The prophet Nehemiah's cousin can speak numerous languages, keep complex accounts, write on rolls of parchment and tablets of clay, and solve great mysteries. There is only one problem: she's a woman in a man's court. In her early childhood years, Sarah experienced the death of her mother and her father's subsequent emotional distance, and she came to two conclusions: God does not care about me, and my accomplishments are the measure of my worth.
Catapulted into the center of the Persian court, Sarah is working too many hours, rubbing elbows with royalty, and solving intrigues for the Queen. Ironically, it isn't failure—but success—that causes Sarah to lose her only source of external validation.
Sarah soon learns that she has something of worth to offer beyond her ability with languages and sums; her very being proves to be a blessing to others, particularly the aristocrat Darius, whom she is given to in marriage.
Sarah and Darius' story continues in Harvest of Gold. Darius may be able to learn to love his wife, but can he ever learn to trust Sarah and her Lord?
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
TESSA AFSHAR is the award-winning author of biblical and inspirational historical fiction, including Harvest of Gold which won a Christy Award and Land of Silence, which won an INSPY. The Way Home: God's Invitation to New Beginnings is Afshar's critically acclaimed Bible study based on the book of Ruth. Born in the Middle East, Tessa spent her teen years in England and later moved to the United States. Her conversion to Christianity in her twenties changed the course of her life. She holds a Master of Divinity from Yale, where she served as co-chair of the Evangelical Fellowship for a year. She worked in women and prayer ministry for twenty years before becoming a full-time writer and speaker. Contact Tessa at tessaafshar.com or on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTessaAfshar/.
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HARVEST of RUBIES
By TESSA AFSHAR
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2012 Tessa Afshar
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Eight Year of King Artaxerxes' Reign Persia
On my twelfth birthday, father discovered that I could read.
He came home long before the supper hour that night, an occurrence so rare that in my shock I forgot to greet him. Instead, I sat stupefied, clutching a forbidden clay tablet.
"What are you doing?" he asked, his gaze arrested by the sight of the tablet clasped to my chest.
My father, a royal scribe in the Persian court, treated his writing tools as if they were the holy objects from the Ark of the Covenant. Before I had learned to walk or speak, I had learned never to go near his scrolls and tablets for fear I might damage them.
"You know better than to touch this," he said, when I didn't respond right away.
I swallowed the ball of gathering dread in my throat, knowing myself caught. Truth seemed my only option. "I was reading," I said, as I replaced the tablet on the floor with extravagant care.
He studied me from beneath lowered brows. "Even if you could read—which you cannot—you should not be anywhere near my scribal supplies. It is very wrong of you to lie, Sarah."
"I am not lying, Father."
He heaved a sigh. Spreading his hand in mock invitation toward the tablet, he said, "Demonstrate."
The tablet was in Persian, one of the most complicated languages of the world. I could have chosen to teach myself Aramaic, a simpler language for a beginner and more appropriate for a Jew. But most Aramaic documents were recorded on parchment, and I had decided that there would be fewer chances of accidentally damaging clay or stone tablets than fragile parchment scrolls.
Licking my lips, I concentrated on the complex alphabet before me. The symbols looked like a series of delicate nails standing upright or lying sideways, an occasional incomplete triangle thrown in for confusion. With halting accuracy I began to read the first line from left to right. Then the second and the third.
My father sank to the carpet next to me, his movements slow. He was silent for a long moment. Then he asked, "Who taught you to read Persian?"
"Nobody. I learned by myself. I've been studying for five months."
He seemed speechless. Then, with jerky movements, he fetched three small clay cylinders and placed them before me.
"What's this word? And this? Can you make out this sentence?"
We must have sat there for hours as he tested my knowledge, corrected my pronunciation, and demonstrated grammatical rules. He forgot about my months-long transgression of secretly handling his scribal supplies. He forgot to remonstrate with me for having taught myself to read without his permission.
But then he also forgot to ask me why I had wanted to learn. Although I was surprised by his lack of anger at my behavior, his lack of interest was all too familiar. In the years since my mother's death when I was seven, my father had rarely spoken to me of anything save mundane household matters, and even that was rare. My desires, my motives, my hopes, held no appeal to him.
Late that night, after so many hours of his company, when I crawled onto my thin cotton-filled mattress, my mouth spread in a wide smile. I had finally found a way to hold my father's attention. He had spent more time with me on this one night than he was wont to do in a fortnight. Months of hard work had won me the desire of my heart; he had found something in me worth his while.
* * *
After we lost my mother, Aunt Leah, my mother's only sister, began coming once a week to our home to help us with the housework. She tried to show me how to sew and clean and cook. Our conversations around these topics tended toward frustration—for her—and pain for me.
"Weren't you paying attention when I showed you how to pluck the chicken?"
"No, Aunt Leah. I beg your pardon."
"You can't use a broom like that, Sarah. You only move the dust from one spot to another. That's not called cleaning. That's a migration of dirt."
"Yes, Aunt Leah. I beg your pardon."
"This pot won't clean itself just by you staring at it and sighing."
Silence seemed the best response at times like this. I could not offend my only aunt by telling her the truth: that I would rather hit my head with the pot and make myself lose consciousness than have to face the frustrating boredom of scrubbing its black bottom.
My one consolation was that our house was small—four rooms and a hallway with a tiny garden the size of a large carpet in the back, so there wasn't much to clean. The few rugs we had were woven rather than knotted, and I just beat them against the stone hedge outside. Our furniture, modest to start with, had served my family a good twenty years; even my impatient treatment of the pieces could not ruin them more than they already had been.
Aunt Leah came to visit the day after my twelfth birthday and discovered me practicing the Persian alphabet on a fresh clay tablet. The tablet fit comfortably in the palm of my hand; I held one blunt end with my thumb and used a stylus to carve new words on its wet surface. Since my father had uncovered my secret and seemed to sanction it, I felt no reason to keep it hidden any longer.
Aunt Leah slapped a hand against the crown of her head. "Are you writing now?"
"I am," I said with pride, stretching my cramping legs on the crude carpet.
"It's a scandal. What will your father say?"
"He is teaching me."
"It's a scandal," she repeated. She made me put the tablet and stylus away and help her with the laundry until my father arrived.
Although I was dismissed from the room so that they might hold a private discussion, I could hear snatches of their conversation through the drawn curtain that separated the rectangular room into two parts. My heart beat an uncomfortable rhythm as I considered the possibility that Aunt Leah might convince my father to stop teaching me. I waited with fuming resentment, barely able to keep myself from marching in and demanding that she stop interfering with the first good thing that had happened to me in years.
"The child just wants to learn to read and write, Leah. There's no shame in that. She even shows a glimmer of talent." I was surprised to hear my father defend me; I couldn't remember his ever doing so before. The simple words soothed my rising anger.
"The child is a girl."
"Literate women are not unknown. The queen reads as well as any scribe, they say."
"Sarah is not a royal Persian woman. She's a simple Jewish maiden."
I could not make out my father's answer. Aunt Leah's response came heated and fast, though. "No good will come of this, Simeon. You mark my words. Your stubborn refusal to listen to reason will cause that child nothing but harm."
She stormed out of the house, not taking the time to put her shoes on right. As soon as she left, I gathered my practice tablet and borrowed tools and walked into my father's room. He sat on the floor, his head bent, a hand covering his eyes.
With care I laid my bundle in front of him. "Would you like to see what I did today, Father? It's not much; Aunt Leah interrupted my practice."
This was new for me, this bold approach to my father. I had known for years that I was a bother to him. He found my conversation trying; my presence aggravated him. But my literary endeavor had given me a new confidence. I knew my father loved his work. I might be a nuisance, but the work wasn't. I thought he would bear with me as long as we had a clay tablet between us.
He lifted his head and focused on me for a long moment. One corner of his mouth lifted. I let out my breath when he made no protest. "Let's see what you have accomplished, then."
* * *
Aunt Leah came back with mighty reinforcements the following week. I had met my cousin Nehemiah years before during the time of my mother's sickness. But in recent times I only heard the stories of his great accomplishments at court. He had risen to the position of cupbearer to the king.
In Persia, rank was measured by proximity to the person of the king. Only those of consequence were given positions that placed them in constant contact with royalty. Nehemiah tasted the king's wine as a human shield against poison. But he also acted as one of his advisors, for it was common for the king to ask the opinion of those closest to him. Even I, a child of twelve, knew that Artaxerxes held him in high regard. This was enough to make him a frightening visitor. However, the fact that he came with his pomp and circumstance in the wake of my aunt petrified me. Had she persuaded him to intervene against my desire to become literate? If so, he was too great a man to be denied.
"Bring Lord Nehemiah some refreshments, Sarah," my aunt ordered as I stood gaping at them in the hallway.
"No, no, I need nothing. Let the child join us, Leah. It's been an age since I saw her. You have grown up into quite a young lady."
He was a tall man with startling dark red hair and flawless manners. Even his fingernails were trimmed and neat, so different from my father's stained, rough hands. I made an awkward bow, unused to palace protocol. "Welcome, my lord. This way, please," I said, my voice faint with anxiety. "I shall fetch my father for you," I added and slipped out, glad to escape his august presence.
My father rushed out of his cramped chamber. "You honor us," he said, addressing Nehemiah and sparing Aunt Leah a short nod. He motioned everyone to sit on our skinny cushions, which had been arranged along the floor.
"It's been too long, Simeon, since I came to your home. You know how the palace drains one's time. But that is no good excuse; forgive my long absence. I am glad to see you."
"And I you, my lord. Though I fear that my sister-in-law has bothered you needlessly with the small matters of my household."
"As a matter of fact, Leah did mention something about an urgent matter concerning Sarah."
I rolled my eyes. My father only said, "Indeed?"
My aunt bristled, sitting up straighter and raising her voice. "A Jewish maiden has no business reading and writing Persian. She needs to learn womanly graces, not stuff her head with knowledge that will be of no benefit to her."
I grew hot at her words. "How can it be of no benefit if I can help Father with his work? Or keep the household accounts and relieve him of one more duty?"
"Keep your tongue, Sarah," my father ordered, his voice sounding tired.
"Let us hear from the child. This concerns her most, it seems to me." The sharp brown gaze of my cousin landed on me, making me squirm. "Tell me, Sarah, do you want to learn?"
"Oh yes, my lord. More than anything. And I am very good at it. Ask my father. I taught myself how to read Persian."
"You see?" Aunt Leah struck her hand palm-up into the air for emphasis. "She has already forgotten the value of humility."
"It's only the truth," I said, my voice trailing.
Nehemiah covered his mouth with his elegant hand for a moment. The faint lines around his eyes deepened. I wondered if he might be smiling beneath the cover of his fingers, but when he lowered his hand, his expression was serious. "If the Lord has gifted the child, then perhaps it's because He has a plan for her life that requires such skills. And who are we to stand in the way of the Lord?"
"The Lord?" My aunt's voice sounded like a broken shepherd's pipe.
Nehemiah ignored the interjection. "Leah, do you remember Queen Esther?"
Every Jew in Persia knew about Esther. Only one generation ago the entire Jewish population of Persia would have been wiped out if not for her courage and ingenuity. We celebrated Purim in honor of her victory.
"Of course I remember Queen Esther."
"She had the gift of extraordinary beauty. Yet what struck one most about her was her sweetness. I met her once when I was a boy, you know. An unforgettable woman." Nehemiah's face became inscrutable for a moment and I wondered if his memories had become more real than our company. When he spoke again, his voice seemed softer.
"Her intelligence and grace made her queen of the greatest empire the world has known. But it was God who placed her on that throne. The Lord who knew the danger to His people, groomed her for that very position."
"I don't understand," my aunt interjected, looking as though she had been sucking on sour cherries. "What has Esther to do with this situation?"
"My point is that we must be ready to follow the Lord wherever He leads us. Esther came into royal position not knowing that one day her gifts and influence would be needed for God's great plan of salvation for His people. We must walk through the small doors that the Lord opens for us, in case they lead to a greater path. I say again: who are we to stand in the way of the Lord's plans for Sarah? If her gifts prove a useful tool in His hand, then we must build them up, not crush them."
I brightened as it sank into my brain that Nehemiah was championing me. I tried to wipe the smile from my face, knowing my aunt would take exception to my smug victory. Inside I felt like jumping up and dancing. Outwardly I schooled my features to reflect a modicum of the humility I had lacked earlier.
"Lord Nehemiah, you want a Jewish girl to learn to be a scribe?" Aunt Leah finally burst out.
"I want a Jewish girl to fulfill her destiny. I don't know what that is. But I want her to be prepared for whatever God may send her way."
At that pronouncement we all fell silent. I felt the weight of his words with a new insight. Nehemiah's interpretation of my childish desires was concerned much more with the will of God than the will of Sarah. This was too disturbing a concept to grasp; with the ease of youth, I buried it somewhere in the recesses of my heart. It was more pleasant to focus on the fact that I was about to receive my dearest dream.
"So then, Sarah, you must promise to study hard and hone your talent," Nehemiah said to me.
He might as well be making a child promise to eat rich honey cakes. Unable to stop the grin from spreading across my face, I said, "I promise, my lord."
* * *
My father began to teach me in earnest after that. By the time I was sixteen, in addition to Persian I knew how to read and write Akkadian, another complicated language practiced only by royal scribes for the keeping of important administrative records.
Ironically, the most popular tongue in the Persian Empire was not Persian—a language too complex for the common folk of foreign nations to learn. Aramaic, simpler to understand and record, and already practiced by the many peoples displaced through the Assyrian and Babylonian wars for the past two hundred years, grew more popular than other tongues in the Eastern empire. So I became proficient in Aramaic also.
I learned how to write on tablets of clay using a sharp reed to carve into their wet, unfired surface. Father would also bring me parchment made of calf or sheepskin, alkalined and stretched on a wooden frame to render its surface smooth for easy writing. Sometimes, he would even give me a large roll of papyrus, which was the most fragile of the writing materials, susceptible to both moisture and heat.
Becoming a proficient keeper of records in an empire that relied on its administrative skill to prosper made me a valuable commodity to my father. I developed the ability to speak and interpret several languages in a kingdom that faced multitudes of linguistic barriers, and daily needed to overcome them in order to function. I also learned to practice the art of accounts keeping. I could now help my father increase his commissions.
Aunt Leah visited less and less often once I began to apply myself to learning. I suspect she never fully reconciled herself to Cousin Nehemiah's pronouncement. Yet it was more than that. As I gained free access to the scribe's world, I grew less tolerant of hers. I spent fewer hours in her company. My intense work schedule gave me a reasonable excuse to escape her attempts at drawing me into her woman's world. My father hired a servant to help with housekeeping once a week, and I did my best to care for our daily needs.
Once my aunt would have fought me and brought me under some form of discipline. But I think the combination of my father, Nehemiah, and me was too much for her.
I doubt my cousin had intended that I should grow into womanhood with no feminine influences. Yet that is what I managed to accomplish by my stubborn refusal to give my aunt room in my life. By the time I was twenty, I was more scribe than woman. My aunt, tired out by my constant rejections, finally gave up.
* * *
Cousin Nehemiah would visit us on occasion to check on my progress. Once he brought his own parchment and asked me to read. I unrolled the fragile papyrus on my father's small desk to find a beautifully crafted Hebrew text.
"I cannot read this, my lord."
"You do not read Hebrew?" He raised one eyebrow. "The language of your own people?"
I shrugged. "It's of little use in court documents."
Excerpted from HARVEST of RUBIES by TESSA AFSHAR Copyright © 2012 by Tessa Afshar. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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