The Rabbi and the Basket of Grapes

Another story for liberal religious kids.This story comes from Babylonian Talmud, Kethuboth 105b.

The Rabbis taught that if you are going to judge a case between two people, you must not accept any kind of money or gift from either person, you must not accept anything that might look like a bribe. You must show everyone that you will remain completely neutral, and completely honest.

Obviously, a judge should not accept money from either person in a lawsuit. But the rabbis taught that a judge must be so honest that he or she does not accept anything, no gifts, no favors, not even a kind word.

To show what they meant, they told this story:

Once upon a time, Rabbi Ishmael rented part of his land to a tenant-farmer. The tenant-farmer paid part of the rent by bringing fruits and vegetables to Rabbi Ishmael every Friday, the day before the Sabbath day.

But one week, the tenant-farmer brought some fruit to Rabbi Ishmael on a Thursday — a big basket full of luscious, ripe grapes. Rabbi Ishmael loved grapes, but before he took the basket he said, “Thank you for bringing the grapes, but why do you bring me grapes on a Thursday, instead of your regular day, Friday?”

“It’s like this, Rabbi,” said the tenant-farmer. “I have a lawsuit, and I would like you to be the judge for this lawsuit. And as long as I was coming up here to talk to you about being the judge, I thought I’d bring your regular weekly delivery of fruit. So I brought you your basket of grapes.”

“No, no,” said Rabbi Ishmael, “I cannot be your judge. Take the grapes back to your house, and I will go find two other rabbis to act as judge for you.”

Confused, the tenant-farmer took the basket of grapes back to his house, even though they were really Rabbi Ishmael’s grapes.

Rabbi Ishmael went out to find two other rabbis to act as judge in the lawsuit, and brought them to meet the tenant-farmer. The two other rabbis began to ask the tenant-farmer about the lawsuit, and the tenant-farmer answered as best he could.

Rabbi Ishmael stood to one side, watching and listening, and he thought to himself, “Why doesn’t the tenant-farmer give better answers?” At one point, Rabbi Ishmael was on the point of breaking in and telling the tenant-farmer what to say, but he caught himself in time.

“Look at what has happened to me,” said Rabbi Ishmael to himself. “Here I am, secretly hoping that the tenant-farmer will win his case, and I didn’t even accept a bribe. I didn’t even accept the grapes that were really mine, but came a day early. What would I have done if I had accepted a real gift, a real bribe!”

The Backwards Alphabet

Another story for liberal religious children. This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sabbath 31a.

One day, a man came to Rabbi Shamai to ask about becoming a Jew. Rabbi Shamai told him that if he wanted to become a Jew, he would have to learn the Torah, or the Jewish law.

The man asked, “Well then, how many types of Torah do you have?”

“We have two types of law, or Torah,” replied Rabbi Shamai. “We have the written Torah, and we have the oral Torah, the law as passed down by oral tradition.”

“I believe in the written Torah,” said the man. “But I don’t trust laws that are passed on by word of mouth. If laws aren’t written down, they are worthless. I will still become a Jew, on one condition: that you only teach me the written laws, but not the oral laws, not the spoken laws.”

Upon hearing this, Rabbi Shamai grew impatient. He said the man would never become a Jew with that attitude, and he told the man to leave.

But the man still wanted to know about becoming a Jew, so he went to Rabbi Hillel, who told him: “We have two types of law, or Torah. We have the written Torah, and we have the oral Torah, the law as passed down by oral tradition.”

“I believe in the written Torah,” said the man. “But I don’t trust laws that are passed on by word of mouth. If laws aren’t written down, they are worthless. I will still become a Jew, on one condition: that you only teach me the written laws, but not the oral laws.”

“I will accept you as a student,” said Rabbi Hillel, who was a patient man. “First, you must learn how to read Hebrew, so I will teach you the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Repeat after me: aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, he, vav, zayin, khet, tet, yod, khaf, lamed, mem, nun, samekh, ayin, pe, tsadi, kuf, resh, shin, tav.”

The man repeated the entire Hebrew alphabet after Rabbi Hillel — “Aleph, bet, gimel,” and so on, until he had all the letters memorized.

The next day, the man came back to learn the written law from Rabbi Hillel. Rabbi Hillel said, “Let’s make sure you remember the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Repeat after me: tav, shin, resh, kuf, tsadi, pe, ayin, samekh, nun, mem, lamed, khaf, yod, tet, khet, zayin, vav, he, dalet, gimel, bet, aleph.”

The man looked confused. “But that’s not the way you taught them to me yesterday,” he said.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Rabbi Hillel, “and as you can see, you must learn to rely upon me and my teaching. In just the same way, you must learn to rely upon the spoken law.”

Standing on One Foot

Another story for liberal religious kids. This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sabbath 31a.

A man came to talk with Rabbi Shamai, one of the most famous of all the rabbis, nearly as famous as Rabbi Hillel.

“I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew,” said the man. “But I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.”

The Torah is the most important Jewish book there is.How disrespectful that this man wanted to learn it while standing on one foot. Why, people spent their entire lives learning the Torah. It was not something you can learn in five minutes! Rabbi Shamai grew impatient. He pushed the man away using a builder’s yardstick he was holding in his hand.

The man hurried away, and found Rabbi Hillel. “I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew,” said the man. “But I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.”

“Certainly,” said Rabbi Hille, who was a very patient man. “Stand on one foot.”

The man balanced on one foot.

“Repeat after me,” said Rabbi Hillel. “What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else.”

The man repeated after Rabbi Hillel, “What is hateful to me, I won’t do that to someone else.”

“That is the entire Torah, the whole law,” said Rabbi Hillel.

The man nodded.

Rabbi Hillel continued, “Everything else is there to explain this simple law. Now, go study.” And because of Rabbi Hillel’s patience with him, the man spent the rest of his life studying the Torah.

The Fox and the Fish

Another story for liberal religious kids. This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth 61b.

Once upon a time, the wicked Roman government issued a decree: no more would the Jews be allowed to study the Torah and the law.

But Rabbi Akiva seemed to ignore the decree. He gathered people together quite openly, and taught them the Torah and the law. Pappas, the son of Judah, took him aside and said, “Rabbi Akiva, do know what could happen to you? Aren’t you afraid the Romans will punish you?”

“Let me tell you a story,” said Rabbi Akiva, and he told this story….


Once upon a time, there were many small fish who lived in a stream. One day, fox walked alongside the stream, and noticed that all the fish were darting to and fro, as if they were afraid of something.

“O fish, o fish,” said the fox, “why are you swimming around so? What is it that you are trying to escape?”

“We are trying to escape the nets that the humans have put in the stream to catch us,” said the fish.

“Oh, ho,” said the fox. “Then perhaps you should come up here and walk on dry land alongside me, just as your ancestors used to walk beside my ancestors years and years ago. That way you can escape from the nets of the humans.”

“What, go up on dry land!” said the fish indignantly. “You have a reputation for being smart, but that is a stupid thing to say. We may be afraid of what’s going on here in the water where we feel comfortable, but it would be much worse for us up in the thin air where we would surely die.” And so the fish stayed in the water, and did not try to walk beside the fox on dry land.


Rabbi Avika said, “Now you can see that we are just like the fish in the stream.”

Pappas asked the rabbi to explain.

“It’s like this,” said Rabbi Avika. “If we neglect the Torah, if we neglect what is central to our religion, we would be like fish out of water, and we would die. It is written in the Torah, ‘For that is your life and the length of your days.’ Perhaps we will suffer if we do study the Torah, but we know we will surely die if we don’t.”

Not long after that, the wicked Romans arrested Rabbi Akiva for teaching and studying the Torah. He was roughly thrown into the Roman prison, and there to his surprise he found Pappas.

“Pappas, what are you doing here?” asked Rabbi Akiva.

“O rabbi,” said Pappas, “you were right. I have been thrown into prison for nothing important. At least you have been thrown in prison for something worth dying for.”

And when Rabbi Akiva was killed by the Romans, he died in peace with the words of the Torah on his lips.

The Doctor who rode a hyena to Mecca

Another story for liberal religious children. This story comes from Hausa Folklore, stories told by Maalam Shaihua and translated by R. Sutherland Rattray (Clarendon Press, 1913). The Hausa, who live in what is now Nigeria, were one of North Africa’s major trading powers. By the 14th century, many Hausa people had converted to Sunni Islam, and eventually Hausaland became a Caliphate. Traditional Hausa religion (called “Bori” or “Maguzanci”) persisted in the countryside, and still does today. The present story appears to combine elements from older Hausa folklore (talking animals) with Islamic elements (trip to Mecca). This story reminds us that Islam has been a feature of West Africa for centuries.

A certain doctor, a man of great learning who wrote elegant Arabic script and who was well-versed in the complicated legal, historical, and religious learning of the Hausa people, set out to go on the Hajj. This is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all good Muslims hope to make, so that they might add to their rewards in the afterlife.

This doctor had a very thin mare. He saddled her, mounted her, and began the long journey to Mecca. He was deep into the forest when be saw a hyena. The hyena saw that the doctor’s mare was very weary.

“Doctor, where are you going?” said the hyena.

The doctor said, “I am going to Mecca.”

“But something seems to be the matter,” said the hyena.

“It is the mare,” said the doctor. “She is weary.”

“Give the mare to me,” said the hyena. “I shall kill her, and eat her up. Then you can mount me and we shall set out to Mecca.”

The doctor said, “So?”

The hyena said, “Yes, it is so.”

The doctor said, “You must not deceive me.”

She replied, “Come now, Doctor, it is because I have seen that your mare is unable to go on that I speak. For my part, if you mount me, this instant I will carry you to Mecca.”

The doctor said, “All right, catch the mare and eat it.”

The hyena seized the mare, tore it up, picked up the meat and took it home. She ate it with her children. The doctor waited and waited for her to return, but she did not come back. At last a jackal came along and saw the doctor sitting there.

“Doctor, what has happened?” said the jackal.

“I was on my way to Mecca,” said the doctor. “My mare got tired, so I sat down. The hyena came along and asked what was the matter, and I said that that I was on my way to Mecca but my mare was tired.

“And the hyena said, ‘Oh, this thing can never take you to Mecca. Give her to me to eat so I can increase my strength, then I can carry you to Mecca.’ I then said,” the doctor went on,, “‘Hyena, you must not deceive me, by eating my mare then running away.’ But she replied, ‘Why would I do that? it is the truth I told you.’ I thought what she told me was true, but after she caught the mare she went off and I haven’t seen her again.”

“Stop worrying, Doctor,” said the jackal. “I will bring her to you.”

The jackal took up all the horse tack — the saddle and saddle-cloth, the bit and halter, the spurs and whip — and off he went. On the way, he found a lump of meat and took it along as well. He dropped the tack, piece by piece, dropping the saddlecloth last of all, when he was near the mouth of the hyena’s hole.

When he got to the hyena’s hole, he stood and announced his arrival.

But the hyena had told her children, “Whoever comes here looking for me, you must say I am not here.” So when the jackal hailed, the children said, “She is not here.”

“Allah curse her, she has no luck,” said the jackal. “Here I have brought her good news, and bad luck prevents her from hearing it. For a cow has died, a very fat one, and I have come to call her and show her. But you say, she is not here. So I will leave.”

Then the hyena said, “Who is seeking me?”

“I am seeking you<” said the jackal. “A fat cow has died, but these children say you are not here. Here, I cut off a big lump of meat and have brought it to you”

“There is no God but Allah!” said the hyena. “You worthless children, I was asleep, but you say I am not here.” And the hyena came out of her hole.

The jackal offered her some of the lump of meat, saying, “Taste it.”

She swallowed the meat, giving none to her children. Then she said, “Let us be off.”

The hyena was eager to get to the fat cow, and she was a long way in front of the jackal. “Here,” said the hyena, “you cannot walk fast enough. Climb up and ride me so that we may go quickly.”

The jackal rode her, and soon they came to the saddle cloth. The jackal said, “Let me spread this thin on your back, for the hair on your back is getting ruffled.” When he had the saddle-cloth on her, he mounted once again and they rode off.

Soon they came to the bit and halter. “Let me lift up this thing and put it in your mouth,” said the jackal. “Perhaps it will be better for me to hold.”

“Put it on quickly and let us get on,” said the hyena. The jackal put on the bit, took hold of the halter, and they rode off again.

Soon they came to the spurs and whip. The jackal dismounted, took up the whip and put the spurs on his feet, and mounted again.

As they drew near where the doctor was waiting, the hyena said, “You must not take this way.” For she did not wish to meet the doctor again, so she took another path. But when they were opposite where the doctor sat, the jackal struck her with the spurs and turned the bit towards the doctor. Then the hyena sprang forward, saying, “Oou, oou.”

The jackal pulled up in front of the doctor, dismounted, and said, “Doctor, behold your debtor. Mount her, and do not get off until you reach where you are going. If you dismount, even at the water, do not take her to a stream of water.”

The doctor replied, “I have heard.” He mounted, and did not dismount until they had ridden all the way to Mecca, over a thousand miles.

When he got to Mecca, his dismounted from the hyena. He asked some children to hold her, saying, “You must not mount her, and you must not take her to the stream.” Then the doctor entered the mosque where they were praying.

But the children did not listen. They mounted they hyena, and rode her to a nearby stream. As soon as she got out of the town, she began to gallop into the bush. She threw them off, and ran away. So when the doctor came out of the mosque, he saw neither the children, nor the hyena.

That is all.

The Mood Pillow

Another story for liberal religious kids. I think I originally wrote this story for the First Parish in Watertown, Mass., back in the mid 1990s. I rewrote it in 2004 when I was at the UU Society of Geneva, Ill., and then forgot about it. Here’s the 2004 version:

Once upon a time, about a hundred and fifty years ago in the town of Concord, Massachusetts, a family lived in a house they called “Apple Slump.” There were four children in the family, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, along with their father, Mr. March, and Marmee, their mother. At the time this story takes place, Mr. March was far away, serving in the army during the Civil War.

Jo had long, chestnut-colored hair. She was a tall tomboy who didn’t really like being a girl. Jo also had a terrible temper; she had a hard time controlling their anger. But Jo figured out a way to keep her temper under control. She had what I think of as a “mood pillow.” 

“Apple Slump,” the house that the March family lived in, was a big, old, rambling New England farmhouse. Jo thought the best room in the house was the garret, a room up in the attic that had a nice, sunny window. Next to the window stood an old sofa.

The sofa was long, and broad, and low. It had been the perfect thing for the girls to play on when they were little. They had slept on it, ridden on the arms as if they were horses, and crawled under it pretending they were animals. As they got older, they had long, serious talks sitting on it, they lay down and dreamed daydreams on it.

Jo liked the sofa more than the other girls. It was her favorite place to read. She would curl up in one corner with a good book, and half a dozen russet apples to eat. As she sat reading and eating her apples, a tame little rat would stick its head out and enjoy her quiet company.

But sometimes Jo went up into the garret for a different reason. She had a terrible temper, and sometimes she would get in a horrible nasty mood. Sometimes, when she was in a particularly bad mood, she just needed to be alone.

She would run up into the garret, and pick up the pillow that was on the sofa. This was an old, hard, round pillow shaped liked a sausage. This repulsive-looking old thing was her special property. If she stood it on its end, that was a sign that any one of her sisters, or her best friend Laurence, or her mother, was allowed to come and sit down next to her on the sofa and chat; but if it lay flat across the sofa, “woe to the man, woman, or child who dared disturb it!” When they were younger, her sisters and Laurence had been pummeled mercilessly by this pillow, and now they knew better than to try to sit next to Jo when it lay flat.

I call this her “mood pillow,” and I think it’s a great idea. When Jo was in a bad mood, or angry about something, or when she just needed to be alone, she could use the pillow to let her family and friends know that they should leave her alone for a while. That way, she wouldn’t hurt those around her when she was in a bad mood.

When you’re in a bad mood, what do you do to keep from hurting those around you?

P. T. Barnum’s elephant

Another story for liberal religious kids. Originally written c. 2000 for First Parish in Lexington, Mass. I dusted off this old story and fixed it up a little because my current congregation’s Sunday school will be learning about P. T. Barnum this year. This story comes from his 1872 autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs.

He was the greatest showman in America! He was a man who was known and loved everywhere, the most famous person in the United States in the nineteenth century! He was the man who created “the greatest show on earth”! His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum.

P. T. Barnum was a showman, the greatest showman of all time, a man who put on shows of strange and wonderful things in his giant Museum in New York City. He exhibited the very first live hippopotamus ever seen in North America. His museum was known for its amazing and incredible animals. He even exhibited the amazing Feejee Mermaid. (Well, actually he later admitted that the Feejee Mermaid was a fake that had been glued together.)

He was a showman, but more than that he was an expert at making money. He had a two-part secret for making money. First, give the public good value. Second, get all the free advertising that you can. Here’s an example of how Barnum gave good value, and got free advertising for his fabulous American Museum….

P. T. Barnum brought thirteen elephants Asia to North America. He exhibited them in New York and all across the North American continent. After four years, he sold all but one. He kept that one for his farm in Connecticut. He figured out a way that the elephant could draw a plow. Then he hired a man to use the elephant to plow a tiny corner of Barnum’s farm, which just happened to be right next to the main line of the New York and New Haven Railroad.

P. T. Barnum gave this man a time-table for the railroad. Every time a passenger train was due to pass by, the man made sure the elephant was busily engaged in drawing the plow, right where all the passengers could see.

Hundreds of people each day rode the train past Barnum’s elephant. Everyone who saw it was amazed and astonished. Barnum was using an elephant to draw a plow! Reporters from all the New York newspapers came to write stories on this amazing spectacle. People wrote letters to Barnum from far and wide, asking his advice on how they, too, might use an elephant to draw a plow on their farms.

When Barnum responded to these letters, he always wrote: “Now this is strictly confidential, but for goodness sake don’t even think of getting an elephant. They eat far too much hay and you would lose money. I’m just doing it to draw attention to my museum in New York.”

Pictures of Barnum’s elephant pulling the plow began to appear in newspapers all across the United States, and even overseas in Europe. People came out to Connecticut on purpose just to see Barnum’s elephant at work. They would say, “Why look at that! That’s a real elephant drawing that plow! If Barnum can use an elephant on his farm, he must have all kinds of animals at his Museum. Guess I’ll go to Barnum’s Museum next time I’m in New York city.”

One day, an old farmer friend of Barnum’s came to visit. This farmer wanted to see the elephant at work. By this time, that six acre plot of land beside the railroad had been plowed over about sixty times. The farmer watched the elephant work for a while, and then he turned to Barnum and said, “My team of oxen could pull harder than that elephant any day.”

“Oh, I think that elephant can draw better than your oxen,” said Barnum.

“I don’t want to doubt your word,” said his farmer friend, “but tell me how that elephant can draw better than my oxen.”

Barnum replied, “That elephant is drawing the attention of twenty million people to Barnum’s Museum.”

P. T. Barnum later became famous for his circus, but not many people know that he was also a Universalist. He’s one of my favorite Unitarian Universalists, precisely because he wasn’t perfect. He didn’t always tell the truth, but at least he later admitted when he tried to fool people. He made too much money, but he made sure to give lots of his money away to help other people. He gave money to poor people, and he gave money to help people stop drinking, and he built parks that everyone could use, and he gave lots of money to his Universalist church. I like P. T. Barnum because I know I’m not perfect. But even though I make mistakes, I can follow Barnum’s example and help make the world a better place.

“Elephantine Agriculture,” engraving from the book Struggles and Triumphs by P.T. Barnum (1872). Public domain image courtesy Project Gutenberg.

Saul and David

Another look at David’s story, part of a series of stories for liberal religious kids.

Once upon a time there lived a good and holy man named Samuel. Samuel lived in the land of Israel. He knew that Israel needed a good and strong leader. Samuel decided that Saul, son of Kish, would be the best person to rule over Israel, and so he anointed Saul king, and then served Saul as a holy man and an advisor.

Saul was a handsome man. There was not a man among all the people of Israel who was as handsome as he, and he was so tall that he stood head and shoulders over everyone else.

Saul was a likeable man. When he was a boy, he was easy-going and treated his parents with respect. When he became a man, he remained easy-going and friendly.

But even though he was handsome and likeable, every once in a while Saul would fall into a dark mood. It was more than just a bad mood. When Saul fell into one of these dark moods, the light went out of his eyes. When he was in one of his dark moods, he didn’t want to talk with anyone, he just wanted to stay by himself in his throne room. When he was in one of his dark moods, sometimes he would do things that were dangerous or foolish.

One day Samuel sent Saul off to do battle with the evil tribe of the Amakelites. Samuel warned Saul that if he won the battle, he must slaughter all the Amakelites’ cattle. This was because their cattle was diseased, and if Saul brought the diseased cattle back to Israel, all the cattle of Israel would grow sick and soon die.

Saul fought the battle, and he won. But unfortunately, after the battle he fell into one of his dark moods. He forgot what Samuel had told him, and he brought all the diseased cattle back to Israel.

Samuel met him, and cried out, “What is all this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Suddenly Saul remembered what Samuel had him — but it was too late. The cattle were already in Israel. Sail felt terrible. He worried that Samuel could no longer trust him, and his mood grew even darker.

Samuel saw that Saul kept falling into these dark moods. He feared that Saul’s moods were growing worse and worse, and might some day overcome Saul entirely. So he decided to find a successor for Saul.

Samuel found David, the son of Jesse. David was a shepherd, he was short and cheerful, with red hair and bright eyes. Samuel anointed David in secret, and told David that soon he be the next king of Israel.

Saul knew none of this. But soon he fell into one of his dark moods again. His servants said, “One of your dark moods has come again! Command us to go and find someone to come an play beautiful music for you. The music will ease your pain and lighten your mood.”

One of the servants said, “I know a young man named David, the son of Jesse. He plays beautifully on the harp. He is also a warrior, and he doesn’t gossip.”

“Fetch him here,” said Saul.

So David came to live with King Saul, and his music helped to soothe the king when one of his dark moods came upon him.

But Saul’s dark moods got worse and worse, and they came more and more frequently. Sometimes Saul wouldn’t recognize David, and several times he attacked David.

Finally, it got so bad that David had to leave the king, and go live in the wilderness….

To be continued…

Source: Hebrew Bible, 1 Samuel 10-16, 31; 2 Samuel 1-3. The suggestion that Saul’s dark moods might have been a manifestation of mental illness comes from lectures given by Carole Fontaine, professor of Hebrew Bible, at Andover Newton Theological School in 1997.

The Story of David: David and Goliath

Going through my archives, I found my retelling of this classic story. I’m posting it here as part of my series of stories for liberal religious kids.

Once upon a time there was a shepherd named David. His three older brothers went off to fight in the army of Israel, under the command of King Saul. But David stayed behind with their father, Jesse, in the town of Bethlehem.

One day after his brothers had been gone for forty days, David’s father said to him, “Go take some bread and cheese and corn to the camp where your brothers and the rest of the army are — give this food to the captain of their company.”

When David got to the place where the army of Israel was, they were just getting ready to go to battle with the army of the Philistines. A great warrior, a man named Goliath, had just come out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall. He wore a helmet of brass on his head, he was armed with a coat of mail, and he wore brass armor on his legs and back. He carried a long spear, with an iron tip that weighed six hundred shekels.

Goliath stood in the valley between the two armies, and called out to army of Israel. “Why have you come to set your battle in array?” he shouted. “Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man from among you, and let him come down to me. We will fight, and if he can kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him, and kill him, then you shall all be our servants.”

David came up to the camp of the army of Israel right after Goliath had issued his challenge. All the men in the army were talking about it. “Have you seen this man who has come up from the army of the Philistines?” they said. “King Saul has promised that if any man dares to take Goliath’s challenge, and also manages to kill Goliath, the king will give that man great riches, and give him the princess in marriage.” But Saul and all his army were afraid of Goliath.

Eliab, David’s eldest brother, saw David just then. “What are you doing here?” said his brother angrily. “You’re proud and your heart is naughty. You just came down so that you could watch the battle.”

“No,” said David to Elia. “Our father sent me. But now that I’m here,” he went on, “I’m going to go fight this Goliath.”

Saul heard that David wanted to fight Goliath. Since no one else seemed willing to take on Goliath’s challenge, Saul sent for David. But when he saw how young David was, Saul said, “You’re not able to fight Goliath.”

“I have watched my father’s sheep,” said David, “and when a lion and a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went after them. I took the lion by his beard and killed him. And I killed the bear. And I can kill this Goliath, too.”

Saul decided to let David try. He tried to give David a helmet made of brass, and a sword to buckle around his waist. But David took off the helmet and the sword. Instead, he took his shepherd’s staff, and he took five smooth stones from the brook, and he took his sling.

When Goliath, the Philistine, saw David, the young shepherd, he laughed. “Come to me,” said Goliath, “and I will give leave you dead for the vultures to feed upon.”

“You come with a sword and a shield,” said David. “But I come in the name of Adonai, the god of Israel. Adonai will deliver you into my hand, and I will leave you dead for the vultures to feed upon.”

Goliath got up and started walking forward to meet David. David put his hand in his bag and took one of the five smooth stones. He ran ahead to meet Goliath, put the stone in his sling, and flung the stone so it hit Goliath right in the forehead. Goliath fell down dead.

When David returned to the camp of the Israelites, the soldiers took him to Saul. Saul adopted him as one of his own sons. And David became best friends with Saul’s own son, Jonathan.

To be continued…

Source: Hebrew Bible, 1 Samuel 18.

The Accursed Lake

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story comes from Charles Fletcher Lummis, Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1910), pp. 109-116; a book of stories of the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, or Tigua Indians of Texas. I have edited the story for length and clarity.

Long ago there was still a village east of the Eagle-Feather Mountains, where there lived a Hunter. One day, while out hunting, he followed the trail of an antelope until the trail ended in a large lake.

Just then, a fish thrust its head from the water and said, “Friend Hunter, you are on dangerous ground!” and off it went swimming.

Before the Hunter could recover from his surprise, a Lake-Man came up out of the water and said, “How is it that you are here, where no human ever came?”

The Hunter told his story, and the Lake-Man invited him to come in to his house. They entered the house by a trap-door in the roof, and climbed down a ladder. Inside, there were doors to the east, north, west, and south, as well as the door in the roof. Soon the Lake-Man learned that the Hunter had a wife and son at home.

“Why not come live with me?” the Lake-Man said. “I am no hunter, but I have plenty of other food. We could live very well here together.” And he showed the Hunter the four other huge rooms, all filled with corn and dried squash and the like.

“I will come with my wife and son in four days,” said the Hunter, “if the leader of my village will let me.”

So the Hunter went home, and his wife thought very well of the offer. The leader of his village did not want him to go, for he was the best hunter in all the pueblo, but at last gave permission.

So the Hunter and his wife and little boy came to the lake with all their property. The Lake-Man welcomed them, and they settled in. The Hunter went out hunting and brought back great quantities of game, and his wife took charge of the household, as was their custom.

Some time passed very pleasantly. But at last the Lake-Man, who had an evil heart, pushed the Hunter into the East Room, locked the door and left him there to starve. The room was full of the bones of people whom he had tricked in the same way.

The boy was now old enough to hunt small game, and he brought home many rabbits. But the evil-hearted Lake-Man wanted to get him out of the way, too. One morning when the boy was about to start hunting, he heard his mother groaning as if about to die.

“Your mother is in terrible pain,” said the evil Lake-Man, “and the only thing that will cure her is sacred ice from the Lake of the Sun in the east.”

The boy said he would go get the ice, and started off toward the sunrise.

He walked over the brown plains until at last he came to the house of Old-Woman-Mole. She was there all alone, for her husband had gone to hunt. They lived in an old broken-down hut, and she was huddled trying to keep warm by a dying fire. But when the boy knocked, she rose and welcomed him kindly and gave him all there was in the house to eat: a tiny bowl of soup with a patched-up snowbird in it. The boy was very hungry, and picking up the snowbird bit a big piece out of it.

“Oh, my child!” cried the old woman. “You have ruined me! My husband trapped that bird these many years ago, but could never get another, and that is all we have had to eat ever since. So we never bit it, but cooked it over and over and drank the broth. And now not even that is left.” And she wept bitterly.

“Nay, Grandmother, do not worry,” said the boy, for he saw many snowbirds alighting nearby. Using his long hair, he made sanres and soon caught many snowbirds. Then the Old-Woman-Mole was full of joy. After the boy told her his errand, she said:

“I shall help you. When you come into the house of the True People, they will offer you a seat, but you must not take it. They will try you with smoking the weer, but I will help you.”

With that, the boy started away to the east. At last, he came so near to Sun Lake that medicine men and guards of the True People saw him coming, and went in to tell the True People.

“Let him be brought in,” said the True People; and the guards brought the boy in through a magnificent building, until he stood in the presence of the True People in a vast room: white-colored gods of the East, blue gods of the North, yellow gods of the West, red gods of the South, and rainbow-colored gods of Up, Down, and Center. Beyond them were the sacred animals: the buffalo, the bear, the eagle, the badger, the mountain lion, the rattlesnake, and all the others that are powerful in medicine.

The True People offered the boy a white robe to sit on; but he declined respectfully, saying that he had been taught, when in the presence of his elders, to sit on nothing save what he brought, and he sat upon his blanket and moccasins. Then he told them that he had come for the sacred ice, to save his mother’s life.

The True People gave him a sacred weer, that is, a hollow reed filled with the magical plant pee-en-hleh, from the smoke of which the rain clouds come. The boy took in the unpleasant smoke, but the Old-Woman-Mole dug a hole up to his toes, and the smoke went down through his feet into the hole so that no smoke escaped into the room of the True People.

The boy and the True People. Illustration by George Wharton Edwards (modified public domain image), based in part on photographs by Charles F. Lummis.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” So they put him into the room of the East with the bear and the mountain lion, but he came out again unhurt. They put him into the room of the North, with the eagle and the hawk; into the room of the West, with the snakes; into the room of the South, with the Apaches and other human enemies of his people. He came forth from each room unhurt.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” They had a great pile of logs built up, set the boy on the top of the pile and lighted it. But in the morning, the boy sat there unharmed, saying, “I am cold and would like more fire.”

So the guards brought him inside, and the True People said: “You have proved yourself worthy of us, and now you shall have what you seek.”

They gave him the sacred ice, and he hurried home, stopping only to thank the Old-Woman-Mole.

When the evil Lake-Man saw the boy, he was very angry, for he had never expected him to return with the sacred ice. He pretended he was glad to see the boy, but said he must go to the gods of the South to get sacred ice there.

The boy walked south across the brown plains until he came to a drying lake. There, dying in the mud, was a little fish. Picking it up, the boy put it in his gourd canteen of water. After awhile he came to a good lake, and the fish in his gourd said, “Friend Boy, let me swim while you eat your lunch, for I love the water.”

So he put the fish in the lake; and when he was ready to go on, the fish came to him, and he put it back in his gourd. At three lakes he let the fish swim while he ate; and each time the fish came back to him.

Beyond the third lake began a great forest which stretched clear across the world, and was so dense with thorns and brush that no human being could pass through. The tiny fish changed itself into a great Fish-Animal with hard, strong skin, and bidding the boy mount upon its back, it went plowing through the forest, breaking down big trees like stubble, and bringing him through to the other side without a scratch.

“Now, Friend Boy,” said the Fish-Animal, “you saved my life, and I will help you. When you come to the house of the True People of the South, they will try you as they did in the East. When you have proved yourself, the leader of the True People will bring you his three daughters, from whom to choose you a wife. The two eldest are very beautiful, and the youngest is not; but choose the youngest, for she is good and the beauty of the older sisters does not reach to their hearts.”

The boy thanked the fish and went on. At last he came to the house of the True People of the South. They tried him just as the True People of the East had done. Once again he passed the tests, and they gave him the sacred ice. Then the leader of the True People brought his three daughters, and said, “You are now old enough to have a wife, and I see that you are someone who cares for those around him. Therefore, choose one of my daughters to marry.”

The boy remembered the words of his fish friend, and said, “I choose your youngest daughter.”

The leader of the True People was pleased, and the boy and the youngest daughter were married. They started home, carrying the sacred ice and many presents. With the help of the Fish-Animal, they got through the forest, and walked on.

The evil Lake-Man being struck by lightning. Illustration by George Wharton Edwards (modified public domain image), based in part on photographs by Charles F. Lummis.

At last they came in sight of the big lake, and over it were great clouds, with the forked lightning leaping forth. They could see the evil Lake-Man sitting at the top of his ladder, watching to see if the boy would return, and as they watched the lightning of the True People struck him dead.

So the boy and the youngest daughter found the boy’s mother, and the three of them left the house of the evil Lake-Man. They left all the belongings of the evil Lake-Man behind, and when they got to the shore of the lake, the boy stood and prayed to the True People that the lake might be accurst forever. From that day its waters turned salt, and no living thing has drunk therefrom.

Drawing of a Tigua figure (copyright 2019 Dan Harper). After a vase made circa 2010 by Albert Alvidrez, member of the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo / Tigua Indian Reservation.