“I WIN!” Ziba shouted to Jonathan across the table and jumped to his feet. The burly 12 year old raised his arms in victory and danced in place, which the younger Jonathan sat quietly grinning up at his friend.
“See,” Jonathan said. “You said you never win at Jackal and Dogs.”
“Well, I don’t usually,” Ziba agreed, then paused. “Say, you didn’t let me win, did you?”
Jonathan grew serious. “I swear,” he said, putting his hand to his chest.
“Yeah,” Ziba said. “But what are you swearing?”
“Don’t you two have anything better to do than play games? What about your chores? Ziba, I know you can’t be done with yours.” The boys looked over at Achim, Ziba’s father, who stood over a hot fire in the blacksmith pit. Orange flames licked the round stone pit, and black smoke rose into the round hole cut in the center of the ceiling. An assortment of farming implements lay scattered around the fire and next to the stone anvil in the corner.
Ziba looked at the massive man who wiped sweat from his face, and shrugged.
“I got my chores done a couple of hours ago. Mother didn’t give me anything else to do, so I helped Jonathan with his, so we would have time for Jackal and Dogs.”
“Well, it’s almost time for evening meal. Go see if your mother needs any help.”
Ziba started to tell his father he would, when a scream interrupted them.
Still holding the scythe he was working on, Achim stood up, and the two boys jumped up from the table. Jonathan pointed to the town center.
“It came from other there.” The three of them looked in that direction, as a crowd of people gathered around a young girl on a jet black horse. Achim climbed out of the pit and strode quickly toward the crowd, with Ziba and Jonathan right behind him.
When they got to the town center, several women helped lower a small girl from a horse to the ground. The girl looked to be about the same age or slightly older than Ziba.
Ziba looked closely at the girl. She was pretty, and wore robes that appeared higher quality than the rough clothes they wore here in Gibeah, but the white tunic was spattered by black soot and blood. And then she turned her head and Ziba saw why. The crowd let out a gasp as they saw that the right eye of the girl had been removed. Dried blood and soot were caked on her face. She—or someone else—had tried to cover up the socket with a white bandage, but the blood had soaked through it and had dried. An elderly woman took a clean cloth and wrapped it around that side of her face.
“Come,” the woman said. “We’ll get her cleaned up, and then she need to rest.”
They helped her up and started to carry her away when the girl raised her hand.
“Wait,” she said. “I have a message for Saul, son of Kish.”
“Saul is in the fields,” the woman told her. “You must rest and talk to him later.”
“I must talk to him now!” the girl said, her voice filled with surprising power.
As if on command, the crowd parted. Ziba could see Saul, Jonathan’s father, leading a yoke of two oxen toward the town, coming from the fields. The crowd stood silent as the tall, commanding presence of Saul came toward them. Finally, he spoke.
“What is this? What is wrong here?”
The girl stood, teetering for a second and reaching to the woman beside her to gather support, then standing firm.
“I am Mara, daughter of Jabek, and a resident of Jabesh-Gilead. My eye was taken from me by Nahash, the Ammonite. His army has put Jabesh under siege. The city is peaceful and has no way to protect itself. The fathers have asked for a treaty, saying that they will obey the order of Nahash. But he doesn’t want subjects. He wants slaves. He has told them that when they surrender, he will put out the right eye of every man, woman and child in the city and send the children to the fires of Moloch.”
A gasp went up, and immediately the women in the crowd began to wail.
“Quiet!” Saul shouted. “Quiet, all of you!”
“My father sent me for help. Nahash agreed to let me go, but only if my eye was taken from me, so that others would see that he was serious.”
Saul stepped forward and tenderly reached forward and placed his massive hand on Mara’s blood-caked head. Mara looked at Saul, and Ziba could see desperation mixed with anger on her face.
“Saul of Gibeah, you have been anointed king of Israel. Your tribe has a special bond with the people of Jabesh-Gilead. We call on you for help. How will you respond?”
His hand still resting on her head, Saul’s lips moved. Ziba could barely hear the words:
“How will I respond…?”
Ziba watched the expression on Saul’s face slowly turned from confusion and indecision to a hard, almost terrifying grimace. He reached over and took the scythe that Achim still carried, and turned toward the two black plowing oxen behind him, still tethered together with a wooden yoke. With one smooth motion, Saul slashed the sharp scythe across the throat of one ox, and then the other. The front legs of the mighty animals collapsed beneath them. Blood spurted and sprayed everyone within six feet of the two oxen. Finally the two beasts lay in a gathering pool of their own blood.
The crowd stood stunned, many of them splashed by the hot, red blood of the two animals. A second later, many of them took a step backward, wondering if Saul had lost his mind. In the meantime, Saul had dropped the scythe and picked up an axe. Oblivious to the blood that flew everywhere, he chopped into the two dead animals, cutting off their heads, then each of their powerful legs.
A few people had left the spectacle, but most remained fascinated by Saul’s action. After cutting the animals apart, he turned to the crowd. Blood was everywhere on his tunic, and face and hair.
“I need 12 volunteers,” he said to the crowd. “One for each of the twelve tribes.”
Murmuring broke out, but after a few moments, 12 young men stepped forward.
“This young woman has lost her eye and risked her life to get the message of help to us,” Saul said. “Each of you will take a piece of these animals and go to a tribe of Israel. This is the message I want you to deliver. ‘This is what will be done to your oxen if you do not follow Saul and Samuel.’ Now go. We meet at Bezek in two days’ time.”
For a people who had strict rules about touching animal blood, the sight of Saul—and many of those in the community—shocked them and filled them with fear. Ziba watched Saul as the crowd broke up, and saw that he suddenly was telling many people what to do. There was a feeling of restrained panic throughout the town, a feeling Ziba had never seen before. He turned to look at his father, and saw that he had returned to the blacksmith pit. Jonathan had disappeared as well, and a moment later, Ziba saw that he had been snatched up by some of the men of the village.
“Father,” Ziba said, running back to the pit. “What is going on?”
Achim was loading his bronze utensils into a two-wheeled cart. At first, he seemed not to hear what Ziba was saying. Ziba saw a stress on his face that he had never seen before.
“Father? Father?” Finally Achim paused in what he was doing.
“Son, gather up my tools. They will be needed.”
“Needed?” Ziba echoed. “Needed for what?”
Achim grabbed Ziba by the shoulders and looked into his face. “We are going to war. Now help me.”
* * *
The two of them worked until well after dark, loading pitchforks, scythes, axes, and sharp wooden spears into the wagon. When it got too dark to see, women went throughout the village carrying torches and illuminated their work. Finally, they took a break to eat together. A big pot of lentil and mutton stew was heating over a central fire. Everyone—including Ziba—was given a big bowl of stew with a large chunk of bread. Ziba ate his hungrily, then looked around the fire for Jonathan. The younger boy was nowhere to be seen.
Ziba did see Mara, the girl from Jabesh-Gilead who had bravely ridden into town on the black horse. She had been cleaned up, a fresh bandage placed over her injured eye, and sat opposite Ziba, eating stew and staring at the fire. Ziba watched her in awe, wondering if he would have the courage she had had to ride 40 miles through wilderness after having her eye put out. While he watched her, she glanced up at him, and Ziba quickly looked away. He waited a few moments, looking around the circle by the fire, then looked at her again. To his embarrassment, she was still looking at him, a small smile on her lips. He smiled quickly, then looked away again.
* * *
The wagon was loaded soon after the evening meal was complete, and Ziba helped his father hook the oxen up to the tongue of the wagon. Exhausted, and unused to such late hours, Ziba crawled into a small space in the back of the wagon at Achim’s prompting, and was soon asleep.
* * *
A bump and a flash of sunlight awoke Ziba the next morning. Achim sat on the small seat in front of the wagon, directing the team of oxen. Ziba sat up and looked around. A line of men and women followed them, and as Ziba turned, he could see that the line stretched forward out of sight as well.
“Where are we?” Ziba said.
“Good morning, Son,” Achim said. “We are on the east side of the mountains. Soon we will be passing through Jericho.”
Ziba looked at the line of people. “Are all of these people going to war? All of them going to fight?”
“War, yes. Fight, no,” Achim said. “It takes many people to fight a war, with only a few of them front-line warriors. We need people to feed the army, others to help the wounded, and still others,” he gestured to the wagon, ”to make the weapons that will be used in battle. I do my part by providing weapons for the soldiers.”
“Weapons?” Ziba echoed. “All I see are tools from farming. How can you fight a battle with sticks and scythes?”
“Ahh, true,” Achim said. “These are tools for farming. They are not swords and shields. But the real power in battle comes from Jehovah. If you have Jehovah on your side, it doesn’t matter what you have. You could have a rock and could take down a giant in thick armor. It all depends on God’s plan.”
Achim reached into a sack that he had next to his left foot and handed Ziba a chunk of bread. Ziba took it and climbed over the back of the driver’s seat to sit next to his father. He bit into the crusty bread while he watched the people in front of them follow the rugged road toward the town of Jericho.
Ziba had never been to a big city, and was eager to see what Jericho was like. But they did not enter Jericho. Instead, the winding trail of men and women, horses and oxen, moved around the tall walls of the city as if it were a giant stone that had to be circumvented. Ziba sighed as he watched the city disappear behind them.
But the land around him was different. His small town of Gibeah was set in the mountains where people mostly raised sheep or scrabbled for a plot of land to raise a few vegetables. This land was flat and rich with wheat and barley. Water from the nearby river ran in canals to feed the crops.
“Father, this is a good land,” Ziba said. “Look at it! We could raise cattle and sheep here, or farm vegetables or wheat or whatever we want. Why don’t we live here?”
Achim stared ahead at the oxen as he continued to drive the cart. “This is a fertile land, and many people know it. That is why we are going to war. The Ammonites feel that they own this land, even though God gave it to us. We have to take it back from them.”
“But after we take it back, we could live here, couldn’t we?”
Achim smiled and shook his head. “Our family is a family of servants, born to serve the tribe of Benjamin. And Benjaminites live in the highlands. Besides, it is much easier to keep what you own up there than down here.”
“Why is that?”
“You haven’t had to deal with the armies of other people before. Ammonites and Elamites and Amalekites armor themselves up with iron and sword and shield to come and take what they want. But when you have armor on you, you move more slowly and it is hard to climb into the high places. Those are the places that protect us.”
“But you’re a blacksmith, Father. You can make swords and shields and even armor for our men so that they can protect their land and their family.”
“I deal in bronze,” Achim said. “And bronze is to iron as butter is to a knife. No one in all of Israel has learned the secret of making iron. That’s why I travel to Philistia once a month. I have a couple of blacksmith friends in Gath that I am hoping someday will teach me what they know.”
“Why don’t they teach you now?”
“If their leaders found out that an Israelite had learned the secret of iron, they would have their heads and my head too,” he said grimly. “It’s the greatest secret they own.”
He paused. “You’ve never seen a chariot, and I hope you never have to. A chariot is a wagon covered with iron. Two horses pull it and two men ride in it. One drives the horses; the other is either an archer or a spearman. They move fast and usually are deadly accurate. And there is no way to stop them.”
Ziba tried to visualize what his father described, but couldn’t. “I’d like to see such a chariot.”
“I pray you don’t. The Philistines have them—thousands of them. Along with armored troops that are highly trained.” Achim frowned, then his voice brightened. “But they can’t climb hillsides and run mountain passes. That’s why we have been able to live in peace all these years.”
“We’re like a cat in a tree with dogs on the ground,” Ziba said, smiling. “They can’t get us!”
“Exactly, my son,” Achim said, his voice dark again. “We’re a cat caught in a tree. I only pray that our new king Saul will draw the country together so that this cat can overcome the dogs.”
The miles passed quickly as Ziba looked at the countryside. He looked for signs of farmers working in the fertile fields, but the acreage was empty. The road came over a rise, and they came to a broad valley that was uncultivated, but instead had tall grass growing in all directions. A grove of trees stood along the edge of the valley
“Welcome to Bezek,” Achim said to his son.
“But there’s nothing here,” Ziba said.
“You’re right. It’s just a crossroads. But it is secluded and large enough for the soldiers of Israel to gather. And it is within marching distance of Jabesh-Gilead. I suspect that Saul plans on waiting for the rest to arrive here, and then marching the rest of the way tonight.”
Others were gathered there already. The group that Achim and Ziba was with got off the road and started to set up camp. Ziba helped Achim set up their small tent, then start a fire where he could continue to work on weapons.
“See if you can find us something to eat,” Achim told Ziba, and Ziba wandered off.
As the sun rose in the sky, others continued to arrive in the vale. Before long, Ziba realized that there were more people than he had ever been around. He found a group of women with cooking pots, and convinced one of them to give him two bowls of porridge. He turned to head back when he saw Mara, the girl from Jabesh, sitting shyly behind one of the women.
“Hi,” Ziba said to the girl.
“Hello,” she said quietly.
“I’m surprised they let you come along,” Ziba said.
“I’m the only person that the Ammonites will let through the lines. I’m the messenger.”
“Well, I think you’re awfully brave.”
“Does it hurt?” Ziba asked, gesturing toward his own eye.
“Sometimes. The women give me an herb poultice to put on it, and that helps a lot. But sometimes it still hurts.”
“Mara?” they heard a man’s voice say. “Come with me.”
They turned to see a man dressed in thick leather armor. He wasn’t as tall as Saul or Ziba’s father Achim, but he was broad across the shoulders. His hair was black and cut short, like those of the Philistines that Ziba had seen. He wore a short sword in a scabbard on his belt, and carried a six-foot spear with a bronze tip. His face held what looked like a permanent scowl, and a scar that went from the tip of his nose to the bottom of his left ear. Ziba immediately felt uncomfortable around the man.
Mara got up from where she was sitting and followed the man through the crowd. Ziba forgot all about the porridge he was carrying, and followed them. They wound through masses of people until they came to a red tent that was pitched at the edge of the vale, right beside a giant oak tree. They started to enter the tent, but the man held up his hand and stopped them at the entrance.
“Wait here,” he said. The flap was opened, and Ziba could see inside to the dark interior. Suddenly he saw a familiar face.
“Jonathan!” he said. Jonathan stepped out of the tent and into the sunlight.
“Jonathan, this is Mara. She’s the girl that brought the message and got her…her….”
“Eye,” she said. “The word is eye.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jonathan said. “I was there when my father killed the oxen.”
“Wasn’t that something?” Ziba said. “I’ve never seen so much blood!”
“Mara, what you did was very brave,” Jonathan said.
“I already told her that,” Ziba said. “Come on, let’s go explore the camp.”
“I can’t,” Jonathan said. “Abner says I have to learn to be a prince now.”
“Abner? Who’s Abner?”
“The guy with the sword? The one who brought the two of you here? He’s my father’s cousin and his new general.”
“General? He’s really a general?”
Jonathan shrugged. “He says he is. He’s been to Philistia—many times actually—and he says we have a lot to learn about being a kingdom. He and his mother want to show us how to be just like the royal family there.”
Ziba frowned. “I don’t think we want to do that, do we?”
Jonathan shrugged again. “All I know is that they won’t let me do the stuff I used to do. They say I’m a prince, so I can’t play with the other kids.
“They say I have to learn how to replace my father as king someday. All I can say is being the son of a king is not much different than being the son of a farmer, only a lot more boring.”
“There you are,” Ziba heard behind him and Achim stepped up, placing his hand on Ziba’s head. “You’ve forgotten about your starving father, have you?” He reached down and squeezed Ziba’s shoulder, and Ziba responded by handing his father the bowl of porridge he had for him.
“Hello Mara,” said Achim. “I see you are doing better.”
“Yes, Sir,” she said.
“Mara’s been summoned before the King,” the man known as Abner said, returning to the tent entrance. “We need to get a message to the people inside.” He motioned for Mara to enter, then turned to Ziba and Achim. “Boy, we will ask you to have no more contact with the prince Jonathan. He has much training to do.”
Abner straightened up and squared his shoulder against Achim.
“Don’t you have weapons to make for our army?” he said quietly, but with an edge to his voice.
Achim stared back at Abner, not backing down. Then he turned to Ziba without taking his eyes off of the other man.
“Come on, Son. We have work to do.”
“I don’t like that man,” Ziba said quietly as they wandered through the crowd.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t like him much either,” said Achim. “He reminds me too much of the people of Gath. Selfish, jealous, ruthless.”
“I wish that Saul had chosen someone else to be his general.”
“No one around here knows much about warfare or running a kingdom. And Abner and Saul seem to have a special bond. They probably think Abner and his witch mother Zephaniah know what a king should do. You’ll notice that even though Saul was recognized as king, he still works on his farm. But this battle may change things.”
Achim gestured around him and Ziba noticed that the vale had grown a lot busier since he had gone to get food. More and more people continued to gather in the valley, coming in from three directions. It was a collection of common people, many of them obviously either farmers or shepherds. But there were merchants and other folk as well.
“There are thousands here now, and by nightfall we will have tens of thousands here. All have answered the call to follow the king of Israel. If Saul is successful tomorrow, things will change.”
* * *
They continued to work on weapons, and more and more men came by their tent looking for something to carry into battle. When it grew dark and the torches appeared, Achim was called away. After about an hour, he returned.
“King Saul has sent Mara back to Jabesh-Gilead with the message, ‘By midday tomorrow we will deliver you.’ She left about an hour ago. There are thousands and thousands of men ready to go to battle tomorrow morning. I have done my duty and provided as many as possible with weapons. Early tomorrow we leave. I have something to show you. Now rest.”
Ziba lay down in the tent and tried to sleep. A few hours later, while it was still very dark, his father woke him. He dressed and followed his father, leaving their tent and wagon behind.
Achim traveled directly west and soon discovered a path that wound up a hillside and up to a cliff. They followed the path along the cliff edge for about an hour. Then Achim lay down in the tall grass and gestured for Ziba to do the same. They lay on the edge of the cliff and looked down into farmland. In the center of a valley was a walled city. Surrounding it, Ziba could see many tents with a few campfires that had died in the late night.
“That is Jabesh-Gilead,” Achim said quietly. “Watch the treeline.”
The two of them lay silently in the early morning darkness, waiting for something to happen. Then Achim raised his hand and pointed.
“There,” he said, pointing to the eastern side of the valley. “And there, And there.” He pointed out dark shapes moving far below them; figures coming from the treeline and moving into the valley, moving into the sleeping army of the Ammonites.
The few shapes became many; the many became a flood. What Ziba had strained to see at first now became obvious to him. What surprised him was that how many had come into the camp without the Ammonites reacting. Finally he heard a shout and metal clashing against metal.
“To arms! To arms!” he heard shouted. And as the morning sun rose, he heard more and more voices rising in alarm.
“They know we are here,” Ziba said.
“Too late,” his father said. “We have thousands in their camp. By the time they rise and prepare for battle, it will be over.”
The morning sun rose red, scattering scarlet rays across the growing battlefield. The Ammonites were being attacked on three sides, and Ziba watched silently as man after man was killed in front of his eyes by the charging army of Israel.
“Son, many talk about the glory of battle, but those who do often have never raised their hand against an enemy, or run for their lives, praying that they will live to see another day.”
“It’s important for you to know that war is a dirty, terrible business. The only glory that comes from war is the glory that goes to God for letting you live another day. War should be avoided at all costs. But if it can’t be avoided, then you must go in prepared to win.”
Ziba nodded, unsure of why Achim was telling him this.
“Life as we know it is about to change, Ziba. You have a choice. You can become a blacksmith like your father. Or you can do what you can to make the kingdom of Saul and his family successful. What will it be?”
Ziba frowned, then looked down at the battle below them.
“Jonathan will need my help,” he said. “I see that now. I want to do whatever I can to help him.”
Achim nodded. “That’s what I thought you would say.” He rolled over and looked up at the sky.
“Saul will still listen to me, at least for the time being. And Jonathan will need an armor bearer, someone to protect his back and help him carry the load.”
He rolled back over and looked at his son.
“You will be Jonathan’s armor bearer. And your fate will be tied to that of Jonathan forever.”