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Book Jacket

0842382658
Hardcover
240 pages
May 2004
Tyndale House Publishers

The Priest

by Francine Rivers

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

AARON sensed someone standing close as he broke loose a mold and put the dried brick aside. Skin prickling with fear, he glanced up. No one was near. The Hebrew foreman closest to him was overseeing the loading of bricks onto a cart to add on to some phase of Pharaoh’s storage cities. Wiping the moisture from his upper lip, he bent again to his work.

Through the area, sunburned, work-weary children carried straw to women who shook it out like a blanket over the mud pit and then stomped it in. Sweat-drenched men filled buckets and bent beneath the weight as they poured the mud into brick molds. From dawn to dusk, the work went on unceasingly, leaving only a few twilight hours to tend small garden plots and flocks in order to sustain life.

Where are You, God? Why won’t You help us?

“You there! Get to work!”

Ducking his head, Aaron hid his hatred and moved to the next mold. His knees ached from squatting, his back from lifting bricks, his neck from bowing. He set the bricks in stacks for others to load. The pits and plains were a hive of workers, the air so close and heavy he could hardly breathe for the stench of human misery. Sometimes death seemed preferable to this unbearable existence. What hope had he or any of his people? God had forsaken them. Aaron wiped the sweat from his eyes and removed another mold from a dried brick.

Someone spoke to him again. It was less than a whisper, but it made his blood rush and the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He paused and strained forward, listening. He looked around. No one paid him any notice.

Maybe he was suffering from the heat. That must be it. Each year became harder, more insufferable. He was eighty-three years old, a long life blessed with nothing but wretchedness.

Shaking, Aaron raised his hand. A boy hurried over with a skin of water. Aaron drank deeply, but the warm fluid did nothing to stop the inner quaking, the feeling of someone watching him so closely that he could feel that gaze into the marrow of his bones. It was a strange sensation, terrifying in its intensity. He leaned forward on his knees, longing to hide from the light, longing to rest. He heard the overseer shout again and knew if he didn’t get back to work he would feel the bite of the lash. Even old men like him were expected to fulfill a heavy quota of bricks each day. And if they didn’t, they suffered for it. His father, Amram, had died with his face in the mud, an Egyptian foot on the back of his neck.

Where were You then, Lord? Where were You?

He hated the Hebrew taskmasters as much as he hated the Egyptians. But he gave thanks anyway—hatred gave a man strength. The sooner his quota was filled, the sooner he could tend his flock of sheep and goats, the sooner his sons could work the plot of Goshen land that yielded food for their table.

The Egyptians try to kill us, but we go on and on. We multiply. But what good does it do us? We suffer and suffer some more. Aaron loosened another mold. Beads of sweat dripped from his brow onto the hardened clay, staining the brick. Hebrew sweat and blood were poured into everything being built in Egypt! Raamses’ statues, Raamses’ palaces, Raamses’ storage buildings, Raamses’ city—everything was stained. Egypt’s ruler liked naming everything after himself. Pride reigned on the throne of Egypt! The old pharaoh had tried to drown Hebrew sons in the Nile, and now Raamses was attempting to grind them into dust! Aaron hoisted the brick and stacked it with a dozen others.

When will You deliver us, Lord? When will You break the yoke of slavery from our backs? Was it not our ancestor Joseph who saved this foul country from starvation? And look at how we’re treated now! Pharaoh uses us like beasts of burden, building his cities and palaces! God, why have You abandoned us? How long, oh, Lord, how long before You deliver us from those who would kill us with labor?

Aaron.

The Voice came without and within, clear this time, silencing Aaron’s turbulent thoughts. He felt the Presence so acutely that all else receded and he was cupped silent and still by invisible hands. The Voice was unmistakable. His very blood and bone recognized it.

Go out into the wilderness to meet Moses!

The Presence lifted. Everything went back to the way it had been. Sound surrounded him again—the suck of mud from stomping feet, the groan of men lifting buckets, the call of women for more hay, the crunch of sand as someone approached, a curse, a shouted order, the hiss of the lash. Aaron cried out as pain laced his back. He hunched over and covered his head, fearing the overseer less than the One who had called him by name. The whip tore his flesh, but the Word of the Lord ripped wide his heart.

“Get up, old man!”

If he was lucky, he would die.

He felt more pain. He heard voices and drifted into blackness. And he remembered . . .

How many years since Aaron had thought of his brother? He had assumed he was dead, his dry bones forgotten somewhere in the wilderness. Aaron’s first memory was of his mother’s angry, anguished weeping as she covered a woven basket she had made with tar and pitch. “Pharaoh said we have to give our sons to the Nile, Amram, and so I will. May the Lord preserve him! May the Lord be merciful!”

And God had been merciful, letting the basket drift into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam, at eight, had followed to see what became of her baby brother, and then had had enough boldness to suggest to the Egyptian that she would have need of a wet nurse. When Miriam was sent for one, she ran to her mother.

Aaron had been only three years old, but he still remembered that day. His mother pried his fingers loose. “Stop holding on to me. I have to go!” Gripping his wrists tightly, she had held him away from her. “Take him, Miriam.”

Aaron screamed when his mother went out the door. She was leaving him. “Hush, Aaron.” Miriam held him tight. “Crying will do no good. You know Moses needs Mama more than you do. You’re a big boy. You can help me tend the garden and the sheep. . . .”

Though his mother returned with Moses each night, her attention was clearly on the infant. Every morning, she obeyed the princess’s command that she take the baby to the palace and stay nearby in case he needed anything.

Day after day passed, and only Aaron’s sister was there to comfort him. “I miss her, too, you know.” She dashed tears from her cheeks. “Moses needs her more than we do. He hasn’t been weaned yet.”

“I want Mama.”

“Well, wanting and having are two separate things. Stop whining about it.”

“Where does Mama go every day?”

“Upriver.”

“Upriver?”

She pointed. “To the palace, where Pharaoh’s daughter lives.”

One day Aaron snuck away when Miriam went out to see about their few sheep. Though he had been warned against it, he went along to the Nile and followed the river away from the village. Dangerous things lived in the waters. Evil things. The reeds were tall and sharp, making small cuts on his arms and legs as he pressed through. He heard rustling sounds and low roars, high-pitched keens and frantic flapping. Crocodiles lived in the Nile. His mother had told him.

He heard a woman laughing. Pushing his way through the reeds, he crept closer until he could see through the veiling green stalks to the stone patio where an Egyptian sat with a baby in her lap. She bounced him on her knees and talked low to him. She kissed his neck and held him up toward the sun like an offering. When the baby began to cry, the woman called out for “Jochebed.” Aaron saw his mother rise from a place in the shadows and come down the steps. Smiling, she took the baby Aaron now knew was his brother. The two women talked briefly, and the Egyptian went inside.

Aaron stood up so that Mama could see him if she looked his way. She didn’t. She had eyes only for the baby she held. As his mother nursed Moses, she sang to him. Aaron stood alone, watching her tenderly stroke Moses’ head. He wanted to call out to her, but his throat was sealed tight and hot. When Mama finished nursing his brother, she rose and turned her back to the river. She held Moses against her shoulder. And then she went back up the steps into the palace.

Aaron sat down in the mud, hidden among the reeds. Mosquitoes buzzed around him. Frogs croaked. Other sounds, more ominous, rippled in deeper water. If a snake got him or a crocodile, Mama wouldn’t care. She had Moses. He was the only one she loved now. She had forgotten all about her older son.

Aaron ached with loneliness, and his young heart burned with hatred for the brother who had taken his mother away. He wished the basket had sunk. He wished a crocodile had eaten him the way crocodiles had eaten all the other baby boys. He heard something coming through the reeds and tried to hide.

“Aaron?” Miriam appeared. “I’ve been looking all over for you! How did you find your way here?” When he raised his head, her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Aaron . . .” She looked toward the palace, yearning. “Did you see Mama?”

He hung his head and sobbed. His sister’s thin arms went around him, pulling him to her. “I miss her, too, Aaron,” she whispered, her voice breaking. He rested his head against her.

“But we have to go. We don’t want to cause her trouble.”

He was six when his mother came home alone one night, grieving. All she could do was cry and talk about Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter. “She loves your brother. She’ll be a kind mother to him. I must take comfort in that and forget she’s a heathen. She’ll educate him. He will grow up to be a great man someday.” She balled up her shawl and pressed it to her mouth to stifle her sobs as she rocked back and forth. “He will come back to us someday.” She was fond of saying that.

Aaron hoped Moses would never come back. He hoped never to see his brother again. I hate him, he wanted to scream. I hate him for taking you away from me!

“My son will be our deliverer.” All she could talk about was her precious Moses, Israel’s deliverer.

The seed of bitterness grew in Aaron until he couldn’t stand to hear his brother’s name. “Why did you come back at all?” he sobbed in rage one afternoon. “Why didn’t you just stay with him if you love him so much?”

Miriam cuffed him. “Hold your tongue or Mama will think I’ve let you run wild while she was gone.”

“She doesn’t care about you any more than she cares about me!” he yelled at his sister. He faced his mother again. “I bet you didn’t even cry when Papa died with his face in the mud. Did you?” Then, seeing the look on his mother’s face, he ran. He ran all the way to the mud pits, where his job was to scatter straw for the workers to stomp into the mud in the making of bricks.

At least, she had spoken less of Moses after that. She had hardly spoken at all.

Now Aaron roused from the painful memories. He could see the heat through his eyelids, a shadow falling over him. Someone put a few drops of precious water to his lips as the past echoed around him. He was still confused, the past and present mingling.

“Even if the river spares him, Jochebed, whoever sees he’s circumcised will know he is condemned to die.”

“I will not drown my own son! I will not raise my hand against my own son, nor can you!” His mother wept as she placed his sleeping brother in the basket. Surely God had mocked the Egyptian gods that day, for the Nile itself, the life’s blood of Egypt, had carried his brother into the hands and heart of the daughter of Pharaoh, the very man who commanded all Hebrew boy babies be drowned. And furthermore the other Egyptian gods lurking along the shores of the Nile in the form of crocodiles and hippopotamuses had also failed to carry out Pharaoh’s edict. But no one laughed. Far too many had died already and continued to die every day. Aaron sometimes thought the only reason the edict had eventually been lifted was to make sure Pharaoh had enough slaves to make his bricks, chisel his stone, and build his cities!

Why had his brother been the only one to survive? Was Moses to be Israel’s deliverer?

Miriam had ruled Aaron’s life, even after their mother had returned home. His sister had been as protective of him as a lioness over her cub. Even then, and despite the extraordinary events regarding Moses, the circumstances of Aaron’s life didn’t change. He learned to tend sheep. He carried straw to the mud pits. At six, he was scooping mud into buckets.

And while Aaron lived the life of a slave, Moses grew up in a palace. While Aaron was tutored by hard labor and abuse at the hands of taskmasters, Moses was taught to read and write and speak and live like an Egyptian. Aaron wore rags. Moses got to wear fine linen clothes. Aaron ate flat bread and whatever his mother and sister could grow in their small plot of hard, dry ground. Moses filled his belly with food served by slaves. Aaron worked in the heat of the sun, up to his knees in mud. Moses sat in cool stone corridors and was treated like an Egyptian prince despite his Hebrew blood. Moses led a life of ease instead of toil, freedom instead of slavery, abundance instead of want. Born a slave, Aaron knew he would die a slave.

Unless God delivered them.

Is Moses the one, Lord?

Envy and resentment had tormented Aaron almost all his life.

But was it Moses’ fault he had been taken from his family and raised by idol-worshiping foreigners?

Aaron didn’t see Moses until years later when Moses stood in the doorway of their house. Their mother had come to her feet with a cry and rushed to embrace him. Aaron hadn’t known what to think or feel, nor what to expect from a brother who looked like an Egyptian and knew no Hebrew at all. Aaron had resented him, and then been confused by Moses’ desire to align himself with slaves. Moses could come and go as he pleased. Why had he chosen to come and live in Goshen? He could have been riding a chariot and hunting lions with other young men from Pharaoh’s household. What did he hope to gain by working alongside slaves?

“You hate me, don’t you, Aaron?”

Aaron understood Egyptian even though Moses didn’t understand Hebrew. The question had given him pause. “No. Not hate.” He hadn’t felt anything but distrust. “What are you doing here?”

“I belong here.”

Aaron had found himself furious at Moses’ answer. “Did we all risk our lives so you could end up in a mud pit?”

“If I’m to try to free my people, shouldn’t I get to know them?”

“Ah, so magnanimous.”

“You need a leader.”

Their mother defended Moses with every breath. “Didn’t I tell you my son would choose his own people over our enemies?”

Wouldn’t Moses be of more use in the palace speaking on behalf of the Hebrews? Did he think he would gain Pharaoh’s respect by working alongside slaves? Aaron didn’t understand Moses, and after years of disparity in the way they lived, he wasn’t sure he liked him.

But why would he? What was Moses really after? Was he Pharaoh’s spy sent to learn whether these wretched Israelites had plans to align themselves with Egypt’s enemies? The thought may have occurred to them, but they knew they would fare no better at Philistine hands.

Where is God when we need Him? Far off, blind and deaf to our cries for deliverance!

Moses might have walked the great halls as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but he had inherited the Levite blood and the Levite temper. When he saw an Egyptian beating a Levite slave, he became a law unto himself. Aaron and several others watched in horror as Moses struck the Egyptian down.  The others fled while Moses buried the body in the sand.

“Someone has to defend you!” Moses said as Aaron helped him hide the evidence of his crime. “Think of it. Thousands of slaves rising up against their masters. That’s what the Egyptians fear, Aaron. That’s why they load you down and try to kill you with work.”

“Is this the kind of leader you want to be? Kill them as they kill us?” Was that the way to deliverance? Was their deliverer to be a warrior leading them into battle? Would he put a sword in their hands? The rage that had built over the years under slavery filled Aaron. Oh, how easy it would be to give in to it!

Word spread like fine sand blown before a desert wind, eventually reaching the ears of Pharaoh himself. When Hebrews fought among themselves the next day, Moses tried to intercede and found himself under attack. “Who appointed you to be our prince and judge? Do you plan to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday?” The people didn’t want Moses as their deliverer. In their eyes, he was an enigma, not to be trusted. Pharaoh’s daughter couldn’t save Moses this time. How long could a man survive when he was hated and hunted by Pharaoh, and envied and despised by his brethren?

Moses disappeared into the wilderness and was never heard from again.

He didn’t even have time to say good-bye to the mother who’d believed he had been born to deliver Israel from slavery.

And Moses took their mother’s hopes and dreams with him into the wilderness. She died within the year. The fate of Moses’ Egyptian mother was unknown, but Pharaoh lived on and on, continuing to build his storage cities, monuments, and grandest of all, his tomb. It was scarcely finished when the sarcophagus containing Pharaoh’s embalmed body was carried to the Valley of the Kings, followed by an entourage of thousands bearing golden idols, possessions, and provisions for an afterlife thought to be even grander than the one he had lived on earth.

Now Raamses wore the serpent crown and held a sword over their heads. Cruel and arrogant, he preferred grinding his heel into their backs instead. When Amram could not rise from the pit, he was smothered in the mud.

Aaron was eighty-three, a thin reed of a man. He knew he would die soon, and his sons after him, and their sons down through the generations.

Unless God delivered them.

Lord, Lord, why have You abandoned Your people?

Aaron prayed out of desperation and despair. It was the only freedom he had left, to cry out to God for help. Hadn’t God made a covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob? Lord, Lord, hear my prayer! Help us! If God existed, where was He? Did He see the bloody stripes on their backs, the worn-down, worn-out look in their eyes? Did he hear the cries of Abraham’s children? Aaron’s father and mother had clung to their faith in the unseen God.

Where else can we find hope, Lord? How long, O God, how long before You deliver us? Help us. God, why won’t You help us?

Aaron’s father and mother had long since been buried beneath the sand. Aaron had obeyed his father’s last wishes and married Elisheba, a daughter from among the tribe of Judah. She had given him four fine sons before she died. There were days when Aaron envied the dead. At least they were at rest. At least their unceasing prayers had finally stopped and God’s silence no longer hurt.

Someone lifted his head and gave him water. “Father?”

Aaron opened his eyes and saw his son Eleazar above him.

“God spoke to me.” His voice was scarcely a whisper.

Eleazar leaned down. “I couldn’t hear you, Father. What did you say?”

Aaron wept, unable to say more.

God had finally spoken, and Aaron knew his life would never be the same.