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Trade Paperback
352 pages
Jun 2006
Bethany House Publishers

Among the Gods

by Lynn Austin

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You have abandoned your people,
the house of Jacob.
They are full of superstitions from the East....
They bow down to the work of their hands....
Go into the rocks, hide in the ground
from dread of the Lord and
the splendor of his majesty!

ISAIAH 2: 6, 8, 10


Waning candlelight bathed the family dinner table with a sleepy glow as the Passover meal drew to a close. But Joshua shifted restlessly in his seat as he listened to the familiar story of deliverance. This was the first Passover that his community of exiles had celebrated since escaping from Jerusalem a year ago, and the festive meal stirred unwelcome memories.

"'Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,'" Joshua's older brother Jerimoth recited, "'his love endures forever.... In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free.'"

Joshua didn't feel free. He would never feel free until his enemy, King Manasseh, was dead. He swallowed a sip of his wine and said, "I wonder if Manasseh is celebrating Passover tonight in Jerusalem." Jerimoth turned to him in surprise, as if the king's name had been a bucket of cold water dashed across their festive table.

"What difference does it make, Joshua? I thank God for the privilege of celebrating with my family for the first time in our new home." Jerimoth spread his arms wide as if to embrace all the family members and friends gathered around the table. He had worked hard to turn the musty, mud-brick dwelling on Elephantine Island into a comfortable home for his wife and children; he and Joshua had built a compound of adjoining mud-brick houses with a common courtyard for their extended family. Their sister Tirza lived in one of the houses with her husband, Joel, the high priest. Joshua shared a third house with his mother, Jerusha, and his sister Dinah. Joshua loved his sister, but every time he looked at Dinah he was reminded of Manasseh and how he had held her captive, made her his concubine, then sacrificed her son to Molech.

The servant girl, Miriam, and her brother Nathan also shared Joshua's home. Miriam did more than her share of the work, but her presence was another irritant to Joshua, a daily reminder of how his stupid mistakes had caused the death of Maki, Miriam's father.

"Am I the only one who sees how insane all this is?" Joshua asked. "We're thanking God for delivering us from the Egyptians while living in the heart of Egypt!" He looked to the others gathered around the low table for confirmation, but they returned his gaze with embarrassed silence. "I don't mean to spoil your fun, but we've been stuck here for a year already. I guess I'm getting a little tired of waiting for God to act."

He sat back in his seat again, resting his chin on his hand, covering his scarred face with his fingers. He was self-conscious about his disfigurement; the wide, jagged scar stretched down the right side of his face from above his eyebrow to his jaw, leaving him with only a ragged beard on that side. Every now and then, he would touch the leather patch to reassure himself that it was still in place over his ravaged eye. Prince Amariah said the wound made him look older, battle-hardened, tough. Joshua was the community's hero, and the young soldiers-in-training stood in awe of him, even though he was only a few years older than they were. They had chosen the ox--Joshua's nickname--as the island regiment's symbol, decorating their banners and shields with it.

"I apologize to my esteemed guests for my brother's behavior," Jerimoth said with a tight smile. "Please, allow me to refill your cup, Your Majesty."

Joshua's impatience soared as Prince Amariah held out his own cup to Jerimoth instead of demanding to be served. Even though the priests had anointed Amariah as their king and the rightful heir to King David's throne, he lacked the assertive bearing and authority of a true king. Joshua knew that he, not the prince, was the island's true leader in every respect.

Jerimoth turned to his other guest. "Would you like some more wine, Colonel Hadad?"

"It's excellent--but no thanks," Hadad replied. He was yet another reminder to Joshua of all that he had lost. Hadad's grandfather, Shebna, had served with Joshua's father as the king's top two officials until King Manasseh had begun his bloody purge. Because of Hadad's extensive military training in Jerusalem, he had been given command of the garrison with the rank of colonel. He had abandoned strong drink after their escape and had worked hard for the past year to turn the Levites' scholarly sons into an active fighting force, skilled with spear, bow, and sword.

As Joshua watched, Hadad wiped the palms of his hands on his thighs for what seemed like the hundredth time. Why was he acting so nervous tonight? He'd been a frequent guest at their family's table, so it couldn't be shyness. Joshua noticed that Hadad had scarcely touched his meal. "Is something the matter with your food?" he asked.

"No, nothing. I've eaten my fill, that's all." Hadad turned to Jerimoth, their host, and a smile spread across his handsome face. "I want to thank you again for inviting me tonight. I've never known what it is to be part of a large family, having lived alone with my grandfather most of my life."

"You're always welcome in our home, Hadad, you know that. And now, if you know the words, please sing the closing hymn with us."

Joshua didn't join in with the others as they sang. Instead he watched Hadad carefully, certain that he had something on his mind. Jerimoth ended the Passover celebration with a prayer, and the women left the room to clean up the kitchen and put the sleepy children to bed. Hadad rose to his feet.

"There's something I'd like to say," he began, confirming Joshua's suspicions. All the men turned to Hadad as he expelled the air from his lungs with an uneasy laugh. "Phew! This is worse than going into battle. My stomach feels like I'm back on board the ship that brought us here."

"You're among friends," Jerimoth assured him. "Please, tell us what's on your mind."

Hadad nodded, grinning nervously. "What I want to say is that my life really began a year ago at Passover. Before then I didn't know who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. But ever since our escape from Jerusalem I've finally found meaning and purpose here in Egypt. I enjoy my work at the garrison. Military command suits me, and I think I've finally earned a good name for myself. Now I lack only one thing to make my life complete." His voice grew hushed. "To marry the woman I love. Jerimoth, I'm asking you, as head of this family, for your sister Dinah's hand in marriage."

Hadad's request was so unexpected that it took Joshua a moment to digest it. Hadad couldn't be serious! Surely everyone knew why such a marriage was impossible. But before Joshua could react, Jerimoth's face split into a wide grin as if he was about to accept Hadad's proposal. "My dear friend Hadad, I'd be honored to--"

"Jerimoth, stop!" Joshua sprang to his feet, cutting off his brother's words. "You can't let him marry Dinah!"

"Joshua, if this is a joke--"

"It's not a joke," he told his brother. "I assumed you knew. I assumed all of you knew.... Dinah has to marry Prince Amariah."

"What?" Hadad looked as though Joshua had punched him in the stomach. "What are you talking about?"

"Dinah was once part of King Manasseh's harem," Joshua explained. "She bore his son. Now she belongs to the House of David. Anyone who marries her will be challenging Manasseh's right to rule and officially claiming the throne of Judah. She has to marry Prince Amariah."

Hadad's hands knotted into fists. "She isn't a piece of property that gets passed from one man to the next! You can't force Dinah to marry him!"

Joshua took an aggressive stance to match Hadad's. "It's not up to you or me to decide. It's written in God's Law."

"Just a minute," Prince Amariah said, rising from his seat. "Don't I have any say in this?"

"No. You don't," Joshua told him. "God is the one who put royal blood in your veins. This is His plan for revenge. The only choice you have is whether you're going to fight for your father's throne or let Manasseh have it."

"I'm not certain I have a right to my father's throne," Amariah said. "Manasseh is the firstborn and--"

"Manasseh forfeited his right when he committed idolatry," Joshua retorted. "He sacrificed his own son! If your father were alive, who do you think he would choose as his successor? You or your brother?"

"I-I see your point." Amariah shrank back, as if fearful of Joshua's anger.

Hadad grabbed the prince's arms. "Amariah, no! Don't listen to him. You're my friend! You know Dinah cares for me, not you. Ask her! Bring her in here and ask her who she wants to marry."

"What she wants doesn't matter," Joshua said.

"It certainly does matter!" Jerimoth told him. "Abba never would have forced Dinah to marry against her will, and neither will we! Of course we'll ask her." He rose and hurried from the room, returning a few minutes later with Dinah in tow. She looked uneasy as she entered the room full of arguing men. Then Joshua saw her expression soften as she looked up at Hadad. Joshua hadn't realized that their feelings for each other had grown since Hadad had helped Dinah escape from Jerusalem a year ago. He should have paid closer attention.

"Dinah, please," Hadad begged. "Tell Joshua how we feel about each other. He's trying to prevent us from being married."

Joshua interrupted before she could reply. He couldn't let her spoil God's flawless plan. "I can see that you have feelings for him, Dinah, but your responsibilities to God and to our family must come first."

"I ... I don't understand."

He took a step toward her, barely able to control his voice as his anger welled up along with his memories. "Do you remember the night Manasseh's men killed our grandfather in cold blood? Do you remember how helpless you felt because you couldn't fight back? You had to watch them beat a gentle, defenseless old man to death, and you couldn't help him!"

Dinah's hands went to her face. "I'm sorry ... I couldn't ..."

"Joshua, stop this!" Jerimoth said.

"No, I won't stop. None of us has spoken to her about Manasseh for almost a year, but our silence doesn't erase what he did. Dinah needs to remember it--all of it--before she decides who she wants to marry." Joshua gripped her wrists and pulled her hands away from her face, forcing her to look at him.

"Manasseh murdered our father, too. Abba did nothing wrong, nothing to deserve execution, but Manasseh lashed his back open with a bone-tipped whip, then pummeled him beyond recognition with his stones."

"Stop ... !" Jerimoth begged. He had witnessed their father's torture, and Joshua knew it was cruel to remind him of it, yet he continued just the same.

"Manasseh raped you, Dinah. He held you captive for a year, and he raped you--how many times? Then he took your newborn son away from you, and he--"

"Enough, Joshua! That's enough!" Jerimoth shouted. "I won't allow this in my house!" His face was white as he pushed Joshua aside and gathered Dinah into his arms. "What are you doing to her? To all of us?"

"I'm reminding her of the facts. If Dinah wants to let Manasseh get away with murder and rape, then she can go ahead and marry Hadad. But if she wants to avenge her son's death--and our father's death and Grandpa's death--then she can fight back by marrying Amariah."

"No," Hadad moaned. "No, don't listen to him, Dinah."

"Look, we all want to fight Manasseh," Jerimoth said. "That's why we're here in Egypt. But we'll fight him by preserving our faith and our heritage. For now, that's all Yahweh has asked us to do. Revenge is God's to repay, not ours."

"And Dinah is God's instrument of revenge," Joshua said, "whether she likes it or not. Why do you think He allowed her to be rescued?"

"But I helped rescue her, remember?" Hadad asked. "She loves me. Tell him, Dinah. Tell him what you already told me."

Joshua watched, ready to intervene, as Dinah turned to Hadad again. "I-I'm sorry," she whispered. "I never should have promised you.... Joshua's right. I can't marry you."

"No ..." Hadad shook his head in stunned disbelief. "No ... please don't do this, Dinah."

"I do love you," she told him as her tears fell. "But I hate Manasseh even more. He killed my son. I need to marry Prince Amariah."

Hadad closed his eyes. Joshua watched him warily, afraid of what he might do. When Hadad was able to speak again, he faced Joshua, his voice trembling with rage. "I'll kill you for this, Joshua! As God is my witness, you'll pay for what you've done!" He stormed from the house, letting the door slam behind him like an explosion.

* * *

Miriam felt the shock waves in the kitchen as Hadad left the house, slamming the door. She had never celebrated the Feast of Passover before and had looked forward to it for weeks. Now the night had ended in ruin. She and the other women had heard every word of the argument, and as soon as Hadad left, Jerusha had taken Dinah to another room to calm her. Miriam knew that Dinah loved Hadad, not the prince, and she hoped Jerusha would talk some sense into her daughter.

Miriam wished she could flee to another room, too, and escape from the men's angry shouts, but she had work to do. She drew a calming breath, then entered the main room to finish clearing the table. She hoped that the argument would end now that Hadad was gone, but Joshua's face was still filled with anger. He stood poised as if for a fight as Jerimoth continued to plead with him.

"Joshua, don't force Dinah and Amariah to marry. It's wrong."

"I'm not forcing them. They're free to make their own decisions." He turned to the prince as if challenging him. "Amariah, did I force you to come with us to Egypt? You aren't nave; you must have known when you left Jerusalem that siding with me meant fighting Manasseh."

"I don't know what I thought," Amariah mumbled. "I just wanted to get away from my brother. I hated what he was doing, and I wanted no part in it. I never chose to--"

"Did you leave my potsherd with the symbol of the ox where Manasseh would find it?"

"Yes, but--"

"Then you made your decision. You've cast your lot with me, and I'm Manasseh's sworn enemy."

"How has this turned into talk of enemies and hatred?" Jerimoth asked with a groan. "We were celebrating Passover ... there was a proposal of marriage.... Please, Joshua. Let's stop all of this."

Joshua ignored him. Miriam knew that kind, gentle Jerimoth could never hope to win against Joshua's relentless anger. No one could.

"It's up to you, Amariah," Joshua said. "Are you willing to marry our sister or not?"

Miriam stopped stacking the dishes and bowls and looked up. Joshua stood in front of the prince, as if challenging him to a duel, his arms folded defiantly across his chest. Amariah's head was lowered in defeat. Miriam longed to enter the fight, to plead for Hadad's rights and urge the prince to do the same, but she knew her place.

"Dinah is a very beautiful woman," Amariah finally said. "I would have to be a fool to refuse to marry her. But Hadad is my friend. He loves her. I can't do this to him."

"You have to," Joshua said. "It's the Law."

"What law?" Jerimoth asked. "There is no such law."

"Yes! If an older brother dies without an heir, his younger brother must marry his wife in order to provide one. Dinah's first son by Amariah will be considered Manasseh's heir, and heir to the throne."

"But my brother isn't dead."

"He's dead in God's eyes!"

The prince exhaled, shaking his head. "Hadad is my friend," he repeated. "The only reason he got involved in this mess was to help rescue me. He risked his life. He'll never forgive me if I marry the woman he loves. You heard what he said."

Miriam saw the anguish on Amariah's face and looked away. Joshua turned away from him, too. "There are other women for Hadad to marry," he said. "He'll get over her."

"For shame, Joshua!" Jerimoth said. "You of all people should understand how Hadad feels after what happened with you and Yael!"

Miriam watched to see what Joshua's reaction would be to the name of the woman he had once loved and lost, but he had his back turned. It was the first time since they'd moved to Egypt that Miriam had heard anyone dare to mention Yael's name. Everyone who knew Joshua feared his anger, which was always barely contained. They avoided provoking him, keeping their distance from him as if he were a hungry lion on a leash.

When Joshua answered, his voice was as hard as iron. "Yes. I do know how Hadad feels. But I got over it."

"Did you?" Jerimoth asked. "Then why have you refused to discuss any of the offers of betrothal that have been made this past year?"

The news stunned Miriam. Several of the chief elders had visited their house, but Miriam had no idea it was to talk to Joshua about their daughters. It made sense to her now. Joshua governed the island; naturally the elders would seek to promote themselves by marrying into this powerful family. And it underscored the truth that she still struggled to accept: She would never be considered a suitable wife for him. Joshua would never return her love.

"We're discussing Dinah's betrothal, not mine," Joshua said. "What are you going to do, Amariah? You need to decide."

The prince gaped at him. "Now? Tonight? But Hadad--"

"Dinah has already consented to marry you, not Hadad."

Jerimoth banged his fist on the table. "Joshua, stop this!" He was usually so soft-spoken. Miriam had never seen him this angry. "Revenge is the wrong reason for two people to be married!"

"It isn't revenge. It's the Law."

"I know the Law as well as you do, and so does the prince. You're twisting it around to suit your own purposes because you're blinded by hatred. And Dinah allowed hatred to color her judgment, too. Please, Your Majesty, don't let Joshua blind you. You'll be making a terrible mistake."

Miriam gathered the last of the dishes, hoping that Joshua and Amariah would both listen to Jerimoth and end this argument. But a moment later she heard Joshua say, "It would be easier on everyone if you had the wedding as soon as possible."

"Are you certain that's what Dinah wants?" Amariah asked.

"She wants another son, a royal heir, and you're the only one who can give it to her. We can arrange the betrothal right now. Miriam, ask Dinah to come here."

Miriam didn't move, hoping the prince would refuse.

"What about a dowry?" Amariah asked. "Don't I have to--?"

"Give me your signet ring as a pledge. Miriam, go get Dinah," he said again.

Miriam hesitated, looking up at the prince to see if that was what he really wanted. Amariah nodded slightly, then bit his lip as he slowly twisted the royal ring from his finger.

"Don't do this," she heard Jerimoth say as she slowly walked from the room. "Take a day or two and think about what you're doing ... please."

As Miriam approached one of the bedrooms she could hear Jerusha and Dinah talking inside. She knocked on their door. "Dinah?" she called. "Joshua would like to speak with you again."

Dinah appeared calm as she opened the door and returned to the main room with Miriam. Amariah stood waiting for her, holding out a cup of betrothal to her. "I pledge my life to you, Dinah," he said in a shaking voice. "Will you have me?"

Don't do it, Miriam silently pleaded. This wasn't right. Dinah should accept Hadad's proposal, not the prince's. Hadad loved her and she loved him. But Dinah took the cup Amariah offered her and drank from it, then gave it back to him. He drained the remainder. They were betrothed.

Miriam's stomach knotted when she saw the look of satisfaction on Joshua's face. She loved him, but what he had just done was wrong. She left the dishes where they lay and fled to the courtyard behind the house.

Outside, a gentle breeze blew inland from the river, bringing air that was clean and cool, faintly tinged with the aroma of roasted lamb. Miriam inhaled deeply, as if to cleanse away the ugliness of what she had just witnessed. Could it really be God's will for Dinah to marry the prince when she loved Hadad? Joshua had said that the Law required it, but Lady Jerusha always spoke of God as a loving Father whose laws were just and fair. Tonight Miriam had a hard time understanding why a God of love would force two people to marry this way.

She heard the back door open and turned to see Dinah standing on the step. "I need to ask a favor, Miriam."

"What is it?"

Dinah's eyes filled with tears and for a moment she couldn't speak. For the past few weeks she had seemed so happy, as if the painful memories of her captivity had finally healed. But tonight's events had erased Dinah's joy, and her face wore the same lifeless expression that Joshua's usually did. She moved toward Miriam like a figure in a dream. "Hadad will be waiting for me down by the river. We've been meeting there every night. It probably wasn't proper, but we met the first time by accident and then ..." She smiled faintly. "And then it got to be a habit."

"Dinah, if you're in love with him, don't--"

"Love doesn't matter. I loved my grandfather, but it was my fault that they murdered him. He wouldn't have known where Joshua was that night if I hadn't told him. And I loved my son, my sweet little Naphtali, but it was my fault that Manasseh killed him, too. I should have tried harder to escape while he was still safe inside me. Now I owe it to both of them and to Abba to avenge all their deaths."

"It seems wrong to marry someone for revenge."

"It isn't revenge. It's the Law."

"But Jerimoth said--"

"I'm going to marry Prince Amariah. Would you please give this back to Hadad for me?" Dinah opened her fist, reluctantly it seemed, and handed Miriam a ring. The smooth metal was warm from Dinah's palm. Miriam remembered the anguish in Hadad's voice as he'd pleaded with Dinah, and Miriam tried to give it back to her.

"This is wrong, Dinah. If you took Hadad's ring, then you made a pledge--"

"I made a mistake. I never should have accepted his ring ... but it once belonged to my father. He wore it when he was secretary of state. And after Abba was promoted, Hadad's grandfather wore it."

Miriam recognized the symbol of the House of David engraved on the signet ring. The heavy gold shone with a warm glow, like a summer sun behind hazy clouds. She took Dinah's hand in both of hers and tried to push the ring back into it. "Don't do this to Hadad. Don't make him suffer because of King Manasseh's crimes. Hadad risked his life to rescue you, and he's worked so hard ever since we moved here to make a name for himself and be worthy

of you."

"That doesn't matter." Dinah's face turned hard and Miriam saw her resolve. "If you won't give it to him, I'll ask a servant to do it."

Miriam knew it would be kinder for Hadad to hear the news from her than from a stranger. She sighed in resignation. "All right ... I'll do it. But you're making a terrible mistake."

She turned her back on Dinah and strode out through the gate, longing to get this terrible task over with and to get as far away from this house of turmoil as she could. Her steps slowed as she neared the riverbank, following the sound of lapping water. Miriam had lived all her life in dry, arid places, and after nearly a year in Egypt she still hadn't grown tired of the lovely sound. It reminded her of distant laughter. She remembered how their laughter had filled the room tonight as the family shared the Passover feast, until their joy had been shattered when Joshua brought vengeance and hatred into the room.

She was still thinking about Joshua when she looked up and saw someone pacing in the shadows by the water's edge. Miriam recognized Hadad by his broad shoulders and muscular stance. He saw her approaching and ran forward to meet her.


"No, Hadad, it's me--Miriam." He stopped short and waited for her to reach him, his arms hanging from his slumped shoulders as if anchored by heavy weights. "Dinah isn't coming," Miriam said.

"Did she send you?"

Miriam nodded. "She asked me to give you this...." She lifted Hadad's fist and gently opened it, laying the ring in his palm. Hadad's knuckles turned white as he squeezed his fingers around the ring, then pressed his fist to his heart.

"How could Joshua do this to us?" He looked up into the black sky, as if pleading with the stars for an answer, his face twisting with pain. "I've been waiting a year to marry Dinah. I fell in love with her when we were trapped inside Asherah's booth, wondering if we were going to live or die.... I haven't known very much love in my life. Dinah was all that I had."

"I'm so sorry," Miriam murmured. "I don't know what to say." She wanted to run far into the night rather than witness Hadad's despair. It was so hard to watch this strong man suffer.

Hadad's voice trembled when he spoke again. "I tried to make something of my life so I'd be worthy of her. I wasn't born with a name, but I earned one ... I earned one, Miriam! I worked hard to make this island our home, training the men to be soldiers, helping Joshua and Amariah run this outpost. I considered them my brothers, my friends. But real friends would never do this to someone, would they? They wouldn't take away the only person I've ever loved."

"No, they wouldn't," she said. "What Joshua did was wrong." Hadad's grief forced Miriam to acknowledge Joshua's cruelty. He had betrayed his friend. She loved Joshua, but Miriam realized that while most of the people in their community had been healing from their wounds this past year, Joshua's need for revenge had been growing and festering. Tonight his hatred had hurt three innocent people who loved him. No, four people--because in revealing what was inside his heart, Joshua had hurt Miriam, as well. She couldn't face Hadad.

"I think you should know something else," she said, staring at the ground. "Just before I left the house, Amariah and Dinah sealed their betrothal."

"No ..." Hadad moaned. The night seemed to fall silent for a moment--the whisper of reeds, the chirp of frogs, the hum of insects all hushed in the face of Hadad's grief. Miriam felt as though she had fired a fatal arrow and watched it strike its mark.

"I swear before God, they'll pay for this," he breathed.

"Is that all any of you can think about?" Miriam shouted. She grabbed his arms and tried to shake some sense into him, but he was as immovable as a pillar. "Revenge isn't the answer, Hadad. It's the cause! It will only bring more misery, more pain. This circle has no end!"

He looked down at the ring in his hand, then closed his fingers around it again and drew back his arm to hurl it into the Nile.

"No, don't!" Miriam cried. She lunged to seize his upraised fist, halting his momentum. "Don't do it, Hadad. That ring belonged to your grandfather."

He hesitated a moment, then slowly lowered his arm, gazing into the dark water as if his thoughts were far away. At last he slipped the ring onto his finger.

"Thank you," he whispered. He swiped at his tears with the heel of his hand. "You have a tender heart, Miriam. Don't give it away to someone who doesn't deserve it. Or worse, to someone who will poison it."

Miriam knew that he meant Joshua, and she wondered how he had guessed that she loved him. Was her love that transparent? But before she could speak again, Hadad walked away from her into the night.

Excerpted from:
Among the Gods (Chronicles of the Kings #5) by Lynn Austin
Copyright 2006; ISBN 0764229931
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.