Monday, December 8, 2014

Book Write-Up: Faith of My Fathers, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Faith of My Fathers.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2006.

Faith of My Fathers is the fourth book of 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, here, and here for my blog posts about the first three books of the series.

King Manasseh is notorious in the Hebrew Bible for his wickedness, his shedding of innocent blood, and his adherence to paganism.  Years after King Manasseh’s evil reign, King Josiah of Judah inaugurated dramatic religious reforms that II Kings and II Chronicles affirm were approved by God.  Yet, according to II Kings 23:26, God was so upset over what Manasseh had done that God still planned to punish Judah, even after Josiah’s reforms.

The thing is, Manasseh was the longest-reigning king of Judah in the Hebrew Bible.  He ruled for fifty-five years (II Kings 21:1).  That’s longer than the reign of King David, the man after God’s own heart (forty years, I Kings 2:11).  It’s also longer than King Solomon’s reign (forty years, I Kings 11:42).  A long reign is supposed to be a good thing, and so one can envision Manasseh’s long reign troubling certain biblical authors.  God is one who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, right?  How, then, could the wickedest king of Judah have the longest reign?  Some scholars have speculated that the Chronicler attempts to solve this problem by telling a story about Manasseh repenting and then inaugurating religious reforms that were approved by God (II Chronicles 33).  (There are scholars, however, who believe that there is actually an air of historical authenticity to that story, since it says that the Assyrians carried Manasseh off to Babylon.)

Faith of My Fathers focuses on two characters: Manasseh the son of King Hezekiah, and Joshua the son of Eliakim.  Eliakim was a close adviser to King Hezekiah.  Manasseh and Joshua were close, and yet Manasseh was troubled.  Manasseh lost his father when he was still young, and that led him to question aspects of the Torah, which affirmed that those who obeyed the Torah (as King Hezekiah tried to do) would live long.  Manasseh was not that generous of a person at the beginning of the book, since he was reluctant to give to a beggar.  But his path down the dark side began as he came to be influenced by the occult.  A blind beggar woman read Manasseh’s palm and told him that Joshua would compete with him for power.  Later, Manasseh interrupts some people who are secretly trying to communicate with the dead, and one of those people, Zerah, convinces Manasseh that he should be suspicious of Eliakim and the prophet Isaiah.  Eliakim and Isaiah are close, and they know things that they have kept secret from Manasseh.  Isaiah even predicted when Hezekiah would die, and the sun went backwards at Isaiah’s word.  This raises questions in Manasseh’s mind: Did Isaiah somehow contribute to Hezekiah’s death?  And why has Isaiah not used such fortune-telling abilities to help Manasseh?  Is something sinister going on here?

Even when Manasseh is conducting his wicked policies, however, there is still some good in him.  There is a part of King Manasseh that respects the Torah.  After all, his father believed in it, and Manasseh grew up learning it and, on some level, respecting it as authoritative.  Moreover, when Zerah tries to persuade Manasseh to sacrifice his firstborn, Manasseh is very hesitant.  He remembers his father Hezekiah telling him that, back when he (Hezekiah) was a child, Hezekiah’s father King Ahaz attempted to sacrifice Hezekiah to Molech.  Manasseh has some distaste towards child sacrifice.  And yet, Manasseh is seduced by the power and prosperity he could gain from the occult and from paganism.  Zerah persuades him that the pagan path that he is promoting is actually consistent with the earlier stages of the Torah—-the Abrahamic religion, or at least the Torah before the priests got their hands on it—-and that his path leads to greater intimacy with the divine.  Manasseh also enjoys the services being held at night, since services in the daytime when it was hot made him feel oppressed by God; plus, Manasseh was becoming upset because kings of other nations were also priests, whereas traditional Yahwism excluded him from that role.  Manasseh proceeds down the pagan path and notices that nothing bad has happened to him—-actually, he has been doing quite well, and a channeler assures him that the divine council approves of his policies.  Manasseh concludes that he is on the right path.

Isaiah is executed in the course of Manasseh’s reign.  So is Eliakim, and Eliakim’s father, Hilkiah, dies in prison.  That means that Joshua, Joshua’s brother Jerimoth, and their mother Jerusha have to flee.  They are assisted by Maki, one of Joshua’s servants, and also Maki’s daughter Miriam, and two of Miriam’s brothers, Nathan and Matti, all of whom are considered to live on the wrong side of the tracks.  Shebna, the atheist adviser to Hezekiah, gets the news of what is going on and flees, too.  Eliakim’s daughter Dinah, however, is taken by Manasseh and becomes his concubine.

Joshua is bitter about the dramatic interruption to his life: he was being trained to be an adviser in the king’s court, and that was disrupted.  There were plans for him to marry a woman named Yael, and those got thwarted.  And, what’s more, he lost his beloved father and grandfather. Joshua becomes alienated from God.  When Joshua returns to Jerusalem from Moab to find Yael, he talks with his Torah teacher from his youth, and the Torah teacher gives him things to think about: perhaps this loss can serve to build Joshua’s character.  Joshua reflects that perhaps his experiences have made him a better person—-wiser, humbler, and less snobbish.  Joshua reflects that perhaps he kept the Torah to get a reward from God, rather than focusing on serving God.  Yet, Joshua still has a lot of rage inside of him.

Joshua leads a plot to smuggle the Ark of the Covenant, the priests and Levites, and even Manasseh’s righteous (albeit not particularly politically-motivated) brother Amariah to Egypt, where they can set up a true sanctuary for God.  Lynn Austin bases this, in part, on the existence of a Jewish sanctuary in Elephantine, Egypt.  There are a number of ideas about when that sanctuary came to exist, and one is that it was during the days of King Manasseh.

There were three things in particular that I appreciated about this book.  First of all, as in all of Lynn Austin’s books that I have read thus far, there is an acknowledgment of the complexity involved in trying to understand and apply Scripture.  Manasseh grills Isaiah about apparent contradictions between the Torah and Isaiah’s teachings: How can Isaiah claim to have seen God, for example, when the Torah affirms that no one can see God and live?  Some of Zerah’s arguments were pretty off the wall, and yet some were similar to what some scholars have argued: that there was a stage of the Torah that approved of sacrificing the firstborn, and a later hand modified that policy.  According to Zerah, the priests replaced sacrifice of the firstborn with monetary redemption because the redemption money would go to the Temple, into priestly hands!  Lynn Austin may think that there is a correct interpretation of the Torah and that it is clear-cut to seekers of truth—-that those who diverge from the true interpretation are misapplying the Torah or disregarding the context of passages.  (She makes such a statement in the Epilogue.)  Yet, it is interesting to me that she often lets things stay ambiguous in her book: people have different interpretations of the Torah or the prophets, and the “wrong” interpretations are not always refuted with sound exegesis.  Obviously, I disapprove of sacrifice of the firstborn (as does Austin).  My point is that I appreciate how Austin highlights different interpretations of the Torah, and the complexity involved in trying to apply the Torah’s principles.

Second, I liked the character of Hadad, who was Shebna’s grandson.  Hadad was a drunk and was a disappointment to his late grandfather (who still loved Hadad), and yet Hadad made a decision to do the honorable thing and help Joshua.

Third, the scene in which Joshua and company are trying to get out of Jerusalem—-while rescuing the tightly guarded Amariah and Dinah—-was quite tense.  I wondered how they would do it!
In terms of criticisms, I have mixed feelings about how Manasseh at the beginning of the book was depicted as not-so-generous to the poor.  In the previous books, Shebna, the atheist, was not particularly compassionate, either.  I could envision somebody taking the sorts of stances that Shebna did—-after all, many Republicans today take similar stances (don’t encourage refugees, don’t forgive debt, etc.)—-and yet I would prefer for there to be some acknowledgment that even a non-believer can be generous to the vulnerable.

I also have mixed feelings about how Joshua got Dinah rescued—-he essentially blew up a grain silo to distract the guards, and this took the lives of eight people.  I was hoping that Joshua, or at least one of the righteous characters, would have expressed some remorse about that, even if there were not many other alternatives.

That said, I enjoyed this book, and, sometime in the future, I will read the last book of this series.  I am hoping also to read Austin’s Civil War trilogy, for I am curious as to how she depicts the different stances regarding slavery, and how the Bible was used to defend and to oppose it.

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