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By Francine Rivers
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Francine Rivers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHEY were coming.
They moved swiftly, keeping low to the ground, silent streaks of black in the fading light. Amos didn't have to see them or hear them to know the enemy was closing in. He felt it, through instinct honed by years of living in the wilderness. Three sheep were missing-the same stubborn dam who so frequently troubled him, and her twin lambs. He must act quickly.
Calling to his flock, he watched them race toward him. They sensed his urgency and followed him into the fold. He closed the gate behind them and secured it. Assured of their safety, he was free now to go after the lost ones.
He ran, and the stones in his pouch rattled. He took one out and fitted it to his sling.
A lamb bleated, and he raced toward the frightened sound. The foolish dam remained intent upon having her own way. Rather than stay in the green pastures to which he led her, she continued to choose brambles and brush.
Amos saw the wolves. He raised his arm, the sling emitting a high-pitched whir before he released the stone. With a yelp of pain, the pack leader went down heavily, but quickly regained his feet.
Amos came on. Snarling, the wolf advanced in a low crouch, hackles raised. The others circled, teeth bared, determined. The dam did not move, frozen infear, while her helpless lambs bleated in confusion and fear. When one ran, a wolf leapt at it. Before it could sink its jaws into the young throat, Amos sent another stone flying. It struck hard and true. The wolf dropped, a stone embedded in its skull.
Most of the others fled, but the alpha remained to challenge. Amos hurled his club, and struck it hard in the hip. With another cry of pain, the wolf limped into the brush and disappeared.
The lamb lay still. Amos lifted it tenderly, examining it. No wounds, but it was limp in his arms. Shock and fear had killed it.
He sighed heavily. How many times had this dam led others into danger? How many times had he rescued her, only to have to hunt her down again? He cared deeply for all his sheep, even this dam who habitually caused trouble. But he could not allow her to go on leading others into the jaws of predators.
The other twin bleated pitifully. The dam paid little attention. Safe now, she moved stiff-necked, ruminating as she gazed once at Amos before heading toward the brush. Shaking his head, Amos placed the dead lamb on the ground, unsheathed his knife, and went after her.
When the deed was done, Amos felt only sorrow. If only she had stayed close to him, he would not have found it necessary to end her life for the sake of the others.
He carried the surviving twin back to the fold.
* * *
Another dam accepted the lamb. Having finished nursing, the lamb cavorted with others. He was old enough to nibble tender shoots of grass. Amos leaned on his staff and watched the lambs play. He laughed at their antics. All seemed well.
A bleat of distress drew his attention. One of the rams had cast himself in a low spot. He lay in a hollow, feet in the air.
"Easy there, old man." Twice, the ram kicked Amos. Taking strong hold, Amos heaved him over and lifted him.
The ram couldn't walk.
"Hold on." Amos held him firm between his knees. He massaged the animal until the circulation returned to its legs. "Go ahead." He gave the ram a push.
The ram stumbled once and then walked stiff-legged, head up, ignoring Amos.
"Next time, find a flat place to rest."
Amos turned from the ram and made a quick count of the flock. His mouth tightened.
The lamb was missing again.
Amos called to his sheep and led them to the shade of the sycamore trees. They would settle quickly there in the heat of the afternoon. He scanned the area, hoping the lamb would come scampering back.
A buzzard made a wide circle overhead. It wouldn't be long until another joined it. There was no time to waste. Leaving the ninety-nine others, Amos headed west. Staff in hand, he wove his way among the rocks and brambles, searching, hoping he would find the lamb before a predator did. The wolf pack had kept its distance, but there were lions in these hills.
Coming to a rise, Amos spotted the lamb standing near some bushes. As he approached, he saw its wool had snagged in a thornbush. One hard tug, and the lamb could have freed itself, but it was not in his nature to do so. Instead, the animal would stand still until rescue came-or a predator, eager to make a meal of him.
Amos stood grimly, considering what to do. Less than a week ago, he had been forced to kill the lamb's mother. He had known for months he might have to dispatch her, but held off doing so because she was perfectly proportioned with well-set, alert eyes and was one of the strongest sheep in his flock. But her stubborn habits had endangered the entire flock. Half a dozen times he had rescued her and her offspring. He had hoped to give the lambs more time to be fully weaned and on their own. Now, it seemed he had waited too long, for the lamb had learned his mother's bad habits.
"It's this or death, little one." Amos took a stone from his pouch, weighing it in his hand. Too heavy and it would kill the lamb; too light and it would not serve to discipline him. Amos swung his sling and released the stone, striking the lamb in a front leg, just above the knee. With a startled bleat of pain, the lamb went down.
Tears burning, Amos went to the wounded lamb and knelt. "I am here, little one. I would rather wound you myself than see you come to greater harm." He knew after a gentle examination that the leg was broken, but not shattered. It would heal. "You belong with the flock, not out here on your own where death will find you." He worked quickly, binding the leg and tugging the lamb free of the brambles. "I know I hurt you, but better you suffer an injury that will heal than become dinner for a prowling lion." He ran his hand gently over the lamb's head. "You will learn to stay close to me where you're safe." He cupped the lamb's head and breathed into its face. "No struggling or you will cause yourself more pain." He gently lifted the lamb onto his shoulders and carried him back to the flock.
The goats grazed in the hot sun, but the sheep still rested in the shade, ruminating. Amos sat on a flat rock that gave him a full view of the pasture. Lifting the lamb from his shoulders, he held it close. "You will learn to trust me and not think you can find better forage on your own. I will lead you to green pastures and still waters." He took a few grains of wheat from the scrip he wore at his waist and shared his food with the lamb. "Sometimes I must wound in order to protect." He smiled as the lamb ate from his hand. "You will get used to my voice and come when I call." He rubbed the notch in the lamb's ear. "You bear my mark, little one. You are mine. Let me take care of you."
Amos looked out over the others. They were content. There was still plenty of grass. One more night here, he decided. Tomorrow he would move the flock to new pastures. Too long in one pasture, and the sheep grew restless and would not lie down. They would begin to compete for space. Too many days in one field and the flies and gnats would begin to pester. Conditions must be just right for his sheep to be at peace.
Later in the afternoon, the sheep rose from their rest and grazed again. Two dams pushed at each other. Amos carried the lamb with him as he separated them with his staff. "There's forage enough for both of you." He stood between them until they settled. His presence soothed them, and they lowered their heads to graze.
From Jerusalem to the high country, Amos knew every pasture as well as he knew his family's inheritance in Tekoa. He worked part of each year in the sycamore groves near Jericho in order to pay for grazing rights. Incising sycamore figs to force ripening was tedious work, but he wanted only the best pasturage for his flock. During the winter months when the sheep were sheltered in Tekoa, he went out to clear reeds, deepen or enlarge water holes, and repair old or build new sheepfolds.
A dam jumped, startled by a rabbit that leapt from a patch of grass and bounded off. She started to run, but Amos caught her with the crook of his staff before she could spread panic.
He spoke softly and put his hand on her to soothe her. "I am with you. No need to fear." He carried the lamb with him wherever he went and placed it on the ground where it could sleep on its side in the shade. He fed it wheat and barley and the best grass.
The old ram was cast again. He left the lamb near the quietest dam and went to attend to the old codger. The animal had found another hollow in which to rest. As the ram slept, his body had rolled onto its side. Bleating angrily, the ram kicked as Amos approached, and succeeded only in rolling onto his back, legs in the air.
Amos shook his head and laughed. "A pity you don't learn, old man."
Belly exposed, the ram was helpless. Amos bent to the task of righting the animal and setting it back on its feet. He held it firmly between his knees until he was certain the ram had feeling in his legs.
"You always find the low spots, don't you?" He massaged the legs and gave the ram a push. "Back you go. Find a flat spot in the shade this time."
The ram walked away with wounded dignity, stiff-legged, head in the air. He soon found a good patch of grass.
Retrieving the lamb, Amos carried it around on his shoulders. He felt great peace out here in the open, away from Jerusalem, away from the marketplace and corrupt priests. But he missed his family. Sometimes he could almost hear his father's voice: "We tend the Temple flocks, my son. It is a great honor to work for the priests."
As a youngster, how Amos had reveled in that! Until he learned the truth about his family's relationship with the priest Heled. He sighed. Nearly twenty years had passed, but his disillusionment was as fresh as ever.
When Amos was a child, it had been a common occurrence for Joram, a servant of Heled, to come to Amos's family's home and take several blemished lambs, leaving perfect ones to replace them. When Amos asked his father where the blemished lambs were taken, he said, "To Jerusalem."
"But why does he bring us the same number of lambs he takes away?" Amos had wondered. He could make no sense of it, and his father's answers never satisfied him.
Then, during a visit to Jerusalem for a festival one year, the year he was eleven, he had watched everything that went on around the stalls his older brothers managed, and what he saw greatly disturbed him.
"Father, aren't these the lambs Joram took a week ago?"
"But doesn't God require lambs without blemish for sacrifice? That one has a damaged hoof, and the other over there has a spot inside its ear. I can show you."
"Be quiet, Amos!"
Confused, Amos held his tongue. He watched a priest examine a lamb. Amos went closer and saw for himself the animal was perfect, but the priest shook his head and pointed to the stalls. Frowning, the man carried the lamb he had brought for sacrifice to Amos's brother. Bani put it in a pen and then caught the lamb with the blemish inside its ear and handed it over. The man argued, but Bani waved him off. When the man returned to the priest, the new lamb was accepted, but not before the man paid a fine for the exchange.
"Did you see that, Father? The priest-"
"Stop staring! Do you want to cause trouble?"
"But the lamb that man originally brought is better than the one Bani gave him. God will not be pleased."
"Heled rejected the man's sacrifice. That's all you need to know."
"But why? What was wrong with it?"
His father gripped Amos's shoulders and stared into his face. "Never question what the priests decide! Never! Do you understand?"
Amos winced at the pain. He did not understand, but he knew better than to ask more questions now. His father let go of him. As he straightened, Amos saw Heled scowling at him. He motioned to Amos's father.
"I must speak with Heled. Wait here."
Amos watched them. Heled did all the talking, and his father kept his eyes downcast and nodded and nodded.
Ahiam grabbed Amos and spun him around. "Father told you not to stare, didn't he? Go get feed for the lambs."
Amos ran to do his brother's bidding.
When he came back, his father took him aside. "Remember, priests are servants of the Lord, Amos. They see imperfection where we do not and their decisions are law. If you question their judgment, they will say you question God Himself. They would bar you from the synagogue and Temple. And then what would happen? No one would have anything to do with you. You would become an outcast with no way to make a living. You would have to sell yourself into slavery."
Amos hung his head and blinked back tears.
His father squeezed his shoulder. "I know you don't understand what's happening here." He sighed. "Sometimes I wish I didn't. But you must trust me, Amos. Say nothing about the lambs, good or bad. And don't watch what Heled does. It bothers him. The priests are very powerful and must be treated with great respect. We are only hirelings paid to tend the Temple flocks. That's all. Perhaps someday we will have sheep of our own and be free again...."
After that day, Amos had begun to observe everything that went on around the folds of Tekoa, in Jerusalem, and around the Temple.
Discolorations on a lamb would disappear under the care of his brothers.
"We're miracle workers!" Ahiam laughed, but when Amos surreptitiously examined one, he found the wool stiff with white stuff that rubbed off on his fingers.
"Father will have your hide," Amos told Bani.
Ahiam overheard and knocked him on his backside. "Father knows, you little runt."
The next time Joram came, Amos realized the priest's servant deliberately chose weaker lambs. As soon as Amos found his father alone, he reported what he had observed.
His father gazed out over the fields. "One lamb is much like any other."
"But that's not true, Father. You've told me yourself how every lamb is different, and-"
"We'll talk about it later, Amos. We have too much work to do right now."
But later never came, and every time Amos went with his father to Jerusalem, he was afraid God would do something horrible when one of those blemished lambs was offered as a sacrifice.
"What's wrong with your brother?" Heled scowled as he spoke to Ahiam.
"Nothing. Nothing is wrong with him. He's just quiet, that's all."
"Quiet ... and all eyes and ears."
Ahiam slapped Amos hard on the back. When he gripped Amos, his fingers dug in deep and shook him as he grinned down, eyes black. "He's not used to city life yet."
"Get him used to it!" Heled walked away and then called back over his shoulder. "Or keep him away from Jerusalem altogether."
Ahiam glowered at him. "Make yourself useful. Add feed to the bins if you have to hang around here. Do something other than watch."
Amos worked in silence, head down, afraid. He kept to himself and kept busy for the rest of the day. He said so little, his family grew concerned when they gathered for the Passover meal.
"What's wrong, little brother? Aren't you feeling well?"
"He's upset about the lambs," Ahiam said grimly. "You'd better tell him, Father."
"Why not? He's old enough to understand." Ahiam's expression was grim. "I think he's figured out most of it on his own."
Amos wasn't hungry. He felt like an outcast, and fought tears. But he had to know, and so he asked again. "Why does Joram take the weak lambs and leave the good ones?"
His father bowed his head.
Chin jutting, Ahiam answered. "Why slaughter a perfect lamb when one bearing a spot will do just as well?"
Ahiam's wife, Levona, hung her head as she turned the spitted lamb over the fire. "What a waste to kill a prized ram that could reproduce itself ten times over!"
For a moment, the only sound in the room was the pop and hiss of fat as it dripped into the burning coals.
Excerpted from The Prophet by Francine Rivers Copyright © 2006 by Francine Rivers. Excerpted by permission.
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