18. A Jar of Pickles
The veranda of Gera, the grove manager, Samaria City, Samaria
Obadiah filled his plate, pushed a goatskin next to Gera at the edge of the veranda, and sat. Although the sun still hid behind the mountains of Gilead, from behind them, the warble of a finch rose, fell, and ended on a high, emphatic note.ii
Liev and Keren entered on light, bouncing steps. Liev carried their youngest, and Keren led the older child by a hand. Although she snugged an arm around Liev and beamed up into his face, as they cleared the hallway, she withdrew her arm and moved behind him. She bowed her head and let her scarf fall around her cheeks. The young family waited while Obadiah’s guards filled their plates.
Gera turned his back to the couple and the guards, steadied his plate on one leg and whispered to Obadiah, “Do you know the queen is killing people? Good men who speak out against her brothels.”
“I heard. In Jabesh and Beitshan.”
Gera’s voice rose. “No, my friend. No.” Then he glanced around and dropped his voice while he swept his arm west to east. “From Akko, out to Ramoth. And in tiny villages along the way.”
As Hodiah sat next to them, Gera gripped Obadiah’s shoulder and whispered, “Somebody’s got to do something.”
Obadiah brushed Gera’s hand off. This somebody’s got a wife and kids.
Bodyguards waited on the path with horses and the chariot. Obadiah joined them, ready for a day of pawing through olive limbs for soot, inspecting wilted leaves stuck to the branch, searching for scabs, aphids, scale insects—and enjoying the sunshine.
But something delayed Gera and Liev. Obadiah returned, mounted the ladder, and peeked over the parapet.
Gera cuddled his grandsons.iii “We’ll go higher and higher tonight, boys. It’s time to inspect Uncle Biah’s groves.” He set them on the floor.
As Liev approached the ladder, he tapped an empty jar. Tunk-tunk. “As soon as I get Keren her pickled fish, I’ll catch up with you in the grove.”
Keren came out and leaned against the doorpost. Since Obadiah’s grove inspections a month ago, the bulge in the middle of her long, loose robe had lowered.
Liev floated a kiss to her across the veranda.
She brushed her hair back from her face and sent him a soft smile.
He responded, “Rise up, my love, my fair one—”
With a wink at her daughter-in-law, Hodiah laid a palm against Liev’s cheek and pushed his face around toward the courtyard.
Obadiah ducked from view. “Sorry. I was looking for Gera.”
Hodiah’s voice followed. “You children are embarrassing your Uncle Biah. Go, Liev. My daughter-in-law needs those fish. Be sure to dip plenty of juice from the barrel. And bread. Don’t forget bread.”
From the top of the ladder, Liev blew one more kiss. Then he joined Obadiah in the courtyard, and Gera joined them.
Obadiah pointed to the jar cradled in Liev’s arm. “My wife had the same craving.”
“Keren even drinks the juice.” Liev laughed and strode up the hill toward the shops.
In a tree by the gate, a tiny bird sang as he flexed the delicate iridescent blue of his bib.
Gera pointed. “See the singer? Liev is composing a song which compares the bluethroat’s beauty to Keren’s.” He pushed through the gate. “It’s a secret.”
At the chariot, Obadiah rested his hand on Gera’s shoulder. “A song? The look in Liev’s eye already declares Keren the most beautiful of women.” He pulled himself into the chariot. “It’s time to inspect olive trees. Squeeze in with me, Gera, and on the trip home tonight we’ll put Liev on a horse.”
Pruning saw in hand, Gera stepped in. “That boy will author his own book of psalms. They’re good. Right up there with Asaph and the sons of Korah. Of course, I’m his father.” His chest puffed higher with each word.
After long hours of pawing through olive trees in the heat and wiping sweat from his face, Obadiah collected his guards. The sun hovered far out over the Great Sea. He led the men to Gera’s meeting place, a tiny grape arbor overlooking the Shechem valley.
Gera’s eyebrows had become one black slash across his forehead. As he picked up his pruning saw, he pointed toward trees sprouting new growth. “I was saving this section for Liev, but my best pruner deserted me.” He held his quivering jaw with a hand.
“Maybe your best pruner is writing a song for his wife.”
Gera stepped onto the chariot. “I hope the baby came today.”
“A new baby. Let’s go.” Obadiah joined him, the guards turned their horses, and the driver flipped the reins. Obadiah’s team trotted off, jostling the chariot through ruts and around hills to the southern outskirts of Samaria City. The ancient oak came in sight that marked Gera’s house, tucked behind five rows of olive trees.
As the chariot slowed, three thickset men in new robes of dark gray sauntered from the trees. Slavers.
Gera leaped from the rolling chariot and crashed to his hands and knees. “Aaaargh!”
“Looking for pickled fish?” A slaver spit. “We brought your boy home.”
Scrambling to his feet, Gera lunged past the slavers and dodged between trees toward his gate.
The bodyguards leaped from their horses and pointed spears at the thugs. Zak growled, “Filthy Kasrans.”
Obadiah jumped from the moving chariot. “Stand down, men.” Jezebel’s agents operated beyond his authority.
The guards slammed spear butts to the ground, scattering gravel.
As the driver hauled the chariot to a stop, the slavers strode up the hill, floating hyena cackles back over their shoulders.
Gera’s scream filled the olive grove.
Obadiah and the guards thundered through to the gate.
On the far side of the courtyard, Gera and Hodiah knelt by the ladder.
“What?” Obadiah flipped the gate open, flew to them, and dropped to his knees. “Please, Lord, no.”
Liev lay on his back.
Hodiah sobbed and pressed her cheek against his.
Gera knelt by her side and stroked his son’s chest. “Look what they’ve done to my boy. Look what they’ve done.”
A large gash opened Liev’s throat.
“No, Lord.” Obadiah clenched his fists. To get a day’s work done, he had shoved those far-off murders in Jabesh from his mind. But a fire burned in his chest. He would find these slavers in the night and rip their arms from the sockets.
Above him, a gasp, and the ladder thumped against the wall.
Obadiah raised a palm. No. Keren should not see Liev all purple, his throat crusted with blood.
Yet she supported her protruding tummy with one hand and shifted herself over the parapet and onto the ladder. Ignoring his upraised hand, she descended, her sandals steady on the rungs.
With both hands cradling her belly, she waddled to Liev. “No, no.” Her voice grew louder. “No.” Keren dropped to her knees and pushed trembling fingers against his throat to close the gap. But the stiff hole sprang back open, flicking dried blood onto her robe. Fists clenched, she glared at the sky. Her mouth opened wide, but with no sound. She ducked, gulped a deep breath, then let out a scream that seemed to never end.
Liev’s mother groaned. With her eyes glued to Liev’s face, she reached to pull her daughter-in-law closer. She tangled her fingers in Keren’s hair.
As the scream faded, a cry came from the three-year-old on the veranda.
Obadiah scrambled up the ladder. “Uncle Biah’s coming.”
Obadiah waved him in and yelled, “Zak, post my guys on the perimeter.”
Weeping, the neighbor jogged over. He crouched, clutching Gera’s arm. “When are we gonna wake up and do something about that wi—?” He glanced around the courtyard and ducked his head.
Wake up? Obadiah glared at the neighbor. Who are you to —? A sharp pain gripped his chest. Fists against his head, he shouted, “Why, Lord? Why do you hide from our trouble?”
Both babies squalled. With the limestone parapet cutting into his knees, Obadiah cupped their soft hair and tender skin as if to protect them from the evil at the foot of the ladder. He groaned and inhaled their fresh smell.
Keren turned a pale, tear-streaked face up to her babies then fell back on her husband’s still form. She stroked his face and arms.
Tears dripped from Hodiah’s chin. She smothered her face in her husband’s shoulder. “Oh, Gera! Gera! I sent him out for bread and fish. That’s all. Just bread and fish. Then he didn’t come home, and he didn’t come home. We thought you took him to help prune.” Her voice trembled. “Bread and fish, Gera. Just bread and fish.”
With the back of his hand, Gera wiped the wet from his cheeks. He stood and looked at Obadiah. “Come help me put my son in the ground.”
“Rise up, my love, my fair one,” – Song of Solomon 2:10
Asaph – Psalm 50
The sons of Korah – Psalm 47
“Why do you hide from our trouble? – Psalm 10
The veranda of Gera, the grove manager, Samaria City, Samaria
Obadiah retreated from the parapet. Put Liev in the ground?
Keren hadn’t heard Liev’s song. His sons needed to feel his hand on their shoulders, his counsel in their hearts. And Liev deserved to see if the child who had dropped low in Keren’s tummy was boy or girl.
Not yet. Let Liev grow old and totter among his grandchildren—then put him in the ground.
Obadiah hung his head. If only he could leave this nightmare behind. Get back to Yedidah and the kids. But no! He gave his face a coarse slap. His place today was here by Gera’s side. Lord, help me be a friend.
Bending over the parapet, he spoke to the neighbor who knelt by Liev. “My brother. Can you find us a large skin? We’ll need a clean place to wash our boy.”
“A skin.” The man stood and measured Liev with his eye.
“Zak,” Obadiah called, “send a guard with our brother.” Then he hefted a child in each arm. “Gera, I need you to take a boy, please.”
As a child passed over the parapet to Gera, the boy clung to his grandfather’s neck and softened his whimpers.
Gera carried the little squirmer to the ground, and Obadiah followed with the crawler.
Hodiah and Keren reached for the babies, choked back tears, and pulled the children to them.
When the neighbor returned, he spread a large mat of goatskins near the well, and the guard piled on several robes.
As Obadiah knelt by Liev, his frame shook, yet he raised the boy’s knees while Gera lifted his torso. They carried him to the well a few paces from the olive tree where this morning’s bluethroat sang.
With Liev lowered to the mat, Gera bent with hands on knees and keened like a wounded dog. “My boy! My boy!” He had outlived his child.
“We need cloths too.” Obadiah glanced at the fence. “And privacy.”
Zak squeezed Obadiah’s shoulder. “We’re building up the fire. Warm water soon.”
A row of neighbors stared, perhaps drawn by gossip. Old men weaken and die. Young men die in war. But this man had died while out for pickled fish.
“We’ll bathe our boy away from curious eyes,” Obadiah said.
Hodiah wiped her face. “The cloths—” A sob choked her.
The three-year-old escaped Keren’s lap, dashed over, and latched onto Obadiah’s leg. “Why won’t Daddy wake up?”
Obadiah crouched and hugged the boy. Wake up, Lord? The hurt is too real.
Hodiah released the younger child to join his brother. She clenched her fists and clung to her daughter-in-law. They swayed and wept in each other’s clutch.
The baby asked, “What wong wif Daddy?”
Obadiah spread his arms and looked to the boys’ mother.
Keren wiped her red-chafed cheeks with her palms and released Hodiah. Forcing a smile over her tears, she said. “Come to me, boys.”
They nestled in her open arms and peeked out like baby chicks from the wings of a mother hen.
Keren pulled her mother-in-law’s head to her shoulder and looked down at her sons. “Wicked people killed Daddy, so he will not be with us anymore.”
Obadiah held still. The wisdom of a mother. So simple. Yedidah would appreciate her words.
A call came from the gate. “Wailers?”
As he approached the man, Obadiah beckoned to Zak, who kept his purse. “We’ll need wailers and spices and a shroud. The best for our Liev.”
Gera rested a hand on Hodiah’s back. “The women here are good wailers, aren’t they, dear?”
Hands and voice trembling, Liev’s mother stood and wiped at her wet face. “Yes, but those cloaks are too short. We’ve got something better in the cedar chest.” She touched Keren on the shoulder, climbed to the living quarters, and returned with a linen sheet.
Obadiah draped the sheet over Liev and gave the robes to his guards.
Gera lifted the sheet to show Liev’s face. “I don’t want anyone watching. You, me, and Zak. We’ll clean my boy up and…”
“That’s how it will be.” Obadiah raised an eyebrow to the guards. “Men, can you shield us?” The six bodyguards held the cloaks as a curtain between Liev and the onlookers.
While Obadiah held the sheet over Liev, Gera removed his son’s cloak and sandals, tunic and loincloth. He set the pile of clothing next to Keren.
The airy sound of flutes sent chills up Obadiah’s spine. Then came the wavering trill of long, high-pitched wails. Obadiah shivered.
First came the whimper of the older boy. Then the squall of the younger.
“Keep the wailers behind the fence.” Obadiah’s voice broke.
Zak spoke to the women at the gate, and the flutes, and their wails settled into a backdrop of sound. He returned clutching a large sack. “Spices. The shroud’s on top.”
As Zak set a jar of warm water next to Obadiah, the three-year-old slipped away from his mother and squeezed in by the jar. “Why is Daddy on the goatskins?”
“Come here, little one.” Zak tucked the boy under his arm. “We’re giving your daddy a bath.” He lugged him over to his mother and returned with another jar of warm water.
While the guards sheltered them with a curtain of robes, Obadiah, Zak, and Gera cleaned Liev. Then they wrapped him in his shroud.
Obadiah scattered aloes mixed with myrrh over each turn of the long cloth. At the final turn, a searing pain stabbed him in the belly. Gera and Hodiah would never see their son again. Keren would struggle through each day without Liev’s song. The crawler and the toddler would forget their daddy’s face, and the child in Keren’s womb would know only a name which dwindled through the years.
When Liev lay cleaned and wrapped, Obadiah motioned, and the guards lowered their curtain of robes.
The moment Zak opened the gate, neighbors and wailers filled the courtyard.
Gera threw his shoulders back and stalked into the stable. He brought out a spade, lugging it like a club, and glared at a piece of sod by the corner of the house. “Here.”
Groaning to himself, Obadiah fumbled in the stable for a second spade. In the village, his father had dug a grave under the pear tree for Obadiah’s great grandfather. But Obadiah had arrived too late to dig his father’s grave.
As Obadiah emerged from the stable, Gera wiped at tears and let out a guttural moan. With the spade in both hands, he stabbed the grass as if killing a snake, stepped back, stumbled, stood straight again, and pushed the spade into the earth with his foot.
“Let me.” Obadiah stepped in beside Gera. “Zak, see what the neighbors have to dig with.” Tears rolled into his beard. In Obadiah’s most terrible nightmare, he had never imagined digging this boy’s grave.
Gera let him remove pieces of sod then nudged him aside. “This is my job.” When Gera had cleared a rectangle of red dirt one hand wider and longer than Liev, Zak returned with spades. “Please, sir. Let me and my men do this.”
As neighbors and wailers crowded around, the guards dug the hole waist deep.
Eight men surrounded Liev. Gera at his head, Obadiah at his feet, and three guards on each side. They carried him to the foot of the grave.
The three-year-old took a few steps toward his father’s shrouded form. Then he shuddered and, eyes big and round, ran back into his mother’s embrace.
His little brother cried with him.
The neighbor turned to Gera. “Perhaps this is not a sight for children. I’ll take the boys with me for a while.”
But Keren squared her shoulders. “Thank you, but the boys are still their father’s sons. They’ve a right to know happened to their father.”
“I-I see.” As the neighbor backed off, the crowd pressed in around the open grave.
In a voice that filled the courtyard, Gera recited, “‘He that dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’”
The men lowered Liev into the earth.
Gera straightened his shoulders then locked eyes with Hodiah, his wife.
Her face was pale, her eyes red. And she wiped at her nose.
As he lifted his hands to his robe, she seized the edge of her own robe. Around the courtyard, eyes followed their movements, and hands raised to robes. Gera and Hodiah ripped a gash in their robes, the others tore theirs, and the two little ones by Keren flicked their hands in imitation.
Gera stooped and sank his fingers into the pile of loose soil. He threw one fistful on Liev in the grave and the other up onto his own head.
Close behind him, Obadiah imitated both Gera and Job’s ancient friends. He threw a handful on the grave and one on his own head.
With the babies in tow, Hodiah and Keren followed. They threw dirt on Liev then onto their heads. The two children threw dirt into the grave and into the air.
The wailing subsided as neighbors and wailers walked past the grave throwing their handfuls.
Zak stepped toward the pile of dirt, but Gera took the spade from his hand. “This is the last thing I get to do for my boy.”
Obadiah’s chest heaved. “Gera. Please.”
With shaking hands, in slow, deliberate moves, as guards, family, and neighbors waited in silence, the two friends stabbed the dirt and filled Liev’s grave.
As the soil mounded, Keren held a child by the hand. She released him to dab a cloth at her face, then wiped her mother-in-law’s cheeks. The older woman stood, rocked a baby, and wept on the younger one’s shoulder.
Keren turned her face up, and Obadiah followed her gaze. What do you want, Lord?
“Rescue the perishing. If you hold back—if you say they’re none of your business, doesn’t the one who ponders hearts see? He who holds your life in his hand, doesn’t he know?”
“He that dwells in the secret place …” – Psalm 91:1
Job’s friends throw dirt on their heads – Job 2:12
“Rescue the perishing.…” – Proverbs 24:11-12
iiThere’s the “warbling song,” a fast, rising and falling string of 6-23 notes often sung while flocking. Males usually sing a “territory song” alone; it begins with a few notes on the same pitch before breaking into warbling and ending with a high, emphatic note. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Purple_Finch/sounds
iiiBaby names: Eran and Zabad. Numbers 26:35