NO ONE MUST ever know this story. That is what Moses said to me, when he let me live. That is what I promised. But Moses is long gone. There is barely a man or woman alive who remembers those days, although the Levites have written it down, gotten some of it right, much of it wrong. There are things that they never knew, were never supposed to know, things that I have never told them. Just as well, I suppose. What would have happened, if I had returned to my people and confessed my transgressions? Stoned, burned, perhaps simply beheaded. But Moses knew, and he let me live on. He expected me to join him, to become an instrument of the Lord. But I would not, could not, serve his god. And was that not a transgression more grave than any of the others? But now, I live quietly, almost forgotten, alone. My eyes are failing me, my grip is failing me. Soon I will be unable to write down my story, and it truly will be lost forever.
So, I will write it now, as long as I am able. I will put the scroll into a clay jar, bury it in my garden. And who knows, in a thousand years, two thousand years, someone digging in the garden may find it. Or shards. Or a jar full of dust.
I was still a boy when it happened, too young for the army, too young to be married. But I had already tasted battle. When the tribes of Canaan attacked us, everyone with a sword, a knife, a bow, man or boy, rallied to our defense, then to the rescue of the women and girls they had captured to enslave. They had thought to scare us, to shoo us away like an annoying insect, but instead we overwhelmed them, killed them, raped them, enslaved them, took everything they had as our own. It was then that I discovered what my arrows could do to human flesh, and my dagger also, killing men as I had killed wolves that threatened our flocks. But later, boy that I might be, the dagger of my loins was ripping into the wives, the daughters, the sisters of the men I had just killed. Or my comrades had.
What would have become of us, if not for that slaughter? I cannot really call it a battle. The scribes say that in the early days in the desert we were fed by God, with manna and quail. During my youth the lands we passed through were somewhat more fertile and we lived as nomads, with almost no possessions, barely enough to eat. But after that first taste of blood it was plunder that kept us alive. They called it war, even holy war, but we were learning to survive by murder, rape and pillage.
At least we might have been content with our first unexpected conquest. It was a fertile land, a fair land, full of fields and vineyards and cities already built, ready for us to occupy. It was filled with potters, with smiths, with weavers, farmers, shepherds, people who knew the arts we had forgotten in our journey. But Moses ordered us to destroy the houses, to kill the artisans, and to move on, back into the desert. A settled people can properly care for their elders. A nomadic people cannot. Many died on that final, useless journey, of thirst, of serpents, of scorpions, of all the plagues of the desert. And for what? To exchange one perfectly good territory for another? To fulfill an old man’s crazed vision? To do the will of the Lord?
My mother died on that journey, from a snake bite, and my brothers swore they would avenge her. But my father counseled patience. “She looked upon the bronze snake and did not live. God did not spare her.”
“You’re as crazy as Moses,” one of my brothers cursed. He went off to his own tent to take out his frustrations on the wife my father had purchased from the Midians. Or the slave girl he had just acquired.
“You do not understand,” my father sighed. “You do not know how it was in the old days.”
No, I did not know. I thought it was all a lie, a myth.
There was not much to do in the middle of the night, in the middle of the desert. Some of the soldiers had been awarded a Canaanite girl for their part in the slaughter, even though they were already married. But I was deemed to be too young. Although I had raped as many as any other, perhaps more, my loins exploding in a frenzy of rage and lust. Loins that were aching now for the next battle. It did not help that my other brother was lying next to me with his own Midianite wife, not sleeping, definitely not sleeping. We had no extra cloth for sheets, for curtains, and the fabric of the tent was too thin to block out the moonlight.
You shall not lust after the wife of your neighbor, wasn’t that one of the commandments that Moses gave our parents? One of the ones on the tablets inside the golden casket in the sacred tent? That no one dared to open? But what if the neighbor was right next to you, the wife a girl barely older than you, sitting astride the neighbor so that her breasts were gleaming in the moonlight? Gasping in pleasure each time she thrust herself down upon him? I got up in disgust and left the tent.
I do not know what I intended to do next. Perhaps, wander out to the ditch we were using as a latrine and urinate. Perhaps some woman would be there – no that was a dangerous thought, a forbidden thought. It was one thing to rape a foreign girl, a girl who was destined to become the slave, concubine at best, of a man senior enough to be allotted such a prize. But to touch one of our own women would be too dangerous, even with her consent. Not that she would consent to such a thing. Married, I needed to be married, but I would have to wait my turn, wait for my time, wait for my elders to make arrangements.
“Jethro, son of Salu.”