Read an Excerpt
Covenant of War
By Cliff Graham
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Cliff Graham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEleazar wiped sweat from his forehead and studied the line of men streaming toward the bank of the pool. This pool, over which much blood was about to be shed, was the water source for the town of Gibeon nearby, and also for much of the region. It was wide, and in the spring it filled to the brim. It was the most strategically important water site in the central hill country of the lands of the Israelites, and that is why men armed for battle were now gathered there.
There were hundreds of men. Eleazar had difficulty counting them because they constantly shifted position. This, he knew, was being done deliberately because their commander wanted to disguise their size. This could only mean that their commander was experienced and competent. Moving troops without standard formations was a good way to hide the size of the force.
Eleazar clenched his jaw. Surely the commander for whom he scanned the enemy forces would not be leading a simple border-scouting company. His presence there was both dangerous and unnecessary — unless he knew he could not trust his own men, just as David did not trust Joab, currently standing on Eleazar's left.
"See him?" asked Shammah quietly, sliding a pouch from his side to his front.
"No," said Joab.
"He might not be there," Eleazar said.
"Abner would not miss a chance to take new ground. He is there," Joab replied, his eyes darting up toward the stone-covered ridge near the pool. "He might be scouting from higher up, but that would be unlike him. He will want to be in the middle of this."
Eleazar wiped his forehead, irritated. He was not a tall man, but he had a powerful chest and arms that were tightly knotted with muscle and twitched with nervous energy. Like the other warriors, his hair and beard were cut shorter than most men for freedom of movement in close fighting. His tunic was light and short, reaching only to his thighs. His back was crisscrossed with weapon scabbards.
His two companions in battle, Josheb and Shammah, were as different from one another as an olive from an ox. Josheb was the leader, slender and calm, quick with his wit and his blades. He possessed both blazing passion and calm contemplation, depending on the need. Despite his unassuming and ordinary physical appearance, his feats on battlefields and training arenas were so legendary that scribes had approached him about recording them. Josheb frequently sparred with entire companies — by himself. He moved so fast and had such endless reserves of physical stamina that to contain him was akin to containing a stampeding herd.
But he was best known among the fighting men for his laugh. Josheb knew well the value of humor to keep men moving when all hope seemed lost. If there was a laugh to be had at the expense of someone else, Josheb never failed to exploit it, and his most frequent target was Shammah.
Shammah was the largest and most physically imposing man in their ranks. His weapons were so heavy that only he could carry them. Somber, devoted to the Law of the God of Jacob, he was awkward and ill at ease when speaking to others — especially women. Even when presented daughters as war prizes he shied away and refused to marry them, offending many patriarchs in the process, much to David's annoyance and Josheb's endless ridicule.
The men considered him odd. He prayed much like David did, out loud and with everyone watching. He fell asleep at random hours of the day, sometimes even while standing up. His demeanor made it easy to overlook his extraordinary strength, both physical and spiritual.
They were known as the Three — the deadliest of all of the Lion of Judah's fighters.
"Maybe Abner will listen," said Josheb.
Eleazar nodded. The bloodshed must stop. Not even the most savage of tribal men, men such as Joab, wanted war between the house of Saul and the house of David to last forever. The bond of kinship that bound the tribes was nearly gone as it was. Early in Saul's reign there had been a brief period of eased tensions among the twelve tribes, but since the old king's death, the country had fractured between those northern tribes loyal to Saul and his line and the southern tribe of Judah with its new ruler, David. Neither liked the other, but all knew that disunity would eventually mean certain defeat at the hands of their mutual enemies.
The troops across the pool began to sit in ranks along the bank of the water, demonstrating a semblance of order for the first time as section leaders began to organize their men. There appeared to be about six hundred men with weapons, not counting their supply and logistics troops unseen at the rear.
Eleazar looked at their own force. Forty-seven of them. Good men, most of them. Joab was commanding the small force, but Eleazar, Shammah, and Josheb had been sent by David to keep watch over his nephew.
Three sons of David's sister Zeruiah were here — Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. Joab was a capable leader — a brilliant strategist and brave warrior. But he was also vain and easily angered. Abishai, however, was respected by the Three. He was silent, brave, and humble, a stark contradiction to his brother Joab. Eleazar liked him almost as much as Josheb and Shammah.
But Asahel, Zeruiah's youngest, had every poor quality of Joab's and none of Abishai's admirable ones. He was foolish, pushed to heights of arrogance by his exceptional physical abilities. Asahel was the fastest runner Eleazar had ever seen, and his capacity for endurance during training sessions was seemingly endless.
The soldiers across the pool crouched together along the bank in a mass of wool cloaks and weapons. Even from this distance, it was clear that there were no men of Gilead, nor men of Ashur. Ephraimites, the largest of the northern tribes and the one most likely to participate in a maneuver such as this, were nowhere to be seen.
There was, in fact, only one tribe present, and this concerned Eleazar so much that he wondered if they should withdraw before anything tragic happened.
The men facing them were Benjamites.
Benjamin, the smallest tribe, was also the lineage of the dead king Saul. It had been hoped by those in Judah that the Benjamites would defect to David. If the tribe of the former king changed its alliances because Saul's son Ishbosheth was an ineffective and weak ruler, then the other northern tribes might follow suit.
This had not yet happened.
Eleazar and the rest of David's force were crouched among the rocks and spread out to give the appearance of size, hoping to fool the Benjamites into believing that they were just the scouting party of a larger force.
"Why hasn't he stepped out yet?" asked Eleazar.
"He's looking for David," replied Josheb. "He will come out soon enough when he realizes it's only us."
"David stopped coming on scouting missions last year. Abner knows that."
Eleazar blinked. He watched Joab from the corner of his eye. Wish David were here now.
The pool became quiet. Insects chirped. A few men cleared their throats. There were no taunts, none of the usual jeering or clanking as fighting men readied themselves. Neither side wanted to be standing opposite other Hebrews. And yet here they were.
"Who else do you see?" asked Joab.
"Baanah the Benjamite is to the right. Behind the archers. If he is here, then Rechab is here as well. Seems like an awful lot of archers," said Shammah, squinting.
"They're all archers. They are Benjamites."
"It looks like they have other weapons as well. Abner has been training them."
"None of those men look like they have seen battle," said Josheb.
Eleazar nodded. While David's warriors were gazing calmly and awaiting orders, the men from the north were clearly nervous. They were quiet, but hands were shifting and throats clearing, revealing anxiety. Commanders, still standing while their troops sat, gripped bows and sword hilts tight.
"They do look green," Eleazar said.
"Most of Abner's army was destroyed at Gilboa. Of course they're green," said Joab.
"But Abner's army has been fighting Philistine armies all season. Surely some of these men fought in those battles. And they must know how much they outnumber us," said Shammah.
Eleazar replied, "You're too humble. Didn't you see the look on that boy's face as we were coming into Gibeon when he heard who we were? If people in the villages have heard the 'mighty deeds of the Lion's men,' how much more so the army?"
"Abner's veterans might still be patrolling the valleys in case of a Philistine invasion. These might be all he has," Joab said.
Eleazar closed his eyes and let the sun's warmth calm him. Gibeon was disputed territory, strategically important because of its well on the trading route. He shook his head, raked his fingers through his beard. Joab would not relinquish the ground. Neither would Abner.
Hebrew sons would die this day.
Chapter TwoAcross the pool, among the ranks of fighters holding slings and bows and covered by cloaks to disguise the armor that would give away their rank, two men were staring through the flies and hot afternoon haze. The soldiers around them, following their orders, sat along the bank as the officers debated their next move.
"Do you see him yet?" Abner asked under his breath. His thick beard flowed down from his collar, tucked under the cloak. That would give away who he was as well, for all knew his beard. He did not trim it for the war season as others did. It would have shamed the memory of his father, a great and respected man.
The aide shook his head. "I see Joab and Abishai and their younger brother Asahel. Zeruiah's sons never disguise themselves. And neither does the son of Jesse. If he were there, we would see him."
Abner cursed. He did not want to negotiate with Joab.
"A scouting party," Abner said. "Fifty of his men. Yahweh be with us."
"You are nervous, lord?"
Abner did not answer.
"We have six hundred men who draw weapons with us. We could overrun them in moments," the aide said.
"Not these men," Abner said. He rubbed his temples. The other warriors might be with David. They would not need many to crush us, he thought.
He shook his head and chuckled. One day he would need to leave this sort of thing for younger men.
"Come. Negotiations," Abner said, standing up. The bewildered aide stood as well.
"Negotiations, lord? Shouldn't we be able to dictate terms to them?"
Abner pulled off the wool cloak that had been disguising his armor — no need to hide anymore. He stepped through the ranks of his men, who scrambled to get out of his way, bowing their heads slightly in respect as he passed. He knew that he was an intimidating presence — larger than any of his men, with a huge chest and heavy arms from years of combat and a vast beard spilling over his royal armor.
When Abner arrived at the edge of the pool, the aide raised his arm. Across the water, the man they recognized as Joab raised his own arm. The truce finalized, Abner moved around the pool, his aide following.
One of the Israelite troops spoke up, his voice thin with anxiety. "Will we have to fight them, lord?"
Abner stopped and turned to him. "How would you perform if we did?" he asked, grinning. "Who is your father?"
The soldier, a young man with wiry hair and a frightened face, said, "Besha of Shechem."
Abner nodded. "You will do fine. I know your father. Hard man. The sons from his loins would be hard men as well."
"But these are the Lion's men, lord. They say that merely one of them could destroy an entire army."
"They are Hebrews just like you," said Abner patiently. He knew his aide would be wondering why he was taking the time to engage this lowly soldier while the commander of their enemy's army was making his way toward them. The aide, though, knew nothing about leading men.
The eyes of the troops around Abner kept darting toward Joab as he approached. They were frightened, he could tell. As well they should be.
"We are going to negotiate the control of the route near the pool with them. I do not want to fight my Hebrew brethren any more than you do, even if they are those smelly Judah rats who never bathe and shriek like women." Everyone laughed. "But we will do what we have to do. Be strong," Abner said.
Abner left the group and walked toward the approaching figures of Joab and his aide. He did not recognize the aide but saw that he carried a pike, a sickle sword, a war club, and a small iron-studded shield.
More than one weapon. So this was no mere aide.
Joab halted a few paces away. The other warrior nodded in greeting. Abner nodded back, then reached across and clasped Joab by the shoulders. He placed two kisses on the sides of Joab's face. It was a gesture of truce, but more importantly, it demonstrated to all of the carefully observing soldiers on both sides that peace was the objective.
Joab consented to the gesture, but his manner was stiff. Abner smiled.
"How is your family, Joab?"
"Well. How is yours, Abner?"
Abner sighed but remained smiling. "Fairly well. My nephew was cursed by Yahweh as king and killed by uncircumcised pagans, and his remaining son is a weak fool, but other than that things are fine. How are we going to avoid slaughtering one another?"
He saw Joab glance past him toward the Israelite soldiers.
"Your men are green," said Joab.
"My veterans are on the frontier holding off the Philistines . . . alone." He had measured the insult to David carefully before speaking it. Better to not make Joab angry, but he needed to communicate how urgent it was that they put aside differences and repel the pagans.
The warrior standing next to Joab spoke for the first time. "I'm certain you've trained these well. I look forward to killing Philistines with them one day."
Abner tipped his head slightly at the compliment. "I apologize for not knowing your name, warrior. I know I will have heard of your deeds as soon as I learn it, though."
"Eleazar son of Dodai," the man replied graciously. "I served in Saul's armies under David when you were also a commander. You may have known my father. Your own deeds need no introduction. It is an honor to be in your presence."
Abner felt a catch in the back of his throat. He knew the name very well, but he did not intend to show it. "Indeed, Eleazar. I look forward to hearing the tales of your spear and killing Philistines with you as well."
Eleazar held out his arm, which Abner clasped.
Joab frowned. "You know he will come for the throne, Abner. He would welcome you and your men if you joined us."
"Saul's line still exists. They are my family as well. David will butcher them," Abner said.
Eleazar shook his head. "He made a covenant with Jonathan to allow his line to survive. We could end this today. No blood."
Abner had considered it. David and Jonathan had been closer than brothers for many years. But he also knew that the more contentious tribes would never allow David on the throne, and they would refuse to believe that his intent toward them was not hostile. The dispute between Judah and the northern tribes was too old and too deep. Eventually one side would have to defeat the other. Only then could they turn their attention to crushing Philistia; something that Abner wanted desperately. Ever since Gilboa, he had dreamed of annihilating more of their armies and capturing their women.
But above all, he did not want to fight Eleazar son of Dodai and the other two undoubtedly nearby.
Abner shook his head. "You and I both know that these men will not believe that. David has broken his word before, and I have no reason to believe he won't do it again. All of these men — " he gestured toward his army — "might accept him, as they are Benjamites. But they are pawns, Joab. They are terrified of what would happen if Judah were to control them. Ephraim, Manasseh, and the other tribes will not tolerate Judah on the throne, and they would view Benjamin as the traitor. Why don't you persuade your chief to acknowledge Ishbosheth? I would convince the king to allow David to rule the south as his governor, and you have my word that you will not be interfered with."
He glanced at Eleazar. The man's muscles were hard and covered with battle scars. His campaign cloak was extremely dirty, as if he had been scouting for many days. Abner wondered where the other two were. Eleazar of the Three. Yahweh help us.
No compromise would come, Abner knew. But he could tell that Joab and Eleazar also wanted to delay the inevitable a while longer. Perhaps they would all look back on this and joke about it one day while sitting around a campfire, the blood of dead Philistines staining their garments.
Eleazar said, "Unfortunately, general, that will not happen. David will not be ruled anymore. When Saul died, there was nothing left for him to wait for. Yahweh has willed it. Please, for the sake of your men, accept our offer."
Excerpted from Covenant of War by Cliff Graham Copyright © 2012 by Cliff Graham . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.