In school, Beth learned about the Civil War and found it very interesting.
That evening, while she was helping her mother fold the laundry, she said, "Mother, wouldn't it have been sad if the south had won the Civil War?"
"I suppose it would," her mother said, "but that could never have happened."
"Why not?" Beth asked.
"Here," said her mother, setting aside a frilly pair of crotchless panties that just couldn't have been her own, "let me tell you a story about that."
And this is the story she told:
One day God said to Moses, "Send twelve spies to Canaan, one from each family."
So Moses sent Shammua, Shaphat, Caleb, Igal, Oshea, Palti, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel to spy on the land of Canaan. Moses said to the spies, "Go into the mountains to the south and look at the land. See what it's like and who lives there and whether they're tough or not and how many of them there are. See if it's a nice place to live and what kind of cities they have. Check if there's any wood there or not. Be brave and bring back some fruit."
It was harvest time so the spies went and searched the land. In one place, they got a bunch of grapes that was so big that it took two people to carry. They got pomegranates and figs, too.
After spying for forty days, the spies came back. They went to Moses and Aaron and everyone else and showed them the fruit. The spies said, "We went where you told us to go. There were rivers of milk and honey and here's some fruit we found. But the people who live there are strong and the cities are surrounded by walls. Our enemies are all over the place in that land."
Caleb said, "Let's go take them over! We can do it!"
But the other spies spoke evil words. "No way!" they said. "They're stronger than us. That land eats people. And we saw people there that were so tall that we were like grasshoppers to them."
"Mother," Beth asked, "are they exaggerating about the giant people, just like they exaggerate about rivers of milk and honey?"
"Where did you get the idea that the rivers were an exaggeration, Dear One?" her mother answered, frowning over a pair of fishnet silk stockings. "There are no exaggerations -- not even little ones -- in the Bible."
All the people screamed and cried all night. The Israelites said nasty things about Moses and Aaron, and everyone said to them, "We wish God had let us die in Egypt or in the forest. Why did God bring us here? To get stabbed and let our wives and children be victims? Shouldn't we just go back to Egypt?" The people said to one another, "Let's elect someone president and go back to Egypt."
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in front of everyone.
Joshua and Caleb tore up their clothes and said, "The land we spied on is good land. If God likes us, he will bring us there and give it to us. There are rivers of milk and honey. Just don't rebel against God or be afraid of the people who rightfully own the land. We'll eat them like bread. They can't defend themselves against God. Don't be afraid."
But the people wanted to kill Joshua and Caleb with rocks.
God appeared in the temple and said to Moses, "How long are the people going to talk like that to me? How many miracles do I have to do before they realize that I'm God? I'm going to kill them with a disease. You and I can do better than this."
Moses said to God, "If the Egyptians hear about this, they will tell everyone that you brought the Israelites into the wilderness to kill them because you couldn't keep your promise to bring them to the land where there are rivers of milk and honey. Please, God, I know that you are merciful although you punish people and their children, and their grand-children, and their great-grand-children for things they've done, so please forgive these people."
God said, "All right. But as sure as I'm alive, the world will be filled with the glory of me. If the people don't listen to me after all I've done for them, then they aren't ever going to get to go to the land where there are rivers of milk and honey. Only Caleb gets to go there because he does what I tell him to do. Tomorrow, go into the forest through the Red Sea."
God talked to Moses and Aaron together and told them, "Tell the people what I said. Everyone over twenty who spoke against me is going to die in the forest. Only Caleb and Joshua will get to the land where there are rivers of milk and honey. The kids will get there, too. But everyone else: they're dead bodies in the forest and everyone will have to walk around for forty years until the bodies are all rotted. That's what happens when people break their promises to God. So says me."
And all the spies who lied about the land got a plague and died.
"Wait a minute!" said Beth. "I thought you said that nobody lied?"
"No," answered her mother, only paying her daughter half of her attention as she tried to puzzle through the mystery of the strange underwear, "I said that there were no exaggerations. The spies lied when they said that the people were stronger than the Israelites. Nobody was stronger than the Israelites when God was on their side."
Moses told everyone what God had said and they got depressed. The people were so depressed that they got up early the next morning, went to the top of a mountain, and said, "Look, here we are. Let's go take over the land that God promised to us!"
But Moses cautioned them, "Where do you get off doing what God told you not to do? Don't do it. You can't win unless God is with you. The Amalekites and Canaanites will stab you."
But the people went up the hill anyway and the Amalekites and Canaanites hit and killed them.
Beth thought about this for a moment. "I get it," she said. "The Israelites were weaker than their enemies because God was on their side. But I thought that you said the spies died because they lied about that?"
Beth's mother answered, "Well, God was still on the Israelites' side when the spies said that so it was a lie. In the end, God let the Amalekites and Canaanites win because he was mad at the Israelites."
"So the north won the Civil War because God was on their side?" Beth asked.
"That's right, Dear One," Beth's mother said.
Beth asked, "What about the Japanese? Is that why we beat them in World War II?"
"Of course," said her mother.
"And what about Hitler? Did we beat him because God was on our side?"
"Yes, Dear One."
This made Beth thoughtful. "Then how did Hitler beat the Poles and the French, and why was he able to kill so many Jews?" she asked.
"The same reason, Dear One," her mother said. "Do you understand now?"
Then Beth smiled and hugged her mother. All her questions had been answered, and only her mother's questions about the underwear were left.
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