Hear, O Israel: II

BOOK I

Goshen

1

 

Therefore they did set over them taskmasters

to afflict them with their burdens.

 Exodus 1:11

 

Certainly it was a fine day.  How could it be otherwise?  This was the third to last day of the third month of akhit, the moment when Horus and Seth had ceased their cosmic battle and peace had descended upon the world, forever marking this as a day of good fortune.  And for one named Ahmose, “The-Moon-Is-Born,” it was doubly so this particular year, for that evening a new moon would indeed be born.  Following the pattern set at Creation, Thoth, vizier to Re, would reopen the silver eye, affirming once more and in yet another way the order of things and the presence of ma’at in the land.  The heavenly scribe would again be manifest in the night sky, an auspicious sign for Ahmose and all those who shared the secret of writing and honored Thoth above other gods.

The day had already begun well enough for Ahmose, despite the persistent problem with the priesthood at Heliopolis and despite a bone-deep fatigue brought on by too much work and too little rest.  Just before he left Tjou that morning, a messenger arrived from Pi-Ramessu with letters from the crowd of royal officials involved in the construction of the temple-granary.  Such correspondence was of course not normally associated with divine favor, since there were at least seven Overseers of Works with a hand in this project, and so far as Ahmose knew, not one had ever actually overseen any work.  Instead they were content to remain in the glittering capital, a hardly surprising preference, and subject the local director to a steady papyrus-borne onslaught of complaints.  Which was in fact fine with the local director, who was consequently left to manage the labor force and basic construction free of the interfering buzz of some overly perfumed fly from the fringes of the court.  Ahmose knew that shirkers were to be found wherever there was work to be done, but he could never really fathom why Pharaoh tolerated such dead weight in his own House.

But was Pharaoh not the instrument of ma’at and was Ahmose not favored by Thoth?  Hidden among the usual complaints and demands delivered this morning was a letter from no less a figure than the Overseer of the Granaries of Upper and Lower Egypt, who praised Ahmose for his handling of the project, especially the labor force.  Pharaoh was pleased with the progress of the construction, the letter said.

Pharaoh was pleased!  When he read those lines, Ahmose had allowed himself a wordless exclamation of joy, startling his assistants not so much with the unexpected noise as with the break in their boss’s reserve.  Ahmose was not normally given to spontaneous displays of exuberance, which he associated with a lack of self-control, but this was an occasion.  After the better part of a year on this project his work was finally being noticed by the mighty in Pi-Ramessu, by the god-king himself.

Ahmose had trudged this road to Pi-Sopdu a hundred times before, searching among the scattered encampments for the latest Habiru chieftain who had not met his quota of laborers.  Never before had it seemed anything more than it was: a dusty path following the Ithi canal through one of the poorest districts in the delta.  But today it seemed he walked a grand way leading directly to Pi-Ramessu and Memphis and distant Thebes.  Today he was on a highway that would carry him away from obscurity and unruly foreigners.

Yes, it was a fine day indeed.  A close observer might even have detected the faintest smile about the tired eyes of Ahmose son of Amram.

Pausing in the shade of a group of palms, he took a pull from the flask of wine he carried slung from his shoulder and ran a hand over his closely cropped hair.  He was seriously tired, no question about that.  The boost of energy he had received from the morning’s good news could no longer compensate for two nights of very little sleep.  Gurgling noises from his belly reminded him that he had also not eaten enough during the last three days of almost non-stop work.  From experience he knew the lack of hunger was deceptive and was actually a warning, along with the touch of light-headedness he was feeling.  He rubbed his eyes and resolved to head directly home after finishing business with the Habiru Jahleel.  He ought to have done so this morning, but as usual there was no one else who could do the job.  If he was true to the pattern, Jahleel would pay absolutely no attention to any Habiru messenger, and Ahmose knew from painful experience that an Egyptian emissary, even if he were able to find Jahleel’s camp, could be counted on to make matters worse by delivering some unforgivable insult.  No, if he did not attend to these problems immediately and personally, he would cease to have the most efficient conscript labor battalions in the delta.

He yawned and stretched his arms wide.  Even through the barely stirring fronds the midday sun continued to assert itself, dappling him with a shifting pattern of light and dark.  He was scarcely conscious of the heat, a fact of life in the Two Lands, but he was acutely aware of the white linen robe that was already sticking to his body in places.  Any sensible person, like that fisherman in the reed boat in the canal immediately south of the road, would be wearing only a loincloth.  But most Habiru were strangely uncomfortable about exposing their bodies, and Ahmose, who preferred persuasion to the force he might command, tried to avoid needless offense when dealing with the Bedouin chiefs.

For that same reason the only amulet he carried – a small jade figure of the ibis-headed Thoth – was hidden away in his belt pouch.  These desert types could be touchy, even fanatic, about their family gods, something Ahmose knew well enough from his own mother.  His family background was an advantage in dealing with the Habiru, but because of it they expected more from him and he had to be careful.

Those family roots were only lightly sketched in Ahmose’s features.  His complexion was no darker than that of the average Egyptian, and his nose, though prominent, was not the dominating beak that Egyptians assumed to be the birthright of every Canaanite.  His mouth was large and set in a straight jaw, and the forehead was high and at twenty-eight years already etched with lines.  His face gave the impression of severity and sharp angles and hinted at origins outside Egypt, despite the absence of the facial hair almost universal among the west Semites.  And confusing the whole picture were his eyes.  They were set wide apart and they were gray, something most rare and compelling.  Or so at least Ahmose had concluded from the number of women apparently attracted by his otherwise harsh features.

He turned those eyes, bloodshot at the moment, to survey the canal.  With the flood at its peak the waterway could be navigated by the ocean-going kebenit, and Ahmose could see one of the Byblos craft working its way west, broad rectangular sail furled and crew straining at oars.  These sturdy ships, whose elegant rounded contours and high forward-curving sterns recalled the simple papyrus boats from which they had evolved, regularly carried goods from the Syrian ports to cities in the delta.  During the Season of Inundation they could then load Egyptian wares and follow the Canal of the Two Seas east past Tjeku to the Lake of Crocodiles and then south through the Bitter Lakes to the southern Great Green and the long journey to Punt.

An expedition to the Terraces of Incense, thought Ahmose, absentmindedly returning a wave from the helmsman up in the stern.  Now, that would be a proper project to direct.  Staring at the ship, shimmering and insubstantial through the heat, he felt himself begin to drift along with it.  The rhythmic plopping of the oars pushed the other sounds of the day out of his consciousness and dimpled the canal’s smooth surface, smearing the reflected images and unfocusing his mind.  He imagined himself in a spacious office in Pi-Ramessu, organizing the resources of grand expeditions to exotic Punt and other distant lands.  Ahmose, Chief Overseer of the King’s Ships, awing the court with strange and wondrous wares brought back by his fleets.  Ahmose, Chief  Overseer of All the King’s Works, conferring with Pharaoh about his latest…

Ahmose suddenly stiffened.  The kebenit was no longer there!  In its place, but floating just above the water’s surface was the solar bark, shining so brightly that he almost turned his eyes away from the miraculous sight.  The vessel, which appeared to be fashioned of gold, was sleeker than the disappeared kebenit and carried neither mast nor oarsmen.  On board were four figures, whose features Ahmose could make out in perfect clarity, despite the blinding glow that obscured the canal and surrounding landscape.  Seated on a high throne towards the center of the boat was the hawk-headed Re-Harakhty, the blazing sun-disk carried on his head, the sacred crook and flail in his crossed arms.  Waiting in attendance behind him were Thoth and Horus, while in the prow stood Seth, holding aloft the spear with which he slew every dawn the serpent of darkness, Apophis.  Not a sound or movement came from the cosmic bark as it glided smoothly along, gradually rising higher and higher above the surface of the canal.

Eyes squinted against the growing brilliance, Ahmose watched the spectacle in ecstatic silence, the beautiful and terrible vision gripping his senses and blocking out the world.  The boat was increasingly obscured by its own blazing glory, but the faces of the gods remained perfectly distinct, commanding islands of clarity in the golden haze.  So immediately and irresistibly did those divine countenances seize Ahmose’s attention and reveal their every detail that he momentarily felt he had been pulled physically across the canal to a face to face confrontation with divinity.

Time froze as he looked upon perfection that ought to crush him and make him feel hopelessly disabled, an ugly blemish upon the exquisite universe inhabited by beings such as these.  But Ahmose knew that he, like every living creature, shared the same cosmic fabric as the gods.  He understood that all life, from the gnat to the Pharaoh, was of a common essence and subject to the same harmonious regulations of ma’at.  For all his mortal imperfection he was one with these perfect powers who determined the land’s destinies, and without reservation his humble spirit, his ka, drank in the beauty of it all.  He would have been content to do so for all eternity, when suddenly Thoth turned his head to face him.  The long, curving beak dipped slightly, as the god seemed to acknowledge his presence, and the ibis head then shifted back into profile.  The golden vessel began to accelerate, shrinking rapidly, but glowing ever more brightly, as it hurried upwards towards the zenith.

Helpless to do otherwise, Ahmose followed its ascent until his eyes could no longer tolerate the intense light and he was compelled, much against his desire, to turn away.  With that the spell was broken, and the normal sounds of a delta afternoon returned to his ears.  But the blinding glow remained, and Ahmose rubbed his eyes furiously, pressing the heels of his palms into the sockets.  When he opened them again, a bright circle of light, like Re’s sun-disk, floated in the center of his vision.  He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, but the disc remained.  He began to fear that he had been blinded for daring to look upon gods, but reopening his eyes, he could see the details of his surroundings emerging into clarity as the disc gradually faded.

The kebenit was already well past him, and he could see figures going about their business on the far side of the canal.  The vision had apparently been his alone.  He felt cold, despite the heat of the day, and realized that his body was covered with a film of rapidly evaporating sweat.  His heart was racing, and with a distant amusement he noticed also that he now sported an erection that would do the god Min proud.

A brief shudder swept him as he considered the awful magnitude of what had just taken place, but his dominant emotion was elation.  Signs and omens were of course an everyday occurrence, and even direct contact from the gods was barely cause for comment.  Mostly they communicated through dreams, but everyone had heard the voice in the temple or caught the fleeting vision in the desert.  Could it be any other way?  Men and gods were all part of the same universe, a fact so obvious that even a Habiru could not fail to grasp it.

Such was certainly Ahmose’s experience for as long as he could remember; not a month ago in fact Thoth had spoken to him in his temple at Bah in the northern delta.  But that was the commonplace, as different from this vision as a peasant’s mud hut was from the royal palace at Pi-Ramessu.  Never had the gods revealed themselves to Ahmose so completely and dramatically outside the dream world.  This was no bare glimpse of godhood, hurried and uncertain, but a true epiphany, as was granted to few outside the highest ranks of the priesthoods.  That such had come to Ahmose, that the humble servant of Pharaoh should be privileged to look upon the solar bark, was an irrefutable confirmation of divine favor.  The fat nobility, for all their costly offerings and bribes to the temple, could not buy celestial attention of this sort.

Something important was about to happen in his life, that much was clear to Ahmose.  Thoth had uttered no word, had granted him no sign other than the nod, but coming on the heels of the letter of commendation, the extraordinary vision could mean only one thing: he would soon depart this vile place!  Yes, that must be it.  Anyone could see that clever Ahmose, skilled organizer that he was, was destined for things greater than the construction of granaries.  And now mighty Thoth, patron and benefactor of the clever, had given undeniable confirmation of that fact.

Ahmose turned to the west and lifted his arms, palms facing forward.  Extraordinary tears of happiness squeezed out of his eyes, as he squinted towards the sun.  His voice was hoarse, and the words cracked with emotion.

“Come to me, Thoth, thou lordly ibis, thou god for whom yearneth Bah.  Letter-writer of the Nine Gods, great one in Unu.

“Come to me, that thou mayest lead me, that thou mayest make me cunning in thy calling.  Fairer is thy calling than all callings, it maketh men great.

“Come to me and care for me.  I am a servant of thine house.  Let me tell of thy mighty works in whatsoever land I be.

“So will the multitude of men say: Great things are they that Thoth hath done.  So will they come with their children in order to brand them for thine office.

“A goodly calling, O strong deliverer, and happy is he that followeth it.”

His arms were visibly shaking by the end of the hymn, and he let them drop.  The elation of the whole experience was still with him, but its energizing effect had passed and his exhausted body slumped.  His ka was ready to sail heavenward, to wheel and dance like a gull in the wake of the sun boat, but his body was a great stone, pinning him to the earth and dragging his reluctant mind back to the more immediate reality of the delta.

He was suddenly pulled back into full awareness by the sound of wheezing behind him.  Annoyed by this mundane intrusion, he turned to confront a small knot of spectators, who were already losing interest and returning to their peasant routines.  The wheezing emanated from a withered Habiru in filthy rags, who thrust a claw at him.

“Family hungry, Sire.  You give alms?”  The creature’s barely comprehensible Egyptian was further obscured by the fit of coughing that erupted as soon as it began to speak.

Lingering images of divine perfection fled from the disgusting sight.  Ahmose was about to walk away from the wretch, but suddenly caught himself and instead fished a qite of copper from his pouch and displayed it over the outstretched hand.

“Bring me to the tent of Jahleel son of Abinoam, chief of the tribe of Simeon,” he commanded in the Canaanite dialect of the Habiru.

The beggar’s rheumy eyes narrowed.  An Egyptian who not only spoke his own language, but did so flawlessly, was new to his experience.  He was certainly a strange one, staring wide-eyed and rigid at the sun.  But a lot of smooth-heads were strange, and the copper would buy him a little food and a lot of drink.  In any case this Egyptian, stupid as he might be, seemed a dangerous candidate for the knife he grasped under his robe in his other hand.  He was taller than average and lean and well-muscled, unlike most wealthy toads in this fat land, and next to that tempting purse rode an expensive-looking dagger.  Anyway, this road was too public.  Perhaps an opportunity would present itself.

“Yes, Sire,” he hissed and grabbed for the copper, which immediately disappeared inside Ahmose’s clenched fist.

“The tent of Jahleel son of Abinoam.”

The beggar turned away, muttering and coughing, and moved off at a pace at odds with his general appearance of ill health.  Ahmose followed at a distance sufficient to escape the worst of his guide’s odor and the occasional spray of spittle coughed into the air.  He was almost asleep on his feet and hardly inclined after the vision to deal with sordid matters like missing Habiru laborers, but he was determined to finish the business today.  The theophany was filed away in the back of his mind, to be savored later.  Meanwhile, a section of sweet melon, bought from a roadside peddler, perked him up a bit.

After perhaps a quarter hour the beggar turned north off the main road and led Ahmose into a maze of small cultivated plots, irrigation ditches and stands of palms, acacias and sycamores sheltering mud and reed huts.  The local farmers, mostly poor Egyptians, looked up from their barley and beans to stare at this odd pair threading their way along the small paths and dikes.  A few recognized the construction director from Tjou, but most wondered what business a well-dressed Egyptian could have here, especially in the company of the criminal element.

The cool green of the trees and densely cultivated area quickly gave way to an open expanse of grass, salt marsh and sand, which extended north for perhaps a kilometer before disappearing into the Red Land.  This was the northern fringe of the great wadi that stretched east from Pi-Sopdu, a fifty kilometer tentacle of green flung out across the desert from the delta to the eastern lakes.

The isolated garden plots Ahmose was now passing were more poorly tended and less productive than those near the canal.  The land here was mean and unrewarding, at least by Egyptian standards, and the desert herdsman was at best an indifferent farmer.  He was quick to plant any small bit of arable land in order to supplement the produce of his flocks, but in Ahmose’s opinion he was too lazy and too contemptuous of the farmer to do a good job of it.  The real care and wealth of the Habiru were the sheep and goats that were scattered everywhere, tended by women and children.  There were few men to be seen.  Most were away, part of Ahmose’s labor force at Tjou, and the rest, he knew, would be found in the black tents that dotted the landscape.

They were now headed directly toward a cluster of those tents.  One was considerably larger and marginally less threadbare than the others, and before it stood a crude stone altar, black with old blood.  Ahmose guessed this to be the tent of Jahleel, and as if to confirm his thoughts, his guide suddenly halted and pointed.  Ahmose nodded and flipped him the copper, which was snatched from the air and sequestered inside the rags in a blur of movement.

While the beggar hung about, clearly consumed with curiosity about this strange Egyptian, Ahmose slowly approached the tent.  It was of inevitable Habiru design.  A large rectangle of worsted wool and goat hair, dark with age and dirt, was supported by staves and pinned to the earth by staked cords running off the corners and long sides.  From this roof were hung the tent-curtains that formed the exterior walls and the interior partition that separated the household side from the men’s guest area.  The latter half was normally left completely open on one or two sides that those within might take advantage of any breeze.

The tent of Jahleel was open on the north, and walking around to that side, Ahmose could discern several figures sitting in the dim interior.  He stopped about ten paces from the opening and waited, conscious of the beggar still lingering in the vicinity.  He was kept waiting a brief moment, just long enough for Jahleel to satisfy his dignity as chieftain, and then a man emerged to greet him.

Garbed in a dark heavy robe and with a mass of unkempt hair framing his face, the fellow could hardly be mistaken for anything but a desert dweller.  Immediately the gray-shot beard that constituted most of his features split into a huge grin.

“The God be with you, Lord Moses.  Please.  The tent of Jahleel is open to you.”  He gestured with a hand.

By now Ahmose was accustomed to the Habiru insistence upon using the diminutive form of his name.  He supposed this refusal to speak his actual Egyptian name to be a kind of symbolic rejection of his Egyptianness, a reminder that whatever his ways the blood that ran in his veins was far more Habiru than Egyptian.  It was of no concern to Ahmose.  If it helped smooth his relations with the people who made up the bulk of his labor force, then they might call him anything they pleased.

Ahmose acknowledged the greeting with a nod and glanced back at his erstwhile guide.  The beggar’s red eyes were wide with astonishment and his mouth worked silently.  Even the most recent arrival from the desert had heard of the Lord Moses, protector of the Habiru in Egypt.  But surely this smooth-faced Egyptian could not be Moses!  Why should some arrogant Egyptian care a whit about poor Habiru?  It made no sense.

Leaving the little man to be shooed out of the camp by the gray-beard, Ahmose ducked under the low eve formed by the sloping tent-roof.  There were three men seated on the carpets inside, all of them seemingly past their prime, though it was hard to be sure with the bearded and deeply lined desert faces.  The tent smelled of goats and smoke and bodies only rarely washed, a combined odor distinctive enough to be called “the perfume of the desert” by Egyptians familiar with the Bedouins.

The black-robed man sitting at what was at the moment the rear of the tent and thus the position of honor smiled at Ahmose and indicated a place beside himself.  From the evidence of his face and hands he carried a lean body, as the desert folk always did, and his beard and shoulder-length hair were still fully black, despite the age obvious in his face.  His left eye was fixed into a permanent squint by a scar that ran across it from forehead to cheek.  His demeanor and his place in the tent instantly revealed him to be the leader, and Ahmose henceforth gave no attention to the others.

“Jahleel son of Abinoam, chief of the Simeonites welcomes the Lord Moses in the name of the God of our fathers.”

Ahmose did not miss the slight emphasis given the word “our.”  Seating himself cross-legged, he replied, “Ahmose son of Amram accepts the hospitality of Jahleel and prays the favor of the God of Joseph be upon his house.”

The glances that darted among Jahleel and his cronies, rejoined now by the first man, confirmed for Ahmose the correctness of his greeting.  No one could possibly keep track of the roundabout names each tribe used to refer to its particular nameless deity, but the Simeonites were numerous enough in the delta for Ahmose to have gathered some information about their particular traditions.

Clapping his hands once, Jahleel said,  “We will share bread.”

Almost immediately a girl appeared from behind the curtain to the women’s quarters, carrying one of the disks of unleavened bread favored by the Bedouin.  She knelt beside Jahleel and handed him the flat cake, egg-great eyes stealing quick looks at Ahmose.  She had been hastily dressed in her finery, such as it was, and Ahmose had little trouble guessing what would come next.  This was becoming almost as much a part of his meeting ritual with these Habiru leaders as the bread breaking.

The girl disappeared back behind the curtain, and Jahleel began tearing the bread in pieces.  Ahmose accepted the first chunk and began to chew.  No serious business could be conducted until he had a token of Jahleel’s hospitality within his belly.

Custom did not, however, stop Jahleel from pursuing what was so obviously on his mind.

“My youngest daughter,” he said around a mouthful of bread.  “A delicate blossom, you would agree?  And not yet married.”

“She is certainly a rare flower of the desert,” replied Ahmose.  He gulped down the chewed bread, which fell towards his stomach like a stone.  “The man who takes her to wife would be most fortunate.”  And most fortunate the Habiru chief who has the Lord Moses as his son-in-law!

Jahleel grinned and clapped his hands again.  The girl returned with a set of tiny bronze cups and an earthenware jug, which she placed before her father.  Ahmose judged her to be no more than fourteen and had to admit that she was in fact attractive.  That beauty would be quickly ground away by the harsh Bedouin life, but for the moment she would certainly be a pleasant night’s diversion.  After a bath of course.

Ahmose realized with a start that he was staring at the girl, who had begun to giggle under his obvious scrutiny.  Jahleel, who had missed none of this, sent her off with a small motion of his hand and proceeded to pour the wine, smiling even more broadly now.  He passed the first cup to Ahmose and opened his mouth to speak, only to be forestalled by his guest.

“Yes,” said Ahmose quickly, “a beauty indeed.  I might almost wish that I were not already pledged to my lovely Ahouri.”

Ahouri was in fact a convenient fabrication, an invented fiancée, who allowed Ahmose to deal with just these situations without risking any offense to the ever touchy Bedouin chiefs.  Ahmose had once even had a female friend from Pi-Ramessu visit him at the building site in order to give more substance to his shadowy bride-to-be.  It was of course a lie, but better a small lie, a tiny tweaking of ma’at, than possibly creating more difficulties with Jahleel.  Osiris the Judge understood such things.  And it was not as if the Habiru were themselves the world’s greatest truth tellers.

Jahleel looked crestfallen, and Ahmose hurried on to a new subject.  Draining the cup of vinegary wine that was no doubt his host’s best beverage, he unslung the flask he had carried from Tjou.  Small grunts of anticipated pleasure followed his arm as he filled the extended cups.  The impoverished Habiru rarely tasted any strong drink other than the cheap beer made and consumed in vast quantities by Egyptian farmers.  The fine delta vintage would be wasted on coarse Bedouin tongues, but the gesture would not go unnoticed.

“My gift to you,” he said, setting the wine down before Jahleel.

“I am not worthy of the honor the Lord Moses does me,” replied Jahleel without the slightest trace of humility in his voice.

“Can the hospitality and friendship of the chief of all the Simeonites be measured by one such small token?”

Jahleel spread his hands and nodded his head, accepting the flattery.  Ahmose was aware of at least two others in the eastern delta who claimed leadership of the Simeonites, but he knew well that nothing was so important to the Habiru as their tribal politics, which in practice seemed to mean little more than constant feuding.  It was in all probability a Habiru weapon that had left its mark on his host’s face.

Jahleel sipped his wine and smiled at Ahmose.  The formalities were concluded, but he waited a moment before inviting his guest to serious conversation.  It was not often that he had the chance to keep an Egyptian waiting, even a phony Egyptian like Moses.

“What business brings the Lord Moses to this poor encampment?” he asked innocently.

“I had heard,” replied Ahmose dryly, “that little happens in Goshen that does not reach the ears of Jahleel.”  He used the Habiru name for the area from Pi-Sopdu to Tjeku.

Jahleel shrugged.  “‘Honor the God and keep watch on the horizon.’  But is a poor desert chief to know all the affairs of the mighty Egyptians?”

“A chief who wishes to protect his people from the wrath of those mighty Egyptians will know of this particular affair.”

Ignoring the other men, Jahleel refilled his guest’s cup and then his own, deliberately drawing the operation out into a lengthy ritual.  He leaned back and smiled at Ahmose, dark eyes meeting gray with no hesitation.

“How could the mighty Egyptians be concerned about the trivial affairs of the tribe of Simeon?  Are not all desert folk beneath their notice?”  The smile was a grin.  He was clearly enjoying the exchange.

Ahmose was not.  His capacity for this verbal game playing was limited at best, and at this particular time he was certainly not at his best.  He was alert enough, but a headache was beginning to take shape out of his fatigue and the close atmosphere in the tent.  The old man knew exactly why he was here, but Bedouin custom dictated a preliminary bout of rhetorical sparring, a certain indirect approach to the issue.  That he was being subtly insulted, he knew, but such hardly bothered him anymore.  It was the damn waste of time that was maddening.  With his patience ebbing he called silently upon Thoth to shore up his self-control.

“Pharaoh watches over all that lives in the Two Lands, both the great and the completely insignificant.”  Two can play at this, my friend.

“Who can doubt that the king commands all his creatures?”  Jahleel immediately shot back.

“Indeed.  Those that fly in the skies, those that swim in the river and even those that crawl in the desert.”

Jahleel gave a barely perceptible nod, still smiling.  Brushing a fly from before his face, Ahmose continued.

“The son of Re speaks and the land listens, for it is he who brings order and righteousness.”  The Canaanite tongue had no single word for ma’at.  “He is the life of the Two Lands, the father by whose dealings all men live…and labor.”

“Some, it seems, must labor more than others for this son of Re,” replied Jahleel, his tone sitting ill with his smile.

“All who live in Egypt work for Pharaoh, whether they farm his land or sculpt his image or build his granaries.  Do you think only Habiru dwell in the delta or even in Goshen?  Is it only Canaanite hands that set brick upon brick in Tjou?  Does the tribe of Simeon alone sweat while others watch?”

“Does the tribe of Simeon choose to build royal granaries?  Has the God of our fathers commanded us to labor for Pharaoh?  Are we Egyptians?”  His eyes were flashing over the frozen smile.

Ahmose ignored the insult.  He had heard this argument before from every lazy Habiru seeking to justify his idleness.

“The gods grant it to few men to choose their labor.  The Nine Gods mark out the paths of all in the Two Lands.  We have little choice in determining.”

“You have little choice.  We have none.”  The slightest anger was now slipping through Jahleel’s composure.  “The Lord Moses does well by the Egyptians, but do the purses of my people jingle with payment for their labor?  Does the tribe of Simeon wear linen and drink only wine?  But perhaps we do not understand.  Is the granary we build to be ours to use when it is complete?”

“You understand well enough.  The men who work at Tjou are fed well, sparing you the produce of your flocks and gardens.  Those who come from a distance are given shelter.  And what of this?”  Ahmose waved an arm towards the open front of the tent.  “Pharaoh has granted the Habiru tribes this land for their houses of hair and their animals.  Have the Simeonites encountered such hospitality elsewhere in their wanderings?”

“Hospitality?!” replied Jahleel with a single barking laugh.  “We are held captive in a foreign land, forced to labor at the whim of a foreign king and his foreign gods.  We are nothing more than slaves of the Pharaoh you regard so well.”

“Perhaps the tribe of Simeon does not understand exactly how the life of a slave differs from the life of a free man?” said Ahmose coolly.

Jahleel took the hint.  After a moment he said calmly “Goshen is a hard place, despised by even the poorest Egyptians.  It is not our home.”

“The desert is an even harder place, if that is your home.  And I suppose it must be, because I have not heard of any in the farmlands and cities of Canaan who welcome the Habiru and call them brothers.”

Jahleel sat up straighter, and Ahmose instantly regretted his mention of the desert, as the chieftain launched into a familiar litany.

“But the desert is pure, the home of our God.  We are cleansed by its harshness, and its hot winds are the breath of the God, which blows away the stink and corruption of the cities.  No wall crosses the sands, and no official puts his hand upon your purse.  There a man is free.”

Ahmose had heard dozens of versions of this Bedouin hymn to the desert.  He remembered as a child listening to his own grandfather drone on about the purity and beauty of the sandy wastes, unforgiving of a son who had sacrificed his freedom to settle as a merchant in Pi-Ramessu.  Ahmose had first sided with the old warrior, fascinated by his endless store of tales of battle and adventure, but once grown and educated he thanked the gods his father had rescued him from a life of ignorance and aimlessness.  True, he often enough recalled his grandfather and his songs of the desert, especially when the stacks of papyrus were threatening to bury him and yapping bureaucrats were nipping at his legs.  It was then he perhaps heard the faint call of his Habiru ancestors and for a moment looked with a small envy at the simple herdsman wandering the fringes of the Red Land.

But the feeling always quickly evaporated, as intellect easily overcame blood.  The Bedouin life was mean and unproductive and more often than not meant suffering for their settled neighbors.  And Ahmose knew well that the constant praise of the purity and freedom of the desert was a demonstration of an inevitable human inclination – make a virtue of what you have.  The Habiru possessed little more than the desert, and so the desert was their inspiration and source of goodness, the home of their anonymous gods.

“The desert has its attractions, I agree,” said Ahmose.  “But it would seem the Habiru are attracted also to the city, for all its stink and corruption.”  He fixed Jahleel with a gray stare.  “Listen, chief of the Simeonites.  Your people came to this place freely, during hard times.  Here you find water and pasture and even arable land.  That your sons should in return help in building Pharaoh’s monuments does not seem particularly unjust.  In truth, Jahleel, would you find such a reception anywhere in Canaan?”

“How others would receive us is not the question,” replied Jahleel, anger spilling around his words.  “Here is where we are forced to labor that ill suits our men and keeps them from their flocks.  Here is where we are beaten and treated no better than dung underfoot.”

“Do not play with me, Jahleel.”  Ahmose’s voice was low.  “Your animals are cared for by your women, whether you be in Goshen or the desert.  And you know none in my gangs is beaten unless it is deserved.  Do you claim the Simeonites have not been treated fairly by me?”

“No one can deny the Lord Moses protects his people, as well as he might.  But we do not wish to be here.”

“You came here in the first place, did you not?”

“And now we want only to leave.  Surely the Lord Moses can understand.  We can not survive without freedom.”  Voice rising, he swept his arm in an arc.  “This land imprisons us.  It dulls us and corrupts us.  Our men go whoring after perverse pleasures and forget the ways that sustain us.  Our face is turned from the God, who is the protection of the tribe of Simeon.  Give us our freedom.”

Ahmose fought to keep his own voice from rising.  His head was pounding, and the composure he usually had little trouble maintaining during these endless arguments was crumbling fast.  The solar bark was a barely remembered dream.

“Freedom?  Yes, I understand well how the Habiru require freedom.  The freedom to raid caravans in Sinai.  The freedom to attack settlements in the oases and steal from the towns in Canaan.  You destroy and create chaos and call that freedom.  Your freedom rests on the misery of others.”

“You accuse us falsely, Lord Moses,” protested Jahleel.  “Other tribes commit these crimes.  Everyone knows the Danites and the Calabites are bandits and…”

“No doubt,” interrupted Ahmose sharply, cutting off another familiar litany.  “But that is not our concern.  Those who assault the right way of things will feel Pharaoh’s anger.  Our concern…rather, your concern is the labor quota of the Simeonites.  In the past ten-day you have consistently fallen short by at least twenty workers and in the previous by a dozen.  This can not be allowed to continue.”

Jahleel looked offended.  “We are not to blame.  Our tribe is small and the quota is too high.  Many of our men have been injured performing these unfamiliar tasks, and many are now sick and unfit.  We are not accustomed to the corruption of these settled lands and weaken easily.”

Sighing inwardly, Ahmose reminded himself how essential lying was to the desert culture.  He had come to realize that his grandfather could no more tell the undistorted truth than he could read.  It was like breathing to these people, it came so naturally.  Whether or not they actually wanted to hide something seemed to make little difference.  Even in honest dealing the Bedouin approach to communication was circuitous and ornate; a direct and unadorned statement was as rare as a bearded Egyptian.  Ahmose wondered if it was a reaction to the desert itself, whose truth was often fatal in its directness.  Perhaps rhetorical subtlety was a response to a life and environment that were brutal in their lack of subtlety.

Or perhaps the gods just made them all born liars, considered Ahmose.  In any case he had had enough.  Leaning forward slightly, he spoke in an almost casual tone.  “Do you wish your sons to work shifts in the brick pits?”

Jahleel showed no response, but Ahmose knew the threat had registered.  He leaned back on his hands.  “Then cease these games.  In the past month two of your men have received minor injury.  Is this what Jahleel considers ‘many’?”

He looked from Jahleel to the others, who had remained silent through the exchange.  “Have you perhaps forgotten life in the labor gangs in the old days, under Egyptian overseers?”

“We praise the God,” answered Jahleel quickly, “for sending one of our own to watch over us.  As He is our strength in this bondage, so is the Lord Moses our shield.  All the Simeonites know this.  But we are few, and the demands of the Egyptians are great.  Too great.”

“Do not take me for a smooth-head,  Jahleel.  I know exactly the number of fit workers in your tribe, and that number includes the men who have spent their days drunk in Tjeku.”

The old man’s eyebrows lifted ever so slightly.  Got you there, you old bandit.

Ahmose allowed himself a thin smile.  “Yes, all Habiru look alike to the Egyptians.  But am I an Egyptian?”

“Are you?” asked Jahleel quietly.

It was Ahmose’s turn to raise his eyebrows.  The smile disappeared and his voice went completely cold.  “It is fortunate for the Simeonites that by birth at least I am not.  An Egyptian overseer would have had those men in Tjeku beaten and sent to the construction site in chains.  And you, Jahleel, would have been arrested and your tribe faced with a higher quota of workers.  You have been in Goshen longer than I and can hardly have failed to learn these things.  Egyptian patience with the Habiru is limited severely by their contempt, while mine is expanded by my interest in completing my work in the most efficient manner.  But I warn you, do not presume to take advantage of that patience or my family background.  I have been harsh and will be again.”

For all that the afternoon sun was beating down on the black cloth, the atmosphere in the tent was suddenly chill.  The men were motionless, figures in a tomb painting, it seemed to Ahmose, and the rustles and whispers coming from behind the partition ceased, as if the women too understood the seriousness of the situation.  The bleating of a goat tethered just outside the tent assumed a central role in an abruptly quiet world.

I’m in worse shape than I realized, thought Ahmose, massaging a forehead hammering with pain.  I’m letting this little turd goad me into acting like some Egyptian overseer and making blatant threats.

He knew well enough that the circuitous Bedouin way could be made only so straight and the direct path of overt intimidation led to the inefficient, lash driven gangs found at other sites.  But the fatigue and headache were clouding his judgment and undermining his control.  His desire to be done with this business and quit this sweltering coffin of a tent was fast becoming a need.  The sweet joy of the vision by the canal was completely gone now, and that only increased his impatience with these slippery barbarians.

He looked into his wine cup and forced a smile onto his face.  A trickle of sweat crept out of his left armpit and began an excruciatingly slow journey down his side.

“We understand each other, Jahleel.  I know you will do what is best for your people, for such is your leadership, praised by all the Simeonites.  From me you may expect fair treatment and the respect due the chief of the Simeonites.  Can you deny I have always treated thus with you?”

Frustrated, but cowed by the reality of Ahmose’s power over his tribe and himself, Jahleel silently shook his head.

“Then swear me an oath that you will meet your quotas, and this entire matter will be forgotten.”

Jahleel looked up and immediately began a solemn intonation.  “Jahleel, son of Abinoam, chief of all the Simeonites, swears that he will…”

Ahmose stopped him with an upraised hand.  “I said swear me an oath, not make vague promises,” he said, the hard edge slipping back into his voice.

Ahmose rose to his feet, a little too quickly.  For a moment he swooned, but the relentless pain behind his eyes anchored him in consciousness.  Steadying himself, he lifted the front of his shift to his knees.

“Swear me an oath.”

Anger and pride were strong in Jahleel’s eyes, but as he stood, his body and his movement conveyed some of the resignation hidden behind the bearded mask of his face.  He faced Ahmose squarely and stared directly into his eyes, saying nothing.  After the briefest hesitation he reached quickly under the shift with his right hand and grabbed the other’s genitals.

Ahmose had received and in fact given this powerful Bedouin oath before, but the strangeness of it still caught him.  He was acutely aware of the pressure of Jahleel’s fingers, grasping him through the thin linen of his loincloth.  It was a man’s hand; he could sense the strength of it.  Yet the sensation was not unpleasant.  Nor was it pleasant.  It was just odd and very vaguely erotic.

There was nothing erotic in the cold stare that grasped him as tightly as the hand between his legs.  Unintimidated, Ahmose stared back and waited, for all the tension of the moment unable to avoid thinking what a comic sight the two of them must have presented.  He was almost taken by surprise when Jahleel finally spoke, quickly spitting out the words as if they were bits of food gone rotten.

“Jahleel, son of Abinoam, chief of all the Simeonites, swears by the Lord God of the Simeonites that he will meet the requirements imposed upon his people by the Lord Moses.”

He immediately snatched his hand away, but his eyes maintained their defiant grip.  Ahmose nodded slightly and broke the eye contact first, willing to grant Jahleel that little victory.  Because he was outside the tribe and thus formally beyond the rules and honor operating among its members, the oath was not completely binding, but Jahleel would observe the pledge, at least for a time.  Not only was the oath, sworn in the name of his god and upon the seat of male potency, compelling, even in dealing with outsiders, but also the old warrior was no fool.  He knew from long experience in Goshen the power Ahmose could command and exactly how far he could push before that power was invoked.

He sank back down on the carpet, inevitably defeated in this skirmish with civilization, but with his dignity and defiance untouched.  Frustration and anger were usefully channeled into hate, and Ahmose felt Jahleel would at this moment gladly kill him were the circumstances different.  A young buck just out of the desert would in fact have already drawn a blade, but Jahleel was too full of years.  He was seething now, the proud Bedouin forced to acknowledge his subordination, but it would pass.  Bred to an accommodation with the unforgiving desert, Jahleel had over the years worked out an accommodation with the Egyptian delta.

Jahleel’s anger was of absolutely no concern to Ahmose.  His task was accomplished, and he wanted only to be out of this tomb of a tent and away from these barbarians.  He felt like gasping for air, and it seemed only the incessant hammering in his head stood between himself and unconsciousness.  Calling silently on Thoth, he forced his mind back into rough focus.

“Jahleel is indeed chief of the Simeonites, who must prosper under his leadership,” he said with even, deliberate words, which nevertheless sounded as hollow as they actually were.

The old Bedouin straightened and looked up at Ahmose, assaulting him with the anger in his eyes.  “As must those under the protection of the Lord Moses.”

And bugger you too, Jahleel.  “May the god of your fathers look after your house.”  He turned away before Jahleel could loose another shot and strode out of the tent.

Normally an irresistible goad to find shadow, the afternoon sun was almost refreshing to Ahmose, who sucked in the hot air like a pearl diver breaking the surface.  He headed immediately back along the path to the canal, pausing outside the camp only long enough to strip off the damp shift and bundle it on his head as a sun shade.  His legs felt boneless, but they functioned, even carrying him at a brisk pace.  Trivial discomforts like heat and exhaustion were obscured by the raging pain inside his skull.

But that too was more bearable, away from the damned Habiru.  And meanwhile this unpleasant business was done with, and he was on his way home to the blissful sleep that would soon smother the headache.  In time he would have to repeat this routine, either with Jahleel or some other chieftain, different from Jahleel only in name, but for the moment he was free.  He could think of no reason why his assistants could not survive the next day without him.

Besides, I have been praised by Pharaoh himself, he thought, suddenly recalling the auspicious beginning to the day.  But before he could savor that memory it was shoved aside by the one that came tumbling through the pain right behind it.  And specially marked by the gods!

The thought was a tonic.  Ahmose’s eyes brightened as he played back the vision by the canal, and the exhaustion and pain in his head withdrew to a further corner of his consciousness, passing annoyances.  What more could they be, when there might well be no more Jahleels in his life?  No more meaningless conversations and feigned politeness with petty bandit chieftains.  No more stinking Habiru!  It was a fine day indeed!

Once again that day an observer might have caught, just barely, a smile on the face of Ahmose son of Amram.

 

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