Sidon, 869 BC
1 Kings 17:8-10
Elijah froze. His breaths burst in and out. His throat dried.
A man stepped forward by the rotting corpse. He pointed the arrow notched into his taut bowstring at Elijah’s throat.
Elijah slowed his breathing.
The man wore a turban and robe of dappled gray, the clothing of a farmer, cobbler, or grocer. Did the man pull weeds in the morning, rob travelers in the afternoon, and drink with friends in the evening?
“My, my. Aren’t we the tall lads, though? And such knobby knees.” His Hebrew carried the same thick accent as the Moloch priest in Jabesh.
He smirked. “Drop the bags and shed your rags.”
Elijah and Nathan set their packs on the ground and laid their robes on the packs. Elijah’s hands trembled. His knobby knees shook.
Oop-oop came from a nearby acacia tree. Elijah ignored the hoopoe’s elegant plumage and squinted at the bandit against the mid-afternoon sun.
“All of it, boys. Loin cloths too.”
Undress for strangers? A flush crept across Elijah’s cheeks. With jerky movements, he stripped. folded his tunic onto the robe and shivered as the fresh Mediterranean air touched his skin.
The man lifted his bow.
Elijah folded his loin cloth onto his tunic and glanced at his brother for a clue.
Nathan had always been stronger, quicker on his feet. Was he planning a move? Nathan’s face had paled. The tendons in his neck stood out. His mouth went slack, and his head shook a finger’s width once. No.
“Face down beside that fellow.” The Sidonian nodded at the decaying corpse. “And learn from his mistake. If he’d obeyed instructions, he’d be eating breakfast with his friends.”
A stench rose from the corpse.
Elijah knelt in a cloud of flies from maggots bubbling in a gash between the man’s ribs. Elijah gagged.
“Lie flat. Keep your hands in sight. You move, and the vultures get another one.”
Elijah rocked forward and stretched on the ground.
Beside him, Nathan took in heavy breaths and slid to his belly.
The Sidonian’s jeer came from overhead. “That’s right, my lads. Now don’t move. This bowstring is tight, and my fingers are nervous.”
Elijah’s heart raced.
When a slave trader’s knife had backed him up against a camel on the King’s Highway, Elijah had watched the slaver’s eyes for a signal to dodge the knife. But with this bandit behind him, he could only guess when this blade on a shaft might fly. He kept his breaths shallow. Expanding ribs might invite the bandit’s fingers to release the arrow into Elijah’s lung.
Scavengers circled overhead uttering low, nasal whines. Did they mean to return as soon as the bandits left, or let him ripen a week in the sun? Either way, they would settle on his back and hiss at each other as they tore meat from his bones, and Mother and Milkah would wonder why he didn’t come home.
As he turned his face to Nathan, Elijah scraped his nose in the dirt.
Nathan’s eyes opened wide and round. His tiny breaths left the dirt undisturbed, and his face betrayed nothing. Nathan was always ready for action. But with two men aiming arrows at his back, would he escape and tell the family how Elijah died? Nathan was as helpless as Elijah.
Elijah dug his fingers into the ground. Tears rolled from one eye to the other and into the dirt.
Help us, Lord. Please.
Aramaic came from bandits standing by Elijah’s feet.
“Not enough meat on these two to make vulture spit. Their robes won’t even hold together to scrub the floor.”
“What have we in these packs? Meat? Fresh bread? Oh, you shouldn’t have.”
“Hmm…. Look what the moths did to this goatskin.”
The first voice changed to Hebrew and came from farther away. “You’ve been nice, obedient boys.” The speaker laughed. “You can get up now.”
Did bandits enjoy releasing their arrows as their victims rose? A new tension gripped Elijah’s muscles. He blinked, folded himself, and rocked back onto his knees. This moment at his brother’s side would be his last.
The bandits stood off by the boulder with arrows notched to their bowstrings. “Thanks for lunch, boys.” The brothers’ packs hung from bandit shoulders. “Put your rags back on.”
Elijah remained kneeling. He held his head and shoulders still and roamed his eyes over the bandits and the corpse, the boulder and the acacia, and then the rocks in the side of the ravine.
“What you waiting for, boy?” Although the bandits stood by the boulder, the voice of the one who spoke seemed to come from far, far away. “Get your bones off the dirt and get out of here.”
Elijah snapped his chin up and brought himself back to the ravine.
The man who spoke laughed by the boulder and waved his drawn bow toward Elijah.
Elijah put a hand to the ground and pushed himself up. He wrapped his loins in the cloth. Perhaps Sidonian superstitions decreed bad luck for killing naked people, so the arrow would pierce him then the tunic cover him.
He pulled the tunic on. No arrow. With an eye on the nearest bandit, he shrugged into the robe and folded the goatskin under his arm.
“You boys should dress better for the road.” The bandit cackled. “And next time carry a little silver.” He walked over and poked Elijah with a stick. “Get a move on, boy.”
Elijah jammed his hands into his armpits and looked down. Did the bandits want moving targets?
He hurried around the first bend with Nathan and glanced back.
The bandits had disappeared. “Thank you, Lord!” His voice and hands shook. His heart pounded as if the arrows still pointed at his throat.
“Run.” Nathan grasped his wrist and leaped a small boulder with him in tow. They rattled over a loose bed of gravel and ducked under low-lying oak branches. The ravine twisted. They bounced off the bank and shot down the new direction. A soft roar rose to meet them, and they dashed into the sound.
Elijah tossed the goatskin on the sand. He splashed into the blue-green water and hid neck-deep in the rolling surf.
Golds, reds, and yellows fluffed up the sky.
As the sun sank, Elijah holed up in the waves and kept the sun behind him, checking, always checking for bandits from the ravine.
“I’m thirsty.” Nathan led Elijah behind a dune to a trickle of fresh water from the hill.
Elijah stretched face down with Nathan beside him, and they filled their bellies.
Elijah sat up and extended his arms in front of his face. He had not seen a bandit or an arrow since the sun was high, but his hands still shook.
Dusk covered the world. Hidden by sand dunes from the salt breeze, they curled up in the dark and listened to the surf.
Nathan whispered, “Every vulture I see, I’ll thank the Lord its beak is not twisting chunks from my back.”
“Those bandits attacked because I didn’t head straight to Zarephath.” Heat crept up Elijah’s neck.
“Ha! Forget that idea. ‘The Lord doesn’t punish us as we deserve or repay us according to our wrongs.’”1Psalm 103:10
Satisfied, Elijah rolled over and slept.
The next morning on the beach path toward Zarephath, Elijah shielded his eyes from the sun. “How much farther?”
“I don’t know, but my belly sure could use one of those flatbreads.”
“Wanna go back for it?”
Nathan rolled his eyes. “No, thanks.”
They came to a bay with an island on the other side. Nathan pointed to the dozens of cargo sloops and warships moored at the docks. Their masts and pointy bows waved with the ripples in the harbor.
“Tyre. This beats knocking on the gate of King Ahab’s fort.” Nathan slapped his thigh. “Go on over and introduce yourself to King Ethbaal. ‘Your daughter, Jezebel, sends her regards.’” He giggled. “‘What’s for lunch?’”
“What Ethbaal dishes out is not good for my health.” Elijah settled into his long-legged stride. “Remember? Farther north, the Lord has a widow waiting to feed us.”
Rough-cut limestone walls three times as high as Nathan rose on the beach. The jingle of ships’ rigging and the creak of spars shifting in their masts floated on the breeze with the smell of rotting fish guts and the tang of salt spray.
“Zarephath.” Nathan announced.
Elijah’s steps rose higher.
The sun hovered low over the sea.
Soon the Zarephath city gate would close for the night. People crowded toward the two broad limestone pillars, some with baskets strapped to their backs, some with donkeys in tow. They wore multi-hued tunics and turbans like those of the bandits. Had the Lord sent Elijah to a city of bandits? Red, blond, and brown hair waved from under turbans as well as the familiar black hair of Gilead.
Elijah shuffled with Nathan among the dozens on the path. A few chatted in a language he did not understand, but most hustled along with silent, tired faces.
“Strangers.” Nathan shuddered. “A city full.”
“You’ll be fine, Nate. Just stay close to me.”
“Let’s hide in those dried-up gardens behind the wall.”
“Sorry, but the Lord said—” Elijah poked Nathan. “Look.”
At the edge of the flow of people, a woman carried a ragged bundle of sticks toward the gate.
“I’ll ask her for water, like Abraham did with Sarah.”
“You mean Abraham’s servant. With Rebekah.”
“I knew that.” With Nathan in tow, Elijah pushed past several people and caught up to the woman. She wore a light gray tunic embroidered in dark blue and fastened over one shoulder. A matching turban draped her neck. Such fine clothes. Would she turn him away?
He spoke the Aramaic he learned from camel pullers on the King’s Highway. “Ma’am, can we please have a drink of water?”
The woman gave a polite nod, first to Elijah and then to Nathan behind him. “Come along, boys.” Her Aramaic carried the same accent as the bandits, but in dulcet, low-pitched tones.
“Thank you, ma’am. Would you have any bread, please?”
The woman turned. The fading light showed her eyes red with dark rings. Her face looked strong, kind, and tired. She stood straight, about as tall as Sheerah, but older. “I have no bread.”
Elijah pointed to Nathan. “Just a piece for me and my brother.” What was he doing, begging like a dog?
“Listen, son. My little boy and I have a handful of flour and a thimble of oil. I’m going home to make our last meal. See these sticks?” She patted her bundle. “By your accent, you are a Hebrew.” Her eyes found his and held them. “As sure as the Lord, your God, is alive, these sticks will make our final fire.”
She strode away, stopped, and looked over her shoulder. “You boys come along.”
Elijah spread his feet, thrust back his shoulders, and raised his voice. “Don’t you worry about a thing, ma’am. Just make a piece for me first.”
Why couldn’t he be quiet about this? Where had his manners gone? Several people stopped and glanced from Elijah to the woman, and back to Elijah.
The woman turned and opened a slow smile.
He returned her smile and pointed to Nathan standing next to the gate pillar. “And a piece for my brother, ma’am.” Dad would be so ashamed of him.
The gawkers eyed Elijah. They edged a step closer to this foreigner who begged from a woman of wealth who claimed she was starving. Two soldiers marched out to the open doors of the gate. Whatever this brief show meant, the city was about to close for the night.
Elijah stood on the balls of his feet and raised his chin. “After bread for me and my brother, bake up a storm for you and your little boy because this is what’s going to happen.” Forget the onlookers. He raised his voice. “That handful of flour? That thimble of oil? The Lord says they’re going to last and last and last. Ma’am, you’re going to be pouring that oil and sifting that flour and baking that bread until the Lord sends rain on this land.”
Mouths opened, and people stepped away.
The woman shook her head. “Guess I’ve heard everything now.” She walked off, and the spectators melted into the crowd.
Elijah swung around. “Nathan?” Twilight would soon touch the sky, not the time to lose track of his brother.
Eyes down and arms tucked close to his sides, Nathan inched out from behind the pillar.
Elijah pursed his lips. At least in Jabesh, Nathan could hide behind Balak and Baalam.
“Stick with me, Nate.” Such a gracious lady. Had he really said that about flour and oil? He pushed through the crowd and followed the woman through the city gate.