The Archer of Paran
The Wilderness of Paran was a wild place. Bounded on three sides by mountains some 4000 feet high, its limestone tableland reached upward some 2000 to 2,500 feet. Consisting of rolling, gravelly plains it was graced with only a few springs of mostly impure water. The Wady el Arish " River of Egypt " also flowed through it, but it was dry most of the year. It was no wonder that, molded by this environment, Ishmael, Abram's first-born son, whom Hagar had birthed at the whim of her long barren mistress, Sara, Abram's wife, developed into the "wild man" predicted by the angel. When finally, through an apparent miracle, Sara did bear Abram a son, in a fit of jealous rage against Ishmael, she demanded that Abram drive Hagar and her son into the desert. "Ishmael shall not share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. Drive out Hagar and her son!" she announced. Abram reluctantly did so, banishing them, with some water and food, into the Wilderness of Paran. When the water ran out, Ishmael almost died of thirst. His rescue came when an angelic being directed Hagar a source of water.
On that harsh wilderness playground, Ishmael honed his archery skills, developing into an archer who could launch an arrow unerringly into his prey from a great distance. He was one who lived for the hunt. As a result, he and his mother never lacked for meat. What they did not consume, they traded to the frequent caravans that traversed the desert routes. Life for them was lonely, but endurable. However, Hagar eventually noticed that Ishmael no longer hunted as frequently as he once did. As she mulled the problem, she arrived at a solution.
"My son, you are a man now and a man needs a wife. You must marry. I shall arrange for you to take a wife from among the Egyptians, because they are my people."
"But there are many tribes not far from here like those of my father, Abram. Their women know how to exist in the desert. The Egyptians do not. They would parish."
"Have we perished? Am I not also a woman of Egypt? Who was it that brought you into manhood?"
Ishmael lowered his head, giving no response.
"I ask one more thing, Ishmael, my son. I have never told this before. After I conceived you, my mistress, Sarah, beat me so badly that I ran away into the desert. I was resting at a water spring and an angel found me. He asked me what I was doing there and I told him. He said for me to return to Sarah and obey her.
"This angel promised that the number of my descendants would be so great that no one will be able to count them. He also told me that I would bare a son. He said your name would be "Ishmael." Then he said something I never understood until now."
"What is that, Mother?"
Hagar took on a pensive look. "He said that you would be a wild man and your hand will be against every man and every man's hand will be against you. And you will dwell in the presence of your brothers."
Astonishment played on Ishmael's features. There was a long silence before he spoke.
"Already, I am a wild man. And according to what you have told me, I also shall be a man without friends " a man who has only enemies!"
"What is her name, Mother?"
"Have you no tongue, girl? Speak! Tell your husband how you are called!"
"I am called Aseneth, daughter of Potipherah." The girl spoke without fear.
"Her father, Potipherah, was a soldier in the armies of Egypt. He was killed in battle and her mother sold her in the slave market. I bought her as your wife."
Ishmael seemed dubious. "She is beautiful and unafraid, but can she endure the wilderness? She appears so delicate."
"Your mother has said that I am your wife, but I know that in truth, I am your slave. Though I did not choose to be here, I shall survive this place," Aseneth haughtily replied.
"Have a care how you speak to your husband, girl." Hagar made as if to slap Aseneth, but Ishmael prevented it.
"You shall not attempt to escape from us?"
"Where can I go? There is no place for me in Egypt. My father is dead. My mother sold me as a slave. There is no place for me, but here."
Ishmael took Aseneth's hands in his. "Then know that I, Ishmael, promise to treat you with only tenderness and love. I shall be your protector and provider."
Aseneth's features softened into a smile and Ishmael continued, "You shall call me your husband and I shall call you my wife. Hagar you shall call, "mother," and she shall call you "daughter." You shall treat her with love and she shall treat you the same."
"Yes, I shall treat her so if she is a good wife to you, but if she is not, I shall beat her with a stick!"
"Then you shall not beat me at all, for I shall be a good wife to your son and a true daughter to you."
Now it was Hagar's features that softened. Moving to Aseneth, she embraced and kissed her.
"Come, my daughter, it is time for us to cook a meal."
Hagar and Aseneth bonded into s true mother-daughter relationship. As the decades passed, Hagar had the joy of serving as the midwife for the birth of her first four grandsons. Yet, with the weight of her nomadic existence and the passing years pressing heavily on her, she finally responded to the summons of death. According to her wish, with great pomp and ceremony, she was buried by Ishmael in an Egyptian tomb. Having now given Ishmael twelve sons, Aseneth also was feeling the pressures of their wandering existence.
"My husband, when I first came to you, you promised to be a good husband to me. You have indeed loved me, as I have loved you. I have borne you twelve warrior sons."
"Yes, you have given me many sons. They are superb horsemen and camel riders, who are now the lords of the desert. Because of them and their riders, we are paid tribute by all the caravans that pass through our lands. When those who travel see our black tents, they know who we are. Even the armies of pharaoh fear us."
"Yes, my husband, you and our sons have made us rich beyond our dreams. Yet, we are growing old. I have grown tired of wandering. Can we not now remain settled in one place until we die?"
"I shall speak to our sons about that which you ask."
It was Nebajoth, Ishmael's firstborn, who responded to his father's question.
"Yes, Father, we have discussed it among ourselves. We have planned to each build a castle here in the desert. We shall construct them at a distance apart from each other. Thus, the entire desert shall be under our control. No one can pass through without paying tribute to us. You and mother may choose in whose castle you wish to live."
"We first shall have our men dig until we have twelve wells of water," added Kedar, the next oldest, "Then we each shall build our castle near one well. Once I have the water, I shall have my men gather many desert sheep into folds."
"But what will they eat? There is no grass in the desert," his father asked.
"Once I have water, my castle will be like an oasis. Then I shall dig many wells and my will men grow food for the sheep to eat."
"When the angel spoke to my mother in the desert, she found a well of water there, but that was long ago. I have not found many other wells since then, but I have heard that your Uncle Isaac dug wells for his flocks to drink. Each time he did so, others came and drove him away form his well and used them for themselves."
"Our Uncle Isaac should have fought for what was his own," Kedemah, the youngest son, responded.
"That is true, but my brother is a peaceable man. He will not fight. He finally dug a well that remained his own."
"I shall kill any who seek to take the wells we dig."
The threat was voiced by Massa, who most resembled his father in appearance and temperament. The others grunted their agreement.
"Well, I suppose if one digs deep enough there will be water, but who can dig that deep?"
"Our men will do so, or they will die!" Massa responded.
"If the task is impossible, you still would kill your men for not doing it?" asked his brother, Tema.
"My men will obey me or they will die!"
"For not doing what no one else can do, even yourself?!"
"I am their chief: they must do as I command! If I command them to dig until they find water, they must do so!"
Noticing Massa's anger mounting, Nebajoth changed the topic.
"Our father and mother desire to remain in one place. They are tired of wandering in the desert!" he said to the others. "Since I am the oldest, they shall dwell with me in my camp. Do we all agree?"
He received eleven affirmative answers.
Zephan, Supreme Commander of the Egyptian military forces, was kneeling face to the pavement before his furious king, Pharaoh-rams.
"Lift your eyes, worthless one! On your knees! Look upon me!"
Leaning forward on his dais, Pharaoh-rams fixed Zephan with a probing glare. "Why do you not protect the caravans that pass through the desert? All who travel to and from Egypt suffer attacks by desert bandits! Our land grows poor because them!"
The commander's features twitched in anguish; his voice quivered. "My great pharaoh, these are not mere bandits who attack our caravans. The wild man, Ishmael, and his twelve sons have gathered many desert tribes into a mighty confederation."
"And what does this mean for Egypt?"
Zephan's voice now took on its natural deepness. "Ishmael is molding the tribes into an army, oh mighty pharaoh. The desert chiefs of the Wilderness of Paran acknowledge him as their supreme chief. They now call themselves, "The Ishmaelite Confederacy." They consider all who pass through the desert as their enemies. It is reported that they look upon the desert as their home-land. Only their own may pass safely through the Wilderness of Paran. No other is safe from attack. They kill the men and take all. If there are women with the caravans, they sell as slaves."
"Is that not your task guard the caravans? Send troops into the desert to kill these marauders! Eliminate their black tents!"
"I have sent many troops, sire, but Ishmael and his bands vanquish them all and then vanish into the desert. Even the Rephaim in the highlands of Bashan, fear them, as do also the Amorites and the other nations. I have received reports that the twelve sons of Ishmael no longer dwell in black tents, as do their followers, sire. Each is building a castle in a strategic location to make permanent their rule over Paran."
Pharaoh-rams brow shot up in surprise. "Even the Rephaim, with their great height and strength, fear the confederacy of Ishmael?!"
"Yes, my pharaoh, they now refuse to leave their homes in the mountains, fearing that Ishmael and his hoards will attack their families while they are gone. Though they will defend their mountains, it is reported that they do not think they can gain victory over Ishmael's confederacy."
Pharaoh-rams pounded the arm of his throne. His eyes narrowed with distain. "Then I swear on the heads of my ancestors that I shall eliminate this scourge of the desert!" With a terrible resolve, he added, "I, myself, shall lead the army into battle against Ishmael and his sons and their confederacy. When I capture these desert rats, I shall flay the skin from their bodies while they still live!"
Though the construction of the castles was not yet completed, enough of the work had been done to make them livable. For more than three long years, it seemed to the exhausted laborers that every stone, from pebbles to boulders had been dragged in from the desert by camels, horses and men. A deep, dry mote surrounded each edifice, and dotting the vast areas between the motes and the castles were sheepfolds, stalls for camels and horses, and the black tents of The Ishmaelite Confederacy. Recently dug wells also occupied the space. Despite the motes, they were guarded by patrols armed with scimitars and spears. Today had dawned no differently than those previous. After the coolness of the night, the blistering heat of the sun dominated the desert, yet those within the castles still enjoyed the residual coolness of the walls.
It was one of Nebajoth's outlooks who first blew the ram's horn battle alarm and then shouted, "Battle alarm! Battle alarm! An army of riders approach! Battle alarm!"
While Nebajoth and his riders armed themselves and mounted their steeds, the battle alarm was relayed to the other castles, whose warriors also prepared for combat. It did not take long before the twelve companies converged into a unified army under the command of their twelve princes, with Ishmael as their general. At his signal, the mote bridges were lowered. When the army crossed they were raised again.
Resplendent in his combat attire, mounted on his white battle stallion, King Pharaoh-rams waited next to Supreme Commander Zephan, also geared for battle. Already the desert sun was taking its toll upon their warriors; after succumbing to the heat, many had to be kicked to their feet again by their superiors. The king's tasted for battle now waning, he was having second thoughts. Across the sands, they could see the banners of The Ishmaelite Confederacy moving toward them.
"Our men and horses are not trained to fight in the desert, Zephan. Without our chariots and much water, we are at a disadvantage. The Ishmaelite Confederacy is trained for desert battles. They seem able to find water where no one else can."
"True, sire, we did not take our chariots because they would serve no purpose here in the desert. Their wheels would sink into the sands and the horses would not be able to pull them over the dunes. We have some water, for I commanded the army to carry water on camels."
"But, is it enough for all of our troops and animals in such heat as this?"
Zephan appeared dubious. "It will depend on how long the battle lasts, sire."
There was a long pause, after which Pharaoh-rams summoned a high-ranking officer, who approached and saluted.
"Carry a flag of truce and ride with me and the Supreme Commander toward the lines of the Ishmaelites."
Both officers gawked at their king with alarm.
"You dogs! Do as I have commanded. Make a flag of truce!"
White flag lifted high, the three slowly rode toward the confederacy lines. At the center of no man's land, they reigned in and waited. The wait was a short one, for soon they saw an equivalent number of riders, two mounted on camels, the center rider on horseback. Attired in the robes of desert dwellers, upon reaching the Egyptians, they also reigned in.
For a moment, both parties gazed silently at each other. The Ishmaelites each had their features covered by white cloths reaching from just below the eyes to the necklines of their robes. The aura of mystery this lent them, made the king uneasy.
"I am Pharaoh-rams, king of Egypt. This is Supreme Commander Zephan of the Egyptian forces."
"We know who you are," responded the Ishmaelite horseman, "Why have you entered our land with your army? Do you not know that the desert belongs to us? We do not enter your land, yet you invade ours!" The speaker's eyes were filled with dark portents.
"Are you he who is called Ishmael?" Zephan inquired.
"I am Ishmael, ruler of the desert tribes. He on my right hand is Nebajoth, my oldest son, who also commands a large company of my warriors. He on my left hand is my son, Adbeel, another of my sons. He, too, commands a large company of warriors, as do all my sons, who are known among the desert dweller as the twelve princes of Ishmael. Each rules over part of this desert land. From their childhood, they have been trained as warriors as are all the men of The Ishmaelite Confederacy.
"I asked you why you invade our land, but you do not respond. Why is this?"
"You say that I invade your land, but the desert belongs to no man. All may travel through it. This is why we have come," responded Pharaoh-rams "You capture our caravans. You kill all the men and take all the good. If there are women, you sell them as slaves. Egypt grows poor because of you."
"Do not speak to me of those we sell as slaves, Pharaoh-rams. Though Hagar, my mother, was an Egyptian, the Egyptians sold her as a slave to Abram, my father. In my youth he than sent us into this desert to die of thirst, for no wrong that we did. But I remain alive. The desert is now our land. We rule here!
"Like you, the caravans and traders that pass through here think the desert belongs to no one, but it is ours. Our castles are here, as are our families, and our herds and flocks. We have much water for we have for dug many wells, and we will fight to the death for what is ours. Even the Rephaim fear us and remain in their mountains. Learn from them, Pharaoh-rams. Return to Egypt while you still have life in you.
Ishmael's tone grew ominous. "You have often sent assassins to kill me, but they have never returned to you, yet I have not sought to kill you. Know that had I done so, they would not have failed, as we shall not fail to win this battle. You came to me under a flag of truce and you may depart from here without harm. Again, I say to you, return to Egypt while you still have life; if you do battle with us, you shall surely die by my hand!"
Despite the heat, Pharaoh-rams felt chills running playing along his spine and a cold fist closing over his heart. He realized it had been a mistake to make an attempt to move against this desert warrior. How could he back off and still save face?
"Our talk has ended, Pharaoh-rams. Return to your troops. I shall wait with my warriors until you attack us or turn toward Egypt. Heed my warning: decide to return to Egypt and enter our land no more!"
The Egyptians backed their steeds several feet, and then swung around and returned to their troops. They conferred among themselves, after which, Zephan again approached the Ishmaelites under the flag of truce.
This time, he placed a clenched right fist over his heart in salute to Ishmael, who did not respond.
In a voice edged with tension, he stated, "My king has sent me to report that we have not come to do battle against you, sire. Our purpose is to request that you do not prevent the caravans from entering Egypt, for our people grow weak from hunger. As one sovereign to another, he asks that you do him this kindness. We shall not again enter the desert without your permission."
With a patronizing smile, Ishmael responded, "Only the gods know the future. You are free to return to your land in peace."
The ram's horn battle trumpet sounded from Mibsam's castle, followed by shouts of, "Battle alarm! Battle alarm! Strange riders approach the castles. Battle alarm! Battle alarm!"
The alarm was taken up by the other castles. With a feverish scurry of activity, the Ishmaelites armed themselves and mounted their steeds. The mote bridges were lowered and they road out to meet the strangers. However, before the Ishmaelites could launce an attack, the intruders stopped their advancement and unfurled a white banner; three of its riders moved forward to the center of no man's land and waited.
"Hold!" Ishmael commanded, "They fly a flag of truce. Nebajoth and Tema, meet with them. Learn why they intrude into our land."
Advancing slowly, the two princes complied. To Ishmael's astonishment, they and the foremost stranger dismounted and embraced each other. Nebajoth waved for his father to advance and the two parties converged. Like him, the stranger wore a full, black beard. The diadem of a chief secured his head cloth. Though his garments were stained with the dust of his travels, it was evident they were designed from expensive cloth. And, judging from the burdens carried by the camels, the stranger possessed great wealth. Turning to Nebajoth in puzzlement, he saw that his eyes were shinning with delight.
"Who is this stranger, my son?" Nebajoth was about to respond, but the visitor spoke first. An inner pain seemed to haunt him.
"You last saw me as a babe in my mother's arms, Ishmael. I am Isaac, your brother." Ishmael stiffened, eyes blinking with incredulity. Brow lowered with suspicion, he responded, "You say you are my brother, Isaac, but to me you are a stranger. Why have you come into my land?"
"Abram, our father is dead and has been gathered to his people. I ask you to go with me to Mamre, that together we may bury him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron."
Ishmael lowered his head; all present understood he was grieving. Moving forward, Isaac encircled his brother in an embrace Ishmael did not resist.
When he stopped sobbing Ishmael said, "I thought my heart was filled with hated for our father, because he drove me into the desert. Now I learn it is filled with love for him."
Isaac nodded. "When I came to understand what was done to you and Hagar, I knew it was unjust. As Abram's eldest son, the birthright should have gone to you. Please do not blame our father for your exile; it was my mother, Sarah, who in her jealously against you, demanded otherwise.
"When our father departed from Ur, he hoped to find Melchizedek, the King of Salem. He desired to learn from him where to find the god most high, who does not demand the sacrifice of children. Though he did not find Salem, he found his God, Yahweh.
"Our father said to me many times that Yahweh commanded him to heed the demands of my mother, Sarah. Yahweh promised him that He would make you the father of many nations. It is right that you love him, Ishmael, for he greatly loved you. It grieved him to send you and Hagar away."
Ishmael again nodded. "Come, my brother, you and your men shall be taken to Nebajoth's castle. There you shall be fed at our table and find rest. Tomorrow morning we shall depart to bury our father."
The burial procession that wended its way through the desert was long. In addition to Isaac's and Ishmael's tribes, all the desert chiefs who had submitted to the Ishmaelite, as well as those who knew Abram and Isaac were in attendance. Loud, mournful wails issued from women mourners whose duty it was to lament the death of Abram. Eventually, at Mamre, the procession converged with the tribes ruled by Isaac. At his command, the camels on which Isaac's mourners traveled joined with those of their Ishmaelite counterparts. Upon arriving at the burial cave, the women dismounted, Ishmael's women in a single rank on one side, Isaac's taking a similar stance on the other.
As the richly wrapped and spices-perfumed body was carried toward them, the women now moaned softly becoming progressively louder, until again they reached a crescendo of loud, heartbreaking wails that stirred others in the procession to join in.
"Abram is gone form us," the women wailed.
"Yes, Abram is gone from us," the others - including Ishmael and Isaac - responded.
"Why have you gone from us, our Father Abram?" the women cried.
"Why have you gone from us, our Father Abram?" the brothers repeated.
"Abram, our father is now among the gods; we shall see him no more," Ishmael declared hopelessly, after the wailing ceased, "When I and my mother were cast into the desert, I thought I hated him and desired to see him no more. Now that I truly shall see him no more, I learn that I loved him."
"Our father rests on the bosom of Yahweh, the unseen God," Isaac responded, "We shall see our father again when the promised one comes."
His face a study in desolation, Ishmael turned to Isaac, "Though I cannot believe that a promised one shall come, I would that it were true, my brother; I would that it were true.
"Why do you think it not true?"
Ishmael grimaced. "Did not our father seek all through his wanderings for the city of his God?"
"That is so. I also was with him in some of those wandering. He sought for the city because he believed it was built by our God, Yahweh."
"Did he ever find it?"
"No, our father never found the city he sought."
"Why did he not find it?"
Isaac did not respond.
"Do you believe such a city exists, Isaac?"
When Isaac kept his silence, Ishmael continued, "Our father did not find such a city because it does not exist. Why should the gods build cities on earth, my brother? They cannot live in them. It is men who build cities with walls to protect themselves against those who would kill and steal. Who can kill the gods, Isaac? Who can steal from them; so why would they need cities? All talk of a city whose builder and maker is Yahweh is fantasy."
"All else that our father taught to me is true, so this also must be true. Our father believed such a city exists; I also believe it."
Ishmael laughed derisively, "Believe what you will, Isaac. When you find this city, send a messenger to me and I shall visit it with you. Let us depart from here. I must return to my land. Our castles are lightly guarded."
"Please stay with us a while longer, my brother," Ishmael coaxed, as Isaac made preparations to depart, "We have just come to know each other and we may never again see each other."
"The God of our father, Abram, may decree otherwise, Ishmael. Perhaps he may move you to visit with us. Would you then visit?"
"This God of Abram is your God, Isaac; he is not my God. Long ago, at your birth, He made this clear when He told Abram to drive my mother, Hagar and me into the desert. There I almost perished from thirst. This is the God you serve, Isaac. He is the God who cheated me from my rightful inheritance and bestowed it to you, at the whim of a jealous woman. I understand that my subjects also worship the God of our father, Abram under a different name. I permit them to do so because they need a god to worship. I do not, especially one such as yours who hated me and Hagar, my mother, but loved, Sara, your jealous, hate-filled mother. There are no gods for me, especially the God of Abram."
Isaac gazed intently at his brother. Then he said, "Tell me again how you and your mother, Hagar, were saved from death in the desert."
Ishmael gestured with impatience. He appeared mildly agitated. "Do we not have better things to discuss at your departure than a thing that happened so long ago? I have told you that I no have hatred in me for you and our father for what was done. Sara, your mother is dead, as is Hagar, my mother. Why would you have me repeat things best left in the valley of forgetfulness?
"For my sake, please indulge me in this that I ask, Ishmael, my brother. I have a purpose in asking it of you," Isaac pleaded.
Still somewhat angry, Ishmael complied. "After your mother forced us into exile in this desert, we no longer had water. My mother, Hagar, had saved most of the little water Abram gave to us for me to drink, but it was not very much and was soon gone. I was dying of thirst and could no longer walk or even stand. After I fell to the sand, Hagar could not bear to see my death, so she laid me under a bush and moved away a little distance from me. She began weeping. She afterward told me that an angel of Yahweh spoke to her . . ."
Isaac lifted a hand, indicating that he wanted to say something. Ishmael gestured for him to do so.
"Whose God sent the angel to your mother and you, my brother?" Isaac inquired, "Was it the Yahweh of our father, Abram, as even your mother said, or was it one of the gods even you say do not exist? Surely you believe that which Hagar, your mother, told you. Do you not?"
Ishmael stared, dumfounded. He understood now why Isaac asked for him to tell the story of his and Hagar's deliverance from death.
"I await your answer, Ishmael. Whose God sent the angel to deliver you from death?"
When Ishmael's composure returned, he began laughing uproariously. The others who listened to the exchange joined in."
So, Isaac," Ishmael acknowledged, "You have ensnared me with my own words. We know my mother said it was the Yahweh of Abram who sent the angel. She believed Yahweh's angel saved us from death."
"And did this angel sent by the Yahweh of our father, Abram, say anything else?" Isaac asked.
Ishmael again went silent, before answering. This time his silence was a long one, but no one dared breech it, not even Isaac. When he finally did speak, his features were thoughtful. His tone grew serious.
"Yes, my brother, the angel told Hagar he would make me into a great nation."
"And has that not already begun, Ishmael? The Yahweh of our father Abram has blessed you with twelve brave sons. Each is a mighty warrior; so mighty that the armies of Egypt fear them. Each rules from a castle that belongs to him alone. Together, they rule the desert tribes. Even my people have heard of The Ishmaelite Confederacy. Some speak of it with fear, knowing how you were exiled by our father."
"They need not fear me or my sons. I would never attack you and your people. Neither I nor my sons would ever commit fratricide and do as Cain did to his brother Abel," Ishmael categorically protested.
"I know this, for I now know you and your sons, my brother. But my people have yet to meet you. For this reason I entreat you to visit with us, that my people may see that we love each other as brothers should. Again, I entreat you to visit my people with your sons and their families," Isaac asked
Ishmael surveyed his sons, asking an unspoken question. Each one nodded assent.
"Yes, I have decided; we shall go to visit your family, Isaac," he resolved, "But before we leave, I must make preparations for the protection of my people. My sons and I must give orders to our warriors who remain behind. Then we shall depart with you."
Isaac's sons, Jacob and Esau, were twins, but a person wouldn't suspect it by looking at them. From his puberty, Esau was hairy and rugged. The tribal chroniclers alleged that Esau's name was derived from the word "Seir," claiming that the word meant "hairy." Tribal seers and prognosticators predicted that Seir was a territory Esau one day would claim as his own.
An passionate outdoorsman, camp life bored Esau. Instead he delighted in the chase of the hunt, often returning to the encampment with an antelope, a wild goat, a bighorn mountain sheep, or some other prey, he had slain slung over his broad, hairy shoulders. On his return with game from a successful hunt, Esau always simmered a stew from the meat of his kill, sharing it with his father. Isaac relished these stews; he looked forward to them. It was well known among Isaac's tribes that Esau was his favorite son.
Jacob, who was born a second or so after Esau, entered life clutching onto his brother's heel. Tribal chroniclers were at odds regarding the meaning of his name. Some claimed it meant, "heel-catcher," while others asserted that the name meant, "supplanter" or "he who unseats".
Unlike Esau, Jacob was a man-about-camp, a homebody who enjoyed the activities associated with domestic life, especially that of cooking. Perhaps it was for this reason that he became the son favored by his mother, Rebecca. The favoritism displayed by both parents engendered a scorn within the twins for each other. Jacob considered Esau an ignorant lout, often implying that his twin's shagginess indicated that he should live among the wild animals. He also vilified Esau as a ruffian who brought disgrace to the family.
Esau, on the other hand, heaped insults on Jacob. Now into his adolescence, Esau was enormously popular among the tribesmen. He once laughingly stated to his numerous camp cronies, "My brother, Jacob, is still our mother's infant. He continues to suckle at her breasts. I believe he shall do so even when he attains his manhood " if one can call that which he attains manhood."
On another occasion, after they had a scuffle in which Rebecca, as always, intervened on the side of Jacob, Esau referred to his twin as a "cowardly camp puppy that fears to defend itself when other puppies steal a bone it is chewing on. Like a cowardly puppy, he whimpers and whines until his mother comes to defend him."
Rebecca slapped Esau hard across his cheek for making that statement. He only chuckled and said, "Jacob our mother has courageously defended you. Now follow after her like a whimpering camp puppy."
Esau had just returned from a hunt with an antelope and a large mountain sheep slung across the back of a packhorse lead behind his own stallion. Dismounting, he thoughtfully unloaded his kills some distance from the cooking fires. He did not want to disturb those who attended the fires, where Jacob was assisting Rebecca in supervised the camp cooks; they were readying bread dough for baking on the hot flat-stones placed over the fires. Having been notified by an advance rider of the soon arrival of Isaac and his brother Ishmael, the entire camp was in a state of anxious, hurry-scurry anticipation.
"Jacob, come, help me skin these animals," Esau called out, "If we cut them up quickly, there shall be meat for our father and those who come with him. Come help me."
"Can you not see that my son, Jacob, is too busy for that which you ask of him," Rebecca sharply remonstrated, "Unlike you who, in your laziness, do nothing but ride horses and chase after animals, Jacob works hard here at the fire."
Before Esau could respond, the blast of a ram's horn sounded, and a camp sentry shouted, "The caravan approaches; the caravan approaches! The caravan of our Supreme Chief, Isaac, is still distant, but it is drawing closer! The caravan of the Supreme Chief approaches!"
Hearing the urgent summons, each of Isaac's chieftains mounted their camels to ride out and meet the caravan. Esau dropped what he was doing, jumped on his horse and raced after them. As his speedily passed the camels, it left a cloud of dusty sand that forced the chieftains to cover their faces. Speeding on, his mount taking tortured breaths in the blistering heat, Esau soon arrived at the his destination, reigning up next to his father.
"I am happy to see you, my father. I greet you in the name of the Yahweh of Abram."
"And I greet you in the name of my father's Yahweh, my son."
Isaac stared with intent concern at his son. "Why are you thus attired? Your garments are stained with blood. Have you suffered injury?"
"I have no injury, my father. I have just returned from a hunt. I was beginning to skin the animals I slew, when the report of your coming sounded. I left all to ride out to greet you. Please forgive my soiled garments. I thought only of meeting you."
"I understand, my son," Isaac assured him, motioning to Ishmael. "This is my brother, your Uncle Ishmael."
Esau bowed his head in a gesture of humility. "I greet you in the name of the Yahweh of Abram, my uncle," Esau said meekly, "Please forgive the rudeness for having greeted you in garments such as these. I mean no disrespect. I have returned from the hunt and began preparing the kills, when the call sounded of your coming"
"I thank you for your welcome, Esau, my nephew. I take no offence at your appearance, for I understand the hunt. I also am a hunter."
Isaac summoned one of his outriders. "Halt the caravan," he ordered, "I would have my son meet his cousins before my chieftains arrive."
For the first few days of Ishmael's stay, all appeared to go well. He and Esau went hunting together and the nephew marveled at his uncle's prowess with the bow. Nonetheless, it wasn't long until the visit was shattered by a complaint made by Ishmael to Isaac.
With a stony expression and spasms of anger flexing his brow, his dark eyes flashing with deep indignation, and his voice ominous with threat, Ishmael stated, "Isaac, my brother, your son, Jacob, has grievously slandered me and my sons; so much so that, though he has not yet reached his full maturity, if he were not your son, I would have slain him where he stood!"
Isaac gawked in disbelief. When he recovered, he asked, "Ishmael, how has Jacob done such injury to you and your sons? What did Jacob say that so grievously slandered you and your sons?"
"He said to many of your chieftains, in the presence my sons, that I and all those who came with me are as wild, savage boars. He said that, even with as such boars, we are not fit to dwell among civilized tribes."
During the exchange, Isaac had been sitting just outside the door of his tent. Now he stood to his feet, his expression one of anguish. With a gesture, he waved the chief steward of his household to him.
"Yusaf, send three of your strongest menservants to find my son, Jacob. Order them to bring him to me. If he ignores their summons, have them bring him here in shackles," he commanded.
"At once, master," the flabbergasted Yusaf replied and hurried to obey.
In Isaac's tent, Jacob stood apprehensively before his father. His uncle sat across the tent from them. Jacob had never seen his normally placid father appear so angry. Just as Isaac was about to speak, Rebecca rushed into the tent and stood next to her son.
"Why have you come, Rebecca?" her husband asked.
"It was reported to me that Jacob is here and the lies you have been told about him. I come to defend him," she replied.
"You will leave here now, Rebecca! This is a matter for which Jacob must answer for himself," Isaac ordered.
"I shall not leave without my son!" she flatly responded.
Isaac stood and walked to the entrance and called, "Yusaf, please enter!"
After his chief steward entered, Isaac instructed him, "Yusaf, have the same servants who brought Jacob to me escort your mistress from this tent. If she resists, have them gently carry her out. No one is to enter here until I say otherwise.
"Yes, Supreme Chief," Yusaf replied with a respectful bow of his head.
Furious, unresisting and apprehensive, Rebecca permitted herself to be led away. This was a side of her husband she had never seen. Before this episode, she always felt able to get her way with him. And, like Jacob, she also had never seen Isaac so angry.
"Now, Jacob," Isaac began when the three were alone, "Your Uncle Ishmael has told me of your slander against him."
"My father, I did not slander Uncle Ishmael," Jacob whined.
"You did not tell our chieftains that your uncle and those who came with him are as wild boars?" Ishmael asked.
"And you did not say that my brother Ishmael and his sons are not fit to dwell among civilized tribes?"
"No, I did not say these things, my father."
Isaac continued his interrogation of Jacob. "Then, are you saying to me that your uncle has lied in reporting that you did say these things?"
Jacob went silent, understanding that if he affirmed that his uncle had lied, and that he himself was telling the truth, there were witness among the chieftains who would back up Ishmael's report.
"I await your answer, Jacob," Isaac prompted, his tone harsh.
"I have no answer, my father. My uncle did not lie. I know there are chieftains who can witness that I did say these things. I beg my uncle's forgiveness."
"Hear me, Jacob. Understand what I say now, for you are no longer a child. Had a stranger said the thing you did about your uncle, that stranger would have been executed by him. You live now only because you are my son.
"Hear my verdict and your punishment," Isaac ruled, "Each day until they depart, you shall wash the feet of your uncle and your cousins each time they ask it of you. I shall ask them if you have done so. You shall feed and water their camels and horses, as well as our own. You shall trim the hooves of their animals and our own. You shall milk the sheep and goats, bake the bread, make the cheese and churn the butter.
"No servants shall assist you in these tasks; neither shall your mother do so. You shall remain apart from her, until I say otherwise. If either you or she refuses to remain apart, I shall extend your punishment. If you refuse to fulfill this sentence, I shall disown you as a son, and you shall be driven from the camp. Hitherto you have been and slothful, a son who refused to do anything but the work of women. You have refused to do any of the other difficult labors of the encampment. Your hands are soft and without calluses. But, now you shall know what it is to work. Should you abandon this camp and go elsewhere to escape my sentence, do not attempt to return for you shall be driven out again. Your sentence begins immediately! Do you have more words to speak to me?"
His eyes lowered, Jacob replied, "No my father."
"Then leave us and ask Yusaf to return. He must be made aware of your sentence."
The next three months passed quickly. Ishmael, his sons and their caravan were about to depart for home. Isaac, Esau and the chieftains had gathered to bid the travelers farewell. Rebecca also was present, but reluctantly, and at Isaac's explicit command. Isaac, however, had excluded Jacob, whose sentence had not been lifted.
Each of Ishmael's sons gave Isaac a kiss of departure. Isaac kissed his brother on both cheeks, saying, "Farewell, my dear brother Ishmael. May the Yahweh of our father, Abram, guide you safely to your home."
Ishmael returned the kisses. "And may your God bless and keep you, Isaac," he replied.
He took both of Rebecca's hands in his and kissed them. "I and my sons leave you now, my lady. We thank you for your hospitality to us. Would you're your God had permitted my spouse Aseneth, the mother of my sons, to live. She would have loved you as a sister, he stated. Rebecca nodded, but remained silent.
Ishmael drew his brother aside. "Isaac, for my sake, please pardon the young man, Jacob. Lift your sentence from upon him. Please, do this as a farewell gift to me. And send for him now, that I also may bid him farewell. Remember how you forgave Massa, my son, when he spoke of you disrespectfully?"
"I remember," Isaac responded, "Bring my son, Jacob, to me, immediately." he said to a servant.
"Yes master," the man replied.
Before long Jacob arrived, disheveled and forlorn. "I am here, my father. What do you wish of me?"
"I have sent for you at the request of your uncle. As you know, he and his sons are now departing for home. Your uncle Ishmael desires to bid you farewell."
Embracing his nephew, Ishmael kissed him on both cheeks, and then said, "Come my nephew, kiss me farewell, also. I have asked your father to release you from your sentence. I desire that we part from each other with love."
Jacob began to weep. Though his sobs, he said. "Forgive me for my wrongs, Uncle Ishmael. It was right for my father to punish me, for my speech against you indeed was worthy of my execution. Forgive me, my uncle."
"I gladly forgive you, Jacob. Stop weeping now and kiss your cousins farewell."
As Jacob did so, Ishmael walked over to Esau. Facing him, he grasped his favorite nephew by both shoulders. "Esau, my hunting companion," he loudly exclaimed, "you must come to visit me and we shall again hunt together. There are vast herds of wild oxen near our castles in the land of the Egyptians. When you visit us, we shall hunt them together. It shall be great sport. And should the Egyptians attempt to prevent us, we shall do battle against them. That too shall be great sport! What say you?"
Esau was about to respond, but Isaac intervened, saying, "It is my prayer that I also shall again be able to visit with you in your land, Esau. At that time, I shall have all of my family with me."
"And at that time, shall you and Jacob battle the Egyptians along with Esau and me, if the need arises?" Ishmael teased, "I venture to you will not, for you and Jacob are a lovers of peace. I again bid you farewell, Isaac."
As the caravan moved out, Esau asked, "My father, please permit me to ride with them until they arrive at the Oasis of Medi; it is only a short ride. I shall return soon."
Receiving a nod from his father, Esau mounted his horse and followed the caravan. When it reached the oasis, he waved goodbye to his uncles and cousins, waited until the caravan blended into the horizon, then spurred his horse homeward toward the encampment.
Joseph Perrello (Josprel
Josprel resides in Western New York - just across the Niagara River from Canada. He served three years in the United States Air Force two and one half years on overseas duty, as a sergeant of engineers. Josprel holds an advanced degree and is a prolific writer; many of his stories and articles appear in print and on the Internet. He is authoring two novels, "Beloved Apostate" and "Kanfal."