6 Shemer’s hill

Samaria City, Israel, 871 BC
1 Kings 16:24-28

“Tell me, my prince, does your new wife have fourteen hairdressers?” Obadiah rested an elbow on the small table in the center of the veranda and pointed a cucumber spear at Ahab.

A belly laugh bounced from the prince. “Jezebel’s servants hover and chirp, but I have no idea what they do.”

Painting by John Liston Byam Shaw

Obadiah dipped the cucumber in olive oil and cast a careful glance. He might joke with his horse-racing buddy about servants, but he did not laugh about Jezebel’s four hundred Asherah officials who bought little girls and forced them to service clients in their temple. How could he, in good conscience, work for King Omri? Even if Obadiah returned to his father’s farm, Asherah would not be stopped.

From the bend in the path at the ancient oak, Obadiah’s driver waved and loped up to the gate. He nodded at Ahab then addressed Obadiah. “Bring you an applicant, sir?”

Obadiah shook his head. “The sun’s barely out of bed, and I’ve got all day to interview grove managers.” He pointed to two guards at a table by the gate. “The food’s good. Grab a bite with these fellows.”

The driver sat, and a servant took him wine, cucumbers, bread and cheese.

The chords of a lyre drifted from the dining room behind Obadiah and blended with the notes of a yellowhammer in the olive trees at the sides of the veranda. From beyond the oak, the ping of hammers and the ffft-ffft of saws mingled with the shouts of workmen building King Omri’s palace. Sunlight reflected off puddles from last night’s rain.

The local blacksmith started up the path to the veranda, but the guards shooed him away. “Reserved for the prince.”

When Ahab tapped his empty cup, a servant padded forward and poured the cup half full of dark purple wine. The man whisked away the nibbled food and disappeared into the dining room. He reappeared and set plates of grapes, cheese and pitas on the table.

Obadiah pointed a folded pita toward the plaza. “Do Jezebel’s officials plan to build their first temple here in the capital?”

“The talk is of a temple here on Shemer’s Hill.” Ahab steepled his fingers. “I prefer to involve myself with the grand aspects of our alliance.”

“Alliance.” Obadiah enunciated each syllable. “In Fort Jezreel, even children are learning to pronounce the word.” King Omri had asked Jezebel’s father to protect him from the huge Assyrian empire, and that security had come with Asherah brothel officials. “But people wonder how four hundred Asherah officials will keep them safe from the four hundred thousand Assyrian troops looking over the cliffs of Bashan.”

“Ha!” Ahab jabbed a finger at him then frowned and lowered his head.

The driver lifted his chin, but Obadiah shook his head. Let the interviews wait.

He nibbled the pita. “People say the sheep asked the wolf to protect it from the bear.”

Grunts of agreement rose from guards around the veranda.

“That sheep-wolf-bear thing is cute, Biah. But the troops and chariots which protect us from the Assyrian army cost silver.” Ahab squinted. “Our alliance with Jezebel’s father is about business.”

“You know my opinion of his business.” Obadiah wrinkled his nose.

Guards shuffled feet, coughed, and glanced from Ahab to Obadiah and back.

Two golden orioles twittered at the corner of the veranda while a third flew across and hid deep inside the branches of an olive tree.

“I’m ready to interview.” Obadiah cocked his head at the driver. “How many applicants do we have?”

“I’ll find out.” The man jogged down the path.

Ahab reached over the table and grasped Obadiah’s shoulder. “Biah, do you have any idea how much Jezebel’s father makes off his temples? He saw the flow of silver when he was a young Asherah boss, so the moment he stepped up to the throne, he took over the temple.”

“Stepped up?” Obadiah lifted an eyebrow and cocked his head. “Jezebel’s father slit the king’s throat and kicked his corpse into the ditch.”

“Look, Biah, he knows business.” Ahab clenched his jaw. “He stationed his lieutenants in the temples at Zarephath and Sidon. Nobody’s publishing numbers, but he’s stacking bags of silver in his treasury from—”

Obadiah turned on his chair and faced Ahab. He forced even, quiet breaths. Everyone at this end of the Mediterranean talked about the silver Jezebel’s father raked in from new temples in Byblos and Cyprus. But could his lifelong friend stomach the stench of kidnapped children forced into yet another temple here in Samaria?

He bored his gaze into Ahab. “You’re too good for that kind of talk, my prince.” Head up, Obadiah concentrated as if negotiating price with an olive oil dealer or helping a grove manager layout the planting of a hillside.

Ahab gaped, silent.

“Bags of silver?” Obadiah’s eyes held him. “The words are not you, and they don’t work for you because you don’t want to hurt children.”

Ahab stared at Obadiah. He blinked twice and gave his head a quick shake. “What? Why do you…? Biah, you really do not understand focus or priorities. To run this kingdom, we must have silver.”

The driver strode up to the gate. “Twelve applicants for grove manager, sir.”

“Thank you.” Obadiah held Ahab’s gaze and lifted one finger for the driver. “One, please.”

The driver gave a quick nod and trotted off.

“Really, my prince.” Obadiah concluded. “You are better than that.”

Ahab tilted his head in a quizzical look across the table.

Obadiah let out a loud breath and stood. “Olive oil will make your father a wealthy man. I’ve a long day of interviews ahead.” He tipped his head toward the oak. “You sure you want to listen in?”

“For a while.” Ahab took a sip of wine. “I’ll learn a head full about the business.”

Obadiah sighed. “Your father hopes I make money for him up here with olives at the same time that I manage his affairs down at the fort. Sometimes I fear he overestimates my abilities.”

“What my father overestimates is your speed.” Ahab’s lips twitched. “You’ve only hired three managers in three days. Twelve men want to work for you.” He shrugged. “Hire them.”

“The good ones, my prince. The good ones. That fellow, Gera, I hired yesterday. He’s the kind I’m looking for.”

Ahab stood. “Here comes grove manager number four.”

The guards at the gate stood, and those on the perimeter adjusted their chairs.

A handsome man with a neatly trimmed beard and a light gray cloak strode behind the driver. His purple headscarf wound turban style.

Obadiah parted his lips but did not speak.

Merom. How did he get in here?

The man’s haggard wife and dirty children in Shiloh came to mind and their house with the crumbling roof tile and the front door that pushed open in the wind for want of a latch. Obadiah raised his hand to his mouth. The man’s voluptuous mistress in Bethel had born him five bastards.

Merom entered with long strides and a slick grin. He extended his hand.

Obadiah shied as if the hand came from a leper.

A guard by the gate gasped.

Merom’s mouth hung open, his gaze flitted from Obadiah to Ahab to Obadiah, and his hand sank.

Ahab stood to one side and gawked.

A brass smile lit up Merom’s face. “Good to see you again, Biah. I’m glad you’re hiring grove managers. You know my record. Ten years at Shiloh. Every tree greener and more olives. When shall I start?” He gave Obadiah a wide smile.

Obadiah squinted. Silence did not faze the man. Was he false to the core, or did he have no clue about his reputation?

Merom jutted his chin and glanced toward the dining room. “Smells good. They got garlic and onions on that?”

Obadiah squared his shoulders. “We won’t need your services. I’m sorry to waste your time.”

Ahab took a step back.

Merom glanced at Ahab, at the guards by the entrance, and then at guards at the edge of the veranda. He turned back toward Obadiah, opened his mouth, but said nothing.

Obadiah raised his chin. “I’ve got another appointment, and I’m sure you have a full schedule. My driver will show you out.”

Merom followed the driver. As he rounded the oak, he lowered his eyebrows and flicked a glance back at Obadiah.

Ahab jumped to Obadiah’s side. “Why did you tell that man, no?”

“Business basics, my prince.”

Ahab slapped his head. “Ai-yah! You’re impossible. Did I hear wrong? The man’s been doing groves for ten years.”

“You heard right.” Obadiah lifted his chin and spoke in a low voice. “Ten years at Shiloh. Every tree greener. More olives.”

“So why not talk with him?” Ahab blocked the way to the gate, faced Obadiah, and folded his arms.

Obadiah planted his feet wide and locked eyes with Ahab. “He cheats on his wife, my prince. Any man who cheats on his wife will cheat on me.”

Ahab pointed to the empty path. “Call him back, you idiot. Hire him!”

Obadiah let the hint of a smile drift across his face. “You’re not king yet, my prince.”

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