Embracing the Enemy
The sweat stung his eyes. Even though he sat in the shade of a large rock, the heat of the day bore down on him, seeking to drive him away. Back to where he belonged. And even though this land was all he had ever known, a far off land called for him with every beat of his heart. This was true of all his people. They did not belong here.
Jakob blinked the sweat from his eyes as he peered down the dusty trail.
He was waiting for Akman.
Jakob absent-mindedly swept away small stones from around his feet, quickly forming a neat clear surface around him. It came second nature to him now. This had been the first job he remembered being instructed in. Unsure just how old he had been when he first accompanied his father to the pits, Jakob tried to remember how many rainy seasons had passed since that first trip.
Seven or eight, he thought to himself, so maybe I was about three or four. This was the normal age for boys to accompany their father, dusting the earth of sticks and stones to form a clean surface on which the bricks could be formed. As the years passed and his strength grew, Jakob was given other small tasks, running messages for those who brought the straw, tending the sick or wounded, or cleaning out the moulds and stacking them to be used again. Jakob could remember his father’s strong back gleaming in the bright light of the Nile Delta, straining as he laboured in the clay pits of Egypt. His father was a strong man. A proud man. A man who was not only skilled in the art of forming bricks, but who knew the worth of building strategic relationships.
Jakob’s musing were broken with the sound of undergrowth being disturbed behind him. His breath caught. He should not be this close to the house. Tensed and bracing himself for the sting of a rod across his back, Jakob turned slowly, expecting to see the looming figure of a guard. Instead, his breath rushed from his lungs as he saw the old ewe stripping the few leaves from a nearby bush. He quickly scanned in each direction to be sure, doing a quick head-count as he went. Good, his little flock was all close by, and no-one could be seen in any direction.
Jakob stretched his legs as he strained his neck around the side of the rock. It was not unusual to wait a long time for Akman, he too needed to be careful who saw him walk this way.
While Jakob’s memory was not clear about the early days at the clay pits, he remembered as though it was only yesterday when he had first met Akman. It was three years ago, just a few months before the first rains. Jakob’s father had been assigned to the property of a great lord of this region, one who, as was often mentioned, had access to the property of the Pharaoh himself. It was not unusual for his father to be reassigned just before the rainy season. Jakob’s father was renowned for his ability to craft bricks in a fashion that could withstand even the heaviest storms, and many sought his work to prepare their homes for the season ahead of them. Jakob had seen many lavish homes, most of which contained additional properties to house livestock. At not quite twelve years old, Jakob would wonder why a camel or donkey would need a shelter that dwarfed his own home, which housed his Father and Mother, along with himself and his younger brother.
The day that Jakob met Akman was such a day as this. Never had Jakob seen such wealth flaunted for all to see. Even slaves here were dressed in finer cloth than he had ever seen before. The grounds of the compound were lush and green, and Jakob could see the canal that watered these grounds entering through the high wall on the east side, undoubtedly connected to one of the many waterways that found their life in the great river that ran through the heart of Egypt. From that day to this, Jakob had only seen their new master three times, yet each time had seared hatred into his heart. Their master was a cruel and fearful man. Many bore the marks of his indiscriminate punishment, meted out with no restraint. And while he seldom swung the whip on his own slaves in person, it was said that his eldest son was not spared the sting of his father’s wrath.
It had been on a warm evening as the light of day slipped over the horizon, that Jakob first saw Akman. A battered young boy, a thorn in the sole of his father’s foot, Akman had sought refuge outside the walls of his family compound. It was no place special really, just a slight depression in an otherwise flat landscape. It was against the very rock that Jakob now leant against that he had first seen Akmon, dirty tears drying on his face, red welts crossing his shoulders and arms. It was here, in a lonely and broken place, that two very different worlds converged, and a brotherhood was born.
As Jakob waited for Akman, he recalled the many times he had done this since that day. He recalled the laughter, and the tears. He remembered the questions they asked in order to understand, and the stories they told one another in an attempt to escape the walls that hemmed them in.
Now, again, he was waiting for Akman.
They had not seen each other for many weeks. Things were different now. The world as Jakob had known it was changing. As he reflected on what was happening to his world, Jakob watched the newest addition to his little flock pick itself nimbly around the rocks that littered the earth. Father had warned him to not get too close to the flock, but this one was different. The offspring of their finest ewe and strongest ram, the little lamb was noticeable from the moment of its birth. Perfect in every way, Jakob had taken a special interest in this little one. Travellers and merchants had told of places where Jehovah covered the earth in dazzling white, a colder substance than Jakob could even imagine. In honour of these stories, his little lamb had been named ‘Snow’. Every one of his little flock had names, and each would come to him if he called, but Snow was different. Snow would turn to him at the sound of his voice; would find shelter in his shadow during the heat of the day. Snow would make a great breeding ram one day, it was a lamb like this that could make a flock strong, bringing wealth to it’s owner.
Jakob smiled as he whispered Snow’s name, watching his little lamb turn and run to him. Placing his hand on the lamb’s head, he felt Snow press into him as if he too appreciated the friendship.
Jakob cared for all his father’s sheep.
But he loved this little lamb.
Jakob’s head whipped up to gaze down the path. Akman limped toward him, obviously with some discomfort, but with a smile on his face. Jakob’s face creased at his Egyptian friend, who was not too proud to address him in his own language.
“Shalom” came his reply.
Two boys from two worlds embraced.
“Have you been waiting long?”
“Since yesterday” teased Jakob, punching his friend in the arm, and then immediately wishing he hadn’t, as he saw pain arc across his friends face.
“I’m sorry Akman! Are they nearly healed?”
Akman raised his tunic to reveal festering scabs that still marked his body.
“They are getting better, though if someone punches one…”, and with that he swung an arm, smiling at Jakob.
Akman looked weak.
Things had been hard for the Egyptians lately. Akman’s family had not been spared.
Jakob took some bread from his little bag, broke it and passed it to Akman.
They sat comfortably together in silence as they ate.
“Tell me more of this man, Moses. Have you seen him yet?”
“My Father has.”, replied Jakob, “Father says he is sent by God”
“Which one?”, Akman questioned.
“Father says there is only one God, and that He does not live in a river or the sun or moon; that He fills the whole earth and the heavens, that He is known by the name, ‘YAHWEH'”
“What does that mean?”
Jakob simply shrugged his shoulders. There were many things he heard his father speak of that were difficult to understand. He glanced again at the sores that still inflicted his friend. He remembered seeing darkness stretching over the land. He recalled the great river running red.
“I don’t know. But I think it means He is powerful.”
The two boys continued to sit quietly as they finished their meagre meal. When the conversation continued, there was no mention of gods or plagues. If you had passed by that place, you would simply see two young boys playing like any two boys anywhere in the world. Stones were thrown. First to see who could throw the farthest, then to see who could hit a small rock balanced precariously on another. Jakob was by far the better arm of the two, but would try to encourage his friend by not winning too quickly or easily. The game ended when Snow wandered dangerously close to the ‘landing zone’ and Jakob feared his friend’s accuracy may prove fatal for his little lamb.
As the boys shared a few drops of water from a small skin Akman had brought with him, they laughed as they enjoyed the shade produced from the dropping sun. Their time was drawing to a close. Akman would soon be missed. Jakob had responsibilities to attend to.
They sat quietly together once again.
“Do you know what will happen next?”
Jakob had no reply.
He didn’t know what was happening. He could not warn his friend.
In a matter of months, Egypt had been all but brought to her knees. Jakob heard rumours of a great journey, that his family would join the others and return home.
He wondered what that was – where that was.
Jakob looked at his friend. He thought of Akman’s father, and all the others like him in this harsh land. He saw again the pride that burned in their eyes, even after all had been lost. He wondered if the Pharaoh would ever let his people just walk into the desert; would ever just let this ‘slave nation’ simply wander away.
Again there was silence between them.
“My father will be looking for me soon”, and as Akman spoke, Jakob could hear his voice tighten from fear. “He is taking me up the great river to seek out other markets, to replace the livestock we lost. We will be gone for the remainder of this week I think.”
Will you be home for the full moon festival?”
“I think so. We never miss it. Father is an important official and he will want to be seen by the people.”
“Then I will wait for you right here, the day after the full moon.”
Jakob carefully embraced his friend.
“Remember, I will be waiting for you.”
He waited till he could see Akman no more before calling his little flock. Checking that Snow was close by, he turned for home.
Onions and Garlic
Jakob sipped the thin watery broth that sat before him. The aroma of onions and garlic filled his nostrils, the same as it did every night. His stomach turned. He took another sip.
Though his memory of this evening ritual had no beginning, something else was different tonight.
Jakob glanced to the corner of their cramped living quarters. As was normally the case, his younger brother lay sleeping on a rough mat, wrapped in strips of rag his mother had collected over the years.
His father’s weathered face bowed slightly over his bowl, his eyes tired, but lit with a proud flicker.
Jakob’s eyes continued to travel the room, searching, probing to see what was different about this otherwise ordinary night. Then from the corner of his vision, he saw his mother’s eyes flit nervously between his father and he.
Jakob held his breath.
His heart beat seemed to echo from the walls back at him.
His mind raced, Have I been sold? he thought. Am I to leave my father’s house?
Sensing his sudden discomfort, Jakob’s mother spoke quietly, but suddenly.
“You must tell the boy.”
His father simply nodded, then took another sip.
Onions and garlic.
“I have been to see Moses.”
“While you were tending the sheep this afternoon. He called a meeting of the family heads. I was selected to go. I heard him speak with my own ears. There will be one more plague.”
Jakob’s mind raced.
One more plague? What could it be?
How much worse could it get? Would Akman be alright?
“Did Moses say what it would be?”
His father’s eyes lifted briefly from his broth to glance at Jakob’s mother, then quickly returned to where they had gazed. His mother’s eyes turned down, glistening wet in the flickering light of the single candle that lit their meagre room.
“Jakob, you will need to select a lamb from the flock, the best we have. It will need to be without blemish. Do you understand? This is very important. It must be spotless. Do you have such a lamb?”
“Yes father, I have Snow.”
“Good. Tomorrow is the tenth day of the month, you must set it aside then. Tend to it carefully. Ensure it is not harmed. It can live in here with us. For now, it will be as part of our family.”
“For how long, father?”
Jakob’s father’s eyes lifted briefly to meet his own; they shone with unfamiliar wetness.
“Four days. It will live with us four days.”
All was quiet now.
Just before dawn was his favourite time of the day. His imagination roamed the hills and valleys of some far off place that called to him in deep and soulful tones, ignoring the pressing realities of clay-pits, singing rods that bit and tore, plagues and forbidden friends.
Jakob shifted on his thin mat, adjusting the pressure on his side, hoping he hadn’t disturbed the young lamb. Snow had taken to sleeping close to Him through the night, finding comfort in his warmth as he adjusted to life away from his mother and the unusual surroundings of the house.
Jakob’s hand rested gently on Snow’s head. The soft warmth, now so familiar to him, spoke to him of connection and friendship. It reminded him of the cycle of life and the purpose of existence. It heralded a message that even in the harshest realities of suffering, comfort can be known.
Tonight the plague would come.
If his father knew of this plague, he had not told Jakob what was to come. Instead, each day he checked that Jakob was caring well for the little lamb. He had forbidden Jakob to fulfill his usual duties, demanding that he remain in careful watch over Snow; reminding him constantly of the necessity that this little lamb be kept perfect. “Spotless”, he would say, “Without blemish”. Jakob wondered at the tone of desperation in his father’s voice.
He thought too of his mother, and while he had never doubted his mother’s love for him, he noted the increased show of affection toward him; where stealing a glance toward her, he saw the anguished longing in her eyes.
Jakob wondered about the plague. What was coming?
Jakob counted the nights that had passed since he had last seen his friend. The full moon festival was tonight. Tomorrow he would once again see his friend.
The sounds of the waking household drifted through the thin curtain that hung loosely beside his mat, signaling the end of his solitary wandering and marking the beginning of his labours. Snow lifted his head, no longer afraid of the strange household noises that once made him run for cover; turning his eyes toward his master he stood quickly to his feet. Jakob gently ran his fingers through Snow’s woolen coat and felt the lamb press warmly back into his hand. With one last playful tussle, Jakob strode out into the day.
“Is the lamb with you?”, came his father’s thick morning voice.
“Yes father – Why are you not at the pits, you are normally gone before I rise?”
“I will never go to the pits again. The guards are still weak and fearful, they will not come. Besides, I have much to do today, much to prepare.”
“Prepare? Prepare for what?”
“A feast – tonight we will feast. Then after we have feasted, we will throw ourselves upon the mercy of the God of our Fathers.”
Jakob had heard of feasts. Akman had told him of the great banquets held in his father’s house, of meat and fruits, of sweet breads and spiced wine. Jakob had often dreamed of them as he sat with his family sipping his watery broth made with onions and garlic.
Had some great fortune befallen them? Had his father won the favour of an Egyptian lord?
Where was the food? What meat would they eat?
Jakob tried to recall when he had last eaten meat. Scattered fragments of distant memories blew through his mind.
He shook his head. What did it matter?
What a tale he would have to tell Akman tomorrow. The joy of telling him would make waiting all the more bearable.
Jakob busied himself for a good portion of the day. Between the chores his father set for him and tending to Snow, the day had almost spent itself before Jakob had had a chance to consider the words of his father that morning.
‘…we will throw ourselves upon the mercy of the God of our Fathers.’
Jakob wondered what those words meant. Jakob had never heard of Akman’s gods having mercy.
What sort of god was the God of our Fathers?
As the afternoon shadows drew longer across the scarred land of the once mighty Egypt, Jakob found work to do that put him close by his father, who had been busily collecting their few belonging and binding them together in a fashion Jakob had seen the caravaners doing in the marketplace.
“Father… has Moses told you of the plague?”
“Did he tell you what would happen?”
Jakob’s father turned to face him, his busy hands now still except for a slight tremor.
“Come, walk with me a while. Bring the lamb.”
Father and son walked in silence for a while, and quietly, just a step behind them, walked a small white lamb. They found a cool place to sit in the fading light of the afternoon just near the smooth flat rock Jakob’s mother used to grind the grain.
After a few minutes of quiet reflection, Jakob’s father spoke.
“Tonight, the final plague will be poured out across our lands. All the others we have been spared from. YAHWEH in His mercy shielded us from His wrath as He struck our captors. But tonight will be different. Tonight, a Destroyer from the throne room of the heavens will be unleashed – he will bring his sickle and reap a harvest of death and destruction like this land has never seen.”
Here his father paused and looked hard into Jakob’s face, “All this land, my son, even ours.”
Jakob could not breath. His chest seemed unable to move.
How could this be? We have always been spared the plagues. How can we escape such a judgement?
As he watched the final light of the sun strike the distant hills, Jakob saw his mother walking out to meet them. In one hand she held her largest bowl, the one she used to make their evening broth, in the other she carried a knife.
Snow pressed his head into Jakob’s hand. Once again he felt the comfort of his soft wool and the warmth of this little lamb’s friendship.
As he found his voice he asked, “Father, are we all to die? Is that why we will feast tonight?”
“One day we shall all pass from this earth, but tonight, the Destroyer only comes for one from each family. My son, tonight he comes for you – for every first-born across these lands.”
Though the air was still warm, Jakob felt suddenly cold. Death had reached out his fingers and gripped his young heart. Through tears he could see the Destroyer, filling the doorway of heaven, sitting atop a great pale horse. But as terror racked his body he heard his father quickly speak again.
“Son, be still. Our God has made a way.”
“Though the thief comes to destroy, by God’s grace, he will pass over us this night.”
“Our God has made a way.”
As his mother soothed his fears and wiped his tears, Jakob watched as his father carefully picked up the little lamb. As he tenderly held it, he spoke softly, “Son, someone must die tonight – it has been decreed – but tonight, another will die in your place.”
For the first time in Jakob’s life, he saw tears stream untamed down his father’s face. And though the lamb showed no sign of fear, or struggled in any way, Jakob reached out his trembling hand and placed it on his little friend’s head.
As a crimson stain spread onto the stone in the growing darkness of the evening, a boy and his father wept together.
Waiting for Akman
No sweat stung his eyes this time, it was still too early for the heat of the day to torment him.
He was not hiding behind his rock, he had no fear now.
He had faced the Destroyer. He had heard him at the threshold, had seen the lintels tremble. And while he had spent most of the night without sleep, he was not afraid.
Jakob recalled the crimson stain on the killing stone. He saw now the same stain darkening on the frames of his door.
He heard again the words of Moses as his father whispered them through the darkness of the night, “YAHWEH will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your house to strike you”, over and over he whispered these words through the long hours, gripping Jakob tightly as if to shield him. But there was no need. The blood of the lamb had stood over me, Jakob thought to himself.
Jakob held a light staff. His father’s flock stood close by him as if expectant of the journey that lay before them, all except the lamb he loved, the lamb that had died in his place.
Tears once again found a home in his eyes, this time welling up in gratitude for the sacrifice and thankfulness to God for His mercy.
Jakob blinked the water from his eyes as he peered down the dusty trail.
The only signs of life were the distant sounds of countless mothers grieving.
His father beckoned from the hill above him, they were the last family to leave.
Jakob was still waiting for Akman.