The Force of God
Prologue - Chapter One
By Richard S. Barnett
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Copyright 2003 Richard S., Barnett -
To Alleen, who bears me up
"I might have slept forever but for those women and their wailing, Ehud. I thank the Lord for the light of a new day," Othniel groaned as he tried to roll out of his mantle and the fleeces that kept out the chill of the winter rains.
I saw the agony of his wounds sear his face, and he settled back to gather the strength to speak again. My own side throbbed and felt so hot that I dreaded another look at what the Amorite arrow had done to Othniel's left thigh.
"Sir, we must let the women of Benjamin mourn their dead," I told him as I eased myself down at his side in the goat hair tent. Othniel's armor bearer, a youth of thirteen or fourteen summers, lifted the flap of the tent, peered in and joined us.
"We praise the Lord that you did not join their number," I went on. "You have lain here in a fever for two days, and we didn't know if you would live to see the sun again. Let us bring you something warm to give you strength."
"Wait, Ehud! Tell me, how is Gera, your father?"
It nearly choked me to tell him, "Sir, he sleeps with his fathers and your son Khermesh. When the Amorites used their secret way to slip outside the walls of Jerusalem and set a trap, they slew a whole score of our men, the best fighters in Benjamin."
Othniel bowed his head in silence for a moment before telling me, "Your father was the best of them all, my son. As surely as the Lord has been the right hand of Israel, Gera was our swift left hand. But for him I would have died forty years ago.
"But now, my mouth is so dry and I am so weak that I can barely whisper. Tell me, my friend, how deep is this wound of mine?"
I had to look down and bite my lip to hide its trembling.
"Tell me, my son," he gasped.
"Sir, I pushed the arrowhead through and I've bound up your wound as well as I could. Our Levite healer says the point cut no blood vessels but the Amorites tipped it with poison. His yarrow poultices simply can't draw out their poison."
"Has it festered?"
I nodded briefly for lack of words and courage to answer.
Othniel looked calmly at me, turned onto his right side, and uncovered his thigh. I saw blood and pus oozing through the linen dressing. The swelling had spread, and even in the dim light of the tent I saw streaks of dark blue and purple creeping up his thigh--fingers of death aimed at his heart. I drew a deep breath and caught the scent of death in the air.
Suddenly chilled and shivering, Othniel covered himself.
"So, Lord," he prayed, "Now I know what it is to feel death's hand upon me. Why should I live when so many have fallen at my side and I am left alone?"
"But, sir, we have not left you alone," I protested. "Your son Ahilud still lives and keeps watch over the Negev, the Southland, in your place. Every man of Benjamin is your friend. You are our leader, our lord and teacher and captain."
"No, Ehud, my dear young friend. You mustn't say such things. My time has passed, and now you must take up my mantle and lead Israel."
Othniel's words overcame me. Stricken and grieving myself, I had no idea what to do.
"Who? Not me, sir," I protested again. "No, sir. Why, Shikha, the Prince of Lightning still rules Jerusalem, the city of the Yevusites. Even if we can keep your old enemy shut up, he'll find ways to bring yet more evil upon our heads. They say he has grown fat and bloated like a toad in his old age, and he lives only to pour his spite upon us."
"And so he has. Even so, Ehud, although I’ll not be here to see it, that wretch will bring the Moabites against you next. Yet, isn't one man of Benjamin worth three of Moab?"
His playful taunt failed to shake me.
"Ten, at least, sir, but what is that worth when they can send a hundred against every one of us? If we could hold off the Moabites, your old foe would only stir up some other enemy against us. No, sir. I'm ready to take my men and go down to serve one of the kings of the Sea People. They are mighty men of war, from all I hear, and they have weapons of iron. They should be more than a match for these Amorites."
Othniel flinched as if I had dashed cold water in his face. The shock of my words roused him, even though I could see his life ebbing away. "Ehud, my son," he pleaded, "you don't mean it."
"Sir, haven't we just lost our only chance to take Jerusalem back from the Amorites?" I asked with a shrug.
Othniel made himself sit up, and he gripped my shoulder in his right hand until I felt his fever searing me.
"Israel has lost a battle or two before this one, my son. Is one more defeat any reason to give up? Won't you remember who you are? Remember that you serve the Lord, who gave us this land. Even though you may lose one battle, the Lord will always be the victor."
I thought of my father and all the other men of Benjamin who had died in Shikha's ambush, and I couldn't see how we would ever get inside Jerusalem. The Amorite archers would pick us off at will before we got near the walls.
"No, save your strength, sir;" I told him, "Why trouble me with empty words?"
Othniel held onto my shoulder and pleaded, "The Lord has taught me, my son, that He is nearest in those bleak moments when all seems lost. For the sake of your father, at least, won't you let me tell you how the Lord has lifted me and turned my mourning into dancing?"
I scowled but I looked deep into his eyes. I saw the pain Othniel bore, and yet I'll never forget the peace that filled him. I had already seen enough men die in battle to recognize their fear and horror of death. I knew at once that I had to be able to live and die like Othniel. I took his hand in mine and told him I would listen.
Ehud, my son, lest you think I ask too much of you, I pray that you will let me tell you why you should both fight for this land and till it. Each serves the Lord, and I learned to serve Him at the side of men like Joshua and Caleb. I learned from them about the nearness and the might of the Lord for myself. I would be untrue to the Lord and to Joshua and Caleb if I didn't tell you my story.
I, Othniel, the son of Kenaz, had come to my seventeenth summer and was nearly full grown to manhood, though still beardless, when Joshua became the leader of Israel. That was the year Israel began its conquest of this land that the Lord gave us. Joshua began by leading Israel in renewing the covenant with the Lord. I couldn't tell you what Joshua said that day, but I do remember our high spirits and how easily we took Jericho, the City of Palms. After that victory, we thought that nothing could withstand Israel, but we soon learned better.
Flushed with victory, a few hundred of our men went wild and brought on themselves a shameful defeat at the place we now call Ai, Heap of Ruins. Those men were so greedy for loot they would not wait and listen to Joshua. They simply charged off to Ai on their own, thinking it would fall into their hands like summer fruit. The city may have looked defenseless, but the Highborn, as the Amorite rulers of the Canaanites called themselves, would not let themselves be so easily conquered. Seeing our men coming, they asked their neighbors at Bethel for help, fought off our men, and sent them fleeing with heavy losses.
Joshua had no pity on those who escaped the rout. “One victory and you thought the rest of the country would give up and welcome you, did you? Those Canaanites in the highlands are a different breed from the people of Jericho. They boast that they are sons of giants, and you’re no more than grasshoppers in their eyes.”
After punishing the rebels, he told the rest of us that their disgrace only proved that this land was not ours for the picking like a cluster of grapes. "Some people just won't learn anything until the Lord humbles them," he grumbled. "So here you will stay until you learn to plan your battles and to commit them to the Lord."
We camped in the plains of the Jordan near the ruins of Jericho, and there Joshua and Caleb kept us and drilled us, day in and day out. They formed us into troops and companies, trained us in man-to-man combat, and taught us to march and fight as units. We trained with spears, bows and arrows, slings, staffs or whatever we could find or make. Those of us with spears, Joshua would make us lead, block, thrust, twist, pull, and over and over again until we could do it without thinking, until our heads reeled, our eyes were blind with sweat and dust, and our arms ready to fall off. "The first one to drop out will carry water for everyone," Joshua threatened, as if I needed the warning. I had already resolved never to give my brothers a chance to mock me.
Joshua made my two older brothers troop leaders because they saw battle in the wilderness. They wouldn't let me join either of their troops, scoffing, "He's only a boy. Let him herd goats until he becomes a man." I thought they were unfair because Israel had such a young army. My parents had died in the wilderness with the rest of the generation who had come out of Egypt, and hardly anyone except Joshua and Caleb was over forty. I appealed to Caleb and he let me serve under his youngest son, Gedawr, whom men called Black Dog because of his dark and moody spirit. Gedawr had his faults, but he never tormented me or tried to make a slave of me as my brothers did. I found real friends in his troop, your father and Hadar of Manasseh above all.
"Your foes have seen you and girded themselves for battle," Joshua and Caleb told us again and again, "and they hold all the heights and strong places of Canaan. You stirred up their wrath at Ai as bees annoy a bear or hyenas pester a lion until he leaves his prey. They will turn back a leaderless mob as easily as their towers withstand the winds and the rains."
Joshua must have seen more than sixty summers by that time, and for all his grey hairs he could outlast any of us. I would have followed him anywhere, but not just because of his staying power. He knew what was in the minds of men, and he had such a mind for battle that he always knew what to do next, no matter what the noise and turmoil.
Whenever anyone complained about the long, hot days of training, the boredom, and the waiting, Joshua would remind us all, "Never forget why I call this place the Valley of Trouble. It should have given us an easy passage into the highlands, but you yourselves turned it into trouble. Yes, we shall have no end of trouble attacking uphill because you gave the Highborn time to strengthen their walls against us. The day we attack will surely be a day of trouble for someone, so you had better get ready if you don't want the Highborn to heap even more troubles on your miserable heads."
We toiled all through that winter. Joshua and Caleb led us marching and trotting by turns until we grew lean, hard, and ready to make an uphill attack. We fought mock duels, raids, and battles until we satisfied Joshua and Caleb that we could follow their orders without getting lost or confused.
I remember days when I felt ready to die of thirst and weariness, but I always found new strength. It was all because of Acsah, Caleb's daughter. She was about my own age and the child of his old age by a much younger wife. Caleb doted on Acsah and granted her every whim, as any man would. Acsah had a keen mind and a fiery spirit, and she knew how to get her way. Never content to stay in the tents of the women, she had to follow Caleb and learn the ways of war. He never let her go with him into battle, but he always said that women should learn to defend their homes. Acsah would put aside her bangles and appear at Caleb's side dressed up in a man's tunic and leather jerkin and cap, lithe and lean and as tall as most men of Israel, though we are not a tall people. Caleb had taught her how to use a spear as well as anyone. She never rode her donkey when we trained but kept pace with us on foot. Though we might be dusty, blistered, stumbling and gasping for breath, Acsah always looked eager to set an even faster pace. Her face gleamed like polished cedar, her hair shone like a raven's wing, and her eyes sparkled like malachite set about with rubies. Her voice ... ah, her voice rang like tinkling cymbals when she laughed and taunted us to keep up.
The sight of her never failed to put new life into me and many another young man who hated or adored her from afar.
I say "afar" because although Caleb indulged Acsah, he always kept her close by him. All admirers had to keep their distance, no matter who they were. Although she had come of age to take a husband, Caleb made it known that we had a land to conquer before any man might even dare to look at someone who was worth more than the whole lot of us put together.
We lived through that winter somehow, though your father could never get enough to eat, and the day came at last when Joshua and Caleb decided that we should begin our attack on the highlands of Canaan.
"We shall burst upon them like the east wind, the scorching wind from the desert! The Lord has given into our hands the king of Ai with his people and all his land," Joshua told us. "We shall leave nothing but a heap of ruins."
We cheered with delight and eagerness until I'm sure everyone in Ai must have heard us.
Joshua raised his hands for silence. "First, the Lord has given you a day and a place to show how well you can fight."
Again we cheered because at last we could put our fighting skills to good use.
"You will show that you can fight with cunning as well as with strength," Joshua went on. "You shall not waste your strength in a blind attack this time. The Lord has told me to set a trap!"
Joshua and Caleb picked out thirty troops of twelve men each under Kenash, Caleb's firstborn, for the ambush party. Gera, Hadar, and I were in Gedawr's troop and my brothers led two of the other troops.
"I want you to go ahead of us during the night and hide yourselves in the ravines west of Ai," Joshua told us. "The rest of us will follow by day. First, I'll send one company in a wild attack, as before. When they feign panic and flee, they'll draw out the defenders. You will come out of hiding after the Amorites have followed our men. Gedawr's five troops will dash into Ai and set it on fire while Kenash and the rest of you attack the Amorites from behind, drive them into the path of our waiting army, and cut off their way back to their city."
After making Kenash, Gedawr and the other troop leaders repeat their orders over and over, Joshua told them how he would signal our force to attack. He then blessed us and sent us on ahead.
The battle ended very much as Joshua planned, though by no means as easily as he hoped. The men of Ai simply refused to panic when we sprang our trap; their king rallied them into ranks, and they set about fighting their way out as calmly as if they were reaping barley. His soldiers were huge bulls and bears of men and much more heavily armed than our soldiers. They cut their way through our soldiers as if they were no more than a flock of sheep.
Gera, Haddar, and I were in the troop that had stormed the open gateway of Ai. After overcoming the guard, Gedawr and my brothers, went in search of loot and left the rest of us to set fires, as Joshua had ordered. Gera heard the rising noise of battle and climbed up onto the wall to see.
"The Highborn are breaking out!" he shouted back to Haddar and me.
"We’ve got to stop them!" I shouted back.
We called all the men we could find to help Kenash and the rest of our force. We found about half of the men in the five troops and hurried to join the fray. We moved together at a good trot and reached the place of battle just as a group of perhaps twenty Highborn broke through the ambush.
"That's their king!" Gera shouted.
The king of the Highborn wore a helmet of bronze shaped like the head of an eagle. He and his guard loomed head and shoulders above our men and had hewn their way through them with bronze battleaxes.
"Tell your slingers to get him!" I shouted back at Gera. The rest of us leveled our spears and charged, yelling and screaming at the Highborn.
It was a wild thing to do, but I was too afraid to think twice. My insides turned to water but it could not put out the fire that drove me on against the enemy battleaxes. Our training saved us. Fearsome as a battleaxe may be in single combat, it won't serve you all that well for defense or fighting in close ranks where you cannot swing your weapon freely.
I managed to spear one guard in the eye, and Haddar took down two more. The other Highborn faltered just long enough for Joshua's main force to advance and close in around them. Joshua and Caleb came up and told their spearmen to hold the Highborn at bay while the bowmen of Benjamin shot them down at close range.
Their king and his guard still tried to cut their way out in hand-to-hand combat, but our men held their ranks this time and wouldn't let them close in. The battle turned into a slaughter in the end. Their king stood alone, bloodied and defiant, but too weary to raise his battleaxe when Caleb came and tore it from his hand.
Caleb led the king to Joshua, who was furious that the man had killed so many of our soldiers and nearly broken free.
"Hang him!" he told Caleb without looking at the fellow.
I saw Caleb and Kenash drag him to an oak tree, but I did not stay to watch the hanging.
...continued next week...
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|Date: Tuesday April 15, 2003|
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|Date: Tuesday April 15, 2003|
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