“This volume, by Biblical scholar Yochi Brandes, is a riveting novel based on textual sources about the experiences of David and Solomon. Its lessons are also relevant for our turbulent time.” —Elie Wiesel, #1 New York Times and internationally bestselling author of Night
In the tradition of The Red Tent from internationally bestselling author Yochi Brandes comes the stories of the struggles of King David and King Saul in the early days of the Kingdom of Israel, seen through the eyes of Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s abandoned queen
Stories are deadlier than swords. Swords kill only those who stand before them, stories decide who will live and die in generations to come.
Shelomoam, a young man from the tribe of Ephraim, has grown up in the shadow of dark secrets. He wonders why his father is deathly afraid of the King’s soldiers and why his mother has lied about the identities of those closest to him. Shelomoam is determined to unearth his mysterious past, never imagining where his quest will ultimately lead him.
The Secret Book of Kings upends conventions of biblical novels, engaging with the canonized stories of the founding of the Kingdom of Israel and turning them on their heads. Presented for the first time are the heretofore unknown stories of the House of Saul and of the northern Kingdom of Israel, stories that were artfully concealed by the House of David and the scribes of the southern Kingdom of Judah.
Yochi Brandes, one of Israel’s all-time bestselling novelists, enlists her unique background in both academic Jewish scholarship and traditional religious commentaries to read the Bible in an utterly new way. In this book, a major publishing phenomenon in Israel and one of the bestselling novels in the history of the country, she uncovers vibrant characters, especially women, buried deep within the scriptures, and asks the loaded question: to what extent can we really know our past when history is written by the victors?
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About the Author
Yochi Brandes was born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. Earning her BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies, Brandes taught bible and Judaism for many years. She is the author of novels and essays on biblical women-all of them best-sellers in Israel. She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association's Platinum Book Prizes for seven of her books, including Kings III (2008), and the Steimatsky Prize for Akiva's Orchard (2013). She lives outside of Tel Aviv.
Read an Excerpt
The Secret Book of Kings
By Yochi Brandes, Yardenne Greenspan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Yochi Brandes
All rights reserved.
Mother took me to the lepers' cave for the first time on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. I remember the date because of the Festival of Rain, which turned me into the most famous boy in Zeredah. The story spread quickly throughout the entire land of Ephraim. Everyone wanted to hear about the little boy who had managed to fool the king's soldiers and save his townspeople.
It began with the first rainfall, which brought crowds of revelers out into the streets and scuttled our plan to sneak out of Zeredah at dawn, before people wake up. Mother didn't want anyone to see us in the wagon together for fear that if they realized I was going with her to the cave, they would try to scare me with horror stories about healthy people who only glimpsed the lepers from afar and instantly lost their hair and nails, holes gaping in the middle of their faces where their noses used to be. Mother is the only person in Zeredah who isn't afraid of lepers. Every month, when the moon is full, she heads to the cave with food and medicines for them, and she speaks with them intimately, the way one speaks with friends. She believes that the God of Israel loves the lepers and favors those who help them. And indeed, our house is truly blessed. Many other families in Zeredah barely survive under the weight of the taxes. Their little children must go out to work in the fields and vineyards, while I get to stay home with my tutors, who teach me arithmetic, reading, writing, and even Egyptian. My parents will also hire tutors for my sister, Elisheba, when she grows up, even though she's a girl.
* * *
I sat on the wagon and tried to hide my trembling hands under my knees. I'd been begging Father a long time before he agreed to let me join Mother at the cave. That's the way wishes are. You pine for them and look forward, but when they finally do come true, you'd rather be somewhere else.
Suddenly, it started to rain. Mother hesitated. She didn't want to delay, but the rain grew harder, and we were drenched from head to toe. There was no choice but to go back home and install the wagon cover. It was still early, and we thought we'd be able to get everything done quickly and be on our way again before anyone noticed us, but before we even knew what was happening, we were surrounded.
Mother dropped the reins and gripped my shoulder.
I peeked out of the wagon and saw dozens of people skipping and dancing in the rain. They were raising their hands to the sky and calling out, "Happy holiday! Happy holiday!"
Crowds always make me uneasy. Our house is at the edge of town, concealed by a dense thicket, and I am used to having only my sister and parents for company. I grabbed Mother's leg and buried my head in her lap. Her fingers gripped my shoulder harder.
Hazy figures began mounting the wagon from behind. I could hear their words but couldn't decipher their meaning.
"The first rainfall waited for the day of our festival."
"It's an omen for a blessed winter for Ephraim."
"It's an omen for a blessed winter for all of Israel."
I don't know why, but this meaningless chatter filled me with terror. I burst into tears. All the air left my lungs. I felt like I was suffocating.
All of a sudden, I heard Mother laughing. I looked at her, stunned. Her face was beaming.
"Happy holiday, Shelomoam." She stood up and held out her hands. "Come, let's join the festivities. The lepers' cave isn't going anywhere."
* * *
Father stepped outside with Elisheba, whom Mother took into her arms, jumping around with her to the sounds of the drums and the harps. Elisheba caught raindrops in her little fingers and licked them voraciously. Father tried to persuade me to return home with him. I generally obey him, but these festivities were interesting, so I told him angrily that this time I wasn't willing to miss out.
Mother took my side, reminding him that the king's soldiers had already been to Zeredah that month and there was no chance they would come back again. He finally agreed, on the condition that I stayed by his side at all times. But I ventured off on purpose, mixing in with a group of children. I thought I'd gotten away from him when I felt his strong hands seize my waist and raise me up onto his shoulders.
I felt strong and confident, a head taller than anyone else. The children watched me from below, barely able to contain their envy. I waved at them as if I were the king. No child in Zeredah has a father as young as mine. Some kids' fathers are practically old men, older than even Grandfather, who is so old that sometimes when Father comes to see him, he doesn't remember who Father is. Mother says that's what happens when an elderly man decides to take a second or third wife — he has children the same age as his grandchildren or even his great-grandchildren, and instead of him caring for them, they have to care for him. Six months ago I went out to the fields with my family for the Festival of Harvest, and someone told Father he looked like my older brother. I thought it was funny, but he didn't. His eyes were panicked. As if the king's soldiers would care how old he was when he had me!
* * *
I recalled the strange things the people on the wagon had said and wanted to ask Father why we didn't celebrate like this last year or the year before, why it was that this year the first rainfall signified a blessed winter in Ephraim and possibly all of Israel. But I knew he didn't like it when I asked about our tribe's special customs, so I decided I'd ask Mother on the way to the cave. Then I realized that we might not make it out that day, for the celebrations would probably go on until the evening. I saw women bringing out wine and food and spreading green cloths over long tables. Green is also the color of the dancing girls. They raise the hems of their green dresses up above their ankles and twist like snakes in front of the boys, who stop dancing and watch.
Father also stops bouncing around with me in the rain and turns to look at them. I can't blame him. If I were his age, I would also watch the pretty girls. But it angers me to see Mother notice him looking and glumly join the women setting the table. I know that she worries Father might take another wife who would threaten her position in the family, the way Grandfather did, taking no fewer than four wives, each one younger than the one before. With each new decade in his life, he took a new wife to rekindle his youth, neglecting his previous wives, turning them bitter. Father once told me, in a rare moment of candor, that he would never forgive his father for the way he'd wronged his mother, which was the only reason she had died brokenhearted and young.
Father keeps promising Mother that he will never bring home a rival wife. He only watches the young girls from afar, but he goes to bed with Mother every night. "You are my Rebecca," he told her just a week ago, having returned from the wedding of an old miller who had taken a third wife.
"Mother's name is Bilhah, not Rebecca," I corrected him.
Father laughed and said he meant that Mother would be his only wife forever, just like Rebecca of old. "A son mustn't always follow in his father's footsteps, just as Isaac didn't follow in the footsteps of Abraham. Abraham had three wives — Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah — while Isaac remained faithful to the love of his youth."
I lingered over Father's words and finally told him that, in that case, I would have to follow in Grandfather's footsteps, just as Jacob followed in Abraham's, by taking several women.
Father went quiet. I could tell I had surprised him. But Mother answered instantly, without even pausing to think, that the case of Jacob proves that sometimes a son ought to follow in his father's footsteps rather than his grandfather's. "Had Jacob done as Isaac did and spent his entire life only with his beloved Rachel, his sons wouldn't have hated each other, and all of us — the three tribes of Rachel — would have lived peacefully together in the land of our fathers." She paused and then whispered, "And the king would have been one of our own, a son of Rachel, just like Joseph, the father of Ephraim, the great ruler of Egypt, or like Joshua the Conqueror, Deborah the Judge, or Samuel the Priest — all children of Ephraim. Or perhaps our king would have been a son of Benjamin, like Ehud the Hero and S —"
Mother couldn't finish because Father slapped her back hard. She looked at him, shocked. He had never raised a hand to her before. She hissed angrily that the king's soldiers weren't in Zeredah that day and that she was allowed to express her longing for the mighty leaders of the line of Rachel.
Father walked to the window, pale-faced, and looked outside in all directions. Then he told me to go out and play in the thicket. I preferred to stay home and talk some more about our ancestors, but his tone and expression told me I'd best not argue.
* * *
The rain dances lasted for hours, and we only paused to eat around noon. I was impressed with the tables heaped with delicacies that the women had prepared for us without prior notice. Just last night the sky had been copper, and the earth had been iron, and no one could have foreseen the coming of the first rainfall. I pounced on the food, stuffing myself. Father signaled for me to mind my manners, but I pretended not to notice. I tasted everything. My favorites were the crispy honey pastry and the raisin and fig cake.
Though I was busy eating, I didn't take my eyes off my sister. I could see that Mother was busy serving and that Father was in the middle of a conversation, and neither of them noticed her on her tiptoes, trying to reach the sweet oat porridge. I pulled the pit out of a ripe date and put the fruit in her mouth, but she spat it out disgustedly and demanded porridge.
Suddenly I felt the table jiggling and the ground shaking beneath us. Mother and Father had told me that the earth was angry at human beings for conquering and enslaving it. Most days it submitted, granting us its fruits, but once every generation or two it fought back and destroyed our homes. It must have been especially angry this day over our festivities celebrating the first rainfall. Instead of thanking the earth for its yield, we were giving thanks to the sky. The earth was trying to knock us down to our knees so that we would have to crawl, bent and submissive, and beg for its mercy.
I fell to the ground and laid my head in the moist dirt. I was sure that everyone else was doing as I had done, but the silence had a strange tinge to it. I looked up and saw them all standing, frozen, their eyes fixed on a point behind me. I didn't dare get up and went on lying in the mud until I could feel that the tables were no longer shaking.
Only then did I see them. It was the biggest group of soldiers I had ever witnessed in my life. No wonder the hooves of their horses had made the tables shake. There were at least a hundred soldiers out there.
I wondered why they had sent so many. Ever since the Rebellion of the Temples, we have all been paying our taxes without resistance. Mother told me that the rebellion had started after the king took the throne and announced a new tax to fund the construction of a great temple in Jerusalem, the most fabulous edifice in all the world. The Judeans had been eager for a new temple that could attract visitors from every land and make their capital an important, central destination. But the other tribes resented it, asking why they should be forced to invest their money in a Judean temple and not their own. In spite of their rage, the taxes were nonetheless paid in full. No one wanted trouble with the authorities. But the Decree of the Temples shattered that peace. At first, people refused to believe that the king would order the destruction of their temples and the dismissal of their priests. How is it possible to live without temples? How can we pray to God? Make requests of Him? Offer sacrifices?
Emergency delegations headed for Jerusalem to determine whether the rumors were true, and the king replied that sacrifices would now be permitted only in Jerusalem, at the Tabernacle for the time being. Later, when the temple was ready, the Tabernacle would be destroyed, as well, and all of Israel would make pilgrimage only to his magnificent temple, which would be the only one in the land.
The stunned messengers tried to explain to the king that Jerusalem was far away and that the Israelites wanted God by their side, but the king wouldn't relent, and the new decree was written in the Book of Laws. The first rebels were of course from the tribe of Benjamin, the wolves of Israel, and the people of Ephraim and Manasseh soon followed. But the rebellion was not limited to the tribes of Rachel. "We have no share in Judah, no part in Jerusalem. Every man to his temple, Israel!" — this was the rallying cry of the rebellion, and warriors of every tribe stopped paying their taxes and went out to defend their temples.
"So much blood was shed," Mother sighs whenever she recalls those days, "especially in the lands of Benjamin and Ephraim."
Ever since, for seven consecutive years, all the tribes of Israel have paid their taxes. Delegations from every corner of the land arrived at the inauguration of the new temple in Jerusalem six months ago. Each month, a convoy of soldiers enters Zeredah, riding confidently on horseback and waving to us in greeting. The adults hurry to the house of administration with their taxes, while the children run after the soldiers, trying to keep up. The soldiers don't get mad. On the contrary, they smile warmly, sometimes even tossing raisins and almonds to the kids.
One time, I left the house without permission and crossed the thicket alone. When I arrived on the main road, I saw the children running after the horses and decided to join in. The commander, riding in front, pulled up and invited me to hop on. He must have noticed that it was my first time running after them. All the other children gathered around, watching me with envy.
Father seethed when he heard about this and warned me never to leave the thicket alone or go near any soldier.
"But why?" I tried to protest.
"They are not our friends," Mother answered for him.
* * *
I watched the large company quietly, unmoving, just like everyone else. The only thing I could think of was that a war had started and that the soldiers were drafting all the young men of Zeredah. I was afraid they would draft Father, but then I recalled that there were no more wars. The previous king had conquered the entire land, and no other nation dares threaten us now.
Suddenly, I recognized the commander who had let me ride with him. I wanted to ask him why they had decided to come with so many soldiers today. We were paying our taxes as required. But I knew that if I tried to approach him, Father would panic and get angry, so I continued to watch the commander from afar, hoping he would eventually recognize me and give me a wave and that everyone would calm down and realize that nothing bad was going to happen. Perhaps the soldiers had only come to taste of our delicacies. Let them feast! Why not? Our tables are full. There is enough for everybody.
But the soldiers didn't move toward the tables. Instead, they remained on their horses, watching their commander intently, waiting for a go-ahead. The commander looked over us through narrowed eyes, though the sun wasn't even bright. Then, slowly, with a long, accentuated motion, he turned to face the soldiers and gave a nod. I could see his expression. It was so menacing that I squeezed my eyes shut in fear. I opened them only when I heard the horses galloping. I grabbed Elisheba and jumped aside at the very last moment. My leg must have twisted, because rather than continuing with the others, I found myself on the muddy ground again, my sister in my arms. She wasn't crying. The shock was too great. I stood up slowly with her, careful not to slip, and I saw the green tablecloths strewn about on the ground and the tasty food trampled by the horses' hooves.
"What is this holiday to you?" the commander shouted.
Excerpted from The Secret Book of Kings by Yochi Brandes, Yardenne Greenspan. Copyright © 2008 Yochi Brandes. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It is no wonder that The Secret Book of Kings by Yochi Brandes is an International Bestseller. It is a Biblical based novel about the historical Jewish tribes of the Old Testament. The author's fictional recounting and interpretation of persons and events truly was enlightening and highly entertaining. I have always preferred the New Testament, so I was eager to read this book. The tale begins with a young boy who cannot explain his fear of soldiers. He is soon immersed into a world of brutal bloodshed and war. Slowly he begins to realize that his family keeps a dark secret and sets about discovering what it is. What he learns alters his life forever, turning his life's path in the opposite direction of what he had always believed. Thought-provoking and rich in detail, the finely honed characters are fully believable, and as real as if I could reach out and touch them. This book is a magnificent rendering of Jewish legend and history, and a must read! For more book reviews, please visit my blog, http://greathistoricals.blogspot.ca, where the greatest historical fiction is reviewed! For fascinating women of history bios and women's fiction please visit http://www.historyandwomen.com.