Read Warrior Poet Online

Authors: Timothy J. Stoner

Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Shepherd, #faith, #David, #Courage, #Historical Fiction, #Saul, #Goliath

Warrior Poet

For my children: Jonathan, Benjamin, Aaron, Christiana, Bentu—artists, lovers, warrior poets, friends.


“What is this?” the brute screamed, his entire body shaking. David squinted; his eyes were burning. The sun glinting off Goliath’s armor made him shimmer like a mirage. Shaking his head in disgust, the Philistine turned sideways, ignoring his challenger and directed his wrath at the Israelite soldiers flanked along the northern hills.

It was painfully obvious to David that the giant was seeking to humiliate him.

“Am I not the dread Goliath of Gath? Am I not the Philistine champion?” he roared. His clean-shaven face and sensuous lips were a sharp contrast to his coarse, guttural roar. “What is this litter’s runt you have sent to face me? Do you take me for a nipple-sucking private that you challenge me with this child who looks to be more girl than man?”

David felt his cheeks flush at the hoots of derision cascading down from the enemy troops.

Goliath drew his curved sword and shook it at the army. “Are you making sport of me?” Spittle flew from his mouth. “Look at this weakling you’ve sent against me. Is this what serves as a champion in Israel these days? And his weapons!” He snorted, aiming the tip of his sword at the young shepherd. “He comes with a stick and a stone to try to break my bones!” At this joke the Philistine threw his head back to expel a shrill rasp of laughter. It was like a saw squealing as it cut through resistant wood.

The skin on the back of David’s neck crawled. The Philistine hordes on the incline to David’s right erupted. He whispered the warrior’s prayer, his eyes clenched in fierce concentration. As if he’d heard the petition, Goliath grew still, lowering his sword. He dragged a hairy forearm across his lips, wiping away the spittle.

The back of David’s throat burned. It was that unmistakable stench of black smoke and rancid meat. And this time it was affecting his knees. They were trembling. A wave of panic made the glowing figure swim before his eyes. Only one thing came to mind—the warrior’s prayer. Desperately he whispered, “Lord Sabaoth—
Lord of the heavenly hosts
—deliver me, for I trust in Your name.” He repeated it several times, trying to quiet his mounting fear.

Goliath was staring at him intently as if measuring him with his eyes.

David’s heart sank. From this distance, eighty paces away, he could make out no crack in the giant’s armor. All hope and confidence left him. He clenched his teeth to keep his jaw from quivering. Gathering his last fragments of courage, he pushed his foot forward, the sling heavy in his left hand.

Leering, Goliath gestured at the shepherd’s rod. “Am I a dog, that you come at me with a toy? Dagon curse your impudence to the abyss! Come to me, and I will give your sweet, young flesh to the birds and the beasts.”

With ease of practice, the Philistine thrust his sword into its scabbard and pulled the spear away from his armor bearer, who was standing in front of him. Goliath widened his stance, thighs and calves bulging. Shifting his left foot forward, he centered his weight on his back foot. He held the weapon horizontally, then tossed it lightly into the air, finding its balance. The weight of its bronze head, almost as large as David’s, made the pole bow deeply as it fell back into his hand. Snorting with satisfaction, the giant motioned insolently for David to approach.

The young shepherd inched forward, sweat running down his back, as he still tried to locate a weakness in the armor.

Unable to restrain his excitement, the giant threw back his head and bellowed.

The sound of hunger and derision turned David’s insides to water. He no longer cared whether the Israelites could see his terror. His breath was coming in gasps. It was suddenly clear—there would be no deliverance. There was no chink in the brute’s armor.

All that was left was to run.

His fingers loosened on the braided thongs, and the stone fell out of the leather pouch. As he turned to escape, Goliath drew back his spear, and a triumphant cry echoed off the valley walls.

And then David felt a hand on his back.

Chapter One

One year earlier

David’s perfect record was shattered. The flock had been attacked by lions, and they had made off with a ewe. For years, he’d been able to boast that he hadn’t lost a single animal. But no longer. And now he was home, bearing his father’s wrath.

Though bent by the years, Jesse was still an imposing figure. He had once been regarded as one of the fleetest of Israel’s runners. There were still traces of the athlete he once had been—wide shoulders and strong legs. It was his back that had betrayed him. But when gouging a merchant—or, at moments like these, when seething with rage—he seemed to grow taller, and his gray eyes shone with dangerous malice.

“You were too scared, so you did what?” His father was incredulous. It was as if David had reported seeing a caravan of camels flying off into the sunset. Jesse was supporting himself with one hand on the stone wall of the sheep pen and with his cane in the other.

David’s eyes stung. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep them clear. He would not give Jesse the satisfaction. Swallowing, he repeated quietly, “I was afraid that the lions would turn and attack me, so I kept hidden.” There was only the barest quaver in his voice.

“You are aware that the responsibility of a shepherd is to protect the flocks?” Jesse asked, jerking his cane toward the sheep. It was more a statement intended to humiliate than a question.

David answered anyway. “Yes, I am aware—Father.”

Jesse caught the note of defiance. His nostrils flared, and he raised his staff threateningly. David met his gaze and lifted his chin.

The old man snorted and lowered his arm, turning away as if the eighteen-year-old did not merit a blow. “So how many of my sheep did you let the predators take?” He was now staring at the flocks, reverting to his habit of looking away from his youngest while talking to him.

“Only one.”

The old man twisted his head around, his eyes blazing. “To you it may be
one”—he struck the pen’s stone wall with his staff—“but to me it means the loss of ten, since, if you recall, it was a ewe that will breed me no more litters.” His voice shook with anger. “You speak like a child, but a shepherd must think like a businessman.” He gave the wall another sharp blow. “You are of age for marriage, yet you are not old enough to be trusted with a handful of sheep.”

David made no response. Since he was twelve he had chased away every animal that had threatened his father’s flocks. Recently he had killed a young lion. Today was the first time he had frozen, and it was only because three predators had attacked at once. They had slunk in while he was dozing, and when he noticed them, they were too close for him to use his sling.

“And here I thought you took such pride in your skill with the sling.”

David tried not to betray how much the jibe hurt. He was nearly at the level of the famed Benjamite slingers who regularly won the intertribal competitions. He could drop a large stone within a handbreadth of a wandering lamb or graze the ear of a stubborn goat. He could knock a crow out of the air or break a marauder’s foreleg.

He was unable to remain silent. “Which of my brothers can claim to have done as well as I? According to Shimeah, by the time Eliab was my age, he had lost nine.”

Jesse ignored his son’s protest. “You will not be going out alone any longer. If one of the others were available, I would keep you home, but they are not. Tomorrow you will be taking the flocks out with Lydea’s boy. Let us see if your courage improves with a companion to watch out for you, even if he is a cripple.” There was grim satisfaction in his father’s voice.

As Jesse started back to his house, David realized that some response was called for. The fifth commandment was clear, and as difficult as it was, he was required to show respect. “I am sorry about the sheep, Father,” he said, managing to pry the words off his tongue. “I will let Lydea know about Jahra.”

Jesse’s back stiffened, but he gave no reply.

David had kept the elation out of his voice. It had been almost a year since Jahra had accompanied him into the hills. They had grown up together, and Jahra was more a brother than a servant. Jesse had bought Lydea and her little boy before David’s birth. She had become David’s wet nurse when his mother, unable to survive the strain of her tenth delivery, had died.

The two had come from Aram. During the raid in which they had been captured, Jahra had lost his own father and received a blow that had robbed him of speech. David’s brothers nicknamed him Buggy for the patch of wrinkled skin resembling a centipede that ran along his temple. Jahra was almost a year older than David, but shortly after David could walk, he’d accepted the servant boy as his personal charge. According to Lydea, it had been David who had patiently taught her boy to take his first awkward steps. Jahra’s right leg and foot were turned slightly inward, so it had taken persistence to teach him to walk. When he did, it was with an odd, sloping gait.

After counting to make sure all the animals were inside, David shut the pen and raced to his friend’s one-room hut on the western edge of their small town. It was behind the houses of his father and older brothers. Like theirs, Jahra’s house was made of stone, but it was considerably smaller, and the thatch roof was not strong enough to stand on. On his sixteenth birthday David had decided to exercise his independence by sleeping and having his meals at Jahra’s house. Jesse never mentioned it and, if anything, seemed relieved.

Although Jesse had seven sons, what he had said was true: David was his only remaining option to care for the sheep. The three oldest, Eliab, Abinadab, and Shimeah, had just left for maneuvers with Saul’s army, while Nethanel, though he hated working the land, was left to take care of the fields. The twins, Raddai and Ozem, who were a few years older than David, were out of town, learning the well-digging trade from Uncle Shephatiah. There had been another son, Boaz, born before the twins, but he had died several years earlier. Jesse’s grandchildren were busy caring for their own parents’ animals and crops.

As he ran past Eliab’s house, David recalled their encounter that morning. The death of the sheep had driven it from his mind, but now it all came back—and with it, the sting of his brother’s taunts.

Saul’s army had been called up for a campaign against the Amalekites to the south. In the early dawn as David was leading the flocks out of their pens, the three eldest were also preparing to leave. Eliab had scowled at him and then jerked his finger, commanding David to come over. Clenching his teeth, David had approached warily. With a meaty arm, Eliab had pulled David close, whispering loudly enough for the others to hear. “When I see the king, I will make sure to ask him if he has need for the services of an undersized shepherd to watch over his animals.”

David had stared back with a hint of a smile. He knew how much his brother hated it.

Snorting through his thick beard, Eliab had poked David in the chest. It felt like being struck by the shaft of a spear. “Let me tell you this, you impudent cur: there is more hope for your little friend’s mother to make it than for you.” He pushed David away so hard that he fell. Eliab guffawed. “Look at you! You don’t stand a chance if you can’t stand on your own two feet.” Abinadab and Shimeah laughed dutifully.

When the sheep and goats had created a buffer between them, David yelled back, “At least I’m smart enough to know the difference between wine and goat urine.” This was a reference to one of David’s favorite memories: he had changed the contents of Eliab’s wine bottle, and his brother had gagged and spit for hours.

Abinadab and Shimeah almost had to wrestle Eliab to the ground to restrain him from charging after David. As the three picked up their packs and made their way down the road, David could make out only one phrase: “Whore’s son!”

That had taken place many hours earlier, but those words again pricked him like sharp nettles. He swore to himself and hoped, not for the first time, that Eliab would not make it back from this battle. As he trotted past the sycamore in front of Lydea’s front door, he could barely make out the dried seedpods that crunched underfoot. Out of habit he patted the tree’s scaly trunk where the pale pinkish inner bark was exposed. In the evening light, the streaks looked like wounds gouged into the wood by the claws of a ravenous beast.

He pushed aside the thick cloth that served as a door and noticed immediately that the table was against the wall under the window across from him. The window was closed since there was no longer need to vent smoke from the fire pit beneath it. Only warm embers remained from the cooking fire. Lydea and Jahra had finished their evening meal. David’s stomach growled with disappointment.

Lydea was scouring out a large bowl and had her back to him. Jahra was sitting cross-legged at his favorite place next to the pit’s warm stones. He was holding a cloth, preparing to dry the bowl when she was finished.

Jahra smiled at David as he entered. As usual, a wet twig poked out from the corner of his mouth. Lydea required him to toss it out before entering the house since, as she had told him countless times, it reminded her of the tip of a mouse tail. Somehow he had sneaked it past her.

David walked up behind her, grinning broadly. “Peace be with you,” he said formally, wrapping his arms around the old woman’s thin shoulders while giving Jahra a shove with his knee, knocking him sideways.

“And with you, you wild boy-goat,” was her reply. After almost twenty years, her speech still had some Aramean carryovers. They always made David smile.

“What did you have to eat?” he asked.

“You guess,” Lydea said.

David stuck his nose into the container, and as he did, Jahra grabbed it and sloshed the greasy contents into David’s face.

“You little swine!” David yelled, blinking his eyes clear.

Jahra jumped to his feet and ran backward to the sleeping area at the room’s opposite corner. One hand was lifted in a sign of surrender and the other was pointing to his open mouth.

It was his typical dramatic ploy, as if his inability to speak granted him immunity.

Realizing he would receive no sympathy, Jahra picked up the sling David had made for him and started twirling it over his head. Lydea threw up her hands as David ducked beneath the whirling thongs and wrestled her son to the ground on top of Jahra’s sleeping mat. David wound up on top, wiping his face on his friend’s chest. When he was finished drying off the dirty water, he let Jahra go.

“You are aware that a sling requires a stone, aren’t you?” David asked, grabbing the sling and pointing at the empty pouch. “It appears that my lessons were not as clear as they needed to be. Next time, we’ll talk about the importance of loading the weapon before using it. Most slingers figure that part out for themselves.”

Jahra yanked the sling back and jabbed David with his elbow.

“Stop it this moment!” Lydea called, her amusement barely concealed behind her strict tone. “David, come here and stop bothering poor Jahra. Something will be broken if you don’t stop making him provoked. I have some bread and fresh cheese left over; if you behave yourself, you might get those currants you like. If not—you can forget all about it.”

David sat down at the rickety table he had made for her a few years earlier. No matter how hard he’d tried, he had not been able to get the legs quite the same length. “I’m no carpenter,” he’d apologized when he brought it into the house, but her gratitude at the relief it gave her back had erased his embarrassment. She acted as if it was the best-made piece of furniture she’d ever seen.

“What happened today?” she asked, her watery eyes filled with concern. “And don’t say to me, ‘Nothing.’ I heard your father’s voice. I could tell he was very upset.”

He let out a sigh as Jahra sat down on the bench next to him. The twig had disappeared. When David finished describing the death of the ewe and his father’s fury, Lydea reached across the table and patted his forearm. “I’m so sorry.”

Jahra gave him a sympathetic look. David smiled awkwardly. Wanting to change the direction of the conversation, he told them about his confrontation with Eliab that morning. He shook his head, remembering his brother’s last words. “Can you believe it? He’s so stupid, it never occurs to him that when he curses me, he is cursing his own mother.”

Lydea’s smile faded. She grabbed the plate in front of David and turned to place it on the simple slab of wood he and Jahra had driven into the wall to make a shelf for her cooking utensils. On it rested one of the oil lamps.

David waited for her to turn around, but she busied herself rearranging the cookery and trimming the lamp’s wick. He had intended it to be a funny story, but retelling it had only made him sad. And it had brought to the surface the question that constantly troubled him. He had asked it countless times before, and though it made him feel foolish, he could not stop from raising it again:

“Why do they hate me?”

She remained quiet. Jahra let out a sympathetic grunt.

Lydea gave her son a look of disapproval. “Eliab is jealous of you.”

“What of?” David was incredulous. This was more than she had ever said.

Lydea picked up the damp bowl she had been washing, then absentmindedly set it on the shelf. She spoke quietly, her back to him. “David, this is what I believe. Down deep, he suspect you are a threat.”

David coughed in disbelief. “Right! I’m the youngest; what possible threat could I be to him? Father thinks the sun rises and sets on his oldest son, and it is obvious he would be much happier if I’d never been born.”

Lydea spun around, the rag clenched in her fist. “Never, ever say that!” The tears in her eyes startled David. “No matter what anyone in your family thinks, you are precious. Don’t pay any attention to what Eliab says. He is a selfish”—she stopped, hunting for the word—“big man-child. His opinion counts for nothing.”

She shut her eyes, let out a deep breath, then continued. “Also, I not want you to take seriously what your father says either.” She placed her old fingers on his. “He has been a good master to me and Jahra, but he is a very proud man. And I am sad for him.” She blinked away the angry tears. “He was given a gift but has …” She looked up at him for help.

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