All that Manasseh had described came to pass. As Miri grew, mothers in Shechem schemed to arrange a marriage between their sons and the incarnation of Ishtar in their midst. Only the goddess could choose a new king. Yet Yohanna and Maacah held their ground and refused to allow their husbands to enter into negotiations as to a suitable suitor for the child.
“She must choose the man of her free will!” was their reply to any and all overtures.
Yohanna bore a child months after their arrival. She and David called the child Martha. Miri and Martha grew up as sisters. The next child miscarried. And despite the ministrations of Maacah and other women in the village, the next was stillborn also. David became depressed at his failure to sire a son. After advice from Maacah and the elder women in the village, soon another baby was born, but despite the the various spells and incantations, contortional coital positions, and a host of herbal remedies, she was born a girl. The village men commiserated with David at the tragedy, and even some women clicked their tongues at the failure. Rumours of a second wife began to spread.
Many expected Yohanna to hang her head in shame, but she did not. She named the new child Miriam, and devoted herself to raising her girls. David’s depression waffled but never did he waver in his love for Yohanna, and he loved all three girls dearly, each in a special way.
Miri was as a son to him. She was headstrong and determined to have her way from the very first. If he dared to put his foot down on an issue, and she did not agree, she would whisk the mat away from under his feet with her argument. If he relied on his authority to have his way with her, she would challenge him and if he discovered he was wrong, he relented. He soon learned to trust her judgement despite her age, and he was constantly amazed by her precocious wisdom. By the time she was four years old, she accompanied David into the pastures to tend the flocks. When she returned, she recounted her adventures in the countryside to the others at mealtime.
It was she who cleared the way for Martha and Miriam, and prepared their father for fatherhood. He lost the stubbornness of the rigid patriarch he had learned from his elders and forebears. He called his daughters his little lambs, and hugged them, and indulged them whenever he could.
Martha began at an early age to tend to her family’s domestic needs. Under Maacah’s direction, she made special cakes and loaves for each member of her family. She sat with Yohanna and dutifully carded and combed wool, washed and dyed it, spun it and wove it into cloth, always totally absorbed in her task, looking up only to ask about technique or when the task presented a problem. When Maacah swept the floor, Martha took the broom from her and soon directed Maacah in where to place the reeds and palms after they were done.
The younger Miriam quickly became Sister Miriam, at first to distinguish her from Miri, but as a direct result of her nomen, she developed the habit of calling everyone Sister This, or Brother That as the gender demanded, and she became Sister Miriam to the entire town. She developed a keen interest in the stories of the Torah, and pushed her father incessantly to teach her to read, and by the time she was four, he gave in and took her also into the pastures with him. From then on, she would march proudly out to work with David and Miri, a scroll tucked under her arm and under her devoted protection. As the flock settled on new pasture, David sat and read to the two girls, explaining the letters, words and phrases to Sister Miriam’s constant questions and clarifications. Sister Miriam did not sit quietly; she constantly demanded explanations of the behaviour of the patriarchs, and stretched David’s ability to explain their actions. He read carefully, and the questions he could not answer would sometimes become subjects of heated conversations between the elders sitting at the village gates after David came asking them for clarification. He did not present them as Sister Miriam’s questions, but his own, for he knew they would dismiss the questions out of hand if they had known they had been posed by a girl. Teaching Sister Miriam was a chore, for she had a naturally sharp legal mind and he wished he could send her to a Pharisaic school, not for any altruistic reason, but simply to lift the burden of teaching from his own shoulders, but then women had no place in the interpretation of the Torah.
The elders who walked the way of Yahweh were pleased with the interest David showed in the scrolls, little realizing he was asking in order to satisfy his insatiable daughter.
Through the lessons, Miri sat quietly, absorbing the readings, but her interest always wavered before Sister Miriam’s questions had exhausted themselves, and on most occasions, she would rise and lay back amongst the sheep to stare at the sky and listen to the gentle give and take of David and Sister Miriam’s voices.
“Today,” announced David, “I shall read from the book of Abraham,” announced David as he slipped a scroll from it’s protective sheath. He smoothed out the page on his knee.
“From Genesis?” asked Sister Miriam, settling beside him resting her hands and head on his lap.
David cleared his throat and read from the scroll.
“In the days after the great Flood, and long after the time of Noah, a great chieftan called Terah lived in the North. Terah was chief of the clan from the lands west of the river, the Shat Heberu, which flows from the land of Lilith in the North and is swallowed by the Great Euphrates in the South. In those times, the tribes followed their flocks southward in the winter, and Terah, along with his sons, Nahor and Haran, as did others, grazed their herds in the plains of the Chaldeans in the land of Sumer.
There, on the great Sumerian plains, north of the great city of Ur, Terah stayed, not only the winter, but the summer also, for his wife was heavy with child, and it is there his first wife gave birth to the prophet Abraham.
Abraham was the apple of his father’s eye, the youngest of three brothers, after his elders, Nahor and Haran. Terah remained with his family in Sumer, for his milk and butter fetched good prices from the townspeople of Ur. After many years, Haran married and begat a daughter Milcah, and also a son, Lot. But because Terah was proud and would not allow his offspring to marry a Chaldean, Terah gave Abraham his half-sister Sarah as a wife.
But despite Terah’s desire to keep his bloodline pure, Haran betrothed Milcah to a Sumerian prince, for she was a great beauty and the bride price was so great it could not be refused. This act raised bad feelings between Haran and Terah. Milcah married the prince but her uncle Nahor lusted after Milcah, and she too had eyes for him, Although Nahor and Milcah had never touched each other, they became careless of hiding their feelings. Her new husband could not tolerate this situation and confronted his wife Milcah. They argued and her husband struck Milcah in the presence of Haran and his brothers, Abraham and Nahor. Enraged, Nahor, leapt up with sword drawn and advanced upon the prince. The prince drew his sword quickly and Haran leapt between the two men to stop the fight, but he was felled by a blow from the husband of Milcah, and Nahor in his anger, slew the prince, before Abraham could stop him.
Abraham dearly loved his brother Nahor, and could not bear to see his brother to pay the blood price, so they agreed amongst themselves, Nahor, Abraham and Milcah to speak to no one of this incident.
Together, Abraham and Nahor carried the body of the prince into the fields, left him exposed in their pastures. They then told Terah of the tragedy, and quickly, the tribe of Terah packed up their tents and fled from the city of Ur. Terah and his tribe travelled north to their homeland of the Heberu, yet were afraid to stay there lest they were followed by the prince’s kinsmen, so they settled in a place to the west of Shat Heberu. There Terah buried the bones of Haran and called the place Haran so that no one would forget the name of his eldest son.
Shortly after, Nahor took Milcah as his wife, but Lot would not stay with his mother and uncle for he blamed them for his father’s death; so, Abraham and Sarah took him as their son. Daily, Abraham adored the gods of Ur, he sacrificed to Inanna, the goddess of Life, yet because of his part in shedding the blood of the Chaldean prince, she ignored his pleas for a son. Bitter, he turned his back to the gods of the Chaldeans he had grown up with, and his bitterness grew. He resented the wealth of Nahor and Milcah, for they claimed the share of Haran, and had two sheep for his one, two cows for his one, two donkeys for his one. Even worse, Nahor’s ewes bore two lambs to his one and his cows also two calves to his one.
Grieving for his turn of fortune, Abraham spent much time in the wilderness with his flocks. Then, one day as he simmered in his thoughts of resentment, El, the god of the shepherds appeared to him.
‘Abraham!’ called out El.
‘Here I am!’ answered Abraham.
‘Abraham, your heart is filled with darkness,’ said The Lord El, ‘You must leave the land of Habiru for it is cold and dark and find your own place in the sun.’
‘Where could I go, Lord,’ asked Abraham, “I cannot return to Ur, for a blood debt awaits there for me and my kin.’
‘Turn your face westward, Abraham. You will come with me to the land of Canaan. You must leave the darkness here in the land of your ancestors and begin a new life for the tribe of the Heberu in the west.’
‘Go now. Go your way from your country and your kinsmen, and from the house of your father to the place I shall show you. There, a great nation shall spring from your loins and I shall bless you and keep you and make your name great. I shall bless those who bless you, and he that calls evil down upon you I shall curse, and all the families of the Earth will certainly be blessed themselves beacause of you.’
Excited by this change of events and the presence of the Lord El, Abraham promptly built an altar on that spot to the new god, and offered a holocaust to seal his covenant with the new god, and swore to follow none but him.
‘What shall I call you, when I am to present offerings to you?’ he asked The Lord El.
‘I am what I am,’ replied El, 'No name could ever hold all that I am.'
With the light of El in his eyes, Abraham returned to his tents and raised a great fuss amongst his camp, telling them of his meeting with the new god. From tent to tent he went, smashing the idols of his people, and grinding the images of the old gods under his heel. ‘I have found the One and Only God!’ he cried joyously, ‘We shall follow in his footsteps to the land of Canaan!’
So overwhelmed by the change in the brooding Abraham, all in his household were filled with the joy of the Great Lord, and as a sign, El called upon Shemmesh to push away the dark clouds and the sun shone down upon the encampment. So Abraham took Sarah his wife and Lot the son of his slain brother and all the goods of substance they had accumulated and the souls whom they had acquired in Haran, and they bid farewell to Terah and Nahor and Milcah and their houses, and the beams of light from the sun showed them their way to Canaan.
Abraham travelled to the land of Canaan and passed through the hills until he came to Shechem, and within the sacred grove of Moreh, El appeared to Abraham and said, ‘This land of Canaan shall be the soil in which your seed will grow, and the land shall become their home.’
‘But Lord, I have no seed, I have no son, I do not even have daughters,’ replied Abraham, ‘Sarah, my wife, is barren.’
“‘There are reasons for everything, Abraham,” replied the Lord, “Whether you are aware of them or not! You must obey me at all cost and above all others, and for your faith in me, Sarah shall one day bear you a child. This I swear to you!’
Abraham built an altar on Mount Gerizim to El, and offered a holocaust to seal his covenant with the Lord, and swore to follow none but him.”
“Is the altar still here?” asked Sister Miriam excitedly, interrupting the reading. “Could we go and see it?”
David shook his head. “It has long since disappeared.”
“Do you know where it was?”
“Manasseh says it is the same spot where the temple once stood.” replied David, “We could go there another time perhaps,” his eyes flickered across the hillside. “For now, you must watch over the flocks with me. I need your young legs to chase the stray sheep.”
“So, did Abraham stay here?” she asked.
“For a while. After he arrived, a great drought hit the land and Lot and his kinsmen cursed Abraham for following El to Canaan. In desperation, Lot sacrificed to the old gods of their native land, but the Asura were too far away to hear his pleas. So the Holy Family travelled to the south for the Canaanites who already lived in the new land told the Heberu the Pharoah of Egypt would feed them.
Abraham made his way to Egypt with his flocks to reside there as an alien, as his father Terah had done in Sumer. But as he approached the border with Egypt, Abraham feared for his life. The Egyptians were strong and treated Abraham as a barbarian. In their eyes, he was a wild war chieftan from the hills, and Abraham, overcome by the magnificence of the Egyptians and the strength of their army, wavered in his faith of his god. He knew he would have to enter Egypt if he was to save his people from starvation, but he feared also for his life.
So, as they crossed into the land of the Pharoahs, Abraham said to his wife Sarah,
‘Please Sarah, forgive me, but you are such a beautiful woman, when the Egyptians see you and discover that I am your husband, they will surely kill me, then take you alive. But if I say you are my sister, which you are, they will treat me with respect and honour me as your brother to gain your favour.’
He told her this decision was the will of God. Sarah was shocked that Abraham should say such a thing but agreed for she could not go against her husband’s wishes. So, as Abraham had forseen, when they entered Egypt, the Egyptians indeed were impressed by Sarah’s great beauty. The princes of the two lands praised this woman in the presence of the Pharoah, and he determined to have her as his wife. He dispatched his Royal messengers and they brought Abraham and Sarah before him. The Pharoah treated Abraham well on Sarah’s account, and bestowed upon him sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves both male and female, and camels which until then, Abraham had never seen.
And so, Abraham became rich from the bride price paid him by the Pharoah for his dark-haired wife, and his herds and flocks grew strong from the storehouses of the Pharoah. He lived like a prince while his wife Sarah served the Pharoah, and the Pharoah loved Sarah.
Soon The Lord El, forgotten by Abraham, sent a plague on the house of the Pharoah; an illness none had seen in Egypt; this for the sins of Abraham against his wife Sarah. Sarah could not bear to see the Egyptians suffer on her account and confessed to the Pharoah of her marriage to Abraham. He was angered by the news and swore to take Abraham’s life for his affrontry, but Sarah pleaded his case so eloquently, the Pharoah spared Abraham.
He called Abraham to his private quarters and said to him, ‘What have you brought upon me? I have treated you as my brother! Why did you not tell me Sarah was your wife? Why would you tell me she was your sister when she was not? Why did you allow me to take her as a wife when she was already yours? You have caused me to sin against the commandments of my gods! How shall I ever atone for such a thing? You have brought me great disgrace! I would have you executed for your crime, but it would bring me into bad repute with my countrymen. Here is your wife! Take her and go!’
And the Pharoah issued commands to men concerning Abraham and they escorted him and Sarah and all that he had given them: sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves both male and female, to the borders of Egypt. So it came to pass Abraham, Lot and Sarah returned to Canaan heavily stocked with animals and silver and gold.”
“But I have heard all this before.” protested Sister Miriam, “There is no purpose to these tales other than to tell us that betrayal and falsehoods can lead us to great wealth. This is not the Path to Enlightenment!”
David looked at the girls helplessly. He recognized the truth in Sister Miriam’s protest, but had no answer for her.
“It is the path of our ancestors,” he replied finally, “I cannot always explain it. It may not be the Path upon which we ourselves have travelled, but it marks the way we have come!”
Sister Miriam seemed satisfied and he began to read.
“Now, Abraham’s wife Sarah had-”
“You missed some!” interrupted Sister Miriam, “You missed a whole passage!”
“Yes,” admitted David, “But it’s about Lot and kings of Canaan, and I thought I’d skim over it. It’s pretty boring.”
“And it’s not part of the story?”
David cleared his throat.
“Sarah had an Egyptian slave girl named Hagar whom she had been given by the Pharoah of whom she was fond. She was young and beautiful and Abraham lusted after her and one day, Abraham said to Sarah, in a manner he deemed his most reasonable, ‘The Lord has kept you from having children. You have borne no children for me, nor for the Pharaoh when he took you as wife. The Lord has told me I should lie with your slave girl Hagar. She shall have a child from me, and we shall raise it as your own as is the law.’ Although in her heart she did not want to see her husband lie with her slave, Sarah agreed with what Abraham said for it was the law.
And so she gave Hagar to him as his concubine.
Abraham, filled with lust, had intercourse every night with Hagar, more than he had with Sarah, and Hagar became pregnant. As Abraham’s favourite concubine and mother of his heir, Hagar became proud and no longer obeyed the will of her mistress Sarah.
Sarah, driven to distraction by her jealousy and frustration with Hagar’s impertinences, said to Abraham, ‘It’s beacause of you Hagar ignores me. I myself gave her to you, and ever since she found out she was pregnant, she has held me in contempt. Every time she and I disagree, you take her side. Am I no longer your wife? Have you forgotten that your god has promised that I shall bear your children?’
‘And how will you bear me a son?’ shouted Abraham, ‘While you lay with me, you conceived no child! You lay with the Pharoah and bore no child! He promised the child to me, not you! I have lain with your maid servant as is my right under the law, and the child by the law is as much yours as that Hagar’s!’
‘May the Lord judge which of us is right, you or me!’ shouted back Sarah.
Abraham, angered, cried, ‘Very well, she is your slave and under your command! Do whatever you want with her!’
Then Sarah took out her jealousy on Hagar and treated the Egyptian so cruelly she ran away.”
“I don’t like this story,” said Sister Miriam, “Why are these people so mean to each other?”
David sighed. “Do you wish me to stop?”
“No. Are they going to be nicer to each other?”
“Well, there are sometimes lessons to be learned from people who do not act in the nicest way.”
Sister Miriam frowned. “Continue!” she commanded as she folded her arms across her chest.
“Alone and near term, at a spring in the desert on the road to Shur Hagar sat down and cried. There the goddess Astarte appeared to her and said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarah, where have you come from and where are you going?’
She answered, ‘I am fleeing the face of my mistress.’
‘Go back to her with humility,’ said Astarte, ‘and humble yourself before her, submit yourself to her hand. Your child is coming and you have no one to care for you.’
‘But she will beat me!’ protested Hagar.
‘Here is an ibex, caught in the undergrowth,’ said Astarte, ‘Sacrifice to the Lord El, and he will be pleased with you. I myself will talk to him on your behalf! He shall stay the hand of your mistress!’
Then she said, ‘If you do this, I shall protect you from harm. I will give you countless descendants.’
So Hagar built an altar and offered up the ibex to the Lord El, and he was pleased by the smoke of the holocaust, and he appeared to her to share the meal of the wild sheep. To all that Astarte had said he agreed.
‘Have no fear, Hagar, for I shall stay the hand of your mistress. As has been prophesied, you shall indeed bear Abraham’s child. You will name him Ishmael because I have heard your cry of distress. But your son must one day return to live here in the desert apart from his kin, and his descendants shall sacrifice apart from their brethren, for I have promised the land of Canaan to the children of Sarah.’
After the God departed, Hagar returned to Sarah and humbled herself before her mistress. She begged Sarah’s forgiveness and confessed her sin of pride and the Lord El stayed the hand of Sarah. Soon, Hagar bore Abraham a son, and he named him Ishmael at the request of Hagar, and Sarah accepted Ishmael as her own.
As always, Abraham bowed down before El, his face touching the ground. El stood before him and said, ‘I make this covenant with you. I promise you will be the ancestor of many nations. I am making you the father of many nations. I will give you a myriad of progeny, and some of them shall rule as kings in their own lands. Your tribe shall multiply and they shall become nations, Your descendants will one day challenge the might of Egypt and you shall prevail against them.
I will protect you and your regenerations as long as they keep their covenant with me. As a sign of their faith in my protection, you and your descendants must all agree to circumcise every male among you.’”
“What does circumcise mean?” asked Sister Miriam.
“They cut of the foreskin of each man’s penis,” interjected Miri with relish, “Isn’t that right, David?”
“Uh, yes,” said David hesitantly.
“What’s a foreskin?” asked Sister Miriam, totally nonplussed.
David squirmed uncomfortably in his robes. Miri smiled mischievously at him. Sister Miriam looked at her then back at David.
David closed his eyes and shook his head. He knew he would have to walk carefully through this passage and he had avoided reading it for that reason. Now he was trapped on a narrow road and every question in Sister Miriam’s head a snake by the wayside.
He opened his eyes and stared into the twinkling eyes of Miri, then at the open questioning eyes of Sister Miriam.
He took a deep breath.
“The foreskin is the skin which covers the head of the penis. When a boy- or a man- is circumcised, this skin is cut from his penis.” He was amazed he had the courage to speak this way to a young woman.
“Does it hurt?”
“I believe it does,” he replied.
“Are you circumcised?”
“Then why don’t you know whether it hurts?” Sister Miriam questioned.
“I was just a child, an infant, when I was circumcised,” David explained, “So I don’t remember.”
“Have you seen it done to others?”
“Then, does it hurt?”
“Do women have to be circumcised?”
“Why not? Are they not a part of the covenant with God?”
“We don’t have penises,” interrupted Miri.
“Thank Goodness!” said Sister Miriam.
“May I continue?” asked David.
“Speak, Father,” replied Sister Miriam.
‘You and your descendants’ said God, ‘must all agree to circumcise every male among you. From now on you must circumcise every baby boy when he is eight days old, including slaves born in your homes and slaves bought from foreigners. The covenant between you and me will forever be marked in your flesh to show my covenant with you is everlasting. Any male who has not been circumcised will no longer be considered one of my people, because he has not kept the covenant with me.’
“Hear me, Abraham,” God commanded, “I will bless Sarah, and give you a son by her. She will be the mother of nations, and there will be kings among her descendants.’
Abraham bowed down and touched his face to the ground. He asked God, ‘Why could Ishmael not be my heir?’
‘Your wife Sarah will bear a son. I will keep our covenant with him only and his descendants forever. It is an everlasting covenant. I have heard your request for Ishmael, so I will bless him also and give him many children and many descendants. He will beget twelve princes, and I will make a great nation of his seed. But my covenant is with your son who will be born to Sarah about this time next year.’ When God finished speaking to Abraham, he left him.
On that same day Abraham obeyed God and circumcised his son Ishmael and all other males in his household, including the slaves born in his home and those he had bought. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen. They were both circumcised on the same day, together with all Abraham’s slaves.
The Lord appeared to Abraham incognito as the patriarch sat beside the sacred grove of the king Mamre. As Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day, he looked up and saw three men there. As he saw them, he ran out to greet them. He bowed down before them touching his face to the ground, and said, ‘My lords, please do not pass by my tent without stopping. I beg you to accept my hospitality; I am here to serve you. Let me bring some water to wash your feet, oil to anoint them. Please rest here beneath this tree. I will also bring you a morsel of food; it will give you the strength to continue your journey. You bring great honour to my tent, so let me serve you.’
They talked amongst themselves and the Lord El, who was one of the men replied, ‘We accept.’ The others were his sons Lord Mot and Lord Hadad, but they were also disguised as mortals.
Abraham hurried into the tent and said to Sarah, ‘Quick, take a fresh sack of your best flour, and bake some round loaves upon the hearth!’ Then he ran to the herd and picked out a first-born calf which was tender and fat, and gave it to a servant, who hurried to get it ready. He had others fetch fresh cream, butter and milk, and the meat, and-”
“I thought,” interjected Sister Miriam, “That it is forbidden to drink milk and eat meat together.”
“Yes.” replied David, “Yes. You are quite right. But Abraham lived before the Torah was written and did not have it to guide him.”
“So while God talked to him, why didn’t he tell him then?” asked Sister Miriam.
“There are some things I cannot explain,” said David patiently, “It is not for me to question the Will of God.”
“If you do not question it, then how do you know the Will of God?”
“I don’t know,” answered David.
“The Pure Heart will know the Will of God, for the Pure Heart is the Will of God,” answered Miri. Both David and Sister Miriam gaped at Miri. The depth of the truth of her words momentarily silenced them.
David recovered, shook his head free and continued.
“He took the cream, the butter, the milk, and the meat, and set the food before the men. There under the trees, he washed their feet and anointed them with fragrant oils. Then he served them himself, and they ate of the libations he had offered.
Then they asked him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?”
‘She is there in the tent,’ he answered. Abraham was surprised they knew his wife’s name, but he held his tongue for he knew not their names.
Lord El said, ‘You have been kind to us though we are strangers in this place. We accept the fine offerings you have placed before us. I shall repay your kindness. Nine months from now, I will return to this place and your wife Sarah will have a son.’
Sarah was behind him, at the door of the tent listening. Abraham and Sarah were very old, and Sarah had stopped having her monthly issue. So Sarah laughed to herself aloud and said to her servant, ‘Now that I am old and worn out, can I still hope to enjoy the pleasure of sex with my husband again? My husband is so old!’
Then the Lord El asked Abraham, ‘Did I hear Sarah laugh and ask ‘Can I really have a child when I am so old?’ Do you not know who I am? Ask yourself, ‘Is anything to hard for the Lord?’ Mark my words, Abraham, for nine months from now I will return, and Sarah will have a son, but because she laughed, he shall be called Yitsak.’
When they were alone, Abraham questioned his wife, ‘What kind of a name is Yitsak? It is your fault! Why did you laugh?’
Sarah was afraid, and denied it. ‘I didn’t laugh,’ she said.
“‘Yes, you did,’ he replied. ‘You laughed.’”
David looked up at Miri, who glanced at Sister Miriam. Sister Miriam stared hard at David. “So, was one of the three men, God?” she asked after a short thoughtful silence.
“What?” asked David, not quite understanding the question.
“Well first God says he will give Sarah a child, then later three men arrive and one of them prophecies of the birth of a child. It seems almost as if there are two stories wrapped into the one.”
David scanned the text again, and looked in surprise at Miriam. “Yes,” he said slowly, “You’re right.” he read the text again to be sure.
“So did God appear to Abraham then come back and appear to him again to say exactly the same thing?”
David frowned. “Perhaps they were angels,” he said hopefully.
“Why would God send angels to Abraham when he talked to him directly earlier? Why would the scroll call them men if they were angels?”
“I don’t know,” said David.
“I think,” said Miriam, “that there are two stories and the one about the men was written into the conversation of Abraham and God. Why would Moses do that?”
“Moses?” asked David, his brain brought to a standstill by Miriam’s questioning.
“He wrote the Torah,” she stated as if talking to a child.
“Yes. Of course.” He took a deep breath. He could not imagine how reading the scriptures could be such hard work. As a child he had sat at his father’s feet and just listened. Now, teaching his daughter, he realized he had not really thought about the words he had heard, that somehow there were meanings and mysteries far deeper than he had ever imagined in the sacred works. The delicate architecture of the holy books loomed far above him, unfathomable and beyond his ability to comprehend. He was humbled and awestruck at the complexity of the Torah, and in seeing it through his young daughter’s eyes, he realized how little of God and life he really understood.
Miri touched his hand. “You can only know what you know,” she said gently. “When you are walking through a swamp, do not wander from the path you know. There will be time to find other ways through the morass, and others who can show you the way.”
David smiled at Miri, grateful for her support. He touched the letters on the scroll and began reading aloud from the point where his finger touched the parchment.
“God blessed Sarah as-”
“You missed some!” interrupted Sister Miriam. “Again!”
“That’s about Lot,” explained David.
“Sodom and Gomorrah!” said Miri gleefully, “The most wicked cities on earth!”
“We’re reading about Abraham and Yitsak today,” pointed out Sister Miriam, “We can read about Sodom another time!” She looked up at her father. “Read!” she commanded imperiously.
David’s fingers traced over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
“What’s that?” asked Sister Miriam, pointing to verses before the place he was reading.
“That is the story of the covenant between Abraham and Abilimech”
“Is it important to the story?”
“Read on” said Sister Miriam.
David cleared his throat and continued. “El blessed Sarah as he had promised, and she became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham when he was old. The boy was born at the time God had prophesied. Abraham called him Yitsak, and when Yitsak was eight days old Abraham circumcised him as God had commanded.
Sarah said, ‘El has brought me joy and laughter! Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me! Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in my old age!’
The child grew, and on the day he was weaned, Abraham gave a great feast.
“One day, Ishmael, whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was playing with Sarah’s son Yitsak. Ishmael was a large boy and Sarah saw them and realized her son would never be a match physically for Ishmael. Because she still harboured resentment for Hagar, her jealousy rose like scum to the surface of a boiling pot and she said to Abraham, ‘Send this slave girl and her son away. The son of this woman must not get any part of your wealth, which my son Yitsak should inherit.’”
“How could Sarah be so mean to a child?” asked Sister Miriam indignantly.
“She was concerned for Yitsak’s safety.”
“Are you concerned for mine?”
“Of course!” answered David.
“Then why didn’t you send away Miri?” demanded Sister Miriam.
“I- Boys are different,” said David, then regretted saying it before he could stop the words from leaving his mouth.
“In what way?”
“Lord!” David called in desperation, “Can I please read this story without any more questions?”
Sister Miriam was instantly offended. “I was just asking why they would send Ishmael away. If they loved him, they would not have sent him away!”
Miriam folded her arms and pouted.
“Sister Miriam-” began David.
David sighed and stroked Sister Miriam’s hair, but she pulled away. “Read!” she demanded.
David shook his head. He found his place in the scroll, and as he began to read, Sister Miriam leaned over to watch the words on the scroll.
“Abraham was greatly troubled for Ishmael was also a son from his own loins. But El came to Abraham in a dream and said to him, ‘Don’t worry about the boy and your slave Hagar. Do whatever Sarah tells you because it is through Yitsak you will have descendants I have promised. I will also give many children to the son of the slave girl, so that they too will become a great nation. He too is your son.’
Early next morning, at the insistence of Sarah, Abraham banished his concubine and disowned his eldest son, Ishmael. Secretly he gave Hagar some food and a leather bag full of water, then sent them away. Alone, Hagar and Ishmael wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. Soon the water was all gone, and Ishmael became possessed by the evil spirits of the desert who suck the water and life from a man. She left the child under a bush and sat down about a hundred meters away. She said to herself. ‘I can’t bear to see my child die.’ While she was sitting there, she began to cry.
God heard the boy crying, and from heaven the angel of God spoke to Hagar, ‘What are you crying about, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy crying. Get up, go and pick him up, and comfort him. I will make a great nation out of his descendants.’
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well. She went and filled the leather bag with water and gave some to the boy. God was with the boy as he grew up; he lived in the wilderness of Paran and became a skilful hunter. His mother found an Egyptian wife for him.
Some time later God tested Abraham; he called to him, ‘Abraham!’ And Abraham answered ‘Behold, I am here!’”
“You missed a part,” said Sister Miriam pointing at the scroll.
“It is not important to the story,” replied David.
“Then why is it there?” asked Sister Miriam.
“It describes an ancient covenant between Abraham and Abimilech. Today, we’re reading about the birth of Yitsak, so I’ll just pass by this section, if that’s good for you?”
Sister Miriam frowned.
“All right,” she said finally.
“Good. ‘Take your son,’ God said, ‘your only son, Yitsak, whom you love so much, and go to the land of Moreh. There on a mountain I will show you, give him as a burnt offering to me.’”
“You mean kill him? Like a holocaust?” asked Sister Miriam incredulously, “How could God ask such a thing of a man?”
“Miriam, Abraham did not think it was wrong for he would not disobey God no matter what God asked of him. He was obliged to serve God in every circumstance of life, since all creatures that live enjoy their life through the providence of God and the kindness he bestows upon them. It is not the place of a mortal to question the Will of God.”
“If God asked you to slit my throat on an altar like a little lamb, would you do it?” demanded Sister Miriam.
“Is it wrong to sacrifice a child to God?” David asked Sister Miriam in a flash of brilliance.
“Yes.” replied Sister Miriam definitely.
“You are correct, and this is the meaning of the tale.”
“Yes.” answered David, “Now listen:
Early the next morning Abraham cut some wood for the sacrifice, loaded his donkey, and took Yitsak and two servants with him. They started out for the place that God had told him about. On the third day Abraham saw the place in the distance. Then he said to the servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back to you.’
Abraham bade Yitsak carry the wood for the sacrifice, and he himself carried a knife and the coals for starting the fire. As they walked along together, Yitsak said, ‘Father!’
He answered, ‘Yes, my son?’
Yitsak asked, ‘I see that you have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?’
Abraham answered, ‘God will provide.’ And the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place which God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Still, Yitsak was concerned. ‘Father?’ he asked, ‘We still have no holocaust.’
Abraham turned to his son, his eyes filled with tears. ‘The Lord has commanded you are to be the holocaust. But I fear I cannot obey the Lord as I had thought.’
Yitsak laid his hand upon his father’s shoulder. ‘Fear not, for the Word of the Lord must be obeyed. I regret you could not have told me of this command earlier, but I also understand why these things came to pass. The son is not greater than the father.’
Yitsak offered his hands to his father and Abraham tied his son up and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he picked up the knife to kill him. He prayed for the angel of the Lord to call to him from heaven, but no call came from heaven.’
‘Father, fear not,’ said Yitsak, ‘Trust in the Lord. He gave me to you and now he has need of my soul. You as well as I, have already given ourselves to the Lord; if we have already given our lives to honour the Lord, so should our death not honour him as well? You must do the deed! Slay me now, that we both will gain blessing from God!’
Abraham slashed Yitsak’s throat with the flint knife and the blood of life flowed from his son onto the altar. As the life of his son poured onto the ground the altar was engulfed in sacred flames. Abraham called to the Lord, ‘What have I done, Lord? What have I done?’
Then the angel of the Lord called out from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’
He answered ‘Here I am!’
‘Behold, the eternal flame of the Lord!’’
And Abraham was amazed for the flames had consumed the body of Yitsak in the space of a heartbeat. As he stood he cried out in fear and agony. And as he watched, a form arose from the ashes of Yitsak and he cried out in joy, for the form was that of his sacrificed son. Yitsak stood unharmed within the sacred fire, untouched by the flame and uncut by the sacrificial knife.’
The Lord spoke to Abraham, ‘I could not hurt the boy or do anything to him,’ he said, ‘For I know you honour and obey me before all else. Because you have not kept back your only son from me, so shall I return him to you.’
Abraham lifted up his eyes and beheld a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. He captured it and together, he and Yitsak offered it as a holocaust in stead of Yitsak. Abraham named the place ‘ElJirah’ - ‘The Lord Sees and Provides.’ And even today people say, ‘On the Lord’s mountain, he provides.’
The spirit of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time, ‘I make a vow I will richly bless you. Because you did not withhold your son from me, I promise I will multiply your seed as are stars in the sky and grains of sand along the seashore. Your descendants will take the gates of their enemies. By your seed shall all nations be blessed because you obeyed my will.’ Abraham returned to his servants, and all went together to Beersheba near Hebron, where Abraham settled.”
David closed the scroll.
“The End?” asked Sister Miriam.
“For now,” replied David.
Miri stood up and stretched. Her attention was caught by an old woman gathering herbs on the hillside above them.
“I’m going to talk to that old woman,” she said to David and Sister Miriam. David’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the woman. He frowned.
“Do not go anywhere with her that I cannot see you,” he said sternly, “She looks to me like a Gypsy woman, amnd they are not to be trusted!”
As David sat with Sister Miriam, Miri crossed the pasture. David and Sister Miriam were engrossed in discussing the scriptures. She climbed a stone wall and began the climb up the hillside, but as she left the sheepfold, part of David’s attention was attached to Miri. It was a knack of the shepherd: no matter upon the task he was focused, he was always aware of the position of his charges. He had no intention of losing one of his most precious lambs.
“What are you doing?” Miri asked breathlessly of the old woman as she approached the crone from behind.
“Gathering the blessings of the Goddess, dear,” replied the woman. She unbent slightly and looked up at Miri. “You have come to learn the ways of AuSet?”
“I do not know the name,” replied Miri.
“It is Egyptian,” replied the old woman, “It is my real name. It is your name.”
“My name is Miri.”
“So you say.” The old woman smiled a crooked smile. “You have heard of Isis?”
Miri shook her head.
“It is the Greek for AuSet. The Greeks are a strange race. All brain and no heart.” She smiled. “Or so I have heard.’
“Do you see this?” She held up a bouquet of chamomile flowers. “Very good for the digestion when concocted into a draught. They must be harvested in the sun so that the warmth of Shemmesh can radiate through the stomach and bowels. Taken in tea as the sun rises, the warmth of the sun will fill the empty stomach as the rays of the sun fill the fields.”
“Are you a witch?” Miri asked innocently.
The woman cocked her head, arched her eyebrow and smiled.
“I am Mermaatneterit.”
“Not Auset?” asked Miri.
The old woman stared intensely at Miri, sensing the child before her. “I am both. But we are all Auset. So I must take another name. I am Mermaatneterit.”
“It is a long name,” said Miri.
“You may call me Mermaat, then,” replied the old woman. She pointed at David and Miriam with her chin. “Is that your father?”
“In a way,” replied Miri.
“He is a fine man. You are learning to read?”
“Sister Miriam is learning to read. I see what I see and learn what I learn.”
“And what do you wish to learn?”
“That is good start,” said Mermaat. “You cannot know the lesson before it has begun.”
Below her, both Miriam and David stared up at them. Miri waved, and they waved back. She was struck by a deep melancholy as she looked back at the small figures sitting with the scroll amongst the sheep. For the first time she felt disconnected from her family; they were too far away and she would never reach them again. She had left the safety of the sheepfold and felt an unreasonable fear she would never see them again. Miri glanced up at the Mermaat as if the old woman were a leopard about to pounce.
A trace of a smile curled the old woman’s mouth at the corners and a twinkle lit her eye. “There is nothing to fear from me, child” whispered Mermaat sympathetically. “Return to the fold; I shall always be here. We can talk later!”
Miri left reluctantly. She was connected to Mermaat by an invisible band which stretched tighter the further from the crone she walked. She looked back. The old woman had not moved. She climbed the stone wall into the sheepfold.
“Who was that woman?” he asked, “I have never seen her before.”
Miri glanced back up the hill, but the crone had disappeared.
“Her name is Mermaatneterit. I think she is Egyptian.”
David raised his eyebrow. “It is strange we have never seen her before.” He was uneasy. He did not fear the woman, but he felt a sense of loss at her appearance he could not quite place rationally. “If she appears again, I shall speak with her.” he said firmly, his eyes scanning the crags above them. Far above, a pair of vultures floated on the upward wind. He became afraid for his lambs.
He rolled up the scroll decisively and stood up quickly. “We must watch the flock. Sister Miriam, Miri, stand by the little lambs.”
Miri glanced upward at the large birds soaring above them. Sister Miriam’s face was set with disapproval. She had not had enough of the scriptures, but she picked up a stick and followed Miri where the lambs gamboled happily, butting their little heads together.
Infected by the happy innocence of the lambs, the two girls joined in running about with the young sheep, playing the sheep version of children’s tag. David smiled indulgently, content with the world, his earlier uneasiness faded to the back of his mind, not forgotten, but shelved so as not to distract his enjoyment of the moment.
To complete his satisfaction, he spied Yohanna approaching from the village, a basket in her hands. Martha walked before her, her arms wrapped around the handles of a basket of her own. Their voices floated up to his ears, mingled with the buzzing of the insects, the bleating of the sheep and the laughter of the the girls playing with the little lambs. His nostrils filled with the aroma of the pasture, the smell of the sheep and the scent of wild flowers; his mouth tasted the dust of the land, and the rays of the sun Shemesh reached in and warmed him to his core. A bright light shone outward from within his very soul, shining outward with the heat of love for all around him and the God he worshipped.
“God is love!” he whispered joyfully.
“God is Love!”