At Home with Isaac and Rebecca: The Middle Years
(Night in the Desert. Isaac sits alone at a campfire. He drinks slowly from a cup of spiced wine, pokes at the embers of the dying fire, and soliloquizes.)
Isaac: Father is dead; his chief steward, Eliezer, is also dead. I am alone. Alone as a stone. Just me and this—this wineskin (drinks; the cattle low, moo, meh, and baa) Oh, silence, you—you—woolly fools! Fine company you are, for a master shepherd like me…. Where was I?
Ah, yes: Poppa is dead—and how am I to continue his destiny? I have also heard the Voice of El-Shaddai, the Stander on the Mountain, telling me that I will be “as numberless as the stars of heaven.” (looks up; tries counting the stars) two, three, ten, thirty-four—oh, what’s the use? Truth to tell, El-Shaddai, or Whatever You call Yourself, I don’t need stars. No (he drinks). After all (he speaks with the careful grace of the truly inebriated), you can’t herd stars; you can’t shear them; you can’t bring them to market in Rehoboth Square. What I need to know (shaking a finger at the sky) is, who will continue the line after me? My strapping son, Esav, that red-haired rascal, or my Jacob, my deep thinker, so thin that he seems to slip through my fingers when I try to hug him—that Mama’s boy? O’ Nameless One, what a riddle have you posed me! Whom do You prefer? I wish You would choose—(waits, but no answer comes). Both earth and sky are silent. Well, well, my Father’s God, if you will not help me here, I must wait, and decide myself—but deciding is not my strong suit—let me think (he drinks deeply of the wineskin, leans back against his pillow-rock, and sings softly): “O then let the cannikin clink, clink, clink/ O then let the cannikin clink/ A herdsman’s a man/ A life’s but a span/ Why then, let the herdsman drink!” (giggles to himself, and sighs)
(A sound from the shadows. Isaac gropes for his belt-knife, tries to scramble clumsily to his feet, gets as far as his knees) Who’s there, hey? Come and show yourself! (Rebecca crawls from the darkness, pulling her head-covering back from her face) Oh, it’s you, my dear. Come, come, and sit. Have some wine.
Rebecca: If there’s any left in that ‘skin, you mean. It sounds and smells like you’ve been having more than a bit. (He carefully passes her the wineskin; she sniffs it, sticks out her tongue in disgust, takes a ladylike sip, and shudders)
Isaac (sounding hurt and defensive): Now, my dear, first off, I haven’t had more than a tiny drinky-poo; and, second, it’s no more than I deserve, chasing those nasty little sheep and goats around a hot desert all day.
Rebecca: While I relax in that hot, black, airless goatskin tent, you mean. It’s no picnic for me either, keeping track of those two little boys. What nine-year-olds have you given me! Little Jacob is a dear, always sticking close by his mommy, but our Esav—well, your beloved hellion, Esav, is always running off, trying to shoot that toy bow-and-arrow at the vultures and ravens.
Isaac: Nothing wrong with that. He’s inherited my hunter’s eyes, that boy: he’ll make us proud, one day, as chief of our tribe. He’ll be as big as my brother Ishmael, wait and see. Just feed him plenty of deer meat, the same way I love it cooked: charcoal-broiled fresh over the open flames, juices running down your chin, and well-peppered, smoking from the fire. That will make him hot-blooded and warlike, just like I—
Rebecca (finishing his sentence): –always wanted to be. You know, Isaac, it would be nice if you would spend some time with little Jakey, too. He’s a born shepherd, your son. He was asking me today about how many foals we can expect the camels to bear, come spring. Jacob has a wonderful head on his shoulders: he can figure numbers without using his fingers, and I want to put him to work calculating how much provender we should buy for the herd, come this winter. I know he will be able to do it, your son. Do you think you could give Jakella some attention, too, rather than spending all your time with Esav?
Isaac (not really listening): Yes, Jacob is a good boy—but quiet. Not like Esav. As my Papa’s God lives, how he came crashing through the tent door that day, waving that poor, half-dead quail he snared, when you and I had thought that we could have some quiet time! Ah well, my dear, we really should be going to bed. Esav will be up at the first cock-crow. And the flocks won’t wait….
(The sound of twigs cracking, as if someone is approaching)
Rebecca: What’s that sound? Oh, Isaac, you’re such a fool! I told you we shouldn’t go too far from Rehoboth Village. Everything we need is there, not out here in this uncivilized desert. The grandchildren of Papa’s deceased servants live there—true, they’re not our servants, anymore, but they promised to protect us. They—
Isaac (standing unsteadily, holding his shepherd’s crook in a defensive posture): Never fear, Dearest, I will stand between you and whate’er shall transpire! I am your rock and redeemer, your shield upon the high places; I….
Rebecca: Oh, sit down, you middle-aged fool: you’re drunk (Isaac’s legs give out, and he collapses, dangerously close to the fire). I will go into the tent, and fetch out the poker. I can stand guard while you sober up. I will bring you some guarana-beans to chew upon. Oh, what can a woman do with such a man? (muttering imprecations in her native Aramean, she goes into the tent)
Isaac (mimicking her): “Such a man”! If only—if only you paid me respect, Becky! (He looks at the tent-flap she entered, to make certain that she cannot hear) A man could be driven to drink by such a woman. Oh, to be young again…. But I will see my boy, my Esav, stand as master over all heaven and earth. He is a brave, bold, redheaded hellion, my Esaveleh. So what if Schoolmaster Sar-Baal does not think him clever as—as—Jacob? I will see my Esav hunt the deserts and hillsides through, and wear hunter’s animal skins if he wishes. I will buy him the finest sword and buckler, bow and arrow, to be found in Hebron Market. He will be the warrior that I never was—that Mama and Papa—and now, this Rebecca, this bossy female, are preventing me from being….
(Suddenly, King Abimelech of the Philistines and his General, Phicol, come into the light. Phicol is bearing a fiery torch.)
Abimelech: Good Evening, Friend Isaac the Hebrew! What are you mumbling and muttering about? I see you have wine by your side. Any to share?
Isaac (scrambling to his feet, but none too steadily, and bowing): Oh, Abimelech, Your Majesty! What an honor to have you and General Phicol grace my humble tent! The wine? (Phicol has picked up the empty skin, sniffed at it, and tossed it away with a grimace) Oh, forgive me, Your Grace! I was having a little—a little—party.
Phicol (He is a brawny, bluff fellow, who thinks himself clever, but is a thick-headed bully): By yourself? By Ereshkigal, that were a lonely party, indeed! I tell ye, Friend Isaac, had you told me to, I would have fetched along a couple of our finest dancing maidens!
Abimelech: Aye, now that would have been a party worth drinking at!
(They all laugh)
Isaac: What business have you with me, this time of night, Gentlemen?
(The three squat down on their haunches; Abimelech plucks a stem of desert grass and chews on it, while he speaks, hoping to create an air of commonalty. Rebecca, meanwhile, creeps slowly out of the tent, eavesdropping on her husband, and concerned about his safety. She has a worried look on her face.)
Abimelech: Well, Ikey, it’s like this, y’see. I’m hearing rumors—and I’m not saying that they’re true—that your shepherds have been a-filling in our wells (Phicol casually half-withdraws his bronze dagger from its sheathe and turns it, just so it catches the light of the fire). Now, I’m not saying that it’s true, or that it’s false. But you know, here in these hot climes, water for one’s cattle is rare and precious.
Isaac (suddenly sober, before an accusation): Your Majesty, I can promise you—
Phicol (interrupting): Begging your pardon, My King—to cut to the chase. Now listen, Hebrew. We’ve been letting you people live here, and share the grass of our fields—not that there is all that much. And now, to hear that you’ve taken advantage of our generosity—well, I can’t say I’m surprised. You people have a reputation for those sorts of—pardon me, but I am a soldier, and I speak plainly, of your—dirty dealings—filling in other people’s wells, and such. Shall I bring a couple of squadrons of chariots down upon you and your wife and kiddies? Well, Hebrew? Tell me now, and make it quick. (He has his dagger out, by now, and is pointing it at Isaac’s throat)
Isaac (fists clenched around his staff, but suddenly calm and speaking slowly): King Abimelech, may I remind you to muzzle your dog? Once you do, I will decide whether to answer you.
Phicol: Why, you—
(Isaac suddenly brings up his staff, knocking the dagger out of Phicol’s hand, and stands at the ready to defend himself, holding his staff across his body in a defensive posture)
Abimelech (trying to make peace): Here now, gentlemen, shall we come to blows over a few blades of grass, a few drops of water? Here, now! Phicol—calm yourself! I say—I order you to retire, Sir!
Phicol: I do no more than I am commanded, Your Majesty (He salutes, smartly, retrieves and sheathes his dagger, and ceremoniously marches behind his liege king).
Isaac: I will answer, now that I am not threatened—but I say to you, General—if you bring any armed forces upon my land—land which my father purchased, decades ago, and for which I still hold the deed—I will face you, together with four hundred armed servants of my house, and we will resist to the best of our ability. Armed infantry with slings and arrows will be more than a match for your silly horse-wagons. (To Abimelech) Milord King! What do you wish of me, about these wells? My father dug them, and I maintain them.
Abimelech: We ask only—ask only—that you share them with us. That is—is all. (Phicol, behind the king, is fuming, but silent)
Isaac: Done and done. We are, and will continue to be, good neighbors. We will dig up and clear out the wells which (looking sharply at Phicol) your soldiers vandalized by filling them in. However, I will direct my warriors—that is, the protective detail that I will appoint to guard these selfsame wells—to take direct action if your forces threaten them. And, with all due respect, Majesty, do not mistake my courtesy for weakness. Good day (he turns on his heel, and, seeing Rebecca, continues). My Dear, I am sorry that our guests are called away, or they would enjoy some of your homemade—raisin wine, is it? (He hands her his empty wineskin)
Rebecca (staring at the wineskin, and at Isaac): Yes, Husband—I mean, no. (To Abimelech and Phicol) I am sorry that you must leave, Gentlemen; but, my husband is very decisive about these matters. He has more important business to attend than—than yourselves. Good day. (They exit, leaving Abimelech and Phicol alone)
Abimelech (exasperated): Well, I never! These—these—Hebrews!
Phicol: What did I tell you, Majesty?
Abimelech: Oh, shut up. Can’t you even threaten a man, properly? What do I pay you for?
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.