EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Day of War by Cliff Graham (Zondervan).
The young man studied the bed of the creek through the sunlit ripples. It was cold water, carried from the snowmelt further to the north, cleansing the valley of winter — and shallow enough that he could see the gentle nudge of the stream against the stones.
He pulled one of the stones out of the bed and rubbed it dry with the edge of his tunic. It was perfectly round, just the right size, andsmooth, free of divots and blemishes. Perfect, as though it had been created simply to be there waiting for him.
He chose five of them.
He stood in the cold water, so soothing to his feet after walking the entire day. His back was stiff from the pack he carried, and the chafing of his sandals on his ankles was worse than normal after such a journey. He let his feet soak in the icy stream and closed his eyes, listening.
The rugged gulley cut by the stream was deep enough to shield him from the many eyes that watched for him, from behind and from the front. They would be waiting, and his time was short. He opened his eyes and looked at the crest of the bank on the other side of the brook. It would begin soon.
The mud of the riverbed covered his feet as he stepped through it. On the other side, he stood at the foot of the bank of sand and gravel. A few steps and he would crest it, coming into full view once again of the gathered masses of men on the rolling hills lining the valley. He felt their enormous presence, felt the lust for death permeating their ranks.
His breathing was shallow as he counted out his timing once more. Swing, measure, swing, measure again. Three times, then release.
He had seen five of them. The one in the field below, four more behind him in the ranks. They might be brothers. All were as massive as the one now shouting in the field.
The young man blinked. None of his own brothers had come down with him. They had responsibilities, were valuable to their father. They had not cared enough about his fate to stand with him. And they had never known the covering.
Today he would show it to them.
Holding his staff over his shoulder, he began to climb up the sandy bank from the creek. The sun was directly overhead and his shadow was small. He spoke quietly as he climbed, praying as though someone climbing next to him needed to hear it. He spoke aloud to himself often in times of peril and all throughout the days of peace.
He reached the top of the bank and the field came once more into view. Glittering ranks of men, wearing armor and bearing standards, lined the top of the valley around him, thousands upon thousands, and the sound of their shouting and taunting now reached him in full volume, no longer muffled by the sandbank. He had enjoyed the quiet while it lasted, but now it was time. He let the noise of the men he despised wash over him, focusing his growing anger. He clenched and unclenched his fists. A short distance away on a small outcropping of stones, highlighted against the barren slope leading up to the pagan army, the massive warrior stood with his weapons raised.
It was the largest figure any of them had ever seen, larger than two normal men. He carried a spear that looked as big as a tree. A curved scimitar, several times heavier than a normal sword, was strapped across the back of his heavy armor. He wore greaves to cover his shins, a plated armor breastplate, and a thick bronze helmet with a crest of horsehair billowing out of the top. Chain mail resembling fish scales covered his torso and glinted in the midday sunlight, shining so brightly that the young man glanced away for a moment.
The giant’s thick curses to the Hebrew god rung across the hazy field as the afternoon heat’s distortion gave him the appearance of an evil spirit. His armor bearer nearby looked like an infant next to the huge warrior.
Surely this was not a human, the young man thought. It had to be a monster. A monster from Sheol unleashed as punishment to the young man’s people for forsaking their God. He breathed slowly to push away the fear as it surfaced. He whispered in prayer once more.
The giant continued to taunt him, so the young man taunted him back. The giant was smiling broadly, his black beard spilling out of the opening in his helmet. He repeated his dark curses louder, raising his spear even higher to keep his army cheering.
Now, slowly, the younger man felt his fear seeping away as the covering came. He smiled at the champion, who still did not realize what he was facing.
They would all see soon enough.
He tossed his staff to the ground and pulled taut the sling made of two ropes of goat hair attached to a leather pouch. He reached into the small hide bag at his waist as the war drums of the army across the valley pounded out the summons to watch the contest.
Both kings wanted their men ready if the other side’s fighter lost in order to exploit the advantage. Neither side trusted the other’s promise to depart if their champion lost.
The young man pulled out one of the stones from the creek bed and notched it into the leather strap at the base of the sling. His forefinger was calloused from drilling with the weapon. It had never failed him. It would not fail him now.
The drums increased in their frenzy. The enemy soldiers were screaming behind their iron weapons and expertly forged armor, clearly the superior force in strength and equipment to the poorly outfitted Hebrews cowering on the hillside behind him. Like a pack of hyenas, the enemy could smell the coming slaughter. The young man glared at them as they cursed his God. Rage rose in his heart.
And then he felt the fire.
It swelled in his chest first. Then it rushed in a torrent into his arms. His fingers twitched with crackling energy, and he felt as though his muscles would leap out of his flesh if they were not given release. His eyes clamped shut. Listening to the war drums pounding, he let the fire course through his skin and thought that he would burst with the rush of heat filling his body.
Soon the sound of the fire roaring in his ears blotted out the rest of his senses, and he felt nothing but the heat consuming him with greater intensity than he had ever known. His sling shook in his hands. The war drums hammered, the soldiers beat their swords against their shields in time with the drums, and he heard the mass of voices shouting at him.
He opened his eyes. The monster had charged past his armor bearer and was running toward him in leaping strides, covering ten cubits with each bound, his armor bearer struggling to keep up. The young man shouted to relieve the tension, but it only made the fire in his body burn hotter. He found himself running as well and pulling the sling tight. The stone settled into the groove in the leather and he whirled it once through the air.
He slowed it.
He kept running and whirled it again, even though it was difficult to sling accurately while running. He wasn’t able to fight the fire.
He sped it up.
The giant was bearing down on him. There was no more time.
Swing . . . faster . . . aim!
He cried out, certain the fire would destroy him, but instead it drove him forward through the rocks. Dust flew. With a final burst, he released one of the ropes, sending the stone whistling though the air, and as it flew toward the black form of the warrior, the young man whispered in his spirit: Cover me in the day of war.
A powerful race known as the Philistines, or “Sea People,” dominate the lands along the coast of the Great Sea. They are superior technologically and militarily in every way to the scattered tribes of Israelites who inhabit the mountains inland, primarily due to their mastery of the forging of iron, something of which the Israelites have little knowledge.
Saul, the first king of a united Israelite nation, and a tormented and troubled man, has nevertheless managed to keep the Philistines at bay for forty years. His brave son, Jonathan, is the crown prince. The two of them are encamped in the Jezreel Valley in the northern part of the kingdom, where the Philistine kings have united in an invasion attempt. It is the largest force yet assembled against the Israelites, and they have little hope that their army will prevail.
One of Saul’s former commanders — David, a close friend of Jonathan’s — has gathered and trained a personal army of outcasts and mercenaries after losing his position in the Israelite army, despite being the nation’s greatest champion, for crimes he didn’t commit. Rumors have spread throughout the kingdom for years that David was chosen as a boy by Samuel the prophet to be king after Saul one day. Fearing that the rumors are true, Saul has hunted him relentlessly for years, consumed with jealousy at David’s unique abilities (which some say are bestowed by Israel’s God, Yahweh) and with hatred for imagined treason. In desperation, David offered his services to Achish, the king of the Philistine capital of Gath. His most loyal warriors came with him, led by a mysterious group of fighters known as the Three.
News of David’s apparent defection has divided the Israelite population. Those of the tribe of Judah, Israel’s largest tribe, believe he is secretly fighting on their behalf, while those in the northern tribes view him as a traitor, regardless of how Saul has mistreated him.
But David has not been fighting for the Philistines. Rather, he has been raiding the towns and settlements of the Amalekites in an attempt to secure the southern borders. He has been sending plunder to Achish to make it appear that David has turned on his people, but secretly he has also been sending it as tribute to the Israelite tribal elders. Through David’s efforts, the Amalekites, among the oldest and most vicious enemies of the Israelites, have been subdued.
Now David marches north with his band of warriors alongside the Philistines. Many of his own men argue among themselves about marching against their kinsmen on behalf of their enemy. They wonder what will happen if David actually has to face Saul on the field of battle.
To foster goodwill among his people while continuing his deception of the Philistines, David dispatches a warrior, Benaiah, to a small town high in the southern mountains that has been ravaged by wild predators. David orders Benaiah to meet up with the army in the north when his task is finished.
It is the spring month of Aviv, the first of the campaign season. The weather has been unusually cold for that time of year.
Day of War
Copyright © 2011 by Cliff Graham
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