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 swords. Elijah slapped his long, skinny waist. How cool to strap on a sword 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.”
Elijah pushed into the house in front of Nathan and flopped on a goatskin next to Dad. “The donkeys are loaded.”
Nathan slid a goatskin over and sat next to his sister Sheerah. “Ready for Jabesh.”
Mother turned from the pantry with a bulging sack in her hands. “Elijah, when your father can spare you from the harvest, I need you and Sheerah to take these figs to Milkah.”
Elijah’s mouth hung open. He wouldn’t have to pester Nathan and Sheerah to chaperone him.
Mother’s eyes sparkled. “If Milkah is half as wonderful as you children tell me, I want my oldest, my daughter, to present her with my best cake of dried figs.” She set the bag on the goatskin next to Sheerah.
“Very good, dear.” Dad rested his hand on Elijah’s knee. “Don’t get excited, son. We’ll be crushing grapes and filling wineskins for several more days.”
With Nathan, Dad, and their ten donkeys, Elijah took the path toward the tiny village of Tishbe.
Over the mountains of Gilead, white storks spiraled on a row of giant updrafts 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 circled 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.”
At the last house of the village, the rattle of grackles fell off and the path cut through the ridge toward the city of Jabesh.
In Jabesh, the sun still rode low in the east and cast its long shadows. Shoppers smiled at Dad and then up at Elijah and Nathan, both a head taller than Dad.
The baker turned the key in his shop door and rolled a rock to prop it open. “No wine for us today. Thanks.”
Elijah paused at the door of the blacksmith shop and then pushed through ahead of Nathan and Dad. Where was Tubal with his bushy white beard and sunny smile? His hammer and tongs lay by the goatskin bellows at the edge of a dark hearth. At the back of the shop, Tubal’s white beard drooped around his down-turned mouth. He peeked through the gloom like a weary ghost.
Dad clasped him 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 backed Balak up to the shop and held the door open with his foot while he grabbed the back legs of a goatskin full of wine. Elijah grabbed the front legs. They eased it off Balak, into the shop, and onto its rack.
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. Then the rains fail, and they forget the Baals failed.” He nodded toward the door to the blacksmith’s 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 floor 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 at his door 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 the 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. I can fire up that kiln all I want, but when the crops fail, people use their old, cracked ware.”
Dad cleared his throat and tilted his head to the side. “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 shop, he clenched his fists. That little girl with blood crusted on her foot 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 opened his door wide. “My old friends from Tishbe. Come in. Come in.” 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 his shriveled-up apples and 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 out front talk more sense.”
Gaddi opened his droopy eye. “But can your donkeys make it rain?”