Volume 4 Number 1

MYTHOLOG

Winter 2005



Eliezer's Tale

by Gerald Costlow

"...and Abram replied, Lord, what canst thou give me? I have no respect among men, for I have no children, and my heir must be Eliezer of Damascus, a slave in my house." -- Genesis, Chapter 15

Abram felt the touch of God and pissed himself. His wife Sarai saw the look of panic in his eyes, noticed the spreading stain, and knew what was happening. She grabbed the arm of the slave girl busy serving their meal and practically ran from the tent.

I watched all this from my post at the entrance. I did not leave, could not leave even if that was my desire. As personal slave to the Patriarch, I was as much his property as the vast flocks of cattle and sheep this wealthy nomad owned. It was my duty to make sure none of his relatives witnessed his shame, although there was scant chance of that, considering the lot of them was scared spitless of the God. Once the fit was past, I must change Abram's soiled clothes and pour him wine for the headache that always resulted. Then I, Eliezer of Damascus -- a slave -- will sit at the feet of my Master and listen to him complain about the unfairness of his life.

I watched Abram fall to his knees, bow to the invisible spirit, and say, "What can your servant do for you this time, Lord?" He seemed to be listening to a reply. Don't ask me what a God sounds like. None but my Master's ears could hear anything. It sounds crazy, doesn't it? As a young boy I once saw a beggar on the paved streets of Damascus who spoke to such hidden voices.

"God-cursed," my father explained while dropping a small coin in the man's palm. The beggar interrupted his one-sided conversation long enough to thank us. "It's his own fault," my father continued. "To invite the attention of the Gods is to risk being possessed by one. Ask favors only of the small Gods of hearth and household. Leave the temple Gods to the Priests who are trained to handle them. The wild Gods, the ones unbounded by covenant and name, wise men never call upon. There is always the danger something will answer."

My father was a wise man who tried to teach me to be the same. He was also a drunkard who couldn't hold a job, and soon after that day my own father sold me into slavery to pay his debts. It was the wise thing to do; I was the youngest of four sons and no great loss. I've long ago forgiven him for putting me on the auction block. In his shoes, I might have done the same. I'd tell him so if we ever met again, right after I stuck a knife in his guts.

The heavy sigh from my Master jerked me from my daydreaming. Old Abram at last rose to his feet, and I could see his usual crafty, calculating expression coming back. One look at his face and I poured the wine first, then went to pull a clean robe from the chest. Slaves become expert at reading faces; it's a skill taught by countless blows for each failure.

"Eliezer, you are like a son to me," Abram finally said as I was tying his sandals. "My God has commanded, and I must obey. There must be . . . a sign, a show of the tribe's commitment before it will grant a certain request. This will require planning and secrecy. Do this for me, my good and faithful servant, and I swear I will adopt you as my son."

What greater prize could be given? The old man had no children. His wife Sarai was barren and, at her age, unlikely to ever provide one. To go from slave to rich heir in one leap? For such a thing there was no task I would not perform.

"Master, you are like a father to me, already," I said. "You have only to command, and I will carry out your wishes!" Then the Patriarch told me what must be done, and how I must do it. I was horrified, and wondered if the God could be insane to require such a thing. I would still do it, of course. Whether slave or son, the Patriarch must be obeyed.

A raid to steal another tribe's sheep could not have been more carefully planned or more closely guarded against loose tongues. Still, I cautioned my Master to act fast: secrets do not long survive in a camp where kinship and returned favors determine the ranking of the tents. Abram agreed and I passed on the word: "Tonight!"

The evening started out innocently enough with Abram called a gathering of the clan for a feasting. Even the boys tending the flocks were rounded up and replaced by slaves for the night; this would be a very special occasion. The rest of the staff was kept busy cooking and fetching wine. There were almost as many slaves as Hebrews in the camp of such a wealthy tribe, and this made for quite a crowd.

The old Patriarch sat on his cushion, surrounded by the men and boys that comprised his small kingdom. He laughed and gossiped into the night, urging more wine upon them all. Soon there was a drinking contest with a fine breeding goat as the prize. When the oldest of his kin were at last overcome and slumped over, accompanied by tipsy laughter all around, he turned to where I was standing and nodded. This was the sign to begin the butchery.

My accomplices were all fellow slaves, men made strong from long hours of back-breaking labor. We jumped on our masters, tying them up and easily overcoming any resistance. Old Abram hung his head and refused to watch. Sarai had already done her part; the women and babes were of course not invited to the feast and had been placed under guard in another tent.

One young buck, not as drunk as the others and quicker to react, jumped to his feet and yelled, "Revolt!" while pulling out the knife that was always carried by free men old enough to grow whiskers. The slave trying to wrestle him to the ground received a nasty gash across the palm of his hand before this would-be rescuer was subdued and dragged over to the side, stacked with the others like so much firewood.

This was the first blood spilt, but there would be much more before the night was over. Abram produced a small castrating blade normally used on the rams and handed it to me. I selected the young warrior and we stretched him out, sitting on his arms and legs and ignoring his yells for help. I straddled the man's waist, lifted up his robe, pulled out his manhood -- and realized I had no idea of how to proceed. Eventually I hit upon making a downward slit from the inside, and then working my way around until I was left holding the foreskin in one hand while blood flowed onto the floor.

The brave fighter had fainted at the first touch of the knife. He was replaced by the next in line. The job became easier as I practiced, so that I even began taking pride in the speed and efficiency of my work. I eventually held a bowl full of assorted bits of flesh while my fellow slaves continued dressing the wounds of our victims and pouring more wine down their throats.

Through it all, Abram sat and rocked back and forth and begged for forgiveness. My job was not yet finished, for next the younger boys were pried from their mother's arms and brought in, one at a time. Wails of grief came from the women's tent as the screams of their babes were added to the night. When the last cut had been made, I handed the knife back to my Master.

His mutilation was the final act of the drama. He had chosen to perform this on himself, probably out of some desire to assuage his guilt. He would have done it, too, but he was in such a state that after the first misplaced gash I took the blade from his hand, knelt before him, and quickly performed the deed.

The following days were spent caring for the injured, and Abram ignored his own pain to visit each man and explain why this event had to take place, consoling and pleading until all of his relatives accepted the necessity of the new tribal custom. They were a devout people, used to omens and signs from the Gods, and the only choice they had was to submit or leave the safety of the camp. In the end, the God of Abram became the God of the tribe of Abram, and I considered the matter closed.

Fool that I was, the matter was hardly closed. When the men of the tribe were back on their feet, all the slaves in the camp were rounded up and Abram strode forth from his tent to address us. I anticipated an announcement about my adoption and could not have been a happier man. My heart was pounding in my chest as I listened for those sweet words.

Instead, Abram surprised me by saying that we slaves were not exempt from the God's orders. It seemed the men who had laughed secretly at the humiliation of their masters were about to be on the receiving end of the knife. I could see losing my own foreskin would be required as part of the adoption process, but why all of us? A slave could never be considered one of the tribe, even with the mutilation.

No pain-numbing wine was wasted on mere slaves. The Hebrew men who remembered their ordeal were eager to return the favor, with far less care than I had taken. Soon screams and moans echoed again throughout the camp while pale-faced men and boys stood in line, guarded by laughing tribesmen. The young man who had first gone under my knife had a nasty grin on his face whenever he looked my way, so I knew who was going to be doing the carving on my own person. I began to wonder if being gelded would be the price of my freedom.

When it came my turn, however, Abram pulled me aside, and said, "Eliezer, you are like a son to me, but I cannot keep my promise to adopt you. The men of the tribe would never accept this, not after you . . . um, fondled their manhoods. They would surely find some excuse to kill you rather than let you sit and eat by their side. I will do this for you, at least: you will have wine for the pain, and the hand that cuts you will be mine. I will be swift and sure."

So that was to be the reward for my service: a cup of cheap wine and a quick torture. I needed no bonds, no strong men to hold me down. I clenched my teeth and let my anger bolster my endurance.

I am Eliezer of Damascus, a slave. It is no big thing to my Master, breaking a promise to a slave. I was a piece of property in his eyes, with no right to complain. I was a fool to expect otherwise. That was the start of my hatred for this man, this God-cursed Abram.

***

"Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar . . . ." -- Genesis, Chapter 16

The seasons came and went, and life continued in the camp. There is a routine to life as a nomad: the days turn into years and a lifetime can pass with little remark. My Master performed his sacrifices at a secret altar from time to time, but the God seemed to be satisfied with foreskins and goat blood, or at least demanded no additional horror be performed. Each new manchild had his foreskin cut off, and it even became a source of pride among the tribe. Whatever reward was given by the God for this remained a secret between the Deity and Abram.

My life remained one of servitude and scarcely varied. I had not forgotten my anger, but only occasionally looked upon my Master with the hatred of that day so long ago. I had a distraction from my brooding, for Hagar had entered my life.

Hagar was an Egyptian girl, an exotic beauty with dark skin and long black hair. She was acquired to attend to Sarai after the previous slave died of a lingering coughing sickness. I suspected the bruised ribs from one of her mistress's beatings had been the cause, but such is the brutal life -- and death -- of a slave.

Hagar and I were often together performing our chores, and I quickly found myself infatuated with this remarkable woman. I was overjoyed when she confessed her love in return and we began taking comfort in each other's arms. We had to do this in secret, for slaves must receive permission to marry, and until then a maidservant's body was reserved for the exclusive use of the owner. We found a private moment here and there, where Hagar proved expert at using her lips and hands to arouse me until, unable to hold back, I would pin her under me and explode with a few quick thrusts. She understood my lack of experience and became my teacher in returning the favor. She would grab the back of my head and hold on until I thought I would suffocate, and bite her lip raw to keep from making noise. The other slaves knew, of course, and more than once warned us of the wrong eyes coming our way. If caught we would be whipped bloody and then one of us sold off, to be separated for good. I had seen it done to other slaves.

The day came when I judged my Master to be in a fine enough mood. I knelt before Abram and asked if I could have Hagar as my wife. The old man conferred with Sarai and said it wasn't to be. No reason was given, and when I insisted on knowing why, Abram beat me for forgetting my place. We continued our secret love while I vowed to ask again once some time had passed. But then one day Hagar came to me in distress.

"Oh, Eliezer!" she cried. "What am I to do? My Mistress has told me I am to be given to Abram tonight. I must let that smelly old goat climb on top of me. I am supposed to bear him a child!"

I don't even remember my reaction to this, although later my beloved told me she feared I would storm into Abram's tent and slay him, and therefore myself. Once my rage subsided, we held each other while I whispered words of comfort. Then she told me the rest.

"We have a bigger problem, my love. The Master cannot get me with child, because I believe you have already placed one in my womb."

This time the shock was enough to make my legs weak and I had to sit down. My joy was mixed with fear for what would happen to us when this was discovered, but then I realized what a simple deception would bring and laughed. So old Abram didn't think I was good enough to adopt? Well, the fruit of my loins would inherit, instead! Remembering the deal my Master had made those years ago, the one that required my help, I had no doubt it would be a boy. For what other reason could the childless Patriarch have paid such a high price? Since his dried-up seed wasn't providing an heir, the God must be delivering through me! I, Eliezer of Damascus, would have my secret revenge, and the pleasure of watching my son raised in freedom.

Hagar submitted to Abram's clumsy rutting. One month later she announced the result of the union. The old man was delighted, but Sarai proved to be a problem. She suspected, and whipped poor Hagar, trying to force a confession. My love actually ran away at one point, but I followed and persuaded her to return. I explained about the treatment to my Master, without going into the cause, and he ordered Sarai to stop for the safety of the unborn child.

It was indeed a son, and Abram named the boy Ishmael. He was born early enough to cause gossip, but Ishmael was a small baby and everyone knew of Sarai's treatment of her servants, and so it was explained away as a premature birth. I watched my son grow, helped raise him, and delighted in seeing the old fool Abram name him heir. I even made small offerings to the God that was responsible for my good fortune and dreamed of one day seeing Ishmael declared Patriarch.

I was twice a fool. The God of Abram was not about to let this happen; I should have known better. Another of those fits came upon Abram, where it was made known that Sarai, that wrinkled old hag, was now able to bear children. She laughed at her husband, but agreed to let him between her legs, if only for old time's sake. I doubt either found joy in the act. Sarai, of course, promptly began to show signs of imminent motherhood. Even then, I would have accepted my Ishmael being -- if not the receiver of the birthright -- at least one of the tribe. You'd think the God could give me that much.

"Eliezer, you are like a son to me." Abram would not look me in the eyes this time. "I have seen how you care for Hagar and Ishmael, but the God has commanded they be sent away. In fact, it was done this morning. I felt it best not to delay."

Then he told me the details. Sarai had given Hagar a single jug of water, told her to carry Ishmael, and drove her out into the dry wilderness at the height of summer. This was not exile, but execution! I begged, threw myself at my Master's feet, pleading for their lives. He finally relented, perhaps because of his own affection for the boy, and allowed me to at least take them a half-lame ass to ride and enough supplies to make survival a possibility.

The crafty old Patriarch knew better than to trust my pledge to return. There was enough water to get a woman and boy across the dry land, but just barely, and only if the Gods were willing to help keep the ass alive long enough to find an oasis. There was certainly not enough for an additional thirsty mouth. I found Hagar and Ishmael by following her footsteps in the sand, but was almost too late. When she could go no further, my love had given the boy the last of the water and crawled far enough away so she would not have to watch him die.

I forced my own meager ration of water between their cracked lips and protected them from the burning sun with the shade of my own body. Eventually Hagar was recovered enough to climb on the ass. Not a single word passed between us as I handed Ishmael up to her. What was there to say? I did not even hug my beloved, for I knew once I had her in my arms I'd never be able to let go.

The saddest memory in a lifetime filled with difficulties was the sight of Hagar riding off into the vast desert. Somewhere on the other side lay Egypt. I prayed to the Gods of her people to protect one of their own and grant her the freedom I would never see. My son was watching me from over her shoulder and waved good-bye at her prompting. She whispered something in his ear, and I heard him say, "Papa?" Somehow, I found the strength not to run after them.

I watched until their image wavered and was lost to the shimmering heat, leaving me alone again in the wilderness. I fell to my knees and cried out in anguish, and it was then I believe I went completely insane. I screamed and shook my fist at the heavens, cursing this God and daring it to come down and fight one puny mortal. I threw myself on the ground and sobbed like a baby, begging the God to bring Hagar back. And in the end . . . in the end, the hot desert wind consumed my words, the dry sand drank my tears, and nothing had changed. I was still a slave, and still alone.

My spirit broken, I debated just walking out into the deadly heat and making an end to my life. Then I thought of Abram and his tribe. Did I say I hated before? That was a flickering oil lamp compared to the raging fire that now consumed me. No, I could not die, not yet. I had a purpose in my life, a single, compelling reason to live. I hated Abram. I hated Sarai. I hated the unborn child that had taken my son's place. I especially hated that God of theirs, the cruel manipulator and destroyer of dreams and hopes. I would return, and I would be patient. I would do nothing to my enemies. Remembering that beggar on the streets of Damascus, I knew I would not have to.

I am Eliezer of Damascus, a slave, but I am not alone. If I no longer have Hagar and Ishmael to share my life, then my hate will keep me company. Abram is God-cursed, and one day his God will turn on him. I wanted to be around to witness this. Seeing his downfall would be my only satisfaction.

***

"After these things God tested Abram, and said to him, Abram! And he replied, Here am I." -- Genesis, Chapter 22

Sarai gave birth to a son named Isaac. As with my own Ishmael, I helped raise this boy, nurturing my hatred in secret. Abram still had his God-cursed spells and several times we were ordered to pack up and move, but this was routine for a tribe of nomads. The years again passed while I waited. Slaves are good at waiting.

"What can your servant Abram do for you this time, my Lord?"

When I once again heard these words from my Master, I handed Isaac to a slave girl and told her to leave, then turned to the familiar sight of Abram bowing to his God. No more soiling of his clothes now; the old man seemed eager for the visits, happy to perform whatever tasks the God demanded. I hummed softly as I stood there and amused myself, as always, with visions of slicing the heart out of this man.

"No!" my Master shouted, rising to his feet. This was different and woke me from my idle thoughts. "He was a gift from you, a reward for my service! He is my beloved, my only son. Let me take a slave to be your sacrifice, instead."

This last statement certainly caught my attention. The beloved son was of course Isaac, and I listened carefully to see if this slave sacrifice being mentioned might turn out to involve my own person. Abram valued my service and our relationship went back many years, but with this God anything was possible.

Right now, the old man seemed to be trying to bargain with the God. "Let me be the sacrifice," I heard him say, "for if you make me do this, my grief will be unending!" The rest of his speech was lost to me as a woman began crying somewhere close by. It was probably a new slave girl, making the mistake of asking her mistress the name of the God this tribe worshiped. Sarai was quick as ever with her beatings and age had not dampened her enthusiasm at inflicting them. No one, slave or Hebrew or old Abram himself, ever spoke the God's name. It was a wise rule, since the last thing anyone wanted to do was invoke the attention of this particular Deity.

My Master slumped, so I could tell the conversation was over and ran to help. He refused the inviting cushions in the corner, instead motioning for me to sit before him. He sounded tired, and for once looked and acted his age. I began to hope that, at long last, his God had forsaken him.

"Eliezer, you are like a son to me," he began as usual. "I need you to help me with a task. I must make a trip to the altar in the hills, so I need you to go . . . go get Isaac and one other slave and gather the usual supplies. Only leave the goat here; it won't be needed."

So this time his precious Isaac was going along? Combined with what I'd just overheard in the conversation with the God, I had no more doubts: this would be the day I had long awaited.

"I hear and obey, Master," was all I said, my face betraying no hint of my rejoicing.

We rode up the familiar trail to the sacred altar, a place only Abram and a few trusted slaves such as myself had ever visited. Spoiled little Isaac was, as usual, ignoring his father's orders to keep quiet and pestering us with questions. This was a special occasion for the boy. I chuckled, thinking of how Isaac would react if the truth of it were known.

We came to the bottom of the mountain, where Abram ordered myself and the other slave to remain. He tied a bundle of sticks to Isaac's back, probably to slow the boy down and make him easier to catch when the time came. They disappeared up the trail and I waited only long enough so I could not be heard before starting after them, telling the other slave this was part of the Master's plan. I had no intention of missing out on this.

I was careful to stay far behind, figuring it would take Abram a while to get everything ready. I circled around the clearing with the altar and came up where rocks and brush would provide cover for my spying. When I finally inched my way through some scrub to where I had a view of the rough stone stained with the dried blood of many goats, I found Abram already hard at work.

I was close enough to hear a whisper and would be easy to spot if anyone thought to look. Abram was too involved in his task. He had just finished tying up his son, and with tears streaming down his face, my Master was placing Isaac on top of the piled wood. The boy was blindfolded and gagged and struggling against the ropes. Abram held him down with one hand and pulled the knife out of his belt with the other. I smiled at Abram's anguish as he raised his shaking hand for the killing stroke. He was actually going to do it! I waited for the satisfaction of seeing my Master slice the throat of the one joy in his life.

Then the boy managed to spit the cloth from his mouth and yell, "Papa!" My eyes shifted from the father to the son and I again heard my own, lost Ishmael. I woke from the overpowering pure hatred of my Master as I looked at the frightened boy. Isaac did not deserve this any more than my own son had deserved his fate. Was I as cruel as the God, to so callously delight in the slaughter of innocents?

Perhaps I could have saved the boy, perhaps not. I know I started to rise and shout out for my Master to stop this madness. More than likely I would have ended up on that altar next and done no good in the end. But, at that moment the God showed up out of nowhere -- not a hidden voice this time, the Deity was visible and very real. Abram dropped the knife and threw himself in the dirt at the God's feet. I stood, and from my vantage point looked straight at this God, the one responsible for so much grief in my life.

How can I describe what it was like, to be in the presence of such a thing? Even with my eyes shut, I could feel the power going through me. Bright it was, and human in form, although I felt perhaps this was a seeming put on as casually as I would don my robe. And the face! Beautiful beyond description, yet terrible in its beauty. I found myself drawn to the God, wanting to be embraced, to have the God accept me as his own, a servant and slave to his whims. I would forgive anything, do anything if only I could take a place next to Abram in the dust. I took a step forward, and it was then the God turned his head and looked at me.

I silently offered myself, pleading to be taken. Surely, I thought, I had also suffered in the service to the Deity. My foreskin had been sacrificed, same as Abram. Did that not make me worthy? The God looked into the depths of my being, and I was rejected. I was not Hebrew, not of Abram's blood, and beneath the God's notice. Bright his face was, brighter than the noon sun, but still I watched, through watering eyes and pain burning into my head, for any sign of mercy. I saw no compassion there, no concern for Eliezer of Damascus, no regret for broken promises and a love lost to the desert sand. There was only jealousy and anger and an unyielding purpose. That purpose did not include me.

I doubt that I'll ever know the ending to the drama at the altar, if Isaac still breathes or is being consumed by the sacrificial flame. I don't really care, anymore. I will sit in this small patch of shade and await whatever fate tomorrow may bring. Death seems the likely outcome. My eyesight failed completely a while ago, and I am lost. No matter.

I suppose if I called out, it would help Abram to find me. If he were looking, if he cared enough to send other slaves to search. He'll probably be too busy with his own troubles, no matter what happened to his son. I won't cry out for rescue, to him or any of the Gods that might be listening. I turned and ran from the one God I ever met, and continued running until blindness overcame me. I will sit here and endure another day of thirst by thinking of my own son, and tonight I will once again dream of dark-skinned breasts cupped within my hands.

My beloved Hagar insisted that when you die, the Gods weigh your heart, to see if you have carried any hatred or guilt into the afterlife. If that's true, then my heart will be light as a bird's feather, for I don't hate old Abram or his tribe anymore. I understand now. A slave is not held to blame for carrying out the orders of his master, after all. I can escape my bondage at last, even if it is only to die a free man, but Abram will never escape from his, and neither will his children or their children.

As for the God, expecting mercy showed I was a fool to the end, no wise man at all. What could a God know of suffering, of what it feels like to be betrayed or the anguish of losing an only son? I might as well expect this desert sun to have pity on a poor, lost traveler.

I am Eliezer of Damascus, once slave to Abram, God-cursed Patriarch of a God-cursed tribe of wandering Hebrew shepherds. I am blind and alone, dying of thirst in the wilderness. Yet, I would not trade places with any of the tribe of Abram, in spite of my troubles. I have seen their future written on the face of their God. My suffering will soon be over, but I know their suffering has just begun.

 


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