Shelach by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Shelach: The Spy and the Shepherdess

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to scout the land of Canaan…send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a prince among them.’…When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negev Desert and into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?

–Num. 13: 1, 17-18


I am Yerubaalah bat Gadi—my brothers call me Bilbul for short, probably because I talk so much—and I work as a shepherd to my father Gadi’s flocks. My four older brothers are all farmers, which they constantly remind me is more “modern,” whatever that means, but I prefer the ways of my grandmother and great-grandmother, after whom I was named. When I was little, my mother and auntie tried to teach me to fetch and carry water in pots they made from sun-dried clay, but I had no interest; I preferred to run outside and play when they were not watching.

“You must beat her, Gadi!” my mother would scold my father, “Or she’ll never amount to anything.”

But I was the baby of the family, and my father’s princess, and he could never bear to lay a hand on me. “Bilbula is my jewel,” Papa would say, “and I must guard her like the diamond she is. One day, a tall, strong Girgashite warrior will beg my permission to  take her to be his bride.”

I didn’t like being spoken of like a precious bit of property, but neither did I wish to be beaten with a willow switch—I had already seen the red stripes on my brothers’ backs when they pushed the plow or scythed the wheat too slowly for Papa’s liking—so I kept my peace.

When the time came for me to choose a profession—getting married was out of the question: all the suitors who came to our house were slow, stupid, or worse—my brothers decided that I would be the one who stayed at home, remain a spinster, and care for our parents into their old age. I did not like to think of their getting old, but both Mama and Papa were young, it seemed to me—they had married at their parents’ behest when Mama was barely twelve, and Papa sixteen—so I put it out of mind.

“Sweet, little Bilbul,” said Mama to me one day, while she was kneading matzo-cakes and I was gazing out the window to the far-off Mountains of Moab, “what do you wish to do with your life?”

Not slave for a man, as you do, Mother, cooking and cleaning and scouring the house, I thought to myself, but was careful not to say it out loud.

Instead, I replied, “Perhaps become a shepherd—yes! That would suit me well, I believe.”

Mother looked puzzled, at first—“Why not a farmer, like your brothers?”

I shook my head firmly.

And so, Mother finally shrugged, and said, “I will ask your father my husband, Gadi ben Yaray-Baal.”

And so, Mama and Papa took a few lambs and calves from our family flock, and my eldest brother Suseel cut me a blackthorn shepherd’s-crook. I betook myself to the rich green pastures outside our walled city. Was I bored? You may think so, City-Dwelling Stranger, but I assure you that I was not. I kept a sharp eye on my foolish little charges, made certain that they had fresh water to drink—there was a fresh spring close by. It wasn’t all fun: I fought off a few jackals, and even a panther. That was something!

Every day, on my way out of our walled City of Ai, I would pass an old Ashtoret-stone, now disused and nearly covered with grass and moss. The Elders of Ai said that its holiness had passed away, but I did not believe so. My great-grandmother, after whom I was named, had been High Priestess of Ashtoret in her day, leading the women in making offerings of grains and fruit, before all the ladies would settle down for a communal meal of vegetables only—and no men allowed. I could sometimes see Great-Grandma, in my dreams, or as I led my little charges, foolish goats and stupid cows, out to the pastureland where the grass was sweet and the predators scarce. It was a golden time.

Since that time, the Men had taken over our worship: instead of the peaceful, loving, generous goddesses of field and stream, the Men flung their Thunderer-gods up into the heavens, where they sat and judged all humanity, and occasionally launched a lightning-bolt against malefactors. Bullies, all of them! I should think—and would breathe a sigh of relief when we, flock and shepherdess, reached the pasture.

This is a fine way to live, I thought, No cooking or cleaning; no throwing pots, either. Oh, wait—there goes that misbehaving calf, again—no, you don’t, Young Miss! I took some cattails from the spring and fashioned myself a Pan-pipe—and I piped my merry songs, which I made up myself. “So I piped my merry songs, piping songs of pleasant glee,” as the poet says.

My only problem was—it got so lonely, out there in the fields—it made me pipe all the harder, while keeping a weather eye on my fleecy charges. I confess that I was a little jealous of my farmer-brothers, out there in the fields with the farm-maidens, while I was stuck out in Ashtoret’s country with no human company. Ah, well—to fend off loneliness, I piped my tunes out into the skies, the hills, to whomever could hear them.

And, you know what? Someone finally did.

Sitting out there every livelong day, I found my young eyes growing more and more acute and sharpened—and one day, while playing my merry pipe, I beheld a bit of movement in the nearby bushes. I dropt the pipe, leapt to my feet, and held my crook before me, trembling just a little.

“You, there—in the bush!” I cried out, in the deepest, man-sounding voice I could muster, “Stand and be recognized, or I will crack your cowardly, thieving head; yes, surely hurt you, with my blackthorn stick.”

“I am a peaceful man,” a voice came from the bush, “And I am a stranger and sojourner among you. I cry you mercy, Young Woman.”

I blushed—I had never been called a “woman” before, only “Little Bilbul, daughter of Gadi, the Shepherd-Girl,” but I maintained my stern face, and, holding my stick crosswise, the better to fend off any danger, I said, “Stand! Careful you don’t come closer, O Most Courageous Dweller-in-the-Bush. How dare you sneak up on a defenseless woman!”

He stood, and I gasped—I had never seen such a handsome young man before! He was dusty—probably from traveling a far distance—but was clear-skinned and ruddy, had hair black as the raven’s, and stood as nobly as a gazelle. But I never budged from my warlike posture—“Come forward, and slowly, Young Sir,” I said, in my best mixture of sternness and politeness—for truly, I did not wish for him to flee. With thirty beasts in my flock, I would be hard-pressed to leave them and pursue him—for what reason? Why, to interrogate him,about his spying on me, certainly. The nerve!

I admit that I stared at him for so long, that he had time to look me up-and-down, as well. I had never his like among my townsmen. Indeed, he grinned, after a short while.

“What are you sniggering at, O Nervy Stranger?” I got out, distracted as I was by his comeliness.

“That a woman can be at once so—courageous, and so beautiful,” said the boy—for he was no more a man than I a woman.

“State your business!” I said in as commanding a voice as possible, but the truth was that I did not wish for him to go.

“As you wish, Miss,” he replied, “I am Ammiel ben Gemali, of the Tribe of Dan. And I have come to visit—to tour, actually—your fair country.”

“I know no such tribe as that of which you speak—Dan, did you say?” I said, “and, as a daughter of Canaan, I know every people hereabouts. We are Girgashite, of the Gadi Clan—Gadi is, of course, my father. To the south lie the Amorites and Perizites, and the Jebusites dwell in the mountains, with their capital at Uru-Salim. There are others, but they do not count, being too small in number. Where do your people dwell, Sir Ammiel?”

“Please, Miss—call me Ami. My people are—are—travelers, who wish only to traverse your country, and then, we will be on our way. Wandering, that is. We will be gone in—in—about a week. I—”

I have a good eye for body language, and a better ear for falsehood. “You are lying,” I said, bluntly, and advanced, holding my stick forward, though it troubled me to have to crack such a handsome skull. “Tell me the truth, Sir Ammiel, if that be truly your name, or I will beat if out of you.”

“I am unarmed!” he protested, and raised his hands, “surely, you would not assault a harmless wayfarer?”

“Another lie,” I said, “for I spy a bronze dagger hanging from your belt. Flip it over here, for my patience is wearing thin.”

He tossed his toothpick knife; I caught it easily. He whistled, impressed.

“Sit right down, over there,” I said, “and convince me why I should preserve you in life. You are a spy and a trespasser….” And so, we began to talk. Our mouths were full of speaking, and our ears full of hearing.

That was five years ago. That day, Master Ami—now, my loving husband—and I, talked and talked, as though we could never stop. In the end, there was no Israelite Conquest; he left me with a kiss—well, we were all alone in the fields, in sight of only Astarte and Baal, so, Stranger, be certain that I remained an honorable maiden of Girgashi. He left me, after—how many hours? They went by so quickly!—to join his mates, and was one of the pair carrying that monstrous bunch of grapes. I was heartbroken.

But then, finally, he returned—and the Village Priest married us: the Girgashite girl and the Israelite boy, that’s us—and now, Mother tells me that I am pregnant; no more sheep for me. Ami and I plan to blend my Astarte with his people’s Adonai—and we are so happy!

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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