12. Girls for sale

Samaria City, Israel, 868 BC
1 Kings 16:29-33

Obadiah wheeled through the gate for his monthly inspection of olive groves. He stopped.

A young girl groaned and fell, jerking a chain of thirty-some girls to a halt.

A thick-set, red-haired slaver poked her with his stick. “Up, girlie. You’re almost there.”

Obadiah clenched his fists.

“He shows no mercy, but persecutes the poor.”1

Two years of supervising olive oil production had made Obadiah well aware of King Ahab’s Asherah connections, but he had never witnessed the delivery of temple prostitutes.

“Biah!” Ahab and ten guards trotted down the steps from the palace veranda. “Come see the marble I just installed.” He beckoned. “You’ve got the whole week to inspect olive groves.”

Obadiah stepped down from his chariot and let the hint of a frown drift across his face. “Good morning, my king.”

“Set a guard at my mouth, Lord.”2 Don’t let me put my family in danger.

The girl struggled to her feet and took a step.

The other little girls shuffled with her, each pair of eyes lowered to the heels of the child ahead.

Ahab turned his gaze from the girls and leaned against Obadiah’s chariot wheel. “How’s Yedidah? The kids?”

A light breeze under a pale blue sky tossed winter leaves the new growth of spring had pushed free.

“You must bring them up before the summer heat sets in.”

Obadiah’s stomach churned. Ahab’s lack of compassion rivaled that of King Omri before him. With one breath Omri had joked about horse racing, and with the next he had instructed his guards in the garroting of children.

Red-haired slavers herded the line of girls. One slaver led, one strutted beside the girls, and a third followed with a baggage camel.

The camel bleated, a donkey brayed from behind a fruit stand, and the chain clanked on the plaza paving stones as the line of girls stuttered around the corner of the temple.

“Top grade marble, Biah. Inside and out.” Ahab led him to the porch and spanked a column. “Good as temples in Sidon or Zarephath. Maybe better.” He let his hand linger on the stone. “We can entertain guests from any capital in the world.”

Obadiah swallowed hard.

You’re my hiding place, Lord.3

“Please, my king, I don’t understand how these little children who suffer in your temple mean nothing to you.”

“The girls? They like what they do.” Ahab shrugged. “Once they get cleaned up and trained. We feed them right, you know.” He checked the manicure on his fingernails. “The income buys chariots and troops.”

Obadiah pressed his lips into a fine line. “Beautiful marble porch, my king. What’s at the back?” He tipped his head toward the departing girls and grasped Ahab by the elbow.

“Wha…?” Ahab stiffened and glanced at his guards.

Obadiah turned to the guards and curled his lips in a slight smile. “I seem to remember a certain young prince who led me away from the safety of the fort to race on an empty road without attendants.” He squeezed Ahab’s elbow. “Join me in the open spaces behind this temple, my king, but bring these young men and their spears.”

The guards grinned.

Ahab chuckled and cocked his head. “Let’s go.”

Obadiah led him past the four marble columns of the porch.

Next door to the temple, the weaver and his wife stood at a tall loom in front of their olive trees.

Obadiah paused. “The Lord be with you, Huri.”

Huri held the shuttle. “The Lord bless you, kind sirs.” He made a slight bow toward Ahab. “We have nearly completed the linen for your tunic, my king.”

Huri’s wife adjusted a thread and bowed her head. “My king.”

Ahab nodded. “The tunic will look fine, I’m sure.”

Obadiah eyed the weavers, kept a firm grip on Ahab, and guided him between the temple wall and Huri’s yard. He passed three olive trees and then Huri’s one-room house.

The house and the temple backed up against a mature olive grove. Sunlight played on the greens and grays of the leaves, and a yellowhammer sang in the stillness.

Obadiah turned behind the temple and kept pressure on Ahab’s arm. “Come, my king.” He forced a laugh. “Be brave.”

The little girls huddled next to the wall. They moaned and rubbed their bloated bellies and dug at their armpits. Flies buzzed around their faces, settled in their eyes, and crawled into their mouths.

A pace behind Obadiah, Ahab’s bodyguards yawned. One polished an apple on his tunic.

A girl looked up at the apple.

As the guard followed her gaze, his mouth closed, and color drained from his face. He hid the apple in his hand and slipped it into his pack.

Ahab cocked his head back toward the alleyway.

Obadiah gave him a sidelong glance and set his jaw. “Stay with me, please, my king.” Ahab might prefer to ignore the suffering, but he should see what he had caused. Obadiah tightened his grip on Ahab’s elbow.

A slaver strutted up and slapped the temple back door.

A gray-haired woman poked her head out and scowled.

The slaver stepped back. “Your new girls.” He cocked his head. “Tell your boss, the price is two hundred and eighty.”

She retreated.

The Asherah official, a weasel-faced man, stepped out and squinted at Obadiah and the king. He twitched his nose at the slaver and blinked at the line of girls. “You brought these?”

“Forty. Two hundred and eighty silver weight.” The slaver thrust his shoulders back.

The official shuffled his feet and coughed. “Um, the last string was four each. So, um, that would be a hundred and sixty.”

The slaver’s mouth curled. “My cousin sold you that string for five each, seventeen Kasran girls. You paid him eighty-five silver. These from Tadmor are seven each. Two hundred eighty weight.”

Obadiah shuddered. Silver for little girls.

In the still air between the temple wall and the olive trees, the stench of excrement rose from the line of girls.

Ahab covered his nose and tried to turn back, but Obadiah kept a steady hand on his elbow. “Please stay, my king.”

The temple official wrinkled his rodent nose. “Well then. Let’s see what you brought.”

“Bring your silver. We’ll use my weights.” The slaver brushed leaves from a spot next to an olive tree and set up his scales.

The official ducked back into the temple and returned with his purse. He crouched beside the slaver, extracted silver from his purse, and set the items on one tray of the scales: A necklace, several rings, and a hair piece.

With slow, exaggerated movements, the slaver added bronze weights to the balancing tray, each in the shape of a turtle about the size of a large pearl. “Seventy-six.”

The official placed rough-cut silver of random sizes on the tray.

“One hundred eighty-nine.”

A handful of chips clinked onto the pile.

“Two hundred seventy-seven.”

The official let a tiny piece of silver drop.

The slaver smirked. “Two hundred eighty.” He folded a cloth around the silver, stuffed the lump into the purse at his belt, and poked his scales and weights into their pouch on the camel.

His assistants clucked their tongues, and the little girls shuffled to the door, dragging the chain in the dirt.

The slaver at the end of the line retrieved a hammer and chisel from the camel and approached the first girl in line.

She whimpered when he touched the point of his chisel to the clasp on her ankle.

He swung the hammer. The clasp shifted with his blow and gouged her.

She flinched, and fresh blood seeped onto her foot.

The woman in the doorway cringed, and the temple official cursed.

As the slaver swung again, the girl recoiled, and his hammer hit her foot.

Her head shot back, and her mouth fell open. As her eyes rolled back in her head, her shoulders crumpled, and she sprawled on the dirt, silent and still.

His next blow popped the clasp, and he moved his chisel to the second child. “Hold still.”

Ahab took in a sharp breath and backed away. “Careful with that hammer.”

The guards shuffled half a step closer to the king.

Obadiah’s neck flamed. “How long, Lord? How long shall the wicked triumph?”4

Hot tears stung Obadiah’s eyes as he whirled to face Ahab, every muscle tensed and ready. He should cold-cock his old friend. Dash across the plaza, grab his spear from his chariot, and pin the slaver to the wall. As Ahab’s guards ran him through— “A good way to die, men. Try it sometime.”

The daydream faded, replaced with the vision of his wife and children and the cold calculation that, if he lived, he might do good.

“Little girls, my king. Made in God’s image.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “And we chain them like animals.”

The slaver laughed.

Ahab lowered his chin to his chest.

The temple official glanced at the blood on the foot of the first girl in line and shoved her into the arms of the woman in the doorway. Brushing flies from his face, he paced the line of girls. “Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight.” He spun to face the slaver. “You said forty.”

The slaver plastered on a glib smile. “Tadmor’s a long trip.”

“I paid for forty.” The eyes of the official darkened.

“And I brought forty.” The slaver covered his purse with his hand. “Two didn’t make it.”

The official’s cheeks flushed scarlet. He shoved the girls toward the door and cursed the slavers by Eshmun, Asherah, and finally Melqart.

Obadiah put a hand to his forehead. “Oh, Lord. What have we become?”

He flared his nostrils at Ahab. “Our father, Jacob, knew better than to drive his ewes and cows too fast5, but your hired thug hurries children on the road, and when one slows him down, he leaves her in the heat. No mother. No father.”

Ahab turned.

“Don’t leave me, my king.” Obadiah closed in and felt Ahab’s breath on his cheek. “Two girls.” He held two fingers in Ahab’s face. “If you take the trail to Kasran and look under the bushes, you’ll find their bones.” He leveled his eyes at the king. “So you can entertain guests and hire chariots.”

“You don’t understand priorities, Biah.”

“What I understand, my king, is that the Lord wears no blindfold.”

1 Psalm 109:16

2 Psalm 141:3

3 Psalm 32:7

4 Psalm 94:3

5 Genesis 33:13

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