Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Write-Up: Return to Me, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Return to Me.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013.

Return to Me is the first book of Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles.  It is Christian historical fiction about the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., and their attempts to start a new life in the land of Israel, where they face the challenges of rebuilding God’s sanctuary and their homes, and dealing with the inhabitants of the land (the Samaritans) and the Persian authorities.  Because there is a good chance that I will receive a review copy of the second book of the series, I decided to read the first book.

Let me say that I was impressed.  Lynn Austin is a talented writer, who is able to tell a compelling story and to create characters with whom I could sympathize.  Austin features a variety of characters: the Jews who were enthusiastic about returning from exile, the Jews who did not want to return because they had made a life for themselves in Babylon, the faithful, the somewhat faithful, the doubters, the closet pagans, those who wanted to make peace with the native Samaritans, those who thought that commitment to God should preclude appeasing the Samaritans, and the list goes on.  These characteristics are not always set in stone, for some characters may doubt the miracles in the Bible while holding to some sort of faith in God, and a number of the characters change their perspective due to experiences or epiphanies that they have.  In any case, I could sympathize and empathize with all of the characters in the book, including those who were doing things of which many of the biblical writings (and probably Lynn Austin herself, an evangelical Christian) would disapprove, as well as the religious characters who annoyed me because they got too preachy.

Austin also navigates the tensions within the Hebrew Bible: between judgment and grace, between legalism and love, and between Israelite exclusivism and the vision that Israel had a divine mission to be a blessing to the Gentile nations.  Austin smoothes some tensions over better than others, but, overall, she presents people wrestling with the tensions and arriving at decisions.

How did Lynn Austin do in terms of historical accuracy and agreement with biblical scholarship?  Well, liberal scholars may disagree with her dating of Second Isaiah, Daniel, and other biblical writings.  Her book also said that Babylonian temples had orgies, which coincides with Herodotus, but which some biblical scholars dispute (see here).  She depicts Jewish students wearing kippot, when it is debated whether that was a practice in biblical times (see here and here).  She presents her characters as largely literate—-including the young Jewish woman Yael, who had star charts, and a Samaritan old woman, who could actually read those star charts.  I am not entirely certain how accurate that picture is, but I am open.  I do not doubt that priests like Iddo and Zechariah could read; maybe even some of the Samaritans could.  But Yael and the Samaritan old woman?

There were times when Austin indicated that there were differences between the Samaritans and the Jews—-on when girls got married, on dowries, etc.—-when my guess is that the Jews were probably similar to the Samaritans on these things, particularly when both were drawing their ideas from the Torah, or the Torah was exemplifying their cultural features.

Austin is also sensitive to conservative scholarly attempts to reconcile Bible contradictions or to address Bible problems: she presents the Babylonian kings Nabonidus and Belshazzar as co-rulers, for example, and she says that the seventy years of Jewish exile officially started when the first set of exiles were taken from Israel, not when Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C.E. (otherwise we have less than seventy years between the destruction and the return from exile).  I would say that her book does reflect research, but scholars would probably quibble with some of her picture, depending on their perspective or what they believe the evidence reveals.  Let me also say that, overall, I was impressed by Austin’s knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, including the priestly laws in the Pentateuch.

I had two favorite passages.  In one passage, Iddo, the devout grandfather of Zechariah (who would grow up to become the prophet Zechariah), is telling his grandson about the power of words:

“We’re made in the Holy One’s image so our words also have power.  You tell someone they’re ugly or that they’re a fool, and if you repeat if often enough, you might create ugliness or foolishness in that person.  You praise them for their goodness or kindness, and your words just might create even more kindness in that person.  We must be careful to speak words of life.”

The other passage that I really liked was on page 383.  In Austin’s book, the Samaritans are presented in a rather unflattering light, yet they are not entirely dehumanized.  One Jewish character, Dinah, is upset about leaving her family behind in Babylon and questions the value of serving God, but she has an epiphany when she is delivering a Samaritan baby, and the Samaritan old woman wants to throw the baby out to die because the baby has a deformed foot.  Dinah concludes that the Samaritans do not value life the way that the Jews do, and that the Jews value life because they have the Torah.  Yet, there are parts of the book that indicate a more complex picture: that the Samaritans also believe in the Torah, on some level, that there are good Samaritans, that a Samaritan can join the community of Israel, and that the Samaritans are upset because they were on the land and now a bunch of exiles are returning.  On page 383, Zechariah is responding to someone who is criticizing the Babylonian and Samaritan stargazers, as Zechariah is saying that the Temple will be a way to bring everyone to God.  Zechariah says: “I know some of those stargazers, and they’re searching for Him whether they realize it or not.”  Some may find that to be condescending.  I find it to be a beautiful acknowledgement that we are all thirsty.

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