A story of Old Egypt in the Days of Joseph. Used by Permission of the Eerdmans’ Publ. Co.—Grand Rapids, Michigan
As the merchantmen ate, speech shuttle cocked from one to another rapidly. There was mystery in the air and they were all keyed up over it. Accid-Adab could enlighten them and Egiba was determined that he should do so. Asaph glanced around to see if the youths were out of hearing, then gave Egiba a significant look that urged him to the encounter.
“I have been told,” Egiba began, while the other men stopped their chatter and chewing to listen, “that Raanah carries the moonstone image of Ishtar.”
Accid-Adab fidgeted, stuffed a wad of bread in his mouth, but said nothing.
“I believe its legend runs,” Egiba persisted, “that Ishtar would slay with the fire flash of the gems anyone who tries to harm the possessor of it.”
Accid-Adab’s glance shifted around the group. All eyes were upon him. His chest swelled at finding himself the center of attention. “H’m, yes, Raanah has the jewel,” he admitted grudgingly. “And no man can defy its power,” he boasted.
“How did you find out Raanah had it?” Kihai-Del asked. “He never speaks of it.”
“A slave in Nippur whispered to me that Raanah had the jewel. The youth was on the slave market; so I bought him; for no living soul, but this Nippur bondsman and Raanah himself knew that he had it. Raanah was a small orphan when Rath bought him. Rath was a man of great wealth. He loved the boy as his own son and intended to free him, but sickness overcame him suddenly. Just before he died he slipped the jewel to Raanah.”
“So-o!” Asaph exclaimed, “then the jewel became yours by purchase of the slave.”
“So I contend,” Accid-Adab cried in exasperation.
“Then why not take possession of it?” Kihai-Del asked bluntly.
Accid-Adab’s eyes smoldered resentfully. “I have demanded it, but he refuses to give it up and shields himself behind Ishtar’s power to smite.”
“And rightly, too,” Egiba declared. “Why should anybody give away such rare good fortune just because someone asked him for it?”
Isme-Dagan cackled tantalizingly. “You might as well forget it, Adab. The wrath of the goddess stands between you and the youth. You can never skin a leopard till he is dead.”
Accid-Adab’s face grew livid. “But I will get it somehow!”
“Could it not be stolen from him?” Asaph suggested.
“But what need to have the jewel,” Isme-Dagan twitted “and with it a stretch of bad luck? Ishtar’s anger is terrible. The legend clearly says that only upon the death of the owner, or by his gift of the jewel to another, will Ishtar transfer her favors.”
Kihai-Del’s crafty, unmatched eyes lighted up weirdly. “When we come to Egypt, the youth might offend the Egyptians so they would put him to death. Then the jewel would by yours by inheritance with Ishtar’s favor thrown in.”
“Eh—“Accid-Adab looked up hopefully. “Dare the Egyptians hold him roughly?”
Kedar snickered caustically. “Since they know nothing about Ishtar, nor believe in her, they would. Besides, they have their own powerful gods to protect them.”
Isme-Dagan groaned as he straightened up on his sluggish legs. “I should say this old world is wicked enough without any man trying to start a war among gods. Deliver me from such a holocaust!”
Egiba ducked his head in his hands in mock dismay. “And should such a war ever take place, oh, let me hide somewhere in a dark cavern!”
Although no word had been spoken of their intention, all afternoon there was a gleam of anticipation in the merchantmen’s eyes and an air of expectancy among the slaves. Sleek cattle and sheep grazed over the broad plain of the Jordan River through which they travelled and scattered about were herdsmen’s tents, black and squatty; and landholders’ huts, surrounded by olive trees and vineyards, their garden plots fresh and growing.
Happily, the caravan chanced upon a grove of trees. Without argument, they made camp and for the first time in weeks, the slaves were ordered to build fires. The women immediately kneaded bread dough and set it to rise while they prepared a cake batter. All members had long hungered for the fleshpots and in such a favorable situation they were not to be denied. Yet, the merchantmen, humanlike, found excuses for their lawlessness.
“Dry bread and dates grow stale to the palate and leave a sour rising in the mouth,” Kihai-Del declared.
“Aye,” Kedar asserted, “a man’s health wanes on monotonous fare and he grows resentful.”
Egiba raised ecstatic eyes to the tree tops. “Ah—give me a leg of lamb, a tenderloin of yearling, a juicy fowl and fresh vegetables!” He touched his lips with his finger tips and gave a loud smack.
Isme-Dagan growled from habit, though his eager eyes belied his words. “Any man can thrive without such dainty food. There will be danger in despoiling the country.”
Dahmru shivered at the mention of danger, yet was all aflutter with anticipation.
Accid-Adab clinched the matter with irrational heat. “It will be their own fault if the herders and landholders do not look after their possessions. Besides, we will be away before dawn when they discover their loss.”
Without more ado, Raanah, the lucky, adept and venturesome, was appointed to lead the raiding party. As the slaves selected lined up for instructions, they were plainly told that at one bleat of a sheep or squawk of a fowl the owners and dogs would be upon them. Joseph wanted to go with Raanah, but was ordered to mind the fires. Acid-Adab felt he was too near his home to be trusted out of sight.
As soon as dusk set in deeply, but before the moon arose, the party started out. The next hour was an anxious one for the merchantmen. They paced the camp. They spoke only in hoarse whispers. They shivered at the least unusual sound. Yet, should any trouble arise, they were ready to a man to proclaim their own innocence.
But their tension gradually eased as raiding groups came straggling in with plunder. Soon all but Raanah were accounted for. Zerah and Obal reported that after helping them get the fowl, he told them to take the birds into camp. Then he cut across the fields again. He did not tell them what he had in mind.
A half-hour passed. The merchantmen became alarmed. So far they had been lucky that no mishap had occurred. Now, Raanah’s carelessness might get them into trouble. They argued as to what he could be up to.
Joseph strode between the fires snapping his fingers. Several times he stepped to the edge of the glade and whistled softly, but no answer from Raanah eased his fears.
Then, when they had all persuaded themselves that Raanah would have to be ransomed from some indignant landholder, he burst into camp. He was all aglow with excitement. His breath was short from running. His eyes were snapping. Both arms encircled a large bundle wrapped in a calfskin.
“Are you being chased?” they asked in suspense as they gathered around him.
“No!” he cried to relieve them. “But see what I have brought you!” He laid the bundle on the ground, spread the skin open and beamed up at them.
“A gift from the gods!” gasped Egiba.
“Hum—honey!” Isme-Dagan grinned, poking a finger into the middle of a comb, then sucking it.
The other men pressed forward to sample the delicacy and quickly forgave the youth for the anxiety he had caused them. Even Accid-Adab’s frigid face relaxed as he sucked on a dirty finger.
“Where did you find it?” Asaph inquired, smacking his lips appreciatively.
“Up the road apiece.” Raanah was still panting. “I saw the hives just before we turned into camp. After we got the fowl, I sent Zerah and Obal back, because I knew the bees would fight them and they would set up a howl. For myself, I was not afraid. And not one stinger even lighted on me, although they were angry enough when I lifted the combs from the hives.” The youth’s eyes were dancing. He threw back his head and laughed. “Tomorrow, when the landholder sees the bees swarming, he will wonder what happened to them.”
Already a half-dozen spits were turning. Their fires were glowing red and the savor of the cooking meats was appetizing enough, they thought, to entice the gods from heaven. The tradesmen sniffed and could not wait. The freshly baked bread was still warm. They broke the loaves apart, spread a hunk of dripping honey, laughed for sheer ecstasy and threw quips at each other between mouthfuls. Never did anything taste so good. Then, impatiently, they sliced off the roasted sides of the meats and ate them while the rest cooked deeper within. For weeks they had longed for such luxuries and now they could not get enough.
Raanah selected several unfingered honey squares, folded them in a napkin and started toward the women’s camp. He found Bashia bending over the fires, her cheeks rosy from the heat. Her eyes met his shyly as he placed the bundle in her hands.
“This is rightfully yours,” he told her, “because when I set out for it, my thoughts were of you. Not that you need honey to make you sweeter,” he teased, though with a feeling that what he said was true.
“Flatterer,” she mocked. “Now I question your sincerity. But, please, do not doubt my appreciation for the gift,” she added quickly. “It is an unusual treat.”
“’Tis only a trifle,” Raanah protested, stunned by her flushed beauty. He liked her unaffected manner and her voice with its husky undertone.
“Indeed, no,” she contradicted, “yet I must admit that I am more grateful because you are back safely. You take great chances,” she scolded him lightly. “Most of the time I am in as much of a stew over you as a kettle of porridge over the fire.”
Raanah was immensely pleased over her solicitude, yet treated the matter with masculine nonchalance. “But I take no chances–.” He hesitated. This was no time to tell her about Ishtar.
“Certainly you do,” she disagreed flatly. “And this evening you had the entire camp fretting for fear some irate herdsman had pierced you with his dagger or some peeved shepherd had turned you over to the wolf.”
They both laughed. She dipped a curtsey. “Thank you.” She was the first to remember that it was not seemly to linger near the women’s quarters.
Most of the night the roasting fires were burning. Masters and slaves alike napped from sheer fullness, then awoke to feast again. By morning all were in a heavy stupor and dawn did not awaken them.
But the herders and landholders awoke at daybreak as usual and discovered their losses. Gathering their helpers, they strode wrathfully into the camp while the company was snoring its loudest.
It was a rude awakening. Dazed by sleep, the merchantmen emerged from their tents and stood in huddled silence. Even Egiba could find no adequate words to deny the herdsmen’s charge. It would have been futile anyway, for the smoldering fires gave mute evidence of their use and the refuse of animal and garden plunder was strewn about the camp.
The chief herder, a fiery Ammonite, exuding physical energy, advanced toward the merchantmen. He waved a spiked club, made from the bole and roots of a tree. He was frightening just to look at. His red hair stood up in coarse shocks and his beard grew raggedly down over his throat and chest. An unshorn sheepskin hung crosswise on his body, leaving his arms bare. He looked, as indeed he was, a primitive wild man bent on revenge.
“You must pay,” he roared, “or we will break your bones and leave them for the jackals to clean.”
To the stupefied merchantmen, it was a dire threat.
The shepherd, the landholder and the helpers also waved their vicious looking clubs and shouted their displeasure. They were all dressed alike and looked as rough and savage as the gaunt dogs that trailed at their heels.
At the sound of the rumpus, Raanah and Joseph arose from their pallets and stood with the others looking on. But, realizing the seriousness of the occasion, they became alert to its opportunities. Joseph slipped away unnoticed. The slaves of the caravan armed themselves with axes and long grass knives and gathered beside the merchantmen. The herders were a mere handful in comparison and the spirits of the tradesmen arose.
“You spout threats too brazenly,” Asaph’s hawk eyes glared at them. “It is a rare ranger who knows every animal of his herds. You cannot prove that what we used was yours, for we are a large company and take along many animals of our own.” The merchantmen snickered at Asaph’s cleverness.
Knowing themselves to be no match for the shrewd merchantmen in wits, the herdsmen yelled louder and shook their chubs menacingly.
The dry-souled Kedar waved them off. “Begone, or our slaves will tie you to the trees!”
But the chief herdsmen could not be intimidated by words. The smirks of the merchantmen fueled his rage. He beckoned his followers with a jerk of his head and rushed at Accid-Adab as if his dour face especially invited attack. Raanah sprang between them, but before he could grapple with the assailant, there came a whir through the air. The Ammonite staggered as if some invisible hand had struck him and crumpled to the ground. His followers halted in bewilderment beside his prostrate form. A murmur of amazement arose from the merchantmen.
(Cont. in the next Issue)