Tishbe Vineyard, Gilead, Israel, 877 BC
1 Kings 16:32-33
Elijah stalked from the well to the donkey pen, yanked a pitchfork from the haystack, and made three quick thrusts into the belly of an imaginary slaver.
Sword school. Dad had laughed, but Tubal the blacksmith made weapons. Elijah slapped his long, skinny waist. How cool to strap on a blade for their next trip to the King’s Highway.
Donkeys sucked water from the narrow stream in the southeast corner or nosed around the feed trays and lipped at small drifts of hay.
He forked more hay over the fence and filled the trays.
While Balak and Balaam crunched hay, Elijah brushed fingers over his throat. Scabs formed over the slaver’s pin-pricks, yet the memory of the little girl’s eyes and the slaver’s grip remained raw. “If I were you, Lord, I’d bring my finger and smush that guy.” He poked at a rail on the fence and twisted his wrist as if obliterating a centipede.
The breeze from the vines told of grapes fallen and fermented. Streaks of light in the east chased away stars, leaving a luminous blue constellation.
Elijah imitated Nathan’s sing-song. “‘Can you bind the sweet influences of the Seven Sisters or loose the bands of Orion?’”
The Lord looked over the shoulders of those very stars onto the fields of Kasran. Why did he turn his head when kidnappers snatched that girl? Did it pain him to watch the thick man hammer that chain on her ankle?
Nathan opened the door. “Load ’em up, Lijah.” He hopped through the grass barefoot, sandals in hand. “Twenty skins of Tishbe wine for Dad’s friends in Jabesh.” He paused. “What’s wrong?”
“That little girl.” Elijah stabbed the pitchfork into the haystack.
Nathan’s voice dimmed. “I saw her face in the night.” He handed him the sandals.
Elijah stared at the dirt. “Why doesn’t the Lord crush that slaver?” He knelt and laid a sandal on a stool. Nathan slipped his foot in, and Elijah laced and tied the sandal. “Why doesn’t the Lord send a whirlwind and toss him into the ocean?” Elijah tied the next sandal.
Nathan put both feet on the ground. “Thanks. You tell me why my fingers don’t tie laces, and I’ll tell you why the Lord doesn’t blow slave traders away.”
With Nathan, Dad, and their ten donkeys, Elijah took the path toward the tiny village of Tishbe.
Over the mountains of Gilead, next to the Jordan River, white storks spiraled up giant updrafts lined up from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee. At the top of one shaft, they coasted north to the bottom of another. Again they whorled to the top, drifted out, and sailed to the next.
Elijah took Dad’s arm. “The Lord cares enough about storks to shoot air straight up, so they can float north in the spring and south in the fall without moving a feather. But on the King’s Highway he lets that slave trader strike little girls and lock them into his chain.”
Nathan took his father’s other arm. “That’s the Devil’s doing, Lijah.”
“So, why doesn’t God kill the Devil?”
The rattling song of grackles came from the village trees.
Dad glanced up with a solemn face and strode past the first houses in silence. “I asked my father the same question.”
Elijah stomped his foot and raised a small cloud of dust. “But, Dad! Doesn’t the Lord see that chain? Doesn’t He smell the poop?”
“He sees. He smells. And he hates what those men do. This much I know.”
“Why does the Lord let it go?”
“That’s what Job asked.”
“What? Wha’d the Lord say?”
Nathan opened his mouth, but Dad laid a hand on his arm. “The Lord turned it around on him. He asked how much experience Job had with world-making.”
After the last house of the village, the rattle of grackles fell off, and the path turned through a cut in the ridge toward the city of Jabesh.
The sun still rode low in the east and cast its long morning shadows. Shoppers smiled at Dad and then up at Elijah and Nathan, both a head taller than Dad.
Two women stood in front of the baker’s house by the bread counter, a knee-high berm of rocks and packed earth. The baker held a tray woven from reeds and stacked with hot loaves. “No wine for us today. Thanks.”
Elijah paused at the blacksmith’s house. Where was Tubal with his bushy white beard and sunny smile? Elijah passed the cold, black hearth and pushed the door open.
At the back of the room, Tubal’s white beard drooped around his down-turned mouth. He peeked through the gloom like a weary ghost.
Dad pushed Elijah aside and glanced at the hammer and tongs and the goatskin bellows by Tubal’s feet. He clasped Tubal by the shoulder. “What do you forge today, Tubes?”
Tubal brought his gnarled hand to his forehead. “I’ve no orders.” He shook his head. “Only six farmers have wheat to sell. Many don’t even have barley to feed their families.” He turned to Elijah. “I might sharpen enough plow points this week to sell the wine from one wineskin. That’s all, son. One skin.”
Nathan pulled Balak up to the entryway and grabbed the back legs of a goatskin full of wine. Elijah grabbed the front. They eased it off Balak and on its back into the center of a knee-high, hollowed-out log, neck toward the customers.
Nathan laid the empty skin of the goat’s leg on the belly, so when Tubal wanted wine he could snip a few stitches in the neck and jam the skin in for a spout. Nathan rejoined the donkeys.
Tubal’s shoulders slumped. “We haven’t had good weather in months, but Sidon’s got an Asherah temple and a Moloch.” His mouth twitched as if he might smile. “Gives ’em regular rain and dew, good crops.”
Elijah took in a sharp breath. “Moloch! Don’t you know—?”
Dad rested his hand on Elijah’s arm. “Tubal knows, son. He knows.”
Elijah bit his tongue.
Dad laughed. “Tubes, if those Sidonians get a month of good rain and dew, they thank the Baals. But when the rains fail, they forget the Baals failed.” He nodded toward stairs to the family quarters. “What about Jubal’s baby? They come with red ink and mark that boy’s wrist. Next week, into the fire. You want to burn your grandson, so you can turn a profit?”
Tubal scuffed the path with his sandal. “You make it sound so…” He glanced up. “But they only want one child. What are the chances of me getting the short straw?”
Elijah gasped. Draw straws for whose baby they feed to the fire? Heat flooded his face, but Dad squeezed his arm. “You’ve read it, my friend. ‘Anyone who sacrifices children to Moloch — stone him.’”
Peleg the potter greeted them out by his kiln with a smile across his red, wrinkled face. The usual spatter of clay dotted his black beard, but for once he did not kid Elijah and Nathan about how their knees and elbows poked out. He waved his powerful clay-covered hands toward his house. “I’ve got racks of unsold plates and bowls. No wine for me, boys. I haven’t seen three customers this week, and I don’t expect any next week.” He slapped the cold kiln. “I can fire this up all I want, but when the crops fail, people use their old, cracked ware.”
Dad cleared his throat and tilted his head. “Yes. Um. Tubal had this crazy idea. Said in Sidon they—”
“Sidon? Those shops in Sidon?” Peleg wiped his hands on a clay-filled rag and turned wide eyes on Dad. “Did old Tubes tell you about the customers that Asherah temple brings in?”
“Uhn.” Elijah covered his mouth. Two of dad’s finest friends talking up Moloch and Asherah.
Dad raised his wide chin. “We don’t need an Asherah temple, Peleg. What we need is another King Asa. Remember when he chopped down that Asherah pole of his grandmother’s? People said the smoke of it filled the Kidron.”
Asherah temple. As Elijah trudged to the fruit and vegetable stand, he clenched his fists. That little girl with blood crusted on her foot was headed for an Asherah temple. He couldn’t stop the scene in his head as she whimpered and crawled away from the thick man with red hair.
Gaddi the grocer met them at the entry to his display. “My old friends from Tishbe.” Even his droopy eye perked up as bright as the other. He combed his hand through his beard and turned to Elijah. “No wine for me today, boys. Not enough customers. Sorry.”
Dad placed his hands on his hips and tilted his head back. “Tubal and Peleg send their greetings.” The words hung in the air while he tapped his foot.
Gaddi’s droopy eye closed. “So, yes, Tubal and Peleg. Don’t suppose you—”
Dad folded his arms across his chest. “They been talking crops with you? ’Cause you and I’ve had this conversation.” Dad’s scowl turned black.
Elijah sucked in a breath. Dad had left his friendly salesman persona in the street with Balak and Balaam.
Gaddi blinked his good eye several times. “The Moloch and the Asherah. They’re nothing personal, you know.” He pointed to a pile of shriveled-up apples and another of rotting cabbages. “Just business.”
Elijah snorted and jerked Dad’s sleeve.
Dad stepped aside and swept his arm toward Elijah.
The words flew from Elijah’s mouth. “What do you mean, ‘not personal’?” He took a step toward Gaddi. “You ever hear a baby scream in the fire? See skin scraped off a girl’s ankle?”
Gaddi cocked his head. “I don’t suppose a boy can understand business.”
Elijah’s face burned. “Business?” In one stride, his lanky form towered over Gaddi. “You want to understand their business? Splash red ink on your own wrist. Jump in that Moloch fire yourself. I got donkeys talk more sense.”
Gaddi opened his droopy eye. “But can your donkeys make it rain?”