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A Present Rage

A cry is heard in Judah, lamentation and bitter weeping.

The Women of Bethlehem are weeping for their daughter and refusing to be consoled because she is no more.

Four hundred women in black robes stand on rooftops.

They tear their hair. They stretch their arms wide under heaven. They throw back their heads and whirl, robes billowing.

"Milcah!" they howl, wolves keening on the air.

"Milcah!"

Milcah of the white hands, sixteen years old, the young wife whose cheeks they kissed not three days ago and unto whom they waved farewell as she departed with her husband for his home in Ephraim — Milcah is no more.

She will never come home again.

Until the evening meal this had been an unremarkable day. By midafternoon the women were preparing for supper by grinding grain in their handmills — producing the genial sound of a village at work. Children small enough still to be playing in the lanes began to smell barley cakes baking. Time to twaddle home. As the sun descended and shadows grew too long for labor, the farmers came back through the gate. They paused in the public square to discuss the date harvest — difficult because the palms grew far down great escarpments near the shores of the Salt Sea.

Just before they separated, while each farmer turned to his house, a man came sprinting into town. He fell to his knees and gasped for air.

He wore a loincloth only. He had the long, ropy muscles of a distance runner. He carried the leather envelope of a messenger. It went spinning across the ground with the force of his fall. His hair was stuck to his forehead with sweat.

The farmers formed a ring around the man.

One of them shouted toward a near house: "Miriam! Bring water!"

The urgency of his voice and the hubbub in the square drew wives and mothers out of doors. The small children jumped up on bench-backs in order to see. It isn't often that events break the easy routines of Bethlehem.

"A full skin of water!" The farmer squatted beside the messenger. "Take your time," he said. He helped the breathless fellow to a stone bench, then sat down beside him.

Miriam arrived. "Salmon," she said and handed a goat's bladder to her husband. Peering around the woman's skirts was a wide-eyed little girl, winding long hair around a forefinger.

"Papa?"

Salmon tipped the messenger's head back and squirted a stream of water into his mouth. The poor fellow's eyes were red with September dust and salt sweat. Salmon poured water over the messenger's head, moistened the edge of his own tunic and washed the runner's eyes.

"Can you speak?"

The runner nodded, then croaked, "Yes." He paused a moment, then said, "A Levite . . ."

"Take your time."

"A Levite . . ."

At the same time a tall man bent down, picked up the messenger's leather envelope and began to open its flap.

The messenger yelled, "No! Don't do that!"

Salmon looked up. "Boaz," he snapped. "Stop!"

Boaz showed no intention of stopping. He opened the envelope altogether. Everyone was watching him now. He glanced in. He shuddered and tipped the bag over and out fell a human hand.

Immediately Miriam grabbed her child and hurried away.

Men grew solemn; some of the women covered their mouths. Some stepped closer, disbelieving.

Yes. (Oh, Lord God!) It was a human hand chopped clean off above the wrist, its skin as white and as dry as ivory. The hand was loosely fisted. Two bones showed in the chop, the marrows shrunk into pits.

"Put it down," Salmon commanded. "Put it down!"

Boaz had regained his insouciance. "Shouldn't we burn it?" he grinned. "As an offering?"

The messenger raised his voice. "A Levite from Ephraim sent me to Judah and especially — " He stopped and swallowed. "Especially to Bethlehem," he said, and more softly, "to you. One of your daughters has perished."

A perfect silence fell on the village. Even the children who could not understand his words began to suffer their parents' distress.

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?

Has such a thing ever happened in this land, since the days we came out of Egypt?

By his messengers the Levite cries out: Behold, people of Israel, all of you, give your advice and counsel here.

Which is to say: "To your tents, O Israel!"

 

Copyright © 2010 by Walter Wangerin, Jr. and/or Ruthanne M. Wangerin as Trustee of Trust No. 1.
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Walter Wangerin Jr. is widely recognized as one of the most gifted writers writing today on the issues of faith and spirituality. Starting with the renowned Book of the Dun Cow, Wangerin's writing career has encompassed most every genre: fiction, essay, short story, children's story, meditation, and biblical exposition. The author of over forty books, Wangerin has won the National Book Award, New York Times Best Children's Book of the Year Award, and several Gold Medallions, including best-fiction awards for both The Book of God and Paul: A Novel.  For more information, please visit www.walterwangerinjr.org.