Warrior Prophets 2 Chapter 20
The Weight of Oppression
Ruth waited for the changing of the guard as she nibbled the core of an apple. Ever since she could remember, her father had posted a guard outside the servant’s entrance to the palace kitchen. She crouched behind a large cauldron against the wall, next to the open door. At seven years old, she was a thin little girl in a simple beige tunic, leather sandals and lustrous red hair, pulled back starkly, accentuating her angular features. Over the years, she had learned to be very quiet, to the point that she was invisible to most adults.
A tall guard approached the door and greeted the heavyset soldier on duty. Ruth spotted two other soldiers walking several feet away. She threw the apple core with all her might and hit one of the soldiers on the head.
“Hey! Why’d you hit me?” the soldier turned around to his companion.
“What are you talking about? I didn’t do anything,” the companion answered.
“You clumsy oaf. You must have knocked me with your spear. Be careful next time.” The soldier shoved his companion.
“My spear is straight. You’re the clumsy one.” The companion shoved back. The tall guard and the heavy guard at the kitchen door approached the duo.
“What’s the matter?” the tall one asked.
Ruth didn’t hear anything further as she casually walked out of the kitchen towards the exit of the compound.
Ruth reached the Jordan River. She enjoyed the bubbling of the stream and loved collecting the smooth rocks from the river bank. Most of the rocks were gray in the morning sun, but her practiced eye already knew which rocks had the potential to surprise.
She grabbed one dusty rock and held it in the rushing water of the river. The water cleaned the rock, revealing flecks of pink and blue in the smooth stone.
“Ooh,” Ruth cooed joyfully as the colors of the rock were revealed. “This one will be great for my collection.” She took the stone out of the water and ran to a small grotto upstream. In the grotto was a collection of dozens of stones organized in three different pyramids. One pile consisted of flat smooth stones of a bluish hue. The second pile had rounder stones will a red tint. The third, smaller pile, consisted of smaller stones with green and tiny shiny specks of silver.
“Where should I put you?” Ruth wondered aloud to the stone.
“I know. You’ll go in the middle.” Ruth placed her new stone in-between the blue and red pyramids.
“Princesses should not be wandering alone,” said a young voice, startling Ruth.
“Oh, Mahlon. It’s you,” Ruth said with both fear and annoyance.
At fifteen, Mahlon was already the height of a man, with a thin frame and a wispy moustache of red hair. Ruth knew Mahlon well. They often dined together, whenever Eglon desired the company of the Israelite princelings. But she had never seen him outside the compound, nor spoken to him alone.
“You should be in the palace,” Mahlon said.
“Do you always do what you’re supposed to?” Ruth asked.
“No, but I’m not the daughter of the king.”
“So? That means I need to be locked up like a prisoner?” Ruth argued.
“We are both prisoners. But yours is a prison of privilege. No one is threatening to kill your family if you leave.”
“You hate me, don’t you, Mahlon.”
“I hate all Moabites.”
“Because I’m a hostage. Because I can only see my family once a year, and even then, I’ve become a stranger to them. I don’t know what it means to be an Israelite – I only know you Moabites and I hate you. You’ve subjugated, enslaved and killed my people. You want me to be happy about it? You make us bow down and worship your lifeless idols. You starve our tribes and steal their crops and flocks. Should I not hate you, princess?”
“But I didn’t do any thing!?” Ruth protested.
“You didn’t. But your father has, in the name of his glorious Empire.”
“I’m sorry. What should I do?”
“What can you do?” Mahlon turned around and stomped away.
Ruth sat down on a large stone and looked at her rock collection. She sat pensively for a long time until a single tear fell down her cheek. She stood up and kicked her pyramids until the grotto was filled with a disarray of reddish, bluish and greenish stones. She picked up the stone she had found that morning and trotted off angrily back home, back to the City of Palms, capital of the Moabite Empire.
Bagdon saluted smartly at Emporer Eglon. Eglon’s girth had doubled since the conquest of Canaan. It was a strain for him to walk, but he was determined to come out to see the troops whenever possible. He was surveying Bagdon’s unit standing at attention in the palace training grounds. Bagdon was the son of Avod, Prince of the tribe of Simeon. At seventeen, Bagdon had a muscular frame and a dark complexion. Though young, he had proven himself as an outstanding soldier, a strong commander fiercely loyal to Eglon. He had been made a Captain of One Hundred and was ambitious for more.
“Ah, my dear Bagdon, my star pupil,” Eglon said with obvious joy. The fat of his body shook as he stroked his double chin. “It is such a pleasure to see you in command. If only all your people clung to me with such passion, all our troubles would be over.”
“I live to serve and obey, my Lord.” Bagdon bowed. “I have often tried convincing my people to see the wisdom of joining you wholeheartedly. I don’t know why they insist on the old ways and beliefs.”
“Patience, young Bagdon. Patience. You are a model citizen. When they see your success and happiness and compare it to their wretched and miserable existence, they will understand. It may be too late for the older generation, but I have hopes for a new generation of Israelites. A generation that will not remember its god, a generation that will worship as we Moabites do, serving as loyal citizens in our empire.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Now listen to me,” Eglon said softly. “I have a mission for you and your troops. There’s a group of shepherds up by the tribe of Ephraim who’ve been avoiding our regular tax collectors. They’re an unsavory lot, those Ephraimites, brigands really, cheating us from our rightful taxes. I want you to go up there, find them, conduct a thorough count of their flocks and take our due. If they give any resistance, kill a few of those fools, just to remind them who is in charge. If you and your men take a few extra sheep for yourselves, I won’t say a thing, as long as you bring me my full measure.”
“Yes, my Lord. The justice I will bring in your name shall be swift and powerful. Those ingrates will learn not to cross the will of the Empire.”
“That’s the spirit, Bagdon. Keep this up and I shall make you rich and powerful. If you perform this mission well, I shall have to think of a special reward for you.”
“Your daughter?” Bagdon blurted.
“Ruth? No,” Eglon chuckled. “I have her reserved for the Pharaoh, but perhaps my second daughter, Orpah. Yes, Bagdon. If you show yourself worthy, I would not be against the union of my daughter with an Israelite. That would prove to the tribes my respect for your people. But she is still young, only five years old. We have time.”
“Yes, my Lord. You shall be most impressed by our performance against the Ephraimites. It shall be a punishment they shall not soon forget. I assure you that after our visit they shall become the most obedient of tribes.”
“Very well. Just don’t overdo it. A lesson and my sheep. Don’t destroy resources. A few lives are fine. We need a productive obedient people. Not a revolt. It’s a fine line.”
“Yes, my Lord. I will not forget.”
“Good, Bagdon. Make me proud.” Eglon turned about and headed back into the palace. Bagdon smiled, already thinking of riches and glory.
Mahlon put out fresh hay for Eglon’s horses. He was content being a stable boy. Years ago, the Moabite captains had learned to keep him away from men. There was always a heightened discomfort and even anxiety when Mahlon was around. He would stare intently at someone, and then the person would do something erratic. People avoided Mahlon and he liked it that way. Mahlon was at peace with the animals. Their thoughts were clear and direct. I’m hungry, the grey mare would think. I’m thirsty, the young brown stallion complained. That fly is annoying me, the white stallion, repeated often. Here’s some hay, Mahlon thought back to the mare. Drink from your trough, you lazy colt, he thought to the brown. He ignored the white stallion as there’s not much one can do about the flies.
“Mahlon, there you are,” Bagdon said as he trotted into the stable on his black mare.
“Bagdon,” Mahlon said without looking up.
“I need a new rein. The strap is all worn on the left.”
“That’s because you pull too hard on it. Go easier on your horse.”
“You’re going to teach me how to ride, stable boy?”
“I could probably teach you much more than that, traitor. Get off your horse and I’ll put on a fresh strap.”
“Watch your mouth, son of Elimelech. I could have you whipped and everyone here would thank me.”
“Then go ahead, big mouth.” Mahlon stared into Bagdon’s eyes.
“Just change the strap.” Bagdon looked down. “You know, you can join us. If you showed more respect to Eglon, you could join the troops; share in the honor and the wealth.”
“And attack our people?” Mahlon asked as he replaced the strap. “Is that how you get honor and wealth? By killing and stealing from our brothers? By stomping on the face of the downfallen tribes? Your father must be so proud.”
“My father is proud.” Bagdon raised his chin. “He said I should throw in my lot with the victor. Eglon would oppress the tribes with or without me. I might as well gain from the position and perhaps I can help our brothers in some way when the time is right.”
“Is that your plan? Rise through the ranks with cruelty and brutality to our brothers so that one day you can turn around and show some kindness? No, Bagdon. I think you are more Moabite than the Moabites themselves. I think you bend over backwards to show how much you believe in their cause. You worship their idols and Eglon with such fervor that even the Moabites are impressed. You are Israelite only in name. But I don’t blame you. How could it be otherwise? You were raised for this purpose. Your father encouraged it. I’ll ask you this though, when you kill your brothers, do you wonder who you are?”
“I am the son of the prince of Simeon and a soldier of Moab. There is no contradiction. My allegiance is to Eglon and the Empire just as is yours and all the tribes of Israel. My father, your father, all the tribal leaders, swore allegiance to Eglon and I am upholding their vows.”
“They have succeeded then,” Mahlon said.
“Succeeded at what?”
“In blinding you. Do you not see the injustice of our subjugation? This is not right!”
“It is the way of the world. The strong subjugate the weak. Get used to it.” Bagdon trotted out of the stable with his new rein.
Ruth was excited to be present at the yearly Israelite tribute assembly. This would be the first time she and Orpah would be allowed in the throne room for such a large and official event.
“Welcome my dear princes,” Eglon said from atop his throne. It was the third throne that had been constructed for him and it was already becoming too narrow for his expanding girth. Folds of flesh under his white robes hung over the armrest of the marble chair. He held a plate and ate slices of roasted beef dipped in olive oil. He was careful not to drip on his white robes. Dirthamus sat on one side of Eglon and the Empress Neema sat on the other side. Ruth and Orpah sat on small stools next to their mother. The twelve princes of Israel with their retinues and the royal hostages bowed to the Moabite Emperor. Ehud of Benjamin was amongst them.
“Your contributions this year leave much to be desired,” Eglon noted as he looked at the gifts the retinues had brought. Trays were laden with coins of gold and silver and a selection of grapes, figs and pomegranates. Sacks were filled with grains of wheat, barley and spelt. Reams of wool and jugs of oil and wine were placed in front of Eglon. “Were the rains poor this year? Was there not enough grazing for your herds?”
“If your henchman hadn’t stolen our flocks and killed our shepherds there might have been more,” the prince of Ephraim protested.
“That was a necessary disciplinary action and I’m quite proud of your own Bagdon of Simeon who led our forces.” Eglon nodded at his young captain. Ruth noted Bagdon’s evil grin. She had heard of his ruthlessness in killing the Ephraimites and his growing avarice in the spoils he took for himself.
“I trust the message was clear and we shall not have other shepherds evading our tax collectors,” Eglon continued.
“You are squeezing us dry Eglon,” Elimelech of Judah protested. “You leave us barely enough for survival. You cannot blame us if our farmers and shepherds are frustrated and angry.”
“Is that a threat I sense?” Eglon asked. “Ehud! Speak up, man. I appointed you my intermediary so that I shouldn’t have to hear or deal with each individual prince. Are you Israelites threatening me? Shall I bring my iron fist harder upon your people?”
“Your Majesty,” Ehud stepped forward. “If you squeeze any harder, there shall be nothing left. How can we threaten you? You’ve confiscated all our weapons and outlawed the production of more. You do not let us congregate. Your soldiers are in every city and village and upon every road. You account for every head of cattle and every stalk of grain. You have an army ten thousand strong while we do not have even one soldier left. No, your Majesty. Even if we desired to, we do not have the means, the strength or the resources to threaten one soldier, let alone the might of the Moabite Empire.”
Ruth looked at Ehud with a mixture of fear and curiosity. He was grim, though likeable. But there was something silently threatening, even ominous about him that she sensed would change her life forever.
“That is true,” Eglon smiled, appeased. “Nonetheless, I do not appreciate the grumbling and I understand that the worship of Baal has been halfhearted. I hereby declare that every prince shall place a statue of Baal in their homes, besides the ones by every city gate. Whoever does not erect the statue will suffer the usual elimination of their family. Furthermore, I shall take a child from every family for my work-force. They shall be my slaves for life.”
“You can’t do that!” Elimelech stood up.
“I can and I shall.” Eglon grinned. “You protest too much, I think. Perhaps you need a personal reminder, Elimelech. Perhaps I should kill your son before your eyes. I have never liked your Mahlon in any case.”
“No!” Elimelech pleaded.
“Mahlon, come before me,” Eglon ordered.
Mahlon stood up, unafraid, and walked to Eglon, his eyes boring into those of the heavy monarch. The assembly looked on in utter silence. Ruth’s heart beat faster for some reason she couldn’t explain. He’s so brave, she thought. To stare down my father like that.
Mahlon looked intently at Eglon for a few moments.
Eglon looked back silently, then broke his gaze and looked back at Mahlon in confusion. He coughed and then announced:
“On second thought, we’ll let the lad be. He’s been good with the horses. Competent stable-boys are so hard to find.”
Mahlon walked back to stand next to his father, who let out an audible sigh of relief. Ruth thanked her gods.
“Ehud,” Eglon turned to the blacksmith. “I tire of this assembly and I am displeased by your people’s attitude. I have brought you peace and security, commerce and enlightenment, and in return I receive surliness and hostility, anger and treachery. Your Moses was right when he called you a stiff-necked people. Get them out of my sight and make sure my orders are obeyed and our taxes are collected. Now out, out all of you.” Eglon waved his hands at the Israelites.
The princes and their party left the chamber in a slow and orderly fashion, leaving their tribute behind.
“You stay, Ehud,” Eglon commanded.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Why are they so unhappy?”
“You need to ask?”
“I suppose not, but for how long can they hate me? Why can’t they live with the new reality? Why can’t they accept my dominion and cooperate? Why do they force me to be harsher with them? They must learn to fear me without my constantly punishing them.”
“I do not know the answer.”
“What does your god say?”
“That we must suffer longer.”
“Then I am fulfilling that role.”
“Yes, quite well.”
“Then your god approves of me?” Eglon asked with surprise.
“My people are suffering as per God’s plans, but I think you have taken matters too far.”
“Is that a threat from you, my dear blacksmith?”
“Your Majesty, I think you know me well enough by now to recognize that I speak plainly and do not make veiled threats. I fear for the well-being of my people, but as God’s servant I will not interfere in His plans. That is all.”
“What about your loyalty to me? You swore!”
“I did indeed swear to follow you as per God’s plans. But I think you are only hurting yourself seeing danger and threats in every corner. Your Empire is strong and steady, with no one to threaten you. You have the respect of the Egyptians to your south and the Arameans to the north. Your borders are secure and your trade is flourishing. As you envisioned, you control the main trade routes of the world. Even the Phoenicians respect you and have agreed to your taxes on their wares. I recommend that you not oppress the Israelites further, or you may find God no longer approving of your role.”
“That is a threat!” Eglon stated.
“Do you fear me?” Ehud asked.
“I fear all who may threaten me.”
“Then kill me,” Ehud said.
“No, no. I trust you. I need you.”
“Then stop acting like a scared bully and behave like the confident Emperor you are! You are strong. Being paranoid does no one any good, least of all you.”
Eglon stared at Ehud with his mouth open. He started to talk and then stopped again.
“How dare,” Eglon stammered, barely containing his shock and rage. “I don’t believe – you can’t – I ought.”
Empress Neema placed her hand on Eglon’s arm. Ruth looked at Ehud with open admiration. These Israelites are brave and honorable, she thought. I should get to know them better. Especially Mahlon.
Eglon closed his eyes, breathed deeply and calmed himself. He was quiet for several moments.
“You are right,” Eglon said finally. “I am strong and these doubts are beneath me. Ehud, you are a true friend. Only a true friend would say what you said to me. I will not doubt your friendship. You are courageous to have risked your life to show me the error of my ways. I chose wisely when I chose you to represent Israel. Thank you.”
“I am here to serve, your Majesty – even if it will cost me my life.”
“You have my eternal trust. Go in peace, my friend.”
“I hope I will not disappoint you.” Ehud bowed and left the chamber.
Ruth didn’t understand how, but she knew both men were lying.
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