I have read the Bible since I was a child. My normal way was to begin “in the beginning” and work my way through to Revelation. I realize now that this method has its drawbacks. For me, as a young child though, it was just the way to read.
I frequently encountered stories that inspired and moved me. I would reread some of them and have committed many of them to memory and can tell just where they happen in the Bible. Other stories, however, puzzled and troubled me. Sometimes it was the strangeness of the situation or the difficulty of following the story. At other times the stories were very violent. Some of the events that have always troubled me figure powerfully in this chapter of my book, “Milcah” where I have put together various verses to create my own scene of violence which I hope resembles the harshness of the times.
I don’t try to explain the story. I want my readers to wrestle with the violence and harshness of the life in those times so long ago. Perhaps the violence of our times will shock the readers of our narratives in the far future.
I hope that you will contact me with your own reaction to this chapter and/or your own story about a passage in the Bible —- or your life —- that still doesn’t make sense to you.
Aunt Abigail’s screams echo in the desert a few seconds before the thump of a stone hammer hits a copper wedge securely positioned on her wrist atop a wooden trestle. Blood gushes from the stump and splatters her executioners.
Hepher’s sons have set up their tents in a straight line. The first belongs to Jeconiah and his wife Shulamit. Grandpa Hepher and Grandma Deborah occupy the second. My father and his five daughters dwell on the third. Elhanan, his wife Miriam and their six children own the fourth. The fifth belongs to Ephod, his wife Abigail and their six children. The women have arranged the cooking tripods, benches, mortars and other work utensils in front of their tents. It is a recreational and working area. Behind the tents, we keep the animals tied to pickets.
That morning, the women and children came back from collecting that day’s manna. Grandpa Hepher and Uncle Elhanan stayed behind collecting more manna for the next day, a Sabbath. Father is wandering somewhere in Mount Hor, his mania since Samuel died. His state of mind worsened with the death of Mother. My sisters and I spend most of our time with Aunt Miriam and her children. The older cousins pound the manna into flour. After that, Aunt Miriam and I boil it and make flat cakes.
“I’m tired of eating the same thing over and over,” says Aunt Miriam sourly.
“You better not complain,” comments Aunt Abigail, who is passing by. “It is the bread which the Lord has given us. For me it tastes like bread made with olive oil.” “I love these cakes,” I say.
“Me too,” agrees Jair,” winking at me. “They taste like honey.” I blush. I have a warm sensation every time Jair speaks to me.
When we finish eating, Jair and his brothers leave to fetch water. Mordecai, a big fellow from the tribe of Benjamin, arrives in front of Uncle Ephod’s tent and yells, “Ephod, I need to talk to you.”
Ephod is an exception among the old generation. He doesn’t care that he is going to die before entering the Promised Land. His name is going to continue through his children. He married very young and has been blessed by the Almighty with eight sons. Three of them died in infancy, but he still has five healthy male children remaining: Hanniel, Abiezer, Hoseah, Heber and Hiran. They will continue his name. What else can he desire? His happiness increases when at last a lily of the fields sprouts in their family, just before the mother-fountain dried. He calls his only daughter Lilah. “She came to brighten even more the days of my old age,” he says.
His occupation, when we are camped, is to make tents of leather or animal’s hair to exchange with caravans we meet on our wandering. He has purchased Egyptian linen clothes. Ephod dresses better than the other men with their dull and stained woolen tunics. He wears his cloak thrown over his shoulder on top of his tunic secured around the waist with a striped sash. On his head, he uses a long and wide turban tied firmly with a blue cord. His fine clothes soon become a cause of envy.
Ephod greets Mordecai with a broad smile. Mordecai looks at Ephod’s combed salt-and-pepper hair, his bushy mustache and beard, wealthy clothes and mumbles, “You won’t look so fancy when I’m done with you today, Ephod!”
Mordecai then starts accusing Ephod of not having paid for a goat he bought from Mordecai. As the discussion intensifies, our grandmother sends one of the younger kids out to bring Grandfather to put an end to the argument.
Well, he doesn’t arrive in time. Soon the yard is littered with neighbors who come to see what all the shouting is about. The commotion becomes like a spark in some wood shavings for Mordecai. He jumps on Uncle Ephod unexpectedly and throws him to the ground. Mordecai holds Ephod’s hands under his strong knees and starts to squeeze Ephod’s neck.
I grab baby Tirzah, huddle close to my sisters and the little cousins, and watch from the tent flap.
“Pay me or I’ll kill you.” Mordecai says and loosens his grip on Ephod’s neck for a few moments.
Ephod answers, “I’ve already paid you.” Mordecai squeezes again until Ephod’s face starts to turn purple.
Grandmother and her daughter-in-law run back and forth. They don’t know what to do.
“Do something! Do something or he’ll kill Ephod!” yells Abigail to the men watching.
Abigail is plump and taller than her husband. She only loses weight when we travel for weeks without a break. She wears striped, loose tunics with long sleeves. She has inherited two of them from her mother. They belong to the time they lived in Egypt. The square head cover tied under her chin hides her cheeks and shadows her eyes, leaving uncovered only her curved nose and tight lips.
She knows she and her husband won’t enter Canaan, but she has worked it out in her mind and finally feels consoled that her children will. Her boys haven’t been marked with the shame of servility. They will be stronger, have more determination and be fit to possess Canaan than their grandparents and parents. Besides the harsh life in the wilderness, she lives in fear one of her children or her husband will complain and suffer the punishment of death. She also has expanded her vigilance to the extended members of her family. She makes sure to stop anyone from grumbling against the Lord. She feels responsible to keep the whole family faithful and safe. A furrow on her forehead and the tightness of her mouth are the only signs of the battles fought within her soul.
Seeing that the men won’t do anything to save her husband, Abigail becomes a lioness. Her eyes burn red with rage, and she advances towards Mordecai’s back. He is kneeling over Ephod. She reaches beneath Mordecai’s tunic and furiously grabs his genitals. Mordecai yelps, releases Ephod’s neck and falls coiled to the side.
Abigail gets hold of her husband’s arms and drags him into their tent.
The crowd laughs at the bully Mordecai, rolling on the ground and groaning. He looks at them with fury and runs crouched low towards the Patio of the Tent of the Covenant.
Uncle Elhanan and Grandfather arrive with their baskets full of manna. Deborah and her daughters-in-law tell Hepher and Elhanan what has happened. Grandfather gives a hard look at the people gathered there. They bow their heads and start to leave one by one. “That is not good,” Old Hepher says, shaking his head. “That is not good! Don’t leave the tents. Stay right here.” At that moment, they hear the single trumpet blast summoning the leaders.
When Hepher gets hold of his shepherd’s crook to leave, he waves to his family with it. That is his way to say that everything is going to be fine, but we can read in his ashen expression that it isn’t.
The sun is already projecting long tent shadows when Hepher returns, followed by the leaders of the community. No matter what he pleaded in his daughter-in-law’s favor, it didn’t make any difference. Abigail is going to be punished. She has committed an abomination. She has to suffer the punishment as an example for all the other women.
Hepher enters his tent. The family gathered outside. One of the leaders yells, “Hepher, bring the woman forward.” He doesn’t answer. He simply collapses on his fur pallet. The others surround Abigail to protect her.
“Hepher, bring the woman forth.” There is no answer. So two of them grab Aunt Abigail’s arm and drag her out of the circle of crying people.
“No, no, don’t do this to me. Hepher, help me! Ephod, do something. Don’t let them cripple me! You know I became madly blind when I saw that wicked man choking you. Help me God. Have mercy on me. Have mercy on me!”
Ephod with his wrinkled and soiled linen clothes and bare head advances towards the men holding his wife and struggles to free her from their hands. Two others get hold of him and pull him away.
“Let me go. Let me go!” He screams.
Hanniel and Abiezer start kicking the men holding their mother. They also have to be restrained and taken away.
The other leaders keep making the preparation quietly and quickly, as if they have done it many times before. The children and adults gather around with stupefied looks. It seems we are watching preparations for our own executions.
They blindfold her and strap her left arm to her back. One places her right hand on top of a workbench, brought for this purpose, and ties it there. This last man’s hair is the color of flames that contrast with his ashen expression. I leave baby Tirzah with Noah and approach the scene. I can’t take my eyes away from the red-haired man. His frowning eyes and tight lips show his disapproval for what they are doing to Abigail. Why is he taking part in this act then, I ask myself? I, of course, know the answer. He has to do it. He must be one of the leaders. He holds the wedge firmly against her wrist. All the while, the whole desert hears her desperate screams.
“Don’t cripple me! I prefer to die. Kill me instead! Have mercy on me, Lord!”
Finally, the man with the stone hammer says, “Ready?”
He elevates his hammer high above his head and strikes a firm blow precisely on top of the wedge. The men then let Abigail loose, and she collapses on the ground bleeding. The man with hair the color of fire staggers and falls with a thump beside Abigail. One of his companions grabs his arms and drags him away saying,“Toughen up, Achan, if you want to be a leader.”
“She’s dead,” cries Aunt Miriam.
“No, not yet!” says Grandmother, after bending down and listening to her heart.
“Let’s save her!” While she unties the strap around her waist and applies a tourniquet on Aunt Abigail’s arm, she prays, “Please, Lord, help us! We already have five children without a mother. We don’t need six more orphans.” Grandma, whose memory is lapsing and can’t tell one grandchild from the other, becomes as sharp as a desert serpent, “Hanniel, get me some coals and a copper tong. Abiezer, go into my tent. In a corner, you’ll find a leather pouch. You’ll see three small clay bottles inside it. Bring the smallest one. It contains frankincense. After I cauterize the cut, I’ll apply the frankincense. Once the bleeding has stopped completely, we’ll apply a mixture of henna and turmeric. It will help close the wound. Zelophehad and Elhanan,” she orders her sons, “Get everybody out of here.” My father has arrived from his wandering just in time to witness Aunt Abigail’s punishment.
“And me, what should I do,” asks Aunt Miriam crying.
“Gather the children and take them for a long walk out of the encampment. Take with you the left over manna cakes and a jug of water. Feed them, quench their thirst, tell them stories and let them play until this horrible event fades away from their minds.
We heard many glorious stories of our ancestors. It made no difference. That scene became engraved in my mind forever.