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It was a monster gale, out of season, that swooped out of the night with no warning. The sail snagged and tore as we pulled it down and the crew struggled at the oars to keep us pointing into waves that seemed to come from multiple directions, like a cat to22ying with a rat. We lost Old Hermes first, he was at the rudder when the storm came up and he was still shouting warnings and orders and curses when a wave lifted him out and over the side. He was never easy to get along with, anyway, always trying to tell us about doing things the Greek way by which he meant the right way. He was an ugly old pus and the boys never gave him a moment’s thought.
We were carrying wheat west to Tarshish in a guaranteed trouble-free cash in the pouch run. No trouble in that month on that route since my grandfather’s time. Someone had ticked off somebody’s gods, and the captain was going to find them and send them after Hermes with his own hands. He lunged from man to man on the rolling deck confronting each one.
“Pray to your gods! Deliver us from this doom!” he demanded.
“Set the great and mighty murdered his own brother for the sake of a throne, what possible great, vast, secret reservoir of love and comfort could you expect to find there?” Nobby replied.
“Just do it, damn you!” he shouted.
“And you?” captain glared angrily at Ash.
“Nobby is right. Hadad does not care about us, either. He raises storms to draw Ashtoreth away from El to his dark bed. Now El, in his jealous rage, raises even mightier storms to shame Hadad and frighten Ashtoreth into fidelity.”
“I don’t intend to die over some stupid woman,” he screamed, his voice becoming raw. “Pray!”
The spinning began again, providing a respite from the captain’s tirade while he ordered the oarsmen and rudder and pointed us back into the waves.
Then he came to Cag and fixed his eyes in barely controlled fury, displaying the veins of his neck.
“Mighty Marduk, sir! I have him right here. His power flows from Babylon to all the world. He will surely deliver us from this storm of storms despite all gods that would say him nay.” Cag thrust forth a small stone doll vividly painted to receive the captain’s awe and admiration.
The captain stopped for a moment of unaccustomed thought. And then tacked in a different direction.
“And how have you offended him that he brings us now to such violent ruin?”
“Well…it has been awhile since my last meat sacrifice…”
The captain slapped him hard, and then the deck as well. He stomped from man to man, demanding to know what god they had angered and how to placate them, interrupted only by spinning and some of the taller waves. With luck, Hermes might soon have company in the dark court of Yam.
Finally, Abu, the cook’s boy, remembered the passenger. Nobody ever booked passage with the captain. The ship was old, and the men were always arguing in broken Aramaic because we all came from different peoples, but when this hill rat heard we were bound for far Tarshish, he paid triple and kissed the captain. Obviously, he had offended someone important at court.
“He is below deck with the wheat, hiding like a worm, captain!”
This caught the captain short. The passenger paid half upfront, the rest to be paid on arrival. We rolled like yokes in a skillet, blinded by the lightning and deafened by the thunder, holding onto the deck for all our worth. But when things calmed a little the captain had a plan.
“The gods themselves will reveal the cursed one,” he declared.
He went from man to man having each draw a string from his fist. The passenger was sleeping, and the captain came to him last.
“Good sir, awake,” the captain implored, nudging his shoulder. Even in fiercest panic, paying customers were paying customers.
“We have asked the gods to show us who has offended them to bring this storm upon us and drawn lots so they might point the offender out.”
“And?” the passenger replied in sleepy wariness.
“And you have drawn the long string. What have you done to offend the gods?”
“I have done nothing, I assure you. Literally nothing.”
“There must be something?”
“Well. my Lord, the Most High, Ancient of Days, did say for me to go to Nineveh.”
“But we are bound for Tarshish, the other end of the world.”
“I don’t like Nineveh. Nasty, nasty, cruel people.”
“And it appears your god is insisting.”
“Nineveh has visited horrors uncountable throughout the world. My family and my city lost to their predations.”
“And, so, your god surely wishes you to somehow visit his wrath on this vile place.”
“Not exactly. Mine is the one true Lord of the heavens and earth, not one of your ridiculous dolls hidden in your dirty pockets. He would bring ruin upon the people of Nineveh, but he would rather work to bring them to His way.”
We were now in two feet of water and all the crew was either rowing or bailing. But the captain was captured by the passenger’s tale.
“Friend,” plied the captain. “You may have overlooked the small matter of the current weather, but I assure you that there are more important issues before us at the moment than your grudge, however righteous and justified, with great and powerful Nineveh. Your god is obviously so powerful, perhaps you might reconsider? If not for your sake, for the sake of myself and my humble crew?”
I took the captain aside. I knew his covetous mind was firmly fixed on securing the rest of that passage payment, but if matters were as the passenger presented them, we were in a tricky situation indeed.
“Forget the payment,” I pleaded. “This storm is following him, not us. If we toss him into the sea, Yam is happy, his lord is happy, and we might survive the night.”
“If he is right, and his god is half of what he says he is, and he may be if this storm is an indication, then I would not want to be the man that lays hands on him, much less that does him harm.”
The captain had a point. I hid my surprise.
“Tell me of your extraordinary god, then. Show us your idol, surely it must be a fine and splendid thing for such a great god.”
“No idols. My Lord is the uncreated creator of all things, pure spirit, not mere creations or, to be blunt, empty statues. Any idol would reduce Him to a shape, like a mere creature. It would be unthinkable. He commands us:
“Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.”
He spoke so calmly of this madness in the midst of imminent death that it was entrancing, but for the water lapping at my knees and the rolling of the hull.
“If you have no idol, where do you direct your prayers and sacrifices?” the captain asked.
“There is the Temple, high in blessed Jerusalem among the clouds. There rests his mercy seat.”
“If he has no shape, what use does he have for a seat?”
“It is symbolic, a throne fashioned for the king of the universe as He instructed us so as to teach us. There and there only He has promised to be present for worship and sacrifice.”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “One temple? Are your god’s followers so poor? Has his greatness impoverished he worshippers? Perhaps he and Marduk are competing to determine which is the most rapacious, though I suspect Marduk is far, far ahead.”
The passenger smiled wryly. “Mock Him at your great peril, friend. He holds all of your days in the palm of His hand.”
“I appear to be running short,” I replied as another gush of water poured in.
“Not if he has plans for you.”
The captain had heard enough.
“But he has plans for you, does he not?” the captain demanded. “If you invite his wrath you will not drag my men and my ship down with you,” he screamed in full fit.
Then he grabbed the passenger by his fine cloak, dragged him up to the deck, and hurled him overboard with great delight.
To general surprise, the storm calmed to a mere shower soon after as we bailed and rowed and sought after leaks. As I collapsed in my hammock my last thought was, which god had won?
It was months later, I woke on a sweet green hill outside of Nineveh. There was a goose egg on the side of my head and bruises in places mentionable and not. We had gotten in the night before and with pay in my pocket I went looking for refreshment and comity. This night I settled on the comity of a buxom lass with a shy grin and knowing eyes. I paid no mind as a fight broke out and the watch came in, we were in a quiet corner and the tab was paid and my bottle wasn’t empty, yet. She suggested we leave but I saw no need. Then she moved to go and I held her arm, when the world blinked briefly. I rose, turning. There were three watchmen, the nearest wielding a full bottle like a club.
The bottle matched a new groove in my skull.
I had overlooked the lass’ dalliance with the bottling watchman, having just met and all and not yet having gotten around to discussing the inevitable complications that come with buxom lasses.
I ran through the “amenities” district and out another lass’ window down the city wall to safety. The watch, being on duty, would need a better cause to pursue beyond the walls,
I walked a little way and slept the sleep of a drunk who expertly escaped the watch.
“You there,” a neighbor called as the sun popped into view.
“Do I know you?”
I was distracted by the fur on my tongue and my hands cast about for a bottle.
“You are the blasphemer! You mocked my Lord and so now you find yourself at the anus of the universe.”
“You were a passenger whose ludicrous pride demanded a shortening of your passage. But…wasn’t this the very place you were determined to not visit?”
“True. In a completely unexpected development, the Lord of all creation has managed to get his way. He provided the passage himself. It was very efficient, though not as luxurious as your fine ship.”
“I would ask how you survived the storm, but I have had more than my fill of fish tales, lately. Still, why are you sitting on a grassy hill with a tent outside the greatest city you are dedicated to avoiding?”
“My Lord demanded that I deliver His word to the city, which I have now done. He has said that if the city does not take His word to heart, He will annihilate it as He did Sodom and Gomorrah ages ago. I have brought bread, smoked fish, wine, a copy of interesting parts from Bereshis, and papyrus for making a record of my mission.
“You are welcome to join me. I believe this is a safe distance, and it is an excellent view of the city. I am very much looking forward to this.”Published in