"When I am through bathing and you have dressed me, go send the steward to me," she instructed Assah her maid. "You need not return with him," she added.
Zenobia finished her bath and was helped into a sheer, linen gown dyed with the foreign, sunset colors she could not live without. A final touch, cosmetic face powder, was added to her cheeks after her usual paints were applied. Then she arranged her limbs informally on a tall-legged day couch in the Room of the Golden Chrysalis, as she had styled it. The spirits of dead per-aas rejoined their bodies and gained immortality in such rooms, where everything, from furniture to royal coffin, was gilded or plated with gold.
She looked her best fresh from the bath, she thought. Assah her maid had spent a full morning arranging her hair in the thick, intricately-tied and begemed cords of a Mizraimite coiffure. Betraying a taste for foreign style, a gold film of Tyrian looms was drawn across her forehead, letting fall tiny, silver moons just above her artificially heightened and darkened brows.
Her lips were a perfect rose, using the richest tincture of scarlet cochineal a hard-working pestle in the hand of her maid could produce in a small alabaster mortar. And how beautifully her mouth appeared against a complexion she lightened with the latest face and body powder imported from Ken'an! As she studied her glazed image a last time in a bronze mirror from Keftiu, she paid close attention to her emerald-green eyes and added touches of silver and blue. Still agleam at forty years of age, they had the ability to enchant and draw men like silly, bumbling moths to flame.
Though not exactly young, Zenobia knew she was still attractive to men; and therefore she had not the least doubt about succeeding in what she had planned. She had thought about it first, when she lay tossing in bed and could not sleep, and the thought resolved finally into action. Joseph, she vowed, would lie on her couch.
Other women of the court took lovers from the servant class. It was common practice. Potiphar was not attractive to her anymore. She had a right to seek diversion and play with a good-looking youth, if she so chose. Of course, it had to be done discreetly, but that could be arranged. The fact she could not net a more handsome lover than Joseph made the affair most appealing.
The maid Assah hurried back into Zenobia’s chamber. Her face and hair were disheveled. “The Steward cannot come, my mistress! The master, your husband, has fallen on the floor and is ill!"
Zenobia sprang off the couch and stood. "What do you mean 'ill'? He’s merely drunk too much, you idiot!"
The girl was in tears, as she explained brokenly how her master Potiphar had just been discovered lying beside his couch, groaning from pain, and holding his lower belly.
Zenobia cursed in Kena'nite tongue, ignoring the girl. Everything had been done, all pains had been taken, and now her well-conceived plans were tossed back in a basket. "Well, if my lord is ill as you say, I must go to him at once!" she declared.
She waved the girl from her presence and sat down on the couch, trying to think of something. But there was nothing for it, she would have to go and look in on Potiphar. After all, he might be expiring.
So she went to her husband. It was as she supposed: nothing. She found Potiphar sitting up on his couch, looking much improved, with Joseph by his side fanning him with peacock feathers.
"Something you ingested, my lord?" she ventured; but Potiphar did not want to talk to her and turned away his head, still thickly beaded with perspiration. “I will have the cook whipped for this outrage!”
“It’s none of your affair, the cook had nothing to do with it,” said Potiphar.
“But my lord--”
“Leave me in peace!”
Insulted as a reward for trying to do her duty, Zenobia turned on her heel and went back to mull things over a bit more in her rooms. Pacing back and forth, she vowed the prey would not elude her once again. Next time she would set the nets more carefully, not wait for things to happen.
Since Joseph was most often to be found in the garden or the adjoining properties, supervising the gardening and the various crafts that took place in the outbuildings, Zenobia slipped on a sheer garment of a color matching her eyes and a pectoral necklace of carnelians and green feldspar and went on an unaccompanied, casual stroll that sooner or later would cross Joseph's path.
Zenobia knew she had no particular authority over Steward Joseph's natural desires, not when her own husband would not even speak civilly to her; yet he was a young man of natural respect and courtesy, and for the sand-rambling Semite he was exceptionally clean, without a greasy beard, and uncommonly good-looking. She especially looked forward to coming upon him when he was helping in the pools, harvesting fish or lotus or papyrus, for then he was stripped like the other workers, and his smooth skin, broad shoulders, and slim waist showed to fine advantage amidst the water and sacred lotus.
It turned out as she had hoped--she found him in a pool. "Steward, when you are finished with your work, please come by my rooms. I have a thought to move my couch. It may be there is a scorpion hiding underneath and you can catch him before he does me any harm.” She could not help smiling when Joseph bolted from the pool to seize his loin cloth.
Joseph's face betrayed embarrassment, and he felt the gaze of nearby servants who were accustomed to Mizraim's easy-going ways and Zenobia's slack manner of dressing. "Yes, my Lady," he murmured, his feet shifting with discomfort on the hot, burning ground.
Zenobia went away, and Joseph looked with determination at the ground, then to the men in the pool, all standing and staring at him.
Joseph walked off to a corner of the garden, put his face in his hands for a few moments, breathed deeply, then returned to work. As he came to the pool, wondering what he would say to the questioning he saw in the eyes of his workers, the housekeeper interrupted him.
Joseph winced with a terrible thought. Had Ramoseh lapsed into taking more sweets?
But, no, the man's face was radiant. He bowed seven-fold to the ground.
"To thy eternal ka! My lord, I thank the celestial gods for you!" the man exclaimed effusively to the astonished and mortified steward. "I have been observing you, master, since you first came to this house. And I can contain my heart no longer! May you be blessed with everlasting happiness and eternal honor! May you live forever, Beneficent One!"
Joseph’s face grew very grave. He could see plainly that the housekeeper, despite his flowery, flattering words, had been deeply touched by something, to such an extent he was hard to recognize. The housekeeper continued to pour out words. “Who is the God of your father, my lord? Tell us this Source of your wisdom, strength, and goodness! No mere youth could do so well as you have done! No, it has not happened so in the entire kingdom as here!”
Joseph glanced at the men in the pool. They were raptly listening. He had been asked, so he decided to speak candidly. “But it isn’t me! I look to the Most High God, who alone created the heavens and the earth. He set the times and seasons, and He is the source of wisdom, strength, might, honor, and blessing. It is this Lord and Creator of all who reveals deep and mysterious things. He removes and sets up the kings over us. He changes the times of the year by which we work and gain food for ourselves. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those of understanding--”
The men hung on his words. Joseph glanced toward the white-pillared house. “He only knows what dwells in darkness.”
Everyone continued to stare at the steward who had just spoken so graciously.
“Master,” said one, stepping from the pool and kneeling. “Teach us more of your God!”
Joseph hesitated, however. How much could they receive, when all they knew were the thousand beast gods of Mizraim? “My brothers, simply commit your ways to the Lord God,” he concluded. “He will direct you to Himself and true knowledge. Be still and seek him in your hearts, and His words will come and be a burning lamp to your feet.”
The simple instruction seemed to satisfy the man. The housekeeper, too, bowing repeatedly, went back to his duties. Later, their work in the pool finished, the slaves went to take refreshment and sleep. Joseph went with them to the dining room that adjoined a newly-built granary and the big zarah shed, answering further questions some of the men touchingly put to him, as children would ask of a father.
Then he recalled his mistress’s request, left his food and hurried toward the house. Joseph found Zenobia in her rooms, stretched on the bed. He was surprised to find her alone. Where was Nefera? Or Assah?
On her part, she ceased to pretend any longer. She slipped swiftly toward him with a wide smile, her eyes glistening greenly. “It’s a dull day. Here, come sit down with me and chat!” she urged, glancing toward the couch. “I have made certain we will not be disturbed. The good man is away at the festival in the city, and he will not be back until the New Moon.”
It was everything he had feared the moment he found Potiphar’s wife without attendants. He moved backwards at her approach. Without a word, he turned and fled away, leaving Zenobia to stew in the shock and fury of his rejection.
It took some time, but she calmed down enough to recast her plans and conceive of another way to achieve her ends. Joseph, despite the rebuff, was just as attractive to her as ever--if not moreso. He was only a naive boy, she thought, reasoning that his strong and remarkable resistance was probably the fault of narrow family tradition of some sort or some animus toward her nation. She grew all more determined to ignite her steward’s desires. After all, by reputation sand-ramblers were notoriously hot in blood like wild donkeys and onagers.
That gave her an idea. Thinking that wild donkeys had to be fenced in if they were to be tamed, she decided to install bolts and bars on her door--on the outside! Ha! Let him try to escape her then! As soon as the next morning, she had Joseph bring in a carpenter and workmen and soon the chamber door was made ready. Then she sent word off to Joseph to come in.
The steward obeyed her summons, but having supervised the alteration to the door his reluctance and misgivings showed painfully clear in his expression.
Zenobia hardly cared about that! Just let him try to run away now!
He bowed, but turned his head instantly toward the door when it suddenly slammed shut and the bars were drawn by prior arrangement with Nefera her discreet chief maid.
Zenobia moved slowly from her couch, with more purpose than grace perhaps, scattering some rind and seeds of a half-eaten pomegranate. She knew he would not dare insult her and would wait for her to make the first move. She came up to him. “Silly boy,” she said, smiling playfully. “Come, you have worked hard for this. Now take your reward as I willingly give it to you.” She reached for his hand but he pulled away.
“By no means! My master trusts me and has put everything under my charge. Even he is not greater in this house than I am! He has not refused me anything I wanted, except you his wife. How then can I betray his trust, do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
Zenobia had no idea whatsoever what the steward was talking about. “‘Sin’? ‘Wickedness’?”
As for Potiphar, he would not know of it, so betrayal of trust was hardly a worth-while consideration!
Slipping out of her gown, she moved again toward him, but he shrank away toward the barred door.
Zenobia realized she could not chase him around the room without looking absurd before a mere menial, so she decided she would command, not ask. “Make love to me, slave!”
His chest heaving, Joseph shook his head, his back now pressed against the door.
“You can’t possibly get away, you fool! You must do as I tell you, or I’ll have you whipped and turned out into the fields to work the rest of your days! Only a fool would choose that over me!”
But Joseph was no longer listening. Just as she lunged to catch him he swung around and pulled at the doors. They opened and he flew instantly out of reach and vanished down the hall.
Zenobia stood, gasping, in the open doorway.
She put her hands to her head and screamed. Nefera her chief maid came running.
Zenobia pointed to the double bars that should have been drawn against the door but instead lay on the floor. “Who dared remove the bars?” she screeched. “I want to know who is responsible!”
The maid, staring at her naked mistress, shook her head as if in protest.
Zenobia, beside herself, raised her hand to strike. Then she flung herself back into her chamber, dressed, and then stormed back out.
“Oh, no, Lady!” the maid cried, hands outstretched imploringly as she bowed to the floor. “No one in the house has touched them, I swear!”
Zenobia seized the maid’s hand and twisted. “What do you mean no one touched them? They’ve been removed! Removed! I can see that!”
The maid gasped from the pain. “I had everyone stay well away of the door, just as you commanded me. But when I waited and heard a noise of the bars being drawn back, I looked into the hall and--”
Potiphar’s wife stopped twisting. “Well? Go on, you idiot! Tell me the truth or I’ll--”
The maid swallowed, then looked down at the floor.
“There was no one in the hall, my lady. Just a fly, very large in wing and bright blue. Then a string went from the fly to the bars and they moved back. Next, I saw them float down to the floor, still attached to the string and the beautiful fly. Finally, the fly vanished in the air.”
“Fool, you expect me to believe that?” Zenobia cried. “You tell me a bold lie and--”
Zenobia looked for something to use to punish the maid. She seized a bar, but it was so heavy it made her hesitate and then think what she was doing. She let the bar drop, and it fell with a clang on the stone pavement. She turned on the maid. “You’ve taken me for a fool! I don’t believe a word you’ve said. From now on you’re turned out of this house! You will go and assist the women in the zarah shed.” Nefera’s eyes, filling with shock and horror, said it all. She moaned and her head bent down as if she would faint.
“Be thankful I don’t send you to the brewery for your impudent crimes against me!” Zenobia hissed. “Now get out of my sight! The zarah shed is too good for you! If I see you again in this house I’ll have Lord Potiphar take you to the barracks. Think what work they’ll have you do there!”
Zenobia strode away from the terror-stricken woman, to again collect her thoughts and decide her next strategy. “A fly!” she laughed, over and over. “What a madwoman and a liar! She blamed a pretty fly!”
As his lady was fretting about her latest setback and the wretched outcast, Nefera, wept all the way to the zarah shed, Joseph was praying in his room. “--for without cause they hid their net for me! Without cause they dug a pit for my life! Let ruin come upon them unawares. Let the net which they hid ensnare them! Let them fall to ruin, that they might see their folly and cry out to Thee. Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance.”
As soon as Joseph heard of Nefera’s fate, he went to her at the zarah shed. He found her crouched against the outer wall. Seeing him, she flung herself at his feet. “Help me! You must help me! I can’t do hard labor. The disgrace will slay me! I will throw myself in the canal!”
Joseph pulled her gently to her feet.
Nefera then blurted out all the details of what she had seen in the hall, and how her mistress had cast all blame on her for it.
“I will do what I can for you,” said Joseph, amazed by her description of the blue fly but certain she was not deliberately lying or gone mad in her wits. “You may not return to the house for some time, and I realize you have spent your years in the house and know nothing of this work they do here.”
He went into the shed, the weeping, red-eyed Nefera following close behind. The women, immediately, seemed to know everything by the mocking glances they cast at the cringing Nefera. “Serves her right!” someone whispered. “The gods have no patience with bad women like her and Lady Zenobia has finally turned her out as she deserves!”
Another woman muttered even more loudly. “I’ll show her for all the beatings and sharp words she’s given me when she had me constantly carrying water to her room when the house was being added to!”
Joseph, as if he had not heard their remarks, smiled as he addressed the women. "I am pleased to see you all speak like good women. You have a new worker joined to your company, so your work will be lighter in time as she learns her duties. Treat her as you would want to be treated. If she had known the evil in her future and done better, you would love her, no doubt. But even though she had misfortune cast upon her, it is not her fault. Think about that if misfortune ever comes to you. What man can see his future end? Maybe now you will be kind to her as she deserves. I myself was delivered from a pit and from the evil hands of those who were too mighty for me. Like y ou all, I am a slave, but at least this is your own country, while I was stolen from the breast of my father and people.”
Abashed by his meaning, the women gathered round the weeping Nefera.
The answer to Joseph's impassioned and anguished prayer, offered when he was desperately searching for a way out of Zenobia’s net, came one day when went into the house to do some accounting. It was something he could do while the work-crews rested under the trees of the garden, throwing knucklebones in a favorite game, as it had grown too hot to labor in the open. Intending to do his work alone in his room and then return outdoors when the heat of midday had passed, Joseph let himself in the strangely quiet and empty mansion.
His practiced eye was drawn to the new construction he had ordered. Instead of the housekeeper having to go to the outbuildings to do his work on pastries, he was now furnished with a neat, new chamber of his own. Since the house was cool and work continued as usual, he expected to hear the tittering of house-slaves or the housekeeper-cook in his new little kitchen discussing some important world event with his underling, Ramoseh, while rolling and beating out thin sheets of bread dough for Zenobia's finest pastries; but this time there was stillness.
He had not sent the servants away, so he wondered a bit what had happened to his staff as he slipped into his own room. Intending to check on it later, he turned to the work he needed to finish before the official from the Per-aa's administration came to assess the yearly tax on property, income, and slaves. The Per-aa was anxious to raise yet another, bigger army in a short time, so Potiphar himself had spoken to Joseph of the matter, and Joseph was determined to bring every account up to date. It would require but an hour, he knew, and so he was not worried but busily occupied with pen and palette when he felt a shift or slight movement of air.
He glanced over his shoulder and noticed the door had swung ajar. He took no notice and continued working. Suddenly, he felt as though he were going to smother, as warm and perfumed arms enclosed his neck and face, holding him fast. He stood up anyway, scattering his writing utensils and papyrus and throwing Zenobia--for it was the lady herself--backwards.
She lunged forward at him like a wild thing, and her long-nailed fingers raked deeply across his chest. He reared away, staring aghast at the mad woman.
Blocking his escape, she darted at him once again. “You won’t get away from me this time!” she hissed. “Just see if your invisible god has any power over me!”
He saw her coming and twisted his body beyond her grasping hands, eluding her but feeling her hands catching on his garment--a simple but practical white linen cloth he and the men all wore in that hot land. Normally, a man's cloth was tied in a way it could never slip from the wearer's body; but Zenobia's wrenching grasp tore it away, and she was left holding it as he fled out the door and the house.
Joseph continued a little ways into the garden before he stopped, to retch. Overcome with shock, he vomited, with great, dry heaves. Exhausted, Joseph lay on his side for a moment by a pool, wondering almost stupidly at the bloody gashes on his chest and lower side. He saw lily pads piled nearby for disposal and used some to cover his shame as he got shakily to his feet and then sank down on his knees, still too overcome to try and save himself by running away into the delta marshes. Now Joseph knew he was utterly ruined--again! Bad as the pit had seemed, this was even worse. Evenso, a prayer came unsought to his lips that he had heard his own Abba Jacob pray, when he was in great distress after the massacre of the Shechemites by his own sons.
The slave went away, shaking his head slowly but obeying just the same.
A cry, from the house. The slave was halted in his tracks. Other servants began to come out from the house into the yard and garden, as if looking for someone. A yet more dramatic scream issued from apartments of Lady Zenobia. Then again. It was the unmistakable shriek of violation. Followed by her maid Assah, Zenobia came out, her hair man-handled and garments torn half away from her body. She screamed for all the men to come at once. Everyone rushed to her, from the house and the gardens, and she spied Joseph crouching in the garden shrubbery and shrieked hideously once again and pointed toward him out, a lone, Hebrew foreigner amidst a Mizraimite household.
"See what has come of my Lord Potiphar's bringing this Semite dog into our midst? We have been insulted, for the greasy wretch of a shepherd forced himself upon me in my rooms to lie with me on the master's couch, but I was able to lift up my voice loud enough against him so that he took fright and fled from me, leaving his garment in my hand!"
Joseph could only drop his head in his hand and remain dumb as sheared sheep, for now he would die disgraced, a stranger in a foreign land, and no one would think to bury him. Now he knew the fate of old Nu and Lady Zenobia's two most elderly maids who had been taken in the night from their sickbeds by Lord Potiphar’s order. The sight of the dozens of "sacred" crocodiles thrashing about when the cooks threw garbage in Potiphar's canal had often made him wonder if there wasn’t more than garbage they were living on.
Zenobia waved Joseph's tell-tale loin cloth like a banner before the faces of all the men and women, and many fell down on their faces. Perhaps remembering her dignity and station, Zenobia stalked off to her rooms to await Potiphar's judgment. She assured herself that Joseph would suffer the full penalty, immediately upon Potiphar's hearing.
Potiphar had been fully involved in the yearly Festival of Nebel and the Per-aa's special appearance in the grand procession from the palace. So he was still at the palace, or rather looking in on his chief jailor, Jizra, at the prison of the palace guard when a distraught house-servant brought news that Zenobia wanted him home. Potiphar was surprised, not at all angry as he normally would have been over a domestic interruption. She had never interfered with him at his duties before, so he knew the matter was most urgent. He left off throwing knuckle-bone lots with Jizra in the commander's room in the tower and went straight to his chariot and sped home.
Attempting to fathom what had happened, he supposed another servant had died or gotten very ill and needed to be removed from the house. No, that was not important enough to call him home like this. Could it be Joseph? Was he ill? That was important enough. He had grown more than attached to the young steward; almost fatherly in his feeling, Potiphar hoped against hope that nothing had happened to him as his horses sweated lather to gallop fast enough. He walked into the house and sensed women's hysteria strong in the air.
Everyone jumped at his entrance. Was he so feared and monstrous? he wondered as he exited straight to his wife's private rooms. Zenobia was waiting for him, wrapped in a plain, white, linen shroud, her makeup horribly smeared, her fine eyes bloodshot, and her hair, always so perfect, incredibly messed and misshapen. Now Potiphar had seen everything life could show a man of violence; yet Zenobia's grotesque state almost unnerved him. He suddenly felt old, weak, and ill.
With her, glaring whitely against the henna-reddened palm of her hand, lay a garment. Anyone could see it was a loin cloth. They were so common. And what Potiphar, with sinking heart, dreaded most to hear now poured forth in a stream of bitter invective that struck his ears as no soldier's curses had never affected him.
Zenobia's mouth let the words fly at his face, as nails scratching his cheeks and tearing at his eyes. "The miserable Hebrew servant whom you have brought among us," she stormed, "broke into my private rooms to violate me; but as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left this garment of his and fled out of the house!"
Potiphar could find no reply. He too was on trial before the whole house. Mizraim itself, in her words, had been insulted in its honor and virtue, all by a "miserable Hebrew," a young man he trusted implicitly and felt great affection for. But had Mizraimite honor (and his wife's) been abused? He knew Joseph. And there was no one else he would sooner believe. But where was his steward?
Zenobia, despite her red eyes, had watched his response carefully, noting his sheepish indecision and bewilderment. She knew that meant one thing, and moved quickly. She rose up, flung aside the shroud and revealed her breasts, beaten and bruised. Flinging up her chin, she spat at him, "This is the way your servant treated me." Now everyone had seen her breasts more times than anyone could count. This then was no surprise, yet the bruises were shocking enough.
As if blamed and slapped by a superior, Potiphar turned sullenly away. It was no use trying to think, or even to save Joseph now. The situation demanded he act on this outrage to his wife, pretended or not. He would have to answer to all his household, and Mizraim, if he failed in his duties as the man of the house. He made for the door, anger burning in his heart, not for Zenobia and her outraged virtue but anger for himself and his house--that forced him to take measures against an excellent man.
It's possible, he thought, that some man-servant in the house had done what she charged. It was a weakness any man could understand in another. But Joseph? Nevertheless, a husband, according to custom more ancient than any written law, must by rights put to death his wife's defiler. He knew a man who put a crocodile in a pool where his wife's lover liked to swim. However it was done, the husband had the right.
Suddenly, a savage change came over the aging Butcher of Avaris; he straightened and once again became the man of action and strength of will he had once been--before wine, a dead marriage, and failure at court had all conspired to unman and cuckold him. His honor too was in question, and he moved swiftly to end the supposed cause. "Well, bring the wretched Hebrew out!" he snarled at the men of the house.
Immediately, they ran weeping to do his bidding, and in a few minutes brought Joseph, his body naked, left unclothed because of his crime. They all were waiting for their master to draw his sword and execute justice and vengeance on the spot. Potiphar roared a command, and his iron sword was brought in by his chariot driver.
The sight of the big, black Nubian in the house, so warlike and fiercesome, nearly drove the spectators mad as they watched him get Joseph ready for the sword. Bent over with neck outstretched, his arms held back outstretched in Jizra’s powerful grasp, Joseph waited to die.
Potiphar, the sword held high, suddenly swung. Jizra’s eyes bulged as the sword descended, striking in a flash toward the precise spot at the nape where--but he missed! A bright blue flash--like a long thread--had intercepted the weapon. Potiphar fell back, nearly losing the sword.
The servants went wild. There was so much screaming and wailing, Potiphar ordered all the women out.
The room cleared, with only the men-servants to watch an example being made, Potiphar wiped the streaming sweat and embarrassment from his face with his hand and resumed. Again he brought the sword down--and missed! This time there was no bright thread to blame. He just seemed to miss!
Jizra wouldn’t even look at his master, he was so ashamed.
Horrified, Lord Potiphar looked at his sword and his hand and almost left the room, but made a last effort to control himself and get back to the business at hand. Determined to finish it or die in the attempt, he brought his sword down a third time with such violence that--when he again missed--the sword flew from his hands and sank deep into the stone wall. Aghast, everyone stared at the sword and the stone of the wall, then at Lord Potiphar.
Three times humiliated, he would have liked to have died right that instant and sunk into the floor. Instead, he still had to deal with his incredible failure. He took ahold of his sword and pulled. He pulled again, then wrenched at it with all his strength. The sword would not budge.
“Jizra, I want my sword!” Lord Potiphar bellowed. “It must be enchanted!”
Then the Nubians tried his hand, which surely was strong enough to pull down the wall if necessary to get the sword out. He too was forced to give it up.
Frightened at the omen, fearing there was some kind of black magical pox about, Jizra turned back to his master, his eyes rolling his big, black head.
“Well, bring the wretched Hebrew out to my chariot!” Potiphar croaked, as soon as he could get his voice working on the right words. “I can see some wizard has come and cast a spell on me and my house!”
Struck dumb by what they had witnessed and nearly incapacitated with shock, the men scrambled about, trying to obey the order. Finally, Joseph was in the chariot and Potiphar got in. Poor Jizra was no good for anything at the moment, having just witnessed his master make a complete ass of himself, so Potiphar seized the reins from him and off the chariot flew, racing toward the prison at the palace gate.
But now Potiphar had a plan. "I don’t know what happened,” he thought desperately. “But I am taking him to prison. I’ll execute him there, alone, with no one looking on!" It was, he reasoned, the only way to restore his reputation as a military man.
Indoors the house of Lord Potiphar, the news sped through the women's quarters, then to Lady Zenobia, who made no move when a trembling, red-eyed Assah brought her the news: Potiphar had taken Joseph to prison! And there had been a miracle--in fact, three miracles!” Assah then described what had happened when Potiphar tried to cut Joseph’s head off.
Zenobia scoffed at her. “My husband is getting old. His sword arm is at fault! That was no miracle!” She turned even more viciously on her maid. “He will be executed, as surely as I live!" the lady said, as she curtly dismissed the maid. "Tell all of them that. The defiling Hebrew dog will be dead by the morning, his carcass hanging in a tree for the sacred white vultures to strip and eat!"
"But you know he is innocent!" Assah screamed suddenly at her mistress, her face stricken with tears and horror. "Your attacker could not have been our Joseph! And his God has saved him from Lord Potiphar’s sword three times! If you don’t believe it, go to the room and see the sword stuck fast in the stone of the wall! No man could do that!"
Assah’s vehemence and the unshakable conviction in her words seemed to provoke a violent change in her mistress. She began laughing hysterically as she repeated the words "strip and eat" over and over, and the maid backed out with alarm, turning to run back to the other women to tell them something dreadful had happened to their mistress.
But Zenobia, though she was looking and acting deranged, could employ her wits enough to seek a remedy for a collapse of her nerves. She began calling out all sorts of magic incantations and the names of potent herbs that she was certain would heal her. But where was she to get the herbs? It was too late to send into town for them. Breaking off her mad chatter, she arose and went down to the garden. The divine face of light was swiftly disappearing, turning into a huge, red, face of blood bathing itself in the water of the marshes bordering the Great Sea.
It too had radically changed of late. Jetting great streams of red light like blood-red torches thrown into the heavens, the light of the world was also spreading bloody color everywhere on canal, river, temple and tower. Fortunately, the savage twilight was mercifully short. As she stood there watching the blood fade in the dark waters the branches of the tall tamar trees in the garden began waving in the evening breeze.
Zenobia felt chilled of a sudden and forgot what she had come for. She saw rigid, accusing faces of servants surrounding her on all sides, their burning eyes fixed on her. No one, not a soul, believed her. They were all for Joseph and against her. There was absolutely nothing she could do. She had ruined Joseph and cast him naked from her house; yet in his ruin he had somehow destroyed her, stripping her bare for all to see and revile.
Now her own slaves would see nothing in her but cause for contempt. For any woman of proud and noble blood, death was preferable. She wandered dazedly about for a few moments, trying to entertain the thought of death without breaking down in tears, but everywhere she looked faces stared at her with deep loathing and revulsion.
Well, let death come quickly! she thought, flinging herself out into the darkening garden, stumbling against the Tree of Heaven which tore her clothes and gashed her fine skin as she sought to reach the wall. It was, they all knew, riddled with crevices and full of cobras and scorpions which ordinarily never bothered anyone, unless disturbed.
She seized a cucumber stake and began poking about at the holes and cracks where she had seen the creatures. When nothing came of it, she grew frantic. She pulled away a glowing mass of moon-flower vine, but nothing darted out to give her a fatal kiss. She ran back to the house, seized a torch from a startled servant and a took a rod and hurried away into the garden, the man-servant following in dismay.
Paying him no attention, Zenobia began to beat and poke at the scorpion and cobras' dens with increased might. Finally, when nothing stirred that she might seize and press against her naked breast, she despaired and began to weep, throwing down her torch and rod. All around her, on the edges of the garden pools, she now saw the Dead drinking--two of them the maids she had just gotten rid of. They gazed with leering, spiteful eyes at her flaming disgrace. But she herself could not drink. The river had stopped flowing. She would wander forever in waterless places. A daughter of the desert.
"Come back to the house, my Lady," her hand-maid implored, now regretting the unkind scream that had burst from her lips, and held out Zenobia's outer garment. "You will be chilled."
Mad Zenobia spun about, seeing a look of compassion for the first time. "When I want them, they refuse to come out!" she said in a petulant, girlish voice. "Why won't they come to my party? Behind my back they laughed at my colored clothes. I wore royal red and blue and purple. They wore only stark white, like tombs of the low-born. Tell me, my dear, is it fair? Is it fair?"
Nevertheless, she allowed herself to be led back into the house of Potiphar, hobbling feebly like a very old woman, and was put to bed like a child--for so she had become in less than a day and a night.
But there was more. In the morning Zenobia's beautiful hair was appalling, turned overnight to a sepulchal color she had always hated--white, unto the roots.
He was plowing through the dull report--thousands of them coverning decades of NRA-Atlantean contacts in out of the way places in mostly tropical locations--when he came to a password protected file. It took him a few tries, but he got in and found Uwe Hantsbo. It appeared the man had been a consultant to the space agencies and the military and a hacker who could not resist turning cyberspy and delving into classified national security files and secret agency information--particularly when it dealt with the Atlanteans.
Tolerated since he was considered to be acting on his own, he was not rated a national security risk even with his hands deep in the government cookie jar. But toleration has limits, like anything else, and Hantsbo’s raids raised just too many red flags to be ignored and he was re-classified as a computer criminal.
What if, for instance, Hantsbo the free lancer decided to team with the Atlanteans for an overthrow of the U.S. government? What if the Atlanteans had somehow wired Hantsbo as a stooge for a plan in taking over the world? What if--?
Anything now seemed possible, with a wild card like Hantsbo messing around where he shouldn’t be.
Surprising the guys in the NRA Cyberwatch team, he disappeared before they could take him out with a discreet accident. But though the file was incomplete and never officially closed, it contained his own computer files on the subject. Unknown to Hantsbo, he had, moments before he vanished, transmitted directly to an interlink and via a NRA satellite to the main files everything he had risked his life to learn.
How many attempts he had made to cut Joseph’s handsome head off, he had no idea. But he could not get a sword--any sword whatsoever--to do the job. It was so disconcerting an ordeal that he had terrified his jail warden half to death after they had seen one sword after another fly out of his hands and stick fast in the stone of the wall. Finally, collapsing on the floor, he had given up and Joseph was taken away and put in a cell.
What else could he do? He knew if he kept on the whole city and country would soon hear what had happened to the mighty Potiphar, Captain of the Palace Guard. It was bad enough that they would hear of his wife’s violation by a household slave. But for people to hear the Per-aa’s commander couldn’t execute his wife’s attacker, no, not with a hundred swords--that much scandal attached to his name was unthinkable. He’d be the laughingstock of the whole country!
Without Potiphar's knowing, the ever-circling and descending vultures were attracting attention. As the days passed they became a sign and a wonder to the population in the whole area. Though sacred, their nature and function were anything but a good omen, and neighbors of Potiphar sought out favorite mediums, hoping to deflect any pestilence that might be festering in the vicinity. Gossip circulated quickly among servant and slave classes, and soon their masters knew there was indeed something seriously awry in Potiphar's house. As if sensing it, the crocodiles in his canal were so disturbed, it was noted, that they had begun to consume one another in a mad frenzy, thus attracting yet more carrion birds and scavengers.
Left to himself once again, Potiphar had plenty of time to mull things over in his cups. Even before he had reached the prison and dropped off Joseph, he had wondered how such things could be happening. Was Joseph’s God protecting him? It seemed so, but he had fought the conclusion to the end--that Joseph’s God was stronger than Potiphar--until he was too exhausted to stand.
He could have given the death sentence and let others do the butchering, but that was his duty as a husband. The execution was no good if not done by his hand and sword. And could anyone else succeed where he had failed? Yet, except for concern for reputation and name, he had lost a taste for blood. The thought of putting even a guilty assaulter of his wife to death held no appeal. Once initial anger was spent, he just as soon would see Joseph rot in prison. That would be punishment enough, he knew.
So Joseph’s life was spared! Was it because his god was more powerful than the gods of Mizraim? Most people he knew would dispute that, and claim it was his fault for one reason or other. But he knew differently. No man could have tried harder and failed so miserably. Truly, the gods of Mizraim had come up beggars against experience. But theology had never been a strong point with him. Though he had to admit he had almost come to believe in Joseph’s Most High God, he had problems that demanded his attention.
His wife, for instance, had gone absolutely mad. Here he had married her with the gods’ approval and blessing. What good then were they when such things happened, things they could not prevent or even warn him about? All the charms and spells the wizards could cast on their union had come to naught. The sorcerers and magicians had exacted stiff fees of gold and silver for their ministrations and now he had to suffer the consequences of their duplicity and blindness. But was Joseph’s god any different? Look what had happened! Either his god was powerless or could not care what Joseph suffered in life!
So what was a man to believe? Were not all the gods a bundle of frauds? Potiphar thought about it and called for more wine. He found it all so depressing he was still drinking when one evening he lost his hold on his couch and tumbled off. Unbeknownst to the household, he lay outstretched on the floor for hours in a stupor, until the morning, because the house was so out of order without Joseph that no one looked in on him regularly.
Calling them laxy and refractory, Tep-dut-we cut their food allotments both in the morning and in the evening and threatened further cuts if work performance did not improve. The house soon grew cluttered and filthy, and the gardens and fields grew like a jungle with wild cucumber, while the good plants died from faulty or neglected irrigation. Scorpions and snakes took to multiplying in the litter that accumulated around the stinking pools of dead and dying fish. Several slaves were bitten and died in agony, and the bodies dumped, of course, in the canal.
The steward, enscounced on his awning-sheltered dais, began to lose all interest in even keeping the work-parties going and let the zarah ripen to uselessness, and instead worked over the books and accounts when he wasn't being plied with food and drink by some pretty maids of his choosing, accounts which reflected less and less the decline of income from the estate and instead glowed with huge, unaccountable profits.
Potiphar was still immensely rich, his house and property the least of his holdings. The commander never came out into the garden or seemed to notice the disorder and filth even in the house. He seldom took a meal, so even the wretched meals being served from the kitchens did not draw his ire. His silver wine cup was kept filled; that was all that mattered to Potiphar these days.
As for Lady Zenobia, Potiphar never saw her after the night she had condemned Joseph to death. He had vowed never to see her again if he could help it. Let her keep to her rooms, he decided. She was stark mad anyway, and it was best the court knew as little as possible about her condition. Her friends had all dropped away even before that fatal night, so he need not give unconvincing explanations for her disappearance from society.
Zenobia herself seemed to take no thought about her seclusion. For her it was not forced. She simply did not perceive an outside world anymore. For her the world was her private rooms, one of royal gold, the other a sumptuously marbled massage room and bath, and both attended by a long-suffering maid who took care of all her needs. She never took up the mirror again after her hair had blanched white. Her maid had to comb and prepare Zenobia's coiffure, without her mistress's least interest. She no longer wore eye paint or lip rouge or used any of her perfumes and jewels. She simply had no interest in keeping herself up, and would not have bathed if the maid had not insisted.
If left to herself, Zenobia would sit, day after day, on her couch and do nothing at all until it was time to lie down. Finally, despite Assah’s attentions, all she would do was lie on her couch and would not answer to her maid if she were asked anything. Yet the broken mind of a once beautiful and artful woman was capable of flashing with some of its old fire and venom--when something sharp enough happened to pierce her numb cloud. Seizing her mirror one day after the maid had arranged her hair, Zenobia beheld her image for the first time in many weeks and showed no expression or sign that she even saw the horror of wrinkles and white hair.
The following morning, however, when the maid Assah came to lift her up and give her something to eat and drink, Zenobia pushed away the hand that fed her like a child. Tears gushed from her eyes. Her head sank into her chest, and Zenobia sobbed with an old woman's croaking spasms.
Strangely enough, Zenobia recovered some vigor and sensibility after that, asking some of her things to be brought, and with them an old, old image of the moon-god of Tyre and Hazir, that she had treasured in a long-vanished girlhood. Hugging it like a doll to her breast, Zenobia lay back on her cushions, cooing and smiling contentedly for hours. The maid even caught glimpses of her praying, or attempting to pray. She would lift her hands up, silently mouth the fragments of a partly-recalled incantation or moon-god psalm, before breaking off abruptly with a confused and dissatified glance toward the brazen heavens that had sent, not blessing from the moon-god of Hazir, but a scorpion's sting.
Finally, Assah the maid could take this no more. Though once she had served ladies at Zenobia's parties as a nymph with only a golden band around her middle, she sat down by her mistress one day like a mature, grown woman of experience. As she grasped Zenobia's cold, withered hands in her own trembling ones, she tried to explain the God of Joseph, as far as she had come to know Him.
Failing to find the right words, she only succeeded in alarming Zenobia and left off. Yet something new in Assah's manner must have spoken to the mad woman, for she no longer asked for the moon-god's image or attempted to pray to it. Instead, she lay quietly for long periods, her eyes alertly open and seemingly aware of something beyond her closed rooms.
One day the maid came in and found Zenobia gone. In a panic the maid rushed out to find the steward, afraid of the worst and that her mistress had done away with herself in the canal or was lost wandering somewhere in the capital. The cruel and odious Tep-dut-we was as usual snoring on his dais on the back terrace, but the maid caught sight, off to one side of the garden, of a movement amidst a grove of overgrown and unharvested apple-gourds. Pushing aside the branches, the maid struggled through the undergrowth of thick weeds and trash and found her mistress. She was sitting on the ground, smiling as if she had played a grand and glorious joke on everyone. The maid was so relieved she forgot herself. "What a silly goose you are!" she exclaimed to Zenobia. "You frightened me almost to death running off like that!"
Zenobia did not seem to notice Assah's presumption. "I was trying to find Joseph," she said, her first words in many weeks. "I wanted to tell him my secret."
The maid drew Zenobia to her feet, and together they returned to the house. The incident was reported shortly afterwards, but the steward made no inquiry. When he was not castigating the servants and sleeping and eating, he was doctoring the accounts and was too busy to answer to petty concerns of slave girls.
It was Zenobia who brought it up again. "Do you want to know what I was going to tell him?" she asked Assah one day, a sly look creeping into her face. The maid waited. Zenobia suddenly burst out, "Because I was wrong. I harmed him, and I was wrong." Here the sly look disappeared, and was replaced by utter desolation. "I have prayed to his invisible God," she continued, “the One who kept my husband’s sword from slaying him.” Tears began welling in her eyes, draining down the furrows in her cheeks. "I have called on His Name, as I heard Joseph do many times. I have--" Zenobia lost the power of speech, or the line of thought. Her face clouded over in the old way.
And Assah sighed, frustrated with her glimpse of a change in her mistress she somehow knew was the groping of a blind thing grasping for light. It was the horror of knowing a similar experience and not being able to help, that was overwelming to the maid. She would sit, however, rocking Zenobia's frail, bent form in her arms. Why she did not passionately hate the woman who had wronged her so badly, she did not know. Perhaps the breaking of the gold harp had begun the process. Somehow her heart had been changed, and bitterness toward Lady Zenobia had disappeared.
Yet Assah herself despaired after an initial joy in her newborn belief. "If I only knew Joseph’s God better!” she cried to herself. All she wanted was to be of help to her mistress, yet she knew herself powerless. Daily, in the face of Zenobia’s grief, Assah realized how grossly ignorant she was of the God who could allow so much evil to happen to His servant yet bless him amidst disgrace and prison. Mizraim’s gods, in comparison, made wonderful sense. Joseph’s God? He was more inscrutable mystery than she could handle, though she realized that wasn’t necessarily a fault.
Joseph was in prison, but she knew it was otherwise well with Joseph because a report had come to all the household of Potiphar. Wonderful and fearful, the word of Joseph's condition struck every heart with its implications. Joseph was not dead but flourishing; moreover, instead of becoming bitter and morose over the unjust way he had been treated he was seen and heard praising his Most High God while still in the dungeon of Potiphar! <> Now Assah and all the servants knew Joseph was completely guiltless. With them his integrity was never in any question. That is why they all regarded their mistress as dead, for she had mortally offended Ma’at, the divine order. After all, the mistress herself had confessed. “Joseph never wronged me,” Zenobia declared openly one day. If she had only taken her pleasure with a servant and not sought to destroy him, no judgment would have fallen on her. Many noblewomen did such things and people thought nothing of it. But she had turned on him--a servant who had no power to save himself from her--and ruined him. For that Ma’at had no redemption, only condemnation. And everybody in the land knew it. No kirbet of wise elders was required.
Potiphar roused himself at the good report from the prison, though last to hear of it; and he stumbled half-drunk from the house, took a chariot and went to see for himself. As for his wife’s statement, no one dared tell him after what he had done to Joseph. Unlike his wife, Potiphar was not judged and condemned for his actions, since he had done what a husband, in defence of his honor, was obliged to do in the circumstances. Just the same, no one wanted to be his gainsayer, waking the man’s conscience to the true folly of his deeds.
Yet, even without the gainsayer, his eyes were open. Returning to the house, Potiphar took a first sober look at its shocking condition, the rotting zarah fields and unkempt gardens and dying trees and stagnant pools. Only the Tree of Heaven, set in the midst of the kitchen garden, flourished in spite of the neglect and was sending up small trees everywhere from its roots. Roused to fury, Potiphar had the steward awakened from a drunken sleep and dragged out before him.
Infuriated, forgetting his steward was a mirror image of his own example, he might have slain Tep-dut-we with his own sword. Yet Joseph’s presence again made itself felt. Unsure of his own rectitude, Potiphar relented a bit. He sent the overseer stripped of his fine clothes to the fields as a common laborer, where his victims fell upon him, stuffed his mouth with dirt and weeds and and thrashed him with the handles of hoes and rakes.
Instead of risking another incompetent, earned by his wine-clouded judgment, Potiphar asked the household servants to suggest one of their number, one with the most knowledge of Joseph's God and His mysterious ways. Resoundingly, they agreed that Potiphar could only be referring to Ramoseh, the former thief who had changed his heart and life in the sight of them all.
The chosen came forward bowing, wearing a cheerful expression that was neither obsequious nor forward. Potiphar only glanced at him, but he knew he was at last in good hands. He handed him Joseph's staff and alabaster writing palette and retired to his quarters with great relief. After his visit with Joseph in prison, Potiphar, indeed, had much to think about in private. For the first time he sat for over an hour without his silver wine cup in hand. He was even thinking of giving it to Joseph. After all, he knew they were extremely valuable for ink-drop divination--and Joseph might need it sometime.
In the days ahead he was given more food for thought, as Zenobia changed and grew better, gradually regaining degrees of her former regality and fine appearance as she called for maids to dress her hair and limbs. She too had heard the good news coming from Potiphar's prison. Somehow tremendous guilt, like coils of iron chain, dropped from her, link by link, and her released spirit began to spread its wings.
Not only did they reveal a questing and insightful mind, but it was clear to Wally that the NRA missed badly in not hiring him. A man like Hantsbo, who had the instincts of a ferret, would not fail to track down his serpentine quarry, given time--even if all odds were against him.
The fact he had gotten as far as he did on his own slender resources proved he would have made a master agent. His checklist, for instance, was excellent. In no position to fly into the Atlantean command room and see for himself, he found Hantsbo’s questions shedding considerable light on what he knew he would soon have to face.
As he was embroiled in this new war theater, he knew it was unwise to forget the trenches below, particularly those filled with Hebrews--or Jacob’s erring sons.
>p? Nevertheless, even without Jacob’s blessing, the marriage had proved fruitful and happy. Judah was well pleased with himself, his wife, and his healthy little boys. Of course, their mother delayed their circumcisions (and Judah could not bring himself to take a knife to them against her will). She also insisted on teaching them certain Ken’anite ways and gods.
That Judah did not like. But when they were grown Judah determined to teach them about the Most High god and perhaps persuade them to be covenanted. Then all would be well!
In the meantime, he enjoyed his new life among the friendly, easy-going Adullamites and Ken’anites (with a Hittite or two) of Chezib. His flocks throve on the good pastures. He also took to raising swine, for carob trees flourished in the neighborhood, supplying plenty of free pig food, and the stream never really ran dry, even in the occasional droughts. It was spring-fed, excellent to the taste (that is, when you could keep the pigs out).
The years of Judah’s new life had passed in quick succession. Judah almost forgot Hebron and his former existence. Forceful in personality, he became the natural leader of the village, with Hireh remaining as a titular headman. Together, they wielded authority over the happy little community of mostly kinsfolk, and everyone bowed to their decisions whenever landmarks were installed on new property or taken down as sometimes happened when Judah expanded his holdings.
Sometimes a little cloud seemed to darken even these bright days, however. Then Judah’s forehead would furrow as he sat in the shade of his fig during the heat of the day and watched his sons run and sport with the other uncircumcised Ken’anite children. Judah could not speak Ken’anite as well as his sons, and he knew they took sly advantage of him with their superior command of the mother tongue. If he wanted them to do something, as they were growing up, they often succeeded in doing something else instead, then twisting the affair to their advantage when he tried to reprimand them.
They were not easy to manage, so he left them to their mother; yet she was Ken’anite too and did not see things his way very often. He had tried to teach them a little Hebrew, but they soon forgot even to greet him in the proper way, blessing him instead in the name of a Ken’anite abomination.
He made the mistake of complaining to Rizpah. More sure of her place than he was of his, she would not hear of it. “You should not disparage my people’s ways and gods,” she admonished him when he grumbled at his sons’ careless behavior and lack of respect. “Our deities are much older than yours. This is their country since Lord Chillelu went into Hibishu and cast his seed on stones in the field and made men, women, and children spring up thick as barley. So certainly we his people know what is best for the fertility of the land. Do not things go better for you here than where you came from? So why trouble yourself unnecessarily?”
Judah had to agree. Things had gone better for him in Chezib, to the point there was no comparison with Hebron. Whenever he entertained doubts, he had only to look around at his fat, sleek children and his over-flowing larders. The woman, though she was no Rachel after all and quickly lost her bloom in bearing sons, was right. Yet he had certain nagging thoughts about the whole business, in spite of what his eyes and full belly said to him. After enjoying his wife’s embraces, he would toss on his bed at night, unable to sleep and think about such things as his brother Joseph.
Now that the distasteful event was so far in the past, he could safely admit to himself that it was greed that initiated the entire affair. Because of Jacob’s blind favoritism and Reuben’s playing the frantic jackass with Bilhah, young Joseph was destined to inherit the lion’s share of Jacob’s huge flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle--not to mention the chests of fine things and all the gold and silver.
Everyone could see that the favorite in his pretty robe would inherit not only his own share but poor Reuben’s share and his birthright share as well. They all knew Abba Jacob was merely biding time before he gave his patriarchal blessings and bestowed his goods on everyone but Reuben. No wonder Reuben went about so long of face and did everything he could think of to win back his father’s favor.
The pretty-faced dreamer with the many-colored robe of red, blue, and gold--a long garment with impossibly lengthened sleeves as useless as his dreams--was a sight to see! How they hated him when he paraded about in that fine garment, watching their every movement so he could report any offense back to Father Jacob, thereby raising his own stature at their expense. So they thought at the time.
Yet as Judah lay sleepless on his bed while Shua’s daughter slept soundly the night long, he knew it was not so much Joseph’s behavor toward them but the grim possibility he was going to get a double inheritance that included the chieftanship that incited them to throw him down the well of Dothan.
Deep and dark, full of dead men’s bones and writhing with snakes, it gave him the chills even now! They had finally got rid of the silly dreamer, most cleverly, by selling him a slave down to Mizraim. Wasn’t that clever of them? They made twenty silver pieces on the deal! But Judah could not rest, though it was his plan that at least saved Joseph’s life. Admittedly, Rueben had persuaded them not to slay Joseph outright but cast him in the well. But he, Judah, spared Joseph’s life from a sure and agonizing death in the dry well by drawing him up and selling him to the Ishmaelite caravaneers.
Why then couldn’t he sleep if he had thus saved the dreamer’s life? That way they secured Joseph’s inheritance without shedding his blood. Judah had congratulated himself for a nimble mind at the time, but years afterwards he twisted on his bed in Chezib. He couldn’t help think about the shabby way they haggled with the old, long-nosed Ishmaelite over the price of Joseph. Simeon was the worst, of course! He was still shamelessly holding out for not twenty but fifty silver pieces when he, Judah, had to intervene and make him take twenty instead.
Outside the window at that moment a pig or he-goat grunted, giving Judah such a jolt his eyes shot wide open. He stared into the darkness but he saw a face and a robe. He would never forget the look on Abba Jacob’s face when he was presented with Joseph’s robe, artfully slashed and drenched with lamb’s blood to make the father imagine the worst. When they boldly asked their father whether it was Joseph’s robe or not, Jacob’s writhing, protesting face went ashen and slack, and his mouth gaped and he began tearing at his beard with his hand as if it tear it out. Finally he conceded, “Yes, it is my son’s robe. A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces! Ai ai ai!”
The images faded before Judah’s rigid eyes. He cursed when he recalled how he joined his brothers in mourning Joseph in Jacob’s tent. It would have looked strange if they had not done so, of course. But how he hated the naked lie of it! The others did not seem to mind, and from Simeon on down made all the necessary grimaces and even shed what looked like tears for Joseph, moaning that they had lost a most precious brother and vowing they would surely search out the wicked wild beast from its hiding place and destroy it without mercy. But of course they never tried any such thing. Even the blood-guilty can stomach only so much falsehood.
“Why are you so restless, Ishi?” Rizpah murmured, awakened by Judah’s tossings and kicks.
“I cannot sleep, beloved,” he said, reaching to caress her. “A carob tree branch is rattling against the house in the wind. Do you not hear the beans roll back and forth, back and forth, in the hollow pods. And those goats and pigs don’t help either!”
“Oh,” she said sleepily, and turned over to snore again.
The fourthborn lay awake even after that, going through the entire affair of Joseph as he had done countless times. He could never stop, once he had begun the doleful cycle. He recalled his father’s dreadful words after he began mourning the death of Joseph. When they falsely tried to comfort him, he said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” And then he would weep bitterly, for hours on end.
Judah bit his lip and tried to direct his thoughts away from that weeping old man. But the ruin of his father haunted Leah’s son, all through the night, night after night. Judah wondered at times why he had not got sick of the lie and gone to his father, confessing all. Maybe they could have sent to Mizraim and got Joseph back. But, no, Judah knew even then Joseph was gone for good. From what he had heard, mighty Mizraim was a very large place, a world of great kings and multitudes of people living in very big, brick and stone-tented cities. Joseph would never be found, though they spent the rest of their lives looking. And perhaps he was dead. Slaves were not considered men there, there were so many, and so probably he had already perished from ill-treatment. And if not dead, he might have been made an eunuch or something even worse, being so handsome in face and form.
Judah saw the first light of day began to dawn, as birds sang in joyful greeting. Mornings in Chezib were always fresh and beautiful, not like high and windy Hebron with its mountains and extremes of cold and heat. How he loved cheerful little Chezib! If only he could sleep!
With a groan, Judah got up and went out of the house to relieve himself and wash his face and tangled beard. Trying to avoid stepping into dung from pigs and goats, he went down to the stream to be by himself and revive in the peace and quiet of the early morning. Afterwards, he felt better and actually a little hungry for the first meal of the new day, so he went back to his house. He looked upon his growing sons as his yawning wife scratched under her heavy breasts and sleelpily ministered to their wants, and was satisfied despite the hard night.
Later, as the day waned, Judah again sat under his fig resting from the day’s labors and concerns. Neighbors came by and talked with him at length about various trivialities of the village, and one by one went away. Then Judah saw certain of the young bloods of Chezib slipping away once their work was done. He knew where they were going. It was growing dark.
Judah shifted uncomfortably where he reclined on swineskins piled by a post of his house. He sat there intending to watch for the little foxes that sometimes stole into the yard to spoil his choice grapevines just when they were budding out with next harvest’s fruitage. Then he saw his sons Er and Onan slip out of the house and yard and join the other Ken’anite boys as they ran off through the vineyards and up along the stream toward Chezib’s “high place.”
“High places” were strictly for orgies and all sorts of abominations. Judah hated to see his sons go there and join in with the heathen. They practiced a vile cultic rite up there he had long known about (and could only look at a moment before turning away in disgust). The rite involved being smeared with pig ordure and blood-letting after a frenzied dance around Chillelu’s wooden fountain. Somehow it attracted the youth and a lot of the respectable adults--and now Er and Onan.
Fortunately, Shelah was yet too young to be drawn to such things. They called on the name of Chillelu and sang and danced naked before his abomination. It was actually a pillar no more than a cubit high, carved from wood of a carob tree--the same, no doubt, that fed the “sacred flame” that burned on the crude altar nearby, where mice, snakes, bats, and other unclean animals were killed, sacrificed on the altar, then eaten. Afterbirths of sheep and goats were in great favor too, though the supply was not so plentiful.
The son of Jacob knew his headstrong and hot-blooded sons were drawn to Chillelu, but he could not prevent them. So it was best to say nothing and keep peace with them and his wife. All he could hope was that he might find wives for them and marry Er and Onan off young before they drank too deeply of the strong wine of Chillelu. He must not risk their becoming his lifelong devotees. Then he would have no sons who could produce more offspring to his name, if they became priests or, worse, male cult-prostitutes...
But Judah could not entertain what would happen after that, it was yet more abominable. Immoralities commonly practiced and accepted among the Ken’anites and Adullamites were most base, but the desire of man for woman or even man for man was only natural compared to the things they brewed in a big, bronzen sea and communally drank. As a Hebrew, trained to know what was unclean and not to be touched in man, woman, and beast, he dared not even name the ingredients, which were much worse than animal afterbirths and miscarriages ! Yet such things were exactly what his friends and neighbors relished!
No, he simply couldn’t risk it! He would marry his sons as soon as possible, whether they liked it or not!