King of the Jews

The shepherd stood upon the hillside and watched as the party of men approached. They were bandits, from the broken lands to the south. They lived in the caves and hid from the King’s men. But times were hard, and for every desperate thief that the King’s captain dragged out of his hole, ten more drifted out to hide among the rocks and broken ground; wild-eyed, uncut hair, patched and ragged cloaks, starving from too many days without even a head of grain to chew.

The shepherd Yehoash watched them placidly. He would not run and hide. He had his sheep to watch, few though they were. He would not leave them. And if he ran, what then, would he be safe on another hillside? There was nowhere safe, not in these days of war and famine. If Yahweh willed his death, then death would come, and there was nothing he could do about that. He stood upon the hillside and watched as the party of men approached.

As they came close enough for his eyes to see their faces, he saw their leader. He was young, his beard cut neatly, his black hair oiled, his skin fresh and clean. He wore a thick wool cloak, striped with coloured dyes. His sandals were of thick supple leather. His limbs were strong, well-formed, his back was straight and his head held high on a neck like a strong tower.

Yehoash knew that he himself was hunched over, squat-necked, short-limbed. He had never seen his own face but he could feel it was weathered like tree bark, hair unkempt and dry. His cloak was rough-spun and undyed, sandals stiff and split. Yehoash was old as well, more than thirty winters had taken their toll on him. As he faced the young man he was filled with awe and envy at the youth’s strength and beauty.

The young bandit carried a short bow, and a long knife. He walked up to Yehoash.

“My friends have walked many miles and we are hungry. Would you have a little water and grain for us, old man?” he asked pleasantly with a smile. The hard-eyed men behind him did not smile. They looked half-starved and desperate.

“It would be my honour to serve you and your friends,” Yehoash replied. He wondered how much grain he had buried in the dirt floor of his hut. Not enough for them all. But it would have to stretch.

The shepherd’s hut was plain and simple, bare walls made of uncut stones packed together with sheep dung. Dried grass and branches for the roof, the floor hard-packed dirt. There were no windows but a hole in the roof allowed the smoke to escape.

Yehoash’s wife and daughter stayed in the corner, around the fire, boiling up the grain to make a pottage. It barely covered the bottom of the pot, but it would have to do. What Yehoash and his family would do for food tomorrow was another question. A question for tomorrow, he thought to himself. If tomorrow came.

The young leader sat in the place of honour, closest to the fire, facing the door. Two of his companions sat beside him, hard faces, broad, strong hands, narrowed eyes. He had five others with him, all of them as young as he, though without his grace and presence. They looked like farmer’s kids, or shepherd’s sons.

They’d left their homes recently, Yehoash thought. He wondered why. He wondered what they’d seen, what they’d run from. Starvation, slaughter, slavery, death. Any or all. Yehoash had seen his share. He had stayed, picking up the pieces, scraping out a living, but he didn’t blame these youth for leaving. To take their chances in the hills on their own, rather than under a roof, waiting for the next blow to fall.

They acted pleasant enough, the young men. Polite and civil, even as they fingered the hilts of their knives, and their eyes darted like snakes towards the women sitting by the fire, a hungry look in their eyes. But none of them said anything, none of them moved.

“I saw you approach from the west,” Yehoash ventured. “What news of the western hills and plains?”

The young leader smiled, “Little news,” he replied, “things stay much the same. The King’s men hunt their own people while the foreigners from the plains take or kill whatever they lay their eyes upon.”

Yehoash pondered this. He said, “I have seen the soldiers from the coastal cities march through the valleys each summer. I hear they empty our grainstores, and break our cisterns. They cut down our olive trees, and they kill our flocks for their cook pots.”

The men sitting beside him grimaced, their eyes clouded, nodding grimly at these words. They had seen it too. For some of them they’d seen it once too many times.

“I pray that Yahweh will come to save us, with all the Hosts of the Heavens at His command.” Yehoash said piously.

“Where do you pray?” the young leader replied.

“A small altar,” Yehoash said. “On the next hill over, a sacred place, though simple. A priest tends it, a poor man, but a man of Yahweh. I take a small bird, or a hare, when I can, and burn it on the stone, and we eat it together, he and I, and he tells me the tales he learned from his father. Tales of our ancestors, who came here long ago from far-away lands.”

“I have heard the stories,” the youth said wistfully. “I always loved the stories. And the prophet Shemuel told them so well.”

“Shemuel of Shiloh?” Yehoash asked.

“You have heard of him?”

“All the land of Yahweh has heard of him,” Yehoash replied, magnanimously. “The last of the House of Eli, the last true prophet of Yahweh.”

“Not the last,” the young man said. “But he was the greatest. We shall not see his like again.”

“He was the King’s priest, I heard,” Yehoash said.

“Shemuel was no one’s priest but Yahweh’s. For a time he tried to guide the King,” the youth allowed. “But the King did not listen, and when the King began to go his own way Yahweh left him. And so did Shemuel. And that was the beginning of all the troubles. For the King never won another battle since. And the locusts of the lowland cities have been unrestrained ever after.”

“And you knew him?” Yehoash asked hesitantly, his curiosity getting the better of his caution.

The young man was silent for a time.

Then he smiled softly. “I knew him,” he said. But he said no more.

And the pottage was ready. His daughter Abital spooned out the boiled grain into bowls. Yehoash didn’t have enough for them all and he apologised, but the bandit leader waved his words away and thanked him for his hospitality. Abital gave the largest portion in the best bowl to the bandit leader first, and then to his nearest companions, making sure to keep her eyes upon the floor as she did, and then retreated carefully to the back with her mother.

When the first of them had eaten, she wiped the bowls clean and refilled them for the rest. A skin of water was passed around, the last dregs from the cistern. They swallowed it gratefully, Yehoash realised they must have been desperate of thirst, the dust on their faces was old and dried. Yehoash and his family did not eat.

While the others were eating, the young leader watched Yehoash, who sat calmly before the youth’s gaze. Yehoash thought of what he could do to put the lad at ease. He nodded respectfully to him. “Would you grace us with a story, friend,” he asked him.

The boy thought for a time, then nodded. “I could indeed,” he said. “Though I am a poor speaker,” he lied. He settled himself, and wrapped his cloak more tightly around him, as the heat of the day was starting to fade.

He closed his eyes, and began to hum, a single note. His companions paused respectfully as their leader filled the hut with a single, perfect note. Yehoash realised the youth was imitating a lyre, and though the instrument was not present Yehoash could imagine it, the string plucked, the note sounded, the story begins.

“There was a boy,” he said, his voice heightened and lyrical, “there was a boy, who was called by the King to sing to him when he grew restive and despondent. And the boy would play the lyre, and sing songs of Yahweh, and the king would calm, and the darkness of his thoughts would lift, and the spirits which plagued him would leave him be.

“And one day the king went out to battle, but was fearful that his thoughts would darken his face and dispirit the men. So he had his lyre-player join him on campaign, though the boy had never been to war before. And when the boy looked out from the King’s tent at the armies ranged out across the valley floor, beating their shields and roaring their battle-cries, his heart grew fearful with the shadow of the grave.

“Yet he did not despair, but he lay his face upon the earth and prayed to Yahweh, though he had neither altar or sacrifice. But Yahweh heard him nevertheless, for Yahweh is not a man, that he lives in a house, nor a graven idol who is fixed to his place, and cannot walk abroad and hear his people when they call to him. So Yahweh heard and He Himself led the boy out to the King’s men.

“And the King’s men were fearful also, for a giant was with the enemy, a great man armoured in bronze with a sword greater than any man could lift. And he was cursing the King’s men, and calling them to their deaths. And none of them could meet his eye, they could not lift their swords and their legs could not hold them upright. And the King had grown dark in his face, and his spirits were tormenting him.

“And so the boy took up his lyre, for the King was prostrate in the dirt, and raging at shades of the dead. And none of his men knew how to calm him. But the boy played a song of Yahweh, a song of grace and hope, of battles won, and enemies overthrown. He played a song of praise and a song of salvation. And the king calmed, and the spirits left him. Though he and his men were still fearful.  And so the boy said that he would go out to fight, and the King’s men laughed at him, for he was only a child and the giant was a man of war of many years.

“But Yahweh softened the King’s heart and the King called for his armour, and his sword, and dressed the boy in them. But the boy could not move, or lift the sword, for they were too heavy for him, as he was only a child.

“So the boy threw them off and took a sling, and wore only his tunic. For he had been a shepherd, and knew well that a sling could kill a lion, if one were brave and trusted in Yahweh.

“He strode out between the armies, before the giant in his bronze armour, and his great sword that no man could lift. And the boy knelt upon Yawheh’s land and saw five stones. And he picked them up and placed them in his bag. And he stepped up to the giant and called, ‘You come to me with a sword and spear. I come to you with the Almighty’s hand, Yahweh of Armies, Mighty in Battle.’

“And all the soldiers laughed, and the giant roared. But the boy took a single stone and placed it in his sling, and spun it round his head and released it. And the stone flew true, and struck the giant between the eyes.

“And the giant fell, and great was his fall.

“And the boy went up to the fallen giant, and picked up his sword, and cut his head from his shoulders, and held it up before the armies. And at this sight the enemy’s blood turned to water, and they fled in their terror. And all the King’s men pursued them down the valley, and slaughtered them all the way unto the walls of their city.”

The young bandit chief stopped, his eyes still closed. His men were utterly silent and still, not one even reaching to take a bite of their food. None of them hardly breathing, as they all saw the giant fall, in their mind’s eye, imagining the sound, imagining how the men must have felt to see such a thing.

Then the young leader opened his eyes, and smiled at them. “Eat,” he told them, “drink”.

When the pot was empty, and the bowls wiped clean with fingers, and the last dry husk of grain picked from the teeth, and the skin shaken empty of the last drop, the bandit leader bowed to Yehoash and thanked him.

“You have been gracious and kind to me and my men,” he said. “You do not know the fullness of what you have done today, for I believe we would have died if we had not met you. Is there anything I can do for you, in gratitude for the grace of your hand?”

Yehoash could not ask for anything. It would not be right. Neither would it be smart. A bandit never enjoyed being beholden. The bandit would not be so grateful if Yehoash made a request of him.

Yet a strange thought occurred to Yehoash. And he spoke without thinking, “Just one, Lord,” he said. And afterwards he could not say why he had called the boy that. “Just one request.” And Yehoash’s eyes were far away as he asked, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

The boy smiled, and laughed. He stood, and Yehoash stood, and the boy embraced him warmly.

“I will,” the boy said.

And many years later, he did.

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