“You hear me, boy?”Joshua’s voice contains iron.The gray eyes regard his young aide sternly.“You’re khepesh, Othniel.You must never go into battle again!”
Khepesh!The Egyptian word refers to a madness that causes him to go berserk in battle.It blinds a warrior to danger, gives him superhuman strength, renders him unable to feel pain, and blots out of his mind the memory of battle.
Othniel is afflicted with this madness.
Othniel ben Kenan of Judah is one of the most promising youths of Israel.Joshua, Israel’s leader, recognizes his ability and marks him as a future leader of the nation when they settle in the Promised Land.To keep him alive, Joshua orders the fierce young warrior never to fight again.
Joshua is not aware of Othniel’s battle madness in the first skirmish: the battle of Bethel.The young fighter distinguishes himself and becomes a hero ofIsrael, although he can’t remember any details.Othniel’s father Kenan is killed in the battle and is buried with honors at Gilgal.
Later, in the battle of Gibeon, Othniel again becomes khepesh, and his prowess as a fighter becomes legendary.Recognizing the affliction, Joshua issues the order barring Othniel from all future combat.The young man is sent as a spy to Hazor, the largest city in the north, where a federation of the cities of Canaan threatens to overpower Israel in their attempt to conquer the Promised Land.
In Hazor, Othniel’s disguise is to serve as a mute bodyguard in a brothel.One of the prostitutes is a young girl named Shahar.He is attracted to her because she reminds him of Achsah, his childhood companion.Although Shahar is a professional harlot, he sees her as an innocent child.
“When this city falls to Israel,” he tells her, “I swear before my God that you will be spared.”
In the battle of Hazor, Othniel is again afflicted with the battle madness.Attacking overwhelming numbers of the enemy, he is gravely wounded.Unable to keep his vow to Shahar, he learns later that she was killed in the herem, the total destruction of the city.Othniel believes he is not only responsible for her death, but foresworn, under God’s curse, which extends to his entire family and descendents.He wants only to die.
Joshua and his warriors recognize in Othniel a true hero of Israel, and he is carried back to his home in Gilgal on a litter.There he is taken under the loving care of Achsah, who is no longer a child.Although he loves her and wants to marry her, he turns away bitterly, not only because of his battle wounds that leave him crippled and disfigured, but also because he is foresworn and does not want Achsah to fall under the curse of God.His deep depression weighs heavily upon him.
Achsah, in a tender scene in the pastoral countryside, confronts him with his deformities, challenges his belief that God has cursed him, and leads him to accept himself as he is.She forces him to face the reality that she is not Shahar, and he must not allow his burden of guilt to destroy his life.
Othniel has a long road to walk to be healed of his wounds, both physical and emotional.He and Achsah begin that journey together.