Zarephath, Sidon, 870 BCi
In Elijah’s dream, Balak the donkey danced around and refused to let him cinch up the packsaddle. “Why so nervous, old buddy?” Nathan and Dad would come out any moment, and he didn’t have one wineskin loaded. A crested lark warbled its familiar whee-whee-wheeoo. Elijah draped his arm over Balak’s neck, held the donkey’s nose to the fence, and snugged the lead tight.
Zim poked his blond head in the open doorway, a bright smile across his tan face. “Time to get up, Mr. Nathan. You too, Mr. Lijah. Mother asks if you would build her a fire, please.”
Elijah rolled off the goatskin and pulled Nathan with him.
For breakfast, the widow cooked extra-large flatbreads. Zim, Nathan, and Elijah each ate three pieces, and the widow ate two.
Zim tugged Nathan’s sleeve. “You never know when you’ll see a hummingbird, Mr. Nathan. Up in the tree house. My dad said you should always be ready. The most beautiful hummingbird you’ll ever see in your w h o l e l i f e.” Heii gave a slow shake of the head.
He pulled Nathan into the backyard, and Elijah followed as far as the doorway. “Over here, Mr. Nathan.” Zim grew quiet as he laid both hands on the trunk of a tall tree with thick, spreading limbs.
Nathan slid his fingers over the bark. “An Absalom oak.”
“That’s what we call them in Tishbe.”
“The Absalom who tried to kill his father?”
“The one.” Nathan cocked a sober eyebrow toward Elijah in the doorway. “You’ve heard about him, Zim?”
Zim knit his blond brows and bobbed his head. “Professor Hashabiah says Absalom hung there for the longest time. But I never knew my tree was the one that grabbed him.”
Elijah pursed his lips. Not only was Zim’s tutor a Levite, but he was teaching Hebrew history to this little pagan.
“Ready, Mr. Nathan?” Zim reached for a rope ladder….
Elijah joined them at the oak. Sea gulls called, and a breeze touched the upper limbs. Elijah imitated Nathan and let his fingers roam the hills and valleys of the bark. “Like home, Nate.”
Nathan tipped his head back. The floor of the tree house sat on a limb more than twice as high as Nathan.
“The highest tree house in the world, Mr. Nathan. And the most beautiful. It’s the best anywhere. My dad helped me build it. And up there we’re gonna see a hummingbird.” Zim undid a knot and caught a rope ladder as it swung out from the trunk. “It held my dad.”
Elijah moved back to the doorway. “Ready for a ride, Nate?”
When Zim stepped onto the bottom rung, the rope swung wide and carried him with it. “Waaah.”
Nathan steadied the rope.
“Thanks!” Zim caught his breath, scrambled up and stuck his head over the low windowsill. “Come on up, Mr. Lijah.”
Elijah leaned back against the doorjamb. “Thanks, Zim. How about I help from down here today?” Nathan needed a friend, and Zim needed a brother. No way was Elijah going to horn in on their fun.
Zim hollered, “Your turn, Mr. Nathan.”
Nathan surveyed the length of the ladder, put his foot into the bottom rung, and grinned at Elijah in the doorway. His climb took three times as long as Zim’s, but when he stood at the top of the ladder with his head in the entry hole, his voice reverberated from inside the tree house. “Yes sir. Most beautiful tree house in the world. Better than the one my brother and I built in Tishbe.”
Nathan disappeared into the tree house and stuck his head out beside Zim.
The widow came into the backyard and smiled up at Zim and Nathan before she turned to Elijah. “I want to know something, young man.” Her face was solemn. “Why aren’t you boys home with your mother and father?”
Elijah wrinkled his nose. She looked too young to accept death. More wrinkles than his sister Sheerah but fewer than Mother. [doesn’t make sense.] Had the nearness of dying last night kept her from asking questions? “It’s a long story, ma’am.”
“And another thing. Why me?” She folded her arms across her chest. [SS – I want to hear him eventually answer this.]
“You must understand, I am so thankful for every scoop of flour and each drop of oil!” Her head bowed. “First, I sold the tools from his forge.” She pointed to the ashes beyond the well. “Then our chairs and beds and tables.” She tipped toward the house. “Even the cast iron vases in the entry. As tall as you boys, they were.” Her chin went up. “They bulged out at the bottom and slimmed in toward the top.” Her hands curved up together. “Like giant onion bulbs. When customers saw those vases and the hinges on our doors, they ordered special decorations and fittings for their own homes.”
“When the rains quit, everybody was selling everything and getting nothing for it.” She covered her face with her hands, and her fingers muffled her words. “Our things are gone, and the little money they sold for is gone.”
She opened her hands and squinted up at Elijah.
“What I mean is, I can use the flour.” She glanced at the tree house. “We can. But were there no widows in Israel? Why Zarephath? Why me?”
[His answer goes to the ravine. What about have him say the Lord’s command to go to Zarephath where a widow would feed him? (Bypass all this next stuff)]
[Sherry says, However, you could consider having him admit that he doesn’t have the answer. That way the question wouldn’t be left hanging. Otherwise, I think the widow would still be dying to know the answer.]
Elijah drew his eyebrows together and wet his lips. “Well, ma’am. At first, we hid in a ravine, but when the brook dried—”
The widow raised her hand. “Wait. Wait. You hid? Who were you hiding from, son?”
“The king, ma’am. I told the king, ‘Neither dew nor rain until I say so.’”
BEAT Her expression? “No, you didn’t do that. You’re only a boy.”
“That’s what my mother says.” He lowered his head.
“What does your father say about this?” Her hand sank to her waist.
“My father said listen to the Lord and do the right thing.”
Her cheek twitched in a tiny smile, but she shook her head. “I’m not getting this picture, son.”
Nathan stuck his head over the wall of the tree house. “The words, Lijah. Tell her the words the Lord put in your mouth.”
Elijah pressed his lips together. Why did Nathan have such a thing about words?
The widow crossed her arms. “The Lord put words in your mouth?”
Elijah rubbed the back of his neck. Those words were personal. The way they surprised him when they leaped off his lips. Nathan said it meant Elijah was a bubbler, not in control of his own speech.
He took a step back. His lack of control was not a topic for discussion. Besides, in this foreign city, how could this heathen woman with her high ceilings and smooth walls understand what it meant to be a bubbler?
The widow opened her hands to him. “What words did the Lord put in your mouth, son?”
He took in a long breath and slowly let it out. At the city gate, when tall, impossible words about flour and oil had leaped from his lips, she opened her house, introduced her precious child, and shared her final bits of food. Where would he find a more open listener?
His lips parted.
“She’s okay, Lijah. She’s okay.” Nathan hung over the wall of the tree house dripping anticipation, with Zim drooling for gossip at his side.
Elijah took a deep breath. “Um, well the words. Yes.” He spoke in slow, careful tones. “I told the king, ‘As the Lord lives—the God of Israel whom I stand and serve—for these next years we will have neither dew nor rain unless I say so.’” Elijah clamped his mouth shut.
The widow lifted her hand to her mouth.
Nathan nodded in silence.
The widow stepped out from the door post, her back straight, and cleared her throat. “You mean you just barged into the palace and…” She glanced at the sky. “We’ve had no rain for… But why? What’s the Lord got against you people that he stops the dew and the rain?”
Elijah shuffled back a step. How much could this foreigner understand? “It’s Moloch and the Asherah temples, ma’am.”
Her face darkened, and her lips froze.
Elijah flinched. The look on her face reminded him how a bright-eyed baby goat on butchering day nibbled every blade of grass, nuzzled the folds in his sleeve. But when he slit its jugular, the eyes dimmed, and the lips stilled.
She lowered her voice. “Son, what do you know about Moloch or Asherah?”
Elijah tipped his head back. A swallow-tailed kite circled over them. The widow would not be backing out of this conversation. “Nathan and I… we’ve seen their slave girls on the trail, ma’am.” He took a breath but looked at the ground. “And… and my father told me what the Asherah priest makes those little girls do.”
“I see.” The widow edged closer to the door.
“And the Moloch priest—”
Nathan stuck his head over the side of the tree house with a random change of subject. “If you talked Milkah into living in a tree instead of that house on the ridge, you wouldn’t have to chip blocks at the quarry.”
“Right, Nate.” Elijah grinned at the ground and slowly opened a smile. His brother didn’t want to hear how the Moloch priest murdered his friend any more than Elijah wanted to talk about it. “She’d go for that if it had a hummingbird.”
“You gotta keep on the lookout for that hummingbird, Mr. Nathan. It’ll show up when you least expect it. If you say the blessing for our tree house like you did for our bread, there’d be lots of hummingbirds, huh. Wouldn’t there. Lots and lots of ’em.”
Elijah kept his mouth closed. Let Zim haul the conversation into hummingbirds, away from Moloch.
Nathan pulled his head in. “Blessing for a tree house?”
“Professor Hashabiah says there’s a blessing for everything. I bet he knows the blessing for a tree house.” The tree house muffled his little voice.
“Hey, Zim.” Elijah raised his voice. “Ask Mr. Nathan about our mezuzah.”
“What’s a menuzah?”
Elijah grinned and kept his head down. Better to talk tree houses than Moloch any day.
“Meh-zu-zah.” Nathan corrected. “It’s a scripture scroll. You tuck it inside a tiny box and tack it up on the doorpost. Your professor must have one on his door.”
“That little box he touches?”
“That’s it. When we built our tree house, we put one in the doorway. [ action beat or a voice descriptor] Elijah carved the box from Absalom oak, and our sister wrote the scripture on the scroll. I held the ladder while they tacked it up.”
“Okay, Mr. Nathan.” A slap of hand on wood echoed down to the two listeners. “We’ll put it right here.”
“You better ask your mother. She might not want one.”
“Don’t know why not.” Zim slithered down the ladder. “It’s a mezunah, Mommy. A box with writing that brings hummingbirds.”
Elijah raised his eyebrows to Nathan. They were drawing a crude map of how much the widow and her son knew about Hebrew culture. She used the phrase, ‘the Lord,’ and Zim talked about Absalom’s accident with the oak tree. But the better part of “mezuzah” lay beyond the borders of their knowledge.
Elijah stood behind Zim and addressed the widow. “Most of us put them inside our doorways, ma’am, but we’re Hebrew.” Zim and the widow would make good Hebrews.
“Please, Mommy. It’s a real good thing for the tree house, and Daddy would love it.”
She pulled him to her. “Zim loves his tree house, don’t you, dear.” Her eyes watered. She tilted her head up and pasted on a smile. “The highest in the world. And always with a hummingbird about to visit.”
Zim twisted and grinned up at her. “The nuzah’s like the blessing for bread, Mommy. Brings lots of hummingbirds.”
“Now slow down, my little man. I want to hear about this . . . this box. What’s it for?”
Nathan hit the ground and slid to a stop between Zim and the widow. He bent with his nose a few inches from her face. “Yes, ma’am. A mezuzah box is about as long as Zim’s hand and as wide as his two fingers.”
People in tiny Tishbe had often seen Nathan get excited about a new thing and were used to his close approach. As he beamed his full smile down into the widow, though, her head and shoulders tipped back. Her eyes opened wide, and her eyebrows pulled together.
Nathan was showing one good reason he avoided strangers.
Time to rescue big brother. Elijah touched Nathan’s arm. “Eyes. Distance.”
Nathan frowned and backed off.
The widow’s face relaxed. She stepped in and laid a calming hand on his arm. “Never mind, Elijah. I understand your brother better than you might think. Go ahead, Nathan. Say what you were going to say.”
The widow’s firm act of kindness to his brother made Elijah’s eyes well up. He swallowed and let the tears slide down his throat.
Nathan’s face cleared. He shot quick glances at his hands and at Elijah, but produced a steady smile for the widow.
“They make mezuzah boxes of olive wood, ma’am. And stone, glass, copper—even silver or gold. In Tishbe, we carve them from oak. The same oak that grows here.”
Zim hung on Nathan’s arm. “And the blessing for a tree house goes inside, right, Mr. Nathan?”
Nathan leaned over to Zim. “Oh, way better. The parchment reads, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God—’”
Elijah interrupted. “It gets long, ma’am. It tells us to put the Lord’s commands on our heart, teach them, talk about them, put them on our hands, between our eyes, and on our doorposts.” Someday they would be ready for Nathan the scholar to teach them the full mezuzah text.
Stop. He and Nathan had slept one night in the widow’s guest room, and he saw Nathan teaching them?
Nathan continued to smile. The widow nodded once to Elijah, and Zim jumped up and down. “So can we have one, Mommy? Can we make one? Please?”
Elijah cleared his throat. “Ma’am. Nathan doesn’t do too well with a pen [quill] , and Nathan is the only one who can read my writing.”
Her silence lasted only a moment. “Professor Hashabiah. Zim can take you to his lesson tomorrow morning. If the professor will write it, you boys can carve the box.”
Nathan stood. “How do we get to the professor’s house?”
iTitles: Treehouse, Mazuzah, Why me?
iistretched the last two words and