Neetz opened the door and stepped inside. “Father, remember the talk at minyan about the boy from Gilead?”
Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BCi
1 King 17:16-17
Elijah followed Neetz and Zim into her father’s office. “Stick with me,” he whispered to Nathan.
Nathan trailed him, chin down and elbows tucked in.
Hashabiah studied an open scroll on a chest-high table. He turned toward his visitors.
Elijah built a slow smile. Hashabiah’s eyes sparkled like Dad’s. He stood about the same height but with smaller chest and biceps. Fewer gray hairs sprinkled his head. He wore his hair and beard neat, no doubt keeping them short like Dad with trims at the dark of the moon.
Hashabiah laid his text pointer on its silk cover, glanced up at Elijah and Nathan, then addressed Neetz. “Please make sure no one enters the house while these men are here.”
Men? Elijah ran a hand through his beard. Thin and scrawny. The title didn’t even fit Nathan whose beard grew thick and dark.
As Neetz stepped out the door, her gaze touched Nathan.
Nathan’s face flushed.
Elijah rubbed the back of his neck.ii Girls in Jabesh stopped in the street to watch his brother walk by, but Dad had arranged Nathan’s marriage to the butcher’s daughter in Ramoth. This young woman had the black eyes and olive skin of Gilead plus a smooth beauty and erect posture sure to draw men’s stares. Did her father keep her locked away from public view?
In one corner, a basket of scrolls stood on a small table, and several more scrolls occupied wooden shelves. Large green plants grew from pots next to the walls, and latticed windows brought illumination from all sides. On the back wall, under the longest window, a low oak desk claimed the center of the room, and on a corner of the desk, a calico cat lifted her head and studied the three intruders with pupils opened to full circle.
Elijah squared his shoulders. The merchants in Jabesh were used to Nathan hiding in the center of Dad’s donkeys, so they gave him quick glances then talked with Elijah. This stranger meant no harm.
As Hashabiah turned to greet Elijah, Zim jumped between them. “Good morning, Uncle Hashabiah. I brought my friends, Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah.”
Zim stood on tip-toe. “They brought us lots and lots of flour.” He sank back on his heels. “And oil too. Lots of oil.”
Hashabiah raised a hand, and Zim rose with it. “Mr. Nathan can show your grapes how to grow.”
“Zim?” Hashabiah cupped his hands on Zim’s shoulders.
“You wanna hear about their tree house, Uncle Hashabiah?”
“Zim, what I want to hear is your promise.” He assumed a straight, serious face and stared into Zim’s wide-open eyes. “Promise me you will never, never mention these men to anyone outside this house. Never.”
Zim snapped his little frame straight and wagged his blond head twice. “Oh, never. I p·r·o·m·i·s·e. They’re my friends, and Mother says I have to keep them away from crying eyes ’cause their elbows stick out. But you should hear what Mr. Nathan says about your vines.”
Hashabiah’s eyes twinkled. “Thank you.” He reached around Zim and gripped Nathan’s forearm then Elijah’s. “Welcome to Zarephath and to my home.”
Elijah rubbed his nose to hide his grin. Like Dad, Hashabiah showed a firm, kind manner.
Zim bounced from foot to foot. “Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah are from Tishbe, Uncle Hashabiah. You know where Tishbe is?”
“Tishbe near Jabesh?” Hashabiah addressed his question to Nathan.
Elijah edged over and rubbed his elbow with Nathan’s. Feeling Elijah near had often helped Nathan relax. “Yes.” Elijah answered for his brother. “Our father keeps a vineyard. You’ve heard of Tishbe wine?” Elijah angled toward Nathan. His brother could speak with authority about vines and wines.
“Tishbe wine. I’ve not had that pleasure.” Hashabiah retrieved his goatskin seat from behind the desk. “Please.” He pointed to a group of skins and dropped his at the edge.
Nathan parked cross-legged between Elijah and Zim.
Hashabiah settled opposite Nathan.
Neetz crossed the threshold back into the office. “No one is listening in.” She set a tray of sliced pomegranates and roasted locusts in the center of the group.iii “A man was selling these. Mother sent him on his way and locked the gate.” She ruffled Zim’s hair, then perched on a skin beside Hashabiah. Her eyes strayed to Nathan, and she blushed, dropping her gaze to the floor.
Nathan’s neck grew red.
She batted her eyelashes, redirected her gaze to Zim, and composed a quiet smile.
Elijah squinted under joined eyebrows. Did Hashabiah notice her attraction to Nathan?
Hashabiah sat up straight. “My daughter, Neetzevet. A cook to make any father proud, plus she reads and writes both Hebrew and Aramaic.”
Neetz gave a crisp nod.
Hashabiah extended a hand toward Nathan. “These men are from Gilead near Jabesh.”
Elijah ran his hands over his arms and glanced at Nathan’s shoulders. ‘Men’ again. Had they grown muscles while hiding at the Kerith?
Hashabiah handed the food tray to Nathan.
Nathan plucked a locust and a piece of pomegranate from the tray and held it while Zim and Elijah did the same.
Hashabiah accepted the tray from Nathaniv and selected a slice of pomegranate. “Allow me to introduce myself. My family are Levites from Hebron. King Solomon sent my great-grandfather north to teach the Hebrews who sailed with Hiram, and we’ve had several decades to grow roots in Sidon.”
“I see.” Elijah didn’t see. His roots could thrive only in Tishbe. He would be comfortable again when he reached the ridges of home and helped with Dad’s vines and wines. “We’re country boys, sir. Such a change to take up residence among foreigners. But how do you — I mean, in this city, how does a Levite —”
“After all these years of growing deep roots, what does this branch of Levi show for fruit?” Hashabiah finished Elijah’s sentence.
“What’d I tell you, Mr. Lijah?” Zim slapped Nathan’s shoulder. “The best tutor in the whole world.”
“Thank you, Zim.” Hashabiah steeped his fingers under his chin. “What Levites do might surprise us. Like your father, I cultivate vines.” He reclined on his goatskin. “But I dare say Nathan can list fields of Levite success beyond viticulture.”
Elijah put his hand to his mouth. Nathan? This man had appeared kind and understanding. Why would he subject Nathan to such a test? How would Nathan perform?
Neetz paused with her fingers over the food tray, her eyebrows raised toward Nathan.
Nathan turned away from her. He studied the scrolls on the shelves and the cat on the corner of the desk, now with her head down and eyes closed. He cast a scowl at Elijah then focused on the table with the open scroll and the text pointer on its silk cover. He released a slow breath. “Your pointer. An elegant design.”
Elijah bit his lip. Would Hashabiah appreciate the compliment or resent the delay?
“From Safed in Naphtali. My great-great-grandfather’s. Thank you for noticing.”
Zim turned a quizzical face toward Nathan.
Elijah glanced sideways at his brother. Any time now.
Start talking, Nate.
Nathan fixed his gaze on the pointer. He used precise words. “I have heard of Levite expertise in legal matters — both Mycenaean and Hebrew; medicine; vocal and instrumental music; publishing and cataloging; architecture and building. In some places a Levite is the magistrate, and here in Zarephath, a Levite sends ships abroad.”
Wow! Where’d old Nate learn all that? Was he blowing … No, Nathan did not blow hot air.
Elijah’s eyes filled.
Hashabiah smoothed the front of his tunic. “Thank you, Nathan. It is, of course, my sons who run our family shipping business.”
Zim jumped up and down. “Wha’d I tell you, Uncle Hashabiah. Mr. Nathan can show your vines how to grow too.”
Hashabiah unlaced his fingers and studied Zim’s face. “Zim, how would you like to help Neetz clean the coriander?”
“That’d be great.” He tugged on Nathan’s sleeve. “Come on.”
Hashabiah wiggled his eyebrows. “I’ll keep Nathan here with me. But ask Neetz to show you the new coriander from her garden. She’s proud of those coriander, aren’t you, Neetz.”
“Yes, I am.” She rolled from the goatskin to her feet, glanced at Nathan, and took Zim by the hand.
Zim resisted her pull for a moment then pressed his lips together and followed, holding her hand while he looked back at Nathan.
Nathan remained stone still, appearing to breath only after the door closed behind them.
Hashabiah nibbled on a locust. “My young scholar has given us much to discuss. First, the prying eyes. You heard what my daughter said about talk in the minyan.” He pursed his lips. “News of your announcement to King Ahab came to our little circle, and I see what Zim means about your elbows. I’ll do my part to keep him silent, and you’re in good hands with Zim’s mother. Her husband and I have been friends for years. She is an honest woman. Might I ask your age? And your parents—do they know where you are?”
“I’m fifteen, sir. My brother is sixteen. Our parents?” Elijah glanced at Nathan. “If we went near, the danger to them—”
Elijah cleared his throat. “If I may, Nathan and I have questions.”
Hashabiah nodded. “Certainly.”
“Well, um, both Zim and the widow refer to you as their uncle—”
“As does everyone in Zarephath.” Hashabiah’s belly shook with his laugh. “With one hand in shipping and the other in vines, I make many friends. Behind my back, some call me the local foreigner.” He laughed again. “But the old timers of Zarephath call me uncle, and I appreciate their respect.”
Uncle, a term of respect. Elijah nodded and picked up locust. “Zim’s mother told us you’re the best tutor in Zarephath, and Zim’s studies seem important to her. But in her, ah, circumstances, we don’t understand how she pays for his lessons.”
“Pay?” Hashabiah shook his head. “Zim’s father and I spent many evenings discussing Moses and the psalms. He asked me to teach Zim. The lessons are my labor of love, and Zim says his mother follows each lesson with him at home.”
Elijah chuckled. “So, one Levite teaches Hebrew scriptures to two Sidonians.”
“And at no charge.” Hashabiah winked at Elijah and turned to Nathan. “My star student says you can show my grapes how to grow.”
Nathan sat up straight, took a deep breath, and stared at the pointer from Safed. “Yes. A passing farmer said your man traveled north.”
“Three or four months ago. I keep hoping he will return. And now it seems only fishermen live in this overgrown village. I can’t find anyone to replace him.”
“And what would a vine dresser from Gilead do for my long-neglected vines?”
“Bring water from the hills.” Nathan lifted his chin and turned his face toward Hashabiah.
“We used to hear of a spring deep in the hills.” Hashabiah nodded. “We’ve discussed irrigating the vines, but my sons cannot leave our shipping office.”
“I could save some vines with water in buckets.” Nathan steepled his fingertips under his chin. “But to save the vineyard would require donkeys and waterskins and helpers. Not next week, but now.”
Elijah stiffened. Where had his timid brother found this display of confidence?
Nathan turned to Elijah. “I would need my brother’s help.”
Elijah straightened his back and leveled his gaze with Hashabiah. “I’m in this with Nathan.”
iMt. Hermon was a 10-hour hike from Zarephath.
ii Elijah scratched his jaw.
iiiShow them eating.
iv rolled his shoulders