It was almost noon their second day after crossing the Jordan when the Shepherd discovered the next threat to his charges. He had thought the giant scorpion was unbelievable, but what he saw trying to slip unnoticed into a position of advantage over the couple really made him question what he was seeing.
“Surely they are sons of the fabled Gath,” he said to himself.
Two men, the largest Joel had ever seen, nearly reaching the nine feet of the ancient Philistine, Goliath, slowly moved among the trees. Never for a moment, however, did he consider abandoning his mission, for he was driven by that same dedication that King Asa once had when he rid Israel of the idolaters.
“This might not be as easy as the scorpion,” he said, “but with the aid of these gifts that Jehovah granted me, I can’t fail.”
Drifting among the trees mere feet above the ground so as not to make a sound, Joel was able to get close enough to the giants to formulate a plan. The immediate problem was that two plans came to mind. The first would eliminate half the opposition almost immediately; the second was a bit more risky, but it would lead the giants away from the road and those he was to protect. It would also lessen his chances of being discovered. With that in mind, Joel decided to improvise.
The Shepherd spotted a nice, dry branch on the ground and dropped down on it with both feet.
Both giants spun around, their swords tight in their grip.
“Sorry to have scared you like that,” Joel said, taunting his foes. “I didn’t realize that the sons of Gath were so jumpy.”
“We are not scared of you, little Jew,” one of the giants said, keeping his voice low so as not to alert any passersby.
“And we are definitely not jumpy,” the other added.
“Oh, my mistake,” Joel replied, the sarcasm dripping from his words. As he spoke, he slowly moved around until he was between them and the road.
“Begone, little dung beetle,” the first giant said, “or we shall crush you into dust.”
Joel crossed his arms and widened his stance slightly, prepared for the attack that was soon to come. “You admit, then, that it would take both of you to crush me,” he said. “I guess you’ve realized, from Goliath’s fatal mistake all those years ago, that if you are going into battle against a son of Israel, it will take more than one of you.”
The second giant took a step toward Joel. “I do not need my brother’s help to rip you limb from limb,” he snarled.
The Shepherd uncrossed his arms and motioned for the giant to make his move. “I’m ready when you are.”
The giant rushed Joel with his sword raised high. His only goal at the moment was to cleave the Israelite in half. For an instant there was a split-second of satisfaction as he swept his blade downward, his mind already visualizing his opponent’s gory demise. His satisfaction turned to complete and utter surprise, however, as the Shepherd caught the edge of the blade on his unyielding staff.
Joel shifted his grip and let the sword slide harmlessly to the ground. Before the giant could recover, he gave the staff a jerk and caught the giant’s wrist in the staff’s hook. Using the strength of Samson, he spun to the left, pulling the off-balance giant in his wake, and then twisted the staff again. The hook slipped off his foe’s wrist and sent the giant stumbling into his brother. Caught completely unaware, they both went down in a tangled heap. As they tried to climb to their feet, Joel ran past them, leading them, he hoped, farther away from the road. Their curses and the snapping of underbrush let him know that his plan had succeeded.
Joel pushed himself until he had put enough distance between himself and his pursuers. Once he was out of their line of sight, certain they couldn’t see what he was about to do, he prepared for the second part of his plan.
“Where has the little maggot gotten to?” the first giant asked, as he and his brother quit running.
“He couldn’t have gone too far,” the second giant replied. “When I catch him, I will kill him.”
The first giant looked at his brother. “I thought you were going to do that back there.”
“Trust me,” the embarrassed giant said. “This time, he will di–”
His words were cut off as Joel flew out of a tree behind him and drove him face first to the ground. In addition to the humph of the air being driven from his lungs as he hit the ground, there was a very audible crack as the giant’s forehead collided with a large rock.
“No!” the remaining giant roared.
“What have I done?” Joel asked himself, still kneeling on the giant’s body. “I… I’ve killed him.”
The grieving giant struck the transformed Shepherd with all of his might, sending him flying several feet through the air. With a grunt, Joel came to a stop at the base of a tree.
“You killed my brother!”
Joel shook his head, trying to reclaim his senses, as the giant charged. He saw the sword sweeping downward and, at the last moment, threw himself forward. The tree shuddered at the sword’s impact, sending a shower of leaves and branches down on the two combatants. Rolling between the giant’s legs, he kicked out and caught his foe in the back of his knee. A loud, sickening pop followed by a scream was the result.
The giant began to fall and reached out to steady himself on whatever he could grab hold of, but like his shattered knee, the sapling that was in his grasp was unable to support his weight. With a loud crack, the tree fell, and the giant hit the ground with another scream.
Joel stepped back and took a breath. “I didn’t intend to kill your brother,” he said as his foe rocked back and forth on the ground, holding his ruined knee, “and I don’t want to kill you.” He turned to go, knowing this fight was over.
Through gritted teeth, the giant spit words of anger at his conqueror. “You think you show mercy by not killing me as I would you? I cannot stand, let alone walk, so I will never make it home. You have killed me, of this be sure. May the spirits of my brother and I plague you till your dying day.”
Joel stopped and looked back. “I may have been the instrument of Jehovah that brought about your brother’s death, but I in no way killed either of you. You killed yourselves when you chose this path of evil.”
The Shepherd leaped into the sky and flew away, the pain-filled curses of the raging giant growing fainter behind him.
When the couple finally arrived in Jericho, Joel debated inwardly whether or not to change back into his original form. What if I am unable to again become as I am now? he asked himself over and over. A thought eventually popped into his head, one that could have only come from the wisdom of Mordecai — the mission was not over, therefore he should still be able to change back and forth at will.
“Shazam,” he whispered, once he was certain there was no one around to witness the transformation. Moments later, the small shepherd boy stepped from the shadows onto one of Jericho’s busiest streets.
Much better, he thought to himself as he weaved among the animals and the grownups. A shepherd boy attracts a lot less attention than a shepherd man would in this place. Never in his life had Joel seen a city as big as Jericho, and as much as he wanted to explore and see everything, he knew he had been entrusted with the task of watching over the couple. Having spent the majority of his young life searching for lost lambs, the shepherd boy had little trouble locating his charges.
The final stage of the journey was the most dangerous, for the road from Jericho to Bethlehem ran through the wilderness of Judea. It was a barren place that was fit only for jackals and thieves.
Joel found the couple at a stall buying supplies for the remainder of their journey. He tried to remain inconspicuous as the couple looked through the merchandise, but twice, the woman glanced his way and caught him watching them. The first time, she gave him the sweetest smile, and his face reddened; he quickly looked away. After a couple of moments, he looked up at her again. She and her husband were now closer, just a few stalls from where he stood. This was the first time Joel really got a good look at the couple.
The man was a strongly built fellow who immediately put the boy in mind of a tradesman of some sort. His hands were big and rough, and his face seemed to show the burdens of the world… until he looked at his wife. In that instant, there were no burdens, no worries, not a care in the world; in that instant, there was only love for his pregnant wife. Joel had seen his father look at his mother with love, but it was in no way as intense as the look between these two. For a moment, the boy felt like he was intruding on something very private. The woman, and Joel only referred to her as such because of her condition, looked to be barely out of her teens, if she was even that old. Where her husband’s face was burdened down, her face was almost glowing. As he stared at her, she looked at him a second time.
She whispered something to her husband, who looked Joel’s way, then started toward him. He was prepared to apologize when she stopped in front of him.
“When was the last time you ate, child?” she asked.
“It’s been several days,” Joel said without thinking. It hadn’t dawned on him until now that he felt no need to eat while in his other form. When she mentioned food, though, his stomach seemed to respond.
“I thought so,” she said.
Before Joel could apologize for the gurgle, the man approached and offered him a piece of fruit.
“Thank you, sir,” the boy said.
“My wife tells me we seem to have caught your attention,” the man said. “Is there something we can help you with?”
“I’m sorry,” Joel said between bites. “I didn’t mean to stare.”
“I don’t believe he has wicked intentions towards us,” the woman said, addressing her husband.
“Oh, no,” Joel responded. “I only wanted to make sure you were all right.” The boy groaned inwardly, wishing he would have worded that differently.
The man’s eyebrow arched upward while a nervous laugh escaped his wife’s lips. “Why would our welfare be of concern to you?” the man asked.
Things really weren’t going as Joel intended, and every question asked seemed to wedge him tighter between a rock and a hard place. The couple wasn’t supposed to know he was protecting them, but he also didn’t want to lie to them.
“I saw the two of you come into Jericho by yourselves,” he began slowly, “and I know that a lot of people who travel alone sometimes draw the attention of thieves and bandits, and you look like a nice couple. Since you were buying supplies, I just figured that you weren’t staying here.”
“You’re pretty observant, boy,” the man said. “We aren’t staying in Jericho, but rather we are on our way to Bethlehem to pay our taxes.”
Joel knew this already, but acted surprised. “Then you must be traveling through the wilderness of Judea. If you wish, I will see if there are any caravans that haven’t left yet.”
The man smiled. “I appreciate the offer, but I have already asked around. It looks like my wife and I will be going on alone.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to wait a day or two?” Joel asked. “Surely another caravan will arrive by then and allow you travel with them. It would be much safer.”
“We appreciate your concern,” the man said, not sure why the boy had taken such an interest in their welfare, “but we must be on our way as soon as possible.”
“Besides,” the woman added, “we have nothing to fear. God will protect us.”
Joel was amazed at the couple’s faith. He only hoped that if God was using him as their protection, their faith wasn’t misplaced. “If you are sure you don’t want me to keep searching for a caravan, then I’ll be on my way and leave you alone,” he told them. After thanking them again for the food, Joel ran off.
He looked back once and saw the woman watching him. He waved at her, and then cut between a couple of stalls after she waved back.
Joel spent the next few hours doing his best to watch the couple while staying out of sight. He hoped they would find an inn for the night, but wasn’t too surprised when they began walking toward the city gate. Something in his gut told him the challenges he had faced thus far were nothing compared to what lay ahead.