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Faith of My Fathers (Chronicles of the Kings)
By Lynn Austin
Bethany House Publishers
Chapter One"Wait here," King Manasseh told his servants. "I would like to be alone for a few minutes."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
He left his entourage of palace guards and servants standing by the cemetery entrance and walked forward alone, toward his mother's tomb. It was the close of a warm, spring day, just after the evening sacrifice, and Manasseh knew he would have only a few more minutes of twilight. Once night fell he would need a torch to make his way among the tombs. The graveyard was deserted and peaceful; the mourning doves in the distant trees grieved with him.
At twenty-one, Manasseh had grown into a handsome man. His long, narrow face seemed sculpted from costly stone, his straight nose, square forehead, and jaw skillfully wrought by an artisan. He had inherited Hezekiah's broad shoulders but not his height or strong frame. Like his mother, Hephzibah, he was slender and light-boned, with her thick dark hair the color of olive branches and her brown eyes flecked with gold. His lean body was muscular beneath his linen robes; he still trained every day with his military tutor in order to stay strong and agile. For his size, Manasseh had become very difficult to beat in hand-to-hand combat.
He reached the tomb he had hewn for his mother out of the cliffside and stopped. Hephzibah had died two years ago tonight. In a way it seemed like only yesterday that theyhad shared their evening meal together, yet when he tried to remember her smile or the sound of her singing, it seemed as if she had been gone forever. He stretched out his hand to touch the enormous block of stone that sealed the tomb, wishing he could reach for his mother and find her there. The stone felt warm, still holding the memory of the sun's heat. He pressed his forehead against it and closed his eyes.
When he finished reciting the prayers for the dead, Manasseh turned to leave. As he did, his foot kicked something lying on the ground in front of him. He bent to examine it in the twilight and found a small bouquet of wilting blossoms, wrapped in a roll of fine parchment. He recognized the writing as the beautiful calligraphy sold by the Temple scribes. He tilted the pages to catch the fading light and read the words:
Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits ...
He didn't need to read the rest to recognize his mother's favorite psalm. She had sung the words and haunting melody to him nearly every night when he was a child until he, too, knew it by heart. Sorrow engulfed him from the unexpected memory. When he realized that Joshua's mother, Jerusha, had probably placed it there, he tasted the bitterness of envy, as well. Both of Joshua's parents still lived, and even his elderly grandfather, Hilkiah. Manasseh had grown up beside this large, close-knit family-Eliakim and Jerusha, Joshua, his older brother, Jerimoth, and their sisters, Tirza and Dinah. Yet he always felt as if he stood outside, gazing through a window at the kinship and love they shared. Manasseh and his younger brother, Amariah, were very different from each other and had never been close.
He tucked the flowers inside the parchment again and left the bundle where he found it. But as he rose to his feet, he glimpsed a faint flicker of light among the tombs farther back in the cemetery. He walked a few steps in that direction, searching for the source of the light, but the graves looked dark and shadowy. Then he crouched and peered between the markers until he spotted it again: a single lamp, well-shaded. It might be necromancers. They sometimes defied the Law by practicing divination in cemeteries, consulting the dead in occult rituals.
His guards at the entrance were all looking the other way to give him privacy. If he shouted for them, he would probably scare the culprits off. The thought of surprising the criminals and making the arrest himself excited Manasseh. He pulled his dark outer robe closed and belted it so his pale undertunic wouldn't be visible in the dark and give him away. Then he crept quietly toward the light.
He was lithe and agile, and he moved silently among the tall cedars, crouching occasionally to keep the lamp in sight. He was close now. He could hear someone mumbling in a singsong voice, but the words sounded like nonsense.
Only one shadowy figure knelt beside the newly buried grave. His bent head was a ball of woolly hair and beard, surrounded by a halo of light from the lamp. He had sacrificed three pigeons and cut them in two, separating the halves. Now he was drawing symbols in the patch of dirt between them as he mumbled incantations. Manasseh's heart thumped with excitement. He had all the evidence he needed to condemn the man. He quietly circled around him, then stepped out of the shadows in front of him.
"What are you doing?"
The man gasped and leaped to his feet. "Stay back!" He pulled a knife from inside his robe and swirled his foot in the dirt to erase the symbols he had drawn.
Manasseh's heart leaped faster. He had never considered that the necromancer might be armed, even though he had seen the slaughtered pigeons. The palace guards were too far away; the man could kill him before they could run to his rescue. He cursed himself for his foolish mistake.
"Easy, now ..." Manasseh said as he sized his opponent. The man was a few inches taller and about twenty pounds heavier than Manasseh. He didn't look particularly strong and was at least ten years older than he was. But this wasn't a training exercise. The man must realize he would be condemned to death, and he probably wouldn't hesitate to use his weapon.
"You can't escape," Manasseh said. "My soldiers have you completely surrounded." He watched the man's eyes, waiting until he glanced sideways for a moment, and then Manasseh seized his chance. He grabbed the man's wrist with his left hand and punched him as hard as he could in the midsection with his right. The man expelled all the air from his lungs with a grunt. Then Manasseh kicked the legs out from under him and brought him to the ground, slamming his wrist against a rock until he dropped the knife. He planted his knee in the man's diaphragm and picked up the knife, holding it to his throat.
"I suggest you don't resist me."
The man nodded, his eyes fearful. His chest heaved as he strained to get his wind back. After a moment, Manasseh stood.
"Tell me your name."
"Zerah son of Abner."
"Sit up slowly, Zerah, and take off your belt. Slowly! Now put your hands behind your back."
Zerah gasped in pain as Manasseh tied his hands together. He had probably broken Zerah's wrist when he'd slammed it against the rock. Manasseh pulled the knot even tighter until Zerah cried out.
"What were you doing here in the cemetery?" Manasseh asked as he walked around in front of him again. Zerah didn't answer. "Do you know who I am?"
"Then you know that you have to answer me." Zerah stared at the ground near Manasseh's feet. "Very well, then," Manasseh said. "Here's something to think about."
He bent to retrieve a small jug he spotted lying among Zerah's things. He removed the stopper and sniffed. As he suspected, it contained extra oil for the lamp. He dropped the lid on the ground and dashed the oil all over Zerah's face and hair. It ran down the front of his tunic, soaking it. Manasseh tossed the jar aside into the darkness and bent once more to pick up the lamp. He held it close to Zerah's round, shiny face. Zerah's eyes were narrow and close set, giving him the appearance of being cross-eyed. He had a large, rounded nose and full lips, as sensuous as a woman's. But his most prominent features were his thick eyebrows, arched like twin peaks above his eyes.
Manasseh relaxed now that he was in control and savored the rush of exhilaration that surged through his veins like strong wine. "Now, I think you'd better tell me what you were doing here, Zerah son of Abner."
"Seeking guidance," Zerah replied after a moment. His voice was surprisingly calm.
"From the dead?"
Zerah nodded slightly. "From their spirits."
"Even though it's against the law? You must have known you were breaking the Law of Moses, as well as the laws of Judah."
Zerah's eyes flared as if Manasseh had fanned a bed of coals. "It may be against the laws of Judah, but it's not against the Law of Moses!"
"You seem quite certain of that."
"My father is a priest. And so am I."
"I'm not familiar with any Temple priests named Abner. Nor do I recall seeing you in service. You're over age thirty?" Zerah nodded. "When were you ordained?"
"My father was a priest in Samaria and a prophet, as well. We're descendants of the prophet Zedekiah, who prophesied for King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. My family fled to Judah when the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria, during your father's reign."
"So you're a priest of Baal."
"Baal ... Yahweh ... the same god with many names."
"Oh no, Zerah. They're not the same at all. I've studied the Torah and-"
"You studied the Torah with the phony Temple priests. They only taught you what they wanted you to know. They kept the hidden things from you."
"What hidden things?"
"The Secrets of the Ancients ... the Wisdom of Abraham ... the ability to read signs and omens. And to foretell the future."
"Only Yahweh knows the future."
Zerah gave a short laugh. "That's what your Temple priests want you to believe so they can stay in power. If they can make you depend on them, they can control you."
"Am I, King Manasseh? Why is it that the rulers of all the other nations in the world are priests as well as kings, but you're not allowed to share the priests' power? Other kings have access to the hidden mysteries, but you can't even enter your own Temple sanctuary."
"Of course not." Manasseh spoke with indifference, but Zerah's words had struck a raw nerve. He was the king, yet Yahweh's priests made him feel like an outsider in his own Temple.
"It wasn't always that way, you know," Zerah continued. "The rulers of our nation used to be priests. Surely you've read of Melchizedek, King of Salem, who was also a priest of God Most High? Our father Abraham acknowledged his kingship and his priesthood by paying him a tithe. And Melchizedek blessed Abraham in return."
Manasseh recalled the story, but it sounded different, somehow, when Zerah told it. The Temple priests had been Manasseh's teachers. Their interpretation of the Law was all that he knew. He sat down on a large stone in front of his prisoner. "But that was before we received the Law at Sinai."
"Yes! Exactly! This ceremony you interrupted tonight is the purest form of our faith-the way our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshiped. It's all recorded in the first Book of the Torah. Abraham took a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon. He cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other." Zerah gestured with his head to show how he had done the same thing. "Then the spirits appeared to Abraham at night and foretold his future. How his family would be slaves in Egypt. How they would be delivered during the fourth generation. And how he would go to his fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age."
"I know the story."
"Then why is it against the Law when I do it? Father Abraham performed the same ritual to divine his future."
"The Torah says, 'Do not practice divination or sorcery.'"
"That's from the laws of the priests, not the laws of our forefathers. Abraham worshiped under the stars. He could read their mysteries. God commanded him to study the heavens. 'Look up ... So shall your offspring be.'"
Again, Manasseh couldn't argue with him. Everything Zerah said could be found in the Torah.
"The stars prophesied his future," Zerah continued, "because Abraham knew how to read their mysteries. But Abraham never worshiped the god you call Yahweh. That's what the descendants of Aaron named the god they control. Abraham worshiped Elohim."
"What's your point, Zerah?"
"My point is that the phony priests and false prophets have stolen your power. The Torah says, 'The secret things belong to the Lord our God, and the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.' But they have deliberately outlawed the ancient mysteries, keeping them to themselves so they could control your kingdom. Just like they controlled your father."
Manasseh stood. "No one controlled my father!"
"That's what you think. They made him destroy all of the high places where every man could go to offer his own sacrifices and seek the wisdom of Abraham. Now the priests make us come to their Temple, offer their sacrifices, so we're under their control. We're told we can't worship God without them, and they make us recite empty rituals, devoid of power. This isn't the worship our ancestors knew. Then the priests put a curse on your father."
"They did what?"
"They cursed him! The God of our ancestors gave us the power of blessing and cursing. He told Abraham that whoever he blessed would be blessed and whoever he cursed would be cursed. Read it for yourself. Abraham knew the secret incantations, and so do your priests. That's how the man who calls himself a prophet cursed your father."
"You mean Rabbi Isaiah?"
"Yes. He knows how to read the future, and he knows all the ancient omens and signs found in the stars. He even has power over the heavenly bodies. Didn't Isaiah once make the sun roll backward? Isaiah used the same spell our forefather Joshua used when he made the sun stand still. Isaiah is a powerful man, Your Majesty. He deceived your father all of his life in order to hold him under his control. He would only reveal the future to him piece by piece. Then he cursed him."
"Why would Isaiah curse my father?"
"He wanted to make sure King Hezekiah died before you came of age. That way they could control you and train you to believe all their lies, too."
"Am I? How long was your father ill before he died?"
Manasseh remembered the shock of his father's sudden death, how it seemed as if he was alive and healthy one day and wrapped in a shroud the next. He was too stunned to answer. Zerah leaned forward.
"Isaiah told your father he would live fifteen additional years, and the king died fifteen years later, to the very month. I know the ancient curses, too, King Manasseh. But my priesthood is outlawed by those who want to control you. I can read your future as well as Isaiah can. You were born under the sign of the lion, into the tribe of the lion. They know you are doubly blessed with the power of kingship. That's why Isaiah keeps you under his control."
"I haven't seen Rabbi Isaiah in years."
"He's controlling you, nevertheless, through your palace administrator, Eliakim. They have long been allies, even under your father. Isaiah used his power to secure the palace administrator's job for Eliakim."
"That's not how it happened. Isaiah prophesied that Eliakim would ... Oh no ..." He sank down on the rock again, seeing the truth in what Zerah had said, remembering the story his father had told him about Eliakim's rise to power. It was true-Isaiah and Eliakim had always been close.
"And now that Eliakim is old and nearing retirement, they're conspiring to replace him with his son."
"Joshua? But I've always known that Joshua would take Eliakim's place."
"No. They've always told you that he would. But shouldn't the king choose his own palace administrator?"
Manasseh transferred the knife to his other hand and wiped his sweating palm on his thigh. He suddenly remembered the blind woman in the Kidron Valley and what she had prophesied about Joshua and himself: "The authority belongs to you, but he will be more powerful."
"How do I know you're not making all this up?"
"Ask them. Ask Rabbi Isaiah. Do you believe he saw the future for your father and grandfather?"
"I know he did."
"Then ask him to tell your future. He knows what it is right now, but he won't tell you because then he can't control you. He'll refuse to do it, and when Isaiah defies you, ask your palace administrator to back you up. Make him choose between the two of you. Eliakim will side with Isaiah, not with you. So will his son and successor. They're all in this conspiracy together, along with the priests and Levites."
"I don't believe any of this," Manasseh said, but his voice was trembling.
"No? Doesn't Eliakim have a daughter? What family did she marry into?"
Manasseh knew the answer. As a close friend of the family, he had attended Tirza's wedding a year ago. But he wouldn't say the words aloud, unwilling to face the truth.
"She married into the high priest's family," Zerah answered for him. "They are all involved in this plot." Manasseh could only stare at him, too stunned to speak. "You don't have to take my word for it," Zerah said after a moment. "I challenge you to put them all to the test. See if what I'm telling you isn't true. If I'm wrong, then I'm not a prophet. You can execute me for worshiping the God of Abraham. But if I'm right, then you'd better take control of your kingdom before it's too late."
Excerpted from Faith of My Fathers (Chronicles of the Kings) by Lynn Austin Excerpted by permission.
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