Wednesday, March 11, 2009

FIRST Presents "The Stones" by Eleanor K. Gustafson

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The Stones

Whitaker House (January 5, 2009)


Eleanor K. Gustafson has been publishing both fiction and nonfiction since 1978 with short stories and articles published in a variety of national and regional publications. The Stones is her fourth novel. In many of her stories, Eleanor explores the cosmic struggle between good and evil in light of God’s overarching work of redemption. A graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, she has been actively involved in church life as a minister’s wife, teacher, musician, writer, and encourager. She and her husband travel extensively and spend time with their three children and eight grandchildren. They live in Massachusetts, but spend a good deal of time camping at the family forest inVermont.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $10.99
Paperback: 601 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (January 5, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1603740791
ISBN-13: 978-1603740791


Alphabetical Listing of Characters

(Parentheses designate fictional names, not fictional characters)

Abiathar—High priest

Abigail—David’s half-sister, mother of Amasa

Abigail—David’s third wife

Abishai—son of David’s half-sister Zeruiah and brother of Joab and Asahel

Abital—David’s sixth wife

Absalom—David’s son by Maacah

Achish—Philistine king

Adonijah—David’s son by Haggith

Ahimaaz—son of Zadok

Ahinoam—Saul’s wife

Ahinoam—David’s second wife

Ahimelech—high priest at Nob

Ahithophel—David’s chief counselor

Amasa—son of David’s half-sister Abigail, brief career as commander in chief

Amasai—Mighty Man

Amnon—David’s firstborn by Ahinoam

Asaph—Levite, chief musician at the Tent of the ark, narrator

Barzillai—old friend from Rogelim

Bathsheba—David’s eighth wife, mother of Solomon

Benaiah—chief of David’s bodyguard

(Boaz)—first son of David and Bathsheba

(Caleb and Acsah)—couple who hid messengers

Cush—a Benjamite enemy of David

Daniel/Kileab—David’s son by Abigail

David—king of Judah and Israel

Dodai—Mighty Man, father of Eleazar

Eglah—David’s seventh wife

Eleazar—Mighty Man and one of the Three

Esh-Baal/Ish-Bosheth—son of Saul

Ethan—Levitical musician


Goliath—Philistine giant killed by David

Haggith—David’s fifth wife

Hanun—king of Ammon

Heman—Levitical musician

Hushai—David’s friend Ira—Mighty Man

Ithream—David’s son by Eglah

Ittai—Mighty Man

Jashobeam—Mighty Man and mightiest of the Three

Joab—commander in chief of David’s army

Jonadab—David’s nephew

Jonathan—son of Saul, David’s best friend

Jonathan—David’s uncle and counselor

Jonathan—son of Abiathar

(Joram)—David’s servant

Kimham—son of Barzillai and friend of David

Maacah—David’s fourth wife and mother of Absalom

Makir—friend of David

Mephibosheth—crippled son of Jonathan

Michal—David’s first wife and daughter of Saul


Rizpah—Saul’s concubine

Saul—first king of Israel

Shammah—Mighty Man and one of the Three

Sheba—Benjamite insurrectionist

Shephatiah—David’s son by Abital

Shimei—Benjamite gadfly

Shobi—governor of Ammon after his brother’s defeat, David’s friend

Solomon—David’s son by Bathsheba

Tamar—daughter of Maacah and sister of Absalom

Tamar—daughter of Absalom

Uriah—first husband of Bathsheba

Uzzah—Levite whose family guarded the ark after the Philistines’ release

Zadok—priest in the Tent at Gibeon

Zeruiah—David’s half-sister, mother of Abishai, Joab, Asahel

Ziba—Saul’s steward and guardian of Mephibosheth

(Not all warriors and Levites are listed)


One day I’d like to sit down and chat with King David. “Did I get it right?” I will ask. “I may have done a fair job with the broad strokes, but how about the finer shading—personalities, strengths and weaknesses, capabilities?”

It is details that make or break a fictionalized biography. In this novel, I started with the bare bones of the scriptural account and then, by reading between the lines, layered on flesh and blood. A dangerous task, especially with biblical characters. Some, such as David, Joab, Abigail, and Absalom, have clear markers in Scripture, but with others my intuitive GPS had to show the way. Names alone—Benaiah, Asaph, Nathan the prophet, Obil the camelmaster—don’t tell much. An author must make people rise and walk. The Stones, drawn from a careful study of biblical clues, is my take on the living, breathing people they might have been.

As some characters have been fictionalized, so also incidents have been added to build the rationale for a given character’s actions. That some characters did reprehensible things is not in question; I need to show why they might have done them, or why David reacted as he did in response.

Another aspect of The Stones that may need explanation is its moments of brutality. I would rate this novel PG-13—the same as my rating for the Bible itself. David and his men were warriors—Gibborim—men of blood and violence. That David made it to age seventy amazes me. Furthermore, God gave David the task of fighting and defeating the idolatrous nations surrounding Israel. Indeed, David finished the job Moses and Joshua failed to complete. Before David came on the scene, metaphorical “puddings” made from proverbial “milk and honey” contained idol bits that were hard to digest. After David, though, puddings came out smooth and sweet, and the kingdom expanded its girth from the Negev in the south, up through Syria in the North, and took in Ammon, Moab, and Edom to the east. The Promised Land was now—finally—a feast worthy of the name.

But what about the process? Even more disturbing, what about cherem, the God-ordained practice of wiping out men, women, children, and livestock, while devoting the carnage to God? These are hard questions with no easy answers.

God is holy—my starting premise. Humans, however, are inherently evil, some more so than others. For God to separate a people for Himself, He had to carve away the grossly paganized nations that surrounded Israel. The worship of idols included everything from sorcery and temple prostitution to sacrificing children to the fire-god Molech. The Israelites themselves were only a step away from these practices. During these formative years, drastic sin called for drastic measures.

Did the “real” David and Abigail choke on these matters as we do today? I’ll ask when I see them.

I have used Scripture extensively. Some passages are verbatim quotes (niv translation); others are my own colloquial paraphrases. I have chosen not to include Scripture addresses that would pull the reader out of the story. Most passages, in the interest of space and plot flow, have been abridged. My use of the Aramaic Abba for father is by choice. In Hebrew, the correct correlation would have been Ab or Abi, but these names just didn’t seem to have the same heft to them. Thus, I took the liberty to use the more familiar scriptural nickname.

—Eleanor Gustafson

Scroll One

Chapter One

I dreamed of Goliath last night, strangely enough, considering it was Joab, David’s general, who died yesterday. Perhaps elation was the link—the Israelites’ joy half a century ago when David killed the giant, and mine today when I saw Joab dead on the altar steps.

In my dream, I was trying to question Goliath as I have so many others in compiling this story of David. The picture was silly enough: I, Asaph—all one hundred and forty spineless, Levitical, musician pounds of me, standing eye to navel against this wool-bellied monster who had challenged not only the army of Israel, but the God of Israel, as well. When I talk with people, I try to engage their eyes, but Goliath’s head towered high and remote within its crested helmet. The bloated, belch-rumbling bulge of his middle forced me to bend backwards in an attempt to see around it

Goliath was striding about, his eye on a flurry of activity across the brook. King Saul, tall against his own countrymen but a twig next to the Philistine, was talking with a young lad who had come upon the scene of the face-off. What were they saying? Why was the boy trying on Saul’s armor, walking as though to test its feel, then shaking his head and removing it? Watching this, Goliath worked his shoulders under his own scale armor and stamped his legs to settle bronze greaves in place.

“Goliath, my lord,” I called. “A few questions, if I may.” I trotted beside him, taking five steps to his one. “What are you thinking of in these minutes before your death? I know that’s pretty personal, but—”

“Whose death?” A reasonable question, but he said the words absently, his attention fixed on the knot surrounding the king and the red-haired boy.

“I see you’re watching David over there. He’s the one who will kill you, you know. I know the end of the story.”

The giant’s shaved jowls hung thick and lumpy, his teeth poked brown and rotten between inch-thick lips. His cropped mane added to the illusion of a naked, weak-eyed pimple atop a furry lump of brutishness. I began to understand that my insolent questions got no answers because Goliath’s mind was big enough only to size up an enemy. His left eye circled dangerously. Like another eye I knew.

Joab’s eye.

David headed downstream where he knelt by the brook to sort through stones, measuring their heft and smoothness. My dream’s eye saw him in simple shepherd’s garb, no armor, carrying only his staff and sling. He splashed across the thin stream and faced the giant, intentions clear.

Goliath stiffened, and when his mind caught up with the implications of what his eyes saw, he expanded another foot and turned black with rage. With a mighty whirl that sent his armor bearers sprawling, he spit his injured pride in the direction of the Israelite King Saul, who was watching from his vantage point upstream. “Look a’ me,” the giant roared, thumping a four-foot chest. “Some sorta dog you see? No, you see I, Goliath. I gnaw warrior bones for supper, but here you serve sticks. By the mighty power of Dagon and Asherah, I will strip feathers and flesh from this stork and feed him to rats!”

“Goliath!” David shouted from below. “Never mind the king.” He stood with legs apart and arms akimbo, head cocked rakishly. The first fuzz of manhood sketched red along a face that was fresh, strong, handsome, alive. His voice warbled unpredictably between man and boy.

“That tree trunk of a spear,” the lad called. “I wouldn’t mind having it or the sword your armor bearer is playing with.” His words were light, but his eyes never left the giant.

“Goliath,” the boy went on, “you’ve been a lion against sheep till now. But today I come against you in the name of Yahweh, the Lord of hosts, whom your people say is stuck in a box. The God of Israel will act, and you’ll be the one who’ll fatten rats. The world will know from this day on that Yahweh saves, not by sword and spear, not by size and fear, but by his power alone. I’ve killed lions and bears, you know. Their teeth and claws are sharper than yours.”

David’s voice cracked, provoking laughter. Under its cover David laid aside his staff and drew a stone from his pouch. The Philistine armor bearers danced in anticipation of action at last. Goliath’s left eye began circling again. His face darkened, his arms took on the fur and claws of a bear. A snout, round, fur-flanked and vaguely familiar, poked through his facial armor. Now closer to nineteen feet tall than nine, he reared and roared and was no longer Goliath but a bear-like Joab, David’s loathsome commander in chief. With weapons carriers and shield bearer tight to him, he thundered down the slope toward the shepherd boy. But the lad, to my alarm, appeared to shrivel even as the giant grew. The Joab bear raised his arms, and the updraft sucked my robe until I felt myself being drawn toward the great beast’s maw. David and I both cowered before him. As those claws descended, the armor bearer (whom I also recognized but couldn’t name) sprang from under the shield with the giant’s own sword. With a mighty, two-handed stroke he cut off the great beast’s head. Then he stuck the sword into the ground and leaned on the haft, gasping for breath.

Goliath’s armor bearer was Benaiah.

I woke and lay trembling as the desperate intensity of the dream melted into reality. Joab—ruthless commander in chief of David’s army—was indeed dead, and Benaiah, David’s chief bodyguard, had killed him. The previous evening, I myself had watched Benaiah mount the altar; I saw Joab’s blood ooze down those steps, saw his body carried out for burial.

Why should my dream start with Goliath and end with Joab? My questioning Goliath was one of those whimsical twists dreams take. I’ve talked with nearly everyone else connected with David: why not this giant who played such a pivotal role?

The dream made me see Goliath’s brutishness as a thinly veiled version of Joab’s. Throw in the giant’s awareness of his own power, not just in physical size and strength, but, more significantly, in his strategic importance to the Philistine army. Without Goliath, those enemies of Israel would have had little advantage over Saul and his sons. The parallel was clear: as Goliath was to the Philistines, so Joab was to David. Without Joab—loathsome, loutish Joab—David might well have neither gained nor held his kingdom.

Loathsome, loutish Joab. When Benaiah, David’s chief bodyguard, carried out Solomon’s order of execution, I for one breathed freely for the first time in thirty years.

It happened yesterday at the Tent of the Ark, where Joab had gone for refuge. Adonijah, another of David’s ambitious sons, had made a last, sly attempt to wiggle the throne from Solomon’s grasp, but the new king read him correctly and had him put down.

Adonijah’s death spelled Joab’s doom, for they had schemed together. When Joab got word that the prince had been killed, he came to the Tent, but not in fear. Joab afraid? He would not run from death, but neither would he give his life away. He strolled around the enclosure, measuring each of us in turn. In his eyes, we Levites were fit only for singing and praying and skinning sacrificial animals. He had made my own life miserable on countless occasions, but I took heart that his left eye, subject to circling dangerously, was steady today.

He didn’t go to the place of safety until the rattle of arms outside sent him deliberately, without haste, up the steps of the altar, into the swirling smoke, where he touched blood-blackened fingers to the nearest horn of the altar. It didn’t seem to occur to him that two vile murders would deny him legal sanctuary. Or perhaps he counted on Solomon not wanting to execute a man at the altar. A precarious perch for Joab, but he had survived all those years on equally slender footholds.

Benaiah, backed by his guard, stopped just inside the entrance. He stared at Joab. When he spoke, his voice was tight. Was he—the most powerful soldier under Joab—was Benaiah ben Jehoiada nervous?

“Joab, come out!”

Joab grunted derisively, a small smile twisting his face. “Maybe I should take orders from you?”

“Come down from there, Joab: the king has ordered it.”

“Tell the king to come order it in person. Or better still, tell him to kill me himself. It might give a melon like him backbone!”

After consultation about the propriety of killing even such a man as Joab at the altar, Benaiah and his guard withdrew. Joab straightened, once more surveying the priests and musicians. The breeze wrapped a new cloak of smoke around his tunic. Apart from my nervous fingering of a prayer tassel on my garment, none of us moved or spoke for what seemed hours.

As the last rays of sun faded from the city wall above us, the high priest ordered the lamps lit. With a glance toward the altar, a Levite and a priest turned to the task but scuttled back as Benaiah reentered—with sword in hand. Again Joab smiled, a monster’s ugly grimace. Blood-crusted hands rested on the blood-crusted altar, while the blood of innocents cried out for vindication.

“Once more,” Benaiah spoke, “will you come down?”

Joab straightened proudly. “I will die here—if you’re man enough to kill me.”

His eye gleamed, his tone softened. “We’ve been through a lot, Benaiah, you and I. We go back, don’t we? The battles, the exploits. That day of the snow when you landed in the pit and killed the lion….Do you remember, Benaiah?”

We stood rigid under his spell. Light was fading, and the lamps remained unlit. We shivered, mistaking the growing darkness for cold.

“You’re no youngster, Benaiah,” Joab said. “How long before Solomon puts you out to pasture? You have influence, though. A word from you, and we could put a real man on the—”

“Enough.” Benaiah spoke softly, almost with a touch of regret. The two grizzled warriors locked eyes, celebrating one last moment of shared history, then Benaiah leaped to the steps.

I turned away. Tomorrow the altar must be cleansed of pig’s blood. But for this day, this night,

We give thanks to you, O God,
We give thanks, for your Name is near;
To the arrogant I say, “Boast no more,”
And to the wicked, “Do not lift up your horns.”
But it is God who judges:
He brings one down, He exalts another.

Happy Reading!


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