Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Strength of His Hand, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  The Strength of His Hand.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2005.

The Strength of His Hand is the third novel in Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series.  The first three books of the series focus on the righteous biblical King Hezekiah, who ruled Judah during the eighth century B.C.E.  The last two books are about Hezekiah’s son and successor, the wicked King Manasseh.  See here and here for my blog posts about the first two books of the series.

The Strength of His Hand focuses on Hezekiah’s divorce from his wife Hephzibah, his illness and miraculous recovery, and his response to the Assyrian threat.  After many years, Hezekiah’s wife, Hephzibah, has not given Hezekiah an heir, and so she placates the pagan goddess Asherah.  When Hezekiah catches her doing this, he becomes outraged and manages to burn himself severely.  Hezekiah puts away his wife, Hephzibah, and she is left alone in a room, rejected by her family, her friends, and the nation.  Eventually, Hezekiah recovers, and he has to deal with the threat of the Assyrians.  The Babylonians visit Hezekiah and encourage him to join an alliance of countries against Assyria.  Hezekiah’s right-hand adviser, Shebna, still an atheist, is enthusiastic about this, whereas Hezekiah’s more devout adviser, Eliakim, is not.  What’s more, the prophet Isaiah believes that Hezekiah has become too proud and publicly reprimands Hezekiah for trusting an alliance instead of God.  This greatly disturbs Hezekiah, for has he not tried his best to obey God and to set the nation on the right track?  In the course of the book, the Assyrians find a spokesman who fears neither gods nor men, the anti-Assyrian alliance collapses, and multitudes of Assyrians are threatening the city of Jerusalem.  What will happen?  On a sweet note, Hezekiah and Hephzibah reconcile, and Hephzibah has a son, Manasseh.

Here are some thoughts about the book.

1.  The book’s presentation of Shebna interests me.  In the past three books, Austin has depicted Shebna as an atheist.  While she does not portray Shebna as a villain, she obviously does believe that Shebna’s atheism is wrongheaded, which is not surprising, considering she is an evangelical Christian.  Shebna is fairly loyal to Hezekiah, committed to his job, and intelligent, and he desires the well-being of Judah.  Yet, Shebna is a person with flaws: he is unhappy; he is not particularly compassionate to Israelite refugees in Judah or Israelites in debt; he has lived with the same concubine for many years and has even had sons with her, yet he has never married her; he lives to please himself, since he does not believe in a God for him to please; he is arrogant and frequently clashes with Eliakim; and his encouragement that Hezekiah join an anti-Assyrian alliance ends in disaster, to his humiliation.  I am pleased that Lynn Austin includes an atheist character, one whose problem with religion is not any suffering that he has experienced that leads him to question the existence of a beneficent God, but simply a lack of belief.  Whether one embraces Austin’s depiction of this atheist, regards it as an unfair caricature, or falls somewhere in between these two extremes, Shebna’s presence in the book does invite questions.  The biggest question, in my opinion, is that of practicality.  Granted, Shebna turned out to be wrong in advising Hezekiah to join the anti-Assyrian alliance, for the alliance fell apart.  But was it wrong for Hezekiah to have been practical?  Yes, our plans can fall apart, and in that case we may feel an urge to call on God.  But is God against our planning?

2.  The book effectively captures some of the complexities of biblical interpretation and the attempts to apply the Bible to one’s life.  Hezekiah’s wife was not having children, and the question facing him was whether he should marry another woman.  Hezekiah’s policy was to be married to Hephzibah alone and to trust in God to provide him with an heir, since God promised that the seed of David would always sit on the throne of Israel.  But things were a bit more complex than that.  As Hephzibah notes, yes, God promised David’s descendants would rule, but that does not necessarily mean that Hephzibah would have a son.  Hezekiah’s brother Gedaliah (who had sons) could rule Judah, after all, and that would satisfy God’s promise, since Gedaliah, too, was a descendant of David.  Moreover, Hezekiah relied on the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:15-20, which forbids the king to multiply wives or to cause Israelites to return to Egypt.  Although his grandfather Zechariah told him that this law required him to be married to only one woman, Hezekiah entertains the interpretation of certain Levites that the law forbids having lots of wives, not having more than one wife.  And, when Eliakim appeals to the part of the law against going back to Egypt to discourage Hezekiah from forming an alliance with Egypt, Hezekiah does not agree with Eliakim’s interpretation: the text says that the Israelites cannot go back to Egypt, not that Israel cannot ally with Egypt.

Another salient issue in this book surrounding the application of the Bible—-and this also appears in Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles—-is that of legalism vs. accepting God’s love and grace.  Hezekiah had long obeyed God because he believed that this would influence God to benefit him and his nation.  Isaiah, however, shows Hezekiah a fresh perspective of God, one that highlights God’s grace and unconditional love.  This dichotomy also appears in the debate about what should be done to Hephzibah.  Shebna advocates that she be executed for her idolatry, since that is what the Torah commands, but Eliakim says that the Torah is also about compassion and mercy.  These themes of grace and love fit into Austin’s evangelical worldview.

3.  My favorite part of the book is where Eliakim’s wife, Jerusha, reaches out to Hephzibah, and Hephzibah later has the opportunity to repay Jerusha’s kindness.  Hephzibah is alienated from her family, her friends, and her people, and Jerusha feels a call from God to reach out to Hephzibah, against the wishes of Eliakim.  Later, Jerusha is incapacitated with fear because the Assyrians are about to attack and she sees that their intimidating spokesperson is Iddina, the Assyrian soldier who captured her and terrorized her in the second book of the series.  Jerusha is afraid that the Assyrians will take her newborn baby, just as they did in the past.  Hephzibah reaches out to Jerusha amidst Jerusha’s pain.

The Strength of His Hand ends with Manasseh being born to Hephzibah, and Hezekiah exhorts his newborn son to love God.  Of course, Manasseh as king will not do this, but will be the most wicked (and, perhaps to the disturbance of biblical writers who believed the righteous prospered and the wicked suffered, one of the longest-reigning) kings.  In the next book of the series, Austin will tell a story about how this happened.

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