The sun was setting on the ridge, and the farmers’ slow trudge in from the fields stopped as the urgent cry went up again.
Three forms emerged from the king’s tent, one standing tall over the other three. The running messenger, still crying “Gilead!” made his way towards the tent and followed his eyes to the towering Saul. The king’s eyes narrowed, and he looked down on the thin runner. Shopkeepers, emerging from their work, joined the farmers as paths converged on the king’s traveling tent.
“Word comes from Gilead! Nahash, king of the Ammonites, have surrounded the city!” Eyes around the town shifted: from the messenger they looked at one another, then to Saul, to the heavens, to the north. The messenger called forth again. “He demands not only the city’s surrender but for every man within to submit his left eye to the king. He would have all of them out.”
Now every eye in the village, those who had heard the whole message and those who only heard the final word, fixed on Saul. His glance went from person to person, from terror to terror. Every brow bore a prayer to the god who had condemned him to this moment. Once more the messenger: “He has given Israel one week to come to the city’s rescue.” Saul’s stomach plummeted; his brow broke forth in sweat. Now every despairing gaze looked into his eyes, behind his eyes, for something divine, for deliverance.
Saul’s hands began to go cold and numb. He looked down as a wave of ice engulfed his wrists and forearms, and as the frigid flood overwashed his body, the chill in his hands blossomed and became fire. Saul gritted his teeth, his eyes opening wide as he looked around at the crowd. Someone, not Saul, propelled his foot forward as his body caught on fire inside. He stepped, not Saul, towards the nearest house, moving farmers and shopwives aside with his huge hand, not his own. His strides became longer as he approached a cart, someone’s cart, then strode past to the woodpile. Saul’s eyes, the only things he was moving, scanned the scene, watched as his hand grasped the handle of a heavy wood-chopping axe, widened as he turned an about-face and took strides towards the plow.
The arm that Saul could feel but was not moving lifted the axe as a banner over his head. His bones could feel its weight, but an arm not his own threw an axe’s shadow on the crowd. He heard his voice, a blast too powerful to be his voice. “Let this be heard! The men of all of Israel’s tribes will amass to fight Ammon!” Some among the crowd gasped, others grunted as they prepared a cheer. The bickering that happens when news hits a crowd began, chatter, noise. Saul’s hand, not two hands as a woodcutter would use, tightened its grip on the axe handle near the bottom as his right foot pivoted and planted on the dusty path. His left took a grand step towards the plow, his left pulled his shoulders around into a powerful twist. The axe’s head whistled through the air, far too fast for a tool so heavy to travel, and struck one bull between the eyes.
The beast’s body shuddered as a wave traveled the length of its body. The sickening thud of stone on bone gave way to a gugling bellow, then the sound of massive bones grinding as the legs lost their strength and the massive shoulders and haunches dragged the whole carcass down in a heap.
The children who could see began to scream, and invisible ropes pulled some of the people behind others, terrified of the sudden explosion of warrior’s fury and desperate to see
what happened next. Like a ghost-filled river the mass of people, gaining numbers by the second as the sounds of impending news filled the air, swirled around him, allowing an axe-handle’s perimeter around him as eyes fixed on the butcher-king. They did not fall silent, but the shouts of seconds before fell to hushed whispers as the king abandoned the axe, buried in the dead animal’s head, and reached to his belt to produce a long knife. His other massive hand grasped the dead animal’s lip and nostrils in a terrifying grip, and the people closest could hear the fragments of the ox’s skull grind against each other as he pulled them backwards. With a bellow of his own the king dragged the knife’s blade against the thick neck, and a new spray of blood made some step back. Hand still on knife’s hilt he grabbed the streaming flap of neck and sawed at an angle, blood spraying his hands and his chest and his legs as he ripped at the ox’s meat.
His giant red claw soon hoisted a triangular hunk of neck above his head, and his other hand pointed at the messenger with the knife. “You run and tell Judah that the same and more will come to all of their beasts if they do not join me in force on the road to Gilead!” He marched towards the young man with the slab of bleeding animal before him, and he shoved the triangular mass into his chest. The young man’s tunic, already dirtied by the long run, now ran a red even as the blood dried into a dark brown. “RUN!!” With terror behind him and the word of the king within, the messenger turned and ran south.
Another gasp rippled through the crowd as Saul threw the knife at the reddened cart-path, lodging its point in the muddy slime. He stomped the dead animal’s head and yanked the axe’s handle, and it dislodged with a spray that drove the horrified mass of Gibeah backwards a step. He wheeled at the ox’s partner, this time bringing the axe down with both hands, and the heavy stone head struck the animal’s neck. Those close and those tall recoiled as the animal’s body reflexively bucked and let forth a terrible noise, dropping to the ground as the legs kicked in all the wrong directions. Once more the monstrous king dropped the chopping tool and looked for
his knife. The blood of the two animals mingled between his fingers as he ripped a strip of the creature’s flank from the bone and hoisted it in the air.
Again Saul pointed with the knife, to a slender youth nearby. “You, lad! To Reuben!” He put the dead animal’s slick and slimy muscle roughly in to his arms. Then another: “To Ephraim!” “To Manasseh!” “To Naphtali!” And one by one young men, the fire that had taken the king filling their chests, fled from the rage, carried the bloody death in their hands, prepared to bring tidings.
With eleven young men flying from the village, Saul dropped the bloody mass to his feet and began to gesture with his gruesome blade. “All men of fighting age will assemble at sun-up. We march in the morning.” Without stopping to replace the axe or to speak to the farmer whose oxen had just become the fury of the spirit of the LORD, Saul marched back to the tent of judgment and went inside.
In the moments and the hours that followed, the crowds did only what their experience would let them do: they helped the farmer get his cart hitched to a neighbor’s oxen. They moved the carcasses from the path for the animals of the night to attend to. They looked for anything that resembled a weapon, more terrified by far of their spirit-stricken king than anything that the Ammonites might bring to bear. As the sun’s last rays resigned from the evening, prayers spoken most nights only found whispers as the fighting men of Gibeah attempted sleep.
When the sun returned a horn sounded, and the people who before gathered around a slain ox streamed behind a tall man, his arms still bloody but his stained tunic covered with the metal of a king’s armor. As dozens fell in behind him, he simply shouted, “To Bezek!”
They marched in silence at first, and then to the songs that the young men had learned to sing in the fields, and as they reached the high round approaching Bezek, the sight was
undeniable: columns of men streamed towards the old town, men from tribal villages and from shepherds’ camps, all converging for fear of the fury of the LORD and the rage of the king.
Fighting men stretched as far as the eye could see, and the old and the women, bearing provisions, moved through the camp as they awaited word. Saul found a rock formation and stood atop, his frame now towering over the gathered fighters. He called for the older men of the companies to gather, and he spoke to them not in the spirit’s rage but with his own words, the voice of the King:
“Send messengers to Gilead. Tomorrow, by the time the sun burns hot, salvation will come to you. Go forth with good tidings.”
The memory of the spirit’s visit still crowding his skull, at the back where his hair joined his neck, Saul surveyed the fighting men around him and began to make strategy, an attack from three divisions that would begin at dawn.