“Yes, my lord. Right away.”

“Shh.” David hauled him back within whispering distance. The words, “Bring her to me,” almost left his tongue, but he wasn’t a pagan king. He was the shepherd of the people of God. “Let’s keep this quiet. I don’t need every soldier begging to guard the city side of the palace.”

When the evening meal was almost over, the soldier came back to him: she was Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah.

David excused himself from the table without finishing and took an oil lamp up to the roof. He sat between two of the teeth with his feet dangling over the side, staring in the direction he saw Bathsheba in earlier. Bathsheba.

This was complicated. Eliam and Uriah were both in the Thirty. She was the daughter of one of his most elite fighters and the wife of his most loyal and skilled Hittite mercenary. The connection with Eliam meant she was also the granddaughter of Ahithophel, one of his most trusted advisors. Which added up to someone he couldn’t trifle with.

He bumped the side of his head against the stone. When had this turned from a vague fantasy to something he was actually considering? It was wrong. And now that he knew who her family was, it was all tangled up. Nothing could happen. Nothing should happen.

Do You Want to be Healed?

model of the Pools of Bethesda outside the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem
photo from


Nissim had staked out this base of operations before that kid had been born, and no upstart was going to take it from him. He poked the kid, hard, with the knot end of his olive wood cane. “Move along.”

The kid faced him, although there was no way he could see out of those clouded eyes. “But I need to be closer to the water. Other people always get there first and–”

“Bah.” If it hadn’t been a feast day, which always put Nissim in a good mood, the kid would’ve gotten another taste of the cane. “Dov, did you hear that? This kid’s trying to use the line I invented on me. Me.”

Dov snorted.

“What?” The kid looked honestly puzzled. “What line?”

Nissim went through it as though reciting a dull list. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I’m making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

“That’s it exactly,” the kid said. “Except I have no one to tell me when the angel stirs up the water and my family is coming back for me today and….” He trailed off as Dov and a few other nearby professional beggars laughed.

But Nissim was going to do this kid a favor. “I’m going to give it to you straight. Feel my legs.” He lifted his robe past his knees to display the twisted and scarred flesh and held the kid’s hand there. “This happened working on the tunnel to supply these pools. Rock slide. So I know. The Pools of Bethesda are fed by a gusher. Do you understand what that is?”

The kid snatched his hand back. “No.”

“That means that the water doesn’t flow smoothly.” Nissim didn’t bother keeping his voice low. He didn’t care who heard him. “The spring gushes out and then stops, gushes out and then stops. There is no angel. It’s nature.”

“So the healing?” The kid’s mouth was pursed like he’d eaten a sour berry.

Nissim looked to his left. “Ze’ev! How many times you made it first into the pool?”

Ze’ev closed one eye while he counted. “Five, including last Passover.”

“And how are your legs?”

“Quit teasing me,” Ze’ev said. “Got a huge haul that Passover, though. Those brothers who made sure I got in were so happy to watch me move around, they praised the Lord by giving me lots of silver.”

Some of the men laughed, and Dov called out, “Yeah, well, next time you haul the old wolf out of the water. He’s heavy.”

The men cat-called back and forth for awhile, but the kid leaned closer to Nissim.

“So it did work for awhile.” The kid was not giving up his hope easily.

Nissim sighed. “You’re not getting it. It looked like he could move because the water held him up. We had to wait ’til he convinced those brothers to leave before getting him out, or they’d know they were tricked.” He said his next words slowly, so they’d sink in. “There are no healing powers.”

The kid was as still as a Roman statue. “Then why are you here?”

“For the pilgrims,” Nissim said. “They come to wash their sheep or themselves before heading in to Jerusalem for feasts and sacrifices, and it makes them feel righteous to give to the less fortunate. We make it easy for them by being where they need to go anyway.” He put his meaty right hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Believe me, it’s better to know the truth.”

The kid shrugged off Nissim’s hand and scooted away.

“What’s up with the flood of true believers lately?” Dov said.

“It does seem like they’re thicker on the ground these days,” Nissim said.

Dov rubbed at a groove in the floor with his thumb nail. “Do you even remember what it was like to think the water would heal you?”

Nissim recoiled. “You used to believe?”

“When I first came,” Dov said. “Ten years ago.”

“Did you listen to anything I said to that kid? I knew it was a fraud from the beginning. I dug these tunnels. I know this spring.”

“No need to get heated up about it.” Dov held his palms open in a peace offering.

“Thirty-eight years I’ve lived with these.” Nissim slapped his knee.

Thankfully, Dov knew better than to give him any sympathy. “Think your brother’ll come in today?”

Nissim blew out a hard breath. “Hope not.” He rearranged himself against the wall of the arch. “But I’m not holding out much hope for that. He always keeps the feast days.”

They raised their eyebrows at each other in commiseration.

“Get back to your spot,” Nissim said. “Sun’s fully up. They’ll be coming soon.”

As Dov dragged himself back to his usual place, Nissim closed his eyes and rested the back of his head against the stone arch. He could hear muttering and yelling coming from closer to the water: the sound of outraged true believers. He didn’t enjoy dashing their dreams, but it was like lancing a boil. Someone had to do it. Sure, it hurt, but it’d be worse if the boil were allowed to fester. He’d watched more people than he could count refuse to start begging, and then waste away until they died, waiting for those waters to heal them.

Someone stepped into his light. There hadn’t been footsteps coming from the entrance, so it wasn’t a pilgrim. “Get out of my sun,” he snapped. “Can’t I have a moment’s peace?”

Whoever it was cleared his throat.

Nissim opened his eyes. It was a man like any other man: long hair, beard, rough wool clothing, sandals, belt with a good-sized water skin attached, no apparent physical problems, so he was probably a traveler. A potential donor. Nissim exhaled slowly and slumped his shoulders, shrinking into himself, giving the impression of weakness, but before he could deliver his line, the man spoke first.

“Do you want to be healed?”

“What?” Nobody had ever asked Nissim that before.

The man sat back on his haunches and held Nissim’s gaze. The look on his face wasn’t exactly challenging, but it wasn’t the pitying look Nissim was used to getting, either.

A prickly flush traveled from Nissim’s chest to his jaw. He glanced at the water. If the man was going to offer to carry him over and make sure he got there first, this was a convoluted way to go about it. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stir- stirred up–”

The man made a dismissive gesture at the pools and shook his head, no.

“But without anyone to help me,” Nissim forged ahead but he could barely get through it all, “someone else always steps ahead of me.”

“Do you want to be healed?”

What did this man mean, if he wasn’t talking about the water? He didn’t say anything else, but the longer Nissim locked eyes with this stranger, the clearer he heard the man’s voice in his head. It said, “We both know the pools can’t heal you, but do you want to be healed?”

Nissim squeezed his eyes shut. His heart pounded. He’d made himself cry dozens of times to impress onlookers, but this was the first time in over thirty years that he felt that pressure behind his eyes when he didn’t will it. He’d been begging for most of his life. What would he do if his legs worked again? Would his brother take him back?

He swallowed hard past the knot in his throat as he imagined rejoining his family, working in the olive groves, contributing to the running of the household again. His leg itched. He reached down to scratch it.

Damn legs. And damn man asking him impossible questions and making him think about what it would be like. This life wasn’t so bad when he had no hope of anything different. Of course he wanted to be healed. He also wanted to be wealthy and have his pick of young girls, but that wasn’t happening, either.

He slapped at his calves. Why did they have to choose now to hurt? The skin felt hot and tight, like he’d left them uncovered in the sun too long.

The man was still waiting for an answer.

Nissim glared at him and barely nodded his head.

“Stand up,” the man said, in the most ordinary, matter-of-fact way. “Take your mat and walk.”

A bitter sound escaped Nissim’s throat. So the man was one of those nuts who thought he could heal people. All the man was doing now was smiling. Nissim should’ve noticed it earlier. Only crazy people would calmly ask such a cruel question. It was his fault that he got taken in by it. “Hey, Dov,” he leaned to the side so he could see around the man, “we’ve got a live one here.”

The man grinned at that, stood, and left without another word.

Nissim’s legs were still burning and itching. Did a bunch of ants get under his tunic? He scraped the fabric back to check–

He couldn’t breathe.

Where was that man? What had happened? Nissim craned his head around, but the man was gone.

Finally, he gasped. This was a dream. He closed his eyes and counted to seven breaths before looking at his legs again. There they were. They weren’t pretty, but they weren’t twisted anymore. Would they remember what to do? After so many years of lying fallow, would they be strong enough?

He put his hands first under his right thigh and moved it into a bent position. The knee pointed straight up at the sky. Nissim almost laughed. The same thing happened with his left leg. His feet rested squarely on the stone floor. Squarely. As if they hadn’t spent almost forty years bent at that horrible angle. He pushed against the floor until he was in a crouch, but he didn’t pick up his hands until he was almost sure his legs would hold him.

They did.

Pilgrims were streaming past him now, and his friends were making their cries, but none of it made an impression on him.

He tucked his elbow into a seam in the arch and leaned into it with all his strength. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his upper lip as he flexed his thighs and forced his body up. Black dots crowded his vision and made him dizzy, so he had to rest against the wall for awhile, but that soon cleared. And he was standing.


He expected to hear cheers and shouts, but everyone was so busy with their own pursuits, that nobody noticed he was upright for the first time in anyone’s memory.

So he did the rest of what the man had told him to do. He bent over, rolled up his mat, picked it up and put one foot in front of another, gingerly at first, but soon more confidently. He couldn’t stop watching the movement of his legs: he was walking.

“Hey!” Someone grabbed his sleeve. “You can’t do that.”

“I know.” Nissim grinned. “But I can now.”

“What?” It was one of the religious leaders. “You can’t carry your mat on the Sabbath.”

Nissim stared at him for a heartbeat and then laughed.

“It isn’t funny.” The leader’s bushy eyebrows shook in his indignation, which only made Nissim laugh harder. “You can’t work on the Sabbath. The law doesn’t allow you to carry that mat.”

“Tell that to the man who healed me.”

The leader bunched Nissim’s sleeve tighter in his fist. “What did you just say?”

“Don’t you recognize me? I’ve been sitting at that arch for over thirty years. I don’t know your name, but you’ve given me food and wine every feast day for ages. Without my believing it was possible, a man just came, healed me, and told me to pick up my mat and walk.”

“Who would say such a thing?”

Nissim shrugged. “He didn’t stick around.”

Neither did the leader, who rushed off as if something terrible had just happened.

What should he do now? Go to his brother’s? His legs were feeling good, but were they strong enough to walk across the Mount of Olives? They probably couldn’t handle that yet. But they could handle walking into Jerusalem. He had enough bits of silver that he could even pay the temple tax to see what everyone raved on about.

Being upright in a crowd was different from being seated while the crowd passed by. Before, strangers would avoid him, as if touching him would give them his lameness. Now, he was jostled and elbowed and almost tripped several times. He made his way over to a wall.

He wanted to yell at these people, “Watch it! I was just healed. Thirty-eight years I sat by the Pools of Bethesda, waiting for the waters to heal me, until a man took pity on me and spoke to me, and that’s all it took. Look at me now. I’m walking like any one of you. But ask any of the men by the pool and they’ll tell you that this morning, I was one of them. Now, I’m one of you.”

Maybe he should give such a speech. Imagine how much silver and food and wine people would give him. Then he’d really be able to come back to his brother with–

A man stepped into his line of sight. It was the man. Nissim raised his arms and prepared to announce to everyone who this was and what had happened, but the man wasn’t smiling.

“Now you are well, so stop sinning.”

Nissim dropped his arms and squinted up at him. “Sinning?”

The man nodded.

“But I’m just standing here.”

“Stop sinning, or something even worse may happen to you.”

And then the man walked away without explaining what he meant. “Hey! Come back!” Nissim pushed through a few people, but his legs weren’t strong enough to follow the man.

The leader who’d scolded him at the Pools grabbed his sleeve again. “Was that the man?” The leader barely waited long enough for Nissim to confirm it before taking off after him, a bunch of cronies in tow.

Nissim was left standing in an archway at the Temple. Should he go straight to his brother’s? Or stick around here to see what business he could drum up out of this healing? Or go back to the Pools where people knew him? And what did the man mean by sinning?

Just Enough: Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Approximately 870 B.C.E.
Zarephath, near Sidon (about 1o miles north of modern Tyre, Lebanon)

Rashida was up to her knees in the Great Sea*. Between waves, the water lapped at her son Salim’s bellybutton. She closed her eyes against the sight of his hollow stomach. Of course that’s when a big wave came and pushed him down, which made her stumble because they were holding hands. Her eyes flew open and she used her panic to yank his head free of the sea and drag them shallower. He came up laughing, although that changed to sputtering when he licked the salt in the water on his face. She used her head scarf to dry his eyes.

This last trip was supposed to be a pleasant diversion, but it was turning out to be a cruelty. To surround her son with water he couldn’t drink, that could cause him pain … she was a terrible mother.

“I think I see a cloud,” Salim piped up. “Way over there.”

Although it was hopeless, Rashida shaded her eyes with her hand and peered over the sea to the west. Nothing but cruel blue sky. “My old eyes can’t see it, so I hope you’re right.”

Salim giggled. “You’re not old, Mama.”

No, twenty wasn’t old, or, at least, it shouldn’t be, but she was almost as gaunt and shuffling as her mother had been last seedtime*. And her hair, her glorious hair, was falling out, which was really why she’d grown so particular about wearing her most beautiful head covering all the time. “Come on, silly Salim. Let’s get dry.”

She swung their arms until it took all their energy to walk in the soft sand and she had to let go.

There was the sound she hated: Salim wasn’t just panting, he was wheezing. “I’m too old to keep going,” she said. “Is it okay with you if we rest here?”

He nodded and flopped down. She sat with her back to the water, put his tunic back on him, and tucked him onto her lap. The breeze wrapped the ends of her head scarf around them like a hug.

“Why was there drought again this winter?”

Trust her Salim to ask the unanswerable question. “I wish I knew.”

“Is Baal angry at us?”

“That’s what the priests are saying.” She hugged him tighter. There was only one advantage to their situation: Salim was too scrawny to serve as a good sacrifice.

“Yesterday, in the square, they said that’s why there isn’t even any dew.” He picked at the embroidered hem of her scarf. “What is dew?”

Tears burned behind her eyes. What a terrible world when children had no memory of dew. “When you were little.” She poked his side to tickle him, but her finger jabbed too far between his ribs and he whimpered. She stroked his side and tried not to cry. “When you were little, every morning, the grass and leaves and roofs of the houses would be covered with a fine layer of water. It was different than rain, because you never saw it in the air, but it was on the ground every day.”

His voice was a whisper. “Wow.”

“Are you ready to head home?”

He nodded, so she pushed him onto his feet. She had to roll onto her hands and knees for a moment before struggling upright. It was like reverse stars formed in her vision, instead of white light, there were black dots, but they cleared after she blinked a dozen or so times. “Let’s take a different path.” She pulled him to the right and waggled her eyebrows as if they were in for a treat. “I think I saw a caper vine with leaves.”

Their progress was slow, but they eventually made it to the place she’d spotted. Even the wild capers were struggling. This was a plant that would crack a stone wall, that would send up shoots days after going up in flames, but after two years of no rain, it sent up only a few stunted branches. But if she had Salim lift up the dead upper growth, she could harvest the new branch tips and young leaves, as well as six ripe caper berries, without getting too scratched up.

The berries went in the jar of seawater she’d refilled and then she divided up the leaves. Even Salim’s tiny palm was barely filled. Although her instincts told her shove the meager meal into her mouth all at once, she forced herself to eat like a civilized person, to take no more than two leaves at a time, chew them into a pulp, press the slimy lump against the roof of her mouth to squeeze out every drop of liquid she could before swallowing. Salim followed her lead. He was such a good boy.

She smoothed his hair and cupped the back of his head. If staring at her son were food and drink, she’d be full.

On the way home, they found some bitter herbs that were still barely edible and sucked on some pebbles to try to trick their mouths into producing more spit. The trip home took half the morning. It would’ve taken longer, but Rashida eventually swung Salim onto her back, where he fell asleep, his breathing shallow. Despite it being near the heat of the day, he shivered. At the house, she laid him on his mat, draped one more layer of wool over him, and went out to gather kindling.

The white broom bushes right outside of town were clean, so she had to go a little farther afield to find one with dry sticks underneath. By the time she got there, she had to rest, so she slumped in the shade of the bush, scooped kindling into her lap and let herself cry like she couldn’t in front of Salim.


Rashida screamed and scrambled away from where the voice came from, scattering the branches. It was an older man. On the road. While she stared rudely at him, he plopped down in the dust.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.” He had a funny accent, but she could understand him.

“I’m the one who should apologize, Stranger.”

And then he just sat there. According to all the customs of her people, she should offer him drink and food immediately, but how could she?

“Where have you come from?” she asked.

“I am Elijah, a prophet of the Lord God of Israel, but I came from the other side of the Jordan.” He leaned in as if telling her a secret. “My king is upset with me.”

Rashida glanced down the road, but there was no cloud of dust.

Elijah chuckled. “King Ahab doesn’t know where I am. There will be no soldiers. At least, so long as you don’t tell anyone from Sidon I’m here. His queen grew up there. She might hate me even more than her husband.”

What an odd thing to admit to a stranger. “Nobody has passed by here in months, not since the wadis* dried up.”

“The stream I lived near ran out a few weeks ago, and my God told me to come here.”

“I’m sorry that your God has such bad taste in destinations,” she said. “We’re in our second year of terrible drought.”

“Why are you still here?”

Her voice was thick as she spoke around the lump that formed in her throat. “We waited too long. Now my husband and his parents are dead and my son and I are too weak.”

He raised his right hand as if to touch her, but he left it in the air. “I am sorry for your drought.”

She snorted. “Why? You didn’t cause it.” The words jumped out before she could stop them. Who was this bold, sarcastic woman?

His hand lowered. “Then I’m sorry to have to ask you for a little water in a cup.”

“My cistern is empty, and Zarephath’s well isn’t consistent, but they’ll let me draw some water for you. Come.” She rebundled her sticks and headed towards town.

He followed behind her, and didn’t try to engage her in any more conversation until they approached the first houses. “Bring me a bite of bread, too.”

Rashida stood as if suddenly rooted to the spot. She didn’t dare face him. “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour in the jar and barely enough oil left in the bottom of the jug.” She hung her head and whispered, “I was just gathering a few sticks to cook us a last meal before we curled up by the embers and waited for death.”

“Don’t be afraid.”

She let out one choked sob. Afraid didn’t begin to cover how she felt.

Elijah spoke more gently. “Go ahead and do just what you said, but make a little bread for me. Use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son.” He walked around to face her and waited. “Look at me.”

“You’re not like Baal’s priests.” She looked up in time to watch him spit.

“Thank you. My God, the Lord God of Israel, has told me something for you.”

Her eyes grew wide.

“There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again.”

Although there was no reason why it should be so, his words were like a balm on a rash.

She went straight to the well, where she convinced the guards to let her have some water for her guest. Then she went to her indoor fire pit and lit the white broom sticks. She dumped out the last of the flour, mixed it with a drop of the water and the last of the oil, and shaped it into three tiny flats of bread that cooked up in no time. Rashid was right next to the fire, but none of this woke him up. The prophet was still at the outskirts of town, so she took the food to him there.

He drank one gulp of the water and chewed the bread thoughtfully. “Let’s take this to your son.”

Rashida took him home. Together, they woke up Salim, who was so over-the-top grateful for the sip of water Elijah had left him, that it made her laugh-cry. They ate their little loaves, and then sat in silence until it was time for the evening meal. She took the caper berries from that morning out of the sea water brine and put two in each of three bowls.

Elijah smiled at her. “Aren’t you going to make some more bread?”

Because he’d been kind to Salim, she humored Elijah by taking the flour jar and turning it upside down over her lap. “See?” she said to him.

“Look,” he said to her at the same time Salim clapped and pointed at her.

She looked. It was flour.

The jar hit the floor. She licked her fingertip and dipped it in the flour. It was wheat. Glorious, fresh wheat. To replace her stale mixed spelt and barley. She couldn’t take her eyes off it, so she had to fumble around until her hand hit her mixing bowl. She rose on her knees and carefully tipped the flour into the bowl, shaking out her robe to get it all. It looked like there were four handfuls of flour in there. Her eyes grew scratchy from lack of blinking as she reached for her oil jug and upended it over the mixing bowl. Soon, there was the right amount of oil, but it was still coming out, so she stuck Elijah’s cup under the spout until the oil ran out.

Nobody spoke as she mixed the dough, blew on the white broom embers until they flamed up again*, and cooked the bread. She divided the oil into three cups and set the feast in front of everyone: one loaf of bread, a few swallows of oil, and two barely pickled caper berries.

As they ate, they laughed.

And the next morning, the same thing happened. Just enough flour and oil came out of the containers to make food for one meal. At the midday meal, it happened again. By the evening meal, Rashida believed it would be there, just as Elijah’s God said.



Great Sea = Mediterranean Sea

seedtime = season of fall

wadi = streams that were filled with rushing water in the winter and spring, after the rains. Most wadis are seasonal. Some have water in them all the time, but in times of severe drought, even those run dry.

According to Nogah Hareuveni (a researcher who studies biblical landscape and plants), white broom embers will actually do this. This is how he describes it: “The traveler who looks on the ground beneath the white broom will also be able to see the mattress that served Elijah when he slept under the broom: a layer of thin, dry branches that drop off in the arid periods when the bush cannot supply nourishment to all the branches. These branches that cover the ground burn readily when gathered into a pile for kindling. Amazingly, this fire does not go out as quickly as expected. On the contrary, it grows quietly, producing great heat, dying down very gradually, leaving a pile of gray, charcoal-covered branches. A gentle puff into the pile proves that there is still a fire smoldering inside.” (Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, Neot Kedumim Ltd., Israel: 1984, page 32)



Uncovering His “Feet”: Ruth Part IV

The moon was bright enough that Ruth cast a shadow, which meant it was bright enough for people to see her. Most people seemed to be asleep, except for whoever was trying to comfort that crying baby. And that crying baby. Her heart pounded so hard, she was sure it could be heard above her robe swishing against her legs. Which was also too loud. She bunched her robes in her hands until the hems reached her knees, and held her breath until she was out of the village proper.

This was crazy. Had she left too late? The moon had moved from when she’d fallen asleep despite her plan not to, but how long she’d been out, she had no idea. She’d never had to track the passage of time in the night. Would Boaz and the winnowers still be up? Or would she have to tiptoe around everyone while they slept, trying to find him?

She wound through Boaz’s olive grove rather than approach from the grain fields. Soon, she heard raucous laughter and snatches of song. Good. She wasn’t too late. These were relatively new trees, so the trunks weren’t quite thick enough to hide her. If she stayed three trees back from the edge, she could still see the people around the fires on the threshing floor, but they’d see her as just a shadow.

It took awhile to locate Boaz, because he was wearing work clothes like his laborers, not the rich man’s robe he usually wore. But when he’d walk up to a group, they’d defer to him, so she figured it out. They were still toasting and drinking. Ruth slumped against the tree and slid down. This was going to be a long night.

Between knocking the back of her head against the tree and pinching her thigh, she managed to stay awake until the winnowing party wound down. A group of men came into the grove to relieve themselves before settling down for what remained of the night. Ruth’s heart thudded again, not because they might discover her — they only stumbled into the edge of the grove, three trees away from her — but because Boaz was on the move, and she couldn’t get up to follow him. She pushed herself up on her hands and craned her neck to track him.

He visited every group of laborers and then disappeared behind a pile of threshed barley. Separated from the rest of the men. Which was the best she could’ve hoped for.

Was she really going to do this? She didn’t know anything about how a veiled woman acted, so she didn’t know how to avoid giving those cues, other than not exposing a man’s privates and snuggling next to him in a secluded area in the middle of the night. Avoiding that wasn’t an option.

The men settled down too soon.

Her legs trembled as she rose and picked her way to the far side of the grain pile. Boaz lay on his back, his arms outstretched, his cloak tossed to the side. He snored. She stood over him and clenched and opened her fists several times. It would be worth it. It had to be.

She knelt next to him and tugged his tunic ever northward until he was exposed. He snorted and stirred. She squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for discovery. He rolled towards her, but stayed asleep.

Now what? Did she try to wake him? She put her hand on his shoulder and shook it. “Boaz,” she whispered. No change.

How long had it been since she’d touched a man? Months. His shoulder was solid and thick. Her grip on him softened and she slid her palm down his arm, snatching her hand away when he muttered. And then there was that. Tickling his “foot” would be a good way to wake him. But it’d also be a good way to let him know her intentions weren’t honorable. It looked so cute. So different from the stand-up state. She’d never touched one when it was like this.

She stifled a giggle. Was she really considering it? What she was there for was risky enough already. Would touching it be so much worse? Naomi had been vehement that Ruth was not to touch it. But just one little stroke? It looked so harmless. She reached out and, with a featherlight touch, ran her fingertips over it. Soft.

And he remained dead asleep. Ruth shrugged and lay down next to him, snuggling until they fit together, her back cradled by his front. Her breathing got shallower and faster as her body seemed to heat up from the inside. This felt both so right and so wrong. “Please, Lord,” she whispered. “Let this scheme work.”

Something was shaking her. She slit open her eyes. It was still completely dark. Darker than it had been before. She tried to roll over, but a hand on her arm prevented her.

“Who are you?”

In an instant, a flock of birds exploded in Ruth’s chest and stomach and she forgot her nice speech. Her breath came in pants. Boaz loomed over her so close that he blocked out the moon and the stars. She couldn’t see his facial expression at all. “Your servant Ruth.”

The hand on her arm caressed its way up to stroke her hair and rest on her cheek. No, no, no, no. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. She put her hand over his and trapped it against her face. “Spread the corner of your cloak over me, for you are my family redeemer.”

He stilled.

“My family redeemer,” she repeated, in case he missed the cue the first time.

She could feel the rumble of his voice as it left his chest. “You’ve outdone yourself this time, Ruth.”

Ruth counted five shaky breaths before he removed his hand and then put some distance between their bodies. Her brain was relieved, but her body ached for the pressure of his again.

“I’m not a young man.”

“You’re a good man.”

He snorted and said something that sounded like, “only just,” but she couldn’t be sure. “Lord bless you, daughter. You could’ve gone after a younger man. Nobody would’ve blamed you if you had. But you’re showing the family loyalty of a true Israelite.”

Ruth closed her eyes and dared to hope. This was going to work.

“Don’t worry. I’ll do the right thing.” He stroked her hair again and Ruth couldn’t stop herself from leaning into his touch. “Everyone knows you’re a virtuous woman, but there are plenty who’d love to prove otherwise. Nobody can know you were here.”

Shivers ran across her skin as he drew his fingertips down the back of her arm until he captured her hand.

“There is a snag. I’m one of a few possible family redeemers, and not the closest relative.” His thumb traced the inside of her wrist. “I’ll talk to him in the morning.”

She barely registered what he said. It was like her bones were melting into honey. “What?”

“The closest family redeemer. If he’ll marry you, I have to let him.”

That got her attention. All of this might be for nothing? “Who?”

Ruth gasped when Boaz named the man of the house they were staying at, Elimelech’s nephew Acharon: the last man she wanted to marry. Acharon, himself, was fine, but that would mean she and Naomi would have to stay in that house with a woman who already hated them. If Ruth became his second wife, it’d get so much worse.

Boaz put his fingertips against her lips and it took all her willpower not to kiss them.

“I’ll talk to him in the morning. At first light. As the Lord lives, I’ll do everything I can to make sure I’m the one to redeem you.” He closed the space between them and kissed her, a brief press of his lips on hers before he scooted back.

Thank you didn’t cover the depth of Ruth’s relief. She opened her mouth to try to put her feelings into words, but only a whimper emerged as tears ran down her face.

Boaz folded her into his arms. “Sh. Sh. I know what to do. It’ll happen.” He patted her back, but the comforting touch turned gradually arousing.

Ruth nestled her forehead into his chest. She didn’t trust herself. She couldn’t lift her face, not without–

“Stay here,” he whispered.

She shook her head.

“It’s not safe for you out there.”

She smiled. “I got here by myself.”

“It’s darker now.”

When she inhaled deeply to give her the fortitude to say no, her breasts rubbed against his chest, which made her toes curl. This was too dangerous.

“Turn around,” he said. “Stay with your back to me. Just for awhile. Until you can see.”

Although it was a bad idea, she did it. He put his arm around her and pulled her back against him. His “foot” was no longer in its soft state. There were several layers of wool between them, but there should’ve been more.

“Don’t move,” he said. “Please.”

She clenched her jaw and stayed as still as she could while panting like she’d just run the length of the village, but she must’ve fallen asleep, because the next thing she knew, he was shaking her awake again. Birds were singing, but it was still dark.

“You should go now.” Boaz’s breath was hot in her ear and before she could tell her hips otherwise, the undulated against him. He had her flat on her back in a heartbeat, his mouth on her neck, his hand on her breast. Just as quickly, he threw himself off her. “Stupid. That was stupid. Give me a moment.”

She swallowed hard and sat up, twitching her tunic and cloak back into place.

“I need to give you something,” he muttered. “Something for Naomi, so she knows…” His voice trailed off. “Barley is all I have here, so it’ll have to do.” He crawled closer to the pile of grain and gestured for her to come near. “Spread out your cloak.” She slipped it off and put it on the ground, where he loaded it with six scoops of grain. “That’s a start.”

Her legs were so shaky, getting to her feet was a bit of a struggle. Boaz gathered the ends of the cloak together and put the bundle over her left shoulder; she stumbled, but managed to stay on her feet. After everything that just happened, what was she supposed to say now? He seemed to have the same problem, and they stood there, avoiding eye contact.

“Thank you,” she said, but it must have sounded more tentative than she meant it, because he put his hand on her other shoulder and told her not to worry.

She trudged back to the village as a line of peach edged the top of the hills to the east. That was the second time Boaz told her not to worry. The last man to tell her that was Mahlon, telling her not to worry about his injury. He died the next day. Things with Boaz had to turn out better than that.

A Crazy Scheme: Ruth Part III

The woman of the house was muttering and slamming the door to the storage room again, which meant that, if Naomi and Ruth didn’t get out of there while her back was turned, they’d be subject to another fit, so they sped out of the house before anything got thrown at them.

“This isn’t working anymore,” Naomi said. “If it ever did.”

“There’s one more day of harvesting wheat,” Ruth said. “I’ll glean as much as I can.”

Naomi gave an irritated huff. “It isn’t really that we’re eating too much food. It’s that you’re too young and beautiful and I’m the previous woman of this house and my husband’s family and the elders are dragging their feet about deciding on a permanent solution for us.”

Ruth agreed with her mother-in-law, but there wasn’t much point to following those complaints with more of her own. Whining wouldn’t make people stop giving her sidelong glances and edging away when she came near. Sure, they loved to publicly praise her loyalty to Naomi, but that didn’t mean they were glad to have her around. At least, the women weren’t. And certainly not the woman of the house where they were staying. Ruth headed towards the dung pile in the back of the property. Maybe a fresh pile of fuel patties would help.

“Is Boaz still, ah, watching over you?”

“I’m still gleaning in his fields and eating with his workers.” Ruth tossed a forkful of dried grasses to the edge of the dung pile. “Just like you and he told me to.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”

Ruth gave Naomi a sly grin and then crouched to mix the grass and aged dung.

Naomi snorted and sat next to Ruth, although she faced away from the work. “Good.”

“At least he was still giving me the eye the last time he came to the wheat fields. He hasn’t been there in a couple of days.”

“That’s because the barley is dry and they started winnowing,” Naomi said. “What we need is a way to light a fire under Boaz’s feet.” Her loud hand clap startled Ruth. “That’s it!”

“What’s it?”

“Do you trust me?”

Ruth tossed one formed patty to the side and faced her mother-in-law. “You got me out of Moab and your pregnancy ruse found us so much help, we didn’t even use up our food. Of course I trust you.”

That got a chuckle out of Naomi. “Then here’s the plan. Boaz has his own threshing floor. A flat bit on the hill to the west of his wheat field.”

“With an oak tree to the east. I know.”

“Good. When you come back from your work today, take a bath, oil your skin and hair, put on a little scent and your softest robes. Then go to the floor, so you can see where he goes to sleep, but stay hidden. Nobody can see you or know you’re there.”

Ruth folded her hands in her lap, gripping her fingers so hard that her knuckles turned pale. What did Naomi expect her to do? Did she really go through that entire journey only to wind up doing what her friends in Moab had warned her about?

“When everyone’s asleep, go to him and,” Naomi leaned close and spoke in an undertone, “uncover his feet.”

That wasn’t what Ruth expected Naomi to say. She frowned. “His feet?”

Naomi wiped her fingertips across Ruth’s forehead. “Don’t make wrinkles. We don’t want Boaz to suspect your real age.”

Ruth made her face as smooth and placid as she could. “So, his feet.”

“Yes. Uncover his feet and make him choose whether to be honorable or dishonorable. So far, everything he’s done has been above board, and everything I’ve been told about him makes me think he’ll do the right thing. He just needs a little push.”

Wouldn’t his feet already be uncovered from tossing and turning in his sleep? It was the beginning of summer; nobody slept swaddled up. Maybe her mother-in-law meant something else. “Should I wash his feet while I’m there?”

Naomi recoiled. “You will under no circumstance touch his feet. He’ll think you’re a veiled woman and then all will be lost.”

“I’m lost now.”

“What? It’s a perfectly simple plan.”

Ruth shook her head slowly. “Feet have way more significance in your culture.”

Naomi blinked at her a moment before dissolving into giggles. By the time she finished, she had to wipe her eyes. “‘Feet’ here is a euphemism for the male member.”

“That makes much more sense.” Ruth managed to say this primly, but she couldn’t stop a smirk from forming. “So you don’t expect me and him to…”

“Certainly not,” Naomi snapped.

“But I’m to expose him to the breeze and curl up with him as if we were married and then await his instructions?”

“Exactly.” Naomi’s voice turned tender. “He won’t take advantage of you and leave you with the consequences. He’s in his forties. If he were like that, the women here would know by now. His wife died in childbirth four months ago. He just needs a little reminder of how nice it is to have a soft, sweet woman by his side.”

It had been a long time since anyone had been tender with Ruth, and it was so out of character for Naomi. Tears burned in the back of Ruth’s eyes. She blinked and went back to forming another patty. “What’s the thing you called him when I first gleaned in his fields?”

“Kinsman redeemer.”

“Kinsman redeemer,” Ruth repeated so she’d get the pronunciation right.

“So you’ll do it?”

“Everything you said.” Like she said, it was time to light a fire under someone, and Boaz was acting like tinder.

Naomi squeezed Ruth’s hand. “I’ll finish these up. Get down to the wheat fields so our gracious host doesn’t have more to complain about.”



Fake It ‘Til You Make It: Ruth Part II

Ruth dug her thumb into her right side as far as it’d go, but she couldn’t reach the itch on her stomach. She grimaced and plucked at the wrappings, but they were too wet from sweat to budge.

“Look alive,” Naomi said. “Shepherds.”

Two youngish boys, not quite within hailing distance, walked the same path straight at them.

“Keep the donkey between you and them,” Naomi said. “They might be from Bethlehem and that,” her gaze dropped to Ruth’s stomach, “won’t help anymore.”

Ruth slid back until she was at the donkey’s left flank, which put her on the downhill side of the animal. “Red,” she whispered, “you’d better not slip.” Its footing was sure, but its side bags kept bumping her stomach, which kept knocking her off the path.

“Good morning,” the boys yelled.

The women waved.

“Good sons,” Naomi called when the boys were close. “What is the nearest village?”


Naomi crumpled to the ground as if she were a grain sack with a large tear. Ruth was used to it, so she merely cried, “Oh no,” and reached out one arm, but the boys dashed forward.

The older one was fast enough that he caught Naomi before she fully hit the gravel, and eased her down. “Do you have water?” he asked Ruth.

Ruth leaned over the donkey as much as her stomach allowed and looked as pitiful as she could. “We ran out yesterday.”

“What are you waiting for?” He snapped at the younger boy, who scrambled to pull out their water skin. The older one held it to Naomi’s lips and she miraculously recovered enough to take a healthy gulp.

“Did you say Bethlehem?”

Ruth never stopped being amazed at how weak Naomi could make her voice sound.

“Yes, mother,” the older boy said. “Two hills over.”

Naomi brushed her hand over her forehead. “Who is your father?”

“I am Enoch of Hiram.”

“And your grandfather?”


Naomi managed a weak smile. “I grew up here, but I’ve been gone a long time. Seth is my cousin.”

“Was,” the younger boy said.

“His legs were like tree trunks.” Naomi sighed. “Hard to think of him as gone.” She pushed herself up on her elbows and accepted another drink of water. “I used to take care of your father and his brothers when– You don’t want to hear an old lady’s stories. Help me up.”

He hoisted her up and she put a steadying hand on the donkey. “Time to go, daughter. Time to see whether anyone remembers old Naomi.”

“Brother,” Enoch said. “Run home and let them know Naomi is coming back.”

“But the sheep–”

“I got the flock. Go on!”

The younger boy took off across the grass. By the time Ruth got the donkey going again, he was out of sight.

“You are a good son,” Naomi said to Enoch. “May God bless you for your kindness.” She trudged away with a stooped-over posture until Ruth gave her the “all clear” signal.

Ruth’s breath came faster as she allowed herself to hope. “Does this mean I can finally take these pads off?”

Naomi waved a careless hand. “Being pregnant would only be a problem now.” She kept moving forward.

Ruth whipped off her scarf and robe and clawed at the knot between her hip bones until it gave way and she could unwind the wrappings and let the lump of wool that had passed for a baby for the last month fall to the ground. She’d daydreamed about this moment many times a day, every day, but now that she was staring at the bundle in the dirt, her first instinct was to rush to pick it up and brush off the dirt and cradle it. Which was ridiculous. Why was she on the verge of tears about losing the lump that had caused her so much discomfort for so long?

Her breath hitched. It seemed like her hand migrated to her stomach without her wanting it to. She’d lost that baby years ago. It shouldn’t be able to still make her cry.

She gritted her teeth, picked up the wool and shook it out of its balled-up state. When it flapped freely in the breeze, it lost its power, and she hurried to catch up to Naomi.

The path wound down to a valley and around one more hill, and then the village was in sight. From here, she could see the grain fields ripening on every slope. She wrinkled her nose. Those wheat fields were a month away from ripeness, so again, it was barley. They’d been following the barley harvest since they left Moab.

Naomi motioned for her to come closer. “Remember to look down as if you’re younger and more insecure.” She grabbed Ruth’s chin and tilted her head up. “At least the oil we used on your skin every day hasn’t been wasted. You could pass for eighteen, which is still a little old, but that can’t be helped. You are a widow, after all.”

As they trudged up the path, Naomi transformed back into the bent old lady and Ruth tried to look sweet and innocent, although all she felt was raw and exhausted. A couple of women ran down from the village, crying out, “Naomi, Naomi. Is it really you?” They fussed over her, but didn’t give Ruth a second glance.

When they were in the village proper, Naomi picked up a handful of gritty dirt and let it slowly trickle over her head. “Naomi? Who is this Naomi?”

More women crowded around. “It’s you.” “I know it’s you.” “We were children together.” “We were married the same year.”

“Don’t call me by that name. I’m no longer beautiful. And pleasant? Bah!”

The women herded Naomi toward someone’s compound, even as she was speaking. Ruth followed, unnoticed, with the donkey.

“No,” Naomi continued in her public speaking voice, “call me Mara, for the Lord has made my life bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer, when He has sent so much tragedy to me?”

By now, the village’s children had joined the women, and also a few men in from the fields for their midday meal. They jostled Ruth as they pressed closer to the scene, and she was pretty sure she felt at least one hand grab her behind, which meant the end of the meek and innocent act. She was not a servant to be groped at will.

“Mother,” Ruth said. “Mother Mara!” She let a hint of panic into her voice, which wasn’t much of a stretch.

“Ruth, my Ruth,” Naomi cried. “My one blessing from the Lord. Daughter, where are you?”

The two women pushed their way through the crowd. Naomi put her hands on Ruth’s shoulders and kept her at arm’s length a moment. The longer they looked in each other’s eyes, the tearier they got. When Naomi whispered, “We’re here. We did it,” Ruth felt it as a genuine moment, not one manufactured for the greatest crowd impact. They embraced, rocking back and forth.

When they separated, Naomi kept one hand firmly around Ruth’s arm. Their moment was over; time to get back to the performance. Ruth kept her gaze downcast.

“This girl.” Naomi paused as if overcome by her emotions. “This girl is not of my body, she is not even of our people. She is Mahlon’s wife.”

“Where is Mahlon?” someone shouted.

Naomi gave a keening mourning cry that raised the hair on Ruth’s arms, especially when some of the women joined in. “The Lord took him. The Lord took him and my Kilion and my Elimelech.”

The noise of the crowd became too loud for any one person to be heard over until an older man raised his hand and hushed them.

“This is Ruth.” Naomi walked them in a circle. “You could call her a foreigner, a Moabitess, but I call her daughter in truth. She left her family and her people, rejected her gods and idols for the Lord Almighty, and kept this old woman alive on our journey. If the Lord is just, he will bless her for what she’s done for me.” With that, she collapsed and had to be half carried into the nearest home.

Women put their arms around Ruth and patted her head and ushered her through the doorway, up stone steps built into the wall of the house and over to where Naomi sat in the center of the room, weeping, allowing herself to be fussed over. A bowl of goat’s milk was placed in Ruth’s hands and someone crumbled a dried raisin cake into it. She didn’t bother keeping her tears in checks as she ate and drank.

It was suddenly too real. She would be living among strangers. Strangers who were being kind now, but who knew how long that would last. Where were they going to live? How would they eat? When would life stop being a performance?








Your People Will Be My People: Ruth, Part I

No matter how close to sunrise Ruth woke up, Huldah was already at the village cistern, waiting with her “helpful advice.” Lately, that made Ruth turn tail, but today, she waited longer than usual to make sure Huldah and her cronies were there. Today, she was on a mission.

And she had a friend. “Orpah,” Ruth whispered. “Are you ready?”

Orpah just sighed.

Since their husbands had died, sighs were her main form of communication. Ruth would have to take that for a “yes.”

“I hear a loose sandal flapping.” Huldah’s voice was too loud to be just for her cronies’ benefit. “It must be Ruth.” She turned to face the path. “Ruth, honey, is that you?”

“Yes. It’s Ruth.” She plastered a smile on her face. “Good morning, everyone.”

None of the dozen women there bothered to be subtle. Their gazes dropped to Ruth and Orpah’s midsections while they got the morning pleasantries out of the way.

“It’s been how long since Kilion died?” Huldah’s head was tilted and her forehead furrowed, as if she truly were concerned.

Ruth took her place in line. “Over two new moons ago.”

“So neither of you is….”

Orpah sighed and shook her head.

Huldah smacked her tongue. “We were just talking about you and your situation now that there are no men at your house.”

Ruth smiled as if she were interested in her opinion.

“You really don’t have any ties to that foreign woman anymore,” Huldah said. “You should move back to your father’s house and let him find you another husband. One of us.”

First, her father hadn’t invited her to rejoin his household. Second, “Who? I was married for ten years and had no children.” Her father hiring her out as a servant was more likely than him negotiating another marriage.

“You’re not barren,” Beulah, who’d always been a real friend, said. “It’s all the fault of those foreigners. The voice of their god cancelled out all the offerings we made to Ashtoreth for you.”

Behind her, Ruth could hear Orpah begin the low keening sound that meant a wail was coming soon. Better start their conversation now. “Orpah–”

“That’s right,” another woman said. “Just get out of that house and back with your own people and I’m sure your troubles will be over.”

Huldah sidled near Ruth. “My brother-in-law was talking to my husband just this morning. You know my husband is the father of the household now? Anyway, he might be interested in bringing you into the fold.”

“As what?” Ruth asked.

“As a wife, of course.” Huldah giggled. “Don’t be silly.”

“Oh, good.” Ruth kept her voice as level as possible. “Which brother?” The one too stupid to keep his face out of the way of a donkey’s hoof or the one with cheeks so sunken he looked about to die?


The stupid one. Ruth nodded and tried to look regretful. “That’s so kind of your family, but it won’t be necessary. We’re leaving.”

There was a chorus of “leaving?” “how can you leave?” “where are you going?” as the women pressed closer.

Ruth elbowed Orpah.

Orpah cleared her throat. “Our mother-in-law is taking us back to her land.”

The women circled around them like buzzards. “Why?” “Are you crazy?”

“The traders that came through here a while back said that there’s rain in her land, Judah, now,” Ruth said. “She wants to go and we will support her.”

“She’s in Kerak now, figuring out the best route,” Orpah said.

Ruth gave Orpah a real smile. Those were more words than she’d said in ages. “We’re just waiting for the barley harvest, so we’ll have food for the journey.” Ruth lowered the bucket into the cistern, speaking louder so she could be heard over its banging. “I hope the wild animal that destroyed some of our fields doesn’t come back. If it does, we’ll have to wait another moon until the wheat harvest.”

She gave all her attention to filling their two water skins while the other women whispered amongst themselves, and several of them left in a hurry. With the real purpose of this chat over, she could relax. Her mother-in-law Naomi was right: the women’s network would get the word out that whoever was sabotaging their fields should stop, and without openly accusing anyone or confronting any of the men.

“What’s going to happen to the house and fields?” Huldah asked.

Ruth grunted at the effort of hefting the full skin over her shoulders. “Naomi will sell it. Maybe back to the man her husband bought it from. Maybe to the highest bidder. Your fields are next to ours, aren’t they?”

“That’s right, they are,” Huldah said as if it had just then realized it. “But you won’t get top price for it with your cistern problem.”

“How did you know there were issues with our private cistern?” Ruth asked.

Huldah scratched behind her ear. “You’ve been coming here for water every day. You used to come every five days or so.”

Yeah, right. But it wouldn’t help to directly question Huldah. It wasn’t like the woman would publicly admit to fouling their water. “I’ll tell Naomi to expect a lower price. Come on, Orpah, we’d better get back and keep packing.”

“Don’t forget to fix that sandal,” Huldah called, prompting a hailstorm of tittering from the other women.

Ruth had her back to them already, so she indulged in an eye roll before giving a thumb’s up. She couldn’t wait to leave this place.


Fourteen days later.

With every step away from the village, the echoes of her “friend’s” words faded. Only the faintest strains of, “You’ll wind up a veiled woman,” and “Maybe the bandits won’t kill you,” remained.

But they weren’t even half a morning’s walk away when Naomi pulled the donkey to a halt. “I can’t do it. I can’t do this to you.”

“You aren’t doing anything to us,” Ruth said. “We’ve been preparing for this for days. There is nothing for us in Moab.”

Orpah whimpered.

“Your families are in Moab. Go back to your mothers’ homes.” Naomi put her left hand on Orpah’s cheek as her right hand cupped Ruth’s cheek. “You’ve been so kind to me and you were so good to your husbands. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.”

Ruth couldn’t keep her tears in when Naomi kissed her, and soon they were all crying and wiping their eyes with each other’s head scarves.

“N- n- n- n0,” Orpah said.

“We’re going with you to your people,” Ruth said.

“Come on,” Naomi said. “There’s no reason for you to come with me. Can I give birth to any more sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No use waiting around for that.”

Naomi’s attempt to make them laugh failed.

“Think about it.” Naomi shook their shoulders. “Even if were to get married again and the Lord blessed me with a miracle to equal the mother of my people who had her first baby at age ninety, would you refuse to marry other men while you waited for my sons to grow up? Ridiculous.”

Ruth shook her head more vigorously than did Orpah.

“My daughters,” Naomi said. “My beautiful daughters. I’ve sold you a lame donkey. Things may not be more secure where we’re going. They have rain, but nothing can change the fact that we’re three widows, and we’ll have to survive on the kindness of people who are strangers to you. The Lord himself has caused me to suffer and there will be more suffering on this journey. I can guarantee it. The path to the Salt Sea from Kerak is easier than trying to cross the valley of Amon or of Zered, but it’s still steep and treacherous. The rains have just ended, so where there’s water, it’ll be plenty, but there will be stretches of this journey when we can’t find any. Not to mention the crevasses, the bandits, the heat. Show the good sense I know you have and stay here with your people.”

They huddled together, weeping, again. This time, Ruth wasn’t sure if she was crying out of shock at hearing the depth of the bitterness in Naomi’s voice or because she knew Orpah wasn’t strong enough for such a journey. When Ruth pulled back, Orpah was gazing up the road at their village.

“Go,” Ruth whispered to her. “We’ll be okay.”

Orpah’s breath came in whooping gulps, but she managed to kiss Naomi and hug Ruth before heading back where they’d come from.

Ruth smacked the flank of the donkey and followed it. She glanced back at her mother-in-law. “How long are we on this road?”

Naomi crossed her arms and stayed put. “Orpah is the wise one now. You should follow her example for once and go back to your people and your gods.”

Ruth ran back to Naomi, clenching her fists at her sides to prevent herself from poking her finger into her mother-in-law’s chest. “Don’t ask me to leave you again. I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” Her voice became louder and louder until she was shouting. “I will die where you die and be buried there. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”

For a few heartbeats, the only sounds were the wind through the fattening heads of wheat and the donkey’s plodding hoofs.

“You’ve always been the sweetest girl,” Naomi said. “So easy-going. Except when you really make up your mind.”

Ruth was still panting from the passion it took to get her to speak her mind so bluntly.

Naomi gave an almost-smile. “Let’s pray that death separates us later rather than sooner.” She linked her arm with Ruth’s. “Come on. Let’s catch up to that donkey.”



Joab, the War-Crazed Traditionalist

Joab is David’s nephew. As I’ve written him, he’s a couple of years older than his uncle, David, which is an example of me stealing from life: in my mother’s family, the oldest nephew is older than his youngest uncle. In high school, the nephew apparently took great pleasure in needling his uncle about this in the crowded hallways.

We first meet Joab in It Is You just after David  has killed his first lion. Most of David’s family responds with a combination of awe, irritation, and hostility, but not Joab:

“Show-off!” someone shouted from behind the family.

They turned around and David went up on his toes to see his accuser.

“Always boasting,” the voice continued.

By then, David knew: it was Joab.

A smiling Joab broke through the rest of the family. “You go off to live with the king and then come back and kill a lion with your bare hands. How are the rest of us supposed to compete with that?”

When Joab goes off with David on a mission to find running water for David to clean himself with properly (there’s a spring a few km away), we get a sense of his life’s obsession.

Joab shouldered him sideways. “Someone said that the king has been training the men of Benjamin all winter. That true?”

David nodded.

“Man. You get to hang out near the army, see their weapons, watch them train. You get all the luck.”

David shrugged.

“Details. I need details.” Joab held his bundle out in front of him. “I’ll drop your clothes right here and make you walk back naked if you don’t tell me something soon.”

“Okay, okay.” David laughed. “A hundred or so men from Benjamin live in Gibeah and train year-round. Commander Abner hopes it’ll grow when the tribes see the success of an army more like the armies we’re fighting against. We’ll never again scatter in fear because an army lines up in ranks against us.”

Joab drove his right fist into his left palm with a satisfying smack. “Oh yeah.”

In this scene, David is 14. At 17, Joab is just a few years from the age of military service (20), close enough to imagine himself as a soldier.

As they walked back to the village, they weighed the merits of various weapons and retold old battle legends until David said, “But our best weapon is the Lord. Only He can throw a whole army into confusion so they kill each other and all we have to do is stand and watch and reap the plunder.”

“See, that’s why you’d make a great king,” Joab said. “You say stuff like that and even I want to follow you into battle.”

“Did you have a fever that boiled your brain while I was gone?”

“I’m serious.”

David pointed at the half-dead fig tree ahead of them. “You’d follow that tree if it meant you could be a soldier.”

Joab sniggered. “You’ve got me there.”

In the rest of the series, I build on that basic character trait: he’s always primed to fight.

After he hears that David has left King Saul and that the Lord has told David that he’ll be king some day, he does the one non-traditional thing in his history: takes off with his two younger brothers — leaving his father with nobody to work the land with him — and joins David. I think his war craziness is behind this. It was a calculated risk to give him a chance to command his own army, just like he and David used to play when they were kids.

In the early years of being on the run in the wilderness with David, and there are less than a hundred men with them, David takes his parents to Moab to ask the king to protect them. He’s gone for at least a couple of weeks. During that time (in my version), Joab gets the men all riled up to march on Gibeah and overthrow Saul. David has to talk them down and remind Joab that the Lord hasn’t given him the go-ahead for that.

This is a continual frustration between the two men; after all, David twice refuses to kill Saul when it’d be easy to do so. It deepens when David becomes king and has to learn diplomacy. It gets really messy in the story I told this week (Parts I, II, III, and IV), because David is trying to wrestle people into a new age and Joab doesn’t recognize either the dawning of the new age or the need for one.

Saul was the first king, but he wasn’t like what we think of as a king now. There was no golden throne, no formal court, no glorious castle at the capital of the country. There was no capital until David made one in Jerusalem. Saul was more like the most powerful tribal lord. So when David tries to get Joab to see that he should put away the idea of getting revenge for the death of his brother for the greater good, Joab just doesn’t see it.

As I see them, Joab is right and David is right. Joab is correct that every custom of Israel says he has the right to kill the man who killed his brother. It’s a little dicey in that Asahel was killed during a combat situation while he was chasing the people who were retreating and who gave him every chance of stating his intention and avoid being killed. But, in Joab’s eyes, his brother was killed, therefore he can seek revenge.

But David is also right. It would be better for Joab to sacrifice that old tribal ideal in order to make a peaceful transition to a united Israel possible. Abner was going to go out and negotiate allegiances for David, so that Ishbosheth would see every tribe arrayed against him and give up without a civil war. With Abner dead, there was nobody else with as much clout with the Saulean traditionalists to present David’s side with any authority.

When David makes Joab attend Abner’s funeral, it’s a public shaming. Joab does become commander of the tribal army (but not of the elite, permanent force), but the balance of power between him and David is way on David’s side until David sends word to put Uriah at the front line and then retreat behind him to leave him alone. But that’s a story for another day….

The real commander of Israel’s army, Part IV

The scout came with good news: Abner was close. Joab and Abishai sent their two officers to hide with the other men in the olive grove, while they moved to the middle of the main road, out of sight of the guards at Hebron’s gate.

Joab hadn’t taken in any food or drink since that morning. His men had been pushing wine and water on him all day, but he never broke a sweat, despite the heat. It was like winter rain flowed through him.

The old commander ambled towards them on a donkey, but Joab didn’t run to him. That would be a sign of submission, and Joab didn’t acknowledge that Abner had any authority over him. It took forever for Abner to draw even.

“I was already at the well at Sirah. Now I’m going to have to stay here overnight. What’s so important that you had to delay your master claiming his kingdom?”

The nagging, old-man tone in Abner’s voice made Joab think of lambs being led to slaughter. He gripped the hilt of the dagger hidden under his sleeve.  “We need to talk privately.”

“My guards are discrete.”

Joab grabbed the donkey’s lead. “It’s a matter of some delicacy.”

“Then why is David sending you to deliver it?”

Joab made a noise he hoped sounded like laughter, to prove he was a good sport. “He didn’t send me.”

“So you’re talking to me behind your master’s back?”

“We’ve spoken privately before. Please just come over here.” Joab walked twenty steps off the road, into the olive grove.

Abner conferred with his guards. “Not in the trees. Closer to the wall.”

Joab didn’t care where it happened. He was across the road before Abner had dismounted. When Abner was several steps away, Joab dropped the dagger, blade down, out of his sleeve, but kept it hidden.

“What’s this about?” Abner asked, but there was no bite of authority in his tone, just weariness.

Joab put his left arm around Abner’s shoulders and leaned in as if he were going to whisper his secrets, but instead thrust up with his right arm, stabbing Abner between the ribs before he could register what was happening. Joab did it again and twisted the blade for good measure.

Joab nodded at Abishai and kept Abner in the bear hug until his brother was there. When Abishai was blocking the view from Abner’s guards, he let the old man drop.

Abishai unsheathed his sword, and the old man’s guards yelled and ran towards them, but they couldn’t get there in time to stop Abishai from running Abner through.

“Just like you did to our brother,” Abishai said as he brought the blade down.

Abner coughed out one word: “Traitor.”

Joab spat in his face.

The guards arrived. One man knelt at his master’s head and wiped the spit off. He and another man stripped off their robes and pressed them to Abner’s wounds. The two standing guards drew their swords and pointed them at the brothers.

Joab and Abishai put their hands up, which was the signal to their back-up, and maneuvered themselves so the guards had their backs to the olive grove. If they could kill the guards without a big fuss, they could drag everyone off and all anyone in Hebron would know was that Abner never did what he claimed he would. And Joab’s counsel to David would be proved right.

The guards on the ground were focused on their master. The guards with the swords out were focused on Joab and Abishai. As long as nobody noticed Joab’s men creeping towards them, this would all be over in a heartbeat.

“Just so you know,” Joab’s tone was conversational, “this wasn’t a political thing. Abner killed our brother. His blood was crying out for justice.”

The guards said nothing.

“Were you at the Pool of Gibeon?” Joab asked. “It happened then, after we were no longer fighting.”

“That’s right,” the shorter one said. “Your brother chased after a retreating army.”

The back of Joab’s neck got hot. “Are you implying that Asahel was in the wrong–”

Abner rasped something that sounded like, “Behind you,” and his guards turned their heads.

Joab’s men raised their weapons. The guards with the swords were outnumbered twelve to two, fourteen including Joab and Abishai, and surrounded. They voluntarily dropped their weapons and put their hands in the air. While Joab was reclaiming his dagger, he saw the backs of Abner’s other two guards almost at the city gate.

That was stupid. They were so fixated on securing the guards with swords that they didn’t cover the two with Abner, and now they’d pay for it.

Abishai said in an undertone, “What do we do now?”

Joab watched one of the city guards run out and glare at the scene.

“I’m not ashamed of what I did.” Joab strolled over to Abner’s body, stepped over it, and stood, his legs planted wide, hands clasped behind his back. “Every custom of our people gives us the right to seek revenge for our brother’s murder. Let them come.”

The city guard went back in. They’d be running to get David now.

Joab sent all his men, except for Abishai, back into the olive groves to hide out until the pressure eased.

They waited in silence.

It didn’t take long before David arrived with a full entourage: Abner’s two guards, half of David’s own guards, the leaders from Judah and the other tribes, and then the kinds of hangers-on who always seemed to show up at the first sign of drama.

Joab didn’t budge.

David didn’t do him the honor of a private word first. He scowled at Abner’s body and shouted, “Nephew, did you do this?”

Joab said, “Yes,” while Abishai said, “We did it.”

“Both of you?”

“Yes,” they said.

David lifted his gaze from the body and stared at them. “You killed a great and courageous man, a hero of Israel, for your own selfish purposes.”

“It was—”

“Enough! There is no defense against this, only thin excuses.” David went into what Joab called his desperation position: standing with his arms open wide to his sides and his head tipped back. “I vow by the Lord that I and my kingdom are forever innocent of this crime against Abner, son of Ner.” He straightened his head. “Joab and his family are the guilty ones.” He was looking at them, but it seemed like he saw right through them. “Joab, may your family be cursed. May every generation produce a man who’s plagued by sores or lame or dies by the sword or begs for food.”

A chill went through Joab. David didn’t go around cursing people. This was more than an ordinary disagreement about tactics. Would David send them home? What could he do after leading an army? Plow his father’s fields again? Become one the bandits he fought against? Better to fall on his sword than come to that.

No. He would not fall on his sword. He’d done nothing wrong. Righteous anger brought warmth back to his limbs. Moreover, he was beginning to see why David’s brothers were often so annoyed at his piety.

David dropped his arms. “Guards, wrap him up and bring him to my compound. We’ll bury him in the morning. Tell everyone to come. And you,” he rounded on Joab and Abishai, “you will be there and you will tear your clothes and you will wear sackcloth. We will all, all mourn for Abner.”

He stood shoulder to shoulder with Joab and put his mouth on Joab’s ear. “We were on the verge of peace for all of Israel, you idiot. Abner was seventy-five. He wasn’t going to challenge you.” David shoved his cloak behind him as he swept back through the gates.

Joab blinked at the crowd who blinked back at him. He wasn’t being sent home. David wouldn’t order him to attend Abner’s funeral procession if he wasn’t going to be around. He would be the sole commander of the army of Israel. The corners of his mouth began to turn up, but Abishai whacked his shoulder. Right. That would look bad.

Speaking of which, he wasn’t waiting for the crowd to decide to turn into a mob and go after him and his brother, so he copied David and exited with a flourish of his robe, his head held high.