Naomi and Her Daughters
- Wednesday, September 01, 2010
He stood up, then took a stand on the bench. "I'm one of twelve who have been commanded to inform every tribe in Israel. This Levite, his wife — " the messenger grew stiff and emotionless. "The Levite's wife, whom you know as Milcah, was raped by the men of Gibeah. She is dead."
If dogs were skulking about the village square or goats running loose; if birds were fluttering in the dust, no one was aware of it. The sun sat down on its western ridge and reddened with regret.
So the Women of Bethlehem turned away and left the men behind them in the village square. They pulled the scarves from their heads and let the cloth fall in heaps.
Older women bared their breasts and began to beat them in a slow rhythm. Others donned black, climbed the stairs to the roofs of their houses, and lifted their voices in lamentation.
Rachel, weeping for her children.
While they wail above, one woman remains below. She has set her jaw, her chin thrust forward, her countenance hard-eyed and rigid. When she begins to move, the men make way for her. She kneels down. Tenderly she wraps Milcah's hand in her scarf. She rises and walks to the gate, to stone steps that take her to the watchman's room above.
Iron-eyed, she looks through the northern window. The wind begins to whirl her hair. She holds Milcah's hand, now respectfully clothed for burial, in both of hers and stretches it forth toward Gibeah. "Be not silent," she begins to sing in a level, deliberate rage:
Be not silent, God of my praise;
for the wicked and the deceitful
have assaulted her without cause.
They reward her goodness with evil
and her love with hatred.
The rest of the Women of Bethlehem hear a canticle of anger.
Naomi, they think, and they mute their miseries. For this is she. This is Bethlehem's Hakamah, whose song gives language to their bitterness.
Let their days be few —
Let others seize their goods —
Let their daughters be fatherless,
their wives made widows!
Let their sons be driven
from a city destroyed
into the countryside to tap with sticks
the rims of beggars' bowls!
Naomi has lived thirty-five years on these upland hills.
Sun and the unrelenting summers have scored her face with a thousand wrinkles. In repose her face is wreathed with the vines of kindness. But at this moment it is as severe and cracked as dry clay. Northward, even to Gibeah nine miles hence, the watchwoman of Bethlehem cries her curses:
Let no one — no one! — be kind to the
wives of the wicked
or pity their fatherless children.
Cut them off from the earth, O Lord!
Blot out their names by the second generation —
For they did not remember mercy.
They took the gentle Milcah
and broke her soul to death
The sun has concealed itself behind the farther ridge, spreading a fire of shame across the pillars of heaven. The hilltops grow ashen.
Naomi is a Mother in Israel, a Hakamah, the teller of the tales of Israel's past. She sings songs that name her people's bewilderment, songs to give order to the wild complexities of their existence, songs to collect their mute emotions into a spear of cursings or the milk of blessing.
Mine is an outcry against Gibeah. Come, O Lord, and judge the truth of my outcry. Send your angels. Send angels to destroy the wicked city.
Long into the darkness Naomi keeps watch over Bethlehem.
Finally, at midnight, she descends the stone steps and departs through the village gate and walks by memory the road to Rachel's tomb a mile northward. There she scoops out a dusty hole. Into its bed she places Milcah's hand, and prays.
But this is only one piece of her daughter. There are eleven more scattered throughout Israel, and who will love her well enough to bury those? What man could sever the corpse of his wife, even if for signs to alert the tribes of Israel?
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