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By Jill Eileen Smith
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2012 Jill Eileen Smith
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Chapter OneFifteen Years Later
Sarai looked up at the great ziggurat of Nannar and took a step backward, overwhelmed as she always was at the enormity of the temple to Ur's patron god. The steps rising upward, forever upward, drew her gaze to the triangular peak, its god's-eye view gazing down at her, watching. She shivered, certain the feeling came from more than the soft breeze blowing down from the north.
Abram would not approve of her being here. Even protected by her male slaves and accompanied by her maid, Lila, her niece Melah, and her servants, Abram would still consider Ur unsafe for his beautiful wife. And if he knew her reason ...
Why had she come?
"Did you bring the likeness?" Melah stopped on the cobbled street and turned to look at her. Her niece's face, still rosy with the freshness of youth yet well tanned by the sun, held a glint of excitement.
"It's here." Sarai patted the pouch at her side, tucked into the pocket of her robe. "But I still don't see what good this will do."
The image was carved of olive wood, a pregnant likeness of Sarai with crescent moonssymbols of the godpainted into the clothing designs. But could the gods really give Sarai the child she craved or the son Melah longed forone who would live? While Abram's brother's sons lined his table like olive plants sprung up beneath an ancient flowering tree, Abram's own table stood quiet, empty.
Sarai would sacrifice her beauty to fill that void, to give Abram a son.
Melah frowned, crossed her arms over her chest. "It won't do any good at all if you don't believe, Sarai." Her gaze dropped to Sarai's flat stomach. "Obviously you need help."
"Obviously." She couldn't keep the sharpness or the sarcasm from her tone, especially in front of this upstart niece, or the pang of guilt and sadness from piercing her heart.
"Nevertheless, you should have done this years ago." Melah's patronizing tone made Sarai bristle. "You can't ask others to do the sacrificing and petitioning for you. The goddess wants your devotion. If you want a child, you must worship the mother goddess. For even Inana came by her fertile power through her mother Ningal. You've known this since childhood." Melah turned, then looked back again. "Of course, if you'd prefer Inana's fertility rites ..." She smirked as though the thought amused her, whether because she disdained Abram's faith or because she could not imagine Sarai submitting to Inana's sexual practices. Probably both, considering Melah's blatant interest in the love goddess and her impassioned ways.
Sarai lifted her chin and tilted her gaze away from Melah. She nodded to her slaves and continued around the ziggurat to the streets behind until she came upon the courtyard fencing in Ningal's temple. Columns stood on either side of the gate with steps leading to two great, sculpted doors, where bulls carved into the wood gave silent otherworldly protection to all who dwelled therein. Incense, the breath of the gods, burned spicy-sweet in tall sconces on either side of the doors, where real guards in bronze helmets and brass greaves held tall spears at attention. From their vantage point, they saw every movement in the courtyard.
Sarai stared at the scene, taking in the gleaming gilded columns. The dappled light made the bulls appear to move, their horns bent forward as though to strike. The temple seemed to pulse with its own breath, making Sarai's catch in her throat. Her sandals felt suddenly weighted, stuck to the stones like dried mud to baked bricks.
She shouldn't be here.
"Are you ready?"
Sarai slipped a hand over the image in her pocket and slowly turned to look at her niece, the wooden image burning the flesh of her palm as though heated by the sun's sharp rays. Had Ningal's son Utu come to block their path? The gods were always bickering over one thing or another. Perhaps the sun god did not want them to pay homage to his mother. And what if Melah was right? Inana was the goddess of love. Was she the one who could answer Sarai's prayers for a child? But the rituals involved ...
She shook her head, releasing her grip on the image and letting the pouch hang from the belt at her side. Never! She would not resort to such practices, even if she paid someone else to do them for her. Still, Ningal did not exact such a cost.
She looked at Melah. "I ..." She what? Words would not form. What did she want but a child? But was this the best way?
"I didn't come all this way to have you change your mind on me, Sarai. Do you want to keep your vow to Abram or not?" Melah flicked a gaze in Lila's direction. "Or perhaps you should just give him your maid and be done with it." Her scowl drew her narrow eyes into slits, making her forty-plus years look far older than Sarai did at twenty years her senior.
"Abram wouldn't hear of such a thing." She lifted her chin, but the action was more to put Melah in her place than to assert her confidence. If Abram knew where she stood right now, what she was about to do ... might he take another wife? She glanced at Lila, who had become more like a daughter than a maid to her. Abram would never agree to such a thing.
The sundial in the courtyard moved a notch, and Sarai glanced at the sky. Clouds skimmed the surface of blue, pushed along by the increasing breeze. She braced herself, her hand closing over the pouch with the image once more. She must act, one way or the other.
"Well?" Melah tapped an impatient foot, hands on her ample hips. "Do you have the coins? Are you going to do this, or did I waste my whole afternoon, not to mention the months it has taken to convince you I'm right?" She gave Sarai a pointed stare, then turned to walk toward the temple doors. Melah would offer a sacrifice whether Sarai did so or not, so the day really wasn't as wasted as she'd like Sarai to believe.
Sarai stifled a smile. Despite Melah's hasty marriage to Lot and the subsequent loss of their firstborn, Sarai had come to accept Melah, even carried some measure of affection for her, though she could be as ornery as a she-goat sometimes. Both Melah and Milcah believed in Ningal and Inana and worshiped frequently at one or both temples. Both women had borne children, though in Melah's case only one infant daughter still lived.
The breeze brought the scent of incense toward her, and the chant of worshipers clustered to her right broke into her thoughts, sealing her decision. She lifted the image from the pouch and stared at its pregnant likeness. Once she paid the hefty sacrificecoins she had taken from the dowry her father had given her years beforethe priestess would take the image, set it before the goddess, and offer prayers on her behalf until the new moon waned. Time enough and, hopefully, prayers enough to invoke the goddess's favor and grant her a son.
She drew in a slow breath, willing courage into her bones. She could do this. Her promise to Abram was at stake, and time was not in her favor. She had to do something, anything to procure a child. If that meant a sacrifice to the mother goddess, despite Abram's certain disapproval, she had to take the risk.
* * *
Abram scanned the distant copse of trees and brambles for some sign of Sarai's favorite ram, the one bent on straying despite Abram's attempts to teach it otherwise. Sarai would say the ram followed the same instinct born in men, and her piercing gaze would remind him of his youth and his own selfish ways. He scowled. Later he would chuckle over such thoughts, but now he was faced with the task of finding the animal.
Using his staff to guide his steps, he moved from beneath the shade of a spreading oak, speaking softly so as not to alarm the ewes still grazing nearby. On the hill opposite the meadow where his flock grazed, his nephew Lot played a melancholy tune on a reed flute, the sound carrying to Abram. He almost envied the younger man's ability, yet felt a measure of pride that his sheep knew his voice above all others, even the flat sounds of his tuneless singing. One young ewe in particular stayed close, like a daughter. He plucked at his beard and gave in to a rueful smile. Perhaps she was as tone-deaf as he.
The young ewe followed him now, and he waited a moment before picking his way forward again. When she reached his side, he picked her up and placed her over his shoulders. Clouds blocked the sun as he approached the ridge, and a sudden breeze cooled the skin on his face. An unexpected shiver worked through him as he neared the brambles, and he slowed, a feeling of uncertainty prickling the hairs on his arms. He squinted, raising a hand to his eyes, his grip tightening on his staff.
He stopped and listened, shifting the lamb's weight, then took several more cautious steps forward, at last spying the ram caught by its thick wool among the thorns, its pitiful cry touching Abram's heart. The sky darkened further, and a chill wind brushed his face. He glanced heavenward, a sense of foreboding filling him. There had been no sign of a storm that morning, but if one was upon them now, he had best make quick work of releasing the ram and hurry back to the rest of the flock, which would not know where to go to find shelter without his leading.
Spurred by this sudden urgency, he set the ewe on the ground near a patch of grass and pushed aside the brambles with his staff to get closer to the ram. "And how did you expect to get yourself out once you got into these thorns?" he asked the animal, gentling his voice above its bleating. Thorns gripped his robe, but he ignored the ripping sound of the fabric as he worked to disentangle the animal's wool. "There, there," he soothed. But the ram kicked and fought Abram's efforts, wedging himself in worse than before.
Sweat poured down Abram's back as he worked the hook of his staff under the animal's belly. The wind picked up, the air suddenly heavy and damp. His arms ached from the strain as he finally wrapped the hook of the staff around the animal's body well enough to wrench it free, briars and all.
When they were a few paces away, Abram knelt beside the ram and picked the last of the briars from his wool, then took the horn strapped to his side and poured oil over the scratches, rubbing it into the animal's skin. The ram stood still, apparently sufficiently chastised. Abram looked from the ram to the ewe. To mate the two would bring sturdy, unblemished offspring. No others in his flock could compare to these specimens of perfection, though he knew from experience that producing young would not change the ram's behavior.
Then again, would producing an heir change him?
His jaw tightened at the thought. It wasn't his fault Sarai had been barren all these years. They'd been the perfect couple from the start, though now, after years of her barrenness, his brother and nephew did not glance at Abram with the same hint of jealousy because of his beautiful wife. At least their wives had borne them sons, though Lot's had not lived long enough to tell of it.
He glanced at the two animals beside him, noting their suddenly rigid stance, the wary looks in their eyes. He looked at the sky, wondering at the change, at the unexpected stillness. Light now seeped from beneath the gray clouds, sending shafts of blazing white in all directions. The wind picked up again, the breeze stiff yet warm. Strange.
Definitely time to head back.
He dug his staff into the earth and pushed to his feet, ready to call the animals to follow, when a loud rumble like thunder made him pause. The clouds drew together as he watched, dark and heavy again. Fear tingled his spine.
He darted a look in all directions. Nothing moved. Even the wind had stilled, and Lot's flute no longer filled the silence. He glanced at the two animals, but they too had stilled, their heads bent to the grass but their mouths closed, unmoving.
A chill worked through him. He glanced around again, but there was no one in sight. Was he hearing things?
The voice, louder, more insistent, and powerful, reached into the pit of his soul, stirring deep fear inside of him. He sank to his knees and put his face to the dirt.
"Here I am," he choked out, his own voice weak in comparison.
"Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
Abram shuddered at the words, unable to respond. Who are you? But he couldn't utter the question. Deep down, he knew exactly who spoke to him. Only Adonai Elohim, the Lord, the Mighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, could make a man tremble in fear at His voice. Only a mighty Creator could cause the breeze to still and make the sky ominous and foreboding. Only a great Creator could speak such words and make a man know they were truth.
I will do as You ask, he said in his heart, certain his voice would not hold the words steady. At his response, the breeze returned. Abram slowly lifted his head. The animals resumed nibbling the grasses as though nothing had happened. Abram pushed himself to his knees, shaking, but one glance around him told him nothing had changed. The threat of the storm had passed, and in its place an inviting landscape and sunny, cloudless skies greeted him.
Had he heard correctly? It had all happened so fast. But in his spirit, he knew. He must take Sarai and leave Ur and follow the Lord to wherever He might lead. Where would He lead them?
But Abram didn't need to know that yet. He needed only to obey.
He looked back at the two animals, perfect in body but opposite in spirit. One obedient and loyal, the other rebellious and wayward. He would not be like the rebellious ram. He would obey his Creator.
Which meant he would sacrifice all he had to do sohis family inheritance, his home, his relatives, his friends ... his best.
He stood, still unsteady, his gaze resting on the animals now looking at him with wide, trusting eyes. He must build an altar and make a burnt offering to the Lord. His heart constricted with his decision. One of them must die in the sacrifice.
* * *
Sarai shivered at the sudden shift in the breeze. Red dust coated the tanned leather of her sandals as she crossed further into the courtyard toward the imposing doors of the goddess's temple. Melah moved ahead of her to approach the guards who stood blocking the way. Sarai waited, motionless, as Melah dropped her coins into a wooden tithing box inlaid with shells and lapis lazuli set in crescent designs.
Behind Melah, her five serving girls bowed low, facing the temple but not moving to enter. Melah would not have paid their way, and few slaves could afford such a luxury as to enter the chambers of the gods. To Sarai's left, the sonorous chant of the Ningal singers' tuneless melody and the heady incense coming from the tall cones on either side of the ornate door nearly turned her stomach.
The gods of our people are idols, Sarai. There is only one Maker.
She whirled about, Abram's voice loud in her ear. But no. His words were a memory. She had heard them often enough to know better than to be here. She caught sight of her slaves still standing guard at her back, their faces somber, dark as flint. Abram's One God, El Echad, would not dwell in such temples built with human hands. Hadn't she watched the construction of the many projects the king had undertaken since her early childhood? Hundreds of men had slaved to build Nannar-Sin's giant ziggurat, and more besides to add palaces and temples to shadow its sprawling court. Would the One God need such a temple?
The breeze swirled about her in a sudden gust, lifting the filmy gauze and jewels from her headdress. She must not do this.
The carved image pressed heavily against her hip, and the precious coins from her dowry seemed suddenly too important to waste on such uncertainty. She closed her eyes, seeing Abram's disapproval, wanting desperately to please him. Would he take another wife as Melah had suggested?
Oh, but why could she not bear a child?
The familiar ache settled in her middle, and she wavered, staring up at the imposing temple to Ningal, wondering if the goddess truly had the power Melah had worked so hard to convince her of. If Sarai did not do this, if she did not ask, would she be throwing away her last chance? She'd been barren for so long. Did this goddess have the power to undo her past and make her whole before it was too late?
Excerpted from Sarai by Jill Eileen Smith Copyright © 2012 by Jill Eileen Smith. Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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