The widow shaded her eyes and squinted at him. “What is it, son?”
Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BC
1 King 18:1i
Elijah helped the widow to her feet. “The Lord’s going to let it rain.”
She sighed. “I used to stand in the rain with my face to the clouds.”
“Lijah?” Nathan leaped to his feet. “Last time that look hit your face, I was hiding behind the gate pillar, and you were talking about baking up a storm.” He leaned on his shovel and scratched his temple. “Just, um, what did the Lord say?”
Elijah laughed out loud. “You sound like you did in the Kerith. Don’t change.” He grinned at his big brother. “The Lord said, ‘Show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.’ Exact words.” He bumped Nathan’s chest with his fist.
“Ahab?” The widow clamped her hand over his arm. “That can’t be right. King Ahab wants to kill you.”
Neetz let a baby vine fall from her fingers and jumped up beside the widow. “What are you talking about? You can’t go near that king.” She stared wild-eyed at Nathan.
Elijah held a steady smile. “It’s back to Israel, Neetz. But first I should tell your father.”
“Just like that?” Neetz gasped. “You up and…”
The widow moved beside Neetz, so their shoulders touched.
As Elijah led the group toward the city, the sun rose over Mt. Hermon, casting long shadows. The air stood still. Flies buzzed his face. A family of pin-tailed sandgrouse erupted from the vines and landed in rows farther north.
Elijah passed the low walls of the empty garden plots, strode between the huge stone pillars of the north entrance, and took the familiar oak-lined street to Hashabiah’s house. As he tripped the latch of the tall iron gate with its heavy cargo ship motif, the drumming of a woodpecker rattled from the limb of an oak.ii
Elijah followed Nathan and Neetz into Hashabiah’s office with Zim and his mother right behind.
Nathan dropped back, took Elijah by the elbow, and propelled him forward.
Hashabiah stood behind his desk and frowned. “The Lord told you?”
Elijah pushed his eyebrows together. Was Hashabiah hinting at something? “Yes, sir.”
Hashabiah stepped out from behind the desk and approached Elijah much as he had approached Zim three years ago, yet instead of looking down into Zim’s eyes, he tipped his head back and held eye contact with Elijah. “Moses said, ‘Who am I to confront Pharaoh?’ Gideon told the Lord, ‘I am the least in my family.’ When the Lord appointed our first king, we found him hiding among the baggage. Yet any child can step up and say, ‘The Lord told me.’”
Elijah gulped. What had happened to the kindly Uncle Hashabiah?
“Yes, sir.” Elijah kept a straight face. He could bore Hashabiah with stories of Dad’s many reminders against taking the name of the Lord in vain.
Hashabiah lowered his chin, leveling his eyes on Elijah. “Are you sure you heard the Lord’s voice?”
“I’m sure, sir.”
Neetz stood by her father. Her skin paled and sweat beaded on her forehead.
Hashabiah cocked his head and smiled. “I don’t want to sound like Balak trying to persuade Balaamiii, but is it possible you misunderstood? The Lord needs strong young men here in Sidon.”
“Thank you, sir. The words were, ‘Show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.’ Nothing more.” Elijah draped a hand over Nathan’s shoulder. “My brother could tell you what happened at the Brook Kerith when I purposely misunderstood the Lord’s words. We hope I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Twisting the Lord’s words is a dangerous game.” Hashabiah edged a scroll on his desk into line with the others and glanced at Neetz. “At the same time, we would be pleased if the Lord were to allow you to continue among us.”
Neetz wiped her brow and shot a quick smile toward Nathan.
“Very kind of you, sir,” Elijah said.
Hashabiah stepped from behind the desk. He took Elijah by the shoulders. “As the Lord advised Joshuaiv, ‘Be strong. Be of good courage. And be careful to obey everything Moses taught.’ You and Nathan have rescued my vines, so when the Lord sends rain, I hope once again to market Hashabiah Wines.”
Elijah nodded. “You have an excellent crew of vine dressers, including Zim. When Nathan was his age, he managed our father’s vineyard.”
Neetz ran her hands down the front of her tunic then twisted them together. She pushed her hair back and stared up at Nathan. “Well?”
Nathan blushed. “My brother paints my early responsibilities much too large.”
She pressed trembling lips together and rubbed her wrists.
“That’s not what Neetz is asking.” Zim yanked on Nathan’s tunic.
Nathan turned toward Neetz. “Muh?” He swallowed twice and turned back to Zim. “Wh… what are you talking about?” He ran his hands through his hair.
“She means, will you stay and take care of the vineyard?”
Elijah put his head down and held his breath. Nathan had marched barefoot to hide him from the king. He had held him to the Lord’s words at the Kerith and had decoyed Moloch thugs in Racham’s woods. Nathan’s belonged with him on the road, not here in the vines.
Nathan frowned at Neetz. “Oh? You mean…” He glanced around the circle of silent stares, his own face pale and blank. “I go with my brother. He needs me.”
Elijah let out his breath. His tears welled up, and he gulped. The road home opened wide.
Neetz covered her face with both hands, strangled a sob, and stumbled from the room.
Elijah darted glances at the empty doorway. Why had she disturbed the situation? That kind of exit didn’t go well with the idea of Neetz out of reach.
Nathan opened and closed his mouth without speaking. He turned his back on the group and shook his head.
Hashabiah opened the door and looked out. “Neetz has disappeared. Zim says it well, Nathan. We need you. Yet, stay or go. The decision has to be yours.” He turned to Elijah. “I thank you both for rescuing my dying vineyard and training your helpers. You’ll want to leave in the morning, so I’ll send your pay to the widow’s this evening. Again, men, thank you for your help.”
“Let’s find my daughter.” He led the way downstairs to the family rooms. “Neetz. Would you like to say goodbye to Elijah and Nathan?”
Neetz came to the door. Her eyes were red, but her cheeks dry. “Goodbye, Elijah. Goodbye, Nathan.” She stared at the space between their faces and held her lips frozen in a smile. “Have a good trip.”
“Goodbye.” Nathan tipped his head back to look at the sky then let it flop forward. He stumbled after Elijah, down the stairs and into the courtyard.
The widow crossed the courtyard with Nathan. Her eyes sparkled. “The Lord will work this out, son.” Her voice warmed. “Yes, he will.”
Elijah trudged out the north gate of Zarephath, donkey lead in hand, his chin quivering, mind racing, and his mouth glued shut.
Nathan, Zim, and the widow led donkeys behind him.
He cupped the back of his neck with his hand and shuffled with his head down. He had refused to admit Neetz’s devotion to Nathan. He had convinced himself—and helped Nathan believe—she was unattainable.
Soft white clouds with no promise of rain floated high overhead while the deep hoop-hoop-hoop of a hoopoev resounded behind Elijah.
He thrust his fist forward. How would he feel if Nathan had invented a false picture to separate him from Milkah? What a fool he’d been to part Nathan from Neetz. He was a miserable excuse for a brother.
Zim lengthened his strides and fell in by Elijah. “As soon as you’re done seeing that old king, you can bring Mr. Nathan back and stay here with us, Mr. Lijah. Mom’s got plenty of flour and oil.”
The widow spoke from behind them. “That’s right, young man.”
Elijah turned his head toward the widow. Why would she think they might return?
Zim hopped to match strides with Elijah. “And don’t worry about your beard. It’s still kinda scrawny, but Mr. Nathan’s beard grew thicker, and yours will too. We hope.” He choked back a sob. “I’m almost ten, so I’m not supposed to cry.”vi
Elijah touched Zim’s cheek. Poor kid. His father died, he latched onto Nathan, and now Nathan was leaving.
Zim hiccupped. “I just think it’s rotten Mr. Nathan’s going away and not marrying Neetz. Who’s gonna teach me how to make sick vines well? Or how to cure a new wine barrel? Or when the wine’s ready to go into skins?”
Zim tipped his head. “And just because the Lord told you to go home doesn’t mean Mr. Nathan—”
Zim jumped to Nathan’s side. “Does it?” He hung on Nathan’s arm. “Do you have to go?”
Nathan ran his fingers through his hair and squished his eyebrows together. “What are you talking about, Zim?”
“Did the Lord speak to you? Or do you get your messages from Mr. Lijah?”
Nathan brought a shaky hand to his forehead. “I don’t like this kind of talk, Zim. I don’t like it at all.” He shook free and strode down the path.
But Zim stood with his hands on his hips and called, “Why would you leave Neetz, who thinks you’re the only man alive?”
Elijah pounded his foot in the dirt. Maybe he hadn’t behaved like a perfect brother, but what right did little Zim have to get so personal with Nathan?
The widow scooted past Zim and took Nathan by the arm. “It’s true, you know. That girl is smitten with you.” Had she heard Elijah’s thoughts?
Nathan dropped his donkey lead and picked it up again. The color rose in his cheeks. He turned away from the widow and spoke to a nearby grapevine. “Neetz is far too beautiful for someone like me, ma’am.” He scraped his foot along the ground. “She’s intelligent and refined. When she taught me how to lace my sandals, she was showing kindness to a village boy.”
The widow tilted her chin at Elijah. “Is that how you see it?” She gave him a wry smile. “The rich girl, courteous to the country bumpkin?”
Elijah brushed dust from his shoulders and huffed out a breath.
The widow sidled up next to Nathan. “This ‘village boy’ quotes Moses, the writings, and the prophets. He knows more about viticulture than anyone in Zarephath. And he has the manners of a prince.”
Elijah bit the inside of his cheek. The widow was not helping.
Zim stretched on tiptoes to peer into Nathan’s face. “Neetz laughs and you sigh. The sun hits her hair and you sneak a look. You talk to her about grapevines like she was a new kitten.”
The widow stepped in front of Nathan. “You have to stop lying to yourself about Neetz. We all see how she adores you—and that’s the right word, so don’t deny it. Any man who says Neetz is too good looking or smart or classy for him would be right. Yet she carries a gigantic sign. ‘My heart belongs to Nathan of Tishbe.’”
The widow faced Nathan in the middle of the path. “So, what will you do?”
i1 Kings 18:1 Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.
vi how else has he matured in three years?