Friday, October 10, 2014
'Keepers of the Covenant' by Lynn Austin
In one life-changing moment, the lives of the Jewish exiles in Babylon are thrown into confusion and despair when a decree arrives from the king's palace in Susa. It calls for the annihilation of every Jewish man, woman, and child throughout the empire on the thirteenth day of Adar, in less than one year. Ezra, a quiet Jewish scholar and teacher, is suddenly called upon to lead the community as they seek God for a reason for this catastrophe. When a second decree arrives, authorizing them to fight back, Ezra is thrust into the role of military leader as they defend themselves against their enemies.
When the battles come to an end, Ezra's brother Jude is dead and Ezra is required by the Law he so diligently studies to marry Jude's widow, Devorah, and provide an heir. Fatherhood changes Ezra, and he asks God to make a way for him and the other exiles to leave Babylon for good and return to Jerusalem. His prayers are answered and the exiles move to Judea to revitalize worship at the temple--but the fight to keep God's Law is never easy. As more and more of his community are tempted, a new battle emerges...this one for the survival of God's covenant and the souls of His chosen faithful.
This is a fascinating story about Ezra, one of God's chosen Biblical leaders, and the duties and passions that consumed him. I love how Lynn Austin features such large figures from Bible history alongside her own fictional characters, for her story is also about Reuben, the young Jewish boy who loses the plot when his beloved father dies for the God who could have saved him; and Amina, the lame little Gentile girl who comes to love her surrogate Jewish mother and her God with all her heart.
For a long time, the three threads remain totally separate to the point where I was getting impatient for them to come together. It wasn't until at least sixty percent through the story that they began to merge, but by then, I decided it was a strength after all, because that's how life works. A book focused on my immediate family would have my husband's story separate from mine until we were in our early twenties. It makes the story more powerful in the second half, because even though the characters were strangers to each other, I knew them all very well.
Although this is considered a sequel to 'Return to Me', they really stand alone, as the events of 'Keepers of the Covenant' take place around eighty years later. One thread tying them together is Hodaya. It was great to trace her life, from the discarded, crippled newborn in the first book, to a gracious matriarch and grandmother, living out her full lifespan.
I found Ezra a more likeable leader than Iddo, in the first book, who came across as pushy and autocratic at times, even though his zeal was well placed. Ezra is earnest and humble, finding himself thrust into the leader's role rather than striving for it. In spite of his great learning, he's never too lofty to seek advice from others, such as his wife, Devorah, and younger brother, Asher. (One of my favourite scenes, which highlights Ezra's human vulnerability, is when he describes his mental and physical exhaustion to his brother.)
What makes Lynn Austin my favourite biblical author is the way her characters seem just like us, yet without compromising the authenticity of the times in which they lived. I understand their puzzlement when they hear of King Xerxe's death decree, under the influence of the evil Haman, as they are dealing with two contradictory, fixed opinions; God's Covenant on one side and the Persian king's edict on the other. While Ezra and his cohorts scanned the Torah for answers, I appreciate the irony that the solution ended up having nothing to do with them. (This, of course, is history.) In the story, the characters spend years referring to the events of 'The 13th of Adar' just as we do to September 11th.
I totally get his teenage twins' fascination with Babylon, which seemed grander than anything they knew, and their frustration with their father's passion to keep separate when they felt inferior in so many ways. It's the modern questions about relevance, which we also deal with, and like us, Ezra learns that you can't force feeling into a young person's heart. Since our modern world has been compared to Babylon, it has to make us think. When it came to the issue of mixed marriages, Ezra's personal angst over finding the right balance between grace and mercy was heartbreaking.
I love fiction like this, because so much is explained through the daily lives of the characters and their natural conversations. If Ezra can impact a fixed-minded young rebel like Reuben, he can do the same for readers.
Thanks to Bethany House and Net Galley for my review copy.