Note: I remember the exact date when I started this story:September 10, 2001. I didn’t work on it the next day, however. The next day, along with most other humans on the planet with access to cable, I stayed superglued to CNN. I also cried a lot and smoked too much.
Nothing of substance got done for the next few days. Then on Saturday, I heard a galvanizing news report: the infamous ain’t-it-awful television conversation between the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and quondam US presidential hopeful Pat Robertson. This was the one where they agreed God had withdrawn his protection from America and allowed 9/11 to take place because he was pissed off with pagans, abortionists, feminists, lesbians, gays, the ACLU, and the People for the American Way. So I went upstairs and finished my story. Thanks, Jerry. Thanks, Pat.
Their high places are within shouting distance of each other—shouting distance, that is, for deities capable of speaking in weather phenomena. Equidistant between them, spreading across a parched plain in a glitter of spearpoints, are two armies, each about seven thousand strong. Dagon’s Philistines are on the west, their backs to the water, flaunting the crested buzzcuts and crossed chestbands characteristic of the Sea Peoples. Jehovah’s Children of Israel are on the east with their backs to the hills, their eyes glinting fiercely through wildernesses of facial hair. Battleis about to be joined.
Jehovah shouts across to Dagon: “Ho, brother, wait a minute, I’ve got some good news for you today.”
Dagon’s fishtail twitches suspiciously. The bearded barbarian sounds far too cheerful. He shouts back, “What do you mean, good news?”
“I mean, dear boy,” Jehovah thunders in return, “that you’re not going to have to lift a fin today. My lads have been bad little humans lately, breakers of my commandments, defiers of my law, and I’ve decided they need to be taught a lesson. So the battle will go to your lads this afternoon, with my gracious blessing.”
Dagon frowns, and the sky darkens over the sea. He says, “Don’t do me any favours, brother. Since when have my boys needed your blessing to whip the loincloths off the Children of Israel? Anyway, I haven’t been too pleased with the quality of the offerings they’ve been giving me lately, and I thought of administering a spanking myself.”
“Come, come, you can punish yours anytime, dear boy,” says Jehovah.
“So can you,” returns Dagon, “dear boy.”
“Look,” says Jehovah, “you must admit I came up with the idea first. Why don’t you send down a famine or a plague, if you’re so keen on making your people miserable?”
“Why don’t you?” says Dagon.
A wind blasts across the plain: Jehovah’s vehement and losing-patience reply. He glares at Dagon, and lightning rips the clouds. “Listen, brother fishbutt,” he says, “if I permit my current collection of whiners and sinners to gain a victory today, it will send them a terribly misleading message. No, I insist, the battle must go to you.”
“Oh, you insist, do you?” Dagon’s vast two-pronged tail begins to thrash, sending great waves crashing into the shore behind the Philistines. “You don’t give a toss where that leaves me, do you, O Bearded Wonder? Surviving on mouldy loaves and diseased mutton, and adulterated wine reeking of vinegar, that’s where I’d be. No, my people have to be shown they can’t get away with that kind of cheapness, and the best way to do that is to withdraw my favour and let your army walk all over them.”
“I will lose the battle today,” snarls Jehovah.
“The sheol you will,” Dagon snarls right back.
Out on the dusty plain, the priests have finished their respective sacrifices and augurings, and the battle horns of both armies blat the attack. The deities, startled, send a shock tremor down through the rock of their high places, causing minor damage along fault lines all the way to the dead Cities of the Plain. Dagon recovers first. He sees the left wing of his army sweeping forward in a clever feint that is, no doubt, the idea of excellent General Gahath, designed to draw the Israelite centre into a disadvantageous position. At a flick of Dagon’s tail, the General’s heart bursts and he topples off his horse. As a terrible wailing spreads through the Philistine left, the advance falters. The Israelites see the weakness and rush forward to exploit it. Sixty Philistines fall in as many seconds. Dagon’s tail twitches with satisfaction.
Jehovah shrieks his rage, at a frequency that can neither be heard nor felt by men, but which shivers birds out of the sky and causes a minor avalanche in the Taurus range, far to the north. He growls a word, and the water table undergoes a miraculous percolation, turning the stony soil under the Israelite chariots into an instant morass. Several dozen chariots run themselves violently axle-deep into the muck and send their occupants tumbling across the rocks, breaking necks and heads. The Philistines cut down the survivors. Honors are about equal at this point.
Jehovah does not wait for Dagon’s riposte, but brings up a sudden bank of mist on the Israelite left, which allows a small and rather surprised force of Philistine skirmishers to reach the Israelite line undetected and start wreaking a decent bit of havoc. Ignoring that as an insignificant engagement, Dagon directs his efforts toward the centre of the battle, where thirty royal princes from all five cities of the Philistine Confederacy, mounted on fine stallions, are hacking a great bloody swath through Jehovah’s bearded foot soldiers. One after another, the princes overbalance as if dizzy and are pulled into the mass of swarming Israelites, who literally rip them to pieces. Dagon’s strategy is at once to dishearten his troops and punish his aristocracy, by striking down the flower of the Philistine leadership.
Jehovah understands that concept on some level, but he has always scorned subtlety. Blood, blood, blood is his motto, and morale will look after itself. He weakens the Israelite knees and strengthens the Philistine sword-arms along a fifty-cubit stretch of the main battle front, and watches with grim satisfaction as a hundred or more of his erring children are disembowelled, dismembered, or otherwise sliced into bleeding shreds. Dagon, noticing, snaps his webbed fingers: the iron of the Philistine swords (much envied by the Israelites, who are still lingering in the Bronze Age) turns porous with rust, and begins to break against the leather body armour instead of slashing through it. One hundred and forty-seven Israelites, astonished but pleased to find themselves alive, hack back at their assailants while the latter are still gawping at their broken blades.
The battle rages all through the long hot stinking afternoon, until finally it peters out for want of enough able-bodied troops to carry on. The battlefield is carpeted with body parts and serpents of gut, awash in a general bog of blood. Of the Philistines, some two and a half thousand are wounded, and at least three thousand are dead. The Israelite casualties are on roughly the same scale. Shocked survivors limp away from the site of the bloodbath, both sides too dazed to wonder who won.
But the gods know. They slump exhausted in their high places. Jehovah yawns, and an evening breeze springs up and wafts across the battlefield. A fine grey rain moves inland from the sea and patters on the faces of the dead. Jehovah, noticing this, calls across, “Ho, brother Dagon, you’re not weeping, are you?”
“No anthropopathy, if you don’t mind,” Dagon shouts back. “In fact, I thought it went rather well today.”
Jehovah yawns again. “You’re right, it did work out for the best. By the way, that was a masterful stroke of yours, my good Dagon, setting a flight of my boys’ arrows on fire in mid-air.” He gestures towards a biggish burnt patch on the battlefield, littered with a few dozen pugilistic Philistine corpses.
“I was pleased with that,” Dagon agrees. “But you, Jehovah, blinding your own reserves with a localized dust-storm—that was artistry, pure and simple.”
The sky reddens with Jehovah’s modest blush. “Now, now,” he says.
And so night falls. The two deities retire to rest in their high places, content in the knowledge that each has accomplished his mission for the day. The poor sods who worship them have been duly punished for their transgressions and second-rate muttonchops, and have been taught a valuable lesson as well: when the gods win, the gods win; and when the gods lose, oddly enough, it still seems to be the gods who win.