The New Judge

[Note: This is one of my attempts to tell either a different part of a Bible story, to tell the story from a different perspective, or to get a similar point across in a different way. I will quote the related scripture passage at the end. Besides the general fun of setting myself the assignment and trying to write it, I hope these stories will help someone think about the scriptural passage in new and creative ways. This is a work of fiction. All places, characters, and things are products of my imagination and any resemblance to anyone or anything real is purely accidental.]

Carl, now Sir Carl, made a bit of a stir when he arrived in the tiny village of Felidol. He rode his horse right across the small bridge across the creek (or river, as the locals would have it) and through the gate in the wooden palisade that surrounded the town. Farmers in their fields looked up and then continued to stare as he went by on his white horse. He did indeed cut quite a figure with shining armor, a quite long sword at his side, and fine cloak over it all, and expensive boots on his feet.

The villagers stared, but they were less impressed by his fine figure and equipment than they were frightened to see anyone like that here. The citizens of Felidol and the surrounding countryside didn’t like important people all that much. Important people wanted to get things done, and it always seemed that what they needed in order to get things done was the farmer’s money, food, and sometimes even their property.

Carl was completely oblivious to all this. He waved at the villagers in a friendly way as he rode past. He didn’t want to seem aloof or unsociable. He didn’t seem to realize that with the way he was dressed and equipped, the villagers had a hard time seeing him as anything but aloof. They hoped he would be aloof, and thus wouldn’t get them involved in anything.

On the other hand, he knew something they didn’t. In spite of his young age, and his knightly appearance, he was actually the new circuit judge, to be based in their village. Carl knew very well that he had gotten the appointment only because his father was one of the richest merchants in the city. He was fairly sure that his father had bought him this appointment for his 20th birthday, along with a knighthood. But that was alright with him, because he knew enough about the law to do the job, and he intended to do right by these people.

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Carl’s first day in the courthouse was a disappointment. There were a couple of weddings to formalize, something that went without ceremonies in these parts. The feasting and celebration would take place elsewhere. There were some documents to formalize, ones that required the seal of a king’s officer. Carl was the only king’s officer in many, many miles. But nobody came to petition him for anything. He couldn’t imagine that none of the small farmers in this area had any complaints against the more important landowners. He imagined that the townsfolk had complaints against farmers, and farmers against townsfolk. That was how he had heard things always were.

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Daniel and the Forgotten Prince

The moment Daniel had understood that he was called to serve his God by serving Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, he had known that there would be some difficult moments. Now here he stood as Belteshazzar, one of the king’s favorites, and he was being called upon to make a judgment. It was an unusual set of circumstances that had put him in this position, because there would normally be judges assigned to such a task. But the village that served the exiles here was under the king’s control, and the captain of the guards had asked him to intervene. His instructions were to intervene when a case might cause trouble, and this one could certainly do that.

On the one hand was a young man, no more than in his early twenties, and perhaps as young as his late teens, an exile from Judah. On the other an almost equally pitiful farmer, who was bowing low to the ground before the great noble lord. Belteshazzar wondered how they would feel if they realized that he also was an exile from Judah. But that didn’t matter any more. He was now an official of the king, and easily the highest ranked person within a day’s ride of this place. Even the officers of his guard outranked everyone present.

The young man was also bowing to the ground, but it was not out of respect. He’d been thrown there, and a soldier was holding his neck down with the haft of his spear. Before the guard had pushed him there, Belteshazaar had seen his look of angry defiance mixed with despair. The young man was certain that he was about to die, and he was trying to do so with some pride.

“Rise!” he ordered.

“Who brings charges against this man?”

“I do, my lord.” It was the farmer.

“Proceed.”

“My lord, I am Nabu-etir, and I had in my possession a silver goblet, precious, a gift from a soldier I served as a manservant. The goblet was stolen from my house, and was found in the possession of that man.” He pointed to the young man.

“What is your proof of ownership?”

“I have here the grant made to me by my master, whose life I saved.” He passed to a guard a clay tablet, who passed it on to Belteshazzar. Belteshazzar examined it carefully, and read the writing on the outside. It was a fairly standard tablet for such a purpose, clearly wrapped a second time with clay with a copy inscribed on the outer shell, thus guaranteeing against forgery. The outer shell could be broken and the text inside read and compared. As Belteshazzar read, however, he noticed something odd. There were a number of errors in writing on the tablet, as well as several signs which were unusual. It looked just a bit like a student exercise, in which one might spell out the syllables of a word or a god’s name when a single sign might normally be used.

“This soldier,” he said, reading the text, “WARDU-ILANI, granted you this cup as a reward for saving his life. Yet you live the life of a poor tenant farmer.”

“My lord, I am a simple man of the soil. Yet the object is precious to me.”

Belteshazzar addressed the guard. “Where is this cup?” A soldier came forward and handed it to him.

“What is the inscription on here?”

“A dedication to some barbaric god, my lord.” Belteshazzar read the simple inscription in Hebrew: “LYTM BN YHYKM.” Odd that. No such son of Jehoiakim (YHYKM) was known, but it was not impossible that there had been one, lost in the confusion. It was also possible that another YHYKM than the obvious one was meant Obviously nobody here realized that he would be able to read the inscription on the cup.

“So you do not know anything about this cup, other than that it was a gift?”

“My lord, it was part of the spoils of Canaan, but beyond that I know nothing. I faithfully served my lord Wardu-ilani, and he rewarded me.”

“He gave you a cup, and he provided you with a document of tranfer so that your claim could not be questioned.”

“Indeed it cannot, my lord. The claim and the description is clear.”

Well, it might well be clear, assuming this “Wardu-ilani” knew nothing of what he had taken from the spoils, and the scribe who had written the deed was only marginally literate, and assuming that Abed-ilanu actually existed. The name was not impossible, but was a touch generic for Belteshazzar’s taste, considering the man himself was not there to verify. “Servant of the gods” indeed! There was something else about that tablet that bothered him, but he wasn’t sure what. It would come to him in a moment.

“What is your name?” he said to the younger man.

“I am Yotham, son of Jehoiakim, a prince of Judah,” he answered, straightening his body. The translator for the soldiers assigned to guard this village proceeded to translate, stumbling and slow. Nonetheless, even though he understood both Babylonian and Hebrew better than the interpreter apparently did, Belteshazzar preferred to keep his history out of the picture. None of these people seemed to realize it, and he had no plans to enlighten them.

“And this goblet is yours?”

“Yes, my lord, it is mine. I brought it with me, the sole heirloom of my house, when I was brought her to Babylon in the exile of Zedekiah. I hid it and preserved it. It is mine!”

“Yet you have no document indicating your ownership.” Belteshazzar could see the triumphant smile on Nabu-etir’s face. Clearly he thought he had won his case. One had a document, one did not. Simple!

“I have the inscription on the cup. It says, ‘belonging to Yotham, son of Jehoiakim.’ I’m Yotham, son of Jehoiakim. The cup is mine.”

Either he was telling the truth, or he had concocted a rather fantastic lie. It would have been easier to claim to have been the son of a court official with the same name, than to claim actual kinship with the king.

“Yet how could he bring the cup all the way from Canaan without it being discovered?” asked Nabu-etir. “That would be impossible! Clearly he is lying, and what is more, I have my document!”

Belteshazzar could see that all the guards, except his inner circle, and the villagers, both Babylonian and Judean, were against the boy. Clearly he had made a big deal of his princely blood, and alienated many. But there was only one real consideration, not who was the better person, but who actually owned the cup.

Then he realized what was bothering him about the tablet. He thought he had felt a slight dampness, perhaps a slight give. But he couldn’t see any problem when he looked again. Perhaps it was one of those moments of divine wisdom that came to him from time to time. There was only one way to check.

“Bring me a hammer,” he told one of his servants.

When the tool was delivered, he took it and carefully broke the outer layer of clay to get to the inner text. He preserved most of the text, and quickly compared the two. Again, though there was no difference in meaning, there were differences in spelling and in the formation of the signs that suggested it had not been done by a professional scribe. But further, as he pressed his fingers on the inner tablet, he felt the outer layer give, and he brok through to wet clay inside. He pulled the tablet into several pieces and showed the wet clay to the assembled people.

“The clay cannot be wet on a deed that is dated ten years ago,” he said, looking at Nabu-etir.

The man’s expression fell in shock. Clearly he had not thought of this. Then Belteshazzar had an inspiration.

“In your youth, you attended a scribal school.”

The man simply nodded, dumbfounded.

“You failed and wound up slave to a soldier.”

He nodded again.

“You served him well, and were granted tenancy on some land, an improvement in your lifestyle, but not what such a goblet could have done. With it, you could have bought your way to wherever you wanted. So you prepared this tablet.”

The man said nothing at that point, but he knew he was finished.

“You have attempted to steal this cup from this young man by fraud. Your penalty should be 10 times its value to be paid to its rightful owner. Can you pay this?”

The man simply looked up helplessly.

Belteshazzar turned to the guards. “Take Nabu-etir to his lord, and tell him what has happened here. I expect that there will be no action taken against the exiles because of this embarassment. Whatever his lord chooses to do, that is acceptable.”

“Yotham, son of Jehoiakim, you will come with me. We will investigate this claim of yours, and if it is valid, you will receive provisions from the king. If not, you will suffer the penalties of lying to the court.”

And once again, Belteshazzar served his king and by doing so also served his God. “How long, Lord,” he prayed silently, “Must I carry this burden?”

Daniel and the Village Elders

Note: This is a short story sort of in the style of the apocryphal stories of Daniel. Not all such stories are consistent with the basic Daniel story in the Biblical book, but I have tried to stick with what can be fitted in. I have added references for the two Biblical laws that Daniel cites, though you can be certain he didn’t quote chapter and verse from material that hadn’t been so divided at that time.

* * * * *

It was evening as Daniel approached the village, one of the camps occupied by Judean exiles. He was returning from a mission for King Nebuchadnezzar, and as was often his custom, he hoped to stay with his own people for the night before returning to the palace the next day. But tonight was to be different.

As he approached the entryway to the village–it would be too optimistic to call it a gate–he could see that the elders were gathered. A young man was standing there with head hanging, clothing torn and dirty, and a large bruise on the side of his face. A few paces away toward the gate was a body crumpled, and apparently ignored. Two men, better dressed and uninjured stood next to the young man. One of them was speaking.

“. . . He struck down our servant, slipped from the tent, and when he saw Azariah here he began to run toward the gate. He’s the murderer, alright, and he should be stoned. He probably raped her as well!”

Daniel saw a gleam of triumph on the man’s face that didn’t fit with the sorrow that would accompany losing a loved one or even the concern over financial loss that would result from losing a valued slave. There was clearly something wrong here–besides, that is, the shameful treatment of the body. He doubted there was a Levite in the camp to explain the law to the people and help see that it was carried out. He looked at the body. There were specks of blood on the clothing, but he could no sign of the type of blow that would kill someone quickly. The head appeared to be whole, where it was not covered by cloth, and there was no large mass of blood.

“Pardon me, my lords,” he said. He could see them calculating how to react to him. He was dressed as a Babylonian courtier, but he addressed them in Hebrew. That left them uncertain as to how to react. Exiles were left pretty much to manage their own affairs, and they would see no reason for a Babylonian to interfere. But a Babylonian official who spoke Hebrew might be different.

“Yes, my son?” said the man in the center who appeared to be the village chief. He looked old enough to Daniel that it was likely he had been an elder back home.

“Is it permitted for a visitor to ask a question?”

“He’s an outsider! What does he have to do with our laws?” The witness who had just finished speaking jumped in before the elder could speak. Daniel could see that had been a mistake as the elder reacted to this challenge to his authority.

“He can speak,” said the elder. “We must hear everything before we condemn someone to death.”

Daniel turned to the witness. “Do you swear by the God of Israel that you personally saw the things to which you testified just now?”

The man hesitated. “I saw them,” he said.

The elder spoke again. “Do you swear that by the God of Israel? That’s what you were asked.” He looked concerned.

“It’s true,” he said. “But I didn’t see everything with my own eyes.” He looked angrily at his companion. “I’ll take your word, but I won’t swear by the God of Israel and testify falsely.”

“So you believe what you said is true, but you didn’t see it with your own eyes?” The elder was now angry.

“Yes.”

“But we still have two witnesses who say that this young man killed the girl,” said one of the other elders.

“Only one witness,” said Daniel. “Only one person witnessed the event and can properly swear and give testimony.”

The second elder spoke again. “But do any of us doubt the veracity of Ehud, our countryman? Surely we still know that this young man is a murderer. We cannot release him!”

The chief elder hesitated again.

“My Lord,” Daniel spoke again.

“You may speak,” said the chief elder. He enjoyed the respect that this young man gave him. He’d been prepared to be angry at the intruder, but now he noticed that this young intruder was the only one giving him the respect he was due.

“The law says, ‘A single witness shall not be sufficient to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing. At the word of two or of three witnesses shall the accusation be established’ (Deuteronomy 19:15). Only one person witnessed the crime, and it cannot be established by the testimony of one who did not actually see the crime.”

“I disagree. We are here in a foreign land. We cannot afford to break trust with our fellow countryman Ehud. I believe his testimony, and I will take the word of his companion in establishing his testimony,” said the second elder.

“My Lord, may I ask another question of the witnesses?” Daniel’s voice was respectful, and he clearly addressed the chief elder.

“Go ahead.”

“With what weapon did the young man strike the girl?”

“With an axe,” said Ehud quickly, as his companion’s mouth opened and then closed.

Daniel walked over to the body. He knew that what he was about to do was shocking. He settled in his mind that he would not be staying in these people’s camp that night. Everyone else might forget, but he remembered such of the laws as he’d learned before he was taken into exile. There was no priest and no temple to go to for purification, but he’d do what he could do after he had handled the corpse.

He reached down and tore the robe from the back of the victim, leaving her back exposed as a gasp went up from the gathered villagers. The gasp was for his audacity in handling the body and in uncovering her in that way. But then there was another gasp as the gathered people saw that the girl’s back was beaten to a pulp, with pieces of her clothing still clinging to the wounds. Everybody could see in a moment that she had not be killed with an axe, but instead had been beaten to death.

It took only a few moments for the verdict to be given for the accused young man to be released. The girl had no family there, but the elders determined to bury her properly.

The chief elder turned to Daniel. “Can we not convict this man of the murder of the girl?” he asked, now convinced of Daniel’s wisdom and learning.

“Not unless there are witnesses that he was the one who beat her. But you can convict him of bringing false testimony. The law also says, ‘You shall do to him as he planned to do to his brother’ (Deuteronomy 19:19). We do not have a temple, but I think it would be right to follow this law even here.”

Ehud’s face turned white as he heard the village elders, one after another, agree to the verdict based on their own witness to the false testimony.

All in all, thought Daniel, it was not the restful evening he’d hoped for. But justice was done, however unpleasant.

Susanna: A Transformation

For a literal translation of Daniel 13, “Susanna” see USCCB – NAB – Daniel 13. This is not a translation or even a paraphrase. One might even call it a “transformation.” What I am attempting to do is to rewrite this short story into a modern form. I allow myself to alter the order of the telling, what is told and what is ignored, but not to alter the facts of the story as recorded. I also allow myself to add some details and to exchange telling the story for created conversations. I chose names for the unnamed players at random from Chronicles. For this story I assume that the Daniel of the story is the same as the main character in the book of Daniel, though not all interpreters would agree. You can judge the results.

The elders gather outside what would have been the city gates, if only they had been back in Judah, and this had been a city with gates. As it was, it was a quite prosperous little community for exiles from Judah living in Babylon. Those who lived here were the elders, people of importance in the community, and many who had good jobs working for Babylonians and thus had money to live relatively good lives in exile.

Daniel stood to the side of the group of elders, watching with interest. His position in the court of Babylon gave him entry to assemblies such as this, but he was still too young to be invited to participate. He felt his chest tighten, and anguish gripped him as he heard the elders call for Susanna. Susanna was the wife of the well-known businessman, the most prosperous member of the community, Joakim. Nothing had ever been even whipered against the character of Joakim and his wife. Behind her followed her father Hilkiah and his wife, along with other members of her family, all weeping.

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