Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BCi
1 King 17:16-17
Voices muttered from the dark path, their accent like the thugs Elijah had escaped in Tishbe. He squinted ahead into the murk.
Black tunics emerged from the fog.
Elijah whirled, clamped his hand over Zim’s mouth, and scooped him under his arm. He lunged past Nathan. “Moloch.”
In soft, silent strides, he lugged Zim back to the corner and stood him on his feet. He knelt with his lips to Zim’s ear and his hand over the boy’s mouth. “Those guys in the black tunics murdered Nathan’s friend Omar. They tried to kill Nathan and me. They knocked our father down, and our mother and our sister had to escape. We can’t let them see us.”
A tiny animal rustled the dry grass next to the path.
Zim’s eyes bulged above Elijah’s fingers. He nodded.
Nathan touched Elijah’s arm. “He’ll be quiet.”
Elijah lifted his hand.
Zim breathed in Elijah’s ear. “Those guys were going into the middle gate, Mr. Lijah. By the temple, see. So, we have to circle around by the vineyard.” He waved at a path leading away from the sea, toward the soft glow spreading over the snows of distant Mt. Hermon.ii
Nathan knelt beside them. “You two go visit Uncle Hashabiah. I’ll wait for you by the city gate.”
Elijah stretched his hands out wide at his side then released them. His brother had more brains and skill than most people he knew, but would reach for any excuse to avoid meeting someone new.
Zim wrapped his arms around Nathan’s neck. “No way, Mr. Nathan. I’m taking you to meet Uncle Hashabiah.”
“Okay, okay.” Nathan dipped his head at Elijah.
Elijah stood and led them along the path toward Mt. Hermon, away from the thugs in black.
An owl hooted three times like the owl in Tishbe who greeted Elijah when he watered donkeys in the early morning dark.
While his mother’s garden nestled in an open sunny spot next to the house, here in Zarephath, low rock walls protected vegetables from the goats.
Striding between the walls, Elijah stretched his arms and indulged a childhood habit. He leaned to one side and then the other as he brushed his fingers against stones on the left, then on the right.
Once in Tishbe his sister Sheerah had questioned his habit. “Why do you have to touch the walls, Lijah?”
“Don’t you like rocks, Sheers?”
As the stars dimmed one by one, the dark gray sky lightened to blue, and thin clouds skimmed overhead.
In this magical moment, if Elijah were home, he would carry a melon from the garden to his mother.
Elijah knelt and touched one of the sad Zarephath plots. He sifted the baked-brittle soil through his fingers. The garden held shriveled up runners showing a few rigid bulbs that would never become melons. The flax and wheat lay in brown, headless stubs. Trees intended to bear pomegranates or apples stood brown and naked. The sight pushed sorrow through him.
Nathan asked, “Which garden is yours, Zim?”
“I’ll show you, Mr. Nathan. It’s way out.”
They came to the end of the community gardens.
“This is ours. Right here on the corner.” Zim pointed over the wall to tiny unformed leaves drooping from brown runners that should have born melons and cucumbers.
“Sad.” Nathan shook his head. “So sad.”
From the edge of Zim’s garden plot a vineyard stretched toward low blue hills that spilled out from the long white hump of Mt. Hermon. Over the snow, a crown of gray light faded into white. These foreign hills had drama, but Elijah’s heart ached for the simple ridges of Tishbe.
“Turn here.” Zim pointed to a path that separated the gardens from the vineyard.
As Elijah hiked north, new light in the sky revealed the broad stone pillars of a gate in the wall of Zarephath far to his left. “The temple gate?”
“For sure, Mr. Lijah. Lots of black tunics in there. We’re way, far away, but let’s hurry anyway.”
“Zim, how about Nathan carries you, so we can make good time?”
Nathan slung him over his shoulder. “I smell black tunics, little brother. Let’s hustle.”
Elijah stretched into long-legged speed and zoomed ahead to the next cross path. “What about the black tunics here, Zim?”
A cool, damp breeze smelling of fish and saltwater sighed through the dry gardens. Enough light radiated over Mt. Hermon to show the base of the vines at soil level.
“Look at that.” Nathan set Zim on the ground and knelt. He dug his fingers around the roots of a vine. “Come see this, Lijah.” A branch from a mature vine lay buried in a shallow trough where tiny shoots poked up through the dirt.
Elijah knelt and dug into the baked soil under the shoots and their tender leaves. “These starters have been in the ground too long.”
Nathan waved at the row. “They’re all like that.”
A large man hiked out the gate balancing a broad-bladed hoe on his shoulder.
Elijah stood and rested his elbow on Nathan’s shoulder with Zim pinned between them. This farmer would know the history of these vines, but could they trust a worshiper of foreign gods? If the farmer reported them, the black tunics would kill Zim and the widow. As the big man approached, Elijah let his turban fall across the side of his face.
“Good morning.” The farmer greeted him in the local Aramaic.
“Morning.” Elijah muttered.
The farmer passed them on the path.
Elijah pulled his turban aside.
The farmer’s belt held a machete and a small sheath knife like those of Tishbe. The ancient pack hanging from his broad shoulders spoke Elijah’s language, and the patches on patches covering his tunic announced, “Farmer. Friend.”
Elijah cleared his throat and continued in Aramaic. “These your vines, sir?”
The big man stopped and turned. “Not mine, son. I go to dig around my trees.” He showed Elijah a broad smile. “Yesterday I found a few apples. Today maybe I’ll fill my pocket with figs or pomegranates.” His words carried a strong accent like the bandits’, but he swung his hoe down to the sun-baked earth and leaned on the handle like any farmer in Gilead.
Elijah flashed a wide grin. “Are your trees out in the hills, sir?”
The farmer tipped his head toward the rising sun. “Just this side.”
Elijah pointed to the shoots and leaves by Nathan’s foot. “My brother noticed this starter, sir. It might have been ready to cut and move four months ago.”
“You’re right there, young fellow. No one to care for these vines some time now.”
“You know whose vines these are?”
Zim’s head shot up. “Uncle Hashabiah?”
“Right.” He gave Zim a crisp nod.
“You sure, mister?” Zim squared his shoulders.
The round belly shook with his laugh. “Sure of half what I see, none what I hear, young man.” He pinched Zim’s cheek as he laughed again. “Everybody says good things about him for a foreigner.”
Elijah shifted his weight and flashed his smile again. “Foreigner, eh? So he sounds like me when he talks?”
“No, lad. He sounds just like my brother. Born and bred here, you see. Lives with us in the north end. A local foreigner. His ships are gone for months at a time.”
Elijah cleared his throat. “Ships, you say?”
“They carry cargo from places I can’t pronounce. Shipping’s his father’s business before him. Good man.”
“Who dresses these vines, sir?”
The farmer swung the hoe onto his shoulder. “Nobody these months now, son. The way I hear it, the vine dresser’s uncle moved the whole family north. Better work for ’em all. This drought, you know. Shame—all these beautiful vines without a hand to show ’em how to grow.”
Elijah glanced up the path. “Thank you, sir. The Lord bless your digging.”
“Gotta dig, son, blessing or no. Fine day to you.”
Elijah walked in among the rows. He reached under the colorless, bleached-out leaves and pulled two from a lower layer. These held a normal dark green hue except for their scorched edges. Beneath the leaves, small hard grapes hung in wasted clusters.
He handed a bunch to Zim. “Not the famous fragrance of Sidon. That king who gave bread and wine to Father Abraham, is this where his vines grew, Nate?”
“Melchizedek.” Nathan shrugged. “We’re not told where, but they had more rain than these.”
Zim poked a solid grape into his mouth and spit it out. “Uncle Hashabiah talks about ships, not vines.”
Elijah headed for the Zarephath city gate. “My brother could show these vines how to grow.”
He passed between the massive pillars, and Zim pointed him onto a street with oak trees reaching limbs and brown-edged leaves over limestone walls. After half a block, he paused at a wrought iron gate with a design depicting a broad, heavy cargo ship. “Uncle Hashabiah.” He pulled the gate open and led them in.
Elijah followed Zim across a courtyard twice the size of the widow’s. He beckoned Nathan closer. “You’ll be fine, Nate.” Nathan shadowed him with elbows tucked in and chin down.
The hinges on Hashabiah’s door flared like the sail-shaped hinges on the widow’s doors.
Zim stood on the top step, reached up, and rang the bell.
A tall, shapely young womanv opened the door. Her dark curls and bright black eyes could have come from any village in Gilead. “Zee-zee.” She pulled Zim in, laid her arm across his shoulders, and gave Elijah a quick glance. “My father is in.” She gaped at Nathan with the same glint in the eye as the girls in Jabesh who turned to watch him walk by.
Nathan shifted directly behind Elijah, so that his breath touched Elijah’s neck.
Zim tipped his blond head back against her arm. “I brought Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah. They’re my friends, and Mother said I could bring them to my lesson, see, so they can meet Uncle Hashabiah.”
She frowned. “Why are you so early, Zee-zee?”
“Had to come early, see, so we could hide their knees and elbows from the black tunics with the crying eyes. They’re from Gilead. You should have seen Mr. Nathan and me zoom through the vineyard.”
Zim pulled Nathan into view. “Mr. Nathan, sir. Mr. Lijah. This is Neetz.” Zim’s blue eyes danced. “Neetz is Uncle Hashabiah’s daughter.” He rose on the balls of his feet. “And she’s my friend.”
Neetz scanned the street behind them then let her gaze linger on Nathan. “Come in.”
Elijah sucked in a loud breath. Was this girl going to cause problems for Nathan?
As soon as they stepped through, Neetz scanned the street in both directions then latched the door. “I’ll take you to my father.”
She led them upstairs past the livestock and the family quarters to the roof.
Laundered robes and tunics draped the parapet.
“This way.” Neetz glanced back at Nathan and tripped on a pile of flax drying in the sun. “Unh.” Her cheeks flushed. She lowered her eyes and walked around the other piles to an oak door hung on sail-shaped hinges like those of the main entrance.
Nathan turned his back on Neetz and appeared to study the rooftops of the city while his neck grew red.
iAnne. I’d like to have a better idea of the age of Elijah and Nathan.
The widow could ask them their age.
iiAbout a 10-hour hike.
iiiDid they travel from one end of town to the other that quickly? (She turned to Elijah. “Our streets all run close along the shore. That’s why we call Qrita Arikta, Long Village.”) ancient Zarephath was a little over a mile long, 15 or 20 acres.
How to convey this size to the reader?
v She did not wear a veil. Hebrew women generally appeared in public with the face visible (Genesis 12:14; 24:16; 29:10; 1 Samuel 1:12).
Interesting footnote. Interesting chapter. Why did Nathan at first not want to meet Uncle H?
I’d like to have a better idea of the age of Elijah and Nathan.