Friday, August 25, 2006

More for the Masses

Ready for a big one?
I recovered from the lion attack over the next two weeks. Thanks be to the One, I had not broken any ribs. The bruises slowly faded away, while the gashes from the lion’s claws sealed over into scars. When I could walk about the house, I proudly showed them off to anyone that had the stomach to see. The younger girls of the city snuck glimpse of me whenever they passed me at rest in our courtyard. I would open my eyes at the sound of feminine giggles, but could scarcely catch sight of their source.

One morning, I woke up face to face to a lion. I scrambled from my bedding with a start before I realized the truth. Shamarr laughed so hard he nearly pissed. Shortly after dropping me off on the day I fought the beast, he had returned with the servants and the ass. My prize now lay at my feet.

“You needed new bedding, anyways,” he snickered.

Soon after, Ruth pronounced me fit enough to resume my duties. I presented myself to my father.

He looked me over with an inscrutable look. “I see that you’ve regained your strength, my young lion-slayer.”

“By the will of the Almighty and my sister’s gifted hands, I have, Father,” I replied.

“And has your strength also returned to your fingers?”

I gave him a perplexed look. What did my fingers have to do with shepherding?

As if he heard my own thoughts, my father said, “No, not for pasturing our flocks. For this!”

He held up a harp before me. A beautiful arm of polished cedar arched like the top of a composite bow. The strings hung taunt, ready for its player. The lyre could have cost a year’s wages.

“I couldn’t,” I sputtered.

“Yes, you could,” my father replied, with a smirk.

I ran my fingers across the strings. The notes rang true, rising off the nylon strings like a flock taking flight. Resting the harp in the crook of my left elbow, I felt as though I had owned it my entire life.

“I understand you composed a song soon after your victory,” Father said.

I had. The words came to me unbidden, as they usually did. I often composed such songs while I tended my father’s flocks. My songs soothed their distress and helped me to pass the days in peace; a shepherd’s days can defy eternity when there are no lions to fight.

I strummed a common opening, letting the harp receive the first adulation. Then I let my song rise:

I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart;

I will declare all your wondrous deeds.
I will delight and rejoice in you;
I will sing hymns to your name, Most
For my enemies turn back;
They stumble and perish before you.

I let my fingers finish the song. For a long moment, my father said nothing. When I made to stand, he held up his hand.

“I did not realize until this moment just how much the Lord has given you, David,” he said, “A heart that fights his battles and sings his praises, beating from within the breast of one man. This is a rare thing, son.”

I bowed my head in gratitude. How else could I answer him?

He smiled at me. “Our flocks await you, Lion-slayer. Be sure to entertain them with your new gift.”

The days passed without event. Each morning at sunrise, I took the sheep from our enclosure underneath our second-floor bedrooms and brought them to our summer pasture. They ate and drank their fill, and I always guided them to the greenest and most tender fields. They drank from the cleanest springs that I could find. The monotony of keeping watch soon ate away my patience. Shammah had returned to duty the day after he had surprised me with the lion. I had no one to practice my poor swordsmanship with in the pasture. Once more, I found myself longing to stand by my brothers’ side and face the Uncircumcised.

Rumors had spread faster than flies that these unchosen would soon move against the Anointed. All of the tribes had enjoyed rare seasons of peace since he had crushed the Philistine’s last incursion at the pass of Michmash. The Moabites to the east, seeing what King Saul had done to the Amelekites, had left us in peace, as well. But that changed when tribesman had reported seeing large contingents of Philistines march from their coastal cities. Soon after, The Anointed summoned all the tribes to send whatever men they could spare to assemble at the capital, Gibeah.

I remember the day that the herald had come to Bethlehem with the news. His motted hair and darkened skin revealed the long days he had spent on the road. He brushed the saturation of dust from his tunic and issued the summons.

“King Saul, the Anointed of the Most High, calls upon the men of Bethlehem to bear arms for our nation, Israel. All men from the ages of fourteen until fifty must arrive armed and prepared for war at Gibeah by mid-summer.”

He took time only to eat a small meal of bread, cheese and a half-cup of wine before he took his leave.

I had longed to answer that call, of course. My second oldest brother, Abinadab, laughed me out of his presence. I bristled under his scorn, but I had no answer for him. Although I stood taller than other young men my age, I lacked the broad chest and shoulders my brothers possessed. While I had become formidable with the sling, they showed aptitude in all of the weapons of war. There was no question who from our family would go.

And who would stay.

Since I could not march to war or even practice for it, I composed. Song after song I unleashed to my captive audience. They applauded me with choruses of bleating and close nestling. When jackals and wolves shattered the dusk’s peace with their howls, my playing and singing set their hearts at ease.

I soon found other audiences demanded my songs.

It began after dinner a week after I resumed shepherding. My uncles Obed and Jediah, along with their families, reclined with us. Obed, like my father, had earned his considerable fortune herding sheep and selling wool, goat’s milk and cheese in the city market. Unlike my father, he had proudly let his gut pour over his belt.

“The Greek uncircumcised across the Great Sea regard an excess of the waistline as a sign of success,” he would laugh when asked about his unseemly appearance.

His boisterous laughter could be heard six houses away, and he often found a reason for mirth. He never failed to show his generosity, and many in Bethlehem loved the man.

Since we shared our courtyard with my uncles, dining together was nothing new. My uncle’s interest in my singing, however, was unprecedented. After we had finished a succulent supper of lamb, legumes, and a humus of grain and olives, Obed insisted that I serenade him.

“Your father won’t give me a moment’s peace, nephew,” my uncle laughed, “He goes on and on about your songs. Sing us one, so I can judge for myself whether or not he’s cracked!”

The rest of the families echoed his sentiment. I have to admit it; my cousin Rachel—Obed’s daughter—convinced me to do it. And all she did was smile at me.

Rachel’s smile could coax me into many things.

I brought out my harp, strummed the chords, and sung praise to the Lord that shepherds, especially, appreciate:

The Lord is my Shepherd;

I shall not want.
You lie me down in Green pastures,
You lead me to fresh waters;
You restore my soul
You guide me along the path of righteousness
For your name’s sake.
Yeah, even though I walk through the valley
Of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil for you are with me
Your rod and staff comfort me.

When I finished, they greeted me with silence and tears. Obed whistled softly. Rachel gazed at me as though I had awoken from the tomb. My mother nodded her head in approval.

Obed, at last, found his voice. “Your father is definitely not cracked!”

We laughed together. If I had a gift for music, he had a gift for lightening hearts.

And wagging his tongue.

Within a week of my performance at my family’s table, all of Bethlehem, it seemed to me, insisted that I sing for them. House after house I would visit after my supper. Sunrise after sunrise I returned to the pastures with the sheep. Not even a fortnight after my premier as the singer of Bethlehem, I courted exhaustion. At last, my Father intervened.

He summoned the six other city elders to his home one night. After supper, he raised the issue of my nightly performances. “While I treasure my son’s talent, and rejoice with you in his sharing of it with us all, I am concerned,” He said, “David can’t exhaust himself pasturing my sheep during the day and our people at night.”

Ezekiel, one of the oldest elders on the council, responded, “What would you propose, Jesse? The people love David on account of his singing. They would not take lightly to his retirement.”

“I do not propose that David no longer sing for the people. I propose that he no longer perform each night before each home.”

“What do you have in mind?” asked Ashod, another elder.

“Let David perform in the city square on the eve of the Sabbath. The people will enjoy his songs even more knowing they’ll have a day to rest after them. My son will only need to work one day and night a week rather than seven. Finally, every family that wants to listen will have the opportunity to do so.”

The elders were delighted with my father’s solution. I sighed in relief; at last, I could rest after dinner!

I worked in the pastures that week. I played for my city the evening of the Sabbath after the elders had met in council. More days passed. Meanwhile, the winds of inevitable war dwindled to innuendo and unfounded rumor. The Philistines had not advanced past their territory. The uncircumcised to the east laid low. The army continued to muster and train at Gibeah, but the Anointed granted more furloughs with greater frequency. In the absence of an eminent threat, He could not keep the men of the tribes indefinitely. Nor could our king disband the army. Furloughs were the regrettable compromise he made between military and political necessities.

My brothers were among the first granted leave. My father met them at the gates, along with several well-wishers, whom had formed an impromptu parade. That night, my mother served us roasted veal, curds, fresh boiled vegetables and cheese. My father himself poured some of his own pressed wine into my brothers’ cups. Uncle Obed’s wife—Aunt Miriam—served them fresh cakes that she had baked for the occasion. We feasted like the Patriachs!

“The uncircumcised bluster, but they have no loins for war,” Abinidan said.

“Don’t fool yourself,” Eliab retorted, “They’ll come when they’re ready.”

“Everyone says that they’ll strike Bethlehem before winter,” my youngest sister, Rebecca, offered.

“Don’t utter such foolishness, Rebecca,” My mother warned, “Idle words on idle lips will only waste your time.”

“Yes, wise counsel, niece. I wish I had listened to it earlier in my life,” Obed said.

“They won’t strike Bethlehem or anywhere else in Judah! They tremble at our banners, I tell you!” Abinidan said.

“Yes, brother, they tremble at our pitchforks and hoes, at our bronze swords and tired asses. They shiver before our tired slings and worn arrow shafts.” Eliab replied.

“Where is your heart, brother? Do you fear these Philistines?”

“Yes, I do! And if you had more sense, you would, too!”

“Well said, brothers!” Shammah exclaimed, “Let’s make our homecoming a council of war. Perhaps we can send the Anointed our best strategy for dealing with the Unchosen. Who knows? We may yet become princes of Israel?”

Rebecca spit out her food in laughter. Mother and Ruth pressed their hands over their mouths, in vain. Even my father chuckled at my now blushing brothers. Eliab glared at Shammah, while Abinadab gave him a mock salute.

“War, like the rains of winter, will come to us soon enough,” My father said, “All we can do is prepare ourselves against those who bring it, and trust that the Most High will see us through.”

“Would that the Most High entrusted us with iron smolts and smiths to run them,” Eliab muttered.

“Don’t mock the Almighty!” I heard myself blurt out.

The table as one stared at me. “So I’m to now suffer council from this shepherd and singer?” Eliab shouted back.

Before I could say another word, he stormed away from the table. Ruth rose to go after him, but my mother held up her hand.

“Your brother doesn’t need your help, daughter. Leave him be.”

“If the enemy could see the fire of hearts like Eliab, they would reconsider their
ambition,” Obed said.

“Oh, why do you trouble Jesse’s family with your banter? Can’t you see that they have enough woes?” Miriam said.

“So now my complementing Eliab’s spirit burdens our hosts? I never realized how weak-kneed my family has become!”

Several of my relatives bickered all at once. Their cacophony would drive a starving pack of wolves miles away from a thousand sheep. My father said nothing. He sipped his wine, listened and then took a bite of his cake. All the while, my brothers, sisters, cousins, aunt and uncle argued.

My father finally stood up from his couch. Voices trailed off in mid-sentence. He looked across his table at each of us. “The oldest of us remember how the Philistine’s sandal pressed against our neck,” He said, “Eliab alone of my sons remembers the fury of the uncircumcised, and how the Philistines occupied much of our land. Their discipline and their steel have ensured them dominion for generations. Now, they seek again to impose their will upon us.

Why then should we not tremble at their approach? Yet we must not yield to our fear. Our King has defeated them before. El has won victory after victory over them for us. When we entrust ourselves into his hands, and obey his word, then we will not need to fear the Philistine’s or any other unchosen.”

He retired from the table. The homecoming feast of my brothers ended with his departure. My mother, aunts and sisters cleared the table they had set under the clear sky. My father and the men went upstairs to discuss other matters. My brothers retired to their bedding.

I waited as long as I could, but Eliab did not return. I entered the room I shared with my brothers and threw myself on my lion-skin, between Jessup and Joshua. I had not wanted to let the day close with anger still seething between Eliab and myself.

Unfortunately, I no longer had a choice.

Little did I realize, then, that the rift between us would soon widen to an abyss.

Be advised that this is a rough first draft. Meaning, I wrote and haven't editted it a lick. There may be grammatical errors and the like throughout. I'll clean them up during the polish, after the second revision. Whenever that is.

Thank you for your kind feedback. Thanks for your patience, too!