Elijah followed Nathan and Shillem out the back door of old Shillem’s shop into the early evening twilight.
They all faced the alley.
Nathan did the talking. “Thank you, sir. You saved us from freezing in the rain.”
Shillem stood between the brothers. “You boys will have clear skies tonight.” He patted their packs. “And we stuffed enough bread and cheese in here for a good hike. And dates and skins of Tishbe wine.
“Better hide before you get to that busy Jericho intersection. Caravans come through there, and the queen’s agents will ask the pullers who they saw.” He tugged them to him in a long squeeze and then turned back into his shop.
Elijah and Nathan tiptoed in silence along the moonlit street through the murmur of courtyard conversations, the smoke of cooking fires, and the aroma of roast lamb.
As they descended into the Jordan River Valley, the hoot of an owl greeted them. They hiked south on the caravan trail with its familiar smell of camel dung. A splash at the edge of the stream announced the foraging of a night heron.
When at last the stars began to fade, Nathan pointed to the new walls of Jericho standing in the moonlight. “Here’s where old Shillem said to hide.”
Elijah followed Nathan into the reeds and sat with his hands jammed into his armpits in a self-hug. “Nathan, I’m scared.”
Nathan sat up and peered through the pre-dawn haze at the Jericho city wall. “You should be scared, Lijah. This is where Jezebel helped Hiel butcher two of his children.”
Elijah flinched and scooted his feet around, turning his torso away from the city. “I don’t want to hear about it, Nate. Not now.”
Nathan shrugged. “Not now. That’s what they told Joshua, but it was out before they could shut him up. ‘The man who rebuilds Jericho will pay for the foundation with his firstborn son and the gates with his youngest.’”
Elijah doubled up and hugged his knees together. “Can’t we talk about something nice?”
“Nice climate. Warm and dry. It attracted merchants. They built houses and made good money at the caravan crossroads. But raiders from Moab took too much of their profit. Stole too many children. They needed a city wall. But old Joshua’s curse was right there in the record—the firstborn and the youngest. Until four hundred years later. The queen came from Sidon. And Hiel weighed the gold into her hand for a building permit.”
Elijah unfolded his frame. He stood and faced the new city gate. His nostrils flared, and his breath came in short, loud spurts. “You and I were lugging grapes up to the wine room, and Sheerah came out of the house.” He rubbed his forearms and let out a long sigh. “Her eyes were all red from rubbing, and she had tears dripping off her chin. I thought something had happened to Mother.”
A nightjar did its monotonous poor-will-ow. Nathan sat on the reeds and rocked back and forth. “And the way Sheerah laughed, it made me gag. But she laughed again. And then she started sobbing right there at the door to the wine room. I can still hear her.
“‘The queen wants Asherah to bless the wall. So, Hiel cuts the throat of his five-year-old and drops him in the footing. And then he knocks his baby boy in the head and buries him under the gate post.”
Nathan scrubbed his hand over his face. “And I’m this know-it-all kid.” He tipped his head and took on a nasal, high-pitched tone. “‘Everyone who gives his child to Asherah must be put to death by stoning ….’”
“Now Sheerah’s choking, but she spreads her arms. ‘Oh, step right up, little brother. Rocks on the right. Rich guy on the left. You want to throw the first stone, Nathan?’”
Nathan clenched and unclenched his fists.
Elijah sat back down and stared between his knees. “I thought I was doing the right thing. You saw me. Running with the king’s horses, saying things are gonna be different now. But here’s the new world order, Hiel’s little boys buried under the wall.”
“Old Shillem said south.”
“He did, Nate. And I’m going to Beersheba.”
As the sun rose higher, Elijah pulled the reeds over for shade and for cover from the eyes of the camel pullers. He stretched on the lumpy reeds. “Not Shillem’s soft fluffy bed, but we’ll be fine.”
They slept, and when the sun went down, they started south again.
They passed Beit Hoglah and the City of Salt. The Judean Desert rose on one side while the salt crust along the shore of the Dead Sea spread out on the other.
“Hey, Elijah, how much longer until we soak our feet at Ein Gedi?”
“Mm… six hours? You okay for this?”
“I’m good. I’m good. But did you know the Amorites called Ein Gedi ‘Hazezontamar’? Say that three times rapidly.”
“You know the story. When Chedorlaomer captured Ein Gedi, he made the mistake of carrying…”
Elijah finished. “… of carrying off Lot. So Abraham…”
“Remember how you told Dad if we had Abraham’s 318 armed men they could help us rescue those little girls from the Asherah temple? You made Dad laugh.”
Elijah quirked his mouth. “I wish we had them in Tishbe right now to protect Mother.”
In the middle of the night they cut away from the Dead Sea, tiptoed into Ein Gedi, and lay face down at the edge of the main pool and sucked in all the water they could hold. They found a more private-looking pool, stripped down, and slid in.
They dressed again, and Nathan pointed. “Look.” In the moonlight, a herd of Nubian Ibex watched them from the rocks.
Elijah stood. “Remember when David hid from King Saul in this cave? I think of all the lives he could have saved that night if he had let Abishai pin the king to the ground with his spear. I sometimes wonder ─ if I had been David, would I have let Saul live?”
In the morning they arrived at the Arad Junction. Nathan pointed to an isolated mesa that rose over the Dead Sea and looked down on them. “Now, there, little brother. Right up there on that pillar of rock. That’s where you should build a house for Milkah.”
Elijah crawled into the bushes with Nathan and dozed through the day. At dark again they took the road up into the hills, munching on Shillem’s dates and cheese as they climbed ─ and glugging his wine. They came up into Arad about midnight, and by five a.m. they were walking into Beersheba.
The first person they asked directed them to Benmelech’s house.
In the street Elijah spoke rapidly. “Look, I have to go into the desert alone. I need you to stay with Benmelech.”
Nathan scratched his cheek. “I like old Benmelech, Lijah. He’s been coming to Tishbe to buy our wine since before I can remember. But I came on this hike to help you.”
“Look, Nathan, I’ve always needed you near. Still do. But this is one thing I have to do alone.” Elijah looked up at Benmelech’s house, around at the other houses on the street, and then into Nathan’s eyes. “I don’t want to be one of those people who shuts off discussion by saying the Lord told me, okay? Yet the Lord is telling me to go out there alone. But I’ll be back.”
When Elijah got into the desert, however, he forgot about going back. “Just let me die, okay, Lord? Maybe that way Jezebel will leave Mother alone.”
Late that afternoon he curled up in the shade of a broom tree and went to sleep. Three hours later an angel touched his arm. “Have a bite.”
A jug of water sat by his head and bread baked on hot rocks. He ate, drank, and lay back down. This time the angel let him sleep all night. “Put more food in you. You’ve got a long way to go.”
On the strength of that breakfast he hiked what felt like forever— all the way over to Horeb, the mountain where God told Moses to strike the rock. Elijah climbed up and lay down in a cave.
First thing in the morning. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”