The Palace Terrace, Samaria City, Israel
Beside King Ahab, on the palace terrace, Obadiah waited for dawn.
Smoke from a thousand campfires mixed with the murmur of troops and drifted over the balustrade. Above the eastern mountains, stars faded, while around the plaza, the rapid twitter of robins announced sunrise.
In the dim light of the threshing floor, several men appeared on horseback. Then a chariot wheeled through the gate and paused with the riders. The chariot captain waved a too-long arm and called, “My King! My King!” As he waved, several more riders came through the gate and paused around him.
“Hiel!” Ahab trotted down the steps with a cluster of bodyguards.
Obadiah followed. He and Ahab had been children when Hiel rode into battle. Had the old warrior come to fight?
Troops climbed to their feet. Hands went to mouths. “Hiel.” Softly they repeated the name of the storied warrior whose javelin had pierced the jugular of Tibni the son of Ginath.i
The chariot halted at the base of the palace stairs, and Hiel descended. Fifty-some men on horseback dropped to the pavement with him. They stood nearly as tall as the king, and each carried weapons and a heavy pack.
“These brave young fellows are skilled with sword and javelin. We came through the hills along the border with Judah.” Hiel thumped his pack. “And brought a few days’ worth of barley.”
A gate guard called, “Messengers for the king.”
Ahab turned toward the gate.
Hiel and his men backed away.
The growing light of dawn revealed Ahab’s scout leading three Syrian messengers across the threshing floor. They crossed the plaza to the foot of the stairs.
Before they could line up, Ahab snarled and faced them from the lowest step. “Let’s have it.”
In a sudden whistle of wings, a flight of mourning doves raced past. Coo-oo coo-oo coo-oo.
The point man for the Syrians glanced at the doves then droned, “Ben Hadad says, ‘This time tomorrow, I will collect your silver and gold, your wives and children. My men will search your house and the houses of your officials to bring me everything of value.’”
Ahab glowered at the messengers and toldii his scout, “Hold them here.” He turned to Hiel and Obadiah. “I need to talk with the elders.”
Obadiah waved an arm toward Shuthelah’s courtyard. “Let’s go.” He fell in behind Ahab and pulled Hiel to his side. “I want to know about your children. Is the youngest son still alive?”
Hiel gripped Obadiah’s arm, stopped, and let the others pass them. His face lost color. “No, sir. I’m ashamed to admit. I let my son die.”
Obadiah groaned softly. “I’m so sorry.”
Hiel choked then spoke again. “We wept and cried. And for years after we wept again. Sometimes for a day at a time. The boy was seven when he died. He had the black curls and eyes of my wife’s grandfather. All my tears, all my wife’s, couldn’t bring him back. I let him die.”
“You blame yourself.”
“There’s no one else to blame. I tried to make believe the first death was coincidence. I wiggled the words, you know. Old Joshua might have meant this. No, he must have meant that. And every month a full bag of silver from the king helped me give a new twist to the old curse.”
An image of Obadiah’s own bright little Reuben popped into his head. If he let that boy die for a bag of silver every month, how would he face Yedidah? He laid a hand on Hiel’s arm. “Have mercy on my brother, Lord.”
At Shuthelah’s courtyard, the aroma of mutton roasting in garlic and onions reached out and surrounded Obadiah. His stomach churned. The thought of Hiel burying his son and the picture of Obadiah’s own child made food and conversation unbearable. Yet he stood with Hiel behind Ahab.
Shuthelah rose. His gaze flickered to Hiel’s strange form but returned to Ahab and held steady. “My king.”
Behind him, three dozen elders stood and turned concerned faces to Ahab. While in the capital to sell their harvests, they gathered to chat about crops and weather. Yet, no doubt today their topic was the invasion.
Ahab pulled Hiel up beside him. “Esteemed elders of our land. I’m very glad to have my friend, the elder from Bethel with us today. Yesterday, you heard how Ben Hadad asked foriii my wives and children, my silver and gold. And you may know of my polite response. Just now you saw his messengers again cross our threshing floor. Ben Hadad is sending his men to take whatever he chooses from my house and yours.”
To welcome Syrian looters meant ruin. To refuse meant war. While the elders scowled at each other, the king touched the purple scarf rolled on his head and brushed the white front of his robe. A gentle spring breeze ruffled the leaves of the olive trees at the edge of the courtyard, and a donkey broke the silence with hee-haw-hee-haw-hee-haw.
An elder with a neatly trimmed, black beard and a solid gray scarf rollediv on his head sat up straight and faced several fellow elders. “If we allow Ben Hadad to rob us, do we think the Syrians will go away?”
Everyone in the courtyard frowned and muttered to those nearby. When talk subsided, they turned to an elder whose full white beard cascaded over his chest.
A man next to him prompted, “Elder Jamin?”
“Yes.” The man turned a face of paper-thin, wrinkled skin to Ahab. “Shechem of Ephraim. We serve the people, don’t you know?” He gave a sharp dip of his head. “Puts me in mind of the… Course, you’re too young…”
Obadiah pressed both palms to his temples. Please, Lord. We don’t have time.
“Um, elder Jamin.” The man tapped him on the shoulder. “Ben Hadad. If we let him take what he wants, will he go away?”
Elder Jamin blinked twice. “Ben Hadad.” He turned his head left then right. “Ben Hadad will not go away. He will take everything we have and then chain us into his slave gangs. We can die while he loots us or die defending our homes.”
The courtyard grew quiet, and the trill of a warblerv floated in on the breeze.
“Thank you.” The king gave a crisp nod, spun on his heel, and marched across the plaza with Obadiah and Hiel following. As he passed the chestnut tree, Ahab turned to Obadiah. “That miserable Syrian wants to search my house. Paw through my things.”
He arrived at the stairs and faced Ben Hadad’s messengers with a sneer. “You may tell my lord the king, while I accepted [jested with him about?]vi his first offer, his latest plan of plunder [is no joking matter] I cannot allow.” He stepped aside.
The Syrians snapped their chins up and froze their faces in sober expressions. They followed the scout across the plaza and out the gate.
As the Syrians left, a family entered. The man bent low under bags bulging with onions or figs. The woman carried what looked like barley sacks. Five children held rolls of bedding, and carrot greens waved from the bags on their backs. As they paused on the threshing floor, three more little family groups lugged bedding and supplies through the gate. One led a loaded donkey.
The king shook his head. “Will they be any safer inside? I’ve talked myself into a fight while most of my troops sit in Jezreel and Megiddo.”
Before the sunvii touched the top of the sky, messengers returned with Ben Hadad’s reply. “‘A curse on my head if we do not chop your little city into dust so fine it falls through our fingers.’”
Yet a thin smile played at the edges of Ahab’s mouth. He anchored his feet, looked each messenger in the face, and then tapped the hilt of his sword. “Tell Ben Hadad the one who straps on his armor should not boast like the one who takes it off.”
The messengers trotted out the gate.
Hiel sat back against the balustrade and shook his head.
Obadiah said, “Well put, my king. Well put.”
Ahab, however, collapsed on the banister and bowed his head, crushing his beardviii against his chest.
A call of “Biah!” rang across the plaza. From among the families on the threshing floor, Gera, the head grove manager, waved. “Over here, Biah! Over here.”
Hiel sat up, Obadiah stood, and Ahab pointed with a raised arm. “Who’s that with him?”
A tall boy with cheeks untouched by whiskers sauntered behind Gera. Messy brown curls escaped his headscarf and bobbed to a beat as if he were singing.
The Story – 1 Kings 20:5-11
Refrained from talking, and put their hand on their mouth – Job 29:9
The seventy elders – Numbers 11:16-30
Shuthelah – Numbers 26:35
Curse – 1 Kings 20:10
Strapping on armor – 1 Kings 20:11
istopped Tibni son of Ginath
ii dialogue tags instead of “said.” Though they do add different nuances, “said” is known as the “invisible” dialogue tag because readers don’t notice it when they are reading. It blends right in
iiiasked for / demanded SD
iv[ when I was reading this, it almost seemed like the elder was perched in a roll – An elder with a neatly trimmed, black beard and a solid gray scarf rolled on his head sat up straight and faced several fellow elders.] SD
vWarbler – I have been generously not mentioning the birds because it does add to the setting. But without looking back I can recall the doves flying by and the yellowhammer sounds, but I think there have been more than that. This reference is pushing your tally of birds. – EH [I changed the yellowhammer to a donkey :)]
viSD – I’m confused. I thought Ahab was jesting with his first response. Was he seriously going to hand over his wives and sons at first?
viiBefore the sun touched the top of the sky
viii There are a lot of mentions of beards in this chapter. SD