Chapter 2: Common Ground
Three months to the day after they set foot beyond Egypt, they came out of the wilderness and camped at the foot of Mount Sinai.[i]
Hosea and Caleb had earned the respect of the people, as had Moses once again, not to mention the Lord. But as was always the case, men waited in the wings, coveting their prominence and envying their power, looking for an opportunity to exploit weakness or doubt.
“Hosea,” Caleb said. “Moses can’t continue.”
“Sure he can,” Hosea replied. “The people love and respect him.”
For the moment at least, Caleb silently agreed. “But have you seen him recently? The people respect him too much. It’s wearing him down. Day after day they seek his counsel over the most trivial of matters. He’s exhausted. He needs rest.”
“He needs his family,” Hosea said.
“Moses’ family will be here soon,” Caleb replied, then added, “It’s hard to picture Moses with a wife and two sons.”
“It’s harder still to picture Moses marrying the daughter of Midian’s high priest,” Hosea replied.[ii]
“True,” Caleb responded, “He’s not exactly the most predictable leader. But it’s no wonder he sent his family live with Jethro, his wife’s father,[iii] before he led us out of Egypt.”[iv]
“Well, the reunion should help restore Moses’ spirit,” Hosea said with a smile. “We should escort them to Moses. But I have to speak with the captains and try to maintain order. The people are becoming agitated . . . again.”
“Will they never be satisfied?” Caleb wondered. “You stay and keep order. I’ll escort Moses’ family. Besides, I’m curious. Who would marry a man so recklessly devoted to God?”
“The daughter of Midian’s high priest, it would seem,” Hosea said with a laugh.
“A rebel, no doubt,” Caleb added, almost serious.
“What better way to rebel against her father than marry outside their faith?” asked Hosea.
“Indeed, there’s no better way to marry a man like her father . . . and yet still rebel.”
Caleb approached Jethro’s camp slowly, by daylight, his weapons sheathed and his palms open at his side. He couldn’t approach unarmed, but he didn’t want to appear threatening either. Caleb expected guards, but came instead across giggling young women carrying shepherd’s staffs.
Curious, Caleb thought.
The eldest spoke harshly to women behind her, who quieted immediately. She held her staff like a weapon and spoke a challenge to Caleb, standing directly in his path.
Caleb didn’t understand her language, but he understood her actions. He stood still and spoke slowly, “I am Caleb, second in command of the armies of Moses.”
“Moses?” she said cautiously.
“Moses,” he confirmed.
The eldest daughter turned to a girl barely old enough to wed and spoke rapidly. The language sounded so familiar, yet he couldn’t make out the words. The young girl raced away, and the woman held up her hand. They would stay there and wait.
She gestured for Caleb to sit on a nearby rock and tossed him a skin of water.
Caleb drank deeply, appreciating the gesture. He tossed her his wineskin filled with water from the Lord.
She opened it, sniffed at it and then she too drank deeply. She smiled the most radiant smile and had eyes that missed nothing. She had the confidence and radiance of a desert shepherdess, with a pleasing face and a womanly body.
This seems to be going well, Caleb thought, smiling in return.
They rested and waited, a safe distance apart.
Ten minutes later, a man crested the ridge, with the young girl beside him. “Zipporah!” he shouted, then spoke rapidly in her tongue.
Caleb stood up as the man approached.
The man held out his hand in a time honored tradition, which showed he was holding no weapon and would do Caleb no harm. “I . . . am . . . Jethro,” he said in recognizable Hebrew, “Moses’ father-in-law.”
Caleb clasped Jethro’s arm, as Jethro clasped his. So far so good, Caleb thought to himself.
Jethro gestured to the woman who’d offered Caleb water. “My daughter . . . Zipporah.”
“Welcome Caleb, son of Israel,” Zipporah said in flawless Hebrew.
“You speak our language,” Caleb observed. And you speak it quite well.
“We are learning,” Zipporah replied. “After all,” she continued, with a wry barely suppressed smile, “a wife must know her husband’s tongue.”
Caleb fixated for a moment on the fire in her eyes, which revealed intelligence, independence and a mischievous sense of humor. He could already tell she was a good match for Moses.
“Come,” Jethro invited, breaking the spell. “You look tired. We shall rest and we shall eat.”
Jethro surprised Caleb in some ways. Jethro didn’t put on airs like Pharaoh’s high priests in Egypt. Instead, he possessed a quiet strength and confidence that belied wisdom. In fact in bearing and manner, Jethro reminded Caleb of Moses.
Caleb thought of his last conversation with Hosea, and suppressed a smile of own. Jethro’s not quite what I expected, and yet it seems I was right.
Jethro hosted a magnificent feast. Freshly slaughtered lamb, hearts of palm, citron and wine. The conversation, though halting, seemed to flow without awkwardness.
“Are you married?” Jethro asked, having appraised Caleb’s character.
Caleb choked in mid-swallow, but kept the food down.
Jethro laughed and slapped Caleb heartily on the back. The women giggled. “I’m sorry,” Jethro said. “That was . . . personal? No? But with so many beautiful daughters . . .”
“Not at all,” Caleb said.
“You don’t find them beautiful?” Jethro asked, reddening from the wine and apparent insult.
“No. I mean yes,” stammered Caleb. “They are as beautiful as desert flowers,” he added, truly meaning it and blushing, “and no, I’m not married.”
Jethro smiled and all was well, then he issued a command. The girls disappeared and musicians began to play. The music soothed like a seductress. Caleb started to relax.
One daughter entered the tent, exotically clad, and danced for the men swaying gently back and forth. Then another daughter entered and took her turn at center stage, as the first faded back several paces or more while continuing to dance. Zipporah waited on the men as Jethro’s other daughters danced, from the eldest to the youngest – a girl of barely marriageable age. Their dance was sensual and erotic, but met the standards of the day.
For the briefest of moments, Caleb forgot about Sarah. He smiled, swayed and nodded and enjoyed the visual feast. The youngest girl reminded him of Sarah a shortly before their marriage.
Sarah. Caleb’s back straightened. His face tightened. The weight of guilt expelled the air from his lungs. What am I doing? he wondered frantically, as he desperately tried to breath.
Jethro saw his guest’s reaction and motioned for the dancing to stop. The music stopped. The girl’s disappeared.
Caleb sat, trying to catch his breath.
“Are you ok, my friend?” Jethro asked, genuinely concerned.
Caleb closed his eyes, calmed his breathing and tried to steady his nerves. The panic he’d just experienced seemed to slowly subside. “You asked earlier if I was married?” he said when he felt he could finally speak.
“Yes,” Jethro replied.
“I’m not now, but I was. She was killed in Egypt, with my son and my father.” It hurt more than Caleb could bear, simply to say the words out loud. “I . . .” Caleb could not finish the sentence.
“It is all right,” Jethro said, putting his hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. May the god of Midian look after them.”
Caleb clenched his jaw, momentarily. Midianites worshipped Baal, not the Lord God of Israel. But Jethro meant no offense. Caleb took a deep breath and exhaled slowly to release some of his tension.
“You are kind,” Caleb managed, after a moment controlling his emotions. Are You looking after my loved ones Lord, despite abandoning them in Egypt? “Excuse me,” Caleb said, as he stood and exited the tent.
Zipporah went to follow, but Jethro
bade her sit down. “He needs time,”
Caleb sat on a large rock outside Jethro’s camp and gazed up at the stars. I miss you so much Sarah, and you Joseph and Jephunneh. What am I without you? Why did He not take me as well? I try to live each day as it comes, but it is so hard. I don’t want to forget, but it hurts so much to remember. Does He look after you? Are you happy? Or do you simply sleep in the dust?
Caleb let his mind empty of emotion and his body empty of tension with his head hanging low between his knees. When he was younger, he spoke to God daily. But here and now, he had nothing to say. The anger still welled in him, keeping him from truly reaching out. After Caleb sat there, his mind blank for quite some time, he arose and walked back to Jethro’s camp.
Caleb took a seat by the fire next to Zipporah. Two little ones wrestled in the firelight. Long dark curls framed Zipporah’s strong pretty face. Her clear blue eyes reflected intelligence and calm. The boys played like puppies, breaking away, cavorting and every so often glancing at their mother to see if she was watching.
“Are you all right?” Zipporah asked, after a long silence.
“I will be,” Caleb replied. “It’s still hard.”
Zipporah nodded, watching the boys play. It occurred to her that they might by Caleb’s son’s age, so she called out to a sister to take them to bed. The children argued and pleaded in the Midianite tongue.
Caleb didn’t understand the words, but he knew the ritual well and smiled a sad smile.
“It’s past bed time,” she said to Caleb, nodding at the children. “Excited.”
Caleb nodded, “I remember.”
Zipporah said something, to her sister, clearly relenting, because the boys cheered.
Jethro approached and sat down. “Caleb, you know my daughter Zipporah, Moses’ wife.[v] These little ones are Gershom and Eliezer. Their sons,” Jethro said. The boys raced to Jethro and jumped in his lap. He held them in his arms, and kissed them repeatedly on the cheek and neck as they giggled and squirmed.
“Father,” Zipporah said in Midianite with a hint of sternness, “Please don’t get them more excited than they already are, or they’ll never sleep.” How many times had Sarah spoken to Jephunneh in just that tone when Jephunneh played with Joseph near bedtime?
“They already know they’ll see their father tomorrow, Zipporah. Do you really think they will really get any sleep?” Jethro asked in Midianite, peeking through the tangle of boys.
“Perhaps, but if they don’t sleep, it will be me tending to them and not you,” Zipporah said with finality. “So please respect my wishes.”
Caleb could feel the love between them, even if he didn’t understand their words. He fought to control his roiling emotions, as Zipporah’s sister led the protesting boys away.
Jethro raised a glass of wine. “To Moses!” Jethro said. “To Moses,” Caleb repeated. “To Moses’ family,” Caleb added. “To Moses’ family,” Jethro repeated, using the Midianite words that faintly echoed Caleb’s Hebrew.
I learned the healing arts well and quickly, and immediately put them to use. Each month at the women’s lodge, I gave them the potions to ease their discomfort. But healing, I soon learned, extended beyond the mere physical. The mind and the spirit played a critical role in healing the body.
With increasing frequency, the women took me into their confidence. I never asked, never pried and never judged. I just listened, and treated their trust as sacred. I gave them empathy, at a minimum, and a little wisdom now and then. Most, if not all, felt much better as a result.
Women had a hard life in Midian outside the comfort of the lodge, particularly in those households that had forsaken the God of our ancestors. Wives who displeased their husbands were beaten, or whipped or otherwise abused in ways that made me shudder. The hardest most heart-wrenching experiences came from poorly used brides.
Traditionally, Midianite women could marry after their first stay in the lodge, but wouldn’t generally do so until several years later. But in households that worshipped “modern” gods, tradition often went by the wayside. Husbands eagerly anticipated consummating the marriage, while fathers happily relinquished their daughters’ care and feeding.
I tended many a frightened, battered and bleeding bride before returning her “home” to an unfamiliar life. Husbands often brutalized their wives on the night of their wedding to help assure evidence of chastity. The ruined wedding gown, which doubled as bedding, provided indisputable evidence of virginity lost.
I did my best to set these new brides on the path to healing, in body and spirit, and kept them in the lodge as long as I dared. I learned from experience that if I kept them too long, they’d return to me in short order – beaten and bloodied. So I often sent them home somewhat sooner than I would have liked.
As my reputation in the community grew, mothers began sending me their daughters before their wedding night, so I could prepare them for what would likely come. I seemed odd giving advice when I’d never been a bride myself. But I’d treated so many women, and listened when they spoke. I learned enough from others’ experience to at least offer some useful advice.
In essence, I imparted the accumulated wisdom of the women of Midian, who shared their stories with me at the Midianite lodge. I spoke in a soothing voice to calm the fears of impending brides, and always spoke the truth as I understood it at the time.
“All women must endure the first night,” I’d explain. “Sometimes there is pain, but not always. Well, mostly there is pain. But the pain lessens over time, and many come to feel pleasure in lying with their husband.”
“What must I do?” they invariably asked.
“Whatever your husband asks of you,” I answered. “Hard as it may seem, you must surrender to him completely, as you surrender to God. Completely and utterly.”
“Surrender to God?” many asked who didn’t follow the old ways.
“Do as you’re asked,” I’d reply, “without reluctance or hesitation. If he treats you roughly or without consideration, he’s just trying to protect your honor by assuring evidence of purity. Relax as best you can, and endure any pain you feel in silence. If you scream or cry out, he may hurt you more. If there is pain, it shall pass and I will help you heal. Take comfort in knowing that you do what you must.”
“I’m scared,” they often said.
“I know,” I would say, holding them gently and stroking their hair. “You’ll be fine.”
But many weren’t fine. Those who heeded my advice generally came back less injured. Yet even they were often traumatized, when they needn’t have been.
Reading and writing strengthened my skills as a healer. Young and inexperienced as I was, I soon learned all Balaam could teach me of medicines and salves, ointments and potions. By reading I learned from other healers as well, and sometimes I could glean what my uncle had not.
I began experimenting on my own, but couldn’t remember crucial details. By recording my experiments in intricate detail, I could recreate successes and avoid duplicating failures. Balaam showed me that often even the smallest detail could make all the difference, and so taught me the importance of careful recording.
The written word opened my eyes to a magical world, deeper and richer than I could’ve ever imagined. Balaam had accumulated many writings, written by him and by others. He wrote of medicine, he wrote of God and he wrote of his life.
I thanked God every day for the skills I possessed. Reading expanded my world beyond my limited experience. Writing gave me hope that I could pass on what I learned. Healing tied me to the community, woman to woman. Self-defense gave confidence, in a world filled with dangers. Shepherding instilled peace, as I watched over the flocks. The God of Midian had blessed me, more so than most.
Cozbi and I had shared many confidences. I trusted her silence. I doubted I would need to speak to her when it came time for her to wed, though I resolved to do it anyway to help ease her passage.
Cozbi’s father had betrothed her to a decent man, Ulah. He was neither wealthy nor a merchant, but a soldier in the King’s guard. Nebach assured me, he had a gentle enough spirit.
“He’s not rich,” I said to Cozbi, a little surprised.
“Do you think because father is rich all he cares for is money?” Cozbi asked, just a little offended.
“No, of course not!” I replied. I’d not meant any offense.
“When I was little and played imaginary games, I used to pretend that Ulah was my husband. Father talked with Ulah’s father, and offered my hand in marriage. His only condition was that Ulah become a soldier for the King. Father wanted my husband to be able to protect me. Ulah’s father agreed, and made sure he entered the King’s service. Ulah excelled and became a soldier in the King’s guard. It never hurts for a poor soldier to have a wealthy father-in-law.”
“I’d like to get to know your father better, some day,” I said, impressed by Zur’s foresight. He had a broader view than most people I’d known. It must have served him well, for he’d built his fortune on his own.
“Maybe someday,” Cozbi replied. “He’s been traveling a lot lately. He’s doing quite well with what he buys and what he sells. The little idols of Baal are selling best of all.” Cozbi absently toyed with the golden calf around her neck, which was a true work of art.
“Is Baal always portrayed as a calf?” I asked, curious about Cozbi’s beliefs.
“He can be a calf or a bull or even a man. But however he appears, he’s the god of rain and fertility, which we need for health and prosperity. With rain to grow feed and to water the livestock, calves grow into bulls, healthy and strong, so that a man with a calf will have wealth soon enough.”
“I suppose,” I said, warily. “It seems a bit convoluted. The God of our ancestors makes more sense to me.”
“But the God of Midian is so imposing,” Cozbi teased with a grin, “not to mention severe. Why worship a god who’s angry, jealous and vengeful, who’s even asked a follower to sacrifice his first born?”
“He only did it once,” I exclaimed, quite defensively, “and he didn’t require the death of the child!”
“Still,” Cozbi continued, “the slaughter of animals with their blood sprinkled about, mutilating children, I don’t see how you can stand it. It seems so . . . so . . .”
“Tradition is comforting,” I interrupted petulantly. I couldn’t justify my beliefs or the demands made by God. I’d never had them challenged directly, and hadn’t had to defend them. “He’s the God of our ancestors,” was all I could say.
“Some day I’ll have a child,” Cozbi continued. “I’ll not have him marked with a knife, mutilated and scarred. What sort of god would require such a thing? The Mark of Midian is . . .”
“Stop it!” I shouted, holding back tears. I couldn’t stand having my best friend challenge the core of my beliefs.
“I’m sorry,” Cosby said, her voice softer, more gentle, “I know you believe strongly, but it just seems wrong to hurt a child, even just a little bit, much less scar him for life.”
Cozbi hadn’t meant to hurt me, but she had shaken my faith. I believed as my mother had, and her mother before her. I’d never questioned my beliefs. But when challenged so directly, by such a good friend, I started to question what I’d always taken on faith.
Why does God require us to mutilate our children? Should I be dedicating my life to an angry, jealous vengeful God? I found the questions alone troubling and felt deeply unsettled. I’d sacrificed a great deal for the sake of my Lord.
“Misha,” Cozbi said breathlessly, after running up to me in the market. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you!”
“In the desert,” I replied, “with Uncle Balaam, looking for plants and flowers and bugs.” We’d had a very productive morning searching for hard-to-find ingredients.
“Bugs?” she asked rhetorically, as she scrunched up nose. “Guess what!” she continued.
“What?” I replied.
“Father’s going on a caravan and said he would take me! He said there are millions of people wandering in the desert. Can you imagine? What a sight. Do you think it could be true? He says it’s his last chance to spend some time with his little girl before I am married. Guess what else!”
“What else?” I replied, playing along.
“He said I could bring you,” Cozbi said in a rush. “Say you’ll come. Say you’ll come. I’d be so bored without you. I need you to come. I need you to . . . please?”
“But I have my studies . . . and Hamarab’s sheep to tend . . . and then there’s the women of Midian.”
“But you have to come. Think of it,” Cozbi insisted, “millions of people, just wandering in the desert! You’ll never get a chance to see something like this again.”
“Don’t be silly, Cozbi,” I countered rationally. “You’re father couldn’t have been serious. Millions of people can’t survive just wandering in the desert. There wouldn’t be enough water. There wouldn’t be enough food.”
“That’s what I said to father,” Cozbi replied. “But he insisted it was true. Oh Misha! Please come. Can’t you just ask permission? This is such a rare opportunity, and it’s only a few months.”
“Well,” I mused, “it certainly would be a sight.”
“And a learning experience too,” she added, “don’t forget that! Why, the people who love you should demand that you go! Who knows what you will learn?”
Cozbi had stumbled upon an argument that actually might work. “Now don’t get your hopes up,” I said, trying to take my own advice, “but I’ll ask.”
“We’re going on caravan! We’re going on a Caravan,” Cozbi sing-songed repeatedly.
“It’s good to see you’re not getting your hopes up,” I scolded with a grin.
Uncle Balaam took no convincing at all. But he did give me a grave look, warned me to be careful and insisted I take my staff. “You never know,” he said ominously.
“Oh Uncle,” I said kissing his cheek. “I’ll be careful. Besides, we’ll be with Cozbi’s father and servants. We’ll be fine.”
“Hmmph,” he replied, continuing to sort ingredients for the potion he was preparing.
Hamarab responded in pretty much the same way. “Take the staff and be careful,” he insisted. “Never go out among strangers alone. It’s a dangerous out there, Misha – particularly for a young pretty woman.”
“I’ll be careful,” I assured him, my voice serious. “You think I’m pretty?” I teased, batting my eyelashes.
“Go on with you,” he said shooing me away.
As I left, I could’ve sworn I saw him blush. The thought flashed across my mind, Could he be my prince? I’d never seen him in that way before. He met the criteria, as far as I could tell, but he was at least ten years older than Nebach. I pushed the thought out of my mind, hoping it wouldn’t resurface.
Mother listened apprehensively and chewed her lip when I asked her permission, “I don’t know, Misha,” she said, it sounds dangerous. “Millions of people you say?”
“It can’t possibly be millions,” I responded. “Zur’s exaggerating, that’s all. He wants a final trip with Cozbi, and he’s just trying to entice her.”
Nebach chimed in, “It’s not safe for a young woman to be unprotected among strangers.”
My heart lurched. Nebach wouldn’t make the decision, but he could influence mother and the decision lay with her. “We’ll be with Zur and his whole caravan,” I pleaded to them both. “We’ll not be unprotected, and I can protect myself too you know.”
“Hmmmm,” Nebach said, absently rubbing his arm where I’d struck him during a recent training session. “I suppose if your Mother says it’s ok.”
“Well . . .” Mother said, “You’d probably never forgive me if I denied you this chance to spend time with Cozbi. She’s getting married soon, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” I said nodding, my eyes downcast, trying to look forlorn. So I can go?” I asked timidly, without looking up.
“How long will you be away?”
“About three or four months,” I mumbled.
“Three or four months!” Mother exclaimed, “Why so long?”
“The camp where we’re headed isn’t exactly close. It’ll take nearly two months just to reach it.”
“Are you sure that you’re up to it?” Nebach asked, testing my resolve. “Traveling so far will be exhausting and a lot of hard work.”
“If Cozbi can make it, so can I,” I insisted, even as I wondered whether she could.
“Well . . . alright,” mother relented. “But be careful for God’s sake!”
Dathan wanted to come with us, insisted even, for my safety. I didn’t know what to say, though I knew I wanted to say “no.” Not that he would be bad company. It was just that I wanted this time with Cozbi, and Dathan’s presence would change the feel of the trip. Besides, once Cozbi married, who knew how much our friendship might change or how much time we would have together?
Unable to dissuade Dathan through subtlety and unwilling to refuse Dathan’s request outright, I did the only other thing else I could do – I spoke with Zur, Cozbi’s father.
“Zur,” I said, in one of the rare moments we were alone in his home. “Dathan wants to come with us.”
“Dathan?” Zur responded, raising his eyebrows. “He’s has his eye on you, does he?”
“I like him . . . a lot,” I hemmed and I hawed. “But I don’t want him to come with us,” I finally blurted out.
“You don’t?” Zur asked, with a quizzical look in his eyes.
“No. It’s just that . . . well . . . I was hoping to spend the time with Cozbi, and . . . .” My voice broke involuntarily.
Zur reached out and held me in a strong fatherly embrace. “Say no more, Mishael. It’s alright. Dathan needn’t come. In fact, I forbid it. It wouldn’t be proper, after all, for him to travel with us. I’d best take care of this now.”
I’d expected Zur to send a servant, not speak to Dathan himself. I had always held Zur in high regard. But his willingness to confront Dathan for me raised my level of respect, and gave me just an inkling of his feelings towards me.
I ran off to Cozbi’s room to tell her the good news: We’re going on a caravan! We’re going on a caravan!
“It’s good to see Moses so happy,” Hosea said as he and Caleb walked through camp at sunset. This had become their evening ritual, and they enjoyed it immensely. Their presence calmed the people and they were greeted with kind words. Children always approached them, excited and exuberant.
“Zipporah’s certainly refreshed his spirit,” Caleb said, “as have his children. Who would’ve thought that a man like Moses would make such a devoted father?”
“Moses playing with children,” Hosea replied, shaking his head. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t ever have believed it.”
“Even Jethro is a blessing,” Caleb added after a time. “Suggesting that Moses appoint judges to hear the people’s complaints, and that Moses limit his own role to teacher and divine intermediary . . . it was inspired. I’d say divinely so, if he weren’t a high priest of Midian.”[vi]
“I know it’s right for Moses to respect his wife’s father . . .” Hosea said, not sure whether he should continue.
“But?” Caleb asked, trying to draw his friend out.
“But he’s a Midianite high priest,” Hosea whispered to Caleb, “who makes no bones about worshipping the god of his ancestors. What must the Lord think about Moses following Jethro’s advice?”
“If it troubles the Lord,” Caleb said somewhat bitterly, “He can tell Moses Himself. Let Him intervene, if He finds it important.”
“Caleb,” Hosea said, with a note of warning in his voice. Caleb had a right to be bitter, but this came perilously close to blasphemy.
Caleb looked him straight in the eyes, defiant, unyielding, but even he knew he had stepped a little too close to the line. He looked away and Hosea took it as a sign of contrition.
Hosea continued in earnest, resuming in a whisper, “What if Moses’ tolerance of Jethro angers the Lord?”
“Hosea,” Caleb answered, “I can’t profess to know God’s will. Back in Egypt I thought that I understood God. But now?” Caleb shrugged and shook his head.
“We could talk to Moses,” Hosea continued, “to express our concerns about Jethro. He’s a high priest of Midian, in the midst of our camp, allowed the freedom to speak and to influence people! What if he tries to get the people to worship his god!”
“This is your concern, Hosea,” Caleb responded, “not mine. Jethro hasn’t sought to convert us. He hasn’t even spoken of his god. Truth be told I wish he would because, frankly, I’m curious.”
“That’s precisely the problem!” Hosea exclaimed. “If you’re curious, others will be too. Nothing good can come of this. Moses must see the danger.”
“If there’s spiritual danger, I’m sure Moses sees it. He seems to know God’s mind much better than anyone else.”
“Still,” Hosea said, unsure whether to speak with Moses.
“Just keep an eye out,” Caleb said. “Jethro’s done nothing wrong. If he proselytizes or offers questionable advice, then decide at that time whether to raise your concerns.”
Hosea saw the wisdom of keeping his concerns to himself, at least for the time being. But he’d keep an eye on Jethro, along with the other potential troublemakers. By contrast, Caleb liked Jethro and didn’t put him in that class, yet it certainly never hurt to keep an ever watchful eye.
When Caleb and Hosea made their rounds, the children often swarmed them. The children admired them and looked to them for guidance. Given Caleb’s crisis of faith, he answered the practical questions and left the spiritual ones for Hosea to answer.
“What is God like?” asked a five year old boy, with intelligent brown eyes and dark curly hair.
Hosea sat down humbly on the ground, so he could speak eye to eye. Caleb sat down next to him, curious how Hosea would answer. The children sat down in a semi-circle facing the two men.
“God is like your parents,” Hosea replied.
“My parents!” the child replied. “I can see my parents. But I can’t see God.”
“True,” Hosea said. “But God watches over you like your parents, and He cares whether you do right or wrong. He even loves you like your parents.”
“But why does God let bad things happen?” another little boy asked. “God can do anything. That’s what mommy says. So why did He let the Amelekites kill daddy?”
Caleb tensed at the question, but he was more curious than ever to hear Hosea’s response.
“These are hard questions, little one. God acts sometimes and not others, and no one really knows why. Do you have a brother or sister?” Hosea asked.
“I have a sister. We fight,” the little boy said simply.
“Does your mother stop you from fighting, or does she sometimes let you fight?” Hosea asked.
“Sometimes she stops the fighting, if she is grumpy and the noise hurts her ears. Other times, she just says, ‘You better stop fighting, or someone will get hurt,’ ” the little one said, as other children nodded.
“Do you always listen to your mother, when she asks you to stop fighting?” Hosea asked.
“Sometimes, but not always,” the boy said with a pout. “But it’s Miriam’s fault,” he added, as if by force of habit.
“It is not!” replied the girl next to him, his older sister Miriam, no doubt.
“When you continue to fight,” Hosea asked them both, “does someone sometimes get hurt?”
“Sometimes,” they said in unison.
“Why do you think your mother let that happen,” Hosea asked looking at them both.
“I don’t know,” the boy said.
“Nor do I,” said his sister.
“I think maybe you do know, if you both think real hard,” Hosea pressed. “Why would your mother let you fight until one of you gets hurt?”
“Well,” said the boy, his face wrinkling in thought, “Momma usually asks us afterwards if we learned our lesson.”
“And?” Hosea asked.
“Maybe she wanted us to learn the lesson,” the girl concluded, with a smile on her face.
“I think maybe you’re right,” Hosea said, “but we’ll probably never know.”
“I guess,” said the boy smiling past a puzzled expression.
“But you still love your Momma, don’t you?” Hosea asked.
“Of course I do!” he replied.
“We may never know why God lets bad things happen, little ones – maybe so we can learn to be good to each other, and learn to help each other on our own. If we all learned that lesson, think of the world we could create!” Hosea said.
“Do you understand?” Hosea added.
All of the children nodded, “yes.” But the little boy furrowed his brows before saying, “Not really.” When Hosea and Caleb started laughing, the children laughed too.
Hosea and Caleb stood up and the children dispersed. The pair walked together in silence, until they were approached once again.
The Israelites encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Not long thereafter Moses ascended the mountain to commune with the Lord. He left Aaron in charge of the people’s spiritual well being, and Hosea and Caleb in charge of their physical safety.
Moses returned a few days later, subtly changed. He seemed healthier, stronger, more centered and at peace. As a pregnant woman glows from the life in her belly, so Moses glowed with the word of God in his heart.
Moses assembled the elders and then waited for silence. He started quietly, almost whispering, though the desert air carried his words. “You yourselves have seen what the Lord did to the Egyptians. He bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Himself. Now then,” he said, his voice growing more resonant, “the Lord has promised, if you will obey His Voice and keep His covenant, then you shall be His own possession among the peoples, for all the earth is His. And you shall be to Him a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[vii]
The elders sat enthralled, mesmerized by the message and the cadence of Moses’ voice. Then the eldest of elders awkwardly arose. His back was bent, his shoulders hunched, his frail voice cut through the silence. “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do,” he concluded.[viii]
The elders erupted into a cacophony of cheers and affirmations.
Moses surveyed the crowd, and then returned to his tent. After a brief rest, he once again ascended the mount.
It was less than a day before Moses returned at the Lord’s command to consecrate the people. He ordered them to wash their garments and make ready for the third day, when the Lord would come down in the sight of the people.[ix] The people were abuzz as they carried out their tasks. They didn’t know what to expect, but expectations ran high.
Hosea and Caleb met with Moses, on the day that he returned. “Set bounds for the people all around the mountain,” Moses ordered. “Forbid them from setting foot on the mountain, or from even touching its border. Tell them, ‘Whosoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him who trespasses on the sacred ground, but he shall surely be stoned or pierced, whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ Tell the men that they shall not go near a woman for these three days, and when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain. Go.”[x]
After meeting with the captains, a perimeter was established and the soldiers spread the word not to touch the holy mountain. To assure full compliance, they explained the consequences of disobedience. Everyone, it seemed, was inclined to obey.
The rest of Moses’ instructions about relations with women, Hosea told to the elders. The elders should instruct their people about preparing for the Lord.
Moses continued to bless his people through the end of that day and through the next. The people washed themselves and their garments, and were chaste for the Lord.
On the third day, at the break of dawn, thunder and lightning filled the air as a cloud settled around the mountain. From high upon the mount, a ram’s horn trumpeted in the distance. The people trembled. They were hesitant and deathly afraid. But Moses led them out of their camp to the foot of Mount Sinai, so they could meet for themselves the Lord God of Israel.[xi]
When the people arrived, the soldiers were ready. They stood at the foot of the mountain to prevent any trespass. Hosea and Caleb inspected their line.
“Do you really think we’ll see God today?” asked an unusually bold soldier.
Hosea shrugged, “Whatever happens, God will make His Presence felt.”
Caleb gestured out towards the crowd. “Look at the people, Hosea. Have you ever seen such a range of emotions? Fear. Elation. Skepticism. Gratitude. If God doesn’t make His Presence felt, we’ll have a riot on our hands.”
“Have faith, Caleb,” Hosea said. “The Lord is here. I can feel His . . .”
Fire lit the sky before Hosea could finish. Color splashed across the heavens, searing oranges and reds, painting fluffy white clouds against a brilliant blue sky. Smoke ringed the mountain, black as coal, providing contrast.
The people flinched and they cowered, frightened to look, yet terrified to look away. Then the mountain itself trembled, throwing people to their knees as if God were outraged that they would stand in His Presence.[xii]
Moses stood on a precipice part way up the base of the mountain, facing the people and in their full view. Those not thrown to the ground, kneeled in supplication, before Moses turned his back and raised outstretched arms. The sound of a ram’s horn grew louder and louder.[xiii]
With his back to the people, Moses spoke in quiet awe. Yet his voice carried on a gentle breeze so that each person heard. God answered with thunder. Moses spoke yet again. Thunder. Moses. Thunder. Moses. Thunder. Back and forth it went.
Then Moses turned to the people and said, “The Lord has called me up to the top of the mountain. I must go. Do not set foot upon this sacred ground or many shall perish.”[xiv]
As Moses climbed out of view, those nearest the mountain stood as if to follow. But the thunder bellowed angrily. The mountain shook violently, and the people fell to their knees. Only the soldiers remained standing, their backs to the mountain, their vigil silent and resolute.
The people waited and prayed, then grew anxious and bored. They had waited for hours and wanted to approach. With Moses gone, they need not face his disapproving gaze. But the soldiers stood in their way.
“Who are you to keep us from the Lord?” They demanded. “It is our birthright! Let us pass!”
Hosea and Caleb had never before laid a hand on their people. Neither one wanted to do what they knew they must.
Caleb focused on the apparent leader. Strike him down and they’ll disperse. He prepared himself mentally to kill one of their own.
Lord help us, Hosea prayed, with his hand on his sword. What I do, I do for You, he thought as he began to slide it from its scabbard.
But before Hosea or Caleb could act, the smoke ringing the mountain parted. A cool wind swept the crowd and brought chills to Caleb’s spine. Low and angry, Moses’ voice carried out upon the wind, “The Lord has warned you not to set foot on the mountain. Do not break through or many will perish. None may look upon the face of the Lord and live.”[xv]
Heads turned and searched, but Moses was not there. He stood high up on the mount, well beyond earshot.
“Find Aaron and bring him to me,” Moses said to Hosea and Caleb. Each looked at the other. They were the only ones who heard. Without a word to each other or even to their soldiers, they strode through the crowd to where the Levites assembled.
“Come with us,” Hosea summoned, when they found Aaron with his sons.
“Moses has requested your presence,” Caleb added, “on the mount.”[xvi]
Aaron rose to his feet, as did his sons, Nadab and Abihu.
“Not you two,” Hosea said, “only Aaron can come.”
“But father,” said Nadab. “Who will help you up the mountain?”
“You’ll need our strength,” Abihu added, “if you’re to make it to see the Lord.”
“The Lord will be my strength,” Aaron answered, “no one else.”
“But we want to go,” they insisted, like whining spoiled children.
“No,” Aaron said authoritatively, before turning to go.
“Father,” Nadab warned, “If you go, we will follow.”
“You’ll not deny us our chance,” said Abihu, “to meet our Lord God.”
“My sons,” Aaron said tenderly, “Honor your father and do as you’re told. All that the Lord says, we have vowed we would do.”
“We will not,” they said together.
“Stop this foolishness!” Aaron shouted. “I and I alone was asked to set foot on the mount. Follow me up the mountain and surely you will die.”
“That’s unfair,” Abihu complained.
“He’s not only your God,” Nadab added. “We’ll face him together or not at all.”
“Then we’ll stay here together,” Aaron told both his sons, “for I’ll not be the one who tempts you to challenge our Lord.”
Caleb and Hosea saw Aaron’s resolve, as well as the fury in his eyes, as the expression on his sons’ faces revealed arrogant satisfaction. These two will be trouble, Caleb thought to himself.
When Moses returned, he was unhappy with Aaron and furious with Aaron’s sons. But he chose not to confront them. He had more pressing business.
Moses stood at the base of Mount Sinai, with the people gathered round him, waiting for him to speak. But the Lord spoke directly to the people, and gave them ten commandments.
Yet the people heard only thunder, punctuated by rams’ horns. They cringed at the lightning that struck in their midst. The voice of God terrified them. Then they begged Him to stop.[xvii]
“Speak to us yourself,” the people cried out to Moses, “and we will listen. But do not let God speak to us or we shall die.”[xviii]
Moses said to his people, “God tests you and frightens you, so that the fear of Him may remain with you and turn you from sin.”[xix]
But the terror simply paralyzed them and impeded all learning. So Moses set himself apart and the people stood at a distance,[xx] as Moses listened intently to the voice of the Lord.
The people calmed quickly, as the Lord spoke through Moses, the thunder and lightening now focused on him. Moses translated in a voice that reverberated within in them, as if it came straight from God: “You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven. You shall not make other gods besides Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves. You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. And if you make an alter of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.”[xxi]
Moses spoke for an eternity or so it seemed to the people, as the thunder deafened and lightning blinded, if only temporarily. Moses detailed the law and the consequences for breaking it. He outlined traditions, some old and some new. He spoke of a great promise, if they would trust in the Lord. Moses translated verbatim words of the Lord.[xxii]
“ ‘Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice. Do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him. But if you will truly obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My angel will go before you and bring you in to the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I will completely destroy them. You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds, but you shall utterly overthrow them, and break their sacred pillars in pieces. You shall serve the Lord your God. And I will bless your bread and your water, and I will remove sickness from your midst. There shall be no one miscarrying or barren in your land. I will fulfill the number of your days. . . .’ ”[xxiii]
Then Aaron, his sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders, left the encampment and moved away from the mountain so they could worship at a distance commanded by the Lord.[xxiv]
As the lightning subsided and the last thunder echoed, they cried to the heavens and promised to obey. They chanted in unison spurred on by the elders, “What our Lord God has spoken is that which we’ll do!”[xxv]
Moses wrote down the words, which the Lord had spoken and he’d relayed. He spent many long hours writing late into the evening. Then he arose early the next morning, refreshed and ready to work.
At the foot of the mountain, he built an alter with twelve pillars, one pillar a piece for each of the tribes. The people sacrificed animals in the name of the Lord. Moses took out the book of the covenant he’d just written, and he read it aloud so the people would hear.
Once again the people cried out to affirm their allegiance, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do – we’ll obey!”[xxvi]
Moses sprinkled blood from the sacrifices on the altar and on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all of these words.”[xxvii]
Then Moses took Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders, and they saw the God of Israel. Under His feet, there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself.[xxviii] They beheld the God of Israel as they ate and they drank, feasting in silence in the presence of the Lord.[xxix]
Lightning and thunder suddenly pealed in the distance. The elders exchanged glances. Moses rose to his feet. He turned in rapt attention to the figure on the stone. Moses listened and he nodded, then said to the elders, “The Lord has called me to climb the mountain and remain there for a time, where He’ll will give me stone tablets with the law and commandments I have written.”
Moses arose and motioned Hosea to accompany him. Then he turned to the elders and gave them instructions, “Wait here for us until we return to you. If a legal matter arises, Aaron and Hur can resolve it.”[xxx]
Moses ascended the mountain, with Hosea at his side. The elders dispersed to relay what had occurred. Caleb inspected his line of soldiers, assuming command without a word.
Then Moses climbed further and a cloud
covered the mountain. The glory of the
Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud remained covering it for another six
On the seventh day, God called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. To the eyes of the Israelites, the glory of the Lord was like fire a fire on the mountaintop.[xxxii] Moses entered the cloud and disappeared from view, as he climbed further up the mountain to attend to the Lord.[xxxiii]
Days passed quickly at first, then slowly one after another as the soldiers grew weary of guarding the mountain. Caleb spoke with his soldiers and learned about their lives, which lifted their spirits and solidified new bonds.
“What’s your name?” Caleb asked a soldier, who looked about twenty years old.
“Japeth, sir,” he said shyly, looking down at the ground.
“Look at me, Japeth,” Caleb said sternly.
Japeth raised his face and looked Caleb squarely in the eyes.
“From now on, Japeth,” Caleb ordered, “when you speak you’ll stand tall. You’ll be proud of your heritage, and speak to people eye to eye. You’ll display the confidence of a soldier protecting our people. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Japeth, who spoke to Caleb eye to eye.
“Do you know who you were named after?” Caleb asked the young man.
“No, sir,” he replied, seemingly curious about his name.
“Japeth was Noah’s son,” Caleb explained. “He survived the great flood and was a man entrusted by God to carry on the human race. It’s a name worthy of pride.”
“Yes sir,” Japeth replied, his eyes bright.
“What did you do in Egypt, Japeth?” Caleb asked.
“I worked in the brick pits,” Japeth said, looking away, “bringing straw for the bricks.”
“You act like you’re embarrassed,” Caleb observed, displeased. “Look at me, Japeth,” Caleb commanded. “Did you work hard?”
“Yes, sir,” Japeth replied, “but I was a slave.” He tried to look at Caleb, but couldn’t stop himself from looking away in shame.
“I said look at me!” Caleb growled. Japeth immediately obeyed. “We were all slaves in Egypt. Should I be ashamed I was a slave?”
“No, sir,” Japeth said, obviously taken aback.
“You bring honor or dishonor, to yourself and our people, depending on your choices and the actions you take. Bring honor to yourself, and honor to our people.”
“Yes, sir,” Japeth replied.
“Good man,” Caleb responded, before turning and continuing his inspection of his men.
So it went, up and down the line. Caleb learned about his men and they learned about him. It strengthened the trust and loyalty between him and his men.
As the weeks passed with no sign of Moses, restlessness rose like an inexorable floodtide. Many said they should ascend the mountain, to make sure Moses was alright. But Caleb wouldn’t allow it. He trusted Moses and Hosea, though he increasingly had doubts.
Am I doing the right thing? Caleb wondered, when he was alone.
Caleb imagined Hosea’s answer, strong and resilient, God Himself forbade them from setting foot on the mountain. Who are we to disobey?
But what if you or Moses fell or became ill? Caleb wondered in response.
Then we’ll rely upon God, as we have in the desert, came the imaginary reply.
I could send Aaron, if only his fool sons wouldn’t follow, Caleb mused. Moses sent for Aaron to meet him on the mountain. Perhaps Aaron could look for Moses and Hosea now, without causing offense.
Caleb sighed. I suppose it couldn’t hurt to ask, he said to himself, as he headed across camp towards the tent Aaron called home.
We set out with Cozbi’s father in a caravan of ten. Nebach was right. Traveling was difficult. Usually, we traveled at night, pitched our camp at dawn and slept during the day.
Zur guided us using the stars and taught us how to navigate at night. He showed us shapes and figures in the stars, and how to find the North Star. Between the stars and moon, we had plenty of light for traveling.
We traveled nearly every evening, moon or no moon. The stars alone were so brilliant, we could easily find our way. The only time we didn’t travel was cloud covered nights, which blocked the stars and the moon and made traveling treacherous.
In the morning, before bed, Zur taught us about his wares. He had gourds, baskets, and crafts; tools of every shape and variety; dried foods; games and toys for the children; and all manner of trinkets. He even had some simple salves, potions and unguents – nothing like the powerful mixtures Balaam and I made – but those would have needed great care in administering and monitoring. Zur had just about everything he could easily carry and sell.
He also had hundreds of little carved calves, some in ivory, but most in wood. Upon closer inspection, some were calves and some were bulls. He had a few made of silver, and fewer still made of gold. They glistened and gleamed in the harsh desert, and would catch a customer’s eye from a great distance away.
Zur offered me a little silver calf, much like Cozbi’s golden one. But I politely declined. I couldn’t accept such a gift.
The terrain, over which we traveled, constantly shifted and changed – sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy and sometimes scorched sun baked. Only the hardiest of plants could survive in such a place. Then every so often we came to an oasis, a lush and green paradise out of place in the midst of hell.
Oases were my favorite. A fresh pool or two of water invariably bubbled up from the ground, surrounded by vegetation and a variety of fruiting trees, like date palms and fig trees. My mouth watered just thinking about it. But what I liked best of all was the ability to bathe, to wash away days and weeks of desert dirt and grime.
Oases reminded me of the women’s lodge, only not nearly so private. Yet we could usually find privacy in the heat of the day. Everyone else slept, protected from the sun. It meant interrupting our sleep schedule, but we were young and it wasn’t so hard.
“Cozbi?” I asked as we washed privately mid-day.
“Yes?” she replied, as she splashed in the pool.
“How many oases have we come across in the last month and a half?” I asked.
“Three or four,” Cozbi answered, before adding, “I think.”
“And how many people could live at the biggest one full time,” I continued.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Cozbi mused. “A few hundred perhaps, if they dug a few wells. A thousand would be like a town. Ten thousand would be like a city. I suppose if they dug enough wells and the water held out and oasis might support a fairly good sized city.”
“And there are supposed to be millions of people wandering in the desert?” I asked, incredulous.
“That’s what father says,” Cozbi answered with a shrug, the water glistening on off her bare shoulders. “Hard to imagine, I know. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
Throngs of people gathered around Aaron’s tent, shouting and shaking their fists. A few soldiers also gathered and tried to keep the peace. The best they could manage was to hold back the crowd.
Caleb saw the unrest and waded through the people. Men and women angrily glared, then recognized Caleb in their midst. As word spread of Caleb’s arrival, people did their best to make way.
“What’s this?” Caleb asked, as he reached the head of the crowd. He knew who each of the troublemakers, and stared each one down. No one spoke a word, so he entered Aaron’s tent.
Aaron sat towards the back of his tent looking tired and defeated. Abihu and Nadab cowered around him, wincing at every shout and every threat from outside.
“What’s going on here?” Caleb asked, though he suspected he knew. Rabble roused against authority, that’s just what they did.
“Moses is dead,” Abihu asserted in his slightly nasal tone, “led to his death by a god that couldn’t protect him. No one could have survived more than a month on that terrible mountain. He didn’t even bring any food or any water.”
“The people need a leader,” Nadab added, “and a god of life, not one of death.”
“Our father will lead them,” Abihu said.
“He’ll make a new god,” Nadab added.
“Are you mad?” Caleb barked, “This is treason and blasphemy. “We suffer for centuries and God breaks our chains. He feeds us and strengthens us and that is how you repay Him?” Caleb’s words cane out freely enough, but tasted bitter in his mouth.
“He left us in bondage for over four hundred years,” Nadab whined. “He led us to the Amelekites, who slaughtered us by the thousands. He stood by and did nothing, as Pharaoh killed your family. He . . .”
“Enough!” Caleb shouted, drawing his sword from its scabbard. “Your next word will be your last.”
Nadab and Abihu both cringed. Caleb saw tears on Aaron’s cheeks.
“Aaron,” Caleb pleaded gently, “Moses is your brother. Surely you haven’t lost faith, in him or in God.”
“I’m an old man,” Aaron replied, “What does it matter what I think? If I refuse the people’s request, before long they will be stoning me . . . and who will lead them then?”
“Aaron,” Caleb persisted, kneeling down to Aaron’s level, “who more than you knows the power of the Lord? You have seen how He led our people out of Egypt. You’ve seen countless divine miracles, both the large and the small. You’ve seen God deliver on promise after promise.”
Caleb knew he spoke the truth, but he didn’t like having to say it. Caleb rallied to God’s defense, despite the emptiness in his soul. It felt right, yet so wrong, for Caleb to argue for the Lord.
“God doesn’t always protect us,” Aaron said sadly, “or those that we love.” Aaron stared at Caleb’s sword, hoping for a quick and painless death. Anything would be better than the path that lay before him.
Coming from Aaron, the words struck Caleb quite a blow. If Aaron had lost faith, what chance did Caleb stand of regaining it? Caleb needed that chance desperately, though he didn’t want it at all.
The people surrounding the tent began chanting for a new god. “A calf!” “A golden calf!” “Make us something worthy of worship!” “Give us hope!” “Give us promise!”
“Give them guidance,” Caleb begged, seeking to find hope in Aaron’s actions. “You’re their spiritual leader while Moses is absent. After all you have seen can you lead them astray?”
Aaron rose to his feet. His shoulders slumped. He was spiritually exhausted.
Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and Caleb stepped outside. Nadab and Abihu exchanged worried glances. They had no idea what their father would say or do.
Before Aaron could speak, Nadab stepped forward and shouted, “Who knows the power of God more than my father? Aaron is our leader. Even Caleb acknowledges this.”
“A god of gold! A god of gold! Make us something we can worship!” The crowd shouted and chanted and wouldn’t be appeased.
Caleb whispered in Aaron’s ear, “Aaron, please, put a stop to this. The people will listen to you. My faith may be weak, but even I couldn’t do what they ask.”
The people grew rowdy, pushing and shoving.
“Quiet!” Caleb shouted, resting his hand on his sword. He knew if he drew it, the end would be near.
“I can’t control these people,” Aaron whispered back urgently. “Nor can you and you know it. If I don’t give them what they want, they’ll kill me and my family. Then they’ll be left all alone here, in this terrible place.”
“Aaron, please,” Caleb begged. “You can’t do this. You can’t.”
But Aaron had decided. He gathered the energy to speak. “Hear me!” Aaron shouted, straining his voice. “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.”[xxxiv]
The people cheered and, in a frenzy, they did as Aaron asked.
While Aaron began fashioning the mold to create a golden calf,[xxxv] Caleb learned from his scouts that a caravan of Midianite traders was heading towards the Israelite camp.
Caleb led several trusted soldiers, including young Japeth, to meet the small caravan. They projected strength and confidence, riding enormous Egyptian steeds, wearing Amelikite armor and carrying deadly metal weapons that gleamed in the desert sun.
They rode past a ridge of hills and on for some time before reaching the caravan. Caleb halted but didn’t dismount. A well dressed trader stepped forward, impeccably groomed. He stretched out his arms palms upward in a gesture of peace. A servant walked with him, a pace behind and to his left.
“Peace be with you,” the trader said, in the Israelite tongue.
“Who are you?” Caleb asked, his voice hard and commanding.
The servant translated Caleb’s words.
“I am Zur,” the man replied in Midianite. This too the servant translated, before the trader continued. “We are traders. We are peaceful. We bring wealth from far away lands.”
Zur returned Caleb’s gaze, as the servant translated.
“Why trade with us? We are poor. We have little more than trinkets,” Caleb inquired suspiciously. They had yet to meet traders in their travels. Perhaps traders, like all most other reasonable people, might be intimidated by millions of nomads traveling together through the desert.
The servant translated fluidly for Caleb and Zur.
Zur nodded his head and chose his words with great care. “One man’s trinkets are another man’s treasure,” Zur said, never breaking eye contact. “We would barter our humble trinkets in a fair trade for yours, so that each of us will part company far wealthier in the process.”
“Our laws require honesty in trading. If you trade with us, you must submit to our laws,” Caleb decreed, his voice firm and unyielding. Caleb had become a good judge of character watching Jephunneh decide disputes. He could tell when a man lied or possessed a weakness of spirit, though he hadn’t yet formed an impression of Zur.
“We’ll submit to your laws,” Zur agreed, “and abide by your customs. But we have one condition, we demand in return.”
Caleb tensed at the audacity, and considered turning them away. But the man commanded respect, and Caleb was curious about Zur’s condition.
“What condition would you impose, Zur of Midian?” Caleb asked.
“We’ll submit to your laws,” Zur repeated, his voice strong and sincere, “but your laws must protect us equally, just as they protect you.”
Caleb exhaled slowly and let tension drain away. I like this trader, Caleb concluded. “You are wise, Zur of Midian, and your condition is fair. You are welcome among us.” Caleb dismounted and extended a hand.
Zur and Caleb talked awhile, with Zur’s servant translating. Zur had heard stories, impossible stories, of millions of people wandering in the desert. If it was true, it was a sight he had to see for himself and, regardless of the numbers, he could profit from trading.
Caleb smiled as he listened. His people were quite a sight, wandering in the desert without sufficient food or water, relying each day on the grace of the Lord. Their survival was impossible without divine intervention. Many outsiders were probably curious, intimidated or afraid.
One of the women in Zur’s caravan caught Caleb’s eye. She wore a sheer veil across her beautiful face, no doubt to protect her alabaster skin from the sun. Her topaz blue eyes revealed intelligence and curiosity. Long red curls framed her face and spilled over her shoulders. She had a lovely petite build, which seemed lithe and not skinny. She seemed of marriageable age, but if so . . . only just.
Caleb’s reaction surprised and unnerved him. Though he assessed her at a glance, time slowed to a crawl. He found he couldn’t maintain eye contact, and his mind seemed to go blank. He listened to Zur without hearing a word. Caleb had never been shy or uncomfortable around women and this one seemed hardly much older than child – for her to affect him so strongly left him deeply unsettled.
Before they set out towards camp, the sun neared its zenith. Traveling at that time of day would not have been wise. Zur seemed to know this, for he gave no order to take down the tents.
“We must rest for a few hours,” Zur explained, “to let the heat pass.”
“Good,” replied Caleb, “The women shouldn’t travel in this heat.”
As Zur’s servant translated, one of the women tittered.
But the girl with the long curls didn’t seem at all amused. She muttered something under her breath. Zur silenced her with a glance.
“This is Mishael,” Zur said to Caleb. “She’s a friend of my daughter, Cozbi. Misha’s like a daughter to me. But she sometimes speaks when she should remain silent.”
Mishael blushed behind her veil, but managed to hold her tongue.
“As do we all,” Caleb replied, to lessen the slight.
Zur introduced Caleb to everyone, including his daughter Cozbi. By the time he had finished, Mishael had quietly slipped away.
Lord God of Midian help me! When I saw him approach, I thought I would faint. I’d seen soldiers before. I’d met Nebach’s men. But the man’s incredible physique was like nothing I’d ever seen – bulging, well defined, muscles somehow perfectly proportioned; a strong masculine face framed by curly brown hair; intelligent eyes that didn’t seem to miss a thing; and large calloused hands developed from years of hard work. Whoever he was, he was no ordinary soldier.
My body felt flush and my heart began to race. I had never before had a reaction like this. It nearly frightened me to death. I struggled to maintain my composure. I knew my reaction was foolish, and that I didn’t even know the man. But my feelings burned within me, like a wildfire out of control.
He’s not even a Midianite, so he wouldn’t bear the Mark, my rational mind protested. Whatever God he worships, it’s not the God of my ancestors. He’s probably never met a Midianite, so he couldn’t have risked his life to save one. He couldn’t possibly be my prince. I’m just torturing myself. Still . . . my God he is gorgeous, and it cannot hurt to look. It seemed my body had a will of its own, strong enough to corrupt my rational mind.
Then our eyes met and I couldn’t breathe, but I couldn’t look away. I felt lightheaded and dizzy, and began to sway ever so slightly. Breathe, damn you, breathe! I breathed in deep and exhaled slowly, hoping no one would notice. Thank God for the veil, though it hid my face only a little.
I tried to listen to Zur’s translator, and focus on his words. What did that soldier, Caleb, just say? That the women shouldn’t travel in the midst of this heat? The comment struck me as condescending towards women, many of whom were as strong if not stronger than men in a great number of ways.
I made a disparaging remark under my breath, to try to distance myself from this man and the unfamiliar feelings and sensations afflicting. I opened my mouth to speak, but Zur cut me off with a glance. Then he talked about me in my presence, as if I wasn’t’ there. I felt my jaw clench, as I tried to hold my tongue.
Caleb said something flattering to me. It didn’t register as words so much as an unexpected caress. Then Zur introduced the others and I quietly slipped away.
I fled to a hollow we had made in one of the storage carts. Surrounded by Zur’s wares, I curled into a fetal position. My body and mind were both crashing. I closed my eyes tightly, feeling disoriented.
I thought Cozbi had tested my commitment to the Lord. By comparison, Caleb tested my commitment infinitely more. Lord, I prayed, help me follow Your will. Bring me The Dream to scare away these feelings. I hated that Dream. It scared me to death. But my feelings toward Caleb, after so brief an introduction, scared me even more.
After traveling for hours, we crested some hills. I will never forget my first sight of their camp – people, people and more people, as far as the eye could see. Cozbi and I both gasped at the sight. Zur whistled in amazement. The servants whispered nervously among themselves. Caleb and his soldiers smiled at the familiar sight, and the reaction of the newcomers.
“There must be millions of people down there,” I said, trying to make sense of such an incredible sight.
“I told you,” Cozbi replied, though she was no less in awe.
“How can they all survive?” I wondered out loud.
As the caravan reached the outskirts of the mass of people, we came upon guards, who saw Caleb and let us pass. Caleb reminded me of Nebach, strong and confident. They were even close in age.
“He’s the second in command of their army,” Cozbi whispered in my ear.
“Who?” I asked.
“Why, Caleb, of course,” Cozbi replied. Apparently, I hadn’t hid my fixation on Caleb as well as I had hoped.
“You spoke to him?” I asked, immediately feeling jealous. This is insane. I’ve no reason to feel jealous. Then my mind began to wander. What does it matter? It could never be. I don’t know him, and don’t want to know him. Do I? What would be the point? Besides, he’s probably married.
“We spoke while you were sleeping,” Cozbi admitted, scrutinizing my reaction. “They . . .”
I tried to tell myself that Caleb was too old for me, but I knew it wasn’t true. The mere sight of Caleb caused an unfamiliar fluttering in my womb, and a longing that somehow made me feel alive – and like dying – all at once. Moreover, I would’ve married Nebach, if The Dream hadn’t resurfaced. Of course, Nebach was a True Midianite, and Caleb wasn’t even close.
Cozbi gave me an annoyed look. She could tell I wasn’t really listening. I didn’t want to obsess over Caleb, and wanted even less for Cozbi to discover my obsession. I forced myself to focus on her words.
“They call themselves the Children of Israel,” Cozbi explained. “They were slaves in Egypt until their God led them to freedom. Their God feeds them each day, a strange substance they call ‘manna,’ and provides them with water sufficient to survive.”
“He must be a mighty God,” I said before checking myself and praying for forgiveness. My God did not take kindly to the worship of other gods, and could be jealous, angry and vengeful if slighted.
Caleb turned and we made eye contact. He must be the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. My body reacted physically, embarrassing me tremendously, though I knew he couldn’t tell the reaction he’d provoked. I’m waiting for a mirage and dying of thirst, even as I ignore this oasis. Such thoughts were unlike me, and left a guilty bitter taste in my mouth.
I forced myself to look away. But as I did I saw a twinkle in his eye. Could he see into my heart? I wondered, melting at the thought of those liquid brown eyes. Oh my God, he’s coming this way!
“It is nice to see you again Mishael,” Caleb said. His words needed no translator, his tone was sufficient. “Peace be unto you,” he said in passable Midianite.
I smiled like an idiot and blushed like a beet. I wanted to reply but couldn’t bring myself to speak. “Unto you peace” should have been my automatic reply. Since the translator wasn’t present, I needn’t have said anything else. Yet I stood there completely mute, too terrified to speak.
After a few moments of awkward silence, I ran and hid in one of the caravan carts. What am I, seven? I thought as I burst into tears.
“You can come out now,” Cozbi teased. “He’s gone.”
“Go away!” I replied, trying to wipe away my tears.
“What is with you?” she asked, ignoring my request and climbing into the cart. “Is the formidable Witch of Midian shy?”
“Don’t call me that!” I hissed. “You know I’m no witch. I’m a healer and a follower of the Lord God of Midian.”
“Don’t be so touchy,” Cozbi replied, taken aback. “I was only teasing, for Baal’s sake.”
I climbed out of the cart, and Cozbi followed me out. I sulked as we walked.
Now I’ll never get to know him, I pouted. It’s for the best. I’m a fool.
I didn’t kick myself for long. There was so much to see, I eventually became distracted. We walked for hours through the camp and hadn’t reached their central market, which I’d heard was our destination.
So many people! I marveled. This is a genuine miracle.
As we walked, people smiled or gave us curious glances. On rare occasions, someone scowled or ignored us completely. Sometimes children approached, but were quickly pulled away by their parents.
When we finally reached the central market, Caleb reappeared. He spoke briefly with Zur, before taking us to a coveted location near the very center of the market. I maneuvered closer to Zur, to hear his conversation with Caleb, though I did my very best to remain out of sight.
“You’re the first caravan of traders brave enough to approach us,” Caleb said to Zur. “I suppose I’m not surprised,” Caleb said with a warm laugh. “If I was a trader, I’d be wary to approach.”
“Still,” Zur replied, after the translator stopped speaking, “traders must set aside their fears, if they’re to do business at all. Our business has its risks . . . as well as considerable rewards.”
“True enough,” Caleb said. “But there are risks, and there are risks.
“I suppose,” Zur conceded.
“I would have liked to introduce you to our leader, Moses,” Caleb said, “but he’s away on the mountain.”
“Will he be back soon?” Zur asked. “We’ll be here a few days, maybe more depending on sales.”
Caleb glanced at the mountain, an expression of worry on his face. “He should be back any day now. If . . .” he said, before catching himself, “ . . . when he returns, I will arrange a meeting.”
“Thank you,” Zur said. “You have been most gracious and helpful. We are truly, truly, grateful. Thank you for giving us this excellent location. Other vendors must be jealous.”
“Not at all,” Caleb replied. “The choice of location was theirs. As one of the merchants explained it, by locating you centrally, you’ll draw traffic past their stalls. Everyone’s always curious about new and exotic wares. If we’d placed you farther out, only a few merchants would benefit.”
Zur smiled at the analysis. “You’re merchants are smart. See, we haven’t made a single trade and already we’re helping each other!”
“Once we’ve set up,” Zur continued, “please come by and choose a gift. Whatever you like will be my gift to you.”
“You are most kind,” Caleb said. “It is not necessary, but appreciated. If my duties permit, I’ll come by to see that you’re settled.”
Caleb strode confidently away, without ever looking in my direction. Have I offended him? I wondered, as my eyes began to water. Then I remembered that I’d intentionally stayed out of sight.
Watching Caleb walk away, I could see in my minds’ eye the powerful muscles in his back rippling beneath his shirt. What is it about this foreigner that affects me so deeply? Is it simply his looks and his confident manner?
“Come little ones.” Zur interrupted my self-indulgence. “Let’s set up shop and see what we can trade.”
We helped Cozbi’s father arrange his wares, though his servants did most of the work. In no time at all, the caravan opened for business. With all manner of goods arrayed and displayed, it didn’t take long before customers approached. To them our wares were exotic, just as theirs were to us.
“How do you know whether to make a trade, father?” Cozbi asked, genuinely curious.
“When you have done this as long as I have, you get a feel for it,” Zur replied.
“But what makes a good trade?” Cozbi asked, to Zur’s delight.
“Think of it this way,” Zur explained. When you’re trying to decide whether to make a particular trade, ask yourself, ‘What would someone back home give me for the item I’m about to trade away?’ Let’s say that back home I could trade the item for a chicken. Then I only need to ask myself, what would someone back home give me for the item I’m about to acquire? If it is better than one chicken, then the trade is worth making. If it’s worth far more than one chicken, then it’s a very good trade. You see?”
Cozbi looked at Zur confused.
“It’s not so complicated. Really. It’s easy enough to know what a Midianite would give me for my wares. The hard part is estimating what the item I’m acquiring would be worth to a Midianite.”
“It sounds difficult to me,” Cozbi concluded.
“Not really,” Zur replied. “After so many years of trading, I hardly think about it anymore.”
I found it impressive, indeed, watching Zur trading wares. He was quick on his feet, smooth, affable and assured. I never knew whether he’d make a deal until he actually completed it. He kept the buyers uncertain, but when he finally closed a deal, everyone smiled and congratulated each other. I marveled at his ability to drive the best bargain possible without losing the deal.
The little statues of Baal turned out to be one of the most popular items Zur sold. The softer wood carvings traded away very quickly because their value was low. The harder more exotic woods required significantly more in trade, but even they went quickly too. The ivory carvings traded more slowly, in exchange for silver or gold. The little golden calves, like the one Cozbi wore around her neck, sold rarely if at all in exchange for gold and precious gems.
Mishael intrigued Caleb. He’d felt immediately drawn to her and thought she was drawn to him. But she seemed to distance herself intentionally, and on at least one occasion fled. He sensed a gentleness of spirit, combined with strength and independence. Her eyes, blue as the morning sky, sparkled like gemstones contrasting with her fiery red hair.
It had only been a little more than a year and a half, since Caleb’s family had been slaughtered. Caleb saw Sarah in his minds eye, so trusting and innocent at Mishael’s age. It was so different from how he saw Mishael, not better or worse, just different. Caleb waited for the wave of guilt to crush him, but it never even arrived.
If it weren’t for her tender age and the painful loss of his family, Caleb might have pursued something. Yet as attracted as he felt towards Mishael, he wasn’t inclined to act on his feelings. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t feel any guilt for admiring her attributes.
Just as well, Caleb thought. She’s almost certainly betrothed. Besides, he had a job to do and it was time he got to it. He left to visit the soldiers, and gauge the mood of the people.
The soldiers at the base of Sinai stood restless guard over a mountain that no one dared approach. The soldiers scattered throughout the camp felt the people’s anxiety . . . and shared it. Moses and Hosea had been gone far too long. Tension electrified the air, like a lightning storm with little promise of water. Caleb headed over to Aaron’s tent – the eye of the storm.
Aaron had fashioned the basic shape of the calf and now he attended to the fine details. Nadab and Abihu were anxious for their father to finish, but Aaron refused to rush the job.
“When will it be done?” Caleb asked, approaching Aaron.
Aaron glanced at his sons, who’d asked the same question every hour. “Several hours, several days? I don’t know.”
Caleb suspected Aaron of stalling, hoping Moses would return. Aaron didn’t relish the prospect of leading the way towards apostasy. Good, Caleb thought, stall as long as you can.
At dawn, an extremely well dressed young man named Zimri came by the shop. Zimri was handsome, but not overly so. He shifted his weight nervously, seeing Cozbi approach.
“What’s your name?” he asked Cozbi hesitantly, as the servant translated.
Cozbi looked him briefly in the eye, batted her eyelashes and smiled before looking down chastely and saying, “Cozbi, sir, would you care to buy something?”
My mouth fell open. I had known Cozbi for years, and I had never once seen her flirt. Surely Zur has not taught her to do that to sell more goods, I thought.
Zimri smiled, his own gaze never leaving Cozbi, “That depends . . . I would buy whatever ever you are selling, if it would include a little time with you . . . and a chaperone, of course.”
Cozbi blushed, ever so faintly. “Surely there is something here that suits your fancy . . . besides me.”
“No. Just you,” Zimri responded, and then seemed to realize that he might be cutting his time short unnecessarily. “Well,” he hemmed, “Why don’t you show me around. That way, even if I only fancy you, at least the time won’t be wasted.
“Of course,” Cozbi replied, as a servant followed in tow translating. “Over here we have . . .”
As Cozbi and Zimri toured Zur’s wares, I decided to have a look around the market. Actually, it was not so different than the market at home on market day, though the goods were all distinctive in their own right. The baskets were weaved with unusual designs and patterns. Gourds were painted brightly and abstractly. The same was true of the variety of cloths and garments sold. The patterns and weaves, however, were foreign and intriguing. I began to appreciate how Zur could profit from trading these goods back home.
The one aspect of the market that I missed from home was the smell of lamb roasting over an open flame. Apparently, no one here had discovered the idea that had made Hamarab’s fortune. The thought of Hamarab’s lamb on market day made my mouth water and my stomach grumble.
Though I couldn’t be certain, the sale of festive garments and jewelry seemed increasingly brisk, accompanied by a buzz of excitement. People talked merrily amongst themselves and laughed and joked in the local language. The more I listened, the more I heard the similarities in their language with our own.
Now and again I heard a word or two that I recognized, though even then the pronunciation differed so radically I wondered if they were the same word. As a test, I picked out a word or two I heard in the market that seemed completely unfamiliar, and played with it in my head as I walked by the various shops. To my surprise, occasionally I could find a similar combination of words in our own language that we simply pronounced differently.
With words that remained unfamiliar, I considered how they would look if spelled or written out. Then, putting aside the pronunciation given by the Israelites, I thought about how we would pronounce the series of letters. Using this method, a few more words revealed hidden meanings, whose meanings I confirmed with Zur’s servant.
Strange, I thought. Our languages are truly quite similar, yet when they speak it’s so hard to understand what they are saying. I bet if I stayed here long enough, I could pick up their language easily.
Helping in the market became an exercise in attempting to decipher what the buyers were saying. I enjoyed the challenge, but success remained fairly elusive. Still, it made the day’s work all the more interesting.
When business slowed, my thoughts invariably strayed back to Caleb. I fantasized about running into his arms, and away from the course laid out for my by the God of my ancestors. I didn’t consider acting on the fantasy, but I reveled in it nonetheless.
“Did you see him?” Cozbi asked, bubbling over with enthusiasm.
“Who? Caleb?” I returned the question hopefully, as butterflies swarmed in my stomach.
“Caleb? No, silly. Zimri. Did you see him. He is sooo beautiful,” Cozbi enthused. “He said that there is a big celebration two nights from tonight, an official unveiling, worship and revelry.”
“Worship,” I said hesitantly, not particularly thrilled at being present while millions of people worshipped a foreign god.
“Oh don’t be so standoffish. We need to be hospitable. Zimri says that they are putting the final touches on the idol, and guess what? He purchased one of the little golden idols of Baal – with Egyptian gold no less! Zimri said that he wanted to show Aaron, their leader’s brother, the detail work. Aaron is making a golden calf for the people to worship. Can you imagine? I can’t wait to see it,” Cozbi gushed.
“See it?” I asked.
“Of course,” Cozbi replied. “Zimri invited us to the unveiling. Will you go with me?”
“I don’t know,” I equivocated. “We’ll see.”
“But, you just have to go. I need you to go so I can see Zimri again. He is so . . . so . . . sophisticated,” Cozbi finished.
“No doubt it is his, uh, sophistication that has you so infatuated,” I teased with a wry smile.
“I’m no more infatuated with Zimri than you are with Caleb,” teased in return.
“Will Caleb be there too?” I asked hopefully.
Cozbi shrugged and smiled innocently, making the most of her uncertainty.
“Oh alright,” I sighed, “I’ll go with you, but just to watch – not to worship.”
“Of course,” Cozbi replied. “You know I respect your belief in the God of our ancestors, even if I’ve teased you now and again. But you do know I was only teasing, don’t you?” Cozbi asked.
I pretended to pout, but couldn’t keep up the pretense. “Yes, of course, I know. We’re friends after all.”
“Best friends,” Cozbi added hugging me warmly.
Caleb had stopped by Zur’s stall during the day to make sure there were no disturbances, at least that’s what he told himself. Mishael was not there when Caleb arrived, and he found himself drawing out his conversation with Zur. After awhile, Zur needed to attend to trades, so Caleb decided to leave. It surprised him how disappointed he was to have missed Mishael.
Caleb had trouble sleeping. Unsettled, he arose well before dawn. Caleb longed for his evening training sessions with Hosea. Dammit Hosea! Are you ever coming back?
Caleb went to find Japeth, and eventually found Japeth’s tent. “Wake up,” Caleb said gruffly.
“Wha? Whatisit?” Japeth asked, sleep slurring his speech. “Is there trouble in camp?”
“No,” Caleb replied, “This morning we train together.”
Japeth covered his head with the blanket.
“Now,” Caleb commanded in a low growl.
Japeth struggled to his feet and tried to wake up. As Japeth reached for his sword, Caleb threw him a staff instead. No point in either of us dying tonight, Caleb thought. They headed for the hilly area, beyond the edge of camp.
Caleb and Japeth trained on the top of a hill, under a full moon and brilliant stars. Caleb deftly parried, blocked and attacked. Japeth never made it past Caleb’s guard. Caleb ordered Japeth to attack full force and to hold nothing back. Caleb softened his own blows, so he wouldn’t injure the boy. Still, they hurt something fierce and taught him valuable lessons.
As the two of them fought and sweated in the pre-dawn hours, Caleb remained completely focused. Moses didn’t cross his mind, and neither did Hosea nor Caleb’s family. Not even Mishael crossed his mind. He fought with a singular focus, as always, which was why he loved sparring. When sparring, Caleb couldn’t dwell on the past or worry about the future – he existed fully in the present and felt fully alive.
When the sun began to rise, flooding the sky with brilliant reds and oranges and yellows, they stopped to rest and drink water. In peaceful moments such as this, without other distractions, Caleb’s mind once again strayed.
“Did you see her?” Caleb asked, picturing Mishael in his mind.
“Who?” Japeth replied.
“The girl at the caravan – slender figure, milky white skin, blue eyes, and fiery red hair. . . . ‘Mishael,’ I think her name was,” Caleb added, as a faux afterthought.
“I didn’t notice,” Japeth confessed. “Should I have?”
“Notice everything, at all times,” Caleb said, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Be as aware as you can be. Someday, Japeth, it may save your life. For all you know, she could be an Amelekite spy.”
“Do you think she’s a spy?” Japeth asked, wide eyed and innocent.
“No of course she isn’t a spy,” Caleb said, somewhat irritated. “If you’d paid attention you’d know that. Now stand up, and fight.”
Japeth groaned as he stood and hefted his staff. He’d hoped the training that morning had ended with first light.
Caleb lunged at Japeth mercilessly, feinting and attacking, jabbing and swinging, parrying and attacking. Japeth acquitted himself well and slipped a strike or two past Caleb’s guard. Caleb winced at the pain, and smiled at his pupil. On and on they fought, until they were soaked through with sweat and could barely lift their wooden staffs.
The more tired Caleb grew, the more Caleb began to lose focus. She’s a Midianite. Strike. Parry. Lunge, jab strike. I am an Israelite. Feint, block, parry. We come . . . strike . . . from entirely . . . strike . . . different . . . parry . . . traditions . . . parry, parry, parry. Japeth initiated a flurry of blows that Caleb deflected as well as he could.
We believe in entirely different . . . feint, lunge, parry, parry, parry . . . CRACK! Japeth landed a vicious blow, which glanced off the side of Caleb’s head. It was enough to bring Caleb to his knees, though he maintained his defensive position and didn’t lose his staff.
“Are you ok?” Japeth asked, concern reflected in his face.
“It’s nothing,” Caleb answered, as blood ran down his temple. “You’ve done well.”
“Sit. Let’s rest,” Caleb said, wiping the blood from his head. He could tell that his injury seemed worse than it was. He was beyond physically exhausted and mentally unfocused.
Japeth nervously flicked pebbles into the desert, and waited to see if Caleb would resume the sparring session. The Midianites in camp made Japeth uneasy. He wasn’t sure whether to speak his mind. But Caleb’s silence made him even more nervous, prompting Japeth to speak.
“If Aaron has his way,” Japeth said cautiously, “we may become like the Midianites.”
“Hmmph,” Caleb responded non-committally.
“How could Moses marry a Midianite?” Japeth asked quietly, as if afraid of being overheard, “and not just any Midianite either – the daughter of their high priest. Doesn’t God consider that an insult?”
“I don’t know,” Caleb replied. I wish I did know, Caleb thought. “But God hasn’t punished him for it as far as I know.”
“Maybe that’s why Moses hasn’t returned,” Japeth speculated. “Maybe he’s being punished by God.”
“Perhaps,” Caleb conceded, “but then why hasn’t Hosea returned?”
The next day, shortly after sunrise, Cozbi and I went exploring. We soon found ourselves at the edge of camp and in need of refilling our water supply.
A local woman, pantomimed drinking and drawing water from a well. She pointed into the desert, in the direction of a small hill not far in the distance. She indicated that the well would be half-way to the hill. Cozbi and I set out into the desert.
“I can’t wait to see Zimri again,” Cozbi gushed, as we walked through the desert.
“You don’t even know him!” I replied, keeping an eye out for ruts and holes.
“Yes I do,” Cozbi protested, “We spent half a day together. And even if I don’t, it’s all the more reason to spend time with him . . . so I can get to know him.”
“You realize you’re just torturing yourself,” I said, somewhat concerned about her interest. “You’re already betrothed.”
Cozbi made a face at me, “I know. But it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy good company in the meantime.”
“Just be careful,” I warned.
“Careful? What do you think I might do?” Cozbi asked.
“Fall in love or something equally silly,” I responded.
“Ooops. Too late,” Cozbi said lightly, half in jest. “What about you and Caleb?”
“What do you mean, me and Caleb? There is no ‘me and Caleb.’ I didn’t see him yesterday at all. I probably won’t see him again. It’s not as if we have plans to see each other. Besides, I could not more marry Caleb than you could marry Zimri.”
“Who said anything about marriage?” Cozbi asked, looking at me like she’d guessed my secret fantasy.
“Hmmm. I thought so,” she added.
Sometimes I hated my fair complexion, which betrayed me so mercilessly. I shot her a scowl.
“Look!” Cozbi said, ignoring my expression. “There’s the well. I’ll race you!”
We ran to the well, drew up the bucket and drank eagerly. After we had drunk our fill and filled our drinking gourds, we turned to leave and stopped short. Two young men stood in our way, not much older than boys. Then three more appeared, surrounding us. Each held a staff and wore a knife on his belt.
From the distant hill on which Caleb and Japeth rested, they not only saw the women approach the well and drink, they saw other movement across the desert floor.
“Look there,” Caleb said, pointing.
“And there, and there and there,” Japeth said.
“And off to the right,” Caleb added.
Japeth rose to his feet. “Five men,” Japeth said stating the obvious.
“Five armed men,” added Caleb. “They’re too far away,” Caleb observed. “We’d better hurry, and even then . . .”
Caleb never finished his thought. Below them, the five men revealed themselves to the women, weapons drawn. Caleb and Japeth grabbed their own weapons and raced down the hill.
They shouted at the top of their lungs, but their voices wouldn’t carry against the wind. Worse yet, they were exhausted from hours of training. We’ll never make it in time, Caleb realized. These women are in serious trouble.
The five young men were taunting us and jeering at us. I didn’t understand their words, but their leering eyes and ready weapons told me all I needed to know. This wasn’t a friendly welcoming party.
We were alone and too far from camp. No one would hear us scream. We couldn’t outrun them all the way back to camp, even if we managed to break free. Since we didn’t know their language, we couldn’t talk our way out of danger. The hairs on the back of my neck rose of their own accord.
The two men blocking our way back pantomimed to me that I should lay down my staff. When they received no response, they advanced slowly and cautiously, staffs at the ready.
“Stay behind me,” I said to Cozbi, who’d turned as white as a sheet.
“What are you going to do?” she asked meekly.
But there was no time to explain. Without warning, I sprang forward and swung as hard as I could. I struck his collar bone solidly, with a sickening crack. He collapsed to his knees with a yelp and began screaming in pain. My second blow caught him square on the temple and knocked him out cold.
Without hesitation, I swung again, this time at the second man’s head. He blocked my attack and then attacked me with a vengeance. Blow after blow I deflected easily away, never matching his force, but simply redirecting it. In moments, he tired and I went on the offensive. Lunge, jab, swing, jab. He blocked and parried well, but lacked experience. He counterattacked harder and hard as if to overpower my guard. It only made him more exhausted, as I redirected his blows.
He was gasping for air, trying desperately to breathe. In an attempt to make contact, he swung with all of his might. I deflected it, twisted past him and then attacked his exposed side. I drove the point of my staff into the side of his ribs. He dropped his staff, grabbed his side and cried out in pain. I whipped my staff around quickly and struck the back of the head. He hit the ground and lay still as death. I turned to face his friends.
As Caleb and Japeth reached the base of the hill and ran towards the well, smaller hills blocked their view. Japeth stumbled over a snake hole and cursed. Caleb increased his pace. Japeth righted himself and followed, limping as fast as he could.
Caleb reached the crest of a small hill just before the well. Two of his soldiers lay wounded, one writing on the ground, the other silent and still. A veiled woman with long hair turned to face the other three. The other woman cowered near the well, and was crying hysterically.
The woman with the staff dispatched one of the remaining three, with a graceful feint, jab and strike. The jab caught him square on the breastbone, stunning him for a moment. A moment was all she needed, the strike connected with his head. The soldier dropped to the desert floor. His blood blackened the sand.
Two left, against one. They circled and approached, trying simultaneous attacks. She stepped forward into one attacker, deflected his blow and twisted away. The other attacker’s blow connected with nothing but air. They were both now in front of her.
Caleb was still far too far away to order them to stop, or to come to her defense. But was approaching from behind her, and would be there very soon.
One of the men lunged, attacking wildly and yelling a battle cry. She stepped aside as he passed, and swung hard at the back of his head. The strike hadn’t injured him too badly, but it complemented his momentum and launched straight into a cactus that effectively ended his attack.
The last man cried out to Caleb, as he saw Caleb approaching. “She attacked us! She’s crazy,” the soldier yelled.
The woman glanced back for a moment, and saw Caleb running towards her. As she turned, the soldier stepped in and swung for her head. But she ducked under the blow, and rammed the staff into his kidneys. He crumpled in agony. Then she kicked him in the face, breaking his nose and several teeth. He too was done with any further attack.
Cozbi screamed to me, “Behind you!”
The new attacker skidded to a stop within striking range. Reflexively, I swung. He blocked and swung in return, trying to knock the staff from my hands.
I deflected the blow with minimal movement. His attack had left him exposed. I almost connected, but he was quick and skilled with the staff.
He countered immediately, and hard. With the slightest of movements, I deflected the blow and then used his momentum against him. I jabbed hard at his rib cage.
He gasped at the pain, even as he jumped back, and swung. He nearly knocked the staff from my hands. He was good. I was exhausted. I welcomed his momentary retreat.
She’s tiny, Caleb marveled, and incredibly skilled. The pain from her blow would make it difficult to continue fighting. But he could tell she was tired, and he didn’t want to hurt. Perhaps he could persuade her to put down her staff.
Her attack had surprised him and, winded as he was, he did his best to disarm her while defending herself. If I hadn’t been training all morning, he thought. She wouldn’t stand a chance. But that she stood a chance, even now, was amazing and Caleb knew it.
Caleb had focused on her weapon, because it had posed a real threat. During this momentary rest, he could focus on the woman. Mishael? he marveled, recognizing her immediately.
Nebach and Hamarab trained me not to focus my gaze on my attacker. An attacker can mislead and misdirect, with feints and false movements. With my eyes slightly unfocussed, I sensed the entirety of his movement and could better anticipate an attack. After so many years of training, I fought solely on instinct – which was a relief because I’d never fought a real battle before.
I knew I was tired. My remaining attacker was extremely good, almost as good as Hamarab or Nebach. Curiosity and the momentary rest got the better of me, and I stole a glance at my attacker’s face.
Caleb??? I gasped and stepped a pace back, stunned. But I didn’t lower my guard.
Where had he come from? Was he with the other five? He must have been or why else would he have attacked after they had fallen.
Another young man approached from behind Caleb. He limped slightly. He held his staff at the ready and, like the others, carried a knife in his belt. I recognized him from the greeting party that had accompanied Caleb. It didn’t afford me any comfort.
I tightened the grip on my staff and prepared myself for what I must do.
So unexpected was this battle and the skill she displayed, Caleb had almost forgotten that he had raced here to help.
“Wait!” he yelled, dropping his staff and raising his hands out to his side, his palms open in front of him. “We’re here to help.”
She stood her ground and said nothing, not dropping her guard. A worthy adversary, Caleb thought as he struggled to catch his breath.
If she’d recognized him, it didn’t seem to lessen her distrust. She must think we’re with them. The mere thought of it sickened Caleb.
“No,” Caleb said, gesturing to the others, speaking in as soothing a tone as possible. “We’re not with them.”
Mishael looked wary. She continued to hold her ground. She stood in front of her friend, her weapon at the ready.
“Drop your staff, Japeth,” Caleb ordered, in a calm friendly voice.
“But . . . “
“Do it now,” Caleb commanded, his voice friendly and firm. If she attacks before he drops it . . .
Japeth complied, but the situation remained tense.
If only we could communicate. Caleb wished he had a translator. With things as they stood, they were at a stalemate.
I was confused and afraid and pushed well beyond my limits, both physically and emotionally. I wanted to flee. But I knew I was too tired, and my friend’s safety hung in the balance.
Lord, don’t let him be my enemy, I prayed, believing my prayer to be futile. I’d seriously wounded five of his soldiers. I’d attacked and injured him.
What have I done? I thought, a lump rising in my throat. The fear I’d felt for my life and Cozbi’s just moments ago, shifted but didn’t dissipate. What do these people consider justice? I wondered, unsure what to do.
“Caleb!” The shout came from a woman walking across the desert. She was loaded with numerous water gourds, and headed towards the well.
When she reached us and saw the soldiers lying scattered about, Caleb spoke to her rapidly. She nodded in reply. The she turned to me and said, in flawless unaccented Midianite, “Don’t be afraid little one. I’m a Midianite too. My name is Zipporah. You’re safe now. I promise. Caleb only came to help.”
“We were attacked,” I blurted out. “When Caleb approached within striking distance, I didn’t know it was him. I reacted without realizing he wasn’t another attacker.”
Zipporah spoke for a moment to Caleb. Caleb spoke for a moment to her.
“He says he knows,” Zipporah explained. “He and Japeth were training on the hill, when they saw your attackers. They came as fast as they could to help you. But according to Caleb, you didn’t need it.”
My body began to tremble. I had no strength left at all. I sat down, exhausted, with my staff across my lap. My mind, which had been worry free while I fought for my life, flashed images of what might have happened if the five soldiers had had their way.
My God! my mind raced. I seriously wounded five soldiers, and struck a high ranking officer. If a foreigner did that in Midian, no matter what the provocation, it would warrant a whipping or worse.
“Will I be . . . punished?” I asked, hardly able to finish the sentence.
“For defending yourself?” Zipporah answered, “Of course not, little one. Are either of you injured?”
Cozbi burst into tears. Zipporah sat down by her side and held her. “You’re safe now, don’t worry,” Zipporah said in her most soothing voice. “Hush now, you’re safe, everything is going to be alright.”
“They didn’t harm us,” I replied. At least not physically, my mind added.
Japeth whispered to Caleb, then immediately departed.
“Japeth went to get someone to help us bring these . . . men . . . back for justice,” Caleb told Zipporah, who translated for me.
By the time Cozbi had regained some composure, Japeth had returned with a dozen soldiers. They picked up two of the injured soliders, who hadn’t yet regained consciousness, and led their injured comrades away.
Caleb and Zipporah led us back to camp. We took a completely different route than the soldiers to make sure we didn’t overtake our attackers.
“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Caleb asked, with Zipporah translating. He rubbed his side as we walked. It was the side where I had struck him.
I was afraid to answer him truthfully. Is trying to find others he can punish? As well as me? Instead of me? I found it hard to believe I could strike him, not to mention injure his soldiers, without suffering some significant consequences.
“It’s ok,” Zipporah said, “seeing my hesitation. You are safe now, you and your friend both. You did nothing wrong. Truly. You needn’t be afraid.“
“Must I answer his question?” I asked hesitantly.
“No, of course not,” she replied. “You’ve been traumatized. I’ll explain if you don’t wish to speak to Caleb.”
“It’s not that,” I said quickly.
“You’re afraid of reprisals,” Zipporah interrupted before I’d finished. “I give you my word, no harm will come to you or yours, whether you speak to Caleb or not.”
“You are Midianite?” I asked.
“Yes, I am,” she replied.
“Then your word’s good enough for me,” I said, though I would still remain somewhat cautious. “Tell Caleb a friend taught me to use a staff. He’s a merchant and shepherd now by trade, though he used to be in the army.”
Caleb nodded his head. A former soldier for a mentor certainly made sense.
“My step-father has also been training me recently,” I added, “He’s a member of King Balak’s personal guard.” True enough, I thought, without compromising Nebach.
“Impressive. They should be quite proud of your skills, as should you,” Caleb said with genuine admiration. “Many of my own men can’t wield a staff as proficiently as you . . . as you’ve no doubt just discovered. I am truly sorry for what has happened. They will be severely punished. But tell me, how are you able to defend against such bigger and stronger opponents?”
“My step-father asked the same thing, the first time that we sparred,” I answered candidly. “My mentor is a small man, not much bigger than me. He developed his own techniques to fight larger opponents. Instead of meeting force with force, he taught me to redirect an attack, and use the attacker’s momentum against him. The larger and stronger the attacker, the better the technique works against him.”
Caleb nodded in appreciation. “I hope some day to meet your mentor and step-father.”
“Pray you don’t meet them on the field of battle,” Mishael replied, “they’re far more skilled than I.”
“The skills you possess,” Caleb said, “aren’t easily obtained. It takes countless hours of practice and a great deal of pain. I admire you’re dedication.”
It pleased me enormously for him to recognize my hard work. No one had ever acknowledged the hardships of my training before, not that many people even knew about it. Caleb made me feel better about myself than anyone ever had. Is this how my prince will make me feel some day?
“Your words are very kind,” I said, gazing up into his eyes. I could get lost in his eyes.
“They’re true, and well earned,” Caleb responded, without breaking eye contact.
“I . . . I . . . have always wondered if I would remember my training if I ever came to need it,” I said.
“You mean, you’ve never actually been in a real fight before today?” Caleb asked, his tone incredulous.
“No,” I replied, not sure how he could think otherwise. “Today was the first and, I hope, the last.”
Caleb shook his head in disbelief, “You tell your mentor and step-father, that they’ve earned enormous respect here today. I’m amazed.”
I wanted to ask Caleb a million questions about his life. Was he always a soldier? Who influenced his life? Who loved and cared for him at the end of the day? But my questions required translation through Zipporah, as did his answers.
In our first meeting, days earlier, I had seen little more than his physique, his confidence and his command. Now I ached to know him better, but couldn’t think how to make that happen.
If only I could find a man with half the qualities of Caleb, who met the criteria of The Dream. If only.
In other times, Caleb would have noticed the divine co-incidence of Zipporah’s arrival so soon after his prayer. But these days he missed the little miracles, in more ways than one.
Still, the emptiness he felt disappeared when he was with Mishael. Even walking together in silence filled his soul with contentment. Only Sarah had ever made him feel so at peace.
When they reached the caravan, Cozbi ran crying into her father’s arms. Caleb and Zipporah explained what had happened. Mishael stood silently, nodding in confirmation. Zur became red-faced with anger at the assault on the girls’ honor.
No one had any illusions about what would have happened if the soldiers had had their way. Caleb assured Zur the soldiers would be punished severely for their crimes. If Zur wanted to see justice, he could witness it if he liked. Zur’s lips were like a scar as he turned and walked away, his arm draped over his little girl’s shoulder.
Mishael lingered. She seemed drained from hearing the events of the day retold. Her eyes seemed cloudy and unfocused.
“I’m so sorry, Mishael,” Caleb said, with Zipporah translating. “This is not who we are . . . as a people, I mean.”
“I’m sorry too,” Mishael replied. “I hope I didn’t hurt you.”
Caleb chuckled and then said with a wry smile, “The pain will fade, but not the memory of being bested.”
Mishael smiled weakly. She looked beyond exhausted. The shock of combat was setting in and draining her remaining strength. Caleb had had seen it in his soldiers after the Amelekite war.
“You’re remarkable,” Caleb added, with genuine admiration. “But you need sleep. Go.”
Mishael nodded and left to find her bed. Zipporah accompanied her, to make sure she made it there safely.
“Go in peace,” Caleb whispered, when they disappeared from sight.
Zur took me aside the next morning and wanted the details again. He listened quietly, respectfully, as I told him everything I could remember.
“Mishael,” he said when I’d finished, “I owe you a debt I can never repay. How can I ever thank you?”
“There’s no need to thank me,” I said. “I did what I had to do to protect both of us.” Then I added, “it was nothing,” though I knew that wasn’t true.
“I disagree,” Zur replied. “Judging from the admiration and respect I saw in Caleb’s face, it was something quite extraordinary. If there’s ever anything I can do, for you or your family, just name it.”
The gratitude in Zur’s eyes warmed my heart, for it displayed a deep and abiding love for his daughter. I had three surrogate father’s who each loved me in their own way – Uncle Balaam, Hamarab and most recently Nebach. But in that moment, with Zur, I desperately needed the love of my real father, whom I’d never known.
I asked Zur if I could go back to bed. Zur readily agreed. There, all alone, I cried myself to sleep.
Cozbi awoke later that morning, after I’d stolen a few extra hours of sleep. She feared leaving the tent and refused to attend the festivities, even the unveiling of the golden idol.
I had no interest in attending either, so I offered to keep her company. Although Zur still had a few wares he could trade, he’d decided we would pack up and leave without delay. Cozbi sent me to find Zimri to apologize on her behalf for missing the festival, and to tell him we were leaving.
As I left the tent Zur followed, touched my arm and said, “Take my servant. I don’t want you going out alone. Besides, he can translate.”
I found Zimri and told him what had happened, and Zur’s decision to leave earlier than anticipated.
“Is Cozbi alright?” Zimri asked, genuinely concerned.
“She will be,” I said, “But she was badly shaken by the attack.”
“I’m sorry,” Zimri replied, “Do you think I can see her?”
“No,” I replied. “She’s not seeing anyone right now, and we’re leaving immediately.”
“Oh,” Zimri said, disappointed. “Will you tell her that my thoughts and prayers are with her and that I wish her a speedy recovery?”
“Of course,” I answered.
“Mishael,” Zimri added, “tell her that if she visits us again, I would love to see her.”
I smiled and nodded, knowing the invitation would please Cozbi. “Peace unto you, Zimri,” I said, turning to leave.
“Goodbye,” Zimri replied.
“Thank you,” Cozbi said when I returned to the caravan.
“For what?” I asked.
“You know what,” she said softly, “for saving my life.”
“Our lives,” I corrected.
“Did you find Zimri?” Cozbi asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “He was saddened by what happened, and distraught that he wouldn’t see you. But he said he understood, and you’d be in his prayers. He invited you to find him if you ever made it back to their camp.”
Cozbi smiled a sad smile. It was her first since the attack.
“He was quite smitten with you,” I continued, trying to lift her mood. “But it’s just as well you didn’t get the chance to spend more time with him. It wouldn’t have been fair to him . . . or to you,” I said. “After all, you are getting married soon.”
Cozbi’s face brightened a little more. “Marriage,” she said, mulling the concept over in her mind, “safety and security. Home and family. I think I’m finally ready for it.”
Cozbi was ready for marriage. But she would never forget Zimri for as long as she lived. If only she could have.
After a day spent packing, everyone was exhausted. While in camp we’d gotten used to sleeping at night. Zur decided we would leave at sunrise the next morning. We would travel until mid-morning, and then sleep the rest of the day. That way we’d be refreshed, and could travel at night.
The next morning, when we were leaving we observed some of the festivities. The Israelites rose early, and got the festival under way. They made burnt offerings and peace offerings, and reveled in food, wine and dance.[xxxvi]
Aaron stood on a pedestal and unveiled his golden calf. It was the most beautiful golden calf I ever had seen – a divine likeness of Baal, if such a thing could exist. The Israelites cheered and the revelry resumed, well beyond any bounds of decency or decorum. I was both awed and repulsed by the shameless display.
Zur spurred on the animals and told Cozbi not to look. As we bid a hasty retreat, no one even noticed. When the sounds of singing had receded, I felt safe once again. I enjoyed walking in the desert’s still cool morning sun.
My father’s staff transformed, from a brutally efficient weapon, into a simple walking stick. Though I would’ve liked to spend time with Caleb, I was glad to be going home.
Caleb visited the soldiers stationed at Mount Sinai. Week after week of guarding a mountain will take its toll on any man. Even those who abhorred idols needed to join the celebration – if only to be among the revelers and imbibe their renewed spirit. Caleb didn’t want his soldiers anywhere near the celebration, but he knew how desperately they all needed a break.
Caleb rotated the guards and shortened their shifts so that all who wanted to do so could join in the revelry. But as more and more soldiers joined the festivities, fewer and fewer soldiers returned. The most dedicated of his men, refused to leave their posts, and the rest were allowed to leave.
Singing and dancing, fueled by alcohol and worship of the golden idol, degenerated into immodesty, public nudity and fornication. As soldiers mingled with the people, they too became drunk and reckless – a dangerous combination where armed soldiers are concerned. Soldiers joined the fights rather than attempt to restore order. Blood flowed in the streets. Chaos reigned supreme.
Far above Caleb in the distance came Hosea’s familiar voice, “There is a sound of war in the camp.”[xxxvii]
Caleb turned towards Hosea’s voice, as Moses replied, “It’s not the sounds of triumph, nor the sounds of defeat, but singing I hear.”[xxxviii]
Moses cradled stone tablets, like twins newly born, as he descended the mountain with Hosea at his side. The tablets themselves seemed to glow with God’s aura.
Caleb started to speak, then caught Hosea’s eye. How can I possibly welcome them home? With a welcome such as this, words would only ring hollow.
When Moses and Hosea neared the base of Mount Sinai, they saw the idol, heard the revelry and witnessed all manner of indecency. Moses’ anger burned like a wildfire raging out of control. He threw the tablets from his hand and they shattered on the mountain.[xxxix]
The tablets didn’t just break, they seemed to explode and made a deafening noise far louder than thunder. The people froze amidst the chaos. They looked up at Moses. They looked at the idol. They looked at each other. They scrambled to cover themselves up.
Moses strode through the masses, with Hosea and Caleb. Grabbing the golden calf, he hurled it into the fire. Then he ordered it ground into powder, and sprinkled over the water for the people to drink.[xl] The false god they had worshipped would become excrement soon enough.
Moses confronted Aaron angrily. “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such a great sin upon them?”[xli]
Aaron replied shamefaced, but unapologetic. “Don’t let your anger burn against me, brother. You know the people yourself. You know how prone they are to evil. They said, ‘Make us a god who’ll go before us, for Moses has left us and will not return.’ I said, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off and give it to me.’ Then I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.”[xlii]
Moses glared at his brother in utter disgust. “Would you let the people become unholy – as unholy as our enemies?” he asked, before he turned and strode towards the entrance to camp.[xliii]
There Moses faced the people, in a voice thunderous and dark, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” he demanded. All the sons of Levi flocked to Moses, including Nadab and Abihu.[xliv]
Moses said to the sons of Levi, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Every man take his sword and go throughout the camp. Kill every man who’s worshipped this abomination, be they brother, friend or neighbor. But no one shall live who has worshipped this thing.’ ”[xlv]
So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand people fell to the sword.[xlvi] Nadab and Abihu killed their share of men that day. But they remained untouched, and wrapped themselves in cloaks of piety.
Then Moses called out to the people, saying “Dedicate yourselves to the Lord, for every man has been against his son and against his brother, in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”[xlvii]
Moses dedicated himself to the Lord and prayed all night and the next morning. Despondent but determined, he addressed his people once again, “You have committed a great sin. And now I am going up to the Lord. Perhaps I can make atonement.”[xlviii]
Once again Moses ascended the mountain,[xlix] this time leaving Hosea and Caleb to guard its perimeter. Once again he was gone, forty days and forty nights.[l] His absence tested the people. But this time, though they remained restless, they didn’t worship false gods.
When Moses returned, he had the tablets from God and his face shone with God’s light. The Children of Israel were afraid to come near him. But Moses called out from the base of the mountain, and gathered Aaron, the elders and the entire congregation. Moses spoke to them and commanded them to obey the Lord’s instructions from Mount Sinai.[li] Then Moses covered his face with a veil, descended the mountain and returned to his tent.[lii]
We stopped near mid-day, exhausted and ready for more sleep. We made camp there and slept until the sun began to set. When we arose, we were refreshed and ready to travel.
We traveled all night and well past the days’ break. When mid-morning came, we again stopped and made camp. We felt safer and somehow cleaner a days’ journey away from the Israelites.
I went off to bed, and was alone with my thoughts. Before surrendering to sleep, I fantasized about Caleb. I wondered what it would be like to make love to such a man. The fantasies bled into my dreams, which turned even more sensual. The dreams I had of Caleb left me breathless and bothered.
I awoke with a smile and spent the night walking with Cozbi, or riding in the caravan when we were too tired to walk. Cozbi recovered fairly quickly, and soon returned to her old self – bubbling about Zimri and what might have been, gushing about her betrothed and the wedding to be.
When we made camp around mid-morning, I wasted no time going to bed. I relished the chance to sleep and awoke satiated and content.
But more and more as we traveled, thoughts of Caleb troubled my conscience. These dreams are foolishness, I told myself. He can never be my prince.
During the day, when I slept, I saw him again in my dreams – seducing me in ways I had never even imagined.
Every night as we traveled, I tried to banish him from my mind. But the harder I tried to forget him, the more I ended up obsessing and the more erotic the dreams that plagued me when I slept.
Then my dreams became darker, scarier and more vivid. They were no less erotic, but they frightened me to death. I felt the rough touch of Caleb’s hands, and the smell his sweat as he held me immobile, naked and helpless. Sharp pain mixed with pleasure, in strange and unfamiliar ways, as I struggled in vain to break free and escape.
My dreams remained darkly erotic as they became increasingly vivid and transitioned into nightmares, awful, bleak, nightmares that resembled The Dream, but with pleasure and pain, love, loss and death, and most of all grief on an unimaginable scale.
I felt trapped between this Dark Vision and the horror of The Dream. I longed for dreams of hope and sweetness and light. But the Dark Vision returned, night after night. It was now just as vivid as The Dream had ever been, and despite minor variations it always ended the same.
Caleb’s voice penetrated the darkness, saying, “Through you, Mishael, Midian shall be remembered.” I saw his face, shadowed in candle light, looking gentle and sad. “Remain true to your God, the God of your ancestors, and Midian shall be remembered if you only remain true.” Then I awoke soaked with sweat, screaming and crying, until I realized I was awake.
I desperately needed Uncle. He could make sense of this Vision that rivaled The Dream. I didn’t want either of them to haunt me while I slept. I was beginning to fear even closing my eyes.
Zur spoke with me often, afraid the attack had affected me deeply.
“They’re only bad dreams,” I said. But I wasn’t really sure. The Dream wasn’t just a nightmare. Was the Vision more than a mere dream?
“You have dark shadows under your eyes,” Zur said with concern. “They frighten me, Mishael. I don’t know what to do.”
“They frighten me too,” Cozbi said with alarm. “Is there anything we can make? Maybe a potion to help you sleep.”
“I’ll be ok,” I rasped, my voice hoarse from screaming. “If I take something to sleep, I may feel more trapped in the nightmare. Uncle will help me as soon as we return.”
Zur pushed the caravan to its limits. But it was a long journey home.
I looked like death when we arrived. Mother gasped when she saw me and carried me to my bed. I cried when I saw my bed and the promise of sleep that it held. I desperately hoped that the dreams wouldn’t plague me here – not in my own bed, in the comfort of home.
But again I awoke screaming and terrified my family. “I can’t take this anymore,” I wept in mother’s arms. “Where’s Uncle? I need uncle Balaam.”
Mother held me for hours, rocking me and humming, trying to get me to sleep. It felt so comforting and soothing. There was no chance I’d abandon that feeling to sleep.
Balaam arrived just after daybreak, disheveled and out of sorts.
“What’s wrong little one?” he asked, in a gentle voice. “When was the last time you slept?”
“I am afraid to sleep,” I said.
I told him the whole story: Caleb, the market, the attack at the well, the Dark Vision that mirrored The Dream and the horrifying cross-roads they seemed to represent. I desperately needed Balaam to tell me that I needn’t choose either path, and that I could follow the path I’d been following to find happiness. I needed escape from The Dream and the Dark Vision both.
“What must I do Uncle?” I asked.
“You must banish this man, Caleb, from your heart and from your mind,” Balaam replied. “You are special, Mishael, so very special. Obsessing over someone who doesn’t worship our God endangers you and endangers Midian. You must forget about Caleb.”
“But how?” I asked. “I’ve tried not to think of him. But the harder I try, the more I end up obsessing. I’ve sacrificed my whole life for the God of our ancestors. I’d never throw that away now for a man who worships a foreign God, no matter what I might feel towards him. I know I couldn’t. Surely God knows that as well.”
“Yes, surely He does,” Balaam replied, “But He also knows your feelings. God is preparing you for something, but I just don’t know what. He’s shown you two visions of the future. Perhaps there’s a third. You must try to forget Caleb, or you’ll never sleep at night.”
“But the harder I try, the worse I fail. Help me uncle,” I begged. Balaam pulled me to him and hugged me tight. He would never abandon me, of that I was sure. But can he help? I wondered.
“When Midian’s father wanted to know the truth of God’s promise, God instructed him in a ritual sacrifice . . .” Balaam began.
I couldn’t help interrupting. “Do we have to perform that ritual?” I asked, shuddering. “My dreams are already horrid enough, do we really need to . . .”
“Yes,” Balaam insisted, “I’m afraid that we do. And we shall do it at day’s end, just before sunset.”
“Today?” I whined.
“Today,” he answered authoritatively. “It’s time we use the blood of sacrifice to drain the blood from your dreams.”
Shortly before sunset, an hour’s walk from uncle’s caves, Balaam and I finished our makeshift alter of stones we had gathered. I was exhausted from hauling rocks and from countless sleepless nights.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked, apprehensively.
“You are my one and only niece,” Balaam answered, “and there is more here at stake than you can possibly know.”
I breathed in deep, let it out slow and tried to control my emotions. My exhaustion made it harder to control them than it normally would be.
Balaam began the ancient rites by ritually slaughtering a three year old heifer, a three year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon.[liii] He dashed their blood upon the alter stones. He cut each carcass in half, except for the birds. He laid each bloody half-carcass opposite its counterpart, lining a path that led to the alter. The turtledove and pigeon, he laid opposite each other.
Uncle Balaam danced and he prayed along this gory path of slaughter. I shuddered at the sight and struggled to maintain composure. Then I swallowed my gorge and followed his lead.
When we completed the ritual, I collapsed on the stone alter, ready to live or to die as a sacrifice to my Lord.
“Hear us, O Lord,” Balaam projected to the heavens. “Hear us and know she’ll remain faithful and true. Renew Your promise today, and let her sleep and dream of You. Let her carry out Your will in her thoughts and her deeds.”
Amen, my mind echoed. I was shaking and exhausted and unable to move.
Uncle picked me up gently and carried me to his cave. There, I fell into a deep and mercifully dreamless sleep. The tension drained from my body, even as I slept. The sleep seemed to give way to a soft light in the distance, which grew brighter and brighter and banished the cold. If I’d died then I’d have been happy. If I’d gone blind, I’d have been content. Whether I was sleeping or awake, I didn’t care I felt safe.
Then a voice, deep and resonant, seemed to fill my very soul, “I am . . . the God of your ancestors. the God of your mother, and her mother and her mother before her – generation upon generation back to Midian and his parents, Keturah and Ibrahim. You shall treasure this heritage, for I am the Lord your God. You shall worship only me and so shall your husband, as did his mother, and her mother and her mother before her – generation upon generation back to Ibrahim as well. He shall bear the mark of Midian, which marks him as Mine. You shall do all these things and more, and Midian shall be remembered . . . through you.
The light faded and, once again, I fell into a long dreamless sleep. I awoke two days later, completely refreshed, with the voice of the Lord seared forever into memory.
I renewed my vows to the Lord and there was one thing I knew: The Dream and Dark Vision would trouble me no more. Caleb might invade my daydreams, until my prince eventually arrived. But the daydreams were harmless. I would wait for my prince. I knew one day he’d come.
[i] Exodus, 19:1.
[ii] Exodus, 3:1.
[iii] Exodus, 3:1.
[iv] Exodus, 18:1-5.
[v] Exodus, 2:21.
[vi] Exodus, 18:14-23.
[vii] Exodus, 19:4-6.
[viii] Exodus, 19:8.
[ix] Exodus, 19:10-11.
[x] Exodus, 19:12-15.
[xi] Exodus, 19:16-17.
[xii] Exodus, 19:18.
[xiii] Exodus, 19:19.
[xiv] Exodus, 19:19-20.
[xv] Exodus, 19:21.
[xvi] Exodus, 19:24.
[xvii] Exodus, 20:1-18.
[xviii] Exodus, 20:19.
[xix] Exodus, 19:20.
[xx] Exodus, 19:21.
[xxi] Exodus, 19:22-25.
[xxii] Exodus, 21:1 – 23:19.
[xxiii] Exodus, 23:20-26.
[xxiv] Exodus, 24:1.
[xxv] Exodus, 24:3.
[xxvi] Exodus, 24:4-7.
[xxvii] Exodus, 24:5-8.
[xxviii] Exodus, 24:9-10.
[xxix] Exodus, 24:11.
[xxx] Exodus, 24:12-14.
[xxxi] Exodus, 24:15-16.
[xxxii] Exodus, 24:16-17.
[xxxiii] Exodus, 24:18.
[xxxiv] Exodus, 32:1-2.
[xxxv] Exodus, 32:3-4.
[xxxvi] Exodus, 32:6.
[xxxvii] Exodus, 32:17.
[xxxviii] Exodus, 32:18.
[xxxix] Exodus, 32:19.
[xl] Exodus, 32:20.
[xli] Exodus, 32:21.
[xlii] Exodus, 32:22-24.
[xliii] Exodus, 32:25.
[xliv] Exodus, 32:26.
[xlv] Exodus, 32:27.
[xlvi] Exodus, 32:28.
[xlvii] Exodus, 32:29.
[xlviii] Exodus, 32:30.
[xlix] Exodus, 32:31.
[l] Exodus, 34:28.
[li] Exodus, 34:29-32.
[lii] Exodus, 34:33.
[liii] Genesis, 15:9-12.