Chapter 1: Hopes, Prayers and Dreams
Several hours before the sun cleared the horizon on the morning I turned three, Uncle Balaam[i] wandered wild-eyed and agitated into our tent. We lived beyond the plains of Moab at the edge of Midian.[ii]
“Keturah,” he said without preamble. “You cannot promise her hand in marriage, Ket. You cannot,” he said as mother began to stir.
“Go away Balaam,” mother muttered. “Are you insane? Even the roosters are sleeping. Find a pillow. Get some sleep.”
“I’m afraid to sleep,” he said, pacing back and forth, pulling on his beard, pacing, pulling, pacing, pulling. “The Dream . . .” he muttered, “promise me you will see no suitors until we have spoken.”
“I promise,” mother said, covering her head with a pillow. “Now get some sleep or go away. Come back when I can see your face without wasting a candle.”
The Dream would change the course of my life. It would keep my family in poverty and set me apart when I only wanted to fit in. Over the years, I grew to hate that dream. Then one day, when I most wanted to die, it saved my life.
Even as a child, Caleb had an unquenchable spirit. His dark curls gleamed in the sun as he tumbled and wrestled with the other little boys. He learned quickly, laughed easily and possessed a quiet intelligence that shone from behind golden brown eyes.
Caleb believed in the God of his ancestors – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (whom God had renamed “Israel”). The descendants of Israel were proud and stubborn and stiff-necked, but they didn’t deserve their lot in life as slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt.
Every night before Caleb went to bed, he talked to God through silent prayer, asking innocent questions and making humble requests. Every day, Caleb watched and listened for God’s answers. Long before the Lord dwelt openly in their midst, Caleb had developed a relationship with God like few others.
Caleb dreamed of a life of freedom and adventure as a wandering desert warrior. But he never imagined the price of freedom. He never imagined that his relationship with God could change in a heartbeat.
* * *
Caleb knew very little about his mother. She died giving birth to him, hailed from the tribe of Judah and was extraordinarily beautiful. She believed fervently in the God of her ancestors. Even as she lay dying, with Caleb in her arms, she never wavered in her beliefs. Her husband, Caleb’s father Jephunneh, was a Kenizzite slave working Pharaoh’s quarries.[iii]
Jephunneh swore, on his wife’s deathbed, that he would teach Caleb the beliefs and traditions of her ancestors. Jephunneh arranged for a wet nurse from the tribe of Judah to care for his son. She educated them both in her tribe’s ways and beliefs, which they adopted as their own.
Like all slaves, Jephunneh loathed slavery and longed for freedom. Unlike many, however, Jephunneh appreciated the blessings in his life. But then, he was still young and healthy. In the quarry, those who worked hard and did not complain fared well, while those whose bodies or minds failed them felt the sting of a whip or worse.
Life in the quarry had its hardships, but it left Jephunneh’s body as chiseled as the stone he cut. Sometimes, the days in the hot sun seemed endless, but the few free men he saw from day to day – Pharaoh’s guards and overseers – worked hard in their own way. Whether free or a slave, a man still had to work to feed his family, and spent the end of the day with loved ones and friends.
Jephunneh possessed a quiet wisdom and gentle spirit that surprised all who came to know him. Friends and neighbors looked to Jephunneh to settle disputes. It started simply enough when he broke up a quarrel and chastised each party fairly and appropriately. He spoke to them from his heart and his head, hardly believing when they heeded his advice. It did not take long before others sought him out when he returned home from the quarry.
Jephunneh never charged for judging and refused all gifts. He welcomed the task, for he was not naturally social. At work in the quarry and even at home, Jephunneh pretty much kept to himself. So when people came to him for judging, he enjoyed meeting new people and helping settle their disputes.
Solitary by nature, Jephunneh chose his friends sparingly, sometimes too sparingly he often thought. His wife had been his best friend and her death left him lonely and alone.
* * *
Within days after Caleb’s birth, Jephunneh found himself working in the quarry next to a stonecutter named Nun, an Israelite member of the tribe of Ephraim. Nun attacked the stone with such ferocity that quarry workers feared him and overseers kept their distance. More apt to scowl than smile, Nun’s brooding intensity frightened people away and hid a surprisingly gentle spirit.
That day, however, Nun smiled broadly as he hammered away. The quarry face rang with the sound of his hammer, pounding the spike deep into the rock. The harder he worked, the broader his smile, until he no longer seemed the same man to Jephunneh.
“You’re smiling,” Jephunneh said, taking a swig for a water skin. “I’ve never seen you smile before.”
“I have a son,” Nun replied proudly, wiping the sweat from his brow. “His name is Hosea. Born three days ago.”
“Congratulations!” Jephunneh exclaimed, extending the water skin to Nun. “May God bless him and keep him, healthy and safe.”
“Thank you,” Nun replied, taking the water, drinking deep and smiling.
“I too have a son, just five days old,” Jephunneh said with a somewhat somber expression. “His name is Caleb.”
“Congratulations to you, Jephunneh!” Nun responded heartily, before pausing. “Forgive me,” he said hesitantly, “but you don’t seem very happy.”
“My wife,” Jephunneh explained, “died in childbirth.”
“Oh,” Nun said, at a loss for what to say. “I’m sorry.”
Neither spoke much for the rest of the day as they worked hard in the quarry. Their bodies glistened in the waning sunlight when they descended the quarry face and returned to their homes.
* * *
Over the next several days, Nun and Jephunneh worked side by side in close quarters. They respected each other’s skills with a hammer, where each man’s actions could endanger the other. They worked hard, shared an occasional water skin and said little more than necessary.
“Nun?” Jephunneh asked, after a long period of silence. “I am having a few friends over tonight for the bris. Would you and your family care to join us?”
“The bris?” Nun asked. “People still perform a . . .” Nun’s voice trailed off and his face reddened, realizing his comment could have caused offense. Nun’s quiet disposition stemmed from experience, so often had he removed his own foot from his mouth.
“Before me wife died, I promised her I would raise Caleb in the tradition of his ancestors,” Jephunneh explained without apology, and in a tone that made clear he had taken no offense.
“We would love to join you,” Nun responded. He shuddered at the thought of ritual circumcision, but he was honored at the invitation at so personal an event.
* * *
Jephunneh and Nun developed a close friendship, as did their sons Caleb and Hosea. The two boys played together from infancy. They wrestled and tumbled and found all manner of mischief, growing healthy and strong – the pride of their fathers.
Jephunneh and Nun spent many evenings together, sitting and speaking and watching their sons play. While they spoke, they carved patterns in citron sized stones. They traded their stones for small luxuries and gifts, though their love of fine carving was reward in itself.
Their carvings became renowned and soon Pharaoh took notice. Pharaoh promoted them from stone cutters to carvers of detail, and had them to work on the facades of new temples and palaces. By the standards of an Egyptian slave, the hardships of life had considerably eased. The days of swinging a heavy hammer in the hot sun gave way to work with finer tools, often under the shade of a tent.
* * *
Years passed. Jephunneh struck up a friendship with a nearby neighbor who’d just had a baby girl, named Sarah. Jephunneh invited Sarah’s father, Faroul, to sit with him and Nun while they carved.
Faroul didn’t carve stones, but he had a gift for storytelling and told tales of the Israelites’ ancestors and of their relationship with God. At first Nun resented the intrusion. But soon he too grew to appreciate Faroul’s companionship.
During those days, Jephunneh, Nun and Faroul were happier than most free men. Yet the three of them longed for freedom and spoke of it often. It was a longing they couldn’t help but pass on to their children.
* * *
Time passed quickly and soon Faroul’s daughter, Sarah, approached her third birthday.
“I’ve been thinking of asking Faroul for Sarah’s hand in marriage,” Jephunneh said to Nun, while they worked on an intricate façade for one of Pharaoh’s temples.
“You’re a little old for her, don’t you think?” Nun said with a laugh.
“Not for me,” Jephunneh frowned, “for Caleb.”
“At least you know he’d marry into a good family,” Nun commented.
“You wouldn’t mind?” Jephunneh asked.
“Mind? Why would I mind?” Nun responded, surprised.
“I thought maybe you were thinking of Sarah for Hosea,” Jephunneh explained, “and I wouldn’t want anything to come between us.”
Nun became quiet and thoughtful as he nodded his head. “You’re a good friend Jephunneh. But no, I had not thought of Sarah for Hosea. I think I’ll let him choose his own bride when he’s old enough.”
“He may not have much to choose from by the time he gets around to choosing,” Jephunneh commented, knowing as he did that many Israelite families arranged marriages for their young children.
“I know,” Nun said with the hint of a sigh, “but at least the choice will be his, no offense.”
Jephunneh knew well that, growing up, Nun had fallen in love with a girl whose betrothed had died. Nun discovered that his own marriage had been arranged since childhood and, to his enormous disappointment, honor prevented breaking the contract.
Jephunneh considered Nun’s statement for a moment before saying, “I haven’t decided what I want to do, though, so please don’t mention it to Faroul.”
“Not a word,” Nun promised.
Jephunneh struggled mightily over whether or
not to ask Faroul for Sarah’s hand in marriage.
His interest sprang not from
Sarah’s beauty and disposition, though she was quiet extraordinary in both regards, but because her father loved God as Jephunneh loved God – wholeheartedly and without reservation. Still, after speaking with Nun, Jephunneh began to wonder if choosing a bride now might one day devastate his son.
Ironically, the conversation between Jephunneh and Nun had the opposite effect on Nun. Nun couldn’t stop thinking about whether he should choose a good bride now that Hosea could learn to love. Nun had, after all, learned to love the wife his parents chose for him. If Nun didn’t make a choice soon, Hosea would have to choose between leftovers.
* * *
As Hosea and Caleb grew, they made an unstoppable incorrigible pair. Hosea had a natural street smarts, mischievous nature and leadership ability that Caleb admired. Caleb, by contrast, had a practical sense for how to accomplish any task, and a spiritual bond that kept the boys more or less in line.
Caleb couldn’t remember the first time he saw Sarah. Like Hosea, she had always been a part of his life and he hers. When Caleb was four and she was one, she followed him around like a puppy, toddling on new-found legs.
Caleb and Hosea found her amusing at first, and the three of them played together often. But as they grew older, Hosea and Caleb often conspired to leave Sarah behind. Sometimes, Caleb would look back and see Sarah crying as he and Hosea raced away. The sight of her in such a state tugged at his heart, for a moment or two at least.
Their attempts to leave Sarah behind met with severe scolding from their parents. Sometimes, Hosea and Caleb accepted the punishment as the price they had to pay for a little freedom. But mostly they learned to accept her presence.
When Sarah grew old enough to contribute to their mischief, they once again came to enjoy her company. But Sarah was never quite as fast as Caleb or Hosea, so their pranks often ended with her caught, punished and crying.
Caleb and Hosea would look on from a place of safety, as Sarah received harsh words, threats or the back of someone’s hand. There was not much they could do, after all, to protect her – other than exclude her altogether and that no longer seemed an option.
At first, Caleb pretended not to care when Sarah met with unfortunate consequences from their pranks, but more and more he would circle back to comfort her. Over time, Caleb began to look out for Sarah and direct their mischief into avenues that didn’t as often end badly for her.
As the three of them grew, the difference in ages seemed to shrink with time. Nearly every day, they played and wrestled and argued like the good friends they had become.
Occasionally, when Jephunneh sat carving with only Faroul for company, Caleb and Sarah played together or simply talked. It was in those generally more quiet moments, when Nun and Hosea were off on some father/son errand that Caleb began to see Sarah in a different light.
* * *
Caleb and Hosea grew healthy and strong. With increased maturity, their play time lessened and they spent more and more time helping their fathers carve stone. Well before they could last an entire day swinging hammers against the quarry face, they used medium sized hammers to chisel rough designs that their fathers then turned into true works of art.
The more Caleb and Hosea worked, the less time they had to play with other children, including Sarah. Still, nearly every day, Caleb made it a point to visit Sarah.
When Caleb was nearly fifteen, Sarah disappeared without warning. Caleb and Hosea thought little of it, until one day became two and two became three. Caleb worried over Faroul’s refusal to speak with him of Sarah’s whereabouts, other than to say that she was with Sarah’s mother.
“But where is Sarah’s mother?” Caleb asked innocently, as Faroul just shook his head and walked away.
“Talk to your father,” Faroul said.
“My father?” Caleb replied, “Why would father know where Sarah is?” Caleb found the whole situation perplexing, but there was nothing he could do but track down Jephunneh. “Where is Sarah?” he asked Jephunneh, when he finally found him.
“She is with the women,” Jephunneh replied simply.
“With the women? What women? Why?” Caleb asked.
“Have you not noticed, son? Sarah is becoming a young woman. She will be marrying soon.”
The explanation said much, but explained little. Still, Caleb’s throat went dry and his heart began to race. Sarah, marrying soon? It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The changes in Sarah had become the focus of more than one inappropriate comment from Hosea. Caleb himself no longer felt comfortable wrestling with her as they had done in years past.
Sarah had indeed begun transforming into a stunning young woman. Her long nearly black curls seemed to swallow all light, and yet managed to gleam in the mid-day sun. She had a delicate face that would have looked fragile if not anchored by intelligent eyes that missed little. Her slender body, strong and confident, had begun to soften and round in ways that stirred unfamiliar feelings in Caleb.
When Caleb stood next to Sarah, he sometimes lost his train of thought when the wind shifted just so. For when it did, it brought with it the faintest hint of desert wild flowers and spice, which Caleb had come to recognize as a scent unique to Sarah.
Caleb could recognize Sarah on a cloudy moonless night with his eyes closed, he felt sure of it. And though he had never before sought to arrange such a meeting, the mere thought of it both thrilled him and made him uncomfortable.
What’s happening to me? To us? Caleb wondered. Caleb was not particularly naïve, just confused by his emotions and the rapid changes in his world.
* * *
For the first three days, Sarah’s absence weighed heavily upon Caleb. By the fourth day, he could no longer concentrate on his work and began to make mistakes.
Caleb ruined one of the stones, so an overseer struck him. The man could’ve used a whip to get Caleb’s attention, but he chose a backhanded blow that knocked Caleb to the ground.
“Watch what you’re doing,” rasped the overseer, his voice strained by endless reprimands.
Jephunneh, Nun and Hosea breathed a collective sigh of relief when Caleb held his tongue and simply wiped the blood from his mouth. Children were rarely whipped by overseers, but then again, it was not unheard of and Caleb was almost fully grown.
“Are you alright?” Jephunneh asked, after the overseer had moved on.
Caleb nodded, both ashamed and angry at being reprimanded. The rings worn by the overseer had cut his lip. He spat blood into the sand.
“It looks like you’ve become a man,” Jephunneh commented with a wry smile.
Caleb laughed and then groaned as the laughter jostled his injured lip.
“What were you thinking?” Jephunneh asked. “It’s unlike you to make such mistakes.”
“Who will Sarah marry?” Caleb responded, accurately answering Jephunneh’s question with his own. Time stood still as Caleb waited for an answer.
In the brief but infinite pause before Jephunneh responded, it occurred to Caleb that neither he nor his father had ever spoken of marriage. Caleb hoped to marry Sarah, but he’d never spoken of it to Jephunneh, always afraid of what he might learn. But now, it seemed, that time was running out.
Jephunneh saw the look of worry and distraction on his son’s face and wondered about decisions made long ago. “And what business is that of yours?” he inquired gently, deflecting question with question.
“She’s my friend,” Caleb answered, struggling hard not to look away.
“Just a friend?” Jephunneh pressed as he met his son’s gaze.
“Of course just a friend,” Caleb said indignantly, if not convincingly, as he turned his head away. “But I think I love her,” he whispered, hoping his father hadn’t heard.
“What do you know of love, my son?” Jephunneh asked.
No such luck, Caleb thought, father obviously heard. “I know I haven’t seen Sarah for days, and I cannot concentrate on cutting on the stones. I want to speak with her so badly my throat is dry. But when I think of seeing her, my stomach becomes tied in knots. What can I do, father?”
“You needn’t trouble yourself yet. Sarah probably won’t marry for at least a year, probably two,” Jephunneh assured him. “This is, after all, only her first visit to the women’s tent.”
“But I thought you said she’d be marrying soon?” Caleb pressed.
“I only meant that she is a woman now and capable of child bearing and marriage. I don’t think she’ll be getting married, until she’s a little more matured.”
“But what do I do, father?” Caleb asked. “I think I love her, and feel so helpless.”
“Pray,” Jephunneh answered, “then observe. God answers in whispers meant only for the observant.”
* * *
One year passed in the blink of an eye, and the end of the second approached. Caleb took his father’s advice. He prayed daily that he would see Sarah and that her smile would brighten his day. He once sat down to pray she would not marry anyone else, but then prayed instead for her happiness. In that moment, like no other, Caleb felt God’s presence, strong and comforting, yet oddly sad. The sensation startled Caleb and left him confused.
Caleb and Hosea no longer worked together with their fathers doing rough design work. Both had been transferred to the quarry as apprentice stone cutters. The heavy hammers were a challenge at first and they returned home exhausted night after night, hardly able to lift their arms.
Caleb did not have the energy to visit Sarah, so she visited him. Often she massaged his arms and neck and back while they talked. Caleb loved Sarah’s touch, her voice and her scent, and the more she nursed him through the aches and pains of stone cutting, the deeper in love he fell.
As Caleb and Hosea continued to work the quarry, their bodies became chiseled like their fathers’ once were. They were young and strong and proud to do work that few but the healthiest and strongest could do. Caleb loved the hard work, and any time spent with Hosea. The days when they worked side by side possessed a purity that only best friends, working as colleagues, can understand.
Towards the end of each day, Caleb longed only to spend time with Sarah and could usually make it happen. They spent many a blissful evening together, simply reveling in each other’s company. The evenings flew by.
Each night, before bed, Caleb prayed the same prayer: Please, God, let Faroul have chosen well for Sarah, so that she marries a husband who loves her, treats her kindly and makes her happy. Every once in a while, God’s presence overwhelmed him with a gently happy sadness he didn’t understand.
Working high up on the quarry face in the early morning chill, it occurred to Caleb that he didn’t even know if his own marriage was arranged and, if so, to whom. He wanted to ask Jephunneh, but didn’t know if he could do it. Rather than dwell on the issue, Caleb attacked the stone with renewed vigor.
“Are you alright?” Hosea asked.
“Are you betrothed to anyone?” Caleb replied, between hammer blows.
“Me?” Hosea asked, surprised by the seemingly random question, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it or talked about it with father. Are you?”
“We’ve never talked about it either,” Caleb said swallowing. Caleb was silent a moment. “I suppose I could’ve asked and would’ve asked, long ago, if I weren’t afraid of the answer.”
“So ask,” Hosea offered. “Better to know, than to wait in fear.”
Caleb nodded, but said nothing. Sometimes it’s better to hold a dream for as long as you can, than face a far more grim reality. Caleb knew, in his heart, that he would do anything to hold onto that dream, even for a little while longer. Some day, he told himself unconvincingly, some day soon I’ll ask. But Caleb could never work up the courage.
* * *
After a particularly hard week in which Pharaoh’s taskmasters drove everyone to the point of exhaustion and beyond, Sarah’s family invited friends over for Sabbath dinner. As slaves, they couldn’t really rest during the Sabbath, nor devote the day to God. Still, whenever possible, Faroul, Jephunneh, Nun and their families honored the Sabbath with the company of friends, a fine meal and a mutual love for the Lord.
Caleb enjoyed these gatherings usually, but this one filled him with dread. Sarah recently reached an age when young women wed, and Faroul promised an announcement by the end of the night. Caleb thought of fleeing with Sarah, but where could they go? Besides, runaway slaves were killed on the spot. He’d risk his own life for a lifetime with her, but he’d never risk hers.
When all had assembled and talked for awhile, they made their way over to the table as the dinner hour approached. The butterflies in Caleb’s stomach multiplied exponentially, until he thought he would throw up.
I must say something. I must say something now, his mind churned. But what if she laughs at me? What if they all laugh at me? I don’t care. I don’t. But what if I spoil the moment for Sarah? I can’t make her miserable on the day of her wedding announcement. Calm down. I’m making too much of this. It’s just dinner, nothing more. But what if it’s not? I can’t just sit here. I can’t!
Anxiety verging on terror glued Caleb to his seat. He cringed at his own cowardice and prayed for deliverance. God, help me, he pleaded. Help me let go of impossible love. Help Sarah find her way into the arms of a man who loves and cherishes her as I do. Caleb glanced across the room at Sarah, whose delicate features shone under the lamplight, and his heart melted. Oh God, Caleb implored, I can’t bear this any longer.
Caleb struggled to stand and profess his love for Sarah or run from the room, he still hadn’t decided which. But his legs weighed more than stone. He tried to speak. But his dry throat allowed only an unintelligible noise that he was glad no one heard. His heart pounded louder than the steady thump, thump, thump of the hammers in the quarry.
It’s now or never, Caleb thought. If Faroul announces Sarah’s betrothal, it’ll be too late! Caleb rested his arms on the table, willing himself to stand. With the last ounce of strength and courage he possessed, he began to rise . . . just as Faroul began to speak.
“Now Balaam,” mother said over breakfast of dates and day-old bread. “What’s this foolishness about not promising Misha’s hand in marriage? You know we need the bride price. Her father’s dead, our tent invites the wind and our animals can barely sustain us. Look at her,” she said, as I feigned sleep, long red curls spilling over my face and pooling at my side. “A prettier girl does not exist in all of Midian. Have you seen the way stranger’s stare at her eyes? Blue as topaz, and twice as bright. At the market, mothers kneel at her feet, the better to see her delicate face and caress her milky white skin. ‘How precious,’ they exclaim and ‘What a lovely girl.’ Not promise her hand in marriage? You’ve gone mad!”
“Keturah. Sister. Please. You know the source of my madness. Surely you must know that I don’t ask this lightly. The down payment on Misha’s bride price alone would assure the two of you a comfortable, if not wealthy, life. Do you think I’m blind and a fool, as well as mad? I’ll leave my home in the caves and serve the rest of my days as your shepherd, if only you would heed my request.”
“A shepherd?” mother asked. “We have no sheep! Be practical Balaam, how would we survive?”
“God will provide,” Balaam replied.
“God helps those, who help themselves,” mother retorted. “You are asking us to choose poverty because of a dream.” A long silence followed. Then mother sighed in resignation, “So tell me this dream.”
* * *
“The Dream has come for twelve nights running,” Balaam said, as I continued to feign sleep. “Each night the details have become more vivid, more horrid. This Dream is a warning from God, Keturah,” Balaam said gravely.
“Must you cloak all of your stories in drama?” mother responded, annoyed.
“Quiet woman,” Balaam said, puffing out his chest, in a display that probably meant for me. “Do you dare mock the sorcerer of Midian?” I giggled at his antics and then hid under the covers, hoping I hadn’t been heard.
“In the dream, Misha’s grown to womanhood, and a more stunning woman I’ve never seen. She is quick to laugh and kind to those she meets. But she’s terribly lonely. Every night, the emptiness in her life stains my pillow with tears. Initially, the men and women of Midian shun her. But she wins them over slowly, and eventually gains their respect.”
“The people have strayed from the ways of our ancestors, even more than they have already. On the day of the great festival to Baal, Midian whores itself out to all manner of gods, engaging in blasphemy and immodesty.”
“Misha, God bless her, can’t take another festival, with everyone wearing black and disgracing our ancestors. Wearing a flowing white dress, she gathers the children of Midian – with the girls dressed in white and the boys dressed in black. She leads them into the wilderness. The women, God bless them, join Misha and the children. They blend in with the boys, for they too are wearing black.”
“Keturah, it was frightening, nearly 100,000 women and children just walking out into the desert. But as they enter the wilderness, a sandstorm blots out the sun. The darkness separates the mothers and sons from Misha and the girls. Everyone dressed in black is driven by the wind back to Midian, which surges around the girls and holds them captive in the desert.”
“When the sandstorm dies down, a dreadful stench fills the air. The girls are crying for their mothers and hanging on Misha’s robes. Misha quiets the girls and tells them to be brave. She then walks back towards Midian, with her head held high.”
“Once out of sight, Misha races back to town, with her white robes flowing. But the closer she gets, the stronger the smell, until tears blur her vision as she stumbles back towards town. The rancid air makes her gag and spills the contents of her stomach. Through the blur of her tears she can’t see what’s causing the smell. But she knows. It’s death . . . on an incomparable scale – innocent men, women and children slaughtered like sheep.”
“Misha flees into the desert in terror. The dust clings to her face and her clothes turning everything brown. She reaches the children who are equally sullied, but at least they’re alive. Misha comforts the girls, who seem to know what has happened because their keening for loved ones they’ll never see again.”
Balaam swallowed before continuing, his throat dry, his breathing erratic. “Their lives are hard in the desert. They face unspeakable trials.” Balaam seemed as if he’d pass out as he tried to calm himself. He sat on one of the few chairs we owned, shoulders slumped, elbows on knees and head in hands, leaning forward as if he would be ill.
“But God provides,” Balaam whispered finally. “Misha marries a warrior who worships only the God of Midian, as did his mother before him and his mother’s mother too. He bears the Mark of Midian, which he received as a child, and he fights valiantly for our people though it has little effect. Still, Midian is remembered, through your daughter, Mishael.”
“Oh, Balaam,” mother said gently, putting an arm around his shoulder in an effort to comfort him. He was still her little brother.
“All of my life,” Balaam continued, “I have had these dreams, vivid dreams . . . dreams that held meaning . . . dreams that came true, in one form or another. The people call me a sorcerer, a diviner, a madman. But I am simply a man of God, Ket – the God of our ancestors, the God of our mothers and our mothers’ mothers, all the way back to the wellspring of our tribe. These Dreams are from Him, Ket.”
“But your dreams don’t always come true, Balaam. You’ve said so yourself,” Keturah protested softly.
“Not literally,” Balaam admitted, “they require interpretation. But if interpreted correctly, they’re truer than ‘true.’ ”
“But I don’t understand,” Keturah complained. “How can you tell from this Dream that I am not to promise Misha’s hand in marriage?”
Balaam clenched his jaw to help regain his composure, and to steel himself to say what he had to say. “For the last several nights, this nightmare kept coming back each night, more vivid and more detailed, until I feared falling asleep. But last night I just had a different nightmare, even more horrifying than the rest and every bit as vivid.”
“There’s more?” mother croaked, all moisture having left her throat.
“Last night, when Misha led the children into the desert, she wore black and held the hands of her two children – a boy, dressed in black, and a girl dressed in white. They looked like you and me as children, Ket. Do you remember?”
“I remember,” mother whispered, with her eyes round and wide.
“Once again the desert wind came, driving Misha and her son back. It drove them all the way to Midian, with the other mothers and sons. The stench of death drove the girls even farther into the desert, and sullied their clothes as it had time and again. The girls survived in the desert, but life brutal and unbearable. No one returned to Midian, which existed no more – buried and long forgotten by the endless sands of time.”
“If Mishael marries,” Balaam said with conviction, “it must be this man from the original dream. He is the difference. He is the key. If Misha marries someone else . . . then she and her son will die, as shall the memory of Midian.”
Mother couldn’t speak, nor could she ignore Balaam’s dreams. Our faith and our ancestors relied on such dreams. To remain true to our God, mother felt she had no choice. Through poverty and hardship, we would wait for my prince.
* * *
At the age of six, the Market had become my special playground. Its sights and sounds and smells provided shelter and comfort, mystery and intrigue to a little girl with only two dresses and rags for shoes. Too young to understand the hardships of poverty or the meaning of sacrifice, I only knew that mother loved me and I loved her. What more did we need? We had a tent that kept out the wind and rain, mostly, and I hardly ever went to bed too hungry to sleep.
Mother wove baskets and sold them at Market. While she wove, she told me the story of our ancestor, Midian. My mother and Midian’s mother were both named Keturah, which made mother magical in my little girl’s eyes.
The story, as mother told it, began five hundred years ago . . . more or less. Mother’s namesake, Keturah, had married a handsome young man, and for the next twelve years they tried and failed to conceive. When her husband cast her out, she struggled to survive alone. Most considered her cursed. Still, she dreamed of having children, until her childbearing years passed.
Though no one let her tend children, she could care for the old. The elderly didn’t fear that she might make them barren. In one of the few lucky breaks she had ever received, she began caring for a wealthy but feeble old man. Ibrahim was his name and his wife recently died. He provided food and shelter and not really much else. But for the first time since her own childhood, Keturah began to enjoy life.
One night Keturah dreamt that she married Ibrahim. The dream shocked and confused her, but she kept it to herself. Night after night the dream came time and again, growing more and more vivid, until one night it changed. In the new dream, she’d become pregnant and awoke with tears on her pillow.
Sad as the dream made her, it awakened old longings. She looked forward to the evenings and the chance to experience her dreams. Unlike typical dreams, these dreams kept progressing and weren’t scattered or random. The child she conceived in dream, she birthed in dream and bore child after child, until six little children now scampered through her dreams.
But one night, the dreams stopped and Keturah felt cheated. When the next night was the same, Keturah began to get worried. After a third dreamless night she began to panic and fear sleep.
Keturah was beside herself. She had no one she could tell. She couldn’t speak with Ibrahim, who was the subject of the dream, and she had no real friends. So she fretted while she worked, and tried to remain calm.
“What is wrong, Keturah?” Ibrahim asked, startling her one day.
Keturah had rarely heard him speak, and was shocked he even knew her name. “Nothing my lord,” she replied unconvincingly.
“I will assume you didn’t hear me correctly” Ibrahim said as if to a child, “for if you had then your answer would surely be a lie.”
Realizing she had little choice but to answer her employer, she told Ibrahim all: the barrenness, the loss of hope and the recent cruel dreams. Telling Ibrahim the dreams embarrassed her greatly, but she told him nonetheless – grateful to tell someone and not keep her feelings bottled up.
“Do you know anything of my life, child?” he asked with a smile that shocked her all the more, for she had never seen him smile.
“Not really,” Keturah replied, “just that your wife recently died, and that you desired a caretaker from outside your family. I assumed you didn’t want pity from family or friends, just as I don’t want to pity for the affliction of barrenness.”
“Did you know my first wife was barren?” Ibrahim asked, now intrigued.
Once more he had shocked her. She shook her head, “no.”
“Much longer than you, in fact,” Ibrahim further explained. “We had given up hope until God promised us a son. Even then we remained skeptical, as we waited to see. But eventually we conceived and she bore me a son. You’ve seen him no doubt. His name is Ishaq.”
“Ishaq is your son,” Keturah gasped, now confused.
“You thought he was my grandson?”
Or great grandson, Keturah thought.
“God has brought us together. I must think now, and pray.”
Keturah nodded and left, her head reeling from the news. That night held no dreams, despite Keturah’s hopes.
Day after day, she cared for the old man. But he rarely ever spoke, and never of their prior talk. He must have forgotten, she thought with despair, for her dreams had not returned and they were all she had left.
* * *
“Keturah,” Ibrahim said after a week had gone by. His voice, so unexpected, caused her to flinch. “I have prayed . . . and I have thought . . . and I am willing.”
“Willing?” Keturah asked, unsure what he meant.
“To marry you and have children,” he said with a straight face.
“Marry you? Have children,” she parroted in disbelief.
“But there is only one condition,” he continued nonplussed, “you must worship my Lord and renounce other gods.”
Keturah wondered if it were possible he might actually be lecherous, but he must have been over one hundred years old. Perhaps he is joking, or addled with age, she wondered to herself, still unsure what to say.
“These dreams were from the Lord,” he said with utter conviction. “If I’m not too old to serve Him, I’ll do what I can. Our children will be His glory, just as Ishaq once was.”
“Our children?” Keturah asked, feeling like a mindless parrot.
“Our children, yours and mine, the newest followers of the Lord.”
Keturah didn’t really believe, but she couldn’t give up hope. She’d given it up once and wouldn’t do so again. Hope, however foolish, was hope nonetheless. So the next day they were married, to the scandal of all.
* * *
“Tell me more,” I begged mother, when she put down her basket.
“You’ve heard the story a thousand times,” mother sighed.
“Please,” I whined.
Mother began weaving a new basket, as she continued telling the story. . . .
Keturah accepted Ibrahim’s God, forsaking all others, on the day that they married. The marriage gave Ibrahim renewed vigor that surprised them both. With Keturah’s assistance, Ibrahim left his tent for the first time in years. Together they sacrificed animals on alters of unhewn stone, until the desert lay bloodied and strewn with carcasses.
There were whispers of waste and foolishness, but no one dared say such things to Ibrahim’s face. Some people thought Keturah desperate and pitiful to marry such an old man. Others thought her shrewd, for Ibrahim could not possibly live much longer and he was, after all, quite wealthy.
But Keturah didn’t care what people thought. She didn’t want money or gifts. All she wanted was hope. Hope, however futile, was the greatest gift of all.
Then, to the shock of Ibrahim’s household, Ibrahim gave Keturah the greatest gift of all – the gift of a son. Soon came another and another, until she had given birth to six children in quick succession: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah.[iv] The children reinvigorated their father so much that people began to wonder if the old man would ever die.
Ibrahim and Keturah were happy as their children grew. Eventually the children became adults and started families of their own. Jokshan became the father of Sheba and Dedan.[v] Midian found a beautiful young bride with flaming red hair and striking blue eyes, and together they had five sons: Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Ebida and Eldaah.
Though Ibrahim remained healthy longer than anyone thought possible, eventually his health began to fail. With Ibrahim’s health failing, trouble loomed on the horizon. Ishaq, the child of Ibrahim’s first wife, had never recognized the marriage of Ibrahim to Keturah, whom he considered a mere concubine. In Ishaq’s eyes, only his dearly departed mother could claim the title of “wife.”
Fearing war with his half-brothers over Ibrahim’s property, Ishaq convinced the dying old man to send his “new” family away. Ibrahim didn’t send them away empty handed. Wealthy beyond measure, he provided quite generously so they could survive on their own him.[vi]
Keturah refused to leave Ibrahim’s side, though it broke her heart to see her sons leave. Ishaq tolerated Keturah’s presence at his father’s bedside.
Ibrahim died after several months in bed. The next day, Keturah walked out of camp with only the items she needed to survive in the desert.
Keturah had aged considerably at the departure of her sons and the loss of Ibrahim. Yet she remained strong and wandered the desert until she found one of her sons.
Midian was shocked at his mother’s condition when she appeared out of the desert, and was irate that Ishaq had not sent anyone with her. If Midian had had his way, he would have returned and made war upon his half-brother, Ishaq. But Keturah forbade it.
“Trust in the God of your father,” Keturah insisted, “Leave justice to Him.”
“I will trust in your God, mother,” Midian replied, “and . . .”
“He is One and the same,” Keturah interrupted.
“And follow the traditions and rituals that you have taught me,” Midian concluded.
Mother finished her story to me as she always did, with a twinkle in her eye and the words that always sent chills down my spine: “In Midian’s eyes,” mother said, “his God would always be the God of his mother, whose love and strength never ceased to brighten his days.”
That was always my favorite part – that Midian thought of God as the God of his mother made the Lord so much more accessible to me. It pleased me to know that, some day, I too would marry a man who believed solely in the God of his mother and of her mother before her – the God of our ancestors, Elshah Deye.
* * *
I loved mother’s stories of Midian and her ancestral namesake, Keturah. It seemed so fitting that they had the same name. They were both so brave and strong and independent. It was not until I was much older that I realized how brave and strong and independent mother really was. Women didn’t raise children alone in Midian. They either married or, if they had a little girl, they engaged them to someone who would care for the family until the girl came of age.
But mother refused all engagements. She had promised Balaam she would respect The
Dream, and she was as good as her word.
Indeed, mother not only insisted that I marry a “True Midianite,” who
met Balaam’s criteria, but she would accept nothing less for herself.
Many in our faith made the mistake of marrying those who believed in other gods, even though strict observance of our faith required belief in the God of Midian, alone. As a practical matter, instilling such a belief in one’s children was next to impossible if one spouse believed in many gods, a different god or no god at all. So those who didn’t marry what “traditionalists” called “True Midianites” tended to raise children who no longer put their faith solely in Elshah Deye.
Generation upon generation of such “inter-faith” marriages had resulted in a Midian whose people, for the most part, no longer believed solely in our ancestral God, if they even believed in Him at all. Most abandoned Him altogether, in favor of far less demanding kinder gentler gods.
Unlike Elshah Deye, many of the more popular “modern” gods were neither jealous nor vengeful. They didn’t demand the ritual mutilation of children, such as the Mark of Midian. They didn’t demand many sacrifices, if any. Unlike the God of our ancestors, the more contemporary gods were easily visualized, and were often depicted as a calf or a bull or some other symbol of prosperity.
Faced with such competition from so many lesser gods, the one true God of our ancestors could hardly compete. Thus, even as a child, the decision to wait for a “True Midianite” narrowed considerably my chances of marrying. Yet we trusted in the God of our ancestors, as had our mothers before us.
In the meantime, mother tried to feed and clothe us by bartering for goods with her baskets. Uncle Balaam helped out when he could. But he had so little himself, at least while I was young, that he lived in nearby caves for shelter. We were poor, yet we were happy, for the most part.
* * *
All of the women selling goods in the Market watched out for me. Kindly Tamar, who sold painted gourds and cups for drinking, had pretty green eyes and a quick smile. Metabel sold cooking pots and pans, which her husband forged in fires that left his skin sweaty and blackened. Dinah, a petite little woman with hair below her waist, sold dresses and robes. Even Maacah, the village prostitute, who primped constantly to remain as beautiful as possible for her customers, kept an eye out for me.
Few men worked in the Market, which was largely the women’s domain. But Hamarab, the lamb seller, was one of them. Unlike most men, who stared at me longer than they should, Hamarab made me feel comfortable. He looked at me with the kindness of a father and treated me like a favored daughter. I imagined that my own father, killed before I was born, must have been like him. Small, as I was small, but strong and smart and quick, Hamarab kept to himself, as if he harbored dark secrets. He rarely spoke with anyone – except, occasionally, me.
The smell of his lamb made my mouth water and tummy rumble, so I learned quickly to avoid him during business hours. Mother couldn’t afford to buy his wares and the aroma of lamb tortured my rail thin form. At the end of the day, like many of the less fortunate children, we congregated within eyeshot of him, hoping he would offer us scraps – which he occasionally did.
Margda, my best friend, grew bolder with each year until she actually asked Hamarab for food. After making the mistake of feeding her, she hounded him daily until he told her, “No more! Don’t ever come here again!”
Margda never again asked him for food. Her pride wouldn’t allow it. Instead, when he turned his back, she would sneak up and steal from him, until one day he grabbed her by the tunic and dragged her kicking and screaming to her home.
Margda’s father, Er, was an ugly brute of a man seemingly twice Hamarab’s size. He demanded that Hamarab release his daughter an, of course, Hamarab complied.
People gathered eagerly to watch a promising spectacle.
“I expect you to pay for the food that she spoiled,” Hamarab demanded, unwisely, of the much larger man.
“Get out of my way, runt,” Er ordered, as Hamarab blocked Er’s front door. “Out of my way or I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t live to regret.”
Margda sneered from behind her father’s robes.
“Not until you promise, before all these witnesses, to repay what your daughter has ruined,” Hamarab insisted.
“Are you calling my daughter a thief?” Er growled. His face reddened at the insult.
“I am insisting on payment for what your daughter spoiled, grabbing what wasn’t hers,” Hamarab said evenly.
The people who gathered laughed at the reply. They enjoyed the lopsided battle of wits, which angered Er further, and anticipated with relish the fist fight to come. Most people thought Er would kill the little man with a few massive blows.
Er’s charged like a bull as laughter rang in his ears. His face was nearly purple with rage. His fists were balled into massive bludgeoning weapons. His arms were like pythons, ready to crush the little man.
Then Hamarab step aside, tripping Er as he flew past.
I could almost feel the ground shake when Er landed in the dirt. He seemed groggy for a moment, and then sprung to his feet. He charged again, but more deliberately, and swung an enormous balled fist.
Yet Hamarab ducked and the blow whistled over his head, as he stepped left and swung hard with all of his might. Er crumpled to the ground, holding his rib cage in pain and gasping for breath from the unexpected attack.
Er rose slowly, this time, his eyes never leaving Hamarab. He advanced cautiously and steadily, but it did little good.
This time Hamarab attacked in a rapid blur of motion, landing three quick blows to Er’s ribs and squarely upon Er’s nose. The last punch lifted Er off his feet and knocked him on flat on his back. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it.
Blood streamed from Er’s nose, as he lay still as death. The hollows under his eyes seemed to darken as we watched. Margda rushed to his side and tried to wake up him up. But Er wasn’t moving and he wouldn’t any time soon. He would live, if he could manage to live with the shame.
Hamarab reached into Er’s pocket and took a handful of coins. He kept one for his lamb, before returning rest. Then he turned and walked away, grim satisfaction on his face.
* * *
When I was seven, Uncle Balaam would tuck me in and tell me bed time stories whenever he visited. He transformed me into a princess, a heroine, an angel an imp. In most of his stories he taught me about God.
Uncle taught me that the God of Midian was God Almighty, and that I should reach out to Him with all my heart. He taught me to be humble in God’s presence, which is everywhere, and that I should be proud that God made me – but not to think of myself as better than anybody else. He taught me to see God’s wonders large and small. He may have been my Uncle, but he held a special place in my heart generally reserved for little girls’ fathers.
Uncle Balaam called me the Princess of Midian and, despite my tender age, treated me with admiration and respect. He didn’t just see what others saw: fair skin, piercing blue eyes and ringlets of long red hair cascading over my too thin frame. He saw the future of Midian, not clearly, but well enough to know better than to speak of it.
Uncle knew that if I served God as He wanted, I would play an important role in Midian’s future. Perhaps this knowledge led him to treat me differently, or perhaps he simply cherished his relationship with a girl more a daughter than a niece. Unlike most other adults who acted as if children didn’t exist, or who spoke of me to nearby adults rather than to me, Balaam saw me and spoke to me and treated me no differently than if I were an equal – which of course I was not. He listened and he cared. In his presence, I felt safe.
Balaam told me to wait for my prince, that someday he would come. He would set me free in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine. We would know love and marry and have children. We would settle in a valley, lush with trees, running water and a pond, cool and deep. “Through you,” Uncle repeated over and over, “Midian shall be remembered.”
“I have an announcement,” Faroul said, as Caleb all but collapsed where he sat, defeated. “As you all know, it is our custom for children to become engaged at the age of three, before they’ve become young adults and learn to protest their elders’ wisdom.” Everyone laughed, except Caleb and Sarah.
How can he do this? Caleb wondered, as his mind went blank and his body numb.
“Then again,” Faroul continued, giving Caleb a ray of hope, “times are changing. I struggled long and hard with whether to honor our customs, or allow my precious baby girl to choose her spouse when she came of age. Still, if I waited until Sarah could choose, who would she have left to choose from?”
Caleb groaned inwardly. No, no, no. There’s me. I’m left. Aren’t I? Then a sickening thought hit as he looked around the room. Is Faroul going to announce Sarah’s engagement outside the presence of her groom and his family? Of course not. And if it is not me . . . Caleb looked over to Hosea, Nun and Nun’s wife, Yael, who looked on eagerly with a gleam in their eyes. It can’t be. God? Could this be how you answer my prayers that Sarah find a good man? By giving her to Hosea?
“So when Sarah was three years old, I followed our customs,” Faroul beamed.
Never again, Caleb vowed, fearing the worst, as hurt and disappointment turned to anger and frustration. Never again will I leave room in my prayers for God to answer with such cruel irony.
Caleb wondered briefly at the consequences of his anger towards God. But he didn’t really care. It’s over, Caleb thought bitterly, endless formless dreams, never spoken, never to be. Caleb looked over at Sarah but couldn’t see her through vision blurred by tears, which he desperately tried not to shed.
“. . . and I found a man,” Faroul continued, “among my closest friends, with a strong and healthy son – a man who toiled long and hard for Pharaoh in the quarry.”
Nun and Hosea exchanged knowing smiles, but never once glanced at Caleb.
“And so I asked this man if he had betrothed his young son, whom I knew would make a fine home for my beloved little girl,” Faroul said, with a smile towards Sarah, whose complexion had become ashen.
Caleb felt himself reeling in darkness. God? he asked, Is this really Your will? It was a question Caleb would ask many times in his life, in one form or another. Caleb’s thoughts drifted off.
A flood of warmth and light resonated throughout Caleb’s being, accompanied with a thought that didn’t seem his own: Sarah will be cherished and loved, with a love extending beyond life itself.
Caleb struggled to breathe as the warmth and light faded and Faroul’s voice continued on, “. . . and he said, he had not,” Faroul continued, “But he placed upon the marriage one condition: that I not reveal the arrangement until shortly before the wedding.”
Jephunneh glanced at his son. He’d never seen Caleb so miserable and now questioned long ago choices. Jephunneh rose.
He’s going to plead my case, Caleb thought, though he knew it to be futile.
“Forgive me,” Jephunneh said, interrupting Faroul’s speech, “but I must speak my peace.”
Faroul father looked at Jephunneh with a quizzical eye, and cocked his head slightly at the unexpected development.
“For many years,” Jephunneh continued, “I have watched Sarah and Caleb play. They’ve developed a strong lasting friendship, which not even marriage can break.”
The married couples laughed, before Jephunneh resumed.
“So too,” Jephunneh added, “I have little doubt that Caleb and Hosea shall remain friends for years to come.”
Yes, Caleb thought silently, suppressing the gorge rising in his throat, even after Sarah and Hosea marry, we shall all remain friends.
Faroul raised his glass and interrupted Jephunneh, “May their friendship not only survive marriage, may it deepen and strengthen and bring them closer to God. To the bride and groom – Sarah and Caleb! Mazel tov!”
Caleb raised his cup and blinked twice, causing the tears to burn down his cheeks. He never felt the ceramic cup slip from his fingers. It shattered on the ground, spilling its contents onto the dirt floor.
Sarah and Caleb each looked at their respective fathers in disbelief. Each patriarch nodded affirmatively, with a grin so wide it looked painful.
Caleb leaped over the table, picked Sarah up as if she weighed nothing, swung her around in delight and kissed her for the first time on the lips. She returned his kiss with equal passion, as the assembled crowd roared their approval.
That night, they drank and they danced. They praised God for His guidance and for the wisdom and foresight of their fathers. No one noticed or cared about Caleb’s shattered wine cup or the dark red liquid seeping into the earth.
* * *
Neither Faroul nor Jephunneh could afford an elegant wedding. But Caleb and Sarah didn’t care. They needed only each other.
A simple feast and camaraderie made the wedding a truly joyous occasion. With all of their friends, relatives and neighbors in attendance, Sarah and Caleb professed their love for each other and their commitment before God. Then they kissed their first kiss as husband and wife. The guests cheered and applauded.
“Congratulations, my friends,” Hosea said with a smile, hugging Sarah gently, kissing her on the cheek, and then shaking Caleb’s hand before pulling him closer to hug him and kiss him too. “Treat her well,” he whispered in Caleb’s ear, before they were swallowed by the throng.
Later, Hosea managed to spirit Caleb away for a moment of private conversation. “Are you nervous?” Hosea whispered.
“About what?” Caleb asked.
“About tonight. What else?” Hosea responded.
Caleb blushed, ever so slightly. “Not really,” Caleb shrugged. “Until now,” he added, narrowing his eyes.
Hosea had no words of wisdom for his friend, for he had no experience to draw upon. “Have you talked to your father about tonight?” Hosea asked.
“It never occurred to me,” Caleb admitted.
Hosea thought for a moment. “Surely Jephunneh must have some words of wisdom that might help you through the night.”
Caleb nodded, embarrassed by how easily he felt betrayed when he thought of Hosea marrying Sarah. Hosea spoke awhile longer, but Caleb heard none of it. Eventually, Hosea grinned, realizing Caleb was not listening. He gave Caleb a playful shove and said, “Go. Find her. Or find Jephunneh. Do something useful.”
Caleb smiled awkwardly, before turning and loping off to find Jephunneh through the swirl of mad dancing and well-wishers.
* * *
As the festivities progressed and the hour neared for Caleb and Sarah to spend their first night together, Caleb finally found himself in a group of people that included his father.
“Father?” Caleb whispered, uncertain how to ask what he needed to ask.
“Excuse me,” Jephunneh said to the small crowd gathered round him. Jephunneh took Caleb by the elbow and lead him away.
“Tonight,” Jephunneh said when they’d found a quiet spot alone, “will be a new experience for you . . . and for Sarah.”
What do I do? Caleb wanted to ask, but couldn’t bring himself to speak.
“She is your wife,” Jephunneh responded to his son’s unasked question, “so you may do with her as you like . . . but what you do and how you do it may well affect your lives together.”
“Treat her kindly and gently, as I know you’re apt to do. But it is easy to lose yourself in the feelings you will experience. Remember Sarah is with you, experiencing emotions and feelings of her own – fear, awkwardness, pleasure and pain. Share each other’s joy, and soothe each other’s pain. Not just in the bedroom, but in all that life may bring.”
“Father, I . . .”
Jephunneh interrupted, putting his hands on Caleb’s shoulders, “Hear me out. In the bedroom, you’ll be easily overwhelmed by how she looks and smells. How she tastes when you kiss her. How it feels when . . .” Jephunneh’s voice trailed off and he looked away, before resuming eye contact. “But notice how she reacts when you caress her. Listen to her breathing and the sounds she makes. Temper your touch to her, and you will love your wife the way God means for you to love her. Take pleasure from her pleasure, be sensitive if you cause her pain, and everything else will take care of itself.”
“But how will I know what pleases her?” Caleb asked, already lost and frightened.
“You’ll know,” Jephunneh reassured him. “Take your time. Pay attention. You will know.” Jephunneh stepped back, breaking the intimacy of the moment. “Don’t worry, my son. Tonight needn’t go perfectly. You’ll have the rest of your lives to practice.”
Jephunneh smiled with his eyes, which brought an uneasy smile from Caleb in return. Jephunneh laughed at his son’s response and Caleb laughed nervously with him.
“Thank you father,” Caleb said, looking deeply into Jephunneh’s eyes, “for everything.” Caleb wanted to tell Jephunneh how much he loved him. But the love between father and son, exchanged in that look, made words unnecessary.
“You are my world,” Jephunneh responded, his eyes moist. “Now make Sarah yours.”
* * *
While Jephunneh spoke with Caleb, Sarah spoke with her mother, Rivka.
Sitting side by side, Rivka took Sarah’s hands in her own, unable to look her daughter in the eyes. She began tentatively, in a voice just above a whisper. “Sometimes . . . men can be . . . . insensitive. They don’t know the pain they can cause or the awkwardness of intimacy.”
Sarah paled slightly, biting her lower lip.
“No, no, it’s not that bad,” Sarah’s mother backpedaled. “Not like childbirth.”
Sarah would have fled then and there, but her mother held firmly to her hands.
“Oh, I’m making a mess of things,” Rivka continued. “There is so much joy and pleasure in marriage and love making. At least there can be. Sometimes it just takes awhile. That’s all. Just know that however this first night goes, the nights will get better and better as time goes on. Caleb loves you and you love him. Do you know how rare that is? How fortunate you are to find yourself married to a man you love?”
Sarah’s breathing evened out somewhat and color returned to her cheeks. “Yes, Mother,” she acknowledged, “and I do love him so.”
“But as much as he loves you, my darling, he has as little knowledge of how to please you as you have of how to please him. It is something you must explore together.”
“But how am I to please him?” Sarah asked, truly frightened.
“Give yourself to him completely and you will please him. Of that there is no doubt. Men are easy that way,” Rivka chuckled. “Perhaps it is the only way in which they are easy.” Rivka’s thoughts wandered for a moment before she added, “Over time you will both learn how to give each other even greater pleasure.”
Sarah blushed as her mother continued. “Men seem strong, but in the arms of women they are such fragile creatures. Teach Caleb how to touch you through how you react to his touch. A sigh. A moan. A whispered endearment. Instruct, without instructing.”
Sarah turned beet red.
“It won’t take much to communicate without words in the marital bed. If he doesn’t catch on, we can always talk again. But something tells me that Caleb will be a quick study.”
“Mother!” Sarah exclaimed, looking furtively around to make sure no one heard.
Rivka leaned forward and embraced her in a warm comforting hug. “I love you Sarah,” she said simply.
“And I love you mother,” Sarah replied, “. . . and father too, of course.”
They continued their embrace, until Rivka whispered in her ear, “And now its time to find your husband. Go. You are his gift tonight, and he yours.”
“I love you so much,” Sarah whispered back, yearning to let go, but frightened as well.
Rivka kissed Sarah on the forehead and then held her at arm’s length. “Go,” Rivka commanded, and Sarah did as she was told.
* * *
When it came time for Caleb and Sarah to share a bed on their wedding night, they were terrified and awkward. They stood holding each other in a long embrace, not speaking, swaying in the candle light until their fears subsided somewhat.
Caleb leaned away from Sarah so he could see her face. She had matured into such a stunning woman. He could hardly believe that she was his. He brushed her hair back over her ears, caressed her cheek with his hand as he marveled at her delicate features. His mouth met hers and they became one in spirit. Their lips joined like copper and tin, molten and fiery, destined to become stronger when cooled.
Caleb broke their embrace, breathing heavily, before bursting into laughter. Sarah laughed with him, her breasts rising and falling in a manner Caleb could not ignore.
He reached forward and tenderly tugged at the ties of her dress. Sarah covered his hands with hers and leaned over to blow out the candle.
“No,” Caleb whispered. “Please?”
Sarah straightened, blushed and then looked down, embarrassed.
“I love you so much Sarah,” Caleb said, his heart leaping in his chest. “You are my wife. I want to see you.”
Sarah removed her hands from Caleb’s and placed her hands on his waist. She looked up into his handsome face and gave the briefest of nods. Her heart raced.
Slowly, Caleb unfastened the bows and slipped the dress from Sarah’s shoulders, leaving her naked to his gaze.
“You’re so beautiful,” Caleb whispered in awe, breaking eye contact so his gaze could sweep over her. Her long dark curls, flowing down and over her shoulders, came to rest on her firm yet ample young breasts. Delicate nipples stood erect in the candlelight, like precious gems. Her flat stomach and round hips surrounded a tangle of hair, hiding wonders unimagined. Her legs were strong, and slender – well proportioned.
Caleb had seen her a thousand times in a thousand different ways, but never like this. He wanted to devour her as his mouth sought out hers. His hands explored her back for an eternity before braving the curves of her bottom.
They kissed forever, or so it seemed, before Sarah began undressing Caleb. His shirt came off easily enough, revealing rock hard muscles from swinging a hammer in the quarry. Sarah smiled demurely. She pulled lightly on the drawstring, which normally held up Caleb’s pants. Though the bow easily untied, Caleb’s pants didn’t fall. Sarah eased the cotton fabric over what now held up Caleb’s pants.
Sarah gasped. Her breathing quickened, and her heart pounded out of control. Fear rose in her unbidden, at how large he’d become.
Caleb held her to his chest and his mouth once again found hers. As they kissed he could feel her tension seem to slowly melt away. Pressed against the softness and silkiness of her stomach, Caleb became alarmed and roughly pulled away.
“What is it? What’s wrong,” Sarah asked.
“N-nothing,” Caleb stammered. “It’s just . . . I never . . . I . . . “
Sarah’s lip trembled, “Did I do something wrong?”
“What?” Caleb responded, confused. “No. I just. I was afraid I might.”
“You might what?” Sarah said, interrupting a sentence Caleb never would have finished.
“Let’s take things as slow as we can tonight,” Caleb answered without responding. “Please?”
Sarah smiled and Caleb’s heart melted. “I’m yours, my husband. Show me what to do and I’ll do it.”
“I was kind of hoping you’d know,” Caleb said with a serious expression that caused them both to laugh.
“I guess we’ll just have to figure it out together,” Sarah responded, taking his hand and leading him to bed. “It’s been a long time since we played together,” Sarah whispered in his ear.
“Too long,” Caleb whispered in return.
* * *
Caleb and Sarah started their lives together with nothing but each other and the love of friends and family. It was more than enough. The cramped little room that they shared in Jephunneh’s house seemed like an oasis from their daily toil.
The days were hard as always. Caleb and Hosea spent their days cutting stone high in the quarries. When they worked side by side, few subjects were off limits.
“What is it like,” Hosea asked, “to be with a woman?”
Caleb reddened in the sun, shook his head and then smiled. “You’ll know soon enough. Take a bride, then you’ll know. ”
“All the good ones are promised . . . or taken,” Hosea complained.
Caleb looked his friend, before carefully choosing his words. “You hoped it would be you, that you’d be the one to marry Sarah.”
Hosea hesitated a moment, before responding with equal care, “She’s a good woman, Caleb, you are a lucky man. But if luck had not been with you, God willing, it would’ve been with me.”
Caleb wanted to change the subject, but just couldn’t bring himself to do it. “Do you love her?” he asked.
“She’s my friend,” Hosea replied, “just as she’s been yours. You are my best friend. My love for Sarah is nothing compared to the love I have for you.”
Caleb nodded and sagely let the uncomfortable subject pass. But he couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it would be best if Sarah found Hosea a bride.
* * *
Sarah brought many prospective brides around for Hosea’s consideration, for many a good woman lost a fiancée or husband. But Hosea paid more attention to Sarah than to the other women.
“I’m really not interested,” Hosea told her candidly, one day.
“In women?” Sarah teased.
“In a taking a wife,” Hosea answered. “Everyone you bring around seems so boring and plain. Perhaps you should have an old crone make the introductions, rather than bring them here yourself.”
Sarah saw sadness in his eyes, mixed with longing and pain. Hosea was her best and oldest friend in the world besides Caleb. “You know it can never be,” she whispered, her voice cutting through the still night air.
“I know,” Hosea agreed. “Even if you and I were willing, I could never betray Caleb.” Please God let that be true, he added silently.
“I love Caleb,” Sarah said, “and even if I were willing . . . I could never destroy the friendship we all share.”
“I know,” Hosea responded quietly. “Sometimes . . . it’s just hard.”
“Then find yourself a wife,” Sarah replied, suppressing a grin. She can take care of that for you.”
Hosea grinned. “I’d better go,” he said reluctantly, wanting to change the subject, not wanting to leave, but knowing he must. Hosea turned and walked away.
“Go with God,” Sarah whispered, unsure whether Hosea heard.
And you, Hosea thought, without breaking stride.
* * *
Sarah’s days were nearly as exhausting as Caleb’s. Like Caleb, she arose before dawn and got dressed. Then, she made breakfast for herself, her husband and Jephunneh. After eating, she tidied up and left to clean houses.
A consortium of Egyptian families had pooled their funds long ago, and purchased Rivka and Faroul when the two had just newly married. When Sarah had been born, they owned Sarah too. Sarah’s masters were kind, but they demanded hard work and she worked hard with a smile.
One day, however, one of her masters became drunk and decided to take liberties, which none but Caleb had ever taken. When Sarah refused his advances, he became livid and enraged. He beat her unconsciousness and would have raped her even still, but an Egyptian neighbor who’d heard the commotion stepped in and pulled him away.
Sarah’s owners gathered quickly to discuss what to do. They decided not to call for Caleb to take the girl home, which left Jephunneh and Faroul. They chose Jephunneh, instead of Faroul, for he was wise and he was strong.
Jephunneh humbly asked a few questions. Sarah’s owners told him the truth, without any fear of the law. As a slave, they could use her and even kill her if they wished. Still, they’d known her from birth and were embarrassed at what happened. They couldn’t help but come to see her as a person, and not just property.
Jephunneh tenderly lifted Sarah and carried her home. Once there, he immediately called for the doctor.
“Keep her comfortable,” the doctor suggested, finding no broken bones. “Give her as much water and broth as she will take, if she awakens.”
The “if” broke Jephunneh’s heart, and he struggled with what to do next. Should I wait for him to finish work? If I go to the quarry and the overseers don’t let him leave, what then? Do I tell him and, if so, what do I say?
Sarah’s breathing was shallow. Her skin was white from the loss of blood. The only color she had came from bruised or bleeding flesh.
I have to tell Caleb, now, Jephunneh knew. If she dies . . .
The elderly woman next door stayed to watch over Sarah. Jephunneh headed off to the quarry. Once there, he found the head overseer and spoke with him quietly. The overseer remembered Jephunneh’s time in the quarry and that Jephunneh had worked hard with little encouragement. Slaves like Jephunneh and Caleb were easy to watch and appreciated by the overseers who had enough on their plate.
“Go,” the overseer said, “he can go home to his wife.”
“You’ll tell the others?” Jephunneh asked.
The man nodded in reply.
Jephunneh walked briskly to the quarry face. It wouldn’t do for him to run, at least not before word had spread among the overseers.
“Caleb!” Jephunneh shouted and gestured, “Come down!”
Caleb secured his tools and rappelled down the quarry face. One look at Jephunneh and Caleb’s stomach tied in knots. “What’s wrong, father?”
Jephunneh swallowed. This would be hard. He hardly knew where to begin. “It’s Sarah,” he said finally, “she’s been hurt. She’s back home.”
But Caleb knew it was serious, or Jephunneh wouldn’t have come mid-day. Sarah needed him and without thinking he sped off towards home. Fortunately, the head overseer had already spread the word.
Caleb arrived home, breathless from running. When he saw Sarah in their bed, he thought there must be some mistake. This wasn’t his Sarah, this girl bruised, broken and bleeding. Then the tears spilled down his cheeks, as he recognized her frail form.
Caleb reached out a trembling hand to touch her, before hesitating, uncertain where he could touch her without causing her pain. He put his hand gently over hers, and sat quietly caressing her hair.
When Caleb’s tears had stopped falling, he rose to seek some revenge. But he didn’t know on who, or what he must do. Yet his eyes were black as obsidian as he turned to question Jephunneh.
“No,” Jephunneh said, before Caleb could say a word.
“Caleb,” Sarah croaked weakly, apparently just regaining consciousness. “Don’t leave. I need you.”
Caleb knelt at her side, held her hand, caressed her hair. He tried to smile, tried to blink back tears, but was successful at neither. He couldn’t leave Sarah, nor could her attacker go unscathed. For the first time in his life, despite the fact he was a slave, Caleb felt utterly powerless.
“I would give my life to protect you,” Caleb whispered through his tears.
“I know my love,” she whispered, with barely breath enough to make sound. “I’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
“I’m supposed to be strong for you,” he sobbed, feeling helpless and weak.
“I love you,” she said with the last ounce of her strength.
Then Sarah drifted off, and Caleb wept over her still form.
Margda disappeared for awhile after the fight between Hamarab and Er. It took some time for her to recover from the beating she received from Er.
In her absence, by habit when the market closed at day’s end, I eyed Hamarab’s wares though I didn’t dare ask for food. I stayed farther back, at what seemed a safe and respectful distance.
“Mishael!” Hamarab called out, startling me from daydreams of meat. “Don’t be afraid. Come here.”
Elshah Deye help me, I almost fled, I was shocked he even knew my name. But my stomach had a will of its own and I couldn’t run away.
“Come,” he beckoned, “It’s alright. You look hungry. Would you like some lamb?”
My mouth watered involuntarily as I eyed the savory pieces of meat. “I don’t have any money,” I said timidly, over the rumbling of my tummy.
“That’s ok. Don’t be afraid,” he said, holding out some lamb.
Is this a trick? I wondered, but I couldn’t control my feet. I took one hesitant step towards him and then another before stopping.
He set the lamb on a palm frond, which he set on the ground. Then he stepped back, as if he were feeding a little timid desert creature.
I pounced on my prize and finished it in several greedy bites. He offered more, which I gobbled up, and some more as I slowed.
“Thank you,” I said shyly, I as watched him clean up.
“You’re quite welcome,” he said. “Come by any time.”
I looked at him warily, afraid I’d repeat Margda’s error. I couldn’t bear to have him drag me by the ear over to mother.
Hamarab genuinely laughed at the expression on my face. “You are not like your friend,” he explained, reading through me. “Really. You’re welcome. Come by any time.”
* * *
I told mother about Hamarab. She said I could accept Hamarab’s kindness, but that I shouldn’t take advantage. If he offered me meat, I should help him clean up.
I told her of the fight I’d seen between Hamarab and Er, though of course she had heard of it. How could she not? All Midian had been abuzz over the events of that day.
“Where did he learn to fight like that, mother?” Mother seemed to know all.
“If I tell you, can you keep a secret?” she replied with a grin.
“Yes!” I promised. I wasn’t a baby. I was seven, after all. I knew the importance and challenge of keeping secrets to oneself.
“Hamarab once served as the master at arms for the King of Moab, King Ar. He trained the King’s soldiers, and fought the Amorites in war,” mother whispered.
“King Ar!” I said excitedly. Father had also fought for King Ar in the war against the Amorite King – King Sihon.[vii] “Did he know my father?” I asked, barely able to sit still.
“Hamarab and your father were very close friends, just as I was with Hamarab’s wife,” mother replied.
“I didn’t know Hamarab was married,” I said, now confused.
“She died in childbirth,” Mother explained, “before Midian lost the war. Hamarab had lost everything in the wake of that war. King Ar had been slaughtered, the army scattered and in shambles . . . his best friend – your father – his wife and daughter were all dead. Hamarab fled into the hills, became a shepherd and then lamb seller.”
He and mother had remained friendly, but they rarely spoke any more. Each reminded the other of lost loved ones, stirring up emotions they’d rather let lie.
“He’s a good man,” mother concluded. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to get to know him. Just be respectful of his kindness, and help him out when you can.”
“I will mother,” I promised, even more eager to become his friend. He had knowledge of my father, more important than food.
* * *
Hamarab often offered me lamb at the end of market days. But whether he did or whether he didn’t, I always helped him clean up. It didn’t take long before he began feeding me throughout the day, though what I really wanted was tidbits of information about my father.
“Why do you look after me so?” I asked Hamarab.
“Because you’re so very special,” he replied with a smile.
“Mother says I’m special. So does Uncle Balaam. But they never tell me why.”
“Well, let’s see,” Hamarab mused, “When I first saw you playing by my stand, you were such a pretty little thing, I couldn’t help but notice your smiles and bouncing red curls, and such pretty white skin and brilliant blue eyes.”
“Did you know my father?” I asked, much to my own surprise. I never asked Hamarab for lamb, or for personal information.
Hamarab’s eyes looked pained, and I regretted I was the cause. I was about to apologize, but then his answer left me mesmerized. “He was my best friend,” Hamarab said simply. “We served together in the war.”
Hamarab hesitated to continue. I wondered if he would. I wanted desperately to hear more, but didn’t want to cause him pain.
“I never trained a better soldier than your father, Michael,” he continued. “His skills so impressed me I had him promoted on the spot. He was small, like you and I, and didn’t seem much like a soldier. But he was quick and agile, and mastered all I could teach him. Together we developed techniques for fighting stronger bigger soldiers, until the larger our opponent the better we seemed to fare.”
Hamarab paused for a moment, his emotions playing across his face – sadness, anguish, pain and loss.
“When we had time off,” he continued, “we spent it together with our young brides. Michael had just married Keturah, around the time I married Hodesh. Those were such happy times,” he said with a sad smile. “Michael and I had grown closer over the years, as did our wives. Then, miraculously, we received word that both our wives had become pregnant. We were so excited thinking about the arrival of our little ones.”
Sitting there, hanging on Hamarab’s every word, I longed to know my father. Would he have lifted me on his shoulders and played with me? Would he have hugged me and kissed me and tickled me like Uncle Balaam? Would he have protected me and mother, and made sure we never went to bed hungry?
“A few months later we learned of the Amorite threat. Our wives were still months away from giving birth and so, with the optimism of youth, we vowed to win before the births. But King Sihon had his own idea, and attacked with overwhelming forces. We fought and we fought, but Amorites were endless. As soon as one fell, another one took his place. Eventually, we grew tired. While your father struggled to defend himself from two swordsmen to his front, a soldier twenty feet behind him took aim and threw a spear. He never saw it coming.”
I gasped and covered my mouth with both hands.
Hamarab spoke, almost in a trance, as if he saw it all in front of him. “The spear hit home and the two swordsmen slipped past Michael’s guard and struck lethal blows. I called out his name. Everything went white with pain and then black. Someone with a club must have struck me from behind. I awoke on the ground, covered in blood. Your father lay next to me, dead.”
“There was nothing I could do,” Hamarab said, his eyes damp, but not overflowing. “Before the war, we promised to watch over each other’s families . . . if anything should happen.” Hamarab’s voice trailed off. Having begun the tale, which he’d never before told, it took him over completely. His eyes were unfocused, his breathing irregular.
“Hamarab?” I managed, as tears streamed down my cheeks.
“It’s just that . . .” his voice trailed off again. “All that had given my life meaning had been destroyed. My wife Hodesh died in childbirth, as did the baby girl. My best friend, your father, died in battle. The Amorites beheaded King Ar and destroyed our army. I wandered into the hills, dazed and despondent.”
I listened quietly as he continued.
“I prayed to the God of Midian and swore an end to my days of soldiering. I had experienced so much pain in my life . . . the least of it physical. Then, immediately after praying, I heard the bleating of sheep – one ram and one ewe – as if God had approved my decision to seek peace. Even in my darkest days,” Hamarab said in wonder, “Elshah Deye stood by my side.”
Hamarab was silent awhile more before pulling himself together. “My family has always remained true to our ancestral God,” he said proudly. “We descend directly from Midian, his first born – Elphah – and I have kept the traditions of the God of my mother, as she did before her and so on back through time.”
Hamarab was the first man I ever who was a True Midianite, except for Uncle Balaam of course. There were so few of us left, it had become somewhat of a stigma.
“Uncle Balaam says that we descend from Midian’s son, Eldaah,” I said, as the tears dried on my cheeks.
Hamarab smiled before continuing, “Your father told me that as well. . . . I have believed in Elshah Deye throughout the whole of my life. But I’d never felt God’s presence until that moment, with the sheep. After year after year of growing my flock, I had a vision of selling pieces of lamb at Market. People thought I was crazy, for it had never been done. But business boomed and I prospered and I kept to myself, relishing in a peace that I had never before known.”
“Why did you offer me lamb, after turning Margda away?” I asked
“Every time that I saw you,” Hamarab said, as if in pain, “I was embarrassed and ashamed. I ignored, out of cowardice, an oath to my best friend.”
“You’re not a coward!” I exclaimed. His claim was impossible to believe.
“I feared to face my own pain,” Hamarab said, his voice low. “You spent so much time with Margda . . . your father would never have approved. Her ways should not become your ways. You were hungry and had little. I am prosperous and have much. I suppose I realized it was time to make good on an old promise . . . even if it does bring back a hard memory or two.”
“Do you wish you didn’t?” I asked. He seemed so very upset.
“What?” he exclaimed, pulling me onto his lap. “Of course not!” he added with a hug and a kiss.
I smiled, relieved, and kissed his cheek in return.
Hamarab reddened and lifted me quickly off his lap. “There, now,” he said, “run along little one.”
I ran off, confused, not quite knowing what to think. We seemed to be getting along so well when he shooed me away. Still, I knew was that I liked him, and was glad we were becoming friends.
* * *
Hamarab became a close friend and good confidante. He would hear, without judging, my hopes, dreams and fears, and felt like more than a friend, though I couldn’t explain how.
Margda watched from afar as Hamarab fed me lamb. She didn’t see that I helped him clean up every day, or if she saw, she didn’t care – she just envied my food. Her envy shattered our friendship, assuming we ever really were friends.
I grew strong, lean and healthy, thanks to Hamarab’s gifts of food. Helping him clean up didn’t seem adequate repayment. So I insisted he let me help out in other ways, as well.
With so many sheep in an ever expanding flock, I became one of Hamarab’s shepherdesses. He taught me how to care for his sheep and he taught me self defense – a pretty shepherdess, he insisted, must know how to use a shepherd’s staff.
* * *
At the ripe old age of nine, without any prospect for marriage, the sharp tongued whispers in town grew louder. More and more, women I didn’t even know gave me the evil eye. Men stared openly and lecherously.
Girls I had known all my life began treating me as if I was diseased – shying away, speaking behind my back. It didn’t take long before the more cruel girls among them began whispering in my presence, loud enough to be overheard, daring me to do something.
“My father says she’s a witch,” one would say, “spending her evenings with that sorcerer uncle of hers.”
“Well my father says she’s been spoiled, and no longer has the innocence that a husband demands of a new bride,” another would say to nods and knowing looks.
“My father says that Hamarab has taken more in exchange for his lamb than a smile and a little help cleaning up,” Margda added, provoking peals of laughter.
My eyes filled with tears, not simply for myself, but for my friend Hamarab. “You take that back!” I said, reacting more than thinking, and advancing toward Margda with my fists clenched.
But Margda, who had long ago ended our friendship, held her ground. “I will not take it back. That is what my father said. If you want him to take it back, speak to him yourself witch,” she spat, balling her hands into fists.
In that moment, I dreaded Margda. She was not only big and strong, but ugly. She resembled her father Er, a fat troll of a man who beat her when it suited him. She had developed a tough exterior from cruel experience, and made no attempt to hide the inner ugliness reflected that seemed to seep through her oversized pores.
I didn’t consider myself particularly beautiful, though I had been admired countless times by strangers. Still, I felt a nagging fear that I had far more to lose in a fight than Margda. Lord knows I had far less experience with physical confrontations.
Margda advanced towards me. I held my ground, though I felt weak in the knees. Margda raised a fist and stepped forward quickly as if to strike. Instinctively, I flinched and covered my face. But the blow never landed.
“Witch, witch, cowardly witch,” Margda taunted. As her friends began to chant along with her, my eyes filled with tears. Then with Margda leading the pack, the chants changed to, “Baby witch, baby witch, look at the little baby witch.”
As the tears began to spill down my cheeks, I turned and ran to the receding sounds of laughter and catcalls.
* * *
I did my best to avoid Margda, but she sought me out wherever I went. She had found a way to gain stature among her peers by trampling whenever possible on my dignity. I spent many a night quietly crying myself to sleep, but I was far too proud to let mother know my problems.
Once, when returning from tending Hamarab’s sheep, I turned a corner and walked straight into Margda, knocking both of us down. As Margda’s ever-present friends laughed, Margda’s face turned beet red. I scrambled to my feet and began to flee.
One of Margda’s friends stuck a foot out and tripped me, causing a nasty fall that cut my hands and knees. Fortunately, Margda was slow to get up and still couldn’t catch me as I picked myself up and resumed my flight. Unfortunately, however, Margda picked up a stone, cocked her arm and let it fly.
“Take that, witch!” she yelled as it hit with near deadly accuracy, right behind my left ear. I heard a hollow thud, saw stars and stumbled forward a few steps before falling.
Dazed and disoriented, but terrified Margda would catch me, I struggled to my feet and kept running blindly forward. Instinctively, I made my way to Hamarab’s house and reached his doorstep, bloody and shaken. I barged in without knocking.
“Misha!” Hamarab exclaimed, as I collapsed on the ground sobbing. “What happened? Stay there,” he added without waiting for a reply. Then he rushed into the next room to grab a clean cloth and water.
When he returned, moments later, he pressed the dampened cloth gently to the back of my head. Even though he touched me gently it felt like being struck.
A high pitched squeal escaped my lips as I tried weakly to pull away.
But Hamarab held my head as he applied pressure to the wound. “Stay still,” he commanded in an authoritative tone.
“Owww, stop it! That hurts,” I whined.
“I know it hurts, Misha, but this is necessary. It will hurt far more if you don’t remain still.” He said without yielding. The flow of blood slowed and I regained a bit of color.
“What happened Mishael?” he asked after awhile.
“Margda happened,” I replied bitterly, in embarrassment and despair. “I hate her. I try to avoid her. But she always tracks me down.”
“She’s always been a bad seed, from an even worse tree,” Hamarab commiserated. “It may not seem like it now, but better she’s your enemy than your friend. That one needs to learn a lesson I wish I could teach. Have you stood up to her?”
“She’s too mean,” I sniffled, “what chance would I stand?”
“I know it’s scary,” he sympathized. “But sometimes all it takes to stop a bully from bothering you is to knock her down once or twice.”
“She always has her friends around,” I responded forlornly. “Even if I bested Margda, I couldn’t best her friends too. If Margda did this to me, what would she and her friends do if I fought back and lost?”
“Have you talked to your mother?” Hamarab asked.
“No,” I admitted, with my head hung low. “Mother wouldn’t let herself get into such a mess.”
“Don’t be too sure, Misha,” Hamarab continued, “Everyone’s had to face a bully or two in their life.”
“I don’t want mother to know,” I insisted. “I want to figure this out myself.”
“Well, figure it out on your own,” Hamarab said, “if you must, but I can’t let my best shepherdess continue to get hurt. Who would take care of my sheep?”
He disappeared again for what seemed like an hour, though it was probably no more than a minute or two. Even safe in his house, I didn’t like being alone. I heard scraping and thunking as he moved items around.
it!” he exclaimed, before emerging from the back room. “Here . . . this is for you,” he said, as if
presenting me with a treasure.
“A shepherd’s staff?” I asked, as I took it in hand. “But I have a staff,” I added, “you gave it to me yourself.”
“This isn’t just any staff,” Hamarab explained, “it’s the staff that your father always carried into battle. I should’ve given this to you or Keturah long ago. But this is no ordinary staff. It served your father well. It deserves to belong to a warrior who can wield it.”
My father’s staff! I thought excitedly, forgetting the encounter with Margda. It was smaller than most, made of hardened black wood, perfectly balanced and exquisitely engraved. A true master craftsman must have created this staff. It felt good in my hand, like it had been made just for me.
“It’s yours now,” Hamarab continued. “But there is something you must do.”
“What?” I asked, hesitantly, though I really should have known.
“You must learn to use it properly,” he said with a grin.
“But you taught me self defense,” I said holding the staff.
“I taught you only the basics. You are much older now. This staff is a treasured weapon that served your father very well. It will serve you well too, if you learn how to use it.”
“Ok,” I said timidly, as I stood up for a lesson.
“No. No. Don’t get up,” he said sitting me back down. “There’ll be plenty of time to learn once your head has stopped bleeding.”
Hamarab walked me home, his hand on my arm. I ducked into our tent quickly, glad mother wasn’t home. Then I changed into my bedclothes and crawled under the covers. I didn’t want mother to learn of my wound. She might think it odd that I went to bed quite so early, but she probably wouldn’t disturb me.
Lying in bed, my hair hid my wound. The staff lay at my side, well hidden under the blankets, clutched like a lover or like the protector it was. Just having it close made me feel safer somehow.
* * *
I spent the next several years learning to fight with a staff. Hamarab worked me hard and I often came home bruised. But I could see myself improving day by day, week by week.
Though I carried my father’s staff, nearly everywhere I went, I couldn’t bring myself to use it when I needed it most. Margda continued to plague my existence, and rather than fight I always turned and ran away. I longed for my prince to come riding in and save me.
I remember noticing Dathan months before we became friends. He was two years my senior, strong, quick and agile, with handsome rugged features that all the girls seemed to notice. Even his long dark hair, which trailed behind him when he ran, touched me in ways that I didn’t understand.
I had never liked boys, but there was something special about Dathan. Mother smiled when I spoke of him and teased me about growing up.
Whenever I saw Dathan I would wander in his direction, pretending not to notice him as I fell in with his friends. He was the leader of band of boys, recently expanded to include a few girls.
While I pretended not to notice Dathan, he pretended not to notice me. Yet he tried to show off subtly whenever I drew near. I enjoyed the non-attention, for his subtlety needed work, and I marveled at his skills as he play-fought with friends.
Dathan’s father served in the King’s army, as my father once had. Dathan vowed to join his father in the army some day. To that end he trained constantly with a staff and wooden sword.
I never told Dathan of the skills with a staff I possessed. I didn’t want him to think me silly, or think I didn’t need a man. I craved a protector, and hoped he’d be it.
As time passed we became friends, and I served openly as his cheering section. Afterwards, when his friends left, we would sometimes just sit and talk. It was innocent and thrilling just sitting by his side, talking and sharing our hopes and our dreams.
Dathan was one of the few friends with whom I ever shared The Dream, even though I feared rejection and that it might push him away. But quite the opposite happened. Instead, Dathan embraced The Dream, and acted as if it were a prophecy that foretold our future together.
“A True Midianite?” he asked rhetorically. “Why, there can be no truer Midianite than me. I will risk my life to save our people, even give it willingly if I must. The God of our ancestors is my God as well. Though I cannot say I believe in His more . . . old fashioned . . . ways.”
Old fashioned, I marveled at the delicate phrase. Many Midianites would’ve said “barbaric,” “horrific,” or “antiquated.” Such a caring choice of words made me happy inside. He understands! He doesn’t judge me! What more could a young girl want?
“You wait and see, Mishael. The Dream has saved you for me. Why, if not for The Dream, you’d have been promised long ago!”
I found myself smiling from ear to ear, I so wanted to believe. Could he really be The One? I wondered and hoped. His parents were not wealthy, but he would earn a good wage, and he’d lift us out of poverty if we ever became betrothed. Better still, he grew more handsome with every passing day.
When Dathan wasn’t around, I seemed to dream of him constantly. Not the scary vivid dreams that changed the course of peoples’ lives, but the idle lazy daydreams of a girl longing to find her prince. Though I shared with mother more general hopes and dreams, these particular dreams I kept like a treasure for myself.
I wanted a future I could believe in, something real, not just a dream. Dathan promised such a future, which I could touch and hold and feel. Maybe, just maybe, he would be my elusive prince.
The morning after Sarah’s beating, Caleb was relieved to see that she had made it through the night. At the urging of Sarah’s masters and with special permission granted to him by the head overseer, Caleb spent a full week nursing Sarah back to health. Sarah loved him all the more for it.
Hard as this time was, Caleb found strength in prayer, which comforted him daily. He prayed for Sarah, for freedom and for the welfare and happiness of his people. As he had since childhood, he observed the world to find answers to his prayers. Caleb often found God’s answers and experienced God’s Presence in miracles large and small. Sarah’s recovery was no small miracle in Caleb’s eyes.
Sarah’s masters held the abuser in their midst responsible for Sarah’s missed work, and refused to allow him to use Sarah’s services again. Whether they bought out his rights or simply forced him to forfeit them, Sarah didn’t know and didn’t care. She avoided him when she saw him, and he avoided her as well. He had occasionally (and not coincidentally) found himself face to face with Caleb, and saw his own death in Caleb’s eyes. But, for Sarah’s sake, Caleb managed self-restraint.
* * *
Soon, the ebb and flow of life returned to normal – a hard day’s work for Sarah and Caleb, followed by an evening meal with Jephunneh and sometimes Sarah’s family as well. One of the advantages of being a stone cutter (and of being married to a stone cutter) was an abundance of fresh meat. Pharaoh needed his stone cutters strong, and knew they needed meat to get and stay that way. It was one of the few perks in the otherwise hard life cutting stone.
After mealtime and discussion, it was time for bed. This had become the best part of their lives together. Sarah and Caleb had become experts in the marital bed.
The awkward fumbling of their first night together was no more. Under the covers, they explored and adventured into territories both familiar and unknown. For these brief moments each night, they felt as free as any Egyptian. Their only restraint – trying to remain quiet to preserve the dignity of Jephunneh’s household. But that too had become a game, as each tried to make the other lose all control.
Sarah loved Caleb’s body, which had grown hard and well muscled in the quarries. When Caleb held her, she felt safe, protected and tiny in his arms. In Caleb’s arms, the world and its worries dissolved completely away.
Caleb loved exploring Sarah’s curves. She had become more womanly since their marriage, softer, rounder. No longer a timid little girl, she had grown bold in the ways she touched and kissed him, and bold in the things she asked him to do. The way she reacted to his touch made him want her all the more.
Late at night, when they imagined Jephunneh asleep, they would make love silently, each trying to make the other cry out or moan or whimper with pleasure. Sometimes, Sarah pleased him, while other times Caleb took control. Usually, they would end their love making with a gentle give and take, often reaching the heights of pleasure together.
Caleb enjoyed giving pleasure as much if not more than receiving it. With gentle fingers, lips and tongue, he explored every bit of her. He could spend hours caressing her hair, her face, her neck and her arms, though the gentle curve of her breasts and her bottom stole more time than all of these – and her most delicate, intimate, folds, hiding within soft little brown curls, stole the most time at all.
Caleb loved watching Sarah’s face as his fingers explored the most sensitive parts of her. He relished her struggle to remain quiet and the smell of her scent when aroused. He eagerly awaited the inevitable gasp and the quickening of her breath when he entered her. He marveled at how they fit together to become one, as husband and wife, emotionally, spiritually and physically. And he relished the climax of their lovemaking, when her small frame trembled, shook and convulsed with passion beneath him.
Sarah loved the feel of his hardness, which she explored with all she had. Sometimes she would take him to the edge and keep him there as long as she could before yielding herself and enveloping him fully. Other times still, she encouraged him to take her quick and rough. But most of all she loved the tender moments, before, during and after.
Through love making they grew closer, despite the hardships of slavery. They had family. They had friends. They had each other and the pleasure they could give each other through the sharing of their lives and bodies. They would have loved a child, but after many years of lovemaking, it appeared Sarah was barren.
Each night before bed and each morning when they awoke, they prayed for the blessing of children and for freedom from hard bondage.
* * *
At the twelfth anniversary of their marriage, Sarah took ill. She felt exhausted all the time, her joints ached. The smell of foods that she loved made her queasy. It didn’t seem to matter what she ate. She couldn’t keep it down.
Sarah rarely took ill and when she did, she rebounded quickly. But this time, day after day her condition remained the same. Initially unworried, Caleb became increasingly fearful as Sarah failed to recover.
Caleb wondered whether to call a doctor or her parents, or both. Neither Caleb nor Sarah had ever called a doctor. Frankly, the mere thought of doctors frightened them. As often as not, people got worse, not better, when doctors became involved. For the most part, Caleb and Sarah preferred to leave matters in God’s hands.
Unsure what to do, Caleb turned to his father for advice. Jephunneh’s answers, as always, were simple and unequivocal. “Call the doctor, Caleb. If he cannot help her, then we’ll tell Rivka and Faroul.”
The doctor came immediately, examined Sarah, asked a few questions and then stepped outside to speak with Caleb.
“Is it serious?” Caleb asked, his eyes watery.
“Very,” the doctor said stoically.
“Will she be alright?” Caleb managed, not sure he wanted to hear the answer.
“I suspect we’ll know when fall turns to winter,” the doctor responded.
“She can’t last like this for months!” Caleb insisted, his voice rising above a whisper, before regaining control. “She’ll waste away to nothing. She can’t keep anything down.”
“I doubt she’ll waste away to nothing,” he said, with what seemed almost like the hint of a smile.
Caleb didn’t like the doctor’s expression or demeanor. “What aren’t you telling me?” Caleb demanded, with his eyes blazing in anger.
The doctor blanched at Caleb’s response. Angering a man the size of Caleb was not the wisest thing to do.
Caleb clenched his teeth and glared, preparing himself for the worst.
“Congratulations, Caleb,” the doctor said at last, “Sarah is with child.”
* * *
The doctor suggested a special tea, to help with the nausea. I seemed to help tremendously and made her hungry as well. Sarah went from and inability to keep food down to eating ravenously.
Sarah and Caleb spent every night in each others arms, smiling, laughing and talking of baby names.
“How about ‘Abram,’ for a boy?” she asked.
“God no! Our child shall know the Lord from the moment he is born,” Caleb insisted. “No, ‘Abram’ will not do. ‘Abraham,’ perhaps.”
“From the moment he is born?” Sarah said with a raised eyebrow.
“Of course. I’m the man, the choice is mine. You can have the next one,” he said teasingly.
“I don’t think God works that way.”
“God only lets men think the choice is theirs, when the choice is really their wife’s.”
“So God’s a woman?” Caleb asked, with a curious grin.
“Don’t be silly, husband,” Sarah replied. “God is neither a man nor a woman. Women lead men, whether they know it or not. If God were a man, he’d never let a woman lead men . . . and if God were a woman, she’d never let another woman lead men.”
Caleb’s genuine laughter faded to an uneasy chuckle. “Sarah,” Caleb whispered, “do women really lead men?”
Sarah smiled enigmatically, rolled over and went to sleep.
* * *
Little Joseph arrived with a wail heard down the block. He is such a perfect little person, she marveled, with perfect little fingers and toes and the tiniest little toenails.
Sarah felt like her heart would break when Joseph suckled at her breast and looked at her with those huge innocent brown eyes. She never imagined that she could love anyone more than Caleb, but here he was – their son.
As Joseph nursed at Sarah’s breast, Caleb swelled with an indescribable pride. He only wished that his work didn’t keep him away so much.
Sarah cherished every moment at home, and stayed with Joseph for six weeks before a wet nurse took over. As she toiled cleaning houses, she spent her days dreaming how he’d grow up – handsome and strong like his father, no doubt.
In the evenings, Sarah beamed when Caleb coaxed Joseph to smile.
“Did you see?” Caleb would exclaim, night after night. “A real smile! A real smile! This time I’m sure.”
“Ah Caleb, it is just gas. Leave him be,” Sarah said with a laugh.
But every night it was the same, until . . .
“Sarah come quickly. He smiled! For real!”
“Caleb, you know he is too young to . . . smile?” Sarah said, surprise evident in her voice. “I carried him and nursed him and he saves his first smile for you? He must really love you, Caleb.”
Caleb grinned so wide that the baby began to cry, which in turn distressed Caleb, who seemed lost and confused. Sarah comforted her men with a hug and soothing words, until Joseph stopped crying and Caleb finally relaxed.
Some day, Caleb thought, Joseph will grow up healthy, strong and free. In fact, that day seemed quite near, for a rumor had begun to spread – a prophesied child of Israel had surfaced in the desert, a fallen prince of Egypt, turned shepherd, named Moses.[viii]
* * *
Little Joseph learned to giggle and then full belly laugh, which warmed the hearts of his parents more than anything in the world. He was immune to tickling, and found the oddest things funny. He laughed hysterically at the slightest change in something familiar. He laughed when Caleb made faces, though sometimes he’d cry.
Joseph’s eyes soon tracked every movement around him, as if he were afraid to miss a thing.
“Look how alert he is,” Sarah marveled, as Jephunneh and Caleb looked on.
Caleb scooped the boy up and held him close, nose to nose. “I love you so much,” Caleb whispered to his son. As they grinned at each other, Sarah envied their bond.
Lord, Caleb prayed before falling asleep that night, hold this little one in Your arms. Don’t let him know the cruelties of slavery. May this be Your will, as it is mine.
* * *
“Hosea,” Caleb said as they worked side by side high upon the quarry face.
“Yes?” Hosea responded.
“It’s time for you to take a wife,” Caleb proclaimed, “and have babies.”
“Not again,” Hosea responded, breathing deep and then exhaling fully. “We’ve been through this before.”
Their hardened muscles tensed, as they resumed hamming spikes into stone.
“What about Ariel?” Caleb asked, between carefully timed blows. “She is comely enough . . . and smiles when you draw near.”
“Too flighty,” Hosea said. “I want someone . . . who listens . . . when I talk. . . . Someone who has . . . something interesting . . . to say.”
“What about Hannah?” Caleb asked. “A smarter woman . . . you’ll never meet.”
“True enough . . . she would be . . . the perfect wife,” Hosea replied.
Caleb sighed. Wait for it, he thought.
“If I were blind . . . and didn’t have . . . such a nose. Can you imagine . . . being sick of . . . the sight and smell . . . of your wife?” Hosea asked.
“Enough!” Caleb exclaimed. “You’re impossible.”
“And you’re . . . relentless,” Hosea said simply. “Enough indeed. . . . When God wants me . . . to take a wife . . . I’ll know . . . and then you’ll know. . . . Until then . . . I choose . . . to focus . . . on the job at hand.”
With a mighty blow from Hosea’s hammer, the granite block broke free and tumbled into the net, causing the slaves holding the net at the top of the quarry to nearly fall over edge.
* * *
Little Joseph ran and played and tumbled with the other little boys, like puppies run wild. His laughter echoed between the alleyways. His parents kept a watchful eye as the sun dipped below the horizon.
“Joseph, time to come in,” Sarah called.
“Just another few minutes,” he shouted back.
But then calls from other parents echoed in the waning light.
“Now! Young man,” Caleb ordered.
“A l r i g h t . . .” Joseph replied, dragging the word out. “You’re no fun.”
“No fun?” Caleb asked.
“B o r i n g,” Joseph added.
“Boring?” Caleb repeated, with raised eyebrow. “Boring?” he said again as Joseph tried to step past him. “I’ll show you boring!”
And with that Caleb swept Joseph up and began kissing his neck and face and ears, until Joseph burst into peals of uncontrollable laughter.
“Who’s boring now?” Caleb asked, as Joseph struggled to catch his breath. “Huh?” Caleb pressed, “Who’s boring now?”
Joseph finally caught his breath, before saying “You are!”
So Caleb responded with even more kisses and ear nibbles and teeth gnashing noises and all the things that now made Joseph laugh.
Sarah smiled, content, as her son and husband played. Slave or free, she had everything she could possibly want right here.
Caleb and Joseph looked over at Sarah and saw her wistful smile. “What?” father and son said in unison. All three of them laughed.
Sarah shrugged, “Life is good.”
“I love you mom,” Joseph said, squirming free of Caleb and running over to hug Sarah’s knees.
“Me too,” Caleb echoed, as they shared a brief family hug. “Let’s eat,” he said eyeing Joseph’s neck once more.
Joseph broke free of the hug, squealed, and ran into the house seeking the relative safety of Grandpa Jephunneh.
Life is good, Caleb thought.
* * *
When Joseph turned five, he picked up one of Jephunneh’s fine detail hammers and began chipping away at a broken corner stone brought home from the palace construction. Jephunneh, Caleb and Joseph made quite a sight, three generations, chipping away.
“Mind if I join you,” Hosea asked, as he sat down beside them.
“Not at all,” Caleb replied. “Pull up a seat.”
“Let’s see what you’ve got there little man,” Hosea said, examining Joseph’s work. Crude, but amazing for a five year old, Hosea thought. “He’s going to have quite a gift, this one.”
“I bet Pharaoh will have me working with Grandpa at the new palace,” Joseph said excitedly. “I’ll bet I never have to work in the quarries,” he added.
“God willing,” Hosea replied. “May you work in Pharaoh’s palace as a free man,” he added under his breath.
“God will deliver us from slavery,” Caleb whispered to Hosea. Some things are not said too loudly in public. “I can feel it.”
“You can feel it?” Hosea asked, overhearing Caleb’s whispers. “Or you’ve heard the rumors?”
“Both,” Caleb answered. “When I pray for our freedom from slavery, my heart quickens.”
“Whose doesn’t?” Jephunneh chimed in, clearly listening.
“No, seriously,” Caleb added. “Something’s different. I can feel it. It fills me with excitement . . . and dread.”
“Dread?” Hosea replied, surprised.
“Something’s coming,” Caleb responded, “and I’m not sure if it is entirely good.”
“I hear his name is Moses,” Hosea said under his breath.
“Him too,” Caleb replied.
* * *
The plagues hit, hurting master and slave alike, though the Egyptians bore the brunt of it.[ix] Excitement increased among the Children of Israel, as tales of this stranger, Moses, circulated among them. Some called him a sorcerer, others thought him a man of God. Whoever he was, he and his brother Aaron were apparently risking their lives confronting Pharaoh on behalf of the people.
Caleb and Hosea were awestruck by Moses.
“Could it be, Caleb?” Hosea asked, as they worked side by side, high up on the cliff face where the overseers couldn’t hear them.
“Could what be?” Caleb responded.
“Could Moses be the deliverer?” Hosea asked, with an edge to his voice.
“He looks like a man touched by God,” Caleb answered.
“And what would you know of a man touched by God?” Hosea asked.
“When I was a boy,” Caleb replied, “I walked with God once.”
“Where was I,” Hosea asked, incredulous, to say the least.
“With Sarah,” Caleb replied without caring if Hosea believed.
“But of course,” Hosea said nodding, “With Sarah. Who else would I have been with?” After a time, Hosea wondered if Caleb was serious. “And you didn’t tell your best friend because . . . ?” Hosea asked, with a hint of a smile.
“Oh, I told Sarah,” Caleb said with a smile of his own.
“Funny,” Hosea replied, unexpectedly hurt by Caleb’s response. “So, friend Caleb,” Hosea added, his voice a little tight as he sought a jab of his own, “If you walked with God . . . what did God smell like?”
“Like the moment the rain stops,” Caleb said without hesitation.
The quick response took Hosea aback and he forgot his irritation. “I’ve always wondered,” Hosea added, “what His voice would sound like?”
“As a child,” Caleb replied, “it sounded like . . . a whisper,” Caleb said in a whisper of his own. “I miss Him,” Caleb said, more to himself than Hosea.
“God is all around us,” Hosea said, repeating the lessons learned in his youth.
“He’s closer now, than usual,” Caleb whispered, quieter still. “But the closer His presence, the more distant He feels . . . like the calm before a storm fast approaching on the horizon.”
* * *
Moses and his brother Aaron obtained an audience with Pharaoh, which in and of itself must have taken an act of God. What exactly they said, the people didn’t know . . . but strange things began to happen when they left Pharaoh’s court.
The rivers turned a deep blood red,[x] as did the pools, reservoirs, streams and even water stored in vessels of wood and stone. All of the water throughout Egypt had turned color, gagging the Egyptians and killing the fish.[xi] But the Children of Israel were unaffected by this strange colored water.
Then the frogs swarmed from the banks of the Nile,[xii] seeking refuge from the deadly water. The frogs died by the millions around the Egyptians’ houses, in their courtyards and in their fields. Insects followed, feasting on the bloated carcasses of the frogs.[xiii] Cattle died.[xiv] The Egyptians were plagued with boils and with hail and with locusts.[xv]
Through it all, the Egyptians went from nervous, to fearful to terrified and began blaming the Israelites. But those who lashed out against their slaves found their afflictions multiplied, until the people of Egypt feared the mere presence of their slaves.
Sarah found herself no longer welcome in her masters’ homes. She cherished the additional time home with Joseph. He would grow up handsome and strong, like his father and maybe, just maybe, he would never know slavery. Such were Sarah’s hopes and dreams, echoed throughout Egypt in the homes of every Israelite.
* * *
“Look how happy Joseph is,” Sarah said to Caleb one evening as they watched Joseph play.
“You have done well, my wife,” Caleb acknowledged with pride. “He feels safe and loved. So innocent now, he doesn’t even know he’s a slave. But God knows. God has noticed our people suffering, and is acting to put an end to it. Our bondage will be over soon.”
“Perhaps, my husband,” Sarah replied. “But these are dangerous times. The Egyptians don’t want us in their homes. What good is our freedom if we can’t work as free people among the Egyptians? Moses may be the deliverer. But what is he delivering us to?”
“I don’t know, my love,” Caleb answered. “But what can we do, except trust in the Lord?”
“I’m afraid,” Sarah said, looking Caleb in the eyes. “I like our lives. Even in slavery, we have always been happy. Is there any greater freedom than that?”
“We’re among a fortunate few,” Caleb replied, drawing her close, wrapping her tight with his arms and then whispering in her ear. “There’s no denying it. I used to pray for deliverance. But now I just don’t know.”
Sarah snuggled in closer and wrapped her arms around Caleb’s back, enjoying the feel of his powerful embrace.
“As long as we’re together,” Caleb said nuzzling her, “You, me, Joseph and Jephunneh. As long as we’re together, nothing else matters.”
Sarah kissed Caleb’s neck tenderly.
“You are my world,” Caleb added, as Sarah felt a hot tear fall on her shoulder.
Sarah raised her face to Caleb’s, surprised to see tears in his eyes. She kissed him deeply and stroked his curly hair. They went to bed and made love.
* * *
Caleb and Hosea were ready for their mid-day meal. Their bodies glistened in the sweltering sun as their muscles cried out for nourishment. Caleb swung his hammer one last time and the lights went out, causing him to curse in surprise as he almost struck his hand.
In the middle of the day, with the sun beating down, all of a sudden they were in darkness.
Carefully the men working the quarry face rappelled to the bottom. It was terrifying. With no sun or moon or stars. It was like suddenly becoming blind.
Screams could be heard in the distance. What could this mean?
Overseers struggled to find and light torches, which added just enough light to quell the terror. Hosea and Caleb ate their lunch in the torchlight, waiting in silence for the sun return. But the day remained dark. Were it not for the torches, they all would be blind.
After several hours of waiting around, the overseers released them to return to their homes, for the overseers wanted to check on their own loved ones. From the rise before town, they could see the Egyptians’ homes, which remained pitch black while lights shone brightly from Israelite homes. For reasons no one understood, nothing would light in the Egyptians’ part of town.
A heavy mist settled outside, which the Israelites’ lamps could not penetrate. The Egyptians, now, were trapped in complete darkness. Terrified screams and wails came from out of the darkness, further terrifying Egyptians and Israelites alike.
The darkness remained for three days and three nights,[xvi] making it useless to do anything but remain at home and pray. Most relished the extended time home with their family. It was their first taste of freedom from a life of hard bondage.
* * *
When the sun finally shone, a new day truly dawned. The Egyptians still banished all Israelites from their homes. So Sarah tended Joseph, and Caleb returned to the quarry.
Rumors began to circulate that Pharaoh would let the slaves leave their duties to worship in the desert, but their flocks and their herds would remain behind to prevent escape. Without food enough to travel far, they’d have to return.
“It looks like we won’t be freed quite yet after all,” Hosea said Caleb as they worked side by side.
“So it seems,” Caleb replied, almost happy to hear it. He’d come to appreciate his life, and shy away from the unknown.
“We won’t even get to worship in the desert,” Hosea added. “Rumor has it, that when Pharaoh refused to leave with our livestock, Moses held fast, saying ‘You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice them to the Lord our God. Therefore, our livestock too, will go with us. Not a hoof will be left behind, for we shall take some of them to serve the Lord our God. And until we arrive there, we ourselves do not know with what we shall serve the Lord.’”
“It’s a wonder,” Caleb replied, “that Pharaoh didn’t execute him right there. This man Moses must have unlimited faith in the Lord.”
“No doubt,” Hosea responded, “if it weren’t for fear of the Lord, Pharaoh would’ve killed him by now. Instead, he merely threatened to kill Moses if he ever saw Moses again.”
These are wondrous and dangerous times, Caleb thought to himself, as his hammer struck spike, pounding it deep into the rock. Caleb wanted to have faith, and trust completely in the Lord. But he couldn’t feel the Lord, at least not like he once could – and that absence made him feel empty, uneasy and alone. Caleb worried as he worked and spoke silently to God, asking the question on everyone’s lips . . . What are you doing, Lord?
* * *
Working with Hosea in the quarries, Caleb called down for water as the noon-day sun scorched the earth. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a commotion on the edge of the quarry – a slave, shouting and trying to enter. Two overseers tried to restrain him, but he wouldn’t be quiet. Whatever he was saying was of great interest to the quarry slaves because, from the messenger spreading outward, heads turned like wheat in the wind, passing the word.
A guard approached and ran the intruder through with a short sword. The decisive violence normally would have sobered the slaves, but it had no effect at all.
Slaves were turning from the quarry, trying to leave. One by one, they too were cut down as Pharaoh’s soldiers tried to keep order. But the soldiers and task masters were out numbered and it was unclear whether they could hold the line.
Finally, the word reached Caleb and Hosea, “Pharaoh has ordered the deaths of our first born!” came the shout from below. “The soldiers have entered our homes!”
Caleb turned pale and looked at Hosea, wide eyed with horror. Without a second thought he descended the quarry, hammer in hand. Hosea descended by his side.
Fighting their way to the edge of the quarry, they reached a soldier who swung viciously at Caleb with his sword. Caleb ducked under the blow and brought his hammer up backhand as adrenaline flowed through his body.
The result was horrific as Caleb’s metal hammer struck the Egyptian’s helmet, catapulting him through the air and spraying blood everywhere. He landed in a lifeless heap and the sand around his head turned black with his blood. The guard to Caleb’s right turned to swing at Caleb, but Hosea’s hammer killed him where he stood.
The death of the two guards opened a hole in the Egyptians’ line that that Caleb and Hosea rushed through and beyond. The Egyptians around them were fighting for their lives, desperately trying to restore order, unable to consider giving chase.
Caleb and Hosea ran like they had never run before, darting between the chaos as they made their way to Caleb’s home. Caleb’s stomach churned, his thoughts focused solely on his family. The capital offense he had just committed never entered his mind. With Hosea close on Caleb’s heels, Caleb prayed silently as he ran, Please Lord, please protect my family.
By the age of twelve, mother and I remained one of the poorest families in town and yet she continued to refuse all offers for my hand in marriage. Many such offers would have lifted our family out of poverty and moved us up the social ladder – but they would also have dashed my hopes and dreams of Dathan.
More and more, mother had begun to speak to me about marriage offers before refusing them.
“We received another one today, Misha,” she would say.
“Another one? Who?” I would ask with a cherubic smile. It had become such a predictable game.
“Jurash,” she would say (or whoever the suitor of the day happened to be).
“And what did Jurash want?” I asked innocently.
“What all men want,” she replied with a teasing lilt in her voice. “You.”
Her standard response increasingly made me blush. “Is he my prince, do you think?” I generally responded, secretly wondering if I should ask Dathan to speak with mother.
“What do you think? He is the chief palace architect and works for King Balak himself. He has offered us more gold than the last ten suitors combined,” Mother said chuckling.
“If I said, ‘yes,’ would I have to marry him right away?” I asked, testing the waters for the first time and surprising Mother.
“Of course not, baby. You’re still too young. You have years to go yet. Why, you are not fully a woman,” she said, running her eyes over me from head to toe.
“Mother!” I said, mortified, though secretly I was pleased. That she would say not fully a woman acknowledged the changes in my body that had become more noticeable with each passing day.
“No,” mother continued, “If you said ‘yes,’ you would not marry until at least a two full years after you became a woman – preferably after your body has stopped changing so rapidly. Such is the tradition of our ancestors, even if the modern tradition is that women may marry as soon as they can bear children. Have you been giving more thought to marriage?” Mother asked.
“I don’t know,” I equivocated. “I hate to see you hungry all the time mother. Your clothes are little more than rags. All of the girls I know have long since been betrothed, and many are even starting to marry. Is it really worth it, Mother? Do I have to be . . . different?” I asked with a slight whine in my voice, wrinkling my nose at the one thing no child ever wants to be.
Mother looked at me sadly and said gently, “Yes, Misha. I’m afraid you do. You are the most beautiful girl in Midian, and I’m not talking simply as a proud and biased mother. Your beauty alone would make you different. But more than that, God has used your beauty and our poverty as a test – to see if we can remain true to Him. Would you throw away the sacrifice we have made these many years because the road is difficult?”
Taking me by the shoulders, her face inches from mine, mother looked into my eyes, “I am happy, Misha, because I am with you. What is a little hunger now and again? Ragged clothes? Who do I have to dress up for? Do you really think I would be happy in fine clothes, if it meant betraying the God of our ancestors? Besides, I do have a nice dress or two.”
“It’s just that sometimes . . . it’s so hard,” I protested. “Sometimes I wish we were like everyone else. I wish my looks didn’t attract attention and whispers. I wish our belief in God were shared by our friends and neighbors. Why must everything be so difficult?” I complained.
“Many people have it much harder, Mishael,” mother scolded gently. “You are healthy and strong and surrounded by people who love and care for you. I know it’s difficult, but we all must face difficulty at times. You can’t always take the easy road, not if you want to remain true to yourself and to God.”
“I know,” I sighed, “It’s just that sometimes, not every time, but sometimes, I wish I could at least see the easy road. Everything is always so . . . ”
“Your day will come, Misha,” mother interrupted. “Trust in yourself and in God. Your day will come.”
Caleb and Hosea could hear screams and cries and wailing coming from the slaves’ section of town. Caleb quickened his pace, as adrenaline flowed through his body and blood pounded in his ears. Oh God, please, please, please, he repeated in his head like a mantra. As he raced towards home, the screaming and wailing bombarded him from all sides.
The doorway to his home was open, but there were no screams or cries from inside. So far so good. Thank God, Caleb thought as he burst through the threshold.
As Caleb’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw a figure, still as death, lying at the entrance to his bedroom. Jephunneh. Caleb slipped in a pool of blood, landing hard on his side, face to face with Jephunneh’s sightless eyes. Oh God no, no, no.
Hosea entered and skidded to a stop.
A muffled sob came from the bedroom. Caleb scrambled to his feet and stepped over his father. The bedroom was even darker, but Caleb’s eyes adjusted quickly. There. In the shadows. Huddled in the corner.
“Sarah!” he cried out.
She didn’t respond.
He leapt to her side. Her face was white as a ghost as she cradled her son.
“No,” Caleb whispered, seeing the blood covering Joseph.
“I tried . . . to protect him,” she said struggling for breath, before coughing. It was an ugly, wet, sound followed by desperate gasps for air, then more coughs and blood flowing from her mouth over her chin onto the ground.
Caleb sat horrified and helpless, holding her in his arms. “Sarah!” Caleb exclaimed, realizing how badly she’d been hurt. “Hold on. You’re so strong. I need you. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. . . Help her!” he shouted to no one and everyone.
Sarah’s dress clung to her body drenched in blood, front and back. She struggled for air, panicking, drowning in the blood filling her lungs. Sarah managed a breath, “I tried,” she said coughing out a hellish amount of blood.
“I know my love. Don’t talk. I know. You’ll be ok.” Caleb stroked her hair gently, sweeping it away from her eyes.
The scene he’d just missed played out mercilessly in his mind. Jephunneh, unarmed, taking a sword to the stomach as he tried to keep Pharaoh’s soldiers from reaching Sarah and Joseph. Sarah, huddled in terror over Joseph, trying to protect him with her body as an Egyptian soldier, eyes black, face hard, drove his sword through them both.
“Jephunneh?” she managed, before gasping for breath.
Caleb looked away, devastated beyond tears.
Hosea knelt by his friend’s side and placed a hand on Caleb’s shoulder.
“Hosea,” Sarah whispered into the silence of the room, her eyes pleading, her voice failing. Take care of him, she thought as she looked into Hosea’s eyes.
Hosea wanted to comfort her, but he couldn’t speak. As his eyes met hers, he nodded almost imperceptibly. He knew what she wanted. It was all he could give her. But it was enough. Sarah saw.
Sarah looked at Caleb, past his eyes into his soul, communicating her love without need of any words. She ceased struggling for breath. Her body relaxed and the bright intelligence that had radiated from her eyes was no more.
Caleb said nothing as he held Sarah’s lifeless body. Without letting go of her he gathered up Joseph, and held the two of them close in one final family hug. He rocked back and forth with his family in his arms, too shocked to think, too shocked to cry. Caleb’s world had completely shattered in one unforeseeable moment – unforeseeable to anyone but the One who sees everything.
Why?!!! Caleb screamed into the silence of his mind. With all of Your power and all that You knew, why didn’t you stop this? I believed in You, prayed to You and followed Your teachings, as did Jephunneh and Sarah and even little Joseph! How could you do nothing while they slaughtered my child?
Hosea stood without a word, picked up Caleb’s abandoned hammer and quietly left the room.
Faroul rushed into the main room with Rivka right behind him. Hosea stood there impassively, his face said it all.
Rivka raced past her husband to the bedroom and screamed. Faroul stepped up behind her and gasped at the scene.
“Nooooooo!” Rivka screamed, as Caleb cradled his family and divined back and forth. “You . . . you should have . . . ” Rivka couldn’t finish the sentence, and began pounding Caleb with her fists.
Caleb welcomed physical pain to distract from the emotional agony and all consuming guilt that was tearing him apart.
Faroul pulled Rivka away and held her in tight embrace.
“My little girl. My grandson,” Rivka wept. “You . . . you . . . “
“You should have protected them,” Faroul concluded Rivka’s sentence.
Caleb flinched at the words, verbal daggers to the heart.
“You should have been here,” Faroul accused bitterly, taking little comfort in the pain his words caused Caleb.
Unable to face the pain, Caleb suppressed his guilt, anguish, sadness and loss, and allowed anger and hatred rise in their place. Caleb’s jaw clenched, his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes became hard and black as obsidian.
“We came here immediately,” Hosea explained, “slowed only by the overseers.”
“You should’ve killed them,” Faroul said.
“We did,” Hosea replied.
Faroul fell silent, Rivka wept and Hosea guided them into the family room.
“Jephunneh?” Faroul gasped, noticing his friend for the first time. “My God, what have they done?” he asked holding his sobbing wife.
* * *
Sarah, Joseph and Jephunneh were buried by the side of the house, in vegetable garden Sarah had tended with care. She had found peace in that plot during life and could rest in peace there with her child in death, together with Jephunneh who had loved them both well.
Nun and Hosea worked tirelessly throughout the night digging graves. Pharaoh was as likely to have the bodies burnt as buried, particularly if he knew that cremation violated their customs. Faroul helped a little, but he was unaccustomed to hard labor and tired quite easily.
Rivka washed the bodies and anointed them with her tears. Then Yael wrapped them carefully in the cleanest white linen.
Nun and Hosea gently lowered the bodies into the grave, as Caleb sat nearby, his mind blank, his stare lifeless. Faroul and Rivka held each other and wept.
Caleb couldn’t shovel dirt on the bodies, despite longstanding tradition that symbolically served to help the grieving let go. But Caleb didn’t want to let go. He didn’t dare feel the pain he’d have to feel to let go. He’d rather focus on anger and hatred and vengeance.
Why? He demanded to know from the Lord. Why have you abandoned us in are hour of need? I worshipped You! I trusted You! I experienced Your Presence! Day after day, You were there in my life. But when I needed You most, You were nowhere to be found!
Caleb could feel the familiar Presence reaching out to provide comfort. But Caleb eschewed any comfort or solace or peace. He wanted revenge and to release his full fury. He wanted to injure, to maim and to kill. Caleb’s world had become blacker than any plague of darkness, and at this point in life he preferred darkness to light.
* * *
Faroul and Rivka said nothing – not a single word to Caleb – but thanked the others assembled, then turned and walked home.
Caleb stood by the gravesite, like a statue of granite, basking in the dawn.
“Caleb,” Hosea said quietly, without getting any reaction. “Caleb!” he said louder, this time more urgent. He tried shaking his Caleb gently, but obtained no reaction.
If Caleb heard or felt anything, it certainly didn’t show.
Hosea struck Caleb firmly with an open palm to Caleb’s cheek. Caleb glared at Hosea, his eyes black as death, without a hint of recognition, as he slowly balled his fists.
“Caleb, it’s me!” Hosea said urgently, glad that Caleb had responded but not liking the look in Caleb’s eyes. “There isn’t time! We must go! Come on Caleb, please!”
Caleb’s eyes seemed to focus, though they softened only slightly.
Hosea turned to his parents. “You must leave us now.”
“We know,” Nun said softly, “Watch after Caleb, and be safe.”
“Where will you go?” Yael asked.
“I don’t know,” Hosea replied, though this was only half truth. He’d already begun formulating the next step in his mind.
“We love you,” Yael said.
“I love you both, too. But you must go, and we must leave. It probably won’t be long now before Pharaoh’s soldiers return.”
Hosea hugged each of them, in turn, before sending them on their way. Then he took a moment to watch as his parents walked towards home. Will I see you again? he wondered, over a last lingering glimpse.
* * *
“Come on!” Hosea said. Caleb followed at his side. Minutes seemed like hours as they walked purposefully away. They didn’t dare run, in case soldiers were around.
Hosea’s eyes darted everywhere, searching for danger. Caleb didn’t care. He would have welcomed a good fight. But the soldiers had retreated to the safety of their quarters.
Towards the edge or town, as far as possible from the soldiers’ barracks, they reached the house of some friends who had known their families for years. Though the friendship was old, he hadn’t seen these people in years. They’d be perfect, if they’d be willing to house runaway slaves.
Hosea knocked urgently, then knocked urgently again. He was knocking a third time when a woman opened the door. She was half a generation older, and squinted at the morning light.
“So impatient!” she huffed. “Hosea, is that you?”
“Can we come in, Miriam?” Hosea asked as he furtively looked around. “It’s important.”
“We?” Miriam replied. “Who else is with you?”
Caleb stepped forward.
“Caleb?” Miriam asked, but received no acknowledgement. After a moment of silence, she turned back to Hosea. “What’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he answer?”
“Miriam!” Hosea pleaded, “Can we come inside now? Please!”
“What?” Miriam asked. “Of course, come in and make yourself at home.”
When they were safely inside, Miriam brought them both water.
“Pharaoh’s soldiers,” Hosea said after quenching his thirst. “They killed Jephunneh and Sarah and even six year old Joseph. They killed countless other children and who knows who all else."
“Dear God,” Miriam exclaimed, with a whisper. “Why would they do such a thing?”
“I don’t know,” Hosea answered. “Pharaoh sent soldiers to kill our people’s first born. They probably slaughtered everyone who dared get in their way.”
Miriam covered her mouth with a trembling hand.
Hosea had been taught everything happened for a reason. If so, he needed answers that few could provide. “You’ve always been pious,” he said to Miriam. “How could this be God’s will?”
“This wasn’t God’s doing,” Miriam answered, “It was Pharaoh’s. You’ll have to ask him.”
“But . . .” Hosea began, but Miriam had already moved on.
“I am so sorry,” she said to Caleb, looking deep into his eyes. She wondered if he heard her. He seemed deep in some kind of trance.
* * *
“Miriam?” Hosea asked. “Where’s your brother?”
“They both left yesterday morning, to speak to the people before heading to Pharaoh’s palace. I haven’t seen them since, but they should be alright. God is with them, these days. They’re doing God’s will.”
“Both?” Hosea asked. “But you have only one brother, at least as far as I knew.”
“Aaron is my brother. Moses is too. Mother had him sent away . . . before you were born.” Miriam rubbed her chin as she considered the past. “The last time Pharaoh feared our people, he ordered the death of our first born. Moses would’ve been slaughtered if mother hadn’t sent him away.”[xvii]
“So the Aaron with Moses,” Hosea began, “who’s been talking to Pharaoh . . .”
“Is my brother Aaron with our brother Moses,” Miriam finished.
Hosea gave a low whistle. “I had no idea. I knew an Aaron spoke for Moses, but it’s such a common name . . .”
“Let me bring you bread and some cheese,” Miriam offered, “you must be famished.”
“Thank you, Miriam,” Hosea said, “for the shelter and the food.” Hosea sat Caleb at the table, and then sat at his side.
* * *
Moses and Aaron returned shortly after noon. They looked drawn and weary, as well as sapped by the Egyptian sun. Miriam brought them all drinks, and then introduced Moses. Moses clasped Hosea’s hand, before turning to Caleb who neither reached back nor stirred.
Miriam took Moses aside and explained the tragedy Caleb suffered. Moses nodded his head sadly. He’d heard this story now, many times.
Hosea looked at Caleb, who seemed increasingly withdrawn. Should he try to engage Caleb or let Caleb sort things out? Hosea had no idea.
Over dinner, Moses repeated what he had told the elders of Israel earlier that day. “This day shall be a memorial to us, and we shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord. Throughout our generations, we are to celebrate this day. Seven days, we shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day, we shall remove all leaven from our houses. But tonight, tonight we shall dip hyssop in the blood of the lamb and mark the lintel and doorposts of our house. Aaron?”[xviii] And with that Aaron brought a bowl of lamb’s blood outside and marked the house.
When Aaron had returned to his seat, Moses continued. “For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians, and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come to our houses to smite us.”
“And it will come about when we enter the land which the Lord will give to us, as He has promised, that we shall observe this rite. And our children will ask, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ And we shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’ ”
“The Lord has promised to strike down every first-born of Egypt, and every first born of their beasts.[xix] Pharaoh has struck the children of Israel. Now the Lord shall set us free.”
Caleb looked up briefly, for the first time taking notice. Then he lowered his eyes, retreating inward once more, back to a place beyond emotion, beyond feeling, beyond light – where only silence existed in an empty black void.
When other girls my age were whispering about their soon-to-be nuptials, Balaam taught me to heal with plants and herbs and prayers. He taught me blessings. He taught me curses. But most of all he taught me never to bless or curse if it were against God’s will.
“But how do I know God’s will?” I asked.
“For now, little one, do not bless or curse without asking me first. But before you ask me, ask God. Listen for an answer. Look for His signs. Then tell me what you think He wants you to do. We’ll see soon enough if you have the gift. If you do, use it wisely and sparingly. If you don’t, well then, we’ll talk more about it later.”
“Have you always had the gift, Uncle?” I asked.
“From the time my mentor taught me, I did indeed little one. So much so that it surprised us both,” Balaam replied.
“Who was he?” I asked.
“Always with the questions,” he responded. “Questions upon questions upon questions.”
“I’m sorry,” I said chagrined.
“No. I’m sorry Mishael. Never be afraid to ask questions. It’s just that . . . it’s a difficult story that brings back sad memories,” Uncle said.
“Sometimes,” I continued, not wanting my misstep to end the conversation, “it surprises me who you bless and who you curse.”
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he said conspiratorially, leaning over to whisper in my ear. “Me too.”
“But how can that be?” I asked.
“It just is. God’s will surprises even me. Yet those whom I bless are blessed and those whom I curse are cursed. I am God’s servant, little one. What can I do? What God wills, I must obey.”[xx]
“Does God speak to you Uncle, like a man, face to face?”
“No. It’s more of a feeling. I pray that through me God will work His will and in the end, most of the time, I know what He wants me to do.”
“What if you don’t know?” I asked. “After you’ve prayed, I mean.”
“I pray some more and if I still don’t know, I simply don’t act. Sometimes, you know, God speaks to me in dreams so vivid I can’t ignore them. Usually, when I understand them they stop, but not always. In the end, I suppose, I just surrender to God’s will and follow where it takes me.”
“I pray, Uncle. I pray all the time,” I said. “But it never seems to do anything. The boys and girls my age still make fun of me. And the men and women of Midian still whisper and stare, or look away. Is life always hard for those who worship our God?”
“Ah, Misha,” Balaam replied. “Our God may be Almighty, but He doesn’t shield us from the hurtful tongues that wag in the market. He doesn’t protect us from the pain inflicted by the men and women who cross our paths. Often He guides us, if we pay close enough attention. Even then, for the most part, we are each on our own.”
“But why doesn’t God stop the pain?” I asked.
“He has given us great gifts Misha, the gift of freedom, the gift of choice. With them we can stop a great deal of pain if we work together as one. Together, we can better ourselves and the world around us. Why should we be blessed with life at all if He prevented all hardship and prevented poor choices? Obstacles and the struggle to overcome them give meaning to our lives, they . . .”
“Uncle?” I interrupted, weary from the day’s lessons and distracted by hunger, “What’s for dinner?”
“Dinner?” he asked playfully. “Nothing for you but pickles . . . and tickles,” he said with shout as he wrestled me to the ground and tickled me until tears rolled down both our cheeks. It was a game we had played for as long as I could remember.
Rolling free, I gave him a pouty look. “I’m too old for that game,” I said somewhat petulantly, more because I didn’t feel like being tickled, and because I resented being made to laugh when I didn’t feel like laughing.
Balaam looked me up and down with an appraising eye, truly noticing for the first time the subtle changes in my body. “You know, Misha,” he said seriously, “I do believe you’re right.”
I immediately regretted saying anything, and hadn’t meant to change our relationship. But I could tell, from that moment, that I’d done exactly that. I’d become a young woman in his eyes, and I knew from then on he’d treat me like one. It meant greater respect, which flattered me tremendously. But it also meant letting go of the affection I received from his as a child.
* * *
I successfully avoided Margda for weeks, often by spending time with Dathan. Margda didn’t dare abuse me in Dathan’s presence for it was well known that Dathan had designs on my future.
Much to Dathan’s chagrin, the whispers and unkind comments I had experienced for so long began circulating about him. The town gossips saw him as a fool for pursuing a worthless cause – me.
Even his friends challenged our relationship, such as it was. “She’s pretty,” they said, “but she’s witch. She’s cursed. Why pursue her? Hard as you try, you know, she’ll never marry you.”
“Bah!” he responded, or at least that’s what he told me. “She’s the prettiest girl in Midian. She’ll be mine one day. You’ll see.”
It wasn’t that Dathan’s friends disliked me, exactly. But they disliked the way others saw Dathan, when Dathan showed an interest in me. What reflected poorly on him, reflected poorly on them too.
For my part I hoped and prayed that Dathan would be my prince. I hated being different. Every girl I knew was either betrothed or married. I was sick of The Dream and the way it set me apart. If I had my way, I would marry Dathan in a heartbeat and settle into a normal life of protected wife and mother.
I longed to tell Dathan of my troubles with Margda. But pride and embarrassment kept me mute and in torment. Margda was my problem, not his. I would figure this out myself. Mother wouldn’t rely on someone else to solve her problems and neither would I.
Still, it annoyed me that Dathan didn’t protect me of his own accord. He must have known that Margda plagued my existence, unless he was so blind and self-absorbed that . . . No. It was my fault for not mentioning it. How could I expect sympathy or protection, for problems I didn’t share? I pushed aside my doubts, and focused on the qualities in Dathan that lifted my spirits – his strength and bravado, his courage and kindness.
Our time in each other’s company brought us closer together, even as it solidified the barriers that kept us apart. Ours was not a simple relationship. But is there ever really a simple relationship between a young man and a young woman?
* * *
“Do you think we’ll be married?” Dathan asked, as the desert’s spring blooms colored the landscape.
Dathan reached down, plucked a delicate purple flower, and then twirled it between thumb and forefinger before handing me his treasure. I accepted it in the spirit, which he no doubt intended, without mentioning that as medicine it loosened the bowels.
“I hope we’ll be married,” I said, reaching for his hand, which enveloped mine immediately in a grasp warm and strong.
“I’ve been training hard to become one of the King’s men,” he declared proudly.
“I know,” I admitted, with a shy little smile.
“You know . . .” he said hesitantly, “you needn’t spy on me when I train.”
“Really?” I asked. “You wouldn’t feel embarrassed or self conscious?”
“Not at all,” he answered, “I am training, after all, to become a soldier and win your heart. If I can win it in the training, that’s even better. Don’t you think?”
I blushed at his directness. “You’ve already won my heart.”
“Then it is settled,” Dathan said. “You’ll cheer me on as I train. When I win, I’ll be a little closer to taking you as my bride.”
I smiled at him in response, as his hand gently held mine. Never had a girl been more desperate to believe.
* * *
I found Dathan’s training fascinating, given Hamarab’s fighting techniques. I often described Dathan’s movements and asked if Hamarab would teach me. Sometimes, he’d agree, while other times he refused.
“That’s a bad habit,” Hamarab would say. “It leaves you vulnerable – like so,” he said demonstrating the move, so I could see its fatal flaw. Other times he’d say, “Yes, that’s a very good technique, but it requires the strength and force of a man. Your strikes must be more controlled, more precise, more like this.” He always taught by example. “If you face this technique, you can counter it like so . . . by redirecting it, slipping past, and attacking his vulnerable kidney or calf.”
Day by day, month by month, my confidence with the staff grew, until it felt more like a dance than a means of protecting myself. Hamarab always praised me, and pushed me past my limits. But he never pushed so far as to make me doubt any of my skills. Once, he even told me that I was better than he at my age. Whether true or simple flattery, it helped me continue to work hard.
I longed to tell Dathan of my training, but I knew it wouldn’t sit well. Besides, I enjoyed my private lessons and the secret time alone with Hamarab. Only Mother and Balaam knew I trained with Hamarab, so I shared this part of my life with them and them alone.
With Dathan, my training formed a barrier between us, as I struggled to remain silent when I saw ways he could improve. Of course, he never would have taken soldiering advice from a girl – which I resented without giving him the benefit of the doubt.
* * *
I always carried father’s staff when tending Hamarab’s sheep. I practiced strikes, parries and lunges in the solitude of the hills. My time there held a purity, which I relished whenever I could. No one ever seemed to bother me, when I watched Hamarab’s sheep.
But one day, while practicing my moves with the staff, Dathan approached from the setting sun. He saw me briefly before I saw him and stopped practicing with the staff.
“Where’d you get this?” he asked, reaching for father’s staff.
“Hamarab,” I replied, instinctively moving it out of reach, before over riding instinct and reluctantly handing it over.
“It’s beautiful!” he exclaimed, admiring its carvings, weight and balance, then whipping it through the air in what had become his signature moves.
For an uncomfortable moment I wondered if he would give it back. I held my tongue and waited and hoped for the best.
“If it weren’t quite so small,” Dathan continued, “it might serve me well indeed. Even still, it’s a shame that it’s owned by a girl. A staff such as this should see battle and glory.”
I couldn’t help replying with a petulant pout, “Hamarab told me it has seen plenty of battles and glory, and will protect me when I’m alone and may need it the most.”
“Protect you? That’s my job,” Dathan announced full of bluster.
Then when do you start? I wondered bitterly, as Margda loomed in my mind.
“Hamarab?” Dathan continued. “What does he know about fighting?”
More than you will ever know, I thought silently, enjoying the double meaning. Outwardly, I just shrugged and tried to hide my irritation.
Dathan looked at the staff, trying to envision it in battle, wielded by a man whose size it would fit. He shook his head and tossed it back to me. His imagination only stretched so far.
Picking up his own staff, he swung at me as if to prove a point.
I deflected his blow, though he caught me off guard. I stumbled back awkwardly and almost fell to the ground. Then I steadied myself and readied for another blow.
But Dathan just laughed at his victory, smugly satisfied with himself. He wouldn’t dream of condescending to spar with a lowly girl.
I wanted to strike back and knock the smile from his face. But I knew I shouldn’t do it, and I managed to refrain.
Go ahead, I raged inwardly, think you’re superior to me. But you’re not, in any way, you self satisfied ignorant fool.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked confused, seeing the anger on my face.
“Nothing,” I insisted, until he finally went away.
* * *
Despite the countless hours of training with Hamarab, I continued to avoid Margda and dreaded the moment when I would finally have to face her. If it were just Margda, I would not have felt so reticent. But I worried that Margda’s friends would overpower me, and was terrified about what they and Margda might do to me with father’s staff if they wrested it away. I feared even more that they might steal it from me, particularly if they knew my attachment to it.
When Margda and her friends came across me one day without Dathan at my side, my heart began to pound wildly in my chest as I imagined besting her quickly and easily. I had a momentary vision, towering over her as she cowered on the ground, ordering her to leave me alone and watching as her friends fled in fear. But the vision dissipated the moment she spoke.
“Well, well. If it isn’t the little witch. What’cha got there witch? A pretty stick? Give it here,” Margda said, an ugly expression twisting her already ugly face. With her friends behind her, Margda advanced menacingly.
At the sound of Margda’s voice, deeply ingrained terror gripped my stomach. My heart raced. My palms became sweaty. Then, to my horror and shame, I panicked and ran – as I had so many times before – this time, however, with the weapon and skills I could have used to easily defend myself.
One thing my encounters with Margda had taught me was speed, which I used once more to my advantage. I fled into the desert, found some sparse shade and collapsed. Curled in a ball, hugging my knees, I wept.
I hate her! I screamed silently, afraid to speak in case she had tried to follow me. But I hated myself even more. Why am I such a coward? I wondered. I cast the staff into the desert, not far mind you, but far enough so that I didn’t have to look it. Over and over I replayed the scene in my mind, each time standing bravely against Margda and her gang. The pain of the opportunity lost and shame of running away hurt more than any beating I may have received . . . probably.
As I sobbed, I felt the desert heat change noticeably. I looked up to see a silhouette looming over me, staff in hand. My heart leapt into my throat, thinking Margda had found me and would now beat me with my own staff. Fear left me paralyzed and helpless.
as my eyes adjusted, I saw a figure, too tall and wiry, who lacked Margda’s
impressive girth. “Mishael? What’s wrong?
Are you all right?” said a familiar voice.
Balaam?” I replied, squinting up at his silhouette. “Is that you?”
“Who else would it be?” he responded. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I replied, trying to put on a brave face.
“My niece doesn’t cry for nothing,” Balaam observed. “Even as a baby you squeaked and cooed but rarely cried. What’s wrong little one?” he asked.
“Perhaps I should ask your mother?”
Balaam knew far too well what buttons to push. “No,” I replied, more hastily than I would have liked. “I . . . I’ve been having some trouble with a girl in town.”
“What sort of trouble?” Balaam asked.
“She’s been bullying me and calling me names,” I replied somewhat evasively.
“What names?” Balaam pressed.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, unable to look him the eyes.
“What names, Mishael?” he asked firmly, and then furrowed his brow, as if to say “I can always ask your Mother.” He didn’t need to say it this time for me to know what he was thinking.
“Ask her,” I said defiantly, “she doesn’t know.” Then I realized that if Balaam asked, Mother soon would know, for she would not rest until she found out why her only child had been crying alone in the desert. “They call me a witch, a coward and a baby,” I said quietly.
“They call you a witch?” Balaam responded, displeased. “And how long have they been doing that?”
“I don’t know, months, years, what does it matter? It’s felt like forever.”
“And who are they?” Balaam asked.
“Margda and her friends, mostly. They’re the only ones who say it to my face. But I see the others whispering when I pass,” I answered, with my head hung low.
“You need to confront her, Mishael, or your life will never be your own,” Balaam said.
“I know,” I said dejectedly. “I just don’t know how. Hamarab is teaching me to fight with a staff,” I said with little enthusiasm. “I’m good, too. But I ran away.”
“Perhaps you are meant to settle matters another way,” Balaam replied. “If I know my niece, you’ll not resort to violence unless you have no other choice. You are a gentle soul Misha. It’s a weakness, true, but also a great strength. Given a choice, I suspect you’ll always choose an option other than violence.”
“Like run away,” I said bitterly, past the lump in my throat. “You think I am a coward too.”
“No, not at all, Misha,” he said kindly, as he sat next to me and put an arm around my shoulder. “You just haven’t found your solution.”
“And what is that?” I asked, for the first time wanting help.
“Now, now,” Uncle replied, “where is that independent girl I have known all my life? Do you really want my help, or do you want to resolve this on your own? I am more than happy to help. But it’s so unlike you to ask.”
“No,” I said after a moment’s hesitation, “You’re right. I want to . . . no, I need to figure this out on my own . . . I think.”
“If you ever do decide you need my advice or assistance, you know I’ll be there for you? Yes?” he asked.
“Yes, Uncle,” I answered.
“Now, why don’t you put aside your worries and fears for awhile and help me find the plants I’ve been seeking. They have little purple and yellow flowers, like this,” he said, showing me some he had already gathered. “I believe this is yours,” he said, handing me the staff with a smile.
Picking flowers with Balaam in the desert helped distract me for the moment and the day seemed a little less gray. On days like that, I couldn’t have loved my father any more than I loved Uncle Balaam.
At midnight the Lord struck the first-born of the Egyptians, from the first born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne, to the first born Egyptians who struggled in poverty, and even the first born of their livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night with his servants, as did nearly every Egyptian, to watch helplessly as a loved one died. The wailing and weeping, heard recently in the Israelites’ quarters, now echoed throughout Egypt.
Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron before sunrise and said, “Rise up, get out from among my people, both you and the sons of Israel. Go, worship the Lord as you have said. Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and go, but bless me also.”[xxi]
The Egyptians, fearing death at the hands of the Lord, urged the Israelites to leave in haste.[xxii]
So the children of Israel took their dough before it was leavened, with all of their possessions and the articles of gold and silver and clothing that they had requested from the Egyptian masters – articles that the Egyptians dared not refuse their former slaves.[xxiii]
Four hundred and thirty years of slavery, to that very day, and the Children of Israel were free once more.[xxiv]
* * *
Hosea gathered his own belongs and returned briefly to Caleb’s house. There he found the remainder of Caleb’s tools, Jephunneh’s tools, a few small rock carvings and several changes of clothes for Caleb.
Near the bed lay an amulet carved by Jephunneh, which Joseph had worn around his neck every day for several years. Rivka must have removed it when she prepared Joseph’s body for burial. Hosea slipped the amulet into his pocket and left without a sound.
When the time to leave arrived, Caleb and Hosea walked openly through town, hidden within the multitudes. Not that anyone sought them out. The death of a couple of soldiers didn’t interest Pharaoh in the least – not after the loss of Egypt’s first born and the mass exodus of its work force.
Caleb put one foot in front of another, numb and emotionless, with little awareness of his surroundings. Hosea stayed by Caleb’s side, but kept an eye out for his parents. But he didn’t see them, or even Rivka and Faroul. There were so many people heading out of town, like a flash flood in slow motion from Migdol to the desert and on towards the sea.
Caleb saw nothing but a cloud of dust by day and the spark of torches by night. He made no effort to make sense of the world. What he saw and heard barely registered at all. Hosea, by contrast, saw and heard and tried to make sense of it all, but couldn’t.
An angel of the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, allowing them to travel by day and by night.[xxv] With Moses as their guide, the people made camp between Migdol and the sea, just as the Lord commanded.[xxvi]
There they waited and worried, for the sea barred safe passage.
* * *
Worry became panic, as the Children of Israel saw the pride of Egypt cresting a rise in the distance. Pharaoh, it seemed, had had a change of heart. He came with all his chariots, all his horsemen and all his soldiers. From the top of the rise, they looked down upon the Israelites encamped by the sea.[xxvii]
The terrified Israelites cried out to the Lord. They assaulted Moses with questions in a cacophony of voices, clambering one on top of another as if trying to get away:
“Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” “Why have you done this to us, bringing us out of Egypt to our deaths?” “Is this not what we told in Egypt would happen?” “We told you, but you didn’t listen, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians!’ we said.” “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”[xxviii]
“Do not fear!” Moses thundered, his face darkening with rage. “Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again, forever.” Moses looked at those who spoke from cowardice and fear, men without sufficient will or belief to be worthy of God’s intervention. To these he proclaimed, “The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.”[xxix]
There, on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, Moses reached out to the Israelite’s God. Lord help us, he prayed simply. Don’t abandon us here to our doom. Lead us through this wilderness, that we may glorify You.
But the Lord waited silently for Moses to realize the power that God instilled in him.
“Lord!” Moses cried out, projecting to the heavens, “Save us from Pharaoh!”
“Why are you crying out to me?” thundered the Lord. “Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. And as for you,” the Lord continued, “lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall go through the midst of the sea on dry land. And as for Me,” the Lord said to Moses, “behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horseman. Then the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord, when I am honored through Pharaoh, through his chariots and his horsemen.”[xxx]
And the angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them as a pillar of cloud, standing between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. And the cloud became a pillar of fire, barring the Egyptians’ way at night.[xxxi]
In the glow cast by the pillar, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind, turning the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided.[xxxii] Then the Children of Israel went through on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.[xxxiii]
* * *
Hosea and Caleb sat alone, on the banks of the sea. An eerie glow from the pillar of fire lit their faces as the sky began to lighten in the West. The Israelites had left hours ago, but Caleb had refused to budge.
With dawn breaking on the horizon, Hosea wouldn’t wait any longer. “Caleb, come on. We must go,” he said in a low anxious voice.
Caleb stared vacantly into the distance and said nothing.
“Caleb!” he said sharply, still unsure if he’d gotten through.
Caleb didn’t react for a moment or two. His eyes remained vacant, but he eventually he spoke, “Let me be. Hosea. What is there ahead for me? My family is back in Egypt.”
“Your family is dead, Caleb,” Hosea replied. “There is no future for you in Egypt. Your future lies ahead. Now get up!”
But Caleb remained motionless.
“Caleb,” Hosea pleaded, “Look how far ahead everyone is, it will take us hours of just to catch up. With daylight approaching, the angel of fire will not hold off the Egyptians.”
“The angel of fire?” Caleb asked. He could see Pharaoh’s soldiers on the crest in the distance and what seemed like a pillar of fire, but his mind couldn’t make sense of it.
Then Caleb turned his head, seeming to notice for the first time the path through the sea – a wall of water on either side. “What miracle is this?” he wondered aloud, rising to his feet.
“It’s a miracle from God, Caleb,” Hosea said urgently, “from the hand of Moses. Look the ground ahead is dry. We must go.”
“With such miracles at His command, why didn’t He protect my family, Hosea? Did I do something wrong?”
Hosea clasped Caleb’s arm and gently urged his friend forward. “Walk with me Caleb. Perhaps if we walk and talk, like we did when we were young, God will give us an answer.”
Caleb walked with Hosea, head down, remembering the family he would never see again. He didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want to think. But he couldn’t turn off his mind. Why has Lord abandoned me? He wondered yet again. All around us are miracles. It would’ve taken so little to save my family.
One moment, Caleb wanted to understand, the next he wanted only to forget. His anger, disappointment and bitterness towards God stood like a stone wall between him and the Lord . . . and the Lord let him be – to struggle with his faith.
* * *
At dawn, the pillar of fire dissipated and the pillar cloud resumed its place before the Children of Israel. All of Pharaoh’s chariots, his horsemen and army thundered after the Israelites in the midst of the sea. But the Lord looked down and brought the army of Egyptians into confusion.[xxxiv]
Chariot wheels turned on their own, forcing chariots to turn in every direction. “We must fall back,” shouted the charioteers as the fought for control. “Their God is fighting against us!”[xxxv]
“Remember our dead!” Pharaoh answered in kind, as the charioteers struggled to regain control.
“For our dead!” shouted his officers, who took up the cry, until the chariots’ courses straightened and plunged straight ahead, towards the valley of the sea. The army ran behind them, eager for the slaughter ahead.
Caleb and Hosea were finally approaching some Israelite stragglers, when they heard thousands of thundering hooves fast approaching. The Israelite stragglers – the old, weak and sick – did their best to increase their pace. A fortunate few had assistance from relatives. But even with help, they couldn’t go much faster and the Egyptians would catch them, of that there was no doubt.
“You there!” Hosea shouted to the few strong men who had remained behind. “They’ll never make it,” he said, motioning to the people in their care. “We need to make a stand. It’s the only chance they have.”
Many ignored Hosea and continued to press forward, desperately trying to increase the pace. Others listened to Hosea and grabbed whatever they could find to use as a weapon, a farming instrument, a knife, a hammer, a rock.
Caleb looked at Hosea and then back at the Egyptians. For the first time in awhile, Caleb’s eyes seemed to clear. The hint of a smile twisted the corners of Caleb’s mouth. His eyes narrowed. His jaw clenched. He unholstered his quarry hammer, and readied himself to fight.
Hosea found a boulder-strewn spot where the waters narrowed, which would slow the chariots naturally and might create a bottleneck. He worked quickly and desperately to organize his “army” – twelve selfless Israelites who expected to die. They had only one goal, to slow the Egyptians. Perhaps the Israelite soldiers would reach the far shore. Perhaps Moses could raise an army to bar Pharaoh’s way. Perhaps God would stop Pharaoh’s soldiers, though He’d not done so before.
* * *
Caleb stood atop a small knoll so he could see Pharaoh’s approaching army. He didn’t care if he lived. He didn’t care if he died. He just wanted to spill Egyptian blood in the valley of the sea. Broad shouldered, imposing and with a quarry hammer in hand, Caleb eagerly awaited the battle to come.
Hosea joined Caleb atop the small knoll, after positioning each of the others behind their own boulders. Most were eager to fight and avenge family and friends. Pharaoh’s slaughter, which had affected many, would now bolster the Israelite’s spirit.
As the chariots slowed, the Israelites leapt out and attacked, killing enough charioteers to slow the chariots behind. The few chariots making it through met with Caleb and Hosea, who dispatched each of them quickly with a single well placed blow – crushing skulls, shattering breast bones, breaking ribs and arms and legs. Their quarry hammers as devastating as any Egyptian sword.
Chariots without charioteers were then quickly upended, blocking the pass as other chariots arrived. Uninjured horses were cut free and sent onwards. Perhaps Moses could use them to make a final stand. The Israelites scrambled to retrieve the charioteers’ weapons – long staffs with sharp pikes, long swords and short knives.
Then all twelve regrouped. Not a single one had fallen. They readied their new weapons, to help keep the pass blocked. But Caleb and Hosea made ready their hammers, which felt comfortable and comforting in a deadly sort of way.
The chariots still arriving caused chaos and panic. They couldn’t go forward and were being pressed from behind. Those who tried to make it through were cut down for the efforts. With the advantage of position and real weapons in their hands, twelve Israelites managed to close and hold the pass.
Still, more chariots arrived, causing more panic and chaos. Horses stumbled and fell, or bolted of their own accord. Egyptians were trampled, and more chariots upended. Again horses were cut free and sent onwards towards Moses on the far bank.
Israelites stood atop overturned chariots. They fought for their loved ones and fought for their lives, as the ground and the chariots became slippery with blood.
Caleb fought like a demon, with strength and with fury, striking terror into the hearts of all who dared face him. His hammer fell hard and with devastating effect. Even the finest Egyptian armor had absolutely no effect.
Hosea fought beside Caleb, with hammer in hand, landing blow after blow on the hapless Egyptians.
Then the Israelites began falling, first to javelins then to swords. Caleb and Hosea had no choice but to fall back, while the Egyptians struggled frantically to clear a path through the mayhem.
Caleb and Hosea struggled desperately to catch their breath. They holstered their hammers and unsheathed recovered Egyptian swords, which were lighter by comparison but unfamiliar in their hands.
As they waited for the next onslaught, they realized they were alone. The other ten Israelites were dead or lay dying. Caleb smiled at Hosea, and then turned to face the Egyptians. They could hold out a little longer, but the end was drawing near.
* * *
A piercing white light drove Hosea to his knees. Certain he’d been impaled by a javelin and lay waiting to die, time slowed to a crawl. Though Hosea’s eyes were shut tight, the light seemed no less bright.
“Stand, Hosea, Son of Nun, from the Tribe of Ehpraim. Stand and open your eyes.” The voice boomed inside his head, yet seemed warm and reassuring.
I must be dead, Hosea marveled as he rose to his feet. He felt sure the light would blind him, but he could hardly have cared less. What need has a dead man of sight? Hosea thought, opening his eyes.
A soldier stood atop the bodies of the fallen Egyptians, silhouetted by a light as bright as the sun.
“Your time has not yet come,” said the soldier authoritatively.
I’m not dead? Hosea he marveled. Then who are you? he wondered, yet hearing his own words as if spoken aloud.
“I am . . .” said the soldier, who sheathed his flaming sword, “the captain of the holy hosts. I was honored this day to fight by your side.”
Hosea opened his mouth to speak, but nothing would come.
“It is time for you to leave. We shall finish up here. Return quickly to your people. There is no time to lose.”
The light ceased without warning. Where the soldier had stood, the Egyptians finally cleared a path.
* * *
“Caleb!” Hosea yelled. “Did you see that? Did you hear that?”
Caleb focused intensely on the battle to come. He had no time for senseless questions, and didn’t respond.
“Never mind,” Hosea shouted, grabbing Caleb’s shoulder with one hand and pointed with the other. “Look! Our people have nearly reached the far shore. It’s time for us to go. We can do nothing else here.”
Caleb looked to the distance and saw the last of their people climbing the sea’s banks. Above the masses, Moses stood on an enormous solitary rock. Moses’ arms were raised high, seemingly holding up the walls of water with the sheer strength of his will.
“Come, we must hurry,” Hosea insisted.
Caleb knew the fight was over. His arms felt like lead weights – his sword impossibly heavy. Caleb managed to sheath his sword with the last of his strength. He wanted nothing to lie down to sleep or to die, he didn’t care which.
From the far shore in the distance, behind the Egyptians, came a terrifying roar – waves breaking against waves as the sea’s valley began collapsing. The wind hit them first like a hurricane from hell. Then the spray stung like needles, energizing body, mind and soul.
Caleb and Hosea instinctively turned away, each catching the other’s expression, which said volumes in a glance. Without thinking or feeling they ran for their lives.
Mother met a man in the market place, when I had reached the cusp of womanhood. His name was Nebach and he made mother smile.
A kind man, tall and strong, with curly brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard, Nebach’s gentle nature made him seem ill suited to be a soldier in the King’s army. Then again, he was extraordinarily confident, almost cocky, but not arrogant. He always had an opinion, backed with three of four reasons. The fire of intelligence shone in his eyes and, if he were not my mother’s age, I would have wondered if he might be my prince.
Nebach and mother spoke for hours on end at least once a week on Market Day – the special day when unique vendors came to market to sell unusual and exotic wares. He must’ve told his story to mother, for she told it to me.
According to Nebach, he was a simple Midianite soldier, who found himself fighting one day by his King’s side. He fought valiantly and tirelessly, protecting Midian and his King. When his sword broke, he fought onwards using his shield as a weapon. Then the shield itself broke over the head of an attacker. Nebach glanced around quickly for a weapon he could use. From on high, a spear flew toward King Balak’s heart.[xxxvi] Nebach saw it, stepped in front of it and took a spear to the chest.
He awoke three weeks later in a bed at the palace. He touched the bandage across his chest and gasped at the pain. On a chair, near the bed, a strange uniform rested.
“You’re awake,” the King observed, striding up to the bed. “My healers thought we’d lost you. At least twice, I believe. But then they feared what would happen to them, if I lost my new friend.”
“The battle?” Nebach rasped, his throat dry as the desert.
“The gods were kind to us,” the King said, handing Nebach some water. “The Amelakites lost their will when they saw they couldn’t kill me. Of course, I can’t help admitting, our reinforcements didn’t hurt. But if it weren’t for you, I’d be a dead man today. I can never repay you, though I’m willing to try. What is it you wish? Just ask and it’s yours.”
“I wish only to serve by your side, my King,” Nebach rasped his reply.
“Loyalty and honor, without greed," the King mused. "Rare traits indeed. Rest and recover. When you are better, we shall talk.” Then he turned and left the room, with that same confident gait.
When Nebach recovered, he became the King’s personal guard, confidante and advisor. The new uniform fit well, as did Nebach’s new position. But the end of each day came with new aches and pains, which reminded him daily of his age and mortality.
When touring with the King, Nebach caught sight of mother. From that day forward he looked for her wherever he went. Finding her in the market, he returned again and again.
Nebach loved speaking with mother, and flattered her with attention. Mother couldn’t help but flirt, act silly and smile, which was both funny and embarrassing. I’d never seen her act at all like this. I teased her without mercy, hoping she’ act more her age. But despite all I said, she didn’t change her girlish ways.
Mother spoke of me often, particularly to Nebach. Whenever I drew near, she embarrassed me to no end. The first time Nebach saw me, he admired my beauty.
“It’s a wonder you’ve chosen hardship,” he said to my mother. “She’s worth a King’s ransom to any groom who has sight.”
I turned red as a beet and thought I would swoon. No one had ever spoken of me like that, at least as far as I knew.
“Oh, it’s been no real hardship,” Mother lied with conviction. “Misha’s destined for greatness. We’ll wait for the right man.”
Mother puzzled Nebach, but he didn’t push too hard. He seemed to know, if he was patient, he could solve her puzzling statement.
Week after week, mother and Nebach spent more and more time together. Mother often asked me to come by, and talk to her new friend. I truly liked Nebach.
Nebach treated me like a woman, and not a child. In his words and his mannerisms, he treated me with respect. He didn’t speak down to me, as men often do towards a girl. Instead he treated me like an equal, which felt exceptionally good. He showed an interest in our lives, mother’s and mine. I felt a genuine affection for him, and even a bit jealous of mother.
As the weeks turned to months, mother came to trust Nebach – so much so that she spoke to him of Balaam and, more surprisingly, of The Dream. She’d never told anyone why I remained unbetrothed, nor had she shared with others the criteria my betrothed would need to meet.
After hearing about my prince, Nebach laughed somewhat uncomfortably.
“You laugh at us,” mother accused, both surprised and hurt. “I thought you were different.”
“I laugh,” Nebach explained, as color rose in his cheeks, “because I have known many men. A man who believes only in the God of Midian, as did his mother, and his mother’s mother? A man who bears the Mark of Midian, and risked his life to save our people? I’ve known very few men who fit that description, and one of those few is . . . well . . . me.”
Mother’s stomach lurched with a thought she’d not previously considered, Could Nebach be Mishael’s prince? True, he was old enough to be my father. He was a year or two older than mother in fact. But many a match had been made between established men like Nebach and women not much older than girls.
Mother wanted the very best for me. Nebach, she knew, was indeed the very best. Still, it saddened her to think of Nebach as my husband, rather than hers. Her sadness surprised her, for she hadn’t ever considered remarrying. Mother decided she and I should talk at the next convenient moment. But Nebach sat her down first, inadvertently catching her off guard.
“Keturah,” Nebach said, sitting by mother at the market. “We should talk about marriage. You know how much I care for you and Mishael. I know that my life as a soldier at the King’s side has risks, as you have learned first hand through your marriage to Misha’s father. But I have so much to offer. I don’t make a fortune, but you’d both be well cared for. You’d never know poverty for the rest of your lives. I am strong and I am young . . . well, young at heart anyway. I’d make a gentle loving husband. The decision is yours.”
Mother had every right to betroth me on the spot if she liked. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it, without obtaining my consent. “I’ll need to speak with Mishael,” mother replied, “before making a decision.”
“Of course,” Nebach replied, “Take as much time as you like. It is important to me that Misha wants this as well.”
* * *
Mother took me aside and sat me carefully down, “I think our wait may be over. I think we’ve found you a husband. He asked for your hand in marriage, earlier today.”
“Who, Mother? Who?” I asked, my heart all aflutter. She’d never before spoken of a suitor this way.
“Nebach,” she said quickly, with a smile and moist eyes. “I know that you like him,” she continued in a hurry, “and he fits Balaam’s description. He’s a good man. I know it, and promised to treat us both well.”
“Nebach?!” I exclaimed. “I thought he wanted you, not me. It is you that he visits and speaks with at length. He’s handsome and daring, but he’s more than twice my age.”
I longed to meet a man like Nebach, though I would have preferred one my own age. Notwithstanding Nebach’s age, Dathan paled by comparison. Men like Nebach were rare. Could he really be my prince?
I was flattered and excited and terribly confused. I could see mother wanted this for me and needed me to say yes, though her expression belied conflicting emotions. But I could also see conflict in her expression.
It was an impossible choice. If I said “no,” we would probably never see Nebach again. If I said “yes,” it’d be like marrying my own mother’s boyfriend.
Then it occurred to me I might not have a choice. “When Nebach asked for my hand in marriage, what did you tell him?”
“I told him I’d have to speak with you,” mother said with a broad smile, but a hint of sadness in her eyes.
“Can I sleep on it?” I asked.
“Of course, there’s no rush.”
* * *
As I considered, Nebach’s proposal, I tossed and turned and kicked the covers from my bed. I dreamt of our marriage night, mine and Nebach’s. As I looked into his eyes and kissed his lips, feelings stirred within me that I didn’t know I possessed, and which I didn’t fully understand. I awoke with a start, disoriented, in the middle of the night.
Marrying Nebach wouldn’t be a bad thing, despite his age, I thought reaching for the covers. Margda wouldn’t bother me again, if I were the wife of the King’s guard. The last thought I had before slipping off to sleep was, Mother’s blessed this marriage and wants me to say yes . . .
The dream resumed where it had left off, but it became much more vivid:
We were back at the wedding festival, dancing and singing. I could hear each note, smell the lamb, see the smiling face of Hamarab. I was older, but not much. Just enough. Balaam frowned, but I ignored him, and kissed Nebach full on the mouth.
Nebach caressed me gently in our honeymoon bed – my hair, my face and my small upturned breasts. I reveled in his touch as his hand moved down my tummy, and moaned as his hand continued to move lower still. I trembled again and again with a spasm of pleasure. I felt calm and at peace like I never had before.
Then the scene shifted radically, to one of dread and despair. I could see Nebach’s body, lying lifeless on the ground. A soldier stood over him with an unfamiliar weapon. Nebach's eyes held my own in a dead empty stare.
Next I was back at the market, with the smell of death in the air. Slaughtered women and boys and old men, dressed in black, were piled high, stacked like cordwood, in an enormous funeral pyre. I could see a little boy, who looked somewhat like Balaam, and realized immediately it was my child with Nebach. He lay on the pyre, his eyes open, still as death. Then the flames engulfed their bodies, and I needed to retch.
But before I could vomit, I felt a knife across my throat and saw my blood fountain outward as I crumpled to the ground. I screamed without a sound as the world began to fade black, and could feel two men lift me and toss me high up onto the pyre.
I woke screaming and struggling, tangled in my blankets. Mother rushed in to comfort me and, in between sobs, I told her my dream without leaving anything out.
“What does it mean?” I asked, beyond terrified.
“I don’t know. But Balaam will. We’ll see him first thing in the morning.” Mother continued to hold me tight, and rocked me gently back and forth. We could do nothing but wait for daylight, for neither one of us could sleep.
* * *
As sky lightened in the distance we made ready to leave, but before we could do so Balaam burst through the door. “What has happened?” he demanded, looking every demented and crazed.
“What happened?” mother replied, too startled to answer.
“The Dream’s returned,” he said frantically, with an accusatory glare. “It woke me repeatedly until I gave up trying to sleep. I came here directly. I haven’t had The Dream for something like a decade, but it was just as last night as it ever was then.”
Balaam turned his glare from mother to me. “What have you done?” he demanded to know.
“Mishael has received a proposal of marriage,” mother explained. “We are seriously considering it, at least we were . . . until last night. Mishael’s had The Dream too, or something quite like it.”
“But I thought we had agreed!” Balaam said raising his voice. “You’ve endured poverty and sacrifice, and now you’d throw it all away? You must decline, Keturah. Dear Lord, have you said yes?” It had been approximately ten years since I’d seen him that agitated.
“We didn’t say yes, but he fits your description!” mother accused, with fire in her eyes.
“How do you know he bears the Mark of Midian,” Balaam asked suspiciously. “Maybe he’s not what he seems.”
“He told me, of course. How else could I know?” Mother replied. “I have known him now for months. He’s truthful and honest. He fits your description.”
“Perhaps he does,” Balaam conceded, knowing it was no use to argue, “But he’s not Mishael’s prince – of that Iam sure.”
“But Misha’s waited so long and we’ve sacrificed so much.” It was the first time I’d ever heard mother complain about what we’d given up because of The Dream. But she wasn’t really complaining about past sacrifice. The thought of losing Nebach’s company, if we turned down his offer, was finally too much for her to bear.
“I know, Keturah,” Balaam said, now more calmly. He knew from mother’s tone that, once again, he’d have his way.
Balaam knelt down in front of me, held my arms and looked into my soul. “Are you all right?” he asked gently.
I burst into tears.
Balaam pulled me in close, held me tight and stroked my hair. “Everything will be all right. You’ll find the right prince someday.”
When I finally stopped crying, mother couldn’t help but ask. “What do you think, Mishael? It’s your life, after all.”
Balaam glared at mother. He hadn’t won quite yet.
I was so tired of waiting, of being different, of being an outcast. But I knew in my heart that my uncle was right. “I can’t marry Nebach,” I said in a small voice. “I’m so sorry, mother.”
The tears mother had held back now streamed down her cheeks. There was nothing I hated more than making mother cry.
* * *
Mother sat under the palm trees in the small square near our tent. Nebach joined her and sat down, taking her small hands in his. They looked into each other’s eyes and mother started to cry.
Nebach’s heart hammered in his chest. Were these tears of joy or rejection?
“Mishael . . .” mother said haltingly, “would love to have you as part of our family . . . as would I . . .”
“But,” Nebach said, with a look of tremendous disappointment.
“But she cannot marry you, Nebach. I am sorry,” she said, rushing on to explain. “She and Balaam both had The Dream last night and, well, Misha can’t be your wife.”
“I don’t understand,” Nebach said, truly confused.
“What’s to understand?” mother replied sadly. “Right or wrong, the decision’s made. You and Misha can’t marry.”
“Keturah,” Nebach pleaded, “You’re making a mistake . . .”
Mother refused to meet his gaze. The thought of losing him hurt too much.
“Look at me Ket,” Nebach commanded. He took her chin in his hand when she failed to comply. He turned her head gently, so she would look into his eyes. “You misunderstand me, Ket. I love Mishael, true. But it’s you I want to marry, not Misha, but you.”
“But I told you I had to check with Misha,” mother said, thoroughly confused.
“I thought you would ask whether she objected our marriage, yours and mine, Keturah. If we’re going to be a family, living under one roof, it seemed only appropriate that you ask for her blessing.”
Keturah smiled, began to laugh and once again began to cry.
Nebach pulled her close, and whispered in her ear, “Those better be tears of joy.”
“Yes,” she said in between sobs.
Nebach held her at arm’s length and looked deep into her eyes, “Is that your answer?” he asked. “Yes, you’ll marry me?”
“I . . . I don’t know,” mother replied, alternately laughing and crying, “I haven’t asked Mishael, yet.” But mother knew my answer, so she didn’t make Nebach wait more than a few moments. “Yes. Of course, I’ll marry you. I know Misha won’t object.”
* * *
Mother and Nebach married within a fortnight, in the King’s courtyard no less, with the high priest of Midian officiating at the wedding. I’d never seen anything so extravagant – decorations, musicians, jesters and jugglers, and the food . . . my God the food was like nothing I’d ever seen! The ceremony was beautiful, and the bride and groom looked so happy. I longed for the day when I could experience such joy.
I made a new friend at the wedding. Her name was Cozbi. She was a pretty girl about my age, with brown eyes flecked with gold and luxurious brown hair, which flowed over her shoulders and reached halfway down her back. Her father was a prince of Midian, a distant cousin of Balak and a merchant trader by occupation.
The King himself introduced me to "princess" Cozbi, as he called her. Cozbi blushed and said that she wasn’t a real princess. Well, maybe she was, she wasn’t sure. She did not feel like one, she said, and she didn’t act particularly superior. I liked her humility and laughter and simplicity of speech.
“Father sells things,” she said simply when we ran off to amuse ourselves.
“What things, princess?” I inquired, unsure how to address her.
Cozbi looked at me with a frown, “If we are to be friends, you can’t call me 'princess.' ”
"But what shall I call you?"
" Just 'Cozbi,' " she replied.
"Ok," I agreed, happy enough to have found a new friend.
"Father sells all kinds of things,” Cozbi continued. “Gourds, and pots. Hammers and knives. Trinkets and idols. Whatever people need that can be carried on a camel, Father sells.”
“Idols?” I asked curiously.
“Little carvings of Baal,”[xxxvii] she continued. “Some made of wood. Others of stone or elephant tusk.” Cozbi took a pendant from around her neck and held it out for me to see.
It was an exquisitely detailed golden replica of a calf.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, awed.
“Do you want it?” Cozbi asked, showing extraordinary generosity.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” I said. “Mother wouldn’t let me.”
“Alright,” Cozbi said, momentarily disappointed. “Look!” she said, pointing to a juggler. “Let’s go see.”
As she ran off, her dark brown hair trailed behind her like a banner. I smiled and gave chase.
* * *
For several weeks after the wedding, I lived with Uncle Balaam so that Mother and Nebach would have some privacy. In the daytime, I tended Hamarab’s sheep and trained with the staff. At night, I studied with Balaam. I couldn’t have been happier.
Nebach and his men built us a house – a real house, with solid walls, separate rooms and a walled courtyard in the back. The courtyard surrounded our tent, until the house was completed – then the tent was taken down and we were ready to move in. After the poverty we endured, it made me feel like a princess. It was the perfect little home, in which to wait for my prince.
Midian was at peace. The future seemed bright. It was fun and exciting having Nebach in the house.
Caleb and Hosea threw themselves out of the sea bed and onto its bank, lungs bursting, hearts racing, Egyptians closing the gap. They couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hope, couldn’t think, couldn’t pray – one way or another it would be over soon enough.
Caleb glanced back to see terrified Egyptians racing chariots towards them. Then the watery canyon walls crashed on top of them, sucking them down and away. An explosion of spray arched high into the air and seemed suspended for a moment before falling to the ground.
Caleb and Hosea were drenched to the bone. They writhed on the ground like fish out of water, gasping for air. Neither one had the strength to stand. But somehow, they’d survived and saved thousands that day.
They were carried to a bonfire and set down with care and, in a matter of moments, they’d both fallen asleep. The discomfort of wet clothing didn’t register at all, nor did the raucous celebration of people thanking the Lord.
The Israelites danced and sang and rejoiced in the Lord. But of all those who sang, one silenced the rest, Moses sang to the Lord in a voice pure and clear:
“I will sing to the Lord,
For He is exalted;
The horse and its rider
He’s hurled into the sea
The Lord is my strength,
He’s become my salvation. . . .
Who is like You among the gods, O Lord?
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in praises, working wonders?
You stretched out Your right hand,
the earth swallowed them.
In Thy lovingkindness
You have led the people whom You have redeemed. . . .
You will bring them and plant them
in the mountain Your inheritance.
The place, O Lord, which You have made for Your
The sanctuary, O Lord,
which Your hands have established.
The Lord shall reign forever and ever.”[xxxviii]
Then Miriam, Moses’ sister, took a timbrel in hand and danced with the women as she sang in response:
“Sing to the Lord,
for He is highly exalted.
The horse and his rider He’s hurled into the sea . . .”[xxxix]
Even the angels celebrated, with song and with harp, as they watched from the heavens the events of the day.
Then the skies became dark and released a bitter salty rain. Tears of joy, cried the people, from the Lord God himself – the bitterness of slavery they’d suffer no more. But the angels knew different, and were scolded by God. The death of any of God’s children wasn’t cause to rejoice. God wept bitter tears for the Egyptians that day.
* * *
For three days, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness of Shur, with nothing but bitter water to drink along the way.[xl] Grumbling spread through camp and turned against Moses, who cried out to the Lord to help guide his way.
God showed Moses tree bark, which sweetened the water[xli] and calmed the people. Then He led them to an oasis, called Elim, in the desert. There they rested and gave thanks, until the Lord spurred them on.[xlii]
The battle with Pharaoh’s soldiers had helped release some of Caleb’s rage, but the emptiness he felt still gnawed at his soul. Caleb walked when he must and sat when he could. He said very little, though Hosea remained by his side.
After six weeks of freedom, they journeyed towards Sinai through the wilderness of Sin. Once more, the Israelites became hungry and expressed their dismay.
“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt,” came a shout of dissent. “In Egypt we had meat.” “We had bread.” “We were full.” “We’ll die of hunger in this wilderness,” they grumbled yet again.[xliii]
Moses retreated into his tent, as Aaron kept watch over the entrance. “Lord,” Moses whispered in prayer, “save us. Forgive them. They are frightened and alone even though You are near.”
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, His Voice resonant and eternal. “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. And it will come about on the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.”[xliv]
Moses spoke with Aaron, and Aaron addressed the people. “At evening you will know that the Lord has brought you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, for He hears your grumblings against the Lord. And what are we, that you grumble against the Lord?”[xlv]
As Aaron spoke to the congregation, they looked toward the wilderness and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “I have heard the grumblings of the sons of Israel; speak to them, saying, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”[xlvi]
By evening, quail covered the camp, blown in by the winds. The next morning, a layer of dew settled all around camp. It dried into a white flake-like substance, fine as the frost on the ground.[xlvii]
“What is it?” asked the people.
“It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” explained Moses. He instructed the people to collect only what they could eat, and leave none of it until morning. They must trust in the Lord. Day by day, week by week, the Lord would provide.[xlviii]
Some didn’t listen and horded what they gathered – storing it in bowls or in pitchers or wrapped in cloth. When they returned the next day, it bred worms and became foul. So they gathered manna daily and learned to trust in the Lord.
On the sixth day of each week, they gathered enough for two days, so when the Sabbath arrived they needn’t sully it with work. On the seventh day, their Sabbath, they rested and prayed, eating unspoiled manna that had kept for two days.[xlix]
Through simple daily miracles, they were reminded of God’s power. Most, like Hosea, were in awe of the Lord. But Caleb, for his part, resented these miracles and resented even more the need to trust in the Lord.
Caleb trusted God freely, when Caleb was a slave. But when Pharaoh slaughtered Caleb’s family, God was nowhere to be found. There’d been no miracle, no warning and no help from the Lord. Now each daily miracle felt like sand in a wound – a reminder of the power God chose not to use. That he now had to rely on and trust in the Lord, seemed the cruelest of ironies, since now he was “free.”
Slowly but surely Caleb began to recover, though he faced each new day with his emotions buried deep. Inactivity threw Caleb into darkness and despair, as his mind invariably wandered back to happier days. So Caleb remained active, as active as he could.
Hosea and Caleb quickly found their true calling – rallying young men to learn to fight and keep the peace. They desperately needed peacekeepers and would eventually need soldiers. As heroes in the battle of the valley of the sea, the people trusted their leadership where force was required. They had little trouble obtaining thousands of volunteers.
When Moses met Caleb and Hosea in Egypt, he hardly took notice. Then they saved countless Israelites in the valley of the sea. Moses admired their actions, as well as their bravery, and he couldn’t help but notice that God spared their lives.
Moses noticed them again when they began assembling young men, training them to fight and to maintain the peace. Some of the elders feared their efforts, but Moses would hear none of it. Moses trusted that these two were working God’s will. Moses had them report to him so he could oversee their activities, which honored and pleased them and placed them under Moses’ control.
When the Israelites were content, Hosea and Caleb trained for war. They knew there’d inevitably come a time when an army was key. They trained with the best that each tribe had to offer. In the skills and art of war, they far exceeded all the rest. They sparred together for hours, when there was little else to do. Sword, spear, staff and hammer, they experimented with each and wielded all of them well. When their bodies were too tired to train anymore, they discussed strategy and tactics they could use in the desert.
Many men were injured in training, for they trained with abandon. Caleb and Hosea trained harder than their men, yet somehow they managed to avoid serious injury. Strong as they had become cutting stone for Pharaoh, they became stronger, leaner and more agile in the desert. Their bodies became as chiseled as any of their fathers’ intricate stonework.
Men admired them for their skills, for their strategies and tactics. Women admired them for their physiques, which were equal to none, not to mention their confidence without a hint of conceit. Moses admired them both for the respect each of them commanded, though he noticed that Hosea more often than not took the lead.
Moses formally acknowledged Hosea as the captain of captains. Then he formally acknowledged Caleb as second in command. With the blessing of Moses, they chose captains from each tribe. The captains chose their own officers to help organize the men. Caleb and Hosea trained the captains, who trained the officers, who trained the rest.
* * *
“Life is good,” Hosea said around midnight, as he laid down his sword. “But no less hard than in Egypt.”
“I wish that my family could have known freedom too,” Caleb wistfully replied.
Hosea hesitated to speak, but he couldn’t remain silent. “They’re with God now, my friend . . . what greater freedom is there than that?” Hosea waited for an answer. Caleb didn’t take the bait. “You don’t talk about them much,” Hosea said to his friend.
“What’s there to say?” Caleb replied with a sigh. “I love them and miss them. But when I think about them . . . my mind wanders towards darkness and despair. If I dwell on the past, my anger will consume me. I train as I do to stay focused in the present and to prepare for the future. I train to protect the innocent – the women, children and elderly – I train to protect the innocent, when the God of Israel will not.”
“You’re angry at God,” Hosea acknowledged, “for the death of your family.” It didn’t come as a surprise.
“God could’ve intervened, but He chose not to act. For reasons I can’t fathom He remained silent and unmoved. Is this how he answered my prayers for freedom? I’d do anything to have them back. I’d even consent to be a slave. Is this God’s way of punishing me for wanting more than the blessings He bestowed?”
Hosea thought carefully before speaking with conviction, “God didn’t kill your family, Caleb. Pharaoh’s soldiers did, and you know it. Who knows why the Lord chooses the times and places He intervenes. Ultimately, it’s up to us to protect ourselves and each other.”
“But with such infinite power,” Caleb couldn’t help but press, “why doesn’t he intervene to prevent harm to the innocent?” Caleb asked.
Hosea sighed and wished he knew. He prayed for an answer. Then a thought crossed his mind, though it wasn’t quite satisfactory. “Did you let Joseph explore, even though he might hurt himself?”
“Not at first, of course, but later I suppose I did.” Caleb didn’t want to remember, bit he also didn’t want to forget.
“At some point,” Hosea continued, “they must learn the consequence of action, and the consequence of inaction. What if God sees as His Children not just people, but also groups that can act with free will and honor God through their choices. How then should God intervene to best teach His Children? If He protected all of His Children from ever suffering harm, would we ever have free will or freedom to act? Perhaps the true price of freedom is always self-reliance.”
“When did you become a philosopher?” Caleb asked in wonder at his friend.
“When you became a man of action,” Hosea answered in reply.
Ever since they’d left Egypt, the world seemed upside down.
About a year after mother married, I began bleeding from a place that wasn’t injured and had never bled before. I ran to mother, hysterical. She was packing, presumably for her monthly stay in the women’s lodge.
“Mother. Something’s wrong! My stomach started hurting and, and . . .” I couldn’t say it.
Mother saw my face and knew. She quickly found a clean cloth, showed me what to do with it and once again sat me down.
“Oh Misha,” she said, “Don’t be afraid. You’re fine, more than fine. We should have had this talk long ago. I suppose I just couldn’t bear to lose my little girl.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, afraid I might be dying.
“This only means you’re a woman, Misha. You can have babies now. You’re no longer a little girl.”
“But my body’s still changing,” I protested. “Isn’t it?”
“It will continue to change sweetie. Don’t worry . . . and every month, we will experience this together and have special time together in the women’s lodge.”
“Every month?” I asked, uncertainly. I still wasn’t sure what “this” was, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to experience “it” every month. Still, I was excited at the prospect of joining mother in her secret world of women at the lodge.
Nebach walked into the room as I pondered the situation.
“Mishael’s become a woman!” mother announced, as I blushed beet red. It was the first of what would become many embarrassing, mortifying and shame filled moments I would blame on mother and Nebach in the months and years ahead.
“That’s wonderful, Misha!” Nebach exclaimed.
“Pack a few changes of clothes, Misha,” mother ordered. “It’s time we spent some time in the women’s lodge.”
* * *
I spent nearly a week with mother and the other women who shared our condition, sequestered in the great lodge at the edge of town. The lodge itself towered high above its courtyard walls, which encircled the compound nearly twice the height of a man. The roof of the lodge had an unusual construction, like a hat suspended above the head of its wearer by four central pillars, allowing light to flood inside while keeping out the harsher elements. So much light entered, in fact, that flowers and plants grew inside as well.
The lodge itself was enormous. King Balak’s late wife had commissioned the structure, and had the foresight in illness to set money for perpetual care. The comforts inside – beyond the prying eyes of men – were far more luxurious than one would expect from its rough hewn walls, including pillows, blankets and even some furniture all fit for a Queen.
Magically, or so it seemed, a spring bubbled up cool and clear through a tower of rocks in the corner of the lodge. From there, it cascaded down the rock face into a pool of living water, which flowed out of the lodge to meander through the courtyard and eventually disappeared underneath the courtyard wall. The stream never resurfaced outside of our compound. Where the water ended up, no one really knew.
I took it all in with a growing sense of wonder. “Those waterfalls, that pool, this stream and the courtyard, I have memories of this place! But I thought it was a dream. I know this place mother.”
“Of course you do Mishael. We spent time here every month, until you turned three. By then uncle Balaam felt comfortable caring for you on his own.”
“I loved this place,” I said, the memories rushing back.
“As do we all, Mishael,” said one of the market women I knew.
More astonishing than the lodge’s spectacular design was the welcome I received from the women of Midian. Here, they were warm and inviting, excited to usher me into their sacred secret world. With their men banished from entering, not that any would ever try, the women reveled in luxury and companionship few experienced at home.
In the lodge women told stories of love, loss and hardship, and forbade malicious gossip within the confines of its walls. In this magical place, we treated each other with true dignity and respect, and for the first time in my life I felt at home among Midianite women.
* * *
I always felt safe at home, for no one ever dared intrude. My safety zone grew a bit larger with the walled courtyard behind our house. The poverty that had plagued mother and I vanished with her marriage – just as it would have if she had betrothed me as a child.
In and about town, I jumped at shadows and noises, never knowing when Margda might stumble across my path. The anxiety I felt drove even more relentless training, with Hamarab and father’s staff. With our private new courtyard I could even practice at home.
One day Nebach saw me practicing with the staff in our courtyard. He’d seen me carry a staff, but had barely taken any notice. The staff of a shepherd girl was usually more walking stick, than weapon. But seeing me practice intrigued his military mind.
I stopped to rest and drink some water, and set the staff by my side. Nebach clapped in appreciation. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I hadn’t realized I had an audience and instinctively reached for the staff.
“May I see it?” Nebach asked.
I felt immediately anxious. I didn’t like anyone touching it, except Hamarab. Yet I trusted Nebach, so I handed it to him and shrugged.
“That’s quite a weapon you have here,” he said, admiring its carvings, weight and balance. He tossed it back and I caught it gracefully, the way such a weapon should be caught.
“It was father’s,” I replied proudly, relieved to have the staff back.
“Who trained you to wield it? You seem very skilled.”
I hesitated, unsure whether to reveal my training with Hamarab. It was a secret only mother and uncle, and of course Hamarab, knew. Young women were rarely taught how to fight, and never in private by an unmarried man. We began the secrecy long before mother met Nebach, to keep tongues from wagging in the market and about town. Since I never spoke of the lessons and had never practiced at home, the subject had never come up.
Nebach didn’t break the silence, while I struggled whether to extend our circle of secrecy.
I wish mother or uncle could help me decide. My family would know whether I should disclose Hamarab’s name. But Nebach’s family now . . . isn’t he? What harm could it do?
“Hamarab,” I finally answered. “He’s taught me for quite some time. Sometimes, I can even beat him when we practice.”
“And who’s Hamarab?” Nebach asked somewhat suspiciously.
“He’s the lamb merchant,” I answered. “He was a friend of my father . . . and his wife and mother were friends. I tend Hamarab’s sheep, and in exchange he gives me lessons and food.”
“His wife and mother were friends?” he asked, his suspicions unabated.
“I think they were each other’s best friends, until she died years ago in childbirth.”
“So your mother knows of these lessons?” Hamarab asked, less suspicious.
“Of course,” I replied, “and uncle Balaam knows as well.”
“This ‘Hamarab’ has taught you well,” Nebach said.
I beamed in response.
“Would you show me what he’s taught you?” Nebach asked, picking up his staff. Without waiting for an answer he began advancing towards me. “What would you do . . . ” he wondered aloud, “if someone came at you like this?”
Nebach lunged at me deftly, catching me slightly off guard. Still, my training took over and I deflected his staff. Then I brought the end of my staff down reflexively on his foot.
Nebach yelped in pain and surprise.
“Are you ok?” I asked, embarrassed that I might actually have hurt him.
Nebach turned and gave an exaggerated limp or two with a frown. “Impressive,” he said, transitioning the frown into a smile, as he once again advanced towards me with his staff ready to strike.
Though Nebach smiled as he advanced, I didn’t know what he was thinking. Was he angry that my counter attack had injured his foot? How hard would he strike if I injured his pride? I tried to relax, as Hamarab had taught me to do, but I couldn’t shake the fear.
Nebach swung again, harder. I parried and jabbed. He twisted away easily as my staff jabbed at the air. “Very good,” he said genuinely. “I like your defense/counter-attack pairs. But mix it up a little more. Step back on occasion. Rest, regroup, then attack. It will make your counter-attacks, when you use them, far less predictable.”
I tried Nebach’s suggestions and liked the way they felt. His training complemented Hamarab's and brought a different point of view. Though just like Hamarab, he pushed me to my limits and beyond.
When we were done, Nebach and I rested under the shade of a palm. “You’re quite skilled with a staff,” he said, with pride in his voice. “I have soldiers serving under me who’re not as skilled with the staff.”
My eyes widened in disbelief, but I didn’t contradict him.
“It’s true,” he continued, “You use techniques I’ve never seen. I like how you deflect blows with very little effort, rather than stop every blow by using force against force.”
“Hamarab taught me that,” I said, eager to credit my friend. “He and I are too small use force against force. Though it might work for awhile, the strongest usually would prevail. So he taught me how to use an opponent’s energy against him, using minimal deflection paired with counter-attack. This let’s me strike when my opponent is weakest and off balance.”
“I like that you can fend for yourself and your mother. I’ll rest easier when I duties make me spend time away. I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but would you mind if a trained you. In addition to Hamarab, if it’s alright with him and you.”
“Oh yes!” I replied, “I mean no! I mean . . .” I was too excited to answer clearly. “I’d be honored if you taught me, and I’m sure Hamarab wouldn’t mind. But of course I’d better ask him, just to be sure."
I was excited at the prospect of being trained by the King’s guard. I could easily face Margda, once I gain some new skills. Of course I could’ve bested Margda half the skills I possessed. I lacked only enough confidence to conquer my fears.
* * *
Hamarab and Nebach developed a genuine friendship and learned from each other. They enjoyed training in the martial arts, and discussing theory as well. I could listen to them for hours, and often did after we’d sparred.
When I wasn’t tending sheep or wielding a staff, I was studying and working with Uncle Balaam. The knowledge he had of healing seemed endless indeed. Trying to remember all his teachings was no easy task.
I spent less and less time in the company of Dathan, who didn’t even seem to notice. Dathan’s own training, when I observed it, couldn’t help but make me wince. He didn’t have the benefit of any expert instructors, and I would have offered suggestions if there’d been a chance he might take them.
Dathan was nearly old enough to apply for a position in the King’s army. Since the army paid well, it had plenty of volunteers. The King chose only the best, so it was no foregone conclusion. Dathan trained and night to achieve his lifelong goal.
"I’m a true Midianite,” he insisted, “a soldier brave and true. I’ll protect our people, earn your love and become your husband one day soon.”
I smiled wanly in response, and didn’t doubt his sincerity. But after spending so much time with Hamarab and Nebach, Dathan paled a stark white by comparison.
* * *
As my body continued to develop and change, it amplified emotions, generated new sensations and made the familiar feel awkward in countless unexpected ways. The world seemed different, magical and filled with possibility. My body felt the pull of the moon and the changing of seasons.
Every time I entered the women’s lodge, I felt an incredible kinship with the women of Midian. When I rejoined society, I did so as a woman empowered, no longer a child.
But there were challenges too as my body matured. Every movement and skill that I’d learned with the staff seemed to require relearning. My hips rounded and my breasts grew, though never to great size. Still, they threw me off balance when I practiced with the staff, and interfered with the grace I’d worked so hard to develop.
My lessons with Nebach included grappling and wrestling, because an attacker could knock my staff away or catch me without it. Initially, we laughed and joked when we trained. But my body began reacting when he wrestled me to the ground. Nebach couldn’t tell, and I certainly didn’t say anything. But I started feeling uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do.
One day when we were grappling, Nebach wrestled me into submission. His well muscled body covered my slight form. His hands pinned my wrists, just above my head. My body reacted, and then his did as well. Our eyes met. I blushed. He jumped up like he’d been branded. We never discussed that training session, but never wrestled again either. Our training from that point focused solely on the staff.
Boys I’d known as a child who’d recently become men, attracted my attention and I attracted theirs. Men followed me with their eyes as I walked through the town. I daydreamed about touching them and being touched myself. When I walked with my staff I felt safe and secure. But my growing desires left me deeply unsettled.
With so little control over the changes in my life, I lashed out unfairly towards mother and Nebach. Mother’s attempts at empathy infuriated me further, since she couldn’t possibly understand the difficulties I faced. Nebach gave me a wide berth, whenever he could, be he too found himself on the wrong end of my wrath. I could tell I sometimes hurt him far more than I intended, when all I really wanted was to be left alone.
* * *
In addition to my lessons with Hamarab and Nebach, I studied medicines and healing with uncle Balaam. He taught me the properties of objects like flowers and plants, and showed me how to combine them to achieve various desired effects.
Once, when I reached for an unusual gourd, he jumped up with a start. “No, not that one,” he said.
“What’s so special about that one?” I asked, suddenly curious.
“It contains a rare powder I made only in the east. In very small quantities,” he said miming just a pinch, “it can close a serious wound when mixed with cactus juice and lime. But if it touches the skin directly or without the right mixture . . . ”
“What happens?” I asked, interrupting as he paused.
“The powder is called frogwart because it turns the skin green and creates unsightly itchy bumps. No, you don’t want to touch that one,” uncle laughed, replacing the gourd on the shelf.
“Do the warts go away?”
“Yes,” uncle replied, “and the greenish tint to the skin, too. But let’s focus on the plants and flowers that we gathered today.”
* * *
“Misha,” uncle said after we’d worked awhile in silence, “I’d like to broaden your training.”
“Broaden my training?” We’d not discussed this before.
“I’ve asked your mother and she’s consented,” he continued in a rush. “It’s completely your choice, of course, and I’d understand if you refused, but . . .”
“Uncle!” I interrupted, “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. What do you mean by ‘broaden my training.’ ”
“Oh,” he said sheepishly, “It’s just that I have given it so much thought, I guess we’ve never discussed it, and . . .”
“Uncle!” I exclaimed, quickly growing impatient.
“Read and write,” he blurted out. “I want to teach you to read and write.”
“What?” I responded. “I can’t learn to read and write. Few men ever learn and no woman I’ve ever known.”
“You can do it, Mishael. If you let me teach you, that is. It’ll help your medicine and healing. You really should learn.”
“It must be hard,” I responded, “If so few people learn to do it.”
“It’s the hardest challenge you’ll ever face,” Balaam acknowledged, without smiling. “But I know you’ll learn to read and write if you give it your all.”
It seemed an interesting challenge, which would set me apart. But I enjoyed a good challenge, and was already set apart. “So let’s get started,” I said, excited to learn a new skill.
* * *
We started that very night, and worked diligently for months. I had to cut back on time sparring and time shepherding Hamarab’s flocks. Hamarab and Nebach encouraged my new endeavor. They must have figured it would come in handy, if I never found my prince. Skilled healers were always needed in Midian and the world over.
To me, letters were magical, more than herbs and even potions. They could tell a story, record a formula or the events of a day. Whatever needed telling, or remembering, from the momentous to the trivial. They were an enormously powerful tool, which I felt blessed to be able to learn.
I learned my writing, at first, by drawing in the sand. I later graduated to parchment, which I knew cost quite a bit.
“How can you afford this?” I asked, as I used up parchment after parchment.
“I do well enough,” Balaam replied, “particularly recently.”
“Recently?” I pressed.
“I charge for blessings and curses, as well as potions and herbs.”
Healing, I understood, but blessings and curses? I raised a skeptical eye.
He just chuckled and laughed.
* * *
Without any suitors on the horizon, I began daydreaming of Dathan. As a new soldier, he’d be gone a lot, I thought, much more than Nebach, and I could start a family of my own. I longed for a child and a more typical life. Margda wouldn’t dare harass the wife of a soldier, I fantasized irrationally – I was already the stepdaughter of the King’s personal guard!
Margda usually left me alone, when Cozbi or Dathan were around. Harassing me in front of Dathan would’ve been a direct affront to him. Harassing me in front of Cozbi would’ve also posed risks – because Cozbi’s father, Zur,[l] employed Margda’s father, Er, at least when Er wasn’t too drunk to work.
As it turned out, my reprieve was just temporary. Margda had found another victim to occupy her time, but became quickly bored of her and resumed torturing me. After abusing me for years to bolster her pride, it seemed no one else would do. Still, with Dathan at my side, Margda gave me a wide berth. But she grew bolder and bolder when it was just Cozbi and me.
Er had become such a steady drinker, Zur gave him little work. So Er drank more, fed his family less and cursed Zur under his breath. Where Margda once perceived risks, she now saw only reward. Er might even appreciate Margda harassing Zur’s daughter.
I had become used to surviving Margda’s frequent assaults. But to Cozbi the taunting and terror was new. I knew I couldn’t let Margda harass my best friend, though I still couldn’t bring myself to beat her down with my staff. Maybe I knew that if I used it, one of us might end up dead. Of course, if I knew for sure it’d be Margda, I might not have cared . . .
* * *
I was having difficulty focusing during one of Balaam’s lessons.
“What’s wrong, Misha?” he asked, “You’re usually a much better student.”
I shook my head in response, reluctant to talk.
“Come on, Misha,” he persisted. “Tell me. What’s going on?”
“Remember when you found that day, crying in the desert?”
Balaam thought for a moment, “That was some time ago. You haven’t dealt with that already?”
I felt weak and ashamed. I silently shook my head as I fought for composure. “You said everyone had to face a bully some time in their lives. Did you ever face a bully?”
Balaam nodded before saying, “I’m not proud of what I did. I don’t have many regrets, but that is certainly one. . . .” As always, Balaam prolonged the dramatic moment before beginning his tale.
“When I was not much older than you, I faced three bullies at once. I can’t remember their names. It was so long ago. But I’ll never forget their faces, their ugly expressions or their mean little eyes. They would chase me and beat me and taunt me relentlessly. They even made fun of my dedication to Elshah Deye.”
“What did you do?” I asked eagerly, hoping to solve my own problem.
“Their taunts got uglier and uglier, and the beatings got worse. They called me a ‘witch’ to humiliate me. They never called me a sorcerer. I couldn’t best them physically, hard as I tried. The more I fought back, the worse the beatings became. I knew I needed to out think them, because I’d never out fight them.”
I leaned forward, biting my lip, waiting impatiently for him to continue.
“After a particularly harsh beating, I stumbled delirious into the desert. I gathered several rare ingredients and ground them together. Then I left it all to dry in the hot desert sun. I ground it some more. Then I baked it some more, until only powder remained, which I wrapped carefully in a cloth before seeking out my tormentors. Blind anger drove me onwards, blind anger and hatred and a desire for vengeance that makes me shudder to this day.”
I understood all too well the feelings Balaam described. I had felt them towards Margda, but had been paralyzed by fear.
“I walked right up to the three of them, battered, bloodied and bruised. ‘You will treat me with respect, and you will leave me alone.’ I said in a voice that seemed hardly my own.”
“ ‘Or what?’ one of them asked, taking a threatening step forward.”
“ ‘Or you shall know darkness for the rest of your days.’ ”
“He paused, as if slapped, then took another step forward.”
" ‘So be it,’ I said quietly, but loud enough for all to hear, ‘your darkness starts now.’ ”
Sweat broke on Uncle Balaam’s brow as he continued his story, “ ‘May the Lord God of Midian curse you with blindness.’ My voice thundered in anger and hatred and scorn. I raised my arms up and out, holding a corner of the cloth. The powder expanded in a puff, which covered my assailant, though it was virtually invisible so fine had it been ground. I replaced the cloth in my cloak before anyone saw it. ‘You were warned,’ I said harshly, ‘What’s been done can’t be undone.’ ”
Balaam was silent a moment, then continued in a whisper, “I will never forget as long as I live, his screams of terror in the darkness in the middle of the day. He spent the rest of his days in darkness. I wish I’d found another way. He was a foolish young man who deserved punishment, not blindness. But I was desperate and reckless, and barely knew the power that I’d received from the Lord and through my study of His world.”
Balaam sat down, exhausted.
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed to me that his tormentor got just what he deserved.
“From that day forward,” he said finally, breaking the silence, “no one ever dared bother the Sorcerer Balaam. Those I cursed became cursed and those I blessed became blessed. But I never cursed or blessed another without first seeking God’s guidance. The power we have Misha, to injure or heal or affect others’ reality, we must never take lightly.”
I didn’t see in his story any answer to my problem. I only saw a warning, instead of the solution I sought. “Why are you telling me this, Uncle?”
“You’re desperate, as I was desperate, enough to choose a drastic solution. You needn’t make my mistakes, or act rashly out of anger. You needn’t suffer the pangs of conscience that have haunted me all my life. Being a ‘witch,’ like being a ‘sorcerer,’ carries both power and responsibility.”
“But I’m not ‘witch,’ uncle, and you’re not ‘sorcerer.’ Are you?” I asked, not quite sure what he’d say.
Balaam smiled weakly. “Who’s to say who’s a witch? Who’s to say who’s a sorcerer? I am the instrument of the God of Midian, our Lord, Elshah Deye. I work His will, when I can, to the best of my ability, and pray you’ll follow the same path. Will that make you a witch? In the eyes of many, it will.”
Balaam let that sink in, before continuing to speak. “This girl who called you a witch . . .”
“Margda,” I said, interrupting.
“Margda,” he mused, “She’s probably called you a witch for so long that a part of her must believe it. You’d be surprised how often people believe their own words, even if at first they know their words to be lies.”
“If Margda thinks I’m a witch,” I said, still missing his point, “it hasn’t stopped her from harassing me.”
“Perhaps she just doesn’t realize what a powerful witch you’ve become.”
“But I . . . oh,” I said smiling, finally beginning to understand. I hadn’t found my solution. But I saw a broader range of possibilities. The end of my torment seemed closer at hand.
At Rephidim,[li] the desolation twisted Caleb’s stomach into knots. The tribes were down to their last two days’ of water and the forty young men sent to scour the desert had returned with nothing, not even the location of an empty well. Over two million people and their livestock, trudging through the desert, needed yet another miracle.
Trust in God, Caleb thought. Trust in God?
As he looked out over the multitudes from the low rise of a sand dune, Caleb laughed. It started as a barely muffled, incredulous chuckle and then took on a life of its own, until his sides ached and his tears made rivers of their own.
Hosea turned to him in irritation. But as he opened his mouth to chastise his friend, he could not find the words. Standing there open mouthed, completely unable to speak, it occurred to Hosea he could not remember the last time he had heard his friend laugh.
“It’s good to hear you laugh again, Caleb,” Hosea said. “But why are you laughing?”
“It’s so absurd,” Caleb said, his laughter coming full circle, subsiding to a chuckle as he slowly shook his head. “Millions of people leave the safety of their homes to wander in the desert, without even a destination in mind. What were we thinking?”
“We weren’t thinking. We were following God, who freed us from bondage,” said Hosea, the lines in his face deepening. “He did not free us from Egypt to let us die in the desert. He won’t abandon us now. What would be the point?”
“Irony,” Caleb answered, still shaking his head and emphasizing his point with a slightly bitter laugh. “Maybe He just likes irony. Truly this is madness.”
“Yes. I suppose it is,” Hosea replied. “You’re mad. I’m mad. We’re all mad, my friend. But I’ll take divine madness and freedom, over slavery any day. For now, we’ve no choice but to rely upon the Lord when we must, and rely upon ourselves when we can.”
Hosea paused for a moment, before changing the subject. “Shall we try to calm the masses?”
“Why not?” Caleb responded. “Someone has to do it.”
* * *
As they neared camp, Hosea and Caleb could feel the tension rising. Too many people in too close a space with too little water invited disaster. People began gathering like the clouds of a thunderstorm, which bring fire and noise but no rain.
Hosea and Caleb picked up the pace. They passed the curious, reached the determined and pushed forwards towards the angry frightened people who led the multitudes onward.
They reached the mob’s leaders and pressed on ahead. Their destination was as obvious as it was unsurprising – Moses’ tent. Where else? When trouble brewed, the crowd turned against Moses.
Moses and Aaron stood alone near his tent, their expressions grim, their resolve unabated. Moses stood like a pillar, strong and unyielding. His dark hair, shot through with streaks of grey, cascaded over his ears in waves. He had the undeniable bearing of a leader.
“Just in time, my young friends,” Moses said, with a hint of a speech impediment.
No one’s perfect, Caleb thought, not even Moses.
“I don’t think we can simply talk our way out of this one,” Moses continued, before turning towards Aaron. “What do you think, my brother?”
“Just in time, indeed,” Aaron replied looking at Caleb and Hosea. “They’d best keep the people back, or we’ll surely be crushed.” Aaron had become deeply devout and a trove of ancestral stories and wisdom. Clear and precise of speech, he spoke for his brother when Moses felt it necessary.
Turning to face the multitudes and drawing their swords, Hosea and Caleb eyed the leaders, who halted in their tracks but returned menacing stares. Confronting Moses was safe, more or less, or so they thought. But Hosea and Caleb, with their imposing physiques and razor sharp Egyptian swords, were another story entirely.
As the masses assembled, the grumbling became louder. Voices within the crowd, emboldened by anonymity, yelled “Kill them! They have killed us!” “In Egypt we had water!” “We had food!” “Water! We need water!” They cried out, and shouted. “They are sorcerers who’ve bewitched us.” “Surely we shall die.” “Kill them!”
Moses stood tall and proud, exuding authority as his voice rose above the crowd, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”[lii]
“Have you brought us from Egypt, with our children and our livestock, to kill us with thirst?” “Give us water that we may drink,” came the din from the crowd.[liii]
Moses closed his eyes in silent prayer before raising his voice and crying out to the Lord. “What shall I do with this people?” Moses asked, before once again praying, Lord help us and guide us. They are frightened, as sometimes I am. Indeed, as I am now. A little more and they will stone me. Would this be Your will? [liv]
From a clear blue sky a thundercloud formed, ominous and broiling. A bolt of lightning struck a shrub, which burst into flame. Then another struck a rock, which shattered at the blow. Blinded and deafened the crowd gasped and cowered. Thunder echoed across the desert, where no echoes should exist.
Moses closed his eyes and allowed the Lord’s Voice to resonate within him, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the Rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, which the people may drink.”[lv]
When Moses opened his eyes, they shone with purpose and determination as he bellowed over the crowd. “This place shall be called, ‘Massah,’ for you have tested the Lord.”[lvi] Without fear, without worry, he strode through the people, the staff of God in hand, as a sea of humanity parted before him.
Aaron kept pace with Moses. Hosea, Caleb and several of their captains stayed close behind as well. The sea of people closed behind them, and then followed them like the tide.
The mood of the multitude had altered considerably. The grumbling had ceased. Anticipation took its place.
As Moses passed elders, he made eye contact and said “Come.”
By the time Moses reached the rock at Horeb and climbed to its top, all twelve tribal elders stood at its base. The rabble rousers hid within the crowd, to safeguard their anonymity.
“Is the Lord here among us?” yelled the bravest trouble maker.
The people grumbled restlessly, incited by the challenge.[lvii]
Slowly, Moses spread his arms up and out to his side, with his staff in one hand, the other open, palm upwards. His gaze swept the crowd, with its blazing intensity. The grumbling turned to murmuring, then to whispering then to silence. Seconds felt like minutes, which felt like hours, as the silence grew painful, the stillness explosive.
Moses’ brought his hands together, now holding the staff vertically, like a sword at the ready to kill a fallen foe. Moses slowed his breathing. As he plunged the staff downwards the crowd drew its breath. “CRACK!” went the staff as it collided with the rock. Deadly bits of stone exploded outwards into the crowd. The dispersed rabble rousers fell, killed by the hurtling stone shrapnel. Challenging Moses wasn’t as safe as it seemed.
Then the earth began to rumble and tremble and quake. Those who remained standing were thrown to the ground. The people prayed for forgiveness and lay prostrate in terror.
Then the rock began to weep, began to seep, began to open. Where staff had struck stone, fresh water began to pour. The people gave thanks and drank deep from the Lord.
“This place also shall be called, ‘Meribah’,” Moses thundered over the cheers. “For the sons of Israel, have quarreled with the Lord, saying ‘Is He among us?’ ‘Is He, or not?’ ”[lviii]
On a beautiful sunny day, Cozbi and I walked the streets of Midian. We were engrossed in conversation and not keeping a watchful eye, as we stumbled upon Margda and a ugly gang of friends. Realizing our error, Cozbi and I ran.
Margda and her friends hollered taunts and threw stones. One hit Cozbi in the shoulder. She stumbled and fell. Despite the wound to her shoulder and skinned hands and knees, she arose with my assistance and we ran back to her home.
Cozbi collapsed inside the doorway, crying uncontrollably. As servant picked her up, carried her directly to her room and placed her gently on her bed. Fortunately for Cozbi I’d been carrying some medicines. She cried out and moaned as I put salve on her wounds.
If Zur had been home, who knows what would’ve ensured. But Zur traveled the trade route and was gone this time of year – a fact Margda likely knew given her brazen attack.
Cozbi feared reprisals from Margda, if Zur intervened. She swore the servants to secrecy, to their enormous relief. They didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news, and now each had a reason to avoid such a role.
As Cozbi healed, she seemed to withdraw inward and refused to leave the house grounds. I suggested going into town to see Hamarab and have lamb. Cozbi cringed at the thought, when her mouth usually would’ve watered.
“Is it Margda?” I asked.
Cozbi didn’t reply.
“Stay here,” I said to Cozbi, as resolve hardened my features. “It’s time that Margda and I settled this once and for all.”
“Don’t go,” Cozbi said, her voice weak and pleading.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured her, moving stray hairs away from her face. “This has been a long time coming, and I should’ve done it long ago.”
Margda terrorized me for years and, as much as I hated it, it had become a part of my life that I’d almost come to accept. But she wouldn’t terrorize my best friend, not ever again. As I stalked into the desert, I began to formulate a plan.
* * *
I hiked directly out to Balaam’s cave. The long hike cleared my mind. By the time I reached Balaam’s home, I knew what I had to do.
“Uncle?” I shouted. “Uncle? Are you here?”
No one answered. I thought of waiting. I had hoped to consult with uncle Balaam, though I knew very well he might seek to dissuade me. But I couldn’t wait for his return. I didn’t want to lose my nerve. I found what I needed and then headed back to my home. Despite the long distance my anger drove me on.
By the time I entered Midian, my heart began racing. My senses heightened immeasurably. I felt fully alive. I scanned in all directions as I strode through the town. I felt the breeze as it moved the hairs on my arms. I tasted blood in my mouth, from gnawing on my lip. I smelled scents I’d never noticed as I made my way back home, ready to take on Margda if she dared cross my path.
I saw her sleeping like a dog, not twenty feet from my house. She slept under some palm trees that provided minimal shade. Her minions slept nearby, though I wondered, Is it a ruse? Clearly they’d been waiting for me, but were they lying in wait?
Silently, I approached Margda and stood over her sleeping form. No one stirred. No one noticed. They were truly asleep. I reached into my tunic, and removed a packet of powder. I sprinkled it over her like so much pixie dust. Margda snorted and rolled over, swatting at the air. I folded the cloth carefully, and tucked it gingerly away. Then I quietly backed away and returned to my home.
* * *
While Margda and her friends slept under the palms near the small square, I washed my hands, then my feet and then finally my face. I put on one of mother’s dresses, whose brilliant topaz matched my eyes. I ran my fingers through my hair, until it seemed both wild and free. I picked up my staff, said a brief prayer and then marched out of the house.
I strode directly up to Margda, without bothering to remain quiet. I remembered with each step every indignity I had suffered. I remembered the pain and fear that I saw in Cozbi’s eyes. My anger turned to rage, and drove all doubt from my mind.
Margda stirred at my approach, as did her gaggle of friends. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, as if she couldn’t believe what she saw. Then she squared off to face me, with her fists on her hips and a sneer on her face. I stopped five feet in front of her, staff in hand, standing as tall – or at least as tall as I could. I looked her straight in the eyes and returned her menacing glare.
She stepped forward and swung her fist directly at my face, expecting me to flinch as I had so many times before. I didn’t duck. I didn’t flinch. In fact, I wanted her to land the first blow. But Margda didn’t follow through. The first victory was mine.
“Margda,” I said in a low menacing growl. “You will NOT harass me. You will NOT harass Cozbi. You will NOT harass anyone ever again.”
Margda flinched as if struck and her mouth fell wide open. She regained her composure almost immediately. But it was another victory won.
“After today,” Margda growled in reply, “you’ll be beaten to a pulp, and if you happen to survive there’ll be nowhere you can hide.” Her voice dripped with venom. I’d just humiliated her twice.
Margda’s friends circled around me so I couldn’t escape. But escape hadn’t remotely been part of my plan. I gripped the staff tightly, ready to use it – through resolving this through violence hadn’t been my plan either.
“Margda,” I continued, my voice steady and low, “you’re an ugly, horrid, toad of a girl. You’ve called me a ‘witch,’ and I’ve tried to deny it. But I can deny it no further. I’m a witch, I’m a woman and I’ve come into my own. Leave now and repent, and you’ll not suffer my wrath.”
I knew Margda wouldn’t leave, couldn’t leave after such a threat. “Your wrath little witch? I’ll show you some wrath,” she seethed and stepped forward, until she was close enough to strike.
Without thinking, I stepped back and spun the staff around horizontally. I drove the blunt end hard of it hard into the middle of her chest. It knocked her backwards off her feet and onto her well padded behind. I glared at each of her friends to be sure they didn’t intervene.
“From this day forward,” I thundered, “your ugliness will seep through the pores of your skin. Day by day you will turn into the toad that you are. Then you shall know that I’m truly a witch, with powers you can’t imagine. Then you shall know that you’ve finally pushed too far.”
I turned on my heels and took a step towards my home. Margda’s current best friend stood directly in my way. She looked into my eyes and saw cold hard resolve. She looked at my staff and backed quickly away.
As I neared my front door, I heard Margda’s angry voice. “This isn’t over,” she rasped, as her voice began to go.
No, it’s not, I agreed silently. It certainly is not.
* * *
Before the end of the day, Margda’s skin started turning green. Wart like pustules had formed on her face, hands and feet. Her friends whispered to each nervously, afraid to say anything to her. The warts itched. Margda scratched them. But it only made them itch more. So she scratched and she scratched until they hurt and began to bleed.
Angry and frustrated by the whisperings of her friends, Margda turned on the smallest. “What are you looking at?” she croaked. The girl fled in terror.
“Does anyone else want to leave?” Margda croaked at her friends, her voice raspier still, with her skin turning green bleeding warts covering her face. They all turned tail and ran, scattering in every direction.
* * *
For the next few days, Margda tried to ignore her malady. But her friends ran away, whenever she approached.
“Cowards!” she rasped, her voice barely audible. “Cowards,” she whispered, as her eyes filled with tears.
Two days after that, Margda wished she were dead. The nasty bleeding warts seemed to cover her whole body. Her skin had turned green. She could now barely speak. Margda dragged herself out of bed and through on an oversized hooded robe. She found walking excruciating, but she limped to my house, leaving a trail of bloody footprints that would mark her way home.
By the time Margda reached my house, her friends followed at a safe distance. Others followed too just to see what would transpire. Then a crowd began to gather around Margda and my house. This had become quite a spectacle.
I was glad mother and Nebach had been away for a week. They’d gone away on a short vacation, and would be gone a few more days.
“Mishael!” Margda croaked, as the assembled crowd gasped. “Mishael!” she rasped loudly, desperately hoping I would hear.
If I came out when summoned, I knew I would look weak. If I hid inside or fled, I would look weaker still. I quickly dressed in a black robe, offsetting my alabaster skin and flaming red hair. I grabbed my staff, slipped out the back and quietly circumvented the crowd. They had gathered in a semi-circle around Margda and my front door. They stared ahead expectantly, waiting for me to emerge.
I moved powerfully through the crowd – pushing my way through at first. As people realized what was happening, the people parted to let me through. As I stepped through and past them, the pathway closed from behind.
Margda turned to face me. My front door was at her back. Why is it, I wondered, she always stands between me and safety? No more, I resolved. This stops here and now.
“Margda!” I said, in a voice hard and cold.
“What have you done to me?” she whined, in a half rasp half croak.
“I have cursed you, as your actions have cursed many in this town. All of the ugliness within you shall seep to the surface, and you’ll experience the pain you have inflicted on others. Ultimately, you’ll become the horrid toad that you are.”
“How can you do this to me?” she asked pitifully, letting the hood fall and revealing her hideously deformed face. The crowd gasped in horror.
“Don’t do this to me,” she pleaded, reaching out equally deformed arms. “We were friends, once. Do you remember?”
“We were friends long ago. But you threw away that friendship. You pushed me too far, and now it will stop.”
“I’m sorry. Mishael. Please. Really I am. I’ll never bother you or your friends. I can’t go through life like this. Please Mishael. Please,” she begged, utterly distraught.
“That’s not good enough,” I thundered. “You will not harass me. You will not harass my friends. You will not harass anyone, as long as you live. If you want the curse lifted, you will repent in your heart for all the hardship you have caused. Do you understand?”
“Y-yes,” she replied. “D-does that mean y-you’ll lift the curse?”
“Yes,” I responded, “if you do all that I’ve and one little thing more. Go directly to Cozbi’s house. Plead for her forgiveness. Promise that you will never bother her ever again. Make sure she hears you and make sure she believes. Do all of these things, and I promise to lift the curse.”
A path opened through the crowd in the direction of Cozbi’s house and Margda hobbled through it. Everyone followed behind to see how the day would end – everyone except me. I was too drained to follow. I couldn’t wait to sleep. I stepped inside my home, closed the door and collapsed in bed.
Margda apologized to Cozbi – all day and all night. Cozbi was so afraid she refused to open the door. Margda slept like a dog, right in front of Cozbi’s door. When she awoke she began apologizing all over again. Cozbi finally opened the door and accepted Margda’s apology. Margda looked so revolting, Cozbi just wanted her to leave.
For the next seven days, no one saw or heard from Margda. At the end of that time, she emerged, weak, but mostly healed. Yet she seemed like a completely different person without her confident swagger and intimidating glare.
Word spread immediately of Margda’s comeuppance by the “Witch of Midian.” The title came with both fear and respect. Men shied away from ogling me. Women whispered as I passed, but without disapproving looks. I savored their reaction, expecting it to pass. It didn’t. Just as uncle had become known as the Sorcerer Balaam, I would forever be his niece, the Witch of Midian.
Though I relished my title and the benefits it conferred, I still had to face some unpleasant consequences. Balaam chastised me severely for using his frogwart. The amount I used could have killed her. I disappointed him deeply, and it surprised me how much that hurt. But it was a small price to pay to end Margda’s reign of terror.
I told mother and Nebach what really happened, of course. I told Cozbi and Hamarab, for they were close to me too. But I didn’t tell Dathan. I’m not quite sure why, though I have my suspicions. I didn’t want him to fear me, but a little more respect couldn’t hurt.
For Hosea and Caleb, the days passed quickly one after another, training at dawn with sword and shield, staff or hammer, or without any weapons at all. They trained by themselves and with the best of their people, always seeking a challenge without regard to the risks.
Only Hosea and Caleb had a real sword and shield, the spoils of battle from the valley of the sea. The rest were without weapons, except that which they could fashion – clubs and knives, staffs and hammers, scythes and slings. Rough wooden swords were fashioned for practice, in anticipation of the day when they’d have swords of their own.
Hosea and Caleb trained with their captains at the beginning of each day, and obtained their opinions and advice on security – near and far. At this point the danger they faced came from within. They’d yet to meet enough outsiders to pose a real threat. Some day they’d meet strangers who’d likely be less than pleased to have millions of Israelites wandering in their midst. So they implemented precautions to prepare for that day.
The captains instructed their seconds in command, who in turn instructed soldiers and sentries and scouts. Soldiers walked the camp, keeping order. Sentries ringed the camp in two concentric circles, one near and one far. Scouts explored in every direction, except the direction they had come, seeking water and food and potential enemies or friends.
The near sentries ringing the camp remained close enough together to always see their neighbor to the left and to the right. Distant sentries, spread thinner, could see the same midpoint between their neighbors and used rams’ horns, called a shofar, to signal “all clear” or “danger.”
An impossibly long blast at pre-arranged times, signaled “all clear.” It was the most difficult of all sounds for an enemy to replicate. Silence at the pre-arranged time signaled danger, as did an ill timed or imperfect blast. Any sound untimely shofar blast meant danger approaching, better overly cautious than defeated and enslaved.
As the sun reached its zenith, everyone except the sentries retreated to their tents, to sleep through the brutally scorching desert heat. The sentries worked in short shifts in the middle of the day, so they’d always remain vigilant and spot an impending threat. Faith in the Lord didn’t replace caution, nor would it as long as Caleb had a say.
Caleb and Hosea walked the camp every day, meeting and greeting the people, solidifying trust and gauging potential trouble – very little escaped their notice. When they came upon soldiers that seemed well suited to fight, they held impromptu sparring matches to test and sharpen their skills. This generated excitement among the people, who gathered around to watch, and also engendered confidence that the soldiers were well trained.
In the evening, Caleb and Hosea sparred against each other, until each lay exhausted too tired to fight further without foolish risk of injury. Often, after they could train no more, they would look at the desert’s night sky, and share matters large and small as they once had as children.
* * *
“I found my parents today . . . or, rather, they found me,” Hosea said as he lay looking at the stars.
“It’s about time,” Caleb replied. “I was beginning to worry.”
“Not me,” said Hosea. “Finding them among the millions was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But I knew we at least would stand out. I figured they would find us.”
“Are they well?” Caleb asked.
“They are,” Hosea replied.” “They’re traveling with Faroul and Rivka.”
Caleb grimaced. “I’d like to see Nun and Yael. Perhaps we can all share dinner.”
Hosea knew from Caleb’s reaction that “all” didn’t include Faroul or Rivka. Maybe in time, Hosea thought, the memories won’t be so painful.
“Do you think you’ll ever take another wife?” Hosea asked, on a related subject.
Caleb said nothing.
“You should, you know,” Hosea prodded gently. “You were a good husband and father. You deserve a family you can cherish.”
“I have a family that I cherish,” Caleb responded, his jaw tight. “In here,” he said gesturing to his head, “and in here,” he said gesturing to his heart. “I have far more than most and what remains can’t be taken. I haven’t time for a woman, and can’t afford the weakness of emotion. I am a soldier now, devoted to our people.”
“What of God?” Hosea asked gently. “You were once closer to God than any man I knew. Your family and God were your center. Now . . .” Hosea’s voice trailed off. “I know how hard it must be. . . .”
“You don’t know,” Caleb interrupted. “I based my relationship with God on a lifetime of trust. How can I trust in God after what happened to my family? He could have prevented it, Hosea. After all He has done? Yet He choose to do nothing and my family is dead. He is the God of my ancestors and shall always be my God. But I don’t know if I’ll ever really trust Him again.”
The bitterness in Caleb’s voice saddened Hosea. He didn’t know if he should push any further. “You trust Him for food and for water,” Hosea said, barely above a whisper.
“I trust in Him when I have no choice,” Caleb replied harshly. “I trust in myself and those who have earned my trust in all other matters.”
“Yet you still consider Him your God?” Hosea asked, too curious to remain silent.
Caleb’s head hung low. He shivered, just once, in the cold desert night. “Can I abandon the Lord even if He abandons me? How can I deny my birthright and close my heart completely? Tell me and I would do it. But I can’t. I just can’t. It’s all I have left and I don’t even want it.”
Hosea remained silent for a very long time. “What you truly want, my friend, is still there for the taking.”
Caleb said nothing. He just fought back his tears.
“Your relationship with your family remains, and your relationship with God isn’t lost. Nothing will be same, to be sure. But God is there for you still, if you want Him to comfort you.”
Caleb wanted that comfort and wanted that connection. He could feel God reaching out, though he couldn’t reach back as he fought the tears in his eyes and the lump in his throat. He just couldn’t reach back, not yet, maybe not ever.
* * *
Time passed, as Caleb and Hosea settled into a routine. They kept busy and trained hard, but were beginning to get bored, preparing for a foe they’d never met and may never meet. Boring is boring, even if it’s better than the alternative.
Training hard together on a hill under a full moon at the edge of camp, Caleb spotted movement far off in the distance. He held up a hand, shook his head and motioned for quiet. “What’s that?” Caleb asked, staring into the distance.
“What?” Hosea replied, following Caleb’s gaze.
“Over there,” Caleb said. “See that? The desert looks alive, like the ground itself is moving.”
Hosea peered into the distance, his vision better than Caleb’s at night. “Come,” Hosea said, his voice betraying excitement and urgency, “we must speak with Moses. Now! Amelek is on the move.[lix] His armies are headed straight toward camp. They should be here by mid-day tomorrow, if not sooner.”
The trill of the shofar sounded off in the distance, then rippled around the perimeter of camp as each sentry passed the word. Runners from distant outposts raced towards Moses’ tent.
Caleb looked at Hosea. “Are we . . . ready,” Caleb asked, as they ran back towards camp. “We are little more . . . than organized. . . . They’re battle tested . . . and strong.”
“We’ll have . . . to be . . . ready,” Hosea answered, his lungs bursting. “Perhaps . . . it is time . . . to find out . . . again . . . if God is . . . truly . . . on our side.”
“Or perhaps,” Caleb replied, desperately trying to breath as he ran, “It’s time . . . we relied on . . . ourselves. . . . If He . . . chooses . . . to help . . . us . . . so much . . . the better.”
“Faster,” Hosea ordered, as he picked up the pace.
* * *
At Moses’ tent, Hosea and Caleb arrived breathless, before any of the runners. They couldn’t speak, but they’d arrived. As they tried to catch their breath, the runners arrived and gave their report, confirming to Hosea and Caleb what each had already seen.
The commotion outside the tent didn’t even stir Moses.
Hosea opened the tent flap, stuck his head in and whispered urgently, “Moses.” No response. “Moses!” he whispered louder.
“What is it?
Who’s there?” came the sleep-tinged reply.
“Moses. It’s me, Hosea . . . and Caleb,” he added. “We must speak with you.”
“Now?” Moses asked. “Can’t it wait?”
“No it can’t. It’s the Amelekites. We must speak with you now.”
Caleb could hear Moses stirring. “The Amelekites? Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Hosea replied. “Please, we must speak. There’s no time to waste.”
“Come in.” Moses said, “Sit down. Tell me, what do you know?”
“The Amelekites are on the move,” Hosea replied. “We couldn’t gauge numbers in the darkness, but there are many soldiers headed this way. We must ready ourselves for battle. They’ll be here by mid-day.”
Moses closed his eyes and reached out to God in silent prayer. His breathing slowed. His face relaxed. He seemed far more peaceful than they had seen him in awhile.
Patiently, they waited for instruction, until Moses spoke, “Choose twelve thousand men to fight against Amelek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”[lx]
“But we’ll be vastly outnumbered,” Caleb answered in reply. “However many men are coming, we should ready our whole force.”
“Twelve thousand it shall be,” Moses said, “and not a man more. I know it’s hard for you Caleb, to place so much trust in God. But He’ll fight this battle with us, and we’ll glorify His name.”
* * *
With Caleb by his side, Hosea assembled the tribes’ captains, and ordered each to assemble one thousand men.[lxi] Hosea and Caleb sat with their captains, argued strategy and debated. Twelve thousand soldiers was tiny fraction of the men they’d assembled, though most still weren’t prepared to fight any real war.
“Why take such a small force?” asked the captain of Naphtali.
“The Amelekites are many. We are many, “said the captain of Dan. “Why must we meet them with so few?”
“Enough!” Hosea replied, when they began covering the same ground. He whispered to Caleb, who then stood up to speak.
“We fight with twelve thousand soldiers,” Caleb said with conviction. “The rest stay in camp. We trust the Lord God of Israel. We trust in his messenger, Moses. We trust in ourselves, and the best of our men.” Not necessarily in that order, Caleb thought to himself, but he wouldn’t do anything that might shake his captain’s trust.
Caleb, like his captains, would’ve rather chosen more men. But it wasn’t his call to make, and he respected Hosea’s decision not to argue the matter further with Moses. Caleb trusted Hosea, their captains and best men. He hoped it’d be enough, with or without God’s help.
Hosea looked for fear in his captain’s eyes, and for weakness or dissent. He saw doubt turn to resolve and felt pride in his men. He felt particularly proud of Caleb who, despite deep seated doubts, rallied the troops in the name of their Lord.
“The sons of Rachel,” Caleb said, “the tribes Benjamin and Joseph, shall depart to the left and to the right before sunrise. Give the Amelekites a wide berth and then position yourselves behind them. Remain hidden from view and don’t attack until noon. The sons of Bilhah, the tribes of Dan and Naphtali, shall depart to the left under the cover of darkness, and shall position themselves unseen along to the Amelekites right. The sons of Zilpah, the tribes of Gad and Asher, shall depart to the right under cover of darkness, and position themselves unseen to the Amelekites left. There you all shall wait until the sun reaches its zenith. The sons of Leah – the tribes of Ruben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulan – shall travel straight from the camp and meet the Amelekites head on.” In moments, Caleb conveyed the plan Hosea devised.
Hosea added, “Remind your men that God is with us, and will fight through us today. Moses shall position himself on the top of a hill. Look to Moses and the staff of God to draw strength from the Lord.”
“But what of the rest of our men?” asked the captain of Levi. “Surely there’s something they can do.”
“They shall remain in camp and set up defenses,” Hosea responded on the fly. “They’re our last line of defense to protect our greatest of treasures – the women, the children and the elderly who can’t fight. God willing, they’re a defense that will never be needed. But they’ll be there if we need them to protect those that we love.”
“We shall prevail,” Caleb said without doubt. “Be fast and be silent flanking left, right and rear. Remember to remain hidden and don’t attack until noon. Fear not. We’ll hold the lines, and then victory will be ours!”
“And the Lord’s!” Hosea added.
“For the Children of Israel!” Caleb shouted to cheer his men on.
“For the Lord!” shouted the captains in a unified response.
* * *
Caleb and Hosea sheathed their swords and hefted their shields. Each slid a quarry hammer in a belt and a smaller hammer in a boot. Fear and excitement churned in Caleb’s stomach. He could hardly remember ever feeling so alive.
“You ready?” Hosea asked Caleb.
“The bulk of the forces are at your command,” Hosea stressed.
“I know. I can lead them,” Caleb replied. “With or without God’s help, we shall prevail. There is no time to lose if you are to position the men. May God be with you,” Caleb said.
Caleb may not have trusted in God’s protection, but no one who had seen what the Children of Israel had seen could deny the Lord’s presence and power. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than for God to protect Hosea and shield him from harm.
“May God be with us all, Caleb,” Hosea responded.
By mid-morning, Caleb arrayed the sons of Leah in the path of the Amelekites and waited. The men grew restless. The Amelekites approached en masse, multitudes of tall, strong warriors, whose forged weapons flashed in the sun. The Israelites, by contrast, had the unimpressive odds and ends they’d devised as weapons. Caleb wondered if his men would flee in terror in the face of a real army.
Then Moses appeared at the top of the hill, with Aaron and Hur beside him, and a whisper raced through the Israelite soldiers.[lxii] All heads turned expectantly, staring at Moses off in the distance. Moses raised his arms, showed God’s staff and the people cheered. Lowering the staff, the cheers became a buzz then became silent. Raising it again, the people roared. The soldiers were exuberant and hopeful.
Then it happened. In the late morning heat, the Amelekites attacked – sixty thousand against six thousand. But the sons of Leah showed no fear and fought with the strength of true believers. They armed themselves with the weapons of the fallen until soon they were armed as well as their foes. A thousand Israelites died in half an hour, or received wounds so terrible they would die soon enough. Ten thousand Amelekites lay dead or dying.
But the sons of Leah, unused to battle, grew weary. Caleb couldn’t rally them for it took all of his strength and concentration to fight. Turned this way and that in the melee, sometimes he caught sight of Moses in the distance.
When Moses raised his arms, God’s strength flowed forth and renewed the Israelites. When Moses lowered God’s staff, Caleb fought to catch his breath and continued through sheer force of will in the withering desert sun. If only he could tell Moses the effect he was having, but Moses was out of earshot and there was no way to send word.
But up on the hill, they saw how the battle ebbed and flowed when Moses lowered or raised his arms. Moses kept his arms aloft for as long as he could, but he quickly grew tired. So Aaron and Hur supported his arms, so Moses’ arms remained raised with God’s staff in plain sight.[lxiii]
Still, the sons of Leah were faltering, as the battle raged beyond the first hour. Three thousand of the original six thousand Israelites remained standing. The men were exhausted and certainly would have fled, but they lacked the strength to flee and, besides, there was nowhere to go.
The earth was slipper with blood, as twenty five thousand Amelekites lay scattered on the field of battle, with the remaining thirty thousand tired and thirsty. They expected an easy route. But these people fought like scorpions, killing even as they lay mortally wounded. The burning sun sapped the Amelekites’ strength. The old sorcerer on the hill chilled their spines. Soon the sun would reach its zenith and the heat of the day would wane. But it would be over, eventually, if they continued to press forward. So the Amelekites fought on, until noon finally arrived.
Then, with a deafening roar from the rear flank of Amelek, Hosea attacked with the sons of Rachel, driving up the middle with fresh reinforcements. They cut down the Amelekites like wheat during a harvest. The Amelekites panicked, as the center of their army fell from the rear and their forces split in two.
Then the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah attacked from the left and from the right, fresh and strong and ready to fight. Confusion and fear turned to terror in the Amelekite ranks as they trampled each other and fell in staggering numbers. More and more died, or lost heart and fled, dropping their weapons as they ran for their lives.
Minutes later and it was over. A cheer went up from the Israelites, who sunk to their knees and gave thanks to the Lord. Aaron and Hur released Moses’ arms and he crumpled to the ground, offering his own silent prayers as he lay huddled in a heap.
* * *
In the morning, Moses built an alter upon the hill, named “The Lord is my banner.” The people assembled to hear Moses speak. “The Lord has sworn,” proclaimed Moses, “He’ll have war against Amelek from generation to generation.”[lxiv]
The people cheered and danced and celebrated their victory, and that of their Lord.
Then a column of white clouds began to swirl on the horizon.
The people didn’t need to be told, but Moses said it anyway, “Pack your belongings! It’s time that we go.”
When the column turned to fire in the quickly fading twilight, the people followed behind it to a destination unknown.
[i] Numbers, 22:5.
[ii] Numbers, 22:1.
[iii] Numbers, 13:6 and 32:12.
[iv] Genesis, 25:1-2.
[v] Genesis, 25:3.
[vi] Genesis, 25:5.
[vii] Numbers, 21:26.
[viii] Exodus, 2:1-15.
[ix] Exodus, 7:14 – 10:21.
[x] Exodus, 7:20.
[xi] Exodus, 7:21.
[xii] Exodus, 8:6.
[xiii] Exodus, 8:17.
[xiv] Exodus, 9:6.
[xv] Exodus, 8:5 – 10:13.
[xvi] Exodus, 10:22.
[xvii] Exodus, 1:8 – 2:3.
[xviii] Exodus, 12:14.
[xix] Exodus, Exodus 11:5.
[xx] Numbers, 22:6.
[xxi] Exodus, 12:31-32.
[xxii] Exodus, 12:33.
[xxiii] Exodus, 12:34-35.
[xxiv] Exodus, 12:40-41.
[xxv] Exodus, 13:21-22.
[xxvi] Exodus, 14:2.
[xxvii] Exodus, 14:5-9.
[xxviii] Exodus, 14:11-12.
[xxix] Exodus, 14:13-14.
[xxx] Exodus, 14:15-18.
[xxxi] Exodus, 14:19.
[xxxii] Exodus, 14:21.
[xxxiii] Exodus, 14, 22.
[xxxiv] Exodus, 14:23-24.
[xxxv] Exodus, 14:25.
[xxxvi] Numbers, 22:4.
[xxxvii] Numbers, 25:2-3.
[xxxviii] Exodus, 15:1-18.
[xxxix] Exodus, 15:20-21.
[xl] Exodus, 15, 22-25.
[xli] Exodus, 15, 22-25.
[xlii] Exodus, 15:27.
[xliii] Exodus, 16:1-3.
[xliv] Exodus, 16:4-5.
[xlv] Exodus, 16:6-7.
[xlvi] Exodus, 16:10-12.
[xlvii] Exodus, 16:13.
[xlviii] Exodus, 16:14-16.
[xlix] Exodus, 16:18-21.
[l] Numbers, 25:15.
[li] Exodus, 17:1.
[lii] Exodus, 17:2.
[liii] Exodus, 17:2-3.
[liv] Exodus, 17:4.
[lv] Exodus, 17:5-6.
[lvi] Exodus, 17:7.
[lvii] Exodus, 17:7.
[lviii] Exodus, 17:7.
[lix] Exodus, 17:8.
[lx] Exodus, 17:9.
[lxi] Exodus, 17:10.
[lxii] Exodus, 17:10.
[lxiii] Exodus, 17:11-12.
[lxiv] Exodus, 17:15-16.