Deuteronomy Fiction: Shoftim
How could she leave me? When I need her most, just steps away from death, she abandons me. Avital, my love. I didn’t do it. I thought you believed me.
The platform they built for me stood in the distance, surrounded by golden fields of wheat. There hadn’t been a beheading in Yarmut in a generation. We all knew how it worked. We had learned the laws as children. A man accused by two witnesses and found guilty of murder was executed by the sword. But it was rare that two valid witnesses were ever by the scene of a murder. I was the lucky one.
I looked at my cursed hand. In the land of the right-handed, anyone different is an easy pariah. I inherited my left-handedness from my mother, a Benjaminite. It was common enough within the Tribe of Benjamin. Here among the Judeans, the land of my father, I’ve been teased ever since my playmates could talk. ‘Lefty, lefty,’ they would jeer, as if just picking up a stone with the wrong hand was a crime.
Two Yarmut court officers walked me slowly towards the platform. A crowd lined the road from the courthouse to the executioners block. People from the surrounding villages had come to see the spectacle. The angry teenage sons of Poshu came from Zanoach, with ripped tunics, still mourning his death. Laborers from Bet Shemesh left the grape harvest to watch the spectacle. I was strangely proud of the large crowd of neighbors that arrived from Azeka.
One of the officers at my side announced in a loud voice, “Yiter son of Lachmi of Azeka has been sentenced to beheading for the death of Poshu of Zanoach. He has been accused by Shiven and Rumon, also of Azeka, for the murder. If anyone has evidence otherwise, please come forward now.”
How I hoped to be saved. Someone else did it! I had no love for Poshu, but I never wished him dead. I tried to recall how my week had started and how I ended up walking to my execution.
Poshu’s messenger had arrived at my home on Sunday. ‘We must talk about Shiven’s field. Meet me at the tavern of Zanoah early tomorrow,’ his message read. Poshu was not a man to be ignored.
At first light on Monday, I saddled my tired stallion and set out from Azeka. I rode past the city of Yarmut nestled amongst rolling green hills and reached Zanoach as the sun broke through the top of the Judean Mountains. In the back of my mind I knew Avital would be taking this road back home from visiting her parents in the land of Benjamin.
Poshu sat in his usual corner of the tavern. Long ago Poshu had demanded of the tavern-keeper a sturdy chair to support his wide girth. A long sword was sheathed on his left side. The tip touched the floor behind him. A bejeweled dagger hung from his belt on the right. Poshu was nursing a large cup of wine. Two equally large cups, both emptied, sat next to the third one in his beefy hands.
“What kept you so long,” Poshu demanded as I approached his table.
“I came as quick as I could, sir,” I responded, eyes looking at the wooden beams of the tavern floor.
“Well, sit down, Yiter, I don’t have all day.”
I slowly sat down on the chair opposite Poshu keeping the table and his temper at arms length.
“I have bought the vineyard of Shiven and his partner,” Poshu stated.
“Rumon,” I added.
“Yes, yes, Rumon. The vineyard west of the Azeka spring. The one bordered by the old olive trees on the north side.”
“What!?” I exclaimed. “That’s not possible. That’s the collateral they gave me. I’m taking possession of the vineyard this week from them. They’ve defaulted on their loan one time too many. The court will award it to me. Without a doubt.”
“I bought that field,” Poshu pounded on the tavern table, “and I’m getting that field.”
“You need to take up your claim with Shiven and Romun,” I said. “They had no right selling it to you. They need to give your money back.”
“You and I know those fools don’t have any money, and they will yet pay for their deceit, but I will not take a loss just because you made a bad loan.”
“A bad loan?” I stood abruptly. “You were the one who made a bad buy. I have solid contracts to prove my ownership of those fields.”
“Let’s make an agreement ourselves,” Poshu put his hand out, urging me to sit again. “I will pay you half price for the field. That’s a fair resolution.”
I did not sit down. “I’m sorry for your loss, Posh., I’m sorry they sold you a field already spoken for, but I see no reason why I should lose as well. Even at full price, I would not be interested in selling.”
“You young fool. If you don’t agree to half, I will take the whole thing.”
“Leave that to me.” Poshu gulped down the rest of his wine.
“Then we have nothing further to discuss.” I walked out of the tavern.
The officer at my side interrupted my reverie as we walked closer to the platform.
“If anyone has evidence otherwise, please come forward now,” he repeated.
Avital, where are you? You were by my side the entire trial. You kept saying that it was a mistake, that I was innocent. You had such conviction and such hate for my accusers. I was stunned by your ferocity. My beautiful Benjaminite bride. Married less than a month and then thrown into this nightmare. I could not have asked for a more loyal, trusting, steadfast partner. When all the evidence was clearly against me, you did not give up hope, did not stop believing in me. Where did you go? Why? You were so strong during the trial. The trial…
Shiven and Rumon stood in the middle of the stone and timber courthouse. They faced the twenty-three elders sitting in long robes in a semi-circle.
“Rumon and I had been riding south from Bet Shemesh, we turned east at Yarmut towards Zanoach. We saw them arguing on the road outside Zanoach,” Shiven said. “Then they fought. Yiter pulled out a knife and stabbed Poshu. With his left hand. Yiter then dragged Poshu’s body to the side of the road next to the sheaves of wheat. We saw it all.”
Several of the elders nodded their heads. One elder turned to another.
“He was found by the side of the road, with a knife protruding from the right side of his torso,” the elder said. “A thrust only a lefty could make.” The elder looked knowingly at me.
“When did this occur?” the middle elder asked.
“Midday,” Rumon answered quickly, “as the sun was high in the sky.”
Avital squeezed my right hand. “They lie,” she whispered fiercely. “They will not succeed.”
“We shall interrogate each witness separately, to determine the veracity of their testimony,” the elder announced.
The next day the verdict was given. I was guilty of murder. Avital ran out of the courthouse without a word.
“Admit your fault,” one of the elders approached me as I neared the platform. “Seek God’s forgiveness so your death may expunge your guilt.”
“I am innocent,” I said. I had said it all before to no avail. “Shiven and Rumon are lying. They want to get out of their debt and hold onto their land. They probably killed Poshu and are laying the blame on me. Masterful actually. They get rid of their two creditors in one blow.”
The elder had heard it before and nodded, not expecting me to change my story.
I climbed the platform, resigned to my fate. The somber executioner sharpened his sword with a large whetstone. The officers tied me to the executioners block. It was better that Avital was not here to witness my ignominious end. But how I missed her. One last look. One last touch would have been a comfort.
“Yiter son of Lachmi of Azeka has been sentenced to beheading for the death of Poshu of Zanoach. He has been accused by Shiven and Rumon, also of Azeka, for the murder. If anyone has evidence otherwise, please come forward now,” the officer called out one last time.
A grey mare I recognized galloped towards us. I thought my heart would burst. It was Avital! She drove her horse as if Philistine hordes were chasing her. “Wait!” she screamed. “He’s innocent! Don’t touch him!”
The elder signaled to the officers and the executioner to stop. Avital rode straight to the elder.
“I have proof,” she said breathlessly as she dismounted the horse. “I have witnesses. They are right behind me. Shiven and Rumon lie. They did not see Yiter kill Poshu. They sought to incriminate Yiter in order to get out of their debt and hold on to their land.” She pointed an accusing finger at the partners in the crowd. Officers of the court converged on the pair.
“How do you know?” the elder asked.
“I have witnesses.” Avital calmed herself. “They saw Shiven and Rumon in Bet Shemesh midday Monday. There is no way they could have witnessed what they described.”
Two horses approached carrying a middle-aged man and a teenager. They both still wore aprons. I recognized them as the tavern-keeper and his assistant from Bet Shemesh. They dismounted and walked to the elder.
“What do you know of the whereabouts of Shiven and Rumon this past Monday?” the elder asked the two.
“They were sitting in my tavern,” the older man replied, “from mid-morning until early afternoon. They had a wild look about them. Shiven was excited whispering ‘we’re saved’ and ‘this is it.’ Rumon said ‘we’ve got to get our story straight, those elders are sharp.’
“You see,” Avital interrupted. “It was impossible for Shiven and Rumon to be in Zanoach and witness what they claim. They were in Bet Shemesh at the time. Yiter is innocent.”
“The girl is right,” the elder proclaimed. “Yiter, you are free.” The officer untied the ropes binding me. I ran to Avital and embraced her.
“Shiven and Rumon,” the elder continued. “You shall take Yiter’s place. You shall be executed as you clearly plotted for your fellow.”
“Let us leave,” Avital pulled my hand quickly. Together we mounted the grey mare and rode home to Azeka. Avital sat behind me. I looked back to see the court officers binding Shiven and Rumon.
“You saved me, my love,” I said. “How did you find the new witnesses? How did you know where they were?
“Because I know who killed Poshu,” she said.
“It was Shiven and Rumon,” I answered. “You proved it with the new witnesses.”
“No. It wasn’t them. They must have discovered the body after Poshu was killed. After they realized their good fortune, they dragged him to the side of the road, so he wouldn’t be found quickly. That would give them a stretch of time to implicate you.”
“If it wasn’t them,” I asked, “then who killed them?”
“It happened so suddenly.” I could feel her trembling behind me.
“You saw it? You were there?” I stopped the horse, dismounted and helped Avital down to the ground. I did not let go of her hands.
“I was riding back down the mountain from mother. After I passed Zanoach, I saw Poshu riding in my direction. I tried to avoid eye contact with him. He recognized me. ‘You’re Yiter’s wife, aren’t you,’ he bellowed. I could tell he was drunk, though it was only mid-morning. I gave him a wide berth as our horses reached each other.
He intercepted me and unsheathed his sword. He held the tip to my neck. ‘Not so fast, young lady,’ he smirked. ‘We have business to discuss. Let’s talk here on the ground like civilized people,’ he pressed the blade into my neck. I dismounted. He landed on the ground with a thud, keeping the blade to my neck.
‘Your husband is an arrogant fool and you will pay for his pig-headedness.’
‘What has he done?’ I asked.
‘He would deny me my land, so I will take it from him.’
‘How can you take land?’
His smile grew. ‘I have arranged some documents to show the land belonged to me before he received it as collateral. I will have his land. But first I will have his wife.’
He suddenly dropped the sword and grabbed me by the back of my neck. With his left hand he gripped my right arm and bent it behind my back. Pain shot up my shoulder.
‘Yiter will rue the day he crossed paths with me,’ he breathed on me. I can still smell the stink of him on my face.
‘Please. Don’t,’ I pleaded. He twisted my arm further. My left hand fumbled against his side. I felt a dagger. I pulled it out of his belt and thrust it into his chest. He stepped back looking in shock at the dagger. Blood covered the jewels on the dagger turning them all to rubies. He then fell back, hands clutching the weapon protruding from the right side of his chest.
I jumped on my horse and rode home as if he were still chasing me.”
My mouth hung open as Avital finished her story.
“Avital,” I said. “I don’t believe it. All this time it was you. You were the lefty. You knew all along. And Poshu. That pig. He deserved to die. But why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t expect Shiven and Rumon to accuse you, nor for the elders to find you guilty. Once they sentenced you, I knew I had to prove them wrong and had no time to waste. They had said they had ridden from Bet Shemesh, so that is where I searched. I asked everyone I met if they had seen them Monday. I finally found the tavern-keeper and he remembered seeing them noon that day. I came back as soon as I could.”
“And just in time,” I hugged her.
Avital pulled me closer with her strong left arm.
* * * * * *
Deuteronomy Chapter 19:
15 One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established. 16 If an unrighteous witness rise up against any man to bear perverted witness against him; 17 then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges that shall be in those days. 18 And the judges shall inquire diligently; and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; 19 then shall ye do unto him, as he had purposed to do unto his brother; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee.
Yiter: Talmudic name for ‘lefty’
Rumon and Shiven: play on classical Talmudic use of ‘Ruven and Shimon’.
Poshu: Shortening of ‘poshea’ (villain)
Avital: common Hebrew name